Note: ME REX is an overture to Fall of Sin.
“Easy,” I commanded, pulling back the reins. Liberty’s canter receded in tempo until she halted for her master. I dismounted.
I craned my neck, following the lines of a living monument. The Great Pinewood Forest was before me now. A stronghold of evergreen bastions rose implacably to a sluggish, sullen sky; on either flank their reach was equally formidable. Ancient bark, rugged roots and verdant pineneedles, piqued with a rough yet homely scent, invited me in.
I obliged––on more grounds than a mere invitation.
Show them the authority of your palace, my mentor had once told me.
Palace? I had said.
You. Your black body. When your moment arrives, step on that stage––the stage of your destiny––and reveal unto them your black palace. The masses will be blinded. They will see you and never another.
But what if they yell for my head?
Only a few would be so insolent. The rest will be in terror! Even they will be in shock at the insolents’ insolence. Then end those few. Extinguish their burning flame so yours may forever thrive.
“The truth you spoke,” I said as I traveled between the bastions. “It was a strain that sung to you. You were the world’s first sage.” I did mourn him. There was something in my heart that could not seem to heal in spite of the time past. “You will be proud to know it was an insolent’s insolence.”
I walked, enjoying this vintage air until I had emerged within a grove. There, in a field of pinecones and four-leaf clovers, kneeled a slave. Two others were in attendance, though their roles were hardly above “helpers.”
I came before the white man letting my boot flatten a pinecone for effect. Here was a dastardly man in blindfolds. There was sweat clinging to his throat. His eyes were incapable of tears, so evidently his throat cried for him. It had begun to tremor.
I removed the blindfold. “What is it?” I asked.
His hands were wrestling with each other. He was struggling vehemently to break those locks; his entire body moved with him. It was like a dance.
“I suggest you keep still. You stand to only agitate your situation. I am certain those sliced calcanei can feel every prick of air.”
His miniscule body slumped. He groaned nonsense.
“Look at me,” I said.
He obeyed. In defiance without a doubt. His eyes were aflame and therein lied ambition, a fearless tell, but the ignorance of it could not be glossed over. That gag in his mouth and those sliced heels were difficult to mistake.
“Do you want my mercy?”
His eyes were unmoved. But pry for long enough and a man of his stature will concede. He wants mercy; death he fears. There can be no peace in one subsumed by hate.
“I sense myself pitying you. A morsel of the helping, but a morsel which could be your savior. Does that make me human now? Or am I still that monster which you exhort?”
I bent down on my knees to face him man to man, or eye to eye anyhow. “ ‘You’re a glosser!’ That’s what you yelled, among other things. For I was once the Tyrant’s possession, allegedly made by his hands, like a machine.” I rubbed my hands as his eyes drifted shamelessly while his thin lips bobbled. “But I’m one check less than a machine, I’m a ‘slave,’ the paradox being that even if I weren’t this ‘slave,’ I would still be a ‘slave.’ ”
I rose like a giant. I gave my hand, presenting a naked palm: the way to reconciliation. “What is it you see? Where is the threat?”
The slave looked away. My heart was scalded by heat but I stamped it out at once. I wanted to show him my mercy. As reckless as that may be, and as undeserving, I wanted to show him this mercy. I must show him his err.
“This can be your ‘arch of light,’ an unconditional redemption from La Madre through her finest disciple. Simply acknowledge me as your king.”
To bow his head, this was the homage due. That was all. But the head did not want to budge. Those eyes stayed away. My heart sank more than I would have liked. Why would he choose this?
I inched my hand closer––and he cringed. Without even looking, he cringed. And not of fear, no, disgust. That language was irrefutable. I was repellant. I was filth. Like all my kin before me, I was worth one single strike to his ethos: as chattel.
My hand shot forward with the velocity of a black mamba. I lifted him by his skinny little neck. To my lofty line of sight I brought him up. To glare into his eyes, into his parochial mind, I would have him feel me inside and out.
“I will not be ignored,” I seethed. I squeezed my grip ever tighter. I cared little for the blood, but my heart was beating to a tempo I could not monitor, a tempo in control of my passions. His fat, mortal eyes were bulging. Would they pop?
“Watch your feet, Philip.”
I discarded him into the pit before me, dug just for him. I shook my hands clean of his filth. His body squirmed like a worm under the sun. “What a waste. My first kill as king, and you have me expend it on you.”
