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The coldest of us

We left Junei-Ichii early on Fishday morning. So early, in fact, the day was just dawning; the sun shining down with but a sliver.

I was very surprised to find we did not leave alone. Waiting in the otherwise empty refractory was a gaggle of temple monks, with backpacks and walking sticks. They all bowed to Massey and he bowed back, but none said a word.

While we broke fast with bowls of cold rice Massey told me they had all taken a vow of silence. “You can speak, if you like, as you have taken no such vow. Trying to speak to them would be very rude, of course.” Massey himself shut up after that and would not say a word.

So I made a private vow to keep silent myself. It lasted all the way out of the western gate and down the pilgrim’s road about four kilometres. Then we turned off the main track and south on a narrow path leading up into the mountains. At that point my curiosity got the better of me.

“Why are we going this way Massey?”

Rather than answering Massey pulled out his stamp book and opened it to a page showing the Temple of Ice, handing it to me. I read the short description and was puzzled.

“This says it is an optional stop. And very difficult to get to.”

Massey took back his book and answered me aloud. “The Temple of Ice is optional because many are too infirm to reach it and it’s essence imbues nothing for healing or sickness. But, as I said before, there are some Temples who’s injections you cannot pass over if you want the full effects of Closing the Circuit. Both the Temple of Ice here and the Temple of Snow in the northern hemisphere are such.”

After we walked a bit further up the steep path Massey surprised me by continuing, “These others with us are going up to spend a fortnight’s shift at the Temple. Those they relieve will return to Junrei-Ichii. They asked to accompany us as the way is hard. Or, rather, were instructed to ask.”

Massey laughed, “I think perhaps the archimandrite of the Temple of the Mother worries too much. She thinks I am too old for this sort of thing.”

. . .

We walked until after dark and then stopped at what was clearly an old and much used campsite. There we lit a fire and made our dinner, the monks going about their tasks quietly. Then they gathered around the fire with their bowls, looking expectantly at Massey. He smiled and ate quickly, poked up the fire a bit and then started to tell a story while everyone else chewed slowly on their beans and rice.

This wasn’t new really. Every time we had stopped long enough in any place full of pilgrims or children Massey had told stories. He wasn’t the only one either. It seems tying a yellow ribbon to your staff gives you a special license to make everyone stop what they are doing and listen to you pontificate. Some lectured; Massey told stories.

The thing is, the stories Massey told were almost always the same stories you will find in any Book of Tales. I mean, which of us doesn’t already know those by heart? It isn’t like you can get out of the sixth grade and not know them.

But Massey told them well and exactly how I remember. He even included that odd “And it is said that . . .” disclaimer right before the end of each one. Only he didn’t say it with the the exaggerated irony we would bravely and secretly use when we were eleven and twelve. Nor did he say it with the emphasis the teachers used when reading to us. Instead he used a slightly world-weary tone that left you thinking, “Well, of course. They would say that, wouldn’t they.”

This night he told the ‘Tale of the Lost Lady.’ I sat there with the rest, listening to Massey. My eyes, however, roved over the group. That was when I realized I recognized one of them! She had kept her hood up and sat apart from me, but it was definitely the monk who had operated the lift to smuggle Massey and myself to the top of the Temple of Winds in Junrei-Ichii on a day it was closed. I remembered her face; thin and most definitely female despite the shaved head.

Looking at her in the light of the dancing flames I could see those high cheekbones flashing occasionally. Her eyes as well and maybe a hint of the delicate mouth. When she noticed me looking she tilted her head down so the hood fell forward and I could see no more there, except blackness.

. . .

The next morning the way turned even steeper, wandering back and forth up to ridges and along them. We were above the trees by mid-morning and then working our way up switchbacks on a raw mountain side. Before noon we put on cold weather gear; one of the monks had even brought extra for myself and Massey. It turned out to the be girl I had recognized.

I smiled at her, but she pointedly ignored me. After that we started up the bolder-strewn side of a scree slope and then out onto a glacier, where we roped up together for safety. I was placed in the front and I noticed that Massey and the girl were in the rear.

We had climbed a way up the glacier when the monk behind me slipped and fell, pulling me over on top of him. He started cursing and then apologized to me.

Crawling off of him I laughed and said, “I thought you took a vow of silence!”

He grinned back at me. “Not really. Massey asked us to pretend we did with you because he didn’t want you bothering Mita.” Then he turned serious, “And you had better not! Bother her I mean. Mita has taken one vow for certain. You know what I mean?”

I shrugged. “I guess so. I thought monks didn’t have to take a vow of celibacy.”

“We don’t have to, but she did. The rest of us have to respect that. And that includes you.”

I spread my arms open. “Anything you say. On my honour.” Then I remembered and looked away, embarrassed. We were soon climbing again.

