To Huard, priest of the tribe of the Feasters, under the care of the City Priest, under the care of the High Priest of the Northern Peninsula:
This letter is borne to you by Prosper, who until a few hours ago held the honored position of City Priest. He has now been stripped by the High Priest of his title and of his priesthood and has been placed under the God's curse. The sentence given to him was exile from the Capital Territory and from the God's presence for one year's time.
I know that you will be concerned that I have sent you a demon-filled man. Like all men who have given themselves over to the power of those spirits who are enemies of the Unknowable God, he is filled with impulses toward destruction. For that reason, I will explain what destructive acts led to Prosper being placed under the God's curse, and why I believe that you may be able to help him.
Prosper entered into the service of the God at age thirteen, three years before he would normally have been permitted to take his vows of priesthood, because his father was a friend of the High Priest. He took his vows under the instruction of the High Priest himself, who then appointed Prosper to the title of City Priest when Prosper was twenty years old. Many people are said to have commented at the time how unusual it was that the High Priest would appoint a man still in his youth to so high a position.
I recite these facts, which you know as well as I do, in order to emphasize that, from the beginning of his adolescence, Prosper was supervised only by the High Priest, whose duties require that he spend the majority of his time in prayer to the God. For his first two years as City Priest, Prosper lived in the same house as the High Priest, but thereafter Prosper founded a training school for boys entering into priesthood, half a day's ride from the High Priest's dwelling, and from that time forward Prosper received no spiritual supervision at all except for his quarterly confessions to the High Priest.
You were one of the earliest boys to serve as a pupil at the City Priest's training school, so you know better than I what Prosper was like in those days. My own training was completed only twelve years ago, and by that time Prosper had acquired the reputation among the priest-pupils he trained of being a hard and exacting master – not necessarily a fault, we can both agree, but one which brings certain dangers that may open a person to demons.
Prosper himself was the first to realize that he had begun to turn his face from the God, but by the time he realized this, the demons seemingly had already laid hold of his spirit, for rather than turn for assistance to the High Priest, as he ought to have done, he instead made his confession to me.
I had offered my priestly vows only four months before. Being young and inexperienced, it did not occur to me to question why Prosper had sought one of his former priest-pupils as his confessor rather than the High Priest. I believed Prosper when he told me that he considered the matter too serious to await his quarterly confession.
I may tell you what he told me at that time, for I have been released from my lock of confession. He said that he believed that he had been too harsh and hasty in his judgments of those under his care, and in particular of those who were brought to his judgment in the God's court.
This being a serious matter, I placed Prosper under a discipline combining prayer, silence, and a set of instructions for behavior, the most pertinent instruction being that I required Prosper to delay three days after anyone was charged with breaking the God's Law, before passing sentence upon the prisoner.
Two years later, Prosper removed me from my duties as a tutor at his training house and made me sanctuarian at the nearby government house. I did not question at the time his motives for doing so, but the effect of this change of duties was that I could no longer directly supervise Prosper to see whether he was adhering to the discipline under which I had placed him. The only discipline, indeed, that I could now check was whether he waited three days between charges and sentences in the God's court.
He maintained this discipline for eight years. Then he sentenced a man to burning for atheism two-and-a-half days after the charge was placed against him. Prosper promptly came to me and told me that he had broken the discipline. For that reason, I renewed the discipline but warned him that, if he violated his discipline again, I would have no choice but to place him under the God's curse.
I took the opportunity of our conversation to ask whether he had been maintaining the remainder of the discipline I had placed him under. His answers did not fully satisfy me, so I began questioning the priest-pupils under his care at that time. I learned from them that the situation had worsened since my own time at the training school. Alarmed, I told Prosper that I wished to meet with him weekly thereafter, but he informed me that the High Priest was watching him closely on this matter. Since Prosper was officially under the care of the High Priest rather than myself, I could take no further steps to assist him.
Last night, my worst fears were realized when Prosper placed a charge against a man and then sought to make immediate sentence upon him. (The man has since been found innocent of his charge, so I will not name him here.) I was brought into the matter as a witness, since I was the man's confessor. Hoping to find evidence against the man, Prosper lifted the lock of confession upon me, requiring me to give witness as to whether any person who had made confession to me was believed by me to have broken the God's Law recently. I immediately appealed this lifting of the lock to the High Priest, who was visiting the training school at the time. The High Priest, however, upheld Prosper's lifting. I was therefore forced to charge Prosper with having broken his discipline and thereby the God's Law.