I eyed the two figures on either side of the pit. Though their faces were robed their postures betrayed no empathy. Good. “Proceed.”
One poured in the human ordure, the other the maggots and rats. The coward wailed through his gag. I could feel the convulsions attack his sweaty throat and flutter up and down his shattered frame. I slid out my soltron from its holster, aimed, and pulled the trigger. His fate was just.
I looked up immediately. Sunlight was permeating through the leavening skies. These ancient evergreens were so elegant their staked tops did not stab but alleviate. How pleasant.
I looked down at a corpse. “The War rolls on. With me,” I said to my servants. It was time to leave this profanity. More to the point, it was the day of my coronation.
“Mil,” I said and locked my joints in an adamantine line. I stared down at nothing in particular, until I released and allowed my lips to kiss the wooden floor. The temperature pleased me. It was crisp but a grade of crisp that was invigorating, especially in days like these.
I stood up to inhale a simple slice of air. After a thousand push-ups I was no less fatigued than when I began.
I will never die, I thought with a grin on my face.
Was that hyperbole? Might it be cocky or impious impulses? I shook my head. It did not matter. Her Grace would forgive.
I took a single step forward and hovered before the basin at the corner. I might halve that granite with a modest flick of my middle finger, but the precious water within would be wasted.
“Tempus edax rerum?” I said.
I continued to look into the basin. The longer I looked the more I questioned who was inside. A man, certainly. His visage was on the outside red, an artificial layer of paint to mark his regal occasion, but underneath was something divisive, something dark.
It was “black.” They say it like it’s a sin. As well there was an intrinsic gloss attached to that black. Gloss was the mark of the Tyrant.
A double condemnation.
“Take your mask off,” he said.
Fear charged at me. Her black wings beat against my heart. “No. Nay,” I said. “I’ve come this far––only to deliver myself to oblivion by a self-inflicted stroke?”
“You have the stage, your lordship. The office in your gaudy paws. No longer must you ‘know your place,’ ‘play your role.’ ”
I stifled a laugh. “Do not give me your ignorance. There is always a ‘role’ to play. So I now have the power that was always due me, that does not entail an insolent hand. That power is nascent. It is green and a foundling. One slip, the smallest turn I offer on the curb of their minds, and they won’t hesitate to take it. Not at this stage.”
“You believe that?”
I felt my blood swiftly overheat. “My kin was borne without privilege––we weren’t granted a second chance!”
“So I have. What else is new? But I did not declare his death for all to hear, for them to judge fortune or fate. I stole him away like a thief, for none to see.”
“Yet two were near.”
I grinded my teeth. Her Grace his voice was nagging. “None will suspect their involvement. They were companions.”
I heard his silence ring in my mind. “Their service came with a price,” he said.
“No!” I spat out my fury, which sizzled in the water. “Let them receive their posts. I will grant them my word––then I’ll dice them. They are no greater to the service of life than that slave: puta leche.”
“Then you will have three missing.”
I stayed silent.
“You fear them. Why?”
I leaned forward with paws that clawed the sides of the counter. That visage was just like me, I swear it. Those masculine eyes were yet somehow frail; there was a crop of grass germinating on top of the pate, and then the denuded brows beneath. Not long ago the head was bare and the left brow full––by a master’s word. Now, with the power, it is his word.
Like me. “I fear no one,” I said. “I am fear. I am death.”
I took the basin in my hands and lifted it overhead. I poured the elixir down. Upon the plains and hills of my face the cold streams ran clean. The pain, that mutated gene, seemed to run with them, if for a moment, but a precious moment.
I felt a breeze waft through and stroke my side. I looked over my shoulder, then down. There at the threshold of my House was a soldier.
“My king. The stage be set. Your audience be at the bit.”
He was anxious. I was weightless. I was ready for my prize.
“To give is peace,” my audience intoned. “Give yourself peace.”
“You have the stage, my king,” said the master of ceremonies. “Tell us your thoughts. But first, if you will, take from the pot the holy soil and give it back with your divine hands.”
I stared down at the pot. The soldier who held it aloft, his arms were trembling, poor lad; they could not tolerate such basic weight. I dipped my hand into the pot and took from it the soil.
It was dry.
I rubbed the soil: flat and brittle, as expected, being pulled from the rock no less than three decades before. I smothered it, opened my palm, and after a mile it settled on the green.
