The Tale of the False Pontiffs
Page 258, Passage 24
This is the story of how the False Pontiff Bahn’ya came to wear his twisted black war-mask, as told by the high scribe of the New Church.
For many years the High Pontiff Bahn’ya was renowned across the lands for his strength and power, but as a ruler, he was never loved. He would strike down his enemies with such ferocity that many came to fear him, but once the wild flames of battle tempered down into embers, none desired his personal company. And while his brother Klay had his share of enemies, he also enjoyed close friendships and took many lovers. Bahn’ya saw the way his older brother was admired, and this made him jealous.
Klay was a clever man, and could see that his brother was troubled. One day he came to visit Bahn’ya and asked him, “What ails you, brother? Why do you mope about with such melancholy when our enemies rise up to steal our High Crowns? We need you to vanquish these men, yet here you sit, wallowing in self pity.”
Bahn’ya was a proud man, already plotting against his brother, but was also touched by his concern. In his state of vulnerability, he confided in his twin. After he had finished, Klay went over and reached down into the soil. In his hand he scooped out a mound of the earth, and with his fingers he shaped a fine mask which resembled a beautiful hero of olde.
He gave the mask to his brother and said, “Wear this mask, and women will desire you. But you must wear it at all times, and tend to it like your own face, else the flesh will blacken and rot.”
The younger brother Bahn’ya placed the mask over his face. Then Klay rose three Golems from the ground and set them loose on the country side. Both brothers watched as they pillaged small villages and killed the common folk, and the people of Lentempia cried out in terror. Klay turned to his brother, gave him a special jeweled sword and said, “Go and slay these Golems, only this sword will kill them. Do this whilst wearing the mask of the hero, and your people will love you.”
So Bahn’ya took up the jeweled sword and hunted down each Golem, and after they had been slain, the people were overjoyed. They saw the face of a hero, and for a time they praised him.
Now one day Bahn’ya visited a small farm town on the outskirts of the Kingdom, the same hometown of the First Priest, wearing his special mask. A great crowd gathered in the center square of the town to receive Bahn’ya, and they gave him a hero’s welcome.
But the First Priest observed this man from the crowd and was troubled. “That is not a real face!” he proclaimed, while he drank with his friends at the tavern later that night. “I can see that this face is made of clay.” The others called him a mad fool, and told him to hush, but the First Priest had much to drink, so he did not stop.
“I will prove that this man is no hero,” he swore. “For he is short in stature and smells of the Golems he claims to have slain. His face shifts before my gaze and drips like mud. And also he is cruel, for he did not tip our good bartender Jethro after being served meal and mead.”
The bickering lasted well into the night, the First Priest arguing with the rest of the town, and only the good bartender Jethro had his back. Finally, a bet was made. If the First Priest could prove the hero wore a mask, then they would all throw rocks at the man until he left town. So the next morning the First Priest disguised himself as an old lady and approached the hero.
Bahn’ya was surrounded by young maidens pining for his hand in marriage. When Bahn’ya saw the First Priest draw near he said, “Go away old lady, I am a great hero and I am busy. Do not bother me or I will kick out your cane and make you fall.” But the First Priest did not yield, so Bahn’ya kicked out his cane. The fake old lady lost her balance, and grabbed at Bahn’ya’s face as she fell. The clay mask came off in her hand and all the young maidens gasped.
“Behold!” cackled the First Priest, emerging from his disguise. “Your gallant hero wears the face of a Golem. Even the Great Abomination Bickle would have better luck courting women than this ugly little man.”
Then Bahn’ya drew his sword and chased after the First Priest and tried to kill him, but the townsfolk all began to throw rocks at the High Pontiff until he stopped his chasing and fled the town in shame. He dropped his jeweled sword in his haste, so the First Priest picked it up. And from that day on, the First Priest had a holy weapon that could kill a Golem.
Afterward, Bahn’ya retired back to the Nameless City, and there he sat in solitude and cried.
