The soft sound of Jaehyun’s steps across cold stone floors drifted gently through the halls of the cathedral, disturbing the silence of the morning despite the gentleness with which he stepped. He’d slept in again. For someone with little to do but wander the twisting walls and pathways of the holy building he always seemed to be running behind, as if he ever had anywhere else to be.
Somewhere in the distance people were singing, their voices hazy and soft but the melody familiar. He could tell by the tune of the hymnal that he was later than he thought. He couldn’t be late again, it would be the third time this week. Father Pious would forgive him, just as he always did, but Father Humble had a cruel eye and a keen love of punishment. He would not be so benevolent.
With a small huff of breath Jaehyun sped up, breaking into a run as he followed the twisting pathways, speeding down the dimly lit corridors until he broke through the darkness and entered the vestibule just outside of the sanctuary. Great stained glass windows lit the room in patterns of swirling colour, dancing across the floors and glimmering in the morning sun.
The song was nearly finished. He was just in time.
“I thought I was going to have to put on your veil and hunch down a bit to convince them I was you again,” a voice said to his left. Jaehyun turned to see the Cavalier standing with his palms resting on the hilt of his sword, an amused glint in his eye.
Jaehyun offered a crooked smile, chest heaving a bit as he tried to catch his breath. “I still can’t believe that worked,” he responded. “Part of me suspects Father Humble knew, but with no proof he couldn’t punish us for it.” He plucked his veil from where he’d tucked it into his belt, smoothing the gauzy fabric against his thigh before laying it over his head.
The fabric was simple. It was nothing more than a draping of cream coloured voile that hid his features from view, hanging down to his chest so that if anyone were to grasp at it he would have time to react and cover himself with his hands. Over it, around his head, he slid a circlet of thin gold to hold it in place.
Father Diligence reminded him often that the people were not to see his face, were never to look upon the Holy Visage of the Living God. It might drive them mad, he said passionately, clapping his wrinkled old hands before him in an attempt to keep them from shaking. And so Jaehyun dutifully covered himself any time he was to be seen in public, lest he harm anyone with his celestial countenance.
Through his now clouded vision Jaehyun looked to the Cavalier, whose eyes scanned the silent room as if someone might jump out at any moment. That was his usual state of being, always on his guard, always at the ready. His eyes, dark and serious, never seemed to stop moving. His lips were always pushed into a thoughtful pout.
“You weren’t at breakfast,” Jaehyun pointed out, hoping he didn’t sound petulant. “Have you not eaten?”
The Cavalier smiled, shrugging one shoulder. “I was paying my weekly penance,” he said, eyes never turning in Jaehyun’s direction. They rarely did. He was always too busy looking for danger, looking for anything that might compromise Jaehyun’s safety.
“So you haven’t eaten?”
“I’ll eat at supper,” the Cavalier said as if he weren’t bothered. Looking closer Jaehyun could see that his movements were stiff, his stance rigid. His penance must have been great that morning. “Don’t look at me like that,” he added, lips twisting into a smirk. “I am honoured to prove my devotion to The Divine, and I’ll be able to eat in a few hours. Stop sulking.”
“What if The Divine wished your devotion to be a proper meal?” Jaehyun muttered, eyebrows knit. He knew it was almost time. They would call for him soon. He moved to stand in front of the great wooden doors that led into the sanctuary, painted a deep red and finished with polished golden handles, so heavy that it took two men to move each door.
“Then The Divine can bring me some porridge from the kitchens next time,” the Cavalier murmured from close behind.
Jaehyun took a deep breath, heart fluttering in his chest. He could never quite say why, but every time he stepped into mass it felt like the first time. He never got used to the eyes following his every move. “Stay near?”
The Cavalier stepped closer, ever a comforting presence just over Jaehyun’s shoulder. “Always.”
It was said that two great things happened on the day of Jaehyun’s birth.
The first was that a chasm opened up in the ground, a vast, gaping pit just south of the Holy City of Ardent that rent the land in two. Out of the pit came a host of terrible creatures, hideous monsters with large, grotesque bodies and great horrible mouths filled with gnashing teeth, sometimes with wings, sometimes with wicked claws that twisted from bony hands. They were bastardizations of the Holy Word, their sharp teeth and hissing tongues speaking of darkness and malice and anger, reminding the people of their sin, how far they had strayed from sanctity.
