When Arima left his house, his family thought he'd gone out to weed the garden. When Arima came back in, they thought he'd gone out of his mind.
As for Arima, he hadn't been thinking of much of anything besides vegetables. The day was a fine one for gardening, warm and sunny, with just enough moisture in the air to keep the ground soft and workable. This year's crops were coming along well, and Arima's mind was full of pleasant homely daydreams about showing prize vegetables at the village fair and what sort of seeds he might be able to find the next time he went to the city. That was about the limit of the excitement in his life: going along with his father to the nearest large town and seeing if the locals had any vegetables or herbs that his garden didn't have yet. If he had any goals in life, it was to someday have a home of his own, and his own garden where he had absolute freedom to plant whatever he cared to.
That was before the light struck him.
It seemed at first like sunlight, as if an obstacle that had been in front of him had suddenly moved away and let the sun shine full upon him, but that was impossible. He'd been sitting out in open ground, and the sun was rising behind him. He raised his head, trying to find the source of the sudden glow.
What he found baffled him. His eyes were telling him that what he was seeing was a young man dressed in simple dark clothing, with strong sunlight falling all around him. What his mind was telling him was that he was looking at something greater than his comprehension could contain. It was telling him that this man didn't just have light shining on him, he wore the sunlight like a crown and flung it over his shoulders as a cloak. It said that he was not so much standing on the ground as that the ground had bowed down to worship at his feet. A god. This could only be a god, and he was standing in Arima's vegetable garden, surrounded by potato plants and digging implements. Arima made a small stunned noise and flung himself face-down on the ground and hoped that this deity would find his slightly belated obeisance worthy and not smite him. This had to be some sort of mistake. Arima was only a gardener, despised by his family for being too lacking in ambition to ever make anything of himself. Surely no god could ever be interested in him.
Then the warmth on his skin increased, and he felt a weight on his shoulder. The god had laid a hand on him.
"You must not bow your head to me." The voice was almost kind. Arima looked up cautiously. The god was bent over him, down on one knee. Arima couldn't quite see the god's face clearly, but he had the feeling that he might be smiling. Very slowly, he pulled himself into a kneeling position.
His visitor nodded and stood straight again, apparently satisfied with the gesture.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked.
"You're one of the gods," said Arima.
"I am Aurite," the god replied, "god of law and order, and I have found you worthy. From here on in, you will be my servant, favored by me above all other mortals."
For a moment, the words didn't seem to make any sense. Favored? What had he done to deserve the favor of a god? This wasn't even your every day sort of god, the kind you might propitiate if you wanted a bit of good luck. This was Aurite, first among the gods who inhabited the Heavenly City. When Chance and Fate had first begun forming the universe out of raw firmament, Aurite had been there behind them putting it all into order. Surely he could have no use for someone whose only talent was taking care of the family vegetable plot.
That was his first reaction. Then something else clicked with him. Aurite had said "servant". It seemed to him suddenly that there could be no greater joy in the world than to do something that would please this marvelous being.
"I don't know what I can do," he said, "but if you command me, I will do my best."
"That's good," said Aurite, "because I have a task in mind for you. My high priest is growing old and can no longer carry out his duties as he once did. It is my will that you should go to the City of Seven Pillars and take his place. Don't worry," he added, forestalling any argument. "The old priest isn't close to dying yet. He knows you're coming, and he's prepared to teach you everything you'll need to do the job. All you have to worry about is getting there."
"I won't let you down," Arima promised. "When do I leave?"
"As soon as possible," said Aurite. "Now, listen closely, because there are rules you must follow on this journey."
Arima settled himself into an attentive posture, crossing his legs and setting his elbows on his knees to prop his chin in his hands. "I'm listening."
"Good," said Aurite. "First of all, you may not take any food or water, or any money, or anything you intend to sell or trade. You may bring a blanket and spare clothing, any mementoes of home that you intend to keep for yourself, and a weapon if you are comfortable with one. You may not bring any companions with you when you leave but you may travel with others that you meet along the way. You may not ask to be given anything by anyone, but you may offer to do a service in exchange for something you need. The important thing is for you to remember that although you won't always see me, I will be watching over you on your journey, and when you call on me, I will hear you. As long as you trust me and follow my rules, I will make sure that you reach your destination safely. If you meet any trouble or danger along the way, you must accept that I have allowed it to happen as a test of your devotion, and trust that I will see you safely through it. Do you understand?"
