Cecyl’s stomach rumbled as he looked down at his last stale crust of bread. He ignored the pangs and dragged the morsel through his wooden bowl to sop up the remaining traces of thin stew.
“I’m sorry we don’t have more to offer,” his host said. “It’s been a hard winter.”
The man bowed his head apologetically even as Cecyl thanked him for his generosity. He did so without pretense or hesitation. The meal was meager, but Cecyl knew full well that this man had given him everything he could spare, and Cecyl would have refused had he tried to offer more. Cecyl was humbled to know that this poor farmer was willing to sacrifice so much on his behalf.
Sadly, gratitude alone would not be enough to sate his hunger. Planting was hard work. Communing with the dead took an even greater toll on his mental energies. Cecyl had done both in return for a few small meals. It wasn’t much, but it was better than going without.
Cecyl rose, rinsed his bowl, and took his staff from its spot against the door. “Thank you again for your hospitality,” he said. “I hope your next harvest is better than your last.”
“With your help, I’m sure it will be. Feel free to drop in whenever you’re in the area. We may not have much, but you’re always welcome to whatever’s in the pot.”
Cecyl thanked the man again, then left the tiny, one-room homestead and walked along the dusty trail towards the main road. The brown fields had the optimism of freshly tilled soil, though in all likelihood the yield would still be light. Cecyl reached the main road and turned toward Sparkstone, allowing his feet to carry him further up the mountain.
He stopped when he reached the city gates. He knew he was no longer alone.
“How did you find me?” Cecyl asked.
“It’s not hard,” said the woman leaning against the stone archway to his right. “How many other priests have left the Order? Last I checked, you’re one of a kind.”
Cecyl turned to face her. “My answer is the same, Hamara. I have no interest in your kind of work.”
“Don’t be presumptuous, Cecyl,” Hamara replied. “You know very little of my work.”
“I know what’s buried beneath your grove,” Cecyl said. “I’ve spoken to them. I’ve heard their stories.”
“Then you know that most of them got nothing less than they deserved.”
“Spare me your justifications,” Cecyl spat. “I may have left the Holy Order of Korabyllus, but I am still a teacher. I hold myself to a higher set of laws.”
Hamara smiled, as if she was enjoying the debate. The wisdom in her expression was far more infuriating than anger would have been. She shrugged.
“I expect a lot from people. It’s nice to know you have high standards.”
Cecyl leaned against his staff. He felt immensely weary, as if the weight of his life was suddenly pressing down on his shoulders. Hamara seemed to know his burden.
“I don’t want or need anything from you,” he said, although he increasingly felt like he was trying to convince himself.
“Business going well, then?” Hamara asked.
“I have faith, and I’ve managed on my own so far.”
“I can see that,” Hamara replied. “You wear your qualifications on your cloak.”
Cecyl looked down. His brown robes were so stained and filthy that it was nearly impossible to tell they had once been white. They had always born the evidence of years spent toiling in the fields and streets of Summit, although even he had to admit that they had become significantly dirtier in recent months. He had tried to keep up with his laundry when he was with the Order, but there just didn’t seem to be much point since he’d left. Clean clothes, like so many other things, had become a luxury.
Hamara pulled a large red apple from a pouch on her belt and wiped it against her vest before taking a bite. It made a satisfying crunch. Cecyl’s mouth began to water, so he looked away and took a deep breath to calm himself.
“I left the Order to help people. Real people. Not the academics sitting in their towers,” Cecyl said. “I may not have much, but what I have is honest. I am satisfied with my work.”
Hamara snorted. “You’re giving away years of training for a bit of gruel.”
“I wouldn’t expect someone like you to understand,” Cecyl said.
Hamara stood tall and tossed the apple over her shoulder. Cecyl groaned involuntarily as the half-eaten core picked up bugs as it rolled through the grass.
“I understand more than you think,” she said, finally stepping out of the shadow of the stone arch. Her long grey hair was tied back in a loose bun, and she wore a white shirt and brown roughspun pants that belied her reputation. The outfit was plainly functional. There was dirt on her knees and beneath her fingernails from long days spent working in the garden, although she wore the earth with far more confidence than Cecyl. “I remember what it was like to have nothing. I remember how hard it was to focus when you don’t know when you’ll get another meal.”