The church moved quickly to assure the people of their blame. “They were sent as a test!” the old men wailed, hands clenched together in supplication to a god long since dead. The cardinals and bishops swore they were manifestations of the guilt of the people, sent to warn man of his own misdeeds. To turn him back to the church, to remind him that even with no god sitting on the Rosewood Throne they must still keep Heaven in their hearts.
The second occurrence happened in a small nunnery tucked in a dark corner of Ardent.
The Holy Sisters of the Miraculous Vision hovered around a young woman as she gave birth, her cries echoing around the small room they’d prepared for her. She was young. Far too young to be with child, but the world was not a perfect one and the sisters knew that well. They did their best to comfort the girl through a complicated birth, dabbing her forehead with a cool cloth, rubbing liniments on her hands and feet and whispering words of encouragement as she pushed.
Despite their best efforts, the girl did not survive childbirth. What did survive, though, was the Living God.
He came into the world without a cry. From the moment of his birth he examined everything with curious eyes, far too wise for one so new, calm and contemplative and full of forgiveness. When they put the wrapped child in the arms of the old, blind Mother Superior so tender was his blessing, so rich his mercy, that her sight was immediately restored.
And thus was the first miracle of Jaehyun of the Benevolent Sight, fifth of the Living Gods.
The church rejoiced at the birth of a new god. It had been so long since Heaven had deemed them worthy of a messiah, nearly a hundred years since divine feet walked the earth. They immediately brought the child to the cathedral to be raised in safety, bestowing on him the gift of education, raising him to be a comfort to the masses. And in the twenty-two years since the people daily rejoiced in the opportunity to stand in his silent presence, listening intently as the cardinals spoke of his miraculous love. No one outside of a chosen few had ever seen his face, or heard his voice for themselves. It was forbidden, lest his perfect beauty and grace drive them mad.
In the twenty-two years since, Jaehyun hadn’t gone insane from his life of silence and solitude. That, he thought, must be his second miracle.
The Rosewood Throne was not particularly comfortable. The wood was cold and rigid underneath him, the arms carefully carved to represent twisted vines covered in thorns. It was just slightly higher than it ought to be for him to sit comfortably; the gods that came before him must have been taller, for his feet just barely touched the ground. Jaehyun supposed it was an act of gratitude to his people that he must sit on it three times a week for hours at a time, gaze held forward and back straight as Father Temperance preached the homily of the day.
On that particular day, as all others, he spoke of sin.
“And on that morning so long ago the ground opened up before us, belching great clouds of black smoke and spewing forth our guilt made flesh to walk among us with the bodies of beasts,” he wheezed, voice thin and reedy. If not for the cavernous ceilings of the sanctuary providing an echo Jaehyun doubted anyone would be able to hear him, so weak had his voice become over the years.
Temperance preached on. “Beasts that wore the faces of men, that spoke with men’s voices but walked on an animal’s legs. Beasts with great leathery wings and wicked claws. Beasts that preached malevolence, that would punish us for our sins rather than let us atone for them.”
Jaehyun had never seen the monsters that walked the land beyond the city. The walls surrounding Ardent were too high and the guard too skilled, no creatures had ever made it past their defences. He wondered what life must be like for those outside of Ardent, the ones who did not have the same protections to rely on. The Cavalier had seen them. He spoke very little of the creatures he’d fought during his years of training, tight lipped despite how Jaehyun had pleaded, saying only that they were the true manifestation of evil and that The Divine would do well to turn his mind from such thoughts.
He could be so boring sometimes.
As the cardinal droned on Jaehyun let his eyes wander, though he was careful to keep his body stiff and straight and his face directed forward at all times. If he strained his eyes to the left he could just make out the pulpit at which the cardinal of the day spoke, raised a few feet off the ground to make it easier for the entire congregation to see. It made sense; many of the priests were getting on in years and did not command the same attention they once did, they often needed help to address the masses.
Jaehyun looked forward, into the swarms of people filling the nave of the church. Pews stretched out before him, four columns separated by aisles laid with lush red carpets. The middle aisle was the one he himself walked when he came in during mass every morning, every head in the room whipping around to watch his silent pilgrimage from the main doors leading from the vestibule to the Rosewood Throne. On either side of the seating area there were great stone walls decorated with beautiful windows that matched the ones in the foyer, depicting lush images of the living gods at various stages of their lives.
