Like many of the priests, Nuno Lamas was given to the Temple of Haizoro in Osisa-Kagaza, Oasis of Crows, as a newborn, his mother unable to fend for him. At least, that was what the older priests told him. Many were the youths dropped off at the temple by unwed mothers, whores and faithless wives. Many were those thrown out of the temple on their rear ends for failing to meet its strict standards of intelligence and etiquette. Nuno had learned to navigate the temple’s treacherous waters, however – so far. He had known nothing but the priesthood his whole life. As a boy, he was taught arithmetic, as well as the skills of reading and writing, unlike the vast majority of Zamphish. He read the laws of Zamphia and the scriptures of the Two-Faced God, Haizoro, front to back until he could quote them back to front.
When he was seven, his mentor, Pinjos Kramak, knocked on the sturdy wooden door of his spartan dormitory and let himself in. A typical priest, Pinjos confronted the world with a scholarly mien, a thin nose, watery eyes and a receding hairline. Nuno could not remember ever seeing the man out of his long black robes.
“Hiktos, Nuno, I require your help this morning in preparing for the equinox prayer meeting,” Pinjos declared in a thin voice that nevertheless silenced the mutterings of the six youths in the room.
“Happy to help, master!” Hiktos sprang to attention.
Nuno rose from his straw-stuffed mattress more slowly and met the master’s eyes. “Do we have to?”
Pinjos bristled. “Yes! We perform a vital service for the Zamphish people, as you will soon see. Now, get moving, you lout!”
Nuno did as he was bid. In truth, he too was glad for any excuse that took him away from his usual daily duties of scrubbing the temple from top to bottom.
Pinjos led Nuno and Hiktos down arched corridors decorated with gold leaf, his satin shoes rustling over the veined marble floor. Together, they delved into the temple’s storage and fished out hundreds of chairs, decorations, relics and awnings throughout the course of the morning, while the sky was yet grey and frost rimed the ground. When the sun came up, casting the shadow of the enormous basalt, horse-shaped temple across the sunburned city, the priests were ready. The priests held a special service that day out in the open, in front of the temple, blessing the entire city. Throughout the day, people came and went. Nuno was soon sick of explaining that the temple was shaped like a rearing horse to represent the priests’ readiness to bear souls to the next life.
At times, the hundreds of chairs laid out in the sunshine were full with people standing around the edges. At other times, they were almost empty. Regardless, the priests spoke their prayers and sang their dirge-like hymns with the same gusto, their ululating bass voices rolling out over Osisa-Kagaza, sprawled around the bottom of the rocky hill on which the temple perched. Nuno thought he could hear Haizoro’s voice somewhere amid the songs of praise. His throat was sore by the time he had finished reciting every one of the ninety-nine core hymns.
“What’s happening there, master?” he asked Pinjos, pointing, when he saw several priests dragging a protesting man into the temple’s shade, from which blood ran down the street.
“Just ignore them, disciple.”
It was not the last such occurrence he saw that day, but he did not say another word on the subject. Nor did he ever see those men and women again. He worried he was going to be asked to clean up the river of blood that had poured out of the temple down the street all day long, but nobody seemed to mind, to his relief.
“What a marvellous service, master,” Hiktos fawned once dusk chased away the last parishioners, pursuing Pinjos like a puppy. “You truly are a genius. Never have I seen such a more masterful, wonderful, inspiring sight as –”
“Oh, go and grab some chairs, Hiktos!” Pinjos snapped.
The priest caught Nuno watching them as Hiktos sloped off. He raised an eyebrow when Nuno rolled his eyes.
“You do not consider me worthy of such compliments?”
Nuno shrugged. “You are just a priest doing his duty, no?”
Pinjos nodded, smiling a little. “Are you interested in being a priest one day, young Nuno?”
Nuno regarded his master seriously. “Haizoro has big plans for me, master.”
