Chapter Three


Priest of Priests


Ruler of the Known World

Ragarian gazed down from the balcony of his apartments at the heavy rolling ocean far below and considered the future that this day's events had created for him.  There was a warm wind from the west this evening that moved the folds of his ankle length robes and carried the perfume of the ocean to him, as he enjoyed being alone for the first time in weeks.  He had enjoyed the sunset as he always did during the last few weeks  of the summer, for this was  the time of the year when that great red ball sinking into the ocean seemed at it's most majestic.  It did however remind him that the year had already turned and a few months  from now this balcony would be swept with ice gray winds that would chill his bony frame, turning his ears red, bringing water to his eyes and dewdrops to the end of his nose.  Across the copper and gold slated expanse of dark ocean the sun was setting behind the island of Mardis which seemed to lay tonight on the water like a gigantic sleeping sea monster, it's hills and mountains silhouetted against the feathery banks of crimson-stained golden clouds climbing into the heavens behind it.  Only a few twinkling lights showed that the island of Mardis  was inhabited and they were almost too far away to be seen through the liquid vision of an aging human being.   His myopia made what would otherwise have been brilliant pinpricks of brilliance into geometric flowers of  light, proving nevertheless that he was not alone in the world.   

On his balcony set high on the palace walls overlooking the ocean, he was standing at the eastern-most tip of the peninsula upon which the City of Ka was built, thereby making all the other buildings in the religious and secular capital of Khanlar invisible behind him, just as the crowds of people who had attended his anointing this morning were now for the most part invisible as individuals in his memory.  Slowly the light of the sun disappeared and the white moonlight from that immense stone in the sky was all that was left to light the world, while thousands of stars one by one shone forth their message of existence from the dark sky above him.  

Ragarian was in his fifty seventh year but he looked younger when one ignored the heavy creases that short sighted vision had permanently etched into his forehead directly above a heavy nose, created by constant and now habitual squinting.  He was thin to the point of being gaunt.  What flesh he had was muscle and his skin was stretched across it as tight as the leather on a ceremonial drum.  He was beginning to go stoop shouldered, which he had reasoned to himself would not be unattractive in a man who carried the responsibility of the world upon his shoulders but it would be several years before he would need to worry about it.  His hands were large and long, his fingers strong yet bony and lately he had experienced a few twinges of pain in those knobs he had been given as knuckles, no doubt announcing the potential of arthritis later in life.  The veins on his hands laced across the back of them looking for all the world as if some needle-woman had sewn thick blue thread just under the skin to enhance the pattern created by the age spots daubing his chalky skin with small brown circular patches.  He was of course, clean shaven like all Priests, having no hair anywhere on his skull save for his eyelashes and heavy eyebrows which were even now almost black in coloring and only speckled with white.  The few remaining hairs that still graced his head he had shaved away every morning for many years now and as he had grayed even the tell-tale shadow of his former dark coloring no longer showed.  His body however showed very little evidence of his advancing age and absolutely no sign of the good living that had been available these many years since he had joined the rank of Priest in the Great Temple of Ka.  

Ragarian chuckled to himself, remembering how he had thanked the Gods often that he was less interested in food than any of his predecessors.  In fact he found the lust for fine dining his immediate predecessors had exhibited to be obscene.  He lived in a culture where priests were known for being well fed, if not fat. Ragarian still remembered his early teachers having criticized him as a novice for being bony, explaining that the people trusted the rounded well-being of their Priests and Teachers, a reasoning that he had never understood since the majority of the population came nearer to starvation than salvation every winter in Khanlar.  Ragarian was a striking individual.  His eyes were uncommonly large and set deep into his face beneath strong dark brows and so dark in coloring that it was impossible to know where the iris ended and the pupil began.  He had another advantage that prevented people from forgetting him, for in a land where most men barely reached a height of five and a half feet he stood several inches over six feet.  However he had long ago convinced himself that it had not been his appearance that had moved him methodically through the power structure of the Church and into the position of being the most powerful man in the world from this day forth, although he was willing to admit that it had no doubt helped him.  He still wondered why so many people were stupid enough to base so much of their admiration and trust, even love, upon another human being merely because of their appearance.  In the general populace it was the same, for even after centuries of men being cuckolded by beautiful women the situation still stayed the same.  These woman attached themselves to the poor fools until they had taken away from them everything it was possible to steal with a soft voice, a willing body and a lying heart and yet every day of the year another male idiot fell head over heals for the arrangement of muscle in a female leg, the size of their mammary glands or the practiced tilt of a knowing skull adorned with flowing hair.  In defense of his own sex however he had also known by confession many women who had likewise been willing to suffer degradation, poverty and even physical abuse, just to be able to prove that they loved a man who deserved no such consideration.  Ragarian was no such fool.  He had little time for anyone who could not assist him in obtaining power and with the power he gained the ability to impose his morality and wishes upon everyone else, which was truly the most exciting feeling he had ever known.  A clumsy knife had long ago refused him the ability to enjoy a woman in the full meaning of the word and he had absolutely no interest in the depravities of homosexuality, or other self gratifying activities that some men wasted their creative hours with.  In fact the only true enjoyment he gained in this life was being proved right and he was convinced that it had been his analytical brain, developed from an intense need to question everything and a burning desire for leadership, that had allowed him to carefully and systematically seize power within the ruling establishment of Khanlar.  To Ragarian, all those about him sought control at almost any cost and yet seemed to waste every chance they were given by spending their time enjoying the benefits lesser successes than he desired brought to them.  

