A Preview of the first three Chapters of The Saint and the Turtle
The Saint, the Turtle, and a massive boulder first met in the treacherous pass through the heights of the Spina Mundi, a region infested with rocs, griffins, and wolves and customarily avoided by travelers unless they were in a great hurry. This particular pass was the shortest route between the upland provinces and the plain, and those who made it through alive could save as much as a week of travel.
The boulder had toppled from a precipice and was hurtling earthward, accelerating at thirty-two feet per second squared. The Saint, stereotypically garbed in the brown, hooded robe of a certified holy man, was walking serenely along the trail below, his hands tucked in his loose sleeves, his mind on uplifting thoughts. The Turtle, a brawny young man in the neo-Roman armor of the period and a gold-plated helmet which identified him as a general officer in the Imperial Regular Army, rounded a bend at that precise moment, appraised the remarkable scene, and futilely bellowed a warning.
He watched in sick horror as the boulder struck. The ground quaked violently, thunderous echoes crashed through the gorge, and the grisly spectacle was cloaked by a billowing pall of dust, through which smaller rocks and gravel continued to fall for some time.
Like any professional soldier, the Turtle could be counted on for prompt, level-headed action in an emergency. Dropping his luggage by the trail and ignoring the hail of pebbles that rattled off his helmet, cuirass, and epaulettes, he charged into the choking dust. First aid was presumably out of the question, but perhaps he could remove the mangled remains to a suitable place for burial.
Arriving at the site of the accident, he discovered the boulder was of unwieldy size. The Turtle knew he could not lift more than 925 pounds, and that only in the convenient form of a gymnasium bar-bell, while this rock weighed several tons. He made a quick circuit of it. Finding no limbs protruding from underneath, he concluded sadly that it had scored a direct hit, compressing its victim like a concertina. The body would have to be picked up with a sponge, if at all.
Still, he could not abandon a fellow man without first doing everything possible. He found solid footing for his iron-cleated military sandals, got a grip on the boulder, clenched his teeth, and gave a mighty heave. His classic features contorted with exertion. Ox-like muscles, developed over many years of calisthenics and clean living, rippled and bunched. Despite his best effort, the boulder moved only a fraction of an inch and settled back in place when he released it.
The Turtle stood back, doffed his golden helmet, and mopped his brow with the back of a powerful forearm. For a job like this, one needed chains, hooks, pulleys, and a team of Percherons. The Turtle set his helmet on the ground, put his right hand on his chin and his left hand on his right elbow, and analytically reappraised the task. Direct application of manpower had failed, but it might still be feasible to move the boulder with a lever. He looked around for something suitable, such as a resilient sapling, but there was nothing in view. The fact was, no sapling had grown anywhere in the Spina Mundi since the creation of the world; nor, for that matter, had a bush, or a flower, or a leaf of grass, or any of the creatures that lived on these things. The region was completely lifeless except for an abundance of dangerous carnivores, subsisting on each other, and when fortune favored, on human wayfarers.
The Turtle turned back to the boulder and reluctantly drew his sword. He would not have hesitated to use the weapon as a crowbar if he had thought there was any chance of saving a life, but in this case, it was a mere gesture, and good Damascus steel was hard to come by in those days.
“Salve,” greeted the Saint, materializing through the dust.
The Turtle looked up. “You’re alive,” he exclaimed, sheathing his sword. “You gave me quite a turn—I could have sworn you were under this rock.” He picked up his helmet and dusted it off with his handkerchief, for soldiers are always careful about their appearance;. However, the Turtle’s armor bore the nicks and dents of many a warlike encounter. One could see that he burnished it every day. The three vertical military creases in his red mantle were precisely parallel.
“You were deceived by sensory impressions, my son,” said the Saint. “The boulder actually landed several cubits behind me.” He spoke slowly, articulating each syllable with care. His voice was gentle, restful, and well-modulated, like background music.
There was a fresh shower of rocks from overhead; the boulder had been only a harbinger of greater things. The Turtle looked up in alarm. “I’m glad you’re safe,” he said, “but may I suggest we move on, quickly? The avalanche is going to start again any second.”
“The danger,” said the Saint, “is only apparent—another sensory illusion. Neither of us is destined to die today.”
The Turtle looked at him blankly for several seconds before he replied, for he was a born leader of men. Being contradicted always took him completely by surprise. The Saint’s eyes, he noticed, were large, luminously brown, and kindly. Behind the customary flowing white beard, his countenance reflected the deep inner tranquility to which all saints professionally aspired. It was impossible to question his judgment.
“I suppose those cliffs are really more solid than they look,” the Turtle admitted, glancing up at the jagged blocks of granite piled vertically against the cliff. As he spoke, he distinctly saw movement among the boulders, and more pebbles fell. He also noted a pair of vultures, circling alertly at low altitude.
“I shall wait while you pick up your luggage,” said the Saint.
“My luggage?” said the Turtle absently. “Oh, of course.” He was determined not to appear nervous, even with good reason, for he was a warrior through and through, and he attached great importance to raw courage for its own sake. Staunchly suppressing his own good sense, he walked back to retrieve his duffle bag. He heaved it to his shoulder and rejoined the Saint.
They set out down the canyon and had scarcely reached the safety of the next bend when there was a tremendous roar from behind them, and the ground shook like a drenched cur. The Turtle wheeled to face the new threat, reaching instinctively for his sword.
“What’s that?” he shouted, his voice barely audible above the noise.
