When we last left our Chapter, King Kevin was in counsel discussing the ramifications of meeting an envoy from the secluded and somewhat sinister land of Vermis Dei. The scene continues following a dire message from the king’s high priest warning against such a meeting.
They sat together a few moments in silence as they pondered the warning; then Aden asked Kevin, “What will you do?”
“From what I remember of my catechism, the Gods are all about goodness and light,” the King replied cautiously. “Your messenger asks me to fire their ship in the harbor, murdering all aboard without so much as a hearing and without declaring open hostilities. The counsel seems a bit hasty to this son of the Church, even immoral coming as it does from Kirel’s Highest Priest. I hardly know what to think. You may be sure that I will give your counsel serious consideration.”
Shakily, Aden arose, leaning heavily on his staff. At the door, he turned, raising his arm in direction of the King. “Such an extraordinary message foretells grave danger, King Kevin. Not lightly is their counsel given; not lightly should you take it. Fire the ship as she lies and lean not unto your own understanding: spare your people and, indeed, all the nations of the earth, the coming scourge. Only in obedience is there safety.” The outstretched arm fell to his side and his face looked wan and colorless in the dim light of the fire. He entreated the King as a friend: “Do not delay to implement the will of the Gods, my son, when it is clearly revealed to you, lest you be found a transgressor; for as high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are the thoughts of the Gods above the thoughts of men, even Kings; their purposes are inscrutable to the minds of their children yet they never fail. Remember, my son, in the end, when the Ferryman weighs your soul in the balance of justice, that Outer Darkness is reserved for those found to have fought against the will of the Gods. Remember and obey.”
Alquint followed the Prelate with his eyes until the door closed. Then, staring sternly at the King for a few moments, he asked, “What answer shall I return to Lord Sapristi, your Majesty?”
“Why, that I shall consider his request and send him word, Quint. What answer would you have me give?”
Alquint was a true and devout son of the Church, and lifelong friend to the High Priest. He fervently hoped that the King would adhere to the instruction Aden had received from his God. He could not, in fact, conceive of any reason why anyone would not obey immediately and in full this lawful revelation, but although King Kevin was notoriously lax in the maintenance of the proper decorum his court ought to require, his seneschal would never presume to step beyond the limits of his duties and suggest policy to his King. He bowed, turned and let himself out, closing the door behind him with just a whisper and a soft click of the latch.
Kevin stared after the departed High Priest and seneschal. Minutes passed, and no one spoke. Then the King shook his head as of one shaking off a spell. “Well, that was queer, and no doubt about it. What do you make of it?” he asked, looking from one counselor to the other and back again.
“Well, the message is clear enough,” Bronte said firmly. “What do you suppose the Hierophant of the Worm would do if we did just as we were told? They have no standing army, no industry of any account; barely grow enough to sustain themselves and their slaves. What could they do?”
“Not much, I shouldn’t imagine,” Kevin said. “But they must think they have something to offer if they’re talking about trade agreements beneficial to both sides.”
“Our agents haven’t reported anything of any importance at Vermis Dei unless they’re talking about the medicines and drugs they get from stewing the plants that infect their waterways and swamps,” Corwin added. “What dry ground they’ve got is dedicated to temple complexes. Houses have to be built on platforms out over the marshes. Even their outlying markets are conducted from boats. There is that volcanic island smoldering out in the bay they grow some crops on, but it ain’t much.”
“I don’t think we can discount what Aden’s messenger said,” Bronte said thoughtfully. “I’m not much for religious superstition, but Aden’s no fool and he’s shaken.”
“Still….” Kevin pondered this counsel for a moment, then countered, “Mother Church has offered veiled threats and platitudes. That’s insufficient for a King to govern by. I don’t see how it can hurt to listen to what they have to say. We can always tell them to push off if we don’t like what we hear.”
“I already don’t like what we’ve heard, and what I know about their priesthood I like even less,” Corwin grumbled. “No secular authority of any kind, religious head with a college of priests and some acolytes to do whatever it is they do. That’s no government.”
“So, how do they manage to order their people?” Kevin asked.
“Without trouble, apparently,” Corwin mused. “Theoretically, the Worm reveals his will to the Hierophant, the Hierophant directs the priests and the priests direct the acolytes. The acolytes tell the rest what to do, and nobody seems to complain. People more like cattle than citizens. I’ve never heard of any discord, although I understand that people disappear from time to time.”
“We don’t have much dissension here, either,” Bronte pointed out reasonably. “An occasional drunken brawl, some minor theft’s about all. Our police spend more time hunting up lost animals or missing sailors who’ve jumped ship looking for a better life here than’s available where they come from. Nothing like the real criminals you hear about in foreign parts.”
“I know, but it’s different there,” Corwin insisted. “We care about what goes on around here. If someone so much as moves a boundary stone in a field somewhere, the whole countryside hears about it. You have only to visit the markets with all their hurly-burly, harangue and barter to know that what we feel here, we feel deeply. If I had to characterize what I know about Vermis Dei, I would have to say they exhibit a culture of apathy more than anything else. It’s not natural.”
Kevin scowled. “I admit I’m curious to know what their precious Archbishop thinks is so valuable that we would be interested in a trade agreement. From what you tell me, they haven’t much of anything to trade.”
“What about a visit to the ship’s sailors down in the waterfront taverns, see if I can loosen a few lips with some of our best liquor?” Bronte offered, ever anxious to sample Columns Keep’s best whenever the well-being of the State required it.
“None have been allowed off ship,” Corwin replied with a commiserating grin. “I thought of that, but the good Archbishop apparently doesn’t want his secrets leaked through drunken lips.”
“What, I wonder, could his Exalted Eminence, the Hierophant, think we would be tempted by that we can’t simply buy for ourselves,” Kevin pondered aloud.
No answers were forthcoming, and the group discussion dithered on fruitlessly for a few more minutes until a gong in the courtyard outside announced that dinner was served.
Spoiler alert: Nothing good happens to any of these people, so stay tuned to watch it unfold in next week’s excerpt!