"Yes, my lord," Arima answered promptly. "Don't worry about a thing. I'll leave today."
He sensed more than saw that the god was smiling at him. "I expected you to. Now, make haste." Once again, he reached out to rest a hand briefly on Arima's shoulder. "And don't forget - from the moment I declared you my chosen priest, we were connected. I will always be protecting you."
"Thank you, my lord," said Arima, honestly grateful. "I'll do my best for you."
The god smiled at him one last time... and then he was gone. Suddenly, the garden was just a garden again, full of cabbages and bean sprouts, and the sun was rising behind him instead of flaring in great golden fans around him. Arima sat where he was, trying to catch his breath and absorb what had just happened to him.
I just saw a god. I'm going to be a priest. Both of those sounded equally unlikely, and yet, he had no doubt that they were both true. He never could have imagined something like this happening to him, and that meant it had to be real. He still wasn't quite sure why Aurite would have chosen him out of all the people in the world, but now that he had been chosen, he was determined to do the best job he could.
As his original shock cleared away, a new emotion began to make itself known. This one was harder to place, because it was something he had rarely felt in his life before: a bubbling excitement, a sense of joy. He had never been anyone special before. No one had ever taken any notice of him beyond the fact that he was the one who pulled the weeds and harvested the beans. Now he had been noticed, and not just by anyone, but by one of the greatest of the gods. He'd been given an important task to do, one that would make him renowned throughout the world for years to come, and perhaps even give him a place in history after his death. He was about to embark on an adventure. Life seemed suddenly full of possibilities.
I am going to become a servant of Aurite. I'm going to spend the rest of my life working with him. Thinking back on the awe he'd felt when he'd realized that the being who had set the sun in motion and hung the stars in the heavens had been smiling at him, it seemed to him that there could be no more desirable prospect, not if they'd offered him a crown and kingdom for his own.
After a few seconds of simply sitting there in a daze, it dawned on him that if he wanted any of the things he was dreaming about to happen, he had better get up and hit the road. He got up carefully and dusted off his clothes. It was a shame to walk off in the middle of the weeding, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that one of his many siblings and cousins could take care of the job just as easily. He could leave them a note, telling them what needed to be done. First, though, he'd need to pack. Obviously Aurite wanted him to travel light, but he could at least fetch his weapons and a change of clothes, and one or two other things he thought might make the journey a bit more pleasant. Making mental lists, he wandered into the house and found his mother and his aunt in the kitchen gossiping while they prepared lunch.
"Oh, are you done in the garden already?" his aunt asked. "That didn't take long."
"No, I'm not finished, but I'm afraid I have something else I need to do," he replied. "Mother, where is our Book of the Gods?"
"On the shelf in the sitting room," his mother answered automatically, "but what on earth do you need it for?"
"I want to borrow it for a while," said Arima. "I need to refresh my memory on a few things."
His aunt gave him a suspicious look. Aunt Mizumi had never really approved of him. She felt a man of eighteen should already be married and settled down and raising a family, preferably while doing proper "man's work", which apparently did not involve planting flowers in the window boxes. Arima was not sure she'd think much of the priesthood, either.
"Piety is admirable," she said, "but there's a time and a place for everything. If you're going to claim the garden as your sole responsibility, the least you could do is stick with it. It's no good saying you're going to take care of it and then wander off to do something else."
"I understand," he said calmly, "but something important has come up, and I need to leave immediately. Ask Kiyoko to do it. She's helped me before. She knows what needs to be done." He crossed the kitchen and headed for the sitting room, half-hearing his aunt complaining behind him. Apparently she didn't think gardening was a fit job for her daughter, either.
