The drowned man made his pleas for mercy as pitiful as possible.
“Please, my masters – I have children! I have children! How shall they eat if I am gone? My wife, how shall she support them?”
His words fell on uncaring ears.
The apathetic ears only this world could produce.
Zen Barr’Zen sat on a nearby sand dune, watching the procession as The Drowned Man was shoved to his knees. Other natives had come to watch as well – voyeurs, lingering on the outskirts. Watching, judging, but never acting. This was what generations of great warriors and mighty kings had produced – emotional, gossipy peasants.
He despised them.
Consequently, Zen realized he wasn’t raising a finger to help the wretch. He sat on his sand dune, nibbling on a loaf of hard bread. A mouse, then, nibbling and watching… waiting for the cats to leave so it could scrounge up the scraps.
Mice never played hero for other mice.
He liked to tell himself this understanding of his true cowardice made him better than the rest. The fact he could acknowledge his weakness… that was a strength. Too many people spent their lives running away from their flaws – telling themselves their own grand tales of some sort of hoped for righteousness.
Zen knew exactly what he was. A coward. A do-nothing. A large, fleshy paperweight.
A mouse, nibbling on scraps.
The kind of man who would watch another man die, while eating a bit of old, hard bread.
The guards dragged the Drowned Man down the slick sand of the beach – his heavy knees drawing thick lines to mark his passing.
On the border of the beach, Zen’s fellow citizens formed a line. A ritual at this point. They would hold a midnight vigil. They would light candles. They would sing songs to old gods and beg for the man’s soul to be forgiven for his trespass.
A trespass they couldn’t understand or determine whether or not to condemn.
What had the man done, really?
Zen used vestiges of sunlight to analyze the man. His haggard figure, with little enough bones to leave a dog content. Nondescript clothing even the local tramps would probably turn their noses up at. His skin seemed dark from hard, bitter days working under the lash of a hot sun. His hair was a long, impenetrable knot of curls. His face was caked with dirt, making it difficult for Zen to determine whether was young, old… It didn’t matter.
In ten minutes, he’d be a dead, and very clean man.
Zen snorted, a dry laugh crumbling in his throat.
He remained fixed in place, letting a mouthful of bread saturate with saliva on his tongue before chewing. He hated hard bread. It hurt his mouth when all the tough bits started stabbing the tender layer of pink flesh on the roof of his mouth.
Ahead, the Drowned Man was taken to the edge of the surf. Salty, foamy water surging around his knees as the guards let him fall heavily into the roiling cauldron of slick, grey sand.
The sun had averted its gaze, slipping behind the horizon – leaving only the last wisps of golden color in the sky to swim in a great sea of burnt orange, streaked with swirls of magenta.
Shadows grew long as the first Executioner spoke.
His finery was clear for Zen to behold – the copious gold embellishments, the meticulously applied paint around the eyes to signify authority and wisdom among their people, the expertly tattooed pattern of intersecting suns on his bicep.
He was an officer of the highest echelons, come to execute a farmer.
“PLEASE!” the man screamed.
He writhed and jerked against his captors.
The High officer’s assistant’s face seemed to barely register annoyance, until his thick fist collided with the Drowned Man’s face. A heavy crack rolled across the onlookers.
The bread was very stale.
“Viznetti Fuzra,” began the high office, standing like a great, proud crane. His back was towards the weeping, bleeding mass of soiled humanity on the shoreline. Their prison had simply resigned himself to rolling around desperately, “You have said ill words of our Holy Emperor – the true lord of the blessed city of Kaskadin. Upon these very grounds, Our Lord, Tevuz, stepped forth from his great mother the sea… and gave to one man a holy baptism.”
The officer was an orator. Zen saw his flourishes, heard the inflections. Zen could see the crowd succumbing to him – seduced by his oratory, awed by his precision.
They remembered jumbled snatches of The Harangue. This man could recite it front to back.
“This first sanctified man… this first who received the cleansing of Tevuz… he built with his own divine hands the great city at your back – a city your crimes have made foul. A man whose great work you have sullied. When you spoke in your sinful words of the holy emperor, you spat on the descendant of the man who built for you your home… and your father’s home… and your father’s father’s home!”
Zen had seen other drowned men. They always varied in their final moments. Some fought tooth and nail – biting, screaming, and threatening until the very end.
Others went quietly. Zen thought it was a dying man’s desperation – a last gamble to convince them he was good. Only frightened, evil men feared meeting their lord. Right?
