Prologue – The Roman Empire ~ 431 AD
The West wind was dying. It had been faltering all night, but as the sun rose in the East it blew fitfully, slapping at the sails as if frustrated at its own impotence. The fisherman had expected the change, but its falling still made him spit. The rest of his work would be worse now. Before it was as though the old gods had been with him; the wind at his back would have carried his boat home as gently and easily as a pearl borne by a perfumed eunuch. Now his boat, heavy with fish, would squat on the sea like an old man gone to seed. The gods had abandoned him, so now his prosperity would rely on the strength of his own hands. The night had been long, the work had been exhausting, the city on the horizon was far away.
As the fisherman stood upright on the rolling waves, he squinted his eyes upon the horizon. The land was a thin strip, the city a shining gleam atop it. He could not make out any features at this distance. It existed only in principle, and he saw it only in his mind. The sun was rising in the East: its light filled the sky. It would guide him, if it did not blind him.
The fisherman finished tying his sails back, and settled himself on the smooth worn plank of his craft. He untied the oars from the sides, and fitted them to the holes cut for them. He set himself to his task, and pulled hard against the sea. His old bones creaked, but his muscles moved across well-worn tracks. He was no stranger to rowing. The west wind had failed before, after all. Fishermen could not rely on the wind.
The fisherman offered a simple prayer to Poseidon as he rowed, a promise that he would give coin and food to the old priest who tended the god’s shrine if the god delivered him home safely. The shrine was small, the priest poor, both ill-used in these long days. He had heard that the old temples had once been grand. But they had become neglected and sparely-used long before their Emperor had ordered the remaining priests to abandon their tired ceremonies. The priests had been angry, but they were poor. And they had only diminished since. It had been fifty years since the Temples of the Old Gods had closed. Most of them were Churches now, dedicated to the Christ God instead. His priests wore silk and his walls were freshly painted, while the paint on the sea-god’s shrine was peeling, and his priest’s robe was rough-spun.
If the sea-god’s priest walked barefoot and hungry, could he still give safe passage across the waves? Perhaps, the fisherman thought, it was time to consider a donation to the Christ-priests instead. His father would have been furious. But fishing was a dangerous business. The fisherman could not afford to neglect his safety simply to satisfy a man long dead.
Yet he must be careful, he told himself. Just as he had heard how the different temples had competed in his grandfather’s day, he knew that some Churches were rivals to others. He had no comprehension of the distinctions between them, but he had heard of street fights between bands of Christians, he had heard of fires being lit, and churches burned in the night. He had heard of priests being arrested and thrown out of their living into the street. He knew he must be sure to attend to the right priesthood. For a weak priest was no better than a weak god. Who then was best able to carry him safely to the City when the West Wind died?
As he pondered theology, the fisherman rowed. The last gasps from the west fluttered about his shoulders like a dying man’s breath. He felt cold, though the sun in the East was filling the horizon above the City and turning it a false gold. His back was to the City as he rowed, and he could not see it. Yet he saw it in his mind, and every strain of his arms was in service of it. As he laboured, he stared out at the merciless depths that now filled the West as far as he could see. He hoped the wind would return, though he knew it would not. Not today. Perhaps not ever again.
Thirty years ago, a great Bishop was deposed. He walked out of his city, head held high. And the Heavens had shaken and the ground had split asunder, and the buildings of men had fallen with fire and wailing. And the Empress had relented and called him back in her fear. And as the Bishop stepped back through the gates of the Church of Holy Peace, the Heavens had fallen silent once more, and the earth settled back to its accustomed place. The Bishop’s enemies retreated. Yet their hatred of him did not diminish, for defeat only nurtured their need.
They learned their lesson though, and the next time they moved against the Bishop there was no roar or quaking from either earth or heaven. There was only hot words, and bitter disgrace in silent rooms. The Bishop slunk out of the city, no longer a Bishop except in his mind. And the Empress smiled, and his enemies returned to their seats of power satisfied, enjoying the fruits of their victory, for a time.
It was not the end, of course. The Bishop lived on, as did his supporters, who continued the fight to restore his name. He died, in his time, still in exile. But the Empress who had cursed his name died also, in her time. And his enemies died in theirs. The world turned, the old Empress’ daughter inherited her throne. And new Bishops rose to sit the chairs of those who’d once dared the wrath of Heaven.
But old hatreds do not die so easily as men.