Prisoner's Journey

1.
The path had turned to mud. The smaller roads were not much maintained after their initial creation outside the most traveled areas and just a few days of bad weather made traveling an exhausting and soggy affair. This time at least Estan had studied the maps when they had been available, and they mostly knew where they were going. Jacobin was drudging steadily on: he had gotten much more used to physical hardship during the war and in his earlier life working in the farms. Estan not so much, but at this point he should have already had accepted the conditions of outdoor life, but it was not so. Filling his lungs with fresh air made his chest touch the cold and wet front of his long tunic and that always sent a message of utter discomfort all over his body. People might have asked him why he chose to travel if he really hated it that much. Then, however, the people asking would have failed to realize that staying in any one place wasn’t much better either.
The village they were going to was close. Estan didn’t remember its name but then again he really wasn’t sure if the place had been big enough to warrant one. It had been marked on the maps so there should have been something written there - how can you even put something on a map if a place doesn’t have a name? - but Estan’s tired and confused thoughts were going in circles as he occupied his mind with meaningless details to make the journey go along a bit faster. After a while they started to see lights. They had arrived.

Walking to the inn and ordering food was the first thing to do. The seats close to the hearth were empty. Estan and Jacobin took the opportunity to dry their clothes and shoes. They ate in silence.

After a while one of the customers from a table across the room started to approach them. His movements were slow and timid, his manner polite. The man turned out to be a local farmer. His age was hard to determine, as the demands of peasant life turned most people old in body and spirit rather quickly. He started to tell what was on his mind.

Something had been destroying his crops. It could have been an animal, could have been something else. He was leaning heavily on the latter, morphing his fears into a beast deserving all his anxieties and worries about his livelihood. The matter had to be investigated and stopped. He had money and could pay.

Apparently, the farmer had caught a sense of who Estan was. He didn’t purposely try to look like a mage and he didn’t carry the markings of his church or temple, but you didn't have to scrutinize for too long to figure his inclination out. Jacobin didn’t necessarily look like a soldier either, but it wasn’t hard to imagine him in a uniform and that image held. Traveling together made them noticeable to people who knew where to look.

Not much negotiation was needed. They were hurting for money and even though neither of them liked to take unnecessary risks, they often had to take whatever kind of work was available and suitable for their talents. Being smart and cautious usually carries a long way. The farmer was very likely blowing his expectations of the problem out of proportions and nothing strong and sinister was antagonizing him. It was true that all manner of creatures could live and lived in the woods and uncharted areas, but they were so close to human settlement that Estan wasn’t taking that possibility seriously. The farmer told them that he believed the lair for the would-be beast to be a nearby abandoned settlement. The meal had strengthened Estan and Jacobin and it wasn’t that late yet, despite the darkness. They decided to see the place once their clothes were dry. Estan didn’t believe the settlement to have anything to do with the matter but going there would please their employer. Jacobin agreed.

It wasn’t raining so hard anymore. The pathways on the forest floor were in much better shape, the terrain was harder, and the striking rain could not hit the ground with such force when there were trees in the way. The air was clear, and it felt good to breathe it in. They could have traveled faster but it was better to be careful where you stepped.

The former settlement was in a sad state. A few crooked and rickety houses, probably not much better looking when they were new, stood in a small open area cleared from the trees. There was a well with a rotten rope and broken lid next to it. Estan and Jacobin stood in the open area between a house and a barn. It was unclear why this place was abandoned while still being so close to the village. Jacobin and Estan started to look around.

There suddenly was fast movement on the right side of Estan. He instinctively lifted his hands up and tried to step away from whatever was coming towards him. Something hit his arm.

Jacobin had been more aware of his surroundings, and he had reacted better. He saw two men coming from the barn, one preparing to strike him with a spear, another coming right behind him, holding some other weapon. Jacobin sidestepped the thrust of the spear, simultaneously pulling his dagger from his belt, stepped in and stabbed his assailant while holding him with his other hand. Estan realized that he was under an attack too: he had been cut in his arm and another man was trying to stab him again with a long knife. Panicking, Estan reached in and without any incantation, ritual or attempt at a spell he thrust as much power as he could towards his opponent. There was a loud cracking sound and the man fell.

The third man was discouraged, and he hesitated. Jacobin stepped towards him and kicked the man into his chest. The man dropped his weapon as all the air left his lungs. Jacobin kicked him in the ground once more, twice, three times. Who were they and why were they here?
Coughing and spitting, the man talked. They were from the village and were with the man who had hired them. They were after the spellbook and other valuables that the mage could have. There was nothing harming the crops. Jacobin looked at the man silently and before the man could plead any more, he stabbed him in his chest. A muffled cry came out and the man struggled, but there was nothing he could do. Soon he was still, and the blood pooled on the muddy ground.

It turned out that Estan wasn’t hurt badly. The spear had mostly hit the cloth and only nicked Estan’s upper arm. The man he had fought against was dead. They didn’t check to see what exactly had killed him.

“What do you want to do now?” Estan asked. Sudden and uncontrolled use of the power had made him nauseous, and his head was spinning. He sat on the stairs leading to the front door of a dilapidated house.

“Going back is a bad idea. These men were husbands, sons and brothers: the villagers will turn against us once they realize what we have done.”, said Jacobin. He looked at the body of the man who he had stabbed. “Peasants play meek but if they see a chance, they take it. A lot of them fought in the war, this is nothing new to them” Jacobin continued while spreading his arms, indicating the situation they had been in. He sighed. “We have to continue and sleep outdoors tonight. This is not the ideal situation, but we got lucky, and we have to be grateful for that. It’s possible the villagers will try to have their revenge. We have to get some distance between them and us. Let’s look at that wound of yours.”, Jacobin said. They cleaned it and applied salve, Estan took some medicine, realizing how little there was left. They drank water, got up and started walking.

As they went Jacobin thought about what had happened. On one hand they had been stupid and gullible, but they had done jobs like this – what this incident was supposed to be – before without a problem. Being constantly vigilant was hard: they hadn’t thought about how over here even they could be seen as decent prey despite their worn clothes and dirty hands. Jacobin himself knew how poor mages could be too and how cheap of a price their magical items could actually fetch. He realized that this wasn’t necessarily common information and that had been their predicament today.

After walking for longer into the evening than they normally would, Estan and Jacobin settled for the night. They would have wanted to have a fire but decided against it. Being hidden was now a bigger worry for them than anything else. Exhausted, they fell asleep.
It was light when they woke up. Jacobin rose to sit, hearing some noise left of him, as he turned to look, he saw a group of men in armor walking towards them. One of them was wearing the insignia of the Church of the Sun. Arrogance and confidence shone from this man’s face. Jacobin woke up Estan, who looked at him, then looked at the way Jacobin was pointing and realized what had happened, despite being groggy from just waking up. There was nowhere to go. They stood up.

Estan and Jacobin had been walking in shackles for at least a week. They could not believe how small the possibility for the chain of events unfolding unto them now had been. Apparently, the tax collectors for the Church of the Sun had arrived at the village just as they had left and once hearing of the farmer’s version of what had happened to their fellow village members, the envoy had sent a few soldiers and a church paladin after them. The king’s taxmen would have very likely just executed them right there and then, but the church jumped on any and every situation to further its standing and image in the eyes of the common people. Carrying a couple of murderers in chains wherever they went was more than perfect to show how much the church cared and did for its frightened flock. Estan pondered how he still ended up serving the Church even though he had left the convent a long time ago. His wrists were chafed, and his feet hurt, but they were still given somewhat reasonable rations.

After walking several more days and the envoy visiting a few more tiny villages, the mission of the tax collector was complete, and they headed back to civilization. The city of Oefel was nothing compared to the capitals of the western realms but after several weeks of periphery it felt like walking to a beehive. The stench of the river going through Oefel was present everywhere as it had been forced to take the role of the city’s sewer system. Not a few beggars sat back against the stone walls of two- or three-story buildings. Most of them had found the last solace of drink and opium. The envoy split on a street corner, where the tax collector went to his offices and the men of the church continued to the church headquarters. The church paladin was walking just ahead of chained Estan and Jacobin, so there would be no question of who was deserving the honor of the capture of dangerous fugitives. A few soldiers were walking ahead of him.

Turning another corner, a soldier in the front kicked a beggar who had been too slow to get out of his way. The beggar yelped in pain loudly and tried to skitter towards safety. Estan could hear the paladin inhale sharply and he saw the man straighten up even more if such a thing would have been possible. “Private, you are in the service of the Church, and you will act like it! Even these poor unfortunate souls are children of the Sun! You have earned yourself two weeks of latrine duty in the barracks!”, barked the paladin. He had gotten into the face of the misbehaving private, and he had assumed the full role of an easily irritable sergeant. The other soldiers of the envoy had trouble masking their glee. Turning to the beggar the paladin had reached into his pocket and grabbed a few copper coins, which he forced to the beggar’s hand. “The Sun blesses you my dear man! Don’t let this unfortunate event mar your faith in the church! Go get a warm meal and take care of yourself!”, the paladin loudly went on, slapping the beggar on the back. The beggar clearly had no conception of what was going on, his eyes clouded by many years worth of drink, just trembling in fear of more strikes to come, their source as unknown to him as the soldier’s kick had been in the first place.

Estan closed his eyes in exasperation. Regular soldiers and officers were arrogant and cruel, but the office of paladins had attracted a very specific type of person. Many of them had some capability and usually some aptitude and skill in magic – which most likely was the reason he and Jacobin were found so fast from the forest in the first place - but they also were boiling to the prim with righteousness and self-celebration. As paladins they had the perfect opportunity to combine the manliness of the warrior caste with the piety of the Sun, which seemed to be the main prize of the post for a lot of them. The likes of this man were drunk from themselves, every day of their lives barely believing the fact that the world could have been so fortunate to have been graced by their existence. Having a bit of competence fueled the fire of their sense of importance further still. The paladin surely was congratulating himself for his good deed and was mentally adding another notch to his sleeve, but Estan knew that the instant they would leave the beggar would be robbed of his sudden endowment and probably receive a few more kicks in the process.

The headquarters for the church of the Sun were a complex of several buildings. It included barracks, small offices for the clergy and for the scribes, a chapel on the corner and a jail that was used by both the church and the bailiff. The position of the church of the Sun varied greatly from realm to realm, sometimes resembling more of a grappling match than alliance and diplomacy. Estan was sure that the establishment of the paladin system hadn’t exactly made the cooperation of church and state any easier. Having armed forces residing in your realm where their primary loyalty wasn’t to the king but to some other institution, holy and celestial as that institution may have been, was uncomfortable to the royalty at best. The idea had been too attractive to the church and the forces were still so small that many rulers had let them be. For the time being, at least.

Estan and Jacobin were led to the third floor, escorted by the paladin. They waited a while in the hallway as the paladin knocked on a door and stood in attention, waiting for permission to enter. A yell from inside indicated admittance. Jacobin and Estan were ordered to stand in the middle of the room side by side, facing a large window and a desk. The rays of light coming from the window revealed dust floating in the air. The sun was going to set soon.

Behind the table sat a priest in his late forties or early fifties, fairly corpulent, cheeks red and veiny, face a little bloated from drink. Jacobin recognized the wonderful odor of coffee drifting from a steaming porcelain cup on the table. He had smelled it before only from the tent of general Malkov when he had been performing his morning duties in the various military camps during the war. Jacobin wondered how the priest could have access to such luxuries. After listening to the brief report from the paladin without lifting his face from his papers, the priest pointed to Jacobin with his quill.

“Name and place of origin?”, he commanded Jacobin, still without looking. “Jacobin from Arkansia, sir.” he answered. “Occupation?”, the priest continued.
“I was a soldier, sir.”
“Where did you fight?”
“In the eastern front, sir”
“Under whom?”
“Under general Malkov in the first battalion, sir”
The paladin let out a loud sneer. The priest finally lifted his head and looked Jacobin into his eyes. ‘’You’re not lying, are you son?” he asked. “No, sir.”, Jacobin answered. “I was there when our blessed king perished and the esteemed general lost his fingers.”, he continued. “Which fingers?”, asked the priest, not quite believing what Jacobin was telling him. “His ring finger and a half of his pinkie from his left hand, sir”, said Jacobin. The priest nodded slightly, probably not realizing that he had done so. “So, you must have been in the battle of Tremen also, then? That unit consisted of the best men in the whole regiment. There are talks about erecting a statue for its memory in the capital's central garden. Few are honored like that.” the priest said. “First I hear about it, sir.” Jacobin answered.

The priest was silent for a while, seemingly remembering those days. Then he turned his attention to Estan. “And you? Name, origin, occupation?”, he asked. “Estan from Arkansia, sir. I was a monk in the church of the Sun. I studied and finished the first part of my examinations under priest Baltosik.”, Estan answered. This time the priest’s eyes bulged.

“The priest Baltosik? You better stop this lying, nobody is going to believe things like that!” he exclaimed, meaning to continue, but then he suddenly stopped and mumbled more to himself than anybody else: “Although he did leave for the countryside, years ago already. Something about calming his nerves…” The priest had his gaze back in the papers, staying silent for a moment or two, then he shook his head a bit and started to fill out forms. Absent-mindedly he gestured for the paladin to take the prisoners away. The man sprang into action and led Jacobin and Estan in a sergeantly fashion out of the office and down the stairs to the basement level into a jail cell. Once the door was locked behind them Estan and Jacobin were finally alone. There was hay on the floor and a small, barred window on the upper part of the wall let in sunlight from the busy street. They sat down, a little weary but not desperate about their situation. “I think that they are going to move us to someplace else at some point, once they give us our sentences. They'll probably put us into hard labor.” Jacobin said, eyeing the window and the door at the end of the hallway where they had been brought into the basement level. “It's probably best to not waste any time. When they bring us food and if there are only one or two guards, we should be able to overpower them, you'll influence their minds with magic, and I'll take them out. The door outside is just there, I don't want to waste this opportunity.” The walls of the cell were in bad shape and Jacobin pried on a broken tile at the bottom part of the wall, managing to procure a big chunk that would be useful in walloping somebody's head with. Jacobin showed this treasure to Estan with a sly smile, but then the hallway door started to open, and Jacobin hid the broken tile piece into the hay. A whole bunch of people came in, several guards and the same paladin who stopped in front of Jacobin's and Estan's cell. The paladin looked irritated and Jacobin and Estan were taken with him again. Up the stairs and back the same way to the priest's office where they had just been and this time, they didn't have to wait for permission to get in. The priest sat on his chair there, arms folded and looked straight at his prisoners, now attentive and not bored by the routine paperwork.

“Leave us.” the priest said to the paladin, who's head jerked back a bit from surprise and whose irritation seemed to change to confusion. It took a second for him to obey and once the door had been shut and they had been left in the office without any guards, the priest crossed his fingers on top of his stomach and leaned back in his chair, his eyes first tracing Estan and then Jacobin. They both looked back in anticipation and puzzlement, wondering which way things were now going. Then the priest stood up and walked to the window, looking outside. “As a representative of the church, many affairs of this city fall under my jurisdiction. Public order, as you have noticed, has become one of them.” he said. “However, not all wrongdoers are as clearly and straightforwardly taken care of. Our good mayor isn’t always following the sacred teachings in the fullness he should: sometimes he is led astray by the baser inclinations of his character.” the priest said. He pointed to a distinctive and luxurious building, easily noticeable from the masses of other buildings near the city square. The office had an excellent view.

“Recently he has started collecting valuable items of artistic or magical nature, arriving here from great distances. He has an exhibition on the second floor of his gaudy mansion, in the room with the balcony. He likes to show these items off to any he wishes to impress and is quite proud of the collection, to the point of smugness. Many of these items have clearly been in the possession of the church, or at least they should be.” the priest said. He turned to face Estan and Jacobin. “Such behavior is not becoming of a pious servant of the state.”, the priest continued with an assertive voice, the time of it slightly rising from barely hidden contempt. He walked to a cabinet in the corner of the room, took a ring of keys from his belt, looked for the right one, found it and opened the cabinet. He fiddled with something for a while, then he turned around holding two magical artifacts, one in each hand. Looking at Jacobin and Estan he closed his eyes and mumbled the incantations. Waves of hot and cold went through both of them, their vision became blurry and ears rang, then it was back to normal in an instant. Estan didn’t like this at all. He knew that they had been cursed.

“Here’s a chance to redeem yourself.”, the priest said while he was putting away the artifacts. “The prized possession of the mayor is a silver statuette of two swans, necks intertwining. Bring it to me by tomorrow and I’ll grant you your freedom again. Should you choose to run away or do other foolish things, the curses will burst both of you in flames by tomorrow night.” he continued. “Guard!”, the priest yelled. There were instantly steps heard from the next room and the door opened, guard standing in attention in the doorway. The priest filled out a form and gave it to the guard. “Release these two and return to them their possessions. Let them out from the back. Go.” he said, sitting back into his chair. Estan and Jacobin were hurriedly escorted from the room.
Back on the first floor they were led to a storage room. After the guard and the clerk held a brief conversation which neither Jacobin nor Estan could hear, their belongings were returned. Then they were just as quickly marched through a few corridors to a small door leading outside and were practically pushed into the busy street, with the said door slamming shut behind them. Jacobin and Estan just stood there with their hands full for a while, just looking at each other and then at their surroundings. These developments had changed their near futures radically.

First things first. They ran behind a street corner, placed their back bags to the ground and checked their contents. They raised their hands to the air out of childlike joy: the secret pockets they had sown into their bags still contained their money, only the nickels that had been stored in their wallets were gone. Everything else seemed to be there too. Ravenously hungry, they located a tavern nearby. They ordered a big meat pie and two large mugs of ale, cool from the cellar, something they normally wouldn’t have indulged in because of their limited means. They split the pie and gorged themselves, barely chewing the handfuls of food they shoved to their mouths. Once full, they felt calm and collected. Nursing what was left of their beers, they could assess their situation.

“I think that priest fellow greatly misunderstood our competence.” said Jacobin. “I did serve under general Malkov and I did fight in the eastern front, this is true, but my previous battalion got merged with Malkov’s one because of the heavy losses they had taken. I didn’t go through any of the training you would have been normally required to go through to get there. I was as green as they come.” Jacobin took a sip from his beer. “Besides, all that talk of being the best unit is just boasting. There is so much luck involved in fighting and soldiers choose to ignore it so they can feel better about themselves. Drilling and experience raise your chances in surviving, sure, but only up to a point. And that point often isn’t very high.”

Estan was munching on the last pieces of the pie, examining the plates and the table for crumbles he had missed. “I feel the same way. Baltosik had made great strides in bringing more know-how of magical practices into the church in his youth, but he had picked up some bad habits along the way. I’d say it was opium, could have been something else, hard to say. The rumor was that he had been moved to our county because he was starting to become an embarrassment in the capital. They couldn’t just let him go just like that. He was Baltosik, after all.” Estan frowned, remembering the irritation. “More often than not his lectures were canceled. When he did show up, you could barely hear anything from his mumbling, and he was constantly drinking water. If somebody asked something he got so confused that anything worthwhile he could have said was now lost forever.” Estan took a more comfortable position in his chair. “I don’t think he even read our answers in the final examination. Everybody passed.” Estan sighed and said “Come to think of it, it’s very possible that these curses of ours were products of his methods as well. I know you’re going to ask, but this is not something I can do anything about. With time and experimentation, I maybe could at least try something but as things stand now, well... We should go look at the mayor’s house.” Estan started to collect his things and leave. Jacobin followed his example. “Do you think that he is even going to keep his promise?” Jacobin said as they walked into the street, not as busy as it had been a moment ago. “We don’t have much choice. That bastard just saw a cheap chance to harass one of his opponents. If we get caught and spill the beans the truth is not exactly believable. And even if it is to somebody – the mayor, for example: maybe this isn’t the first time the priest does something like this – it's not going to help our case at all. Gallows wait for us either way.” Estan answered. As they walked towards the mayor’s house, the city had almost completely quieted down. Horses slept in a stable they passed by. The only noise was coming from the direction of the entertainment district, as some of the city’s many inhabitants wanted to change their silent night into something livelier.

The house was not big enough to be called a mansion, but it definitely was much bigger and nicer than anything else nearby. There was a small garden leading to the front gate, guarded by two men who were leaning against the wall and chatting to each other. The balcony was on the left side of the building, its doors mostly consisting of glass. They did not look very sturdy. Jacobin and Estan walked around the house several times, staying out of the guard’s sights. They realized that there was no reason to overcomplicate things: they had the bare minimum of information available, and it was already past midnight. Waiting for a few hours would not change anything and making up any more of an intricate scheme just wasn’t feasible. Bold action was needed. Estan and Jacobin went through the plan and split.

Jacobin went to the side of the building with the balcony, walking to a little nook in the corner of an opposite building. In his back bag he had rope and a metallic hook he used for climbing. He tied the hook to the end of the rope, double checking that the knot was tight enough. He had lifted his scarf over his mouth. Now he just had to wait for the commotion Estan was going to cause.
Estan had walked back to stables they had passed by earlier. He went to a dark alleyway to lean against a wall while still seeing the horses. He was pleased that this part of the city was so calm and quiet: to more restless and alert horses his spell might not work, and it was much easier for him to focus. Estan closed his eyes and started to concentrate.

First the doors for the horse’s stalls had to be opened. Initially Estan had thought about doing this by hand, but the horses might have woken up and been alerted by his presence, so it wasn’t worth it. Silently the doors crept ajar as the spell started to function. Then, in an orderly line, eight horses started to walk out of the stable, the mayor’s house as their destination. Once it was a straight line to the front door of it, Estan agitated the minds of the animals into a frenzy. The relaxed trot swiftly changed to a full speed gallop. Come what may, they would get inside that house, even if they would have to crash themselves again and again against the windows, walls and doors. This was their purpose.

The guards could not do much to counter this dedication. First, they stopped talking and looked towards the sound of the galloping, then dived away desperately to save their lives. The door didn’t fare much better either: the first poor beast hurt itself quite badly when the thick oaken door cracked into three big pieces, the hinges and screws blasting off at breakneck speeds. The other seven animals went to every place they could. The hallways, stairs and rooms were full of rampaging, berserk horses, kicking, foaming and screaming. The commotion could not have been greater. Everybody had woken up and went to see the spectacle.

This was Jacobin’s cue. He waited for a few seconds after the racket started, then ran under the balcony. He readied his rope and hook, threw it, got the hook stuck on the edge of the balcony on the first try, tugged on it forcefully to make sure it would support his weight and started climbing. He reached the balcony in a few seconds, jumped into it and broke the window parts of the door with the pommel of his dagger, reached in and opened the lock. It really was as the priest had said: the room had been dedicated as an art display, with various items sitting on red pillows on shelves and pedestals. Several paintings were hanging on the walls. Jacobin had been very worried that the statuette would be under lock and key, maybe even protected by some sort of spells, but no, there it just was, in the middle of it all. Apparently, the mayoral attention had been mostly focused on the aesthetic needs of the display instead of the safety of his collection. Happy of this gross oversight, he grabbed the statuette and put it carefully into his bag, making sure it was placed in the middle of all the soft clothes he had, hoping they would function as cushions for their ticket to freedom. Wanting to take full advantage of the opportunity, Jacobin grabbed an expensive-looking jeweled necklace too and intended to take much more, but suddenly he heard a door open behind him and somebody gasping.

