The single drop of blood from a being that we call a god abides in the Temple of the Gentle. It abides there and must abide for all time, or until the end of time. For if anything were to happen to that one drop of blood, my kingdom and every single living and un-living thing in my kingdom would fall.
That is what I was taught even before I entered the temple school. There is much mystery surrounding that drop of blood. For the longest time, I didn’t even know that the one thing upon which the fate of my land and my own life depended was a drop of blood. For it is called the Anchor.
The Anchor that binds us together, protects us through savage times, nurtures us in times of peace, it was not a philosophy, a way of life, a practice of magic, an extraordinary machine. It was not even a giant anchor holding our kingdom in place in the world, as I had once believed when I was a child.
It was a single drop of blood.
I recited in my mind the words I would say when I reached my destination. My fate was in my hands. For this one night…my fate was in my hands. I walked through the streets of the blue stone quarter, where I had been born and lived my whole life.
It seems strange to me now, but I had never thought much as a youth about why my fate, everyone’s fate, was entwined with the fate of a single drop of blood. I never wondered whose blood it was and how the enchantment was cast. I did not need to wonder. I lived in a peaceful and well-ruled kingdom. I thought of that drop of blood as I thought of the sun and clouds, the earth, the seas that heaved at the eastern border of our land. It simply was.
That changed when I joined the temple school, following in my sister’s footsteps. Nedra was a temple guardian. I sought to be a temple scholar. She had laughed when she heard, not out of malice or ridicule. She claimed she had always known, despite our inclinations as children, that I would be the learned one. Samander, the Scholar.
The Anchor, this single drop of blood, was enchanted long ago to float in the air in one spot always. The temple was built around it. I hoped we initiates would be brought into the Chamber Eternal when we first joined, to gaze upon the drop of blood glistening under golden light from above. I imagined us holding our breaths for fear we might blow the little drop away. And then being hurried out of the chamber. There were rumors of such practices. But it was not to be so. The temple school was like other schools. One had to earn knowledge. One had to work for reward and privilege.
Nedra never told me if she had been allowed in the chamber, though she was often now assigned to stand guard before it.
My teachers told me that all initiates are curious about the Anchor, and they encouraged me to sate that curiosity first, so it would not interfere with my other studies. Yet my fear of being banished from the Temple for having doubtful thoughts compelled me to keep my work secret. I could not fathom that the kingdom’s fate was determined not by how well the sovereign ruled, or how hard the people worked, or how good-hearted they were. I pretended to tire of the subject as I had tired of many others on my path to uncovering my best calling. I didn’t tell my sister. I didn’t tell my friends, my mother, or my father. I didn’t even tell those who would never be able to betray me, like the little mouse that visited my bedchamber at night for some morsels I would leave behind. The burden became heavier and heavier as I learned more and more.
One day, when the beggar man who frequented my quarter bade me to sit and join him in eating the cakes I’d offered him, I almost sat down and told him, not all of it, but some. He had no shelter or trade, but he had a humble air about him that put me at ease. I hurried away, knowing it would be unwise to speak to him or to anyone.
For I had begun to think thoughts that most would find blasphemous, perhaps even treasonous.
My studies revealed why the drop was known only as the Anchor. Generations ago, there was war among humans, beasts, and many beings that no longer abided in the world, but died away during those terrible times. In one such war, a powerful being, who by some accounts was emperor of the realm that encompassed our kingdom and many lands beyond, perhaps even the seas, led a vast army against his foe. Legions died in the battles. Towns, cities, and villages were destroyed. Knowledge was lost. Soon hope was lost as well. Peoples who had dwelled upon the earth for ages were lost. Beasts of every color and form, both beautiful and frightful, vanished into memory and then into history.
There were many accounts of how the Anchor came to be. I spent almost a year in the temple archives reading only those accounts. Many had to be translated from languages long dead. Some I could not decipher at all. Two stories emerged. One of selfless sacrifice. One of selfish self-preservation.