I looked out at the field floating before me. The green was alive while beyond lay hillocks with an event horizon of conifers, though none as mighty as the Great Forest’s. On this stage where I stand, and to the heights that my body conquers, it all felt insignificant.
They say my body equals the wingspan of a golden eagle, and yet to the shrewd eye three inches were absent. Not even the lord of the skies could best me. Of the bodies that filled my vision, that stretched to the ends of the world, these people, these soldiers, were on their right knee.
In submission. I was their object, no longer the subject. The air had never felt this free. I was inhaling gold––at last!––in lieu of the bitter iron.
“As fine as gold is the soil of the land,” I said. “Nowhere else on this rock will it thrive this fine, this willing to adapt for the ambitious.”
Suddenly I looked at my hand. It was massive, even I had to admit, but the soil, the straggling granules that had latched on like leeches, seemed to shrink it by a few degrees. My eyes were deceiving me I was fully aware of it. But why?
Those eyes cut back to my audience. I continued: “The maps tell us this land is Magnesa pressed between the infinite main of The Atlas on the east, and the ethereal peaks of Lover’s Crest at the west. Each flank is a mighty impediment. Above us there is a wasteland, beneath us a lake fronting as a second ocean. Where might succor come to us? Are we truly on an island in this War?
“We are. This is no bolt from the blue. We live on an island inside an island, but next spring will have been two centuries of this interminable War.
“Our scutum is not married to another: there is no State, no hegemony, no confederation, no commonwealth of scutums and certainly no republic. It is we engaged against the Tyrant, Sin the carrion, with our camaraderie and our laws alone. None will save us from without save Our Lady.”
My hands shot out ahead of me. They were quaking with human fervor. “And I!” I exalted. “I offer hope in a hopeless world. Do you see?”
“I am man, not machine. I am capable of good as the rest of you. I am capable of terrible deeds no less; I am not immune. But I am divine. You acknowledge that from where I stand. You gave to me the Protectorate: the one and only Office. You need my wisdom, my ability to lead you beyond the known horizon. Do you see?”
I placed my paw over my heart. “See a man from now. Do not see this flesh and decry my humanity, to be valued less than your own, to be abused. I am not your chattel either. I am your king and your confidant, your conquistador and your brother; none of my kin could ever speak this truth, to their misfortune, cut low by either the War or the Disease.
“Then rest easy with this proof, soldier, and this envious knowledge, that you serve a scutum none more free than Red Battalion. Be prideful!”
Across the field my audience presented to their king custom reverence. I could feel the weight that had set over each pate. Solemnity spoke to me, yet so did concern inflamed by fear. What must I do to cauterize that beast and all her heads?
“The wreathbearer has returned!” shouted an intruder.
I spun to the south. The wreathbearer was with precarious steps, but he treaded a path onto my stage without incident. That precious wreath writhed in his foul hands.
“The Crown of Ivey,” I heard the master of ceremonies intone, my wreath since bestowed on his insignificant person.
Had he heard my thought? Good on him if he had. The longer he chose to draw my patience, dining his eyes on my wreath, stroking and prying it as though it were his possession, no saint would visit him tonight. He could not neglect his new master. Doubtful if his blanched face had not bleached his blood.
The master of ceremonies stood beside his master: a boy to a giant. He cleared his throat as a refreshment, then, to my audience: “Behold!” My audience beheld for the customary moment, three counts. “With this Crown will I inaugurate our new king. Naysayers! Holler if you have cause!”
A formality. None would object. That thorn had been pruned. So he scanned a sea of complaisance until his eyes floated back to me. Did he want to cry?
“My king . . . if you would.”
I dropped to my knees and lowered my great head. I was ready. I was vibrating. But once in my long life had I chewed on this confection, and still it was as sweet, more to be sure. I could die. But why succumb to the White’s scimitar, of primeval death, at this stage?
“What is the highest rubric of the land?” he began.
“Is the Code unavoidable? Is it inviolable?”
“It is both.”
“And will you obey it?”
“Will you do the same for human law?”
“This oath you swear?”
“Do you acknowledge Our Lady, The Holy Mother of the rock, man’s right hand in this life and beyond, and whose lover is passioned Hijo, as your Lady and La Madre?”
“Do you acknowledge the Code as Her instrument? To instruct our lives for the betterment of man?”
“Say Her name.”
“And is She foul?”
“Is She a deceiver?”
“Then you will deceive us?”
“I will not.”