It was one of the many servants of the house, a young woman, standing in the doorway, eyes like saucers. Without thinking, only a notion of the terror of being caught flashing through his being, Jacobin hit her with his whole weight behind the strike. Her body hit the floor with a loud thump, no scream managing to escape from her lips, this all happening too fast for her to keep up. Jacobin feverishly gathered all his things, put on his back bag while running to the balcony and went so fast down the rope that he might as well had jumped from the edge. Sprinting to the dark alleyways he did not look back. There were many faces in the windows around him and undoubtedly at least some saw him, but Jacobin was going to be long gone before the great chaos of this spectacle had died down. He could still hear the screaming and neighing of the horses coming from the mayoral household.

Jacobin went far away from the scene, then slowed down and started to head back to the tavern where they had been earlier, this being the place he and Estan had agreed to rendezvous. He took a long way around and once he arrived the sun had already started to rise. Estan sat on a bench nearby, it being too early for the place to be open. Jacobin sat next to him, clothes wet and damp from sweat, feeling the coldness of a sleepless night invading his body. Without saying anything, he slid his bag from his back to the ground while sitting, opening it enough that Estan could see the prize who glanced at it sideways. They drank water from their canteens and waited for the day to start and places of business to open. Little by little there was movement and life to be detected on the street, as the common folk and high-born alike started to tend to their matters. It was time to go to the church headquarters.

Estan and Jacobin were unsure how they would get to meet the man who had sent them to this mission. There had been no discussion or instruction on how they would get back in to meet him and they were afraid that this was never part of the priest’s plan, as they just were sent to the mayoral house to cause trouble and damage, the statuette being a pretense and excuse. Another possibility was that they would just be thrown straight back to jail, left there long enough for the curses to end them. Maybe none of the guards or clerks would let them in at all. But there was nothing more Estan and Jacobin could do, they felt: it was time to submit to their destiny, whatever it was going to be. A guard stood at the back door they had been pushed out of, even though it had been unmanned yesterday. Estan and Jacobin approached him, wished him good morning and told him that they had been running errands for the priest. The man had evidently received his orders. They were let in and led back to the offices. After the same ritual for entering, they stood in the same place they had been standing yesterday. This time the priest had not buried himself in his clerical work but was eagerly and attentively looking at their every move. Jacobin opened his bag, took a while taking the statuette out as it had burrowed itself to the bottom of the bag, then placed it on the table.

The priest looked like a particularly satisfied frog, his bloated cheeks barely covering a victorious smile. He savored the moment for a second or two, then walked to the same cabinet he had taken the artifacts out yesterday and took a small book from it. Turning and facing Jacobin and Estan he mumbled a spell and cold shivers went through the pair yet again. The priest sat back down and took two forms out of a drawer, filled them and put them to the table side by side. “Never say that the church has not taken care of you. The coming and going of people from this city is controlled, these passports will allow you to leave, and they are only good for today. Should you fail to leave you will be suspended by your necks and buried in the mass grave with the other convicts, as was your original destination. Guard!” the priest said, yelling the last word. Just like yesterday and just as fast, Jacobin and Estan found themselves outside the building, this time at the front gates though. After walking two blocks they had to face another small episode: the church paladin that had caught them in the beginning saw them on the street and immediately pushed Estan against the wall, another hand on his weapon. After a lot of shouting and Jacobin again and again showing the passport, he had gotten to the paladin and the situation started to calm down. The paladin looked at the paper from all the possible angles and against the sunlight, clearly trying his best to figure out what could be wrong with the signature or the seal. Then he did the same with Estan’s passport, compared them to each other and got more and more silent as his task proved its futility. In the end he had to give the passports back and let Jacobin and Estan go. When they hastily walked away and looked back over their shoulders, the paladin was still standing there, looking at them.

There were several shops near the gate where Jacobin and Estan bought some cheap bread and cheese. After the short line came to an end they showed their passports to the guard on the gate and were let out. It seemed like a good idea to have some distance between themselves and the gate before they could have their late breakfast, so they walked the two or three kilometers on the main road and then found a nice clearing next to the road. They sat on the grass and took the food out. Estan ate greedily.

But Jacobin didn’t feel hungry. He kept thinking about the maid he had struck back in the mayor’s house. Her head had hit the floor hard, and Jacobin didn’t understand what had happened to his cool nerves he had prized as one of the best features of his character. He might as well have hit her in the stomach and not hurt her as bad or better yet not have done anything to her at all: there was such commotion in the house because of the horses so what would it have mattered if she had screamed her lungs out about a thief? Now she might be dead or dying, possibly hurt so bad that she would never recover from it, unable to work and support herself. Jacobin understood that she could just as easily have been trampled by the horses if she had happened to be downstairs and there might have been a dozen other servants who faced that end, but Jacobin had not seen that happen and could more easily rationalize such casualties as regrettable but unavoidable, results of an course of action he had been forced to take to save his own and his best friend's lives. There was a hypocrisy in this line of thinking, but it allowed him to compartmentalize what they had done, push it into some remote part of his mind and live with it. What he had done to this specific woman was too immediate and too easily recognized as bad misjudgement from his part. It was a failure, his own and nobody else’s. Jacobin knew many young girls who had gone to serve in noble manors from his hometown. He thought about the war and what his battalion had done in towns and villages just like that. What he had done.

Jacobin looked into the horizon, his eyes unfocused, his piece of bread untouched. “What’s the point of our traveling? I know that neither of us was expecting to find some promised land but there was at least a notion of freedom, making a better choice out of all the bad ones, but not much has changed as I see it.” Jacobin sighed. Estan didn’t say anything, just kept eating. A cool breeze from the west brought relief to the hot day they were going to face.

Jacobin took a bite out of his bread.




2.
The frontier town Estan and Jacobin had arrived was surprisingly big. Usually, these kinds of places took a while to grow but the need for quality timber had apparently been high and a great number of peasants had suddenly been moved to such a far-away place. The thick, tall and seemingly endless coniferous forest was something they hadn’t experienced back where they were born. There was constant activity on the sawmill next to the river, from early morning to late at night and the river itself was carrying as much ready-to-use product as it could. Most of the food was delivered to the town through the same river, as if there would have not been a moment to waste on anything else but felling trees. Jacobin and Estan couldn’t deny that it was nice to be in such a lively place for a change and decided to stay for a while. There most likely was something they could do to increase their finances, probably several things, and the idea of plentiful supplies once it was time to move again was a prize worthy to strive for.


Nobody took much notice of them as there were people coming and going all the time and lodgings were readily available for new working people. Jacobin had always enjoyed working with his hands and he admired the skills of all good craftsmen. Learning from these woodcutters and sawmill workers held an appeal for him. He knew that he would grow frustrated at some point with how inefficiently – and unsafely – parts of the job would be arranged and how the work would be much more hectic than it needed to be, but for a time one could stand on his hands if that was required. They found a cheap room to rent next to the town bakery – actually there were three of them – and in the mornings they woke up to the delicious smell of fresh bread and in the evenings the air was filled with the earthy scent of sawdust coming from the sawmill. Jacobin and Estan found this quite pleasant.


After settling down they went to look for jobs and encountered an unexpected hubbub in the inns, taverns and offices they visited. In the town’s greedy quest for more and more wood the logging area had expanded further into the deep forest and suddenly collided into a settlement nobody had known even existed. The startled officials immediately inquired who these people were and anxiously wondered with which of the surrounding realms they were possibly causing an incident with and what would happen to their lucrative schemes of timber, but the answer surprised everybody who heard it, Jacobin and Estan included. The people living there were elves.


There was an existential puzzle in this. Everybody knew that there were elves, possibly just as many as there were people or even more, but so few chose to be in any contact with humans that basically nothing was known about them. Only a couple merchant lines had some access to the goods they provided, usually products and items that were much coveted, but apparently these business dealings included no fraternization or pleasantries. Price was negotiated and that was that. Needless prying and conversation would meet a stone wall and a threat of these valuable merchants disappearing back to where they came from, seemingly into the thin air. Men of trade stayed awake in their beds thinking themselves silly about how they would get elven clients and an access to their riches, scholars recognized an highly developed and sophisticated culture that they would have died for an chance to study in detail, the church of the Sun had no idea where to place elves in the official prophecies so they chose to ignore them as embarrassingly inconvenient, regular folk treated them as myths and legends and kings and generals in unison were sweating about an invisible enemy and rival waiting for them, ready to crash their ambitions and plans. And yet, despite being very real and something that people apparently had lived right next to since the beginning of time, no real contact was ever made no matter how much the different realms of men were expanding. People were quarreling with each other, and some select few made coin with somebody outside of this. Elves were a ghost that was constantly near but never really present. That had been that. Until now.


Sitting in a full tavern and finishing their meal Estan and Jacobin relaxed after their busy day. Estan had immediately gotten a job in the infirmary since anybody with skill in magic was highly sought after in all matters of healing. Estan was a far cry from a doctor – although so were many other actual doctors, the level of professionalism varied greatly – but he could do several tasks quite well, like concoct ointments and salves from the right kinds of herbs and the forest looked promising. Tomorrow he would start in earnest and today he had just visited the infirmary, and like he had thought it was full of workers injured by the accidents at the sawmill but also fighting men who had participated in the skirmishes with the elven village. Talking small talk with an officer who had his arm in a sling they had learned quite a lot, since the young fellow was boisterous and excited about the unexpected action he had - in his own mind - been fortunate enough to take part in. The elves were poorly armed and unorganized, not used to conflict and had taken severe losses. More assaults would be arranged, the next one a big one, and it was estimated that this would very likely be enough to break through and finish the job. Apparently, the pain in the officer’s arm wasn’t very great or maybe it just didn’t register all the way into his brain, as he was trying to gesture with both of his arms to accompany his fast talking, being so thrilled of this boring frontier position turning into something more eventful. The man would have probably talked his ears off, so Estan escaped the situation by mentioning the needs of the other patients. He had wished the officer fast recovery and joined Jacobin who had been waiting for him outside.


Now, sitting in the tavern, the steady murmur of the other customers filling the background, Jacobin rested his elbows on the table, looking somewhere to the other side of the room. He wasn’t sure how to present what was forming in his mind, but he had to start somehow. “I think I’m going to try to join that next assault the officer was talking about.” Jacobin said. Estan had been zoning out, his head leaning against the chair. His face made the combined expression of frowning and lifting his right eyebrow without actually doing either of those things and he stared at his friend. Jacobin felt the pressure to continue. “I’d just really like to... see them.” he managed to articulate. “That’s quite a lot of risk for witnessing a bunch of dead elves.” Estan commented. He was irritated by these steady few months threatening to slip away and irritated about his friend’s occasional high minded or romantic whims. They were cut from the same cloth through and through, but funnily enough Jacobin was the one who had been facing hardships straight from the cradle yet still harbored in his core esthetic and sentimental tendencies, drinking his fill from the colors of the sunset or the vastness of sea, a craving that usually had been obstructed by the lack of basic needs or the back breaking labor pushed onto him by his superiors. Estan had been living a relatively easy life, especially compared to the others of his class, but he was practical and cynical to the point of being cold and seemingly indifferent. Despite this there was warmth in him and an unwavering loyalty, the basis of their strong bond, but his attitude towards the world did not bend itself for journeys without down-to-earth motivations. At instances like this their communication wasn’t as smooth as it usually was. “There are no soldiers here and these brats leading them have no experience: I’ll weasel myself out of the front lines and escape if things get too hairy, it’s fine. I know the tricks. There’s going to be payment after I get back, I’ll just have to be present and that’s easy money right there. This is good.” Jacobin rationalized, trying to sell his idea. Estan knew that Jacobin was the first one to choose some other form of employment instead of fighting if there were options on the table, but he didn’t point this out. “Wait, you said that when “I” get back, not ”we”. Are you going alone?” Estan said. “Well, you’re not exactly comfortable marching around with a pike in your hand. I’ve got better chances if I go by myself.” Jacobin said sheepishly. Estan looked to the floor and contemplated. “Fine.” he sighed after a while. “We’ll go ask around about that tomorrow.”


The practicalities didn’t take long. Sign here, go get your equipment from the warehouse, visit the priest for a blessing – Jacobin quietly jumped over this part – and the fighting party will leave on Monday. Estan gave the rest of the medicine to Jacobin. Watching these makeshift soldiers leave Estan wasn’t exactly gloomy but there still was a medium sized rock of anxiety in his stomach. It had been them together against the world for a long time now and facing all that alone, even if it was just for a short while, didn’t feel good. This prospect wasn’t far-fetched, though: loss was a part of everybody’s life, a long staying guest for many, so Estan had many times thought what it would be like to travel just by himself. For now, he could just wait. Estan left for his shift at the infirmary.


Marching with his new comrades in arms Jacobin had a lot of time to reflect and the familiar setting prompted him to do so. Many were very eager, motivated by the knowledge of past successes and having an upper hand over the elven village. Sense of adventure was one thing and the thirst for gold another, but the overwhelming sensation here was pride: pride of human superiority, pride of being among the first to bring this obvious fact for all the world to see, pride of being recognized as a collective of worthy adversaries. Jacobin suspected that his doubts about being part of this “us” was the reason for him having trouble fitting into groups. From what he had seen, the triumphs of “us” did very little to benefit his own life or the lives of his fellow soldiers, people who took the biggest risk in fighting. The parades, songs, banners and the medals of the military were meant to be the celebration of courage and martial spirit, items concentrated with this otherworldly essence of our self-worth and excellence, all justified by the loyalty to the sovereign, but to Jacobin’s eyes they had no value. On one hand, he saw the military as a vehicle for men who only lived to satisfy their egos and on the other, he saw men who used the first type to pursue their own gain. Often these two characters combine into the same people. Then the whole package was tied together by the beautiful bow of “us”: we were all indebted to the sovereign, the sovereign was looking after us like a loving father, the areas we conquered were a common triumph and the losses we suffered just made our bond stronger than ever before. After all the high-minded talk and superficial glitter Jacobin just saw the reality of him having been forced to leave his home and risk his life in a battle, he would not benefit from in any way halfway across the world, suffering disease, filth and the extremes of the elements from both ends of the spectrum along the way. He could not understand for his life how such an obvious bum deal could be accepted by so many of his comrades so easily and even eagerly. Jacobin had once had the opportunity of seeing in their beloved sovereign in the flesh: they had all stood in formation for the imperial inspection before being led to the battle by the ruler himself, and before them had appeared a condescending runt, a being of the same ilk that Jacobin had thrown out of many taverns when working as security in such places. He could not have imagined a less inspiring figure. Everybody else, however, was supposedly enamored: after the inspection there were a lot of words of admiration exchanged between the soldiers, even many of the old veterans melted into compliments. At the time Jacobin had just rolled his eyes and shaken his head, but after the initial battles he had wanted to puke. The enemy’s cannons had been loaded with horrific ammunition, two iron balls tied together by a chain that spun like a saw blade in the air when fired. Jacobin had seen one single shot cut through four men and split a horse in two. The scrawny ruler had just been empowered by this carnage and had ridden headfirst into the enemy lines intoxicated by bloodthirst. His underlings now saw him as a real hero, a man of no equal, but Jacobin realized that a man like this would never be satisfied. More campaigns were to come. "If you want to cheer on your oppressor, rejoice in what he is doing to you, go ahead" he had thought with resentment when the long trek home had finally started. "But I am done." And yet here he was, marching again like nothing had happened in between. He was starting to doubt his decision, but a chance like this to see elves at all would probably never come again. Jacobin was sure that whatever he was going to witness would break his heart, the only open question being in what way. It felt like going to a funeral, preparing himself to bury another aspect of the world he had always hoped would exist. What would be left after this would be the reality. Jacobin sighed and he felt like he had been doing that all his life.


Estan was out looking for dinner after work. The days had been busy and long and managing his new responsibilities had been demanding. Sick and severely injured patients looked at him as a savior in their desperate hour of need, expecting a lot more from him than he in reality could provide, and it felt dreadful to break the bad news. He had demonstrated his skill in managing fresh open wounds and compound fractures, saving people from the future at the church's poor house, but basically anything beyond that was out of his control. Many eyes had opened in hope and heartfelt prayers had been sent to the Sun but after the limits of his expertise had been discovered the apathy of the infirmary came back doubly as oppressive. The end of his shifts had not meant the end of the work, for he had to go look for healing herbs in the forest and for some strains he had to walk quite far away. Estan was happy that he could provide himself some light with magic since scouring the forest bed for similar looking plants in the darkening evenings would have been practically impossible. Another helpful matter was that he had gotten the permission to use some of his time at work for processing these medicines and he could order one of the nurses to help him. He had arranged an examination on who could follow his directions best using worthless plant matter as mock medicine and one quiet and stern looking middle-aged nurse had fared quite well. She wasn't much for small talk and at first Estan had felt a little awkward bossing her around, but maybe it was better that the people around him just concentrated on their tasks, for the infirmary was a somber and serious place. Then Estan started to think that maybe it was the class distinction at work here: he had always been near the bottom rung and after he had started traveling, he had basically been a vagrant in most people's eyes, nobody to bow to or respect, unless the person who he conversed with recognized him as a mage and viewed anybody with ability in magic as someone to fear. Estan perceived a lot of social conventions as bothersome, obstacles in the way of getting things done and the endless rituals of the church had deepened his impatience. He found himself too hungry to ponder more and was grateful for reaching the appetizing smells emanating from the kitchen of the tavern.


The presentation of the nourishment provided didn't reach the same high levels as the delicious aroma had promised and the cook seemed to be of a very cranky sort, but the event of a warm meal had reached religious proportions for Estan anyway, so these kinds of things didn't matter much. He was capturing the last remains of the stew with a piece of bread when he noticed an unusual sight sitting at the corner table. A mage, an independent one, slouched over his table dressed in extravagant clothing and donning plenty of expensive looking accessories. Not every magically skilled person was associated or worked with the church, no matter how much the church wished it to be so. Especially the really talented ones very eagerly chose to go their own way and saw little reason to be shackled down by any organization: the world was their oyster and they treated it as such. It looked quite comical for such a prestigious character to be in a mundane place like this in the midst of the regular folk and this particular one seemed to be the quintessence of defeat and depression, his arms folded and head leaning against the table, accompanied by a big mug of beer. Estan realized what was bothering him with this picture: there must be a gentlemen's club for all of the esteemed people even in this peripheral town and for some reason this man chose not to go there and here nobody was reacting to the mage's presence in any way. It seemed that his unusual existence had been accepted a long while ago. Estan couldn't even imagine anybody of higher stature using a place of business meant for the commoners without a cadre of personal servants and guards while the humble patrons would be bending over backwards to serve them, afraid of what might happen if their offerings didn't meet the standards. But here he was, sitting there just like anybody else. Estan's curiosity got the better of him and he decided to try to strike a conversation and investigate.


"You're a sad sight to see, sire." Estan started with a pleasant and confident tone. He had debated with himself how much he should toady but decided against it altogether: if he didn't immediately treat the man in an equal manner there would be no basis for a conversation. The mage looked up, a bit confused at who was talking to him since no servant or waiter would talk to him like that and there was nobody else who would approach him in a place like this. There was a short moment where the mage assessed Estan and it could have been awkward if Estan wouldn't have been so at ease with the situation. He seemed to figure out what Estan was by profession so that explained his interest towards him.


"Who wouldn't be in a town like this?" the man answered. Estan had been judged as someone worthy to talk to, though the man was most likely just lonely enough to welcome people he normally would not associate with. Estan pointed to the opposite side of the table and the mage mage nodded slightly. "You are apparently with the church?" he asked. "I was, sire, I was. Now I'm with myself and by the looks of it you have been a lot more successful than me. Why so down in the dumps then? I couldn't help myself but to come and ask that." The defeatism returned to the man's expression twice as strong now that he had been reminded of his situation and Estan noticed a hefty amount of bitterness mixed in there too. "Successful! What a venomous word!" the mage scoffed. He gestured to a waiter to bring more to drink and Estan was a bit surprised to see a mug in front of him too: apparently his herb searching would have to wait for tomorrow.


"I was working in the court for the king himself in an nation close to us, the name of it I won't disclose for obvious reasons: I had my own laboratory, an office, land and servants, even a concubine from the royal harem as an mark of His Majesty's gratitude and kindness. and now I'm here." The mage took a big gulp from his mug, Estan sipped a little from his for the sake of keeping company. "Did the king become cross with you, sire? If so, what for?" Estan was now sure that he would hear anything and everything whether he said anything during the whole time or not, but he wanted to be polite and present in the moment. The mage looked proudly at Estan. "I had manufactured automatons, a great deal of them, soulless clay men to work the fields and do a lot of what the peasants do. What I offered was freedom from peasant rebellions, workers who would not complain and who could easily double the production of the farmland! They needed no food themselves and could be put into storage when the winter comes, it was a dream come true! I explained my project to His Majesty, showed him the prototypes and the production process, went through the materials needed and what they would cost and where to get them: His Majesty listened quietly, which isn't a sign of anything by itself since he is always like that and then he left. A day later soldiers came to imprison me, and they broke my machines, burned my notes, everything! Weakened by lack of food and sleep I'm brought in front of the judge and sentenced into exile to this forsaken place." Tiredly the mage massaged the bridge of his nose with his thumb and middle finger. "I'm imprisoned here and can't leave the town. The nobles don't want me to associate with them and I don't know whether that's part of the punishment or if they do it of their own accord. This lousy watering hole is the only place to be." He was now leaning his forehead against the table. "Your freedom, my friend, seems like a success to me." Estan was wondering if the mage's situation really was like the man seemed to perceive it. It was hard to imagine that it would be difficult for this mage to disappear and regain his coveted freedom: high skill in magic brought so many options to the table that imprisoning anyone with them often seemed like a joke. For this reason, powerful mages were a notoriously disloyal bunch, they often could come and go as they pleased and with promises of amazing magical artifacts, weapons and spells alike they were always coveted by the rich and powerful. Many had been worried that the truly powerful wizards and sorcerers would unify and create a powerful political entity that would destabilize everything, but not much had ever come from it: it was much more convenient and easier to latch onto somebody royal and live the good life. Estan suddenly started to feel his mood sour. In his mind a true talent in magic was the best possible lot to pull from the cosmic wheel, not even the kings had it so easy. Despite that, here was one, wallowing in self-pity and basically in tears from his tough luck in life, biding his time to slither back into the good royal graces. "Greed is his prison!" Estan thought angrily. Out loud he said other kinds of things. "Why do you think he punished you? How did he react to your previous services?" The mage turned his head sideways on the table, his gaze not really focusing anywhere. "Nothing like this and nothing but praise. The seer stone he accepted, also all the curses I manufactured for him, then the…" the mage cut himself short, probably realizing he shouldn't babble about everything. "No, nothing like this. I thought he was a man of vision, an extraordinary ruler. Maybe I misjudged him." Estan thought about this. "Maybe he still is? A shrewd ruler, I mean. What should he do with the peasants your invention would replace? Do you think they would just take this loss laying down, without fighting back or escaping under somebody else and strengthening some of the king's opponents? Where would he get the conscripts if there would be no need for the peasants? What about all the other tasks men can do, since often, if you pardon me saying, sir, many magical golems and contraptions can only do one?" Estan had perked up in his seat, political and societal speculation always excited him. "And what about the other nobles? Maybe they would perceive your research as an attempt of the king to undermine their importance somehow and the king exiled you and destroyed your work in order to erase those doubts? What would he want automatons for anyway if everything in society is based on fiefdom, slavery and controlling the peasants? Why would he try to change the system that had made him so rich and powerful in the first place?" The mage had not been looking at Estan and had deliberately aimed his interest at the contents of his mug. "Well, yes, I'm sure that somebody like you has a complete understanding of the affairs of the state." Estan felt his ears redden. He talked these kinds of things endlessly with Jacobin who had a great sense of politics and understood the motivations of men on a deep level, a feature that paradoxically clashed with Jacobin's romantic tendencies, and now Estan had forgotten how rare that attribute really was in his fellow human beings. The mage had instantly judged him as a lesser person and a childish fool since he wasn't an achieved wizard and anything he said was automatically disregarded, no matter how well thought out his words would be. Only proper thing to do was to remind him of his place and underline what the pecking order was and had always been. The annoyance in Estan was amplified by the fact that men like these could be in the center of everything because of their talent given by luck and they still could have no notion of how the world worked and have little faculties to work it out. He mumbled something unclear, and the conversation continued with the mage going on in circles complaining about his woeful disposition, saying the same things again and again.


