Courage and Defiance

Though once I was a singer of tales, they were not very good, for I always put too much of my heart in them, and never enough (I was told) of calculation. Where others would captivate and entertain, I would only sing a simple song that bent its head as if in prayer before time and truth and love. It was all I could do, and all I wanted to do, and I don’t know why. I followed nature’s wild rivers and God’s glittering lights, and they led me into a land where I was alone.

I was neither afraid of my solitude nor unhappy about it, but, lacking an audience, I could no longer be a singer of tales, and I became what I am now, which is I don’t exactly know what. Perhaps I am a kind of sentinel. My little house is high on a hillside overlooking the village, and from only mediocre height it has a commanding view of the great march-lands and the Veil of Shadows. But though a sentinel, I do not merely watch. I wait, and I have formed an image of exactly what it is I hope to see.

Long ago, in the time of the old emperor, I was young and just beginning my profession. The usurper was there, and one could not escape his evil presence. With his inexhaustible schemes, numerous agents, and terrific powers he often seemed about to prevail, but the old emperor, who had been through many more battles than he, always held him in check. That there was a struggle between what was, in the main, good, and what was in the main, evil, and that time after time the good prevailed, made all the children born in my time believe that this was the natural order of things, that even if it took a great deal of effort, effort would always find its reward and the just would triumph, as would the innocent.

I still believe, which is why I am on a hillside waiting. And I certainly believed then, even as the usurper began to gain the upper hand. Surely, I thought, the crimes that bring him to power will soon bring him down. Waiting then, as now, I did not change my songs, as did the other singers who listened carefully to everything that was new, and soon I found that I was nowhere, they were everywhere, and the usurper had taken the throne.

Can you imagine my surprise the day that he sent for me? Why would he bother with a singer of the old songs? Why would he bother with me? But he did bother. He cared inordinately, as if his life depended on it, as if I were his most vexing opponent. This I could hardly believe, and not only was I flattered, I was so afraid that my heels shook as if in an earthquake. As soon as he began to speak, however, I realized that I need not have feared. Either he would kill me, and I would have eternal peace, or I would beat him with courage alone. Were he not actually three times my size, he certainly appeared to be, and this was multiplied by his rank and disdain.

“You are still singing tales in the old style?” he asked, his voice as sharp as the point of a lance and as deep as the beat of a drum.

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“Well,” I said, “times have been rather tough. I sang by a merchant’s campfire not so long ago. A caravan was taking empty lard cans to the nether outskirts of Zilna.”

“How many?”

“How many lard cans?”

“No, idiot! How many merchants?”

“One.”

“You said a merchants’ campfire.”

“Yes, a merchant, and his campfire.”

“You sang to one person? Isn’t that demeaning?”

“I’ve had worse.”

“You’ve had audiences of less than one?”

“My career has had its ups and downs. It is possible to sing to no one, and lately I’ve been doing that quite a lot.”

As if remembering his own difficult times, the usurper nodded. For my part I prayed that I would not begin to like him, although I cared very little if he like me or not, for I knew that even were he extremely fond of me he could have me dispatched as easily as cracking a pumpkin seed. He had passions, and he sometimes killed for them, but he killed most often and most vigorously out of calculation, for to him all of life was a battle, and the object of the battle was to conquer all.

“Why is it then, that my agents call you a threat?”

I suppose he wanted me to write my own dismissive obituary before he killed me, but, in defiance  I would not. “They tell you, Emperor, that I am a threat, because I am a threat.”

“Singing to a single merchant about to journey a thousand miles with a bunch of empty lard cans?”

“Even had I sung just to the cans themselves.”

“And how is that?”

“As long as I sing, a song is there. And if a song is there, someone might hear it and sing it to someone else, who would in turn sing it to someone else, and so on and so forth, until eventually it might become the anthem of the armies that will send you to oblivion.”

“Then I shall have you killed.”

“I was not expecting otherwise, and it hardly matters. My songs, though not very popular, will remain. The Damavand sing them even now. And someday their horsemen, riding at the head of the armies, will have cause to sing indeed. You are using actualities to fight potentialities, and that, Emperor, is a worse nightmare than any you can visit upon me.”