The Saint waited until the landslide had spent its force and left relative quiet before he tried to answer. “It is just the avalanche that you predicted,” he said placidly. “There is no cause for alarm.”
The Turtle sheathed his sword again, feeling rather foolish, and caught up with the Saint. He tried to compose himself, or, alternatively, to convince himself that even a brave man was justified in being wary of loud noises in country known to be dangerous. As they went on, he looked up frequently at the cliffs on either side of the path, telling himself he was just watching for wild animals. Actually, the poised boulders had developed a compelling fascination in the last ten minutes. So had the vultures, of which there were now half a dozen.
“I have to admire your aplomb,” he told the Saint, “It’s too bad men with nerves like yours don’t join the army—although I suppose the Church needs good men, too. That was a close call you had with that boulder.”
“Not at all,” the Saint replied. “I deliberately quickened my pace, to be ahead of the spot where the boulder was destined to strike.”
“Then you did know it was coming?”
“I am a saint, my son.”
“I see. Perhaps you can set me straight on a point: it was my understanding that saintly faculties applied only to human affairs. Aren’t matters of pure geology a little outside the Church’s bailiwick, on this world?”
“Normally they are, but not in this instance, for the boulder and the subsequent avalanche directly affected two human beings. It is impossible to draw so fine a distinction between the human and the non-human affairs of the world, for there is no real difference from a cosmic point of view. Also, you must bear in mind that the Omniscience of the Universe is, by definition, infinite knowledge, so that revealed knowledge, though it be only the minutest fraction of Omniscience, must still be virtually unlimited, and certainly must go beyond the scope of mere human affairs.”
“Hmm,” said the Turtle, “looking at it mathematically. I think I see…yes…any fraction of infinity…”
“It is not a simple concept,” the Saint added, “unless one is enlightened.”
“Nevertheless, the mathematical analogy is good, even if it’s only an analogy. Of course, fractional Omniscience would be nonsense, considered in those terms. I think I’ll make a note of that if you don’t mind stopping for half a minute.”
“It is only a quotation from the Scripture,” said the Saint, but he obligingly stopped. At the same time, the soldier set down his duffle bag, took a stylus and tabella out of his helmet (He kept his razor and toothbrush there too; there were no pockets in a military kilt), and made a memorandum.
“Well, father,” said the Turtle when they were on their way again, “here we are knee-deep in the Universe’s mysteries, and still total strangers. Shall we introduce ourselves?”
“There is no need. My name and background are of no importance whatever; and the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Regular Army would hardly need an introduction, even if I were not gifted with direct perception.”
“As you prefer,” said the Turtle, shrugging the shoulder that was not supporting the duffle bag, “but please amend that title.
I’m ‘Supreme Commander, Retired,’ I resigned my commission some time ago.”
“The title I used was not an error,” said the Saint. “I am allowed to inform you that you are destined to regain your former command.”
“Oh? That’s encouraging. Would I be out of bounds if I asked you how soon?”
“The day after tomorrow. Your re-enlistment and simultaneous promotion are fully in accord with Destiny’s Plan.”
“Destiny?” said the Turtle, vaguely apprehensive. “Does that concern me?”
“Destiny concerns everyone, my son.”
“Well. I suppose in the broader sense. I intend to do all I can to help preserve moral government, in its hour of greatest peril, but I hadn’t thought of it as Destiny, exactly.”
“Nearly all activity in the real universe is part of Destiny’s Plan,” murmured the Saint dreamily, “for Destiny is the manifest will of All There Is. Anomalies do occur, but your return to the Empire’s service is not one of them. It has been predestined from the beginning of time.”
“I suppose so,” said the Turtle cautiously. He was quite well-read in many fields, but theology was one subject that had always baffled him. Based as it was on absolute rather than empirical fact, it confused most people.
“You will be well received by his Imperial Radiance,” the Saint added.
“The Emperor?” said the Turtle in surprise. “Hardly. Crossing with the Emperor again would be the worst thing I could do.”
The Saint sighed. Until that morning, when he had left the monastery to plunge once more into the seething world of unillumined laity, he had scarcely interrupted his secluded meditation for twenty years. Inevitably, he had almost forgotten how difficult it was to explain things to anyone but another saint.
“My son,” he said patiently, “to suggest that what is destined is in any way wrong or undesirable is a contradiction of terms, by any but the pettiest human standards. A man of your intellect should never allow himself such cloudy thinking.”
“I’d never presume to hazard a value-judgment in the presence of a saint,” protested the Turtle, “but the plain fact is, the Emperor and I don’t get along. He and I have had several disagreements, some of them political, and if my re-enlistment comes to his attention. I may even be denied the opportunity to serve at a time when the army needs every experienced officer it can get. That would be quite an annoyance. I might add, after having walked all this distance.”
He frowned at this recollection. The Turtle spent his time between enlistments at his grandfather’s farm. A few days earlier, his impulsive decision to drop everything and resume his military career had resulted in a heated argument over who had greater need for their only horse. The old farmer had firmly closed his mind to reason, and the Turtle had been obliged to set out on foot for the Capital. Although an infantry officer loves nothing better than a brisk hike across three provinces, carrying at least his own weight in armor and personal effects, the horse would have saved him valuable time.
“Please bear in mind,” said the Saint apologetically, “that shaving your beard and enlisting under an assumed name is not entirely honest.”