Estan thought how much better off he would have been if he just had gone to look for those herbs.
Jacobin and the fighting men had arrived at the scene. It was just like he had thought. There were not going to be any formations or tactics to speak of, the officers were too inexperienced and the thought of victory was too certain in the minds of all men to even consider anything more complicated than just going there and finishing the job. There was a clearing where previous fighting had happened and some corpses were laying around here and there. At the end of the clearing there was more forest, and a haphazardly built barricade could be seen, made from whatever pieces of wood that had been available. A few roofs of buildings could be seen behind it. The whole village could have been deserted from the looks of it. Men were yelled at to stand in some sort of coherent formation, but it all resembled the start of a foot race: at the command "Go!" all would sprint for the finish line. Jacobin's plan of staying behind could not have been easier to accomplish. He was reminded of a violent ball game many young men liked to play back home.


And so, it started. A half-mad war cry roared from the ranks of men as they scurried across the already trampled field. Jacobin could have gone to sit on a rock to watch it all and nobody would have cared, but he still wanted to see the village. He walked at an unhurried pace, alert so he would not be caught off guard by an unexpected counterattack from the elven side. Not much seemed to be happening though: a few arrows were shot from behind the barricade but way too late and way too few to cause any serious damage. Some melee could be seen when the attackers were breaching the barricade, flailing arms and the flickering of steel in the sunlight, but that was quickly over and the men rushed over the obstacle. Jacobin, reaching the blockade significantly later than the others, practically walked in, stepping over a few dead from both sides.


The village was poor, no doubt about it. The buildings were mostly simple shacks, a few sturdier constructions located deeper in the forest. It felt absurd that this place could inhabit something as mythical and mysterious as the elves. "Why would they live like this?" Jacobin thought. Were they outcasts for some reason? Maybe they were not really elves but some offshoot clan of elven heritage? Or maybe there just had been a mistake, but if so, it was a bizarre mistake to make. Jacobin could hear the skirmish continue somewhere ahead of him and now he had truly been separated from the main group. He decided it would be safe to investigate the village more thoroughly. Jacobin picked at random one of the somewhat better-looking buildings and went inside.
He had left his pike outside and pulled his long dagger out just to be sure. There was nothing he had not seen a thousand times in a thousand other completely identical villages all across the continent, as poor and dirty as always. Then he realized that the wooden floor he was standing on must have a cellar underneath. It took him a while to locate the hatch. The sounds of fighting outside had become very dim and walking down the cellar stairs it had become almost completely silent.


A conspicuous old carpet was covering some large objects between a few barrels in the corner of the room and Jacobin was pretty sure of what was going on. His weapon in hand he pulled the rug away and underneath four figures sat hugging their knees, frightfully looking at him. Jacobin stepped back ready to act, but nothing was threatening him. Two children, a frail teenage boy and a young woman had been huddling together: their clothes were on the same level of poverty as anything else in this drab hellhole, but their faces! It wasn't like they were inhuman or alien in any way, or that their features were special or at least uncommon, but in contrast to everything else it was almost like a blank spot of purity where nothing filthy, boorish and mundane had ever laid its fingers upon. They transcended beyond the regular idea of beauty, almost glowing in some weird way, not with actual light but something else. To Jacobin it seemed like he was looking at what humans should be and he and everybody he had ever known were a crude mock imitation of what had once been. The fact that these faces were contorted in terror and fright, a fright of him, brought a bad taste to Jacobin's mouth. He glanced at the top of the stairs, took a few steps to peek inside the room to see if anybody else had come in the house. Nothing could be heard in the tense atmosphere and Jacobin forced his prisoners upstairs, barking and shoving when words made no effect and the young elves submitted. He could now hear the battle still being fought in the same previous direction when he peeked through the front door, just twisting his neck without turning his body or weapon away from the situation at hand. There was only one door but opposite to it a window without glass was covered by a wooden pad. Jacobin gestured and shouted at the young woman to open it and she understood what she was supposed to do, even though she was scared witless. Then, to their confusion, Jacobin sheathed his dagger and pointed out of the window, making waving motions towards it with both of his hands, shouting "Go! Run! Go!" They didn't understand what was going at first, but then the teenage boy and the woman climbed out of the window, tried to pick up the children leaning in from the windowsill but were too short to reach them, so Jacobin lifted the children for them himself. Then they ran into the woods without looking back. Jacobin walked out of the door, picked up his pike from where had left it and sat on a big rock next to the house. He felt more depressed and rotten than he had in ages.


The reunion of the friends was warm. Estan was waiting for the war band to return so he could start nursing the wounded fighters and was very glad to see Jacobin carrying one end of a stretcher rather than laying down on one. They couldn't talk until the evening since Estan was busy with the job and Jacobin would need to go collect his pay and return the borrowed equipment. Like he had thought, no one had noticed that he had not participated in the fighting at all and it was the easiest money he had made for a long time. After Estan got off they bought from one of the bakeries the bread the baker hadn't been able to sell during the day at discount price and got some pastries too. In their rented room both of them just talked and talked, like they had been going through a drought and now they had finally arrived at an oasis. Jacobin told what had happened on this exploit.


"You know that those elves probably got caught anyway? And even if they didn't, there are wolves and starvation waiting from them in the woods and I doubt that there is another settlement they could try to reach." Estan said. Jacobin didn't answer anything. They had taken no prisoners and every elf had been massacred in a bloodied frenzy. It seems that nobody else had caught the same sense of awe that Jacobin had experienced. "I wonder why they were so poor? It just makes me think that they were outcasts for some reason." Estan continued. They had both gorged themselves and were half sitting, half laying down on their bunks. Estan had his arms crossed under his head. He frowned. "I don't know what's going on with the elves and I don't think that anybody does, so we can only speculate, but I wonder if people are just projecting some notion of divinity and godliness onto them? I mean that we assume them to be everywhere and wonder why they won't attack but for all we know they could just visit us from some unknown continent or travel long distances magically if they can do such a thing and they have no need to conquer us for some reason? We assume them to be some different species so they must think differently than us but if they are willing to cast their own out like that to live in crippling poverty, that really sounds like something that we humans would do. All the animals fight and hunt, even house cats play with their prey, so having some other sentient being on the same or higher intellectual level as us, be benevolent and harmonious doesn't sound believable to me." Jacobin sighted and took a more comfortable position on his bunk. They were silent for a little while. Jacobin pretty much knew what Estan meant but didn't want to argue about it: that he had just been emotional when he had caught his prisoners and in reality, there had not been much special about them to begin with. "It just… seems promising to me that they would be fundamentally different from us humans. That elven village could have existed for a number of reasons, it doesn't necessarily need to be sinister." Jacobin made an ugly face. "Unlike the end of it." He felt that he needed to pour his heart out. "I just can't take that life in general is just this, no matter who inhabits the world!” Jacobin said in a tired tone. "Yeah, well." Estan answered. "Maybe the benevolent part of the elves actually is when they wipe us all out." A short laugh came from Jacobin, he had turned to his side on his bed. "I wish." he mumbled to this dark joke. Estan blew out the candles and they went to sleep.



3.
General Malkov was retired. He could have continued his career since no doors had been closed for him per se, but on many levels he had had enough. Now he spent his days taking care of his estate: he had gotten ample fields as a reward for his years of service and plenty of slaves to boot. The soil was fertile, and he had been able to produce plenty of surplus wheat to sell, growing far richer than he had previously thought possible. In the mornings Malkov took care of the vast paperwork that was required in administering his holdings, but once the hottest time of the day passed, he had no problem in taking part of whatever job was underway at the time. At first, many of his servants and even family members had looked at his undignified toil with uneasiness, but as Malkov saw it, just sitting around would drive him crazy and if all this area truly was his property, it was his responsibility to work. No job was beneath him, and he could be found swinging a hoe on his field, fixing a broken roof or a fence, and even nursing the sick slaves back to health. His previously injured left arm did not allow him to work at full capacity, two fingers were missing, and he had little strength in general left in that limb, but he worked around it and wasn't embarrassed or afraid of asking for help in whatever he was doing. Back in service he had felt a certain need to mask his weaknesses and was happy that he could be free at home and do as he damn well pleased, despite the disapproval of his family. On the home front he was blessed as well: he had a very good relationship with his wife who had been there for him through thick and thin, his two daughters were well raised, and one was successfully married to an important noble family in the capital and the other was looking for an esteemed suitor at this very moment. Malkov was sure that there would be no problems in arranging another successful marriage as well. Only his son had caused some grievance: he had obviously pushed Anton to go for a military career like he had in the past, but the young man had no intention and no character suitable for such an vocation. He had constantly been part of drunken escapades to no end and gambled away vast sums he had sent to support him in the military academy, and apparently, he had on purpose behaved in such an awful way that anybody else - besides the son of the esteemed general Malkov – would have been kicked out long before Malkov got a tentative letter from the dean about the issue. After a huge fight with Anton and an impressive sum paid to the academy's coffers as an thank you for the dean's discreetness towards Anton, his own flesh and blood, had joined a merchant convoy traveling far to the west and Malkov had not seen his son for two years. Working as a lowly trader was not positive for the family honor, and Malkov was not happy about waiting what other embarrassments and troubles his son would a mass on these travels all around the foreign kingdoms. Strangely enough, it seemed that Malkov had been very wrong and Anton very right: he had shown very shrewd business sense and had come back with a respectable profit and cultivated connections to some important traders in the west. In his freedom, Anton had matured and could think rationally and in long term in business dealings, something that Malkov hadn't anticipated. He noticed the numerable concubines his son had gathered in the manner of the western barbarians and saw the rapidly growing gut caused by abundant eating and drinking, but those were very minor issues compared to how things had been before, so Malkov could feel relieved and accept how things stood for now. Anton had even pressured his father to use at least some of his land to grow tobacco, and once Malkov had given these plans a go-ahead, he saw himself getting even wealthier. The family still saw it necessary to be hush hush about what profession Anton had ended up in: money was a good thing, but face was everything.


Then there was a change. A messenger from the king arrived in the last days of the summer, telling Malkov that the eminent ruler still had tasks for him to do. Malkov sighed and groaned: he had not parted from under the young king in mutual acceptance. The new sovereign, Fredrik was his name, hadn't inherited much of his father's good qualities and in the classic malady of monarchies a brilliant leader was going to be followed by – at best – a very mediocre one. Malkov had sensed what was to come when Fredrik was crowned after the death of king Gustav, and he retired soon after. Malkov had possessed his share of ambition thorough his life, but that flame had started to fade away in his old age: most of Malkov's fellow generals and statesmen kept climbing and hustling towards ever greater power and glory and such was their nature, but in all honesty Malkov just didn't have the heart to see all the things decay that he worked and sacrificed so much for. It had been a true rush to serve under Gustav, no, to serve for Gustav, a king who could plan so far ahead and take so many details into consideration that Malkov often felt himself inadequate. Many times, he had doubted the outcomes of the king's foreign adventures, only to be proven doubly wrong in the face of resounding successes. It was as if Gustav was playing chess and Malkov checkers. Once Malkov had given up on his doubts and embraced the monarchy wholeheartedly, his career had really started to take off. He had been very proud of his position, but it pricked Malkov's ego that he most likely had ended there only because he had followed a superior man's plans to the T, and there was very little that had actually come from himself.


And now Fredrik was there. Petty, prideful, dogged and simple, he had one hundred percent belief of being on the same level as his father, facts be damned. Malkov knew that Fredrik had sensed his lack of belief in him, and Fredrik had taken Malkov's retirement as a direct insult, especially since Malkov wasn't nearly as old as the oldest military personnel still left serving. What was to come was most likely going to be payback from the perceived slight. Avoiding his orders would bring all kinds of problems and Malkov saw no way to dodge what was to come. It was time to pack his bags and travel to the capital.
The good thing was that Malkov wouldn't have to fear for his or his family's well-being. Fredrik was stupid but he wasn't insane, and even if he didn't realize that attacking Malkov would bring the military as an whole against the monarch his ministers would, and they would fight to tooth and nail against such irresponsible decisions. Another good thing was that Malkov could take Stefanos with him: Stefanos was an educated slave Malkov had obtained many years ago traveling in the newly conquered estates in the war against the eastern realms. Stefanos's main duty was to homeschool Malkov's children, but it hadn't taken long for the whole family to take an extreme liking to the servant. Patient and cultured, his well-meaning manner and ability to recite long stretches of famous poetry and drama made Stefanos a desirable companion. Soon Malkov added to Stefanos's tasks more and more important clerical work and his position as a slave started to fade away. Stefanos was as much part of the family as anybody with actual blood ties. Malkov had had a frank discussion with Stefanos about making him a free man, but Stefanos had shrugged the topic off and said that this was where he was supposed to be anyway.

Such loyalty had moved Malkov's heart deeply.


Malkov's formal uniform and other assorted and required regalia were fetched from storage. Upon inspection it was realized that a couple of medals were missing. Malkov's wife gave the servants a thorough bashing, and the household was turned upside down in the search of the stolen or lost property. Malkov couldn't find himself to care and organized the departure quickly: his mood caused his wife to worry, since it wasn't like him at all to be lax about issues of discipline. When everything had been packed onto the carriage, Malkov bade farewell to his family and traveling in the wobbly coach he gazed at his fields and the shoddy shacks of his slaves. Stefanos, sitting next to him and looking at the same views as his master, pondered once again how contradictory Malkov's character was: on a personal level he was a good husband, a caring father, fair in the everyday dealings with his servants and charitable between friends and neighbors, taking financially care of the widows and children of his fallen officer comrades and warm and cordial towards Stefanos himself, but on a grander scale, be it his estates, military campaigns or the affairs of state, he was hard to the point of being draconian. His slaves lived so miserably that Stefanos had seen many of a esteemed guest lift his or her eyebrows even when they were slave owners themselves. Malkov didn't allow any of the slaves to marry outside of the hamlets the slaves were assigned to, even though the slaves worked every day alongside with the slaves from other hamlets and all of them were owned by him anyway. Nor did he allow the slaves to try to supplement their meager rations by trying to grow small gardens of their own or fish in the many streams and lakes located on Malkov's lands, even though this would have resulted in a stronger and healthier workforce. The only thing he did for them was to supply them with relatively good quality clothing, maybe in order to show a good face to the outsiders. Being in Malkov's circle, you were golden, but being outside or, even worse, underneath it, evoked in him no sense of duty or responsibility whatsoever. What he saw were numbers and resources, and having those numbers become ever greater was very pleasing for him. Stefanos realized that Malkov's traits answered quite clearly why the world functioned like it did.


There was no fanfare or ceremony at the capital when they arrived. The palace looked once again flashy and prosperous now that Fredrik was in power: all the furniture followed the new popular styles and from the looks of it the amount of the servants had most likely doubled. Gustav had been a frugal man and among the first things he had done once he had become the ruler was to kick out almost all the various entertainers and musicians infesting the royal grounds and the micromanagement had reached even the level of replacing the fancy tableware with cheaper choices. Most of the aristocrats were disgruntled when the palace had become just a boring place of business but now their annoyance was just a thing of the past: Malkov saw the ballrooms bursting and music could be heard all through the palace, as if the musicians were all in competition with each other and the scents of decadent and exotic dishes wafted past him when the servants rushed along the corridors carrying great silver plates.
Malkov met Fredrik in a small office, the same one where Gustav had often locked himself in in order to crunch through the endless amounts of reports and documents his reign had produced. Malkov was certain that Fredrik did not use much of his time to read in or outside of this office and meeting him here, unofficially in the most sacred place of the palace, just increased his annoyance. Present were also generals Henrik and Armand, who had in tandem obtained the highest military positions once Malkov had left. Then there also was someone he didn't know and whose uniform he didn't recognize. It reminded them of their own wardrobe but only vaguely, and all of the medals on the front of it weren't familiar either.


"You've arrived." Fredrik said, slumped in his chair when Malkov saluted him. There was about three seconds of silence while Fredrik sized him up, barely containing a smug smile. Malkov could see that Fredrik had awaited this moment for a long time. "Here it comes, '' Malkov thought, and he braced himself for an earful, making a mental note of keeping his cool. "Not many military men were valued by my father, blessed be his name, in the same way as you were. There were even serious talks of making a statue of you for the Eastern Square once you left, can you imagine? Well, I couldn't." Malkov kept his gaze in a painting hanging behind Fredrik, depicting a hunting party leaving the city gates with their dogs. "As I see it, statues are reserved for the servants of the crown who actually deliver, actually make a difference. Not for frauds who paint failures as victories. Wouldn't you agree?" Malkov paid special attention to the tone of his own voice. "Of course, Your Highness. If you are referring to the eastern front, then taking in account the big picture..." he started. "Big picture!" Fredrik spat out, cutting Malkov off. "You and your big picture, what a pretty picture it was! The only picture here is the fact that you advanced and acquired a great deal of territory, then you just stopped, just like that, packed your bags and went home, all the while patting yourself on the back. You could have conquered twice as much, and you instantly left when you finally had a master who would have called you out on your hot air! Instead of serving the nation you served your image and self-importance! How's that for a big picture?" Fredrik roared, working himself up with every sentence. Malkov stayed quiet.


But a big picture question it was, wholly and truly. All continental nations were locked in a zero-sum game with each other since everybody wanted as big a piece of the pie as possible. Arkansia's eastern neighbor, Curanda, was a vast nation stuck in a now decades old civil war, its glory days long gone, and the mentality of Arkansian leadership was focused on getting a buffer zone of the northern parts of Curanda against the other hungry competitor, Ushya. Gustav had gotten there first and Malkov had managed to defeat the Ushyan forces, mostly through the fact that Ushya had been forced to call the campaign quits since it needed to answer a call to arms on the other parts of the continent: Ushya had made defensive pacts with several smaller nations on its own eastern border and once a war broke out between them, the decision was made to honor these agreements and prioritize these interests over the Curandan issue for now. Gustav had anticipated this to happen and had decided to gamble, the strategy being that Malkov would not need to actually defeat the powerful Ushya but to hold on just long enough until the situation in the far east would explode and the defensive pacts would come into effect. Gustav's gambit had paid off and the northern Curanda was quickly conquered, the competing factions inside the fragmented nation unable to muster a strong enough counterattack. Thus, Arkansia had seemingly arrived in a new golden age and risen from a meek regional power to something more formidable.


But the real reason for victory, the exploitation of these Ushyan defensive agreements, had not either reached or been understood by most of the leadership. Megalomania had invaded the Arkansian minds, and everything seemed possible. Why had the invasion of Curanda stopped short when it was theirs to take? Why not go all the way and then, by the Sun, go for Ushya and even beyond! The sense of victory had in a few short years turned into bitterness, and many felt that the Manifest Destiny of Arkansia had begun. Even those who genuinely understood politics had given in to the seduction of grand delusions and engaged in thorough mental gymnastics in order to find reasons and justify further invasion of Curanda. But the truth was that Gustav had stopped where he had for a reason: Curanda was an enormously vast country and conquering more of it still wouldn't bring the whole nation under their rule and it only increased the risk of creating a unified enemy of all the Curandan factions when they would start to perceive Arkansia as their number one threat. Ending up in this mess would only generate more costs than profits and take away forces from the all-important defensive line constructed against Ushya. The other reason was that Curanda still was the number one trade partner of Arkansia and all these factions still bought what Arkansia was exporting, future invasions would just make them buy what they needed elsewhere and who would Arkansia sell to then? There was nothing to be gained from another war in the current political situation Arkansia found itself in. But this wasn't what most people wanted to hear. Especially not Fredrik.


"But now, things are different. We want real results, and we are progressing towards our goals as we speak." Fredrik continued. "A new campaign has started against Curanda as you probably have heard. The enemy has folded, and our territory increases, just as easily as it could have been when you were leading the charge with your cold feet. You are to go to the front as a military analyst: write a report on our progress. The future generations will have to know what made us the great power we are today." Fredrik smirked. "And why we failed in the past. You are dismissed."
Malkov's face was as red as a beet, and he could feel it too. Outside the office he barely knew what to do with himself since he couldn't vent publicly but the anger had to go somewhere. He started to walk very fast through the endless hallways and corridors of the palace without a clear destination and people quickly dived out of his way when they encountered him: many must have thought that something must have happened if such an important looking figure were storming through without a nod or adherence to the etiquette, so nobody took an exception towards his behavior. After a while the worst of it had passed and he stopped, realizing that he ended in front of an open door to another salon filled with guests enjoying themselves. A buffet table was filled with delicacies of all sorts and even a few chefs could be seen through a hole in the wall that revealed the kitchen, this too apparently a part of some new fad of the modern internal decoration and design. Apparently, the ventilation didn't work as well as it should have and the mouth-watering scents emanating from the kitchen were the reason why he had stopped here without realizing it. He started to walk towards the buffet but was stopped by a familiar voice.
Maria, the late Gustav's wife and mother of Fredrik was there, and she had noticed him. Malkov cursed in his mind his bad luck. He never had figured out why such an exceptional person had ended up with that horse of a woman. Maria gestured to Malkov to come to her and when Malkov arrived and had bowed, she tapped an open spot next to her on the sofa she was sitting on and Malkov sat down. "Lisa said that, she is now here with her brother, that in the academy…" she started and Malkov braced himself in his mind yet again. Malkov had known Maria for decades and not once had he understood what she was talking about. Lisa and his brother could literally be anybody and most likely they were people that he wouldn't know and have no desire to know about. She started her stories somewhere from the middle and automatically assumed that the listener would know exactly what she was talking, so the big process in the conversations with her would be trying to figure out what the topic was and then parsing out if this was actually something important or, more often than not, meaningless and endless gossip of the aristocratic socialites. Many important men of the state had been subjected to this ordeal constantly since they couldn't brush her off because of her exceedingly important status and for some reason Gustav had never told her not to bother serious officials and military members with her blabbering. And when it was about something else than idle tattle, she often was trying to fix up a marriage for somebody in her circle, but the pros and cons of her arrangements were usually so poorly thought out that many didn't want to commit to them. It turned out that this was the case now too: some duchess from one or another minor province had ended up into her good graces and after a good twenty minutes of tedious deduction Malkov discovered that Anton was supposed to be the willing husband. It made absolutely no sense for anybody in Malkov's social stature to marry into such an insignificant family but in Maria's mind it made perfect sense. His patience was running thin but there was no choice but to listen and try to weasel out of the discussion as fast as possible, which really couldn't happen quickly enough. Malkov could not imagine the good Gustav listening to this drivel years on end every evening at the dinner table when he had been home in the capital, but so it had been and as far as he could tell Gustav never had been unfaithful to her. Apparently, Gustav had just wanted to have a family and when that had been arranged then that was that, no matter the personality of the bride. There had been no passion but neither had he smirked from his role as a husband and a father: if part of that meant that he had been supposed to tolerate this nonsense then he had accepted it.

