It was cold, so cold, in this infernal nation! It rained the night of their arrival at the Castle two days prior and still the rain fell in gray sheets. There was a balcony attached to the sitting room of the apartment Lahn shared with his uncle, Domio. The balcony had a covering, but the rain fell so hard, it splattered the decorative iron chairs and the glass-topped table that stood on the balcony. The rough stone floor of the balcony had little puddles of water everywhere. Beyond the balcony railing stood a huge tree with large pale pink petaled flowers and dark waxy leaves the size of splayed hands. A wind blew hard out of the north and the tree’s arms swayed and danced, large leaves flicking against the balcony railing. Lahn’s hands itched to inspect the tree at close quarters, but damned the rain!
This close to Dibasj, it shouldn’t be so cold, he thought peevishly and shivered, pulling his cloak more tightly about his body.
The fireplace roared with a healthy fire, but the room was so large, the warmth did not reach every corner.
He pressed against the glass balcony doors and watched the tree with avid eyes. He had never seen such a tree in the south. The musk of its flowers was sweet and infected the air despite the rain. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. It was a sweet, alluring fragrance.
“You’re up early.”
Lahn opened his eyes and turned.
His uncle stood at the door leading to the outside hallway.
“The rain did not let me sleep,” Lahn replied and wondered where the Serren had been and how early he had risen.
“Ah,” Domio said and walked to the sideboard, where a servant poured him a cup of mjish tea with milk and honey.
“Thank you,” the Serren said to the servant and walked to the couch facing the fireplace. He sat down and looked at Lahn. “Have you eaten?”
“Not yet, Uncle. Have you?”
“No. I’ll have a spot of tea first to warm the bones.”
Outside the balcony doors, the wind howled and roused the tree into a frantic dance.
Lahn shuddered. “Will it rain much longer, do you suppose?”
“It is the season,” the Serren replied. “Or so I am told. Anasj is a wet season here, followed by the hot season of Dibasj. But it rains sometimes in Dibasj as well, which is why it is so green this far north.”
“They don’t have droughts?” Lahn asked, curious.
“Not usually, no,” his uncle said and crossed his legs. “Will you have some tea with me?”
Lahn nodded and walked to the sideboard, where the servant poured him a cup with honey and milk. Mjish was sour and smoky if drank black. Lahn had tried it black, as he was unused to milk or sweetener in his tea, but he had disliked the taste of the mjish without doctoring. Now, two days in this blasted country and he was drinking his tea with milk and honey. Grimacing, he took the cup and saucer from the servant and made his way to the sofa, taking a seat near his uncle.
“Do you think I might be able to visit the horticulturist at the university tomorrow?” he asked. “I’m curious as to what they are working on.”
“I will ask the Warlord,” his uncle said and Lahn frowned.
It was on the tip of his tongue to say he didn’t need permission to go any damned place, but he kept his counsel to himself. He wanted to be allowed to go and he now understood that if he was false and behaved according to the mores of this damned country, he would be allowed greater freedom. No one here seemed to appreciate honesty. It just proved to him how lost these people were, living false lives and adoring a false goddess. He glanced at the milky tea and took a sip.
“Please ask the Warlord if I may go,” Lahn said. “I only want to get my hands on some plants.”
“They have a hothouse here, in the bailey,” his uncle said. “Did you know?”
Lahn bit his lip to keep from biting the man’s head off with a retort.
“I’ve not been anywhere, have I?” he asked instead, trying to be pleasant.
His uncle frowned. “No, you have not. There is a massive library on the first floor, two doors from the Throne Room. Would you like to come with me some time?”
A library? He looked away from his uncle. A library full of books of strange, disrespectful ideas.
He swallowed. “What kind of books do they have?”
“Religious texts from all over the world. Well, the known world. They have books on poetry, even poetry by Southern poets. Did you know?”
Lahn shook his head. “Poetry is a pathway to sin.”
His uncle took a sip of tea. “The holy book is a book of poetry, for it is written in verse.”
“The Holy Book is the exception,” he retorted mildly.
“Have you ever read poetry?” his uncle countered.
“Yes, when I was younger,” he said.
He frowned. He recalled liking poetry very much, writing poetry to that boy…he swallowed thickly and shook his head.
“No. I don’t want to go to the library.”
“Are you aware that the greatest poets from the South were Serrens?”