When Nuno was nine, Pinjos once again came for him, Hiktos and a few of the other priests-in-training, just as the cockerel crowed. “In honour of Liberty Day, to commemorate the day Zamphia was delivered from the cruel rule of the Witches of Convent, I am leading a parade through the city to distribute alms to the poor. You will accompany me.”
Nuno would never forget that midsummer day. It was the single worst day of his young life. His back stung and his eyes watered after the first few whips. The rest of the day was an excruciating blur as he and the other priests trudged around the city, distributing alms in the form of sausage meat to beggars, chanting hymns and flagellating their own backs with bladed whips. He barely noticed amid the haze of pain, but the older priests corralled a few beggars, whores and homeless folk to bring back to the temple. Nuno forced himself to keep going. Only he and Hiktos made it back to the temple that day in time to witness the crucifixion of the beggars and the homeless, sacrificed to Haizoro to preserve all of Zamphia from the Witches’ tyranny. The other trainees dropped in the street and were left behind. Once back at the temple, Nuno staggered back to his dormitory and flopped down on his bed. Pinjos brought a salve not long later to help his wounds heal and daubed it on his back liberally. Nuno was not sure which was worse – the whip or the salve.
Before he passed out from the pain, he sobbed, “Why do we whip ourselves, master?”
“We play with the forces of life and death when he distribute alms, my son,” replied Pinjos. “And yet we are not Gods. The whip serves to keep us humble.”
The next parade was a nightmare, too, the one after that not so bad. As Nuno gradually grew callouses, the whippings grew less and less painful until he could make it around the city and back to the temple without crying or whimpering at all. His back soon grew calloused and tough as bark. Eventually, he was required to help corral the sacrifice victims, who were crucified upon the priests’ return to the temple. He chained men and women both and led them to the crossed logs by the dozen throughout his life, all in the name of Haizoro. Once the sacrifices had perished, he took the nails out of their hands and ankles and took their bodies down into the dungeons beneath the temple on carts, there to be chopped up and ground down into sausage meat with which the priests fed the starving beggars of the city in the next parade.
At the age of twelve, Pinjos led Nuno and Hiktos – the only remaining trainees – out of the temple to meet a man dressed in gaudy silk robes, whose plainly garbed servants struggled to tug along a goat on a tether.
“This,” said Pinjos, taking over from the priest who had been waiting with the aristocrat, “is Dulush Ubar Halahm, and this is his goat. He wishes to serve it tonight at a special banquet and has asked us to bless it for him.” Nuno and Hiktos stared back at him, nonplussed. “Take the goat.”
Nuno took the tether, while Hiktos approached the goat, letting it smell his hand and patting its head reassuringly.
Pinjos bowed to the aristocrat. “Rest assured, the Two-Faced God will hear of your meal, Dulush Ubar Halahm.”
The aristocrat bowed in return. “I’ll leave my servants to bring back the meat and the fortune.”
“As you wish,” replied Pinjos, and the man turned away and departed with the majority of his retinue down the blood-soaked road, leaving only a few servants behind. Nuno almost smiled to watch the man tiptoeing along, holding up the hems of his fine robes. Nuno’s own brown woollen robe hems were crusted with old blood.
Pinjos produced a sharp iron dagger from his wide black sash and proffered it to the trainees. “Now, we butcher it with a blessed blade, say a prayer and perform a divination to complete the blessing. Who claims the honour of the kill?”
“Me!” Hiktos lurched forward and grabbed the dagger out of Pinjos’ hands.
He stood over the goat with the dagger raised, staring at it for a long time. Eventually, Pinjos stepped forward and gently took the blade from the shamefaced boy’s hand. He offered it to Nuno.
Nuno took the dagger and looked the goat in its lobed, tawny eye. “A mountain cat would have no qualms with killing you. Your life serves a purpose in extending our own.” He patted it. “Take solace in that. May Haizoro watch over you.”
He stepped around to the goat’s side and plunged the dagger into its side between its ribs. It bleated in pain and bucked, trying to escape. Pinjos and Hiktos had to hold on tight to stop it. Then, blood frothed from its maw and its weakened legs gave out beneath it as its lifeblood poured down Khuna Saraka, the Blood Road. Nuno glanced down at his robe, now stained with blood like his hands. He offered the dagger to Pinjos, but the priest shook his head.