Despite his annoyed and agitated state Malkov could feel gratitude towards his own wife and the support he could always find in his own home.


Malkov's attention was starting to drift, and he found other points of irritation walking about in the crowd around him. Fredrik's two brothers were present there too: Carl was already quite drunk as one would expect, and Algot was playing bridge yet again which wasn't any sort of surprise either. Gustav truly had been the one shining star of brilliance in a sea of below-average mediocrity. The passing of the power had been extraordinarily peaceful since only Fredrik of the three brothers had possessed any semblance of ambition: both Carl and Algot had probably been kissing Fredrik's feet from sheer relieve since both of them had been shaking in their boots from the fear of having to do some actual work in their lives. When Carl wasn't drinking, he was hunting, and last year he had been chasing foxes, bears, deer, ducks and beavers on over two hundred days of the calendar year. The last remaining hundred days he had spent very comfortably in the bottom of the beer mug, so he was quite content with his existence. Algot was more peculiar but at the same time very similar to his brother: he practically spent all his waking hours playing poker, bridge, billiards, chess and draughts and when he was done with one game, he started another. It was as if he could not grasp anything meaningful from actual reality and could only exist in the pondering moments of the next move or turn of an abstract game. And these ponderings took a long time: a single game could take from ten in the morning to seven in the evening and he drove his opponents to tears by this imprisonment. But him being part of the royal family meant that Algot always had somebody to play with, so he also was quite content with his life. With Carl Malkov could imagine him attending at least some kind of a post if the push came to shove but he had no idea what kind of tasks Algot could possibly attend to in real life. What especially irked Malkov's diligent character was that both of these loafers were appreciated as some kind of heroes in the socialite circles of the salons: Carl was manly for his hunting and fun for his constant partying and Algot was obviously very good at these games he endlessly obsessed over, so other fools with similar fixations arrived from all over the aristocratic world to challenge him and so far, Algot had reigned supreme over these other jokers. Again, Malkov started to experience more quiet and warm feelings of gratitude in the back of his head towards Anton: they had had their disputes and obviously Malkov didn't agree with everything Anton had done, but the boy had inherited his industriousness and was shrewd and skilled once he had found the area where he was good at, even though it wasn't quite what Malkov had hoped for him. Malkov reminded himself to give Anton a break.


Finally, Maria was distracted by other guests who most likely brought her more ingredients to cook silly schemes with and Malkov took the chance to slip away towards the buffet table. Once there he let himself go and took two plates: one was filled with ham, premium sausages, smoked salmon, meatballs, fried potatoes and slapped together with a steak that was big enough to cover whatever else was present on the dish and the second one got a large piece of cherry pie slathered with vanilla sauce and was accompanied with three balls of vanilla ice cream. Malkov never had been much for drinking, gambling or other classical vices, but eating was the one thing he could derive true hedonistic pleasure from. He usually ate within the normal boundaries but once stressed he gravitated towards tasty things for comfort. Even on the field he had always kept storages of sweet and savory treats with him for the most demanding of situations and sometimes he had to keep his habit hidden when his men had been close to starvation because the supply lines had been cut. Looking back at it this had led into some comical situations but when they had actually happened the bitterness the underlings had felt towards their epicure leader had been deep and real. Now, in the present moment, Malkov realized that he couldn't carry both these heavy plates with his bum arm, and he pointed at a servant who had surreptitiously been observing the ex-general's gluttony. The servant came to him promptly and Malkov pointed at the dessert plate still on the table and then went to look for a seat, the servant obediently right behind him, carrying the sweets with dignity.


He found a good place at the end of the room next to the wall and he sat down and started eating. After a while he realized that he could recognize no flavors and every bite in his mouth had the same meaty, salty and stale texture. The pleasure of food wasn't enough to alter his foul mood. But he didn't stop though: it was as if he was trying to force the enjoyment out and he wasn't going to take a no for an answer. He noticed that the pie had become cold and soggy under the melted ice cream.


"I see you're back, general." somebody said to him and Malkov looked up. It was Kajetan, one of the professors from the military academy. Malkov gestured towards the chair on the opposite side of the table and Kajetan sat down. "I take it that His Highness had something planned for you?" he asked. Malkov could yet again feel the red returning to his face, and he squeezed the knife and the work tighter. Kajetan had a chuckle and he called for a servant and ordered a cup of coffee. "He sent me out with homework like some badly behaved schoolboy, just to harass me. He can't do anything serious because of my reputation and connections so he has settled with petty attempts to embarrass me and waste my time. I can't complain and make a scene since it's such a small and stupid thing but I'm sure he will not stop jerking me around anywhere in the near future." Malkov stuffed more food into his mouth with a faster space. "He's supposed to lead our kingdom in a war, and this is how he uses his time and energy. What a fucking joke." Kajetan's coffee had arrived, and he had been waiting for it to cool while Malkov talked. Kajetan took a small testing sip from the cup to check the temperature, was satisfied and drank some. Malkov could hear the clatter of the coffee cup even though there was quite a lot of noise in the salon. "Yes, well, a leopard can't change his spots now, can he? Such is the character of our ruler: it hasn't changed since you left. Many other things have changed around here, however." Kajetan tilted his head towards the other guests of the salon. Malkov wasn't sure what he meant and started to look around. He was at loss at first but then he noticed how many of the guests he knew and how bad of a sign it was that they were there. "Isn't that Lieutenant-Colonel Jurek? And those two behind him major Jeremi and colonel Iwo? What are they doing here? Why aren't they on the front?" Then he frowned. "And why were they invited? They're not high enough rank to be in the palace's parties." Kajetan was rubbing his fingers along the edge of the coffee cup. He always needed to do something with his hands. "They are all lieutenant generals now. Gone are the days of king Gustav now: no one gets demoted anymore." Malkov felt the wave of disappointment, though he was not surprised. When the invasion of Curanda had started the first time, Gustav had been extremely strict about who he allowed to lead his troops in the war, so he demoted everybody who didn't meet his criteria. The military wasn't that big, so he had pretty much known everybody on a personal basis and as an excellent judge of character he had known what he wanted. The thing was that people were demoted, not fired: if you reflected on your mistakes and got back on your horse, your career was not over, and many had climbed back to the top once they had figured out what they had been doing wrong. However, these three men before Malkov's eyes hadn't been those capable ones. "It's a tour-based system now. Like you very well know, back in your day, you only got home when the war was over. Now they serve six months each and come home. It's the assignment you have to complete to get ahead in your career." Kajetan explained. "I didn't expect the culture of the military to change so much in a few short years. One of my students opened up to me a while back and told how he had been advised as a second lieutenant: step in with your commander and be well liked in your peer group. Do not make waves and do not get separated from the herd. If you get one outstanding result from an exam but one bad one, you're done, but with average results all the way, you can become a lieutenant colonel." Kajatan's voice had a beaten tone in it, just slightly. "It is kind of funny, really. I've dedicated my whole life to the academy and to the improvement of our military capabilities, but I'm seriously starting to doubt how much all of this matters in the big picture. Obviously, it needed to be done and the new personnel needs to get an proper education, but at the end of the day somebody can clear the program with the best possible marks and be praised as a borderline genius but when he is actually supposed to make decisions in the real world we have no guarantee of any kind of competence. We are mistaking memorization for intelligence: as long as you can remember the given texts, mathematical formulas and the ways you are supposed to write your reports and essays, you are in. But when the situation is such that you can't apply that formula in its given form and you have to adapt, those best of the best aren't necessarily any good at all." Kajetan had stopped fiddling the cup. "This change of rule seems to prove to me that institutions can only be as good as the level of the leadership. It's like the bottom of my beliefs has fallen off: I took pride in our past victories and attributed too much of that success to my beloved academy, but how much does education matter if you end up with this kind of situation anyway? I'm worried that our system actually leaves a lot of truly talented people out just because they aren't that good at memorizing trivial details but would be superior in real life situations and I'm not sure that we actually can test people for this. We have masses of people and only a few positions, so the whole affair just seems to be about standardization and memorization being the only way we have come up with to separate a handful of people from thousands of applicants. Then we call these people "the elite material" and pat each other on the back. All of them know the classics of strategy and warfare backwards and forwards but then they get fuddled in the basic questions of what are we doing, why we are doing it and what there is to gain from it? So much of philosophy and higher level of thinking is focused on the definition of different words and terms, what do they truly mean, and this is where we fall: is more actually better? What actually is "better" for us, right now? What is "success" for us, in this particular situation we are in right now? And if a man can go through the academy as the star pupil and never learn how to ask and think about questions like that, what was the point of the academy?"


Malkov had stopped eating while listening to all this. He had not expected to hear such talk in the capital and in the palace no less. They had known each other for decades but never been actual friends in the true sense of the world, even though they had been more than just acquaintances. "I see that I'm not the only one worried about where things are going. Didn't really expect anybody to come to me with this, especially not you." Malkov said. Kajetan smiled slightly. "I've come to realize that you did the only rational solution when you retired. I should have done the same, but I didn't see how it was until quite recently and I have to admit that my ego could not take leaving. I've worked so hard for all this and have nothing else. I'm not even married. I do the futile and embarrassing homework too, but you stood for your principles in the end, unlike me. But it seems that neither of us can escape it." Kajatan started to get up and leave. "Thank you for listening. Just grit your teeth and go through with it. You are wealthy and I'm sure you can leave Arkansia when and if things get truly bad." Malkov looked at him to leave but then something popped into his mind. "Besides me and the king, Henrik and Armand were there, but then there was somebody with a weird uniform I didn't recognize. Do you happen to know who that was?" he asked. Kajatan smiled sadly. "Just another symptom of our leadership. You'll see." Kajatan answered. Then he walked away.


Malkov had no desire to leave for the front, but he didn't want to linger in the capital any longer than he had to. He wrote a letter home where he explained what he had been tasked to do and made a list for all the different items and clothes he would need later on and wanted them to be sent straight to the military base where he was supposed to go. What he needed on the way he needed to borrow from the barracks or buy with his own money. He was supposed to stay with the fighting forces for several months, compile his report and then present it orally to Fredrik. Including the time needed for traveling Malkov calculated that he would not be home within a year and the though made him sulky and sour. He conversed very little with his servants when the journey started, and they tried to avoid him as much as they could since his dark mood was so plain to see. Only Stefanos kept him company, but he let Malkov have his space. They would talk when Malkov was ready to do so.
Weather was horrible for two weeks straight and three times the carriages got stuck in the mud. The drivers were young and inexperienced and had a hard time getting the convoy to move again the first time, so Malkov lost his temper and had to organize the affair himself and he cut the rations of the drivers to half until they reached the base as a punishment. Behind his back, however, the cook took pity on the drivers and made sure they didn't have to starve. Then the carriage that carried all of Malkov's and Stefanos's clothes proved to be leaky, and all of their garments became soaked and there was no place to dry them off. They had to dress in the clothes of the servants and Malkov was glad that they were traveling by themselves and were not supposed to meet any officials or aristocrats on the way. Once the weather cleared and it looked like it was going to be better for a longer while, Malkov immediately ordered the convoy to halt, had a big fire built and had his clothes dried off.
After six more weeks they already started to arrive in the areas where battles had been fought. Bodies lied here and there, some enemies and some of their own troops. Malkov started to notice a very peculiar feature on the relatively fresh battlefields: some areas were spotted by black craters about the size of their own carriages. Sometimes there were only a few of them but other times there were over a dozen in a relatively small area. In these places a sickly smell filled the air, clearly rotten but not in a normal and natural way. After a while of these views Malkov decided to investigate and had the carriages stopped.


He stepped out and started to walk towards one of the craters closest to them. The nearer he got the stronger the smell, so he covered his face with his handkerchief. Malkov stopped at the edge of the crater, not daring to go any further. The outer rim was clearly burned, but the center of it contained some sort of a black sludge, wet like mud even though it hadn't rained on this area for quite a while and the surface of the ground was dry everywhere else except in these craters. Malkov looked around and a small, pathetic and starved tree stood next to him, trying to defy the death surrounding it. Malkov broke a branch off from it, the longest one he could find, and stuck the end of it into the black sludge, getting some of it to the end of the branch and pulling it closer for inspection. The smell was overwhelming this close and after just a few seconds the part of the branch covered in the muck dropped completely off, leaving only part of the stick in Malkov's hand. Malkov tossed it away and noticed Stefanos standing behind him.


"Nothing will grow from the ground like this. What is this? Does the enemy have some new sort of version of the salted ground tactic? But it must be some sort of a weapon, otherwise why would it be spotted around like this?" Malkov said. "The latter guess must be correct, sir. I checked around and there are body parts all over that are either charred or rotten in a non-natural way. Maybe it depends on where you are inside the blast radius, you get burned closer and farther away you get hit by whatever that is." Stefanos said and pointed at the sludge. "It can't be from a cannon since we haven't seen any, there should be at least a few abandoned broken ones, but we have nothing. This thing obviously is very potent, but it looks like the enemy doesn't really have the hang of it: the bodies with these marks can be found on both sides pretty equally. Maybe it's just this battlefield and it's not like this elsewhere but we'll see." Malkov was quiet and kept looking at the crater still holding the handkerchief on his face. The wind was rising, and it blew the rotten smell towards him even stronger. "Let's get out of here. We can think this through once we hear what has happened in the fortress." They walked bag to the carriages and the convoy started once again, but the foul air was now more or less their constant companion. Many of the servants lost their appetites and had headaches.
After a few more days of traveling, they finally started to reach their destination. They saw a bunch of soldiers supervising Curandan prisoners digging a mass grave, and rows of bodies were waiting near them for their final destination. Then they saw another similar operation happening a few kilometers further, but this time the finished grave had been set on fire and the prisoners heaved body after body into the flames. Stefanos noticed that everyone had their faces covered and the prisoners were in a sorry state, barely having the strength to perform their task. A soldier kept hitting a prisoner with a stick to force him to continue, but it wasn't helping. The guard exchanged a few words with another soldier who then finished the man off with his spear and the prisoners left standing rolled the body into the hot pit like they had done with others numerous times before. Malkov's convoy neared the gates of the fortress where soldiers checked their papers and let them in.


Malkov was instructed to go to the big tents at the center of the fortress on the top of a hill. He wondered why none of the commanding officers had come to meet and welcome him and instead he had to go and seek them: he could immediately sense the rock bottom morale of the place and a certain tenseness floating in the air. It felt like nobody could be distracted with the regular ceremony and convention, like something grave was there to supersede anything that was deemed unnecessary. Malkov started to walk up the hill with Stefanos. He got halfway when a huge explosion shook the earth and pieces of debris flew into the air from the other side of the hill: everybody in Malkov's company hit the ground, shocked and terrified, but Malkov had remained in a crouching position. Had the enemy attacked? Malkov commanded everybody to move towards the tent but his servants, young and inexperienced as they were, didn't respond in their fear and didn't move an inch. Malkov and Stefanos had to motivate them with kicks and pull them by their clothes towards the right direction. Stumbling, the young men started to rush towards the commander's tent, their masters behind them, as a farce to the loyalty Malkov had been used to from his previous servants at the time of his active service. Malkov felt annoyed but concentrated on the situation at hand and advanced towards the top of the hill with big leaps.
The servants ran into the tent like the rats they were and only Malkov and Stefanos stayed outside to see what was happening. The view was very good and they couldn't see any troops in formation outside the wooden fortress walls and no cannon could fire from so long of a distance that the weapon and its operators couldn't be seen with a naked eye. Then Malkov looked at what was happening inside the walls, and instead of seeing men hurrying around like the ants in a disturbed nest, the movement of the soldiers was sullen and fed up, nobody being in a hurry to check the damages or help the wounded and dying screaming under the debris. The only ones actually running were the soldiers putting out the starting fires in a few spots that had been hit by burning pieces from the explosion. Then Malkov noticed the site of the explosion and his eyebrows shot up as far as his forehead permitted.


There was a pen of monsters, sizes of carriages, consisting of material that seemed like stone, screeching and yelling restlessly, the crater from the explosion being in one corner of the pen, now busted open by the blast. The creatures did have heads, small ones, with no visible eyes that could be seen from this distance and their arms and legs were like tree trunks. They vaguely reminded Malkov of the drawings of big apes he had seen in a book written by an explorer who had been traveling in the jungles far in the south, but these beasts were huge and not organic, immediately seeming more mindless than even cows or sheep. A gust of wind blew towards Malkov and Stefanos and brought the same familiar stench from the contaminated fields of battle they had driven through for weeks, but now it was even stronger. Malkov could hear Stefanos retching behind him and Malkov suppressed his reflex to vomit too. A little lower where they stood an officer, a captain, looking at the same site of devastation, his jacket only half-tucked into his trousers and his hands in his pockets. He noticed someone standing behind him, glancing over his shoulder, then doing a second take when he realized that these people were somebody new. At first, he saw Malkov's rank insignia, and he frowned, then he started to realize who was wearing them and there was a flash of anger and resentment in his face, and the captain made a half hearted salute with one hand without taking the other one out of his pocket, without standing in attention.


"What the hell is this? What is going on in this unit? Where are your superiors, captain?" Malkov demanded from the officer. "I think we're better to go inside, general." the officer answered and gestured towards the commander's tent. Malkov shot a look at Stefanos who looked back, his face anticipating problems. They went ahead, and the captain followed.


"Well?" Malkov pressured inside. The captain stood silent for a second or two, apparently trying to form the best way to say what he wanted to say without betraying his apparent frustration and anger. "Sir, I know how much the new strategy emphasized the use of the golems, but we have had trouble with them from day one. Significant problems. You must have noticed the how the ground looked and air smelled when you traveled here and have put two and two together, but before you sack me or Sun forbid court martial me, I must stress that there has been nothing that we could have done on our end to fix this: I put the handlers of the golems through a ringer but they keep saying that their training gave them nothing to deal with this level of malfunctioning. Besides these sudden detonations they sometimes stop and do nothing, go the wrong way or move slower than they were supposed to. I have written multiple reports about these incidents and have received no answer and I'll resign, if need be, but with the utmost respect you'll have to understand that there's nothing me or my subordinates could have done to fix the defective weapon." The captain's tone was monotone, seemingly pushing the words through his teeth he was biting together. Malkov lifted his healthy arm and made calming motions with his palm open. "Son, I'm not here to court martial or sack anybody and even if I wanted to, I have no authority for that anymore. I have not been shown any official plans and know nothing of how things were supposedly going here besides the regular public propaganda. Today is the first I've seen of these… golems. I'm just supposed to write an analysis about the effectiveness of this campaign." The captain seemed to relax a little, his anger subsiding. He also seemed to be surprised of how he wasn't currently being reprimanded even though he had been waiting for it for months now. "Again, where are your superiors, captain? Also where are your cannons? I can't believe that I have gotten that blind to not see any of them." Malkov said. "Well, sir, about the cannons, we really don't have any. Apparently, we are supposed to be supplied some when we reach some of the bigger cities and even then, only if absolutely needed: so much was banked on these golems and, truth be told, sir, I suspect that a lot of the funds originally meant for those cannons went to these new weapons instead." The captain sighed. "And as for my superiors, again in complete honesty even though I don't have any proof of it, they must have seen how things were going and didn't want to risk their hides for a folly like this. They have various excuses, but they mostly stay in the capital or in the various fortresses back in Arkansia, only showing up when need be. I and few others are in actual charge over here." The captain started to open up and apparently took Malkov for his word and viewed him as impartial to this military fiasco.


Malkov rubbed his bearded chin and thought about the situation. He didn't doubt at all that things wouldn't be how the good captain had told him. He remembered seeing quite many high-ranking officers living it up in the party where he had been talking with Kajatan, not at all a good sign during active military operations. He lifted his gaze back to the captain. "You have copies of your reports, yes? Give me a tent to stay in and have those reports brought to my assistant here." he gestured towards Stefanos. "Besides those, bring me all the possible files concerning these golems, like the instructions given to the handlers, account books about the costs of this war, everything possible. Go." The captain saluted him, now properly, happy to now reach at least one sympathetic ear, and went to fulfill his orders. Sun was going to set soon, but today it hadn't given too much illumination to begin with.


Malkov went through the paperwork deep into the night, drinking coffee and eating sweet biscuits for energy, but the pervasive bad smell took the sense of taste with it. He was too focused into reading to taste anything anyway, his face becoming more stony after each document. After one o'clock Stefanos came in to check how his master was doing, finding Malkov leaning against the back of his chair, arms crossed and staring into the ceiling. "I'm willing to guess that this isn't becoming any better, sir?" he said. "No. No, it isn't." came the anticipated answer. There had never been much use of magical weapons or much magic in general in the Arkansian army and the same was true for most of the states across the world, some exceptions existing but those too had been very fast to learn from their experiences. It wasn't that this mysterious power wasn't insanely powerful and amazing things couldn't be done with it, but it was as if there was no rhyme or reason to it: one person could do this and not that but it was vice versa for the fellow next to him, and if you thought that if somebody was able to do something very impressive he also must be able to do other lesser feats you usually were wrong again. Some things could be taught to others if they had the potential but not all. You could find relatively many people who had the gift and could do at least something, but the really talented individuals were extremely rare. The church of the Sun and other religions had been trying to claim these powers as an product of their faith for an long time and the church collected able people into their monasteries to underline their own importance, even trying to render their mage's services into an more standardized manner, but for the most part they hadn't succeeded. All of it was too unstable and too unreliable. "As seen here." Malkov

thought to himself.