He found The Book of the Gods right where he'd been told he would: crammed onto a shelf between a book of children's stories and the latest copy of the farmer's almanac. He opened it and leafed through its pages. Nearly every household had a copy of this book, even those that didn't swear devotion to any particular god. It was not considered one of the holy books, the way that, say, High Priestess Akemi's Life of Pearlite was a holy book. It was simply a handy reference for mortals who might find themselves unexpectedly encountering a god (not, apparently, as uncommon an occurrence as Arima had once thought) and wanted to know what to do about it. It contained listings for all the of the major gods and some of the more popular or interesting minor ones, describing their abilities and spheres of influence, such biographical information as was known about them, the rules their followers were expected to adhere to, what sort of offerings would best please them, the dates of all their holy days, and what they might look like when you saw them. Naturally, Arima flipped to the first entry, which detailed the particulars on Aurite. Yes, the book had described him correctly: not tall but imposing, possessing an indefinable air of power and control, generally dressed in austere dark clothing and surrounded by a golden aura. Arima nodded and closed the book. He'd take it along with him to study. If he was going to be Aurite's priest from now on, he might as well start following his dictates right away instead of waiting around for the old high priest's instructions. It sounded like the old man was fading fast, and there wouldn't be time to waste.
Even as he came to that decision, he felt a warm glow creep over him. The warmth seemed to come from outside him, and the sensation, though pleasant, was unfamiliar enough to make him stop and take notice of it. After a moment, he realized that what he was feeling was Aurite's approval.
He was telling the truth - we really are connected now. So this was how priests always seemed to know what their gods wanted done, even when the gods themselves didn't appear to tell them so. That was nice. It was good to know that he would be able to tell when what he was doing was pleasing to his new master, and when he had gone astray. He appreciated that. It gave him a pleasant sense of being cared for and protected. He tucked the book under his arm and started upstairs to gather his things.
He didn't make it that far. His mother had planted herself squarely in his path.
"I don't know what's gotten into you this morning," she scolded. "You're always such a dutiful boy. Why are you suddenly so determined to get out of doing your job?"
"I'm sorry," he said, ducking around her and continuing up the stairs, "but I really do have something more important to do today."
His mother stared after him, looking unconvinced. "Oh, really? And what, pray tell, might that be?"
Arima stepped through the door of his room and began rummaging around in his wardrobe. If he was going to be traveling, he was going to need his good cloak, the one he usually only wore in the worst winter weather, or when he was traveling with a caravan to one of the big cities. Now, where in the world had he put it?
"I'm going to the City of Seven Pillars," he said, as his mother followed him up the stairs.
"What in the name of Pearlite's pink pajamas are you planning on doing there?" his mother asked. She sounded surprised. He couldn't blame her. The City of Seven Pillars was a good distance away, and he didn't know anyone who had actually been there.
"I'm going to the temple of Aurite to become a priest," he explained, matter-of-factly. Ah, there was that cloak, and his good walking boots with it, down on the bottom shelf.
"A priest?" his mother repeated. "What on earth possessed you to get an idea like that? You're no more fit to be a priest than I am."
"I thought as much, too," said Arima calmly. He was looking through his drawers now, pulling out spare clothes, "but Aurite has commanded me, and I can't let him down."
Apparently that was just a bit too much for his mother. She simply stood staring at him, his mouth hanging open, as he began folding up clean shirts and tucking them into a haversack.
"Aurite told you," she said at last. "You think Aurite, god of law and order, came out to you in your vegetable garden and told you that he wanted you to go to some city weeks away from here so you can become a priest."
"Yes," he said calmly. The last of his spare trousers went into the haversack. He began scanning the contents of his shelves, looking for anything else he thought he might need. He had his knife strapped to his belt already - no one with any sense ever spent much time outdoors without a weapon, even on civilized land - but he found his lash on a top shelf and hooked it around his belt on his other side. It was a better weapon than the knife, anyway, in terms of being able to get dangers out of the way without hurting them more than he had to. "The old high priest is dying, you see, and Aurite wants me to take his place. I told him I don't know anything about being a priest, but he says they'll be glad to teach me when I get there."
His mother's expression took on a look of concern.
"Son," she said gently, "you know, it's a bit warm out today. Do you think that perhaps with the heat and all, you might have gotten a bit... confused?"
