I never wanted to be king. I had planned out my whole life from the time I was ten. At sixteen, I would enter the university in Leganne, where I would study law and classical philosophy. After graduating with honors at age twenty, I would return home, claim the hand of my beloved in marriage, and live out the rest of my days awash in philosophy and marital bliss.
It could have happened. My family was at no lack of means or support for my endeavors. My father was a merchant in dyes and linens, and my mother was no less well-established, having come into a tidy fortune at the death of her father. Surprisingly for their time, they were neither harsh nor cruel in raising me; in fact, they seemed to have an uncommon devotion to my welfare.
My future father-in-law was also no obstacle to my ambitions. He was a stern man, born of bureaucracy and the harsh realism which attends it, yet hidden beneath his public facade was a romantic heart. I believe that he secretly saw in me somewhat of a fulfillment of the abandoned dreams of his own youth, though for reasons of his own, he could not afford to show it.
In my eighteenth year, my plans were well into effect. My education was half completed and my every communication with my beloved only further assured our imminent and cooperative destiny. It was in this year, the seven hundred and forty-third according to the Common Reckoning, that it happened. What it was that happened, no one was entirely sure. Across the known world, it was nation against nation, prince against prince, neighbor against neighbor, and friend against friend. It was as if something had spoken to the common soul of man and caused him to go mad in an instant.
It is the prerogative of scholars now to determine which came first—the plagues or the wars—but as for myself, I do not think it much matters which came first. Knowing the stimulus does nothing to change the fact that our response was to panic… That our response was to die; for die we did, by the thousands if not millions. Those few who survived the wars and the plague could hardly be called lucky. Without exception, they saw their world collapse around them, reduced to naught but ashes and the gnawing memory of the departed.
I only hope that my emotion will not carry you away to unnecessary lengths of anger or pity. At the very least, let it be remembered that though we may have been deserving of many of our rewards, there is no room for the absolute in delving the hidden recesses of motive and action. As shall be shown hereafter, men—even in all their infinite cunning—can never fully escape the bands they craft for each other or for themselves, whether for good or for ill.
– Words of the Emperor in Qepperdan, Matthieu Sartonné, as narrated to his page, Jarun Hichame
The carriage bumped along the hardened road, worn into wide ruts by centuries of traffic. A little over eight days on this road now stood between the university in Leganne and Matthieu’s home in Heilicon, though it had been many a month since he had last seen its stout city walls or sat in prayer at Saint Maunde’s cathedral. Even longer still were the months since he had last seen his beloved Beate Kerns. Judging by his recollection of his own thoughts, Matthieu supposed he missed her more than he missed his own parents; such were the trials of his young love.
As this was the final day of his journey, Matthieu sought out the first sight of the city walls. Of the many times he had travelled this road between his home and the western port city of Leganne, which sat beside the east bank of the River Ellorin’s meeting with the Great Bay, he had never once failed to glimpse the city before his parents and other companions had. Even though he was alone now, he engaged himself thus regardless. In those previous journeys, he had discovered for himself the place where he could view the walls: first would come a series of low hills, followed by a southward turn in the road. From that place, he could look out the left-hand window of the carriage and spot his goal. Its weathered stones were comforting to him, bringing to mind the walls of his family’s own spacious home within.
The carriage had now passed through the hills and began its sweeping bend to the south. At last, the small dip in the hills rolled into view until the slender towers of Heilicon’s Lion Gate could be seen on the horizon, topped with little finger-like banners fluttering above pinnacles of red brick and gray tile. Though the current state of relative peace in the Ossiric League did not demand the great protection offered by Heilicon’s sturdy walls and foreboding gates, they still remained as symbols of a much more troubled and ancient age. The feeling of security within those walls was unmatched in much of southern Corastia, and certainly in Matthieu’s own heart.
Once again, the road curved toward the great Lion Gate as it passed through the sprawling fields which surrounded the city. These too had once been the scene of much bloodshed in an earlier time, but now the peasants who worked them had little to fear from the outside world. Off in the distance, Matthieu could see clusters of men and women shuffling through the shorn stalks of grain, preparing for the three days of Festival which would follow the current month of Harvest not one week hence.
