“Scorn Not the Least” by Desmond Warzel
The opulence of the seer’s private chambers bespoke the status of her usual clientele, which included the grandest nobles and wealthiest merchants of many lands. Rarely did she consent to see a commoner, unless she perceived something unusual in him. The seemingly ordinary man before her–unkempt, malodorous, clutching in one grimy, scarred hand a poorly-stitched bag of scrounged and pilfered coins–was in fact such a one.
“Ask,” she said, waving away the proffered money.
“What is my purpose?” His voice was strained and desperate.
The seer regarded him in her fashion, and saw the answer to his question.
Her intuition, as usual, served her well. Unlike the thousands of his lowborn brethren who daily slogged through the streets and alleys, there was an answer for this man beyond simply “to live, and die.”
“You have a purpose,” she replied, “and you have fulfilled it. Be content, and seek no further.”
“Tell me more,” he blurted. Thinking better of his poor manners, he added sheepishly, “If you please.”
“You have done this land, and others, a great service. Many are alive who would not otherwise be so. Had you a dozen ships, a thousand men, the wealth of a nation at your command, you could not equal the good you have already done merely by your existence. Do yourself a kindness, and delve no deeper.”
“If I have ever done good in this world, you are the first to say so. Please; I must know.”
Sighing, the seer arranged her fine robes about her, perhaps in order to allow her supplicant the opportunity to withdraw his request. Finally, she spoke.
“This country’s southernmost seaport is a chaotic place. Fortunes are gained and lost every hour. Fifteen years ago, you lost yours. You stole a horse, hoping to flee the city ahead of your creditors, but were overcome by the day’s accumulated libations and collapsed in an alley, still clutching the animal’s lead. You woke to find the horse gone and a few small pieces of jewelry stuffed in your pocket as payment. Do you remember?”
“The woman who purchased your ill-gotten steed was a princess abducted from across the sea. Had she been murdered upon these shores, her warmongering brother would have inherited in her stead, and we would even now suffer under his siege. She escaped capture by means of your horse and returned home, eventually reappearing in these lands at the head of a peaceful embassy.”
The man’s expression was thoughtful and troubled. “What should I do now?”
“Occupy yourself. And be satisfied.”
Only the Creator can see everything at once. Our mortal limitations force us to be selective. A seer is not exempt. That which she gains by mining a supplicant’s past for answers, exacts an enormous toll upon her understanding of his future.
The temple was a place of sanctuary, but the brothers stood aside. There was no question of impeding the seer’s pursuit of her quarry.
She found him in a spare cell, huddled atop a straw-stuffed mattress. A half-dozen ill-cared-for blades lay stacked at his side.
“You found me,” he said.
“It took no special effort. You left a fifty-league trail of blood behind you. I merely followed.”
The man shrugged and leaned against the wall, wincing at an invisible pain. He looked even worse than he had in the seer’s chamber.
“Two hundred dead,” she said evenly. She had traded the sumptuous robes of her office for ordinary traveling clothes, but the force of her presence was undiminished. The man shrank back a little, but still summoned some defiance.
“Meaningless endings to meaningless lives.”
“‘Kill a man, kill a tribe.’ Do you know the proverb?” The man didn’t answer. “When you murder someone, you murder all of their descendents yet unborn.”
“It makes no difference.”
“You imagine yourself to have taught me a lesson.”
“I showed you what happens when you tell a man that nothing he does for the rest of his life matters.”
“And what of the dead?”
“Their lives didn’t matter either. If they did, I shouldn’t have been able to kill them.”
“A convenient logic.”
“I cannot refute it,” said the seer, “except to say that your behavior suggests that you consider a pointless existence to be a fate worse than death, and therefore, by your logic, you could have punished those people more severely by allowing them to live.”
The man considered the seer’s words, rubbing his dirty forehead with one hand as if pained by the effort.
“Logical or not, however,” the seer continued, “I’ve come to put an end to it.”
The man fingered his stack of blades absently. “How many men did you bring?”
“No men. There is only me.”
“I should warn you: I never killed before I met you, but now I’m practically an expert.”
“Divination is by far my greatest magic, but I have others. I promise you that the end will come swiftly.”
The man laughed. “I lie before you, cornered, exhausted, filthy, ill-fed, cast aside by fate after performing a single worthwhile act, and surely bound for the flames of hell, and yet in your eyes I still seem arrogant.”
“Arrogance is indeed at the center of this matter.”
“You think I should have remembered my place; that I should never have even thought that my life might have a purpose. That I should have lived out my years in the gutter where I belonged.”
“Not your arrogance. My arrogance.”
“What do you mean?”
“Over the years, I have accumulated more wealth than I could ever spend. I eat the choicest foods and wear the finest clothes. Monarchs hang on my every word. These things look very much like success, and so I never troubled to exercise my faculties upon myself. I have now divined my own life’s purpose, and should have done so long ago, for it is frighteningly specific.”
“And what is that purpose, then?”
“To stop you,” said the seer as she unleashed her power.
|Desmond Warzel is the author of a few dozen short stories in the fantasy, SF, and horror genres. His recent work has appeared in anthologies such as Spring into SciFi (Cloaked Press) and Time Travel Tales (Chappy Fiction). Other stories have appeared at nifty websites like Abyss & Apex, Tor.com, and, of course, Kaleidotrope (Summer 2014). He looks forward to an audio appearance on the venerable StarShipSofa podcast at some undetermined point in the future. He lives and writes in northwestern Pennsylvania.|