Prosper's reaction was consternation, followed by an attempt to make light of the matter, followed by anger. At last, I am glad to report, he came to realize the truth of the charge made against him and to acknowledge that he had placed himself under the God's curse. For this reason, I recommended that Prosper be sentenced to exile rather than burning. It is my hope that he may thereby drive away the demons within him rather than undergo purification through fire.
I should add that Prosper has expressed the desire that, if he is unable to release himself from the demons' hold, he be burned at the end of the year of exile. In that way, whether or not purification of his spirit is thereby accomplished, he may at least spare those around him from the evils that his demon-filled spirit would cause.
I am sure that what I have told you does nothing to lessen your anxiety about having Prosper sent to your tribe. Indeed, I would be a dishonest witness if I did not add that, in all my years as a confessor, Prosper's is the worst case I have encountered. I have served as confessor to murderers, rapists, atheists, oath-breakers, and other demon-filled people, and though many sought to justify what they did, all were at least aware that they had broken the God's Law. By contrast, until last night, Prosper was convinced that he was one of the most God-loving men in the northern peninsula. He has yet to fully name the demons that have bound him: vainglory, arrogance, self-focus, greed, envy, cowardice, and above all, his native demon of judgment which makes it impossible for him to face the full magnitude of the cruel deeds that he has carried out.
By the time you read this letter, matters may have shifted somewhat, for Prosper is still stunned by what he has lost. Only gradually will he come to understand that the curse was not placed upon him by the High Priest last night; rather, he cursed himself many years ago, when he allowed the demons to do their evil work through him.
For a man such as Prosper, who has held the second-ranked title in the spiritual realm of the northern peninsula, such a realization is all too likely to lead him to despair and perhaps even to the crime of self-slaying, unless he is given reason to hope for the future.
And that is why I have sent him to you. It seems best to me that he should be cared for by someone who knew him when he was young, and I believe that returning to his native tribe may help him to recover the godly qualities he held as a child – for I do not believe that the High Priest would have named Prosper as City Priest if Prosper had not been a young man gifted with a love of the God.
Obviously, since Prosper has been exiled from the territory that is under my care, I cannot take official notice of where he goes or with whom he has contact during his year in exile, so please do not mistake this letter as a command. It is a request only, based on the debt that you and I, and every priest who passed through the City Priest's training school, owe to Prosper.
I have arranged to have Prosper sent back to your territory by escort; since he bears the mark of the God-cursed, the danger to his life during these first days of exile remains acute. You know better than I do whether your tribe's chieftain is likely to welcome Prosper into his territory. I can only hope that, if the chieftain is inclined to drive him out of the territory, you will intervene on Prosper's behalf. It is always sorrowful when a God-cursed man dies unpurified, and especially so when that man has been a priest.
I am grateful for the time you have taken to read this letter. I hope that all lies well with you and your tribe.
In the names of the unnameable God,
Formerly Sanctuarian of the government house in the Capital Territory, under the care of the City Priest; now City Priest, under the care of the High Priest
The chieftain lifted his gaze from the scroll he had been reading. He was a short man, slight in build, which made the many battle scars upon his body all the more remarkable. He paused a moment to look around at the men and youths gathered in a cluster to stare at the man who had walked into their camp that afternoon.
"This man," said the chieftain, raising his voice to be heard even by the women and younger children listening from a safe distance, "was a play-companion to my father. My father often told me stories of their days together."
Prosper, covered with dust from the travel and sweating under the early spring sun, felt his body sag with relief. He had remembered clearly the previous chieftain, but he had not known whether the chieftain's son, who had never met him, would acknowledge his link to the tribe. Prosper had once been so eager to rid himself of tribal ties that he had left his home without his father's permission. Now those ties seemed all-important; they were the only protection left to him.
Having been recognized by his tribe, Prosper felt a smile begin to form upon his lips. Behind him, he could hear the sound of water slapping against the crude bridge he had crossed a short while before. The water seemed like a protective wall, defending him from the danger that lay outside.
The chieftain glanced down at the scroll again. When he raised his eyes, they were cold. "My father never liked him, and he never trusted him," he said in the same clear voice. "I am not at all surprised that the High Priest has placed him under the God's curse."
Prosper felt the words like a blow. He sensed at once the change in mood in the surrounding men and youths: the shifting of spear from left hand to right, the movement of hand to hilt, the tensing of muscles in preparation.
The rush of swiftly moving water continued. The border was only a few spear throws behind him. On the point of being seized by the demon once more, Prosper reminded himself that fleeing was the worst possible action he could take. He was thirty years older than the chieftain and many of his men; he could not hope to outrace them. Nor did safety lie on the other side of the border. The tribe there had seen his curse-mark as he rode past their camp.