In the first tale, the emperor realized how deep a cut upon the world the war had been, and it raged still. He was struck by how many had died, been maimed, or simply vanished from the world. He had not the power to undo what had been done. And he had not the power to stop the war himself. He called upon the most powerful enchanters and bade them bind his fate to his empire’s fate. He would shield his empire with his own flesh and bone until the war was done, or he was dead. Every time his people and his land were struck, all his body and soul were used to defend it. Many were preserved. But he was not an all-powerful being. His strength waned. Cracks formed in the shield. Every time soldiers were killed or villages ravaged, the blows would be felt by the emperor. Gashes would appear on his limbs. Bruises on his flesh. The war raged for half a generation. By the time it was done, much of the empire was lost, and the emperor himself had died, all his flesh, and blood, and bone spent on defending what was left, a small but mighty kingdom by the eastern seas. All that was left of him was a single drop of blood. That was all that defended the kingdom. So it was preserved, defended, and revered by the people. So long as that one drop of blood remained, so long did hope remain.
A noble tale, to be sure.
For many generations, stories of the emperor were passed on and passed down, embellished and polished until he became a god. Gods were immortal. They did not bleed. They could not be harmed, even by each other. If it were known that the relic in the holy temple was a drop of blood, the only remnant of the being that had become the kingdom’s patron god, its defender, there would have been confusion and disillusionment at best, despair and chaos at worst. So its keepers began to call it the Anchor.
The kingdom emerged from such fearful times. It emerged with its faith in the defender god and the Anchor he left behind intact. But now it was known what the Anchor was. The servants of the Temple did not hide away all knowledge but shared it with the people, though they did keep their secrets. They always have. They weren’t so much secrets as knowledge that one could only obtain through the taking of many pains, pains which most folk were not willing to take.
In an age when curiosity and doubt were accepted and encouraged, many wondered if those of us who dedicated our lives to the Temple were being foolish or at least misguided. Many wondered if there even was such a thing as the Anchor. But many also deemed that it was safer for someone to watch after the Anchor, just in case its fate really did determine the fate of the kingdom.
I began to wonder if there was a way to break the enchantment, to unbind it from the fate of the kingdom. I could not accept that everything my people had done and accomplished, all the pains we had taken to be a better people, all the times we had stumbled and fallen, and risen again, that all of it meant nothing. That all of it might be erased if that one little drop of blood were to fall.
I was all the more desperate when I put together the second tale of the Anchor, a tale about an emperor who was brave but ruthless. He went forth in every battle. He did not win them all, and he was always bloodied and bruised, but he always came back. This tale was lesser known because it was not noble, not heroic. The emperor was neither wicked nor good. He was accustomed to power. He had an empire under his rule. He would not lose it. He would see it grow and thrive. If threatened, he would use its people and its beasts to make armies to defend it. And he would battle till the end, rather than lose any part of his land.
In one fatal battle, the emperor was struck down. Bleeding and dying, he retreated to the fortress kingdom by the eastern sea. He would not accept death. As he had given his strength to his empire, he now demanded strength from it. But even if all the healers in the empire had been present, they would not have been able to save him, for he was not only wounded but poisoned as well. He already had the best healer and the best enchanter in the empire with him. They traveled with his camp. They cast an enchantment. They bound the emperor’s life and fate to the fate of the kingdom in which he lay. He died, but they preserved one small part of him, a drop of blood. So long as the kingdom abided, that drop of blood would abide and he would not truly die.
The war raged on as all the emperor’s blood drained away, all his flesh rotted, and his bones dried and turned to dust. Those appointed to protect the drop of blood protected it well and passed on their duty to the next generation and the next.
I found something akin to a prophecy about the emperor rising and returning to rule again. In a time of peace, when the kingdom would begin to trade, grow rich, and grow powerful, that drop of blood would bloom and grow as well. It would take many, many generations for the work of restoring and reviving the emperor to be finished. Then he would reclaim his land.
No sovereign who ruled the kingdom after that emperor-turned-god was nearly as powerful, but none were as prone to warmongering. In my measure, not as one who has ever ruled, but as one who has been ruled, all our sovereigns thereafter have been well-meaning and peaceful men and women. Some were inept. Some brilliant. Some were forced to face wars. Some chose to join wars. None ever waged one.
