They stand by the great door together, looking out over the pewter surface of the Lake.
He likes the silences they share, sitting or standing like this, or by the rain pool, or by the lake with the waves lapping softly at the stairs. She can remain silent longer than anyone he has ever known.
Not just silent—still.
For hours, sometimes all day, she stands like this, or sits by her pool playing with the water, or watching the fire in a brazier. Or him. At times he wonders if she would ever speak at all, were it not for the need of those around her to use words.
Often, she makes him read. The books and scrolls in the two shelves near his bed were selected especially for him out of a vast library she keeps in some other place, and from where Avina sometimes fetches additional volumes deemed suitable for him. Mostly they are histories of the Faith and of Hestia and its battles. He cannot yet understand all of it, but his knowledge grows all the time. Even some of the words of the Sacred Tongue are becoming clearer to him, though he can never read even one sentence in the spidery alphabet in which it was written. The scrolls in that language are among the oldest in Hargis’s library, and even they, she explains, are copies of copies of copies.
One of these tells of a place named the Sullen Shores beyond the Bitter Sea to the North. It strangely excites his curiosity, and when he asks her, she tells him that this was the ancient Realm of the Penitent King, where the Faith first came into the world as Guidance to mankind. But the men of that land were not ready to accept it, and for nearly six centuries, there was constant war and destruction, until in the end the Sullen Shores was a ruined land of frost and death, and the descendants of the Penitent King left for the shores to the South, where they founded what would become Fora Tanni, capital of the greatest power the world had ever known.
“One day,” she tells him, “when all other lands will be united in the Faith, and all armies march as one under the banner of the Cresset, we will again cross the Bitter Sea, and make the Sullen Shores once more into a mighty and beautiful realm for the living. But before that, the threat of the Dark One must be met.”
This reminds him of a thought that has occupied him often of late. “If the Shaper decided everything that will ever happen when He created the Cosmos,” he asks, “then is it not also already decided whether we will be saved, or whether the Dark One will destroy this world?”
“Of course it is.”
“But then what difference does it make if we fight or not, or if we unite mankind under the Faith? We may do all that, and still lose, or we may do nothing and have victory all the same.” When she does not answer at once, he adds, “And why are people supposed to try and be good? The Parsons say that we must do what is right, or we’ll be punished for it when we are reborn. But if the Shaper has already decided what all the lives we’ll ever live will be like, then what does it matter what we do? People can be bad and be reborn as kings, or they can be good and they’ll still be paupers or blind or crippled in their next life.”
“All things are decided,” she says. “But you do not know which way. Strive for what is good, and likely your striving will be a reflection of the Shaper’s will, and of what He has decreed for you. Strive for evil, and likely that, too, will be what was decreed for you, along with its just reward. Which one do you desire, joy or suffering?”
“Joy, of course.”
“Then that is what you must strive for, just as we must strive for victory over the darkness, and hope that what we wish for is what the Shaper saw fit to grant us.”
Understanding this is harder than reading the spidery letters of the Sacred Script—so hard it makes his head hurt to think about it. “So we must try to make happen what the Shaper already decided would happen, anyway?”
“To us who move in it, time appears as a river, sweeping us ever onwards to the next unknowable moment. Yet in the Shaper’s all-encompassing mind, time is as a mighty lake, still and unmoving. The two are the same, just as a river is water, and a lake as well. And so past, present, and future are also one, though the Shaper alone can see them as such. Where He has certain knowledge of all things, we who are His creatures must content ourselves with hope.”
This does not make much more sense to him, but for now, he’s had enough of the topic. Perhaps if he thinks about what she said later on, it will become clearer. He’s noticed that often now he can work things out that he would never have understood in the past. Sometimes her answers are clear to him right away, at other times he needs a little longer, and of course there are still some explanations she gives that remain incomprehensible riddles to him that staunchly refuse to yield up their meaning to his fumbling mind, no matter how long and hard he tries to understand them.
And sometimes, thoughts form in his head that both seem and don’t seem to be his own. “You talk as though we were the same, you and I. But we’re not. Who are you, in truth?”
“Like you, I am a creature of the Shaper,” she replies, never taking her eyes off her lake, off the distant shore, or rather, where the distant shore must lie behind the rain, and where an age ago he boarded the ferry that brought him here. “I serve His design, just as you do.”
“That’s no answer,” he mutters. It is a small act of rebellion, but she takes no offense; her authority is above all challenge.
“It is the only answer,” she says. “Everything else is conceit, illusion.”
“But you’re not like me,” he insists. “You’re not like anyone. You know things no one else knows, and you have a power no one else has.”
“All His creatures are granted knowledge and power in the measure needed to fulfill their purpose in His design, from the humblest earthworm to the mightiest of men.”
He is not satisfied with that, but there is no point in asking again. She would never get angry, or punish him, but neither would he get more of an answer than she is willing to give, not if he asked her a hundred, or a hundred thousand times. He can only try a different question, for what it will be worth.
“Are there others like you?”
“Life is given a myriad of shapes,” she says. “And of each of these, myriads are again required to sustain its great rhythm. But no world has need of more than one Guardian. Such is His design.”
He sighs. He’ll sooner manage to dig a hole in the surface of the lake than get an answer from her that leads to anything but more questions. “Are there more worlds, then, besides this one? With other Guardians?”
She closes her eyes and breathes in the morning air, slowly, as though it was something to be savored, like the scent rising from a goblet of wine. To him it only ever smells of reeds, and of things living—or dying—in the water.
“Knowledge without purpose is corruption,” she says. “You of all His servants must remember that.”
Her words mark a boundary that is not to be breached, nor even approached. Yet he cannot keep silent.
“What knowledge?” he cries. “I have none! And no power!”
The sadness stirs in him again, and the dreadful nothingness of being lost. He has not felt it in some time, and all the more the renewed onslaught of it overwhelms him now.
“I’m no longer who I was, nor yet who I’m meant to be.” His voice rises in pitch, he has come to deplore the sound of it when he feels like this: so much the whining child—another strange thought; what is he, after all, if not a child? And yet his condition seems bewildering to him, alien, almost, like the intractable outbursts that come with it. But he is powerless to stop them.
“I am no one! I have nothing, not even a name. You said you would give these things to me, make it all clear to me! But you didn’t! I must know who I am, and my place in the world! When will you give it back to me?”
She exhales slowly; almost it sounds to him like a sigh. But that would mean that she was capable of sadness, or of weariness.
“It cannot quite be yet, for the flesh in many ways measures the mind. But it is good that you are so eager for this knowledge. Soon you will regain all you now cry for, though I fear it will please you less than you hope.”
If at first he feels a flicker of joy at what he hears, it is at once extinguished. “Why do you say that?”
“I will give you a name again before long, and full understanding of your fate. You will deem it bitter, and seek again to escape it. But you cannot, and at last you will accept this.”
He feels a last stirring of defiance. “And if I do not?”
She opens her eyes, and when she looks at him he sees in them the faraway shimmer, the fleeting copper light that fills him at once with dread and with an infinite, nameless longing. A ripple of frost travels over his skin.
“Then instead of serving in contentment, you will serve in anguish. That is the only choice before you.”
NEXT: In the Kingdom of Frogs