Authors: K. J. Parker
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
Downfall of the Gods
Copyright © 2016 by K. J. Parker.
All rights reserved.
Dust jacket illustration Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Chong.
All rights reserved.
Print version interior design Copyright © 2016 by Desert Isle Design, LLC.
All rights reserved.
PO Box 190106
Burton, MI 48519
T’S NO GOOD,
” I said. “She won’t hear you.”
He didn’t look round. “Be quiet,” he said.
I rather like the acoustics in the Temple. You can hear the slightest sound, clear as a bell, but no annoying echo. I watched him take a moment to compose his mind and return it to sublime thoughts after my boorish interruption. He bowed his head, and his lips started to move. He was mumbling his way through the Greater Confession.
“You have to mean it,” I said.
This time he turned round and scowled at me. “What would you know about anything?” he snapped. “Stupid bloody woman.”
I pointed out that the Goddess was a woman too. “Get out,” he said.
I put his foul temper and terrible manners down to a guilty conscience. There’s something about the Temple. Kings, princes, great lords temporal and spiritual seem to feel it more than most—a sort of horribly insistent sense of perspective; the bigger you are, the more it gets to you. I’ve seen them shed actual tears of remorse, clench their hands in prayer till the fingers go red and the knuckles go white. Curious; it’s an imposing building but the actual statue is pretty insipid work, with a definite smirk on her face. Also, the head’s slightly too big for the body.
“I forgive you for snapping at me,” I said.
I shrugged. “You wanted me to come here.”
He scowled at me. “Wait outside.”
“Are you going to be much longer? I’m hungry.”
I bobbed a curtsey to the statue and retreated up the nave, leaving him with his head bowed, muttering the formulae. He was sincerely unhappy about something, and honestly believed the Goddess was going to make it all right. Touching, in a way. Men genuinely at prayer look just like little boys.
I waited for him in the chancel, occupying my mind by looking at the mosaics on the ceiling. Silly, really; I’d been in the Temple more times than I could remember, and never properly seen them before. Very fine work, I had to admit, though what they had to do with religion escaped me entirely. A middle-aged woman in an expensive dress walked past me, stopped; she noticed the little gold charms dangling from my necklace, the pendant earring in one ear only; conventional badges of the profession, intended to be seen. She gave me that look. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” she said.
“I am,” I replied pleasantly. “Dreadfully.”
I don’t think she believed me. She swept past, knelt down on a nice soft hassock and started mumbling her imaginary sins. I forgave her.
When you’ve admired the mosaics and the frescoes and the richly-bejewelled rood screen, there’s not an awful lot to do in the Temple. I suppose I should’ve brought a book, only clients don’t like it. What do you want a book for, they ask, were you expecting to be bored? I listened to a few prayers, but there was nothing to get excited about. I’m sorry to say, I get bored easily.
Eventually he finished his confession. He got up slowly, joints cramped from all that kneeling, made his obeisances and hobbled up the nave. “You’ve been wasting your time,” I told him. “And mine, which you’ve paid for, but that’s your business. She won’t hear you.”
I’d made him genuinely angry. “You don’t know anything,” he said. “You’re just stupid.”
Oh dear. “Tell you what,” I said, and I took my purse from my sleeve and opened it. “Here’s your five gulden back, and here’s five more for luck. So nice to have met you. Goodbye.”
I held the coins out; he made no effort to take them. “What’s got into you today?” he said.
“Me? Nothing. I was just being helpful. I don’t like to see someone wasting his breath.”
People were staring at us. I’m used to being stared at, naturally, but it made him uncomfortable. “Stop being stupid and put it away,” he said. “Come on. We’ll be late for the Archdeacon.”
“I don’t want any lunch,” I said. “And I don’t want to meet the Archdeacon, he’s a nasty old man and his breath smells. Do you want your money or not?”
He grabbed me by the arm and marched me toward the East door. “What’s the matter with you?” he said. “Have you gone mad or something?”
I dug my heels in and stopped. He yanked on my arm. He thought he was stronger than me, and could drag me along by main force. I stayed where I was. He stared at me. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he said.
“I’m going to stay here,” I told him. “You go on without me.”
“You’ll do as you’re told.”