He smiled to himself, watching a flight of night birds seemingly swim across the face of the moon above him as he remembered all of the people who had assisted him to his present position of absolute power.  Some had done so unwittingly, while others had been purchased for payment of no more than vague promises and yet others who had obstructed his advance had paid dearly long after they had forgotten slighting him and therefore suffered usually without ever knowing the reason why.  With a soft understanding word here and little praise where others forgot, there, he had become known by all as a caring, if overly intense, person.  His morals were held up by many as being something good to emulate, his research activities and studies were regarded as being those of a dedicated scholar and over the years his opinion had gained the respect of many powerful allies.  

Ragarian knew instinctively that his successes were almost without exception the result of his careful and analytical observation, which had been invariably followed by decisive and calculated actions.  He had during his life so far, been able to cultivate the ability to appear understanding without actually ever getting involved in the petty politics of the Court and it's fawning, ambitious or antagonistic power merchants.  He had been able to operate in the corridors of power as a moderator of other's debates and the arbitrator in the quarrels and disagreements of his peers and superiors.  Ragarian had learned early that everywhere in any administration there were gatekeepers who demanded bribes or promises of future favors, or merely the grateful thanks from a junior who knew his place and he had always been openly grateful for any assistance anyone gave to the aspiring upward moving young priest he had once been.    

He had used his talents well over the years and he felt no guilt whatsoever for how he had used people, for in his own mind he was convinced that he alone had the ultimate right to the power he now owned and, in his own way, Ragarian had always tried to help those who had assisted him to climb the steep and slippery path to greatness.  However it was a greatness he had convinced himself from the beginning that he deserved as a right.  His burning idealism he had managed to conceal without much trouble, for he knew most of the people he dealt with lacked the knowledge or understanding to even begin to understand just how inferior they were to what he held to be important in people.  In truth he could honestly say that he really had no enemies to talk of as a result of his slow progress through the ranks of the  church hierarchy to the ultimate position of Priest of Priests which he now held.   

It seemed to him this evening as he watched the night above him claim it's kingdom across the face of the earth, that his position was one that had been obtained without any real challenge from his colleagues and that he had risen through the ranks without fanfare, on what had seemed both to him and those around him to be a pre-destined path ultimately allowing him to put on the Golden Robe of the High Priest of Khanlar.  Ragarian was only harsh to those beneath him in the hierarchy and then only when they could scarce do anything but accept that they had in fact erred in some manner or action.  To everyone however he was polite, for his manner was controlled and quiet to the point of well managed perfection.  His arrogance was so strong that few people realized it even existed, for he treated everyone as if they were children, some he even treated as one would treat a silly puppy and they all accepted it as the harmless eccentric behavior of a truly well educated and dedicated Holy Man.   

The ceremony that had used up most of the day just ending kept running through his head, as if he were caught up in a tangle of the threads of time.  He heard again and again the words of those that had placed the golden torque about his neck.  One sentence kept jumping to the front of his mind, the simple words  "Ragarian has inherited the Peace". That was what the Anointing Priest had stated during his opening address to the gathered heads of the Church hierarchy who had filled the Great Hall that morning.  Those words had been greeted with an almost involuntary sigh of relief from his audience and it had quietly built like a wall of defense that had shocked Ragarian.  It was as if somehow the security the statement had brought was born of the insecurity and self-denied fear of those gathered to hear it, they were so desperate to hear it said that they need not worry, they willingly threw away their fear at the first chance to do so. The fact was that the Church had much to worry about and although they no longer had armies marching across the land to defeat and destroy as a challenge to their very existence, they still had all the ills of a suffering society to overcome.  

The present woes of the country had to be overcome before that society rose up and blamed the Church leaders for the pain and suffering presently known by almost everyone throughout the land.  Priest of Priests Akarian III had begun the war against the Asigan States, or the Brotherhood as they had called themselves, over five years past in a ridiculous attempt to cover his own administrative weaknesses.  It had been an act of the Gods themselves that the fat old fool had suffered a heart attack at the dining table a few weeks into the Rebellion, otherwise the outcome might have been very different.  The Council of Wardens had then elected and anointed Zagorian IV within a matter of days, obviously choosing the old man because he would allow them to direct the War any way they saw fit, while he pursued his passion for easy living, good food and young women.  The Church, in the human form of the Council of Wardens, had of course put down the Rebellion as everyone had expected it to do from the outset, but it had taken them three years instead of the few weeks they had initially promised their followers.  More than three years to be exact and the price had been a thousand times higher than anyone had expected in terms of human and material loss.  Tens of thousands of young men had engaged in bloody clashes that had left many household providers and productive artisans, craftsmen and farmers dead, or crippled.  Families had been destroyed, children and their mothers had died, or been maimed by actual attack, or had quietly succumbed to those more insidious henchmen of the dark kingdom, starvation, disease and poverty.  