When that had happened, he had been surrounded by soldiers who were under orders to protect him. But those soldiers had departed, ridding themselves of him as quickly as their orders permitted. Now he was amongst different soldiers, who might be given different orders.
Prosper felt sweat trickle down his chest, under the temporal man's tunic that still seemed so unfamiliar to him. He remembered in time that prayer would avail him little. He tried to still his mind into silence, but failed.
The chieftain, still cold in gaze, addressed Prosper directly for the first time. "Remain here," he instructed tersely, then turned and disappeared into the crowd of men behind him.
Several of the men and youths turned their heads to watch their chieftain leave, but otherwise the crowd did not move. A blue-eyed boy, still young enough to be among the children, peered out at him from behind a stone pillar; a gangling youth, seemingly just past his coming-of-age rite at sixteen, stared with unshielded horror at Prosper; a senior warrior, nearly as old as Prosper himself, checked in a matter-of-course manner to see that his spear-head was properly bound for battle; and a honey-colored man, with the dark eyes sometimes found in Prosper's native tribe, drew his sword and stroked it lovingly, like a priest caressing a quill before beginning the hard work of copying a manuscript.
Watching the hand fondle the sword-flat, with the blade's killing edge turned toward him, Prosper found himself doing battle with no less than three demon-fears.
The first demon had appeared to him three days before, at the moment when he realized, like a pupil having overslept his lesson, that he had committed the grave crime of breaking the discipline placed upon him by his confessor – not for the first time, but for the second. This demon was bewilderment; after three days of searching the depths of his spirit, Prosper still could not imagine how he had made so simple an error, like a boy neglecting a vowel change in his study of the God's Language.
The second demon had appeared at the moment of the cursing, when Prosper had grasped for the first time – as he had not fully grasped even when the robe of his priesthood was stripped from him – that he was now exiled from the God's presence. Exiled, and marked forever as one of the God's enemies. Even when he was returned to the priesthood – for Martin would surely permit this after Prosper's year of exile – the mark of his cursing would always remain on his forehead, a sign to all who met him that he had undergone this period of shame. Shame was not a demon, but despair was, and he had felt despair touch him lightly, like a feather.
And now the worst demon arose, which had begun to show itself during the past day, but which Prosper had been able to thrust away until now. He had never truly believed that it would happen, though he himself had sent scores of men into exile and therefore knew how many had died during the first few weeks after their cursing. To die by fire – yes, Prosper had prepared himself to accept such a death, should it become necessary. But to die unpurified, to remain forever exiled from the God's presence . . . The demon of fear was tugging at him now, urging him to run from the beweaponed men before him.
Whether Prosper would have heeded the demon's temptation he never knew, for at that moment the crowd parted, and a portly older man strode up to Prosper and enfolded him in his plump embrace.
"Prosper!" he cried, his voice ringing out over the camp. The crowd shifted again as the tribal folk exchanged looks.
"Huard." His voice unsteady, Prosper sought to free himself from the priest's embrace. "I am under the God's curse—"
"Yes, I know," said the priest with matter-of-fact cheerfulness, as though they were discussing which meat to serve at a quarter-day. "I am saddened that our meeting should come on such an occasion, but by the God! it is good to see you again after all these years. Come; you must be tired from your journey."
Prosper hesitated, looking over at the chieftain, who had been contemplating the reunion with a sour expression. The chieftain spat on the ground and said, "You are welcome in this territory," in a voice that held no welcome. Then the chieftain turned away to join the other men, who were now in murmured conversation with each other.
Prosper had no opportunity to learn what they were saying, for Huard had taken him by the arm and was pulling him as rapidly away as any priest could hope to move in his ground-length robe. "Just over this way," said the priest. "I have a hut of my own here – had you heard?"
Prosper had not. His last meeting with Huard had been when the priest completed his training at Prosper's newly opened training school, thirty years before. Nor had Prosper maintained any ties with his native tribe; looking about, he saw that much had changed in the camp since he had last been there. In his boyhood, Prosper had lived in the long hall that served as living quarters for all of the families of the tribe. Now the camp was dotted with dozens of separate living quarters, in addition to a newer long hall that lay at the edge of the camp, next to the rapidly running river where Huard's predecessor had once warned the tribal boys not to swim, lest they be drowned by the rapid current.
Near the river was an unmistakable windowless hall. The door of this hut was painted with a black mask; Prosper found himself dragging back upon Huard's grip. The priest did not take him into the sanctuary, however. Instead he pulled Prosper round to the far end of the hut and swung open there the wicker door that already lay half open.
Prosper hesitated – some sanctuaries had doors leading directly into the altar area, where Prosper could assuredly not enter without his priesthood. To his relief, he found instead that the sanctuary was backed by the priest's living quarters.
They were spacious quarters, Prosper saw: a chamber with a trestle table and chairs, followed by a chamber with a low sitting table and two beds, one presumably for any sick men whom Huard might need to heal. Prosper frowned, wondering with disapproval whether this unpriestly spaciousness of quarters had been Huard's idea. This thought was cut short, however, by a scent arising from a pot hung over the central hearth. Liquid simmered in the pot, sending up smells that tickled at Prosper's nose, though he frowned again as he recognized one of the scents.
Huard, following his gaze, said, "You caught me at my mid-afternoon meal, I fear. Have you eaten yet?" Then, looking more sharply at Prosper, he asked, "When did you eat last?"
It took a moment for Prosper to cast his mind back. "Three days ago, before my trial."
"Sacred Mystery!" Huard seemed as horrified as Prosper would have been had he found a priest-pupil reading a manuscript with dirtied hands. "By all the names, Prosper, fasting is good discipline— Don't laugh; I know you never thought to hear such words from me. But fasting during travel comes perilously close to committing the crime of self-slaying."
"I was not thinking clearly on the day I left," Prosper explained, "and so I neglected to arrange for a food packet."
"And your escort did not share their food with you?" Huard's voice was thoughtful. "Yes, I see. Well, sit you down. I think I can promise you that starvation is not a likely death for you during your stay here."
He gave a quick smile as he guided Prosper to the table. The priest had evidently just sat down to his meal, for the contents of the cup and plate and bowl were all untouched: the golden wine of wall-vine grapes, a slice of flat-bread, and a stew of spring lamb and herbs.
Only the bread was familiar fare to Prosper. He stared at the meal with distaste as he seated himself at the table. "The brightest purification of all is not fire, but a willing sacrifice." He had tried to teach that to his pupils, but so many, like Huard, had failed to heed the lesson. He found himself wondering briefly whether his exile counted as a sacrifice to the God, but he knew that it did not: he had been given no choice as to whether to be cursed. Still, at least he had the wisdom to understand that sacrifice might sometimes be necessary. He was beginning to wonder whether Huard had listened to any of his lessons.
Beside him, Huard said cheerfully, "Yes, I'm afraid that I still disagree with you about the degree of austerity required in a priest's diet. You will be glad to know, however, that I have not eaten a sugar ball in over thirty years."
There was a note of mischief in his voice as he spoke. Prosper looked up sharply at the priest's twinkling eyes and forced himself to remember that he was no longer in a position of spiritual supervision. He looked down at the meal once more. Wine and meat. Even at the quarter-days, when such indulgences were permitted to priests, Prosper had never allowed himself these luxuries, preferring to take the harder, priestly road of sacrifice.
"I am no longer a priest," he heard himself say.
"Then you need feel no guilt about eating a temporal man's meal." Huard's hand rested briefly upon Prosper's shoulder before the priest turned back toward the stew.
Prosper forced himself to taste the wine. It seemed too rich after the water he had drunk for forty-four years. "But I will return to the priesthood in a year's time, I hope," he said. "Surely it would be better for me to maintain a priest's discipline—"
He stopped abruptly; he had seen on the table the letter from Martin, still bound closed by the ribbon. He put down the cup. "Huard, you ought to read that letter before you welcome me into your home—"
"Oh, I can guess what it contains," Huard said briskly, returning to the table with a second plate and cup and bowl in hand. "You've been disciplining someone too hard, have you? You know, I do recall telling you at our last meeting that the day would come when you would realize that starving a boy for a week's time because you discovered him chewing a sugar ball is not the best way to impress upon him the nature of the Mercy of all mercies."
Frowning as he watched Huard bite into a piece of the tender lamb, Prosper said, "The discipline seems not to have worked in your case."
"You think not?" said Huard placidly. "Well, I'm sure that many of your priest-pupils must have turned out as disappointments to you. Tell me, do you remember Guiscard? He was a year younger than me, and I always wondered whether he was able to overcome that temptation to mischief, of which you tried so hard to break him. Have you heard from him since he took his vows?"
The conversation took a turn for the normal after that: an old tutor passing on news to his former pupil. Prosper began to feel the knots in his stomach unwind for the first time in three days. Sitting in the sunlight cast slantwise from the doorway, he almost began to feel his usual self. Huard, apparently intent on devoting his attention to sopping up every last bit of broth from his bowl, said little except to ask questions. Prosper, casting a look of disapproval at Huard's unpriestly chubbiness, took care to avoid the meat in his stew and did not touch the wine again.
