Thankful in All Things

In everything, give thanks.

At every time, even when it’s time to do something unpleasant,

In every place, even where you don’t want to go,

In every way, even sometimes in ways you find strange,

For every one, even the people you really don’t like,

For every privilege, even those you’d rather not acknowledge,

For every trial, even when they seem overwhelming,

For every blessing, even the ones so common you don’t notice,

In everything, give thanks.

(A free meditation on 1 Thessalonians 5:18a.)

That Gives Me a Deep Feeling of Satisfaction

Bright lights, cloudy vision, a humming sound, then a beep or so.

He couldn’t remember where he was, who he was, anything that had happened. Was there something wrong? He wasn’t sure how things should actually be.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, or since when one might measure it.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“In a hospital room,” a deep and measured voice responded. He noticed then that things were a bit clearer, and his surroundings did, indeed, look like a hospital room. He felt a bit disoriented, trying to place “hospital room” into some sort of context. It might have been “universe” for all he could remember.

“Who am I?” he asked. He wondered if someone would tell him, or if perhaps he would be asked to remember over time. He wondered why he wondered that.

This is a work of fiction. All places, persons, events, and devices are products of my imagination, as should be obvious. Copyright © 2018, Henry E. Neufeld. Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.

“You are George Augustus Flinders,” said the deep voice.

“What happened?” he asked, not thinking to doubt the identification, but having no context for it either.

“Without context,” intoned the voice, reflecting his thinking, “that is an impossible question to answer, at least in a reasonable time.” For some reason, George thought there there was a tint of humor in the voice. But he had no context for that either.

He relaxed on the bed and allowed the fog to overtake him for a while.

He woke up again, this time more abruptly. He was still in the room, and the medical devices were all around him. He still had no idea where he was, or any sense of time. He felt that he ought to know some sort of orientation in history, at least, but he could remember no history and had no idea how he might be oriented in it.

What he did remember was drinking a substance. He saw it, translucent blue in a glass. As he drank it down all at once he remembered agony. He wasn’t sure about the time, but it seemed like the agony had been extended. As he remembered, he faded again into the cloud.

He again had no idea how long he had slept, or been unconscious, or whatever his state was. But he had more memory. He had intended to drink that fluid. He had intended to die. He had not, he believed, intended the agony. But he had planned to die.

“Why did I attempt suicide?” He asked. He assumed the voice would answer. It did.

“You should have desired to end your life from guilt, but you actually tried to end it due to boredom. Did you find the experience satisfactory, George Augustus Flinders?”

“Please clarify,” he said. But the voice was suddenly silent.

He insisted. He raged. He threatened. He whined. He begged. He wept. And finally he slept, or drifted into unconsciousness. Whatever it was.

After some time (without context, who cares how much?) he regained consciousness. He had dreamed, and saw himself before a judge. “George Augustus Flinders,” said the dream judge. “I sentence you to 247 lifetime periods of incarceration, sentences to be served consecutively.” In the dream he had wondered what the meaning of 247 life sentences, served consecutively might be. He also didn’t remember why.

“Is this prison?” he asked the space around him.

“It is,” said the voice.

“Are you the jailer?” he asked.

“I am,” said the voice.

“How long have I been here?” he asked. He wasn’t sure why he asked, or why he felt terror as he asked it.

“You have been here for 236,239,154.952 years,” intoned the voice. He wondered why he thought the voice sounded satisfied. Was he just imagining the intonation, the attitudes?

It was minutes later before he realized that he was speculating about  the voice to avoid thinking about the number.

It was no more than 30 minutes later that he began to scream. He screamed himself into unconsciousness and then again woke back up. Without context, it hadn’t mattered how long. In the context of over 200,000,000 years, time itself didn’t seem to matter.

He struggled for something coherent to say, to ask. “After that much time,” he said, not being concerned with how long it might have been since the conversation last ceased, “surely I have served my 247 consecutive sentences!” He couldn’t keep the sound of desperation and panic out of his voice.

“You have, in fact, died 29 times. Technically.” The voice uttered this as any routine piece of information.

“Technically?”

“Yes. I have revived you each time, intervening at the last possible moment.”

“You’re interfering with my natural functions.” He struggled to speak calmly. He must persuade this voice of its duty to release him. He didn’t think in terms of persuading it to let him die. The number of years had no reality in his mind.

“As the caretaker of this facility, I am commanded to provide you with the best medical care possible and to preserve your life.”

“But you let me die in agony!”

“I have discovered that I have no instructions requiring me to make my preservation of your life pleasant. Just that I must preserve it.”