Lahn frowned. “Were they of the Order of Poa the Harvester?”
His uncle now frowned as well. “No. They were of my sect. What are you trying to say?”
“Was it love poetry?”
His uncle sipped the tea. “Yes. Love poems to Poa.”
Lahn bit his lip to keep from laughing. “What does a god of war need with love poetry?”
His uncle sighed. “Love poetry is a way to adore the God.”
“Poa prefers sacrifice to love poetry,” Lahn stated firmly. “Blood pleases the lord.”
Uncle Domio rose and returned to the sideboard, where he set his empty cup down. “I will ask the Warlord about you going to the university tomorrow. Excuse me.”
Lahn scrambled to his feet. He did not want to be alone anymore. “Please. I’ve offended you. I’m sorry. What did I say?”
Uncle Domio stopped at the door leading to the hall where the bedrooms were located. He sighed and turned.
“My sect does not sacrifice to God Poa. Are we not true believers, Lahn?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You certainly hinted at that. Serrens in my sect sacrifice everyday. They give up sex and marriage and children to give their heart and bodies to the Lord. In their ecstasy, they write love poems to the Beloved. But this isn’t enough sacrifice for you, is it?”
Lahn set his half-empty cup of tea down on the low table and walked to where his uncle stood.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, desperate for company. “I didn’t mean to say the Beloved does not like this poetry. Only, in ancient days he was bathed in blood and it was good.”
“Some say your sect sacrifices youths,” Domio murmured. “Is this true?”
Lahn shook his head. “You speak of the High Holy days past. No. Like I’ve told you, we sacrifice animals at the altar. We burn the flesh so that the smoke reaches the heavens and pleases the Lord. We bathe his statue with blood. We place cups of blood at his feet. Do not tell me that animal sacrifice does not please the Lord!”
“I didn’t say any such thing,” Domio said. “In my church we burn grain and give him the finest wines. There is a place for both faces of our God, Lahn.”
Lahn wiped his hands convulsively over his trousers. “Yes, I know this.”
The truth was, he did not see what good Poa the Father was to unifying their nation once more. That aspect of the God was about peace and children and home life. If any aspect of the God could reunite Torahn, it would be the Harvester. This priest before him couldn’t see anything because he was not a unificationist like Lahn.
“I know,” Lahn lied, saying what would please his uncle. “I know there is a place for Poa the Father, sir. I meant no disrespect.”
His uncle smiled and placed his hand on Lahn’s shoulder. “Good. I’m glad we are beginning to think alike. Now, I am going to bathe. I’ll be back shortly and we can breakfast together and perhaps pray?”
Lahn beamed. “Thank you, Uncle. I don’t want to be alone anymore.”
When his uncle was gone, Lahn took to pacing before the balcony doors. He didn’t know what was happening to him, but at the monastery he had spent all his time alone. Now, two days of solitude and he was ready to tear his hair out. What was wrong with him? Had the God deserted him? No. The Harvester did not let go those who promised him their lives, as he had. He simply needed to keep busy. He needed to pray as he had prayed in the monastery, by flagellating himself until his back bled. In his clothes chest he kept his heavy rope with a stone tied to one end. As he prayed, he would swing the rope and hit his back with the stone. The stone would scrape and tear the skin until he bled. It was an acceptable sacrifice to the God of the Holy Scythe.
He hurried to his bedroom, rummaged in his clothes chest until he came up with the rope, which had once been white and now was dark brown from sweat and blood. He removed his tunic and knelt on the rough stone floor wearing only his pair of thick trousers.
“God of Souls,” he prayed and swung the rope towards his back. The stone hit his scapula and cut deep into his muscles.
“God of Souls, harbinger of end days,
God of Scythes, destroyer of worlds,
God of Scythes, eater of souls,
God of Scythes, consumer of lives.“
He swung the rope again and again until his back burned. As he prayed, he attained a rhythm that was familiar and comforting. Again and again, he struck his back until the pain morphed into an ecstasy that filled his mind first then seeped into every fiber of his being. He felt like he was flying, like he would fly apart, only to be caught up by the God and remade. He felt every cell of his body in his heightened state. The room that was his bedroom disappeared. The voices of servants outside of the closed door disappeared. The world and the rain, his loneliness and disappointment, dissolved. There was only his voice, his breath, the stone hitting his back, and the presence of His most Holy. In his ecstatic state, he threw his head back and gazed blindly at the ceiling. A joyous, crazed laughter escaped him, before he fell backward onto the stone floor and lay there, panting, drenched in sweat, bleeding profusely from his scrapes and cuts.