“You must finish butchering it,” he said.
“But I don’t know how, master.”
“I’ll teach you.”
Pinjos painstakingly showed the two youths the fastest means of butchering the animal without fouling the meat, first cutting open its belly so that they could wrench out its innards and then quartering it for easier shipping, all the while intoning a mournful prayer to Haizoro to watch over those who ate the goat – if they were worthy. The servants loaded the meat into burlap sacks once they were done.
“We are not finished yet,” Pinjos told the the trainees then, however. “We must perform the divination! Open up its guts, Nuno, and tell me what you see.”
Nuno did so and gagged. “I see … mush.”
“You see the contents of its stomach,” Pinjos amended. “You’ve been studying what signs to look for, so tell me … what do you see?”
“Let me see!” demanded Hiktos, barging Nuno out of the way. “Aha! It’s healthy as a clam, a good portent!”
“Do you agree, Nuno?” asked Pinjos.
Nuno concentrated. “The intestine is mottled. It’s … diseased. That’s … that’s not a good sign, right?”
Pinjos inspected the split open stomach. “You’re right. Well spotted, Nuno.” He turned to the servants. “Tell your master the divination augers poorly. Now, take this offal and be off with you!”
They quailed under his glare and wordlessly did as he bid.
When Nuno turned fifteen, Pinjos invited him to take part in some of the temple’s public rituals. “A wedding is to be held,” he told Nuno and Hiktos, “and I am the officiant. I would like you to be my aides.”
“Of course, master!” replied Hiktos.
“Yes, master,” said Nuno.
Like all Zamphish weddings and most services, the ceremony took place inside the temple under the watchful eyes of a painted frieze depicting a two-headed figure. One head was male, the other female, and it was split down the middle, wearing asymmetrical robes. Gold and silver glittered on the walls, and the arched ceiling was painted with the scene of a ritual sacrifice.
Standing on a dais and surrounded by an oval of priests, while onlookers observed from rows of pews extending down the length of the hall, Pinjos welcome those to be wed, a young man and woman of ebon complexion. “Haizoro welcomes you to his bosom,” he intoned in a deep voice.
Nuno allowed his mind to wander as Pinjos recited the relevant rhetoric, committing man to woman for all time; he had heard it a thousand times. He almost missed his cue to hum, imitating thunder in the story the priest was telling. He made sure not to miss the beginning of the hymn praising Haizoro for the wonderfully two-faced invention of love. As he sang, he pondered the lyrics. How could love possibly be both nadir and zenith? And how could something that brings such joy also bring the most pain? He wasn’t sure he understood.
The groom took up the bow and shot the bride with seven headless ceremonial arrows, before snapping the arrows to symbolise his promise to protect her. Then, his groomsmen held him down while the priests beat his feet with dried fish and asked him general knowledge questions, to prove his endurance and intelligence. A bony cow was sacrificed to Haizoro while Nuno and Hiktos sang hymns, and then its innards were used to foretell the couple’s future. Pinjos examined the innards before declaring the omens were good. At last, the lovers’ hands were tied in a silken knot, they were proclaimed husband and wife and sent on their way.
“Why all the fuss?” Nuno asked after the ceremony. “Why not sacrifice the cow, declare them married, maybe sing one hymn and be done with it? It would save time.”
Pinjos winked, surprisingly. “People love a bit of pomp and ceremony.”
Nuno had not known what to say to that. The more he thought about it, though, the more he saw the priest was right. People wanted a way to commemorate what they saw as a special occasion. The needless ritual fulfilled that.
