January 2013 challenge: The Question
by Count Zero
As much as he had hoped to escape her, on the penultimate landing of the stairs Bishop Nevala finally caught up with him. Slowing down, he nodded respectfully in her direction. Intended as a greeting in passing, the grey-haired woman took it as an invitation to stay by his side on their way down the worn-out marble stairs whose once splendid white had turned into grey a long time ago.
“What are you really doing here, Yokeen?” She finally asked after a few steps.
“What? I mean, what do you mean?... Uh, respectfully.”
Nevala sighed. “You're only ever half here whenever I teach, that's what I mean. You don't seem to particularly care about our faith, no offense.”
Yokeen stopped abruptly, and so did the Bishop, turning to him.
“So, why are you here?” she continued. “Is it because of your uncle? Because of a lack of other options? It's the question you will have to answer for yourself, eventually, you know, for your own sake. Why are you here, Yokeen?”
She looked at him with a piercing glance that shattered his illusion of being able to provide a half-arsed answer that would satisfy her. The honest answer certainly would not do. After all, he couldn't really tell her that it was because he was interested in philosophy and writing but attending a regular university always came with the usual propganda, brain washing and oppression, could he? So he chose to say nothing and endure the feeling of having been exposed as a fraud instead that her unwavering stare caused him.
Suddenly, she chuckled. “Oh, don't look at me like that. I'm not your enemy, I was just asking. It's your decision how you want to spend your life, after all.”
With that, she turned, descended down the stairs and disappeared in one of the numerous corridors, leaving him alone to ponder her words, looking slightly forlorn on the wide old steps.
Still disconcerted by the conversation, Yokeen Var arrived in the narrow square in front of the university building a little later where some of his fellow students had already taken to socialising now that classes were over. Tradition demanded all of them to wear white draped robes with black ribbons around the collar not just during classes but also upon arrival and leaving which meant they had to wear this outfit that not only Yokeen deemed ridiculous practically the whole day. Needless to say, it never failed to attract glances ranging from amused to disgusted and sometimes even comments when they were on their way to and from university.
On three sides the walls of the building bore down on them, the finer details of its intricate masonry hidden under the black layers of the soot and dirt of centuries. On the fourth side a two metre high fence made out of a black metal alloy separated the square from Broadstreet which despite its name was not very broad according to today's standards but had been considered such when the city of Rostovar and with it, the Empire, had been young. Across the street, the grey and faceless facade of a large modern building twice as high as the university filled the view from the square. Being thus at once reminded of the centuries old tradition they were obligated to and the anachronism it and they themselves represented the students put extra effort into making their conversation especially light-hearted.
“There you are!” T'Mara exclaimed jovially as she spotted Yokeen. “I see you escaped unscathed, after all.” Someone else laughed.
“Yeah, I did.” Yokeen answered, deciding to go along with the tone of the conversation.
“I told you you should have read up on Solymar,” the brown-haired, fairly pale-skinned and brow-ridged woman said.
“Yeah, that's like basic stuff, man,” Jorok, standing next to her, chimed in. It stung Yokeen a little to get condescending advice by the group's uncrowned party king but he figured that he deserved it, considering how he had stumbled through the Bishop's questions in class. Working up the motivation to read the musings of an old guy from 500 years ago wasn't easy, though.
“Before everything, below everything and above everything there is submission. Scholars will argue about the intricacies of our teachings until the Empire ends. One thing they can't argue about is this: submission is at the heart of our faith.”
Those were the first sentences of Solymar's work which had instantly killed off any interest Yokeen might have had to read on. He would never submit to anyone or anything, certainly not to some vague supernatural he didn't even believe in.
“Yeah, well, basic and boring.” he quipped in the hope of sounding casual.
Just then, out of the corner of his eyes, he saw someone approaching their group quickly from the street. He turned around and felt his heart jump when he realised it was a Reman – taller than most, lanky as many, looking angry as all of them. A thousand unsorted thoughts were racing through his mind as he watched the Reman march on towards him, most of them involving grim scenarios. About a metre away from him, the Reman stopped abruptly – too close for Yokeen's comfort but he resisted the urge to flee from this man who so closely resembled the demons from his childhood stories.
“Are you a cleric?” the man asked in his otherworldly voice.
Yokeen turned around in search of whoever the Reman must have been addressing as he certainly didn't think of himself as a cleric. Seeing only his fellow students who had backed off a few metres he realised that the man had asked him.
“Well...,” he started to say, in an effort to give a detailed explanation of his status, then thought better of it. “Yes.”
“Your assistance is urgently required.” the Reman stated. “Please accompany me.”
“Okay.” Yokeen replied simply, not knowing why.