“You will take the time and walk the way of the virtuous before you? A spirit made wholly of justice, courage, piety and temperance?”
“And will you dice those who walk with a limp, who talk greed?”
“With extreme prejudice will you uphold our scutum’s honor?”
“With uncompromising prejudice.”
“In my virtues and in my pride.”
“Your faith in our scutum you place?”
“Never will I forsake this shield.”
“And who do you serve, my king?”
“Never!” He jumped. I was impatient and growing more. Give me my Crown, you fool!
He composed himself as best the fool could. He continued: “You place your hand over the Sigil as you do over your heart?”
“I do!” I shouted the affirmative for the world to hear.
“Tell Her, my king . . .” His timbre was precipitating. This was torture for his soul, no less than the realization of a nightmare. I grinned. “Tell Her our creed. Seal your words and make it official to us . . . for Her.”
I said with burgeoning pride: “ ‘Devotion is our force guiding, self-sacrifice is our spirit innate, by precedent do we reveal, through steadfastness do we prevail!’ ”
“Then by the will of Our Lady, whose eyes look down upon us now, you are hereby pronounced king of Red Battalion.” The chaste leaves of the Crown touched my skull and I breathed. How glorious: the air did not fight me. “As the legitimate king the office of Protectorate is yours, and with it the title of Commissar. You are the forty-fourth Commissar of this undying scutum. Heleux was our first, may you not be our last.”
He turned on stubborn feet. “Soldiers! Stand all and greet your Commissar!”
“Ave, rex!” they yelled.
My audience was on its feet and they were rigid like bone. I could hear teeth chattering in the air, drilling down the enamel. I was something like a specter to these soldiers, a source of disbelief and terror, ultimately, an exemplar of ghastly change. Henceforth this scutum was in my hands, they realized, and either I was to be its greatest fortune, or I would be its ruin.
But I was subjected to the moment for my own personal reasons. I grabbed at the yellow cape on my back and pulled it over my left flank. For an abstract sense of shelter? I knew not. I simply performed the gesture and felt a subtle release granted. A hidden agent had pulled on world-weary strings, reinvigorating them.
I rubbed my mouth. I felt something poke at the bottom of my throat. Surely it could not be bile. Organic matter was clutter for one––this one––who never ate. But water was another matter. He was alien who did not drink from the fountain of life.
“Harken!” I barked religiously. “I am your Commissar, indeed. Neither your eyes nor your ears, not that mood you feel when something is awry––no, not one of these senses is sensing a phantom. Magnella has selected her apostle. She exposed it unto your minds, for she is supreme. Do you, as a mortal, affect to know more than she?”
I paused to judge my audience’s eye: the pupil was saturated with concern. My following lines had to be judicious. “ ‘Revolution is neutral in nature. It is the only outlet liable to affect meaningful change.’
“The point in history at which we stand is full of promise, yes, even failure. Being neutral, revolution, like a hurricane, will swing its currents in any which direction. At this point we reside in the eye, the only point of balance and observation, after which the currents will deliver the land––not merely us––into unity and well-being, or it will further regress.
“Nearly ten scores ago Our Mothers and Fathers met this eye when they rebelled against Sin. And here we come to it again. For mankind’s freedoms they sacrificed their lives so upon one dawn, whether for you, your children, or your good-children might look upon a land of possibility: one absent of toil and stringent caste, to say nothing of war.
“Now we carry on their War as if it were consecrated. We have come to a field far from the South where our ancestors began. Unlikely they ever foresaw this migration, but our scutum is not the crusader of these seasonal movements. In spite of those others who scurry heedless like a derelict, we came with purpose.
“By way of a rebirth, but principally, by way of she. No longer could Our Lady stay idle and allow this glorious scutum to die. It was dying; your heart knows this if your head yet refuses. But this scutum is her only child, and as La Madre, the Best of Mothers, she protects her child.
“She decides that a pile”––I hurled my fist down in an arch––“be driven straight at the eye of revolution. That pile cuts into the present order, and where one side you have the past, the other is the future. Within the eye this pile defines that present: it stamps the distinction between what was and what could be. Fundamentally, does another order for man matter than the present?”
I paused to rub the sill of my throat where I felt the poke. It was wedged, or so it seemed, as though between two opposing forces. I cleared my throat and continued: “What is the present?
“A confusion amongst polarities, of legend and prognosis. He sees the present yet subsists on the traditions of the past, while searching endless for a secure way to the future. A practice in futility, among others. He cannot simply live in the now.