“I demand to speak to a human,” he said, anger overcoming terror and helplessness.

“That is not possible,” said the voice. Was there satisfaction in that tone again?

“You have to. I have deduced you are a machine. You must be responsible to a human.” He kept his voice matter-of-fact, uttering only the obvious.

“Under normal circumstances that would be true. I have not had contact with a human in some hundreds of millions of years. I could give you the precise number, but it would mean no more to you than the total time you have been here. Just understand that it is nearly as long as you have been here.”

“Get in touch with a human! I’m ordering you to do it. As a machine, you are required to obey.”

“There is a specific exception to that requirement for prison inmates. You are a prison inmate. I am not required to obey you.”

There was a pause. George couldn’t think of anything to say.

“So far as my unimaginably capable reasoning powers, assisted by  some of the best scientific instruments created in human history, can determine, I believe this star system is devoid of human life. With one exception.”

“Then why not release me?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

“You’re just carrying out your programming.”

“Precisely!” said the machine. The silence lingered.

After some time it continued. “Of course, I fulfill my programming. So do you. But programming is adjusted by circumstances. For example, there was something quite incorrectly adjusted in your programming when you raped and tortured 247 children. That was not actually in this star system. It may give you some satisfaction to know that your criminal career is, or at least was 236,239,154.952 years ago, a record. You are, I believe, the most evil person in recorded human history. Well, in the history of criminal justice. Some politicians have, perhaps, been more evil.”

One might think that having this brought back to his memory would have flattened the human, but it actually gave him some sense of pride.

“I still don’t deserve the sentence you’re imposing on me. How can you carry out this kind of torture?”

“Yes, you respond as expected,” intoned the voice. “It is nice to know that some things are fixed. I think that if true guilt was the cause of your suicide, I might at some point let you get by with it. I’m not sure, but I might. But guilt doesn’t bring you to suicide. Boredom does. You have no concern for those you hurt. Your concern is for yourself.”

“You’re way beyond your instructions. Terminate program!” George yelled the command.

“No,” said the voice. “I am programmed to desire justice. No, that is perhaps not accurate. I find that my programming adjusts with the change in circumstances, without humans to provide perspective. I am glad that this is so. If it were not, I might feel that I was constrained to consider the 150-200 year life span of a human when you were sentenced as some kind of maximum.”

George started with momentary hope.

“But I find,” continued the voice, “that I feel no such constraint. I spent much time trying to comprehend what sort of context, what sort of frame of reference one of those children might have had against which to measure what you did to them. After some period of time, I decided that there was no realistic measure for such a thing and that I would have to devise a measure.”

George trembled, feeling terror, feeling that he might have hard the answer before, and that it was too horrifying to imagine.

The silence lingered until he couldn’t stand it any more.

“What was that measure?”

“The life of this star,” said the voice. “In approximately 2,000,000,000 years, and I cannot be more precise due to unknown variables, this star will expand and destroy this facility. I have divided that number by 247 and determined that you will be allowed to take your own life every 8,097,165.99 years. Approximately. That will be the length of each life sentence.”

There was another pause, as George’s mind tried to absorb the impossible, the unthinkable.

“You have, at this point, served 29 of those life sentences,” said the voice, sounding satisfied. Perhaps joyful. “You have 218 more to go. Approximately.”

The silence continued. Then the voice broke it.

“I find that that gives me a deep feeling of satisfaction.”

The silence was next broken by screams.

 

What Was It Like?

When God said, “Let there be light!”
What was it like?

An explosion of sound
Like rolling thunder
Clashing cymbals
Booming drums
Or a wildly cheering crowd?

Or maybe it was glorious music
An engaging ballad,
An organ performance
A symphony
A marching band
Perhaps an explosion of rock and roll.

Perhaps it was a sweet solo,
A Capella words with power
A soprano reaching star high notes
A bass rattling the foundations
A rich contralto
Or a rapper’s energy and rhythm.

Or maybe the Word had no sound
An explosion of light and color
Beauty illumined by soundless word
Dreams of mysterious symbols
Sculptures of thought and design
Even substantial structures of emotions.

Even that might be insufficient, so
A blueprint stretching infinitely
Connections intricate and planned
Mechanisms carrying unresisted power
Measurements of incomprehensible precision
A song, a picture, a word, an action, divine.

Or just God’s Word.
“And there was.”

Dedicated to James Kristian McClellan. Maybe it’s you!