Before he could ask any of the many questions he had, the Reman was already on its way back towards the street, gesturing for Yokeen to come along, while setting a brisk pace Yokeen had some difficulty keeping up with.
Out they went onto Broadstreet, right into the crowd of pedestrians on their way home or to one of the many shops lining the street. Not losing his enigmatic guide in this chaos would be a challenge, Yokeen thought at the sight of all those people bustling about. Just then, he noticed how a passage was opening up before them as they moved along because everyone carefully evaded them – or rather, the Reman in front of him. They rushed by unremarkable new buildings housing offices, shop windows displaying clothes in muted colours, toys and old books, the ominous Black Tower and the famous Praetor Grimlek school, accompanied by stares and whispers.
When they arrived at Imperial Square the Reman slowed down considerably, shielding his eyes from the sudden onslaught of an early summer day's sunlight now that they had left the dimness of the narrow, tunnel-like street behind them. This allowed Yokeen to finally get beside him.
“So, what's your name? Mine's Yokeen,” he said and extended his hand.
“Olik.” the Reman grumbled, ignoring Yokeen's gesture.
“Where are we going?”
Olik's answer consisted of a frown, followed by an irritated look.
“All right, that was a stupid question.” Yokeen mumbled to himself. There was only one place where Remans could live in the city, the old Varmur district. The thought of walking there – which would take them at least half an hour – didn't appeal to him, though. The open space of the square with its low-rise buildings of red brick around them, the blue sky and the sea birds circling above them made him feel exposed. And he was still wearing his robe which clearly marked him out as an aspiring pastor of that weird up-start religion the authorities found quite suspicious. Now he was also accompanied by an even more suspicious Reman.
Weakly, he asked, “Are we going to walk there?”
“No,” Olik replied, pointing in the direction they were heading anyway.
“Oh, right, the rail station...”
The station was located on the fourth floor of a ten-storey high building from two centuries ago, built in the dominating style of that time which favoured rectangles above all else.
Although the station was open on one side it was awash with the yellow light from the globe-shaped lamps hanging from the curved ceiling.
“We will have to get off at Hiren alley,” Olik said.
“Yes, I know.” Yokeen replied, slightly puzzled. Why would Olik feel the need to tell him that? After all, they would be taking the train together. Then he realised.
“That's not a problem. I'll get on the same carriage as you. There's no law against that, just the other way around. I usually do that, anyway, if it's not too crowded.”
“Why?” Olik asked, the surprise evident in his voice and eyes.
“Solidarity, I guess. I think the way we treat you is wrong. There is nothing I can do about the law but I can show you my support.”
Olik looked at him thoughtfully but didn't say anything. He remained silent for the whole train journey so Yokeen spent it smiling at the other Remans in the only carriage they were allowed to use in what he hoped would come off as a friendly gesture, feeling wistful when they passed the station he would normally get off and wondering about what would await him once they got to Varmur and why a cleric was required.
Although no one could tell with certainty it was generally assumed that Varmur had started out as an ordinary district of the city, just like any other. Over the centuries it had first become the go-to place for new arrivals many of whom were and stayed poor, then the ideal place for shady entertainment in dimly lit cellars and illicit business deals in gloomy backyards and finally the home of the city's Reman population due to zoning laws preventing them from living anywhere else.
The adjacent districts had long ago built walls around it to prevent the vice and filth from spreading so the only way to expand had been up and in between. That's why Varmur resembled a giant more or less lofty building consisting of smaller buildings which had grown ever closer together over time and connections between them starting from the first floor up.
The only free space was a small strip beyond the fence whose openings served as the main entrances on the side Varmur bordered on Hiren alley. Yokeen was no stranger to the district, he came here fairly often for a certain kind of party and other things he didn't really like to think about in any detail. As he crossed the open space by Olik's side he sincerely hoped that they wouldn't encounter anyone he knew. Quite unlikely in daytime, he figured, but it still made him feel uneasy.
The space between the houses was just big enough for two people so Olik took the lead. After a few turns, crossing several buildings at the ground level they were soon approaching the Reman part of the district, an area completely unknown to Yokeen. They went down steps and entered a complicated system of pathways that would have been completely unlighted were it not for random spots of pale sunlight finding its way through the many levels of connecting structures above them. Most of the time, Yokeen stumbled through the dark from which Remans seemed to appear out of nowhere, passing them with grim expressions on their faces. Sometimes he would stop to catch a glimpse of their daily lives through openings in the buildings' walls they passed or admire the merchandise in the small shops located in nooks and niches.
Olik had noticed this erratic behaviour of his guest right away which only affirmed his long-held opinion that Romulans were weird people. With a heavy sigh, he turned around.