He had never seen a one that deserved what waited for them in that cold, deep void of ocean.
He even remembered short, soft hair, framing a Cherubic face, and tiny wrists – so small rope had to be used instead of manacles. Ropes that chafed, and gave new ferocity to the cruel bite of the salty waters.
“Upon his first visit to these lands, Holy Tevuz met a second man – the heretical brother of his chosen apostle. And he said unto him, ‘I bless thee, my son,” the orator gesture.
The Drowned Man’s Guard jerked his manacles, hauling the weeping man into the hungry maw of the sea.
“I forgive thee, my son,” the orator intoned reverently, eyes closed as he slowly knelt toward the horizon of watchful citizens.
The guard released the man, but drew his sword and drove him further into the water. Out and out until the heat of the sun turned him into a hazy silhouette.
“I cleanse thee, my son.”
A great, rolling wave came… and the man vanished beneath the surf.
The guard returned from the ocean, standing beside his orating officer. He dripped sea water and the sand around him darkened.
In the distance, Zen thought he saw something bob to the surface and sputter. Then it was gone, carried away on a wave.
The last fragments of sunlight pierced through a swollen, maroon sky. A gull squawked, a few of them congesting in the distance, circling something near the distant edge of the ocean, where earth and sky came together.
The orator and the guard mumbled a few prayers.
Then, they were gone. Walking off the beach, back towards the towering, white glassy walls of Kaskadin, which mirror the roaring sea. The seat of the Holy Empire. The place built by the First Blessed – the First Emperor.
The wall of men and women slowly dispersed, each giving a final glance back towards the ocean.
Zen slid from his sand dune, walking towards where the Drowned Man had been returned to their god.
“I wish for still seas and a sleepy sun to build for you a bed, my friend,” Zen knelt, setting his half-eaten loaf into the water.
A wave rolled past his ankles, spraying his face. He sighed and turned to leave, pausing to examine the sand.
The man’s drag marks from earlier were gone – washed away by the tide.
The Drowned Man was still just washing out to sea when the citizens of Kaskadin surged into the tavern, throwing about coin and demanding ale.
Zen was late to join them, lingering on the beach longer than normal, watching the waves roll onto the shore… crashing, spreading, and retreating over and over. A man had just died where he stood and the world kept turning. It didn’t even blink. The sun did not darken to mourn him; the skies did not pour rain to weep for him.
He was dead and adrift.
After contemplating for a bit, Zen ambled through the streets, following the crawl of the crowd to its ultimate destination.
Despite being full when he got in, he had found a nice spot in the corner to tuck himself in and watch the motley gathering, just far enough away from the candles to obscure himself… but able to see the how the patrons were getting along.
Specifically, how drunk they were getting.
He tapped the splintered bar, pressing his back against a creaking wooden panel. The stool beneath him screamed in protest at the angle.
The bartender – a rotund, jowly man – limped towards him. “Blessed to receive you, my brother,” he dipped his head in the usual, perfunctory way. “But I am not surprised. Like a vulture you come out when there are dead things only, Zen.”
He placed a damp, overflowing mug of warm beer in front of him. Zen smiled, touching his eyebrow and gesturing, “You are truly sprung from a most rapturous and holy effulgence, Master Tyrus.”
Tyrus the bartender grinned, a row of mottled yellow teeth glistening grimily in the grungy light. The whole room, crammed full of shadows and sweat and stink… The light stayed, but the brightness was muted just by the great gaggle of besotted shadows.
“Took you a bit, eh? I expected you in here first, before the rest of them. Man usually taken his first gulp sea water and I find you over here, waiting for the prey, sly fox you are.” Tyrus leaned his heavy, hairy arms on the counter. Greasy red hairs splayed across his wet forehead.
Zen shrugged. “I left bread for him, the poor, daft bastard.”
Tyrus stared at him strangely a moment, the swell of his tongue rubbing at one of his teeth appearing above his lip. “I never took you for a religious man, Zen Bar’Zen. Particularly bumpkin religious.”
The crowd exploded with laughter – Zen caught sight of one of Tyrus’s tavern wenches holding a mug of ale between her breasts, leaning forward and letting a man drink from the cup.
Zen tsked, grabbing the frothy, pungent smelling mug Tyrus had set near him. He took a gulp, letting the bitter young brew wash down the crumbs of dry bread from earlier.
“I’m not. But look about – nobody else is, either.”
And he did look… thinking.