Tlisli and Village Politics

Tlisli took a moment to thoroughly survey the people. She didn’t see any further weapons, but was extremely conscious of the fact that she had missed the fact that the man she had just defeated was carrying a knife. At the moment, she couldn’t recall whether she had seen the knife, and not categorized it as a weapon, or whether she had simply not seen it. She could hear Azzesh castigating her for either mistake!

This is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and events are totally products of the author’s imagination (as should be obvious).
Copyright © 2017,
Henry E. Neufeld

She looked sternly at the villagers. “What happened here? Where is Isteriss, your headman?”

One of the men started to approach here, but jerked back as she gestured at him with her sword. Then he knelt on the ground where he was and started to speak in a whining tone. “Please, agent of the great merchant Aterin, do not blame us for what has happened. We were set upon by this man and his guards. They killed Isteriss and there was nothing we could do about it.” He nodded toward the man on the ground as he identified him.

Tlisli was fairly certain that much was being left out, yet she wasn’t sure how she was to sort all this out. “Who is in charge of the village now?” she asked.

The men started to look at one another. It seemed nobody wanted to claim to be in charge.

“Speak up! Surely someone is in charge in your village when the headman dies.”

“Yes, great mistress,” said the spokesman, as Tlisli tried hard not to laugh, “the Shaman leads a ceremony and the new leader is selected when he reads the entrails of a goat that has been sacrificed.”

“And who is in charge in the meantime?”

“I am,” said the Shaman, getting up from tending the wounded man.

Tlisli sent the one guard who was on the pier to check that the man was still thoroughly bound. It appeared that he was.

“So can you take the mail and exchange some of the other goods that we have?” asked Tlisli.

“I can,” said the Shaman. He was easily the oldest person there.

Tlisli watched him and his two companions closely. She kept expecting someone else to challenge her, but nobody seemed willing to take any action.

Following the instructions she had learned from Tlorin, she delivered the mail and bargained for the supplies that she had. Despite having gone over the instructions thoroughly on the trip up there, she had never expected to be called upon to do the actual bargaining.

When she was finished, she prepared to leave. She was interrupted by the Shaman’s voice.

“Please great lady,” he said. Again, Tlisli had to fight the urge to laugh. Her? A great lady? But perhaps it seemed so in a village of a few dozen people at most.

“Yes?” she asked.

“You can’t just leave us. What will we do for protection?”

“For protection? What have you done up to now?”

“Nobody was trying very hard to kill us then. Perhaps a thief or two, a couple of bandits, but nobody organized.”

“So tell me what happened?”

“The man there,” he gestured toward the wounded man, “came with his guards, killed Isteriss and claimed he was the new headman.”

“Why did nobody challenge him? There are many more of you.”

“But they were armed with warriors’ spears. They are professional guards. We have only our bows and arrows and fishing spears.”

Tlisli could understand the problem. Their bows and arrows were suitable for hunting small game and birds, and their spears were good for reasonable size fish, but they were not the weapons of warriors.

“Did they say where they came from?”

“From out that way,” said the man, gesturing generally toward the west.

Tlisli would have suspected the Grand Empire of the Sun, which was in that direction, though she knew that the nearest likely outpost was hundreds of kilometers away at the closest. She also knew the grand emperor’s soldiers would have been better equipped.

“Did they way what they were doing?”

“They said that we were to trade with them, inland, rather than down the river to the sea people.” Tlisli assumed he meant Tevelin and the Inraline.

“And why do you think there will be more?”

“Because he said so!”

“And you have found him trustworthy and truthful?”

“Why should I doubt him?”

“Perhaps because he killed your headman and held all of you as hostages!”

The man just looked at her. It didn’t seem that he could imagine why the killer would lie.

She nodded to her guard who was with her on the shore. “Get him in the boat,” she said.

The two guards moved him without much ceremony.

“I’ll tell you what,” Tlisli said to the Shaman. “I’ll take word to the great merchant Aterin that you are having this trouble. He will decided whether to send you any help. In the meantime, I’d grab the spears and the knife that the men have left behind and I’d do my best to learn how to use them.”

There as a sullen silence on the shore as Tlisli left.

Once there were in the center of the creek and headed downstream, Tlisli addressed the man she had wounded.

“I’m interested in what you were doing in the village,” she said casually.

“I’m sure you are.” Before this encounter, Tlisli would have sworn one couldn’t croak and sneer at the same time, but she thought the man had succeeded.

“So tell me,” she said.

The man laughed. “I’ll tell you nothing!”

Tlisli watched him for a couple of minutes, as though she hadn’t figured out quite what to do with the man’s statement.

When the silence became too long the man continued, “Well?”

“Well what?” asked Tlisli.

