Authors: David Gowey
Chapter Three: The Opportunists, or Greed
I will now speak concerning the Evangelical Brethren, colloquially known as the Mentites. Now it was not uncommon, even before the war, to see a Mentite evangelist in the stocks, labeled as such, put on display for disturbing the peace. While this did little to hinder their proselyting efforts among the merchant class, it did do much to vilify them in the eyes of the common people, where devotion to the Global Church still ran high.
This is not to say, however, that the Evangelical Brethren had no success in Heilicon. At times, they enjoyed a modicum of popularity among the wealthier sort, wherein their tracts were debated and discussed along with the other fashionable ideas of the day. They found a great stronghold with both the utopian idealists and the conniving entrepreneurs who could be found daily teeming in the salons and tea houses, clamoring for sparks of forbidden knowledge. We will see that just as an empty field is ripe for all manner of weeds and thistles, an empty mind is also ripe for all manner of mischief and falsehood.
Think of this, for instance: when I was a child, there was once a young couple who had a handsome newborn son. Several days passed by in tranquility until one night, on the order of the mayor, both parents were arrested and put to the Inquiry on charges of sedition and heresy. After several hours of interrogation and torture, they were summarily released and given official pardon by both the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Their crime? They had named their child Leopold.
In the inquiry that followed, it was discovered that, due to the unfortunate child's name, they had been suspected by neighbors of being Mentites. This particular time was a period of especially low public sentiment for the Mentite cause, hence the apprehension shown by the people towards a child named Leopold. The inquisitors divulged during the inquiry that—while under great duress of comfort—the child's mother had incurred the couple's release by indicating that while neither she nor her husband were Mentites, she did, however, have a kindly paternal grandfather named Leopold.
Upon questioning some of the older residents of the city, the town council gathered sufficient testimonies to attest that indeed, the said Leopold had existed but was now nearly fifteen years in the grave. It was also thoroughly proven that he was well-known as an upstanding citizen, and that he and family had been quite diligent in attending services with the Global Church.
In accordance with the discoveries of the Inquiry, the couple's case was dismissed and followed by a certificate from the priest testifying to their faithfulness to the Church. It was also accompanied by an unofficial warning to quickly have their child's name changed to something sensible, like Friedrich or Jacobus.
Words of the Emperor in Qepperdan, Matthieu Sartonné, as narrated to his page,
Matthieu awoke to voices he could not at first understand. They surrounded him, some directly above him, others shouting from a distance. In an instant, there was a hand on his shoulder. More voices followed. All these things blended together in the delirium of shock and weariness to immobilize him entirely. He felt himself being rolled onto his back, until he stared directly up into a blinding sun. A handful of man-shadows danced before his eyes in the sunlight, speaking to him as if through a blanket around his head.
Soon enough, he could pick out words.
“Wot's 'e doin' 'ere in the muck?” said one.
“Looks right well-to-do, this'un does,” said another. A third man spoke from behind these two as he pushed his way forward.
“What 'ave we 'ere, a dandy from the city? Wot we doin' with 'im?”
“I say we bleed 'im right 'ere in the street.”
“I say you drop that pitchfork, Bernard,” said a fourth man, “or you will have no share in the spoils to come.”
“But Jan,” the second man protested.
“No,” replied the fourth man. “He may come in useful. Now pull him up out of that filth.” Bernard did, holding Matthieu under the armpits; he felt as heavy as a bundle of velvet.
“Greetings, sir,” said the fourth man. “My name is Jan Hassebeck, and I am leader of this company. And who might you be?”
Bernard released Matthieu so he could greet Jan, but as soon as he stepped forward the strength left his legs entirely and he collapsed again back onto the muddy road.
When he came to yet again, he found that Hassebeck's men had put him astride a horse when it was clear he could no longer walk. It was a speckled plow mare, not a war horse, and these were no soldiers, though they marched around two-hundred strong. They were farmers, down from the northern mountains where they had presumably hidden from the Mentite horde.
His head still reeled from the heat when he finally spoke to Hassebeck.
“What do you want with me?” he pleaded. “Why take me back if everyone is dead?”
“Are they, now?” the man replied. “Well, that will certainly make this endeavor of ours much easier.”
“What do you mean?”
“The recovery of our prize would be much more difficult if the previous owners were still alive.”
“Then... You are robbers?”
“No, not exactly. We are not robbing but
. Specifically, returning the spoils to those whose sweat purchased them. How many sovereigns in gold did the wheat merchants pile up while those who grew that wheat languished on gruel and dandelions? How many?!” Matthieu was silent. “Too many, I say. And how many textile vendors strolled the avenues in the finest brocades and scarlets while those who raised their sheep shivered and froze in rags? For too long have the masses been eaten alive to sustain a class that knows neither hardship nor labor. Let their soldiers kill each other; I care not for titles or borders, only the longest-held desire of man: equality. We learn from scripture that the proud and the rich shall be made low before the end. I tell you, that time is now upon us!”
Even if he had been capable of carrying on a conversation with Hassebeck, Matthieu had no desire to do so. A plunderer, nothing more, ready to pick over the bodies of his fellows for the scantest trace of gold or fine cloth. He distrusted him instinctively.
After several minutes of marching on in silence, Hassebeck and his men had brought Matthieu to the sprawled gates of the city. Once there, groups of men started branching off down the side streets and alleyways, picking their way delicately over corpses and not-yet-congealed pools of blood. Jan Hassebeck remained behind with Matthieu and a handful of particularly burly men who circled the pair just out of earshot.
“Tell us where else we must look for the treasures we seek,” said Hassebeck, “and you may yet live to see another sunset.” By this time, Matthieu had recovered enough to converse with the man.
“You should not need me to tell a hovel from a mansion,” Matthieu retorted contemptuously.
“I know you greedy wretches, always finding more unlikely places to covert your spoils. You must know of something: a cellar, a barn, perhaps an attic where a secret cache lies hidden.”
“Who are you?” asked Matthieu, changing the subject. “You are no farmer yourself, else you would not speak as one educated.”
“I do not have to be one of them to sympathize with their plight. After all, we humans all come from the same dust. Far be it from me to distance myself from another man simply because he is closer to that dust than I.”
“Then you lead these men?”
“I lead them to their goal, yes. Without cohesion, they would surely squat in their shacks as they have done for all these feudal centuries and never know anything different.”
“Then what do you hope to gain by doing this?”
“Why, what other reward could I possibly want than to surround myself with such men as share my vision?”
“You make of yourself a king.”
“In the end, my boy, the worms of the flesh feast upon the mean and mighty alike. I say let them feast! Death is the true leveler of man, for even their gilded trinkets won of my fellows’ toil will now return to those who paid in sweat and blood.”
“Wealth cannot save you in the end. It saved none here and it will not save you.”
“I say your greed is misplaced. The only reason you still live now lies untended in the mansions of the oppressors, ripe for the taking! It is in your best interest that you do only what I say and nothing more. Wouldn't want to end up like this poor wretch here, now would you?” Jan pointed with his foot at the twisted remains of an apron-clad townsman, sprawled on his back to display to the world a wicked gash across his belly.
“I thought as much,” he replied to Matthieu's silence. “Now let us find a suitable dwelling place for such esteemed company as this!” Motioning to his farmer guards, the company moved up the central thoroughfare and towards a formerly wealthy area of the burned-out city.
After more traveling, they came upon the City Hall and its familiar array of corpses, attending banners and flies shifting in a lazy breeze. A regally vast structure of granite and copper, massive and intricately-carved columns flanked the entryway as a small army of winged grotesqueries stood watch along the roofline. Being granite themselves, there was nothing the weathered gargoyles could do about the filthy intruders invading their domain; they only squatted, silent sentinels to the ruin of their city. Tying their horses outside, Jan's little band entered the building through the charred splinters that had been the front doors.
A vaulted ceiling in a style now two centuries old rose above them like the arc of the firmament itself, and to all but the architecturally trained eye it seemed to be supported just as securely as that heavenly expanse. Just as Saint Maunde's Cathedral had once been before the crusaders' flames had claimed it as well, no columns rose to meet the arches above, which rested upon walls over a hundred feet high. Only a few lonely shafts of light penetrated the darkness inside, as the men customarily employed to open and close the shutters had either perished in the Mentite attack the night before, or had run off like so many others.
“Precisely!” Jan said as his voice echoed magnificently through the towering hall. “As fitting a place as any to organize ourselves, in the very halls where our oppressors used to sit! A fine congress we shall make here indeed.”
There were more dead here, though not as many as outside. It was evident by the broken benches and Mentite colors before them that some sort of barricade had risen and fallen here during the night. There were not so many flies in here but the stench was worse.
Their footsteps boomed across the expansive entryway as Jan led Matthieu and the others to the main council chamber. Dignified portraits up above of mayors and lords past seemed to scowl upon their motley group, but they, like the gargoyles outside, were naught but powerless facsimiles. The burly farmers who followed Matthieu and Hassebeck into the hall seemed dumbstruck by the building’s grandeur, while Hassebeck himself looked upon it all with disdain.
“I was once like these,” he said wistfully. “Until I was cast out of heaven, as it were. It was their pride that kept me from the highest heights of earthly power, and it was my humbling that brought me to these people, simpler and less concerned with the material comforts of city life. How could one live in pursuit of riches when they lack even the food wherewith to eat? And so I came among them with promises of recompense, and now here I am, ready to deliver in full. If only you could understand the import of our actions here!”
“I see only a thief,” Matthieu said, “who cares for his own welfare and none else. With the gold of others, you will buy yourself an army.” Hassebeck laughed heartily.
“An army?” he asked. “Is that all your mind can conceive of? This is not a conquest that I seek for myself, but for them! Let the word of Heilicon’s fall spread out to encompass all of Corastia. All of the world!” Inside the council chamber, a row of carved chairs sat at the top of a dais. Hassebeck ordered his guards to remove all but the one in the center, gilded with a higher back than the others: the seat of Lord Alfonse Mennish Dolheilicon. Whether he had survived the night’s carnage was yet unknown.
“Clear these bodies out,” Jan said, pointing to a group of burly men armed with hoes and scythes. “We will need this place fit to receive guests.”
“Guests?” Matthieu asked. His legs had recovered somewhat by now but he still felt himself limping along after Hassebeck’s longer strides. “Everyone here is dead.”
“Oh, not everyone,” the other man replied. “I know your type, for they are mine as well. No doubt there are still people secreted throughout the city, waiting only for the quiet of nightfall to emerge again. Every cellar has its rats.”
Matthieu wished to be one of those cellar rats again. These men would only use him until he had nothing left to give. If there was a way out, though, he had not yet found it. Either time would show this way to him or else bring about his end at their hands.
“And when we find them,” Jan continued, “they shall be brought here to answer for their crimes. These I have no need to enumerate to you further; only prove yourself useful and you may partake in our new order as well. However, first you must see our efforts come to their fruition.” He turned to the two farmers nearest them, a brute and a wiry older man. “See this young man gets to sleep on something better than mud for a change. There is still much more for him to do.