Read from the beginning.
I bid Prudence a final farewell, took Abbess Joy’s arm, and left the dormitory.
Abbess Joy seemed distracted during our walk. She hardly spoke but to comment on the beauty of the pre-dawn sky, or to point out one or two interesting insects that crawled alongside the path. I must have been distracted as well, because we’d reached the Cathedral before I realized something was amiss.
“Wasn’t Raven supposed to be joining us, as well?” I asked.
“Raven? I’m sorry; I’m not sure where she’s gone,” Abbess Joy replied.
“Wait here; I will go look for her,” I said.
I ran back up the path, and soon I met Trusty on the road.
“I’m glad I found you,” Trusty said breathlessly, running toward me. “I was worried I wouldn’t be able to catch you before you left. Raven was growing restless, so she’s already gone ahead to the pavilion.”
“Good. I should get back to Abbess Joy.” I paused, and then leaned closer and lowered my voice. “There is one thing I wanted to say, though. Tell the others- the Ancients and the Oculists who are going to the wildlands- that these talks are tenuous at best. Don’t wait for things to descend into chaos, and then be caught in a trap. If you don’t receive word from me by noon…”
“I understand,” Trusty said, nodding.
I sighed, half relief and half regret.
“Goodbye, Trusty, and good luck,” I said, clasping his hand.
I turned and ran back up the path, and I found that Abbess Joy was waiting just where I’d left her. She had pulled some pieces of grass from the side of the road, and was weaving them into an odd sort of pattern.
“Strings are interesting, don’t you think, dear Grace? You can do such amazing things with only three.”
“Are you alright?” I asked.
Abbess Joy dropped the strands of grass and reached out to pat my hand.
“I’m perfectly well, my dear. Thank you for asking. Now- shall we be off?”
We continued to walk a little way, but as we passed del Sol’s borders, Abbess Joy suddenly stumbled, and when we’d walked a little more into the rolling knolls of the midlands, she fell.
“Are you hurt?” I asked, reaching to help her stand again.
“I’m not hurt at all,” she said placidly. “It’s just these darned legs- I can’t get used to them. Bend the knee, up-down-up-down; it’s a lot to remember, you know.”
“Why would you need to remember how to walk?” I said, dumbfounded. “Are you ill?”
“I’m not ill. I’m just a little out of practice.” Abbess Joy took my outstretched hand and stood. Then she bent one knee, and then the other, over and over again, marching in place.
“There! I think I have it. Off we go, my dear,” Abbess Joy said, offering her arm once more.
“Abbess Joy, this is really too much,” I said. “You can’t meet the others, like this. Reverence and Wisdom will eat you aliveif they detect any weakness.”
“I’m not Abbess Joy. Dear child, can’t you see the glamour I placed on this body? And I worked so hard on it, too.”
“Of course I can’t see the glamour; I’m an Ancient.”
“An Ancient? Oh! That’s right.” Abbess Joy snapped her fingers, and then laughed as though surprised by the sound, and snapped them again. “How silly of me to forget. If you were not an Ancient, you would see a long white beard, a golden crown, and a snow-white robe- just like the painting inside the cathedral.”
Abbess Joy pointed up the road, at the Cathedral del Sol beyond.
“Do you mean the portrait of Order?”
Abbess Joy’s eyes flashed bright white, and her voice lowered, booming in a regal tone that echoed through the morning sky.
“Yes, child- I am Order.”
I fell back, clutching my hand to my chest.
“Order… how,” I whispered.
“Don’t worry, dear child. Joy hasn’t broken any pesky promises to bring me here. This isn’t her fault in the least, and we can tell Wisdom so, if he asks,” Order said, reaching out to take my arm once more. “My children have been so noisylately that I couldn’t sleep. The battle yesterday was the last straw, so I thought I would just pop in and give that young upstart- Wisdom- a piece of my mind.”
“Is Abbess Joy alright? Is she safe?”