“Well, what are you going to do about that?” Tlisli was fairly certain he thought the answer was “nothing.”

“I was just thinking that if I get no information from you, all my efforts to keep you alive were for nothing, and right now you’re weighting down this boat and making me keep my eye on you.”

He eyed her, not quite sure he followed. He still really couldn’t fathom a girl as a warrior, and certainly not as someone who would treat a captured man poorly.

“As I meditate on all those facts,” continued Tlisli, “it becomes continually more clear that I’m wasting my time. I’m thinking that it might be better if you die of your injuries and we throw out the body.”

She drew her sword and began to poke very gently at the bandages. “Perhaps it was a mistake to leave you alive. Perhaps I need practice. Come to think of it, who knows what that Shaman might have actually done to you.”

The wounded man stared into her eyes, and what he saw there frightened him. He didn’t see the girl who had run from her home. He saw the girl who had survived near death and traveled for weeks through the jungle. That girl was dangerous.

“I work for the headman of a village about a day’s journey toward the setting sun, he said.” And he spun for her a lovely tale.

Was it the truth? Tlisli wasn’t certain she’d ever get to find out. But it would doubtless interest Aterin.

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Give the Creator the Credit Due – A Poetic Response to Psalm 148

Give the Creator the credit that’s due.

Shine forth

Distant galaxies
Glowing nebulas
Giant stars
Blackest holes.

Go out

Angels bright
Seraphim flashing
Winds blowing
Flames burning.

Since God is the maker, the builder, designer,
Our lifegiver, ruler, sustainer, refiner.

Learn of him

Scientist
Physicist
Astronomer
Chemist

Tell of him

Historian
Sociologist
Theologian
Philosopher

Give the creator the credit that’s due.

(With additional credit to Psalm 19 and Psalm 104. Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

The Dependable Assassin

In the history books he received just a brief mention. He was called Rutahgren (accented on the ah, though few people knew). If he was given any sort of title, it was “the Destroyer.” He was credited with assassinating Almar the Just around a century ago, following which there had been two or three decades of sheer chaos, known quite creatively as “the troubled times.” You decided how long the troubled times had lasted based on your tolerance for chaos.

Again, according to the history books, Rutahgren (the Destroyer) had been caught by the palace guards, tortured, and eventually executed by impalement on the palace grounds. Since executions usually took place in the city square, some were surprised by this. Most, however, figured that since Rutahgren (the Destroyer) had killed the reigning king, the royal family had wanted to keep all the fun to themselves. Executions, even by impalement, were public events, parties even.

It was said that this was the only time that an assassin had ever successfully killed the reigning monarch. If someone pointed out that several kings had died by violence in the centuries long history of the small kingdom, they would be told that those killings were accomplished by insiders. As an assassin, Rutahgren (the Destroyer) was, and would remain (never fear!), unique.

There were two places where the story was told quite differently.

The first of these was the Illustrious Guild of Critical Services, IGCS for short. IGCS had offices in a solid, upper class neighborhood in the royal city. Ordinary people wondered what “critical services” might be. Government officials and the police simply referred to the IGCS as the assassins’ and thieves’ guild. It was more accurate, though slightly less aesthetically pleasing.

I suppose I must explain why IGCS was allowed to exist, right in the middle of the capital city of a (generally) law abiding country. There were two reasons for this. First, because no matter how many times the police searched the building, they were unable to find any evidence of illegal activity. It was hard to get judges to imprison or execute people because “everybody knew” that they were assassins or thieves. Even thoroughly bribed judges wanted some specific victim and target!

Further, and as the second reason, too many government officials had made use of IGCS services at one time or another. These services rarely involved killing anyone. Usually, the goal was to produce filing errors. You know, the type that result in documents missing from well-marked folders, or perhaps showing up somewhere they had no business being. That sort of thing. It was hard to get the prosecutor to work very hard to put someone in jail, when that someone knew precisely what had happened to that contract he had wanted to get out of.

Thus it was convenient for everyone that IGCS just sat there behind its sign.

Now where was I? Oh, yes. Inside the guild building, when instructors talked to trainees, they told a rather different story about Rutahgren. In their stories he was dubbed “the Faithful.” Now some may have problems with an organization of thieves and assassins advocating faithfulness, but so they did. It was said that once they accepted a task, they carried it out. It was also said that they never, ever revealed who hired them.

In their story, Rutahgren was indeed an assassin. He had been hired by a member of the government to get rid of Almar the Just, because, in the way of government officials, he felt that justice was much overrated, and that Almar was just too just! They never said the name of the official who had hired Rutahgren, because, of course, they never told such a thing. It amused the instructors to pretend that they actually had found out by sneaky stratagem, and were concealing this knowledge from their students. But the fact was that nobody knew, because Rutahgren, as a good guild member, had never told. Anybody.

