Thursday, March 31, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 9: Deus Ex Machina

           The early morning mist washed over the woodwalk maze that made up the dock of Malthanon’s harbor.  Even though the sun was barely up in the sky, most of the ships that called the dock home had left hours before the sun had risen.  The few ships left; anchored in their stalls; rocked back and forth, betraying the swells of the tide.
The peaceful, yet haunting scene on the wooden walkways was mostly unpeopled; save for a few sailors who had missed being staffed on the pre-dawn fishing expeditions. 
Cecily led her friends eagerly onto the docks.  On the walk back to the White Light Tavern the night before, she and Tarsus talked heatedly about what their next step should be.  Cecily felt strongly that the answer to their problem could be found on the harbor.  Tarsus was not so sure he agreed.  But without any better ideas, he felt it wiser to trust to a passionate leaning rather than to a belabored decision arrived at through cautious consensus.
“Didn’t quite get our money’s worth, leaving so early, did we?” Finnian asked through a yawn.
“This is not a holiday,” Cecily answered, maintaining her focus on the dock.  “We are not here to sleep.”
“Then why are we here?” Finnian protested.  “If the priests of Malthus don’t believe the Under Isle even exists; and remember, these are men who believe that women who can’t have babies just don’t pray enough; how do you expect us to find a sailor with any knowledge of the place?”
“It’s an island.  Right?” Cecily snapped, finally turning to her right and confronting both Finnian and his skepticism head on.  “Therefore, it stands to reason it lies somewhere on the high seas.  Sailors are out on those waters everyday.  They have seen more in their travels than any of the priests have seen in their lifetimes.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather ask questions to those who have real knowledge and experience of the subjects I’m inquiring about rather than those who can only speak with authority on their own assumptions, ignorantly mistaking those assumptions for facts.”
Finnian opened his mouth instantly, but no words came out.  He looked at Cecily with widening eyes as the realization of what she had said struck him.  “I agree,” he finally admitted.  “That’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard you say since we set out.”
Cecily looked at him suspiciously.  After a moment, she offered a hesitant smile and nodded her thanks for the compliment.  She turned from Finnian then, perhaps not wanting to give him the chance to say anything that would ruin their moment of solidarity.  
Not far from where the three of them stood, a sailor sat whittling.  Cecily approached the man and began a quiet conversation.
“Perhaps not all those who revere the gods are ignorant fools that want to be proven right without having to think,” Tarsus said, smiling at the flummoxed expression that still dressed his friend’s face.
Finnian’s incredulity shrank then, and he looked back at Tarsus shrewdly.  “And perhaps not all those who doubt the gods are self-important boobs who only want to prove others wrong because they prize thinking over feeling.”
“You’re not a boob?” Tarsus mocked.
“Give me credit, Tarsus,” Finnian said, very seriously.  “Even if I am, that was a very astute answer.  Just because I like women and beer doesn’t mean I can’t be incredibly insight…”
Finnian was suddenly shunted forward.  Tarsus held out his arms to catch his young friend.
“Are you alright?” Tarsus asked.
“Fine,” Finnian answered, pushing himself back onto his own feet.
As Finnian straightened, a large figure, hooded and wearing a brown cloak, appeared next to the pair of friends.  Tarsus could not see all of the stranger’s face, which was half covered by a cloth mask.  But above the cloth, he did notice a pair of beautiful blue-green eyes.  They reminded him of the sea.
“Sorry,” the veiled figure said in what was unmistakably a feminine voice.  She bowed to Finnian.
“Not at all,” Finnian replied with a wide smile.  He’d clearly noticed the stranger’s eyes and the dulcet tone of her apology; and thus his charm burst forth like a frothy wave breaking through a dam.  “I suppose it was inevitable I’d bump into someone in this crowd.”
Tarsus looked around them.  Cecily was ahead, speaking to one sailor.  Behind them two sailors sat eating a late breakfast, and three horses were trotting up to the wooden walkway of the harbor.  There was no crowd.
“I am glad that who I bumped into was someone with eyes as lovely as yours,” Finnian flattered.