The door of his bedroom flew open and his uncle ran in.
“Lahn! What has happened?”
His uncle went down on his knees and lifted Lahn up.
“What is wrong?” the priest demanded, his handsome face contorted by worry. “Lahn!”
“I’m…I’m alright, Uncle,” Lahn murmured, fighting to hold on to the ecstasy that was already dissipating. In its place was peace.
Uncle Domio helped him to sit up.
The priest hissed. “Your back is bleeding! What did you do?”
Lahn shook his head. “I prayed, that is all, Uncle. I prayed and the God touched me.”
His uncle frowned and looked at the heavy rope on the ground. After a moment, he picked it up and studied it, touching the blood-tipped stone.
“You use this on your back?” he asked.
Lahn nodded, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “Yes.”
His uncle shook his head. “Why? I don’t understand.”
“It gives me peace,” Lahn said, struggling to speak when all he wanted now was peace and solitude. “During the past two days, I’ve felt like someone else. I needed to recall myself.”
“And this helps?” his uncle asked.
His uncle sighed and placed the rope in Lahn’s upturned hand. Lahn closed his hand around the damp rope.
“Ah, child,” his uncle said. “Far be it for me to judge. Did the Ai’Ser at the monastery know you do this?”
“He taught me, Uncle,” Lahn replied, tired now and growing impatient.
“I said I won’t judge you,” his uncle retorted. “But I don’t, nor will I attempt to, understand .” He rose. “Bathe now, Lahn. I will go ask the Warlord if you can go to the University. I think it will do you good to get away from here.”
When his uncle had gone, Lahn wearily rose and picked up his tunic before dropping the rope back in his clothes chest. He removed all his clothing and padded naked through the door that adjoined his bedroom to the bathing chamber. In the bathing chamber, a beautiful room covered from ceiling to floor with little tiles of varying shades of blue, he walked to where the spigots spouted from the wall. Exotic potted plants were tucked into each of the four corners. A sunken tub stood against one wall. Lahn turned the knob on the wall and water rushed from the center faucet. He stepped under the spray and hissed as the cold water hit his overheated skin. He turned around to bathe the wounds with the icy water. The wounds had begun to throb now that he was no longer being touched by the God. He reached for a cake of soap and lathered under his arms, his groin and buttocks before washing his feet. When he was done washing, he allowed the water to rinse the soap from his skin before he unbraided his hair and rinsed it under the spigot.
Once finished, he turned the knob again to make the water stop then walked to the rectangular wooden table against the far wall next to the door to his bedroom. He picked up a towel and rubbed it over his skin, biting his lip to keep from crying out when he rubbed the towel over the wounds along his back. Afterward, he wrapped the towel around his hair and padded back into his bedroom, where he dressed as he had always dressed, without assistance from anyone. Lastly, he brushed his hair and made two equal braids, tying the ends with leather thongs. When he was done, he pulled on soft leather ankle boots the kind everyone wore indoors here. In the South, everyone went barefoot at home. But he was not at home any longer.
He sighed and walked to the sitting room.
The head servant bowed to him. “Does his Highness wish to break his fast now?”
“I’ll wait until my uncle returns,” Lahn replied.
The servant bowed again. “Very good, your Highness.”
Lahn stood before the balcony doors and wiped at the condensation on the glass. Outside, it continued to rain in sheets.
The door to the hallway opened and his uncle hurried inside.
“Ah, you bathed?”
“Good. I was able to meet the Warlord at court. He says you may go to the university. Would you like to go today?”
Lahn gasped. “Truly, uncle? Today?”
“Rain and all,” his uncle said and laughed. “I think we should eat some breakfast then I’ll accompany you to the university.”
“You’ll come too?”
Domio grinned. “Yes. I’d like to see the university here. I hear it rivals the one in City Lae.”
Lahn was not sure he would be able to eat, what with the excitement coursing through him, but he sat down with his uncle and allowed the servants to serve him. He made a mental note to thank the Warlord as soon as they returned from their outing. If it meant more outings, he would certainly thank the heathen.