Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2013
The Sun And I by K. J. Parker
I mean to rule the earth, as He the sky;
We really know our worth, the Sun and I
—W. S. Gilbert
“We could always invent God,” I suggested.
We’d pooled our money. It lay on the table in front of us; forty of those sad, ridiculous little copper coins we used back then, the wartime emergency issue—horrible things, punched out of flattened copper pipe and stamped with tiny stick-men purporting to be the Emperor and various legendary heroes; the worse the quality of the die-sinking became, the more grandiose the subject matter. Forty trachy in those days bought you a quart of pickle-grade domestic red. It meant we had no money for food, but at that precise moment we weren’t hungry. “What do you mean?” Teuta asked.
“I mean,” I said, “we could pretend that God came to us in a dream, urging us to go forth and preach His holy word. Fine,” I added, “it’s still basically just begging, but it’s begging with a hook. You give money to a holy man, he intercedes for your soul, you get something back. Also,” I added, as Accila pursed his lips in that really annoying way, “it helps overcome the credibility issues we always face when we beg. You know, the College accents, the perfect teeth.”
“How so?” Razo asked.
“Well,” I said—I was in one of my brilliant moods, when I have answers for every damn thing; it’s as though some higher power possesses me and speaks through me—“it’s an established trope, right? Wealthy, well-born young man gets religion, he gives everything he owns to the poor, goes out and preaches the word. He survives on the charity of the faithful, such charity being implicitly accepted as, in and of itself, an act of religion entitling the performer to merit in heaven.”
Accila was doing his academic frown, painstakingly copied from a succession of expensive tutors. “I don’t think we can say we gave all our money to the poor,” he said. “In my case, most of the innkeepers, pimps and bookmakers I shared my inheritance with were reasonably prosperous. Giving away all our money to the comfortably off doesn’t have quite the same ring.”
I smiled. Accila had made his joke, and would now be quite happy for a minute or so. “Well?” I said. “Better ideas, anyone?”
“I still think we should be war veterans,” Teuta said stubbornly. “I used to see this actress, and she showed me how to do the most appalling-looking scars with red lead and pig-fat. People love war veterans.”
I had an invincible argument. “Have we got any red lead? Can we afford to buy any? Well, then.”
Accila lifted the wine-jar. The expression on his face told me that it had become ominously light. We looked at each other. This was clearly an emergency, and something had to be done. The only something on offer was my proposal. Therefore—
“All right,” Teuta said warily. “But let’s not go rushing into this all half-baked. You said, invent God. So—” Teuta shrugged. “For a start, which god did you have in mind?”
“Oh, a new one.” Not sure to this day why I said that with such determined certainty. “People are hacked off with all the old ones. You ask my uncle the archdeacon about attendances in Temple.”
“Precisely,” Razo said. “The public have lost interest in religion. We live in an enlightened age. Therefore, your idea is no bloody good.”
I knew he’d be trouble. “The public have lost interest in the established religions,” I said. “They view them, quite rightly, as corrupt and discredited. Therefore, given Mankind’s desperate need to believe in something, the time is absolutely right for a new religion; tailored,” I went on, as the brilliance filled me like an inner light, “precisely to the needs and expectations of the customer. That’s where all the old religions screwed up, you see; they weren’t planned or custom-fitted, they just sort of grew. They didn’t relate to what people really wanted. They were crude and full of doctrinal inconsistencies. They involved worshipping trees, which no rational man can bring himself to do after the age of seven. We, on the other hand, have the opportunity to create the perfect religion, one which will satisfy the demands of every class, taste and demographic. It’s the difference between making a chair and waiting for a clump of branches to grow into a sort of chair shape.”
“Not sure about that,” said Zanipulus; his first contribution to the discussion, since he’d been clipping his toenails and had needed to concentrate. “You walk around telling people that Bong just appeared to you in a dream. They give you a funny look and say, who’s Bong when he’s at home?” He sniffed; he had a cold. “There’s no point of immediate engagement, is what I’m saying. You need that instant of irresistible connection—”
“Of course.” A tiny sunrise in the back of my head produced enough light for me suddenly to see clearly. “That’s why this idea of mine is so absolutely bloody inspired. Of course we can’t expect customers to believe in some nebulous entity that nobody’s ever heard of. We need to create a deity that everyone can see, plain as the noses on their faces, every day of their lives.”
Silence, which I allowed to continue for a moment or so, during which Razo dribbled the last few drops out of the jar into his cup; drip-drip-drip. “Well?” Accila said.
“Simple,” I told him. “We worship the sun.”
Razo yawned. “Been done,” he said. “To death, in fact. If you’d been to Cartimagus’ lectures on recurring motifs in late Mannerist epic, you’d know that practically every hero in legend is your basic solar metaphor.”
“Sure,” I said. He was starting to annoy me. “But not the big shiny yellow disc per se. I’m talking about the Sun with a capital S. One single supreme deity; no pantheon, no bureaucracy, no waiting. Someone you can look in the eye and talk to directly, man to God—”
“Wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Zanipulus said with his mouth full. Apparently the treacherous bastard had a private reserve of cashew nuts he hadn’t seen fit to declare to the rest of the Commonwealth. “Makes you go blind.”
“Metaphorically speaking. Come on, you know I’m right. That’s why the old religions fell apart, too many gods, too damn fussy. The old thing about government by committee. One god, it’s like monarchy, it’s the only way to get things done.”
“The Divine Sun,” Accila said thoughtfully. “You know, he might just have something.”
“Not the Divine Sun,” Teuta said. “No buzz. No snap. Also, there’s the redundancy. What’s the leading characteristic of our god? That he’s divine. Yawn.”
“All right,” Accila said. “So, right now, what do people really want? Apart,” he added, “from money.”
“Peace,” said Zanipulus. “An end to the war. That’s a no-brainer.”
The word sort of catapulted itself into my mouth. “The Invincible Sun,” I said. “Well, how about it?”
Razo wiped his mouth. “Actually,” he said, “that’s not bad.”
“It’s magnificent,” I said. “Implied promise of victory followed by a sustained peace.”
“Which isn’t going to happen any time soon,” Zanipulus pointed out.
“No,” I rounded on him, “because Mankind is sinful and refuses to follow the path laid out for it by the Invincible Sun. As disclosed,” I went on, “by His true prophets. Us.”
Another silence. Then Razo said, “We’ll need a list of thou-shalt-nots. People like those.”
“And observances,” said Accila. “Top of the list, I would suggest, should be giving generously to the poor. Instant merit for doing that.”
Pause. They were looking at Zanipulus, which offended me rather. Just because he doesn’t say much, people think he’s smart. Whereas I talk all the time, and you just have to listen to me for two seconds to realise how very clever I am. “Well,” Zanipulus said, “it’s got to be better than war veterans. For a start, there’s too many of the real thing.”
At that moment, in the brief silence after those words were spoken, I believe that the Invincible Sun was born. And why not? After all, everything has to start somewhere.
It was a real stroke of luck that general Mardonius contrived to wipe out the whole of the Herulian Fifth army at the battle of Ciota ten days after we took to the streets to preach the gospel of the Invincible Sun. I’m not inclined to give Mardonius all the credit for our success. Obviously we’d made some impression over the preceding nine days, or nobody at all would’ve known who we were, and nobody would’ve made the association between the latest street religion and the entirely unexpected, heaven-sent victory. We were helped enormously by the coincidence that one of us—I think it was me, but it’s so long ago I can’t be sure—had been predicting a mighty victory for the forces of light on the ninth day of Feralia, which just happened to be the day when the news of Ciota reached the city. Not, please note, the day of the battle itself; fortunately, nobody pointed that out at the time. Anyhow, that was our breakout moment. We were the crazy street preachers who’d predicted Ciota; and there’s a weird sort of pseudo-logic that operates in people’s minds. If you predict something, in some way or another you’re responsible for it, you made it happen. Suddenly, out of (no pun intended) a clear blue sky, the Invincible Sun was a contender.
Forgive me, I’m forgetting my manners. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Eps. At least, that’s what it was then, before we started the whole names-in-religion thing, which we did basically so as to protect our real identities in the event that we made ourselves unpopular with the authorities and had to retire prematurely from the theology business. Of course, if you’re a cleric or come from a clerical family, the irony of the name I was born with won’t have been lost on you; eps is now, has become, the recognised shortening for episcopus, which is the word for high priest in Old Aelian, which we chose, more or less at random, as the language in which we were going to write our holy scriptures. Which would’ve made me Eps eps on official documents; quite, except that I adopted the name-in-religion Deodatus (yes, the Deodatus; that’s me) some time before we decided on Old Aelian. For what it’s worth, Eps is a traditional and not uncommon name on Scona, where my family originally came from. It means, so I’m told, the chosen one.
And, I have to confess, I enjoyed preaching. At first, of course, it was horrendously scary and embarrassing. Nothing in my sheltered, privileged life had prepared me for opening my mouth in a public place and ranting at strangers. I managed to get over that by pretending I was doing something else; acting in a play, shouting to someone I knew on the far side of the square who happened to be invisible to everyone else. That worked surprisingly well; but the breakthrough came when I learned to convince myself that it wasn’t actually me doing this extraordinary thing. Instead (I pretended) some irresistible force had taken over my body and was using my lungs and lips. After that, it was no problem at all. And, as I said just now, I started to like it.
