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Fandom: Lois McMaster Bujold: The Curse of Chalion/Paladin of Souls
Title: The Sermon of the Cups
Author: [livejournal.com profile] quasar273
Rating: R for gore
Word Count: ~2200
Summary: Another task to round out a life of service.

Author's Note: Written for [livejournal.com profile] sahiya as a pinch-hit for the ficathon at [livejournal.com profile] bujold_fic




I dream of the menagerie. Not so unusual; I think of those days often, and fondly. I was happy then, content in my place despite the curse that threatened the future of Chalion. I dream of the menagerie often. More unusual, these days, is a dream of my Lord.

He appears as Orico, robust and russet-haired and wearing a tabard of white, with the leopard at his feet purring like a housecat and a crow upon his shoulder.

"My Lord." I resist the temptation to grovel. The Gods desire willingness from us, not abasement. "It has been some years."



The first time the Bastard appeared to me in a dream was over forty years ago, near the end of the reign of Fonsa, when I traveled to Borasnen to spy upon the Golden General. I was already a Quintarian and a dedicat of the Bastard's order, but I was nearly prepared to reconvert and confess myself a heretic, only from listening to the General deliver a speech of encouragement to his troops. I crept away from the camp scarcely able to remember what little information I had gleaned about the General's plans.

In a little cleft of rock scarcely a mile from the Quadrenes' camp, I prostrated myself and prayed to the Bastard for strength, wisdom, a sign -- for anything that would help me hold on to my adopted faith. Nothing happened. The gods do respond to prayer, but rarely when or how we demand. I stayed awake most of that night, huddled against a boulder and trying to choose a course of action. In the end I decided to return to Chalion with the information I had, and not attempt to gather more. My promises and a youthful sense of lordly honor kept me to my course in part, but I was afraid to return to that camp. It was not the General himself I feared, but what I might become in his company.

One other thing held me to my chosen faith: the memory of my martyred love Garat. I clung to thoughts of him as I started back on the northern road. When at last I slept, I dreamed of him -- an idealized version of him, cleaner and happier and glowing, with eyes that held all the world in their depths. He spoke smilingly of obligation and perseverance, and though he never told me directly what I should do, I knew when I woke. I returned to the camp and gathered more detailed intelligence to carry back to Cardegoss. The General was not there, having been called back to the city.

And so I kept my promises, and gathered information on troop movements that could have saved many lives if the war had not been bungled so badly, and I learned to trust my Lord. It's a lesson I find must be re-learned every so often.




"Dear Umegat!" He beams at me. "Did you miss me?"

"Every day," I tell him honestly, and a little reproachfully. "Where have You been?"

"With you and within you, my serene, sober Umegat. I have never left your side."

"You haven't spoken to me, either."

"I thought you might like a rest from My demands," He assures me with a smile that Orico dy Chalion could never have made.

"I might have liked a sign that You had not left me. I took my injuries for a punishment at first." Honesty compels me to add: "I still don't understand -- if not a punishment, why did You let this happen to me?"

He sighs. "Ah, Umegat, you have at once so little faith and so much. I cannot reach into your world to control all that happens there. I did not cause your hurts."

"No, but they serve You nonetheless," I guess. "How is that?"



The first time I encountered a saint knowingly was nearly twenty years ago, when I brought Daris half-dead to the port of Zagosur. A fellow there with the favor of the Mother upon him cured the wasting fever and saved Daris's life, but could not restore him to wholeness.

Daris had been a merchant of Visping, a man of strong opinions and strong appetites. His preference for men in his bed made him a Quintarian sympathizer, an invaluable informant for me as I traveled through the Archipelago in the guise of a trader. He was also my friend and sometime lover, though I never attempted to lay a claim upon him or asked to be the only one in his bed. His unfortunate habit of hiring pretty youths as grooms and shop assistants eventually betrayed him to the Quadrenes, and they seized him as a heretic.

I heard the news when I was only a few hours departed from Visping, and rode my cart-horse back to town as fast as she would go, abandoning my waggon of goods by the roadside. They had him tied to the gallows while they mutilated him before the hanging. Fortunately it was in a smaller square near the edge of town, not right up before the palace, but there was still a fair crowd gathered to cheer the abomination. I don't quite know how I did it; perhaps the God's hand was upon me unknowing. Somehow I put up such a fight that I scared away the greater part of the onlookers and slew the men who were torturing Daris. I came to myself sprawled upon the cobblestones with Daris bloody and moaning across my lap as I wept for him and for my memory of Garat. One of his clerks urged me up and got us to the harbor, bribing a ship's captain with money salvaged from Daris's shop to take us to safety.

I was too late to save Daris's thumbs, which had been the first removed, or his tongue. But I had arrived just as they were making a great show of preparing to castrate him, and so that, at least, was saved -- or so we thought. He took an infection in his mouth and a terrible fever. We feared he would not survive the voyage to Zagosur, but somehow he did and began to heal.

It was a month before we learned the fever had rendered him impotent, after all, and I cursed the Gods that they had not warned me sooner, spurred me faster, blown our ship to Zagosur in better time.

It was more than two years before I believed that he was not secretly plotting suicide, and I wondered how he could accept it so calmly.

It was nearly a decade before I appreciated that he was freer and more peaceful for the loss of those urges, and I suspected this had been part of the Gods' plan for him.




Now I stand wondering how my own losses fit into a greater plan. Physical pain and weakness I know well and can withstand, but how can it serve my Lord to have me all but illiterate? With great effort I have regained the ability to read and write as well as a child, but it's a labor now rather than a pleasure.