This would be Matthieu’s first Festival as a man, and he planned on marking the occasion accordingly. His two years at the university had opened his eyes to a great many things, not a few of which he had experienced as a result of his privileged status as a student at the university in Leganne. Throughout much of Corastia, students like himself were granted much more legal protection than even townsfolk could claim, as they fell under the jurisdiction of the Church itself. Rumor and observation had shown Matthieu a world much different from the one that had managed to creep into what he felt had been a secluded and sheltered childhood. Awash in learning, the world lay before him as a field of fresh snow; he was the intrepid buck, eager to leave such marks on it as would be remembered until time itself wore them away as under the snows of some future day.
Such were the aspirations of a young man. All this he thought to be contingent on living exactly how he saw fit and nothing less, and it would start in one week hence. Though he certainly had many friends and acquaintances in Leganne, his oldest friends were here in Heilicon, along with the greatest public houses this side of the Ellorin. This time, his mother and father would not be able to prevent him from enjoying the festivities here. All he needed was a jug of wine, a purse of his father’s gold, some of his old friends also home in time for Festival… Perhaps he could even cajole Beate into joining him. Courtly love, as the romantic ideal of his time was called, was just that: an ideal, set down by frustrated celibates whose only love was for antiquated verse and the philosophies buried there in words none but the most learned could read anymore. Matthieu and his peers had no use for rhymes and pleasantries, except in the wooing of women.
A shadow fell across the carriage as it passed under the Lion Gate and into the city proper, bringing Matthieu abruptly out of his pondering: he was home. Even the stench of the city which had come to him from afar the day before was familiar in a way which brought with revulsion a strange sense of comfort. Heilicon, merchant capital of the south, was his home and here he belonged. Peering from the behind the curtain on the carriage’s small window, he was confronted with a row of public houses and taverns for those weary travellers who did not have such a home to return to as Matthieu did. It would not be long now before the carriage would bring him there, for his father had paid a hefty sum for this transport. Had the caravan leader not been an old friend of his father’s made over his years as a cloth merchant, such an arrangement would not have been possible at all. Even the road to Heilicon had its share of bandits, though the guard who had accompanied this caravan had ensured a voyage free of incident. Regardless, Matthieu was only grateful to be home.
Martin Sartonné stood conversing with another merchant, garbed more richly than was his father; it had always been his practice to reserve the best of his inventories for his most prestigious customers, so as not to diminish its grandeur by overfamiliarity. This merchant, however, evidently aimed to impress, braving the muddy streets near the central market in Lamatali silks and a gaudy hat topped with a high plume of Irritaschian peacock feathers. His father was not noble born, but the illegitimate son of an outcast lech and some unknown, perhaps long dead, tavern girl. Only untiring hands and a timely marriage into a junior line of the House of Weikern had saved Martin from a life of certain ignominy, and his manner showed that such as he had now was still new and uncomfortable to him.
Averting his attention from the merchant, who by now was gesturing in frustration, Martin caught the eyes of his son in the carriage.
“Matthieu!” he cried out, bidding a hasty goodbye to the other man. Pushing his way through the bustling crowd, he came to the side of the carriage as Matthieu opened the door. His father’s embrace was firm, bringing with it the pungent odor of the dyebaths. “You return to us safe.”
“Yes, father. We had no trouble along the road.”
“Then my silver was well-spent. Come now; your mother waits for us both.” Matthieu had brought little with him—a few books, enough changes of clothes to see him through Harvest, a clamshell container of chalk-hued lead powder he had purchased in Leganne for Beate—but the carriage still went on without them, bound for home as they were by another route. The streets of the market square were near enough to the stout wooden house Martin Sartonné had purchased shortly before Matthieu was born. It stood among shops and many more of its kind that had risen in recent years with the growing merchant class. No more was Heilicon to be a shadow of Leganne and its ports, but a trader’s haven in its own right. Had Martin been born perhaps a generation earlier, he would have shared his own father’s fate: name and honor drowned along with him in beer mugs and bosoms. Instead, name and honor were well intact, growing steadily with every caravan that trundled off westward to the Ellorin, loaded down with Torisia’s finest velvets and linens. Matthieu could not have been happier, unless of course Beate was finally at his side.