I had to go see behind the door, into the forbidden chamber, the Chamber Eternal, where the drop of blood was kept and tended by the Bound, men and women who had sworn to serve only the Temple and its servants. The Bound never left the Temple grounds. They spoke only to other temple servants. If I couldn’t see for myself, I might convince one them to speak. For if the Anchor was not a drop of blood, but a godlike man being slowly remade, a warmongering usurper, then there was all the more reason to unbind the kingdom’s fate from the Anchor’s fate.
I soon realized that I could not find a way to unbind the Anchor from the kingdom. But what I as one person could not do, all of my Gentle brothers and sisters might be able to do together. I realized that I had to break my silence. I had to start telling others what I had discovered.
I would start with my sister. She guarded the door to the true Chamber Eternal. The doors to the chamber are always locked and guarded, save on one occasion, once a year, when all are allowed to come in and bow down to the Anchor. But all of the temple servants and many of the people knew that the chamber all enter is a false one and the enchanted drop of blood that was put on display was not the real Anchor. It would pose far too great a risk to put the real Anchor out for everyone to see. Over the years, enemies of the kingdom, who knew of the enchanted bond, had tried to steal it or destroy it. Mad and ambitious enchanters had tried to harness its power. So the real Anchor had been hidden where only the highest of temple servants knew about it. I was not among the highest yet. But my studies had gone deep. I was fairly certain I knew where the true Chamber was. I was certain I knew which corridors to take so that none would find me and walk me away.
I chose the quietest night for the Temple, the night of the new moon, when all were to worship at their household temples.
I had come to love the Temple, to stand erect and happy as I walked up the steps of the mountain atop which the Temple stood. But tonight I felt the churning of dread in my stomach. For my fate was in my hands and my hands were shaking.
My sister. If I could not convince her, I would not convince anyone. I had thought of speaking to her at home, or in the archives where I could show her my notes, the books, the scrolls. But whether or not she was convinced, she would be obliged to report me to the temple masters, and I knew she would. She believed in the justice of the Temple law. She believed it was fair and merciful. So I had to go as far as I could. I had to meet her at the doors to the Chamber.
I had walked through blue stone quarter to the Temple Road and all the way to the Temple in a light rain. I thought of the drop of blood being washed away in that rain as I swept through the cool corridors of the Temple. I thought of how it was surely no longer a drop of blood. I had planned well, but I had also planned to fail, so when I found myself approaching the Chamber Eternal, I was truly amazed I had come that far. And I was filled with wonder at the sight of the tremendous and beautifully carved stone doors. My sister stood before one of the doors, holding a pike upright at her right side.
“Samander, stop,” she said. She did not look surprised to see me.
I stopped. “What would you do if someone tried to get past you?”
“I would stop them.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be Gentle?”
“Gentle does not mean harmless.”
“And Gentle does not mean helpless.” I pointed to the door. “I just want to see it.”
“That’s forbidden. You’re unworthy…unless you wish to be Bound.”
“There is something I must tell you, Ned, about the Anchor.”
“Tell me another time.”
“What did you learn of it? When you were an initiate? Were you curious? Did you study it?”
“Of course.” Her gaze flicked away for just a blink. It was her warning to me. There would be other guards nearby. They could not hear us, but they could see us. If I moved closer, they would surround me. “I’ll be happy to speak with you about it when I am at leisure.”
“Come into the Chamber with me,” I said. “Let’s see if I’m wrong or right.”
“Blasphemy. I will not let you risk everything and everyone for the sake of your curiosity and arrogance.”
“Your master, the other masters, and the Highest Servant, they must know. If they know, they are hiding a secret they have no right to hide. If they don’t know. If they don’t speak to the Bound, and they don’t know, then we must enlighten them, for the sake of the kingdom.”
