Life in the End Times
Chapter 7 - Temple
My mind was a haze, a spiralling descent and ascent through some confused landscape of a disturbed dream. I was sat – no, laid on my back – upon the ground of an anamorphic chamber of monochrome grey, and I could hear disembodied voices echoing across translucent walls. The scene was punctuated by strange shifting shapes which eerily floated about, distorting and reconstructing themselves at will, like clay span on a disc. They finally began to settle into familiar forms, like those one recalls from childhood memory but cannot remember their exact purpose or characteristics; shapes which were barely anchored into reality. Then, all at once, I began to remember them all. I could see a table and chair, the shadow of a dangling chandelier, and the glow of candlelight, and two blurry phantoms hunched over together. As I strained to look beyond them the background fell off into a white canyon of nothingness, as a few faint contours heralded this peculiar chasm. The ghostly voices became intelligible as those of a man and woman, and their forms started to come into sharper definition and colours started to splash into my spectrum; the embroidered hem of a lilac dress; the heavy folds of a brown robe; the long luscious curls of black hair falling over bare shoulders. As their aesthetics became clearer so did the voices, and with every passing moment they became more familiar to me. Was it my sister and father? The prefect and my mother? The figures gradually acquired their individuality, but the hushed tones of these two speakers still evaded the identification of my frustrated and confused mind. Were they strangers? Was it the arch-minister and some unknown woman? ‘Theodore’, I heard from the female voice, then ‘daughter’ from the same speaker. It must be my mother and the steward.
With the details sorted, I started to hear more and more, and actually process the words. ‘Tell me what happened’, said Mother, but the response was long. ‘They were upon us… Pelagius had not reached the front in time… City might have fallen’. The words registered, but they were exorcised of any meaning. I willed myself to break out of my semi-conscious quagmire, as part of my mind was still ensnared in a dream-world, whilst the other was clawing back to sensibility. My mother’s voice sounded again, but this time I could start to make sense of her, ‘Saw the walls break apart… the palace collapsed… thought the temple would be next… crying out for Fortune’s favour.’ I could remember the palace and walls falling too. ‘We were stormed… palace precinct could not hold- we fell back to the streets… people started rioting.’ The steward came back again. The logic of conversation started to take hold again, but my recognition of the sentences was still off the mark; sometimes I would catch the words, but some would be disjointed by my sleepy experience of time. The steward continued, ‘Imperial party took off… regrouped at the plaza- emperor needed horses… path was too hazardous- horses confiscated… left the princess.’ Left the princess? I remembered the besieged plaza, the rows of injured soldiers, and the awful destruction. My self-awareness kicked me out of pseudo-sleep. My mother’s furious tone, barely controlled by gritted teeth, met my fully-woken ears.
“You left her with the soldiers? What on earth were you thinking?” She must have been just a few feet away from me, but I dared not open my eyes. Even in anger she maintained an educated inflection. In fact, the anger probably accentuated it.
“I offer my deepest apologies my Lady… none of us could have expected the defences to break so quickly. I had intended to return as soon as I could!” I had never heard Theodore so flustered. “The emperor, your husband, demanded my presence!” He stuttered in response. It was even worse than his embarrassed encounter with the arch-minister by the bay.
“You left my daughter in the dirt, with injuries, and on the verge of a warzone.” She scoffed, and I heard footsteps circle. When she next spoke, her voice felt near, then far, then near again in a cycle. “Marcus – my nephew – died for your negligence, first burnt by smoke and fire, then impaled by one of the barbarians.” She stopped again. The silence was intentional, a contrast to the severity of her invective. “Yet even now, you expect me to let her remain in your care? What pithy arrogance. You may have the court’s ear, but you do not have mine, dear steward.”
“Agatha – my Lady –, you must understa-” To hear him address my mother by name was surprising to say the least. She was part of the imperial family after all, and the use of personal names assumed a position of great privilege. Were they friends? I tried to hold back a growing itch at the back of my throat, but the annoyance was getting too much.
“Be quiet, steward. If I didn’t know better-” I choked, and my body jerked from the ad hoc bedroll I lay upon. My mother dashed around, whatever frustration she bore for Theodore dispelled in an instant. “I am here, my sweetheart.” She glided towards me, taking a seat beside me and taking my head in her arms. The steward stayed rooted to the ground, but displayed a tender smile. Neither of them seem to have realised that I was listening. Between the confusion of my awakening and my curiosity at the conversation I overheard, I had forgotten about excitement for the reunion with my mother. Like my father we had been apart for a long time, but for my father it was understandable. He had duties to attend to and soldiers to lead. What was mother doing? I had been made the charge of the steward apparently, but for what reason? Perhaps it would have been better if I heard nothing of their hushed exchange.