The Turtle’s frown deepened. He had confided this plan to no one. He had never met any saints personally before and had not realized how disconcerting their company could be. “As a matter of fact,” he replied archly, “I’ve given it a great deal of meticulous thought. I detest falsity in every form, and I’d never have settled on my present plans if I were not convinced that my duty as a soldier comes first.”
“A choice between two evils,” said the Saint sadly, “is often only apparent. Please forgive my speaking frankly, but it is so in this case, for by approaching the Emperor directly, you need compromise neither your scruples nor your sense of duty.”
“Oh, needn’t I? And suppose the Emperor won’t listen—as he might not, having expressly forbidden me ever to show my face within twenty leagues of the Capital. Suppose I can’t get an audience in the first place; emperors are busy men, you know, even in the best of times—and these are hardly the best of times. The barbarians are about to violate our northern frontiers, the commoners in every province are on the verge of revolt, and the nobility is impotently tied up in litigation over the imperial legacy. Never before in history has civilization been threatened from so many quarters at once. The Empire depends on the Imperial Regular Army, and I have to get back to it in time. How do you think I’ll feel if I end up still a civilian, helplessly watching the Empire overrun by barbarians?” It was a numbing thought. “I’d rather join the army as a spearman E-1,” he added.
The Saint closed his eyes and looked grieved. “You are destined to make a favorable impression on the Emperor,” he murmured,” Please do not allow a fine mind like yours to be misled by logical inference.”
“Destined?” mumbled the Turtle, suddenly remembering why one does not argue with a saint. “Oh. I see; I must have misunderstood you.”
The Saint acknowledged this apology with a kindly smile and relapsed into meditative silence. The Turtle examined the shattered fragments of his plan and wondered how it had ever come to his mind. Now that he thought about it, it was not only dishonest but actually rather cowardly. Yes, the Saint was right. What other good way was there for a man of the Turtle’s temperament to manage his affairs? All his greatest deeds had been accomplished by charging into the thick of things. He had won several famous military victories just that way, sometimes single-handedly.
There would be difficulties, of course. First, he had to get an audience with the Emperor, and the Emperor had little time these days to hear his subjects’ petitions. The only place to meet him face to face would be in the nearly-inviolable Imperial Hall of Kings. Once inside, he would have to state his case quickly before he was thrown out again.
Nevertheless, it could be done. The Hall was always in emergency session, of late, but the presence of forty-one provincial delegates and all their functionaries would be more an asset than a hindrance. A dominant personality like the Turtle was always most successful when dealing with crowds of people. In private personal contacts, there were occasional individuals—like the Turtle’s grandfather, or like the Emperor—who were too bigoted to be moved by any array of logic, but the chance that such people would comprise the majority of a group was negligibly slim. This applied to all groups, without exception. In theory, and usually in practice, it was equally simple to get full cooperation from a company of rebellious recruits, a crowd of unruly civilians, a band of robbers, or a plenary session of the Imperial Hall of Kings. It was just a matter of knowing what to say and how to say it. It would take a man with the Turtle’s abilities to join the army as Supreme Commander, but it could be done.
The Turtle wanted to ask whether it would be worth the effort and risk—whether there was really much hope of saving the disintegrating Empire—but he hesitated. Holy men were not mere astrologers, to be consulted on any little question. Their spiritual insight gave them awesome powers, which they were absolutely forbidden to abuse.
The Saint and the Turtle walked on for several hours, mostly in silence. The Saint’s mind was on spiritual matters, which are not easily put into words, and should not ordinarily be discussed with the laity anyway. The Turtle dropped remarks from time to time, but although the Saint always listened politely, his replies were pious monosyllables, which left no room for further comment.
Finally, they emerged from the canyon and came to a fork in the road. They paused of one accord, and the Turtle set down his duffle bag to rest his shoulder.
“We part here,” said the Saint, “for my road lies south, to Kalopolis. There is one more thing I must tell you before we go our separate ways.”
“Yes?” said the Turtle, preparing to hear something of deep moral significance.
“If you have occasion to change any resolve or opinion, you must wait for either for the Summer or the Winter Solstice. You must never change your mind at any other time of year.”
It took the Turtle a few moments to absorb this, then he laughed heartily. “That,” he said, “is the wisest counsel I’ve ever heard, and I’ll follow it to the letter. Please be assured that I’ve never changed my mind in my life.”
“Very seldom,” the Saint agreed, “and then only in adaptation to changing circumstances. I know your character, my son, and I know that your powers of resolve will carry you through many difficulties wherein a weaker man would falter, but—” He spread his hands in a gesture of apology. “—these are dangerous, historically pivotal times, and the ways of Destiny are not always fathomable to the lay mind. Only by strict adherence to this rule can you be sure to avoid temptation.”
“Very well, father,” said the warrior agreeably, “but what’s so auspicious about the solstices?”
“The Universe has decreed them so in your case. It is beyond my power adequately to explain to the unenlightened, but you must have faith in the wisdom of the Cosmos. If you do not, you may cause dangerous anomalies in the Plan of Destiny and put the priesthood of the Established Faith to a great deal of trouble.”
“You have my solemn promise,” said the Turtle, but really it’s superfluous. I can’t imagine why I’d ever want to change my mind. It just isn’t my nature.”
“So much the better if you never do,” said the Saint kindly, “but please be on your guard. Farewell, my son and the blessings of All There Is be with you. We shall meet again, before long.”