He turned to regard her. The expression on his face must have been quite a sight, because she took an involuntary step backwards. He was, after all, the most tractable of her children, nieces and nephews included. He never fought or argued. He simply did what he was told. Today, however, he had orders from a higher power, one whose authority over him was greater even than that of his parents. He'd made up his mind. He was going, and there would be no talking him out of it.
"If you're saying you think that I'm a bit sun-touched, and that I just imagined seeing a god," he said calmly, "then I'm sorry to tell you that you're wrong. I did see Aurite, and he spoke to me. He put his hand on my shoulder. He smiled at me. I never could have imagined how that would feel on my own. He has called me, and that means I am going. With or without your permission," he added firmly.
His mother was looking thoroughly flustered by now.
"I... see," she said, voice shaking slightly. "I... I'll just tell your father then, won't I?"
"If you like," he said. "I'll come down to say goodbye in just a minute."
His mother babbled something not quite comprehensible, something about a safe journey and making sure not to forget anything, and then departed down the stairs in something of a hurry. Arima watched her go, feeling not quite as sorry as he felt he ought to be.
"She didn't take that as well as I'd hoped," he murmured.
Well, that was too bad. He was far beyond changing his mind at this point, so instead, he sat down at his desk, took out a clean sheet of paper, and began writing down instructions for the care of his garden while he was away.
He was just making a notation regarding where they would be able to find the best seeds to replace the perennials, when he heard his father's heavy tread on the staircase. He hastily finished his note and set his pen aside. Something told him that he didn't want to be caught sitting down if he could help it. Today was not the day to show even that much weakness.
"Hello, son," said his father, just a bit too heartily. "I hear you've had an interesting morning."
"Yes, Father," he answered calmly. "A very interesting morning."
"Your mother tells me," his father went on, "that you've decided to join the priesthood."
"It wasn't so much a decision," said Arima. "I was commanded. But I think," he added reflectively, "that I'd have joined anyway, even if he hadn't asked."
"I see," said his father, who obviously didn't. "Well, I'm sure that's good. I'm glad you've finally found some purpose in your life."
Arima narrowed his eyes, sensing a trap. "I suppose so."
"Now, I understand that this is a new idea and it's very exciting," his father continued, "but I don't want you getting carried away. It's a long way to the City of Seven Pillars. If you go there, we probably won't be able to visit you very often. There will be a lot of dangers on the road between here and there. I think maybe it might be better if you took some time to think this all through carefully, make sure it's really what you want to do, before you make any decisions that can't be taken back."
"I know it's a long journey," said Arima patiently, "but you don't have to worry about me. Aurite has promised to take care of me, and he doesn't lie."
That did not appear to comfort his father as much as it should have.
"Yes, well," his father said. "Still, maybe you had better start small and work your way up to being a high priest? There's a temple of Aurite over in Oakroot..."
"Oakroot is to the north," said Arima, quite reasonably, he thought. "The City of Seven Pillars is to the southeast. It would be quite out of my way to go to Oakroot, and Aurite made it clear that there isn't time for delay. As he said, the old priest may not live very much longer, and every day I spend on the road is a day he could be teaching me what I need to know. I need to get there as soon as possible."
"Still," said his father, still straining to sound calm, "maybe you had better at least wait for the next caravan? It will be much safer if you go with a group."
"There's no knowing when one of those will come along," said Arima. "Besides, I'm not supposed to ask for someone to come with me. I'm not sure hiring a place in a caravan wouldn't be cheating."
His father lost his patience. "Look, son, I'm saying this for your own good. I don't know what's come over you, but you can't just up and leave home chasing a will-o-wisp. You are not leaving, and that's final. You're going to stay here for a few days and think all this through. In a week or so, if you're still sure this is really what you want to do, then we'll talk about you going. Right now, though, I think you've just had too much sun and you need to rest and clear your mind."
"Don't you 'but Father' me, young man. I've made my decision. You are not leaving today, and I don't lay very good odds on you leaving tomorrow either. You are going to stay right here and rest, and that's final."
"I'm going and you can't stop me," said Arima.