"Our beloved Fredrik just got duped. Somebody had been waiting for his crowning, probably salivating and rubbing his hands together, and then displayed shiny toys to Fredrik and he took the bait hook, line and sinker. Maybe one of them was that man who I didn't recognize in Gustav's office." Malkov explained to Stefanos. Malkov leaned towards the table and tapped with his finger some documents open in front of him. "These golems are either insanely expensive or somebody is skimming money off this completely shamelessly. I'm honestly not surprised that Fredrik is the one to fall for this stupidity but the fact that seemingly nobody fought against him about any of this is the worse part. I think the captain here is only half right about why the commanding officers aren't here: they must be in on this scheme and are getting paid, having known very well that none of this is going to actually work." He stayed silent for a moment. "They must think that since the conquering of Curanda in their minds is a given anyway then this is a wonderful opportunity to make some money off the newly crowned idiot. If they would actually be serious about the war, they would not undermine our fighting force like this." Stefanos had sat down on a chair at the end of the table. The many lanterns inside the tent were quite good and there was plenty of light. The ground had been covered with thick, red carpets and the atmosphere would have been homely and warm if the circumstances hadn't been so grave.


"This is really bad, Stefanos. This Curanda business is already a doomed effort but if our corruption has already reached the level where we sacrifice blood and treasure this casually the end is going to come much sooner than I anticipated: spies of Ushya report what they see, and our resources aren't endless. What we are losing here is going to hurt us in the future and we aren't going to get much out of what little we gain if all of that is going to be spent on holding the new territory. Especially if part of that is poisoned ground." Malkov frowned. "We don't know if just the craters of the explosions are ruined or if the damage reaches much deeper underground, maybe the groundwater is polluted, or the soil is otherwise compromised on a much larger area. Time will tell. We absolutely should have people out there digging the worst parts of it out anyway. But this isn't even our first priority right now, as things stand." He pointed at a small pile of empty paper sheets. "Now, if I'm going to write about what actually is going on here, the same things the captain has already written, what would happen? I'm not paranoid enough to think that this trip was an elaborate plot to get me trapped, no, this is just one of Fredrik's whims, but if I start complaining and the corrupted officials and officers see that, I have a whole list of new enemies waiting back home. If this is the level of loyalty towards our own military, I can't expect much to be left for me. Then an actual plot to get rid of me is right around the corner. And, even despite all that," Malkov said and straightened up in his chair, the gravity of the situation becoming clearer with every word uttered. "... how many years or decades can we wait before Ushya or some other enemy state licks their lips and deems that the time is nigh? The possibility of Arkansia being in somebody's pocket isn't far-fetched anymore. And my land and property? Confiscated for the war effort, my family bowing to an Ushyaan champion, my son serving as an impoverished vassal, his new masters, the glory of our name a distant memory? I didn't fight for that."


They stayed quiet for a long while. The walls of the tent fluttered a bit when a strong gust of wind blew outside. The candle lights inside the lanterns flickered and the lighting of the tent danced around for and second or two. "Maybe the solution we are left with it just to leave, sir." Stefanos said. Malkov was resting his cheek in his fist, and he looked at Stefanos without changing his posture, in anticipation of what was being suggested here. "And I don't mean just this place, I mean the whole Arkansia. To be blunt, young master Anton never cared about your family estate and your daughters are living or are going to live with their husbands anyway. If we pack our bags quietly and sell the fields in secret, piece by piece, preferably to foreigners so the word doesn't spread too quickly in Arkansia, we can get out of the danger's way soon enough. Your daughters we can take with us when the time is right, ask them to visit and then just have them stay permanently. If we do that when the situation in Arkansia is bad enough then nobody will have time to look for them. If nothing else, this is the only route that leaves us with our dignity, if that counts for anything." Stefanos shrugged. "And, well, if master Anton would not be there anyway to tend the estate after the time has left you, may that be far in the future, who would there even be to look after your land and property?" Malkov lifted his right eyebrow, like being slightly surprised at something very obvious and mundane. "You, of course. Did you think that I haven't thought through this problem of succession that I have?" Now it was Stefanos's turn to be surprised, but much more so than his master had been. His cheeks started to redden like a small boy's. Malkov barely noticed, his mind focused on what the future would hold for him and his family. Leave? He had on some deep level ended up on the same solution as Stefanos had, but Malkov had needed somebody else to say it out loud for him. Another question was where should they go? It would need to be far enough to get out of the harm’s way and they would need to be subtle about the whole process. There was no immediate hurry, and he could take his time writing the reports. Anton's connections possibly could prove valuable right now. Maybe the first thing he should do right away would be to leave for home to get things started and delegate the report writing to Stefanos at the last possible minute. Many practical problems waited for their solutions.


Malkov remembered the old academic debate about the effect of the great figures in history versus the structures of societies determining how the events unfold. Gustav had truly been something great, a statesman sparsely seen on the stage of the world. It had been so easy to believe in the first theory when he had been around but now, after he had been gone, Malkov realized that he was starting to learn much more on the second one. Gustav had been able to do what he had done because the time had been right and he had been able to see it, but if there had not been anything to see, what could have he done, despite his brilliance? It somehow felt that the stupidity of the generation after him was also part of those societal structures, an inevitable consequence of hubris from success, people who had not been able to taste victory before collectively becoming too drunk to think straight, destined to lose their way. Malkov thought that it was like a beggar receiving a fortune and him spending it away, but the more apt comparison would have been giving a huge loan to a beggar, not actual wealth. These thoughts made Malkov's ego hurt, like it had sometimes aches when he had served under Gustav, always beneath a superior man, but Gustav didn't now seem to have been any better off if his achievements were so readily eating themselves inside out. Malkov had been in a key position, an active agent in almost everything relating to true power, his ambition truly fed, but little had that all meant now that he was sitting in this tent midst the foul air of poison. He wasn't that old, his body still possessing vigor despite the war wounds, but his spirit was now old. At the end of the day the only thing he had gathered was money, and Anton had already done the same thing without any pretense of a higher cause or glory. The idea of running away and setting up somewhere new wasn't that bad to him, not even unpleasant, but his life spent trying to set up a ghost of an empire gnawed at him. An august pursuit turned hollow, an endgame foiled.


At least Anton would be happy.



4.
Jacobin and Estan had traveled far, much farther than they had originally thought of going. Some time ago on their journey – One year? Two? Estan wasn't sure anymore – they had run into one of Estan's friends at the monastery of their hometown, Janek. Estan was delighted and they stayed with him for a few days. It had been a military checkpoint, halfway turned into an actual town, where merchants and travelers of all sorts could rest and replenish their supplies. The go-to lie for Jacobin and Estan when needed was to say that they were pilgrims, traveling to see such-and-such holy site, and it was always convenient since places like that were everywhere. Not only did it take a lot of suspicion away from them but often they could even command respect once soldiers and officials checking their papers realized how much they had traveled and praised their devotion to the faith. With this route Jacobin and Estan would need to act exceedingly pious at every site and they had to partake in the rituals of the church of the Sun. Both of them hated it, even loathed it, but the principle was over superseded by the practicality of it. In one of these ceremonies, they met Javek.


Estan liked Javek, they had known each other since they were children: he was genuine and well meaning, polite, fairly well read and wasn't without a sense of humor. All around he was just a pleasant person to be with, and it was no wonder that many befriended him with ease. Still, there had been some friction between Estan and Javek straight from the very beginning at the monastery without Javek realizing it, and it was that Javek was a genuine believer. Estan had ended up under the wing of the church as a child out of necessity since he had had no other place to go, and they had taken him in and once the other monks realized that Estan had some ability in magic his position became much better, and he received more education than a regular novice had access to. Despite his upbringing Estan could not find an ounce of faith in him: as a kid he had done the rituals just because he was supposed to, empty motions that guaranteed his daily bread, and once he had become older and could think more about things, the whole idea of religion was even more beyond him. When he had with other monks visited nearby towns and cities to run various errands for the monastery, he had seen people of other faiths or with different versions of his own and felt the animosity run between them. It immediately made sense to him that all this was something that people did this across the world automatically, believed in something beyond themselves, and he could differentiate what magic could do as a separate phenomenon from his faith, despite what was hammered into his head daily. Through this attitude he had become friends with Jacobin in fact: after the war Jacobin had been a tenant farmer for a few years very near the monastery. As part of the tithings to the church some grain was brought from this farm to the monks and Estan and Jacobin had found allies in each other quickly. In the case of Jacobin's lack of faith, he remembered how in his childhood the local priest was revered so deeply that the villagers would even get on their knees as the priest walked by, but the man himself didn't qualify for these holy attributes but abused his position, first carefully but then more and more shamelessly. During the war he wasn't any more impressed with the holy men that visited the front or whose sermons they had to go listen to back at the barracks. What he saw was a racket, only realizing the scope of it the more he saw the world.


Jacobin had met many prideful men in his life, those who were active and diligent and based their self-love on the fact that they were accomplishing so much and then the lazy ones, who could just sit, drink and eat and still be completely convinced about their own superior qualities, to the point of almost seeming intoxicated about themselves. Both types had been especially abundant in the military. What especially irked him about religious people was that many of them had a similar characteristic to the second sort of person, but their pride was infused into their faith: they had found the correct path and basked in its light, the faith elevating their virtue above other men. What love the Allmighty provided was meant for them, if not only then at least especially. Javek seemed to have traces of this attribute but wasn't the worst case of it, and Estan had told Jacobin that questioning of faith would not bring Javek to snitching about the skeptics, but they would receive a heavy sermon instead. Neither Estan nor Jacobin were too thrilled to receive either of these consequences, so they kept their opinions to themselves, like they had learned to do a long time ago. Jacobin liked Javek well enough but was still somewhat relieved when their paths separated.


What was interesting was the mission Javek was now on. He had traveled far, far east to the edge of the Shuitan empire, into the city of Saanathas. The Church of the Sun had been trying to bring their faith into the empire for decades now, but the Shuitans were having none of it. They had their own ancient and well-established customs and saw very little use in having new and foreign religions being imported there, and the Shuitan rulers had strictly suffocated any traces of it inside their borders. They, however, liked gold and silver as much as anybody else and had established a few trading cities and ports open to everybody, and as a concession to sweeten the deal they allowed missionaries of foreign faiths to exist in these areas, even though they very strictly controlled what was allowed to enter any deeper into their empire. Church of the Sun had doubled down on their efforts and in this Javek had found his niche: he was studious and gifted in languages so he had been tasked to learn and translate what Shuitan holy texts he could. The project was supposed to be kept hush hush since the Shuitans most likely would not be happy about it, but Javek had confined to Estan since they were – in the impression that Estan had given him – fellow monks besides old friends. The explanation given to Javek for this undertaking was that in order for the Shuitans to open up for the church doctrines the Sun's texts would not only have to be translated, but "outwardly modified" to follow the style and flavor of the Shuitan culture so that they could be more easily adopted. Estan was sure that the other and not audibly uttered reason was that the church was looking for material to attack the Shuitan religions more effectively, but he was also sure that the faithful Javek could not believe something like that at all about his beloved church.


Javek was not only chosen because of his linguistic and literary skills, but because his faith was unwavering.
In their current travels Estan and Jacobin realized that Saanathas was so close that they might as well make it their destination. They both were almost startled by the fact that they had ended up so far, without clear thought and just by putting one foot in front of the other. It wasn't the last place in the world they thought they could wind up, but it was close to it. Jacobin and Estan had become so used to the traveling way of life that their pasts seemed like parts of another life, clear and vivid memories but still almost dreamlike. Finding themselves in this clearly foreign and different environment made their journey more "true" to them. They had come all this way but for all they knew the Shuitan empire might as well be practically infinite. The world really was a big place.
Saanasthas was a city to see. Exotic sights, sounds and smells surrounded Estan and Jacobin. Everything was colorful and even the most mundane objects, like the signposts on the sides of the roads or a teakettle two gentlemen were pouring their drinks from on a terrace of an coffeehouse seemed to have been given serious aesthetic thought, as if nothing without an soul wasn't allowed to exist, no matter how humble its purpose might have been. Brisk soldiers were walking all over the place, looking fit and determined in their breastplates and helmets, signaling the strength of the empire with every step. Here and there you could see a government official hurrying along to conduct their duties, holding their hands together at their chests to keep their wide sleeves from touching the ground. More important ones were carried around in sedan chairs, wearing ornamental hats to further distinguish their position. At one corner Estan and Jacobin nearly jumped in the air when they saw a hideous beast suddenly tower over them, carrying cargo on its humped back, led by a young boy who kept it on a leash. Neither Jacobin or Estan liked horses, most of them back at their home village had been skittish and mean-tempered, but what could be the positive features of animals like that, they could not fathom. They wondered how many other animals there could be over here that they had never seen.


Using the lodgings of the church of the Sun as a place to stay seemed logical in a foreign place like this, they would have to attend some ceremonies and listen to sermons, but it was better than to be ripped off by the locals. Jacobin thought about trying to exchange the jewel necklace he had taken from the mansion for money in this city, but they had no idea what that item's actual worth was, so Jacobin was sure that they would be taken advantage of no matter where they want to pawn it, so he dropped the idea for now. They quickly realized that things didn't work here as smoothly as they had expected anyway: very few spoke at all any of the languages that Jacobin or Estan understood and when they approached innkeepers and tavern owners to ask about the location of the church's mission, everybody started with saying that they couldn't stay here, expecting that the foreigners were asking to sleep the nights at their place of business. Puzzled, Jacobin and Estan were now asking why this was the case and they managed to figure out what was going on only after quite a bit of detective work. Apparently, the state was controlling the visiting of foreigners in the city with a firm hand, and even though you could come and go as you pleased, you could only stay at the few buildings meant for the foreign merchants. Accommodating foreigners was severely punished so few wanted to take the risk. If you were found sleeping on the streets by the night watchmen, that could mean jail and you would probably be liberated from most of your money and possessions both officially and unofficially. Finding the trading company – apparently that was what it was called – or a really good place to hide for the night started to become exceedingly important. The latter option could be too problematic: they stuck out like a sore thumb, strangers as they were, and the locals could be eager to report them, even if there was no promise of a reward. The mission for the church of the Sun was supposed to be in the same building complex as the trading company. Estan guessed that the monks and priests probably weren't very happy to share the rooms with the greedy businessmen whose occupation was against the holy teachings, but it seemed that over here the only way for outsiders to exist was through compromise, saintly or not. Jacobin and Estan had walked quite a long distance in the city streets and now they found themselves in the Saanastha's red light district. It wasn't that late, and it was summer, so there was plenty of light, but it seemed weird to see people already so drunk, the prostitutes calling for customers so noisily and the gambling halls full to the brim. “Cultured or not, people's endless pursuit for entertainment and debauchery was same everywhere.” Jacobin thought. He chuckled to himself when he realized that this part of the city reminded him most about the capital of Arkansia. Some things were different though: loud yelling could be heard from one of the gambling halls and a customer – apparently running out of luck and then taking exception to his fate – was thrown out by the doorman of the place. The man hit the dirt road face first, his hat and jacket thrown on top of him when tried to get up. The man was now clearly after for revenge and tried to go straight back into the building, but two policemen apprehended him immediately, wrestling him to the ground and tying his hands. Jacobin hadn't even realized it, but the street was completely full of constables on their beat, not recognizing them since everybody here wore similar robes, none of them signaling any meaning to the strangers in a strange land. Very quickly other policemen took custody of the would-be brawler and first two at the scene went back to do their rounds. The street was quite long so Jacobin could follow for a long while what was happening as he kept on walking, and he was impressed with how efficiently things were run here. Back home the ruffians and troublemakers would have been left for business owners of the redlight district to take care of, but here the city – or maybe the state? - wanted to extend its hand even to the grimiest parts of its territories. It dawned to Jacobin how urgent it was becoming for them to find a sanctified place to spend the coming night.
Finally, they reached the trading company gates, a collection of quite big buildings tightly standing next to each other. The streets leading out of the complex were all covered with tall wooden walls with locked doors in them. Light was pouring out of the windows of the tall buildings and in the upper floors the merchants were apparently in a festive mood too, having chosen to show that their feasts and parties were not any lesser than their Shuitan counterparts. Music, yelling, laughing and the stomps of dancing feet on a wooden floor were somewhat muffled but still clearly audible to the streets outside the company. After passing two corners Jacobin and Estan finally found an open gate with two guards leaning against it, clearly bored and lethargic, but this time in armor and uniforms that they recognized. One of them lazily lifted his gaze towards approaching Estan and Jacobin, barely interested in his surroundings.


Jacobin and Estan were on their best behavior, as meek as possible, bowing to the guard, but when Estan tried to open his mouth and explain his request, the guard lifted his arm up, palm facing him, cutting Estan off. The man whistled somewhere behind him and Estan could glimpse that there were more soldiers inside, playing cards on a cheap and crude table, an lantern illuminating their game. It was going to be another hot summer night without real or true darkness, only twilight even at the darkest moment, but the lantern was still required to make out who were going to be the winners and losers in their graveyard shift. One of the soldiers lifted his head from the cards when he heard the whistle, others just barely turned their heads towards the sound of the call, some too deep in the game to even register any noise at all. The one responding stood up, placed his cards face down on the cruddy table and made very significant glances to his companions, making clear to them that he would know if something was up when he came back, stepped over the wooden bench he had been sitting on and walked to Estan and Jacobin, both bowing to this new guard, most likely the boss of the bunch. The man put his

hands on his hips and nodded as a sign that he was now listening.


"Sir, we are pilgrims all the way from Arkansia, visiting all the holy sites of the Sun, looking for a place to stay for the night. We have understood that the church's mission is located in the trading company's premises and are asking if they would give as a place to rest our heads. We would be grateful and burn incense for the good of our host's souls." Estan said, gaze fixed at the soldiers feet, following the proper conduct when talking to your superiors. The head of the guards frowned, glanced at the guard leaning against the wall next to him who looked back and then he groaned. "Look, I know that this is the only place for you guys to stay in and your request is completely within reason, but why do you have to lie to me like I'm a complete idiot in the first sentence you utter from your mouths? No pilgrim is so ignorant or with such a bad sense of direction that he is going to end up in goddamn Saanasthas. There are no holy sites of the Sun to worship for at least two hundred miles from here and even a child would know that. You will really need to start to think through what that kind of attitude is going to bring your way." Estan's face became as red as a beet. He was tired and hungry and hadn't thought for even half a second what would have been smart to say, so he had automatically recited the same basic premise he had used a hundred times before on so many occasions. It maybe had worked even too well and the thought of the story failing to deliver had become unconsciously too far fetched for him to take seriously, even though right here in this place it was the least believable tale he could have possibly told. He was more embarrassed about his stupidity than worried of not being let in. Jacobin came to his rescue, deciding that the best thing to do was to fess up and hope for the best. Lying more would just be digging the pit they were in much deeper and the guard was now suspicious from the start.


"You're right sir, we're sorry. My friend wasn't thinking and we often use that story to get a place to sleep in the pilgrim's quarters in the monasteries and churches we pass by. We aren't particularly faithful believers and we just travel for the sake of traveling, doing whatever jobs we can find wherever we go and then move on. We have come such a long way that we ended this far and wanted to see a glimpse of the Shuitans now that there was a possibility. One of our friends is supposedly staying here and we wanted to visit him too. We had no idea how things worked around here and were caught off guard. Please forgive us, we meant no harm." Jacobin bowed deeper and on the sly shoved Estan with his elbow for him to do the same, to which Estan complied, if not for any other reason than to better hide his burning cheeks. The boss of the guards clearly was a fatherly type, his voice now softer. "See, was that so hard? If you now are bending the truth again and those "odd jobs" you mentioned are something more from the criminal side, know that any of that here is practically impossible. The Shuitans are hawks and for us it's very easy to follow what our boys are doing since everyone's presence is recorded and their activities are monitored in order for us to be present in this city at all. The merchants or the clergy have very little patience for any sort of tomfoolery, drunken or otherwise, so the repercussions will be severe. As for work, the only type you will find is what you can get here inside these walls, and as a punishment for your impertinence the first week you'll be cleaning the stables, peeling potatoes and scrubbing the floors. After that we will see if there is any actual use for you at all. If this doesn't suit you, you better break the sprinting record and get out of this city and its vicinity as fast as you can, before you can finally get your sleep inside a Shuitan prison cell. That will be your taste of the exotic cultures. These are your options, take it or leave it."


