“Ko’sa, you’re awake!” I took a step closer towards her, then stopped. She still didn’t look quite like herself. There were dark shadows under her eyes, and her face, usually tanned from the sun, was as pale as a sheet of paper. She looked even thinner than the last time I saw her, if that was even possible. Her legs seemed to be trembling slightly, wobbling at the knees, either from shivering or from effort to hold her up in their weakened state.
“How long have we been here?” she asked.
“A couple nights.” I offered a hand to her. “Here, sit down and eat something.”
“I can eat on the road.” Her tone was firm and left no room for argument. “Pa is waiting for me.” She glanced towards the table where we had sat two nights ago. “Where’s my pack? Let’s pay up and get out of here.”
I heard Hugh snort from behind me. “You mean you haven’t told her ’bout your financial situation yet?”
Ko’sa’s eyes snapped back and locked onto me. “What’s he talkin about, miss? Where’s my Pa’s money?”
I began to sputter. “Ko’sa, I don’t know how to say this….I didn’t have a choice…”
“You’re broke kid,” Hugh finished for me, with about as much subtlety as a blow to the head from a sledgehammer. “Didn’t even have enough gold to buy you a second night’s stay. She’s working it off now.”
I saw a range of emotions as they passed over Ko’sa’s face. First disbelief, as her eyes, still locked with mine, widened. Then she read the pain written all over my face, and her shoulders sagged as she realized that Hugh was telling the truth. Finally color flushed back into her cheeks as anger took control. For a few agonizing moments, she struggled to piece together the right words to express her indignation.
“You didn’t…miss…you spent all of it…how could you…”
“Ko’sa, I’ll pay you back, I promise. I needed to borrow it.”
“You needed to borrow all of it? And how exactly do you plan on paying me back? What can you do? The toddlers back in the village have more skills than you.”
“Please Ko’sa, it’s just money,” I pleaded. This was, apparently, not the right thing to say. She snatched the glass I was cleaning from my hand and threw it as hard as she could against the wall. I ducked as it shattered against the fading yellow wood, raining jagged shards of glass down on the naked floorboards.
“Oi!” Hugh yelled. “You plan on paying for that?”
“Don’t worry,” Ko’sa snapped. “Jill will pay for it. It’s just money.” She rounded back on me. “So what was so important that you had to spend my month’s haul on? Well?”
I felt my hands start to tremble. I was a terrible liar, and the truth was so hopelessly lame that it made me want to crawl out of my own skin. “Please just listen to me. There was a man, he said he knew a way for me to see the King, for a price.”
“The King again!” She threw her hands into the air with animated ferocity, then began to mimic me. “Ko’sa, what’s the King’s favorite color? Ko’sa, who does the King really love? Ko’sa, what does the King think about that bush over there?” She was steaming now. “You’re obsessed with the bloody King; he’s the only thing you ever ask about. You…you’re just another fanatic, aren’t you? Think if you can just see the King once he’ll wave a magic hand and cure you of all the terrible shit you’ve done.”
“You know that’s not true-”
“I don’t know what’s true. I didn’t think you would steal my Pa’s money, after everything I’ve done for you. I thought…I thought we were friends.” Her voice dropped. “Friends don’t matter to them King’s supporters though, all they ever worry about is the King first, and everyone else can go to hell.”
I could feel tears starting to sting at the edges of my eyes. It was too much. “I don’t support him Ko’sa, believe me-”
“Believe you?” She laughed without humor. “You’re crazy. I thought you would be like my father’s friend Jack. He was honorable. Cared about us, was going to take us back to the Outside to escape from here. But you’re nothing like him-”
“I don’t know how the hell to get back to my world!” I blurted out. “I have No. Freaking. Idea. And the only person that has any clue about how to do it is the god-damned King that everyone wants dead.” We stood there, looking at each other, tension hanging over us like storm clouds. The angry color in Ko’sa’s face was receding, replaced with an expression that was somehow, even worse. I realized it was pity, as if she was finally understanding just how pathetic I really was. “I’m trying my best to help us both out,” I said, breaking the silence. “It’s the truth, I promise.”
I saw a tear rolling down her cheek, the light from a wall lamp catching it so it glistened like a diamond. “Sure, I believe you Miss Jill.” She tossed me something rectangular and black and I caught it reflexively. I turned the soft leather of the bi-fold wallet over in my hands. “But then, what use are you to me now?”
