One: Stop doing that.
One: You know what?
Two: If I knew what, I wouldn't be asking.
One: Yes, you would.
Two: What's that supposed to mean?
One: I give up. You've done it again. I swear you just can't help yourself.
Two: What can't I help?
One: Answering every question with a question.
From Fyodor Dostoevsky
Humanity can live without science, it can live without bread, but it cannot live without beauty. Without beauty, there would be nothing left to do in this life.
Having been absent from Prose for some time, I'm grateful on returning to see that EstherFlowers1 is still pushing the agenda. Yet again, he or she has asked a good question. By getting us to unpack the meaning of something that matters to me, I find this challenge also speaks to what I believe about beauty.
Where I live, there was recently a car show featuring restored deuce coupes. Since this was held on the West Coast, it was no surprise that a letter duly appeared in our local paper dismissing these cars as gas-guzzling dinosaurs, and their owners as ignorant rednecks. Perhaps this person finds no joy in history being restored, but before we shrug and move on, let's consider the joy this person disparaged.
Is there not joy in displaying a skill, completing a project, and seeing a job well done. Aren't all of you writers? You must have a reason for that.
Isn't there fun in going to shows and hanging around with other like-minded people? And aren't these cars still objects of beauty, at least to some there. I get this isn't my interest, so I can't imagine the kick that people will get from pursuing this hobby, but must still get them up in the morning, just like Dostoevsky said.
But here we're in deeper waters, as he well knows. Somewhere in our minds exists a suspicion about the absolutes of perfect goodness, truth and beauty, the home perhaps of God and heaven. In English, peace means only the absence of war. The Jewish word shalom has a much richer meaning, superbly expressed by Wikipedia.
The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. Far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
So what delights each of you? Is it perhaps the Spirit of Christmas, with headlights on snow when you safely come home? Is it perhaps the music of Bach, or the eyes of Botticelli's Venus? Do you get in the zone when writing? Does it sometimes start to rock, beginning in you a dialogue that you no longer control? This much from Lewis.
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
If there is a God-shaped hole inside us, will beauty speak to that?
Magic dogs get frantic when they're excited. Loving being together again, they chased each other around the room. Playing at fighting, they bumped and pushed. They snapped and snarled. They barked non-stop. They leapt in the air or rolled on their backs, or scooted their chins on the carpet, the pile now matted with fur, until at last too weary to move, they dropped where they stood and lay panting.
Harold had also collapsed in a chair, exhausted if not yet stress-free. While they were still playing he couldn't unwind, but once they'd settled, he also relaxed, no longer afraid for the furniture. Closing his eyes, he let his mind tune to the calm of the room between the worlds. It felt so good to be safe again, and to be going home.
He knew he must have fallen asleep since when he reopened his eyes, Angela was sitting beside him. Seeing him waking, she gave him her special warm smile, the one he'd so grown to detest. Suspicious, he waited for her to speak first.
“You were brilliant,” she told him. “We'd never have done this without you.”
Harold ignored the compliment, his mind already elsewhere. “How long,” he asked, “have I been gone from my world?”
His answer puzzled her. “Why ask that now?” she said. “We've just completed the mission. You should be enjoying our victory.”
Harold snorted before he said, “You know you answer every question with another question. Let's try this again. How long have I been gone from my world?”
A moment before she answered then, “About ten weeks I think,” her good mood starting to fade.
“What happened to my old life?”
“What do you mean?”
Thinking again with the question he said, “Please try for once to be straight with me. When you bullied me into this mission, I left behind a life of my own. What happened to it?”
Now she looked hurt, another expression he'd learned to distrust. “Why are you asking?” she said. “Don't think about the future right now. Now is the time to celebrate. You should be feeling elated.”
“Do I feel elated? I'm happy I'm still alive, if that's what you mean. I'm also pleased for the dogs, but at the end of the day, I never wanted to be here. Now that this mission's over, I just want to go home. I want to back to my previous life, so have I a life to go back to?”
“Why are you being like this?” she asked, her voice now heavy with disappointment. Harold ignored the display of emotion, asking again if he still had a job and a home.
“You didn't have much of a job to begin with. Why would you want it back?”
“Please answer my question.”
Next came the bad temper, her voice sounding clipped. “After four weeks of you gone without notice, your supervisor let you go. We used the damage deposit to pay your last month's rent. Your car and belongings are at my house. Now you know, so give it a rest.”
Harold went silent, lost in thought. His mind drifted back to that coach ride, the time she'd admitted the mission might cost him his life. It wasn't entirely hopeless, she'd told him. Just stay with the plan and he should survive.
And so he had. He'd done all she'd asked, and she'd got what she wanted, but what about him? Time to confront her. He summoned his courage and said, “How will I be compensated for my role in the mission?”
“Why would we compensate you?” Her shock seemed genuine.
“Since I never volunteered, I'm entitled to compensation.”
“When I told you about the mission, did you intend to volunteer?”
“Of course not.”
“In that case, you should have looked for payment at the time. It's too late now.”
This answer was classic Angela, and so was Harold's response. Lost for words, his face took on its signature look. His eyes empty, his jaw went slack. With a hint of tongue, his mouth hung open, formed to a perfect oval. All dialogue ceased while his mind re-engaged then, “Don't be ridiculous. You hijacked me against my will.”
Sighing, she answered, “It seems you're going to be difficult, and after all we've been through. Now, at our time of victory, it's sad you've chosen to be this way.”