I shook my head, just a little. I really didn’t want a quarrel. He tried to drag me again; this time he really put his back into it. All his life, he’d been used to being strong, proud of his muscles; the wealth and the power he’d been born with, but his strength was genuinely his own, and nobody had given it to him. I stayed where I was. He let go and took a step back.
Bother, I thought; cat’s out of the bag. “I’m sorry,” I said.
He opened his mouth to speak, but I didn’t want to hear it. For as long as it was safe to do so—the downstroke of one heartbeat—I let him see me. Then I shut it off like a tap.
He looked so comical. They always do. Quite often at that point they fall at my feet and grovel, which I don’t care for at all. To his credit, he did nothing of the kind; just stared at me. I guess he’d suddenly realised just how much trouble he was in, and that nothing he could do was going to fix it, and the only person who could save him had just refused to do so. No grovelling; just acceptance and despair. I’ll say this for him, he had a sort of dignity. Very much a mortal quality, and one I admire and envy.
“She won’t hear you,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
moment to look at it from his point of view. He’s done a really awful thing, a murder, which he sincerely regrets. The consequences of his act don’t bear thinking about. He goes to the Temple—fitting it in on his way to a lunch engagement, yes, and taking his prostitute
with him, but he does go, he makes the effort; and when he’s on his knees, as truly abased and humble as he’s capable of being, his prayer for forgiveness is unquestionably sincere. He prays. He uses the proper form of words. He means it (I did him an injustice earlier). He is truly sorry. That, surely, ought to be enough.
It ought to do the trick.
Then the Goddess, the Lady of the Moon herself, the Queen of Laughter, grants him an epiphany. Saints pray all their lives for one and rarely if ever are they favoured, but he gets a whole half second, the maximum safe dose. The Goddess stands before him in her true form and says, I’m sorry. She says; it’s within my power to save you, because to the gods all things are possible, but I choose not to.
He could quite reasonably say several things at this point. It’s not fair. You can’t do that. It’s against the rules. I’ve repented, I meant it, you’ve got to forgive me, I’m entitled. He could quote scripture at me. He could remind me of the provisions of the Great Covenant. He could threaten me with lawyers. Or he could plead, beg, grovel. He does none of the above.
Instead, he stares at me, as I stand there with my back to my own statue; he realises what’s just happened, he understands. I should have forgiven him, but I’ve chosen not to. It’s against the rules. It’s unfair. Tough. I can do it, because I’m bigger than he is, and so much stronger. He understands strength, having always had it. He knows that when you’re the strongest you can do whatever you like, and screw the rules.
He has his own rules, you see. And he abides by them.
At that moment, for two pins I would’ve given him absolution, just for being a brave boy and a good little soldier. I had to struggle with myself and overcome the generous impulse.
“Good,” I said.
He took a step back. He was still gazing at me. For a moment, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on; then it dawned on me. He was exhibiting Faith. I nearly burst out laughing.
Forgive me; I don’t mean to sound frivolous. But consider. The goddess appears to him, to tell him that she has rejected his prayer and condemned him, in violation of the Great Covenant. Is he angry? I’d have been, in his shoes. Livid. But no. He stands and gazes in adoration; because all his life he’s wanted to believe, to have true faith; most of the time he sort of manages, but there are those terrible moments of doubt which he can’t seem to shake off—you can’t make yourself believe, just as you can’t make yourself be two inches taller; it happens or it doesn’t. Then, at this particular moment, he sees. Yes, Archias, there is a Goddess; she’s real, she exists. True, she’s just condemned him to Hell, but—
But he believes. Absolutely and without reservation. And Hell is a small price to pay.
They ask me sometimes, why do you bother with them? That’s why. Because they never cease to amaze me.
ORTAL HUMANS HAVE
asked me before now; what’s it like, being a goddess?
I answer; I don’t know. I’ve never been anything else.
They look at me. Naturally, they don’t upbraid me for an unhelpful answer, which they feel sure is untrue and misleading. But they think; come off it, you’re the Goddess, surely you know everything. I don’t, of course.
and went out into the sunlight and fresh air. I’ll be honest, I don’t like my Temple very much. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why—the statue, yes, it’s awful, the most blasphemous slab of marble in the universe, but I can put up with it. I just don’t feel at home there, I suppose. The truth is, of course, that I have no home. I am unconfined, because I am unconfinable. I can’t be contained by anything; I’m too big.
