Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Ballad of Titian and Midiana: Chapter 2: The Temple of Decadence

Chapter 2
The Temple of Decadence

We held on to the debris for what seemed like months, our throats parched, our shoulders burnt. Adrift we started thinking it would have been better to have died nobly on the battlefield. But then we shuddered at the thought of our bodies, desecrated by those things, perhaps taken to be used for some perverse ritual.

Somehow, Valis and I ended up on sand, my sword lost. Our surroundings were so beautiful that I did not care. Or perhaps, after ages adrift in briny waters, any land would have seemed a paradise to us. I believed, with a little hope, that I had died on a good day and journeyed to the Ancients. But the more strength I regained in my limbs, the more I realized that I was not gone to the Taker, but in the same emaciated body. I felt my beard and hair, grown so bushy that I imagined myself a halfman. My friend did not look all too human either.

We camped on the beach, resting against a reef which had been washed upon the shore, foraging for clams and seaweed. During the day I studied the mountain line, trying to determine the kingdom we’d landed upon. I could not have guessed that we were on an island.

We set out for civilization the following morning, falling speechless before the sights unfolding along the coastline. The Sea was like a tranquil pond—we could not tell where waves met sky, but for a silver, translucent disc—the moon—mirrored in the ripples of the waters. Sheer cliffs rose up from the depths of the Sea like wild, white brush strokes. We continued along the beach for some time, seeking a clear path through the rocks, till coming upon the remains of loose colonnades, jutting from the rock face as though etched from the mountain but never finished. Lying across the water, a hundred paces from the beach, was the half-submerged statue—a robed woman—whose glaring eye could have eclipsed the sails of our ship. Then we glimpsed the white and blue structures about the arms of the harbor, the looping islets spotted with domes, the towers hanging from the steepest shelves.

It was half a day’s march through dense foliage when my companion and I came to a clearing of adobe domiciles. We were shocked to see that the islanders went about their daily routines without clothing of any kind—whether even aware of the civilized practice remained a mystery to us. Their only adornment was the odd trinket of bone, lapis lazuli or gold, a pattern of tattoos, or brandings. With our only clothing in tatters, we had feared the natives would think us vagabonds. But seeing how it did not matter, we discarded what shreds still clung to our bodies and went about as the natives did. It was in that moment I began to feel, in that most simple and natural state of being, the horrors of war fade from my mind.

Unlike any people I had known, the islanders worked little, devoting most of their day to singing and dancing. They moved with such gaiety that their feet did not appear to touch ground. At last I had found, what I can only describe as, a radiant people. For them there was no age of darkness. Here was no hint of misery. Even the plants welcomed our touch.

Valis and I spied upon the islanders from afar. Though it seemed unimaginable that such a peaceful people could do us harm, we were too accustomed to suspicion to walk out into the open. We also realized that, though we practiced their custom of undress, both of us were in need of bathing and grooming, as they seemed to value such things more than in our own cultures.

On the third day, Valis stole a bar of soap and a paring knife from an abandoned hut, and we bathed and cut our beards. When he and I sufficiently resembled the islanders, save for the small trinkets they loved to flaunt, we followed the path that led to the blue and white structures we had seen from the beach. Here in the city, where it was most populated, we hoped to go unnoticed.

Hunger gnawed at our bellies, but Valis and I were without coin or any other thing of value with which to barter. We did not know the language and dared not speak lest we draw unwanted attention. The answer to our troubles came upon three temples in the city square. We were amazed by what such a simple people had made. Save for Hedonia with its towering domes and pediments, we’d never seen such architectural splendor, and we hoped that, as in our own places of worship, they might serve as houses of charity.

We made our way to the east temple simply because it was near. What awaited us set our hearts at the pace of a charging steed. The clerics of the temple were women, beautiful beyond compare, formed from the stuff of men’s fantasies. Unlike the maidens from the villages, these priestesses were in various states of undress, in hanging silk, and peels of gold, and peacock feathers, worn in such ways as to heighten our curiosity for what lay underneath. Their beauty, and our desire for them, overcame even the bray of our stomachs, reminding us, rather, of long unremembered emptiness.

The women welcomed us not with words but with their hands. What they discovered must have been pleasing to them, and I guessed that even in our haggard state both Valis and I were handsome, for one of the older priestesses spoke to the rest and we were led in to a pool. There they stripped of their loose garments and proceeded to bathe us. Not a niche or crevice remained untouched, and of the part I found most enjoyable to have cleansed, the women used both hands and lips to full advantage.

We learned that this was the Temple of Irene, Goddess of Love and Peace, one of three gods worshipped on the island. Of the other two we did not bother ask. My friend and I were given all that our bodies craved, enthralled by the priestess’ beauty.

As agreeable as they were to look upon, sharing in their flesh erased all my prior suffering. All that mattered was partaking in the nightly orgies. The women explored every perverse action with wild abandon, indulgences of which I am now ashamed to speak. How many women succumbed to me, or I, rather, to their lustful appetites, I cannot tell. Whether they could bear children, or how they prevented it, I did not care. With time, every eye and lip, every bosom and hip and buttocks, became indistinct in the sweat, in the revelry—their names, whether they had any to begin with, unremembered. On the few occasions when I did feel remorse, I thought back on the war, saying to myself that to lay with any woman, even a stranger, was better than to slay a bogren.

That was my slow poison. My mind and heart became slaves to my craving, and I became slothful and wretched. After a cycle had come and gone, I no longer awaited the night with zeal, but dreariness, and finally, with utter disgust. Despising myself, I longed to hold a sword in my hands, to hear the dying scream of my enemy, to feel hot blood wash over me. As for my companion, he never tired of his new life nor found fault in it, continuing into each night as if his lust could only flourish with each new act of depravity. But I drifted from the Temple of Irene to explore the others, wondering if they, too, functioned as consecrated whorehouses.

The middle temple was the most grand, dedicated to Zoë, goddess of Life, Wisdom and Balance. Though only women served within, their beauty paled in comparison to what I had grown accustomed to. But unlike those harlots who knew only to satisfy the flesh, the servants of Zoë were wise, and could discuss at length any subject whether philosophy, astronomy, or theology. By then, I could understand a little of the Aean language, and with the aid of a Zoë priestess, I learned to speak fluently.

The third temple honored Maki, goddess of War and Virtue. This is where I found my true self, and my greatest grief.

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