More important to the Church was that it had lost much of it's reputation for infallibility during the War and whereas when Ragarian had been a boy there had been few who questioned anything the Church had proclaimed, there were many today who considered the Church and it's leaders fallible and in private there were many who had already decided that their leaders were in fact incompetent.  The Council of Wardens as individuals had suffered much attack from within the Church itself during the years which had followed the war and there were many of it's members over the period who had been sacrificed to allow the body as a unit to retain power.  It also seemed that since the War fanatics had been able to find an easier path to power than they had even during the war itself.  The paradox no one seemed able to explain, or solve, was that the quality of life was actually dropping continuously year after year even though the war had been won.  Everywhere it seemed that things were getting worse rather than better and this knowledge had infected every level of government with what amounted to a disease of hopelessness.    

At the end of his five year reign Zagorian IV had become no more than a figure-head and had more often than not exhibited advanced senility, sometimes even falling asleep during State occasions by the end of it.  The political in-fighting that had developed in the Council after Zagorian's death had left the Throne of the Church without an owner for almost three months and that indecision had, in it's own way, allowed Ragarian to move his claim to the Throne forward and gather enough support to eventually be able to seize it.  He had maneuvered one power block against another, watching as one contender after another was given up by the groups involved, as they all tried to keep their grip on the power behind the throne.   

Fourteen otherwise healthy men had needed to have heart attacks, suffer accidents or die quietly in their sleep to allow Ragarian to move his own forces into positions of power over the last three years.  A week ago the two men who had  arranged the deaths of so many others had themselves suffered the ultimate sacrifice when they had fallen from the city wall onto the rocks at the foot of the cliffs hundreds of feet below.  Marazar, Ragarian's oldest and most loyal supporter, had taken the precaution of forcing both men to drink liberal amounts of liquor before he had unceremoniously thrown both of them from the wall, so their deaths had gone with no more than a three line entry in the Watch Record the next  morning.  

Tonight however as he watched the sunset Ragarian was realizing something that he had not expected during the decades of work and dedication to achieve  position.  Ragarian was still Ragarian.  He had been forced, for the good of the Church, the country and it's people, to do things and commit deeds that were outside of his everyday character many times since the war had begun.  Yet after these acts of necessity had he not returned to being the fair and just person he had always tried to be? It was not his fault, he argued with himself, that the Gods had placed him in the position they had chosen for him during these troubled times.  Tomorrow morning he would wake up to wield more power than any person in the World, he would be the ultimate judge of all men, women and children who lived, worked and died in Khanlar.  His every decision from this day forth would be Absolute.  Yet Ragarian knew something tonight that he had not known when the sun had risen this morning.   He might now be the Priest of Priests to everyone else but to himself he was still Ragarian!  

The High Priest was accepted by his followers, which in theory meant everyone in the world, as being Infallible.  That was the foundation upon which the Church was built and that infallibility was confirmed when the High Priest was anointed by the Church to be it's spiritual and temporal leader, as Ragarian had been this very day.  He had, according to the rites, been  sacrificed to the Gods during the ceremony and became both living and dead in the one body during his Anointing.  All the Church's teachings were based upon the fact that from the moment of that sacrifice the Priest of Priests would be able to talk to the Gods directly and of all men the Gods would accept him as their equal in debate and instruct him in the Immortal Wisdom that would sustain the world.  That is what every man, woman and child in Khanlar was taught from birth and they were instructed daily that the truly religious would believe it until death itself took them from this mortal plane.  

As with all leaders of the Church before him, Ragarian had sacrificed his blood to the Gods when the leeches had been put on his chest at the beginning of the three hour ceremony and he had watched as the bloated creatures had been removed and burnt in the Holy Fire at it's end.  Ragarian had hardly felt the two great slimy things as they fed on his blood, one affixed to either side of his chest.  The real shock to Ragarian had come while he had watched the two black slugs frizzle on the coals of the Holy Fire, for he had truly expected the Gods to speak to him, as the Holy Book had promised they would. . .  but they had not! He had realized without any doubt whatsoever his absolute  mortality when he had answered,  "I am. I am!"  to the ritual question "Prove thy God Head, are you now communicating with the Gods Ragarian, High Priest of Khanlar?" He also knew now why every High Priest before him had answered that he was indeed communicating with the Gods when asked that same question over the countless centuries men had held these ceremonies.  Ragarian realized that they had, in all probability, openly lied in exactly the same manner as he had chosen to do.  To answer in the negative would have been to invoke upon oneself a sentence of immediate execution, for if the Gods did not come forth to guide the mind of the Priest of Priests it could only be because they had judged him to be unworthy of that position of ultimate power which the title endowed upon the man being anointed.   