The Turtle stood and watched the Saint until he was out of sight, puzzling over the ominous parting words, and, for that matter, over the whole afternoon’s conversation. Theological matters, by their very nature, could be quite distressing to the orderly and incisive mind of a trained soldier.
The Turtle shrugged, took out his tablet and stylus, and made
a note of the oracle. Then he shouldered his duffle bag and strode on his way, marching,
as always, to the pulse of imaginary snare-drums.
Azaza, a young woman of many talents, few scruples, and unbelievable beauty, lived quietly in the Capital city, in a small but richly-furnished house a few doors up the street from the Teahouse of the Three Moons. She plied her disreputable trade, avoided politics and publicity, and bothered no one but her clients.
At that time, living quietly in the Capital was something of an accomplishment, for this was the natural geopolitical focus of several distinct and conflicting tides of history. Riots and demonstrations were a daily occurrence. Wherever one looked, the walls were defaced with antifeudalist slogans. Military police nervously patrolled the city in pairs or groups, dodging stones, bottles, and rotten vegetables. Spies were everywhere that year. They skulked in every alley, lined up three abreast behind every door, and queued up at strategic keyholes.
Nor was staying out of politics as easy as it sounds, for subversion was rampant. Four out of five citizens were at least part-time activists for some faction or other. Subversive organizations were cropping up faster than the police could catalogue them, let alone suppress them. These groups were as diverse as they were numerous. There was a cause for every human temperament and one or more organizations for every cause. They all agreed the feudal system had outlived its historical usefulness and should now be replaced, as violently and dramatically as possible, with something newer, but their disunity in all other regards made negotiation impossible. If there had been just one huge revolutionary party, the Conservatives could have tried to appease it. As it was, a concession to one faction would have been considered the last straw by all the others, and if even one decided it was time to revolt, all the others would have to join in or risk missing their golden opportunity.
Not all the factions were composed of commoners. Even the nobles were divided, though not over ideology. The reigning Emperor was stricken in years and had neither direct heir nor next of kin. Pretenders to the succession had cropped up in every province, backing their claims with spurious documents and enormous feudal armies. Litigation was proceeding in an orderly fashion through the Supreme Tribunal, so far, but all the pretenders had promised to resort to arms if the Tribunal’s final decision fell short of perfect fairness. Here, again, if the Emperor had decided in favor of one king, it would have meant secession by the other forty.
Not all the factions were even subversive. The Turtle himself had founded one, some months before, upon resigning his command in a fit of pique. It was a wholeheartedly loyal and patriotic organization, little more than a Committee for Unsolicited Advice to the Government. Its members styled themselves Dynamic Feudalists, and their sole deviation from hidebound right-thinking was to advocate aristocratic titles for high-ranking officers of the Imperial Regular Army who had distinguished themselves in the Empire’s service. The membership consisted solely of high-ranking officers of the Imperial Regular Army who had distinguished themselves in the Empire’s service.
Azaza, however, was a neutral—not a member of the organized Neutral Party, which was covertly raising an army of its own and was no more neutral than the Radicals—but a genuine neutral. She remained carefully uninvolved and uncommitted, smoothly changing the subject whenever politics was mentioned.
For the most part, Azaza was typical of the youth of her generation—materialistic, libertine, shallow, irreligious, and pseudo-intellectual—but in certain ways, she was distinctly atypical. In craft and avarice, she surpassed the shrewdest of the Neutrals, and few Radicals could have matched her in moral flippancy. Most importantly, in stark physical beauty, she outshone the noblest-born of the Conservatives’ ladies by thousands of lush, sultry candlepower. The perfection of her features had set new, unattainable standards for art students, and she had a figure upon which nature had bestowed every possible grace so deftly, yet in such lavish abundance, that even usurers, judges, morticians, tax agents and the like would stop to gaze in near-human astonishment when she passed by.
Azaza’s mother had been a professional sorceress, and her father evidently an incubus. Girls did not attend public schools in those days, and the education Azaza received from her mother was poorly rounded. She learned to apply the evil eye when she was only six, after which the other children in her neighborhood avoided her. During her most formative years, her only playmates were those she learned to call up from the nether worlds; her only social life, the Witches’ Sabbath; and her only recreation moonlight rides on an enchanted airborne goat. She grew up feeling left out, unloved, different, and for some mystical reason, this took the form of an obsessive ambition to become Empress of the realm. In a way, Azaza was a subversive party all by herself.
At the age of fourteen, she had grown tired of the apprenticeship, so she had cast a spell on her mother and left home. Fending for herself had turned out to be ridiculously easy. Bad upbringing and overpowering beauty had determined her profession almost before she knew it.
Azaza was in her boudoir, admiring herself in a hand mirror when the bell sounded at the front gate. This was followed, after a short delay, by sounds of harsher and harsher quarreling, the words of which were garbled by their own profusion and muffled by the rich foliage of the courtyard garden. Azaza’s housemaid rushed into the room.
“It’s the Scarecrow again,” the girl announced. “The gateman tried to put him off, but you know how he is. He tried to tell us you were expecting him.”
Azaza yawned sensuously. “The Scarecrow,” she said, “is becoming a nuisance. Tell him he’s having hallucinations again—my only appointment this afternoon is with the Leader of the Neutral Party.”
“Ha! You know how much good that’ll do! The Scarecrow hates Neutrals with a passion, besides being the jealous type. He’ll wait around for the Leader, and then you’ll really see what bad publicity’s made of.”