After that the monk couldn’t shut up. I learned he was from New Tacoma in the northern hemisphere, that he was a lab technician in the Temple of Science, as were most of the others with us, and that he not only had not taken a vow of celibacy, he very much missed his girlfriend; a market stall wench in the little town near Junrei-Ichii. He was even thinking of becoming a lay brother and marrying her instead of continuing his climb up the ladder of promotions in the Temple. As he said, “It isn’t like I’ll ever even make prior.”

I believed him.

. . .

Night had eaten a good slice of the sun before we reached the Temple of Ice. It very much deserves the name, as the Temple is a squat stone building fixed to the top of a cliff and permanently coated with reefs of snow packed hard and worn into gentle curves by the wind. Out of the front entrance a thin stream of warm water flows smoking through a channel cut into the rock and then drops down the side of the mountain; freezing into fantastic shapes like those made by a burned-down candle, only scaled up to tremendous size.

Inside it isn’t much warmer until you penetrate deep into the structure. There the temperature increases to bearable, though still cold, in the main room where the Temple’s spring rises; slightly hotter than bathwater. In any other temple this would be the meditation room. At the Temple of Ice it is the main workroom for the monks and their cells are located around its edges. The outer rooms are used only for storage, as they are too cold for habitation.

Each of the cells had a hand-made sign over it, usually with some quote from the Book of Tales or a joke. The cell nearest the entrance and furthest from the center of the room had a sign which read, ‘Here sleeps the coldest of us.’

Despite its size the room was nearly filled by the monk’s pumps and filters and centrifuges and by the sounds they made. Even there I was uncomfortably cold, unless I stood by the raised pool in the center. And there you quickly were wetted by condensing mist as the steam from the warm water rises and cools. The monks there greeted us warmly and we soon joined them at dinner. It turned out the newly arriving monks had brought supplies for their shift at the temple, so there was enough to make a monkish feast. Once again Massey told a story while we ait, this time the ‘Tale of the Laughing Demon’.

Afterwards Massey took me to one of the cells where Mita waited, with needles to give us the temple poke. She even stamped our books, but never looked me in the eye. At first I thought she was frightened of me, maybe thinking I would tear off her robes and ravish her on the spot. Then I realized it was a different emotion altogether: an icy rage.

When we were by ourselves later I asked Massey why Mita hated me so. He seemed surprised I had figured that out, but then said, “To her you are a symbol of everything wrong with the upper classes and with men in general. She especially hates how you treated that girl, Sully West.”

I was indignant, “Sully? I didn’t treat her fairly, I’ll admit. But I hardly forced myself on her.”

“Perhaps not. And perhaps fairness and force are as much in the eye of the beholder as is beauty. There is also the question of how miss West came out of the affair.”

“Seriously? Mita doesn’t see how what happened to Sully afterwards was entirely her own fault?”

Massey only grunted noncommittally, rolled his back to me, and told me to go to sleep.

But sleep eluded me. In the end I went out to the noise of the meditation room and across to the little chapel, where I tried to pray. I was still there, lost in my usual thoughts of how I could have done things differently, when my friend the talkative monk came by. He was on the night shift minding the equipment and thought I wanted a guided tour of the operations.

That did interest me slightly more than my own despondent thoughts, so I trailed behind him while he told me a lot of things I already knew about processing Temple waters. I learned this facility mostly separated out nucleocytoplasts that generated tailored RNA capable of repairing telomeres. It was all very boring until he took me to the tiny lab facility and asked if I wanted to see one.

“I thought they were too small to see with regular microscopes?”

“Oh, no. Not these! Giant things. Look!” he pulled me over to a bench and I peered into the proffered eyepiece. It was true, I could see octagonal shapes on the slide, each with a dark center.

“There are many who say we haven’t begun to plumb the depths of what these ones do. We know they map and copy the genome of the host before they start producing the RNA. And then later they break up instead of multiplying. Some think the fragments do other things in the body afterwards.

“Unfortunately there is little opportunity to study these. They are a one-shot, like I said. And very difficult to transport alive. That’s the thing really. I mean we do know ways to keep them alive longer, but we aren’t allowed to use those techniques. Instead we ship almost every gram of essence we can separate directly to the Imperial City using methods as old as this temple. And ninety-nine percent of them die in the process.”

That gave me more to think about, especially given the mention of Sully earlier in the evening. The monk then suggested one more stop to the tour, “Let’s go outside. You wouldn’t believe the view at night here!”

So we put on our warm clothes and went out the temple door to stand on the edge of the cliff. The view was indeed amazing. Reflected light from the Mother shown around the edges of the night and illuminated the snow and the mountains with a bluish tint. We were above the clouds there and could see them spreading out to the north and curling up at the edges before disappearing into a hazy distance over the Circle Sea. The crazy shapes of the ice below us seemed to glow green and blue as if from an internal light source.

We stood there for a long while, the monk stunned into silence for once by the vista before us.

When I returned to the our assigned cell Massey was snoring. I may have slept a few hours that night.


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