“I trust your studies are going well,” his father said.
“Well enough,” Matthieu replied in a flat tone. “I find philosophy and history easy tasks, but law is another matter.”
“Philosophy and history will not accomplish your goals, Matthieu. The League needs clerks and officers, not scholars.”
Your goals, Matthieu thought sullenly. Not mine. He had always ever had one goal, and he would see her this very afternoon, should his father permit. Wishing for God to permit accomplished little; Its hand was immaterial, while his father’s was as real as his own. It would be a great relief when that hand could no longer grasp him so tightly.
“You know, your mother would not be so silent if she saw your face.” At his father’s words, Matthieu found himself involuntarily scratching at the wispy patches of whiskers that sprouted from his jaw. He was barely a man when he had first left for Leganne, and had the face of a boy. Now he only thought to look his age. “I suppose neither will Beate.”
“If it troubles them so, then consider it all gone,” Matthieu replied. “But we shall see.” His father’s irritation was obvious, but he chose to not let it bother him as well. As they nearly turned the corner of a tavern, one of the last between them and home, a man’s voice called out from behind them.
“Oh, Brother Martin?” Matthieu turned to face the speaker and saw two men standing side by side, richly clothed in linen and each wearing a wide, rounded hat of silk. The one who spoke was slender as a candle, the look in his eyes like a cat observing a ball of yarn before he struck. To his right was a stockier man whose fingers held too many ill-fitting rings. He had never met these before, though they had the look of men in his father’s trade. However, it was not their clothing that made them stand out, but the manner of address they used.
Mentites, Matthieu thought. Only one of their order would address another as such, especially speaking to Martin Sartonné. His father was hardly religious, much less a devotee of the Cyrnnish heretic.
“Greetings, Brother Martin,” said the first man. “It is indeed a rare pleasure to see you again, as well as your son.”
“What do you want, Richard? And why this ‘brother’ nonsense?”
“Are we not children of the self-same god?”
“Yes, only I am most certainly not a part of your… brotherhood.”
The second man approached.
“Incidentally, that is our purpose in speaking with you. We have a certain proposition to make…”
“Excuse me if I decline prematurely. Matthieu, you go on ahead.” Matthieu ducked around the corner to listen to the strange pair out of sight.
“It would be quite tragical,” said the first, “if you were to refuse us.”
“Yes,” continued the second. “We have a most important offer related to your salvation and the salvation of your beloved family.”
“Salvation, is it? Now is that to be temporal or spiritual? Because you know as well as I that the city watch is more than willing to punish deservedly your peculiar brand of sedition. All it will take is one informant for the both of you to be in the stocks by nightfall.”
The first man feigned shock.
“Oh, Brother Martin, there is certainly no need for such threats! Why, we only wish to help you better your station by the means that our God has provided us.”
“I really wish you would reconsider,” said the second. “As you know, removal to Cyrnne is entirely voluntary for members of the Council.”
“I will not reconsider, nor will I entertain such as yourselves again. Now begone before I call for the watch!”
“So be it, Brother Martin,” said the first man.
“Heaven forbid any misfortune fall upon your household,” joined the second man.
“Is that a threat?! You bastards, it was not long ago that scum like you were pilloried for sport!” Martin cursed under his breath and turned to look for his son. “Are you still here, Matthieu?”
“Yes, father,” he said, turning the corner again. The men had gone back again the way they had came, though his father looked hardly the better for it.
“Your mother is expecting us, son. Let us not make her wait any longer.” They resumed walking back to their house.
“Will you really call for the city watch?”
“I may have to. Whether they are serious or not, I would certainly feel safer with a few night watchmen at our door. As for your mother, she will feel safer not knowing about our little encounter in the first place.”