Just then, a trumpet blared.  Tarsus, Finnian and everyone around them turned to the harbor entrance.  The three horses that Tarsus saw approaching came to a halt at the dividing line between the stone street of the city and the wooden walkway of the harbor.  Sitting atop the horses were three shining white knights wearing silver helms.  They were knights of the KingsGuard, and they were irradiant in the morning light.
“You there,” the knight in the center called out in a strong and familiar voice.  Tarsus did not have time to reflect on that, though, as the knight pointed a hand directly at him.  “Come forward please.”
“Me?” Tarsus asked, looking around.
“The woman,” the voice of the central knight rang out.  Tarsus and Finnian both turned then, to see Ceclily, who was also turning to look behind her.  Surely, there must have been some other suspicious looking woman on the docks.
“You, with the red hair,” the central knight clarified, clearly irritated.
“Oh,” Cecily said, as she turned back.  She straightened herself up and began walking, with an air of purpose, toward the knights.
“Sorry again,” the cloaked woman standing next to Tarsus and Finnian said as she backed away slowly, quickly vanishing from the imminent confrontation.
But if Finnian had heard her, he showed no sign of it.  Even Tarsus barely noticed her leaving.  Both of them had eyes only for Cecily as she passed them by on her way to where the knights awaited her.  They shared a glance with her as she walked past, offering their nods of encouragement.  A moment later, she stood before the three knights.  They sat high on horseback, looking down on her as some tribunal ready to pass judgment.
“The high priest of Malthus sent us to give you this,” the center knight said as he handed Cecily a roll of parchment.
She broke the seal and unrolled the scroll.  She stood there silently, reading over the contents of what she had been given. 
Tarsus watched her closely.  Tilts of her head and fidgets of her hands betrayed to him that whatever she was reading, it was not good news.
Finally, Cecily raised her head to the knights and lifted the scroll to prominently display it.  “This is a ban,” she said, almost questioningly.  “I am never to return to Malthanon.”
“Correct,” the central knight confirmed.  “For your insults against the high priest and the clergy of Malthus, you are no longer welcome here.”
“What did you say?” Finnian called out excitedly, as he propelled himself forward finally stopping right behind Cecily and trying to peek over her shoulder at the scroll.
Tarsus chased after him, with every intention of admonishing his friend for his foolish outburst.  But curiosity, too, got the better of him.  As he stood, flanking Cecily’s right side, he could not help himself looking down at the scroll and reading the first few lines.
“I only asked if any of them had ever left Malthanon,” Cecily justified.  “They told me no.  So I made a logical conclusion: how could any of them speak with authority on the Under Isle?”
“I wish I could have been there for that,” Finnian said quietly.
“You would,” came the authoritative voice of the central knight from above them.  
The three of them looked up, as one, at their judge who loomed over them as a grim statue.  In response, the knight raised his hands to his helm and lifted it up off himself.  Tarsus was momentarily surprised, and then admonished himself for being so.  This was becoming all too ordinary in his world.
The central knight: the herald of Malthus’s justice: was Drake.
Drake dismounted and handed the reigns of his horse up to the knight on his left.
“Captain Mathix!” the soldier said, alarmed.  “Is something wrong sir?”
“Clearly something’s wrong Jeremy,” the knight to Drake’s left answered.  “He took off his helm.  We never take off our helms.”
“I do sometimes,” Jeremy answered.  “It gets bloody hot under here.”
“Enough,” Drake said calmly.  “I know these two, and I would speak with them without interruption.”
The two knights on either side of Drake fell silent, and even though they resumed looking like grim warriors Tarsus could not help but smile as he continued their conversation of being hot in their armor in his own mind.
As though in answer to Tarsus’s improper decorum, Drake looked directly at him, ignoring the other two.  Tarsus quickly stopped smiling and tried to focus on a fishing shack behind his old friend.  He did not like being the focus of one person’s intent and scrutinizing gaze, so he employed the trick of focusing on something behind his inspector to alleviate his own embarrassment.  
“What are you doing here?” Drake asked.
There was incredulity to Drake’s question that Tarsus felt the need to respond to.  He looked from the shack to his old friend; and whatever expression was on his face, he could tell by Drake’s reaction to it that it was not a good one.  “We’re here with her.  On a mission from Malthus.”
