Kadav was jolted awake by a shock of cold water across his face. He lurched to a sitting position, shivering and soaked. What the devil was going on? As the hunched-over form of the priest materialized over him, gripping an overturned pail in both hands and swimming in and out of focus, he knew he wasn’t going to like the answer. “What was that for?” he crowed indignantly.
“Exorcism,” thundered the priest. His voice resounded uncomfortably in the echo chamber of the mayor’s head.
“Exorcism! Have you lost your bleeding mind, you old crackpot?”
“Hmm. Must not have taken.” He doused the mayor a second time. “Needs more holy water.”
“This is an outrage!” Kadav spluttered. “I’m the mayor for Rhojë’s sake! You can’t just barge in here and—and do that!”
“Shhhh!” The priest put a finger to his lips. “We wouldn’t want to wake up the whole town, would we?”
“Town? What do you mean, the whole—” Kadav recoiled in horror as he took in his surroundings. Where there should have been cedar paneled walls and a low nightstand with a profit ledger, there was the dusty lane of the town itself, laid out before him like a plank. The low sun doused the shops in a rosy glow. A few people moved about or stood in doorways, surreptitiously glancing in his direction. Rhojë be merciful, had he just passed the night like a drunken lout on the chapel’s doorstep? That would explain the invisible giant stomping on his head.
Pull yourself together, he rebuked himself as he made an effort to stand. His legs were slow to obey his commands, as if the messages from his brain were being dispatched along different routes. Clutching the chapel wall for support, he did a sort of vertical crawl until he was more or less upright. Momentarily stabilized, he brushed off dirt and smoothed down his tousled hair. One stubborn tuft resisted his ministrations, jutting out like a devil’s horn.
The holy man, by comparison, appeared fresh and rested. Having put down the pails, he slipped his hands into the voluminous sleeves of his habit and gazed pensively to the east. Newly smelted sunlight gilded the hair-wreathed cupola of his bald head. “I do so love the mornings.” He breathed in deeply. “The air is so brisk and clean, it feels like you could drink it from a cup.”
Kadav shivered in his wet clothes. “I much prefer the nighttime myself. I find it more conducive to carrying out my human sacrifices.”
The priest sketched the sign of the arc over his forehead. “Evildoers avoid the light because it exposes the vileness of their deeds.”
“As surely as the self-righteous flock to the light because they want everyone to take notice of them,” Kadav rejoined.
The holy man frowned. “Clearly, you are not here to repent of your misdeeds. To what then may I attribute the honor of your presence this blessed morn?”
Kadav bit back another caustic remark. However gratifying, trading barbs with the priest was not going to advance his cause. “I came to make a, uh… proposition,” he managed with difficulty.
“It’s a proposition now, is it? Last night it was a bargain. Or was it an agreement? It was right after the part where you called me a vulture-faced prig. Perhaps you could refresh my memory.”
“Truth be told, my recollection of last night is a bit foggy,” Kadav said. “I must have been sleepwalking again. It’s an ornery affliction. I hope I didn’t disturb you too awful much. There’s no telling what sort of things I might have blurted out in my sleep.”
“No trouble at all, mayor,” the priest said with a knowing grin. “I once knew a man that could do just about anything in his sleep. Why, he could drink himself blind, eat a loaf of bread, even walk to the other end of town to attend confessional.”
“At any rate,” Kadav cleared his throat. “I wanted to request your… assistance.”
“Of what possible use could a poor, humble priest like me be to the eminent mayor of Manfred’s Mill? Surely, if you needed something, you could just convene a council or pass an edict.”
So that’s how it’s going to be, Kadav thought. The priest wanted to see him grovel and beg. Not that he could blame him. Had the tables been turned, he would have had the priest licking dirt from the soles of his feet. “Just this once, I could really use your help.” The words tasted hard and sour in his mouth like a green apple. “The people look to you as a pillar of guidance and strength. If you would bid them do something, surely they will listen and obey.”
“What would you have me bid them do?”
“Help me rid this town of the dragon scourge.”
“Ah, this must have something to do with—now what is it you’re building out there in the woods, exactly?”
“A dragon trap.”
“And you want me to throw my support behind this little dragon-traption of yours? I’m truly sorry, mayor.” The priest shook his head ruefully. “But I’m afraid there is nothing I can do.”
“You haven’t even heard my offer yet.”
“With what carnal rewards would you hope to entice me into the path of wickedness? A rich new cloak to wear over my old habit? Soft new sandals for my bunioned feet? A felt cap to cover this natural crown that Rhojë has blessed me with?” The priest never gave just one example when three would suffice. “Such rewards are like gravel when compared to the celestial hoard that is being stored up for me in Rho. No, my dear mayor, there is nothing you could promise that would convince me to turn my feet from the straight and narrow.”
“Nothing?” Kadav would ordinarily begin with a middle of the road offer, waiting for the other man to escalate the bargain, but there was no middle road here. He put all his chips on the table. “Help me build the trap. If it works, I’ll quit Manfred’s Mill for good. I’ll swear it on the Akulmoor. I’ll kiss your sandal or your signet ring or your holy bald head. Just help me build the dragon trap. Please, I beg of you.”