Harold ignored what he knew was a misdirection. “I don't have a home,” he said. “Where will I live? You've taken all my stuff,” and as he was speaking, an idea formed in his slow-moving brain. He gave it words. “Why can't I move into your place?”
Angela didn't like that idea. “I'd have to say no,” she told him quickly. “My home just isn't suitable. It's not set up for anyone else to be living there.”
Because Harold's brain was running three sentences late, he didn't respond to her answer, saying instead, “Tell you what. With me being homeless through you, I want your house as compensation. Sign it over to me.” He said this like it was no big deal.
A pause then, “ I'm not sure I can do that.”
“I may need the house myself.”
“Why? Will you be living in my universe?”
“I might be,” she said, but again too quickly. An unforced error since both sides knew she was lying.
Slow-witted or not, Harold still noticed the opening. “I don't believe you,” he answered. “Your life belongs with the wolves in the Royal Mountains. You can't live there and still keep a home in my universe, so what you're saying doesn't make sense. Let's try this another way. What are you going to do about the dogs?”
A bold stroke but for once in his life, Harold set out with a plan. Ever since they'd arrived in the room, he'd watched the three brothers together, always a study in sibling rivalry.
Now past the first thrill of reunion, the needy Raj had gone trolling for praise at saving his brothers' lives, but was meeting instead their graceless rejection. Rex was being snarky with Roy, and Roy had called Rex a traitor. Harold could tell that any good feelings would shortly be lost, and they'd revert to their earlier bad-tempered ways. One thing was certain. They'd never survive as a pack.
Angela hadn't been watching. Caught unprepared, she was forced to ask, “What do you mean? What about the dogs?”
“How long before they start fighting again? They're all buddy-buddy right now but they haven't changed, have they? Look at them. They're almost like they were before. You must remember the trouble they caused. They almost destroyed two kingdoms.” He gave her a moment for thinking then said, “You know you'll have to break up the pack.”
Weighing that notion had Angela slow to react, allowing Harold to ask the dogs about their plans. She readied herself for the answers.
Alpha dog Roy, as bossy as ever, announced he wanted the role for which he'd been bred. He'd be Arabella's new master of wagons, happily ordering people around while taking credit for any successes. This seemed a vocation well matched to his talents. Angela would speak with the queen.
Rex, the always defiant one, preferred to live in the Royal Mountains, running and hunting with the pack, like he imagined when first he'd learned of his heritage. It also didn't hurt with being seventh in line to the throne. However he might behave, he'd keep his status among the elite. Abrasive or not, Rex had royal blood. Angela would see to his integration. Now for Raj.
She wasn't eager to hear from Raj, afraid he might have mind of his own. Intending to be proactive she asked, “How would you like to live in the Royal Mountains?”
“Aren't they kind of dangerous,” said Raj, “and wouldn't Rex be living there too?”
These were legitimate questions. In the course of the mission, Raj had endured too many adventures. He'd also spent time with his brother. Politely, he declined. Many unpleasant things, he told her, lived in the Royal Mountains, things that now included Rex.
That option rejected, she changed her approach. “Perhaps,” she said, “you'd like to go back to living with Walter?” But at the mention of his former owner, Raj's lips took on the grin that any dog owner would recognize. Instantly moving her hand away, Angela asked, “Where else might you want to live?”
“If I'm to stay in this universe, I'd like to live with you.”
She tried not to blanch. She didn't mean to offend the dog, but that was out of the question. While she cared deeply for Raj, hers wasn't the sort of affection that led to any commitment. She much preferred to be loved by all and obligated to none.
“While I'd like to have you with me,” she told him, “I don't see how it would work. I'm always on the move, you see. I couldn't give you a proper home.”
Worried where this was going, she next tried heading him off. “You don't want to live with Harold, do you? You know if you live in Harold's world, you'll lose all your magical powers, becoming just an everyday dog. You wouldn't want that, would you? You wouldn't be able to speak anymore, or build any magical hedges. And without any magic, your life will be so much shorter. That's not for you, is it?”
In fact, it was. “I see no point,” he answered her, “of living more years if they're somewhere I hate, or having special powers if they're the only reason I'm wanted. Harold stood by me long before he knew my real nature, so if he's still willing to take me back, that's where I'd like to be.”
“But why would Harold take you back? You were an awful nuisance.”
“That's not for you to say, is it? Let's ask Harold what he wants.”
And there it was at last in Raj's own words. How must he change for Harold to want him back? He would stop with his insanity. He would not misbehave in the car. He would come when called and know his place. He would not get bored and rip things apart. He would stop chewing on furniture.
“No problem,” said Raj and he meant it this time. In the course of the mission, he'd learned a great deal about himself, but so also had Harold. No longer a doormat, this new Harold had expectations, and Raj was okay with that.
“Sure,” said Harold, but what would Angela do to help? Raj was her responsibility, and if she wanted the dog rehomed, that wouldn't come free. Harold wanted the house.
She blustered and grumbled but Harold stayed firm. They bickered for hours but finally, she gave in. With little left of her wonderful smile, she signed the deeds with a magic quill pen and following that, they parted.
Before he could leave, she said she was saddened their time together was ending so badly, although she could understand why. He stared at her without speaking, then bundling up the deeds to the house, walked to the end of the red-tinted room.
Easing his way past the fine oak table and leather-bound chairs, the glass chandelier and the red velvet drapes, he stood in front of the gilt-framed mirror, the one that joined this room to his world. Curling his fingers in Raj's coat, he counted to three.