The river ran unending outside, droning like a bee. Prosper heard his own voice droning on, as it did late in the day when he must complete quickly a lesson.
". . . . was much disappointed to hear the latest news concerning Radegund. I know that many of my former pupils do not share my belief that fire is the only way to purify a man or woman of twistedness, but I would hope that any priest worth his name would at least sentence the offender to exile. Yet I hear that, within the last year, Radegund was brought two men who had been found in the very act of lying in twisted lust with each other, and Radegund actually refused to bring charges against the men, instead committing them to discipline. The news was a great disappointment for me, as I had high hopes for Radegund. He was most careful in his translations of the ancient tongue."
Huard, pushing back his bowl and plate, apparently felt his mind freed for higher matters than food, for he said, "What a sad tale you tell, Prosper. It seems that few of your pupils have lived up to the standards you set for them. And to top it all, here you sit with a priest who is as fond of food as he was when he was your pupil."
"But you have become a good priest." Warmed by the sun, Prosper felt cheered enough to pass on this praise.
"How kind of you to say so." Huard was staring down at the bottom of his cup, evidently disappointed that no more wine lay there.
Prosper felt suddenly angered. He did not pass out compliments lightly, as his former pupil ought to remember. "The evidence is all around me in this chamber: the prayer-lights that were burning when we entered here, the polish on that shelf for the sacred objects, the neatness of your quarters . . . Though in terms of prayer, you have been neglectful, Huard. You ought to have started your preparations for the evening service by now."
"Oh, I gave those up years ago," said Huard in an easy manner. "I find that my spirit draws closer to the God if I instead spend an hour in silence after the service."
Prosper felt as much shock rend him as if a pupil had admitted tearing up his prepared lesson. He narrowed his eyes at Huard and said, "Prayer and silence are both necessary, Huard. If you have been neglecting your prayers, I would urge you to mention this to your confessor at your next meeting, so that he can purify you. Otherwise, you will answer to the High Judge above all judges when you meet him at your death."
Huard, like a pupil daydreaming during his lesson, seemed not to hear. Getting up, he collected his own empty bowl and plate and cup, asking, "Will you have more, Prosper?"
"Thank you, but no."
"Are you sure? There is plenty more stew left."
Prosper was in fact still hungry after his long fast, but he was irritated by Huard's blatant attempt to use his guest as an excuse to break his own discipline. "No," said Prosper, shoving back the bowl angrily to show what he thought of Huard's diet.
The remaining stew spilled on the table, narrowly missing the ribboned scroll. Huard said nothing, but took Prosper's eating pottery away. Prosper did not bother to hide his sigh. Truly, the life of a teacher was one of disappointments. Even a promising pupil like Huard would prove, when put to the test, to be unable to uphold the hard discipline placed upon him long ago. And Huard had been promising, for all of his indulgence of the demon of gluttony. Prosper found himself thanking the God that he had been committed into divine service at an early age, at a time when it was easy to develop discipline in his own life.
He raised his hand to touch the God-mask brooch pinned above his heart, before remembering that it had been removed from him at the time of his stripping of priesthood. Suddenly sobered by thoughts of his present troubles, Prosper watched as Huard, returning to the table, used the meat-knife to cut the ribbon binding the scroll. The priest glanced briefly at the opening words of the letter, then said, "We need more light here," and disappeared into the back chamber.
Prosper resisted the impulse to follow him. The priest returned in a very short time, too short in which to have read the long letter that was now fully unrolled in his hands. He was holding, not a lamp, but a prayer-light, which he placed with the other lights dancing on the shelf for sacred objects. Huard handed the letter to Prosper and said, "My eyes grow worse as the years pile on. Please to do me the favor of reading this aloud to me."
He did so as Huard carefully returned the disused wine from Prosper's cup into an overly large wine casket nearby. Prosper's voice slowed as he read from the letter. By the time he reached the listing of his demons, he was finding it unexpectedly hard to speak. When he lifted his gaze finally from Martin's words, he saw that Huard was sitting in the corner of the chamber upon some cushions, in the traditional manner of the tribe. At Huard's gesture, Prosper joined him there.
The priest asked, "Is what Martin writes true?"
Prosper discovered that his throat was clogged; he had to clear it before he could speak. "If you had asked me a week ago, I would have been hard pressed to understand how Martin could say such things of me."