There wasn’t one for Jaehyun yet. Tradition dictated that it would go up after his death. He often wondered what story it might tell.
“But on that same day Heaven bestowed upon us a gift. For in a humble convent a baby was born, and that baby was The Living God.”
Temperance made a grand gesture with his hand, motioning to Jaehyun’s shrouded figure sitting still and silent before them. A few faces followed the motion, but most had no need. They had already spent the length of the service staring, eyes wide and mouths agape in wonder as they puzzled over who Jaehyun might be under the veil, what their benevolent god might truly look like. That sat in awed silence, enthralled by him, enraptured. Sometimes they would weep, hands reaching out as if he might reach back and grasp them, grant his blessing. He didn’t. He wasn’t allowed to touch anyone. No one was allowed to touch him.
Sometimes their rapture was overwhelming. Occasionally they rushed forward, try to approach him, only to be turned away. The lucky ones met the firm hand of the Cavalier, who tried to be gentle as he turned them back to the pews. The unfortunate ones were dragged off by the Holy Guard. Jaehyun had no idea where those poor penitents were taken. He was afraid to ask.
“A gift from Heaven. A baby with the grace and power to restore the sight of a devoted old woman, bestowing gifts not five minutes after the moment of his birth. And since then his mercy has been far-reaching, his forgiveness unending. The doors of Heaven were shut and barred until he threw them open, arms wide and love merciful.”
Somewhere in the congregation a woman started weeping, her sobs loud and shrill. Sure enough her cries started a chain reaction, the room soon filled with a chorus of wails that echoed around the sanctuary. Jaehyun grit his teeth and tried to ignore the noise.
“Penitents!” Temperance called, lifting his skinny old arms high, fingers spread wide as if he were trying to wrap the entire congregation within his embrace. “The Living God hears your cries, he sees your desire to be made clean! I tell you this, he is the one true path to salvation! Through your weekly penitence and your devotion to the church you sanctify yourselves and are made clean!”
Jaehyun’s eyes flickered over to the Cavalier, standing stock-still at Jaehyun’s right hand. He didn’t return Jaehyun’s gaze - he wouldn’t dare in a room of hundreds, when anyone could have a knife hidden up their sleeve ready to draw blood. Still, Jaehyun wondered what he felt during times such as these, where the noise was almost impossible to bear.
He ought to feel guilty. It was his duty to be grateful. He was getting tired of the headaches, though.
It took some time for the cries and pleas to die down. Temperance’s arms were once more held out, this time slowly lowering his palms as if to physically abate the sound filling the room. Finally it was silent and he continued his sermon.
“You are loved by your benevolent god,” he said, a warm smile on his wrinkled old face. “And some day, you will be forgiven. Remember to read your nightly devotions and to wear your scars of contrition with pride, and your sins will be cast away. Now.” He clapped his hands together, bowing slightly. “Leave your gifts of atonement at the feet of His Grace and go about your daily toils. Bodies that are wearied by hard work do not have the stamina to sin.”
There was a crick starting to form somewhere in Jaehyun’s neck. He longed to stretch out, to move his muscles to try and work it loose, but he knew the punishment for such childish fidgeting. He took a deep breath and tried to focus on other things. The book he’d begun reading the night before. What they might be having for supper later. How he might badger the Cavalier into telling him more about the cities outside of Ardent.
As his mind wandered the congregation began to line up before him, a long path of men and women that stretched from a few feet in front of him all the way to the back of the nave, wrapping to the left and around the pews. One by one the supplicants stepped forward, laying their weekly offerings at his feet.
Often their gifts were food, whatever they could spare without their family going hungry for it. Occasionally artisans would leave tokens made by their own hands; small carvings, ornate pieces of jewelry. The lucky ones, the ones who lived comfortably in stone houses at the centre of the city, left gold coins that sparkled in the light that streamed in through the windows.
“You’ll be out soon.”
Jaehyun jumped, pulled from his revery. The Cavalier had become quite adept at talking without moving his lips very much at all, projecting in a way that ensured only Jaehyun could hear him. While Jaehyun dare not speak back he was grateful for the entertainment. Something to do with his mind other than awkwardly stare as people placed gifts at his feet.