The two of them stood and stared at each other for a moment. It dawned on Arima that he was actually an inch or so taller than his father - not quite as broad, but his work at hoeing and weeding had strengthened his arms and shoulders, while his father was beginning to go soft and flabby as middle age caught up to him. If it came to a physical confrontation, there was a good chance that Arima would come out on top. His father seemed to realize that too. The man's face began to go red.
"Look here," he said, "I am your father and you will obey me."
"You are my father," Arima agreed calmly, "but you're not a god."
For a moment, his father seemed to swell like an angry bullfrog, and for a moment, Arima thought his father was going to take a swing at him. Then the man deflated.
"Fine," he said. "Be that way. We'll just have to do this some other way."
He turned on his heel and stormed out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind him. Then Arima heard a click, and realized that his father had locked the door and shut him in. Arima went to press his ear to the crack, and heard muttered conversations going on outside in the hall: "...not being reasonable..." "...never seen him like..." "...obviously, the heat..." "...for a doctor?"
Frustrated, Arima rattled at the door handle, but it refused to release him. With a sigh, he flung himself onto his bed to ponder his options. It was almost funny, he thought: all his life, his family had derided him for never showing any ambition, never attempting to make something of himself, always going with the flow. Now, for the first time in his life, he really wanted to do something, and everyone seemed to take it as a sign that he'd lost his mind.
Well, he supposed he couldn't blame them. Everyone knew the gods were real - it was a bit silly to deny it, since if you did, said gods were liable to appear in your living room and explain to you in detail why you were wrong - but that didn't mean that everyone saw them on a regular basis. The gods mostly seemed to understand that humanity didn't like being ordered around, so they tended to do their work at a distance, leading the course of civilization so unobtrusively that it was easy to forget they were doing anything at all. Generally it was only priests and heroes who got to see the gods face to face.
But I did see one, and I am going to be a priest. All priests must have had a point in their lives when they weren't priests yet.
Well, Aurite had promised him challenges. He hadn't expected them to start before he'd even left the house, but now that they had, he supposed he would have to deal with them. Aurite had said that nothing would come his way that he couldn't get out of somehow, which meant that there had to be a way out of this. He got up again, and this time pressed his ear to the floorboards. There was a knothole in his floor, mostly hidden by his wardrobe, which gave him a pretty fair view of one corner of the kitchens if he peered through it. He hadn't used it much since childhood, partly because he was old enough that he no longer found the idea of spying on the adults to be exciting, and partly because he was no longer small enough to easily wedge his head and shoulders under the footed wardrobe. Now he couldn't quite manage to see, but he could hear through it well enough. His mother and his aunt were talking worriedly to each other. Arima gathered that one of his cousins had been dispatched to town to send for a healer. He frowned at that. There were healers who relied on magic to do their work, but those were few and far between, and often expensive besides. His town only had a general sort of hedge doctor, who distilled potions made from roots and leaves, and made up evil-smelling poultices. Arima had generally gotten along with the old man, back when it was just the two of them chatting about the qualities of herbs together, but he didn't trust the doctor to tell the difference between being sun-touched and god-touched.
Still, it meant a delay. Even running at full speed, it would take a half an hour just to reach the village and find the doctor, even more time to convince the old man that there was a problem and pry him away from whatever he was doing, and more time still to actually get him back to the house, since he didn't have a horse and couldn't run the way a young man could. Make it at least two hours, then, before someone came looking for Arima. Plenty of time to make an escape, if he could figure out how. Arima looked thoughtfully around his room.
Only one thing to try, he decided.
The first thing he did was move the wardrobe. It was a heavy piece of furniture, made by his great-grandfather out of solid oak, and it took all Arima's strength to shove it across the uneven floorboards and wedge it in front of the door. Once that was done, he leaned against it a moment, catching his breath and listening for any signs that someone had heard him. No one came banging up the stairs to ask what he was doing, so he assumed he was safe for the moment. Not that there was much anyone could do to him now. His door opened inwards, and with the heavy wardrobe in front of it, he doubted they would be getting in any time soon. Having bought himself some time, he turned his attention back to his packing. Spare clothes - already done. Blanket - ripped off his bed and quickly stuffed in along with the clothes. Weapons - already at his belt. Anything else? He considered before adding a couple of small trinkets: a tortoiseshell comb that had belonged to his maternal grandmother, a toy dragon his favorite uncle had carved, an embroidered handkerchief his oldest sister had given him as a party favor at her wedding. Those were all the treasures he owned, and none of them seemed like the sorts of things that would violate Aurite's rule about things that could be sold. He wasn't entirely sure right now that he wanted to trust his family to send them on to him once he got where he was going. He looked around his room, satisfying himself that there was nothing else here he needed to take with him.
