The Ministry of Heavenly Understanding
by Harry Lang
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Twelve days later the Lesser Prince marched on the royal city for the twelfth time. The city fell and His Majesty was slain.
Minister Quox returned to the observatory soon after. His robes were in tatters. He had not eaten in days. His foaming mount had broken three of its segmented legs; the color drained from beneath its translucent scales and it died as soon as Quox was safely through the gate.
“They’re after me,” he gasped as Tche called for water. “I led them here so Her Majesty could escape... It doesn’t matter. They would have to come anyway.”
Food and drink soon revived the old Minister and the presence of his friend calmed him.
“His Majesty was composed to the end,” reported Quox. “His last words to his ministers were these: ‘Shall we accept good fortune from on high and reject our chastisement?’” The old man burst into tears.
“Truly our gracious king was the most wicked of sovereigns!” he sobbed. “He has made the people suffer because he refused to punish the usurper with death!”
“How can a man kill his brother?” wondered Tche, and even he was not sure which man he meant.
Minister Quox had barely caught his breath when the ground began to rumble.
“The cavalry!” cried Tche, trying to pull the old man to his feet. “You must hide! Hurry!”
Quox smiled at his student. “I have no king left to serve, my friend,” he said. “Let them come.”
Before Tche could respond the two astronomers were surrounded by ferocious men brandishing three-edged swords. Their stony faces were smeared with blood; they reeked of smoke and slaughter.
“Arrest the traitor!” bellowed the commander, shoving the soldiers aside to enter their circle. “In the name of His Majesty the true King I, Commander Yix Gwahn place the traitor Quox under arrest!”
Tche was astonished to see his master spring to his feet like a soldier half his age and draw his sword.
“Minister, please!” pleaded Tche. “Go peacefully!”
“His Majesty ordered me not to resist,” said Quox. “I regret that I cannot comply!” With that the old Minister swung his sword fiercely at the nearest warrior, only to be grotesquely wounded and dragged off.
Commander Yix dismissed the soldiers and ordered the horrified Tche to show him to his office. “Where is Her Majesty?” he asked blandly as he seated himself in the Director’s place. Soldiers had already commandeered the observatory’s stores and brought food and water to their exhausted leader.
Tche winced as Yix plunged his dagger into the flawlessly polished desk. “I don’t repeat questions.”
“The Minister told me nothing. You stepped over his dead beast, still hot from flight. He had no time to tell me anything.”
“So,” acquiesced Yix, clearly too spent to pursue the question at the moment. “The tormentors will get it out of him. His Majesty hoped Quox might continue as Minister of Heavenly Understanding. Quox refused the King’s gracious offer and fled, taking the wife of the illegitimate king with him. He has chosen a different path so His Majesty has appointed me the interim Minister of Heavenly Understanding until a suitable scholar can be found. You will turn over all astronomical records compiled during the illegitimate reign.”
“We are tired, Director. Do us the courtesy of cooperating without coercion.”
Tche would reveal two of the six locations where copies were hidden. He would reveal a third when they beat him.
“You will also turn over your new instrument, conceived with blasphemous intent. His Majesty has no use for such devices,” said Yix.
“Command... Minister, can... ‘His Majesty’ know the value of such an instrument without examining it for himself?”
Yix considered. “I am no scientist,” he said, taking a gulp of strong, hot tea. “My only interest in the sky is to know if it will rain on the battlefield or perhaps to see the dust clouds of approaching armies. If your device can build up my master it is good. If it cannot, it is wicked.”
“This device has already revealed truths not suspected by scholars of bygone times!” declared Tche. “It gives knowledge of the nature of the heavenly objects.”
“Oh, well...” Tche realized that his panic had carried him into uncharted waters and his new master would not wait for him to plot a convenient course.
“We have discovered, for instance, that the planets, the ‘speedy messengers of divine light’ are not composed of light at all but are rather objects made of rock and, perhaps, water.”
“You mock my lack of understanding?” thundered Yix. “What, what do you mean ‘the planets are made of rock’?”
“It is true, Minister,” bowed Tche. “The heavenly messengers are physical objects rather than spiritual emanations. We can demonstrate...”