Jacobin and Estan mumbled words of gratitude and apology, bowing constantly in the process. Getting out of the city would really have been a risky race and they were running out of money and food, having blindly assumed that they could conduct their business here just as easily as elsewhere. It now seemed that at worst they would be stuck here for a week and if something worse was going to happen, they could at last pick a better time for their escape. Jacobin suspected that there could have been some slight sense of Arkansian solidarity at play here, since he would have thought that they would not have been given any mercy at all. Maybe the people in this island of a trading post were generally more welcoming to anybody with more familiar features, stranded as they were in this vast and uncharted territory.
The guard nodded his agreement and ordered one of the soldiers from the card table to escort Jacobin and Estan into the mission's sleeping quarters, but then changed his mind who should take them since he couldn't continue playing if they were going to be short of a one person again, so he gave the task to one of the guards standing at the gate instead. When Estan and Jacobin passed him and entered the trading company's gate, the soldier in charge became a little curious. "So who's supposed to be your friend here? You mentioned something about that too." Estan turned towards him to answer. "A monk called Javek, sir. We were training together at the same monastery in my hometown many years ago. We met again on our travels." The soldier blinked and then burst out laughing. Estan also noticed how the guard taking them rolled his eyes and one of the card players at the table snickered. "You should have started with that and I would have completely believed you to be the most inept pilgrims in the world, without any doubt in my mind. You're not going to see your friend around here, that's for sure. Hope you won't prove your neck of the woods to be a place where all the loonies come from." the guard said and shook his head. "Why? Has something happened? Is he alive?" Estan asked and straightened up, completely forgetting the proper way to speak and behave, but the soldier didn't really seem to mind. He rubbed his chin when he answered. "Well, I think he is, since they haven't carried out the public execution yet, even though he's been locked up for quite a while now. Honestly I don't really know the specifics of what was going on with him, now that I think about it. He was a crafty one and he had succeeded in mastering the moonspeak the Shuitans speak here, so he actually had the best chances of making some converts. The mission has in all honesty largely been a big joke since very few of the monks have absorbed the language and the people here are too conscious of their own achievements anyway to be paying much attention to what some foreign fool is telling them about how the world actually works, especially if those talking struggle with the most basic of words. But this Javek fellow got the grasp of it and he started to go among the Shuitans to preach about the good word. At first he had little success but he got some attention for speaking so well and even I could see that many of the officials here showed a sour face when they saw him. Then, at some point, he started to talk about something that pulled people to him like an magnet: he climbed on top a box at the marketplace or stood at the galleys at the Central Square when they were empty and not in use, and the folk around here started to gather in masses to listen to him, first only a few of them, but eventually more and more, low- and highborn alike. Some of the officials started to challenge him as he gave his sermons, but I guess it didn't go as well as they had thought since, as far as I can tell because I couldn't understand a word that they were saying, Javek defended his position pretty well and many of the debaters became flustered and silent. Some of them, holding more favorable views towards the monk, invited him to their homes and some of the better folk came to listen to him, unheard of in the history of this city. This phase went on for a short while, then the Shuitan bureaucrats started to visit our superiors here at the trading company, angry as all hell. Now, at this point I was willing to believe that the man was a saint and he had been able to show these heathens here the true way and that was just too much for the local big wigs but it really didn't turn out like that in the end. A lot of money goes through this place, money and materials we desperately need back in Arkansia, so our leaders were in a bit of a pickle trying to decide what they should do about this situation. One one hand the business here was too profitable to endanger but then again not backing our new preacher here would make us look like we had no backbone or principles at all, on top of causing great schism between the church and our state. But then the heads of the mission here invited Javek for a talk, and after that meeting they were just as mad as the Shuitans! Whatever he was saying managed to anger everybody. Both sides here were fuming but they were somewhat hesitant in taking him in since he had managed to gain a lot of followers here, but then on top of that the monk managed to make them angry too. He was booed and rotten vegetables and rocks were thrown in his way, I remember him getting hit a couple of times. The coast was clear and our superiors gave their blessing for the Shuitan officials to take the madman away, stating that he had lost his mind and in no way represented the church of the Sun or the views of Arkansia. Shortly after that things returned to normal for our and their relief, business being conducted as usual once again. I don't know know if many of the Shuitans here even remember the episode too well anymore, even though it was supposedly a big deal and happened somewhat recently." The guard stopped rubbing his chin and looked at Estan. "Actually, it's really good that this came up now and to me, you boys are lucky today. Don't mention that loony to anybody here, it's going to bring up bad memories and somebody might become inclined to throw you out. Forget your friend, that's the smart thing to do. Do your jobs and remember to attend the sermons the monks here conduct. And I'll tell you what, that's some good advice." Estan thanked the soldier and he and Jacobin went their way with the guard who was taking them to the monk's quarters. "Oh,


Javek!" Estan thought to himself, sadness stinging in his heart. "What did you do?"
In the early morning Jacobin and Estan were woken up very early to assist in the kitchen with the making of the breakfast for the working folk and monks of the trading company, the nobles and wealthy merchants having their own kitchen. After that they spent several hours cleaning the stables, the rest of the day being occupied in various menial tasks given to them by the maids and servants of the place, scrubbing the floors being one of them, just like the boss of the gate guards had told them. The work continued late into the evening and they fell asleep as soon as they hit the hay they were given to sleep on, but the morning came way too fast for them to recover from the previous day's taxing work. After the third day of this Jacobin was a little sour towards Estan for his blundering of the story. Their only pay were the roof over their heads and the meager meals they received, without generating any money for them to save or buy future rations with. Jacobin thought that if they were swindled and this was going to be their only means of existence in the city, it would be time to take a hike and tighten their belts, trying to turn their luck somehow at some other place, wherever that may be. Luckily though the soldier who had let them in was a man of his word: Krys was his name and he turned out to be a sergeant and after a week, just as was promised, he took Jacobin and Estan aside and interviewed both of them to find out what kind of jobs they would be suitable to do. It didn't take long for him to decide that Estan could work as a scribe and a secretary's assistant at the many offices the trading company held since he could write so well and fast and Jacobin got assigned at the carpenter's shop in the basement of one of the buildings. Apparently it was easier to manufacture the furniture and other wooden items needed in the trading company itself than to buy or bring them from somewhere else, since almost all of the nobles here wanted their rooms to remind them of their homes as much as possible, everything made in the same style and fashion as back in Arkansia. There were people here from other countries as well and they wanted their own furniture too, but the styles were so similar to the designs in Arkansia so it wasn't a big problem for the carpenters. Jacobin had some skill in woodworking and he was eager to learn more. He and Estan were now paid salaries, not necessarily good ones but they were much better than nothing. Part of it went to buying meat for their meals at the mess hall of the workers since they were mostly fed vegetarian meals made in the local style which apparently was cheaper than making the kind of cuisine they would have gotten back at home. Estan didn't mind the food too much, but Jacobin almost despised what they were served, even though he was not normally picky at what they managed to put into their mouths. Both of them craved meat, however.


They also had some free time for themselves now and were allowed to visit the city if they first checked in with the guards who wrote their names and the times of departure up. Most of the other people in the trading company didn't much like to leave since they were afraid of getting drunk and into trouble outside of the sanctified area. They could gamble and drink as much as they wanted within the reason allowed by their masters inside their compound, and the lords themselves conducted those activities regularly only here too, so leaving had become mostly a part of conducting business, pointless to do otherwise. Probably that's why leaving was allowed at all with regular workers in the first place, since there had been barely any incidents after the first few years, people opting to stay in their own small slice instead of the larger world. Giving the possibility to leave gave a sense of freedom that few actually exercised and lifted the working people's spirits, so there was no reason to decline this morale booster free of charge. The only thing the men craved from the great city were female companions, so once the many prostitutes of Saanasthas realized that the customers from the trading company were hesitant to come to them, they went to the trading company instead. Every weekend evening a line of working girls gathered at the backdoor of the company and every weekend morning they left with pockets heavy from coin. Jacobin had had a good, hearty laugh when he had watched the monks faces contort from revolt and disdain every Friday from having to live in the midst of the sin and debauchery. Apparently the head priest had tried with laudable effort to make the workers and soldiers stay away from the carnal pleasures, but accepted his defeat when the nobles had admitted that the whoring was being allowed to continue on purpose for the sake of the men's morale. "They are far away from home and you can't expect the lower rank to be able to contain themselves indefinitely. They sin but through this sin they will be content and will not commit the even worse crime of mutiny against their righteous masters. You can pray for them and they can repent once they get home." Apparently the nobles couldn't resist much either since Friday was their favorite day too and some of them were collecting "the house money" from the visiting prostitutes. Jacobin wondered if the monks and the priests were praying for the noble's souls too. Estan went out a lot, Jacobin not so much, not because he wasn't interested but because he had much more to learn at his new job than Estan. Any new skill or betterment of a familiar trade was like putting money in the bank for him. Carpenters were needed everywhere.


Krys proved to be more and more of a decent person, if not outright becoming a friend then at least a very likeable superior, somebody you were happy to do things for. When Jacobin and Estan were doing menial tasks during the first week Krys had popped in to check on them a couple of times a day, asking from the servants around them how they had been doing, without failing to crack jokes and chat with Jacobin and Estan each time too. When cleaning the stables Krys had seen Estan's face and had laughed heartily. "Shovel that shit, boys! It's almost as good for your souls as the evening mass! No offense, Father." he added when a priest within a hearing distance had glanced Krys with an evil eye. It wasn't that he was not a faithful believer or a conscientious foreman, on the contrary, but those traits of his character didn't mean that he wouldn't laugh when there was something to laugh at. Krys's jokes were crude, but not necessarily crass. It was the kind of humor that soldiers would enjoy and it gave his demeanor an easygoing manner, the actual orders fitted into the midst of his daily banter. He had the authority, no question about it, but it seemed to belong to him naturally, without any sort of pompousness or underlining. Krys said what you were supposed to do and then you did it. But if you had some sort of trouble, Krys wasn't without sympathy. Loyalty and good work was noted and rewarded, even if there wasn't that much he could actually reward you with, but a kind word or a free cup of the cheap coffee available in the mess hall were still miles ahead of what you could normally expect from your superiors. Krys's vice was gambling and sometimes he was in a foul mood after losing too much but he never took that out on those under him. He became silent and the jokes were not flowing, but that never lasted for long. Jacobin thought to himself that it mattered so much who you were working with to make the job itself bearable. A hard job under a good boss could be much better than an easy one with an awful superior.


Days went by comfortably, weeks blending together in the lull of their new routine. Still, Estan couldn't get Javek out of his mind. Estan had seen him daily for most of his childhood and adolescence, doing the chores of the monastic life together, eating at the same table, learning the prayers and hymns side by side. Estan felt bad for Javek, imagining him sitting in chains in some dark and dank dungeon as the victim of whatever petty reason the fate had sealed for him. Estan had been asking Krys various things about Saanasthas, trying to learn more about the comings and goings of the great city, but had found himself unable to try to pry more information about Javek's fate and possible whereabouts. He didn't straight up ask about the locations of different prisons since that seemed too obvious, but he did ask about where the public executions happened and when they usually took place. Krys realized where Estan was trying to get to anyway. "Look, I told you before that your friend hasn't been hanged yet, not publicly anyway. It's possible that they did him in quietly, but maybe not. He caused such a fuss and the Shuitans got our superior's acceptance so it's possible that they want to execute him publicly to show that people like him will get what's coming to them. Maybe they're waiting a bit so that his slander is not so fresh in everyone's memories and then hang him, but I don't know if that makes any sense. They've got their own logic here anyway." The he glanced at Estan. "You've been doing good here, so don't blow it by doing something stupid, you hear? I said that before too." So he had and Estan was certain that there would not be any possibilities to pull any stunts anyway even if he wanted to. Mostly the feeling of not knowing gnawed at him in the bottom of his stomach, and at best he would have wanted to say goodbye if there was any chance to do so. At least that much Estan owed to Javek, especially in this world suddenly turned against him.


So Estan walked through the city whenever he had the time, somehow and someway hoping that he would get hints of where Javek might be or if he was alive at all. In his wanderings Estan did find the Central Square and several market squares, the very places where Javek had acquired his fame, but that didn't really help him at all. He couldn't ask around because of the language barrier and besides that, he probably would end up in trouble if Estan would have been able to do so, gaining a whiff of that same notoriety that had served Javek so badly. So he wandered around aimlessly, in the midst of the sea of people, sweating in the endless heat, his story and drama being just one grain of sand in the desert of the wider world.


Estan ended up discovering a bunch of different places where prisoners of all sorts were being kept, but the buildings here were all massive and housed various government offices and services, like the police and the fire brigade, even containing large bathhouses for the various levels of civil servants, so it was very hard to know if the jails in any specific place were big or small or meant for more serious criminals, not that Estan could even know what category of an offender Javek was for these people anyway and what would in their minds be the right placement for him. At any rate it really seemed that working for the state was the thing to do in this empire, and Estan wondered how people managed to get those positions. His home of Arkansia felt more and more backwards and rustic compared to this far away neighbor. If fortune had rang differently for him and Estan would have been born here, he pondered if he would have had more sense of belonging and possibility in his life, but he asked this mostly as a way to entertain himself, without much seriousness in the tone of it. He was woken up from his thoughts when he saw a minor incident occurring in front of one of these massive government buildings.
There were a couple of soldiers and two or three apparently minor officials with their servants locked in an loud argument, but it was a little hard for Estan to see if the third official actually was one and not a servant, since their robes weren't much flashier or more elaborate than what the common people wore, but two of their group wore the special hats that indicated their position and they were loudest ones. Estan couldn't understand what was being said and the street they were in was busy anyway, so not much could be heard except a word here and there being yelled over the regular noises of the city. The soldiers were queasy and embarrassed, almost looking at the walls around them and very clearly not wanting to be there. One of them - apparently the leader of their group - tried to calm the upset civil servants. His attempts seemingly were in vain and they just got angrier and louder, now passers by glancing at them and some even stopping completely in their tracks, clearly not approving of what they were seeing. One of the officials was getting on a soldier's face and too close for comfort so, most likely without him even intending to do so and only doing it as a reflex, the soldier pushed the man back. He didn't do it hard or roughly, in fact the motion was almost gentle, but the frail, uncoordinated and lightweight official who had never lifted anything heavier than a pen in his life, stumbled back several meters and fell on his back, actually somersaulting twice before stopping. The official got up almost instantly and clearly was not hurt at all, but the soldier who had shoved him had become white as a sheet and his comrades looked at him with horrified faces, as if he had become a leper in an instant. The other official and their servants shared the same expressions and when the one who had been pushed got back, the groups stared at each other for a few seconds and then parted their ways in silence. The people watching in the street were shaking their heads or coughing in the awkward situation before they also kept going on with their errands. Apparently a taboo had been broken and there would be hell to pay, but Estan wasn't sure how unreasonable the officials had been since he didn't know what the argument had been about. What was clear was that the end result could have been much worse, since the street was busy and carriages were coming and going on it very frequently, so it had been a stroke of luck that the flimsy public servant had not been pushed under one. Still, the soldier who had done the deed was hanging his head and doing the walk of shame when he left with his fellow troops, and before they passed a corner Estan could see the leader of the group smack the offender hard to the back of his head, the metallic clang of an gauntlet hitting the iron helmet being clearly audible even though they were now far away. The upset but now quiet officials were walking the other way and passing Estan when one of them who had not been pushed and also wore the hat noticed him and stopped. To Estan's surprise the man said something to his comrades and they continued on, but the official himself approached him.


"Even the likes of you can produce a true visionary and a man of wisdom and truth, but what do the rest of your kind do? None have come from your ranks to defend the one sage that had something to say, something real, but instead you threw him out like a basin full of dirty water, sighing relief when you could grab coins once more with your dirty hands and black consciences. You think you were smart but think again: what you have only shown is that your lot has no backbone and no pride, allowing others to walk all over you in any way they please as long as they throw some scraps your way, like a beaten mutt begging for food. We suspected it, almost knew it, but you underlined your weakness and moral hollowness in such a way that it revolted us. You're ready to be run over and now it's only a matter of time." Estan had just stared at the man with his eyes wide, not having expected such a sermon and lecture coming his way, especially from somebody who would never stoop so low as to talk to him and who should not even know his language. The official's accent was strong but he spoke with ease. Estan realized that he should bow and he mumbled apologies that he didn't know what the good sir was referring to. The official sighed with contempt. "And now you play dumb when your backs are against the wall." He nodded his head towards the building in front of which he and his companions had had the confrontation with the guards. "The sage is there, right before your eyes, and you look the other way. I suspect that they locked into the same dungeons your virtue, however little there was left of it." The official turned his back to Estan and walked away, the air of loathing and bitterness trailing after him. Estan lifted his head from the bowing position, still surprised at the outburst, especially since somehow the whole of Arkansia was apparently compiled into him in the official's eyes, but then he started to realize what was happening and his heart started to race. He glanced towards the building the official had meant and a new batch of guards were arriving to the street in front of it, the previous ones now probably dealing with the fallout their episode had caused. The place looked like any other government building here, not distinct in any way, and Estan could not believe his luck if the official truly had been right. He decided to not try to check the place out now, after there already had been people trying to get in, but tomorrow, later at night, when the streets would be calmer.


Estan's plans got delayed since he was so swamped with work. He and some other clerks had to repeat an inventory for a shipment several times since all the items the merchant was supposed to have weren't there, so the issue caused a lot of bad blood and was probably going to be taken to court. Estan couldn't catch a break for two days and first the merchants were breathing down his neck, then the bailiff's didn't leave him alone and finally the lawyers themselves were watching them go over the cargo yet again. Estan could hit the bed only very late at night and there was no time for excursions to the jail cells where Javek was supposedly kept. He confined his plans to Jacobin. "Yeah, I appreciate the sentiment and I'm sure he would too. It's important to try to do the right thing when you can. Whether it works out or not at least there's dignity in it. Oftentimes that's all we can ask, as sad as that is." Jacobin answered approvingly. He rubbed his chin while laying down in his bunk, thinking about the issue. "Now, if I were you, I would try to get in by saying you want to do Javek's last rites, say that you and your fellow monks wanted to pray for the condemned man in person and burn some incense, preparing him for the afterlife, since the man was insane and didn't really know what he was doing and was entitled to at least some pity and sympathy. Very likely the guards there don't speak much of our language so you should snatch a priest's hood and some other paraphernalia from the mission's storage. If you look like that when you go there they probably figure out what you want without much words anyway. If they complain about your visit to the trading company later, so what? Maybe Krys will chew you out privately if he hears about it but he is not going to make a big deal out of it, he's much too decent and reasonable for that." Estan listened and agreed with him. He had free access to the storage room and nobody would be suspicious about him going there so might as well.
The next day Estan's work ended at a reasonable time and he went to the mission's storage. He was carrying a pen and an accounting book with him to look like he was just going on with his business, having a small bag hidden under his robe for the things he needed to snatch. He was thinking about what he should say if he should run into the abbot of the mission who was a cantankerous and foul old man, the type who had a habit of lashing out at almost anybody in his vicinity. His unhappiness had reached the maximum for living so long in the close proximity of the debauchery of the trading company that ruined the spirit of his holy mission. Estan realized that the abbot was not going to be a problem due to some recent drama that had just surfaced: one of the monks here had given in to the temptations of the flesh and had accompanied one of the courtesans in the past weekend and somebody had tattled on him. The whole congregation had gathered at the ceremonial hall to witness the punishment of this poor sinful soul and Estan was sure that the abbot was probably going to pop a blood vessel. He was thankful that he was not directly tied to the mission but was employed on the trade company's side, so none of the restrictions and punishments following would end up on his back too. He could hear the yelling when he walked past the door to the ceremonial hall and he chuckled to himself. The hallways of the mission were completely empty and he could take the things he needed from the storage in peace. Estan took a priest's robe, some incense sticks and a few prayer beads, stuffed them in his bag and left the storage without even bothering to hide the bag under his own clothes. He thought about it and he decided to take a detour through the bakery before he left, knowing that there had been some bread made in the Arkansian style and he could buy some. If he would get in and see Javek and get the bread through the gates too, it would be a good gift. He got a loaf with some chump change and stuffed it in his bag too, feeling somewhat of a knot in his stomach thinking that something as meager as this could practically be his friend's last meal. Estan left the trading company's gates and headed towards the jail cell's where Javek was supposedly being held.


It was as hot as always, sweat constantly dripping from everybody's brows and the wind sometimes brought sand from miles and miles away from some unknown place deep in the Shuitan empire, choking and blinding the city dwellers. Estan tried to protect his eyes by holding his hand at his temple, almost walking sideways when the wind really started blowing. When he saw that he was nearing his destination, Estan went to a small alley without people in it and put the priest's robe on behind some stacked wooden crates. He put on one of the prayer beads, wrapped it around a few times, took a swig from his water canteen and walked the last few corners left before seeing the guards standing at the jail's doors. They had a kind of an tent-like canvas installed around the doors so they would not have to stand in the middle of the minor sand storm tormenting Saanasthas, looking quite comfortable inside it, chatting away and not having to worry about looking official since people mostly tried to stay inside on days like this. They glanced at Estan curiously when he appeared to the street, a lone foreign priest being a little peculiar sight and in a sand storm no less, but who could understand these idiots from abroad so they quickly continued with whatever they were talking about. Then the guards did a second take when they realized that Estan was actually approaching them and they perked up, looking very annoyed that they would have to deal with whatever this was going to be. One of them said something to a guard next to him who went inside and after a few seconds he came back with somebody in a minor official's robes. The guards and the official patiently waited for Estan to reach them and one of the guards even lifted the canvas up a bit so Estan could get inside easier. You could say what you wanted about the Shuitans but most of the time they had good manners.


"Thank you, thank you." Estan muttered with the few Shuitan words he had learned in his time of staying in the city. The guard nodded and the official greeted Estan with a slight bow, Estan bowed back but deeper. Nobody rushed him but at the same time it was apparent that they wanted to be done with this as soon as possible.
"Speak, good priest." said the minor official with an extremely heavy accent and with a funny choice of words, but he seemed to be adequate with the foreign tongue. Estan was happy that he didn't need to only resort to gestures with such a delicate matter as this. "Thank you sir. I've come to understand that the one of ours who went mad and caused quite a stir here some time ago is being held in this building. We condemn everything that he has said and done, representing in no way of who we are and what we do either as a nation or as a faith, and your anger with that man has been most warranted. Still, for us as the Children of the Sun, even the most wretched individual deserves some pity. He is mad and possibly he didn't completely understand what he was doing and before he departs this world to meet the judgement of the Holy Ones, we wish to perform a ritual in his presence so he can try to start his path towards purification in this world already by showing remorse to a priest. Maybe it is to no avail, but for us it would be moral and demonstrate our sincerity in fixing what has been broken." The official had listened and when Estan stopped, he inhaled sharply by sucking air between closed his teeth, hissing like a cat. "You've condemned this criminal time and again, damning him to the lowest depths of hell, and now this? Do you pity rapists and murderers back home in this way too, cutting an criminal off from your society like an infected and decaying limb, spouting about your unfeigned intentions and pure hearts from morning to night day after day, then suddenly turn around like the offender hadn't been malicious at all and cry on his grave like you had lost an brother or an son? Why do you wish to associate yourselves with this man yet again? Why in this manner? You haven't gone through the proper channels and now you just suddenly appear before us on a day like this, none of this business having been discussed officially by our and your superiors. " The Shuitans seemed to have a way with words. Estan weighed what he would say carefully. "Well sir, that's just it. This whole affair has been a shameful business, something we would want nothing to do with and are sorry that it happened, but there is a moral code for us. Bringing this issue up properly would have created more problems and more bad blood, being embarrassing for us and angering you, so the decision was made to try to arrange this on a lower level and without causing a scene, unofficially. The incident has caused great distress inside the mission of the trading company and this ceremony that I am supposed to conduct here would be a way to patch things up again in the midst of our own flock, make it right between us and the Sun. Right here and now the authority rests only on your shoulders sir. If you choose to not let me in then that will be that and we won't approach you with this matter again, but it would mean a great deal to us if you'd allow the ceremony to happen. Publicly it is true that we wouldn't admit it but in our hearts every Child of the Sun knows what is expected of us, even if we stray from the correct path. I, in fact we, beg for your understanding sir." Estan added a small bow after he had said his piece. The official looked at him disapprovingly, more than anything he seemed even more convinced about the superiority of his own culture and was reminded that the foreign customs and the foreign sense of right and wrong made no sense. But technically Estan was right: everything he had said could be verified or at least argued for could be found from the holy texts, but in practice the rituals of forgiveness had probably never been practiced in their intended form. The church hadn't criticized them but they weren't applied and were only paid lip service, so in any actual instances of crime the punishments were usually very severe and everybody was just collectively happy that the offender got what was coming. When pity and remorse were highlighted in the sentencing, it just meant that instead of a physical punishment the offender had to pay a hefty fine for his sins, a practice that had become more and more popular once the crown had realized that it should be entitled to at least a third of the sum. The fine was usually so great though that an poor peasant or an servant ended up in so serious trouble that many probably would had been happier with flogging or something else of the sort. The only time when Estan had seen the forgiveness ritual actually being performed the felon had been an young woman who had broken her chastity even though she had been promised to somebody else. The priest of the town had in great voice filled with fervor demanded the rituals to be conducted, and the other villagers felt that they couldn't argue against such holy words coming from such a holy mouth, so the priest had been allowed to meet the young lady. Then it turned out that they had fled together and the perpetrator who had done the deed had been the priest himself. Estan had gotten the idea from that episode, remembering how he and Jacobin had cackled together when they had seen the beet-red faces of the villagers, but in this instance, right here and now there wasn't much to laugh at. There wasn't a chance for Javek to escape from here.