“Don’t worry Drake,” came Finnian’s reply.  Tarsus could hear the derision in his friend’s voice.  “Just because we’re doing more for your GodKing than you all are, doesn’t mean you should feel bad.  You turned your back on your home, you’ve abandoned your family, you’re a terrible friend…those are the reasons you should feel bad.”
“I have to agree with Finnian,” Tarsus replied, playing into his friend’s verbal attack.  “Especially with the ‘friends’ part.  It’s one thing to be honest with your friends.  It’s another to be intentionally cruel.”
“Indeed,” Drake replied with a smirk.  “I did not mean to be cruel, whatever the two of you believe.  I was hoping my words at the Good Shepherd would push you, which it seems they did.”
“Oh, so you were trying to motivate us,” Finnian mocked.  “Well, that’s not at all abusive.”
Drake shifted his focus to Cecily.  He seemed to study her with a reserved intent.  “Take care of these two,” he said to her, indicating Tarsus and Finnian.  “They are serviceable warriors, but as you can see they feed into one another; like the rod and bob of a pendulum.  Even when they disagree, they will swing in the same direction.  Sometimes, that direction will be helpful.  But the pendulum swings both ways.”
Drake stepped back and took them all in with one last look.  He gave a small smile.  Tarsus did not know how to read it: was it derisive or proud?
“Be well,” Drake finally said.  He turned and mounted his horse again, taking back the reigns from his fellow knight.  “But do not enter this city again.  Any of you.  If you do, you will be arrested.”
He did not give them time to respond, but turned on the spot and trotted off back down the stone street into the city proper.  His knights were close behind him.  
“He seems bound and determined to discourage us,” Tarsus said absently.
“Not if we come back with the sword,” Cecily offered.  “If we can find it…all will be forgiven.”
“Yes.  Malthir is the answer,” Tarsus agreed.
“Malthir, you say?” came a voice from behind them.
Immediately after hearing it, Tarsus felt a very slight pull in the pit of his stomach.  He turned to find a man about his same height and build.  The man had black hair and brown skin, as he had.  But this fellow’s eyes were black, and they were alight with a broad smile directed at the three of them.  
“And what would mere mortals do with the sword of the GodKing?” the stranger asked.
“Who are you to ask about our business?” Tarsus demanded.  He couldn’t believe that this man was a god.  True, he felt the pull of divinity, but it was much weaker than he had ever felt in the past.  
“Who am I?  Behold your prince and pay homage,” the stranger said proudly.  “My name is Cassius.  I am Malthus’s son.”

Saturday, March 19, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 8: Two Prayers

                 An hour later found Tarsus inside the cathedral of Malthus.  The large, oval room was the base of the GodKing’s palace and, fittingly, the seat of his rule.  This was where the masses gathered to worship their God.  This was where the priests held council and wrote the policies of the city.  This place was the very heart of Malthanon.
            Inside were rows upon rows of ornate, ivory pews that ran the length of the cathedral.  They were split down the center of the room by a long, lush red carpet that covered the aisle leading from the cathedral entrance all the way to the dais at the opposite end.  On the dais sat a simple white alter, from which the High Priest of Malthus delivered his sermons, all sitting under a maze ceiling of glass and metal latticework that bathed the room in fractured moonlight.
But for all the beauty the cathedral offered, nothing was so magnificent as the great stone statue of the GodKing himself.  It stood behind the alter, fifteen feet high at least, showing Malthus in a terrifying warlike pose: with hands held up over his head and gripping the hilt of a stone Malthir. 
Tarsus was mesmerized.  He sat low in one of the pews at the very front of the cathedral, marveling at the detail of the GodKing and his enchanted blade.  He wondered if Malthir would look that way when they found it.  Then he stopped himself; finding the sword was a long way off.  Surely greater men and women than he had tried to bring back Malthir, and clearly none of them had succeeded.  Why should he, a second rate swordsman in league with only two other average warriors, hope to succeed? 
“Because there is nothing else for me,” Tarsus whispered to the silence all around him.  “Nothing in Briarden.  Nothing in Malthanon.  Nothing.”