They stepped into the mirror together and entered a blackness so heavy, it seemed to have weight. Again he endured that feeling of speed and of rushing through space. A minute or so and the light returned. They stood in the kitchen of Harold's new home.
Slowly regaining his bearings, he wondered how long since last he'd last had a meal. Hungry, he ransacked the kitchen but found it unstocked. There was a packet of stale oatmeal cookies, and that would do for their dinner. During the mission, they'd eaten far worse.
Exhausted but happy, the two of them slumped on the chesterfield, mindlessly watching TV. And that was where the story ought to have ended.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident...life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
That's a nice sounding phrase but what exactly is meant by self-evident truth? Is it some common standard that everybody agrees is inviolate, like driving on the right (unless you live in England)? Could it be some moral statement reported in the holy book of an all-powerful deity, assuming we accept this deity? Is it something we're compelled to do without needing a reason, like mother saying because I said so.
Aristotle had no problem with truth. “If we say a thing is,” he told us, “and it is that thing, we have spoken the truth.” Okay so far but can we unpack that remark?
I sit at a table, and by calling it a table, he claims I've spoken the truth. My problem is it's a limited truth. I haven't said anything about the table's design, colour, composition or atomic structure. When I do, my table becomes becomes progressively more unique. With a full and complete description, this table is like no other, no longer needing a generic label. For me to say “table” is to apply a label universally recognized among English speakers as something with the quality of “tableness.”
How circular. Some mythical old white dudes write “tableness” in Webster's and that becomes the agreed label, and if I use this label correctly, I have spoken the truth? We need something better than that.
Never the Hero
Is this a place to promote my book? I have to be honest, I need your help. Now ranked 10771 on the Epic Fantasy list, sold on Kindle for $1.87 (and free to those with subscription) it may be too pricey for many. It was for family and friends.
About as prominent in Amazon as a single bee in a hive, please search under its title "Never the Hero" or you've no way to find it.
For a teaser, here's my blurb. If that works, try Chapter 27. If that works, who knows...
Harold's no hero, so leave him alone. All he's done is adopt some dog, not knowing Raj has magical powers, or that he's expected to rescue a kingdom. Good for Raj but what's that to Harold, not that Angela cares.
Dumped in some alternate universe, the time before was just him and Raj, but now he's got Lilith to help.
Bullied and swindled and out of control, Harold blunders through mishaps and crises, never believing he'll ever get home. Last time he'd confronted an evil queen, and that had been scary enough. Now he must steal from a dangerous warlock, and all on behalf of Angela, the sweet but conniving old lady he's grown to detest.
Charming but ruthless, however he struggles, he can't seem to stop her from running his life. How can she do that? She isn't his mother, and why would she want a hero who's passive aggressive?
In a lunatic tale of magic and evil, can Harold survive on denial alone?
“And did she?
“Did Angela talk her way out of paying you compensation?”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought she signed over the house.”
“Well, yeah. I guess. Sort of.”
“So you got everything you asked for.” Lilith was looking at Harold with barely disguised contempt.
“You survived the mission, didn't you? And you got paid for it. Very well, in fact. I get that you don't like being here, but I've heard enough about Angela, so is your diatribe finally over or can we expect an epilogue?”
“No. I've said all I wanted to say.” Harold's feelings were hurt, unhappy at how she'd dismissed his concerns.
Lilith didn't let up. “I don't get your problem,” she told him. “You got your money, just as you wanted. It's sitting there waiting for when you get back.”
“And that is my problem,” he answered. “Why do I have to be here at all? She trapped me into doing this mission just so I could get paid for the first. I already had that money, so why can't I get to use it whenever I want? If she hadn't jammed me up, I wouldn't need to be here. That's not fair. Anyone can see that.”
“Can they now?” said Lilith with a shrug. “You got the house, didn't you. Why didn't you live in it? Selling was your decision. Nobody held a bow to your head.”
This time Harold was really offended. “It's alright for you,” he shouted. “You weren't drowning in debt, or stuck with those horrible neighbours. You walk a mile in my shoes before you're so eager to judge.”
“So tell me this,” she said. “Why are you even here at all? We didn't actually need you. We only needed Raj.”
“I'm not just handing over Raj. Forget that. Raj is my dog. He stays with me.”
“Stop acting like you're a victim.”
Harold's bottom lip quivered. “I am a victim,” he answered, “and so is Raj. I don't remember us asking you to shove us into that painting? You did that all by yourself.”
He stopped speaking to Lilith. Thinking he'd won the argument, he settled for grumbling under his breath, telling himself that Lilith had been disrespectful.
His problem was he found his argument losing ground. Another voice inside his head was saying he could have stayed in the house, borrowed against the property, found himself a better job, maybe gone on some dating sites, and tried to get on with his neighbours. If he'd have chosen to go that route, he wouldn't be here on this mission.
Instead, he'd taken the easy way out, running away from a bad situation and in the process, painting himself in a corner. Sure, Angela held the brush but he'd invented the corner.
Grudgingly, the earlier voice conceded the larger point, but it still drew the line at Angela. By Lilith pointing her finger at him, she was also excusing Angela, and that wasn't right. Angela had treated him badly. Twice in fact, and any sane person could understand that. Lilith was wrong to take her side. Harold got ready to have the last word, but Lilith spoke first.
“Harold,” she said, “you're a whiner. You're here now so get over it. I got hijacked too, you know, but are you hearing me complain? The money's waiting for when you get back, so stop with this bitching.”