Before I could stop her, she had pushed by me and sprinted out the front door of the inn.
I burst out through the door after her, into the bustling street. Instantly, I collided with a rather portly man walking past the entryway and tumbled to the ground.
“Watch it! God-damned Outsiders.”
I sprang to my feet and flew down the street, directionless, scanning the crowd for a head of short sandy hair. “Ko’sa!” I yelled again, louder than the first time, my voice shrill with panic. I darted around the corner and found an empty alley. The anxiety was pooling in my gut, and I realized that she was gone.
Hugh looked up from his cleaning when I re-entered the inn, my head slumped low, looking defeated and alone. “You okay kid?” he asked.
“Fine,” I lied. “Couldn’t catch up to her.”
“She’s a young girl with a hot-head. Just give her some space, she’ll come back eventually.”
I nodded, but his words were empty. Cleaning, serving, washing, I did it all, my body moving robotically, anything to keep myself busy while I waited. Soon the afternoon turned to evening, and then the evening turned to late night.
Even after the last patron of the night had stumbled out of the bar, I kept on washing dishes. Once the bar was spotless, I went back and started cleaning the steins for a second time, trying to purge the streaks that are only visible when you hold the glasses up to the light. After a while, I felt Hugh’s hand on my shoulder. “Get some rest, Jill. I’m sure she’ll be back by the morning.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, my voice monotone and devoid of emotion. “I’m going to stay up a bit longer. Get a head start on tomorrow’s cleaning.”
“Okay,” he said, his voice soft. “She didn’t mean it, you know. Tensions are just high these days. Even me and Nora argue way more-”
“Thanks Hugh,” I said firmly. “Goodnight.”
Taking the hint, he shrugged and headed for the stairs, blowing out the wall lamps as he went. I sat there in the darkness, my mind racing.
She’s probably already halfway back to her sea village by now, I thought. She’s not coming back.
I stood up, and looked towards the exit. There’s only one person that can help me now.
The front door of the inn creaked open, and I slipped out into the night. It was late, and the claustrophobic street from earlier today was now deserted. A steady gust of wind rocked the sign for the Yellow Woods on its hinges, its creak the only noise to break the silence. I could hear the beat of my heart as I looked up towards my destination. I was not good with directions, but the tower was a bit hard to miss.
My leather sandals clapped against the uneven stones of the street as I made my way back towards the palace. Every now and then I passed a city patrolman, met with a grunt or a mildly-concerned look. City security looked to have doubled since the attack at the funeral.
It was an odd feeling to see the lawn in front of the Royal Palace so empty in the dead of night, after seeing it so packed full of people just a few days prior. Already the grass was being torn out and replanted from the damage of hosting the event, and there was a group of guards standing near the spot where the coffin had exploded. Looking towards the palace steps, I realized there had been several new erections since my last visit, tall thin posts jutting up in front of the gates. With a chill down my spine, I realized that each post had a noose hanging from the top, and that they were intended for public hangings.
The Palace was a dark pillar in the night, but only the first few floors were bright with candle-light, the rest of the tower was as dark and empty as the backdrop of sky behind it. I remembered Ko’sa’s words when I had first looked at the palace.
Most of that tower is just for show- the servants tell me they don’t even bother with the interiors past the first few levels.
That had only been a few days ago, but now, it felt like a lifetime of a difference.
I kept walking past the palace, and towards the red sandstone pyramid on the left. Sitting next to the mighty palace, the cathedral was dwarfed in size, but as I neared the steps, I noticed that it was a massive structure in of itself. It would have been large and impressive enough to be considered its own landmark, had it stood alone, uncontested. I paused at the bottom of the steps and looked up towards the golden steeple at the top- it must have been almost four hundred feet high.
I could see soft lights glowing from inside the windows dotting the red sandstone. At the top of the steps, two men in red robes were posted near the entrance. I walked towards the front doors, but one stepped in front of me to block my path.
“You are an Outsider, yes? This is a holy sanctuary welcome only to those who practice the faith. What business do you have here?” Each man had a shaved head and smooth, tanned skin, a look that the majority of priests seemed to conform to. Both looked young, no older than twenty years of age each.
“I’m here to make a confession.”
“You are devout to our church?” one asked, unconvinced.
“Of course,” I replied, then added as an afterthought, “converted once the King took the throne, felt it was a sign from the gods.”