Still, the official wasn't completely shutting him out. "What would this ritual consist of?" he asked. Estan opened his bag and showed the incense, the bread and the prayer beads. "We talk about the crime and then I pray for him, burning this incense while we do it." The guard and the official leaned in to peer into the bag in unison, looking a little comical with their coordination. "What's the bread for?" the official asked. "At the end of the ceremony the guilty eat the bread of their homeland to symbolize their desire to be part of the group again." This part Estan made up, since he just wanted to give Javek something good to eat. The official seemed to be thinking. "And that's it? You're only going to do those things? How long would it take?" Estan nodded. "That is all, sir. At maximum it would take about an hour, but I can work with less if it's necessary." The official was silent for a moment, then he talked with the guards for a while. He started explaining what the foreign priest wanted, and the guards didn't seem surprised. They possibly had been on some level anticipating that the Arkansians would still want something to do with their madman and Estan was guessing that it was the reason why they had somebody present who could speak his language. Their discussion went on and they seemed to get into an agreement, although one of the guards pointed at Estan's bag a couple of times. Then the official turned to Estan again. "If you truly are after only such a simple request, I don't see much harm in granting it, although I don't grasp the reasoning behind it. We also have our rules, however, and the prisoners usually aren't allowed to get things from outside, so the bread would have to go. I understand that you aren't going to give into his possession anything else either?" Estan complied but haggled about the bread a bit, so a compromise was reached where Estan could take a small handful of it instead of the whole loaf. The rest of the bread he could take with him when he left. Apparently the official concluded that it was better for the baby to have its bottle since he saw Estan's supposed ceremony as an symbolic matter only, and Estan thought that besides practicality this decision showed, it also demonstrated more deeply how little the Shuitans thought about the Arkansians and probably about the rest of the world as well. If they would have been equal, things like this would have instigated discussions about how each side viewed morality and what was proper for people to do in foreign lands according to their own and their hosts customs and this minor official couldn't have made the decision about allowing this ceremony by himself, but the Shuitans waived everything off as nonsense and didn't care in the least bit about any of it unless it affected business in one way or another. Estan had been prepared to hear about his visit back at the trading company and he had calculated that they would let him go off the hook once they had heard what he had been doing there, like a true follower of the Sun. Now Estan was sure that the Shuitans couldn't care less and wouldn't report him. It was no wonder that the mission had been such a failure.


Estan put the tiny piece of bread he was allowed to take in his bag and one of the guards showed him the way. The keys on ring hanging from his waist jingled and jangled, messaging very accurately where

he was and what his destination was, and Estan was led down a few set of stairs and several narrow corridors, the dungeons underneath being bleak and miserable, revealing not a speck of the splendor of the city outside. Paper lanterns lit the way and it was getting darker and darker the deeper they went, even though the sandstorm outside had been colored vividly red when the strength of the sun had sent its rays through it. On the street level the wind could have been heard trembling the windows, but here you were isolated from the greater world. It was starting to become damp, and Estan wondered if the rain pushed down into this hole and made the place even more unbearable. Finally after an opened door the guard gestured towards the bars of one cell and grunted in an affirming manner, then to Estan's surprise he just left, the sound of the keyring becoming quieter and quieter the farther he went until it disappeared totally. Estan hoped that they would come and fetch him at some point, since he wasn't sure that he could find the way back by himself.


Estan approached the cell he had been pointed towards and saw some figure laying on its side on the cell floor. "Javek? Is that you Javek? It's me, Estan!" he said, the sound barely coming out of hist tightened throat. The figure didn't move immediately, seeming too feeble to react in any sudden fashion anymore, but there was some animation as it started to get out of its stupor and rise on all fours. "Wha... Estan? Estan!" a raspy voice called out, a sound of dry quality that hadn't been used for a long while, and the figure crawled towards the metal bars the cell door was made of and towards the dim light of the lanterns. Estan had anticipated it but he was startled anyway, barely recognizing Javek, his once so lively eyes now sunken into the skull of man who the world had thrown away, his ribs visible and a big patchy beard covering his features, his balding head producing long and dirty hair on its sides and back. Estan couldn't help it and he cried, cried like had as an small child, remembering the hours, days and years he had spent with his now doomed and suffering friend, the cruelty of life personified on Javek's ragged existence barely clinging to life, and they both cried and embraced however they could through the bars of the cell door, Javek smelling unwashed and dirty but Estan didn't care. They sobbed for a while, let go and swallowing tears and snot Javek reached into the bag to give the small piece of bread he had managed to bring in and Javek devoured it like it had been the only piece of food he had seen in his life, barely chewing it. Estan felt ashamed that he hadn't pressured the official more to bring the whole bread in and that he hadn't thought to bring some water with him too. They sat on the floor, Estan on his knees and Javek leaning against the bars, clearly not having the strength to be up in the first place. After a while they had calmed down a bit, being able to talk again, hearing the rats scuttle about in the unlit corners of the cells.


"Oh Javek, what did you do? How could you end up here in the worst possible predicament, making enemies of everybody you have ever met, foreign and familiar alike? They don't even want to talk about you in the mission or the trading company, like you had been the biggest plague and embarrassment possible. I only managed to find you through such an unlikely coincidence that I still don't believe it." Estan rumbled through his bag and produced the incense and the prayer beads. "I got in by pleading to do the forgiveness rituals, but I don't want forgiveness, I just want to understand why. Why? What could you have possibly said that it ended like this?" Javek was silent, resting his head against the bars, his face now bafflingly showing deep satisfaction as he stared at the prayer beads in the ground, his essence in complete contradiction with his physical state and surroundings. Estan thought that the talk about him becoming crazy probably were true and the imprisonment had only made it worse.
"What I said? What I said was what I was supposed to say." Javek croaked. He breathed in several times, preparing himself for the long story he was about to tell. "I've been in Saanasthas for many years and it took a long while before I could have said anything or let alone understand anything. It's like an distant haze now, but I believe that I talked to you about the translation task I was assigned in secret, even though I wasn't allowed to say anything about it, so jealous are the Shuitans about their language and religion that any serious attempts to translate their words and concepts were deemed best to be conducted in secrecy. Officially I was just another missionary like everybody else, but I was given some extra allowance, empty paper and ink and a small place was rented only for me at the outskirts of the city where I could be doing my work in secret, seemingly unbeknownst to the trading company and to the mission as an whole, without being required to attend to most of the mission's regular daily duties that otherwise would had suited my lowly stature. I was so proud and happy and excited to have been chosen for such an undertaking! I'd never had any greater aspirations for my humble self, thinking that I didn't stand out from the crowd through skill or merit in any way, but then to my surprise I discovered at some point that learning foreign tongues came very easily to me. Through some route that I don't know, this new ability of mine reached the ears of the abbots and other important persons of the church, changing the route of my life forever. Here in Saanasthas some merchants secretly working for the church had managed to get their hands on many volumes of the sacred literature of the Shuitans and these books were given to my possession to look over and translate. I threw myself to the task wholeheartedly, spending every available moment pouring over this material and then attending the normal efforts of monks trying to preach the holy words to the citizens of the city so I could hear foreign words and understand the locals. This latter activity proved to be quite fruitless since few people understood our own language and those who did, some officials and other such educated government people, seemed almost to have come only to laugh at us. I more and more left myself out of these excursions to the city and just stayed in my rented room, doubling my efforts to translate the texts. I was starting to despair that my talent actually wasn't much of an talent to begin with: I had to figure out the writing system of the Shuitans and some of the books were definitely from different time periods with different types of symbols across these texts and what words I had learned from the spoken tongue of the locals were the dialects of the working people and the educated had their own style, something that everyone had to learn separately from the everyday language. It felt like I was hitting my head against the wall, but little by little I got better. For one, I was supposed to write a dictionary besides understanding the religious texts, but so baffled I was with their beliefs that this job was buried in the background of my mind. There are temples here in this city, many of them, and at some point I picked up the pieces of my courage and tried to enter one of them, wanting to see if they would let me in. To my great surprise I was allowed to wander almost wherever I pleased, collecting gazes and sniggers when I walked about in my monks robes, wondering at the beauty of the statues, paintings and gardens of these places. I realized that many of the sermons they had were arranged in an hall that was practically outdoors: the wall of the temple opened up in many arched vaults leading to a garden I was allowed to sit and stay in for as long as I wanted, so I situated myself there in an way that I could hear what their lecturers were saying almost as if I was with them at the room. The first time I did I was afraid that I would end up in trouble or cause trouble for the mission or the trading company that had been so good to me, but I tempted faith and when the abbot of theirs saw me standing there in the middle of his talk he stopped short and everybody sitting there turned towards me to see what was the cause of this interruption. I remained where I stood looking as innocuous as I could, the awkward and a bit tense moment lasting for a while, but then the abbot seemed to disregard me and he eased back into whatever he had been talking about.
My heart raced when I went back there the next day to see if there was more lecturing to be heard, but again my presence didn't seem to annoy them. Almost daily there was somebody talking, and I was there too, as if I was becoming a part of the scenery of the garden and pretty soon I wasn't even looked or laughed at anymore, standing there like any of the many statues that had been there seemingly since the beginning of time.


Combined with this listening, my translation started to bring results since they were using the official language and the lectures were opening up the abstract and difficult concepts of their faith to their trainees. Now I was progressing daily, being constantly astonished by how different and how nuanced their teachings were. What they wanted to achieve seemed to be about transcending this mundane and material realm of our daily existence, somehow melting into a current that flows underneath that consists of the pure essence of life, the starting point of the energy that gets molded into the things we see before our eyes. What seemed to be a big problem for them was the question of the methods of how this transcendence could be achieved: some favored chanting of the parts of their holy texts again and again from morning to night, others pushed themselves towards incredible feats of withstanding pain and physical ordeal, some tried to lose themselves to the midst of artistic expression of their ceremonies and so on. In this particular temple I came to understand that they had a practice of "just sitting" where they simply sat on the ground with their eyes closed, maybe on a pillow but nothing too comfortable and tried to let go of all conscious thought. I had seen them do this before on many occasions, but I had thought they had been praying to some sort of a god of theirs, not understanding what they were trying to accomplish.


Sitting in my room at my desk I read through the passages expressing the importance of this kind of practice. The chanting some of the Shuitan monks did was somewhat similar to what I knew some Children of the Sun did back in Arkansia, though I hadn't practiced that particular form of worship myself. Witnessing this city and what their vast empire could offer, I wasn't able to discard their practices and beliefs outright like so many of our brothers at the mission did, sneering twice as hard to the Shuitans as they scoffed at us and I was sure that this kind of attitude would not yield results, that we had now seen many times over. So, I sat down, legs crossed on the floor like they did and closed my eyes. At first the idea of "letting go of your thoughts'' meant nothing to me, sounding like an mystical platitude, but I think that I managed to make it concrete and real for myself: when working on the translation, I would get thoughts of what some passage could mean or imply, I would address the issue and think it as thoroughly as I could for a while, then store it in the back of my mind when it was time for rest and I couldn't muster the cognitive energy to do it anymore. Then, once freshened, I'd pick up where I'd left it to continue, all the while just sitting there in my room deep in my thoughts.
So now, taking this practice of putting the concepts I was pondering about on the back burner, I now tried to do it with everything that entered my mind: thoughts considering my work wandered into my consciousness so I pushed them away, then mundane and meaningless images I'd seen during the day like an old man carrying a basket on his back passing me by on the street or how the abbot at the mission had yelled to one of the monks about something barged in to my mind's eye. Then sounds and sensations of the moment didn't leave me alone, like the rattle of a carriage outside bothering me or the roughness of my robes itching me.


But then, at some point, those things started to fade away. On one level I saw it and on other I felt it but neither of these statements are really true, but it was an image of water droplets dripping on a still surface of water one by one and every time the tension of the water broke, a sensation of warm and deep vibrations passed through my body, only that I started to lose the sense of where my body ended and where the greater world began. The noises in the background ceased to exist and the coarseness of my clothes or the pestering of conscious thought didn't bother me anymore, my very self being swallowed into this esoteric trembling that seemed to underline anything and everything we perceived as real. But I got scared since I hadn't expected anything to actually happen, so I pulled and tugged on my fading self, trying to escape the stream that was taking me away, and as if swimming towards the surface from the depths of an ocean the brief moments before I could once again fill my lungs with air felt crucial and eternal and then, once again, I was sitting on the floor of my room, a fly buzzing around on the ceiling and hearing the words of an muffled conversation just outside my window.
I had lost the sense of time and for all i know I could have been sitting in that trance for hours on end, but in truth it had been just the briefest moment of time, ten or twenty minutes at most, but it felt like I had woken up to a new day, yesterday resembling a faint memory of something that had happened in my childhood, unclear and probably untrue. I had to go on for a walk, so startled I was by this sudden experience, and after an hour I had calmed down, now completely living and present in the mundane world yet again. Sitting down in the chair in front of my writing desk I contemplated. The experience had been true, concrete despite its esoteric nature, and I suddenly realized that I felt closer to the Holy Ones than I ever had in my life. It wasn't an overwhelming epiphany, not something that would have moved me into tears and dropped me onto my knees, but a firm and warm certitude, like holding a map and a compass and verifying that the path you were taking was the right one. I was convinced that at some point the Shuitans had heard about the Gospel of the Sun and on some level accepted it, built upon it much earlier than we had, but then drew their own conclusions and strayed from the path, ending where they are now. But we hadn't understood everything either, and our own practices and methods weren't developed enough. There was much to learn and much to do. With vigor I resumed my tasks.
Months went by but then something changed with the Shuitans. I attended the lecture at the temple from a distance like I had before and even managed to do the same at other temples as well, but the tone of the lectures had changed remarkably. There was now some sort of war effort going on in some far-away place that I had never heard of and couldn't place on the map for the life of me, but for the Shuitans the control of this place was of great importance. More soldiers were needed, and the task had been placed on their monks to drum upon the populace the fervor of war. New lecturers I had never seen before now presented their case to the monks and then the monks walked among the regular people to spread the new dogma, even bringing it up on the Shuitan celebrations and festivals, weddings and funerals, occupying the public discourse with their message to the extent that this was the only thing people were talking about. From what I could gather the citizens of this nation were considered as the brothers of the Shuitans and invading the land was a moral dilemma, but that wasn't going to be an issue for the powers to be.


"Killing is a sin and against the Concept of the Great Compassion, that much is certain and that we all know." orated the new lecturer to the monks when I stood at the garden and listened as now was my habit. "But the world is messy and complex, and we have to understand how to follow the Way on these delicate issues. Our brothers since ancient times have corrupted their thinking and have set themselves on a path that will bring great misfortune and devastation, endangering us and themselves. The great emperor has talked and reasoned, reasoned and talked, but none can sway them from their evil ways. It is wrong to kill but only through killing can we stop what is happening, and whatever the steel and cannon will burn and destroy, however much must we and they suffer, it will be infinitely less than what will happen if we let the events unfold in the fashion they wish. To save the great empire we must kill and to save our brothers we must kill, and you will be forgiven for you are doing the right thing, right here and thereafter. By committing the smaller wrong you are not letting the ones you consider the same blood and soul to do the greater wrong. Thus, there is nothing wrong in whatever you need to do, and we can't allow ourselves to be blinded by however seemingly ugly it will appear. It is guiltless to kill from compassion. Our objective is not to kill but to save. To kill in this way is not wrongdoing." The lecturer continued with his reasoning. "What we have set out to do as monks is to let go of our sense of self and come back to the Great Current where everything began, forsaking the regular world to the greatest extent we can. However, again, it is not that simple. We have our debt to the emperor just like everybody else does and like sons we must serve our father, feeling joy from this great privilege. Not only that, we all know that even though our quest as monks is sacred, not everybody in the society can embark on our way of life no matter how much we wish for it, and those participants of our society deserve salvation too, despite their clinginess to this plane of existence. By wholeheartedly committing themselves to serving the emperor, they too can arrive at the gates of the divine destination. To march in formation is as good as chanting, in drilling the charge against the enemy combatants they can lose their sense of self, by welcoming the beatitude of this just war they are one with the current of pure essence once again. To withhold this true knowledge is the real sin and to have a clean conscience, we must spread these words as far and wide as we can. The glory of the empire needs us, and I want to answer. So should you." So moved was his audience that sobbing could be heard and many shoulders trembled in a wave of strong emotion, and I was becoming uneasy.


The new maxim spread fast, and my anxiousness turned into shock and disgust. Just as easily as turning one's hand, their tradition was wiped away and it was as if these mental gymnastics had always been the core of their culture, and nobody batted an eye. There even was a certain rejuvenation in the air, a puffing up of the collective chest, and many young men joined the army and left their previous lives without further consideration, their parents and families standing there proud as if what awaited their most precious things in life was a grand adventure, not war, devastation and peril. Now public lectures were held, different kinds from the usual ones, where the event was held outdoors and people were encouraged to come and watch from all social classes, this being mandatory to the learned people no matter their rank. I attended too, sitting in the middle of the poor folk, everybody in their own groups according to their standing, those truly superior on platforms with ornate seating. An abbot spoke and everybody listened to his macabre reasoning for the war. He was a charismatic man and that just added to his allure. "Losing one's self is the highest spiritual goal we can strive towards and in that state the individual's connection to reality changes. His consciousness melted into the cosmos changes the nature of the sword too and the sword, not the individual, commits the act of killing, in perfect accordance with the comings and goings of the world, just as naturally as the bird sings or the wind blows, without thought or intention. The warrior becomes an artist creating a masterpiece, producing an article of genuine beauty." The audience was spellbound by his monstrous words, and I suddenly couldn't take it anymore, the wrongdoing was too great for me to turn my back to the moral decency of all fellow human beings, and I stood up and spoke.


"Truly is wondrous the teaching of Great Compassion when murder is the way to the unity with the divine!" I yelled with conviction and all heads turned towards me and when they realized that the man behind the slanderous words was a foreigner talking in their own tongue as clearly and correctly as their learned officials you could have heard a pin drop, but I was just starting and rose to stand on the bench I had been sitting on. But then their shock had worn off and was replaced with outrage, and the cacophony of their collective anger and spite drowned out my lone and feeble voice. Everyone from low to high caste was pushing me and shoving me, the precious Shuitan order and harmony broken, and I was barely able to escape from their blows and kicks, running as fast as I could, shielding my head with my arms. But I wasn't arrested and speeding towards my rented room I realized I wasn't being chased by the mob after I had escaped the temple grounds. I slammed the door behind me and was thoroughly startled and frightened. I tried to catch my breath, my hands shaking and the dripping sweat from my brow forming a small plash on the floor, my throat dry from heavy breathing. Once I could truly verify that there really was no one after me, the sounds of the street outside being as mundane as ever, I calmed down a little and inspected my body for injuries, but I had only suffered a few bruises and a torn robe. I drank some water and wasn't panicking anymore, but I was still too scared to go outside or think clearly, but inside I knew that I couldn't stop short on this journey I had now taken my first steps on. I managed to sleep a few hours just before the morning came and then, not really confident or brave or sure about myself in any way, I headed towards the nearest market square I knew was full of people already.
There were the gallows in the middle of that market square, people bustling about on their various businesses and errands, and the sun hit my eyes behind the poles where the nooses would be tied to. I climbed the stairs, realizing very well the irony of me giving such a message from such a platform, as if I was accepting my destiny and my fate, which I had, despite my fear. So, I sermoned: my voice wasn't very audible but despite my fear it was steady, owing its strength to the virtue of the Sun and to the satisfaction of being able to say my piece, and people closest to the platform glanced my way but then stopped at their tracks when they realized who was speaking. Others farther away noticed those who had suddenly stopped and curiously looked around what had been the cause and, noticing me, came closer and squinted their eyes as if to make sure that their sight wasn't deceiving them. Soon the whole market square had stopped.


"I came from a long way away." I had started with clear Shuitan. "My mission was to preach, to deliver to you the good word of the Sun, the evangelion, the sacred script, the correct morals and virtues. But arriving here, I realized the smallness of myself and the greatness and the complexity of the world and I was shaken in my conviction. Looking at what your culture has achieved the sureness of my words felt hollow, and instead of speaking, I read and I listened. I was humbled, and rightly so." This time there was no anger in the air, just curiosity that was forming into an acceptance of some sort. "But as an outsider looking in, I can also see the changes of your society more clearly. The coming war has seeped into your beautiful faith. What was just shortly before so profound and meaningful and wise has become twisted and poisonous. Don't let the forced justification for war erase who you are, destroy your values and virtues, make you jump blindly into something that you should question in the first place. I can't be the only one who feels that you have been abandoned, low and high born alike, foreigner as I may be. Under the Sun everyone has value, everyone matters, and I would betray my faith and your ideals if I would not stand up for this. Tomorrow I will preach more, and the day after and the day after that, until I can do it no more. Blessed are you, each and every one." I walked the stairs down from the gallows and I was let go. No one hit me or kicked me, no one even said a word against me and I was able to walk away in peace.


And like I had promised, I came back the next day and every day since then, sometimes twice a day, completely letting go of my original mission and task. Sometimes there were people who yelled against me, sometimes they threw things, but there were always others in the audience who defended me and pushed the hecklers away. It didn't take long for those who had been listening to the lecture at the temple that day I had first opened my mouth to find me and they were not happy about it, but still I avoided prison. The things turned worse when some of the learned officials started to debate me, yelling from the audience but no one dared to say anything because of their high position, and few times they even climbed on the platform with me to show how ignorant and poor my understanding was of their nuanced philosophy, but I held on to my argument well. The audience was impressed and the officials were mortified that I had not only learned the language by listening alone but had actually learned by heart some of their teachings. Some kind souls invited me to their homes and fed me at their tables and I continued my sermons at their houses, making great friends and gaining followers for the Truth of the Sun. After months of this I was ordered back to the trading company and several guards were sent to fetch me, but now on the way there, people on the street recognized me and pointed at me and some of them followed me and the nervous guards. By the time we had arrived at the trading company a sizable crowd had tailed us, and it just kept growing outside the trading company as I hurried to the office of my superiors. Behind the mahogany door the leading merchants looked nervous and somewhat confused, but the commander of the post and abbot of the mission were absolutely fuming. I stood straight and calm, firm in my decision to just tell the truth. I didn't last for a minute before the commander exploded, yelling at how I wasn't supposed to interfere with the businesses of our hosts and I had compromised the position of every Arkansian in the whole city. Once I managed to get a word in about our moral responsibilities and what the sacred scriptures had obligated us to do, the commander looked at me like I was a lost cause and there was no point to even yell at me and then it was the abbot's turn to explode. "You're not obliged to be a complete idiot! There is a time and a place for everything and a correct way to do things! On top of all the other issues you have caused, they now suspect us of stealing their holy texts, you couldn't even keep your mouth shut about that?" The commander glanced at the abbot sideways sharply, but the man didn't notice the change in his colleague. "But your holiness" I started. "They know the gospel of the Sun, deep in their hearts even if they don't realize it, their texts indicate so. By learning from them we can deepen our faith even more and come closer to..." The abbot was so exasperated that he couldn't even utter a word, he just flailed his hands around and made incoherent noises to cut me off. "Just.. just take him away! This is futile." The guard guided me away by pulling on my sleeve and I could hear what the abbot was saying to the commander behind my back as I left. "And a heretic on top of it! I have to admit that this mess is on me and my superiors at the church, we have to profile what kind of people we assigning on delicate tasks like this, not just pick those who can learn languages and seem loyal on the surface level, that boy has become an loony when he was left by himself. At least we need people to watch over the translators..." Then the commander joined in. "Look, I don't like that you at the mission do things like this behind my back, there's too much at stake and there needs to be transparency..." The rest I couldn't hear since the door was shut and I was walking down the stairs, towards the cells at the bottom floor.