“I’m okay mother…” I wasn’t really. My throat was very dry, my body was aching and sore everywhere. Every few seconds I felt like coughing up my guts, such were the unpleasant convulsions. I spotted a pile of ashen clothes upon the table in front of me, and soon recognised them as my own. It was then that I remembered the escape on horseback, the unbearable heat, the attack, and the witches’ head falling to the ground. I couldn’t recall anything after that. “Where are we?” I coughed out.
“We are in the great temple my dear.” Her voice was an affectionate caress, the kind of sound which brought with it years of association with warmth, comfort and safety.
“To Fortune the Fickle?” I knew the temple, everyone did. Besides the palace, it was probably the largest and most splendid structure to grace the dirty ground of the City and pierce the lofty clouds in the sky. Well, with the palace gone I suppose it now held the prime position. I had been in it only a few time before, on occasions of exceptional worship. From what I could pick out from my mixed recollections of those visits, the temple was so immense that it could host tens of thousands at a time. Its exterior was pentagonal, and upon its five sides rested monoliths of stone, each of them topped by twirling minarets housing the silver carillons of the temple. Its dome was made entirely from stained glass, and it adorned the apex like the crystalline crown of a titan. I used to stare at it from the balcony of my room in the palace, watching as the sunset illuminated the alabaster walls and listening for the bells which jangled from the towers for the dusk worship. I could never understand why something fickle was adorned with such resplendence, and revered so fanatically.
“Come, my sweet, let us see the patriarch. Can you walk, dear?” She said, edging me from the sheets. I winced, failing to hide my pain, and the steward rushed over to take my arms. Together they lifted me to my feet, and with Theodore’s arm guiding me carefully we left the room. I felt bare without my jewelled silk dress and luxurious velvet shoes, which given the circumstances had been ignominiously cast aside in favour of a set of pale grey linens. They were comfortable enough, a little worn by age and moth-bitten by disuse, but I could not complain. I could even boast a pair of fur-lined slippers upon my little feet. As we passed beneath an ornate marble archway into the grand chamber of the temple, I could see that my clothes were a luxury compared to the tattered rags of most of the folk who were crammed into the hall. It was ironic re-enactment of my memories of the place.
The interior was essentially a colossal open space, delineated only by the five towering walls on each side. Spiral stairs ran up the slopes at regular intervals, meeting three layers of balconies which protruded from the circumference, and grew progressively closer to the top. A low sun cast faint multi-coloured rays through the glass crown of the building, bathing the crowds below in an almost divine light, as if Fortune herself were gracing the place. People occupied every open space, every surface, every pulpit and alcove, so that from the upper balcony one might see a ground rippling like the sea lashed before the wind. The temple had turned into a veritable sanctuary for those banished by the sorrows of the war. Families huddled closely together around small fire-pits dug into the marble tiling, shoulder to shoulder with other such unfortunate kin; elders related stories of happy times like they were myths and legends, all while groups of terror-struck children listened on attentively; weary patrols of soldiers aimlessly patrolled about, slogging bloodstained rifles and dulled sabres behind them. Incenses of cinnamon and honey battled with the sheer reek of human sweat and blood, whilst the impassioned voices of the priests of Fortune recited scripture and verse to the flock, bringing their baying to a dim hum. The temple might as well have been the market square of the massacre, or the plaza of the attack, so dense were the throngs of people and so painful their predicament. I wondered if Fortune the Fickle would help spirit these people away.
“Lay down expectation; lay down fear; lay down hope! The Lady Fortune knows no such sentiment!” A booming voice called out from a magnificent wooden lectern. He donned a flowing crimson robe and white scarf, and upon his head was a crescent-moon shaped hat, again red in colour. “Fortune the Fickle, Fortune the Divine, Fortune the Furious; our Lady is One and She is Many, but always She guides the Synecdoche!” My mother was pushing us through the idle droves of people. Despite the preacher’s fervour, few amongst the thousands seemed to care very much. “Preserve your faith! Allow Fortune the Provident to deliver us into safety; allow Fortune the Just to punish our enemies; allow Fortune the Benevolent to shower us with care and love!” His impressive zealotry was marred by the depressed reception of the people, and a disappointed frown flashed upon the priest’s face.
“Blithering idiot…” I heard my mother utter beneath her breath as we approached his perch, and the man arched his back towards us, leaning over the barrier and squinting at us. I could see now that he was very old, older probably than the arch-minister, and I had always considered him to be ancient. His skin was thin and blotched, like a ghostly sheet which draped weakly over the bony contours of his face and hands. This man was practically a corpse, he looked ready to fall apart with the slightest movement. How his lungs and throat had the capacity to project his religious raving like he did, I couldn’t imagine. Around him was an entourage of scribes clutching immense tomes and rolled scrolls, interspersed with a corps of metal-plated guards wielding immense bladed pole arms, members I presumed of the temple guard.