Harold didn't agree, and wasn't inclined to stop. He needed closure and would have said more except that Lilith leaned over her horse, and slapped the back of his head. His ears ringing, he gave up talking. Harold could take a hint.
He watched her riding ahead of him, her body fused to the saddle, those massive thighs locked to the horse's flanks. She seemed so much in command of her mount, and he envied her that. The horse he was riding had taken control, stomping along in a merciless bone-crunching trot. His legs were aching from having to stand in the saddle, but he couldn't sit down, his butt hurt so badly. He wanted to stop if only to rest but didn't dare say that to Lilith. It wasn't male ego. She terrified him.
Truth was, he couldn't find words to say how he felt about Lilith. She wasn't remotely attractive, but her power held his attention. He even found he'd be stealing a glance at those thighs, wondering what they would do to a man.
He'd felt the same when she'd started that brawl. All by herself, she'd punched out four soldiers and trashed a tavern. What woman does that? He struggled even to see her as female except when he watched her on horseback, he'd get this ripple run through his body. He didn't know why and he didn't enjoy it, but he found he didn't rush to suppress it.
When next they rested the horses, he tried changing the mood. “Lilith,” he said. “I guess I do complain too much about Angela. And you're also right, I could have said no to this mission. But I'm here now so I'll do my best not to let you down.”
Watching her face, he'd hoped for some sign of approval. Since none was forthcoming, he spoke again.
“I'm thinking, as long as we're here together, I'd like to know more about you. How come you're here, and what's your deal with Angela?'
“Angela found me in the Great Forest, badly injured and close to death. She brought me to safety and nursed me to health. She saved my life and I owe her for that.”
“Wasn't a simple thank you enough?”
“I'm an Amazon warrior. I live by a code and I owe her my life. I must pay off that debt before I'm free.”
“So you don't want to be here anymore than I do?”
“Of course not, but I don't have a choice. I'm bound by my duty. You think I relish being in Angela's debt. I'm even more trapped than you are. I've just got a better attitude.”
Insulted, Harold gave up with the small talk. He rode beside her in silence, but since he didn't do silence well, he tried talking again.
“How come you were in the Great Forest, and how did you get yourself wounded?”
“Why you asking?”
“As I said, I'd like to get to know you better. You know a lot about me.”
“I know too much about you.”
With that came more silence, at least until Raj would shatter the mood. “Stop being a jerk,” he told her, “and tell us how you got hurt.” Lilith agreed to tell her story.
“Me and some buddies had gone on a peacekeeping tour of Drogeba. After six months we got relieved, but on the way home, we stopped by the Marcen taverns to blow off some steam. That's when we got conned by these two peons. They hung around till we was too wasted to notice, then told some sad story about their pathetic village, how the local bandits robbed it blind, and how their kids were all starving and no one would help.
By that time, already well into the booze, our sergeant, who should have known better, gets maudlin drunk and turns sentimental. Next we know, she's volunteered all nine of us to run off these bandits, and just for the price of three bottles of rum.”
“Like the Magnificent Seven,” said Harold.
“No. There were nine of us.”
Harold breathed out. “Why don't you finish your story?”
“Well, we get to this village and clean out the bandits, but it was hard fighting and four of us didn't make it. After that, we just wanted to get away home. We hitched a ride on some crappy old freighter, but then it got caught in a storm. The ship ran on rocks, and just when we're starting to hear the surf, the crew jumps into the lifeboat and leaves us to drown. All five of us clambered on broken timbers and tried to paddle to shore, but two of us didn't make it.
“Now down to just three, we still believed we'd be rescued in time. We'd camp on the beach, and hunt and fish, and light a fire to signal a passing ship.
“But then these trolls found us. They ran us along the beach as far as the edge of the forest, except we had to turn back. A dragon was flying above our heads, so we didn't dare risk open country.
“We ran back into the forest for cover, but couldn't outdistance the trolls. Two more days of skirmishing and they'd picked off both of my buddies. I knew I was next but then this dragon calls off the trolls, I guess to attack Angela's convoy. That's when she teleported into the forest, and pretty much landed on top of me. The rest you know.”
“You're all that's left of your platoon. That's terrible. I'm very sorry.”
“It wasn't your fault.”
Harold knew she'd misunderstood but didn't bother correcting her. This wasn't a time for feedback. What was she, maybe twenty at most? She'd seen too much bloodshed for someone that young. She'd also been robbed of her closest friends, the ones who'd have given some purpose to her young life.
She had to be hurting so much inside, however deeply she buried her feelings. And now the conniving Angela had saddled her with this mission. Given what Lilith was going through, Harold knew he owed her some help.
For one thing, he'd stop with his whining. She didn't need to hear his troubles. She'd been screwed over much worse than him. No chance to heal, or time to go home. No comfort from family or friends.
Instead, she was stuck doing Angela's bidding. How did she even stay sane? She must be so strong inside. Sure, she was kind of insensitive, but Harold found he'd a growing respect for Lilith.
He'd suffer five days on that horse before they reached Marty's barracks, and coming on the buildings again, Harold felt disappointment. He'd hoped that once they were done with the queen, things might have got better, but nothing had changed. The city smelled as bad as before. The barracks looked just as tired and neglected.
Two youths were gossiping inside the gatehouse. Harold dismounted and rapped on the sliding window. Both looked up then carried on talking. He rapped again, only louder. This time they ignored him. He rapped a third time, very loudly. Visibly huffing, one youth stalked over, yanked open the window and snapped, “What do you want?”