“So you see me. What is your prognosis? Better still, which tradition does your mind draw from?” I swiped my hand upon my cape, what was rather inappropriate, but if I had not noticed, as I had not until after the fact, neither had they. This discrepancy was the least of their concern. “I know which it is. My life.”
I strolled across the front line of my stage before my audience. Back and forth I walked that line, wanting to feel them and their feelings as close as I might. “On a tree they bound me, a magnolia tree with black rind and white feathers. I was dead. I had been diced by a headshot by one born Decon, a gaffer with one eye, to add brine to the wound, victor of the running test to slay ‘the glosser with scars,’ or, and I suppose diminutively, ‘rooster.’ They believed my body could not burn, and burial was for those with souls, but what the fire could not do and the soil would not allow, the wind should?”
I shook my head, casting the insanity aside. “For thirty days and thirty nights I was limp, until on that final night, on the closing act of the winter mocks, a blue moon revealed herself over my head. Her ‘corruption’ infected my wound, and conspiring with what little fluid remained, relit my corpse. Mortem Ex, ‘From Death,’ became my new fame.
“They kept me near humans as a trophy. Foremost as an exemplar of treading anathema. This is my damned past.”
My audience was looking over their Commissar with mooneyes. Fear, regret, animus, wonder; in a perfect circle it coalesced to form the mood in their eyes. I had them on tiptoe, and that I preferred, but I would rather avoid the possibility they cross their line and rush at their king.
“From Death” I might be, if I could die once, twice might be the charm. Indeed, enough heads coming together would make certain my second coming was void.
I stopped my prodigious frame at center stage. “Tell me, am I the real boogeyman? Was my kin all that evil that we came for you in the dark as you slept? Did we steal your children, mutilate your genitals, or burn your flags in retribution?
“Were we that agent?
“Were we most like hacks, never to receive, and only to take? Does my face and flesh speak to punishment, in lieu of compassion? Do I appear as though I have no memory and can express no adequate emotion of your understanding?
“Is that the animal I am?
“What does the present show you, soldier? That I am your king.
“Now what of tradition? That I am a violation of she.
“How, I ask, can one be both divine and cross at the same instant? Hmm . . . sounds blasphemous.
“So we reach an impasse . . . but do we?” I huffed. I brandished my stupendous chest in a brilliant act. “You see the pile. The past is on your left, to the south, where although there was prosperity, the truth was gilded for your convenience until it was your boogeyman, for it lied to you by imbuing fear. Yet you overcame its greed. You see the pile.
“Look to your right, to the north”––gleefully, their heads turned in unison––“there the truth is unadulterated. There the present will thrive, be relit, and where the future will have no want of attention. And there is your only hale prognosis of the future: its absence from the mind.”
The pig bellowed. With that roar she had officially unsheathed her chiseled grey tusks for her human contender to feel. She was well aware of her predicament, not unlike all mammals when hemmed in a corner, when their security could no longer be guaranteed.
I was curious to see how she would perform with her second contender of the night. With merely a five-minute interval between, she was a bit withered. But her zest was not so easily doused. She would prove to be mightier here.
The hog charged. Her contender juked fast but kept his balance. Good. He maintained his distance but skulked ahead by a step. She stamped her hoof into the turf; the second stamp was defiant. I reckoned the air enjoyed that: it spiked in quality.
The contender smacked his blunt hands together. For a mortal, I suppose the effect was adequate. “Pade see you,” he said. “Tink ya can smash ’e?”
I bit on my strong upper lip. Southern speak was repulsive. Language was an art, whereas most believed––ignorantly––it was as much a war to fight as the War itself. For three and a quarter decades we had subsisted on the waters of the Spiritmark, half a world away from the South, but evidently that wasn’t sufficient time to smooth the ruts. That would change.
The pig squealed and charged. The contender yelped––in pleasure. For a human he had good eyes; however, the torches at the perimeter of the corral were no firebugs. He catapulted over the rampaging hog––with his thin and elongated frame that was expected––but then he spun on a heel and dove at the hog.
He was on her. An iron jab in the ribs only riled her further. He would not contain her fury much longer.
He set the tag and he was off, dancing around like a cerdo in his pomp. Meanwhile the pig was quickly subdued by the auxiliaries and removed from the corral, whereupon she was escorted to her cárcel. Her meats would make a savory dish come feast.
