I sat at the small desk of my musty writing room, quill in hand, trying to ignore the words crawling over my flesh.
The barbarian wizard had begun a new ritual hours ago, jabbering hateful, guttural chants. The chanting shouldn’t have carried this far but those inhuman sounds wormed their way through the walls, condensed out of the air, and squirmed clammy across my skin. They scritched across my eardrums. Briefly a dread fear gripped me, the idea that even after this ritual ended the Ludus would remain tainted. Forever diseased. I banished the thought quickly, forcing my focus back to my work.
A scuttle of syllables squirmed up my neck. My hand jerked, splitting the quill against the desk. I blotted the ink and took a breath to steady myself. I’d been at this for hours, drawing up false records in preparation for Sextus’s audit. This new ritual provided an excellent opportunity–the additional components it required were expensive. I should be grateful. I took up my penknife and placed the razor edge against the quill tip, pulling slowly.
The rasping noises wriggled across my palm, and my hand jerked again. At first I felt nothing as the penknife jabbed into the pad of my thumb. It was only a second later, when I saw the quick upwell of blood, the neat line trickling down my hand and dripping into small blossoms on the papyrus, that I felt the sting of pain.
I stood up and lifted the cut to my mouth, casting about for a rag. This was intolerable. The entire Ludus reverberated with unnatural chanting. My animals howled, or whined, or moaned, as befit their nature. It sounded like a damned abattoir. Men and women could handle this fouling of reality, but the animals had no way to grasp what was happening. They shook in terror, without place to hide themselves in their bare cages. The poor beasts should at least have some peace here, in this refuge, before the Romans took them to be slaughtered for sport.
I had to do something. I clenched down on the quivering in my stomach and marched from my room. My heart beat unnaturally fast as I approached the wizard’s cell. The short corridor, never spacious, was now crowded with boxes of arcane materials. I worked through these stacked sentinels, fighting against their reproachful aura. When my hand touched the cell door I felt it thrum with the wizard’s cant, sending discordant incoherence pulsing up my arm. A shiver queered my spine. I entered quietly.
The cell looked bigger on the inside than it had before. The stunted wizard sat naked at its center, his cot propped against a wall. His face twisted in agony, but none of it reached his voice. His translator stood over him, assisting in the ritual. She slathered him with a mixture of wine and blood as he shook and chanted. The fluid ran in rivulets to the floor, but didn’t follow the creases of his body–some force guided it into peculiar patterns.
“Wait,” she instructed when I stepped inside. “This part is delicate.”
I pressed through a blended, stretched time that I couldn’t measure. On the other side of it the wizard knelt prostrate, his face pressed into a bronze bowl on the floor. He barely spoke now, words dribbling from his lips as he breathed. The bowl magnified them more than it should, their tinny echoes bouncing through the room. The barbarian girl stepped back, then pulled me into the hall and closed the door behind her.
Somehow, the whispering echoes were even louder out here.
“How much longer?” I demanded. The Ludus ran rancid with the sound of crying animals.
“All the rest of the day, and all the rest of the night, and then more. Another day, and into midnight.”
The chanting squirmed in my ears, driving me to distraction. I couldn’t imagine sleeping through this. My animals would go mad. Even Zia and Erik might go mad after that long a time. “Why so long?”
“God’s mind encompasses all things. We must work hard to get His attention.”
“This is your religion?”
I caught a flicker of pity in her eyes. “These are the broken shards of my religion. This is what remained after the Romans ground it against reality. You should be familiar with the feeling.”
“And how does a stillborn child get your god’s attention?” I had nearly balked at that request. It reminded me of the hungry god of Carthage. I would have gone to Marcus, or the priests, but for the fact that the child was already dead. Moloch, god of Carthage, needed his children to be alive and screaming as they were sacrificed to him. The tiny, grotesque corpse I’d purchased turned my stomach, but it couldn’t be harmed anymore.
She regarded me for a moment. Her eyes lingered on the rag I held against my cut hand. She offered me a clean one from the stack of materials by the door, then answered as I accepted.
“I had been taught that God was just. It may not seem that way to us, but that is because we are small, and can only see ourselves. We are merely thoughts in the divine mind, part of His divine dream. He is all beings, at once. He feels all the happiness and all the pain of all His sub-beings. He experiences all our loneliness and our alienation as we each experience it.
“As He dreams, He can distribute hardships and pleasure among us as He wishes. Our priests, when I was young… they said this transfer was just by its nature. You might do this by transferring weight from one foot to another and adjusting yourself until your position is comfortable. You know better than either foot how to distribute your weight, and you already desire to do so in the best way possible. God does this among all living beings in much the same manner. Any misery in this world is justified by the greater joy it brings, and in balance the world is better. In cases beyond help, He shows mercy by allowing a miserable person to die.” Her voice took on bitter sarcasm at the end.