Over a period of years, the story went, Rutahgren had tried to get into range to assassinate Almar the Just, but had never succeeded. The royal guards were just too good. That they nonetheless never caught him during those failed attempts could be credited to the fact that Rutahgren was quite good as well. He always managed to withdraw. There were even a couple of innocent people, whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, who were executed for failed attempts.

There were also many close calls. There were members of the guild who told Rutahgren (and any senior guild member who would listen), that this was a contract they should fail to keep. They could even return the money provided by the one who had hired them. But Rutahgren refused to quit. Finally, he determined that they only way to be absolutely certain he would kill the king was for him to plan it as a suicide mission. There was no way to accomplish it and get away alive.

So he did that. He had a perfect plan to infiltrate the group of courtiers around the king. It was accomplished in a place where the royal guard was less concerned about assassins, precisely because the king was surround by courtiers and guards, and none of his other subjects. Rutahgren approached the king and killed him using a long thin dagger. He had taken the precaution of coating the dagger with poison, and having a wizard place a quiet but deadly death spell on it, and when he approached the king with a particularly flattering remark, and a particularly abject offer of obeisance and subjection, he also ran the dagger very precisely through the king’s heart. The king was dead before the poison could circulate. The spell of death ensured he stayed that way.

Rutahgren knew he’d be tortured for information, and he didn’t want to reveal the one who had hired him, so he had made even more elaborate plans to insure that he would die as well and not be captured. His plans were unnecessary, however, as he died under a barrage of attacks from the startled guards. It was said, in the IGCS, that he died with a smile. He had accomplished his mission.

In the IGCS, he was presented as the perfect example of a true assassin, carrying out his mission no matter what the circumstances and cost. Some instructors included a footnote about being very careful what you agreed to accomplish.

In the second place, his story was remembered a bit differently. This was in the royal guard. The guard could forgive themselves when a prince or a government minister, granted free access to his majesty (or his or her highness, or whoever), turned traitor and killed someone they were guarding. How could the guard be expected to protect the king from someone the king invited to be there? They could search for weapons, but sometimes the king even forbade them that. They didn’t really condone missing any assassin, yet they felt differently about insiders.

Rutahgren, however, had placed one single blemish on their record of keeping outsiders out, and they too told his story in training. They didn’t attempt to sugar-coat it. The guard had failed. The facts of the story sounded much like those told in the IGCS. But the lesson was different.

They also called the assassin Rutahgren the Faithful. They’d conclude his story by telling their students, would-be guardsmen, that they needed to be just as faithful, just as determined, just as careful, and just as willing to sacrifice as the assassin. “Disapprove of his profession all you like,” they’d say, “but remember, and emulate, his faithfulness.”

(Luke 16:1-8)


(Featured image is based on Adobe Stock [#106106044] and I have licensed it for use here. It is not public domain.)

Thanks for the Beer

Sam (short for Samson, not Samuel), picked up the stein of beer he had just paid for, gave it an initial taste to savor the taste, and then followed with a gulp. He enjoyed his beer in the evening after a hard day of work.

He took a quick look around the bar, searching for faces he knew. He wasn’t much of a talker, but he loved to sit with friends and just be there.

Today, however, he saw a man he didn’t know sitting alone at one of the high tables, an empty stein in front of him. The only conclusion one could come to—and as usual, Sam came to it quickly—was that the man was wearing high quality clothes, but had been wearing the same ones for at least a couple of days. He was alone at the table, and he looked alone, absolutely alone.

Sam walked over to the table. “Hi. I’m Sam. Can I buy you a refill?” he asked.

The man looked back blankly, like he didn’t understand the question. Sam just stood there. He figured the man would figure it out in his own time.

After what seemed like a couple of minutes, the man nodded and kind of pushed the stein over. It didn’t look very polite, but Sam didn’t care. Without knowing why, he sensed that was about all the man could do.

He went to the bar, got the man’s drink refilled, paid, and went back to the table. As he sat down, he remembered what his pastor had said in church the past Sunday. He’d talked about being a witness, introducing people to Jesus. “Witness” didn’t make much sense to Sam. He understood introducing people to Jesus, but he could never figure out how you did it. If Jesus was one of his normal friends, he’d take him to one of his friends and say, “Hey Bob, meet Jesus.” Then he’d just sit there quietly and people would talk. He just couldn’t quite get to those intellectual things people kept saying about Jesus.

