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The short, stocky Ibisian general motioned for his aides to step up to the balcony. "Look closely," he told them as they stood next to the Mediwevan deputato. "Here's true barbarism."
Below the balcony, a parade of penitents filled the rainslicked streets.
"These are ascetics from Monta Ignazio, General Sulay," the deputato stuttered. His teeth were chattering. He had never been closer to his country's savage, unwelcome guests than he was now.
The methane lanterns in the room hissed.
"They whip themselves," Bar-Woten said. He was a lean, well-muscled man in his middle thirties, with one gray eye and a black patch. His nose hooked sharply.
The penitents had gathered from leagues around for the night march through Mediweva's capital, Madreghb. Men, women, and children dressed in brown sacks, black and white clerical robes, or the red of deacons and priests swung leather cats against their backs, the strands weighted to age and devotion. Beneath cloth tatters their flesh was raw as ground meat.
"This is religious inspiration!" Sulay rasped. "The Heisos Kristos of Mediweva demands that they poison their bodies with infection to see His visions. Absorb this and learn from it. We've met with many peoples and their religions, but none is more amazing than this."
Bar-Woten watched with distaste and finally turned away. His eye caught the deputato's, and he winked at the thin official. "Not to my style," he explained. "I grow faint at the sight of blood." The deputato laughed nervously, then lapsed back to respectful silence.
Sulay stepped back from the balcony, shaking his head and fingering his pistol's holster strap. "I'd like tovisit your library now." The deputato nodded and led him away. Bar-Woten stayed behind to watch the penitents flogging themselves. Their moans bothered him like a boil under his armored vest. They were ecstatic. The ecstasy of visions. "Barthel!" he called. His servant appeared, grinning and dressed in splendid red silks.
"I think I could like living here," Barthel said, fanning his arms out. "It's cool and the clothes are beautiful."
"What can you tell me about Kristians?"
"My country had a few, Bey. But I am of the Momad persuasion myself, as you understand, and we avoid intercourse with the unfaithful. Except for yourself, sir, who shine like the light..."
"'Shines,'" Bar-Woten corrected. "Your lessons in Mediwevan are slipping." He had chosen Barthel from a group of captured children fifteen years before in the now desolate land of Khem. The armies of Sulay, Bar-Woten among them, were responsible for that desolation. But Barthel showed no memory of the slaughter. He knew only those things he was required to know, and the rest seemed to sink in his memory like plum stones in a pond. He was a cheerful lad.
"Bey, I could tell you tales my mother told me, but some are very crazy. You might not believe. This Heisos Kristos or Yesu as we knew him -- is mentioned in all the Obelisks I have ever known, and his story is always the same."
"Which is food for the argument that all Obelisks have the same words engraved on them."
"Certainly. I believe that is part of Momad's divine doctrine, as his word is mentioned on all, the faithful must acknowledge that, and--"
"Why do they beat themselves for this Heisos?"
"It gives them strength to deny the attractions of the world, Bey. By punishing themselves they hope to distract their attentions from Hegira and focus them on Paradise, or Heaven, which is what their Yesu -- surely a great prophet -- desired and preached them to do."
"But Yesu never lived on Hegira."
"No. It is dogma that no person mentioned on the Obelisks ever lived on Hegira. They were the First-born, Bey."
Bar-Woten nodded and stared up into the night. Soon an orange fire dove would rise like a distant flare, signaling the ninth hour of dark, and the sky would begin to turn purple. In a half hour it would be morning blue. The streets would be empty of pedestrians as Mediwevan law had decreed for five hundred years. The wagons and steam vehicles would travel from the fields and lakefronts, and the capital would come alive with day-life: markets and buyers, bookdealers and street historians, all wholesome services for a fee. Bar-Woten enjoyed this city and its peculiarities. He even felt a mixed affection for the crazy penitents.
"I can tell you very little about Yesu, Bey," Barthel said to indicate he had not been dismissed. Bar-Woten waved his hand, and the boy vanished with a rustle of robes.