In fact, I was far and away our best preacher, which was probably just as well. The other four all had skills and talents that were invaluable to the project. All I could claim to justify my involvement, and my share of the take, was that it had been my idea in the first place. That was starting to wear a bit thin when I discovered my latent talent for religious oratory; and, since the others could do it but hated it, I quickly assumed the role of Chief Celebrant.
What skills and talents? Well; , Accila was our scholar, though you wouldn’t have thought it to look at him. Nevertheless, he actually did know his stuff. Before he was slung out of the Studium for gross moral turpitude, he’d been a rising star in the faculties of Literature and Logic, with four published dissertations on suitably obscure cruces in suitably obscure texts under his belt—not bad for a young man of twenty-four. Teuta was our scribe and copyist. He’d parted company from the Golden Spire after a spot inventory revealed the absence of some two dozen manuscripts. Teuta pointed out at the hearing that he’d had no intention of stealing them. He honestly and sincerely intended to put them back where he’d found them, once he’d finished making perfect copies to sell to wealthy Mezentines. That was a tactical error on his part, since theft is a civil crime, for which he could’ve claimed benefit of clergy, whereas forgery of sacred manuscripts is an ecclesiastical felony. Teuta accordingly spent two years in the penal monastery at Andrapoda, a section of his life he can never be induced to talk about. Razo was our poet; and before you say anything, yes, a poet is essential if you’re in the synthetic religion business. Religious poetry doesn’t have to be good, but it does have to be poetry, and the rest of us couldn’t scan a hendecasyllable or insert a caesura in a trochaic hexameter if our lives depended on it. So; : Razo wrote the holy scriptures, with Accila telling him what sort of thing he ought to include, and Teuta wrote them out in impeccably authentic Fourth Century hieratic-demotic script on three hundred year old property title deeds, which he stole (from the law office where he did copying work) and scraped down with pumice. The end result of their labours was the Book of the Sun—- a working title that got overtaken by events; we were expounding the damn thing in Cornmarket before we’d had a chance to think of a better one, and then of course it was too late; seventy closely-written, unimpeachably genuine pages of three-hundred-year old revelations of the divine that no scholar has ever been able to fault. Actually, that’s a terrible indictment of modern scholarship, since Teuta admitted he’d made a mistake—something to do with a shade of blue he used for an illuminated capital which wasn’t invented until fifty years later. Still, he was in a hurry, and the powdered oyster-shell he should have used was five tremisses for a tiny little jar, and at that stage we didn’t have five tremisses.
And Zanipulus; well, he was in fact our star performer. Zanipulus’ father was a seriously wealthy and respectable man; councilman for a fashionable City ward, followed by a seat in the House, followed by the tribunate and two terms as assistant prefect for roads and waterways. How he found time, with all that on his plate, to indulge in the study of arcane and forbidden arts, I simply don’t know; but he did, and they found him out, and that was the end of him and the family fortune, which was confiscated and awarded to the informer who nailed him. What he’d been doing, it turned out, was researching and inventing new medicines, building on the work of the Mezentines (it’s perfectly legal over there). Zanipulus didn’t get on very well with his father when he was young; it was the old man’s brilliant idea that they should work together on the research, so as to have something in common which would draw them closer together. It didn’t, as it happened; but Zanipulus found the alchemy stuff quite fascinating, and the fact that it was illegal appealed to the perverse side of his nature, so that when they carted the old man off to the scaffold, Zanipulus resolved to continue his work as a gesture of defiance against the authorities, and because he reckoned he was really close to some breakthrough or other, and couldn’t bear to see all that work go to waste.
Since we seem to be doing biographies, I might as well append mine. My great-grandfather was a shipowner on Scona. He made a good deal of money shipping tar and bitumen, which just sort of bubbles up out of the ground out there—you go along with barrels and just scoop it up, and suddenly you’ve got a valuable commodity for which foreigners will pay money. Anyway, his son, my grandfather, wasn’t keen on the bitumen trade—brought him out in a rash, my father told me—- so he branched out into general trading, did so well at it that he moved here, to the City, and quickly became significantly rich. Sadly, my father had two unfortunate defects when it came to commerce; he was no good at it, and he didn’t realise he was no good at it. The truth only finally sank in when the bailiffs came round and took away our remaining furniture in a small cart, about six months before this story begins. My father died in debtors’ prison two months after the business failed. I have no idea where my mother is; when the bailiffs came she announced that she’d had enough and was going home to Scona. I imagine she’s still there, and good luck to her.
Anyway, that was us. Between us, we had what Teuta got paid by the lawyers, plus what we could get by begging and very small-scale confidence tricks. We hadn’t been caught yet, but we knew it was just a matter of time. Accordingly, when the Invincible Sun called us to His ministry, we had no hesitation. That or poverty and starvation, followed by a long career in rock-splitting in the slate quarries. Hallelujah.
I know it sounds really horrible, but the outbreak of mountain fever was a real slice of luck. Even back then, it wasn’t necessarily a death sentence. About four victims in ten made it—not wonderful odds, but good enough to keep you from simply turning your face to the wall as soon as the symptoms became unambiguous. At the time, though, we thought it was a damned nuisance, possibly enough to put us out of business if we couldn’t cure it, which of course we couldn’t.
The epidemic started when we’d been going for about six weeks, about a fortnight after the victory at Ciota got us noticed. By then we had premises; actually, a derelict lime kiln on the edge of town, where the North Road branches off from Underway. Not a bad place, in fact; the acoustics in a lime kiln are really rather good, and we got it for practically nothing. Anyway, the fever hadn’t been on for more than a day or two when people started turning up on our doorstep, visibly sick, expecting us to cure them. Razo took one look at them and bolted into the back room with his face muffled up in the hem of his cloak. Zanipulus told him not to be so stupid, you don’t catch mountain fever like that, but Razo wasn’t taking any chances. The pitiful moaning was starting to get on our nerves, so I went outside and did my best.
I felt awful. It’s one thing handing out imaginary absolution in return for a sprinkling of low-value copper; quite another confronting a dying man and pretending that you can make him well again. People knew us by then, so they had their money ready. They were lying there, where their families had left them, reaching out to me with hands clenched around fistfuls of coins. I couldn’t bring myself to take them. This surprised and annoyed the customers—sorry, the sick and the dying; not customers, not in that state;——they wanted to know why I wasn’t prepared to intercede for them, as we were always promising to do. Some of them managed to struggle to their feet and lunge at me, trying to stuff money into my pockets or down my shirt. I managed not to panic. I said, of course I’ll intercede for you, and this time no payment is necessary. They didn’t like that. I guess I’d done my job too well. It was a fundamental tenet of the faith, as I’d been preaching it, that no prayer is audible to Him unless accompanied by clinking money. When I contradicted myself so blatantly, they didn’t believe me. Take the money, Father, please (I don’t know where father came from; they started calling me that at some point, and it sort of stuck)—what could I do? I had the feeling that if I didn’t take money off them, I’d be lucky to get out of there in one piece. What made it worse was the amounts. Typical. For their immortal souls, the most they were usually prepared to give was ten trachy, fifteen if they were being eaten alive by guilt and remorse. For their bodies, they were desperate to give me forty, fifty, sixty; fat pouches the size of cooking apples, and there was a terrified old woman who pleaded with me to accept a whole tremissis, your actual silver. I said the usual garbage—I have asked the Invincible Sun to consider your case; if you have truly repented and your sins have been forgiven, your prayers will be answered—then backed away, clanking slightly under the weight of all that coinage, and bolted.
“You aren’t taking money off them, are you?” Accila said. “That’s sick.”
“They’re insisting,” I tried to explain, but he just gave me that look.
“I guess we brought it on ourselves,” Teuta said, helping me with the money before it burst its banks and flooded the building. “We made the poor devils believe, so what did we expect?”
“I guess this is the end of the line,” Razo said gloomily. “Soon as they realise we can’t cure them, that’ll be it, we’ll be out of business. Just our bloody luck.”
I noticed that Zanipulus wasn’t there. “Anyway,” I said. “I’m not going out there again. It’s definitely someone else’s turn.”
Nobody was prepared to face the devoted mob, so we shot the bolts and hunkered down, from time to time peering out of the narrow slit of a street-front window to see if they were still there. Oh yes. In fact, the numbers grew, until the kettlehats came and moved them on for obstructing the traffic. An hour later they were back; in the meantime, I’d scribbled a note to the effect that we were engaged in holy rituals of intercession and were not to be disturbed, and nailed it to the door. I hoped that’d induce them to go away, but no chance. They settled down, in heartbreaking silence, and waited.
About mid-afternoon, Teuta went to peer through the slit and called out, “There’s someone out there, walking up and down.”
“There’s about six hundred people out there,” I told him. “Come away from the window before they see you.”
“It’s Zanipulus. He’s giving them soup.”
I shrugged. Guilt takes people different ways. “Fine,” I said. “So long as he’s paying for it, let him.”
“That’s a really bad precedent.” Accila was sorting the coins into little towers. “Give them soup once, they’ll come to expect it.”
“Those poor bastards will all be dead inside a week,” I growled. “Don’t worry about it.”