Men rejoiced in the death of other men. That’s something he had come to terms with some time ago.
Good, bad, or somewhere in between… there was a certain electricity that circulated when someone died. A medley of solemnity, melancholy, ebullience, and concupiscence.
Their guard went down as their need to express their ephemeral grasp of life grew.
It made grave robbers out of every pickpocket and harlot in the city.
Zen always found it odd, but Zen’s place wasn’t to comment. It was to observe and pick the pockets of those who did not guard their precious things. Just like rusted and broken horseshoes fed the children of the blacksmith, Zen fed himself – and the local ‘talent’ – on the unguarded coins of men seeking some higher calling… some escape from their lot in life.
Next week, any of them could be the ones dragged out to that beach, knees buried in the sand. Next week, any of them could be baking beneath the sun, floating in the salty stew of the sea, feeding the gulls.
This was the way of life in the Holy City of Kaskadin. Life in the Divine Empire of Tevuz, under the sanctified shadow of a blessed emperor.
None of them had ever seen the emperor. They’d only seen deaths spurred by speaking ill of him. Such was the way.
You would think, at this point, they would have learned. That executions would be rare calamities, not as regular as a weekly mass. How many generations grew up with the stern warnings from their parents?
Speak no ill of the Holy One… their mothers and fathers had said.
Or you’ll receive the blessing…
Most of their parents had said that. But not Zen’s.
Run, my son, run!
He could still hear it, from time to time. The whistling howl of the dogs, the sharp, piercing snap of twigs under unshod feet as his small body raced through the forest, leaving a thin trail of blood behind him.
Could still see the contorted shadows in his cabin, writhing and falling by candlelight.
“APOSTATE,” someone screamed…
A patron hollered at the other end of the bar. With a nod, Tyrus moved away, “How can I serve you today, my good sir?”
Zen looked up from the glassy surface of his beer, the foam now melted away. In the middle of the tavern a man had jury-rigged himself a podium of chairs. He stood ontop of them, flourishing his arms in a mockery of the orator from the beach.
Except this bedraggled speaker held none of the predatory beauty of the executioner. None of the serpentine terror, the feline grace. He was just a drunk peasant. And at that moment, he was swinging his beer about, splashing his audience.
“A toast ta’ what, ya drunk bastard?” someone called out. An angry murmur spread through the room.
“A toast,” he wavered, his wet, brown eyes wandering over the crowd, “of good luck and long life to our holy emperor.” He grinned a gap-toothed grin, pox-marked cheeks twisting into uneven dimples. Straggly, oily black hair dripped with sweat.
The group cheered, touching their mugs together. For some reason, Zen was reminded of a mass of worms, wriggling in the dirt. It was in the nature to squirm, even when the bird plucked them, still squirming, from the earth.
“For when he arrives at the gates of the One Below, he will need Tevuz himself… to save him from the wrath of our fallen.” His countenance darkened. He downed the rest of his beer and hopped from the table.
Zen leaned back, scanning the other patrons. Their responses ranged from somber to terror.
They had all borne witness to heresy.
“A man died taday,” the speaker spat, “And we sit ‘ere and WHORE and DRINK,” he grabbed a mug from one of the stunned spectators, downing it as well.
A thick quilt of silence had settled on the gathering, muting their words, their breath.
“He lef children, a wife, a farm. Died fer sayin’, what? That the thrice-damned emperor is a bastard? What God gave him that power, eh? What God-“ his was reaching a fever pitch when the chair splintered on his back.
The man fell over, falling away like a sheet to reveal the assailant –With his small nose and short cropped hair… his soft face…
A mouse indeed.
He shifted nervously, gripping the remnants of the chair. The rest lay in chunks and splinters on the incapacitated man. He groaned on the floor, blood trickling from the back of his head, seeping into his oily hair.
“Y-y-you all h-h-eard him. That’s blasphemy! We, we could all be killed for lettin’ him speak!”
They all nodded, almost like one.
Zen sipped his beer.
Run my son… and remember…
A team of larger men came forward, grabbing the incapacitated, prostrated man by his arms and dragged him outside – out toward the temple, where they would submit him to the clergy along with formal documentation of his crime.
Women and men crowded around the mouse, patting him, praising him for his courage. It wasn’t easy, being a patriot.
Zen found it all rather grotesque. A world that had bred treachery as a virtue.
Tyrus appeared beside him, frowning. “You have an ill look upon you, my friend.”