He was glad not enough of Sulay's armies was left to destroy Mediweva. In their twenty-year March the armies had dwindled from two million to ten thousand. They could still rely on their reputation to achieve diplomatic victories, and on occasion a few hills topped by lines of the remaining soldiers could persuade reluctant leaders, but the March was over.
They had crossed fifty thousand kilometers, the regions of five Obelisks, and yet spanned only twenty-three degrees of Hegira's curve. The survivors of Sulay's March knew the immensity of Hegira as no others had known before them. For two years now, since the last of their geographers and geometers had finished their reports, Bar-Woten had marched in fear not of man -- he had killed at least two thousand men, and they did not haunt him-but of the world on which he lived.
That evening Sulay called Bar-Woten to the library. The Ibisian left Barthel in their quarters and walked down the cool stone hallways of the capital palace, looking up at the frescoes crumbling in the dimly lit vaults. The sense of age oppressed him tonight. So many years, so much time to do evil things... layers and layers of human pressure bearing down on him like miles of rock.
The frescoes showed scenes of war taken from Obelisk texts. Bar-Woten felt the painter's lack of firsthand experience acutely, both proud and revolted by his own knowledge. Shaking his head and grimacing, he entered the door to the library.
The musty smell of paper and ink and old leather bindings hung heavy in the still air. The oxygen seemed to have been sucked out by years of rotting pulp. He restrained an impulse to choke. A middle-aged, balding librarian guided him through long, winding stacks and stopped, pointing with a knobby ink-stained finger calloused on the first knuckle.
Sulay sat on a stool, a large book spread across his lap. His gray hair and bald spot shone in the tier of oil lamps set beside him. Bar-Woten noted the pump-action fire extinguisher hung on a fixture.
"Young Bear-killer," Sulay said, looking up. Bar-Woten bowed slightly.
"The general needs his rest," he said solicitously.
Sulay ignored him. "The Mediwevans have ascended a little higher than we have," he said, thumbing the pages. "Better balloons, I imagine. More texts, more advances, but they haven't seen fit to apply their new knowledge, not yet. Many odd things as the texts go higher." Sulay closed the book carefully and placed it on a small folding table. "I could spend my whole life in libraries. Much less exciting than the March, eh?"
Bar-Woten nodded. Sulay's demeanor changed considerably when he was among books. Bar-Woten wasn't sure he approved, though something in himself was attracted to the endless shelves. "Less strenuous at least," he said.
"These people know us as soldiers, murderers, plunderers," Sulay said. "No doubt we've done enough of that. But they will never appreciate us as scholars. Yet what we could tell them! They know very little of Hegira, but a great deal of the Obelisks. I know very little of the Obelisks... and I wish I knew more. But..." He sighed. "My time is at an end, Bear-killer."
Bar-Woten respected the old man's lengthy silence. At last Sulay lifted his head, and there were tears on his cheeks. "Never enough time. Never enough. The March is over. They aren't very good at fighting here in Mediweva, but they far outnumber us, and our ruses aren't working any more. My audiences with the Holy Pontiff have been more and more strained. An old soldier's instincts warn me.... He will swat us like a buzzing wasp. Our reputation travels before us, even in the insular countries. We have not been circumspect." Sulay looked Bar-Woten steadily in the eye. The old general's pupils were large, absorbing. "You will go on."
"Not without you, General."
"Without me, without your fellow soldiers, however you must. You'll finish the March. We didn't journey to kill and loot, but try telling that to an army of Ibisians..." Sulay put his hand on the book. "That's my commission to you. If anyone will survive, you will. Go now, or very soon."
"Go and find what I wanted to find."
"You would do that even if I didn't tell you, wouldn't you?"
Sulay picked up the book again and opened it.
"It isn't safe here, General," Bar-Woten said. "They can come from both directions and pen you in."
Sulay didn't react.
The old man dismissed Bar-Woten with a gesture. He turned and walked through the stacks, fists clenched.
The morning of their ninth day in Madreghb brought clouded skies and a pale drizzle that turned the capital into a fairytale province. The richly carved walls of the Duomo and the Middle Sacristy attracted Bar-Woten and dazzled Barthel as they walked alone through the city. Wearing his dress whites and a windbreaker, and according Barthel the same privilege, he ignored the damp and studied the architecture.
