In the Hands of the Goddess
Paladin was late for temple.
So he ran.
Autumn gusts rolled through the city streets, kicking stinging grit into his face. He wiped his snotty nose and dark eyes with the back of his sleeve and sprinted down a narrow walk, congested despite the predawn gloom.
Santuario del Guerrero was always a hectic city crowded with visitors, but there were five times more turistas clogging the streets than usual, and that would be doubled by evenfall. Torneo began on the morrow and folk from every corner of the Thirteen Kingdoms would come for the games, transforming the city into a buzzing hive filled near to bursting with manic insects.
Paladin darted into the cobblestone road, a filth-strewn obstacle course of trotting horses and clattering wheels. He danced between shabby wagons filled with crates of food and fancy coaches bearing silk-draped nobles as they raced for inns and hostels that would soon overflow with Torneo revelers.
“Move it, you stupid half-breed!” the driver of a coach-for-hire bellowed, pushing his horses recklessly through the street.
Paladin spun out of the rushing horse’s path and leapt onto the walkway. As the coach roared past, he greeted the driver with his extended middle finger. The driver shouted something vulgar, but Paladin paid it no heed. He was already on the move, dodging through crowds of sleepy-eyed merchants and rubbernecking turistas.
“Perdón!” he yelled, spinning through a small crowd of Nord girls gawking at the upper levels of the arena, which were just visible behind the towering pagodas of Eastgate. The broad-shouldered, yellow-haired girls stood clumped together, pointing up to where rectangular columns of stone projected from the curving concrete outer wall of the arena to frame decorative shields. “Please, señoritas! Perdónadme! Fräuleins, please! Make way!”
He whirled through the tangle of giggling girls without a single collision, and upped his pace through a stretch of clear walk. He made good time, all things considered. Though he had overslept, he might still have time for his morning devotion. He had stayed up way too late working in the smithy, but even after his chores were done, he had lingered, listening to his father’s journeymen trade bawdy tales of bachelorhood and the days when they all competed in Torneo. Though Paladin had heard his father tell the story of his first Black Spear win a hundred times, he never wearied of it. Hearing the tales of Rebelde’s Torneo victories filled Paladin with pride, and maybe just a little jealousy. He longed for the day when he might step into the arena and show off his warrior acumen, but Rebelde had forbidden his competing, on the grounds that it was too dangerous.
Paladin arrived at the temple compound and marked the position of Grandfather Sun, just peeking over the eastern horizon. He might still have time for a thirty- or forty-minute communion with the goddess.
“Good morning, Paladin-san,” Nao the Sharptongue, one of two guards at the temple gates, called to him as he approached the wrought-iron fence surrounding the compound. She grinned. “Running late today, no?”
“There is a first time for everything, I suppose,” the second guard, Hitoshi the Oxstrong, said amiably. The two bushi had ushered Paladin through the temple gates every morning since he had joined Temple Seisakusha a year or so before. He had never arrived so late.
“Hola, Nao-san, Hitoshi-san.” He nodded to the Shimabito guards and hurried through the compound gates. He wanted to get to his favorite room before the monks and other disciples rose for the morning.
Silently, he entered the small chamber used to glorify the goddess of the East, Seisakusha. The singular odor of old sweat and melted wax permeated the sparse communion cell, but he had long ago grown used to it and took comfort in its familiarity. The many-limbed Blessed Hands Idol sat in the middle of the room, and small clay candleholders rested on a shelf on one side of the door. On the other side was a peg on the wall, on which he hung his cloak. He laid his staff, Sunderbones, on the floor and lit the authorized, violet-hued Praise Candle for Seisakusha, then lit the three others he had brought from home, one brown, one scarlet, and one gray.
His eyes moved over the wooden limbs of the Blessed Hands Idol. It was a few inches under six feet, the height of the average Shimabito man, with eight spinning wooden arms located at head, shoulder, torso, and leg levels, all connected through a complex series of weights, wheels, and spring mechanisms. He inhaled a deep, calming breath to focus his ki, the spiritual center controlling the flow of energy through his body. Then, committing the whole of his heart to destruction, he kicked the Blessed Hands Idol hard enough to shatter it had it been made of lesser wood. He screamed at it and punched it. He savaged the holy icon with his callused, honey-brown knuckles and booted feet, his praise of the goddess as fervent as it was brutal.
* * *
Fox the Runt held his breath as he hurried across the grounds. The old chamber pot he carried was full, and he did not want to inhale the nauseating stink of human waste. His face, usually the color of sour milk, turned a startling shade of blue, and he quickly but carefully kicked open the door to the privy shed and emptied the contents of Sensei Quicksteel’s chamber pot down the chute within. Then, just as swiftly, he backed out, kicked the door shut, and dropped the empty chamber pot to the ground, carefully avoiding spatter.
Moving away a safe distance, he leaned against the willowy bough of one of the blooming sakura trees and filled his aching lungs with much-needed air. The elegant trees—rare on this side of the world—had been imported all the way from the Higashi Shima across the sea. They blossomed with pink-tinted white flowers for only one week of the year, during autumn. And under Grandmother Moon’s faint blue light, the entire garden seemed alive with muted, violet-tinged fireworks. Once he had gained his second wind, he went to fetch the chamber pot.
Of all the chamber pots of all the monks, Sensei Quicksteel’s was the worst. Whatever the sensei put into his mouth, be it sweet, sour, or savory, came out the other end as a reeking brew so rank it didn’t even qualify as shit.
And Fox the Runt knew shit.
Santuario del Guerrero was his adopted home. Fox the Runt had been born in a small village in the Nordländer where his family owned a little farm. He had cleaned up dog shit, horse shit, goat shit, and chicken shit, and none of it was as offensive as the noxious gut-sludge Sensei Quicksteel left in his chamber pot every morning. It was like the monk took some perverse pleasure in leaving buckets of unholy foulness for him to handle. He fetched water from the well and used an old rag to scrub the pot, muttering angry curses as he ruminated on scripture. The Seisakushan holy book, the Nyusu, taught, “The exterior shell reflects inner existence.” Given Sensei Quicksteel’s inner existence, specifically his bowels, his outer shell should have been a true and utter horror.
Fox the Runt was no philosopher, and if he had been, he would have surely found something more worthy than shit to contemplate, but when one began and ended every day cleaning chamber pots, it was next to impossible not to muse on their contents. He was the temple’s Niñero de Zurullo. He was the Turd Nanny.
And that was the mongrel’s fault.
The loathsome task of cleaning the chamber pots usually went to a freshman disciple, but Fox the Runt was seventeen years old and an Ashi-Kobushi Adept, soon to be raised to full bushi status. His stint as Turd Nanny had begun about a year before, as a punishment, an unjust punishment. He had been accused of treachery during a kumite match with the mongrel, but while his actions that day might have been less than honorable, they certainly had not qualified as treachery.
The treachery had been committed by the mongrel.
For seven months before facing the mongrel, Fox the Runt had gone undefeated in the kumite ring, defeating all the disciples, all visiting bushi, and even the monks at temple, more than a few of whom were veteran Black Spears. He and the mongrel had fought twice before that fateful day, but those matches had ended in a draw. The day of the treachery, Fox the Runt had been determined to prove himself superior to the mongrel, and for nearly ten minutes they had danced around the ring trading vicious kicks and punches, neither gaining advantage. It looked like their match would once again end in a stalemate. But then, when they were both tired, sore, and soaked with sweat, the mongrel had blasted a devastating combination of punches into his face, breaking his nose. Those disciples and monks watching the kumite had thought the attack an act of superior skill.
But the mongrel had cheated.
Fox the Runt was a Nord, and the Nords were a people who embraced Schöpfer and Her martial gift of Eisenfaust, but he had adopted Ashi-Kobushi, “the dance of fist and foot,” and was obsessive in his study of Seisakusha’s martial gift. He had mastered the fighting forms in less than three years, faster than any disciple on record. He knew every punch, kick, throw, and grapple that was part of the Shimabito fighting system. Whatever style the mongrel had used, it was nothing familiar to Fox the Runt. The mongrel had humiliated him, knocked him on his arsch, where he sat stunned with blood shooting from his nose. The monks and other disciples had been completely gulled. The blind fools had cheered the half-breed’s victory, oblivious to his tricks and cheating.
But Fox the Runt, driven by the righteous demands of justice, had answered the treachery immediately. He had ignored his hurts, leapt to his feet, and flown at the mongrel, hitting him with three solid crab-claw strikes to the shoulder and kidneys before being pulled away. The monks had seen nothing of the cheating, and instead of penalizing the mongrel for desecrating Seisakusha’s holy martial gift, they had reprimanded Fox the Runt for attacking when the mongrel’s back was turned. He had tried to explain that his motivations and methods were just. He had acted in the name of punishment, not competition or vengeance. Punishment did not require a face-to-face confrontation or fair combat. When a murderer is sentenced to death, he is not allowed to defend against the executioner. But the monks would not hear it. They had not seen the cheating. No one had, and few would have recognized it for what it was anyway. So they had directed their fury at him. Dai Sensei Stonehead had almost expelled him from temple, castigating him for a “profound display of dishonor.”
Only Sensei Quicksteel’s intervention had saved him from expulsion, and only under the condition that he serve a full year as Niñero de Zurullo.
The mongrel had received no punishment whatsoever.
The injustice was still as bitter as poison even after all these months, a hot toxicant burning in his gut, staining his cheeks with smatterings of scarlet. He dropped to his knees, clasped his hands before him, and prayed. “Please, dear Seisakusha, give me the chance to avenge myself on that stinking mongrel half-breed. Grant me justice, please, Goddess, I beg you. Let it be so.”
His supplication complete, he carefully picked up the chamber pot and hurried back to the temple, an elegant tower of stacked tiers and multiple eaves in the pagoda style of the Higashi Shima. At least his time as Niñero de Zurullo would soon be over, and when the repugnant job passed to someone else, he would never again greet the Grandfather’s golden rays with pots full of someone else’s excrement.
But today, he still had seven more pots to tend before he could take breakfast. He returned Sensei Quicksteel’s chamber pot to its place outside the monk’s door and was halfway down the long hall leading to Dai Sensei Stonehead’s apartments when he heard someone training in one of the communion rooms. No doubt one of the disciples was preparing to compete in the Torneo games. Fox the Runt smiled. Let the poor fool, whoever it was, practice all he or she wanted; they would never take this year’s Black Spear, not with him competing. He was the best.
He almost turned away, almost ignored the sounds of fists and feet slamming into the wooden training dummy. He still had to fetch the dai sensei’s chamber pot, after all. But whoever practiced in that room was good. Very good. He had never heard the gears and limbs of a Blessed Hands Idol spin so fast. This was an invaluable opportunity for Fox the Runt to size up his competition. He would be a fool not to take advantage. As quiet as a temple mouse, he eased the door of the communion room open, just enough to see who practiced so diligently.
The stinking mongrel half-breed desecrated the Blessed Hands Idol—and the entire temple—with an obscene, bastardized martial system. The same one he had used to cheat Fox the Runt in kumite. The goddess had answered Fox the Runt’s prayers at last. In near silence, he bolted for Sensei Quicksteel’s room. The sensei had not believed his accusations against the mongrel before, but if he could get Sensei Quicksteel to the communion room in time, the monk with the rancid bowels would have no choice but to expel Paladin Del Darkdragón.
Thank you, Goddess, Fox the Runt prayed as he rapped on the monk’s door. All praise to Seisakusha.