The holy man threw back his head and let out a deep, sonorous laugh. “What I would give to be at the gates of Ord when you try to parley with the prince of darkness himself. But the master of deceit will not be fooled by your slippery wiles, and neither will I. So here’s my bargain for you, mayor. I won’t lift a finger to help you or any of your backsliding followers, but you’re still going to pack up and leave Manfred’s Mill for good.”
Considering the conversation to be at an end, the priest moved over to a section of recently turned flowerbed. He hiked up his habit and knelt in the dirt where he began to fork up weeds with his fingers and toss them into a pail.
The priest’s rejection would have outraged Kadav if he hadn’t already been expecting it. Petitioning the holy man for help was a move of utmost desperation. No wonder he had drunk himself silly the night before. The mission had been doomed from the start. Furthermore, the priest was right. Not only was the dragon-trap destined for failure, but his leadership as mayor had been irreparably undermined. Kadav Ersley was all washed up.
“Just tell me one thing,” Kadav said. “How did you do it? How did you get the townspeople to break their oaths?”
“There must be some misunderstanding, mayor,” replied the holy man. “As a man under oath myself, I would never encourage the sheep of my flock to break their word. A man should keep his every vow just as if he had sworn a binding oath on the Akulmoor, wouldn’t you agree?”
“You didn’t cause the townspeople to break their oaths, then?”
“Of course not,” replied the priest. “Quite the contrary. I simply reminded the townspeople of their other obligations. All of them.”
Kadav’s mind reeled but not from hangover. “And what sort of obligations would those be?”
“Surely you’ve noticed a few changes around town? Then again, you have been spending a lot of time away lately. There were these flowers here, for instance. Purple chalices, my favorite.” He caressed the outside of a fluted petal. “Goodman Erkle transplanted them from his garden just like he’d been promising to do since spring. Beautiful, aren’t they? The petals brew up a divine tea. I like to have a cup before bed. It puts the mind in an easeful state for sleeping.”
“I’m glad to hear that someone is able to sleep well at night.”
“Good sleeping comes from a clear conscience, and a clear conscience comes from staying true to one’s word.”
“This is about more than planting a few flowers, isn’t it?”
“Indeed. I have to hand it to you, mayor. You really lit a fire under my congregation. I’ve never seen so many promises fulfilled in so short a time.” With his bald head and rosy cheeks, the priest’s grin looked almost cherubic. “There was a new coat of whitewash for the chapel, a chicken coup for the Whimberlys, and a new grindstone for the old mill. Most of Nurago’s stallions have been recovered and work is already underway on the new tanner’s shop. Why, just yesterday, Master Beliose organized a mulberry picking expedition.”
“Oh yes. As you well know, goodwife Macey makes the most divine mulberry marmalade and pies, but with her gout flaring up, she wasn’t able to get out and do the picking herself. Some of the men promised to go a-picking for her a couple months back, but what with one thing leading to another, they never got around to it.”
“They went mulberry picking?” Kadav repeated in disbelief.
“The excursion was a grand success,” the priest trumpeted. “We collected so much we ran out of baskets to carry them. Tomorrow there’s to be a wild boar hunt. Master Mabry promised his youngest son he would take him by his twelfth name day. They do grow up fast.”
Kadav could only listen, flabbergasted. “So instead of telling the townspeople to break their oaths, you commanded them to fulfill every promise they’ve ever made. That way, they’ll be so busy and run down there’s no chance of them ever completing the project, which is exactly what you want, isn’t it?”
The priest stood up and brushed dirt off his hands. “What I want is of no account. Men set their sails but it is Rhojë who directs the wind.”
“I can tell which way the wind is blowing all right.” But Kadav couldn’t help but feel a grudging admiration. He had to hand it to the priest; he had outfoxed him this time. “But aren’t you forgetting something? Like the fact there’s still a fire-breathing dragon on the loose.”
“So there is.” The holy man shook out his habit, wriggling a bit to work out the kinks. “But I’ve been thinking, maybe we’ve been too hasty in our rush to judgment. Maybe the dragon has lost interest in our little patch of forest here. Or perhaps Rhojë, seeing our deeds of repentance, has becalmed its heart. After all, there’s been no sign of it in over a month.”
It was an easy thing for the priest to say. The chapel had come through the ordeal with a renovated flowerbed and a new coat of whitewash. “You underestimate this dragon. It’s going to cost you dearly, mark my words. By Orduvan’s horns, it’s going to cost us all.”
“I am quite aware of the perils that threaten my flock,” said the priest. “Both the dragons without and the wily foxes within. Now, if there is nothing more for us to discuss, I must begin preparations for today’s service. It is a holy day, after all. I bid you good day, mayor.” The priest picked up the wooden pails and headed around the side of the chapel.
As thoroughly defeated and humiliated as it was possible for one person to be, Kadav shambled off toward the tavern. Along the way, he happened to trample an entire row of purple chalices.