“I want to speak to Marty.”
“Marty the sergeant.”
“That's not your concern, is it? Just say I've a message from Angela.”
“Marty's not available.”
“How do you know that?”
“You have to come back when the officer's here.”
“When will that be?”
“He didn't say.”
“Why do we need to wait for the officer?”
That question caught the youth off guard. For some strange reason, it wasn't among his list of standard evasions. He thought for a moment then said, “I'm not allowed to leave my post to check on anyone. I can't leave the gatehouse without the officer's permission.”
Lilith reached over and dragged him through the open window, slapped the side of his head and whispered, “That's not true, is it? You've already left without his permission. Now run and fetch Marty.”
Harold watch the youth run off. I wish I could do that, he thought to himself.
It took twenty minutes to find Marty, but when at last the sergeant appeared he was, as always, full of smiles and easy good nature. Seeing him coming, Raj ran over, demanding his ear be scratched. That greeting completed, Marty next pounded on Harold's shoulder.
“Good to see you, man,” he said. “Glad you could finally make it. You've been expected a couple of weeks, ever since I got my letter.” Still smiling he added, “I guess you must be Lilith. You're quite the cutie, aren't you? Now come with me, both of you. You're about to enjoy a near-death experience.”
“What do you mean, near-death experience?” asked Harold suspiciously while Lilith merely scowled, at once both pleased and annoyed at being called cute.
Before she could put a voice to her thoughts, Marty spoke again. “We're off to meet Lord Aubrey, and he's as close to death as you'll find while still leaving mist on a mirror. Let's get going. We don't want to keep him waiting. Harold will tell you we don't want him testy.”
The old man would be as Harold remembered. The bloodless lips that framed the aging yellow teeth. The smile that spread no further than the mouth. The wispy hair. The parchment white skin. The empty calculating eyes. As he came in the room, Raj started to growl, his hackles raised. Lilith's hand covered her sword, but Marty said to relax.
“Good evening, Your Lordship,” he added. “Everyone's here now. We all came as soon as we could.”
Lord Aubrey's gaze absorbed the room. “Harold,” he said, only his mouth moving.
“Lord Aubrey.” Harold's response was equally flat.
The old man spoke again. “And Raj with you. Good, and you must be Lilith, the Amazon warrior. Angela speaks well of you.” The words came out fully formed, the tone as measured as Harold remembered. Lilith nodded but gave no answer.
“You will be tired from your journey. Sergeant, please see they get food and a place to sleep. We will convene tomorrow at noon. I will brief you during luncheon.” And as they were leaving he added, “I wish you all a good evening,” though he managed to make it sound more like a curse.
“I'm sorry to say that Angela is in rather a pickle.” Lord Aubrey's understatement came in the same polished voice that had always rattled Harold's nerves. The old man continued.
“In her devious attempts to dispose of Roy, the magic dog, she has been captured by Arabella, Queen of the Great Forest, and to compound her error, she has bargained carelessly for her release. Arabella's terms will be hard to meet, but I suppose we must try.”
“Why must we try?” asked Harold. “Why can't we leave her to rot in jail?”
“Yes,” said Lord Aubrey slowly. He rested his elbows on the table, steepled his fingers in front of his mouth then checked each person one at a time. Harold receive an extra long stare but sensing everyone ready, His Lordship began.
“Perhaps I should give you some background. At over five carats, the Eye of the Dead is a large stone and while having some flaws, it is almost clear in colour, rare in stones of that size. It also boasts a rather fine cut that explodes in the light. A handsome piece in its own right, and not merely because it sits in a demon's forehead.” He paused for effect. He knew he had their attention.
“This demon is, I'm afraid, a rather unpleasant creature. Kept in a glass-fronted cage so the Eye can be viewed, it gibbers and snarls at all who dare to look in. It also seems its one ambition is taking revenge on its captor, and it's only pleasure comes from hurting any creature it can reach.
“As a work of art, I've always considered the Eye overrated, but Erasmo, its current owner, take pride in it, and I think for two solid reasons. One: Merely to own the Eye is a demonstration of power. We should not for one moment forget his considerable skills as a sorcerer. Two: He has found the stone helpful when dealing with disloyal subordinates. The demon excels at killing its victims slowly, a fate that we should attempt to avoid.”
He stopped for a moment to sip on his drink, his wizened hands gripping the side of the glass as if he struggled to lift it.
“To be strictly honest,” he added, “stealing the demon is out of the question. What we should actually do is steal Erasmo.”
“Well, there you are then,” said Harold. “That sounds straightforward. So, if it's all settled, let's go for lunch.”
Marty sighed, his eyes pointing up at the ceiling. “Don't mind him, My Lord. He always gets sarcastic when he's clueless. I've seen him do it before, but no worries. Harold's not here to do any planning. He'll be okay if we just give him orders, though you might want to keep them simple.”
“I'm still here, you know,” said Harold, but no one took any notice.
Lord Aubrey began again. “The castle itself is impregnable. An army would have to cross twenty-five miles of dragon-infested wasteland before a steep narrow access road, then on through a tight gorge to enter a walled citadel embedded in a granite peak.
“After the citadel comes the main tower, and if that could be breached, the throne room itself is defended by four massive serpents, the demon's cage being part of the throne. When you incorporate Erasmo's own considerable powers together with those of his many unpleasant minions, no one would be silly enough to attempt a direct assault.”