"I would say that he has been more merciful to me than I deserve." Prosper stared down blankly at the letter, which he still held in his hand. The words had blurred, and he could see only the neat, beautiful hand of the City Priest. "He does not tell you that, at the time of the prisoner's trial, Martin made seven attempts to seek private audience with me, in order to warn me, under the lock of confession, that I was breaking my discipline. Nor does he tell you that, toward the end of my trial, I accused him of giving false witness."
"A remarkable statement, if Martin's reputation is true." Huard's voice was quiet.
"It is true." Prosper could feel a weight beginning to press upon his chest again. He took a deep breath. "Martin and I have disagreed on many matters since he became a priest. I have felt that he was far too indulgent with those under his care, sentencing them to discipline where cursing would have been appropriate. But one fact was shiningly clear from the moment he first walked through the doors of my training school: he is a person of absolute honesty. When I spoke the words that I did against him . . . When I saw the shock on the faces of the people attending the trial and saw the look of pity on Martin's face . . . It was then that I knew that his charge against me was true, and that I had allowed myself to be captured by demons. But truly, Huard, I do not remember the moment when I permitted the demons entrance; nor do I know best how I should go about ridding myself of them."
"Can you name your demons?"
Prosper stared harder at the letter. "Martin tries to."
"'Tries'? You do not believe that he succeeds?"
Prosper struggled with the answer, as a man struggles against the current of a stream. "Some of these demons I recognize – they have briefly tempted me over the years, and in the few cases where I have given in to the temptation, I have confessed my crime before the God, in the witness of my confessor. But other demons . . ." He pointed to one word in the letter. "Here Martin says that my native demon is judgment, and that I do not understand what I have done. Certainly it was proved at my trial that I had engaged in harsh and hasty judgment in two cases over the years, and I regret my crimes bitterly. But Martin's phrasing seems to suggest that I ought not to have made any judgment at all, and that is absurd. I am— I was the City Priest, and it was my duty to stand in judgment over those under my care."
Huard said nothing for a moment. He had picked up a feather from the ground as they spoke and was now using a meat-knife to sharpen the quill into a pen, to the exact same angle Prosper had once taught him. Prosper found the sight oddly comforting. His comfort vanished, though, as Huard asked, without looking up, "When our chieftain refused to welcome you initially – what was in your mind?"
Prosper tried to cast his mind back, and found that he was gripping his hands together in concentration. "Shock. I could not believe that he would turn upon me in such a manner, when I was of his tribe. Fear. I have been afflicted by the demon of fear for the past three days." He hesitated, then added honestly, "Anger. It seemed to me that he was acting in a manner ill-befitting his title, and that his behavior was likely to bring him punishment from the Mercy of all mercies."
Huard nodded, set the finished quill-pen carefully aside, and raised his gaze so that it was level with Prosper's. "And what thought did you give to our chieftain's pain?"
It was a blow as great as the chieftain had given him. For a moment Prosper could do nothing but try to catch his breath as he felt his body grow cold. "Oh, the God," he said in a strained voice. "Have I turned from the Mercy that far?"
"I fear so." Huard leaned back against the wall, his gaze remaining upon Prosper. "'If a man is struck – whether the man be spiritual or temporal – he must devote no thought to his own pain but only to the pain of the man who has struck him.' That was one of the wisest pieces of advice you ever gave to me and my fellow pupils, yet even as a boy I suspected that you were better at advising in this matter than at following your own advice. You will recall that your words say nothing about passing judgment over the man who has struck you."
"But I am spiritual— That is, I was a spiritual man, a priest. It was my duty—"
"Your duty." Huard's expression did not change, but his voice became suddenly harder than before. "Shall we discuss your duty to the God this afternoon, and how you have fulfilled it? You come here, with the blood of your exile mark still fresh, bearing a letter from the City Priest requesting that I offer you advice on discipline – and you must know how rarely it is that such a request is granted to a God-cursed man. Tell me again what you think of my decision to eat meat and wine today."
Caught off-guard, Prosper said, "It does not seem to me to be in the tradition of priestly discipline that I taught you."
"Tell me again what you think of my number of prayer-lights."
"You have a goodly number of lights, but—" He stopped.
"Go on. Tell me."
"Perhaps I should not have—"
"Tell me. I wish you to hear your own words."
The commands continued remorselessly for several minutes as Huard forced Prosper to repeat the words he had spoken that afternoon. Within the first few replies, Prosper could feel moisture trickling down his spine. By the end, his back was sticky with sweat.