Zen finished his beer and slipped from his stool, dusting himself off. “Your patrons are drunk and my pockets are empty. It’s time to work.” Tyrus nodded. He always enjoyed having Zen around – he split the profits with him, after all.
Double-dipping at its finest.
Zen slithered into the crowd, a snake, and remembered his mother’s words as he ran…
There are no friends in Kaskadin.
The moon was out when Zen left the tavern, his purse secreted away in his cloak, heavy with a lustrous yellow reward for a night of pilfering.
Tyrus had been pleased with the night’s haul. Zen had smuggled it to him and been rewarded with a great, ugly grin and a few complimentary mugs of ale. And not the bitter bog-water he served at the bar.
Tyrus brewed his own very exclusive ale for ‘quality folk,’ as he put it. Zen suspected it was for the people who put money in Tyrus’s pocket.
As it stood, Zen had imbibed a fair amount of this ‘discrete’ brew over the years. It burned stronger going down, but left a lingering wisp of dates on his tongue.
“To keep up your spirits, you dour fool,” Tyrus had said.
Zen drank compliantly, nicking a few more coins as he emptied a mug.
But eventually, Zen slipped away. The big danger of pickpocketing, Zen believed, was lack of moderation.
Letting one’s face become recognizable as a pocket-pirate made for a short career.
That said, he took a heavy skin of ale with him for the road home.
He dallied just outside the tavern for a few moments, staring down the road at the distantly foaming mouth of the beach.
Eila would be expecting him soon, waiting to share her treasures with him.
Bringing the skin to his lips, he leaned his head back and gulped down two mouthfuls of the brew. Wiping his lips, he then inhaled the salty air, filling his lungs to bursting, until a light pressure bumped against his chest bone. And then released.
More bumpkin religion. Salt to cure the wounds of flesh; salt to cure the wounds of soul.
With that, he started his trek, eyes wandering skyward to distract his thoughts, and settling on the moon.
It hung heavily in the sky, corpulent and jaundiced, its flesh cratered and splotchy.
Weakly its light brought an impoverished glow to the road, weaving pallid ghosts out of the milky fog that had settled on the chilled ground.
The dirt under his feet – pliant and giving during the day – turned firm and cruel as final phantom of the sun’s warmth evaporated.
A battalion of lofty buildings flanked him – looming. Darkness obscured their exteriors, but Zen knew them well enough to tell each apart. From the butcher’s shop to the jeweler; the blacksmith to the boyer-fletcher.
But as Zen trooped through the shrouded road, they had no faces and no identities. They existed as monoliths outside of their daylight duties.
Like the people here, Zen thought. They could betray. They could hurt each other. But as long as they did it for the empire… for the Emperor… as long as they could convince the Bishop there was a wholesome reason for their actions…
They existed outside of punishment. Entities without identity.
He didn’t fancy himself above them, either. If they were spineless paupers, then he was their king. The son of revolutionaries who stole from those his parents had tried to inspire.
His parents didn’t understand the truth, really. Not until the end, not until they watched their son sprinting through a clutch of trees, vanishing into maze of timber and shrubbery. Not until the military arm of the Empire put them to sea.
He hadn’t even understood it until tiny feet were pulled through the tear-stained sand.
When nobody said a word. Not even him.
No friends in Kaskadin.
Yes, he was their king. And heavy at his side hung their tax.
He reached over, brushing his thumb across the bristly cotton. Felt tiny fibers, like claws, scratch at him. He squeezed it and took another drink of ale from his sloshing skin.
Zen was always good. As a child, once his parents had been put to sea, he had learned that sleight-of-hand wasn’t really much about your hand. Soft touch, hard touch… it didn’t matter. The real skill was in how you directed attention away from the hand.
You embraced the mourning father with tears still hot and angry on his cheek… his son’s body still pink and firm as it rocked on the waves. You squeeze his shoulders and tell him that you share his sorrow, while you pluck his wages from his cloak.
And when the drunk hops to his feet in a burst of excitement, you’re there patting him on the back, graciously buying him another round…
While nimble hands probe his pockets… or slit the pouch dangling from his waist and release a softly tinkling cascade of silver into ready palms.
And that’s what he had done through the night’s festivities.
And as Zen saw it… he was simply stealing from faceless men. Men whose identities were like dozens of darkened buildings – existing without identity in the dark.
You can truly philosophize on the higher calling of thieving.