He stood up; stood up straight and tall, looking up at the statue of Malthus with a fiery determination.  He lowered himself to his knees and bowed his head, resting his forehead on the back of the ivory bench before him.  He closed his eyes in supplication before the altar, and before the image of the GodKing himself.  “My Lord Malthus, I do not know if you can still hear our prayers.  Perhaps you can…so long as it is one of your chosen doing the praying.  The High Priest perhaps, or Cecily.  But I am not one of your chosen.  Truth be told, I’ve never been chosen for anything.”
Behind him, something clacked in the darkness.  Tarsus turned, but saw nothing.  He turned back to the statue and looked up at the hard, stone face of Malthus looking out onto the cathedral.  He bent his head again, closing his eyes to the feeling of cool ivory.  “I have never chased after anything before.  Not really.  Not like this; and the hard part of our journey hasn’t even begun yet.  I pray that when it does, you’re with us Lord.  That you’re with me.  For I…I do not know what strength I have in me.  So I pray, when the hard times come, that you will help me to have enough.”
Tarsus stayed where he was, with head bowed and eyes closed.  He did not speak, rather, he allowed himself to be swallowed whole by the silence of the cathedral.  It was customary to pray out loud when asking for a god’s favor, but Tarsus had always liked repeating his prayers a second time in his mind.  His parents had always taught him that there were three ways of speaking with the gods: with words, thoughts and deeds.  Prayer could accomplish two of those, and it seemed foolish not to take advantage of its fullest potential. 
As he finished his silent prayer, he was struck with the recollection of what Finnian had said to him outside, just before departing for the White Light Inn.
“Gods lie too.  They’re no better than we are.”
He and Finnian never talked about the gods precisely because Tarsus knew his friend held this sentiment.  To Finnian, the gods were only another part of the natural world.  Yet the power they held over mortals made Finnian uncomfortable.  Creators or no, Finnian and others like him felt that the gods had no business exerting their will over mortals. 
“If my father cannot force me into taking over the family flock, what right do the gods have to force me into paying tithes, or sacrificing a prized lamb, or going on a journey that meant certain death only to spread the good news of their divinity?”
Tarsus understood Finnian’s argument: it was logical and fair minded.  But it was different for Tarsus.  Something deeper in him stirred when it came to the gods; something beyond logic and reason. 
He had always been captivated by their divine majesty.  To Tarsus, they were not simply rulers or kings, but creators; beings that had pooled their talents and creativity into the genesis of this one world.  Yes, they were petty.  Many of them governed their own provinces, trying to carve out a piece of their collaboration to call their own.  But so too did human artisans who had collaborated on a craft.  Yet the gods must have known that no lines on a map could truly define which god made what.  In that way at least, they were not all-powerful.  They were governing a shared thing; signing their name to a story they all had authored.  The whole could only be so because of all of their separate pieces, yet none of the pieces alone could be whole. 
As he knelt there; in the dark, alone with these thoughts; Tarsus was moved to pity for these heavenly creatures.  He felt a kinship with them he could never explain; a kinship a son might feel for his father.  The gods were much more complicated than the likes of Finnian chose to consider.  He saw some of them in himself, and that made them human to Tarsus.  And yet, they were also divine.  How could those two natures coexist?  Which nature ruled the gods more?  These were the mysteries that compelled Tarsus’s fascination, and his reverence. 
From the back of the cathedral, there came the echoes of footsteps on stone.  It was clear to Tarsus that someone had just entered.  The footsteps stopped abruptly.  Most likely, the worshipper had decided to stay at the back of the holy place.  He decided he should stand and make his exit before this new person began praying.  It was only right; prayers were still meant to be private, even if said out loud.  In the quiet dark of this stone room, without hundreds of other worshippers offering up their prayers, this other fellow’s whispers would carry all the way to Tarsus’s ears.
But then he heard something.  It was not the words of a prayer, but sniffling.  Whoever had come in had been crying: could still be crying.  Tarsus moved to stand.  He did not raise his head; he did not want to startle the person.  He put a hand each on the pews in front of and behind him.  He slowly pushed to lift himself up.