The portrait hanging near the entrance to the dining room had been commissioned only a few months before the fever had taken her. Though it had not been executed in the finer style had by the royal family in Ossir, the artist had captured Martin and Anna Sartonné’s features well enough. His mother wore a gown of forest-green velvet trimmed in rabbit fur, shown opposite her husband in a red and black silk cloak. The faintest smile was visible in the corner of her mouth. In the last year since her death, this was the only smile that seemed to hold any meaning for Martin. It had been a solemn time for all who knew her, but his wounds had been the deepest. Matthieu reasoned that his own tendency to brood tearlessly when faced with tragedy was also his father’s.
Silently, they each lit one of the many melted candle stubs that stood on a low table before the painting. What words they had for her would mingle with the smoke, to ascend to her blessed station in the paradise of God. In this could Matthieu push away his doubts about theology; with all his heart, he wished it all to be so. His thoughts went to his childhood: bruises she had tended to, hurts immaterial that she had soothed, the way she could temper Martin’s impatience and anger as no one else could, a half-remembered song she used to sing as she sat him on her knee. If e’er again I see your face ‘neath skies of cloud or star, the first line had been.
He wondered if there were clouds or stars in heaven, should there be one after all. Perhaps, since the heavens were said to be above the earth, though he doubted that any man truly knew what was there. Despite his best attempts to put into reason all that the Global Church of the Ineffable God claimed to be truth, after all that his mind considered merely figurative or outright deception, heaven must also be real, if not for the rest of this maddened world, then for departed Anna Sartonné.
Supper awaited them by the time they had finished their devotions. The fare here at home was certainly better than the eight days and nights of hard cheese and harder bread he had on the road. Here, the loaves were warm and flaky, served with a stew of fresh lamb rather than the salted and dried hunks borne by traders. Apple tarts followed, echoing the harvest season that was upon them and Festival which was soon to come. Matthieu ate his fill of all.
His father waited until the servants had cleared away the last of the dishes before he finally spoke again.
“That was some sight last week, Matthieu. Could you see it well?”
“The comet? Yes, I saw it. In fact, many of us students met in the astronomy tower to view it.”
“And what do your professors have to say about it?”
“There are several theories. Professor Hartón believes it was another stellar body in orbit around the sun.”
“He is the one with the idea that we too orbit around the sun, no?”
“Yes. Of course, the theologians were in quite a row about that.”
“Why, yes. Actually, some of the younger monks believe the same as Professor Hartón. Even Father Mora agreed.”
“Professor Hartón is hardly a man of God, son. His theories have been disproven before, and so will this. You remember when you were a child, he claimed to have seen wings on Venera. Wings, Matthieu. His eyes have been failing since I was your age, and I fear his senses lag not far behind.” Matthieu was only grateful that his father did not still cling to the old beliefs about the other bodies that joined their earth in its yearly travel around the sun.
In ancient Corastia, the planets were quite literally thought to be gods; all that had changed with the rise of the Global Church of the Ineffable God was that they were now believed to be the domains of the angels, circumambulating the fiery throne of the one true God in a procession ordained since before the world began. Even then, many still believed their earth to be the heaviest point in the universe, a spherical center around which the rest of creation proceeded in infinite order. Despite the old superstitions in flying deities having died out centuries before, every child learned their names: Venera, Jexa, Prixa, Ferra, Emyra, Simora. In the place of these capricious gods was the Ineffable God, void of names as it was of passions and even gender. It seemed quite the curiosity to Matthieu that visible beings with human wills and faults had been supplanted by One that none could ever see or know.
“But father, you cannot reject his ideas simply because they are new. They only need to be tested.”
“It is not new knowledge I reject, but that which contradicts the truth. Besides, your mother and I did not go to such great expense to send you to university, all so that you could dabble in these ideas. You are to study law, so that you may one day serve the nation.”
“Why are you suddenly so concerned for my spiritual well-being? You hardly even attend services yourself.”
“And that is none of your concern. Heaven knows I am a busy man, and you should as well. All of this you see around you is more than I ever had when I was your age. I worked for every cop-”
“Yes, father, I know, you worked for every copper star you have, your father left you in the care of his landlady, whose own daughter nursed you with her own child. I know.”