Again a pause then, “I think, however, there may be a better way to gain access to the throne room. As you may know, every accredited trouble maker has the ultimate goal of full membership in the Association of Certified Informants. While there are many broader roles to be found in lying and/or betrayal that are well-suited to qualified paraprofessionals, only certified ACI members have full standing as character assassins during civil and criminal proceedings.
“More to the point, since their expertise can be used to discredit most witnesses, however honest or reliable, their testimony is deeply valued, especially by those in fear of the law.
“That fear puts ACI clients at a disadvantage with respect to the Institute, and when one considers the type of clients who seek its services, it also gives ACI members privileged access to the sort of information one really shouldn't know. That is, of course, my way of saying that full ACI status is highly prized.”
Another sip of wine then, “The Association is, of course, the only body certifying full membership, and since no one gets this without first doing the chairman a favour, these are favours worth having. And when you include the fact that the chair comes with unrestricted access to Association files, it is a much sought-after position.” His voice lifted slightly at the end of the sentence.
“It so happens that the chairman, I should say chairperson.” He smiled at Lilith. “Is elected every second year by secret ballot within the Sorcerer's General Council and Erasmo, who currently sits on the Council, has long sought this position for reasons of his own. One doesn't ask why. It's not considered good form.
“He is already somewhat close to having the necessary votes, and to this point, I happen to hold the proxy votes for both Arabella and Angela. When he learns I have these proxies, Erasmo will want to meet me. That eagerness should be enough to get us inside his castle. Are there any questions?” Lord Aubrey checked the room. Since no one dared question anything, he continued speaking.
“There is still more detailed planning needed, but we will have time on board our ship to flesh out any strategy. One task however is needed now.” He turned to Lilith, and with the smile of a gargoyle he said, “You, dear lady, are to be my bodyguard, and not only for my personal safety. Erasmo is a jealous soul. When he sees I am attended by an Amazon, I feel certain he will covet you in one way or another. He is also extremely vain and will think you cannot resist him. When you stand behind me looking magnificent, I feel certain he will take the bait.”
Harold thought about Lilith being magnificent. He couldn't quite see it himself, but who knew the minds of the vain super-rich? Still, she did have those thighs.
Lilith didn't want to look magnificent. In her opinion, all attempts to repackage her outward appearance denied her essential nature. This view, however, would not be shared by those who were tasked with repackaging. Success with this woman could make a career, and with an eye to their futures, each artisan brought their best game.
Because they couldn't alter her shape, the tailors crafted a smock of oiled black leather, inlaid with polished brass strips for that warrior look. They also went with an Empire cut that fell away from the bust in a cone intended to hide the cone that was the shape of her body inside.
From the shoemakers came a handsome buckle boot with a platform sole that added length to her legs. From the hatters, a brass fedora with an owl feather decor that also served to lengthen her body, and held in place by a broad leather strap that captured both her chins.
The stylists were charged with plucking her moustache as well as parting her eyebrow. They also gave her this glossy black hair as well as concealing her missing teeth. They powdered over the worst of her scars, and for that final feminine touch, filigree lace was stitched to the cuffs of her black leather gloves.
Lilith resented the way she looked. At first, she'd wanted to trash the outfit except the street smart Marty knew best. They went on a date in a bad part of town where she entered this tavern self-consciously. Two minutes later she'd laid out three loudmouths who'd taken cheap shots at the way she was dressed.
This altercation would change the room's dynamics. After the brawl, she owned the place, everyone wanting to be her friend and some of the men, be it ever so shyly, even tried hitting on her.
“There you go,” said Marty. “The outfit's got nothing to do with it. It's only there as camouflage to help with the mission. You're still the same person inside, taking no garbage and winning your fights. That's the Lilith they'll all remember,” and how could she argue with that.
While Lilith was being got ready, Lord Aubrey wrote to Erasmo, saying that he'd be travelling west and bringing two proxies to use at the Council's next meeting. Rather than sailing through Marbury, he might be persuaded to land at Afula if that could be made worth his while. He'd been instructed to test the market, and would that include Erasmo? Since making this side trip affected his plans, he'd need an answer within a few days.
The letter came back requesting he land at Afula, breaking his journey to visit the lodge in Beth Meron. Convenient to the castle, Erasmo would also visit the lodge, and they could at least hold talks about talks. Having the answer he wanted, the old man told the others get ready. The mission was on.
They'd travel by coach as far as the coast, then six weeks at sea to Afula, and four days by stage to Beth Meron, only renting a carriage once they arrived. With Marty as coachman, he'd be in position to hire what he needed. He'd also get chance to gossip with locals, hearing rumours and making connections, a thing he could do like nobody else.
Ahead of the journey, Lord Aubrey changed from his old frock coat, dressing instead with a chain of office hung over a full-length black linen robe. This outfit would come with a matching black skull cap, a look that featured his parchment white skin. Despite his age, he'd be making the trip to act as their negotiator.
When he learned that, Harold was curious. While knowing that he'd excel in the role, Harold still wondered why someone that age would be bothered to come. Just what did Angela have on him that would make him commit to this mission? On one occasion, when they were alone, he found the courage to ask.
Lord Aubrey smiled with just his mouth, “If I told you, Harold,” he said, “you'd have to be killed,” and Harold knew that wasn't a joke.
Time to leave, and Angela had her team. Lord Aubrey would do the planning and take the lead with Erasmo. Lilith would come as his bodyguard, standing behind him and glaring at people while wearing her shiny black leathers. Equally sharp in spiked collar and black leather harness, Raj would act as the seeing-eye guard dog, the old man claiming that age had robbed him of most of his sight. A study in black, when all three stood together, they gave off a vibe that made most rooms go quiet.