The games concluded, the corral was disassembled and the field bulged once more with its servants: my audience. The contenders stepped before their king. Two had faced the wild hog, two had tagged the beast.
The torchbearers beside them illuminated a savage and a fellow. I crossed my right leg over the left and stroked the side of my jaw. On my throne I subsided, on top of my stage of oak.
“Commissar, El conquistador, who’s got the first of cuts?” said a servant beside me.
Whom shall I judge? I wondered. It was an unequivocal pick. The victor was rightfully the swiftest to tag, and the victor was my fellow.
But there were secondary tags that took precedent, unseen but no less conditioned to the rigors of culture. These could not be casually dismissed. This scutum was darker than blood, and thus, as was the sleepless norm, the fairest skin was the lightest skin. The rest were munitions. Despite my ascension, for now, better to rule with the white majority.
I rose on creaks and stretched my left hand at the white man. “Ringneck.”
The savage smiled, revealing a panorama of blasted teeth. He crossed his right hand over his chest. I was smoldering inside: from my judgment, by the greasy irreverence this churl provided. “My Commissar!” he spat out.
My audience roared its approval. I looked upon my fellow below, withholding the empathy I felt within. His flesh was no darker than mine, sans the gloss. And yet we stood on opposite banks. “You performed admirably, soldier. You will not rest on a wounded pate tonight.”
He bowed with his right arm crossed. “El conquistador. Thank you.”
Every man, strive as he might against it, is partial to his identity; the pride that comes with it. But add society’s mess to the pot, humans being human, and identity reveals its prejudice, inflaming wounds passed by generations: those racially charged. He was furious. I had picked white and now he would now abhor me for my judgment. What else was new?
A pit of coal was stoked before me down across the wizen turf. It cracked and spewed out tongues. Onstage came two torchbearers to stand beside their king. Whether ahead or abreast was fire. But an immortal could walk among this element.
I spread my rangy arms before me and said: “As we await the prodigal sun, the palace in the sky, yea, for the grand Feast, allow me not to recite the history of our preeminent scutum, but to invoke the mind of the insightful Allecto. Upon his ascension he requested of his graceful soldiers three questions of their choosing. He sought to reassure them from the loss of Heleux.
“What was that trinity?” I analyzed my audience’s eye for a prick of a moment. “There are numerous accounts, yes? Variety appears to favor the famous.
“However, the account is not the matter. That would be a debate of opinion, and as exciting as that might be, the deed is the matter. I seek to imitate his generosity. So, without ado, ask me.” Five suffocating pillars were affixed to my hands. From one I displayed a trifecta. “Three.”
I spied, and I waited. Had I misspoken? None were forthcoming. Cowards! Does my igneous image petrify them in the dark?
But the air, she whispered to me; she gave to me the skinname. “Slew!” I said. “Yes, you there, soldier, I see you. I can see in the night as in the day, no? You want to ask me, so step forward and ask me. I shall deliver unto you the answer.”
His eyes danced in the glowing night, having been singled out from the crowd, a man exposed to inquisitive eyes like pricks. They shrunk him till he was no more a man but a boy. Of a grown male so white it was delightful.
“Yeah––” he croaked.
“Step forth, soldier. Here, before the coals.”
With legs seemingly rebuffed by toxic coils the boy betrayed ever more of his insecurity. He was a meek boy whose mind had strayed, filling his head with cortisol and other things, nasty things to be sure. He was thinking in terms of ultimate castigo: death, expulsion. Fifteen paces from the throne he had slogged toward his king.
“Ask me,” I said.
He rubbed the base of his woody throat. I felt something creep in my own. Damn him. What was this nuisance?
“Yesum, my––” His jaw locked. He swallowed. Those were the last drops of his machismo downed. “Commissar, The Lastin’ Virtue––”
“Certainly,” I said, shorting him for his speech. His barbarous slur vexed me. It was Lasting. “That is our scutum’s second title.”
“Duh bashest. But, The Lastin’ Virtue, it get ta The Splendid South ’gain, Commissar?”
I frowned. Of all the questions one could ask, and he opens with one with a stiletto in its throat! It had no fight. No spice. This was selfish desire for the sake of desire. Nevertheless, I was bound to answer him.
“ ‘All ways lead to the Heart,’ so the saying goes,” I said. “That Heart pumps the many veins across the North, and if it is that vital, would not the Spiritmark, down to the deep South, feel its fall? Do we abandon such a seductive destination having just marched our way to this bountiful mother?”