“I’m not starving,” Cecyl protested.
“But you are hungry. It’s written on your face.” Hamara let her words linger in the air before continuing.
“Believe it or not, I was a lot like you once,” she said. “I was never selfless, but I wanted to take care of people. I wanted to make sure I could protect them when the time came. But when I was hungry, I was helpless. I could barely provide for myself. What use was I going to be to anyone around me? It was arrogant to think I had the answers they needed.”
Against his better judgment, Cecyl found himself interested in what she had to say, even as he tried to downplay his curiosity. “I’ve never promised anyone salvation,” he said. “I can only offer guidance.”
“I didn’t say you were dishonest,” Hamara said. At this point, she almost seemed sympathetic, as if she both pitied and respected his position. “But you’d be able to do a lot more if you had more strength to give. When I realized where I stood, I went out and got what I needed to carry out my goals. I’ve never once regretted that decision.”
They both stopped talking to let a pair of donkeys pull a wooden cart through the arch. Hamara smiled and nodded at the woman in the front seat, who responded with a subtle tip of her cap. She spoke again once the woman was out of earshot.
“I’m not a fool, Cecyl. I’m in the information business. I know what people say about me, and it has much more weight coming from you. Most people are hypocrites who frown on my methods while burying problems in their own orchards. You may be naïve, but at least you live by your convictions.”
“Then why the game?” Cecyl asked. “Why go through this whole charade? If you respect me for my convictions, then you know why I can’t work with you.”
“Because I can be quite honest when the situation calls for it,” Hamara said. She pulled out another apple and offered it to Cecyl, chuckling when he hesitated. “Take it. It’s just an apple. It doesn’t signify anything more than that.”
Cecyl’s hunger got the better of him. He took the apple and took a bite, finding it just as tart and delicious as he expected.
“Tasty, aren’t they?” Hamara asked. “I’ve got plenty more if you ever find yourself at the inn.”
“I told you, I am satisfied with my work,” he said again between bites.
“Oh? I thought we were being honest.”
“We are,” he said.
“Good. Now why don’t you tell me the part you’ve been leaving out.”
Cecyl paused, wrestling with his response. He hadn’t lied to Hamara. Not in the true sense of the word. He wanted to help people, and he took great pride in his efforts to alleviate the suffering of others. His work was meaningful, and it gave him solace to know that his actions matched his intentions.
But he was also beginning to see the limits of idealism. He usually went to bed hungry, achy, and exhausted, and though he was ashamed to admit it, he missed the comforts of his previous life. There had always been enough food and a warm bed when he was with the Order.
Poverty had taken a toll. Cecyl had rejected his luxuries on ethical grounds, but he was so preoccupied that he didn’t have as much energy for everyone else. Somehow, Hamara seemed to know that.
“All right,” he said at last. “What’s your proposition?”
Hamara smiled, as if everything that followed would be mere formality.
“Simple. I’ll offer you a job. You can tell me whether or not you want to take it.”
“What kind of job would someone like you have for a man like me?”
“I’d think that would be obvious,” Hamara said. “I’m an information broker. You’ve already plucked the secrets from my garden, and I know you’ve learned much more from your conversations with the dead. I’m willing to pay you for that knowledge.”
“You don’t need me for that,” said Cecyl. “I can’t tell you anything you couldn’t learn from the Truthbrokers or another member of the Order.”
“Perhaps,” said Hamara. “But questions reveal as much as answers, and sometimes I don’t want anyone to know what I’m asking. You know better than most that news travels fast within those halls.”
Cecyl couldn’t argue with that assessment. The Order of Korabyllus was impenetrable to outsiders, but many of its members loved to gossip. He bowed his head, and Hamara went on.
“With skills like yours, your services will always be in high demand. But that’s not what makes you unique. On this mountain, everyone is sworn to someone, whether it’s the Riftkeepers, or the guilds, or the miners down in Toehold. You’re the exception. You’ve managed to free yourself from the ugly politics of the whole thing, and power hates it when someone breaks away from the system. Makes them worry other people might get ideas.”
“I don’t care what they think,” said Cecyl. “If I did, I wouldn’t have left.”