Azaza reluctantly set down her mirror, rose from her couch, strolled languidly to the front window, and peered out through the lattice.
“He does look purposeful,” she admitted.
The unappreciated caller outside the wrought-iron gate was of a little less than medium height, very thin, and rumpled. He wore a tattered scholar’s robe, which was too big for him. He had a pinched, fanatic face, mad, brooding eyes, and soot-colored hair that had never been combed. He was shaking the bars of the gate as he waited for the maid to return.
Azaza turned away from the lattice with a thoughtful moue.
“You could have him arrested,” said the maid. “I don’t know why you keep putting it off.”
Azaza did not know either, except for an occasional spark of self-suspicion, which she always hastily stamped out before it became a conscious thought. “Because he owes me four hundred crowns,” she rationalized impatiently.
“In jail or out, he’ll never be able to pay it.”
“Don’t be too sure. He’s an alchemist—quite a competent one; he used to have a professorship at the Imperial Institute of Natural Philosophy, till he was fired for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. Alchemists make gold, and the Scarecrow’s working on a process of his own. Once it’s perfected, he can make four hundred crowns out of its weight in scrap iron, but he can’t experiment if he’s in jail.”
“That’s silly,” said the maid. “If you don’t charge him with anything worse than loitering, he’ll only be in jail overnight.”
“It’s not silly,” Azaza returned. “He belongs to some Radical organization, and the police suspect him.
If they have some excuse to arrest him, they’ll grill him till he loses his temper and blurts out enough to convict himself; and then I’ll never see my money. Besides, why get him in that much trouble? I have nothing against him—it’s just that he doesn’t pay his bills.”
“I think he’s a demoralizing influence on other clients—that do pay their bills.”
Azaza sighed. “Yes, he’s a nuisance. Compromise, then. Threaten him. Tell him I won’t see him till he pays what he owes me, and if he won’t leave me alone, I’ll complain to the police.”
“I hope he takes the hint,” said the maid, and went to relay the message. Through her lattice, Azaza watched the maid tell the gateman, and the gateman tell the Scarecrow. The maid fled into the house, and the gateman took cover in his gatehouse as the scientist shouted abuses, shook his fists, threw cobblestones, and rattled the heavy iron grating. He did give up and leave somewhat sooner than usual.
Although she would never admit it, Azaza was more depressed than irritated by these incidents. Sometime before, when she had priced herself into the higher social strata, leaving her less affluent admirers to pine away, or take to drink and opium, or join the frontier legions, or enter monasteries, the Scarecrow had refused to be weeded out. He had fumed and ranted, demanded credit, threatened Azaza with violence, and on one occasion had tried to drive his rivals from her house with a horsewhip. It was too bad, Azaza thought, that so few of her admirers had the Scarecrow’s ability to translate affection into overt ferocity. The world was too full of self-conscious fumblers and apologetic, moon-gazing esthetes, and a lunatic like the Scarecrow could be a refreshing change of pace.
However, there were more important things in life. Theodora,
chief among Azaza’s idols, had not won her place in history by wasting time and
talent on a penniless alchemist.
The Saint arrived in Kalopolis and proceeded with neither haste nor delay on his first errand. This was his natal town, and if he had been an ordinary layman, he might have been tempted to spend an hour or so wandering through the poignantly familiar streets, steeping himself in memories. He was a saint, however, and had too broad a perspective to be distracted by anything as temporal as his birthplace.
He had come to see his former teacher, the Patriarch of Kalopolis. The Patriarch’s gateman admitted the Saint to the courtyard and went to announce him. While he waited, the Saint looked around the garden. It had changed, as all things must, since he had last seen it. The vines were thicker. Part of the rock garden had been replaced with shrubbery. An old shade tree had died, and a sapling was growing in its place. The most conspicuous change was the addition of a marble statue, depicting a bevy of nymphs dancing nudely in the middle of the fountain. A fleeting look of sorrow and pity crossed the Saint’s face. His old teacher had not changed.
In a few minutes, the aged Patriarch himself hobbled from the house and welcomed the Saint with open arms.
“Salve, boy, salve!” he cackled.” Welcome back to civilization, or what passes for civilization in these heretical times. I swear it’s been twenty years if it’s been a day! But why stand around out here? Why didn’t you come right in? You should know by now how much stock I take in punctilio among old friends. Come on in out of the sun!”
The Patriarch was eighty-nine years old, thin as a hoarse whisper and senile as a pterodactyl, which he also resembled physically in some respects—there was something decidedly reptilian about him, especially the dry, scaly complexion. All the color in his wizened face was concentrated in his nose, which was a startling cherry-red. He wore a black ecclesiastical robe and a skullcap.
The Saint followed the Patriarch into the library, a quietly tasteful room at first glance until one happened to notice that the pictures on the walls were frankly lascivious, or until one browsed through the books which lined three sides of the room, and discovered that the pornography outnumbered the religious works by about three volumes to two. On top of one bookcase, posing as objets d’art, stood a row of ivory carvings of lewd heathen goddesses.
“Twenty years,” repeated the Patriarch unbelievingly. “How did you maintain your sanity? I assume you achieved enlightenment during those twenty years? Of course, or you wouldn’t have come back till you did, would you? But surely you haven’t been just working on enlightenment, all this time.”
“No, father,” said the Saint.
