Interlude: The Chapel of the Knowstone
There were two men in the room. One was old. One was young.
The room was an eleven-meter cube, sunk into the subsoil of the grounds of Vokherkhe Monastery University; olivine and peridotite showed in the stone walls and the floor was a mosaic showing the progression of Saint Chenanun and Saint Chenogu until they arrived at the faRhut lands, wilds then, hauling heaps of books, with their tools, ancient devices and disciples. On a depiction of their expulsion from the burning city of Talasha, the young man sat, crosslegged, deep in the winassare-trance. He wore an orange monk’s robe and his head was shaved, and he was perhaps twenty-five winters old.
His name was Charthat Thermat’s son.
There was a cube two meters on a side, made of diorite and carved all over, by a diamond burin, with formulas of mathematics, buried in the growstone foundations of a building and excavated after civilization had fallen, risen and fallen again. The cube dated from the lost empire of the taChehemarets sky-lords, and the equations on one side were far older. In the reign of Hayu the Fourth they had been deciphered, when Shinagth was Abbess of Vokherkhe, and had enabled the irrigation of an enormous area of the Nurro and the building of the Fthafet Kla’atlekt. They described the flow, filling and emptying of vessels or reservoirs. The Fthafet Kla’atlekt was the only one which the old man had ever visited, and, as such, it was what he thought of when he looked at the knowstone, for so it was.
Charthat sat before the face of the cube which described the force and mass of projectiles and the parabolic flight of a projectile from any weapon. These equations, done by the garok-garok, were essential to efficient and advanced use of crew-served weapons, and the monks had benefited enormously from them. The old man sat before the hydraulic equations; the young man before the ballistics. Worshippers had placed a brass image of the Dhai in meditation by the ballistics equation, and surrounded it with carnauba-wax candles, still lit.
The old man had come in hobbling on a stick of bamboo, the collapsed-looking joints near the bottom of the cane being the handle, and what had been the upper joints of the cane being the shaft. He wore an orange robe, dyed, like the younger man’s, with turmeric root, and he wore straw sandals and bore a rosary, and his joints hurt him as the weather turned colder. He was seventy-five years old.
His name was Shandokar Khong’s son, and he was the elected Abbot of the monastery and ruler of a thousand faculty and ten times as many students, landlord of eighty villages, and keeper of an absurd number of sacred faTheyist relics, including this knowstone, and the largest library on Pendleton’s World.
He was tired. It seemed to him that he was ever tired these days, old as this incarnation of his soul had become. He longed sometimes for the release that was coming, the road through the dark to a new body.
In the meantime, he had work to do. Unheeded by the young man, he clacked on his staff over to a mosaic showing the Saints rebuking a false prophet, gathered his robe beneath him against a cold floor, and sat crosslegged. He took a rosary from a fold of his orange robe and he prayed.
Light came in through the domed roof, light from the sun, and from great Butros, through windows of an unbreakable ancient glass still bearing the advertising of an Arhabataran corporation-lord whose land-steamer the panes had adorned.
He began with the Litanies, the names and attributes of the Dhais and Saints, the list of prime numbers, the elements with their attributes, the silences for the spaces in the Table that the scientists had not filled, the names of the planets and moons of Davis’ Star, the names of the Protectors, who remained in name Guardians of the faTheyist religion. And had done Dhai-damned little to protect the monastery when a rogue noble had besieged it just now. And he had fallen out of prayer and into anger. He returned to his beads.
He prayed to the Dhai whose stony face showed compassion to the sentient beings of the worlds, Who alone was above passion and desire, and who realized human frailty and weakness and so had come to teach the Path into Bliss, where He now resided eternally. He chanted, quietly, in an archaic dialect of Farash laced with old Safalo loanwords; reciting passages of the e’oscharelth which Vokherkhe had been established to translate. (The task was unending. By the time that the scripture was available in each 0f the known dialects of the Nearside, the languages had changed so much that the translations were no longer useful and new grammars needed to be compiled. This was proof of the Dhai’s statement that all things passed, all material things, anyway.) He went on to–
Charthat had spoken.
Abbot Shandokar turned, looked at the younger monk. “Charthat. May the day go well with you.”
“The same, sir.”
“You came to meditate.”
“Aye, sir, I did. And I am returned.”
“So you are. You never did well in meditation class.”
“I persevere, sir. You pray for us all, now that the war’s on?”
“I prayed for myself, which meant praying for all the Vokherkhe folk.” He turned, didn’t stand. Charthat stood.
“Sir, may we speak?”
Charthat crossed a brilliant mosaic where a shaft of sunlight fell onto a depiction of the War of the Kinslaying picked out with lots and lots of red glass. He sat next to a picture of the Martyrdom of N’Sai and rested a hand at the Saint’s feet, which were being devoured by swamp crocodiles. (Shandokar sometimes swore to himself that if it ever came to him to order a chapel decorated, he would insist on fewer scenes of spectacular gore, or at least, a more sober style. He had had no opportunity.) “Sir, the pump design is stalled. Old Volegh thinks we need better materials.”