Accila was all set to give Zanipulus a piece of his mind when he saw him next, but Zan didn’t show up next morning. Probably just as well; we still hadn’t opened the door. When I peeked out just before dawn, there was a huge mob of them out there. Different ones, though; yesterday’s crowd had gone home and been replaced by an even larger one. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Just before midday, Zanipulus arrived and started doling out yet more soup. I watched him carefully. He had a big copper basin and a brass ladle, and everybody got two mouthfuls. If that was supposed to be a meal, it was a pretty sparse one. Then I realised. Not soup; medicine.
Teuta was livid. “He can’t go trying out his stupid potions on real people,” he said, “even if they are sick. Suppose he poisons someone and they die. That could mean our necks.”
I was watching the crowd. “Fine,” I said. “You go out there and tell him.”
“You go. You’re the figurehead.”
“No chance. They’d tear me to pieces. Whatever Zan thinks he’s doing, it’s going down really well.”
There was, it turned out, a reason for that. The stuff he gave them worked. Later he explained that mountain fever was one of the family of diseases his father had been studying; as soon as he saw a crowd of victims assembled in one place, he’d scooted home, cooked up a big batch of the recipe (he had all the ingredients—mouldy bread, for crying out loud, and garlic juice—ready for just such an eventuality) and rushed over to try it out. He’d told them it was a gift from the Invincible Sun that would purge away their sins and leave them whole, and they swallowed it, literally and figuratively. And, would you believe, it actually worked. Twelve hours later, the symptoms started to fade; six doses of the stuff and you were right as ninepence. It was, Razo said, a miracle.
“No it bloody well wasn’t,” Zanipulus replied angrily. “It was thirty years of painstaking research by a better man than you’ll ever be, so shut your face before I shut it for you.”
Accila cleared his throat meaningfully—he’s six feet six and built like a carthorse, so he was our Justice of the Peace. “Actually, Zan,” he said, “you want to be a bit careful, bearing in mind what happened to your dad. If word gets about that his son’s handing out miracle cures for the fever, you’ll have the kettlehats after you. One martyr in the family is quite enough, I’ve always thought. Two in two generations is just showing off.”
I guess that must’ve sunk in, because after a medium-length sulk, Zanipulus came sidling round us and asked if we wouldn’t mind handing out the rest of the magic goo, spiced up with some religious stuff to distract attention from the medicine side of things. Well, we couldn’t refuse, because there were thousands of the poor devils out there by then; so we let him out the back way, to go down to the bakers’ scrounging for mouldy bread, while we knocked up a quick liturgy for the healing of the sick.
Muggins here got elected to perform it. Luckily I’m a quick learner. I was word perfect by the time we opened the door and processed out in our vestments (three tremisses for a big wicker hamper of surplus costumes from the Theatre; stank of moth and mildew, but washed up well). I did the words, the other three did the soup. We ran out twice, but fortunately Zan was back with all the stale bread he could carry, and was cooking up a storm in the back room. By nightfall we were all absolutely shattered, and we’d burnt a month’s charcoal in a day. We also took three hundred tremisses, nearly all in small change—we had to take it to the moneychangers in herring-barrels. Oh, and we cured the fever epidemic and saved something like two thousand lives. Just us.
And pretty smug about it we were too, as you can imagine. It was the ascent to the next level we’d been praying for (so to speak), it was handed to us on a plate and it worked better than we could possibly have hoped for. Because of it, we made the jump from just-another-street-cult to serious mainstream religion in the course of a week. And, let’s not forget, we took a great deal of money. Vast amounts of money. Almost enough.
Almost. None of us had said anything out loud, but the unspoken agreement had been; if this thing really takes off, we’ll run it until we’ve each got enough for a stake, the money we’d need to buy into some good, solid, reliable business, retire and be comfortable for life. That moment had very nearly come, but not quite. We counted it, and counted it again, and once more for luck. Split five ways, three hundred and twenty tremisses each. For which, in those days, you could buy a small farm or an established trade (but none of us wanted to be a cooper or a bootmaker) or four carts or a sixteenth share in a ship—a living, in other words, but lower middle class at the very best. That wasn’t quite enough, as far as we were concerned. We’d rather set our hearts on being gentlemen, for which we needed another one-seven-five each, minimum. We counted the fever takings one more time, and decide we were still in the faith business.
We expected that, once the mountain fever was over, things would quieten down. Not so. We were now established as the go-to faith for healing the sick, and that was a real headache. Mountain fever was one thing; we had the recipe for that, but not for the million-and-one other horrible things that people waste away and die from. No way, of course, that we could explain that to the faithful; so we had to carry on, do the three services a day, and hope that in due course we’d become discredited and forgotten about (but not, hopefully, before we’d scooped in that extra one-seven-five a head).
And wasn’t that the weirdest thing. We sang our psalms and intoned our meaningless prayers to our home-made god and ladled out our thin gruel of flour, water and rock salt, guaranteed no medicinal value whatsoever; and still they came, and still they got better. It was embarrassing. Recovered patients turned up, completely unsolicited, and told the crowd at our door that the Invincible Sun had cured them of this or that revolting disease, and that they should all have faith, give generously and believe. If I hadn’t known the truth, I’d have been convinced the whole thing was a fix and the happy beneficiaries of divine clemency were out-of-work actors we’d hired for thirty trachy a day in the Horsefair. Thousands of my fellow-citizens, however, weren’t so sceptical. They came, limping and groaning and seeping pus; they listened, they prayed; they got better.
Zanipulus told us that such things had been known. Some Mezentine once did an experiment with a load of sick people; he gave half of them proper medicine and the rest of them some old rubbish, told them all it was the real stuff; of the half who got the rubbish, something like a fifth of them got well anyway. Well, fine; goes to show how gullible people really are. The thing was, the number of sick people apparently cured by us—by me, since the other four just handed out the wallpaper paste—was far more than in the Mezentine’s experiment. Furthermore, I’m not just talking about coughs and snuffles here. Genuine serious illnesses, the sort that kill you dead; we were curing those, with a success ratio of something like two-to-one.
“I’ve had enough of this,” Razo announced. It was the day after he’d cured a leper. The experience had left him badly shaken. “It’s getting crazy and out of hand. I vote that we quit the business, divide up the proceeds and go our separate ways.”
Two days previously, Accila, in his capacity as treasurer, had announced that he was switching his basis of account from silver to gold. That was when there were a hundred and six silver tremisses to the gold stamen. The net, he then informed us, stood at four hundred and ninety stamina; just ten more to go and the arithmetic would be really straightforward.
“We can’t,” Teuta replied with his mouth full. “It’s gone too far. They know our names. We’re respectable. For crying out loud, we had the Secretary of War in here yesterday.”
“We wouldn’t be able to stay in the City, agreed,” Razo said. “So what? The world’s a big place, especially if you’ve got a hundred stamina in your pocket. We could go anywhere.”
“I’m not sure I want to give up, “ Teuta said. “Whatever the hell it is we’re doing, it seems like it’s working. And I like having Cabinet ministers calling me your Grace. It sort of makes up for some of the other stuff, if you see what I mean.” He yawned, and swung round in his chair. “Zan? What do you think?”
Zanipulus shrugged. “I agree, it makes a pleasant change being respectable, and the money’s nice. And I don’t think for one moment it’ll last forever. Sooner or later this weird run of luck’s going to peter out, people will stop curing themselves and saying it was us, and the whole thing will grind to a halt. Until then, I say we carry on milking it for everything we can. You only get something like this once in a lifetime. And it’s not like any of us have any other means of making a living.”
Nobody, please note, seemed interested in what I’d got to say. My own fault, I guess. I’d spoken inadvisably a couple of times, and my opinion was no longer welcome. I gave it anyway.
“I vote we carry on,” I said. “Yes, we’re making money. We’re also healing the sick. Don’t pull faces, Razo, you’ll stick like it. We’re healing the sick, or they’re healing themselves because of us, makes no real difference. What matters is, it’s happening. If we give up now—”
“Don’t start,” Teuta said ominously.
“Too late,” I shouted, and they all looked at me. “For pity’s sake,” I said, “can’t you see it? We’ve started something here. People believe in us. They believe so strongly that they’re curing themselves, like in that Mezentine’s experiment. Zan, you’re a scientist, aren’t you just the tiniest bit curious? It’s an extraordinary thing.”
“No kidding,” Zanipulus said. “For one thing, it’s not possible. Therefore, it scares me. However—”
“Impossible’s just a way of saying we haven’t figured out how it works yet,” I snapped at him. “You should be ashamed of yourself. For crying out loud, Zan, you cured the mountain fever, you saved hundreds, thousands of lives. It’s what your father died for. Doesn’t that mean more to you than just money?”
“I proved that dad’s idea worked,” Zanipulus said. “That’s all I wanted to do. Other people’s problems are not my concern.”
“You know what,” Teuta said. “He’s got religion. He’s starting to believe his own bullshit.”
“You’re all mad,” Razo said. “We should pack it in now, before we get ourselves in deep trouble.”
“One against four,” Accila said. “We keep going. After all,” he added, in a soothing voice that made me want to scream, “it’s not going to last for ever.”
Razo’s attempt to kill the new religion was completely stupid and half-baked, exactly what anyone who knew him as well as we did would have expected. Three days later, at the end of morning prayers, he suddenly turned round, faced the crowd and called out, “The world will end at noon on the fourth of Vectigalia. You have been warned. Goodbye.” Then he walked past us very quickly into the Temple, ran upstairs and locked himself in the strongroom.