When he had finished, Huard said, in the same hard voice, "When you arrived here, you told me immediately that you were cursed, and you asked me to read Martin's letter before welcoming you – that much is to your credit. Other than that, however, I have seen none of the marks of duty due from a God-cursed man to the man who may or may not consent to act as priest to him. Instead, your behavior has been wholly that of a tutor holding judgment over his pupil: you said nothing about your crimes until I prompted you, but you have passed judgment upon me for my dietary discipline, the setting of my house, my worship discipline, and my conduct as a priest. Nor have you confined your judgments to me: you have passed judgment upon our chieftain, upon Martin, and upon the priests who were once entrusted to your care – all of them men who are welcome to the God's presence. You, a man bearing the curse-mark of the God's enemy, make these judgments. You, who have been found unworthy to wear the robe of priesthood."
Huard's voice, as adamantine as iron, was so far now from the hesitant pleading he had engaged in as a boy that Prosper felt his mind whirling in an eddy of bewilderment. Clutching at the first thought that drifted his way, he said, "You are right that I should not, in my present spiritual state, pass judgment upon you, but—"
"Sacred Mystery, Prosper, have you closed your ears entirely to the God's voice? Then hear words that you may remember better: 'A pupil may ask questions, but he must neither condemn nor praise his tutor, for either act presumes that he is in the position of judge.' Or have you come to disbelieve your own teachings?"
Prosper struggled to breathe. He cast down his eyes for a moment before saying, "I have a question."
"Ask." Huard's voice had passed beyond hardness to coldness.
"You speak of what I am now, since the demons entered me, but what of the time when I was City Priest, before the demons took hold of me? Surely at that time it was my duty to pass judgment—"
"And do you truly believe, Prosper, that the God gave you the honor of having spiritual care over his people so that you could spend all your waking days worrying over whether your priest-pupils were eating too many sugar balls, or whether the men and women who took you as confessor had neglected some small crime, so that you could drag them into the God's court and have the triumph of showing how superior you were to them in your spiritual state?" Huard leaned forward. His eyes were as cold now as dark pebbles in a winter stream. "How long has it been, Prosper, since you gave thought to any other living creature, except to judge him? How long has it been since you were silent long enough to listen to the God's voice, whether it came from the sacred flame or from the men and women of whom you are so scornful?"
Prosper could not answer; he could not even raise his gaze above his hands, now white as they clenched each other. Above him, Huard continued remorselessly, "Vainglory in believing that your discipline is superior to all others. Arrogance in spurning the food offered to you by your host. Self-focus in giving no thought to other people's needs but only to what punishment you can place them under. Greed in assuming that the priesthood is your right rather than a gift from the God. Envy that causes you to examine carefully the spiritual states of others so that you can reassure yourself that others are in a more demeaned state than your own. Cowardice in refusing to acknowledge that these demons did not enter you recently or briefly, but have been within you for most of your life. Above all, an evil judgment that has prevented you from listening when Martin, as your confessor, no doubt said words to you very like the words I am giving you now. . . . Have I named your demons, Prosper?"
"No." Prosper's voice was breathless and broken. "I must have dozens more demons. The God help me, I did not know."
He covered his face and wept.
After a time, he felt Huard's hand upon his shoulder; after a time more, Prosper lifted his wet face to look up at the priest, who was standing beside him. Though the late afternoon light made the priest's face glow, Prosper's vision was darkened by tears. Prosper whispered, "Can I be saved?"
"Certainly." Huard's voice was reassuringly matter-of-fact. "You know your catechism, Prosper. 'Any man who requests aid of the Mercy of all mercies shall receive it.' Your battle against the demons will not be an easy one, though. I would hate to tell you what sort of disciplines you would have placed me under if, during my four years as a priest-pupil, I had committed half as many crimes against the God as you have managed to commit in the space of two hours."
"I require hard discipline." Prosper had dropped his gaze to the ground and was struggling to keep his breath even. "I see that now – my spirit is in dire peril. . . . Huard, I have no right to ask this of you, but will you help me?"
As he spoke, he shifted himself into the position he now realized he should have fallen into from the moment he passed over Huard's threshold: that of a God-cursed man kneeling in petition before a priest who, by the God's Law, was under no obligation to help him – could indeed hand him over to a murderous crowd if he considered it appropriate. Prosper felt again the edge of fear pricking at his skin, and he was staring now with dark wonder upon the words he had spoken in this chamber. Sacred Mystery, he could have died of starvation had not the priest shown mercy upon him, yet he had openly scorned the food of his host. He felt a sickness enter into him.
