“As This Lay Burning” by Kimo Pokini
by Joanna Gardner
Brother Mathis’s outstretched hand touched the door at the end of the unlit passage. In his other hand he held a wooden box pressed against his chest.
He lifted the latch, and the door swung out onto the sound of rushing water and the smell of suspended droplets. His dark-adjusted eyes dazzled at the moonlit waterfall across from him. High overhead, the stream leaped over the lip of the ravine then skidded and swept down the rock face before churning into the pool below. The steps at his feet led into that pool, where the water gathered its composure before becoming a stream again and winding through the gully.
The oval of night sky at the top of the ravine glowed, too bright for stars. He pulled the door closed, stepped into the pool and waded downstream. The water numbed his feet and ankles until he stepped onto the bank and walked through the trees. Silence replaced the roar of water as the forest breathed him in and the scent of earth soaked his lungs.
He followed the gully until it opened onto the shore of the lake. The regent’s rider was already there, as arranged, standing with his back to the gully. The moon spilled down from the eastern sky across the lake, a lake of light on a lake of water.
“Hello,” Brother Mathis said.
The rider didn’t turn. His leather coat moved in the breeze. He wore a sword on his back.
“Friar,” he answered. “Have you got it?”
Brother Mathis regarded the box he carried. Wind rose from across the lake, from the direction of the moon, as though carried on that viscous light. “Yes, right here. And you?”
The rider turned and lifted his hands to show that he held a cat. Brother Mathis’s skin rippled, that close to the animal. He opened the varnished box and tilted it so the rider could see inside. A stub of bone lay on a bed of black velvet—a piece of the master’s thumb.
The rider stepped closer and handed the cat over with one hand without looking away from the relic. Brother Mathis scooped the cat from the air where the rider let go, and at the same time released the box to the rider.
Still staring at the bone, the rider spoke quietly. “You’ve been gone from the world too long, to trade a treasure like this for a cat.”
Brother Mathis held the animal with both arms, its tiny heart beating faster than his own. Its pulse tugged at him like a current.
The rider snapped the box closed. “One more thing.”
“I want a blessing.”
Brother Mathis’s scalp prickled, and the cat’s fur rose along its spine. How could he bless someone without betraying the order’s secret? The truth would make itself plain, even to a layman like the rider. Wouldn’t it?
“I think your own bishop would want to perform that service.”
The rider shook his head. “There’s no privacy at court. Especially in the confessional.”
“But I’m not a priest.”
“You’re close enough. Now bless me, for I have surely sinned.” The rider dropped to one knee.
“Really, I can’t—”
Faster than breath, the rider’s free hand snapped to his shoulder, drew the sword and had the blade at Brother Mathis’s neck. The air hummed where it had been sliced. The cat squirmed and clawed at Brother Mathis’s robe, its agitation churning around him.
“Please,” the rider said. “Bless me.”
Brother Mathis felt the metal’s edge on his neck and thought of the monastery, of all the species of souls that found shelter there, of the punishment that would rain down like knives if the superiors discovered how the brothers were using the sanctuary. He closed his eyes and allowed himself the luxury of leaning into the blade.
The rider whipped the sword away and leaped to his feet.
“What is the matter with you?” His legs were bent now, flexed. “You aren’t fallen, are you? Have you lost your faith?”
Faith. The word startled Brother Mathis. It had been a long time since he had thought about things in terms like that, but they still worked, after a fashion. Mist rose off the lake as though dreaming itself into existence, and the cat went still in his arms.
“No. I haven’t. I’ll bless you.”
He cradled the cat with one hand, and held the other out to the rider. The rider sheathed his sword and knelt again, but cautiously this time, eyes narrowed at Brother Mathis.
“Don’t you need my name? To tell God?”
Brother Mathis rested his palm on the man’s warm head and held the cat to his chest exactly as he had held the box. The cat’s claws pricked his wrist, and the animal’s essence rose with a rushing sound like floodwater. Vertigo and potential filled him as he opened his mouth to speak, a sensation like what the stream must feel at the top of the ravine just before it plunged over the edge.
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