We only just made it back inside ourselves—we’d moved, by the way, from the old lime kiln to what’s now the Silver Star in Westponds—and bolted the door and put the bars up. There was total chaos outside. Teuta was all for bashing the strongroom door down and cutting Razo’s throat; he and Zanipulus got hold of the long oak table in the exchequer room and tried to use it as a battering ram, but our strongroom was strong—we kept huge sums of money in there—and after a few minutes they gave up. Razo came out eventually. We just ignored him.
The kettlehats came and broke up the riot. We were given an armed guard, two companies of regulars in shiny breastplates. Once the streets were quiet and they’d dragged away the bodies (three dead, fourteen badly injured) the guard captain came inside to tell us it was all right and his men would be staying there for the next three days, until the fourth.
“Is it true?” he asked, in a quiet, terrified voice. “Is the world really about to end?”
I took charge. “Bless you, my son,” I said. He was at least ten years older than me. The father thing is something I’ll never get used to. “Are you a member of our congregation?”
The captain hesitated, then nodded shyly.
“Have faith,” I said. “The world as we know it will end. The new world will begin. For those who have faith, this is a time of joy.”
I’d said the right thing. He gave me a huge, childlike smile, saluted and went away. “Nicely done,” Zanipulus said, with grudging admiration. “We may get out of this after all.”
There had, of course, been total eclipses of the sun before. Anaximander records one, in dry, impersonal detail, back in the second century; he watched the whole thing, making careful notes, and the last line of his account—thereafter, I became blind—is one of the most poignant lines in scientific literature. There have been others, though the only trace they’ve left is their imprint in various mythologies, vague and unsatisfactory. They’re rare, though; rare enough that by the time the next one comes along, the previous one’s become overgrown with legend and dumped in the place where facts go when people no longer really believe in them.
So, except for the quarter-percent of the population who’d read Anaximander, the total eclipse that took place on the fourth Vectigalia, AUC 552, wasn’t a rare and fascinating scientific phenomenon. It was what I’d said it would be. They saw the Invincible Sun die and instantly be reborn, in fire and glory, beyond a shadow of a doubt the beginning of a whole new world.
Oh boy, was that ever good for business. When we finally got the temple cleared and the gates shut, well after midnight, we had a very quick and perfunctory extraordinary general meeting, at which it was resolved that we needed to start hiring some staff, since there was no way in hell we’d be able to carry on running things at that pace all on our own. Razo—somehow in the confusion of that day he’d been completely forgiven and elevated to the status of hero—proposed the hierarchy that prevails in the Church to this day. I was to be the first High Priest; the other four were to be isangels (a term Razo coined on the spot, would you believe), and we’d hire ten full-time priests and fifty minimum-wage part-timers to do pastoral and missionary work, along with three clerks to help out with the books.
Filling the vacancies wasn’t a problem. Actually, it was; we were deluged with applicants, ninety-nine per cent of whom we rejected out of hand on the grounds of excessive zeal. The candidates we finally chose were all, in fact, renegade priests from other religions. We wanted men who knew the score and understood the business, and I venture to suggest that we chose well, since of the original ten, eight are still in post and the other two died in harness. As for the part-timers, we went the opposite way and hired the frothing-at-the-mouthest zealots, in the interests of diversity and balance.
The next phase began with our first purpose-built temple. You’ll know it as the Silent Rock, on the corner of Old Guard and Tanneries; we just called it The Temple, fondly believing that it’d be the only one. Note the location: We could have gone further into New Town, in pursuit of the carriage trade, but we decided the frontier between upmarket and the slums was a strategically better choice. Yes, the rich gave more, but there are an awful lot of the poor, and handfuls of trachy soon add up, so we weren’t inclined to turn our backs on the devoted unwashed. That was the mistake the Ephraists made, and the Poldarnians. They made it clear they weren’t interested in the common people, and where are they now? Nor did we want to go the way of the Blachernicans or the Ranting Friars and get closed down by the government as subversive and antisocial. A middle course, was what we decided on. A universal church, with every man contributing according to his means.
The explosion in our income since the eclipse meant that we could hire the very best architect. It’s an indication of how our luck was running that when we approached Thalles with the commission, he turned round and told us he’d be delighted to do the job for free, as his personal offering to the Invincible Sun. Accila tried to insist on paying him—if you hire them, he said, you can also fire them if needs be, but volunteers can be a real pain to get rid of—but he simply wouldn’t hear of it; if we gave him money, he’d simply give it all back in the offertory, so where was the point? You can’t argue with that, or at least, we didn’t try.
It was the same story when it came to buying building materials and hiring labour. If it was for the Temple, nobody wanted paying. That didn’t stop contributions to the building fund flooding in, although we made no secret of the fact that we were getting all this free stuff. We decided we had to spend some of the Fund or it’d look really bad, so we sent to Perimadeia for gold offertory plate and embroidered vestments. By the time the order was completed and delivered, there was already a small but thriving Church of the Invincible Sun in Perimadeia—what’s all this stuff for, the merchants there asked; gosh, that sounds like a good idea, let’s worship Him too. The same in Aelia and the Vesani Republic. I’m not making this up. It really was happening that fast. For example; the first we knew about the Church in Scona was when a ship’s captain arrived with three hundred stamina in a goatskin bag; offerings from the faithful to the Mother Church. Honestly, we didn’t know what to say.
The night before we broke ground on the Temple foundations, I had a dream. Well, of course you did, I hear you say, what sort of a high priest would you be if you didn’t? Indeed; : but I did actually have a dream, and unlike most of my dreams, which I forget within a few heartbeats of opening my eyes, this one’s stayed with me ever since.
I was inside the Temple—I recognised it, even though I’d only seen it as straight lines on a sheet of parchment—and it was beautiful. The walls were a kind of dark red marble, and the ceiling was a vast golden mosaic of the ascent of the Invincible Sun, surrounded on all sides by saints, angels, apostles and other glorious beings—I recognised them all, though I couldn’t remember all their names. In the chancel a choir was singing (and I remember thinking; that’s a point, we ought to get some religious music written, it goes down really well) and the air smelt wonderful; roses and lavender and some deep, rich scent I couldn’t identify. I was on my knees, wearing vestments of plain black wool, and I think my feet were bare.
I remember looking up and meeting the eye of the beautiful golden Sun in the mosaic. I felt no hesitation, no shame; and then he spoke to me:;
“Peace be with you,” I think he said. “You are my one true prophet. Go out and do my work.”
And then (in the dream) I remembered; it was all fake, nonsense, garbage; I’d invented the whole thing; it was all lies and deceit, to get money.
“Blessed are those who believe,” he said, “for in my name they will heal the sick and feed the hungry. Blessed are those who show others the golden path to faith, for they shall see me face to face.”
At which point Anaximander, painted over the door to one of the side chapels, muttered, “Thereafter, I became blind,” but the Sun didn’t seem to have heard him. He raised his right hand in benediction, and said, “Blessed are those who build, for they shall receive the great gift. Blessed are those who make new things, for everything they make shall come from me. Blessed are those who write, for their words shall be my words. Blessed are those who pray, for I shall hear them.”
While he was saying all that, I remember, I was trying to shout—no, no, I’m sorry, it’s all lpretend—but for some reason my mouth wouldn’t open. And then he said, “Blessed are those who lie, for they shall speak the truth.” And then I woke up.
Paint fumes, I told myself when I opened my eyes. They’d only just painted my room a couple of days before, and the place reeked of whatever that foul stuff is that they use as a base. Paint fumes and a ticklish conscience, and I’d been talking to the interior designer about mosaics for the ceiling, and there was a long list of beatitudes in the phoney gospel we’d cooked up. Nothing to worry about. Tomorrow night, sleep with the window open and you’ll be fine.
They found it about four feet down, in the trench they were digging to connect the latrine (we may have been men of God but we were practical) to the brook. The first I knew of it was when a crowd started to gather; a silent crowd, which is always the most ominous sort. My first thought was that some poor devil had had an accident, and I hurried over to see if anyone had thought to send for a doctor.
They’d uncovered a box. So far, they’d cleared the dirt away from the lid. It was about three feet by one, and it shone like gold.
It took me about half a second to think; it’s been buried in the ground God knows how long, and it shines like gold. Therefore—
I found that I’d shoved my way to the front of the crowd. Naturally, people made way for the high priest. Some workman looked up at me, as if asking what he should do. “Don’t just stand there,” I yelled at him. “Get it out.”
Once they’d scrabbled away the rest of the dirt, they tried to lift it. Too heavy. I jumped down into the trench, cassock-tails flying. The bloody thing was solid gold. At times like this, there’s a part of my brain that works independently, regardless of context or propriety. It reported; a thousand stamina, and that’s just the box. “Open it,” I said.
There was no lock, and gold hinges don’t seiieze. They swung open the lid.
My first reaction, I’m sorry to have to tell you, was, shit, it’s just old parchment. Then the better part of me thought to inquire as to what sort of document you’d bother burying in an airtight solid gold box. I shoved someone out of the way. They were rolled up, in scrolls. I grabbed one and pulled down. Miraculously, it didn’t tear, disintegrate, come apart in my hands. It was just writing, no pictures, in a script I didn’t recognise.