“I think I’m going to sneak into the kitchen after mass and nick something to tide me over until dinner. I’ll grab you one of those honey biscuits.”
Jaehyun had to press his lips together tightly to keep from laughing. He did dearly love the sweet biscuits the cooks made on occasion, though they seemed to bake them more and more now that they knew Jaehyun so enjoyed them.
This is how they often passed their time. Jaehyun sat, a living statue for people to admire, the Cavalier always his companion, always at his service.
Jaehyun prayed that his guardian might stay forever at his side. He prayed to the gods that came before, to the ones that may come after, that he might never be truly alone.
The end of mass signified the beginning of Jaehyun’s period of silence and study, hours spent in the massive church library reading about the old gods as he reflected on his duty to his people. From there he was allowed into the courtyard for exercise, the Cavalier always at his side, hands resting on his rapier hilt as Jaehyun took turn after turn around the garden. After that they ate supper before going to the small chapel in the south wing for evening prayer, and then on to bed.
Jaehyun followed the Cavalier up through the winding staircases of the old building, the stone steps chilly under his bare feet. Even with the veil obscuring his face Jaehyun walked confidently, so well versed was he in the path that led to his bedroom that he didn’t need sight to find his way. He spent most of his free time there. When there were no benevolences to perform and no blessings to bestow he kept to his only private place, either alone or in comfortable silence with his constant guardian, the only spot in the Cathedral where the cardinals did not insert themselves.
He knew he shouldn’t think such things about the men of service. They were devoted to him. They had given up their secular lives to serve their god and his people, overseeing the safety of the city, tending to their souls.
But they could be right bastards sometimes.
As soon as they crossed the threshold to his bedroom Jaehyun shut the door, carefully sliding the lock into place. With practiced movements he used the candle in his hand to light more around the room, casting everything in a soft golden glow.
“Alright,” he said, ripping the veil from his face as he turned to face the Cavalier. “Let me see it.”
His guardian had the audacity to look confused. “See what?” He unlaced the leather bracers wrapped around his forearms, setting them carefully away. He never wore much protection, relying more on strength and skill to protect himself from blows. Just the bracers, a leather chest piece and the rapier at his side. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Jaehyun said with a huff of breath. “You’ve been limping about all day. Let me see your back.”
The Cavalier waved his hand dismissively, walking to the window to open the shutters. Jaehyun’s bedroom was high in a tower that overlooked the church gardens, no surrounding buildings making it necessary to the curtains drawn at all times. Jaehyun could properly enjoy the fresh air, and the Cavalier was always eager to let him.
“My penitence was the usual. There’s nothing special to see,” he said, though the careful way he moved about the room belied the truth of his words. “Go to bed. You have blessings tomorrow.”
There were times where Jaehyun wondered what the whole point of being a god among men was when no one listened to a word you said. It happened often. He’d ask a question only to be quieted by the cardinals, make a request only to be reminded that he ought to be spending his time in quiet reflection. It was starting to get old.
He drew up to his full height—paltry, next to the Cavalier—and folded his arms. “If your wounds are that bad then we—I—can’t risk them becoming infected and killing you. As the Divine I order you to let me see.”
The Cavalier turned, a stunned look on his handsome features. It was the first time Jaehyun had ever seen him looked surprised. It made the candlelight sparkle in his eyes, dark and curious, as he stared at Jaehyun in silence.
And then he started laughing.
“You looked like an angry kitten just then, holy word,” he laughed, shaking his head. He was still chuckling as he turned to grab his sleep clothes, tucking them under his arm and heading for the privacy screen in the corner.
Jaehyun tried his hardest not to stamp his foot. “I’m serious. Please? Just let me look, and I promise if it doesn’t look any worse then last week I’ll leave it alone and let you go to sleep.” He fell silent for a moment, looking at the ground as he swallowed around the lump in his throat. “Please? I hate to think of you in pain.”
The Cavalier stopped just before he moved behind the screen, shoulders falling a bit. He sighed, turning around. “Fine. Only so you’ll stop fussing.”
Jaehyun brightened at his acquiescence. “Good. Thank you. Sit on the bed and I’ll just...I’ll just have a look.”