“Oh yes- Joy is perfectly safe in here.” Order raised a finger to tap Abbess Joy’s temple. “In fact, she won’t stop shouting at me; she is a very healthy girl, you know. You needn’t worry, because I would never hurt Joy. She is my daughter.”
Order stopped and laughed. “Since Joy considers you her daughter, that makes you my granddaughter. What a happy reunion, this is! Come here, child.”
Order pulled me into a bone-crushing hug.
“Stop,” I protested, pulling away.
“You’re cross with me, aren’t you?” Order said with a heavy sigh. “It seems that everyone is cross with me, lately. Joy is cross with me just because I borrowed her body for a little bit, even though I promisedto give it back. Chastity is cross with me because this whole ruckus has interrupted all the fun she’s been having with irrational numbers.”
“I’m sorry- irrational numbers?” I asked.
“Yes, irrational numbers. There are all of those decimal places to fill in, and there are just so many of them- I don’t think she’ll ever be done with it. But irrational numbers are ever so much more important that this silly war. Take that sol flower, for example.”
Order stepped off the path, walking toward a patch of sol flowers that grew on the side of a small slope.
“Wait! We have to go to the peace negotiations,” I said, following him off the road.
“Ah yes, peace. That would be lovely.” Order remained in the patch of flowers, however, picking one after another, and weaving them into a chain. “Do you see how the seeds in the center grow? Isn’t nature remarkable?”
“Please, we must go,” I said.
“Certainly. But first, will you tell me why you are cross with me?”
I couldn’t suppress my bitter laugh. “Where should I start?”
“Start roughly in the middle. It’s pointless to start at the beginning; you can’t everfindthe beginning,” Order said. “Or perhaps the present moment is the true beginning, and we go forward as we go backward.”
“You took me away from Joy when I was only five,” I said.
“Your father wanted some time with you. I was going to send you back to del Sol after a few years, once Joy had calmed down. It was only fair.”
“You never sent me back,” I said. “I grew up, and your church married me off to Lord Frey.”
“Oh dear- you’re right,” he said, looking me up and down. “I must have slept for too long. Still- you didget to see Joy again, didn’t you?”
“Not until I’d already grown,” I said. “And then your church didn’t let me choose whom to marry- to choose my ownhappiness.”
Order’s eyes filled with concern. “Was Lord Frey a bad husband?”
“Was he cruel to you? Did you hate him?”
“I love him,” I said, “but that isn’t the point.”
Order sighed, linking the ends of his flower chain together.
“You’re being terribly unfair. I wanted you to be happy- to have a good husband and a good life. The high priest insisted that the marriage would keep peace in Aeterna. Wasn’t it a nice to arrange a marriage for two young people, so that they would have someone to care for when they grow up? Isn’t it good to ensure peace in the land?”
“Human hearts don’t work that way,” I said.
Order sighed again. “Human hearts are fundamentally flawed. Why else would all of humanity be so cross with me after I’ve given them everything they asked for, and a paradise in which to live?”
Order turned and placed the flower crown on my head, and then he stood back and smiled.
Order took my hand and led me back to the road. “Now, let’s go to those peace negotiations, smooth things over with everyone, and then we can enjoy this lovely day. Try to be happy, my child.”
“You’ve enslaved the Ancients, and so many humans, besides,” I said. “How can you smooth that over? How can I be happy?”
Order patter my hand paternally as we continued down the road. “I don’t know anymore, dear Grace. The humans insisted that they would never be happy, or feel safe, unless I gave them control of the Ancients, so I gave control of the Ancients to the church. Then the humans said that they could never be happy unless a few of their number were subservient to the others, so I allowed that, too. Then the humans insisted they would never be happy unless distribution of wealth and the family structure were both tightly controlled, so I allowed that. I tried to do everything the majority of humans wanted to be happy, but pretty soon most people fell into one minority or another, so they were all miserable.
