It was shortly gone dawn when he left the village. He hadn’t been able to sleep, and he wanted to be one of the first to get there. As such, he was a little disappointed to see the temple already flooded with hopefuls. He shouldn’t really have been surprised. This was their chance, same as it was his. For most, this was all they would get. It took a shrewd and dedicated pilgrim to attend this event twice. Any more than that was a life’s work, the resort of the inescapably obsessed or desperate. This was the asking, and it was the most extraordinary event to which many among this growing throng of the ordinary would ever be party. It was their blue moon, their black swan, an event that could well define them for years to come.
Purple and gold banners flapped wistfully, their rows marking a path down into the valley and the mouth of the temple. An old, stony maw into the rock, a landmark seldom visited and a threshold seldom crossed. It was uncanny to see the crowd stirring about it. The people of this county feared this place, respected it, and so neglected it. But the arrival of a noble swept away old suspicions. They were the new gods, the new power, a face of sovereignty that could be both seen and touched – but only when they allowed it. And so, on this sacred occasion, the people would defy their reverence for the old in pursuit of a glimpse at the new. He was already privileged, in that respect. He had seen a princess when he was stationed in the northwest, and the mark of even that briefest of encounters had not been erased by all the blood and trauma that followed. That was a trade that many would be glad to make. For him, it was not enough. And so he was here, at the asking. For those lucky enough to step inside, this would be more than a glance, more than a chance and passing visit. It was a meeting, one to one, with greatness. Am opportunity to make one’s pleas to a different class of ear, to show one’s troubles to a better class of eye.
Down among the masses, he starting inching forward, brushing past the idle and the lackadaisical until he was within a dozen or so yards of the temple door. Here, the valley was thick with the hopeful. Bodies pushed up against him from all directions, the smell of humanity filled his nostrils. The rumble of conversation, loud in its own right, was peppered with shouting and hysterics. It was not dissimilar to times past. Had he closed his eyes, he would have been back in two feet of snow, trapped in formation, hearing the violence drawing closer and closer. So he kept them open. Peering out over the assembled heads, he could see the noble’s personal guard – disquietingly tall figures wrapped in iron-grey robes, their faces hidden beneath hoods and behind masks. A true devotee would perhaps have been able to read into their garb, their weaponry, their positioning. Nobles were seen so infrequently that they came to be identified by the events and the people that surrounded them. It was likely that nobody in the crowd had ever seen the face that awaited them inside the temple, but some would have seen or heard of their silent, towering custodians.
“What will you ask for?” The woman next to him sounded giddy. “I’ve come all the way from a frontier town. I’m going to ask him to drive the clans off our land.”
He didn’t reply. Even if he had wanted to, the moment was stolen by the sound of a gong, whose rippling was immediately outmatched by the fervour it incited. At once, a hundred pairs of hands reached out towards the door just as a hundred voices cried out to be chosen. The mass swelled forward, stopping short of the guard, and becoming somehow even tighter. He was carried along in that vice-grip, clearly powerless to resist the motion of the group, swallowed up in a rush that was at once kinetic and claustrophobic. It was, again, familiar.
Then the choosing began. One at a time, the guard plucked members from the waiting mass and escorted them through the door, into the innards of the temple and their moment of asking. He stood and watched as a series of awestruck, nerve-wracked, euphoric faces were ushered inside. Some returned, flushed with tears, to a hero’s welcome. Others did not. There would be other ways out of that place, little hidden doors tucked away in the hills. Some would want to be alone. This went on and on, all through sunset. By evening, the periphery had left. Those who were only there for the spectacle, whose need to go inside had been less than their need for food and warmth that night. Let them go, he thought. They had no place here to begin with. He still stood, locked in place with the rest of the desperate, holding on to this opportunity until the very last.
That was when he was chosen. In a blur, a surreality, he was taken from the crowd, through the maw, down many generations of stairways and corridors, to a doorway bordered in purple and gold. There, he was left alone. His breath caught. His skin shook. This was the first moment of trepidation, of new fear, that he had felt since those days beyond the frontier. The fright and powerlessness of war were soaked deep in his skin. This was new, a peaceful terror, in this moment of self-determination. It is one thing to spend long years in the pursuit of a chance, another entirely to receive one. Gathering himself, he stepped through.
The noble sat on a throne carved out from the rock, now draped in silk. He wore a garment, impeccably tailored, the likes of which he had never seen, something that spoke of sex, sovereignty and military all at once. An iron circlet separated hair and visage, both immaculate. He glowed, even in the sombre light of this buried chamber. He was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.
The noble raised an eyebrow, or curled a lip, or twinkled an eye – it was impossible to tell. He fell to his knees, bowed his head, and kissed the floor.
“Your name?” The noble’s voice was quiet, soft, but all-consuming.
“Hughes, my lord.”
“That is not your birthname.”
“No, my lord. It is my peace-name.”
“Then you have fought for us.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You may raise your head.”
He did, feeling both shame and excitement at the chance to look once more upon his benefactor.
“What is your asking, Hughes?”
“There is… someone I want back.”
It was a thought that had driven him this far, put wind in his tattered, fraying old sails for this long. Now, in the light of such glory, it seemed ridiculous. Why want anybody, anything when one such as this exists? In that moment, he understood the pilgrims, the unhinged devotees who would chase the ghost of a noble to the ends of the world. To meet one in such intimate circumstances was to lose something. A moment’s basking in this man’s presence, and he could feel the hooks digging in, the exquisite barbs that would prise some vital part of him away in the inevitable parting. It was possible that nothing would be worth anything after this. But still, he had come for a reason, and he would see it through.
“No, my lord. At least, not that I know. Just from somewhere far away.”
The noble fixed him with a perfect, prying gaze.
“They are beyond our borders.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“It is a difficult thing that you ask. You would put such an onus on me, in the pursuit of your own satisfaction?”
“… yes, my lord.” This response had to be forced from his throat. He hated himself. What measure was his petty, impossible wish and the finite joy it might bring him? Certainly, any beauty therein was less than the ugliness of imposing it upon the god before him. He began to cry.
“Stop your tears.”
The tears stopped.
“I will do this for you. But there will be a price.”
“Yes, my lord. Any price that you name.”
“This person will find their way to you, and you will spend a decade together. Then, you will be taken, and you will serve me.”
“You are too generous, my lord. It is hardly a price.”
“But do not have false hope. You will serve me, but you will not see me, or hear me. When we part today, we are severed. You will have a decade of warmth, from my benevolence, and then a lifetime of cold in my debt.”
A lifetime of cold at the noble’s behest was infinitely preferable to a comfortable life with no connection to him.
“Do you accept?”
“Then leave. It is done.”
He rose slowly, on weak legs. This was his last chance to see this beauty, to share in its light and air. If he was slow in leaving, he might yet be graced with another syllable. He lingered, but not another word was spoken.
He walked alone through another lineage of corridors and stairways. Joy, sorrow, fear and anticipation ran messily together into a numb frenzy – it was unbearable. He emerged from a hidden little door, tucked away in the hills.
Some years later, he found himself at a port on the eastern seaboard. He was wrapped in an embrace, touching cheeks with a familiar, beloved face that had been lost to him for so long. As a tear ran, he closed his eyes. There, behind his eyelids, was an image of beauty that would never be seen again.