The next day, a young mother brought her babe to the temple and Nuno and Hiktos were summoned to help with their first initiation into the Eyes of Haizoro. Only those in the Eyes of the Two-Faced God could receive his blessing upon death. Like their God, the Zamphish believed that they took on many faces in their many reincarnations throughout their Vimukti, or Life Cycle in old Hieroglyphic. The soul was believed to stay in the body for a short while after death before seeking a new nearby host, be it baby or wild animal. It was even believed that particularly potent spirits could possess nearby adult bodies, displacing the current resident souls to do so. So, to encourage the transition of souls from the dead to the new-born, the initiation was performed.
At Pinjos’ direction, Nuno took the howling babe from its mother’s arms, assuring her that he would not harm it, even while knowing that he would if Pinjos ordered it. He held the babe out to Hiktos, intoning the hymn of transference, his deep voice echoing off the gold-laden walls. Hiktos dipped two fingers into the blood of a recently deceased old man on a thick table, whose neck they had slit open post-mortem for the purpose, and daubed the blood on the baby’s cheeks and eyelids, singing the hymn along with Nuno. They passed the shrieking babe back to its mother then, advising her to wait until the blood formed a crust before washing it off. The mother thanked them and hurried away.
“How did that feel?” Pinjos asked his students.
“Amazing! It felt amazing!” gushed Hiktos.
Nuno considered for a moment, finger tapping his beardless chin. “It did feel good to bring a soul into the Eyes of Haizoro. Because of us, that child will not languish in the Beyond, where the Eyes do not see.”
Pinjos nodded. “Indeed.”
That same day, he helped Pinjos perform funeral rites for the first time. He and Hiktos were given the dubious honour of hauling the corpse cart through the city. For hours, they trudged up and down the slums, picking up every beggar’s body and corpse laid out on a doorstep by its family. When the cart was full, it felt like hauling rocks. Nuno and Hiktos were streaming with sweat, teeth gritted, as they dragged the cart back to the top of the hill to the temple. A few folk gathered at dusk for the nightly slums’ funeral rites, but beyond those who stepped forwards to say a few words on behalf of the deceased, there was no remembrance or marker for the dead when their bodies were taken down to the dungeons to be ground down into sausages. Pinjos spoke only a brief prayer. Nuno wondered if he’d end up a sausage one day as he cut up the meat.
The Soubashi’s brother died not long later. The funeral held in his honour was so time-consuming and lavish as to be laughable in comparison. Heralded by drums and accompanied by a great retinue of officials, servants and relatives, including the ruler of the city himself, the corpse of the Soubashi’s brother was paraded past the aristocrats’ red granite mansions and through the streets of the upper city in an open casket, garbed in a clean white kaftan embroidered with crimson snakes and angled so that all could see his mahogany visage.
A crowd gathered to mourn the great man’s brother, all clad in black from head to toe, the women even wearing veils. Guardsmen prevented anyone from interfering with the funeral parade, wielding pikes like staves to keep people back. Some wanted to touch the corpse for good fortune and a story to tell. Others wanted to burn it. Nuno, Hiktos and Pinjos led the way, waving incense burners to waft away the Soubashi’s brother’s spirit and chanting bass benedictions. Eventually, the procession wound its way down Blood Road, past the Soubashi’s lush gardens, to the cemetery by the manmade moat that circled the whole upper half of the city, connected to the ocean at both ends, and there on the bank, the Soubashi’s brother was interred with much pomp and ceremony. Nuno recalled the nameless faces of those ground down in the dungeons with a taste of bile.
“What a ceremony!” Hiktos enthused after all the prayers and hymns, even the faint drizzle failing to dampen his mood.
“I hate that the temple has to pander to the aristocrats,” Nuno said quietly to Pinjos.
“But you understand that we must?”
Nuno sighed. “I do.”
By the time Nuno was eighteen, he could perfectly cite law and scripture and perform any of the more mundane tasks carried out by the Two-Faced God’s priests. His induction into fully fledged priesthood sailed by without a hitch. Haizoro had a purpose for him, he was sure. He took the vows to serve the Two-Faced God for a lifetime and was gifted the smooth black robes of a priest. He spent half a year studying the Sacred Texts. It was then that he was introduced to the grislier side of life as a servant of the Two-Faced God.
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