The courtyard of learned debate drew him as sugar draws an ant. Here scholars, readers, and Obelisk students gathered with their practical counterparts -- engineers, geometers, and theologicians. They debated loudly over a narrow roadway separating their bleachers, below an aqueduct carrying water from the southern branch of the Ub. Cars and trucks hissed between them irregularly. The white drizzle beaded and dripped from the debaters' black leather cloaks, pooling on the wooden planks that ran the length of the stone seats.
Barthel was amused. "They discuss the teachings of Yesu," he whispered in an aside to Bar-Woten. He nodded and listened more closely. They stood on a walkway bridge mounted on one side of the aqueduct. Water rushed to its appointments behind them, splattered with occasional raindrops.
One theologician kept his dignity and calm amidst the ruckus. He commanded a fine voice and his wit was incisive. They listened for a while, then moved on. Bar-Woten frowned as they left the aqueduct. Had Heisos, or Yesu, been a firm warrior with words or a debater of pedantries?
The weather worsened. Lunching in a smoky wooden parlor-house with glass windows slacked by age, they watched the drizzle thicken into rain, much as the grease of a lamb congealed on their plates. "I change my mind about the cold; it is unpleasant," Barthel said, drawing his jacket collar tight around his ears. "I often wish the Bey had chosen to reside in Khem, where it is usually warm." Bar-Woten nodded.
The day would soon collapse into dark. He didn't enjoy the thought of walking after dark to the capital square and the Nocturne, essentially unarmed. It was unhealthy.
They set out just before the dimming began. At this season the days were ten hours long and the nights fourteen. The weather promised to be foul in the dark. The wind nipped and curled around their backs, making their eyes sting. Cats scampered in a wet tide from one alley into another, yowling miserably. Bar-Woten saw why as they passed the alley -- a rain gutter edging the roof of the inn had broken, turning a dry corner into the base of a cascade.
"It would be good to take shelter," Barthel said from under his jacket. The boy's eyebrows, bushy at the best of times, now knitted to form a solid ragged streak across his brow. His dark brown eyes were slitted against the raindrops.
Bar-Woten shielded his good eye and looked at the entrance to the hostel. He knew instinctively it would be a vermin paradise. But he distrusted wet weather in strange countries. Enough diseases had plagued him in similar conditions to make him wary.
"Wait," Barthel said, peering back into the alley where the cats had lodged. The cascade had subsided to a trickle. Something moved at the back. It was shapeless, larger than a man. Barthel stepped backward and Bar-Woten's neck hair rose.
He wiped his eye with the knuckle of his thumb. The shape was nothing monstrous after all. A man was struggling under a pile of wet papers and rags, weak and unpromising labor at best. The Ibisian's first thought was to leave well enough alone-this possible plague victim was no friend to a visitor without immunity. But the man was not sick with plague; he was weak from blood loss. They approached him cautiously. Bar-Woten crouched next to the pile.
The man was a penitent. His whip was still hooked to his belt, lashes tangled in his scraped and bruised legs. But this young fellow was no priest or professional ascetic. He was barely twenty and nearly dead. His back wounds had festered enough to give him fever visions sufficient for a lifetime. Now he was unconscious. Bar-Woten called for Barthel to help and together they picked him up by the arms and legs. "We'll take him to the hostel," he said.
"He's in bad shape," Barthel said. "He'll die soon anyway."
The hostel desk was unstaffed. The interior of the building was fitfully lighted by gas lamps. Disintegrating wallpaper crept up the walls, and the floor creaked suspiciously. A smell of wet, decaying wood mixed with the animal smell of the hostel's patrons. It was a miserable place for anyone to die in. Therefore, Bar-Woten told himself, the young man would not die.
He rang a verdigris-crusted bell. The half-sotted proprietor appeared shortly after. He took their names and their money and raised a hairless, worm-white eyebrow at the penitent. "Can you get a physician?" Bar-Woten asked.
"No," the proprietor said, heading back to his room. "If he dies, you'll have to move him."
"I am an Ibisian," Bar-Woten said softly. "If this man dies here, I will have this building condemned."
