“My sister told me a little bit about the Penitent King,” Till says. “He was a bad man, but later he became good. She wouldn’t read the whole story to me, though. She said it would frighten me.”
“There are parts of that tale that might dismay the very young, that is true. But more than that, it is a story of the Shaper’s love for His creatures, in spite of their failings.” Lord Osdath nods toward the field bed where Till sleeps. “I think you’re quite ready to hear it.”
Till slips into the furs spread out on the narrow cot, grateful for the softness and warmth with which they welcome him. The tent is drafty, and when the wind is strong, as it is tonight, the canvas walls flutter and snap as though the whole thing wants to fly away, and the coals in the brazier crackle and flare as the cold air rushes over them. But underneath his furs, Till feels warm and safe.
Slowly, gently, as though he feared that too swift a movement might hurt it, Lord Osdath returns the book to the chest at the foot of his bed.
“Are you not going to read it to me?” Till asks.
“I have no need of a book to tell this tale. I’ve known it by heart since I was younger than you are now.”
Lord Osdath pulls his chair up beside Till’s cot.
“Long ages ago,” he begins, “before Hestia came into being, or your home of Taronnis, or any realm you now know, mankind dwelt in ignorance of what lay beyond the confines of their lives. They knew nothing of the unseen world, nor of the Shaper who had created the cosmos in His mighty dream. Though many pondered what the fate of their souls might be, or whence they came, few guessed at the true nature of their existence. False gods without number rose and fell, and with them false prophets and false religions, to hold sway for a time and then again vanish into dust.
“All this was as it should be, for the Shaper had given inquisitive souls to His creatures, and it was His wish that for a time they should go about their search for knowledge unfettered by guidance from without. Yet He had also foreseen a day when mankind should learn the truth of His designs, and understand how His magnificent vision encompassed the fate of the cosmos and everything in it, from the beginning to the end of time itself. To this end, He had foreknown that there would be born into the world a wretched sinner, who in his desire for knowledge and power should commit trespass so cruel that it would mark the day when the Shaper’s Truth was first to be unveiled before mankind.
“This man was a king, and ruled a great realm far from all lands now known to humankind. He was blest with wealth, and with power, and with offspring. Twelve children he had, six sons and six daughters, born to him by his wife. Yet none of these boons sufficed to give him contentment, for he was consumed with the desire to glimpse the secrets of what lies beyond this world. He was not the first to seek knowledge of the hidden truths, to be sure. Sages, warlocks, witches, and sorcerers through the ages had tried without success to pierce the Great Veil that the Shaper has put into place to sunder the Seen from the Unseen. None ever achieved their goal, and not in the least measure did any of them ever gain the power they sought.”
“Magic,” Till exclaims. “They wanted magic! Didn’t they?”
“Indeed they did. The Power of the Unseen, as the Scriptures call it.”
“But it can’t be done. Our Parson always says so.”
“He is telling it true,” Osdath says. “But the mystics of those ancient days did not know that they desired the impossible, and neither did the Penitent King, for the Faith had not yet been revealed to tell them that by the Shaper’s decree, man can never attain the Power that is His alone.”
“But why? Why did the Shaper make it so people can’t use magic?”
“Well, what do you think men would do with it, if they could?”
“I don’t know.” Till thinks for a moment. “Make things out of nothing, perhaps?”
“And make into nothing things that are, no doubt! And also bend their fellows and all of Creation to their will, and overturn the very flow of time itself, each man according to his own shortsighted desire, until the world would be no more than a ragged tangle of wanton making and unmaking, of doing and undoing, a twisted briar thicket in which no proper life could flourish. No, man is not fit to wield such power. It belongs to Him alone who can see all ends, and who by His wisdom can poise the very cosmos on a grain of sand.”
“I suppose,” Till says. Osdath’s speech sounds an awful lot like a Parson’s sermon to him, or even like some of the difficult and strange explanations he has heard from the Guardian herself. At any rate it is probably not something to be questioned.
“The Shaper’s Laws are there for our own good,” Osdath says. “If men could wield what you call magic, they would in the end only unhinge the cosmic order, and bring about their own destruction.”
One more thing, however, Till cannot refrain from asking. “But if that’s so, then why must people be punished for trying to use magic? I mean, if it doesn’t work, anyway?”
“A wise question,” Osdath says. “The answer is that often the mere desire for a thing can cause great suffering and grief, even though the thing itself remains unattainable. That is the lesson taught us by the tale of the Penitent King.”
NEXT: Madness and Cruelty