I’d been nothing if not scrupulously truthful. I was indeed hungry; ravenous. Mortal food doesn’t seem to fill you up, somehow. It’s all right, I suppose, but when you on honeydew have fed and drunk the milk of Paradise, a slice of bread and a sliver of leathery cheese doesn’t go very far. Remembering who I was supposed to be, I walked across the square to a certain wine-shop-comebakery where my kind were welcome. I didn’t have any money aside from the big gold cartwheels that nobody can give change for, but some nice gentleman would be bound to buy me lunch.
Sure enough. I hadn’t been there long enough to tie a shoelace when a man came up and sat down beside me. He was about twenty-three, very tall, big shoulders, slim waist, masses of curly golden hair and an impossibly handsome face. He gave me a big smile. Oh for crying out loud, I thought.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but is this seat taken?”
I looked at him. He looked back at me. No flicker of recognition.
“Pol,” I said, “it’s me. Your sister.”
A count of three during which he was incapable of speech. Then he turned all petulant. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I’m hungry,” I told him. “You can buy me lunch.” “Why should I?”
“You were just about to ask me if you could.”
“I didn’t realise—Oh, why not?” Short hesitation. “You won’t tell Myrrhine, will you?”
My brother Polynices married Myrrhine, the daughter of the East Wind, for purely dynastic and geographical reasons. They don’t get on. Fortunate, isn’t it, that we as a race aren’t nearly as omniscient as mortals think.
“I’m a cheap date,” I reassured him. “The price of my silence is the house fish stew.” He looked mildly relieved, so I added, “But she’s going to find out one of these days, and then you’ll be for it.”
“I don’t care,” he lied. “You really eat that stuff?”
“You really have sex with mortal women? For
He shrugged. “When you’re hungry, the house fish stew is better than nothing. You want bread with that?”
I nodded. “And grated cheese on top.”
“You’re weird.” He wandered off to place the order, then came back. “You didn’t answer my question,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“Administering divine justice,” I told him.
“Ah.” He looked at me. “Nice body.”
“Oh get lost.”
“No, really. Did you make it up, or is it copied from a real one? And if so, where does she live?”
Pol is strange. “This is a coincidence, isn’t it?” I said. “They haven’t sent you to check up on me?”
He yawned. “Don’t flatter yourself.” Then he looked at me a bit sideways and said, “Why? Are you up to something?”
“Me? Of course not.”
We’re dreadful liars in my family. I mean, we can deceive anybody about anything when we put our minds to it, because to the gods all things are possible. But we’re dreadful liars. “Don’t feel you have to tell me if you don’t want to. After all, I’m only your brother.”
“Why have I always got to be up to something?”
Some duly authorised officer of the wine-shop plonked down two bowls of the house fish stew and two wooden spoons. Pol gazed at his in mute bewilderment, while I tucked in.
“So,” he said, “what gave me away? How did you recognise me?”
“For crying out loud, Pol.”
I gazed into his eyes. “You overdo it,” I said.
“Use your eyes, Pol. Humans don’t look like that.”
“Really good looking humans do.”
“Pol, you’re wearing perfect teeth.
teeth. Just stop and think for a moment, will you?”
He shrugged. “I don’t get many complaints from the chicks.”
The words he picks up. I recalled something someone had said to me. “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Good question. Excellent question. “Do you want that stew?”
I commandeered it and went on eating. “Father was asking about you,” he said.
Ah. “Asking about me in what sense exactly?”
“Where you’d got to. What you’re doing. You haven’t been home in ages.”
Not strictly true. I time my visits so as to coincide with the absences of members of my family. “I’m amazed he noticed.”
“Of course he
“I’m amazed he took note.”
(Valid distinction. He notices everything, naturally; the way you see everything in your field of vision, right out to the periphery. But you only look at what you’re interested in. Same with hearing. He hears every mortals’ prayer, but mostly he can’t give a damn.) “I think he’s worried about something.”