The proprietor stopped and turned to reexamine him. "You can find a doctor a block down. We have nothing to do with penitents. They aren't too popular here."
"And Ibisians?" Bar-Woten asked testily.
"Unarmed Ibisians are only human," the proprietor said. "I employ bullboys like every other innkeeper on this strip. They carry rifles and crossguns. Do you?" He turned and waddled off.
Bar-Woten picked up the key from the desk and told Barthel to summon the physician. He hoisted the penitent from the floor and swung him over his shoulder.
The stairs were steep and in bad repair. The room was abominable. An open skylight admitted rain until he tied a dirty blanket over it. The beds were in fair repair and looked clean. Perhaps health regulations were enforced with regard to beds, but cleaning facilities were minimal, toilets were one to a floor and public, and other regulations ended at the edge of the mattress. Paper scraps and dirt littered the torn patchwork carpet.
The penitent sighed and rolled over on the bed, then groaned. Bar-Woten stripped off his bloody clothes and took the basin down the hall to clean it and fill it with water. The plumbing banged hideously in the narrow washroom. When he came back the man was sitting up against the headboard and staring feverishly into empty space. Using a handful of powdered soap and paper towels, Bar-Woten began to scrub him down. Few of the wounds were deeply infected. Nevertheless, he knew an antiseptic and clean bandages would have to be applied, or blood poisoning would set in. He had seen small wounds fester into deadly foul pockets many times on the March.
Barthel returned with a small, seam-faced doctor a half hour later. The man said his name was Luigi, examined the penitent quickly, and expressed his reluctance to treat him. "He's one of God's own," he said. "God will take care of him." "You will take care of him, or he'll die," said Bar-Woten. "You wouldn't want to be charged with malpractice, would you? I can take you before a deputato if you wish."
The little doctor shrugged and set his bag down. "You cleaned him?" he asked. Bar-Woten nodded. "I'll have to do it over again," the doctor complained. "He's whipped himself into a fine fever."
An hour later the penitent was bandaged and sleeping fitfully. "He'll be weak for a day, maybe longer. Why do you want to help a penitent? Did he ask for help?"
Bar-Woten didn't answer. Barthel thanked the doctor and paid him a gold piece. They sat in silence and fell asleep before morning.
Bar-Woten stood by the skylight on a rickety stool, lifting the stained blanket and peering out across the smoke-tracked foggy rooftops at the wan morning light. The slate and tile roofs glistened with an oily sheen of dew and reflected the golden zenith. The horizon was still deep blue. The zenith light expanded and turned yellowish, then green. In a wink the green accomplished its magical transformation into blue. A steam cart hissed and rattled in an alley below.
"Won't the master Sulay miss us, Bey?" Barthel asked sleepily from his blanket on the floor.
"Not for a while," Bar-Woten answered. He turned to look at the man on the bed. His breathing was light and regular. His pale face had taken on a better color during the night. He looked almost healthy.
Bar-Woten checked his pulse and pinched his fingernails, and still the man slept. Barthel said pounding rocks together wouldn't wake a healing man before his body was ready.
"You told me your mother knew stories about Kristians," Bar-Woten said. "Do you remember any of them?"
For the briefest of moments the boy's face clouded and his eyes narrowed. Then it was clear again and he smiled. "Not too well, Bey. Mostly derogatory stories about their customs, which I am no longer qualified to criticize since I share them with you very often. The eating of unclean foods, the drinking of wine and other forbidden beverages."
"Nothing about why a man would drive himself to illness to meet his god?"
It was perhaps the same reason two million men had once left the beautiful land of Ibis to cross the Atlasade range into Barthel's land, Khem. Or why they had tortured themselves by crossing the Pais Vermagne, a thousand kilometers of swamp and pestilence and deadly reptiles, instead of taking an easier route-all to investigate legends in Khem of the City of the First-born. They had found a monotonous grassland and a central range of hills as barren and dusty as the deserts west of Ibis. No treasure, no fabled city.
The penitent was also searching for treasure, and his trek was just as rugged. Bar-Woten questioned his own sanity in feeling sympathy, but he did. Sympathy and warmth. Welcome, fellow traveler. How many souls have you killed inside yourself trying to find the right one to present to God, saying, Look -- pure!