“Then they just kept you waiting around for a mission worthy of your talents, didn’t they? Stockpiled, I call it. That does sometimes happen when a saint turns out to have uncommon ability, and I always knew you had. Twenty years, though! It’s a good thing the Universe finally thought of something for you to do. So, what will you do in this illusory world of human beings, now that you’re back?”
“Whatever is destined, father,” replied the Saint.
The Patriarch broke into a raucous cackle of amusement. “Spoken like a true saint!” he cheered. “I couldn’t have answered that question more piously myself! Spoken like a saint among saints! Sit down, boy; rest your feet; make yourself at home. Here, now, what can I offer you to drink?” He drew a sliding panel aside and indicated the well-stocked liquor cabinet with a sweep of his thin hand.
“A little water, if you please,” said the Saint.
“Water! Come now, my boy; your trials are supposed to be past! There’s no more need to abstain from the good things. How many times have you heard me say the proscription of alcohol is an outmoded superstition?”
“Only water, thank you,” the Saint insisted gently.
The Patriarch looked hurt. “My son,” he said gravely, laying one hand on the Saint’s shoulder, “all the years you studied under me, at the Seminary and then as a private student, I was always meticulously careful to distinguish between the real essence of the Singlefold Path and the superficial canonical garbage of the Established Faith. Pious austerities are useful, in their way, as elementary exercises, but they have nothing whatever to do with genuine saintliness. Is it possible, after all my careful tutoring, that you’ve so completely missed the point? If this is some tripe they’ve been feeding you at the monastery, the abbot’s going to hear plenty from me!”
“I have been away for twenty years, father,” said the Saint. “It is not my spirit, but my corporeal being, which I must acclimate gradually to the ways of human beings.”
The Patriarch gave his disciple a deeply searching—and not unsuspicious—look, then abandoned the argument with a shrug. “Well, everyone to his own good taste,” he said tolerantly. He sat down and helped himself to a shot of absinthe from the flagon by his couch. “Though I never knew you to turn down a snort before,” he added. “You played your hottest music when you were about half staggered, as I recall.”
He struck a small gong, and a serving girl appeared instantly, as if from nowhere.
“Water for my honored guest,” ordered the Patriarch.
“Draw it fresh from the well.”
The girl vanished.
“Best water in Kalopolis comes from my well,” the old man said, “if you happen to like water. That girl is Melli, my chief cook and bottle opener. The name’s short for Mellisuga-helenae. I called her that for her small size and great speed, but the full name’s a bit pompous for a girl of sixteen, don’t you think?”
Melli returned almost immediately with a pitcher of water.
“Fastest girl in Kalopolis,” the Patriarch explained proudly. The girl was small and gracefully slender and very pretty in a demure and retiring way, as though she realized that no one who worked for a patriarch had any right to be attractive, and she was very sorry, but she could not help it. The Patriarch leered at her openly, but she pretended not to notice. She poured the Saint a tumbler of water. He thanked her without looking at her, and she disappeared again.
“Well, my boy,” said the Patriarch, “Lots of things have changed while you’ve been away. Your family. I’m sad to say…well…”
“A saint is free from worldly attachments,” said the Saint.
“I guess I won’t have to fill you in on the past twenty years, will I?”
“Of course not, now that you’re a saint. I’m glad I don’t have to break the news—though I guess not even a layman would be much surprised, after being gone twenty years. One by one, all your relatives have joined the Great Majority. Your two tame sparrows were the first to go. Your sister was the last. Tragic accident.”
“It was destined,” said the Saint.
“They all got the finest funerals I could arrange,” the Patriarch consoled. “I personally said the last rites for each of them—even the birds.”
“I am grateful for your kindness,” said the Saint. “Think nothing of it. It was the least I could do for the family of my most promising disciple. Ah, well; I suppose we could find a more cheerful subject. Let’s enjoy the fruits of life while they’re in season, I always say, and refrain from mumbling yesterday’s pits. I’ve saved your guitar carefully for your return. Keeping it waxed and polished for you has been one of Melli’s regular chores. Melli?”
She appeared in a flash.
“Fetch the guitar, will you?”
The Patriarch tried to pinch her as she passed his couch, but he was much too slow. Melli crossed the room, opened an ornate Chinese cabinet, took the instrument out, and brought it to the Saint, all in about three seconds.
“Thank you,” said the Saint, but Melli was already gone.
“She’s bashful around strangers,” said the Patriarch. “Fast but bashful, heh heh. Some people find her speed disconcerting, but you get used to it after a while. She’s the most efficient housekeeper in Kalopolis. She can do a week’s marketing in four minutes flat—I clocked her once. Well, boy, play us a tune. It’s been a mighty long time.”
The Saint, looking introspective, resettled the guitar on his knees. The guitar was of a foreign style, with thirteen steel strings. The usual six were backed by a fretted fingerboard, while the seven heavier strings were alongside the neck, giving the instrument a harp-like appearance that accented the Saint’s demeanor. It was fashioned of some dark, exotic wood, rich in hue, burnished to a glassy finish, and elaborately ornamented with silver tracery and pearl inlays. The neck terminated in a carved dog’s head and bristled with tuning pegs.
The Saint thoughtfully fretted a string with his left forefinger.
“The neck hasn’t warped a bit in twenty years,” said the Patriarch. “That thing’s had the best of care if I do say so myself. I’ve even seen that it was kept in new strings. I’ll bet it’s in tune, right now.”
“Again, I am very grateful,” said the Saint. He fingered a chord and poised the plectrum over the strings but did not strike them. After a moment of suspense, he set the guitar aside.