"Was I grown too complacent, waiting for another to lift the curse upon Chalion?" I ask Him. "Was the blow to my head some reminder to pay attention, as a waggon driver cracks his whip behind the horse?"

"Suspicious Umegat," He says. "The blow to your head was not my doing, but a result of the curse itself."

There must be more. I wait, saying nothing.

"How have you changed, as a consequence?" He coaxes.

"Well, my correspondence has all but ceased," I grumble. But I give the question consideration. "I suppose I converse more with others, and listen more carefully to what they say. I certainly don't spend hours reading alone by candlelight, anymore. Were You trying to save my eyes?"

He laughs delightedly. "It is not merely how you see, but how others see you, dear Umegat. You are far more visible now you have come out of your shell."

"Being inconspicuous has always served me well," I pointed out.

"No longer. I have a great task for you, and you will need the assistance and trust of others."

My heart pounds. "What task?" Despite my grudges, I anticipate his answer as eagerly as a drunkard watching the golden liquid pour from the bottle.



The first time I hosted a miracle was fifteen years ago, traveling on Order business through the province of Baocia. A demon-banishing ritual at the temple of Taryoon where I was staying had gone awry, and the demon -- one of middling strength and experience, inhabiting a falcon which had proved very difficult to catch -- had leapt from its slain mount not into the dying dedicat as planned, but into an orphan boy sleeping in the room directly below. The child had no hope of learning to control the demon, but I was able to see it and speak to it and even intimidate it, to some extent. I strove to keep the demon quiescent as a small group of divines traveled west to Rauma to seek the help of the saint there.

One night midway through our journey, I woke from a dream of the Bastard to find that the boy -- or more accurately, the demon -- had run away. I followed his trail as if it were a shining thread, and when I found him I wrapped that same cord around the demon to bind it so that it could not control the boy's actions any longer. The rest of our journey was uneventful, and the orphan boy, relieved of his burden, stayed on at Rauma to learn.

After that, I dreamed of my Lord more and more often. For some years He guided me in my investigations of death miracles, then He led me to Cardegoss and the leopard, glowing with promise and Presence, that had recently been gifted to Roya Orico. That was the start of the miracle of the menagerie.




"No two tasks are alike, dear Umegat. You will learn as you go. First you must travel north, and help my daughter there."

I blink. "The Saint of Rauma is dead." And not prettily, either, from the despatches that reached the Order a few days ago.

"Yes, she is with Me now."

I nod. It is what we all pray for, we saints the more fervently for having seen the Gods already. If the Bastard's presence was with the woman when she died, she may have been little aware of the atrocities committed upon her flesh. But even if she faced it alone, the agony of the body is transient; the glory of the Gods is eternal, and with them the saint of Rauma resides now.

"It is my other shining daughter who needs your help," He tells me. "She has much to learn. You will like her, Umegat; she is even more wary and untrusting of the Gods than you."

A new saint then, needing guidance. I have served in that capacity before; I will do so again, although traveling north is not greatly to my taste.

"Here is my Gift, to aid you when you reach her." He takes me by the shoulders and presses his lips, warm and tingling, to my brow. And then, looking less like Orico and more like Daris as he was, or Garat as he would have been, He kisses me upon the mouth, His taste sweet and reminiscent and indescribable --

-- and He is gone.



When I wake, Daris has already begun to pack my bags. He tells me he recognized the look upon my face as I dreamed, and also I never sleep late unless the God is involved.

I send word to the Archdivine and head for the Zangre to tell Chancellor dy Cazaril in person. His assistants have instructions to admit me at any hour, but I confirm that I won't be interrupting a royal conference if I enter now.

I can sense the ghosts of the Zangre, gathering about me curiously. The Bastard has left his mark upon me, and they gather about that power like a moth about a flame. If I stretch myself to use the Bastard's gift, I know I would be able to see them. But there is no need for that just yet; I will wait.

Cazaril looks up from his desk with a letter clasped in his rough hand. "Ah, Umegat. I was just about to request your attendance." Then he looks at me more closely. "You have had . . . some word?"

"A dream," I confirm. "I am commanded north."

He nods, hunger for more information gleaming in his eyes. "Then you should read this. Royina Ista, on her pilgrimage, has come across a very odd situation."

I struggle with the clear, careful writing, relieved when Cazaril neither offers to help nor watches my labors, but instead paces the room in deep thought. The news adds detail to what I dreamed last night. It appears the dowager Royina is the one in need of advice. Even more wary than you, my Lord had said; that fits. I had felt great potential in her when we met briefly, but she had no wish to discuss theology at that time. Apparently that is about to change. "I believe I am meant to go to her aid."

Cazaril nods decisively. "You won't go alone, then. This news, following after the attack on Rauma . . . something is in the wind. It may be a threat, or an opportunity -- perhaps both. Either way, I want troops in position, and I need to be closer to the action myself." He takes the letter back and taps it against his hand. "I must speak to Iselle and Bergon first, but be ready to leave tomorrow at first light." Then he looks up, visibly shifting his thoughts from Chancellor of a nation to servant of the Gods. "Will that suit your mission?"

"Admirably," I tell him. Traveling with Cazaril will save more time than leaving a day earlier. "I have the impression this is going to be something long and complicated. At least, my part in it." For the Bastard said I was to begin by going north and advising Ista. There's no saying where my calling might lead me after that.

I can't help but grin as we begin our preparations for the journey. My Lord was right; the task is a reward in itself.



The last miracle I hosted was nearly four years after my head injury, in the Roknari princedom of Jokona. But that is another story.
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