Surely not as many souls as I have killed, he thought, mostly in the bodies of others.
"Hello," the penitent said. Bar-Woten started from his reverie and looked at the man sternly. The pale face returned the stare like a statue. The lips were fever-cracked, the nostrils red with broken vessels. "You've put me up for the night?"
"Nothing honorable," Bar-Woten said. "You nearly killed yourself. Most people's gods resent suicide."
"Where am I?"
"I have to leave." The penitent's watery green eyes filled with enormous black pupils. The corners of his mouth turned up perpetually, and his eyes crinkled at their edges as though, like a mischievous child, he might laugh at any moment. But these were betrayals of his body. He was perfectly serious.
"Nobody's holding you. You should get your strength back, however. Eat some food."
"I'm on a fast."
"For how long? Until you starve?"
"I'm starving now. It brings me closer to my goal."
"And what is your goal?"
"To live in the light of God, not the mud of the world."
"What's your name?"
"A peculiar name."
"I'm an Ibisian. I picked the name up when I killed a bear fifteen years ago. He clawed out an eye before he died. Bearkiller, of the One-eyed God. Bar-Woten. Why do you call yourself Jacome? That's not your name. Am I right that penitents, if they try to deny the world, must deny themselves? Change their names?"
"Yes," Jacome said. "Fools of God. Buffoons."
"Then what was your name before you changed?"
"You'd have to ask the fellow I was. I can't answer."
Bar-Woten motioned for Barthel to leave.
"Tell me about your god," he said.
Barthel sat outside and leaned against the wall. His eyes surveyed the ceiling, searching for bugs to amuse him, certainly not interested by the drivel being spoken inside. He did not understand his master at times. It was often hard to like Bar-Woten. He was kind, but he loved nothing. Barthel, on the other hand, wished to love everything. That was impossible with Bar-Woten constantly calling for him. The man's gloom was sometimes appalling.
Bar-Woten interrupted Jacome's discourse long enough to debate a few points of logic. "This Heisos, also known as Yesu, is on every Obelisk across Hegira, right?"
"Then why isn't everyone converted by His truth?"
"Because there are words on the Obelisks that contradict what He taught. Inspired by the adversary."
"How do you know which to choose, which is right?"
"By the heart, the way it beats to the right words."
"Did Heisos live on Hegira?"
"Then was His mission intended for the Second-born?"
"For all humanity."
Barthel paced in the hallway, bent to listen at the door, then had an inspiration. He would go out for food. But he had very little of the Bey's money with him. He knocked cautiously. No answer. They were still talking. He feared the penitent might convert the Bey. A dreadful thing. He knocked again. Bar-Woten opened the door.
"Master, shall I buy food for all of us?"
The Bey looked at him intensely through his single eye, then reached into his jacket pocket for a coin. "Good food, fresh, and a variety of it. Enough to last all of us for a day or so."
Barthel grinned and ran off.
Bar-Woten shut the door and asked Jacome another question. "What made you find the grace of Kristos?"
"The guidance of my heart."
"Can you remember what made you follow your heart?"
Jacome scowled. "It's only important that I found the truth in time."
"But you forget what happened. Was it someone who helped you?"
"I haven't forgotten. No one helped me at first. But when I joined the Franciscans, they helped me."
"I want to know what converted you. Perhaps I can find something like it in myself."
Barthel found his idea less attractive when he stood on the street. There were no food stalls nearby. The Bey's presence, at any rate, was always reassuring. Now, alone in a city he did not know well, he felt his pulse rise and his eyes widen. The people did not look harmful. Still, any city held thieves, cutthroats, pickpockets. Monsters to suck a poor Momadan dry. The Bey's teachings from Barthel's youth could not eradicate this fear.
As Barthel walked, swaggering slightly and looking from side to side to show his confidence, he thought of the comforts of Khem and how they had passed in such an inconceivably short time. The Bey had never bothered to explain or excuse the actions of Sulay in Khem -- and for this Barthel was thankful. He didn't think he could stand the propaganda other servants told him they were regaled with. Bar-Woten was a good master.