He stopped tending to his mask, until the flesh grew hard and black. “The people will never love me like my brother,” he said, staring down into the dead face. “So be it. I will embrace my image as the monster they make me to be. For this is what they deserve.”
From that day forth, Bahn’ya wore his twisted black mask into battle, and many men met their end staring into that rotted face. And he was hence known as the Pontiff in the Black Mask.
All this time, Klay watched his brother from the shadows. And he smiled.
I closed the dog-eared book and placed it down on the table, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes with a yawn.
In the early hours of the morning, the dining hall was still subdued and quiet. My breakfast sat untouched on the table, a heap of eggs, toast and a few slabs of bacon. The yolk was thick yellow and congealed, the bread soggy and cold, and the bacon – the only thing I had bothered to nibble on- glazed with grease and harder than rubber. In the past few weeks, I had hardly been able to keep anything down with out throwing it back up later. The food here all had a biting after-taste that reminded me vaguely of sulfur, something my stomach had never agreed with since arriving in the palace.
Things had been lonely since Malcolm had left on official church business a few days ago. He had been summoned by the main sect to answer for Caollin’s dismissal, which had sent ripples through the religious community. Since then, I had occupied myself with reading whatever books I could find in the library, more as a distraction than anything else. When he left, we hadn’t exactly been on good terms.
For days after Caollin’s dismissal, Malcolm and I sat together and talked whenever time permitted. Hours upon hours of rehashing our life verbatim, trying to do anything to trigger his old memories. Our sessions were never successful, and he began to get agitated and touchy, sometimes lashing out at me. Any attempt on my part to make up, or try to engage in intimacy was met with a cold rejection, followed by a blunt question about whether I had reconsidered submitting to the molding treatment.
I told myself that he was sick, and needed my patience more than anything else, but I finally met my limit a few days ago, during a private dinner with him. My servant Mia bent over to pour Malcolm another glass of wine, and spilled some on his sleeve.
“Stupid girl!” he had yelled at her. “You’ll be spending the night in the dungeon for that mishap.”
“Mal!” I said, shocked. “Don’t talk to her like that. It was a mistake, for god’s sake.”
He put down his fork and looked at me blankly. “And?”
I wanted to throw something at him. “Come on Mia,” I said, pushing away my plate and throwing down my napkin in disgust. “Please escort me to my room. Nobody will be spending any time in the dungeons. You can sleep in my room tonight, if you wish.”
Later on, he had come and tried to apologize, but the developing rift between us was undeniable. Days passed, and I became more and more fed up with my husband’s behavior, eventually withdrawing away from him as much as possible. On the day he was summoned to the church, he had left without even saying goodbye.
On top of the stress over my husband, my legs were still yet to heal from the Trial of the Body, almost a month later. The palace doctor said he had never seen the paralysis last this long, although it could resolve itself eventually. There was a growing dread in my stomach, a fear that I would be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of my life.
And then there was the homesickness. It never went away. I missed my parents, my best friend Em, even our tiny little apartment. And Malcolm remembered nothing about how to get us home, or where to even start. As a sense of hopelessness in me grew, the escape of reading became the only comfort I had left.
I was brought back to the present as Hendrik waltzed into the dining hall, his tunic so bright that it could trigger a hangover, a woman wrapped around each of his arms. The trio spotted me at the far table and began to make their way towards me.
“What a devoted little follower of the church you have become,” he said, nodding at my book. “Brushing up on her ancient texts in the early hours of dawn.” He reached the table and sat down with the two women across from me. “Who would have thought that such a pious, innocent angel would be the one to disgrace dear old Father Caollin?”
“Yeah, everyone here was so devastated when he left.” I tapped the cover of the book so that plumes of dust puffed up. “Anyway Hen, I don’t get it. The First Priest. Why does everyone in here see him as this holy savior of humanity? In every story I’ve read so far in the Holy Texts, he comes across as a nothing more than a giant clown that falls into success at every turn.”