After that I haven't seen the sun much. Several days passed, maybe a week or more before I was transferred here and that was in a wagon that had no windows or way to see out whatsoever. I heard the bustling of the streets for one last time. Then, it's been this place for how long now, I don't know.” Javek ended his story.


Estan had listened without saying a word. Now a tired silence hung in the air. This really was the last meeting, there was no getting out here. Javek lifted his head and spoke once again. "My friend, do the last rites and pray for me. You coming here was the greatest thing that could have happened to me. I want to thank the Sun and be grateful for the journey I had on this earth." The rituals couldn't have been more meaningless to Estan, especially now, but he went through with them for the sake of his friend. He fumbled a bit with how they were supposed to be conducted but Javek helped him along the way, the scent of the incense now strong in the dark and damp cell. "Estan, listen to me." Javek said afterwards. "They must have taken all my possessions in my room, but maybe they haven't found all of the texts I had translated. Under the floorboards in the corner of the room where my mattress was there are loose boards and there is hollow space. You'll have to crawl a bit but behind a supporting pillar there is a box where I stored a lot of what I had done. If you can in any way, you should get it. It's the only thing I've managed to produce in all my time in this city and it would be a waste for it to disappear. My room was on sixteenth street of the northern district." Estan nodded without thinking much, just repeating the address in his mind to make sure he remembered it, and there was the sound of heavy steps and the metallic jingle of a keychain approaching them. Soon the door opened and a Shuitan guard came in, more light seeping in the hallway and the cells from his lantern. The guard simply pointed at the exit with his thumb and so it was time to go. Estan held Javek's hand just for a second before getting up. "Thank you." Javek mumbled with a breaking voice and that was that. Estan walked back up with the guard to the street level and into the room where he had talked with the official. Now there were only guards, several of them, but different ones from what Estan could tell and the officials were nowhere to be seen. One of them opened the door leading to the street and others looked expectantly at Estan, wondering if they would have to hassle more for this difficult foreigner or if they could spend their shift in peace. Estan bowed and left, the door shutting behind him, as if he had never been inside to begin with.


The sandstorm was over, and the streets were relatively empty. Estan knew that he should be going back to the trading company, but he wanted to at least see in what state Javek's room was and if it was

reachable at all. There was some walking to do but Estan didn't mind, his mind and mood too dark to care about small inconveniences. After some time, he had reached the building, a cheap looking house on the corner of an intersection, standing shoulder to shoulder with other humble abodes just like it. There were several doors actually and Estan was confused which one was the right one, but the sorriest and the smallest one under a staircase that led to the second floor seemed the right choice. He looked around but the house was silent with no residents to be seen, and on the street he only saw one old man carrying hay on his shoulder and a young mother holding a sleeping infant, both quite far away from where Estan was standing. He nudged the door and to his surprise it was open. The room was small and empty. The incident with Javek had been dealt with several months ago so it made sense that this hole was no longer a scene for a crime, just another insignificant part of a house in an ordinary poor neighborhood.


It was impossible to tell if this was the right room and in what corner the mattress had been placed, but there was nobody around to bother Estan so he might as well snoop around for a bit. Estan left the door slightly ajar to let some light in and he started with the farthest corner of the room since he thought that the place for sleeping usually wasn't right next to the front door. He stomped on the floor to see if it gave in or creaked in any meaningful way but to no avail, so he repeated the procedure in every corner but found nothing. The floorboards were so tightly together that Estan would need a tool of some kind to try to wedge them apart, but he had nothing with him that could help him at all. Now he was on all fours to see if he could find anything at all, and realized that one of the boards had just a slight gap on the end that was supposed to touch the wall. Estan had missed it in the dim light and he managed to pry his fingers into the gap and the board came off quite easily, so did the few others next to it. As Javek had said, there was quite a lot of space in all directions and several supporting pillars all around. Estan pulled his scarf up to protect his mouth and nose and he dived in to find the box. After crawling for a while and scraping himself on the sharp edges of wood and stone he found a box in the dark, a few meters away from where he had made the hole. All sweaty and covered in dust and cobwebs Estan emerged coughing and sneezing, wishing that he had water to wash his hands and face, but he had to make do. Kneeling, he opened the box and saw that there really were several books inside. Taking the one on top Estan opened it up and immediately recognized his friend's handwriting and he felt his eyes starting to water yet again. Silently he cried, just for a little while.



5.
Jacobin and Estan were on the road again. Their path had to be away from Saanasthas and this time the reason for their departure had to be the stupidest yet. Some nobles in the trading company had been building their anger daily from being seen as inferiors year after year, and despite their comfortable position including a lot of drinking, dancing and partying the resentment they felt had manifested itself in the pettiest of ways. Outside of one corner of the trading company there was a garden of sorts, not a full-fledged one but a sort of an attempt to beautify this corner of the foreigner’s area. Some shrubberies had been planted basically outside of the area allocated for foreigners and the Shuitans had deemed it not acceptable, sending workers to cut it down while an official oversaw their work. But in doing so they had "trespassed" on the Arkansian grounds like their agreement with their guests meant nothing to them and this had caused a scandal and an outrage. Raising an uproar over something like this was ridiculous enough but the mood of the Shuitans had grown much more hostile and warlike in general, possibly due to the cultural change pushed on by their monks like Javek had talked about. Now it seemed that it was only a matter of time before the Arkansians would be kicked out of the city, but their pride just could not allow it, so a request had been sent for troops and apparently, they were on their way. Jacobin and Estan saw that it was time to pack their bags and split the city. Estan's frustration was twice as bad since he had seen how Javek had been disregarded for rocking the boat at all but then the nobles themselves had been completely ready to ruin their own success and burn their bridges for the most ridiculous reason possible.


Another sad and a fat fact at the table was simply that traveling was just becoming old. At the end of the day their journeys had mostly been an protest, an objection to the world at large that they of course knew wouldn't matter at all in any sense but it had brought some satisfaction to both of them, a shout that had said "We can't do anything about it but we're onto you." A sense of freedom had sustained them, even if it sometimes had undernourished their physical bodies, but that feeling had been slowly fading away. At the practical everyday level, every option available just seemed to be a different list of positives and negatives where, after all was said and done, the end result was pretty much the same, even though the pluses and minuses of their quality of life changed around. Some things had been good in Saanasthas and others had been better on the road and vice versa. What they had to show for after their adventures, tangible and intangible alike, wasn't much and most likely couldn't have been much, no matter what the variables were in their daily equations. Regardless of how they looked at it, most likely their sojourns were reaching an end, in one place or another.


Javek's case also kept creeping up in their conversations, even more so because Estan could always feel Javek's books weighing a little extra in his backpack. When taking a break under a few trees when rain had surprised them Jacobin reminisced about his days in the military. "Once.." he started while resting his head against an sturdy oak and filling his pipe he had made for himself in the trading company's woodworking shop, "..there was some general, not Malkov but somebody else, giving us an speech about what we were doing and why, not in an practical sense of why the hill we were supposed to take was strategically important or anything like that, but more an philosophical way of what our principle was, our prime motivation to function in this world." The tobacco in Jacobin's pipe wasn't lighting up since the bag where he kept it had become a bit damp, but Jacobin was patient with it and kept trying without forcing it. "He told us that all the great nations in the world had been homes to fighting people and if that fighting edge was lost, there was no way to stand as an equal with the best anymore. When the end times would come and the world would enter the Aeon of Higher Meaning as the scriptures promised us the circumstances would be different but, as of now, war was needed. No nation would be able to do the work worth doing without being ready to fight. What would be interesting for me know is that would Javek had been just as ready to cause a scandal and destine himself to the dungeons at home for the same reasons as he had been with the Shuitans?" There was of course no way to be sure, but Estan really doubted this. It seemed to him that if you packaged the same thing a bit differently you could pass it through without anybody batting an eye even if the end result would be the same. This rationalization fed to the Arkansians wasn't based on religion and Javek had been without a doubt in his mind always rooting for his king and country. Whatever it was with the meditation experience Javek had described, he had immediately turned the occurrence to fit his beliefs and not the other way around, never, for example, arriving to a conclusion that the Teachings of the Sun were wrong and twisted and the Shuitan religion was the thing to follow. Javek had been a very likable person with a moral compass, but it gnawed Estan that that very compass probably could so easily be pointed at any direction the powers at be wanted if they possessed an inkling of finesse. Good and evil were the terms that were often repeated in any discussions about moral questions, but Estan wasn't sure if those terms really were as useful as people seemed to take them for.


Where Estan and Jacobin were heading now they weren't quite sure. They were back in Arkansia and there wasn't supposed to be anything special in the territory they were going, but going back the same way they had arrived at Saanasthas would have meant colliding with the troops that had been summoned to the trading company's aid and there was a danger of being drafted, so this was a much better option.


After two weeks of walking, they met with the great river that ran through parts of Arkansia and saw several ships of various sizes on it. The river was used to move cargo as often as possible, its existence being a sort of a prevalent frustration to the rulers because if the river would have been closer to the center of the nation and been straighter, it could have provided a much-needed economic boost, but geography was what it was so everybody needed to make do. As Jacobin and Estan walked along the riverbed they started to realize just how substantial the traffic really was, seeing on the horizon at both ends of the river more ships coming and going. After a few more days they saw that there was a town of some sort where the ships were docking, but on the looks of it the place was constructed out of huge tents rather than actual buildings. They didn't look military either so Jacobin and Estan wondered who these people were in practically the middle of nowhere.
The mystery didn't hold for long. After reaching the top on a hill that provided a good view of the area, they saw more slaves than they could even count. For some reason the ships were unloading their cargo here and the slaves were divided into several groups, all heading to their own direction after a head count had been made and the health of the slaves had been checked. There were some Arkansian soldiers but most of the other free people here were working for the slave traders. There had been very few slaves were Jacobin and Estan had spent their youth and childhood, practically none, so the sight of such misery and misfortune cut into them, the emotion that much deeper because of the sheer number of these poor bastards. It was so easy to imagine that they could have faced that fate at some point in their lives. Some slaves were carrying the dead out of the ships, dumping them next to the long docks into a big pile that seemed to never cease growing. Some had ordered the corpses to be thrown into the river and a couple of slaves were performing the task, but there was a loud argument about it that could be partially heard even where Jacobin and Estan were standing. The thought disgusted them, but this was a chance to buy more supplies and they weren't sure when the next possibility would arise. They walked down the hill towards the tents, the wind bringing the stench of the dead and the unwashed into their nostrils whenever it blew.


It didn't take long to find a tent where food was kept and after a good while of haggling Jacobin and Estan still ended up paying an exorbitant price for a bit of bread, cheese, dried meat and fish. They decided to go back to the hill to rest and eat, but Jacobin was quiet and melancholic. "You go ahead and put a fire going, I'll be there in just a moment." he said. "If you're looking for tobacco, I don't even want to know what they are going to ask for." Estan said but Jacobin waved his hand in the air in a way that really didn't mean anything and walked deeper into the midst of this stinking place. Estan shrugged and headed back to the hill.


Watching the masses of slaves go by Jacobin was heavy hearted. He felt that he had been a part of this, not in a sense that he had personally subjugated anyone here, but he had been fighting in the villages, towns and cities back in the war where some of these people had been brought from. In a sense it hadn't been his choice, everyone able to fight had been drafted from his home village when it all had started and he had been too young to think much of it, but later on he had made the choice of not wanting to be part of anything like that ever again, so he had left on his sojourns with Estan. Jacobin wished that this decision would have held true, but all kinds of things had happened on their travels, some through the necessity of the circumstances and others through mistakes and miscalculations, through the inadequacy of the human mind and spirit. He had held his head high all his life, putting pride and belief in his integrity if nothing else, but looking back at it all Jacobin felt that there wasn't much for that integrity to hold on. Often, he hadn't been given the choice of doing what was right and often he had made the choice of not doing so.
There was a group of young female slaves being herded about, their destination whichever of the different hells available to them. A slave master went about with a ledger, taking care of his business and writing into his notes constantly. Jacobin squeezed the jewel necklace in his pocket, the one he had been carrying around with him for a long time now.
Estan was back on top of the hill, and he was just finishing with the fire, the flames now cackling and spreading their warmth around them. Jacobin's melancholy was present in Estan too, and he sat his back against the fire facing the spectacle of wretchedness spreading across him. He wondered if, at the end of the day and in the final analysis, the core of human experience could just simply be witnessed in views like this.


"Is there a place for an old man near your fire?" Estan heard from behind his back. He turned around and there indeed was an old man with white hair and beard standing there, wearing similar kind of worn robe Estan was. Estan had been sitting by himself without talking for a while now so his affirmation to the old man's request came out like a croak, so Estan gestured with his hand awkwardly for the old man to sit down. Gratefully smiling his guest sat opposite to Estan on the other side of the fire and he put his back bag down and rumbled through it for a second, took some bread and sausage which he split and gave the other half to Estan who nodded his thanks, little surprised at the unexpected generosity. They ate and after a short while of silence the old man pointed at the slave encampment with his thumb. "They're building a new cathedral in the capital and south of here they're opening up some mines, rich in copper I hear. Here they check out the condition of the slaves and do inventory, see who is fit enough for what. Then the slaves for the mines travel the rest of the way on foot. Not very holy, no?" It really wasn't. There were several passages in the scriptures that you could at least interpret as criticisms for slavery even if they were not outright condemnations. These parts were danced around or simply skipped, like a lot of texts seen as inconvenient. "You must be too young to remember, but many decades ago the plague came." the old man said. "It affected many nations and people were dying left and right. As a consequence, there was a serious shortage of labor and suddenly the peasants, coolies and servants alike saw how much they were needed and demanded better pay and better working conditions. Not having other options, those with money and power had to give in and pay up. It was good for a while." The old man had stood up and hands behind his back he looked at the slave encampment. Estan noticed that the old man actually looked somewhat peculiar now that he thought about it: he clearly was of advanced age, but his posture was perfect and there seemed to be ample strength and vigor in his body that his smooth movement betrayed. "But in other places where people were much more concentrated on small villages across the land and not in bigger cities, the nobles who had survived the plague saw their chance to round up the diminished population and make them work at their own estates for free. Then, in the places where people's lives had become better, once the plague let up and there were more people again, there was no more reason to pay better wages since you could again always find replacement workers if somebody refused to work. So, it was back to where it started." The old man was now pacing left and right, seemingly thinking out loud. "Religion is seen as the foundation of virtue and morality and a lot has been waxed and waned about the meaning of human life. Some of that philosophizing must be at least partially correct or have some value, but all of it seems to be subordinate to the basic fact of human exploitation. People may find meaning but that meaning starts to serve pursuits of power in one way or another. If any good happens, it happens because the circumstances of the world force those in power to act or behave in a way that benefits those under them, not because they themselves are motivated by virtue and morality. Often those good things are attributed to how the higher meaning is functioning and how we all should work even harder towards that cause, but it is like picking up apples from the ground and then saying that you grew them, even though the tree has been there a long before you came along." He gestured towards the slave encampment. "Hypocrisy is the basic feature, not an exception. On an individual level you can find people who try their best at being a moral person, but in the bird's eye view different groups, factions and nations only pursue their own interest at the expense of everybody else, no matter how steep the price others have to pay. Small minority gains power and the power is there to feed their ego, their self-esteem in constant danger of crumbling if any other nation, kingdom or empire becomes stronger than they are. The resources available to them serve their need to guarantee and flaunt that superiority, that need being cloaked into whatever the higher meaning they have at the moment. Some become true believers and they try to actualize that fantasy, others just exploit it, many do the mental gymnastics where they end up somewhere in between. At the end of the day, though, quietly and without a fuss, it all serves the exploitation. Then the rest can feel important about themselves." Estan had stopped chewing his food, perplexed by this sudden lecture. "So.." he stammered, trying to formulate a coherent question, "So where does this leave us? If the dogmas we subscribe to are going to be inherently impossible to follow, what is left? If it is not corruption but everything functions as nature intended and we just don't realize it, what can we do?" The old man didn't look at Estan, his gaze still locked at the vista before them, but he still answered the question. "The answer is to cast away the human criteria. No distinction, no achievement, no reputation, to be an empty boat on a river that doesn't end. To live in the land of the great void. Nature is cruel too, but it exists without a story to tell itself. As the wind blows or the birds sing, so should man be. When we gave humanity conscious thought, it clashed against the basic nature of living beings and went astray." Estan heard steps coming up the hill and he glanced at the direction of the sound and saw Jacobin walking towards the fire, but when Estan looked back to old man to say something, to his utter confusion the old man was nowhere to be seen. He looked around bewildered, then looking back at Jacobin, now realizing that there was a young woman with him.



6.
It was another frontier town, but a completely new one. Along the way Jacobin and Estan had run into general Malkov, who had recognized Jacobin's face, even though he didn't know him by name and Jacobin had been just another soldier without any special merits. Malkov told them that he was establishing a town in the untamed area in the far western part of Arkansia where an endless forest spread as far as the eye could see. He could use as many pairs of working hands as he could get, and everybody would get a piece of land to till for themselves. Several days a week would be spent working for him, but the deal was better than what you would have gotten as a regular peasant in any other part of the country. Few wanted to travel that far and start from a complete scratch, but there were advantages in such a situation. If your lord would become too draconian, you could try your luck by yourself deeper in the untamed land. In order to have people stay and work under them, the noble would have to give a better deal than he normally would give. So, they decided to go.


There had been plenty of communication issues with the slave Jacobin had bought. At first, they tried to communicate to her that she was finally free, and she could do what she wanted, but she spoke very little of the common tongue Jacobin and Estan spoke and when she finally did understand, she was horrified, and she panicked. Freedom for her meant that she would be completely unprotected and anybody passing by could do to her what she pleased. Being a slave meant that as somebody's property you were at least somewhat fed and protected in a sense as that people wanted to take care of their property. There was no support net for her here in any way so Jacobin and Estan gave up and just told her that she was still a slave and she calmed down a bit. For the life of them they couldn't pronounce her name, so they named her simply as Maria, which sounded somewhat similar to her original name. So now they travelled together, and they treated her normally, like they treated each other, but she was mostly completely silent and had her gaze cast to the ground. That probably was as one should expect, since she had been ripped from her home and probably would never see any of her family again. At least she didn't have to go to the mines anymore. The slave master from who Jacobin had bought Maria had thought that Jacobin was completely insane since he wanted to buy this one measly slave with the jewelry he had presented and couldn't believe his eyes. He had quickly pushed her out of the line and stuffed the necklace into his pocket, then walked away shaking his head.
Here in the frontier town Jacobin had been given a small cottage, a garden and some land in which he could farm. He was going to stay there with Maria, but Estan was unsure what he should do. Javek's books were still in his back and Estan had been leafing through them from time to time, wondering what he should do with them. It would have been a shame to leave them be and forget about them, especially since the translations seemed to be quite good.


Whatever the incident with the old man happened to have been, Estan wasn't quite sure what to think about his words. In the old man's eyes humanity was like a project that had gone awry and the only solution was to be like all the other projects of life, life without the attributes of humanity, but still that reasoning seems faulty. The idea that you were born as a being whose only true goal should be to shed all the things that made you that very thing felt depressing and seemed almost like an excuse. For whom such advice was even possible? Not for the vast majority. The whole monastery system for the church of the Sun had started from a somewhat similar worldview but as the numbers of the followers increased the monasteries had become institutions of power and learning that could no longer stay away from worldly affairs. For once Estan wasn't even suspicious about the intentions of the first monks and was sure that this hadn't been their goal but all of us were stuck and supposed to exist in this worldly and mundane level. If different institutions wanted to continue their existence, they had to live by the rules of the politicians. Estan was critical where this had taken the church, but he could understand the problems the pioneering monks had faced.


Estan wanted meaning in his life as much as anybody, had always wanted and had become frustrated time and again by what the society had offered him. His own experience matched with what the old man had said, but he couldn't just spend his days in a spiritual bliss that he possibly could create for himself. He was too much of a human, the need for action and goals rising from inside him, but he didn't want to burn his fire for faulty beliefs. Wouldn't he just end up creating a story for himself, a story that would sound epic and important, only for his efforts ending up serving those who he absolutely opposed? And if he didn't construct a story, was the only other option just to idle his life away in the pursuit of petty and boring hedonism? That was frustrating too. These thoughts culminated practically in Javek's books. If he would copy them with his own hands and find places to keep them safe and spread their contents as much as possible, it would honor his friend and make sure that Javek's work hadn't been wasted, further the understanding of Shuitan culture and keep their philosophy alive for its own sake, but as good as all of this sounded the idea of such a story nagged him. What good was the understanding of their culture if Arkansia was ending up in war with them for idiotic reasons and would these books be banned and burned anyway since they were a rival for the church of the Sun? So, what if the Arkansians would take up parts of Shuitan thinking? It's not like society would end up better for it even if they did. There was the argument of saving knowledge for its own sake, but Estan wasn’t able to back that kind of thinking up by himself with enough strength for it to be the sole motivation for his existence.


So, wherever you go, there you are. Despite his conflicting thoughts, the fact was that he needed something to work on, projects that would have clear goals and meanings. Fame and wealth didn't motivate him much, even with money he would still get frustrated in idleness. Life would go on with or without him fretting on it. Copying these texts was something tangible, something where could see progress day by day, and whether or not they ended up spreading was not in his hands, and he couldn't bring himself to fret about that. The ultimate goals bothered him, not the shakiness of his own personal success.

The more he thought about it, ending up in a monastery again seemed to be the only reasonable option. If he would find one where the abbot would be sympathetic to his task he could work in peace and the

books could be safe. The translations had been originally ordered by the church anyway. Now that Javek's stink wasn't around them, maybe they would be more acceptable. "We shall see." Estan thought to himself.


All of this meant saying goodbye to Jacobin. There were no monasteries here and staying forever in such a place didn't suit Estan. They drank tea on the front of Jacobin's cottage and watched the sunset. If nothing else, Estan was grateful for having such friends in his life.

Estan had noticed two dogs running around in the village, but one day only one remained. Asking about it Estan found out that on a hunting trip the other one had been killed by a bear. The other one, much smaller for its size than it should have been, wasn't very useful and nobody seemed to especially want it. Estan had never really been around dogs in his life, and he was surprised by how complicated the emotional life of such an animal could be. It wasn't just angry or happy, but it pouted when it felt wronged, asked people to play with it in the most considerate way possible and it genuinely enjoyed human company. Estan remembered how he had been taught in the monastery that animals had no souls since they had no language so they couldn't have consciousness either. But if the animal could experience more complicated emotions than straightforward happiness or anger, how could it not have a consciousness? Estan could believe that a simple creature like an insect would be like a machine without any thoughts of its own but looking at the dog he wasn't so sure. Estan asked if he could take the dog with him if nobody wanted it and nobody minded. It was too small to protect him or do much else, but it was a living being, maybe something like the old man had had in mind.


So, they left together, the man and the beast, one with a soul and one without, neither of them any be off than the other.