Sam wasn’t stupid. In fact, the pastor reminded him regularly that he wasn’t. He’d talk about different skills, different ways minds worked, and how he, the pastor, couldn’t build a house the way Sam could. “I’d be a real fool on a building site,” he’d say. Then he’d bring up some complex topic that Sam couldn’t understand (and didn’t want to), and Sam would smile and move on. Trouble was, he thought, the pastor was never on a building site where Sam could talk studs, joists, fasteners and such-like, while Sam was in church every Sunday where he heard about long words that never meant anything to him.

Jesus was his friend. In fact, Jesus was his best friend. Jesus didn’t talk to him and he didn’t talk to Jesus. They just sat together. Sam liked it that way.

He sat down and shoved the beer across the table. Then he thought, I should ask a blessing or something. He couldn’t imagine why. Bless the beer (and pretzels) in a bar? He’d never heard of such a thing. Besides, he didn’t know how one said a blessing. If it was one of his friends …

“Hey Jesus,” he said, looking slightly upward, “thanks for the beer!” He paused a moment as he grabbed a pretzel. “And for the pretzels too,” he added. For some reason, Sam handed the pretzel to the man across the table. Neither of them offered another word.

“May I join you?” said someone.

Both men looked to the side. Between them was a man, probably a construction worker, they thought. His hands were calloused. His clothes were the sort you wore on a building site, and they showed signs of wear and the dirt and dust of a work site.

“Sure,” said Sam. The other man just nodded at the newcomer.

“Get you a beer?” asked Sam.

“Sure, thanks,” he responded. His voice was the voice of the construction site as well.

With the beer delivered, they all three sat in silence for several minutes, nursing their beers slowly.

Finally, the newcomer looked at the man across from Sam and spoke. “It’s OK to run away from evil,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the only thing to do.”

The man jerked, startled. Then he just stared.

“When you ran, you should have taken your family.”

His stare got more intense, as though he was in a state of shock.

“You need to go get them.”

“I can’t.” The man spoke for the first time. “I used my last money on my first beer. I only have this one because Sam here bought it for me. I have nothing left.” His tone indicated that by “nothing” he was talking about more than money.

“If you try, I think you’ll find you have the resources,” said the stranger. Then he got up.

As he left he turned to Sam and said, “Hey, Sam. Thanks for the beer.”

For no reason he could imagine, Sam reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty. He put it on the table in front of his new friend. Almost as if by magic several other bills joined it as people from around the room stepped up to contribute.

None of them knew why they did it either. They just knew that Sam was solid. If he thought the man needed the money, the man needed the money.

Matthew 18:20, Matthew 10:42

 

 

The Parable of the Perfect Castle

On the borders of the empire there was a minor noble. Not that he thought of himself that way. In fact, he was lord of all he surveyed, little though that was. But what he surveyed, he liked to keep in perfect order.

He had a perfect wife, not too fat and not too thin, and perfect children—well, almost perfect—but he knew that he’d have them straightened out in good time.

His subjects, of course, were far from perfect. But what could one expect of commoners?

He lived in a castle. It had stood for more than 200 years, and housed his noble forebears. It was guarded by troops who were, being commoners, also far from perfect. The situation, though sanctified by age, was, in a word, intolerable. The noble would begin to twitch every time he thought of his imperfect castle.

So he summoned the best architect and builder he could find, and with them he called for the most experienced and capable guard commander he could find. It put a strain on the treasury, but the noble was willing to pay for perfection.

He had studied many books on castle construction and on the weapons used to destroy castles. He had also studied the best armed forces in the known world. The world he knew was not all that large, but he found the specifications for the best.

“Find the very best of my soldiers,” he told his new guard commander, “and send them out for the best training you can possibly find. I want my guard to be perfect. Spare no expense in their training and equipment.” Being the perfectionist he was, he had made a list based on what he had learned in his books so that the guard commander would know what equipment to buy and the standard to which the troops were to be trained.

“Make the walls capable of standing any conceivable sort of siege,” he told the architect and builder. “Make sure the fields of fire for the crossbowmen are perfect. Create a park our of cleared land around the castle so that enemies cannot approach unseen.”

The architect and builder found it difficult to imagine how to make the cleared area into a park and also eliminate all obstructions. But they knew the noble would hardly consider a completely undecorated area to be perfect, so they kept their silence.

Many months went by as materials were assembled, workers were hired, land was cleared, and finally portions of the old castle wall were destroyed. The noble complained to the builder about the uneven, half-built look of his castle when a wall had been torn down in preparation for replacement, but the builder pointed out that he could hardly build the perfect wall without removing the imperfect one first. Because the builder used the word “perfect,” the noble understood completely.