“Have you no respect for all that I sacrificed to bring us what we have? All those years, following in Master Feine’s footsteps, managing his accounts, counting all those damned velvets…”
“You hardly starved living off Mother’s inheritance.”
“Has university taught you to be this disrespectful to your father? You certainly did not inherit it from your mother or me.”
“It has not taught me disrespect, only the need to open my eyes.”
“And yet we have never forced you to close them, son. After all, it is our money that allows you a luxury that few in this city can claim. Do not forget how much it has cost us to send you to university in the first place, much less to Leganne.”
“It is not you who has tried to close my eyes to the truth, but there are many who do.”
“The Church, for one. Honestly, I wonder sometimes who believes in those old stories anymore: the fires of cleansing, the dividing of the peoples, and all the rest. Some of the monks at least are willing to accept the conclusions of modern science, but others are too-”
“Matthieu! I will not permit such heresies to be spoken in this house. You have spoken ill against your mother and I, which I have ignored, but you go too far to question doctrines known for centuries.”
“Known?! You have said it yourself that the priests themselves can hardly read Old Corastic, and yet they claim the right to interpret it for us! If the shepherd is lost, what chance do the sheep have?”
“You would talk of rights to me, yet you have neglected to tell me from whence your rights to speak to your own father in such a way have come. Get out, and do not come back until you can speak to me again as a son should.” Matthieu straightened so quickly that his chair tipped back behind him, clattering roughly on the stone floor.
“Hopefully,” he spat back, “it will be when you are prepared to hear reason.”
Matthieu fled to the only place he had ever known where he could be alone with his thoughts: the ancient wine cellar underneath the kitchen. It was stuffy and slightly damp, but his parents had understood since his early youth that if he was nowhere to be found, he was most likely brooding down in the cellar. Almost without thinking, he retraced his own footsteps through time and down a stone passageway to the bulky wooden door. It opened and closed again heavily, creaking on its thick iron hinges.
He paced the floor as was his habit when much was on his mind, leather shoes scuffing across stones laid down nearly two centuries before. Witty parries to his father’s verbal thrusts flitted about his thoughts, yet he knew that they would all go unsaid. It was not truly his manner to be as short as he had been earlier, yet in this case enthusiasm and anger had come to the fore. As much as he told himself that he had been in the right to say what he had, the regret began as an ache in the back of his mind and grew steadily, a trickle of light streaming into him like the gentle glow of the lamp out in the hall until it dominated his thoughts.
With this came more doubts, more regrets of words ill spoken and deeds undone. Though the anger at his father had now passed, what replaced it was just as virulent and aimed directly at his own heart. The entire predicament he had placed himself in was exactly that: his own doing and no one else’s. All this time spent on chasing a girl he had hardly spoken to or employment in a bureaucracy that bothered him little at all amounted to nothing if he could not govern himself as a man.
Was he really even a man if he still ran to the cellars like a child? The question ate at him, driving home all that his father had said earlier: Matthieu had not been changed by it at all. Yes, he had learned much from his studies, and had taken advantage of every boon granted him by parents and God, yet he was still as miserably alone in his thoughts as ever. He hated himself to his very core. What could a creature perfect as Beate want with one who loathed himself so? Why would a father continue to do so much for a son who gave only impudence in return? What would his mother say if given the power to respond to him when he called out to her through candles and paintings? If there indeed was a God in that heaven where Anna Sartonné had fled to, how stood Matthieu in Its all-knowing gaze? His mind cried out that a just God would see him for the man he wanted to be rather than just the man he was, but even his doubting heart knew that to be a lie. That perfect eye would fix him in Its gaze and burn him to annihilation of body and soul.
Frantic pounding on the heavy door roused him from his imaginings. A voice raggedly called his name: it was his father’s.
“Hide, Matthieu! For the love of God, hide!” With that, his father was heard no more. It took only a moment before he came to himself, leaping from the musty corner he had been sitting in and running towards the largest of the wine barrels in the back of the cellar. He had always wished to hide inside one as a child, picturing himself floating down the river in one of the greatest barrels, off to find adventure and buried treasure or some such thing. Right now, however, they could very well save his life.