But I knew a man who knew about this sort of thing. “Where’s Accila?” I called out. Blank faces. Then I remembered. “Father Chrysostomus,” I translated. “Go and find him, now.”
The scrolls—there were nine of them—were in Old Middle Therian, a language that hasn’t been spoken for a thousand years. Only about six people in the world can read it. Fortuitously, Accila was one of them. “It’s some sort of religious text,” he told us, as we gathered in secret session in some storage hut, with the door wedged shut with a pickaxe handle. “I’m a bit rusty, so you’ll have to—”
He went quiet. Not like him at all. We indulged him for about ten seconds, and then Razo said, “Well?”
Accila looked up. He had the strangest look on his face.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he said.
Later, when Accila had transcribed and translated all nine scrolls, and we’d all sat down, with the new texts on one hand and the Gospel we’d concocted on the other, we tried to convince ourselves that there were differences, significant ones; some key words were ambiguous, there was a sprinkling of hapax legomena which could mean anything, translation is at best an imprecise science. We were kidding ourselves. To all intents and purposes, the scrolls we’d found in the box and the gospel we’d made up out of our heads were the same.
I had another dream. It wasn’t on the same sumptuous, no-expense-spared scale as the previous one, so maybe my dream budget had all been spent. All it was, I was looking in a mirror and the face I saw there wasn’t mine.
“This is all wrong,” I said.
“Why do you say that?” he said.
“It’s wrong.” He just looked at me. “It’s wrong because you’re not real. I made you up. You aren’t even my imaginary friend, it was deliberate. You’re a forgery.”
He smiled beautifully. “You made me up.”
“Yes. For money. To defraud poor, weak-minded people out of money they couldn’t afford.”
“For money.” He shrugged. “Well, you need to live. And it’s not like you’re indulging in extravagant luxuries. Apart from the vestments, which are badges of office, like a uniform, you dress in simple clothes, you mostly eat bread and cheese, you’ve practically stopped drinking wine, you sleep on a mattress in an attic—”
“Only because I’m too busy.”
“Too busy. Doing my work. You are my good and faithful servant.”
I wanted to hit him. “Cheating people. Deceiving them. And I did make you up. You’re a lie.”
“You made me up.”
“Will you stop repeating everything I say?”
“You made me up,” he said firmly. “Let’s just think about that. You were trying to find a way to feed yourself and your friends when you were poor and hungry, and an idea came into your head.” He smiled. “Where do you think that idea came from?”
“I made you up.” I couldn’t seem to get him to understand. “I invented you as part of a criminal conspiracy.”
He shrugged again. “You gave me life,” he said. “Like Maxentius.”
Good reference. Maxentius was the son of a prostitute, engendered as part of a routine commercial transaction. His military coup overthrew the cruellest tyrant in history, and his welfare reforms led to his reign becoming known as the Golden Age. “If I gave you life, you can’t be God,” I pointed out. “And if you’re not God, you can’t exist in this form. Therefore you don’t exist.”
He shook his head. “If I’m God I can do anything,” he said, “and that includes being born of a fallible human. Besides, it’s not so hard to believe in, is it, that I should choose to come into existence through you. Seeds grow best when they’re planted in rotting shit. No offence,” he added gravely.
“None capable of being taken,” I replied. “But in that case, why me? Why not be made up by a holy man, a true holy man? There’s plenty of those.”
“A holy man wouldn’t stoop to fraud and deceit. Therefore he wouldn’t have made me up, therefore I could never have been made.”
“Ah,” I said, “you’ve contradicted yourself. A moment ago, you could do anything.”
He nodded. “Once I exist, of course I can. Before I existed, I was nothing.”
“Then you can’t be God,” I cried in triumph. “God must be eternal, in existence for ever since the beginning.”
“Must I?” He gave me a mock frown. “I’m God, there’s no must about it. I can do anything I like.”
“Fine,” I said. “Then who created the world?”
“I did. Retrospectively.”
“Of course I can. I can do anything. Once I exist.”
“I’d like to wake up now, please.”
“In a moment,” he said. “I’m going to teach you some doctrine. Are you listening carefully?”
“Go on,” I said.
He looked me straight in the eye. “There is no right or wrong,” he said, “there is only good and bad. Starvation is bad; feeding the hungry is good. But it’s not right to feed the hungry, because you might easily do so through vanity, which is bad, or because you want to build up a political power-base in order to launch a coup, which is bad, unless you’re Maxentius, in which case it’s good. Killing someone is wrong, unless you’re Maxentius killing the Emperor Phocas, in which case it’s entirely right. Do you understand?”
“And you’re supposed to be so bright,” he said. “Very well,” he said. “Let’s try again. Motive is irrelevant. The best things have been done for the worst motives, the worst things have been done for the best motives. Lusaeus the Slaughterer started the Fifth Social War because his people were oppressed by the Empire and he wanted the best for them. But Maxentius started a civil war because his people were oppressed and he wanted the best for them. The Fifth Social War was bad, because two million people died needlessly and countless more were left in hunger and misery. Maxentius’ war was good, because it freed the people and led to the Golden Age. Hunger is bad, freedom is good. Motive is irrelevant.”
“There’s nothing good about greed for money.”
“Tell that to Peregrinus, who discovered the north-east passage to Ceugra, bringing cheap food and full employment to Mezentia. On the other hand, consider Artabazus, who sailed from Perimadeia to the Anoge with a quarter million sacks of grain to feed the famine victims, and carried the plague with him. Outcomes are good or bad. Motive is irrelevant. This,” he added, “is the word of the Lord. It’s not open to debate.”
“You can’t just say—”
“Of course I can. Now wake up and believe.”
The Temple was a great success. We had full congregations every day, tremendous enthusiasm, full offertory-boxes. Three weeks after we held our first Intercessionary Mass for Peace, the Herulians surrendered unconditionally and the war was finally over. We held a special service of thanksgiving; we couldn’t fit them all in the Temple, so we borrowed the Artillery Fields. Almost all the Cabinet attended, along with most of the City nobility and everyone who was anyone from society, commerce and the arts. The take for that service alone was 16,000 stamina.
Winning the war was the last straw, as far as I was concerned. I had to do something. But I didn’t want to rush into it blindly and screw everything up; so I suggested to the others, quite casually at the end of a routine meeting, that it’d save on accountancy time and paperwork if the Church gave me a discretionary budget, so I could pay for everyday maintenance and procurements without having to bother anyone else. Fine, they said, how much do you need? Not quite sure yet, I said; just give me a drawing facility on Number Two account for now, and when I know how it pans out, we can establish a figure.
With unlimited access to Church funds—a licence to embezzle, if you prefer to look at it in those terms—I really got going. I funnelled out money into fake corporations, lost fortunes in imaginary fires and shipwrecks, filtered vast sums through four sets of books, and used it all to feed the war refugees at Blachissa. There were something like a hundred thousand of the poor devils stranded there, fugitives from three major cities burnt down by the enemy during the war, and since their cities no longer existed, they had no governors, therefore there was nobody to petition the government for relief on their behalf, therefore they were nobody’s problem, therefore they were left to starve. I bought grain from the farmers in the Mesoge—when Taraconissa was destroyed they lost their principal market and had no -one to sell to, so they were in pretty dire straits—and employed discharged veterans to cart and distribute the supplies. I made a special effort to ensure that at every stage in the process, I was helping someone who badly needed help. I was so pleased with myself.
There was so much money, of course, that for a long time nobody noticed. It was, though, simply a matter of time. When, sooner or later, my colleagues realised what I was up to, I anticipated harsh words, bitter accusations and a great deal of bad feeling. What I didn’t expect—
“You can’t do this,” I roared.
They looked at me.
“You can’t,” I repeated. “I invented this religion, it was my idea, I created it. I’m the high priest. You can’t excommunicate me.”
“Actually,” Accila said quietly, “we can. It says so in the constitution.”
“The one we just made up,” Accila replied. “And submitted to a general synod for ratification, passed unanimously. And it says, the ecumenical council—that’s the four of us—can dismiss the high priest on grounds of heresy or gross moral turpitude. We’re going with heresy as an act of kindness, so we don’t have to go public with the news that you’ve been stealing from the Church. That’s provided you go quietly and don’t make trouble.”
“You can’t adopt a constitution without my agreement.”
“Yes we can,” Accila said. “Retrospectively. Since there is currently no high priest, you having been dismissed, the ecumenical council is us. And we can do anything we like.”
The others just sat there, grim-faced, hiding behind Accila. “I’ll have the lot of you for this,” I shouted. “I’ll expose you. I’ll tell everything. I’m I’ll tell them it’s all a fraud.”
Accila sighed. “Please don’t,” he said. “You’ll just embarrass yourself. After all, nobody’s going to believe you, are they? They’ve seen us curing the sick, they saw the miracle of the reborn sun, they saw us end the war. They’ll just think, here’s a man who lost a power struggle and wants to make trouble. Politics. The people understand about politics. And then,” he added with a sad smile, “we’ll tell them how you defrauded the Church of a quarter of a million stamina. Or we can do it our way. Up to you entirely.”
I was breathing rapidly, and my palms were sweating. “Heresy,” I said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Razo cleared his throat. “We’ll put out a statement saying that you object to the doctrine of vicarious absolution. The doctrine having been upheld by the ecumenical council, you’re a heretic.”