“I can assign some of the trade budget to him.” Vokherkhe had, hatefully, an economy (the Dhai’s followers had been beggars, and Vokherkhe had been built by refugees, but a university needed cash) and he had a bit of discretion based on materials costs and the pay demanded by mercenaries. “He can ask the merchants from the Great South about stronger metals.”
“That might help, at least for some parts of the design. Can we take another archeological expedition? Professor Afav found those machines–“
“We might. If we aren’t besieged again when the rains stop.” Messengers could go quietly but an archeological dig was conspicuous. “It’s a gamble, young man. She could pick a site and dig ten seasons and find nothing but broken pots.”
Fascinating as broken pots were, to archeologists, anyway.
“I understand that. But I want us to have better machines. We wouldn’t have to fear these foul Khus with their armies!”
Hope was in despair: all suffered and died, and by it, made progress, they hoped, toward Bliss. Fullness was in emptiness: by abandoning desire humans could live on the Path.
“We might. And we might lay this world waste, as the ancients did. Their choice, but it did not bring them to Bliss. Ignorance is no virtue and neither is greed, Charthat.”
“Sir, I know, and I don’t want to be...lustful. Greedy. I want to be a better monk.” He looked at the tiles. “I know I’m not, sir.”
“That isn’t important.” Shandokar took a deep breath. “You worry about that, I think, sometimes too much.” He knew that this was, yes, the real topic of this conversation. “The medical man. Hilojat Shazhat’s son.”
“Him,” Shandokar said before Charthat could confess. “He’s done us some good. If it weren’t for him, the refugees from Gunkashar would never have gotten here.” Nor you, he added. Hilojat had saved the life of the young monk, his–
“Sir. I’ve been through a lot. I think you know that,” Charthat said.
“Aye,” the old man replied. “You have.” Charthat was the only survivor of the mission to retrieve the knowstone from above the Lightriver Glacier. His role in rescuing the faTheyists from Gunkashar had been almost an afterthought.
And Hilojat was his lover. Shandokar was no longer in doubt about this and he had a limited amount of tolerance for vow-breaking. Charthat was a useful engineer and a bold fighter, but the Fourth Vow forswore sexual contact for monks; some did choose to marry and discarded the robe to do so, but he could not tolerate–
“Sir. The confessional?”
“I have broken the Fourth Vow, and–“
“I broke it, anyway. Voluntarily.”
“Son, there is no involuntary breaking of a vow.” He smiled softly.
“Well, in any case, I broke it.” He surveyed the old abbot’s face. “Father, what should I do?”
“Charthat,” Shandokar said, “It was better done so.”
“I saw what was going on from the days when you sat in my theology class.” And didn’t enjoy it, but theology was mandatory, and the abbot had served as a theology professor since long before his election. “You looked longer at pretty boys than at ugly ones, and I was surprised that you never got in trouble for playing with ’em.”
“Playing with boys?” Charthat’s voice was quiet. “I was scared to do it, Father. I knew it was wrong.”
“Charthat. Look at me.”
The boy–Shandokar could not think of him otherwise–looked up. Shandokar spoke.
“Charthat, it’s not wrong for humans to love or desire each other. But if monks acted on what they felt, this place would be as pleasant as an incinerator. We take the vows to make it possible to do our work. And that’s all. No one has to take them, and no one has to stay.”
Shandokar looked at him.
“No, Father. Please don’t make me leave. When the others left, at the end of their schooling, they went home, and I don’t have one.”
“Son, it’s not that. You have a solid technical background and the hands for machinery. You could set up and succeed anywhere.” The lad might have no head for business–impossible to know, since the monks never handled cash, leaving money-beads to the monastery’s civilian bursar. But with some competent businesswoman (Shandokar imagined a woman with a moneybox, for some reason) he could do well.
“I don’t want to leave here. I’ve never lived anywhere else.” Save inside his mother, whoever she had been, ere she put him on the foundlings’ wheel for the guardsmen to find. Suckled on woolbeasts’ milk, some died, but Charthat had thrived in the laps of the nuns, earning a nickname, then a name: “Red”, for his healthy color. Shandokar knew of this at third- or fourth-hand, of course, since no one had paid much attention to the child save his cloistered nurses till he did well in math and engineering and martial arts.
And given Shandokar an idea.
“Charthat,” the old man said, noting that the lad’s hand had moved to a fleck of pyrite embedded in the mosaic, “this man. Hilojat Shazhat’s son.”
“You love him.” It was seldom that Shandokar did marriage counseling anymore, since the children of his contemporaries had been long married, and in some cases died, but this was. Well.
He needed to be blunt about this. “You know what he is, Charthat.” And why the FaFig had come to the monastery asking inconvenient questions.