"Certainly," Huard replied, in as straightforward a manner as before. He eased Prosper back into a sitting position and squatted down beside him. "I am restricted in the help I can give by the God's Law, though. You know the rules on exile, Prosper: I cannot offer you the comfort of the God's presence during your year of exile, neither to hear your confession in the God's name, nor to purify you, nor to allow you to give participation in the worship services. I can offer you advice on discipline should you ask, but I cannot punish you if you break your discipline, nor can I even draw your attention to the fact that you have broken your discipline, unless you ask for further advice from me. Are you willing to listen to my advice under such conditions?"
"Huard, I am a hand's breath from the eternal fire that cannot be quenched." Prosper's voice was hoarse. "If you told me to eat a bag of sugar balls, I would follow your advice."
"You anticipate me." The smile in Huard's tone caused Prosper to lift his eyes, but the priest's expression was serious as he said, "Two disciplines, then, I advise upon you. The first is that you must put aside all thoughts of your priesthood during this exile. Whatever you may be in a year's time, for now you are a temporal man and must engage in behavior appropriate to a temporal man."
"I see," said Prosper slowly. "Eating sugar balls."
"They are a symbol only." The smile had made its way onto Huard's face. "You must eat as a temporal man does, dress as he does, and above all act as he does. You know the catechism, Prosper: one of the greatest crimes a temporal man can commit is to pass judgment upon the spiritual state of his fellow living spirits. If you suspect that someone's spirit is in danger of being demon-infected, then it is your duty to report the matter to me, but otherwise you must in no way try to judge whether anyone you meet is a dutiful servant of the God. Your duty instead is to seek out ways in which you can be of assistance to others, ways that do not require you to judge other people's spiritual states."
"That is good ad—" Prosper caught himself in time and said, in a low voice, "I thank you for giving me this advice, Huard. I will follow the discipline as you have suggested. And the other advice?"
"Concerns your worship discipline. Had you given any thought to that?"
Prosper nodded. "Most of my ponderings on the way here were devoted to that. I thought it best if I adhere more strictly than before to the times of prayer, devoting most of my waking hours to prayer and self-examination—"
He broke off; the priest was shaking his head. Rising to his feet, Huard began using his moistened thumb and forefinger to silence the prayer-lights about the chamber. "Think again, Prosper," he said, as though the man before him were a dull-minded pupil. "How did your demons enter, and what discipline is appropriate to close that path of entrance?"
Prosper shut his eyes, as though preparing himself to pronounce a particularly difficult word in the ancient tongue. He said finally, "My thoughts have been centered too much upon myself. If I engage in long periods of self-examination, my demon of self-focus will take advantage of this fact to pull my thoughts further from other people onto myself."
"Indeed." Huard's voice came through the darkness disembodied, as though he were the God. "Self-examination is one danger; prayer is another. Prosper, the easiest way to allow the demons victory over you is for you to pray to the God."
Prosper's eyes flew open. "But—" He stopped, stilled not by any understanding, but by a warning look from the priest.
While Prosper's eyes had been closed, Huard had changed into the formal robe of the evening service. The robe's gold edging glittered in the last shimmer of the day's light and in the glow of the single prayer-light that remained lit. The priest now held in his hand the purification lamp, unlit. Prosper, staring at it, felt a word welling up within him.
The priest nodded as though Prosper had spoken the word, though of course the word was reserved for use by priests. "I am sorry to say this, Prosper, but I fear that you have been neglecting the discipline of silence. You have all the signs of a man who has talked and talked and talked, whether to his fellow spirits or to the God, and has done no listening for many years. That, more than anything, explains your condition. The demons abhor silence, and they love a mind filled with speech and thoughts and even prayer, provided that the prayer is not balanced by moments of silence when the petitioner awaits the God's response.
"And so the second discipline I place upon you – a harder discipline – is that you do not pray during the coming year. You should speak as little as possible, confine your thoughts to the duties I placed upon you a while ago, and engage in the silence as many times a day as you were planning to talk to the God."
Prosper forced himself to wait before answering. He found himself straining his spirit to do so, like a priest who has forgotten long-ago lessons in the changing vowels of the ancient tongue. He held back until his spirit was beginning to shake from the strain; then he looked up at Huard. In the diffident voice of a pupil to his tutor, he asked, "If I do this, do you believe that I have the strength to drive out my demons so that I can re-enter the God's presence and return to the priesthood?"
Huard was a long time returning his answer. His gaze was upon the shadows on the floor, as though he were judging the moment at which he must enter the sanctuary. Finally he looked up and said, "Do you remember the shortest sentence in the catechism?"
Prosper nodded slowly. "'Trust the God.'"
Huard's hand touched his shoulder briefly, and then the priest was gone, leaving Prosper to the silence of the coming evening.