I'm not actually going to miss this place very much, he realized. He loved his family, yes, but he loved them because they were his family, not because they were the sorts of people he would have voluntarily spent time with if he'd had a full range of choices. It was probably better that he was leaving. He'd just never had anywhere else to go before.
But now he did. He opened the window and looked down. His room was on the second floor of the house, overlooking the back garden. From where he stood now, he could easily see the place where Aurite had manifested in front of him. It didn't look any different from the rest of the garden, now, except that he'd stopped weeding before he got to that point. Even so, he was never going to forget the sight of it for as long as he lived. For now, though, he turned his attention to something a little more close at hand. He was a good distance off the ground, true, but not so far that he couldn't escape if he was careful. There was a wood pile nearby, with logs neatly stacked half the height of the house. It was right next to the back door, where someone in the kitchen could easily reach out and grab one without having to go out in rainy or snowy weather. It was covered over by a small shed, nothing more than a shingled roof supported by five sturdy beams. Arima leaned out the window and eyed it thoughtfully. It was not directly below him, but...
He paused to listen again. Judging by the voices he could hear drifting up from downstairs, everyone who was still in the house was gathered in the front parlor to await the arrival of the doctor. At the very least, he couldn't hear anyone else moving around on the upper floor. That was good.
Arima slung his haversack over one shoulder and pushed open the windows. Very carefully, he climbed onto the window ledge and balanced there precariously. Then, even more carefully, he straightened up so that he was standing with his feet braced on the ledge and his hands gripping the upper part of the frame. He shuffled over to the far left side of the window and then, slowly, extended a foot sideways, leaning out until he could rest it on the ledge of the next window over. He reached out his right hand and managed to get hold of the next window frame. He shifted his weight onto the new ledge and pulled himself across. Moving in this spider-like fashion, he crept across the window of his aunt and uncle's bedroom, then across his youngest brother's. From there, he dropped as lightly as he could down onto the roof of the wood shed. It wobbled a little, but supported his weight. From there, it was easy enough to swing himself down onto the ground. He was tempted then to pause there, to wait and hear if someone had heard the thud of him dropping onto the shed, but he fought the impulse. Whether they had heard him or not, he needed to get out of here right away.
Not by the road, though. The doctor would be coming that way, along with the boy sent to fetch him. They would recognize him, and then there would be trouble. The longer he could keep anyone from realizing he was gone, the better off he'd be. Fortunately, he knew the woods in this area like the back of his hand. He'd gone there nearly every day in the warmer months, looking for herbs and nuts to liven up the daily fare, or for things he could try to cultivate in his own more civilized plots. The deer trails and watering holes were as familiar to him as they would be to any hunter or traveler. His siblings knew them, too, but hopefully by the time anyone realized he was gone and thought to look that way, he would be well out of their reach. Hopefully.
Arima made for the nearest break in the trees and began crunching his way through the fallen leaves until he hit on a path he knew. It was little more than a rabbit run, but that made it less likely that anyone would think to look for him on it. From there, he picked up his pace, following a route that he knew would lead him, if he followed it long enough, all the way around the village and eventually spill him out onto the road that led to it from the south.
And south is where I need to go.
The thought was oddly exhilarating. He had often been to Oakroot in the north, and sometimes to Mountcleft even further north. He'd made yearly sojourns to Wellspring in the east for their annual summer festival. He'd even been with his father all the way to the western City of Golden Towers, once, to see a prince crowned king. But he had never had any reason to go south before, and he'd never gone alone. He had never defied his family before. He had never in his life had a cause he cared passionately about. Everything was about to change for him.
Thank you, Aurite, he thought, as he wove his way through the underbrush. I think this is the best thing that's ever happened to me.