It was obvious to Ragarian that no one who had spent a lifetime achieving the ultimate position of power would risk anything by lying in answer to the very question which gave them control over all men.  However, it had still surprised Ragarian, for deep down inside he had truly expected to talk to the Gods and a lifetime of conviction was hard to overcome while standing before that crowd of powerful clerics, most of whom also probably believed in the scripture they had adhered to all their lives.  His answer did not bring forth thunderbolts from the heavens, but instead brought forth thunderous applause from those gathered before him on earth and even a few tears from the older priests in the crowd.  The day of Anointing was over now and the sun had set without the world ending in fire and brimstone and millions of silver stars still filled the heavens.  Ragarian was surprised to find that he felt less important in this moment than he had ever felt in his life, as he gazed up into the heavens and realized what the ceremony that morning had done to him.  

There was a God of course, perhaps even many gods as the Holy Books taught, Ragarian knew that to be a fact that none could ever deny, for there were too many wonderful things in this world for there not to be at least one Supreme Being to have created them.  Yet one thing was sure to him this evening and that was that God, or the family of Gods if one truly believed the literal teachings of the Church, did not accept him as their equal, no matter what wonderful words and incantations were made in the ceremony which climaxed in the anointing of a Priest of Priests. Ragarian began to laugh quietly to himself, standing alone on the balcony looking out at the creation of the Gods that he had worshipped every day of his life.  It was not ridiculing laughter, nor was there any real humor in the sound, it was in fact almost the cheerfulness of relief as he gained the understanding of how pompous men were; how dare these bags of bones, delicate flesh and a few jugs of blood, dictate in their weakness how the Gods should act and be described to the men and women who needed to believe in them in this cruel and heartless world.   

After a while of brooding silence Ragarian spoke to the empty sea and the endless sky above him:  "So we are wrong are we, great Gods of men?  We burn our sacrifices, incant our confessions and beg assistance and You are not even listening to us.  Or if You are listening You choose not to answer.  Perhaps You have forgotten that You created us, or perhaps our actions and dreams are just meaningless striving that You watch with amusement, the way a child watches the antics of an insect before he crushes it under his foot and moves on to another game, without any guilt or shame for the murder he has just carelessly committed.  Perhaps You are all dead Gods of my fathers, or perhaps You just gave up and went away to create a better world, disgusted by what we have done to Your creation here.  You allowed me to live when I lied and used Your names without respect or truth and there were no thunder bolts during the farce we acted out for You this morning." Ragarian picked up the half empty wine glass and lifted his arm to the heavens in mock salute,  "Ragarian is the High Priest of Khanlar.  This morning I was appointed to do Your work and translate Your wishes to the people of the world, and you can not even be bothered to answer me.  You leave me to my own human ideas to solve the problems of the world, so that is what I shall do to the best of my ability.  I have no alternative have I?  What else can I do but preserve whatever civilization exists in this hard world I have inherited?  Wish me well, Gods of my fathers and guide my actions."  He waited a few seconds, still half expecting an all-knowing voice to answer his taunts, but it never came and so Ragarian threw the glass towards the sea below and entered his apartments, closing the doors behind him.

He realized that what had happened this day had changed him far more than any whispered instructions in his mind from the Great Ones.  In fact it was in a way far more threatening, for Ragarian felt as if he himself was being judged, as if his every action was being recorded and his fate would be decided by what he did from this moment on.  The Gods had allowed him complete power over the lives of all men without comment or guidance to help him.  Perhaps it was he, Ragarian, that was being tried and tested.  Perhaps the ceremony had convinced the people, whereas the Gods would wait until he had proved himself.  He realized then that he had almost convinced himself that the Gods would talk with him only when he had proved to them that he was worthy!   He was now the Ruler of the known World.

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Controlled Anarchy


The sun rose the next morning, as it had risen every morning back to the very first day of Creation, but this morning Ragarian the High Priest of Khanlar was not able to force his mouth to produce the sounds that created the words which composed the Prayer of Thankfulness.  Instead he stayed in his bed and looked out of the open doors that led onto the balcony, thankful that some servant or another had had the sense to open them.  Beside his bed sat a silver tray with a jug of watered wine and a bowl of fruit on it.  He sat up and took the prepared cup of wine and sipped at it, as he tried to analyze for himself exactly what the dreams of the previous unsettled night should have meant to him.  He remembered well the realities upon which his nightmares had been based but he finally dismissed the unconscious ravings of his sleeping brain to be no more than just that.   