I blinked. “What,” I demanded, “is the doctrine of—- ?”
“Vicarious absolution.” Teuta steepled his fingers. “My idea. In exchange for a substantial offering, you can ensure the salvation of someone else’s soul, even if he’s not actually a believer himself. He doesn’t have to know about it, if that’s what you want. For double the money, you can even save someone’s soul against his will. We think it’ll be very popular.”
I tried. I went to the magistrates and swore a complaint, but the chief justice was a believer and threw the case out for lack of evidence. I went to the chief archimandrite of the Fire Temple, who told me that the last thing he wanted to do, in the present circumstances, was pick a fight with a much bigger, richer church. I tried to see the emperor, but the chamberlain wouldn’t even take my money. There are more important things, he said, with a sanctimonious scowl, and sent me away.
I preached in the market-place. The first time, I drew a good crowd. I hadn’t lost my touch. I told them; the Gospel of the Invincible Sun is a fake, written by five poor rich boys to make money. The so-called ancient scrolls dug up in the Temple foundations were fakes, made by a skilled forger with a criminal record for falsifying religious texts. The miracle of the Reborn Sun was no miracle at all; my former colleagues had started with Anaximander, carefully studied the other records, and accurately predicted a natural phenomenon that would have happened anyway. The cure for the mountain fever was just mouldy bread beaten up in garlic juice—a wonderful thing, granted, but no miracle. The other cures could all be explained by the scientifically-documented phenomenon of mass hysteria; it was all there in the Mezentine books, I told them, all we did was read and repeat. The Herulian war was almost over anyway, so we hadn’t ended that. As for the Church, it was nothing more than a mechanism for sucking in unearned wealth, which the five of us had always intended from the start to keep for ourselves.
My second street corner sermon drew about a dozen people, five of whom jeered and threw apples. On the third occasion, I was arrested by the kettlehats for disturbing the peace.
They kept me in for a week, in a dark, tiny cell along with two thieves, a wife-killer and a rapist. I preached to them, expounding the doctrine of right and wrong that I’d been given in my dream. I think the rapist was interested, but on the fourth day the wife-killer, a believer, hit me so hard I passed out, and when I came round, a lot of the evangelical zeal seemed to have faded.
On the seventh day, two kettlehats came and pulled me out of there. I was being transferred, they said, to the ecclesiastical courts. What ecclesiastical courts, I asked.
“They’re new,” Accila explained. He’d come to see me in my cell. “Very new.”
“Actually, we got the whole thing set up in six days. Soon as we heard you’d been arrested.”
I stared at him. “What?”
“In your honour,” he said grimly. “On account of, there wasn’t really anything in ordinary criminal law we could get you for, apart from disturbing the peace and criminal slander, maybe just possibly incitement to riot. At best, those would get you put away for two years. So, we created an entirely new jurisdiction, just for you. They had to rush an emergency enabling bill through the House; quickest piece of legislation this century, apparently. The emperor signed it yesterday, so it’s now the law. And of course it’s—”
“Let me guess. Retrospective.”
He grinned. “Not much point otherwise.” He sighed, a reasonable man brought to the limits of his patience. “Eps, you bloody fool, why can’t you just drop it and shut your face? You’ve lost, accept it, move on.” He hesitated, then added,; “They’ve authorised me to make you an offer. One million stamina, provided you leave the country and never come back. That’s for old time’s sake, we don’t have to pay you anything. Well? What about it?”
“And if I won’t?”
He looked very sad and grave. “Well,” he said, “I don’t see where you leave us much choice. But for pity’s sake, Eps, you’re a sensible man, there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t sort this out in a reasonable, businesslike fashion. Damn it, we used to be friends.”
I just looked at him. “You’re the ones who had me locked up,” I said. “You threw me out of my own Church. I’m sorry, but I can’t see how it’s my fault.”
He shrugged. “You don’t want money,” he said. “You don’t want a quiet, prosperous life. For crying out loud, Eps, what do you want? A martyr’s crown?”
So they were going to kill me. Oh, I thought. “If the crown fits,” I heard myself say.
“You bloody idiot,” Accila said, and left.
The trial was short and, as I understand, very orderly and efficient. I wasn’t actually there, having been ejected for gross contempt about ten seconds after they put me in the dock. They sent some clerk down to the cells to tell me the verdict. Guilty of blasphemy, twelve counts, fraud and embezzlement, ninety-six counts, other offences, a hundred and four counts. Sentence; : death by fire. I’d pleaded guilty, apparently.
“Death by fire?” I asked.
The clerk nodded briskly. “Only the refining power of flame,” he told me, “can purge the taint of blasphemy, which would otherwise form a miasma and lead to plague.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s what it says here,” he said. “Tomorrow morning, at dawn. Sorry,” he added, which was nice of him.
“I’d like to see a priest,” I said.
I spent the night on my knees, in prayer. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it, but you do that sort of thing in a condemned cell. After all, why not? Not as if there’s anything better to do, sleeping would be a sinful waste, and—well. If it was true, and I really had invented God, brought him in to existence—I thought about that. Why not? There are innumerable examples of sons who turn out to be a thousand, a million times better, cleverer, stronger than their fathers. If I really had invented God, then I reckoned he owed me; a vision, a visitation, a sign or portent at the very least. No dice. I fell asleep kneeling.
I woke up, and it was still dark. The floor was shaking.
We don’t get earthquakes in the City. If you want to experience that sort of thing, you have to go to Permia, or up North. It’s the weirdest feeling. It’s like being on a ship in a storm. You have to keep moving your feet just to stand still, and the vibration goes right down and through you, till you can feel your bones moving. Everything blurs, as though you’ve just had a bang on the head, and there’s this noise like nothing else, a sort of deep rumbling purr, as though you’re a flea on the back of a cat the size of Scheria. I jumped up, promptly fell over, got up again; I was trying to learn how to stand upright on a moving surface when the floor split, right between my feet, and a huge gap appeared—a great big slice of nothing, with a foot on either side of it. I yelped like a dog, and then a chunk of the roof came down, missing me by a whisker. I could feel pee running down the inside of my leg. Then there was this extraordinary singing, moaning noise, which later on I was able to rationalise as the sound of steel under intolerable tension, and the doorframe burst. The cell door actually flew open—it swished past me, if I’d been a hand’s breadth closer, it’d have swatted me like a fly. A head-sized chunk of roof bashed me on the shoulder; it hurt like buggery, I staggered and nearly went down the hole in the floor. The hell with this, I thought, and I did a sort of standing jump through the open doorway.
I landed on my bruised shoulder, which really didn’t improve matters, and sat up. One end of the corridor was blocked with chunks and slabs of fallen roof. The other end was clear. I scrambled to my feet and ran. The floor played funny games with me, ; I ended up flat on my back three times before I reached the stairs. They’d pulled away from the wall on one side, but I was in no mood to be fussy. When I was a few steps from the top, I felt the whole lot give way under the pressure of my heel; I sprang, like a cat, as the staircase just sort of fell away, and landed in a ball on something relatively solid.
It was a miracle that I got out of there. About ten seconds after I burst out through a shattered window into fresh air, the whole prison sort of folded in on itself and subsided into a heap of stones. How come I wasn’t squashed by any of the huge slabs of flying rubbish, I simply don’t know. All I remember was how hard it was to breathe, because I couldn’t stop running, even though my legs were jelly and my lungs stabbed like knives; I ran, dodging falling trees and collapsing buildings, jumping over dead people and people trapped under things, I ran and ran until a particularly violent tremor swept me off my feet and I fell down and no effort on my part could make me get up again. Then, I guess, I went to sleep, or something like that.
I woke up in a weird landscape; masonry trash, blocks of stone, as far as the eye can see; I remember thinking, whatever possessed me to spend the night in a quarry? But then I caught sight of a building I knew; the Integrity Rewarded, in Sheep Street, except that Sheep Street wasn’t there; just the Integrity, taken out of context, floating serenely on a sea of rubble.
I limped over and banged on the door, but it was bolted shut. Pity. I could really have done with a drink (except I had no money, and they don’t do credit at theIntegrity.) I wandered away and just sort of drifted for a while. It was a very long time before I saw anyone, but when I did, it was a patrol of kettlehats. They looked at me and shouted, You there, stop where you are. So, naturally, I ran.
The great earthquake of AUC 552 was exceptionally violent but extremely localised. It shook down the whole of the Potteries district, so that only a handful of buildings were left standing, but was hardly felt at all in Cornmarket, East Hill or the Grand Crescent. Remarkably, given the scope of the destruction, only about two dozen people were killed, and eight of those were prisoners in the gaol awaiting execution.
I holed up in the Charity & Austerity in Pigmarket; a haunt of my youth, where nobody ever asks you anything so long as you have at least ninety trachy. I had considerably more than that, courtesy of some poor dead man whose pocket I picked on my way out of the ruins. I could have afforded enough of the house red to kill a regiment of dragoons, but oddly enough I didn’t touch a drop; I had a bowl of soup and half a loaf of grindstone bread, and that was all I wanted. I think I coped really rather well with the realisation—it came up on me like a sunrise—that the earthquake had been for me—an intervention by my God, the Invincible Sun, to get me out of prison and save me from the flames. Well? What other possible explanation can you think of?