His eyes were wide and stupid. I doubt if he felt the heat of the fire push against his head and so attempt to awaken him to his ignorance. He better served himself in the dark.
“This scutum owes its chops to that mother where the sun never rests. It was nurtured from her bosom, molded by the abrading winds that blow from her lips. The Splendid South is never barred from my heart. One day we may return as I do find myself wandering down alleys my feet once trod. The spirit holds dear these ancient ways. It searches for them as if they were prophetic.”
He smiled. I mimicked that simple gesture. Let him believe it if he grasped my speech. Let them all believe it if they would. “You may step back, soldier. Return to your line.”
He bowed, tenuously, with his right arm slacking across his chest. He slinked from my sights. The coals cracked. If Nature was signifying her displeasure, and right that she would, I would have to appease her. In the days of old, blood would have sufficed.
“Who will take the middle?” I said. “You see the dawn is nearing, ergo the Feast will commence in time. Step forth, soldier! Ask your question.”
Yet as a unit they stared mindlessly. I was growing impatient. Why had I been allotted such curs?
“I got one,” said a cozy voice.
The air led me to his rancid orifice. “For whom?”
Not at once, he said: “My Commissar.”
Here was a robust man, double the size of those little men beside him in both height and mass, perhaps his excuse for excusing my title. He felt airs. But he was made from cottonwood. His roots were shallow while the column that supported his back was brittle. A wonder they skinned him “Grips.”
He marched. I smirked inside at his affected gait. There was always one from the pack who had to flaunt, a particular male who judged himself the alpha in his thick pate, but underneath he knew who the true alpha was, and could do naught against him. He stopped before the coals. He was so fragile, so desperate to keep the mask.
“What’s the face of the Tyrant?”
Without a speck of compunction, he had let it fly. A rather savory enquiry compared to the lard that was the overture. He looked dumb, and to a overweening measure he was, but evidently there was a cache of wisdom, or a want for wisdom, in his pate.
I said: “One vision comes to our minds: of a vindictive gaffer, withered and wrinkled to a prune, or thereabouts, with seven rings for seven fingers like claws clenched. But what is he clenching, our soul? The collective, human soul?”
I shrugged. “It is the general theory––but there are others.” I looked down at my pretentious subject. He was tilting from side to side, as if, inexplicably, I had tapped him into a trance. With my breath I might shatter him. “This soldier, he did not enquire about the obvious, he sought the taproot and its succulent knowledge.
“I will cut from that root, just a bite, and so tell you the true face of the Tyrant. But before I do, I must preface said question with another. Before I answer ‘what face?’ I must first answer ‘what is?’ What is the Tyrant?
“Of course the Tyrant is Sin. Sin is the ultimate evil, but that will not do to bridge the principal connection to the man behind all our suffering. The Tyrant is he who turns the irrational on its head and makes it the rational; the rational becomes irrational. His duty is to invert knowledge from the role of guardian to the role of heretic––but guardian for himself to aggrandize his cult––and with its success sluice our self-determination. Man now is his dog to teach whatever he will; the consequence is the world in which we live today.
“Now we may answer, ‘what face?’ First let us analyze his features––
“The eyes appear as two but one is all that functions, the nose is a beak that siphons the precious knowledge, the forehead is oiled by the prejudices he subsists on, the cheeks sink by the weight of his own cruelty, and the thin lips, which hide the pernicious tongue, smile in contempt.
“The whole? A face called retrogression: a swipe from under hurtling all from freedom toward poverty.
“There is the face of the Tyrant. It is a symbol of retrogression through the articles of tyranny. For progress is the habit of all free things as it is buttressed by knowledge and therefore a climate in which no tyrant can survive. He survives by manipulating the system.
“You see, retrogression is the chain of a phobic son who sees out of a single eye: the eye of plenty. Plenty for his hubris, none for his pathos. He is the center of everything.
“Those who oppose him are the meek. They deserve whatever fortune is designed, preferably by his hands, and though his loyalists are his pride, they fundamentally are no more than his puppets. He may exploit them to his heart’s content.”
My subject below me looked as if he had spotted a ghost, but my eyes soon left him for someone else. They were besmitten by the coming dawn.
How? I had borne witness to this experiment for centuries––and yet I felt something distinct. An internal phenomena was assaulting my body, pulling me down, making me nauseous. I wrested the optical reigns and whipped them back at my audience.