Marty's cover would be as their driver, but Harold had no particular role except for his connection with Raj. If just for that reason they felt him worth bringing, pretending that he was Lord Aubrey's aide, required to take notes and run errands.
With being mostly redundant, Harold began to think twice about going. He didn't, however, act on his feelings, not wanting Lilith to think him a coward.
This failure to act would backfire. Already well into the journey and starting to learn of its risks, Harold at last decided he ought not to go, but still concerned with losing face, he hung around for too long. Already on board before he concluded this mission just wasn't for him, he ran to the deck rail, only to see open water.
I didn't know how drunk I was until I got outside. Not to worry, I made it home, bouncing my way upstairs to the apartment. Not fit for any debate, I climbed into bed beside my wife and quickly started to snore, but not for long since nature called and I was obliged to get up.
First leaning against the wardrobe door, some words from my wife would help me refocus, heading towards the bathroom. Next followed this scratching and shouting and banging but also complaints about the plumber who'd recently serviced our toilet. Then came relief and all the noise ended. Slowly and quietly, walking backwards, I made my way into bed. My feet were wet.
She knew to get up, tracking wet footprints along the landing to where I'd pissed against the front door. And as for my bitching about the plumber, it seems I'd been trying to flush the door handle.
I'm not sure why I was using this road, but I loved seeing that gate. No question that something was out there. My horse was already skittish, and too many tracks crisscrossed our way. On either side of the gate, a solid wall stretched unbroken down slope out of sight. As tall as a man, it would keep out the wolves. Securing the latch, I sighed with relief then turned to continue my journey.
Beyond the wall, the scenery changed. No more of the fall prairie colours, it was still green and summer inside, my horse now grazing on wild durum wheat so dense it could be harvested. To the right of the road, a small creek supported lush pastures, with deer asleep in the grasses, and were those wolves beside them, also chewing on grass? As I stared, a bobcat walked out of the bush. It sidled alongside me, demanding to be stroked. Following that, it started to wind between my legs and purr like a train.
Back on my horse, I next entered this giant valley, its far walls lost in blues and purples. The road continued leading me down, meandering under orange-coloured cliffs. Below the road the land fell away in bushes and grasses, a carpet of green highlighted in reds, whites and golds. Trees grew at the foot of the slope, a wall of aspens and maples, and in the valley bottom, a brilliant blue lake reflected the blue sky above. Shadows of clouds flitted over the lake, floating along on a warm summer breeze.
From time to time along the road I'd pass colonies of gophers, or herds of wild sheep, goats and deer. They were all quietly grazing, but grazing beside them, were cougar, wolf and wolverine. That made no sense but there they were.
The road led me down to the lake, then skirted beside a white sandy beach that ended in low crimson cliffs. These cliffs were capped with purple heather, and standing alone, two giant trees, one silver, one gold. In awe of the beauty around me, I left my horse grazing and walked to the trees so I could look out on the lake.
On the ground beneath the golden tree were two apples, both half eaten, both rotted and rancid, and swarming with wasps.
The City upon a Hill
This needs a little history so let me explain.
In 1630, John Winthrop, head of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, would make a speech incorporating a sentiment from Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” This sentiment captures the spirit of American exceptionalism, that its citizens had something special to say and teach the world. A rejection of the hidebound old Europe, these new Israelites had been gifted with a Promised Land, empowered to expel its inhabitants, and destined for earthly success as long as they honoured God's law. And their constant record of early success was proof that God was on thier side.
Despite the arraogance, this wasn't all bad. No nation can stand the scrutiny of history, and their reord includes great moments like the Marshall Plan. They embraced individual freedom and the can-do spirit, and with it democracy, free enterprise and a penchant for good works. They were a light to the world in their way. And this belief has lasted. Reagan would base his presidency on it. And it worked. He tore down the evil Soviet empire.
There is of course much more nuance to American history,and much more self-interest, but don't underestimate its value, or its importance in American Christianity.
And understand that also is exceptional in its own way. The other great religions (Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.) remain attached their roots. Christianity however knows no geography. Beginning in the Middle East, its next centre would be Europe, then to the Americas, and more recently to China. The current focus of Christianity is in the Southern Hemisphere. It has always been fluid, but as its wave passed over the United States, it also joined with that culture.
Not every part of course. The New England Puritans were overrun by the more flexible Baptists and Methodists from further south. The (German) Lutherans and the (Irish and Italian) Catholics always remained a side show. The heresies of 1830's upstate New York (Mormons, Later Day Saints, Milleniallists, Spritualists, etc.) would tend to go their own way. The Second Awakening of the 1840's was mostly political (Emancipation, Suffrage, Prohibition) with white women learning to use the church as their platform outside the home, determined to get their menfolk out of the bars. Even without the Civil War, the protestant of the southlands would need to double down, and then came Darwin.
Step back for a moment and recognize a Conservative will espouse a political philosophy that values tradition and social stability, preferring only gradual development, and then only if necessary. The Progressives in America would deal with evolution by deconstructing the Scriptures, denying the Bible's (the Word of God's) inherency and thereby leaving conservatives without any anchor. Their reaction was to enshrine Protestant faith into Fundamentalism, elevating belief in Scripture to the inflexible. May I now put the pieces together?
