Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Asael I

Introduction, Prologue

Asael opened his eyes and blinked in the pre-dawn darkness. He lay on a cot, his right hand handcuffed to a post. He had been dreaming again. What he remembered seemed to come in flashes of images and thoughts. A column of Browncoats coming across a field, the roar of canons going off like clockwork. His own line, rows of light blue coats, disintegrating into red mist and smoke. And, across the field, the Browncoats charged. Their cannons, with mathematical precision, halted their fire moments before the Browncoats hit the enemy line. They fired a single volley before closing in, bayonets fixed. Asael watched as the blue line broke. Most ran, some tried to fight, but they were quickly cut down by bayonets. Others lifted their hands in surrender. He turned to gaze at the far hill to which the blue coated men fled toward. Upon the crest came groups of riflemen in long black uniforms whose jackets came down to the men’s knees. The men in blue were beaten, but they would regroup. The Browncoats had won the field, but a true decisive victory had eluded its grasp.

Feeling disoriented Asael closed his eyes and began slowly breathing in and out several times. “My name is Asael,” he chanted. “I am a Khazar and a member of the Ro’ai-Ana, believers in the true God, Rachmana. In a few months I will be twelve years old. Before that happens I will become the youngest priest in the history of our people.” This was not the first time he had such dreams and his chanting was a well worn ritual. “All is well. I will fear nothing for Rachmana is with me. As the Sages of Blessed Memory said: a true believer can fear nothing in this world, only an unbeliever can ever fear. If you are afraid of something then it can only be because you do not truly believe that Rachmana is the creator and lord of this world. And as Ima used to tell me: to live without Rachmana, now that is frightening.” He smiled guiltily as if mentioning his mother next to the words of the Sages might be considered blasphemous.

Asael opened his eyes again and glanced around his loft. The loft was mostly filled with books, though it also had a dresser for cloths and a night-stand. Both the dresser and the night-stand were stacked with books and more books were strewn around the loft. Peaking through the stacks of books, like mysterious jungle plants, was an assortment of Asael’s unwashed clothes. On top of the dresser hung a clock. “A quarter until four.” Asael quickly did the calculation in his head. “An hour and a half until daybreak.” Asael fingered his handcuffs and then brought his free hand up to his face, tracing a line across a scar that led from his upper lip across his cheek, almost up to his eye. “Stuck here until Kuphdin comes, better make the best of the time.” It was still dark outside so he lit the lantern by his bedside. Kuphdin was rather paranoid about lights in his library. Asael knew that, if Kuphdin had his way, lights, even lanterns, would have been banned from the premises so Asael counted it as a special favor on Kuphdin’s part for allowing him the lantern. One of many favors that he owed Kuphdin. Asael hated to think about all that he owed to Kuphdin; he would pay him back someday, he was certain of that.

Asael spent the next hour reviewing the previous day’s lesson and planning ahead. He liked to think of himself as a commander marshaling his evidence, preparing his evidence for Kuphdin’s assault. Yesterday they had been debating the laws of ritual impurity. Asael had defended the position that the body of a heathen could make someone ritually impure. Today Kuphdin would have him argue the opposite position. Asael personally supported this position which he knew would make things all the more difficult. Kuphdin would be all the more demanding.

“The flesh of all that gives forth life shall defile … Said Rabba bar Umar: the verse comes to exclude the corpse of a heathen who will not merit to give forth life in the future resurrection.”

He stopped reading as he heard footsteps in the library below. Kuphdin came up the ladder into the loft. He was man in his early fifties with grey wispy hair that was beginning to recede from his forehead. He was not much taller than Asael , standing at just a little over five feet. Even in his youth he was never a fair looking person, bearing the pockmarks from a childhood disease. Like many Khazars, his skin was a light brown; a study in contrast to Asael’s pale complexion and blonde hair.

Kuphdin carried no lantern nor did he need to. The library was his personal kingdom in which he had lived in for over forty years, nearly thirty of which as its ruler. He knew every step of his library. The act of walking blind through it was a long practiced ritual of his; it proclaimed his kingship over this realm. He turned to Asael and nodded. Asael gave a lazy grin and stretched out his cuffed hand toward Kuphdin with a look of indulgent impatience. Kuphdin reached into the sleeves of his robes, pulled out a key and uncuffed Asael. Asael sprang up and jumped off his bed head first, landing in a cartwheel. He flipped himself over onto his feet and stood before Kuphdin, his hand above his head in a salute.

As was the practice of many monks, Kuphdin never spoke in the morning before prayer. Asael, out of respect, was in the habit of keeping silent as well, though Kuphdin did not think that Asael’s usual morning antics were in keeping with the spirit of the rule. He often suspected that this was Asael’s way of mocking the whole affair. As he himself had often told Asael: "the letter of the law is the most effective way to destroy to destroy a system." If nothing else Asael was certainly the master student; perhaps too much the master student.

Asael washed his hands in a basin and poured the remaining water onto his head. He then shook himself off puppy style before grabbing some clothes from the dresser. As Asael was not yet an ordained priest he did not wear the traditional habit. He did, though, wear a brown cloak over his shirt in imitation of the brown habit worn by the monks. Kuphdin exited the loft, down the ladder, in order to give Asael his privacy. Two minutes later Asael bounded out the loft, skimming down the ladder, his shoes still untied and his shirt half untucked. In his pants pocket was an old beaten up copy of the Oraitha, the Ro’ai-Ana bible. It was a type familiar to military officers; it was pocket-sized with small print and wide margins. The margins were for writing one's thoughts as one read, a common devotional practice. Barring washrooms and other ritually unclean places, Asael never went anywhere without that book. It was a family heirloom. Asael did not have much in the way of family, not much that he particularly cared to acknowledge. This book served as his family. Kuphdin understood this sentiment. It was one of the few things he and Asael had in common. As he often told Asael: “books make far better family than people; they mak no demands and can be taken out and put away at one's leisure.”

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