“Do you take me for a barbarian? Do you think that because I am a military man I don’t comprehend blasphemy? Away with this device! Prepare your defense to the tribunal! I shall inform... His Majesty...”
Minister Yix fell silent as Tche trembled, his eyes upon the floor. Fool! After Quox had given him the key to survival in the treacherous world of religious politics he could not resist panic when his precious instrument was threatened. Now there would be no instrument, no advances in knowledge, no Royal Astronomer Tche.
“Tell me again,” said Yix calmly. “What has your instrument uncovered?”
Was Tche being given a chance to recant? Was it a test of his integrity? If only he knew the character of Minister Yix!
“I am only a humble astronomer but my instrument is accurate and true. The planets are rock and water, just as our world is rock and water. The stars are composed of fire which is similar to the fire of the sun. I can say no more.”
”Then I ask you without tact or etiquette,” said Yix, “is there a God behind the heavens?”
“Minister Yix, I have devoted myself to the scientific study of the heavens. I can only observe that which is physically visible or the effects of invisible causes...”
“Evasion will only condemn you! I know you are a scientist but a man is more than his profession. He is more even than his scholarly achievement; his knowledge comes from the whole world, not just some chosen part. So I ask you for the last time; is there a God behind the heavens?”
Here at last was Director Tche’s moment of truth. “I can only tell you what I know, Minister. None of my observations have revealed to me the presence of The God.”
“Indeed? So the celestial movements do not communicate the will of heaven to men?”
“I think not.”
“When S’shien saved the people because he read the growing star and predicted the Abominable Flood...”
“Actually,” said Tche, “it was the growing star that caused the flood. It was a great rock nearly the size of the moon, and as it flew past the world its influence changed the tides. S’shien did not read a message from heaven; he simply understood the physics, the way a man understands that a pebble dropped in water will cause ripples or the way an artillery captain understands how far the trebuchet will throw a projectile.”
“And the stars?” persisted Yix. “What about their physical properties? What do they cause?”
“Our observations tell us that the stars are either too small to cause effects upon the world or too far away.”
“The twelve sun fires? Surely this was an unmistakable portent?”
“Was it?” said Tche, not bothering to disguise a tone of disdain. “Did the fires foretell the inevitable or did His Majesty lose heart when he heard the report? His Majesty was defeated by his own simplicity!”
“You are isolated on this mountaintop! We prevailed because the ministers were treacherous. His Maj... the illegitimate king was well prepared. His strategies were unbeatable but his ministers threw in with my master. Except for Quox. That’s why my master wished to retain him and execute the rest of them.”
“They accepted their good fortune from heaven,” said Yix with contempt. “Let them accept chastisement for their treachery!”
Tche was in a pit with a ravenous dragon. What would it take to escape with his life?
“Aside from the sun fires, what other portents of His Majesty’s rise have you found?” said Yix.
“I don’t understand, Minister,” said Tche. “As I have said, there have been no portents.”
“In all the stars you have observed, you have found no sign of my master’s rise and legitimacy?”
“No... no, Minister,” answered Tche, “I have not.”
“You have looked at the wrong stars! Look again!”
“Director Tche, I believe you are a man to be trusted so I give you this one explanation. Our new King believes as you do. Men make their own way in the world; the gods are irrelevant. But the people know that the royal house has enjoyed divine favor since the founding of the dynasty. The royal house will continue to enjoy the favor of the gods, will it not?”
The Minister’s bloody hand was clamped upon the hilt of his dagger.
* * *
Lanterns cast a warm and pleasant glow as Director Tche consulted his charts and made his calculations. It was very late but His Majesty was impatient for the results of the week’s observations; his war against the Emperor of Two Middle Kingdoms could not begin until the most propitious date had been determined.
A small pile of broken glass and twisted bronze sat sparkling in a corner of the Director’s office. Tche never lifted his eyes to look at it. He could not bear to dispose of his proudest achievement. Neither could he abide the memory of the day he’d chosen survival over principle and smashed his life’s work. Displaying the shards of the spectroscope was as close to penance as his clockwork heart could take him.
All was still and quiet in the cool, ordered darkness of the mountaintop. Setting aside his pen, Tche stepped out into the courtyard to gaze at the churning night sky, thick with clouds, heavy with rain.
It had been raining all week.
Copyright © 2013 by Harry Lang