“My king?”
He stopped himself, his knees barely lifted off the stone floor.  He knew that voice.
“What do I do now?” he heard Cecily ask.
Tarsus lifted his head a bit.  The statue was as grim and unforgiving as ever, with flecks of silver in the stone now glimmering in the moonlight.
“The priests tell me there is no Summa Temple,” Cecily went on.  “They say the Under Isle is a myth.”
Tarsus was stunned.  He had heard stories of the Summa Temple and the Under Isle all his life and no one ever claimed them to be myths.  No one in Briarden had ever been to either of them, but that was the wisdom of shepherds.  They had seen so many incredible things traveling with sheep that they never took for granted what could or couldn’t be out in the world.
“I told them you came to me.  That you ordered me here to seek help,” she went on, her voice wavering now.  “They told me not even the High Priest has spoken to you.  Not once in his lifetime.  Neither the priest before him nor the one before him.  They say…you have abandoned us.”
Tarsus looked up at the face of Malthus inquiringly.  Was this true?  Did the clergy truly believe the GodKing was gone?  Why would they run the city in his name then?  Maybe he should have told them what Adulatio said back in Briarden.  Perhaps he still could.  If the High Priest knew that the GodKing was dying…
“I have followers here,” Cecily went on.  “Only two.  But they followed me when no one else would.  What do I say to them now?”
Tarsus’s questions faded away, and he the pity he felt a moment ago returned.
“Tell me what to do,” she pleaded.  “Is this a lark?  Am I wasting my time?”
It dawned on Tarsus then that even Cecily must not have known that Malthus was dying.  He had always assumed that she did.  She claimed the GodKing had visited her, after all.  Wouldn’t Malthus have told her of his plight? 
But none of that mattered now.  Tarsus faced a choice in this moment.  He could tell Cecily the truth: that Malthus was dying and not even Malthir and salvation meant killing the GodKing.  Or he could stay silent, and let Cecily wrestle with this on her own.  Either way meant that she could give up the quest.   But Tarsus could not let that happen.  He had to see this through.  Whatever else, he had to see this through.
“Am I insane?” he heard Cecily whisper as clearly as though she had shouted it.
“No!” he exclaimed into the cavernous cathedral.
He stood up and turned to face his captain.  Slowly, but deliberately, he walked toward her.  She did not look surprised to see him, but she did not look happy either.
“I swear, I looked around this room like a hawk for any sign of another living soul and found none,” Cecily said as he approached.
“Perhaps Malthus showed you what you needed to see,” Tarsus replied.
“Why did you let me pray for so long?” she asked.
“I’m sorry.  I tried to leave before you started, but I was not fast enough,” Tarsus offered her a weak smile.  “Besides, I don’t like being interrupted when I pray.”
“I suppose you and Finnian will be leaving now?  Heading home?” she asked without really asking.
“No.”
“Tarsus,” she sighed, shaking her head.  She looked up at him from her seat in the pew.  “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“None of us do,” Tarsus replied easily.  “But I do know that you’re not insane.”
“How?” Cecily asked genuinely.  “How could you possibly know that?”
“Because I know that Malthus…” Tarsus paused.  This was the moment.  There would be no going back from this.  “Malthus is dying.”
“What?” Cecily got to her feet quickly.  Her tone was one of accusation; accusation, disbelief and a demand for an explanation all at once.
“The night before we left, Finnian and I were visited by Adulatio,” Tarsus began.  “He told us that Malthus is dying, and has been dying, for a thousand years.  That is why no one has seen him.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this?” Cecily pressed.
“We thought you already knew,” Tarsus said, burning inside.  He was lying; even if he did not yet know he was lying.
“I did not,” Cecily declared, confirming Tarsus’s dishonesty.
Cecily moved out of the pew and began walking up and down the center aisle.  She was pacing: planning.
Tarsus was silent.  There was more to tell.  They had to find Malthir and use the GodKing’s own sword to slay him.  Then, one of them: the one to kill Malthus: would take the GodKing’s place as the new GodKing…or GodQueen.