“This all made little sense, so I decided to sleep on the problem, and then solve it when I woke up,” Order continued, and then heaved a huge yawn.
I stared, unbelieving, at the God who spoke so calmly of atrocities while wearing Abbess Joy’s face.
“You don’t understand,” I said. “You don’t understand human feelings at all, anymore.”
“Yes, my dear. On that count, we agree.”
We turned a bend in the road and came upon a blue and white striped pavilion, which was surrounded by heavily armed soldiers.
Order and I passed through the field of soldiers unmolested, and when we reached the tent, the two dragoons who stood guard at the entrance trembled and fell to their knees. I was obliged to help them stand once more, and eventually they were able to show us inside, though they trembled all the while.
Reverence- who was still wearing Pride’s face- Lord Frey, Lux, Raven, and Wisdom were already assembled, and I could hear their bickering as I walked inside. As soon as Order and I stepped into view, however, they froze. Then they all fell to their knees, gazing up at Order with expressions of awe and fear.
“Oh look- a tin lantern.” Order said. He quickly strode past those who knelt before him, toward tin lantern which was impressed with the symbols of Order, Reverence, and Chastity. “How lovely!”
“We can look at the lanterns later,” I said gently, striding to catch up with Order. “Didn’t you have something you wished to say to Wisdom?”
“Oh yes- where is the young upstart?” Order turned around and fixed his gaze on Wisdom.
“Joy- she broke her oath,” Wisdom whispered.
“Now now, don’t you start with that,” Order chided, shaking his finger at Wisdom. “This isn’t Joy’s fault, as I was telling my dear granddaughter. You’ve all been making such a ruckus that I couldn’t help but awaken. All of the souls crying out in confusion, the turmoil, gnashing of teeth and so forth- it’s fairly annoying, to be quite honest. Knock it off, so a fellow can get some sleep.”
Then Order turned back to me. “There- I’ve spoken to Wisdom. May I play with the lantern, now? All of those dots make the most interesting patterns on the ceiling when you spin them around, and this ceiling has a nice slope.”
“My Lord,” Reverence stood and bowed deeply to Order. “My deepest apologies if we’ve disturbed you. I have the situation well in hand, so if you wish to go back to sleep-”
“Nonsense- the ruckus has only gotten worse since you woke. Instead of coming here to annoy poor Joy, you should be helping Chastity with her irrational numbers.”
Slowly, Wisdom rose to his feet. He crept forward and whispered to me. “What is wrong with him?”
“He has lost his humanity,” I replied.
“Let me tell you what humanity is, young man,” Order said, spinning around to face Wisdom once more. “Humanity is the complete loss of a sense of proportion. Take this young lady as an example.” He pointed at me. “It is a splendid morning outside- sunlight, oxygen, gravity- everything a human needs to be happy. We could have spent the morning together, picking sol flowers and discussing irrational numbers, but instead she insisted that we come to this cramped tent and hold peace negotiations.”
Wisdom looked at me, and then back to Order. “Lady Frey isn’t human,” he ventured.
“Ancient, human, it doesn’t matter,” Order said, waving this aside. “Her brain functions roughly the same, so my point stands. In fact, if any one of you really gave two figs about peace, you wouldn’t hold tense negotiations inside of a heavily-guarded tent. You would all come outside and pick sol flowers with me.”
“You know, I hate to admit it, but Order has a point,” Hope said, clambering to his feet. “If you lead the way, sir, I will be happy to join you.”
Order clapped Hope on the back, and then led him back through the tent flap. For a moment, the rest of us stood in stunned silence, listening to Order’s jovial laugh outside. Then Reverence scrambled after him, followed by Wisdom and Lux, and finally, Raven sighed heavily and followed, as well.
Soon, the whole party sat together on a gentle knoll, picking and weaving Sol flowers together.
“I fail to see,” Reverence said after a time, “how this is helping matters at all.”
“Things are quieter, now,” Order said, “and that was my goal.”