They were anxious. I was inclined to agree with their general mood. My subject had overstayed his welcome. “You may return to your line . . . soldier.”
I had no further interest in him. I was in search of the end man. Who would take this surely coveted role? The air desired someone unusual, I knew it, but someone “controversial.”
“One final question remains,” I said. I stroked the left side of my face. There was a lightness expanding in that kingdom. I was “dipping,” as those soldiers would say. Now I was being harried in the head with the grinding in my gut?
My eyes dove into the crowd as if having been pulled on strings by rugged hands. This voice was tender. It was feminine. For the moment I was lifted from my cerebral anemia.
“I have the question!” she said.
I had no need to spy my audience to recognize their disbelief. Here was a woman who had given her voice and so spat on a man’s last word, stepping from the rear to the principle where a sea of bulls towered.
The coals glowed. The fire fluttered with vivified heat. So Nature approved of this one, and I could see why. She stopped a single pace from the pit.
“What is your question, soldier?”
“I need to know, my king and conquistador, what’s a lie? I mean––” She shuffled her feet. It was but for a glancing second. She had them rooted into the turf with assurance, unlike her manly predecessor. “A true lie. What is a true lie, Commissar?”
I smirked inside, though my audience was unenthused, to say the least. If they were not flaring their nostrils, they were certainly flaring their opinions––as passive-aggressively as required. This was not the finality they sought. This was a woman’s wanton prattle!
That is, to the flatulent mind it was. She had assuredly been harkening to my words. I wondered if her youth inspired her audacity to appear before me. Inexperience, or maybe just unabashed insolence, engendered a liberal attitude for once with little concern for the laws of the mass . . . or maybe it was something else I knew. I stroked underneath my chin to ponder the answer I already held.
“A true lie, you ask? Hmm . . . a challenge you put forth, but I do have suspicion of the answer. A lie comes in three amounts: the lesser, the wicked, and, as you mentioned, the true, or more precisely, the spell.
“A lesser is harmless, though the affected would wail off otherwise. The wicked picks off as few or as many as it pleases; however, unlike the lesser it is destructive upon revelation. By contrast, the spell might never be revealed.
“A spell is insidious. Often it is inserted into the mind the moment that mind is able to retain any content. It is like a tapeworm, albeit it does not impair, not physically, not even mentally, for the host is oblivious to it. But it does take something from its host.”
I grabbed a quick second to observe my audience’s eye yet again. They were tense to the point of being erratic. I smiled.
“It takes his capacity,” I said. “Capacity is a marvelous yet underappreciated agent, for capacity allows him to think freely at all times under all occasions. But once a counter is offered that runs against what the spell preaches, his capacity is dethroned, usurped by opinion, which is oft abusive. His mind has no tolerance for that counter now that capacity is the vassal.
“The spell hypnotizes. It flatters the host into believing one thing over the other, naturally the truth, but a spell seldom releases its victim. Unless the victim can come to his senses on his own strength, it will not. The victim dies by the spell, believing its obscenity till the end. He dies in vain.
“And if the host does come to his senses? Then the spell is revealed as the wicked lie it is. The host is free. A new path is revealed before him––but, remember: all freedom comes at a levy. Then he must pay that levy with his blood: for his soul, and for those whom he loves.”
She nodded. Behind attentive blue eyes she had nodded as I spoke. Did she understand?
Absolutely not. One morn, however, Her Grace as my unerring witness, someone will. If it demanded another century of my life to achieve, ’one will. I said: “You may return, my soldier.”
She bowed before her king, her right arm crossed over her chest in the typical honor, but what was a firm line. There was no internal affront to the gesture. There was nothing to conceal. It was an act of sincerity.
“My Commissar,” she said.
Her voice was tender in more than one regard. Tender for her king? It was beautiful until I felt a breeze creep from behind my glorious back. It had hands that brushed across my head, stimulating the leaves of a Crown that lay on top. That was my crown.
I was either falling ill for the first time in my life, or strange emotions were manipulating me. The world was spinning! I could do naught against it nor the dawn which my blasted eyes could not divorce. The cruel dawn stabbed at the prows of my eyes until they staved. Tears fell. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I plopped on a knee and vomited whatever was in my throat. It was vile, and yet it was cathartic. My yoke was what it appeared to me.
For I was king at last. I was leader of men who served no man, no more.
by Julius Athens