Tarsus took a breath.  He had to tell her everything.  That was the right thing to do.  He opened his mouth to speak…
“We must find the sword,” Cecily said before Tarsus could utter a word.  Her eyes were alight with renewed purpose.
Tarsus was silent, even as his mind screamed at him to tell her everything.  Yet his mouth would not listen.  Cecily was committed again, and the only way they would find this sword is if they did it together.  Tarsus knew that.  He did not know how, but deep in his bones he knew that the three of them could make a whole that was better than any one of them could be alone.  They were like the gods themselves, authoring an adventure that could become legend; pushing each other past themselves, into the ether of greatness.
“Tarsus,” Cecily called.  “Will you help me?”
“I pledged I would,” Tarsus replied, offering her a smile.
“And Finnian?” Cecily asked hesitantly.
“We won’t leave you,” Tarsus assured.
“Thank you.”
She lunged forward and wrapped her arms around him.  She squeezed tightly, like someone greeting an old friend they had not seen in years.  Then, she let her head fall onto his shoulder, very unlike someone greeting an old friend they had not seen in years.
Tarsus embraced her in return and let his head rest on hers.  The two of them were still for a while; basking in the silence that covered their ears and bathing in the moonlight that flooded the cathedral.
         “Come,” Cecily finally said, breaking their hold.  “Let’s head to the White Light and get some sleep.  Tomorrow…we sail!”

Saturday, March 5, 2016

 OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 7: The Cost of a Quest

            Tarsus was captivated.  Malthanon stood before him, showered in the red-gold light of the setting sun.  From atop his horse, he marveled at this glimmering jewel of a city; one he had often imagined, yet one that proved to be greater and more beautiful than anything in his wildest dreams.
            At the center of it all was the most breathtaking construction: a palace so vast and so intricately built, that it must have been conjured by the GodKing himself.  Malthus’s castle stood three levels high: an oval dome at the bottom that was the GodKing’s cathedral, above that was the palace itself, and atop the palace was a majestic spire.  The spire shot so far into the heavens, that the top disappeared into the perpetual clouds that surrounded it.
            Tarsus had never been to Malthanon before.  He had always dreamed of settling within its walls; back when he was still fool enough to believe he would become a knight of the KingsGuard.  But Drake had shattered that dream a week and some days ago.  He suddenly wondered if he would see Drake while he was here. 
        He pushed that from his mind and focused on the city.  It was massive.  The sheer size of it awed him, and he couldn’t help but think of all the years it must have taken to grow into the mecca that it was.  He thought of all the different people living in the city; people from all walks of life, pursuing all manner of dreams.  This was not Briarden, where he was well known and well regarded by everyone, even for the shallowest talents he possessed.  Here, there were at least a hundred men just like him; all with the same talents, hopes and dreams.  They had been here for years, working hard toward what they wanted.  He thought of Drake again.  Faced with the enormity of this place, he could not deny his former friend’s blunt honesty: he had fallen far behind.
        But Tarsus felt something else too: a sense of home.  He didn’t understand why, but as vast as the city was he still felt a certain peace.  He felt as though he belonged here, even if he’d never been here before; and, he thought, may never return here again.



            In the very heart of Malthanon, swarms of people jostled and pushed past Tarsus, Cecily and Finnian without a word or glance.  It did not matter to Tarsus, though.  In fact, he didn’t even notice.  He was standing before the entrance to the largest seat of power on the western shore of Arden, and his eyes were affixed upward at the white-gold tower of the GodKing.  On either side of him, his friends stood with jaws equally slacked.
            “My neck is starting to hurt,” Finnian finally said, lowering his head.  “I’m off to see about rooms.  I think a warm bed is quite deserved after sleeping on the cold, hard earth for a week.”
            “Taverns are just down the main road,” Cecily told him.  “Most of them try and take advantage of visitors, only here to see the temple of Malthus.  Be sure you go to the White Light Tavern.  I know the owners there.  Tell them you’re one of my men.  They’ll give you a good price.”
            “One of your men,” Finnian said with a very strong air of sarcasm.  “Alright.  Though, speaking of price, will you be paying for our rooms?  Or meals?  Or…anything?”