Wisdom stared openly for a long time at Order, who was entirely focused on creating his flower chain. Finally, Wisdom spoke.
“My lord, how did you come to… to gain your sense of proportion?” Wisdom asked.
“I’m not entirely sure,” Order said. “When I ascended, my mind expanded with each new follower I gained- you must have experienced the sensation, by now. Over time, the continued affairs of humanity became so small- so petty- and the call of infinite universal truths grew so tantalizing, that I couldn’t help but drift away. After exploring the true powers of my mind for a time, I found I no longer fully understood what a limited human mind needed to thrive, and to be happy.”
Order closed his flower chain and held it up, smiling. “I decided that humans must be the arbiters of their own happiness. I would listen to the prayers of my people, and then instruct my high priest to implement the law that the majority wished for. It didn’t work, though. Everyone is even more miserable than they were when I started.”
Order yawned again, and then he reached over and placed the flower crown on Wisdom’s head. The bright yellow flowers shone like gold in the morning light, and Wisdom blinked, as though startled by the benediction.
“The people need discipline,” Reverence interrupted. “If I were in charge-”
“Come come- you’ve made people just as miserable as I have,” Order said. “All of that ‘universal dignity and mutual respect’ you used to speak of didn’t last five minutes after you ascended. Your people demanded a hierarchy, and you gave it to them.”
“And rightly so!” Reverence said, shaking his flower garland at Order. “How else will we ensure that the law is fulfilled, and that Terra remains clean and healthy? The humans don’t remember the disaster on the Red Moon that almost wiped them out.”
Wisdom turned to me. “Is this what you meant, when you said you saw the seeds of my corruption? Will I drift away like Order, or will I harden, like Reverence?”
“No- your seed of corruption is different. It was planted by Order.”
Wisdom turned back to Order, who was staring at Brother Lux.
Order snapped his fingers, laughed, and said, “Oh! I get it. You two bound your souls together, so that when Wisdom ascended to godhood, his angel would keep him anchored to humanity. What’s more, you made sure to do it beforeWisdom ascended- before you had a chance to drift apart like Joy and Reverence.”
Reverence crushed his flower garland in his fist, but he said nothing.
“Since you are very fond of each other, it was a good idea,” Order continued. “Otherwise, I would have advised you not to bother. A god’s mind is far more powerful than an angel’s. You will take Lux with you, Wisdom, when you outgrow humanity.”
“How long will that take?” Wisdom said quietly.
Order shrugged. “Fifty years? A hundred? It happens so gradually, you know, that it’s difficult to tell.”
Lux hesitated, and then he stood and placed his flower crown on Order’s head.
“Thank you for the warning,” Lux said. “It may be pointless, but I am going to try, anyway. I’m going to do everything I can to keep Wisdom from losing his humanity.”
“Don’t be too disappointed when you fail,” Order said, clapping Lux’s shoulder. “You’ve already been corrupted. You both share one mind, after all.”
“I wouldn’t give up on them, yet,” I said. I had found a patch of terra flowers among the sol flowers, and I was arranging them in an alternating patter on my chain- terra, sol, terra, sol. “Lux was able to help Wisdom when I asked him to trust me. If Lux keeps trying- who knows. He may be able to break the cycle and cleanse the seed of corruption.”
I closed the circle, and then stood and placed the flower crown I’d made on Lux’s head.
“You still haven’t explained what that seed of corruption is,” Wisdom said.
“How do I put this…” I sat down and began to gather flowers again. “Wisdom, you wanted to save people from torture, both from the church in this world and from hell in the next. In order to do this, you tortured your own friends- a desperate act, but one you knew to be was necessary. You find it disturbing that each Ancient who is born faces eternal death, so to prevent this from happening anymore, you were willing to commit genocide. You want to prevent Order’s followers from assassinating your sovereign, and to prevent scientists from discovering dangerous information, so you are willing to imprison people for committing thought crimes.”