American fundamental Christianity has over time and become intimately associated with American exceptionalism, resulting in a conviction that both Scripture and America knows best. Moreover, if I were to guess, I suspect that American exceptionalism as an ill-defined belief now outranks Scripture, but both are under attack.
There is China. Global warming. Covid. School prayer. Abortion. Crime. Vietnam. Toyota. Islam. Social Media. Wherever they look, the wheels are coming off. That explains why they feel defensive but if you want these people to change without drama, you might want to learn a little history instead of just poking the bear.
Nothing left to Lose
We had to sell the house of course. Living on an island and using the ferry, getting to the hospital was just too inconvenient. Still, moving into a care home also meant downsizing. We could have put our possessions into storage, but that's expensive and anyway, once I was on my own, why would I sink my savings into buying a house?
Once she'd gone, I also rehomed both dogs. No landlord would take two animals. I have to say I didn't feel guilty. They got a fabulous placement on an acreage, much better than anything I could provide.
No kids of my own, and being an immigrant, I've no family here. My wife had two kids, already adults when we married, so neither that close to me, even if they didn't live hundreds of miles away. As for any friends and neighbours, moving erected a barrier.
Once she'd died, I left the care home, far too expensive, and moved to a furnished apartment. Nice enough place but still one more purge of belongings. All that's left now is the car. I'm also retired so no workplace to visit, but I could still go shopping and start conversations. That 's something old people can do, but not after Covid so that door got closed. Before the pandemic, I caught the flu and had to look after myself. Not a big deal but it's nice to have someone who'll to the drug store.
Don't get me wrong. I'm blessed in may ways. I have a decent pension, good enough health and some money from the house sale, and I've since met a wonderful woman who wants to be in my life. That isn't the point.
In the space between the relationships, I would know a level of freedom like none before in my life. At times it was heady. Left without responsibilities, I was a free agent in the universe and after the challenge of caring for my partner, the empty time felt good. Still, I never fooled myself. I was free only because I had nothing left to lose. That's not such a comfortable feeling.
Cyril gives an update
Without any prospect of breakfast, he waited around inside his cell until mid-morning. By that time he needed company, so he strolled as far as the exercise room. Raj was running the treadmill. Cyril and Agnes were standing beside him, keeping his chains untangled.
"Hi there," said Cyril brightly. "Why don't we get caught up now. I'm sure you're dying to know how I ended up here." Truthfully, Harold wasn't, but he'd nowhere to hide. That's the problem with prisons.
"After you guys escaped," said Cyril, "the officers had it in for me. They said it was all my fault, like I'd released the animals."
"That doesn't surprise me," said Harold. "They always blame the little guy, the one at the bottom who can't fight back."
"You got that right," said Cyril, then settled into a long reflective silence.
Thinking the silence unnaturally long for someone so talkative, Harold asked, "So you got into trouble?"
"You were going to tell me how you ended up here."
"Ended up here?"
"When last we spoke, you were unmarried, stationed in Anderport, and serving with the liberation army."
"I know that," said Cyril sharply, looked puzzled and slightly cross.
"Well, now you're married and stationed in the evil queen's castle."
Cyril stopped to consider these facts. "You know you're right," he said. "When you put it like that, I've been through some pretty big changes."
"Didn't you notice?"
"Well, I've been kinda busy."
Harold felt they'd make more progress if he controlled the agenda. "So how did it happen," he asked, "you being here and all?"
"Well mostly, I gotta thank the union."
"Why thank the union?"
"Well, the senior ranks was really ticked about Raj escaping. They were gonna put me and my buddies in front of a firing squad. They said I'd colluded with the enemy. That's why I got married."
"Now you've lost me."
"You know I've been with the liberation army for over fifteen years?" Harold answered he didn't know that.
"Well, see. I've got these vested pension rights," said Cyril. "Quite a lot, in fact. If Agnes hadn't married me, they'd have kept them all. No dependents, see. But once I'd got me a widow, I'd get to hang on to me pension."
Harold could tell that Cyril wasn't entirely clear on the concept, that having his widow inherit was not the same thing. Still, better her than the army, thought Harold, who turned to Agnes and asked her, "Did you really marry him for his pension?"
"That was back when they was gonna shoot him, what with me being single and that. The families wanted us married so I went along with it. I mean to say, when you know he'd be dead in a couple of weeks, you don't have to like the guy. That's not how I feel now. Ever since we've been chained up together, I've grown quite attached to Cyril."
"Well you would, wouldn't you?"
Agnes looked puzzled but gave no answer, causing another long silence. Once more, Harold took charge. "What was it you were saying about the union?"
Cyril promptly became expansive. "The union insisted I hadn't colluded. They said I'd been duped and exploited, that I was merely incompetent and they shouldn't expect any better from me."
"And the union does not regard incompetence as justifying disciplinary action."
"Right. You can't have people doing that."
"Absolutely right," said Harold strongly. "Nobody's job would be safe. So what did the army do next?"
Cyril sneered. "Well, they chickened out, same as always. The union stood its ground so they had me transferred instead."
"But surely not to the enemy."
"What's wrong with that? It's the same union. It's just a different local."
"And you kept your rank?"
"They had an opening for a jailer in the queen's dungeons. I'm told it's a job with a high turnover rate. I don't know why, I don't ask. I figure it's better not to know. I'm a married man now. I've got responsibilities."
"Well," said a smiling Harold, "I'm delighted. Congratulations to both of you."
"Thank you," said Cyril and Agnes together, smiling back.