“He’s a traveling doctor, sir.” Whose presence at the monastery had been helpful for the monastery faculty, and who was at this very moment at the clinic tending the wounded.
“And a spy for the monotheists.” Decoded documents had left this in no doubt, since another spy, Kelkho, had died in the battle just past.
“Father, I know. He told me. The priest who was his handler tried to kill him in Gunkashar and Mrs Sha’unatsch was the only reason that we escaped alive.” And brought almost every faTheyist in Gunkashar to Vokherkhe alive and well.
Well. Well, well. “Charthat, when were you going to tell me that you knew all of this?” Some of which Shandokar himself had not known, and filed carefully.
A spider is best served by silence.
“When you asked me, sir. Since I’m sworn to chastity, and had broken my vow. I saw no need to mention all of this.”
“You were afraid I’d expel you from the monastery?”
Charthat Thermat’s son looked at the staff of bamboo that lay crosswise on the floor in front of him. “Yes, sir.” He took a deep breath. “I was afraid.”
“He told you that he was a spy. What else did he tell you, Charthat? I need to know. We were just attacked by a monotheist army.”
“He never showed me any documents. He said he keeps them in his head. I had no way to test that. He did tell me his mission.”
“He isn’t spying on us. And he doesn’t want to stay here. He’s spying on, reporting on, the faVashala, the monotheists, who are still here in the Churgan.”
“He...what?” Was the good doctor also spying on himself? Certainly the abbot had seen no suspicious behavior on Hilojat’s part. He’d found out as a side effect of decoding documents that Kelko’s widow had inadvertently left in the hands of the monks.
“This makes no sense,” said the abbot.
“He goes from one monotheist community to another. He finds out how well they are doing. And he reports, or he used to, to the priests. Not to the Alegani governor, or to the Haw of the court, or some high-Khus noble. Sir, if he were spying on us, would he be buried in the infirmary of a monastery?”
“It makes no sense.”
“Sir, being a traveling doctor lets him have a trade–“ and a respected one, truly–“and help people, and even make a little money. And he keeps these hidden communities of monotheists, hidden from us, anyway, since the FaFig hunts them down so harshly, and he keeps them together. I’ve never seen him do it, but he doesn’t do the faTheyist religion any harm, does he?”
“Hmmmmm. I’ll think about it.”
And talk to this strange doctor, in the meanwhile, thought Shandokar. “Now, Charthat. Here is the reality of it. And this is all. You are very dear to me; there are few enough whom we’ve had all their lives, and I know them every one. We are a family. But we live by certain vows. We choose them. And I can use an engineer, and a warrior, and a teacher. I can’t use someone whose infatuation is an obvious example to the others. I can’t.”
“I know.” Charthat looked angry, likely at himself. “I’ll go.”
“I have one more thing to say to you. I don’t need to throw you out.”
“I need something more. I need a champion.”
“Champion? Like a Khus’ champion, bearing a sword?” The hero-tales were impossible to eradicate, and so the monks tolerated them. Champions were as venerated among the boys as saints, or more so.
“I need a champion. An agent. A Hand.”
“Hands, sir?” The Protector’s Hands were famous, or infamous, for their derring-do. “You need a man to do your dirty work, sir?”
“No. I don’t; it’s contracted out elsewhere. I want something more. You can beat a master swordsman with a bamboo stick. You made it to the Lightriver glacier and found that knowstone and got back alive. You and Volegh reinvented the windbox. You and Hilojat reinvented–“
“I know what I’m doing right.” The young man’s right hand clenched on the staff of bamboo, relaxed. “What is this all about?”
“I know what you can do. And what you can’t. I am not seeking a murderer for hire–“ since he already had one?, Charthat thought. “–or a spy.” Hilojat was a spy. Had the Abbot had this conversation with him? What had he said?
What was going on here?
“I don’t ask you to rob or steal for me, or, Dhai help us all, to go out seducing anyone. I want you to go places that the Church can’t. That I can’t. And I want you to figure out what I would have done, were I there. And do it.”
“I...what?” He was sworn to obedience. Not to...whatever this was. “What would...where is it that you want me to go? Sir?” The lad looked eager, almost, if confused. It was often so.
“I will speak to you and Hilojat, and give you your mission, at sunset.” Forty hours from now, he thought. “In the meantime, find as much information as you can about the progress of the war. Most notably, I want to know what the faVashala religious authorities think is going on.” That would make Charthat curious.
“Sir, how do I find out? What would they tell me?”
“It seems to me that you have a ready source of access. And we are still treating over a thousand wounded from the Khus Taranth’s army.” Who were useful as hostages, should the Khus change his mind about suing for peace, thought Shandokar, unpleasantly.
“Yes, sir. I will pray for guidance also, to Saint Varanch Shelok.”
He had better pray, Shandokar thought, to come back alive, where he was going. But this thought, also, did not benefit the old man. With a heavy heart, he bade the young man farewell.
He really was the best one for the job. If he could accomplish it.