            Tarsus swiveled his head forward and back up to look at the spire.  Across his face spread a smile wide enough for a tankard to fall into, had he opened his mouth and a tankard appeared out of thin air.
            “First of all, I expected us to share a room while traveling together.  Second of all, and third of all…no,” Cecily said.  She locked eyes with Finnian, daring him to pursue the matter further.
            “It’s just that…”
            And he was!  Tarsus couldn’t believe that Finnian kept talking.
            “Well…” Finnian shuffled.  “This whole quest is, um...for you.”
            “This quest is for the GodKing,” Cecily said sharply.  “Lord of this realm and creator of our forbears.  I think he deserves at least a little of your coin.”
            There was a moment of silence.  Out of the corner of his eye, Tarsus saw Finnian’s head dip.  That, he hoped, would be the end of this very uncomfortable conversation.
            “It’s just that…”
            And yet!
            “I don’t have much coin, you understand,” Finnian defended.  “So, if this quest is going to take more than ‘a little’ of it…I’m just not sure I can afford it, is what I’m trying to say.”
            “Are you getting married?” Cecily asked like a lion, leaping onto an unsuspecting gazelle.
            “No,” Finnian replied bewildered.
            “Have any children on the way?”
            “Ha!” Finnian laughed in that concerned way he would when he was reminded of something he’d rather not think about.  “I…doubt it?”
            “Are your parents ailing?” Cecily jabbed again.
            “No.  They’re both fine, Malthus be praised,” Finnian whipped a hand to his mouth.  He looked back at Cecily with guilty eyes.
            “Malthus be praised indeed,” she glowered back.  “Anything else to say?”
            “You’re such a delight to travel with, did you know that?” Finnian jeered as he waved a hand out behind him.  “Don’t you think so men?  Come on, three cheers for our captain, eh?”
            Finnian turned on his heels to look back at crowds of people just walking past.  Not one of them had stopped to acknowledge the young warrior’s strange behavior.
            “Oh, that’s right,” Finnian derided as he turned back to Cecily.  “No men.”
            She turned away in disgust and stormed off; pushing herself through the crowds and making straight for the temple entrance.
            Tarsus lowered his head and turned to his friend.  “Why do you always have to push her?”
            “That’s not fair,” Finnian cried.  “She pushes me first.  Besides, I’m only saying what needs to be said.  She could stand to be friendlier: to everyone.  It’s a long way from here to…wherever we’re going.”
            “We promised to go with her to the very end,” Tarsus said.
            “You promised,” Finnian clarified.  “I’m on this quest for one reason.”
            “Godhood?” Tarsus scoffed.  “You believe we’ll find Malthus’s sword and you’ll take his place?”
            “Don’t be stupid,” Finnian recoiled.  “I don’t believe there is a sword.  In fact, I don’t believe Malthus is dying at all.  The whole thing is ridiculous.  Though not as ridiculous as me becoming a god.”
            “I didn’t mean it that way,” Tarsus tried to clarify.
            “Yes you did,” Finnian interrupted.  He turned obstinately to look at the tower.  “Our first reaction is always the most honest one.”
            Tarsus was ashamed.  He had not meant to be careless.  He searched for something to say.  “Why don’t you believe Malthus is dying?  It’s not as though we heard it from a doomsayer or one of the would-be prophets that come through Briarden selling indulgences.  A god told us this.”
            “Gods lie too,” Finnian said simply, keeping his eyes on the castle spire.  “They’re no better than we are.”
            No one said anything.  Tarsus could only turn to the spire himself, and stew in the uncomfortable silence that his insult had caused.
            After a time, Tarsus felt his friend turn from his side and walk off.  He turned himself, spotting Finnian before the small man could disappear into the crowd.
            “Finnian!”
            Finnian turned back.  “What?”
            “Don’t take up the whole bed,” Tarsus smiled awkwardly.
            “I make no promises,” Finnian said with a grim expression. 
            The smaller man turned then, to head into the crowd.  Before his back was to Tarsus, the sunsword spotted a smile break out on the face of Finnian Pell. 
            That was something Tarsus always appreciated about his friend.  No argument or embarrassment went on too long before Finnian found a way to laugh about it.