There were other thieves in the city. Skilled ones. Capable ones. Many which would soon be dead ones.
Down in ‘Shambletown’ as they called it, some had formed posses. Gangs and alliances.
The Netters, the Filchies, the Mulligans… dozens of them.
Zen avoided them like the plague. It sounded like a mousetrap; all it took was one getting caught and then a few words could result in a school of corpses cast adrift.
And how would the posse help him then, in a city where people sacrificed one another to escape their own punishment?
When they stood by and watched little girls dragged out to angry waves, without saying a word, watching her tiny limbs as they washed away in the tide…
But someone had.
He shook off dark thoughts, bringing himself back to the present.
It occurred to him he didn’t know where he was going when he left the tavern. But his feet did.
He stood there for a moment, finding himself. He was the top of a hill like formation… Behind him was dirt road, framed by nondescript buildings. The gentle thunder of the beach reached for his ears, but out of eyesight. Beyond the horizon of ramshackle thatched roofs, he saw the great, still surface of the ocean – black, crystalline, speckled with radiant tiny white diamonds.
The ocean. Their gallows. And their greatest asset – by which Kaskadin became one of the most thriving port cities in the empire.
Ahead of him stood a colossus of a building – even in the darkness its smooth, uniform basalt surface captured the damp light of the moon. It rose high into the sky, plunging into the heavens, overlooking the labyrinthine city below – presiding over it.
At the top, a great brass bell slumbered.
Perfectly symmetrical square windows perforated its glassy façade, with a grand stretch of stained glass above them all like a garishly dyed eyebrow. In scintillating detail, the enamel depicted the advent of Tevuz, the benediction and sanctification of the first emperor.
Everything about the building was architectural precision; each stone had been sanded, polished, oiled, and set to look like one. Rather than bricks, it looked like a great single slab of stone pulled from the earth. Every side of it. But only one great, oaken door gave entry.
He stood before the temple.
He moved toward it, letting his fingers trail over the smooth surface. Acrid incense clung to the structure. Exotic fragrances crept out from beneath door, drifted down from the windows, swirling together in his nostrils.
His muddled reflection looked back at him, misshapen and incomplete. His age wasn’t relevant when he saw himself that way. There was no age. There was the barest simulacrum of humanity in the warped image.
It rendered him a thing.
He squeezed a few more gulps of beer down his throat.
Zen had come to terms with that thing many a year ago, crouching among his fellow mice as his family was fed to the sea.
And then he had scurried away.
He filled his mouth with another drink.
He gulped quickly to avoid spitting the beer out in surprise. Wheeling around, Zen found himself looking on a young, pretty girl. Boyish, maybe. But like a colt.
Gangly and unsure in youth, but destined for breathtaking beauty.
She kept her hair clipped short, though the downy quality of the locks did little to hide her. Her soft, cherubic face was nestled with two bright emerald eyes and a nose that was just a tad too large.
A dusting of freckles decorated her tanned cheeks.
He smiled at her, “Eila.”
She frowned, inspecting him for a moment. She had the look in her eye – inquisitive, hawkish. He didn’t question her intention – to decide how intoxicated he was. But her countenance was… multifaceted. She was a thoughtful girl. A skilled thief. A protégé.
And, perhaps, his friend.
“You didn’t show up at the inn. You said you’d be there when night fell.”
He rolled the memory around, taking another drink of his beer. The skin was noticeably less cumbersome now. “Good haul. Execution and another fool got himself on the road to a ‘blessing,’ starting with a chart to the back of his head. He should be in the clergy’s holding area, down there in the city.”
Eila grinned, “I got a good haul, too.”
Zen finished his drink and sidled up beside her, “Tell me when we get home.”
“Well, I’ll tell you it started with this priest’s robes catching on fire…”
Zen made sure they sprinted home.
This week’s Garage Fiction prompt was provided by Jinn Zhong…
Dido Building Carthage painted by J.M.W. Turner
These weekly scenes & stories are part of an ongoing project codenamed “Garage Fiction”. Since January 2015, three writers (Nicholas Brack, Dogwood Daniels and Jinn Zhong) have committed to writing a flash fiction or scene each and every week. We post on Fridays and dissect on Mondays via podcast. Listen to the episode here:
Listen to the podcast in the player above, or subscribe via iTunes, GooglePlay or Stitcher. What the heck is “Garage Fiction”? Since January 2015, a small group of storytellers committed to writing a piece of fiction every week… and then getting on a podcast to talk about it.