“What- what… who are you people? Did my deacon refuse to sanctify your Wheel? Damned Sebastian… Misfortune upon him!” His voice alone was a creaking mess, but clearly age had also damaged his capacity for conversation. I realised that the preaching from before was simply regurgitation, a reiterated copy of a beckoning he had repeated many, many times before. When it came to actual conversation, he was useless.
“Patriarch Orpheus, please. This is the Lady Agatha and her daughter. They have come to-” Theodore attempted in vain to reason with the old man, but was soon interrupted. No matter how bad his physical state was, the patriarch’s mental condition must have been several orders of magnitude worse.
“What? Nonsense. I told Sebastian… and Alexander… we must – absolutely must – keep sanctifying the holy Wheels! How else can the common folk espouse their faith with Fortune the Arcane?” The patriarch was waving about one of these Wheels as he ranted into the air, a particularly lavish one carved from ivory and decorated with coral inlets along the handle. They were simple things, often illustrated with images of emperors, aristocrats, soldiers, merchants and peasants, and meant to represent the unpredictable path of Fortune, which might spin a soldier into a king but just as quickly cast him into a pauper. Pretty much everyone owned one, and they appeared variously carved from wood, bone, stone or even pearls and other precious stones.
“I knew he would be hopeless, Theodore.” Mother sighed, ready to turn away. The steward tried again.
“Holy patriarch, we beg of you, receive the princess at least!” He urged, advancing towards the assembled priests and soldiers. Some of the guards clutched their weapons, as if an unarmed man like Theodore would suddenly attack. Clearly they were fiercely protective. The patriarch raised a supercilious brow, his expression suddenly calming. Had he momentarily returned to his senses?
“Well, let me see. Bring the princess forward, most exalted steward of the palace.” Mother nudged me forward eagerly, but the patriarch chimed in again in his old tone. “I wonder, can there even be a steward of the palace… when there is no longer a palace to steward? It’s a peculiar situation for you, friend.”
“Get a hold of yourself, you foul old ghoul.” Theodore scoffed. “Now please, anoint the princess.”
“Very well, very well.” The patriarch chuckled, then produced a miniscule pouch from a concealed pocket. He opened it, poured the dusty contents into his hand, and then blew it without warning into my face. I didn’t know what the mixture consisted of, but it was odourless and carried a slight shimmer as it fell across my face and clothes. With that the old man clapped his hands and flicked his wrists, his face blank as he did so, and after a mere second he dropped them again and smiled at me. I could feel Theodore and my mother swelling with glee behind me. Was that it? Was I ‘anointed’ now? I certainly didn’t ask, or care for any of this. At least it made them happy, I supposed.
“Thank you, Orpheus, we owe you a great-” My mother started, but once again the patriarch jumped in, ominously.
“The emperor has arrived, my children.” With that he started to shuffle down the steps of the pulpit, aided along the way by the burly arms of his guards. I turned around to see mother and the steward perplexed. They didn’t need long for their confusion to be allayed.
With the bellowing of a horn the great southern gates of the hall were dragged open, beckoning a column of harrowed cavalry into the temple. The people on the ground hardly had to time to make way as hundreds of horsemen filed into the chamber, their hooves clattering upon the marble floor; on the balconies above, onlookers gathered in their hundreds to witness the event. ‘Make way for the emperor Yuriach! Make way for the Synecdoche!’ I heard a herald shout from the front of the column, hoisting up an imperial standard as he did so. There he was, my father, the emperor, just as the patriarch had said. The column made a shambolic advance to the centre of the hall, directly beneath the glass dome, and I could see that the men were battered and bloodied. Breastplates were split through the middle and riddled with bullet holes; limbs were either heavily bandaged or missing entirely; horses which had sustained huge gashes were drained of life as they struggled on through the torture. Even the emperor bore fresh marks of warfare, as his own lustrous silver plate was cracked and damaged. Beside him was the prefect, and he too was in a state of equal distress whatever combat they had emerged from. Regardless, the emperor tried to rescue some modicum of imperial pomp, driving his majestic steed from the formation and banking before the patriarch’s pulpit, then rearing the horse up in a display of equestrian ability. His voice, clearly exhausted, called out.
“Hear me, my people! Gather your belongings, hold your families close, and put your faith in Fortune! By setting of the final sun of the final day of this week, we shall be upon the waves, sailing for the lands of our Commonwealth!” He circled the central ring of the hall, trying to project his voice to all the thousands of people. But just like the exhortations of the patriarch before him, the audience was flat. The emperor stopped to catch his breath, then came back again, his driving declarations now turned into melancholic admission. “Have faith my people, and trust in Fortune. We are leaving our City behind.”