“He happens to be the most famous giant clown in the world,” Hendrik said, brushing off his lemon tunic, “and fame is something that we can all worship.” He looked at the girl under his left arm. “Isn’t that right love?”
The girl on his left smiled shyly, instead turning to face me and bowing her head. “I don’t know…but it is an honor to meet you, your highness. We had no idea Hendrik was a personal acquaintance with the Queen-to-be.”
I shook both of their hands. “Yes, it is a very great honor for him.”
“Oh, where are my manners?” Hendrik said. “These are the Kaballa sisters. Their father is a wealthy merchant from the Southlands, visiting the capital for tomorrow’s banquet celebrating the King’s return. They have agreed to accompany me as my date, in exchange for a ballad of their choosing. This here on my left is Fay, and on the right we have Madison.”
“No, I’m Fay,” said the girl on the right.
“And I’m Jane,” said the girl on the left.
“My sincerest apologies,” Hendrik said with a wink, “but quite an easy mistake to make. Jane and Madison, rather similar names phonetically, yes?”
“So you are taking two dates to the banquet now?” I asked. “I don’t remember giving you a plus-two.”
“No, one of them is for Victor. Poor sod is too shy to find his own date so I have to do all the heavy lifting.” He looked at Jane. “Not that you are heavy, love. Just a turn of phrase.”
Both of the girls perked up. “Victor?” Fay said, who was a freckled red-head with rosy cheeks. “You speak of Quickhand, the legendary guitar player? The same man who can play over fifty different instruments with only his right hand?”
“Our father is quite a big fan of him, yes,” said Jane, a fair haired girl thin enough to blow over with a light breeze. “May I be his date?”
Hendrik looked confused. “Wait…you’re volunteering? You do know that I am the lead singer of the most renowned band in the Kingdom, right? He’s just the back-up guitar player.”
“You cannot be Quickhand’s date, Jane,” Fay said, “because he is to be my date. Sir Hendrik, is he here now?”
Jane stood up and crossed her arms with combative defiance. “No way. I asked first, you can go with this one.”
“I’m the eldest. Do as I say or I will have father find you a date with a stable boy.”
The girls might have exchanged blows had Hendrik decided not to intervene. “I’ll tell you girls what,” he said. “Victor’s probably moping around somewhere drab like the library. Why don’t the two of you go see who can find him first. Whoever has the misfortune of losing the race is stuck with the most famous vocalist in the world as their date.”
Both girls sprang up from their chairs and bolted out of the hall. Hendrik noticed me cover a giggle with my hand and rolled his eyes.
“I don’t get it. To pass up the opportunity to date the most debonair and gregarious gentleman on the entire Royal Council in favor of a night drinking in reflective silence with that oaf…it makes no sense to me.”
“To be fair,” I said, “Victor is taller than you. And his success in music relies on genuine talent rather than cheap magic tricks. Plus he’s funnier, smarter, stronger, more proficient with a weapon, has a better smile, is rumored to be more skilled in bed-”
“That’s outrageous,” Hendrik cut me off. “He doesn’t have a better smile than me.”
He’s right, I thought, as he beamed back at me to prove his point. I know his type of smile. It’s one filled with playful mischief, like Malcolm used to have, back before all this…
I realized I was starting to stare at him. My cheeks blushed and my eyes fell down to the surface of the table.
Hendrik took a sip of whatever he was drinking. “Well, all in good fun. The Gods know the big guy could use some company other than myself.”
The glass fell back down, sloshing its contents over the side, the sweet scent of berry-wine filling my nostrils. “Hendrik… it’s the early morning. Are you drinking already?”
He took another swig and swished the crimson liquid around in the goblet. “Just a little something to calm my nerves, before our council meeting today. They’ve been much more stressful since you got involved and gave me actual responsibilities. Besides, free country.”
My arm reached over to snatch the glass from him. “It’s not a free country- you are sitting across the table from a monarch- and nobody in this castle has calmer nerves than you. I need your mind as sharp as your tongue while the King is away. No more wine. ”
There’s only one man in this palace that I trust right now, I thought, and as fortune would have it, he drinks more than the rest of the Royal Council combined.