“You no longer believe your god is just?”
“Do you see justice in this world, Jew?”
My suffering did bring leisure and wealth to my Roman masters. But their increase in happiness did not seem proportionate to my increase in misery. And Ehud’s miserable execution–who had that benefitted? What pleasure was bought with his gasping cries? I shook my head.
“Yet you still believe he intervenes in the world?” I asked.
“He is the world. When and if He watches us it’s for His own reasons. Not to ensure our happiness. His thoughts are alien to human cares or values.”
“None of that answers my question. Why the stillborn?”
“The priests of my youth said that a stillborn was one whose life was foreseen by God to be so full of misery that He determined it would be better not to have been born at all. I doubt such mercy exists in Him. But perhaps it drew His attention once. Perhaps He still remembers it. We hope to use it in our efforts.”
I looked at the materials stacked beside her. Wine and candles and incense, yes. But also ugly things. The gouged-out eyes of a disobedient slave. A strip of pallid human flesh, fallen from a leper’s rotting body. A newborn goat that had been boiled alive in its mother’s milk.
“These are all tokens of misery. Is atrocity the only thing that interests your god?”
The girl studied the bloodied rag I’d handed her for a moment. Perhaps considering if she should answer me. She looked up and studied my face, peered into my eyes. The chanting whispers prodded her at last.
“That is a strange question, coming from you. Is your life anything more than just a parade of atrocities?”
I didn’t like her searching gaze. I crossed my arms over my chest.
“I find what pleasure I can. What’s it to you?”
The girl shook her head. “It is nothing to me. Nothing at all.” I saw her withdraw again, a curtain of disdain falling over her face. “I wonder, sometimes, why not me?” Her voice quieted, speaking to herself. “But the revered elder reminds me–God is alien and unknowable. Such questions only lead to madness. He should know.”
I shivered at insectile words tickling down my spine. It was a dying faith, for a dying people. They would not last long. I turned to flee those sick rites.
My former faith was splintering as well. I wouldn’t miss it. It would be the one good thing the Romans did, if my people were freed of it. I had run into my brother at the market yesterday. He told me that with Jerusalem destroyed and Judea despoiled, the old ways were struggling to…
My feet slowed, dragging against the floorboards, then stopped. No. I hadn’t seen my brother in ten years.
I strained to think, to give my thoughts room to work, against the rasping intonations crowding my mind. My last prior memory of him: cursing him to his face, cursing our faith and our rabbis. Taking what I could carry and fleeing the village before they came to stone me too. I despised my brother, and he me.
And then yesterday, in the market. A calm day, no riots, no yelling about food. The stench of the wizard’s dead monsters pervaded the memory, but that meant nothing, it saturated every moment of the past four days. When had this happened?
I retraced yesterday’s path in my mind. There was no hour of the day this event could be crammed into. Perhaps it had happened the day prior, or the day before that? Nothing fit. It must have been last week. But then the monster stench didn’t fit.
I couldn’t place this memory. No events led to that moment, and nothing followed from it. It stood on its own, an island in a heavy fog. The unreality of it began to scald, like a heated towel left on the skin too long. For even if I had met my brother in the market, I would never have talked so casually with him. Not after ten years of estrangement. Not with the rage of our parting. He would have struck me, or I would have cursed him, or we would have fallen into each other’s arms and wept. But a simple conversation, there and gone? I could not imagine any world in which that made sense. It was a memory of our doppelgangers, playing roles based on how they’ve seen brothers interact, without knowledge of our circumstances.
And I remembered every moment of doing so. It had felt entirely natural at the time.
Had this been a dream? I did not recall dreaming it. But I couldn’t have lived it.
I glanced back at the wizard’s translator. Finally her name came to me–Eydis. She watched me, hand tight over a rag, grinning slightly. The wizard’s echoing litany gushed from behind her, swept down the corridor, and battered at me like a flooding river. My gut shriveled, and I jerked my head away. Was this another moment I would fret over later, a scene unmoored in my life? Maybe I was dreaming right now, and someday I’d stumble on the memory of this moment, out of place and out of context. A lost hour wedged impossibly into this day by grating, incessant prayer.
I fled back to my room chased by those words, by my animals’ howls, and by the faintest hint of a girl’s grin.
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First line of next week’s chapter: “You’re neglecting your daughters.”
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Word-count of chapter 22 deleted content: 278