They exchanged puzzled glances. One shrugged, then they both stepped aside. “You may have to wait a while,” the second guard said. “Only one priest is on call for confessions at this late hour. ”
“That’s fine, I’ll use the extra time to reflect on my sins,” I said, then under my breath, “as a matter of fact, I’m counting on it.”
They nodded in unison and signaled for me to proceed. One of the heavy oak doors leading to the temple was already slightly ajar, and I slid past the threshold.
The interior of the cathedral was cavernous, and almost totally empty. The floor was marble, and my footfalls echoed across the quiet with reverberating clacks. Warped wooden pews stretched off into the distance before me, ending at a grand altar so far away that the priests standing on it looked as small as insects. Massive multi-colored paned glass windows lined the sloped red walls of the cathedrals, decorated with scenes and figures.
Unsurprisingly, the largest paned glass window directly behind the altar was a stylized portrait of my husband, smiling back at me. Although it lacked the photo-realism of the giant banners plastered around the city, I felt that this artist had done a much better job of capturing Malcolm’s demeanor. The posters with him posing with the queen outside looked forced and awkward, like those old sepia photos of homesteaders from the 1800’s where the subjects would have to remain standing stiff and unsmiling for hours. The pained glass portrait had managed to capture Malcolm’s dazzling white smile, the twinkle in his eyes; I almost liked it.
It held my attention for only a minute, as my eyes wandered directly above me to the much more impressive painting stretching across the sloped ceiling of the cathedral. A massive green plain spanned the ceiling, underneath a dark purple sky dotted with starry white specks. There were mountains on either side of the lush landscape, covered in forests of evergreens.
A giant battle was raging in the center of the plain, although there only looked to be one army. Endless lines of armored men on horseback were charging across from the left of the painting. One knight led the charge, several paces ahead of the others, his tiny silver sword held high against the purple sky.
What they appeared to be charging at was…well I was at a loss for what exactly it was, but one thing was for sure: it was some type of giant humanoid, so big it took up half the ceiling, painted the color of mud. To the giant monster, the knights were the size of toy figurines. I studied it closer; it looked like a massive deformed gingerbread man, with holes for eyes that sunk back into it’s head, no mouth, and thick arms without hands, one much longer than the other and shaped like a baseball bat. It had its longer arm raised up above its head, ready to send the deadly blunt appendage crashing down when the army entered its range.
“This must be your first time in the Cathedral,” a voice behind me said. I turned around to find another priest in red robes smiling at me. “Don’t worry, your reaction is quite normal. I remember sitting here for hours, gaping at the painting myself, when I was first assigned here. It is the work of the great Tytos Arrelius, famously commissioned during a time of renewed interest in art depicting the faith.”
“It’s incredible,” I said, pointing at the giant monster. “So…what is it?”
“It’s quite a famous scene from the Age of the False Pontiffs. It depicts the slaying of Bickle.”
“Bickle? So that thing is a Bickle?”
The priest laughed. “Well technically it’s a golem, or a man of the earth. Raising golems from the ground was the specialty of the False Pontiff Klay. The one in the painting, Bickle, was said to be the largest, most fearsome golem that he had ever created. The Tale of the False Pontiffs claim it took an entire army of armored knights to slay it.”
“And he chose to name that thing…Bickle?”
“No, Pontiff Klay never named his golems. The name given to this one was selected by none other than the First Priest.”
I turned to face the priest. “Why did he do that?”
“He thought it was a funny name and found it amusing. The idea was that by naming a deadly monster something silly, you diminished its power to instill fear in people. Once people began to mock the golems, they were emboldened. Later, it would inspire them to take up arms and rebel against the monsters of their oppression.”
The priest walked over to the nearest pew and picked up an old tome lying under the bench. He dusted it off and handed it to me. “Here, this will do a better job of explaining the scene than I ever could.” He glanced towards the far corner of the church. “You are here for a confession, yes?”
“Please, take a seat anywhere. I will summon you when the priest on call is ready for your confession.”
“Thanks,” I said, and made my way towards the pews and plopped down. I looked down at the heavy book sitting on my lap with measured skepticism.
Oh, what the hell, I thought. What else have I got to do to pass the time?
I opened the book to its first chapter, feeling the groan of the tired seams against the ancient binding. I skimmed through the table of contents until I found the chapter that I was looking for, titled, Tale of The False Pontiffs – P. 234
I flipped through the brittle pages with my thumb until I found page 234, and then began to read.