Not that Jaehyun knew what he was looking for. He’d never really seen any wounds other than his own, and his only knowledge of healing came from the books he read in the library when everything else bored him. There had never been any practical application. Especially since he wasn’t allowed to touch anyone.
It was a church decree. Passed down from the mouths of the cardinals, enforced through steel with brutal efficiency any time someone had the audacity to try and touch the Divine. Even as a child it was forbidden. The nuns who raised him wore gloves at all times, as did anyone brought in to tend to wounds or care for his illnesses. The Cavalier always wore his own thin leather gloves, any time he had to touch Jaehyun to intercede between he and the masses it was never skin on skin.
Other than when his mother brought him into the world, Jaehyun had never felt the warm flesh of another person.
He watched as the Cavalier sighed, moving to the bed and sitting on the edge of Jaehyun’s mattress. After a moment’s pause he gripped the bottom of his shirt, pulling it off and casting it to the side.
Jaehyun’s breath caught in his throat. He was no stranger to blood, of course not. He paid his own penances weekly, the lash in Father Humble’s hand meant to remind him of the suffering of his people and open his heart to their prayers. He’d had his share of falls as a child, lived through plenty of split lips and bloody noses when he was still curious and wild, climbing in and out of the church pews when there was no one in the sanctuary to stop him. He’d even seen a man killed once, the unforgiving arrow of a city guardsman piercing his heart as the foolish supplicant rushed for Jaehyun in the middle of the city square.
For some reason none of that startled him like this did. The Cavalier’s back, broad and muscular, was decorated with brutal looking strokes that decorated his tan skin from the tops of his shoulders all the way to his trim waist. Most were an angry red, though some were a vicious looking purple that made Jaehyun’s eyes water. His own penance was never so bad.
“What horrible sins have you committed?” he asked softly, crawling across the bed to kneel behind the Cavalier, so close that Jaehyun could feel the heat from his skin. “What could you have done to deserve this?”
“Nothing more than usual,” came the steady response. The Cavalier spoke calmly, though there was a tension in his shoulders that Jaehyun had never seen. “The problem is that I don’t cry out the way they want. They strike harder and harder, hoping I’ll break.”
Jaehyun’s breath caught in his throat. “And...do you? Do you break?”
The Cavalier looked over his shoulder, something dark and unreadable in his eyes. “Never.”
The response sent a shiver down Jaehyun’s spine, a curious thing that made his mouth go dry. He sat on his knees, posture stiff, palms placed carefully on top of his thighs. His fingers itched to touch. He was curious, dreadfully, dangerously curious at what it might feel like to have someone’s skin against his own. And once the thought lodged itself in his brain he couldn’t shake it loose, no matter how he tried.
“I think...I think I need to clean these,” he said, carefully crawling off of the bed and walking to the basin where they cleaned up at the end of each day. He lifted the cloth meant for his face, dunking it in water and carrying it back to the bed. “It might be cold,” he said, hoping the Cavalier didn’t hear the way his voice trembled. “Are you ready?”
“Jaehyun,” was the response that met him, the Cavalier’s voice low. “What are you doing?”
Jaehyun wasn’t sure, but he couldn’t stop. “I’m. I’m fixing your back,” he said, hoping he sounded just as firm. “Now hold still.”
At first he was careful to only let the cloth touch the Cavalier’s back, dabbing gently at the places where skin hard torn and dragged blood along the surface of his flesh. He was gentle despite the way his hand trembled, careful to not cause pain, to not truly touch.
He had to break the silence.
“What’s your name?” he asked, heart beating a funny sort of rhythm in his chest. “I’ve known you for nineteen years and I’ve never...never even thought to ask, which seems awfully wicked of me. You’ve only ever been my guardian. Will you tell me your name?”
The Cavalier made a small noise of confusion, the muscles of his back rigid as he tried to keep still. “What do you mean?”
Jaehyun stopped, frowning. “What do you mean, what do I mean?”
“I haven’t got a name.” He said it as casually as he said anything else, as if Jaehyun had asked him what he thought the weather might be like tomorrow.
“How could you possibly not have a name?” Jaehyun asked breathlessly. “Everyone’s got a name.”