I told her then what I had discovered. The story that all initiates learned, about the noble emperor who sacrificed himself, who left behind a single drop of blood to protect his kingdom from falling to war or decay. Then I told her the other story I’d discovered in trying to find a way to unbind the kingdom from its Anchor.
“It does not anchor us,” I said at last. “We are anchoring it.”
“How can you be sure that the second tale is true?”
“I can’t. That’s why I want to see. If I’m to spread the warning and get help, I must see for myself. I must have proof.”
“You will have to do without proof, as most of the faithful do.”
“I must know the truth. I must see it.”
“Perhaps the truth is a blend of both tales. Perhaps there is more than a drop of blood behind the doors I guard. What would it do to reveal such a thing to the people? They might rejoice. They might revolt. What if there is a new emperor growing in that chamber and he is a worthy leader? What if he is destined to lead our people into a golden age? Or what if he forgets who he was and simply becomes another subject of the kingdom?”
I sighed. “We can hope for happy endings, but that will not bring them about.”
“You might convince some to your cause, Sam. But the truly faithful, you will not change their minds, and even if you did, you would then have to work on their hearts. And hearts are more stubborn than minds.”
“That may be true, but by my oath, I am obliged to try.”
“Your oath is to protect the Anchor.”
I shook my head. “It is to protect the kingdom, by preserving that to which its fate is bound. But if the kingdom’s fate were not bound to the Anchor. If it were the other way around, then I would need to assure that the Anchor does not harm the kingdom.”
Nedra smiled. “You are bright, little brother, but what makes you think you have discovered some great secret in the archives that are open to all initiates?”
“Because secrets are best hidden in plain sight. But the secret was a puzzle and I merely took the time and effort to put the pieces together.”
“And none else have ever done so?”
“Perhaps, but I can imagine what fate befell them.” As I could imagine what fate was about to befall me, for it seemed my sister would not be convinced.
“What makes you think you are the only one who is sworn to protect the kingdom?” she asked. “All subjects of the kingdom are sworn to protect it. And all initiates try to find some excuse to go into the Chamber.”
“You know me better than to think this is but a ploy to catch a peek at a holy relic.”
“That I do.”
“If you won’t let me in, then allow me to speak with one of the Bound.”
“That I can allow, for it will do you no good. They are loyal to the Temple unto death. They won’t tell you anything you’re not already allowed to know.”
She spoke with such certainty, a certainty I once had.
My sister must have made a gesture I had not seen, for before I could speak again, I was surrounded by three guards. She nodded and smiled at me.
“You will be taken to speak with one of the Bound. I must report you, Sam.”
I nodded. “I know.” My heart sank. I had failed. Even if the Bound told me everything I had discovered was true, I could do nothing about it. Save perhaps hope that Nedra would believe me and do what I could not do. I had committed no crime. Perhaps the Temple masters would simply admonish me, or banish me from the Temple. But I was certain that was not to be. I would be comfortably imprisoned in the Temple for the rest of my life. As one was an initiate, who was privy to the archives, I would not be easily dismissed as a madman. I had to be kept from the people.
“Please,” Nedra said. “Trust me. Don’t go home. Wait for me in the sleeping quarters. I’ll see you again before morning.”
I wanted to go home. I would have few chances to once Nedra reported me. But I did trust my sister not to bring me to harm. I was sure she would try to find a way to free me. She might already have a plan. She hadn’t been surprised to see me. Perhaps I had not hidden my own secret so well. Perhaps she knew of my studies and was expecting me. Perhaps I wasn’t the only initiate who got this far. But if that were so, something must have stopped them from doing what I aimed to do, sharing the knowledge I had found.
I did try to question the Bound man they brought to speak with me. He was, as Nedra had warned, not forthcoming. I could not even read in his eyes whether he had seen the Anchor, much less if it were a drop of blood or something else. I was told I could take as long as I wanted. I should have tried harder, but if I hoped for mercy from others, I would be remiss if I did not show mercy myself. I let the man go, and I went to rest while I waited for my fate to befall me.
