The celebrants climb steps, up past level after level of the temple-precincts, wide stone outdoor spaces usually bustling with minor-priests and astrologers and snake-charmers and amulet-vendors and epileptics and foreign mystics and musicians, they’re empty today though, oddly quiet: everyone is either invited inside the temple itself or they’ve been excluded from the Holy Place altogether.
At the summit of these three hundred and sixty stone stairs there’s a large arched doorway. Most of today’s guests rarely get to come all the way to the top: so they turn in a slow circle, this is what the gods see, vistas of brick houses and shops below filled with unlucky citizens luridly imagining this afternoon’s ceremony. Beyond them and their residences, beyond the farms in which workers on ox-driven carts battle motion-sickness as they hurl handfuls of seeds, there’s the circular city-wall, thick stone, guarded from atop fortified watchtowers. Outside the gates, outside the city proper, its territory continues: orchards and vineyards and fields on which cattle graze, shepherds swelter, there are travellers too, coming and going on foot or in animal-drawn wagons along roads which are paved near the city but which degenerate into mud-tracks as they reach for the horizon, reach past unclaimed meadows of grass and shrubs, past occasional ponds and streams, towards faraway little villages full of little villagers who still fight with sticks and stones, and towards other cities too, new cities which have assembled themselves in imitation of the city.
The temple: looking down on everything. At the peak of level after level of empty precincts is this stone cube, built directly over the ruins of the old temple which was itself built on the ruins of an older temple. People pass silently through the arched doorway, through darkness into light, the light of flames at the sacred hearth, some sun enters through hole-in-the-wall windows too, into this enormous hall crammed with people, with ministers and princes and soldiers and their wives plus the heads of various trades, representatives of the shepherds and the date-growers, the blacksmiths and ox-herders and builders and tailors, the fishermen and farmers and fowlers, artists and writers and of course the priests, here in this holiest of sanctuaries are the devotees of the Lords of this world, the gods of good fishing and good hunting, gods of water and marshland and desert and vegetation, gods of animals and seasons and boats, man-gods and woman-gods, moon-god and sun-god, sky-god, rainbow-god, gods of regeneration and charity and tragedy, the son-god who loves and suffers, here in this great hall are their separate priests bearing their separate emblems plus offerings of fruit. There are clunky statues of the gods as well, and friezes and mosaics on every wall, there are engravings and portraits of sideways-facing warriors; the Seven Sages are present in the form of small glass fish and birds.
These people bustling within the sacred walls, these allies and rivals: apart from their shared citizenship the men agree on only two things, they adore the king and they all want his daughter.
The butchered-lamb stink of sanctity. The altar: wide smooth stone, like the steps outside. On it are two figurines made of materials Noah’s never heard of, lapis lazuli and glass, they are placed on each other as though copulating. Next to them is an ancient animal’s-horn and a sea-shell collected from the ocean this morning, plus clippings from a hallowed cedar-tree and two silver rings.
Behind the altar stand the king and his daughter, and by them the royal bard: “I!” declares Nemmo, the fabulist, “proclaim the crown and the throne; I exalt the sceptre and the measuring-rod. Pray be silent and I will relate to you a Truth beyond truths,” he tells them about the time a goddess got the city-god drunk and slipped away with his Virtues, our Lord pursued her but the Love-goddess gave the goods to someone else and the city-god ended up having to share. The storyteller ends with a prayer to commemorate the occasion: “May new reeds and shrubs and grasses grow; may deer and oxen multiply; may well-watered gardens bear honey and juice; may the excellent loins of the king’s daughter be praised to Heaven; may vegetables fill the commons; may there be long life in the palace. Now hear the king, King Noah will speak!”
The monarch nods appreciatively. He’s ancient, the oldest man alive, he’s forty, although across the city they say he’s six hundred and he’ll never die. “Death,” says Noah, “approaches: I hope I have done good. Grey death approaches and I have a decision to make.” His audience all want his favour, they want the girl standing there. “The gods know best, we are here to ask them: to whom should I give the princess?”
“Me,” says the storyteller: the hall makes one noise that is simultaneously amusement and contempt and anger and disgust and hurt, Noah makes that sound too then he says, he jeers:
“You?” The crowd snorts. This ratty weakling isn’t even from here: impudent upstart bard from an impudent upstart city far away.
“Because,” says the storyteller, “I and I alone know her name,” that shuts everyone up: he steps towards the king and, with his hands cupped around his mouth, whispers into Noah’s ear.
A silence. Sunlight and flames.
“This man,” announces the king, “is today my son, is the new prince,” the girl stares shyly at her bridegroom, the stranger with the words, who turns to face the crowd and barks in their faces:“Whoever would fight me for this honour, whoever would fight me for her, fight me now: the king and therefore the gods have chosen their man.”
The celebrants stare and seethe and slowly they stop seething, they stare: the ministers and princes and soldiers and shepherds, the date-growers and blacksmiths, the ox-herders and tailors and builders, the artists and scribes and priests break into cheers, a royal wedding! The bridegroom receives every blessing, receives a new and auspicious name, is given the king’s own copy of the Laws; then he and his princess are alone.
“I,” he tells her, “will treat you like the Goddess you are.”
She opens a palace-door for him. “How does the story end?”