I could have been horrified, torn apart by guilt at the thought of the deaths and the damage. Or I could’ve been really, really, really smug; God loves me so much, He shook down a quarter of the City just for me. I was neither. I accepted what had happened; not my fault, not a victory or a vindication. He knows best, I told myself; if that’s what He felt needed to be done, who am I to question?
Have you ever been to Eremia? I thought not. If you were thinking of making the trip, take my advice, don’t bother. There’s nothing there except sand, rocks, murderous heat, biting winds, freezing cold at night. I can only think of one man in the history of the world who wanted to go there, and I have a shrewd suspicion that at the time, he wasn’t quite right in the head.
Looking back, I can’t understand how I survived. I was out in the desert, just walking. I had nothing, no shoes, not even a water-bottle. On the third, or was it the fourth day, I stumbled across an oasis. I call it that; there was this brown puddle, fringed with tall, thin trees. There was a rock with a sort of ledge, you couldn’t call it a cave; under the ledge, I found a dead man. He must’ve been there for a long time. His skin was brown and hard, like rawhide. His eyes had gone, but his hair was mostly still there; thin, wispy, like the strands of wool you find caught on brambles. He was curled up, asleep. When I moved him, he was as light as a log of rotten wood.
We had many long conversations, the dead man and me. He told me he was a pilgrim, on his way to the celebrated desert oracle at Cocona. He’d gone there to get the answer to a very important question which had subsequently slipped his mind; the answer, though, was, Yes, but it will not end well. Looks like they were right, I told him. Well, of course, he said, it’s a very reliable oracle.
I did most of the talking. I told him my story; how I’d created God, how He’d outgrown me, moved away from me, how He’d rescued me from prison and fire; but these days he never comes to see me, he doesn’t even write—that’s how it is, the dead man said, they have lives of their own, what do you expect? Of course, I said, and I know how busy He is, but it’d be nice if he could spare me just five minutes once in a while.
“Here I am,” the dead man said. “What can I do for you?”
I looked at Him. “Sorry,” I said, “I didn’t recognise You there for a minute.”
“That’s all right,” He said.
“Well?” I asked Him. “Are You keeping well? Are You eating properly?”
“I am the Invincible Sun,” He said. “I don’t eat.”
Fair point. At that moment He was everywhere around me, burning, a white heat blazing down from the sky, rising up from the hot sand. “What do You want me to do?” I asked.
“You’ve done so much,” Hhe said.
“That’s not an answer.”
He had no eyes, but they were filled with pity. “I want you to go to the City,” Hhe said. “Give yourself up. Submit to the cruelty and hatred of our enemies. They will put you in prison and they will hang you, and when you die, all the sins of the world will die with you. You don’t mind, do you?” He added. “If you’d rather not, I’ll understand.”
“No, that’s fine,” I said. “Is there anything You want me to say?”
“Tell them that you were wrong,” he said. “Tell them that the miracles were true miracles, that it was I who cured the sick and ended the war, that the scriptures are My holy word, that I saved you from the prison and I sent you back. Tell them everything is true, and everything is good, and that motive is irrelevant, only the outcome matters. It’s essential that you tell them, and that they understand. Will you do that for Me?”
“Of course,” I said. “Anything else?”
He smiled. “I think that’s quite enough to be going on with. I will send others, later, to do the rest.”
“It doesn’t seem very much,” I said. “Go home, give up, tell a few lies, get killed. Are you sure there isn’t more I can do to help?”
“Nothing that you’re capable of doing,” He replied, not unkindly.
“Well, if you’re sure,” I said. “Can I ask you something?”
He smiled. “Why did I choose you as my high priest, out of all the people in all the world?”
“You mean you haven’t—” He stopped, grinned, composed His face. “Your name, of course.”
“That’s right. Eps eps. Joke.”
I looked Him in the eye. “I don’t believe it.”
His gaze rested on me like the noonday sun, bright and intolerable, so that I couldn’t help remembering Anaximander. “Are you seriously suggesting,” He said, “that God has no sense of humour? Now, there’s blasphemy.”
“But it’s not even particularly funny—”.—.” I stopped. I was talking to a dessicated desiccated corpse. Ah well, I thought.
Later that day, a caravan of salt traders on their way to the coast stopped at the oasis. They were amazed to find anyone there. They said they ought to kill me, for stealing their water, but since I was a lunatic and a holy man, they’d overlook it just this once. I explained that I had to get to the coast as quickly as possible; I have a message from God, I told them. Of course you have, they said.
I didn’t feel much like talking on the long walk to the coast, but they wouldn’t leave me alone. How did you survive, they asked; how did you manage for food? I told them I had a vague memory of eating beetles, or something of the sort. They laughed and shook their heads; no beetles in the desert, they said. I shrugged. The Invincible Sun must have sent them, I said, so that I wouldn’t starve. They gave me an odd look. Your god sent you beetles to live on, they said, that’s pathetic. Would it have killed Him to send you sausages and honey-cakes? I thought about that for a moment and said, I think He must have sent the beetles, because clearly there weren’t any living there under normal circumstances. I saw no sign that insects had attacked the dead body. What dead body, they said.
Two kettlehats were waiting for me at the quay. For some reason, I was in ridiculously high spirits, that end-of-term feeling I hadn’t felt since I’d walked out into the sunlight after six days in the Examination Halls, at the end of my last year at the Studium. I waved to the kettlehats as I walked down the gangplank. They looked at me.
“I’m Eps,” I said, before they had a chance to open their mouths. “Sorry, Father Deodatus, if that’s the name on the warrant. Are you here to arrest me?”
“No talking,” they said. “You’re with us.”
They had one of those closed carriages; a pity, because I’d have liked to look out of the window. It was a bright, sunny day, and the City is always at its best in sunshine; it brings out that deep honey yellow in the stonework, and sparkles on the copper roofs of the temples. I’ve always admired it; that day, knowing what I did about the Sun, I could understand. It was because He loved the City so much, the buildings and the people looking at them. I was proud of Him for that.
They must have known well in advance that I was coming, because everything was ready. They’d built the scaffold in the Golden Square, presumably so that the nobility could watch from the windows of their town houses without having to come down and mingle with the common people. For them, the imperial carpenters had built seventeen (I counted them) rows of bleachers, which only goes to show that the moaners are quite wrong and the government can get things done quickly and well if it sets its mind to it. On the outskirts there were the usual mulled wine and hot sausage stalls, quite a few other traders—I noticed a man selling quality imported textiles, and another doing a brisk trade in commemorative pottery figurines. Three squadrons of the Household Cavalry added a touch of that colour and pageantry we’ve always done so well in the City. I couldn’t tell from where I was whether they were charging people for admission, but I’d be surprised if they weren’t.
A kettlehat captain in a magnificent gilded breastplate took charge of me and led me through a cordon of dismounted guardsmen to the scaffold steps. I asked him, “Will I have a chance to make a speech?” He shook his head. I was disappointed. I had a message to deliver, after all, and I was surprised to find that no opportunity had been provided. How about a priest, I asked. Shake of the head. But I want to confess my sins, I told him (we were getting closer and closer to the scaffold), I want to tell the people that I’ve seen the error of my ways and urge them to love and obey the Ecumenical Council. Sorry, he said, and then we were there.
I was starting to panic. I had, after all, been sent there to pass on the word of the Invincible Sun; my death was merely ancillary to that, and there was a terrible risk of missing the point of the exercise. I tried to protest, but the kettlehats proved to be very skillful at moving a person who didn’t want to be moved, efficiently and unobtrusively. Mostly it was done by judicious barging and blocking, with firm but gentle pressure from a hand in the small of the back; you have to go where you’re nudged, or you lose your balance and fall over. I guess they’d had the practice, but still, I was impressed.
“Gentlemen, be reasonable,” I said. We were at the foot of the steps. “A few last words, is that too much to ask? I just want to—”
“Sorry.” A knee pressed the back of my knee, and somehow I was standing on the first step. If I’d been ten times stronger and trained from boyhood in the secret arts of the warrior, I don’t think there was anything I could’ve done. I could see the hangman waiting for me at the top of the steps. He had a sort of black bag over his head. This was all wrong. I had to deliver my message, but time was running out. I thought; if He could be bothered to level the Potteries with an earthquake to let me escape the first time, surely He can do something, some little thing, to give me a chance to carry out His explicit instructions. Made no sense. I’d done exactly what I’d been told, so what had gone wrong?
I looked up and there He was, a round white eye in a sea of clear blue, watching, not doing anything. I let them nudge me up the steps, and the hangman grabbed me and put the noose round my neck. “Excuse me,” I started to say, but he tightened the knot so I couldn’t speak. He trod on my toe, making me step back so I was properly centred on the trapdoor. “Just a—” I croaked, and he pulled the lever.
Now then, let’s see.