The disinterested way the Cavalier spoke about it caused a strange sort of distress to fill Jaehyun, eyebrows knit and lips pursed together as he considered this. “But they must have - your mother and father, they must have…”
“Jaehyun.” The Cavalier spoke firmly, breaking him out of his confusion. “I was raised to be of service to the church. My parents didn’t know how yet, my role wasn’t decided on until you were born, but they knew I would be a devotion.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “They didn’t have money to offer the church as a tithe, and barely enough food to feed themselves let alone a baby. The kindest option for everyone was to give me away.”
He spoke so calmly of it, as if he had no real attachment to his past. No anger at being given up. That was fine, Jaehyun had enough rage for the both of them.
“And the church never thought to name you?” he asked, jaw clenched tight around his anger. “They never...never treated you as a person?”
“I’m not a person,” the Cavalier said with a shrug. “I’m a tool. I’m your tool. My existence centres around you and your safety, there’s no point in giving a hammer a name, is there?”
“You’re not a hammer,” Jaehyun said passionately. “You’re not a thing. You’re a person. You’re...you’re my friend, and I won’t have you nameless as if you don’t exist.” He put down the cloth, struck by a boldness that moved him without and deeper thought, any consideration over what he may be about to do. With a deep breath he lifted his palm, placing it flat on the Cavalier’s back, flush against his skin. He was careful to mind his wounds, settling his fingers just on either side of his neck where no lash marks marred his skin.
Immediately the Cavalier sat up, rigid as if he were staring some great danger in the face. “What are you doing?” he asked, voice high, panicked. “You’re not—you’re not supposed to—”
“If they won’t give you a name then I will,” Jaehyun said, words firm. “You’re mine, aren’t you? Then you’re mine to call as I wish.” He closed his eyes, letting the warmth of the Cavalier’s skin spread through him, from the tips of his fingers through his palm and to his wrist. The barest moment of human touch and Jaehyun was already drunk on it, dizzied by the way it made him feel.
The moment felt important. He had to take his time.
Jaehyun spent a few minutes dwelling on it; the idea of being nameless, of being raised as a tool rather than a person. He had never thought much about how his guard had come into his position. It must have been odd, to be given over as a child, to have your agency taken away at such a young age. The Cavalier was never given a choice as to what he would be. His position at Jaehyun’s side was ordained from the moment of Jaehyun’s birth, when the cardinals began to comb the land for the perfect companion for the Living God.
As the Cavalier sat trembling under his touch Jaehyun thought back on everything he’d ever read, all the stories he’d ever been told. He remembered the ones that delighted him most as a child, the tales he begged the nuns who raised him to tell again and again.
“John,” he said suddenly, the name springing from his mouth unbidden. “Your name is John.” He smiled softly to himself, stroking his fingers lightly over warm, firm flesh. “But to me you’ll be Johnny, because you are my dearest companion.”
The Cavalier—Johnny—stood quickly, so quickly that Jaehyun withdrew his hand as if he’d been scalded.
“Go to bed,” Johnny said, voice cold. “You’ve had a long day and it’s making you foolish.” He kept his back to Jaehyun, grabbing his sleeping shirt and pulling it over his head. It was clear that he was making a point not to look over as he laid on his normal spot on the floor, a thin rug that did little to provide him protection from the chill of the stones under his back.
Jaehyun stared in shock as Johnny threw the closest thing he’d ever seen to a temper tantrum, folding his arms over his chest and staring up at the ceiling. That, at least, wasn’t strange. He’d been trained from a young age to sleep with his eyes open lest danger strike in the night. Jaehyun watched until he saw Johnny’s breathing even out, chest rising and falling slowly, the only real indicator that he’d fallen asleep.
With a sigh Jaehyun rose from the bed, moving around to snuff the candles and casting the room in darkness. He changed into his sleeping clothes, climbing into his own lush bed and pulling his blanket over his chest. He didn’t know why wanting to name Johnny had upset his companion so. He felt properly guilty over it, the distress knotting in his chest and making it hard to swallow.
It was some time before he was able to fall asleep. Just before he did, the fog of unconsciousness plucking at his mind like fingers plucking at harp strings, he heard a soft, deep voice whisper softly below him.
Jaehyun smiled softly to himself and let sleep pull him under.