“That’s admirable, but foolish. It also makes you vulnerable,” Hamara replied. “Did you really think everyone would just let you walk away? You’re a rogue spiritualist. Sooner or later, someone is going to try to bring you back into the fold. What will you do when that day comes? Who will tend to the beggars if you die?”
Cecyl found himself at a rare loss for words, and he was starting to realize that he had not given Hamara nearly enough credit. Talking to her made him feel like he had gone to one of his master’s philosophical debates without doing any of the required reading. She was much more clever—and more worldly—than anyone he had met in the Order. Perhaps he could learn something from her yet.
He lifted his head and met Hamara’s gaze. “I think I underestimated you.”
“Most do. I like it that way.”
“So, you want to pay me to talk to the dead?”
“I’ll pay you for anything you’re willing to do,” Hamara said. “And I mean it when I say you can refuse. I find that people tend to do poor work when they don’t want the job in the first place, so if it makes you uncomfortable, I’d rather know right away so I can find someone else. I have plenty to offer that should be more to your tastes.”
“What will you do with the information?” Cecyl asked.
“That’s where my honesty ends,” Hamara said, going suddenly cold. “You know what I do, and I won’t hide that from you. But if it makes you feel any better, that’s only a small portion of my business. I can promise to give you assignments from the more…social aspects of my operation.”
Cecyl felt trapped, and a little betrayed. He was reminded that he would still have to be wary around this woman.
“That’s the best you can do?” he asked.
“I need information. You need a client who can pay you a fair wage for your services. With me, you also keep your independence. I don’t care what you do in your spare time.”
Once again, Cecyl found himself grappling with his conscience. He didn’t like it, but neither did he like his alternatives.
“I know this is hard for you, so I won’t press. But I can assure you that you’re not going to get a better offer,” Hamara said. “Take some time to think it over. If you’re still interested, come visit me at the inn tomorrow, and we’ll figure out the rest.”
Hamara handed him another apple, then turned to walk up the mountain. Cecyl waited for her to gain some distance, then sighed and followed her up the road to Sparkstone.
Before long, Hamara turned onto the ring road that led to her orchard, while Cecyl walked on to the city proper. Despite his hunger, he gave his second apple to a homeless woman sitting in an alley.
Cecyl soon reached the abandoned apartment he’d been sharing with a group of other squatters. The ramshackle building was close to falling down, but it still offered moderate protection from the elements. He curled up beneath his stained cloak and tried to fall asleep on the uneven dirt floor.
* * *
When he woke, he gathered his things and left, unsure where the day would take him. He helped the baker set up her stall in exchange for a crust of bread and wandered as he ate. Almost unbidden, he found himself on the road to Hamara’s inn. He hadn’t stopped thinking about her offer since they had parted ways.
Cecyl would never approve of Hamara’s methods, and he didn’t want to know what she planned to do with his information. But she had dealt with him more plainly than the other power brokers on the mountain. Summit was rife with secrecy and corruption. Hamara’s demeanour was more like that of the peasants and farmers he spoke with everyday.
For all her faults, she was also someone who got things done. Cecyl had left the Order because they refused to intervene, abdicating their moral responsibility to the people of Summit. Hamara could teach him how to act on his philosophy. Would that be enough to offset his complicity? Was Hamara any worse than the Truthbrokers, who had no reservations about selling dangerous information to anyone willing to pay?
Cecyl still hadn’t made up his mind when he reached the inn. He was of half a mind to turn back when he saw Hamara leaning against the open door.
“Was wondering when you’d get here,” she said. “Lunch is ready if you’re hungry.”
Cecyl hesitated, then walked up the well-worth path.
“This is just a conversation,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I’ve made my decision.”
“Of course,” Hamara replied. “I wouldn’t want you to commit to anything until we get to know one another. Now come in. You’re free to leave at any time, but I think you’ll like what I have to say.”
She stepped aside to let Cecyl pass. He entered the inn with only the smallest hint of trepidation. He didn’t know if he was making the right decision, but he found that he could make peace with it, and maybe that’s what it would take to make it in the world.
This week’s Archive story comes from Eric Weiss, a Toronto-based writer, performer, and media critic. In addition to his work with EMBERWIND, he is the current Associate Editor (and former Games Editor) for ThatShelf.com, as well as the writer and co-creator of the stage play Not All Fedoras.