“No more wine,” he lamented, “sadder words have never been spoken.”
“You’ll get over it.” My eyes followed a line of priests filing out of the dining hall. “We should head over to the council chamber.” I patted the arm of my wheelchair. “Care to escort me?”
“With pleasure.” He stood up and began to wheel me out of the dining hall, through the long torch-lit passages of the first floor.
“Oh,” he said, “I just remembered…I have news to report. About that mission you assigned to the city guard Dalton. Says they should arrive in a few days. Won’t make it back in time for the banquet unfortunately. Had to take some detours, thanks to the Broken Prince and his blockades.”
“Thanks for the update, but Dalton is the captain of the Royal Guard,” I corrected him, “so you should start referring to him as such.”
“Well see, that’s the news. Once he has filled your request to bring the girl to the palace, he has asked to resign from his promotion and return to his post as a city guard.”
“What? Why?” I had stuck my neck out and made a special request to get Dalton the job. “Tell him I don’t accept his resignation. He’s not allowed to quit.”
“Jillian…” Hendrik said slowly, “my advice would be for you to accept his wishes, and let this go.”
“You asked me for honesty, so I am offering it now. You are aware that Dalton has a bit of history here at the palace, correct?”
“I only know that the church relieved him of his duties once they took power.” I hesitated. “Why, is that wrong?”
“Couldn’t be any further from the truth. Dalton…he used to be one of the most trusted guards of the Broken Prince, and a fierce one at that. Sure, he’s put on some weight in recent times, but at his peak, the man was a beast. One of the only people in the entire Kingdom that could intimidate the King, and the Prince knew that. Janis used to taunt the Malstrom, told him that the second war broke out between them, he was going to have Dalton crush his skull between his thumb and his forefinger. So after the truce between the Radicals and the Royal Family, he was assigned as a personal bodyguard to the Queen herself. The Royals had a lot more pull back then, so threatening the King was more commonplace.”
“Well, one day, about seven years ago, right before the Broken Prince lost his shit and went crazy, Dalton was fired without explanation. They say he was let go by the Queen personally, the whole thing was said to be extremely humiliating for him. Banished to a lowly city guard post on a moment’s notice, never saying why.”
“Okay,” I said, “so he messed up. Probably got caught gambling on the job or accepting bribes. But he’s also my friend and I trust him. It can’t be that hard to swallow his pride and give it another go, right?”
“Put yourself in his position. Somehow he managed to land on the Royal Families’ shit list, and wants nothing to do with them anymore. On the other side, the King probably feels insecure around him and won’t forgive the guy easily for all those years of serving as a thug to his mortal enemy. If Malstrom comes home and sees Dalton hanging around you, he could freak out…even think Alynsa is messing with him, and try to retaliate.” He paused. “Or worse…he might think you are trying to mess with him. I did hear about the shouting match you had with the King by the way, right before he left for the Nameless City. The timing is not great.”
“Not a chance. Mal knows I love him. We’re just working through some issues right now.”
“Sure, whatever. As far as Dalton goes, he’s probably fulfilling your initial request out of some weird sense of personal obligation, but at the heart of it, he just wants to get it over with, keep his head down, and move on with his life in the relative peace of a dead-end job.”
I bit my lip. “I guess that makes sense. Surprising though, that’s not the story he told me about how he left the royal guard.”
Hendrik snorted. “Could it be that maybe Dalton is embarrassed about his dismissal? That maybe it’s not a story he tells to strangers he meets on the street?”
A rabble of raised voices drifted out from the council chamber as Hendrik and I neared it. The size of the council had doubled since Caollin’s dismissal; the main sect of the church had packed in as many high ranking priests as the room could fit to fill the void of power. They lined the walls of the room, standing shoulder to shoulder in dark maroon robes, hovering over those fortunate enough to find a seat.