“I am too badly out of practice,” he apologized.
The Patriarch was visibly disappointed, but one does not try to coax a saint. He drank his absinthe and changed the subject again, “So you’ll do whatever’s destined, will you? You’ve kept us in the dark long enough. I think, even for a saint. Maybe because I talk too much? Forgive an old man’s prolixity, my boy; it’s my reaction to fifty years of association with fellow saints, who don’t do much talking, as well, you know. So what’s it destined that you’ll do, now that you’re finally one with the Cosmos?”
The Saint tactfully refrained from reminding his teacher that he, too, could know everything if he would sober up for a while. “The task assigned me is to save the civilized world from the coming disaster,” he said.
The Patriarch snorted contemptuously, “You too? Everybody talks about disaster these days, but nobody does anything. What if the masses do want to overthrow the government? The masses never know what’s good for them—and neither does the government, for that matter. Besides, they’re all cutting each other’s throats for first crack at the big revolt. What faction’s powerful enough to be a real threat? No. I’ve seen too much of this stuff in my day to work up much fever about it anymore. We saints aren’t supposed to worry about politics anyway, you know.”
“The fall of the Empire is destined, father, as is the destruction of the Established Faith.”
The goblet stopped halfway to the Patriarch’s withered lips. His eyes widened, and he turned deathly pale. “Destined…did I hear you right? The Church…?”
“How long’s all this been going on?”
“It has been predestined since—”
“I know—since the beginning of time—but how long’s the Church known about it?”
“It was revealed to His Saintliness five days ago, father, and has been official doctrine since the day before yesterday.”
“Why doesn’t the Prime Ecclesiarch keep me informed on developments like this?” the Patriarch complained. “He could have saved me having to rewrite a whole sermon, blast that overfed…but wait!” A light of understanding flickered in the Patriarch’s dull eyes. “You said you could prevent this?”
“No, father; it is destined.”
“Now, hold on! You just said you were going to save the civilized world from disaster.”
“By disaster, father,” the Saint explained patiently, “I meant a course of events other than that mapped out by Destiny for the Highest Good of the Universe. My mission is only to prevent profane hands from interfering with the plan.”
“In other words, you’ve come to destroy the Empire and the Church!” the Patriarch accused. “Why mince words?”
“Not I, father. This Cataclysm is part of the plan.”
“But that’s preposterous! Why would the Universe want to destroy Its Church, the first Church in history to teach nothing but the Truth?”
The Saint smiled sadly and spread his hands.
The Patriarch tossed off his drink and poured another one, spilling some. “And what about all the people who depend on the Church for spiritual sustenance? What are they supposed to do—take up heathenism?”
The Saint nodded mutely.
“Confound it, boy,” blurted the Patriarch, “if you destroy the Church, what will I do for a living? Do you think it’s easy for a man my age to learn a new profession?”
“Destiny will provide for all things,” the Saint soothed.
“So I notice,” said the Patriarch dryly, “all in one fell swoop.”
The Patriarch stared numbly into space, through the ensuing lull, periodically taking a gulp of absinthe. The Saint looked down at his clasped hands.
“Well,” sighed the Patriarch at last, “I guess you’re not to blame. We don’t choose our destined missions in life to suit ourselves, do we?”
“No, father,” said the Saint.
“Such is the way of the Universe,” the old priest continued mournfully. “It moves, heeding not the fates of Its creatures. It’s depressing, from a human point of view, that the only realistic religion there’s ever been has to be dedicated to a Power Which has no purposes compatible with ours; of course, we saints have no business adopting a human point of view.”
“No, father,” the Saint agreed.
The Patriarch rose stiffly and shuffled to a bookcase, where he stood looking pensively at the three hundred forty-five volumes of Scripture. “You know,” he said, “maybe I’m getting tender-minded, but sometimes I wonder if the old heathen cults didn’t have something to teach us after all. I don’t mean in the way of doctrines—our doctrines are true to the last apostrophe, and you can’t ask for much more than that—I mean something else, outside the doctrines—a vital force—a life of their own, almost. The heathens had something we don’t have, and I’m not convinced it was necessarily bad.”
“All that was true or good in the heathen religions was incorporated into ours, father,” said the Saint.
“I realize that; I’m talking about something else.
The higher critics have purged all the irrelevant pagan elements from our present, perfected doctrines, leaving nothing but the Truth, but how can we be sure they haven’t accidentally thrown out something valuable along with the dross? Couldn’t there be something outside the Truth—or beyond the Truth—or maybe in between it somewhere—that our early prophets overlooked? How else can you account for the Church’s reaction now? When the heathen cults found themselves dying out in competition with our superior doctrines, they fought tooth and nail—they called us names, they split theological hairs, they condemned scientific progress, they even told lies from the pulpit! Then look at us: The Established Faith is to be destroyed—just like that. No questions. We saints are supposed to accept the Will of Destiny as the Highest Ultimate Good, but isn’t this going too far? Does Destiny expect us to take this lying down?”
“Yes, father,” said the Saint.
“Look here,” cried the Patriarch, waving his hand angrily at the several shelves of Scripture. “Three hundred and forty-five volumes of raw Truth and every jot of it will stand up to the most ruthless logical and scientific scrutiny. It’s a work of all-inclusive perfection. No fact of any validity can possibly lie outside its compass. Our doctrines contain all the Truth and nothing untrue. Are you telling me Destiny wants all this swept away?”