I had not slept in the initiate’s sleeping quarters since the day I was allowed to return home and pursue my studies on my own. There was a separate chamber for those who had just started temple school. I passed it and felt a strange pity for and envy of the sleeping forms in the bunks and cots. As an advanced initiate, I had earned the privilege of having my own sleeping chamber any time I chose to stay in the Temple after a night of studies or devotions. I remembered being proud of that accomplishment. Now I wondered if I would grow to loathe the chamber in which I might be stuck for the rest of my life.
I lay in the bed, comfortable, but unable to rest. I did not think Nedra would come until the morning.
I must have dozed off after all, for Nedra was shaking me awake. When I woke and sat up, I saw she was not alone. There was one other in the chamber. A face I would not have expected to see again. He looked different wearing the powdery blue robes of a High Servant. A humble, elderly man no taller than Nedra. I knew him as the beggar to whom I sometimes gave cakes and meat pies, and with whom I sometimes exchanged stories and jokes. The same man to whom I had almost told my secret once. I knew the man as Eliot, and that is how Nedra introduced him.
“Not all of our initiates discover what you have discovered,” Eliot said. “The true purpose of the Temple. Most don’t keep their work so secret and so are intercepted early, like Nedra.”
I was bidden to rise and follow them. I walked back through familiar corridors until I was again before the doors of the Chamber Eternal. There was another guard standing watch. He stepped aside to let High Servant Eliot through and that was when my eyes opened wide.
“You’ve been in there before,” I whispered to Nedra.
I was filled with too much anticipation to feel angry at my sister for her secret. I held my breath as the doors opened. Beyond them, however, was a corridor. It was long, but I could see its end, where there was another guard and another set of doors.
We walked down the corridor and when we reached the next set of doors, I saw by the tattoos on his bare arms, that the guard was one of the Bound. He stepped aside and Nedra opened the door to let Eliot and me inside the chamber.
It looked exactly like the false Chamber Eternal looked. There was a central dais, a beam of light directed down on the dais. And there was the Anchor.
Suspended in the air was a figure, but he was not whole. His right hip and leg were missing. His left foot was gone. Both arms were gone just above the elbow. His chest was a hollow within which a many-chambered heart was beating. There were no lungs. There were no bones, no ribs.
Most striking of all was his head. His head was only bone. Though there seemed to be movement within the skull, which made my hairs stand on end.
There were thin cords attached to or piercing every part of his form. The cords reached up into the upside down dome structure above the man.
Nedra stepped beside me. “They are called ‘tubules,’ and we surmise that their purpose is to provide nourishment to the being as he grows and heals, or rather while he is remade.”
I noted then a milky scent and the scent of fresh herbs. There were Bound men and women working at stations at the chamber’s periphery. They seemed to be cooking in small pots. For several moments, I could not speak. I only gazed about the chamber.
“So, is this our enemy or our ally?” I finally asked.
Eliot answered. “We do not yet know. But we cannot abandon him as we would not abandon a dying man who reached our steps, or a babe who was left there.”
“This is our true cause,” Nedra said. “If we abandon him, he will die. You were right. The kingdom’s fate does not depend on the Anchor. The Anchor depends on us. We are the true Anchor.”
“You can join us, or you can leave,” Eliot said. “But you must decide and either way, you are forbidden from speaking of what you have seen in this Chamber.”
“On pain of death?”
“The death of your livelihood and reputation, surely. We need go no further.”
“You are right, Sam,” Nedra said. “We might be nurturing a warmonger. And even if we are nurturing the best sovereign this kingdom will ever know, he cannot usher in a golden age by himself.”
I gazed at the figure on the dais, his chest open, his heart beating steadily. As I did, I felt a surge of something in my own chest, a cautious hope.
“You’re both right, too,” I said. “I will join you. We must help the helpless and this being is helpless. If he does have some claim to sovereignty, the people must be welcoming, but we must keep our eyes open and demand that any sovereign of this kingdom should have the support of the people.”
I turned to my sister and the High Servant. “But no one sovereign, no matter how powerful, will decide our fate. We will rise and fall according to our own deeds and our own character.”
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel