Writing: Conventicle, Chapter One

            Weiss was a bitter stardusty person, mind like an assassin’s knife, face rough with unshaven hair and the mangledness of segregation. Sometimes he sat on the bridge outside the city and tossed rocks into the river by the handful. Sometimes, the river barges went by and he tossed rocks into them, too. Sometimes he got beaten by angry bargemen. Their fists found the soft places of his body, and his mind laughed and laughed at them and remained unconquered.
                        Sometimes, one day, it stormed as if midnight were coming instead of dawn. Weiss walked on long wet grass that crushed and matted under his boots. Water pressed into the spaces around his feet as he walked through the marsh. Sometimes Weiss made his living gambling, and sometimes he took money from sodden shepherds to watch their flocks on sodden days. Walking black-booted over the quiet fields with his black cloak swirling around a shepherd’s staff, he looked half-gone. He pressed his hands into the water running down from his cap onto his cheekbones.

—–

            Out there, nobody bothered you, and the sheep minded their own business, but that day through the rain and thunder came a stranger thunder, and Weiss saw down the long sword-straight road that ran into the city six swift horses, dressed like machines of war. On their backs, six Geridspolice in blue-grey cloaks like wet-skinned wolves pounded their mounts relentless into the city, clawed swords criss-crossed on their backs.
            Weiss was not easily conquered but the Geridspolice were not easy. Needing something to shroud him from the fog, Weiss took a pipe from his pocket and chewed on it. The riders flew north, and the rain closed around them, leaving only marsh grasses waving in their wake, and Weiss took a little knife and whittled some damp wood. Alone with the sheep grazing stoically in the wet grass, he asked into the silence a question that the sight of the Geridspolice had wakened:
            “Now, what is freedom?”
The sheep did not look up.
            “Freedom,” he informed them, “is like dying in an empty shed with tied hands and broken ribs. Freedom is brown shabby clothes, broken promises and the women and the men… the men like me. Freedom is descent.”
            Weiss had seen men and women who believed everything under the sun. He knew every dissenter in the city. He knew all the people who counted themselves free from the state, and his face twisted in disgust over them. Free? Free to walk in little hells that no one else could share. He knew people who counted themselves free to walk in any path their body desired. Free to torture themselves into madness. Weiss knew the Queen’s police, fighting to keep the undissenting free to give money to the Queen and live small neat grey-tone lives. Weiss knew the undissenting, like his sister Aldous, who thought they would eventually find color in their greyscale existence. Weiss knew himself, dragging every streak of brown he could find into his grey life. Free to paint his existence into a mudslime of colorless stains. Weiss twisted his whittling knife very softly around his fingers, menacing himself. Free to die in a shed he had built for himself. Free to die, dying to be free, deathly free. Weiss pressed the knifeblade against his callused thumb. Free to go on a little while longer.
            Weiss wondered what the Queen thought about when she couldn’t sleep.

—–

When Weiss was walking home in the early hours of the morning, having propped a drunken shepherd against the gate of the sheep-pen, and helped himself to the price he had been promised—perhaps only a little more– he met a troop of the Geridspolice marching south. They had coronate badges on their shoulders: the Orthodoxers. Weiss moved aside hurriedly.
“Stay in the city, fool,” said a soldier, thumping his shoulder roughly. “There are Throns camped in the marshes.”
Aldous was waiting at the courtyard. Weiss made her a shifting, soft bow of anger.
“Sister,” he said.
Aldous said many things, her neat small grey head bent in earnestness. She told him their uncle and aunt were almost ready to put him out on the street. She told him he was becoming known as a dissenter. She told him to think of others—her, for example—for half a moment when he caroused and gambled and drank himself sick in dangerous company. When he said nothing, she choked out a kindly mocking laugh and gestured her head at his whole body, woolen gloves with cut-off fingers, dirty face, deep scars from his fights.
“What impeccably bad taste you have,” she tried.
Weiss rubbed his fingers together, Aldous’ words making a tearing sound in his head.
“Keep your good taste,” he said, and spat into a puddle in the courtyard, dark water reflecting the dark sky. “It won’t save me.”
He did not go in to supper. There would be time enough later for ale and meat and cheese, at a public house, but here he would take nothing, not from people who wanted their own kin out on the street for asking a few questions.

—–

            Several hours later, Weiss got into a bar fight. After a brief interlude of glorious chaotic riot, Weiss found his bruised exultant body deposited in the street. He sat for a few minutes in the rubbish, feeling at home, and then got up sternly and unsteadily. He tottered blearily against the wall and began a slanted journey down the street. He was thick with purpose, but as thick with the bar’s strong bitter, and he did not move as purposefully as he would have wished.
            “What price freedom now?” he slurred to himself.
            A hard man, looked like a sailor, walked out of another bar a bit further down the way. Weiss tried to hurry to him.
            “I’m drunk,” said Weiss, stumbling to a halt in front of the man. The man grunted. “I’m never drunk,” continued Weiss in an awed tone. “They told us not to leave the city. Throns, you know, camping in the marshes, filthy unnatural Throns the soldier at the bar said.”
            The man shouldered past Weiss none too gently and Weiss grinned. He was stronger than he looked. He pinned the man against the wall for a moment.
            “So I decided I’d get drunk and go find ‘em. Natural, you know,” he said, drawing out his words to match the angry rise and fall of the man’s chest, “is making everybody here miserable.”
            The man, who, unlike Weiss, was exactly as strong as he looked, threw Weiss off. Weiss took a glorious blow to the head from the brickwork of the bar’s window ledge. He patted the wall like a friend, and looked up at the man.
            “G’way,” Weiss said tersely.
            The man kicked Weiss’s legs and left.
            “That’s right,” said Weiss. His voice slipped up, louder and louder. “You stay in hell. Grey as night it is! Stay here where it’s all natural-like and grey as night!” The man cast a disgusted backwards glance at him.

 

 

 

 

 

            “I’m leaving anyways,” said Weiss, very quietly. He smeared the blood on his head across his temple like baptism, and began working his unsteady way out of the city.
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