Motivation, we have been taught, doesn’t matter. All that counts is the outcome, the end result. Therefore, it didn’t matter that my colleagues and I had started the Church as a criminal conspiracy to cheat gullible people out of money. Clear away the nettles and brambles of motive, and underneath them you find a set of circumstances capable of producing the desired result. You find a group of people with a unique combination of talents and abilities—the scientist, the poet, the skilled forger, the scholar and the preacher. Driven by, motivated by, an urgent need of their own, they set about the task of bringing a god to the attention of the public. Consider how many religions, how many gods, show up on our streets in any twelve-month period; scores, hundreds even, and how many of them make it to mainstream acceptance? Quite. But, I dare say, a fair proportion of those religions, those gods, have perfectly viable doctrines, sufficient to serve as the basis for a thoroughly satisfactory Church. The margin, is what I’m trying to say, the edge, the difference between the three hundred failures and the one success, is tiny; but it’s real, it’s there. It’s not just a matter of luck. To succeed, you need the perfectly pitched message, the unforgettably phrased scriptures, the eye-catching iconography, the significant moments indelibly etched on the public consciousness. The trouble with most religions is the people who propound them. They may be charismatic and inspirational, but they’re not quite charismatic and inspirational enough. Also, they’re deficient in those core skills we’ve just examined. Their scriptures are written in a pedestrian style. They’re too new, without the sanctity of ancientness. They’re internally inconsistent, or they ask people to believe stuff that ordinary folk can’t quite stomach. Their preachers lack that certain indefinable but absolutely indispensable something. They are, in other words, amateurs. They lack the professional touch.
We, by contrast—well. Think about it. Suppose you were the Invincible Sun, with the whole human race to choose from. We were conmen, whose business was getting sceptical people to believe us. Would you really select a bunch of unskilled nobodies—farm workers, fishermen, carpenters—or would you insist on nothing but the best; well-born, university-educated, intelligent and naturally articulate, and motivated (I’m repeating that word so you’ll notice it) by ferociously intense self-interest. Well, wouldn’t you? If you want a house built, you hire builders. If you want a gallstone taken out, you pay the best doctor you can afford. So, if you want people persuaded, you enlist the best persuaders in the business.
Once you realise the simple truth that motive is irrelevant, it all makes sense. Really, you don’t need a special flash of insight direct from the lips of the Invincible Sun to figure that one out. There is no right and wrong, only good and bad. Faith is good; it’s essential, if you want to survive in a perverse and gratuitously cruel universe. Nihilism is bad; it deprives the world of meaning, so why the hell bother with anything? Anything that can induce people to have faith, have hope, believe that there is meaning, is good. Motive is irrelevant.
I woke up.
Later, I figured out that I must’ve banged my head on the gallows frame or the edge of the trap, which made me pass out. I had a lump the size of an egg and a splitting headache. I was lying on a bed. It hurt when I breathed in. There was someone sitting looking down at me. It was Zanipulus.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Awful,” I said. Then I frowned. “Zan?”
“Sorry,” I said. Talking hurt. “I was expecting someone else.”
He laughed. “No doubt you were,” he said. “But you’ll have to make do with me. Now then, you’ve probably got a bad head and a hell of a stiff neck, but basically you’re fine. You should be up and about in no time.”
“You—” I paused. “ For God’s—for pity’s sake. What happened?”
He smiled. “Exactly what we wanted to happen,” he said. “Just for once, everything went according to plan, no balls-ups, no hitches. It was a complete success.”
I frowned at him. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m still alive.”
He stared at me; then he burst out laughing. “Eps, you idiot,” he said. “You didn’t seriously believe we actually wanted to kill you? Oh come on. We’re yourfriends.”
He shook his head in disbelief. “We staged your execution,” he said. “We made a martyr of you. Well? Isn’t that what you told Accila you wanted?”
A martyr’s crown. “I thought—”
“For crying out loud, Eps.” He was amused, but also a little bit hurt, a little bit angry. “Obviously, when we realised you had issues with the direction we were going in, we knew it was time for you to go your separate way. And, equally obviously, we couldn’t have you wandering off making a nuisance of yourself. So, we thought about it and decided that the best thing would be to stage your death, in public, so everyone could see, so there’d be no chance of you making a comeback and being a pain in the bum for the rest of us. Also, there was a fantastic opportunity to move the business up to the next level, by making you the Church’s first martyr. Which has worked,” he added, “beyond our wildest dreams. Where before we had one thrivingly successful Church, we now have two, in a state of perfect schism, the Orthodox and the Deodatists. Overall attendances are up twenty-one per cent. And,” he added with a grin, “the Deodatists—your lot, I guess; our wholly owned subsidiary—are particularly generous with their donations. At this rate, we should be in a position to retire by the end of the current financial year.” He stopped and frowned. “Hang on,” he said. “Didn’t Accila explain all this to you, the night before the—- ?”
Earthquake. I winced. I could see precisely what had happened. In our brief conversation in my cell, I’d so annoyed Accila that he’d flounced off in a huff—intending, no doubt, to come back later and try again when he’d had a chance to simmer down. But then the earthquake happened, I vanished; Accila either neglected to mention to the others that he hadn’t had a chance to fill me in on the plan, or else was ashamed of having flown off the handle and cocked it up, so kept quiet. Bloody fool. Next time I saw him, I’d kick his arse.
“Of course he did,” I said. “Sorry, I’m being a bit slow. I think I may have banged my head.”
Zanipulus relaxed and grinned at me. “That’s all right,” he said. “For a moment there, I was really worried. I thought, what must he be thinking of us? He must reckon we’re horrible.”
“You might have warned me,” I said, “about the hanging thing. It was really convincing. If I hadn’t known—”
“Oh, that.” He tried not to look smug. “Basically, just a really carefully padded noose and a precisely calculated drop, though there’s a bit more to it than that, obviously. I’ll draw it out for you some day, if you’re interested.”
“So,” I said. “I’m dead. What now?”
He shrugged. “Up to you entirely,” he said. “We’ve worked out your share.” He named a figure, which made my head swim. “Accila was all for deducting the money you took from us with all those weird schemes of yours, but the rest of us managed to calm him down, make him see it was ultimately good for business—laying the foundations for the Deodatist schism, that sort of thing—and he came round in the end and he’s fine about it now.” He grinned. “If it’s all right with you, we’ll pay you half now in cash and the balance in instalments over, say, ten years, to save us from liquidity problems. Or if you prefer, we can give you rentcharges, the reversions on Church properties, it’s entirely up to you. After all, we owe you a great deal. We’d never have maintained and increased our rate of exponential growth without you.”
“Cash and instalments will be just fine,” I told him.
“Splendid.” He sat up a bit straighter. “So,” he said, “any idea what you’re going to do next? The world, as they say, is your oyster.”
“I hate oysters.”
“So you do, I’d forgotten. Any plans? Or are you just going to bugger off to the sun and enjoy yourself?”
Interesting choice of words. Deliberate? Who gives a shit? Motive is irrelevant. “I think that’s what I’ll do,” I said. “Looking back, I never enjoyed my life particularly much. So I’m hoping my death will be one long giggle.”
As part of my severance package, I received a one-fifth share in the net profits of Officina Solis Invicti, a wholly-owned trading consortium with interests in, among other things, shipbuilding and arms production. That has proved to be a real slice of luck—heaven-sent, you might say—what with the dreadful wars we’ve been having lately, between the Orthodox empire and the Deodatist Aelians and Vesani. As I write this, Zanipulus is in the process of setting up a chain of arm’s-length offshore subsidiaries so that OSI can open factories in Aelia and the Vesani republic, and we can start selling ships and weapons to both sides. And why not? It’s only fair; last I heard, the Vesani had taken a hell of a beating from the empire, on account of their vastly superior military technology. It wouldn’t do for God to be seen to be taking sides.
Motive is irrelevant. The war is a terrible thing, but it was coming anyway, it was inevitable; once the empire had sorted out its traditional enemy the Herulians, it was only a matter of time before it picked a fight with the Vesani, the Aelians, anyone else it could find. By having the war now, and over religion rather than trade or boundaries, we limit the damage. It’s highly unlikely that the empire will win, particularly if OSI arms the opposition. Defeat, or a stalemate, will put a limit on imperial expansionism for a century or more. As a result, tens of thousands of soldiers won’t die, millions of civilians won’t be enslaved. History will thank us, I have absolutely no doubt.
Meanwhile, every trachy I get from OSI, my estates in the Mesoge, my mercantile and other investments, goes to feed the war refugees. I live here among them in the Chrysopolis camp, sharing their bad water and their plain, barely sufficient food, and I have to say, it’s pretty horrible. We live in tents, or shacks built out of scrap packing cases. The refugees are surly and miserable, they yell at me and sometimes throw stones, because they have no idea what I’m doing there. Their idea of hygiene is rudimentary at best. I’ve nearly given up trying to keep them from slaughtering each other over trivial disputes (nearly)—beyond keeping them alive, I can’t say I’ve done very much for them. But there’s so many of them, a hundred, hundred and fifty thousand; all rabid Deodatists. Really, the only thing that keeps them going is their faith, which got them into this dreadful state in the first place and sustains them in the face of the torments of hell. The Invincible Sun, and the glorious example of His true prophet Deodatus, who died for them that they might live; except he didn’t, but I wouldn’t dream of telling them that.
In fact, I don’t dream of anything. At first, I was bitterly disappointed. I felt I was owed, at the very least, a well-done-my-good-and-faithful-servant, followed by a long overdue explanation and, just possibly, an apology. I’d have liked something, rather than complete and impenetrable silence. But there; they say that up in the Calianna mountains there’s an ancient Velitist monastery whose monks have spent the last two thousand years waiting for their gods to apologise for the Creation. They’re hopeful, so reports say, but they aren’t holding their breath.