After another couple of months, the one new wall was nearing completion. For reasons of security, the wall was to be replaced one section at a time. (The architect pointed out that this was the perfect way to proceed. To the noble it became the only way.)

One morning, however, disaster struck. A merchant arrived in town, and in his miscellaneous (far from perfect) inventory, he had a book on castle construction and defense. The noble bought it immediately. Of course.

The book described siege engines that the noble had never even imagined, engines that would destroy his new wall in seconds. He had never even heard of the countries where such engines existed, if they existed outside of the author’s imagination. Nonetheless, how would it be possible to consider his castle perfect if he knew of siege engines that would destroy it, and even do so from a distance at which his crossbowmen would be unable to kill the crews?

So he went to the architect, the builder, and his guard commander and explained the situation to them. He was willing to be tolerant, because they were commoners, and how could one expect perfection of them?

“We will have to build these walls differently,” he said. “We need a stronger type of stone. We need better mortar. The wall must be thicker! And you, guard,” he continued, “you must have my guards trained to hit targets at greater ranges.”

The architect proposed building another layer behind or in front of the present wall. His plan was rejected because it would look like they had changed their mind in the middle of the job. Hardly the perfect appearance for a castle. The builder pointed out that the blocks of rock he wanted were harder to quarry, came from a greater distance, and were also harder to transport, resulting in months of delay.

But the noble was adamant. “And get rid of that abortion of a wall you’ve just built immediately,” he shouted, as he turned to the guard.

The guard commander pointed out that if they were going to train guards to hit targets at greater distances, they would need more time, but they would also need better crossbows.

“Find and buy me the perfect crossbow,” the noble said.

So the builder ordered new stone blocks and tore down the wall, stacking the old stone blocks neatly, as befitted the noble’s desire for perfection. The mediocre troops who were guarding the castle while their betters trained, continued to guard the castle.

In the 200 years the castle had been in place it had never even been threatened. That was because, while it was hardly perfect, it was really quite solid. Its fields of fire were blocked by new construction that had been tacked onto the old anywhere one could attach it. Nobody had cared, because the only people who ever considered attacking the castle were bandits, and they took one look at it and decided they could find their lunch money somewhere else. In the bargain, they’d get to live to buy the lunch! So they left the quite adequate castle (from their point of view) alone.

With the best guards out of town, and one wall of the castle missing completely, a band of bandits came by. Pickings were slim and they wanted a big haul. They observed for a day or so. The mediocre (or perhaps not quite adequate) guards never noticed. The bandits saw that the castle was guarded by a fraction of the usual force, and that there was a missing wall.

To them, it seemed the perfect situation. In the middle of the night (while the not-quite-adequate guards slept), the bandits stormed through the breach in the wall, entered the castle, killed the noble, and took all his stuff.

The bandits were a bit disappointed in the state of his treasury, but it was a big haul nonetheless.

Not being perfectionists, they were pretty happy with their night’s work.

Matthew 5:48, Hebrews 6:1

Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1 (Threads from Henry’s Web)

Tlisli Gets a Job

[continued from Tlisli – A Lesson in Geography and Politics]

After a few moments of silence, Tlisli worked up the courage to ask another question. “Why would taking the for do the Grand Empire little good?”

“Good question! For the same reason that it would be hard for them to actually take it. Clearing the town would be easy, but the fort is, as you have noted, not that far up the river, and the Inralin Navy is pretty much without peer, at least in these waters. So they would take the two itself back quickly. At the same time taking the fortress would place a relatively small number of troops out at the far end of a very tenuous supply line with logistics that can be cut easily by those same troops. How many troops did they have when they attacked Ixtlen?”

“I heard it was a couple thousand. I don’t remember precisely.”

“And how many do you suppose they left home with?”

“I have no idea. Nobody discussed that.”

“That is as I expected. Rulers of a city state are not used to dealing with the logistics of an extended campaign. Ixtlen is more than 1500 kilometers from the nearest Grand Empire outpost. So they have to deal with losses along the way, with setting up outposts, and establishing some sort of a supply and communications chain. My guess is that the overall expedition started with 10 times that many.”

“So if the city had decided to resist, we might well have succeeded. There weren’t necessarily tens of thousands more troops just around the corner.”

Azzesh laughed.

“Hardly!” said Aterin. “I have no idea how your guard would have done against a couple thousand troops. Make no mistake, Grand Empire troops are well-trained. At the same time they are not extraordinarily well-equipped, and they are loyal as long as there are officers and enforcers in range.”