He found the largest he could: it was an ancient Northern vintage, half empty from generations of entertaining visitors to his family’s home. It had even been there when his father bought the house before Matthieu was born. However, now was not the time for him to consider the value of the barrel’s contents, only to do what he could to survive. He clambered up the side, using the uneven bricks of the cellar wall to aid his climb onto the top of the container. His hands were unsteady as he flicked back the latch and threw open the lid; taking care not to fall off, he slid inside—sloshing in expensive wine halfway to his knees—then reached up and slammed the opening shut. He cursed to himself as he heard the tiny iron latch click back into place, flung forward again by the force of the door closing. It mattered not; he would not be escaping from this place soon.
There was shouting outside the cellar door: several men, later a woman screaming. His breath caught in his throat. As the voices approached, he could hear them laughing. He shivered in the cold liquid that surrounded him, disoriented within the pitch-black confines of the barrel. The shouting faded abruptly. He let out a desperate breath, thinking that perhaps the danger had left him, when suddenly there was more pounding on the door.
It was not his father. This was not knocking, but the sound of a great weight striking the thick wood regularly. Whoever it was obviously meant to break down the door. After a few more impacts, it finally gave way with a great clatter that echoed for what seemed like an age. Cautious footfalls could be heard coming from the ruined doorway, before one man spoke up.
“What do you think they have in here?”
“Looks like wine, Brother,” said the second, his Cyrnnish accent lilting as he spoke.
“Indeed. They will not be needing these anymore, the filthy drunkards.”
“Right you are. Say, care for a little sport? No one here to tell us off.”
“You mean to bust up these barrels?”
“Why yes, else they go to waste. Besides, these here are no good anyways. Shall we begin?”
A thud and a wet splintering sound to Matthieu’s right meant that the first barrel had been breached, and its contents subsequently sloshed onto the stone floor. He recoiled in terror, shrinking further into the wine of his own barrel as if anything he did at this point could spare him an assured death at the hands of the two intruders. A second was split, followed by a third, and then a fourth, all increasingly closer to his own. He did not know how many stood between him and the men outside; he only knew they were close and getting closer still.
More footsteps, this time almost directly in front of him. The gruffer-voiced man called out to his partner.
“And what about this one? Quite an old one, I should say. Should I break it as well?”
“Let me see,” said the other man, approaching. He was silent for a moment, and Matthieu did not allow himself to breathe as he heard the other man circling the barrel, even catching glimpses of torchlight as it flitted through the hatch on top.
“No,” he said. “No, this one is a Kamischkani, and a very old vintage at that. I would feel sorry to spill it all over the floor like the others. How about a drink instead? Just a little cannot hurt.”
“Are you sure? What if Lemaste finds out?”
“Nonsense! He will not know a thing. Besides, we shall make it a toast to our victory!”
“Hmm… If you insist, Brother.”
“I do insist, for it is not everyday that one gets to sample such a grand old Kamischkani as this one.” Matthieu heard the man pull the little cork from the spigot in the flat side of the barrel, and a steady stream of wine came pouring out.
“To Leopold,” cried the first man, “and victory over the children of darkness!”
“To Leopold,” replied the other in his deeper voice. They could be heard lapping the rich, dark wine out of their hands before replacing the cork. Matthieu could feel his lungs beginning to burn inside him, as he had not yet exhaled. He quivered out of fear and the throbbing pain in his chest, waiting only for this nightmare to pass.
“We should go, Brother. There is much more left to do.”
“Yes,” said the one with the sing-song voice. “Let us be on our way. This house has already been given Kaschar’s quarter anyway.”
They continued their conversation until they had left the cellar and proceeded up the stairs again, into the hall. It was only then that the air came bursting out of Matthieu’s lungs, followed swiftly by tears he did not care to stem. After all, if what the intruders had said was true, there was no longer another soul left in his house to see him weeping so.