Alynsa had also begun to attend the meetings, although she contributed little other than a dark glower and the occasional snark. Today, she sat in the far corner, legs crossed, twisting her dark blonde hair around in her fingers.
As we entered the room, the din of shouting resolved into two distinct voices locked in a heated argument, both coming from church officials.
“What the Broken Prince has done is heinous! We need to retaliate swiftly before he brings his thugs any closer to the capital.”
“Have you forgotten we have little troops to spare right now? Half the Royal Guard fled with Caollin. Our military is in shambles for the foreseeable future, until we can organize a recruiting initiative.”
“Mercenaries then. This needs to be stopped now, before people start to see this threat as legitimate.”
“What would the people say, knowing their own church hired heartless merc-”
The arguers stopped, noticing I had entered the room. They both bowed in unison. “Greetings my Queen,” said the first, who had a long blonde walrus mustache that extended all the way to his sideburns. “How fairs your condition?”
“Still vomiting my guts out every few hours,” I said, feeling my stomach gurgle as if to confirm. “But please don’t stop on account of my illness. What’s being discussed here?”
“It’s the Broken Prince. He attacked one of the church’s outposts several days ago.” The official stroked his mustache. “They struck in the dead of night, like cowards. The outpost was undermanned and most of the guards surrendered within the hour. And still they…” he trailed off and looked down at the floor.
“Still they what?”
The mustached official stepped to his side and nudged a young man forward to stand before me. He was thin with gaunt cheeks and a shaved head, and could not have been any older than 17 or 18. His eyes never left a spot near his feet, his bow to me stiff and mechanical.
“It’s okay boy,” the high official said softly. “Tell your Queen what happened.”
“Your highness,” the boy said, “it was her. The giantess in black. She charged into the castle like a demon from hell, swinging around her giant claymore like it weighed as much as a tree branch. We never stood a chance.” He shuddered. “She was smiling, ma’am. Like she enjoyed the killing. Those of us with any sense threw down our weapons and prayed for mercy.”
“She lined us all up and asked us to pick our favorite god and pray to them for saving. Once we had finished, she told us that we had picked the wrong god. That the only one that mattered was the god of cold steel in her hand. And then one by one, she brought her great sword down and beheaded us. My friends, my brothers of the faith and sword. They begged for mercy, and she slaughtered them like cattle.”
He started to shake and sneeze, like he had caught a cold. “The giantess, she let me live on one condition: that I deliver a message to our Queen-to-be.”
I felt my blood run cold.
The high official said, “You must mean from the Broken Prince, yes?”
“No,” the boy shook his head, “from her, personally. She said that the True Prince wished to convey that he has nothing to say to a False King and his…his…”
“Spit it out boy!”
“His crippled commoner wench.” He glanced over at me nervously, as if to fear retribution. One of his frail white hands slipped into his pocket and he produced a worn scroll of parchment closed with a wax seal. Carefully, I opened the letter, to reveal a page of large blocky handwriting, sloppy and misaligned like a child had written it.
Feeling the eyes of everyone in the room on me, I read the message aloud.
To the Queen Who Rolls,
My prince is coming to kill your False King. His death will be as slow and painful as the pathetic Ageless life he has lived.
Your pretty head has been promised to me. When I am done with you, you will forsake all you have learned in your church and worship a new god: He of Cold Steel. Your shrill prayers for his mercy will echo through the halls of the palace that your False King usurped.
Or maybe I will just choke the life out of you, Outsider.
Cecilia the Disowned
I set the note back down on the table with shaking hands, watching as it rolled back in on itself. Alynsa broke the silence first. “The Queen Who Rolls,” she said, looking at my wheelchair and sounding amused. “Has a nice ring to it. I wonder, is that how you will be remembered in the pages of history?”
My eyes wandered up to find Hendrik, staring back down at me. He had placed a hand on my shoulder. “Hendrik, get me parchment and a quill.” I rubbed my throat reflexively, as if I could still feel the fingers of the giantess when she had crushed my larynx a month earlier. “I’d like to respond to my pen-pal.”