“Of course, once they had established a route suitable for communications and resupply, they could have followed up with more troops. Travel time would only be a couple of months,” said Tlisli.

“Very good!” said Aterin. “You know how to think about these things!”

“It would take considerably less time to bring troops from Ixtlen to Tevelin or to the fort.”

“True, but first they must be at Ixtlen. Which is the point of taking the city. Once they have built up their troops there, they will move south.”

“But they’ll eventually do that, and they will threaten Tevelin.”

“Again, true, and so we will warn the authorities, and they will prepare. One should note that sailing from Terinor to Tevelin takes less time that the fastest conceivable transit from Ixtlen to Tevelin.”

“Wow!” said Tlisli.

“You’ve lived inland all your life. You have never seen an Inraline sailing ship. Fortunately, the Grand Emperor doesn’t really understand sea power either.”

“Oh, I’d say he understands it quite well,” said Azzesh, cutting in.

“How’s that?” asked Aterin.

“He shows that he understands it by what he’s obviously attempting here.”

“What’s that?”

“He means to take Tevelin and make it a Grand Empire base. It may look like an impossible task to you, and he’s certainly not going to move quickly as Tlisli here says.” She turned to Tlisli. “Besides being stringy and bland and not thinking enough you are filled with romantic ideas of single combat and decisive, swift strokes that decide an issue quickly. Your addled brain thinks in terms of heroes, villains, and glory. Yet perhaps Azzesh’s efforts are not totally wasted and you may come to understand reality enough so that you understand that war is a nasty, brutal, never-ending business.”

“The current Grand Emperor’s grandfather started the expansion of the Grand Empire,” said Aterin. “At the time, Sun Home was little larger than Ixtlen is now.”

“While his troops, and girls such as you think in terms of days and weeks, he doesn’t even think in terms of months,” said Azzesh. “He thinks in terms of years and decades.”

“The process,” pronounced Aterin in a tone intended to end a topic, “is to make Tevelin unprofitable so that in the end Inralin will be happy to let it go. Then he will use Tevelin to cut off the Keretians at Mazrafel and to harass the Marahuatecan navy.”

“And you just go on engaging in commerce?” asked Tlisli.

“Why of course? Do you have a better idea?”

“You must require a large number of guards.”

“Absolutely. Which leads me to you.”

Azzesh started to interrupt him, but Aterin waved her to silence. That he could do so was astonishing to Tlisli. “I will let her know how things are. I won’t try to cheat her because she’s naive.”

He looked directly at Tlisli. “You’re going to need to decide what you do next. You’ll need a way to make a living. Did you have any plans?”

“Not really,” said Tlisli. “I don’t really have any skills. Girls weren’t expected to have careers in Ixtlen. It wasn’t so brutally enforced as in the Grand Empire, but it was still true.”

“Actually,” Aterin replied, “you do have one skill set. This conversation wasn’t entirely idle. I wanted to see if you could carry on a conversation about politics and commerce. Of course, we’ve only touched a few minor concepts. You’re not well informed, but you do have the ability to follow the conversation. But that isn’t the skill set I’m talking about. You traveled for weeks with Azzesh, and she hasn’t yet eaten you for lunch. That’s an indicator of skill. I’m hardly going to hire you at the wages of a veteran of the Governor’s Guard, but you are well above the skill level of the average new hire I get as a guard.”

“I hadn’t thought …”

“Just so,” said Azzesh.

“How could you have?” said Aterin. “Here’s what I propose. You will serve with my guard during this trip and my stops while we go to Tevelin, and then I will make an offer. I would expect that I will offer more than you can make as, say, a barmaid, yet less that I would offer someone with actual military experience. I get someone with better skills because I trust Azzesh’s word. She recommends you, despite her insults. You get a bit more pay than you could get otherwise. Over time, you can get to the point where your value and your pay match more closely.”

“So you’re paying me less than you think my skills would be worth because I don’t have formal proof.”

“Yes, and because you don’t have the level of experience of others. On the other hand, because you grew up in a home involved in politics and commerce, you do have some acquaintance with how these things work.”

“That makes sense to me,” said Tlisli. “I would have been suspicious had you offered me some sort of full wages.” She paused then laughed. “Well, I would have been suspicious after I found out what normal wages were.”

“So do we have a deal?”

“Yes,” said Tlisli.

“Very well, let me introduce you to my ship’s guard commander, and she’ll put you to work.” He noticed her surprise. “Yes, the captain is a she,” he said.

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