“We’ll see,” he said, in a voice so deep that the chalices shook.

I was expecting to die right then and there, but he said, “I order you to unravel your singing.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Unravel it!”

“Meaning, sir?”

“Your songs,” he said, impatiently. “Undo them.”

“I can’t. They’re already sung.”

“Then sing them again, differently. Sing them so that they are about me. Sing them so that when people hear them they will weep for my sacrifices and admire my powers.”

At this I laughed, which must have astonished him, knowing as he did what he had in mind for me. “I would not laugh if I were you,” he warned.

“Why not laugh?” I asked. “I know how you will torture me, but I know that I will not sing the songs as you would have me sing them. You might as well try to burn water, because I’m water, and water doesn’t burn.”

A Kingdom Far and Clear, “The Veil of Shadows” p. 205-11 Mark Helprin

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The Clock Tower

There before me, after all the darkness I had come through, was the kingdom’s most wonderful room. I stepped in, closed the door, removed my coat, and stood for a moment, forgetting why I had come, overwhelmed by pure observation.

I was as high above the ground as if I had been flying, as elevated as if on a summit in the first line of mountains, and yet I was in a vast room at the base of thirty stories of gleaming machinery that turned the hands of the four clock faces.

That which was not brass was gold; that not nickel, silver; that not glass, diamond or sapphire. The motive power for this machine, as the tutor had explained in what now seemed like the world before the world, was most extraordinary. A circular chain of platinum rods was draped over a geared wheel, all of gold, the size of a barn. Where the links of the chain were joined, a huge jewel the size of a melon was held in a mount. When the light of an electric arc pulsed through a battery of gems above and struck the jewels on the chain, the chain moved. The sequence had to be correct – sapphire to sapphire, diamond to diamond, emerald to emerald, and so on – but each burst of light pushed the jewels of the chain in a waterwheel of light.

As it moved, it generated the electricity that turned it, with much power left over. This, the tutor had said, was a perpetual motion machine, which, it is widely believed, could not exist. “But,” he told me, and I remember this as if it were ten minutes ago, “the whole universe is a perpetual motion machine, which is to say that the original push was inexplicable except as evidence of divine splendor. So, if the entire universe is one of these machines that supposedly cannot exist, and we are in fact living inside it, why not have another?”

“Because only God is capable of building it,” I answered, “not man.”

“Right,” the tutor said. “That we ourselves cannot build it goes without saying. That He can build it also goes without saying. It’s all very simple. Yes?”

“Yes.”

“Well, when we wanted another one, we asked for it.”

“You did?”

“It took someone far wiser than I, but it worked.”

“You mean, you asked God for a perpetual motion machine to power the clock, and it just appeared?”

“He sent it. At first He put it in the wrong place, but we revised our request and He moved it to the top of the tower.”

I had never heard of such a thing, and I told him so.

“Why is it so hard to believe?” he asked. “He set up the universe, the sun, the galaxies, physical laws, and all that. Why not a clock?”

“That’s wonderful,” I said.

“I know,” the tutor had answered.

A Kingdom Far and Clear, “A City in Winter” p. 165-66 Mark Helprin

“The Real Lesson of Love”

“And ’twill be when you understand that your idol has feet of clay that you’ll learn the real lesson of love,” said Blakeney earnestly. “Is it love to worship a saint in heaven, whom you dare not touch, who hovers above you like a cloud, which floats away from you even as you gaze? To love is to feel one being in the world at one with us, our equal in sin as well as virtue. To love, for us men, is to clasp the same woman with our arms, feeling that she lives and breathes just as we do, suffers as we do, thinks with us, loves with us, and, above all, sins with us. Your mock saint who stands in a niche is not a woman if she have not suffered, still less a woman if she have not sinned. Fall at the feet of your idol an you wish, but drag her down to your level after that – the only level she should ever reach, that of your heart.”

~Sir Percy Blakeney, a.k.a. The Scarlet Pimpernel

from I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy