Partial image of the cover illustration of The Flame Iris Temple

Chapter 5
Three Abbots

News that Lord Vaina’s government was drawing up plans to close the monasteries and nunneries of Eston reached the local abbots very quickly. Apparently, some members of Kunhalvar’s bureaucracy were believers in Eston and they leaked the news to their co-religionists – just as Lord Vaina had predicted.

The first abbot to arrive was from the Pure Thought Pure Mind monastery, located twenty tik southwest of Tokolas. Jori asked Sandun to stay by his side at the meeting. Jori sat on his governor’s chair, a rather large piece of furniture, painted bright blue and set on a small raised section of the floor. Sandun had seen Jori sit in it only one time before this day. The abbot, an older but still spry man wearing his formal robes and hood of folded cloth over his head was offered a smaller chair facing the governor.

The abbot, after some preliminary talk of blessings and praise for the governor’s wise administration, mentioned that he had heard a wild rumor that many, if not all the monasteries throughout Kunhalvar were going to be closed. He had come to hear the governor’s own words on this matter.

Lord Vaina made a show of looking over a set of papers, loosely bound, then he looked at the abbot sitting below him with mild eyes.

“My ministers have recommended that your residence, officially listed as home for fifty monks, be closed; but I see your neighbor, the Abode of the White Cloud will remain open. This report says the White Cloud monastery has just thirty elderly monks who are very strict in their observances and pray every day for the well-being of the world. Tell me, why shouldn’t I close your residence and leave the White Cloud open?”

The abbot followed Lord Vaina’s script as though he memorized his lines on the way over. His face grew red as he shook his head in denial. “Governor, I can assure you, the Abode of the White Cloud is nothing like your report says. They eat meat at least once a week! There are far more than thirty monks living there, young and old. Constant prayer? More like constant singing and drunkenness. If any monastery should be closed, let it be them. Those sad excuse for monks at the Dirty Cloud give a bad name to all proper monks that follow Eston’s teachings. We at Pure Thought Pure Mind are nothing like them.”

“Very well then, send evidence of what you say, and this decision will be reversed,” Lord Vaina told the abbot with his most sincere voice. “But I wonder why my officials were mistaken in this. Perhaps they were mis-informed, or deliberately deceived. I have the time, maybe I should inspect both the Pure Thought monastery and the White Cloud–today.”

As the Abbot considered Lord Vaina’s words, his face gradually took on a grayish hue and he swallowed hard. “My… my Lord, we would, of course, welcome your visit. But, give us time to prepare for your arrival. Things are not as… We are not ready to receive your august personage. We need to clean the premises.”

“If my official reports are mistaken, then there is no time to lose. I cannot make my decisions based on false information. Scribe?”

“Yes Governor?” Lord Vaina’s recorder set his pen down with an expectant air.

“Send a command to the West Gate cavalry,” Jori said sharply. “I want one hundred horsemen ready in an hour. Guards?” His personal guards saluted him. “I require twenty men, mounted, here. Before the next bell.”

The abbot’s repeated entreaties to delay were ignored.

“Find the abbot a suitable place for him to meditate until I return. I do not doubt that when the truth of his words is revealed, he will have gained merit for honesty while others who have practiced deception will be punished.”

Sandun followed Jori as the Governor left the state hall, issuing more orders as he descended the stairs. Sandun saw that the sky was covered with clouds, and it appeared rain was likely in the afternoon. Still, he was looking forward to a brisk ride and visiting one of the monasteries of Eston which had captured Jori’s attention these last few days.

However, the abbot, seeing Lord Vaina’s determination, threw himself on the ground in front of the governor and begged for forgiveness.

“My lord! Please stop. Please! I have failed in my duties as leader of the Pure Thought monastery. I acknowledge that there are more men living at the residence than are allowed. And people have donated food to us which–which we are not allowed to consume. I will resign my position as abbot, let an older, holier man take my place. I beg you, do not punish all the monks at the Pure Thought monastery because of my errors.”

“And what of the Abode of the White Cloud?” Lord Vaina said cuttingly. “Is everything you said false? Or are my officials wrong about some monasteries but right about others?”

The abbot kept his face to the stone slabs and said nothing.

Speaking to his messenger, Lord Vaina said “My inspection is canceled for today. Inform Minister Udek that the Pure Thought Pure Mind monastery is to be closed with immediate effect. Take the former abbot here to the Ministry of Justice, I’m sure they will find a suitable job for him, perhaps pumping water out of the dry dock?”

As the dejected former abbot was led away, Jori said to Sandun “So it begins, the cleansing the monasteries! I tell you Sandun, this has been a secret desire of mine for years, hidden away, locked inside chambers of forbidden thoughts. But you don’t fear the priests of Eston. If a hundred priest gathered together in a room, chanting curses at you–you wouldn’t care, would you? Their words mean nothing!”

“I wouldn’t be quite so extreme, my lord. I don’t know them well enough to dismiss them entirely. But yes, I don’t fear their curses.”

Lord Vaina put his hands on his hips. “The next time an abbot comes to see me, I can bet he will be better prepared.”

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That afternoon, the Knights of Serica returned to the Embassy. Several had injuries but they were in good spirits, happy to be back in Tokolas after another successful expedition.

Blue Frostel came over for dinner, he was nearly recovered from the terrible wounds he had received from the battle with the Kitrans inside the palace of Kemeklos. He was warmly greeted by everyone. The dining room was crowded and when Valo Peli showed up briefly, still wearing his official robes as the new Minister of War, it was almost like the days before the Northern Expedition. Only Kagne was missing, but they drank a toast to him at dinner.

While they continued drinking after the meal, Olef showed off Basil’s latest sculpture: a buck with a fine set of antlers, standing with its head held high. Basil was using some of his income to pay a woodworker artisan for lessons. Normally, the master carvers of Serica only taught their craft to their own selected apprentices but Lord Vaina had made a personal appeal; that plus Basil’s silver had allowed for this exception to the general rule. Sandun didn’t fully understand why Basil was spending all his time carving figures of animals in wood but Basil had offered the following explanation:

“When Kagne went away with my stone cutter, I found I missed it, or rather, I missed not having made any use of it,” Basil said this with regret, a rare emotion from the hunter. “My days as a hunter have to end sometime. When Olef and Nicksol and I return to Kelten, I think I’ll do something else with my life.”

Sir Ako noticed that Sandun hardly ate any of his food and he brought it up after dinner when they were talking privately, the two of them, in the Embassy library, as they had done for the last year and a half.

Something about the Fire Sword wandering the streets of Tokolas all night and soothing spirits of the dead.

“Are you well Sandun? We stopped last night at Semnihali and the tea-house owner recounted a story about you. Something about the Fire Sword wandering the streets of Tokolas all night and soothing spirits of the dead. Ridiculous I thought but, are you well?”

Sandun was disappointed that Sir Ako had seen through his pretend eating act. His wife Miri had accepted that he hardly ate and slept very little, but now Ako was back, with his keen eye, and questions.

“I told you before, an angel saved me—changed me. I’m fine Ako, I just don’t feel like eating.”

Sir Ako’s face said it all: the knight didn’t believe Sandun’s story, he simply wasn’t going to challenge him.

“Well, you don’t look like you are wasting away,” Ako admitted. “I’ve seen men when they stop eating: the look on their faces, their sunken checks, lank hair, and yellowed eyes. You don’t look like them. In fact, you look strong. Happy as well. Your wife is a different woman, it’s as plain as day she’s pleased you are home.”

“Isn’t Russu pleased you are back also?” Sandun said this in part to change the conversation but also because the princess had rarely joined the others at meals and seemed to spend most of her time reading and making entries into a ledger book of expenses. She looked happy for an hour when Ako had returned but when Valo Peli and Frostel bid them farewell, she had retired to her room with a curiously neutral expression.

We ride to danger, looking for troublemakers, and we kill those that oppose us.

Ako sighed. “The Princess doesn’t think my knights and I should be off galivanting around Kunhalvar. She thinks we should stay here in Tokolas doing Sho’Ash knows what. I told her: she married a knight, and this is what knights do. We ride to danger, looking for troublemakers, and we kill those that oppose us. I don’t know what she thinks Opmi do when the ruler isn’t out on a campaign. Write poetry? Sit beside the fire sharpening our swords? At least Lord Vaina understands us,” Ako concluded with finality. “He will make a good king.”

“I think you should spend more time with the girl,” Sandun told his friend. “She is a newly-wed, you know. As you were, once upon a time. The bandits and evil-doers will still be around next spring.”

“That’s fair enough,” Ako replied. He drained his glass and rose to his feet. “I’ll see you in the morning. It’s good to be back.”

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As Lord Vaina predicted, the next Abbot who arrived in Tokolas came prepared as though for battle. One hundred and fifty monks processed into Tokolas from the south gate, blowing long brass horns and carrying the abbot, seated, on a platform covered in white silk with an elaborately carved super-structure that arced more than ten feet over his head.

Sandun, Lord Vaina, Minister Udek and Valo Peli stood together above the rarely opened main gate of the palace and watched as the monks made their way up the main road. Jori passed around his far-seer so they could all view the abbot who proved to be a massive figure dressed in orange billowing robes.

“Brother Oakheart comes to Tokolas,” Jori said with apparent good humor. “I’ve never laid eyes on the man though he runs Water-Moon Temple, the second largest monastery in all of Serica. He is aggressive, I’ll grant him that much. He seeks to nip this scheme of mine in the bud. A more prudent man might have waited to see if his monastery was on the list to be closed before trying overawe me, the apostate boatman.”

“Was his monastery on the list to be closed?” Sandun asked.

“I haven’t decided,” Jori answered gravely. “There were good arguments both for and against. I want you to talk to him Sandun. Tell him what you told me. See who he really is.”

By chance, a brief opening in the clouds filled the street with sunlight. It made for a grand spectacle. Sandun was reminded of the time the Archbishop of Seopolis had come out of the high temple, surrounded by the other major bishops of Kelten and proclaimed Pandion the Third the newly crowned king of Kelten. Pandion came forward with the crown of state on his head and the crowd went wild. That was how it should be, the king ruled the land, not the temple.

They didn’t open the great gate for the Abbot and for a time it was unclear if they would meet Brother Oakheart at all. Oakheart’s go-between, a tall man who spoke exactly like a scholar, insisted that all of the monks should accompany their abbot inside the palace. This Valo Peli rejected curtly as “unacceptable”. Eventually a meeting was agreed upon: the West Market would be cleared the following afternoon and the two men with one aide would meet on a platform in the middle. Minister Udek didn’t like this plan as he felt it gave the abbot too much status but Jori said “This is my city, my province, I have seven thousand soldiers defending this city alone. I will meet with Oakheart in the market.”

In the evening, Russu’s cousins, Jay and Ven Kirdar, came for dinner and there was a discussion about the news, now common throughout Tokolas, that many of the monasteries and nunneries of Ekon would be closed by Lord Vaina’s government.

The Kelten’s didn’t care. None of them had visited a monastery of Eston and they had only heard Lord Vaina’s unflattering stories about his years in the Yellow Dragon monastery. Miri didn’t offer any opinion, but she looked troubled. Jay and Ven said that such a move would be impossible in Shila.

“But it would not be necessary either,” Jay concluded. “Because the monks do exactly as the king commands. They always have. Any abbot who refused the king’s orders would be replaced forthwith.”

“From the accounts of Shila’s travelers, the monasteries of Serica are not well run. Truly appalling tales are told in our land about misbehavior, lack of piety, and other unnatural acts by Serice monks” Ven said with barely concealed disgust. “What Lord Vaina described of his experiences in the Yellow Dragon Monastery is but a tenth of what we have heard. To us, most of the temples in Serica do not follow the true path, so it is not a surprise that the monasteries are filled with the unrighteous.”

they have spies and they have—black magic—which they supposedly use to sicken or slay their enemies.

At this Russu spoke out. “Well I think what Lord Vaina is doing is very dangerous! I have accepted my husband’s faith, as is proper for a wife. But in Rakeved, the monks are powerful. One of my distant ancestors was put on the throne by warrior monks from the five monasteries which surround Felochaken. Years later, they threatened to depose his grandson. I can tell you that in the court we whisper stories to each other about the irreligious behavior of many monks and nuns, but we would never repeat such stories to the common folk. The monks are powerful: they have spies and they have—black magic—which they supposedly use to sicken or slay their enemies.”

“We have heard of the warrior monks of Rakeved,” Jay told her. “In fact, the Rutal-lil of Shila are based on a group of monks who substituted their daily meditation with martial arts practices. The long tradition of the Rutal-lil not marrying is certainly derived from our monastic origins. But in Serica, only the monks of Telihold ever copied our warrior ways. At least so far as I know.”

At this, Filpa and Sandun smiled at each other. They had a brief run-in with monks from Telihold-Tanul, the southern branch of the Telihold monks.

“Some of the priests of Eston here are good men,” Sandun said. “I imagine some of the monks are good as well. The question is: how many, and where? Lord Vaina thinks most of the monks should be doing something other than sitting and praying all day. He’s the ruler of this land, if they don’t like his rules, they can go elsewhere.”

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The meeting with Brother Oakheart took place in the afternoon, the clouds were broken and sailing south and east like great ships in the sky. The wind blew in gusts, whipping the bits of grit into the air. The smell of cooking oil and roasted garlic came up from the stones of the market square where hours before the food stalls had stood. The monks from Water Moon Temple sat in rows on the south side of the plaza while Lord Vaina’s elite guards stood at attention on the north. A rank of civilian advisors marked the east and to the west, a line of priests from the temples of Tokolas. Not all were priests of Eston, several priests of the Mavana were clustered together, as were some Kulkasen temple leaders.

In the middle, on a raised wooden platform, Lord Vaina sat with Sandun beside him. Facing them were Brother Oakheart and his chief aide, his go-between from the previous day.

he examined the man with his second sight

Sandun told Oakheart a simplified version of what he had told Jori, all the while he examined the man with his second sight. There was nothing special about Oakheart’s soul, it was quite ordinary; very much as Sandun had expected. In his experience, nearly all religious leaders attained their positions of power not by piety but through politics.

Oakheart responded dismissively, rejecting Sandun’s words with a few empty platitudes about how there were many false paths and spirits who tried to deceive humans and keep them from seeking Eston’s truth.

Jori then spoke, very softly, such that Oakheart had to bend forward to hear him. As Sandun had recounted his tale, Jori’s chair had risen almost a hand’s span in height through a mechanical trick built into the platform so he now was higher than the big abbot.

“Oakheart, listen to me carefully. I own both Kunhalvar and Zelkat. I defeated the Kitran empire’s army and caused Nilin Ulim’s death. I am stronger than the Iron King of Dombovar and King Tuno of Vasvar. As Lord Sandun says, I will become the king of all of Serica. Right now, I am going to close seven out of every ten monasteries in Kunhalvar and there is nothing you, or anyone else can do to stop me. But I won’t close your Monastery, nor will I replace you as the abbot. Water Moon Temple will have just as many men after I am done as it does now.

“Here are the new rules I will impose. First, no man younger than forty years will be allowed to remain in any monastery, including yours. Second, no monastery will be allowed to own more than a mu of land for every man who resides in the monastery. These rules will be strictly enforced by annual inspections.”

The abbot opened his mouth to speak but Jori drilled right through his objections, raising his voice such that all around could hear his words.

I will be the King and as my subject, you will obey me!”

“These are my terms. Accept them and your monastery will remain open with you in charge. Reject them at your peril. This is not a negotiation. Heaven watches over me and approves. I will be the King and as my subject, you will obey me!”

Oakheart sat in silence for a long minute as he worked out the implications of Jori’s powerful speech. Sandun watched as the abbot’s mind twisted and whirled. Sandun had not seen this side of Lord Vaina before, the naked appeal to raw power, the plain implication that rejection would be met with violence. Gradually Oakheart’s mind settled, and Sandun felt sure Lord Vaina had won.

“Suppose I defy you and call upon ancient law to oppose your new rule?” Oakheart asked, pitching his voice so low that only the men sitting on the platform could hear.

“Then you, and all your followers will be arrested and punished as men disloyal to the government of Kunhalvar. I will make sure that the Water Moon Temple is destroyed with enough barrels of lopor such that no trace of it remains, as an example to all other abbots who might consider opposing me.” Jori said this conversationally, as though he was talking about grass growing.

“And what if I say nothing, neither opposing your law nor supporting it?” Oakheart smiled a bit, as though this was a difficult question. Jori was unimpressed.

“By long tradition of law in Serica, silence means consent. I will proceed as though you had agreed. Later opposition, should it arise, will naturally be dealt with firmly.”

Brother Oakheart sighed. “I had hoped to convince you of the great good we do at the Water Moon Temple, but I see there is no possibility of understanding. You were brought into the Yellow Dragon, clothed, fed, taught to read and write. And this is how you repay us? There is no gratitude in this world.”

“And I thank you for reminding me of my own life history, which I had quite forgotten despite it being carved upon my soul with burning iron. I know the life inside a Monastery. Four years, Oakheart! Four years I spent watching and observing. I don’t fear you Abbot, because I know how your authority is built on shifting sand. I wager there are ten senior priors at the Water Moon who would stop at nothing to see you removed so they could wear the Abbot’s robe. You are a clever man, Oakheart, and you can see there is no benefit in opposing me. After all, why should you lift your sandals to help the other abbots whose monasteries are slated for closure? Let them find understanding in their own lives, or their next, yes?”

“I will not oppose you, Governor,” the large abbot said heavily. “I will pray for your compassion and your soul but—I recognize you have the authority to do these things. It is said the water flows around the moon.

“Then it is settled,” Lord Vaina said decisively. “The law starts with immediate effect. All men younger than forty are no longer monks of the Water Moon Temple, including—from the look of things — most of the men who brought you here to Tokolas.”

“But these are my supporters. How can I return without them?” Brother Oakheart said, looking back at his entourage.

“You would prefer to wait here and argue that the law should not be enforced immediately? All while your enemies gain strength inside Water Moon Temple?” Lord Vaina sardonically.

“No… no, things will become more difficult with the passage of time. I will return immediately. Governor, you can tell the monks about your new law. I hope we meet again, in a future life.”

“I think you will attend my investiture ceremony when I become King of Serica. You can look forward to it,” Jori said this with a cheerful smile which belied his unyielding will.