“We don't have time for this and you might get lost.” He grabbed the cleric's hand who smiled in response. Weird people, Olik concluded and turned back around to continue on their way.
The absurdity of the situation didn't escape Yokeen. It was an odd feeling to hold a Reman's hand and be led by him. He should have been the one to direct him and tell him what to do. At least, that was what Romulans were taught from childhood. Strangely enough, he appreciated Olik's grip which was firm but not tight. A few turns later they stopped in front of a rusty metal door.
“Here it is.” Olik declared and opened the door.
They entered a small room dimly lit by a dirty lamp of the kind used to light mining tunnels which was taped to the low ceiling with a small kitchenette to the side. Two older Remans, one of them a woman, with anxious looks on their faces and a younger man whose expression Yokeen couldn't quite read were awaiting them. None of them spoke a word but the woman motioned for Yokeen to go to the adjacent room whose door had been replaced with a filthy grey curtain and followed him in.
In there, a Reman whose skin looked leathery and especially pale, lay on a bed that occupied most of the room. Shivering under a woolen blanket, the man breathed heavily, his eyes closed. Yokeen knew then why he had been so urgently needed. Despite all the physiological differences he knew that this man was about to die. There was an intricate liturgy for the dying but Yokeen remembered it only fragmentarily. For a few moments, he felt utterly helpless and useless. Then he remembered that for most complicated things a simpler alternative existed.
He kneeled down by the bed, looking at the man's face.
“What's your name?”
The man opened his eyes, looking back at Yokeen. “Elim,” he whispered.
“What's your favourite aspect, Elim?” he asked gently. No reply came forward. Instead, Elim groaned.
According to the prophet all of reality consisted of a finite number of aspects. They could be represented by colours. But Elim remained silent.
“It's blue.” the older man who had entered the room in the meantime, answered on his behalf.
“Loyalty,” Yokeen said, smiling. “That's my favourite, too. It has all the best songs.”
Normally, he would have given Elim the figure representing this aspect to hold in his hands. But he hadn't brought any with him. Instead he gave him his ribbon to hold. There were prayers, incantations and songs associated with every aspect. As prayers weren't his strong suit Yokeen mostly stuck to the songs, starting with the simple ones from his childhood and improvising some of the lyrics of the more complicated ones. Sometimes he could hear Elim humming faintly along and then he stayed with that particular melody a while longer. When he felt that Elim's last moments had come he stopped and made room for the two older Remans whom he assumed were his parents. Elim died and everyone stayed silent. There were no tears. Yokeen wasn't sure whether Remans could even cry and felt ashamed that - although he had lived his whole life next to them – he didn't even know such basic facts.
The two older Remans turned to him and he offered his condolences – heartfelt – but realised that this ritual was unknown to them. The two filed out of the room but before Yokeen could follow he was confronted by the younger Reman.
“Why did you have to bring up loyalty of all things?”
Yokeen lifted one eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“He poisoned himself, that's not very loyal, is it? Way to rub it in.”
“I didn't know that! It was his favourite aspect.”
At that, the Reman laughed hoarsely. “His favourite aspect!” he tried to mimic the way Yokeen had said it but failed. “It's his favourite colour. It's not like anyone follows your childish religion down here. Did you actually believe that?”
“Well...” Yokeen's voice trailed off because he couldn't think of a good answer.
“It's only because our stupid religion prohibits suicide. There's nothing but eternal damnation for those who do it. They thought that maybe they could prevent this from happening if they called you in, you know, another stupid religion to counter the stupid religion.”
He stared angrily at Yokeen who thought it wiser not to answer.
“If you ask me,” the young man continued in a calmer voice, “there is nothing happening after death. What do you think?”
“You know, actually, I agree. My religion allows for this possibility. Maybe it isn't that stupid, after all.”
Olik appeared in the doorway and threw an angry stare at the other Reman.
“I'm sorry, Yokeen.”
“It's all right.”
In fact, it was more than all right. Despite everything, he felt oddly exalted. He had finally figured out the answer.
Re: January 2013 challenge: The Question
I really, really like the world-building here. It's truly effortless. You get a lot of exposition in, but it never feels forced or unnatural. From the seminary to the robes to the ritual, it all works. And then the ghetto and the apartheid also make sense, as does the conversation at the end, and how, essentially, Yokeen learns to cope and make sense of things.
Very well done.
Re: January 2013 challenge: The Question
Thank you. As I had much more details about the city, Yokeen's life and both his and the Remans' religion laid out in my head I struggled with what to leave out and what to put into the story so as neither to bore the reader nor leave them confused. I'm glad it worked for you.
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