But if it ever came to light who had killed his father and mother and two sisters... Barthel's swagger stiffened. He didn't know what he would do. He was young and no fighter. At times he wished he could be a fighter and kill Sulay, cold fishy Sulay, who cared only for kilometers crossed and confirmations of the greatness of Sulay.
But food was the order of the moment. He found a clean-looking stall that purveyed crullers, tins of coffee, and fresh vegetables. He didn't bother with the meat. Ibisians, like Momadans on Hegira, were not meat-eaters for the most part. They preferred vegetables, fruits, and fish or fowl.
He bargained rapidly and without mercy. The stall's owner, a man four times Barthel's age, smiled and gave in a little. Eventually a price was reached and they hooked thumbs, Mediwevan style.
The parcels were heavy. Barthel decided to rent a cart. He hailed a bicycle-drawn taxi when he saw no carts were available. The hack was little older than himself and regarded him with sharp dark eyes and taut lips. The fare hardly seemed worth pulling. But the hack mounted his wooden bike and pedaled without strain up and down the flat-cobbled dips and gutters. Barthel relaxed his guard to look at the surroundings more leisurely. It didn't seem a bad city. Busy people were everywhere, and few were lame or crippled or ill-looking.
The Bey was still talking with the penitent when Barthel returned. The young man was sweating and looked upset. His hand motions were jagged, and he stammered. The Bey was as firm and persistent as ever. Barthel dropped the packages in a corner and sat down to listen.
"I can't tell you how I saw the wisdom of the Lord Heisos. It's a private matter."
"Can there be private matters between two souls striving for salvation?"
"For this soul there is. You may confess what you wish."
"Fra Jacome, I have learned much from you. Would you care to raise your health for God's work by joining us in breaking fast?"
"You sound pious, Fra Bar-Woten. I know you're not. You're ridiculing me.'
"I am sincere. I wish you to join us in our meal."
"You know I can't eat until the Fast of Francis is over."
Barthel disapproved of what the Bey was doing. He was baiting the penitent, drawing him onto limbs and cutting them out from under. The Bey had a deadly way of finding out how other people thought, like dissection. Barthel allowed himself a moment of judgment on his master.
"Your health will break and you'll die."
"Why are you interested in my health? Your people would sooner destroy us than spit on us!"
Bar-Woten shrugged and lifted his eyebrow. "I can't speak for other Ibisians. Perhaps they do. Me, I wish to know what makes a man whip himself in the name of a God Who is kind."
"My God is not kind!" Jacome bellowed. "He takes away cruelly and has no mercy for those who do not know and perform His wishes!"
Barthel cringed in surprise. The Bey had found the weak point he wanted.
"Then how did you come to love Him? Out of fear?" The penitent tried to speak, but stammered into silence. His eyes were bright with tears and anger. "You p-p-pry," he managed to stutter. "You t-twist my tongue like a serpent."
"I am curious," Bar-Woten said. "And concerned."
"I saw the light of God in the middle of an agony so great I couldn't stand it. I grieved so deeply I died. And when I was reborn, I was the child you see now, still not mature in God's eyes. I was a scrittori. I recorded the writings on the Obelisk. I was going to marry a woman of my own age in a village near Obelisk Tara. We were nine months betrothed." He paused and caught his breath, his wild look abating.
"She had been born the same day as a boy in Castoreto. They came from different families, but they looked alike. Some said they were twins by God's will. This boy was an apprentice scrittori. I knew him from our schooling. He fell from the side of the Obelisk and died, and that same day my only life and love froze hard as a block of ice. Her skin became a mirror. Nothing could revive her. That is what killed me -- a touch from God's finger told me not to adore the beauties of the world!"
It was Bar-Woten's turn to be astonished. Speechless, he stepped away from the bed and walked to the skylight. "Doppelgangers, I think," he mused softly. Barthel cocked his head. "Do you remember the story?" the Bey asked him.
Barthel nodded, a little shiver going up his back.
Copyright © 1979 by Greg Bear
Posted November 28, 2010
No text was provided for this review.