“No mortal can fathom the Will of Destiny, father.”
“Right! That’s my point! Nobody can fathom Destiny, not even a saint! Why not, pray tell? Our saints and prophets spent five hundred years compiling this thing; after that, every new revelation turned out to be a reiteration of what was already in the Scripture. That was seven hundred years ago. Now for seven centuries, we’ve had a perfect Scripture. We know all there is to know about religion, yet we still can’t understand the Universe. Doesn’t that tell you something?”
“We must not blame the Church, father, but rather the limitations of our finite mortal minds.”
“All right, damn it! That means the Church is too good for us, and if it’s too good for us, then it’s not right for us! Modern science forced us to scrap all the pagan hogwash—salvation, immortality, the Golden Rule, divine intervention, and the rest of it—and revelation directed us to replace it all with sophisticated philosophical insight and resignation to Destiny. We’re wondrous wise, now, but is wisdom really the comfort it’s cracked up to be? The early prophets proved that immortal life would be a bore and a drag—proved it, mind you, quod erat demonstrandum, leaving no room for reasonable doubt—but is simple annihilation an adequate substitute? It makes sense, but is it the right kind of sense? What I mean is, why should a religion have to make sense in the first place? Science has to, and philosophy ought to, but I say religion should aim higher than that. We can extol annihilation as surcease from fleshly suffering, but have you ever tried to put it across to the faithful, like I have? The heathens never had that trouble; folks used to pack their churches every Sabbath! So we have the whole Truth now—so what? There’s consolation in Truth for us saints because we have our spiritual insight and can adapt our wills to the Will of the Universe, but what good is it to the ordinary man-in-the-pew? What use is a religion that has nothing to offer but reams and reams of Truth? If I weren’t the Patriarch of Kalopolis. I’d say it’s a damned good thing this nightmare of clear theological thinking is about to be destroyed!”
The Saint continued to contemplate his folded hands, looking quietly grieved. The Patriarch sighed wearily, eased himself back to the cushions, and replenished his goblet.
“Forgive my getting carried away like that,” he said. “I guess I lost my head for a minute. The Church has been my guidepost, as well as my bread-and-butter, for fifty years, and it comes as a terrible shock to learn that it’s about to collapse. I should already have known, of course, but there it is again—I try to be human, as well as holy.”
“Of course, father,” replied the Saint gently.
“Do what is destined, my son. Go forth and save the Plan of a wanton Universe from the meddling of intelligent creatures, for that is your duty as a saint…er…how long will the Church last?”
“Seven months, father. It will be destroyed the day after the Winter Solstice.”
“Then I can give your mission my blessing, which won’t be completely meaningless for another seven months. I suppose your destiny will take you to the Capital?”
The Patriarch nodded knowingly. “Most destinies do, usually fairly early in the game. Be sure to call at the Temple of the Macrocosm, while you’re there, and give my regards to the Prime Ecclesiarch.”
“Yes, father,” the Saint promised. “I shall, in fact, go to the Capital immediately. Most of my first errands are in that vicinity.”
“I’ll watch your progress with great interest, these next seven months,” said the Patriarch. “What do your first errands consist of, there in the center of the Empire? You can tell me—I’m illumined too.”
“As a matter of fact, father. I can tell you very little since I myself try to refrain from prying too deeply into the plan. Spiritual insight is not to be used idly.”
“Don’t lecture me, boy! Tell me whatever you can. I’ll look the rest up in the Book of Prophesy.”
“First, I must rescue a man with an important destiny, who will try to avoid it, through suicide.”
“Fine; there’s always a few of those, aren’t there? What after that?”
“Next, I must counsel a young woman, whose personal destiny will need careful guidance.”
“It takes all kinds to wreck an empire, doesn’t it? Is she anyone I know’?”
“I should hope not, father.”
The Patriarch gave a shrug of exaggerated indifference. “They’re all alike to us saints, but they do have different names. As I said. I’d like to look this cataclysm up in the Scripture, and it’s hard enough to find things in that jungle when you know what you’re looking for.”
The Saint stared down at the floor and replied almost in a whisper. “Her name, father, is Azaza.”
The Patriarch’s false nonchalance collapsed. His pale eyes widened in disbelief, then narrowed and began twinkling lecherously. He fought to control a wicked grin, then to stifle a snicker. Failing in both efforts, he erupted into a crackling gale of mirth, “Azaza!” he crowed, slapping his bony knee. “Haw! You, of all people—you, who could never look a woman in the eye without blushing to the toenails—counseling the one and only Azaza! Oh, this is fabulous!” He winked obscenely. “As soon as you get back to Kalopolis. I want you to call on me right away and—heh heh—tell me how she is.”
The Saint gave his erstwhile teacher a look of deep compassion and smiled very faintly, “Yes, father,” he said.
“That sounds like the kind of destiny I could really go for myself,” snickered the Patriarch, “but I’m afraid it’s a job for—ah—younger blood, eh?”
“So it is, father,” said the Saint, significantly stroking his white beard.
“Go, then, my son,” said the Patriarch, struggling to control his unseemly amusement, “and my blessing, for what it’s still worth in these Last Days. I’ll wait here for the Cataclysm and endeavor to soften the shock of the terrible foreknowledge you’ve imparted to me by drowning myself in—hmm—in meditation. Hee-haw!”
He cackled merrily at his own wit and poured himself another drink.
It was obviously time for the Saint to depart.