The Gods had still not talked with him.  No dreams had brought him visions of greatness.  Sipping the wine and watching the sea gulls soaring and diving outside, accompanied by the muted sounds of an oceanic orchestra below, Ragarian remembered everything that had brought him to this point in his life.  His bed this morning was without doubt the largest in the land and the sheets and drapes around it were the finest materials that had been woven in all time.  He was the Priest of Priests, the Prince of Princes was he not and as such he saw no wrong in living in a style greater than that of any of the scions of Khanlar's Great Royal Houses.  Yet how different was this bed from the one he had occupied when he had first entered the Church almost fifty years ago.  How many years had he hated those men who had come and demanded his parents hand him over to them?  How many years had he suffered each lesson, each beating, each humiliation, with only hatred to give him strength?  He must have been twelve or thirteen, yes thirteen, when old Margatar had taken him to the Temple and informed him that both his mother and father were dead, killed when their house had collapsed upon them during a storm.  Of course it had been a lie but he had not known that until he was in his thirties.  His mother had really died from gangrene after cutting her foot on a nail or something while working as a laborer demolishing a house for some rich landlord.  Too poor to enlist the help of a proper doctor she had died in enormous pain in a hovel inhabited by vermin and lice.  She had died not knowing that her son was to become one of the finest doctors in the Church, who one day would treat Bishops and Princes.  His father had died only a few years after Ragarian had been taken by the Church, but the death of a poor man at a young age was nothing unusual in Khanlar.  The man who had played with his son while he grew large enough to become a worthwhile property for the Church to steal and who had walked the floor with the babe in his arms while he grew his first teeth, had died of pneumonia which his under-nourished body and poor living conditions had merely assisted to claim his life.  How many nightmares had Ragarian tossed and turned through to awaken drenched in sweat, since he had learned the fate of those who had created him.  Had he stayed with them he might have been able to earn the extra copper which would have meant his mother could have stayed home and not been forced to work from sunrise to sunset as an animal carrying loads of rubble on her back, perhaps he might have been able to help pay a doctor to have saved his father.  

Ragarian wondered often if his parents looked down on him from wherever the Gods kept their souls, despising him for the life of ease he now lived.  Ragarian had also discovered by careful search and inquiry that he had had three brothers, two of whom were half brothers from his mother and the thatcher she had married when his father had died.  He also learned that both had died in the Army of the Church during the Rebellion, whereas his only true brother still lived and was a half-wit who earned his bread working in a stable in their home city of Tarbor.  Ragarian had met the man three times, without disclosing their relationship and had placed both reward and the threat of dire repayment for failure upon a local priest to make sure nothing bad ever happened to the half-wit.  There had also been five sisters, two of whom he had never met because their father had arrived on the scene after his own father's death and he felt no bond with them at all, even though they had, like him, been delivered from his mother's womb.  His own sisters he had valiantly sought, for they were all younger than he and he had felt an overpowering responsibility for them since he had discovered their existence.  One had died shortly after he had left home and another had died in childbirth only two days before Ragarian had found out where she lived and seven days before he had arrived to take a look at her.  The last of his sisters had been a quiet girl, who it was said had been very pretty as a child and who had been lucky to have been married off to some cabinet maker at the age of thirteen, however she was to die before she was forty in a stupid accident during the war.  She had been caught wearing a cloak that had belonged to a soldier of the Brotherhood to keep out the winter cold and had been hanged before the local priest in whose unknown care Ragarian had placed her could communicate with his employer.  Ragarian had seen to it that that priest had suffered an accident soon afterwards which had sent him straight after her, but even that revenge had not soothed Ragarian's loss.  He had made a special journey to see her only surviving daughter a few months after the war, a small minded woman who had been married to a herdsman in Tarbor.  He had taken water at their holding without disclosing to them who he was, but then the Course of History had claimed all of his time and he had not seen her since.   

Growing up as a Novice in the Church had been harder, Ragarian was willing to swear, than service in the ranks of the Military.  The circumcision they had performed upon him had not healed as it had been supposed to and it had been more painful than anything he had ever imagined for many months.  He could now judge  as the medical man he was, that the doctor who had performed it had probably been drunk, for he had botched the job and Ragarian still carried the scars as proof of the matter.  Then there was the constant labor, organized worship and incanted education, which generations of teachers had determined were necessary to prepare him for the Priesthood.  In those childhood years life had been frightening most of the time and exhausting all of the time for the young boy he had been then.  Less than eighty of the hundred boys abducted into service by the Church every year survived to the age of fourteen, some dying of actual beatings and some by disease brought on by malnutrition, but the majority died in accidents that were caused in the most part by some careless act brought about by hunger and exhaustion, or simply by the stupidity of pitting a small child against a task more suited for a grown man.  No one seemed to see any wrong in the deaths or serious accidents that happened, for it was accepted just as the continued presence of the poor in society was accepted, it was the norm of many centuries that went on as ever it had.    

Ragarian, who was not noted up to that time for his consideration of others, had made a point of changing many of the terrors of being a young child in the service of the Church as he had gained power through the years.  In his early forties one of the stepping stones to his present position had been to assume the mantle of Grand Master of Novices and Ragarian had used that position to change much of the dogma which had earlier in his own life robbed him of any happiness as a child.  He had re-written the Gathering Laws, so that now almost all of the boys brought into Church service were orphans, or were donated to the Church by their parents, for a not inconsiderable sum in the eyes of those poverty stricken families who most often gave up their sons under the program.  He had also insisted that on Herthesday each week, all young men in the service of the Church under the age of fourteen, were to have no less than four hours during  the day to devote to activities of their own choosing and although some chose to read or sleep, most could be found in games of roust-ball, or similar youthful pastimes they organized amongst themselves.   

It had not been so when Ragarian had been young.  Always tired and hungry his life and that of his contemporaries, had been committed for every waking hour to either slave labor or religious observance.  Just before the first hour after midnight everyday, he would return to the cot he had left an hour before for the Midnight Worship, crawling in and sleeping under the thin blanket he kept and washed every week until he was admitted into the ranks of the Probationers at the age of fourteen.  Five hours later  he would be awakened and sent to the kitchen where he worked to help prepare the breakfast for hundreds, along with dozens of his tiny fellows.  In winter the stone floored kitchen was like an ice box when he arrived before daylight to remove the ashes from the previous night and then light the stoves for the day's activities.  While he was doing this others were washing the floors, peeling vegetables or scraping the ovens clean.  Then they would leave the kitchen, chanting hymns as they proceeded to the courtyard where everyone gathered to welcome the Sun and chant the Prayer of Thankfulness and then, usually trying hard to stay awake to escape a whipping, they would have to stand and listen to the sermon of one of the Priests in charge of their lives.  An hour later they would return to the kitchen, but only to serve everyone else a hot breakfast, before they could feast themselves on the cold left-overs.  And so it was every day in his life without exception for seven long years, never enough sleep, always four hours of Prayer and never less than ten hours of work and two hours of being taught why he was lucky to have been chosen for the Priesthood, by Divine Command of the Gods of course.  Ragarian had been inducted into the priesthood with eleven other frightened young boys on the same day and he had decided from the beginning that the Gods had given him his friends to share his burdens and fears during those seven soul destroying years.  They had therefore grown as close as brothers during that time, but where were they today?  Quiet little blond haired Tovash had died before he was ten when a tub of hot water had fallen on him in the kitchens; or rather he had died four days of screaming and whimpering later.  Makiran had thrown himself to his death from one of the castle's windows a few days after his ninth birthday, after having been raped, tortured and tormented a whole night by a group of older novices, all of whom Ragarian had repaid for their lechery over the years, so that none of them was alive to attend his coronation as Priest of Priests.    Hasirian had been fat when they had met and today he was even fatter and happy, or so Ragarian had been told, serving as the Priest to some Gods forsaken hamlet in Vanzor.  Protagian had died during the War, cut down in the last real battle the Rebels main army had had the courage to stand and fight, in the swamps of Mang.  Poor Protagian had never recovered from the beatings of his childhood and had become almost a recluse, in as much as one can in such a regimented society as the Church School.  Later he was to hide his fears as a Military Chaplain, becoming an unquestioning fanatic hysterical in the destruction of Heretics, as he judged all rebels to be.    The others of his childhood friends had all died or moved away into obscurity, with the exception of Marazar.  He was still with Ragarian and had been with him for fifty years now, in fact he was probably standing outside of the door right now, defending his beloved friend or master, depending upon how one judged the relationship between them.  Marazar was definitely missing some of the intelligence the Gods normally gave to men but he had been compensated for it in bulk.  Even Ragarian sometimes felt the overbearing presence of his huge friend.  From the time when Marazar had picked up a Practitioner and thrown him across the yard, Ragarian had been accepted as the giant's mentor and master.  They had punished the quiet Marazar for reacting to the bully by putting him into a room without windows or light of any kind, for four weeks.  

When he had come out of that prison he was whimpering that Herthe had come in his dreams and told him to serve Ragarian, for one day Ragarian would be the Priest of Priests.  How everyone had laughed at Marazar's claim, until Ragarian had stood forth and defended his friend, saying that he too had had dreams telling him to command and provide for Marazar until the Gods called him to them.  Luckily for the both of them some old Priest had prophesied years before that on that day something that would lead to great changes within the Church would occur and Ragarian had inadvertently found himself respected from that day forth and stranger still, he had discovered soon afterwards that he was even openly feared by some.  It was only days after that incident that his friend was  reduced the Priesthood and placed in slavery to Ragarian and strangely that happened on the very day that Ragarian himself moved out of the children's quarters and became a Practitioner.   

Even as he dressed in his new robes on this the first day of his rule as Priest of Priests Ragarian could not stop the whole history of his life playing itself out within his head.  It was as if he was putting it all into storage, before he assumed the frightening power he now had as the Head Priest to every person in Khanlar.  In all of it he felt vaguely content.  The Rebellion had finally been crushed by the superior numbers of the Church Army and the Church was stronger and more powerful now than it had ever been in recorded history, a history that was already being rewritten to play down the losses, both military and material that they had suffered during the long years of that terrible civil war.    

Few people in Khanlar understood just how numerous were the administrative problems in various parts of country, or just how badly the Rebellion had affected the Economy of Khanlar.  Ragarian knew exactly how bad things were, yet even he had been surprised by what he had learned in the last few weeks, and he now knew far more than had been understood immediately after the War.  Ragarian, due to his position, had always had better knowledge than most on just how badly the nations had suffered, due to the inadequacy of the leaders of the Church over the last few decades and sometimes he wished he had wielded enough power back when the Asigan miracle had taken place to have guided the Church into first sharing it and then of course eventually controlling it.  In a way the events of history during his life so far had merely confirmed Ragarian's own belief in balance, for as the Asigan Alliance had prospered so had the Church declined.  As great leaders had emerged from the Royal Houses of the Alliance, so it had appeared that fewer and fewer leaders that could be considered even adequate had identified themselves in the Church ranks.  However the Gods had rescued their representatives, or more likely Fate had belched at the right time, and the War had begun before the leaders of the great experiment that was the Asigan Alliance had been able to truly consolidate it's many great advances in technology and social change.  Their geographical position on the continent had also been against them, for they were surrounded on three sides by their enemies on land and their long southern coastline had been hard to defend with the ships they had at their disposal when the war broke out.     

The War had been over for far too long however to be able to blame it for every problem the country was now facing and Ragarian already had learned that many of the woes facing Khanlar today were a legacy as much in the heart and mind as in the body proper.  There had always been cripples and there had always been poverty, but nowadays the percentages were far too high to overcome them without some drastic  changes in the way men thought and approached social problems.  It was either a matter of getting rid of the parasites on an already depleted system or of finding a way to make the parasites become creators of wealth and advance in their own right.  

In Ragarian's mind the act of balance was of the utmost importance in these matters and he was already considering as many alternatives as his fertile brain could juggle at the same time, analyzing one after another for potential problems and solutions.  He had considered some rather bizarre alternatives along the way.  He had even gone so far as to consider rounding up all the cripples and halfwits left by the War and taking them into the forests and wastelands of the conquered Nations where they could be put to work clearing new farmlands.  He had added up the potential of supplying them with only half of the necessary food required to keep them alive and making them forage for their own food until the worst of them slowly died off, leaving only the productive needing to be fed and converting the fallen into a natural fertilizer for the new fields of wheat and vegetable farms.  He still played with that one occasionally, for it was truly logical.  It would reduce the number of parasites in the society, remove the weaker genes from the basic breeding stock of the Nations and provide an enhanced standard of living for those who survived.   

Ragarian had already, as Master of Rehabilitation of Heretics, his last post before beginning his claim to the throne of Priest of Priests, reduced the survivors of the Brotherhood to the virtual status of domesticated animals.  This had at first seemed a logical pursuit also, for it took hundreds of hungry mouths out of prison camps and put them to work as slaves that needed little or nothing, yet produced extra for the Exchequer every month.  It had had two rather unsettling side effects however that had not seemed too important when he had first instituted it.  Firstly it had led to those who had survived the war on the losing side seeing that there was no future they could look forward to besides being worked to death.  For that reason more and more of them had escaped to form what were now quite embarrassingly large bands of desperate outlaws, whose depth of hatred and knowledge of the true state of affairs, gave them no reason but to plan for a life of continuous attack on the very system he had hoped to effectively remove them from.    The second oversight had been to not consider what an influx of almost free labor would do in areas where loyal citizens found it hard to find sufficient paying employment to support their families.  In fact what had at first seemed a solution to a problem had created two more troublesome and far harder to combat problems that he would have to solve in the very near future.  There were also the Guardians on Lunza to deal with sooner or later. . .  but all in all Ragarian felt he would soon have everything under control and the way he wanted it to be.    

Controlled Anarchy was what he called it.  As it was it only took a few weeks for Ragarian to realize that he was underestimating the problem and that he was in fact ruling within a semi-organized state of anarchy.  His experiences in government were soon to convince him that there were already enough laws to run the nations efficiently, if only they could be enforced to the full letter of their intent.  The problem was that they were not being enforced in most cases and even when they were used much depended upon those who were interpreting them.  The more Ragarian investigated the problem, the more apparent it became to him that corruption, careless bungling and ineffective management seemed the normal method of administration in Khanlar and it was preventing effective control in almost every situation he investigated.  Nepotism seemed to be everywhere, as were bribery, favors and empire building by almost every official in the Church government and it seemed that everyone was involved to some extent, from Bishops who held effective control in many cities, right down to the lowliest of clerks in the Administration.  

The War, like all wars, had of course led to shortages of everything necessary to any form of normal life in Khanlar and the shortages had led to crime and favoritism by those in control.  Many, if not all  families had lost loved ones and as living conditions worsened their patience with the authorities was obviously wearing thin.  Lust for gold had replaced morality in most households and food for the table had become far more important than honoring any Gods or Church requests these days.  Ragarian knew how easy it had been for him to manipulate orders passed down to him in the days before he had ascended the Golden Throne and his many years in the Great Library of Ka had prepared him well to understand the situation that now prevailed.  Several centuries before this war there had been many wars, almost continuous as one Prince sought to cheat another out of a few acres of land, a village or two, or in some cases the annexation of the complete land holdings of a smaller and less powerful neighbor.   Few of those alive today knew of that era of Khanlarian History, however Ragarian not only knew it well, he had tried to apply some of the lessons he had learned from it, which were described in the old books, to the present situation.  He now understood that in those days before the Church had unified the nations into a federation, effectively ruled by the Church itself, the wars had always left somewhere for the defeated to go.  If a neighboring Prince took a village from you, then you could go to a neighbor who was probably related to you and join forces with them to take it back with a couple more, which you could then hand to your ally as payment for his assistance.  If even your whole Nation fell to an enemy there were still other Nations where you would have relatives, or people who would be willing to buy your expertise or labor, allowing a man to escape with his family and begin again.  After the Great War, as the Brotherhood had called their attempt to overthrow Church authority, there had been nowhere for the defeated to flee to, for they became outlaws in every Nation where the Church ruled, which was in fact every Nation on Earth.  With such hard alternatives morality had quickly disappeared.     

During the War the Church had mistakenly urged it's followers on with promises far beyond their capability to supply when it was over.  Instead of roast beef and wine sauce as had been promised, most people feasted on gruel.  In poor areas pet dogs disappeared from the streets and when it was available even dog meat was too expensive for most of the poor, many of whom either saw no meat at all, or were reduced to eating vermin in some cases.  Instead of milk and honey it was short weight bread and water.  Cloth had risen in cost a hundred times in a matter of three years and the supply of all raw materials was getting shorter all the time.  In many Nations people sold sheep for meat these days, rather than go on feeding the animals long enough to harvest their wool.  Yet, as always, those in power, or who had friends in power, managed to prosper and they dressed and lived with what seemed to be the sole aim of exploiting and exhibiting their wealth at the expense of others.     

Many of the tools of peace had been converted into tools of war and now there were few craftsmen available to forge a plow from a handful of swords, even if they had been able to wrest them from the fists of those who held them in these troublesome times.  Breeding stock had all but vanished, eaten by their hungry owners, confiscated by soldiers or run off by starving outlaws.  A secondary problem caused by the decimation of the herds of cattle and swine, numerous horses and the great flocks of sheep that had once grazed the pastures of Khanlar, was the reduction of fertilizer to replenish the fields.  The production per acre of cultivated land had been steadily declining ever since the first few months of the war and today Khanlar's fields were producing half of what they had produced a decade before.  The will of the farmers had also been sapped by the fact that any crop they planted and tended, might well be cause enough for outlaws, even their neighbors, to descend upon them and rob them of their harvest.  The lack of a balanced diet, amounting to starvation in some areas, had also reduced the population's resistance to disease and since the war a series of epidemics and at least three outbreaks of plague had further complicated the recovery. The winters were the worst of course and it was not uncommon since the war to find corpses laying alongside the road in the poorer parts of the land at that time of year.  In any event the death wagons had done a brisk business during the past five winters, only this year they might be drawn by human beings rather than the decorated horses of past times, most of which had long since been converted into table meat, as children and old folk died in ever increasing numbers every time the temperature dropped below freezing.  

Perhaps the greatest problem facing Ragarian, as he donned the golden robes of the Priest of Priests, was the absolute power held by the Army, which had become almost a separate nation within Khanlar due to the War and although it's officers were ostensibly Churchmen, it's leaders openly vied for position and power with the Wardens of the Church Council.  Some of them were little better in the eyes of the populace than the outlaws they were ostensibly supposed to control. Ragarian had soon decided that of his four senior Generals, only Toragor of the 2nd Army was a man to be trusted and could alone be expected to remain completely loyal to the High Priest of Khanlar if trouble erupted once more.  It was to take less than a month for Ragarian to know that before he could actually wield the power his office gave him, he would have to wrest it back from those who had separated it's parts during the last decade.  Like many leaders before him Ragarian had found that it was not until he actually held the reins of power did the truth separate itself from the propaganda, even for a person as well acquainted with the gap between reality and propaganda as he was.  His first act on the day following his anointing was to disband the Council of Wardens and appoint his own men into the empty seats.  He tried to do it in stages and without publicity until after the fact, but even so the Church came near to what could have amounted to a Civil War in the first week of Ragarian's reign.  As it was he managed to accomplish it quickly and without too much publicly known blood being spilled on either side.  

The first three months of Ragarian's reign as Priest of Priests saw Khanlar reduced to a state of fear that surpassed even that which had existed during the War.  Three of his generals were arrested and replaced within a matter of weeks of his taking office and the Officer Corps saw almost half of it's members retired, transferred or confined awaiting investigation, as the Priest of Priests placed his own men in positions of power to protect his rule.  The best of the troops were isolated and brought together to form an elite Palace Guard, picked from heroes and outstanding officers and men to act as a buffer between Ragarian and any future possible disloyalty from the main army.  A third of those in uniform were discharged, leaving a completely new army power structure three months after the purge began.  At the same time new rules and regulations went out to every corner of the land giving authority to his Bishops to stamp out corruption and the responsibility to take the blame should it continue.  Several Bishops and many priests and clerks, also found themselves retired to a lower standard of living than they had previously enjoyed, finding themselves removed to desolate monasteries in the most remote and inhospitable places, far from the corridors of power.  

Ragarian was everywhere at once during that time, or so it seemed, his gaunt frame striding into office and temple, guard post and administration hall, always followed by a detachment of his purple cloaked Palace Guard, stamping his dictatorial demands into every aspect of government from the national level right down to the affairs of the smallest hamlets.  Curfews were imposed, men were marched off in chains for the slightest offense against the new order and his iron fist seemed poised to slam down on any chosen cog in the massive machinery of Church Government at any moment. Yet the ways of sloth are not simple to change and the easy living gained from immorality and corruption, is a hard mistress to give up and although many of the visible signs Ragarian's program produced were an advance, it was the words of the mouth that men spoke and not the words of what went on in their brains, or within their hearts.


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Chapter Four

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