I lay one flower after another on the ground as I listed Wisdom’s actions, and then I began to thread them together. “You are brilliant. I have no doubt that you thought long and hard about each of these acts before you committed them. In the end you couldn’t think of any other way. You chose to rise up and impose your will by force- and in your anger and fear, you lost control. The other day, when you were arguing with Prudence, I saw that fear in your eyes. It was the same fear that caused me to lose control at the Cathedral Lux.”
“My fears aren’t unfounded,” Wisdom said. “There are horrors in this world, Lady Frey- horrors beyond anything you’ve ever seen. I had no choice but to act as I did.”
“To defeat those horrors requires courage,” I said. “If you had acted with courage, you would have trusted all of your friends- not just Lux- to help you, instead of imprisoning them. If you were able to trust others, you would have seen that the ministry you were creating was powerful in its own right. The truth is that you didn’t really need the public trial to sway the masses to follow you. Look how happy you made Miss Taris and Miss Mirth when you helped them. Look how happy you made all of the people in Rogue Village when you healed them. Those feelings are powerful.”
“They are powerful, certainly, but they are not enough,” Wisdom said.
“I think they are enough. Remember your own feelings of happiness during moments of unexpected grace. Do you recall showing me the nebulae on bluebell hill, or the time you danced with Lux at St. Blanc? I saw true happiness in your eyes, then. That kind of happiness can heal.
“But the curse that Order inflicted on you- the feeling of doom- colored everything that you did. Even after you ascended, and Order’s curse was broken, you acted out of fear, for what is a soul but a pattern of thought? And after so many centuries-”
“The pattern had become part of me,” Wisdom whispered.
“Then Order is right,” Lux said. “I failed you, Wisdom, because I was afraid.”
“This is ridiculous.” Raven, who had been silent until now, dropped her flowers and stood. Her eyes flashed red with fury.
“You aren’t the only one who has suffered Order’s curses, in case you’ve forgotten,” Raven said to Wisdom. “Why are we sitting around making flower-chains with the God who inflicted them? Perhaps the rest of you can suffer this madness, but I can’t.”
“I thought you enjoyed chaos,” Lux said smoothly, reaching for another blossom.
“Chaos and madness are not the same thing,” Raven said with an indignant sniff. “Chaos isn’t realsuffering- just confusion. But my people are going mad, slowly, as century after century passes. Wisdom, I suppose, doesn’t care anymore, having achieved his own power.”
“No- I meant for the other Demons to join me. If you pray the litany-”
“I would rather suffer forever,” Raven scoffed.
“Please, dear child, don’t make yourself uneasy,” Order said. He stood and placed a flower crown on Raven’s bright red locks. “The Angels said that they would never be happy unless there was some kind of punishment for the uprising. The curses weren’t supposed to be unendurable, and I was going to end them soon.”
“It’s been millennia,” Raven cried, ignoring the flower garland. “The oldest among us went completely mad ages ago.”
Order’s face fell. “Oh no- does that mean that poor Red-”
“My father was lost to madness long ago,” Wisdom said. “We can only draw on his power to cast curses, now.”
Order closed his eyes. “It’s been a long time, indeed. There is a fail-safe to end the hell protocol, but I can’t remember the code. It’s so much more difficult to remember things, now that my follower’s numbers have dwindled. Perhaps Chastity will remember? But no- she wouldn’t. The code wasn’t an irrational number.”
“You should let them suffer,” Reverence said with a smirk.
Raven lunged toward Reverence, who stood to meet her, hands outstretched as though preparing a spell. Before he could cast, however, the sky grew dark. I looked up and saw the huge, white bulk of the Maelstrom, hovering ahead, blocking the sunlight.
The Maelstrom passed over us, moving toward the pavilion behind the hill. Three loud explosions, warning shots, resounded in the air.
Raven looked up from her attack, her eyes fading from red back to brown. “What the hell is that?” she sputtered.
“That is a misunderstanding,” I said, standing. “Please excuse me for a moment.”