Parlan, reading scripture, felt a drop of sweat trickle down his back. It was a late day in early summer and the fields outside still wavered with heat. Through the window he could see the workers putting away their microblade scythes and sending the last of the wheat through the binders. People worked in shifts here on the colony, and it was Parlan's week for early days in the field and late nights studying his faith.
He wouldn't have minded being out there, working himself into tiredness. It was far preferable to thinking so much, these days.
He refocused on the text in front of him, willing his gaze to remain fixed on it. Ordinarily, reading the scripture was akin to meditation. The words would hum in his head, turning into a litany that took him elsewhere; sometimes into the gentle rapture of faith, and sometimes merely into a void empty of all sense, away from whatever earthly demands needed to be ignored.
The drop of sweat kept trickling down, down, down.
A sound emanating from somewhere in the room interrupted his attempts at meditation, and he realized he had been quietly singing to himself. He sighed, closed the text and got up, sliding his wooden old chair under his wooden old desk, and massaging the sweat on his back into his robe. A look outside the window confirmed that the day would still be warm but bearable, and resplendant with nature.
Parlan left his room, walking slowly through the halls of quietude that formed the main section of the temple. He did not meet anyone on the way. There were guests in the temple these days, travellers from other systems who wanted to explore the Amarrian faith, but they would be working in the fields.
Once he'd left the halls and entered the world of the living, it took him a moment to get used to the brightness, the smells and sounds, the slumbering freshness of it all. This temple, sitting as it did in the middle of golden fields of extensive farmlands, felt like the head of a body: Quiet and cold, silent and meditative, and ideally divorced from the messy vagaries of the lesser orders of daily life.
He walked at a slow pace with no particular destination in mind. A keen eye was enough for nature to provide him with any number of distractions, and for that he was thankful. He let the leaves on the trees fascinate him, their veins showing through the remainder of the golden sunlight; and he imagined what it would be like to soar like the birds above him, who barely seemed to bat their wings. He looked to the hills in the distance, too; grey and covered in their own smoky haze.
That was another reality. He would be there tomorrow.
The winding paths eventually led him back towards the temple. On his way there he walked past the conference area: A small, secluded spot where acolytes could sit on wooden benches and discuss the tenets of their faith under sunny skies. He came close enough that he could recognize the few people who were sitting there, talking quietly. In this place it was held that thoughts on faith should be shared.
Not all thoughts could be shared. Parlan sighed.
He found a tall tree, a sturdy tree with heavily foliated branches and sat down in its shade. He was close enough to the conference area that he could hear the soft murmurs of words. He shut his eyes and listened. Even at this distance, where the words were unintelligible, he could recognize some of the voices. He imagined that one of them was speaking to him. He realized that listening for a precious voice was, in fact, a very religious activity, and he grinned to himself.
Someone right next to him - a woman's voice he didn't recognize - asked if she could sit down. He opened his eyes.
She had blonde hair, beautiful in the fading sun, though it stood in contrast with a subdued harshness of her expression. He expected that the harshness had been there before she arrived. This place eased the minds of its inhabitants, at least those who could leave their ill longings behind them.
He realized she was waiting for an answer, so he nodded and smiled.
She explained, without too many words, that she was one of the visitors - one of the 'rich' guests, she called herself, with a clear sense of self-irony that he appreciated - and that she'd been working in the fields all day, was tired and sweaty, had gotten sick of the drama among her own people - a recent theft in the temple had started to fray their tempers - and wanted to relax in the presence of someone who looked like they could use some rest themselves.
She was forthright when tired, she warned him. He said he had rather suspected that, and she laughed. He liked her already.
They talked for a while about life on this planet and life elsewhere. She was a mission agent, she told him, and had been working out of her home planet in the Gallente Federation. He'd heard of the profession, although it was rare for the colony to receive agents of any stripe. She asked if the agents in the Amarr Empire didn't tend to have crises of faith with the work they were doing, and he said that they did not, for the ones who aspired to the profession were driven, rather than hampered, by their faith, and did not need to buttress it. She said that she did not know whether she envied them, and he admitted that he did not know, either.
During the conversation he had stolen a few looks at the crowd sitting by the conference area, still talking, and eventually his companion at the tree - whose name, it turned out, was Heci - asked him if he had other things than faith on his mind.
He closed his eyes and rubbed them.
"Is it really that obvious?" he said, quietly, even though he knew no one could hear him but this woman and God.
"No," she said, to his relief. "But I have desires of my own to deal with -not for you, darling," she added with a grin, patting him on the shoulder and eliciting a snort of laughter from him, "- and they make me see these things. You know how it is. When you look for signs of God, you see Him everywhere. Same with other things."
She fell silent, closed her own eyes and leaned her head back against the tree. She did not ask him to elaborate, but he knew she would listen.
He was not sure whether he could discuss this, even though she had caught him. He could admit to a sin in the abstract, but revealing details - speaking them aloud - would make it real, and not merely an imagination inside his own head.
But he wanted to talk about this - he needed to - and he doubted he would ever find a safer conversant for it. Besides, compounding it with the sin of lying wouldn't enamor him with the holy.
"I have never acted on it," he said, even quieter than before.
"Never?" she asked.
"Well, look at me," he said amusedly, and held up the end of his robe.
She smiled and nodded. "Not much opportunity for romance, is there," she said, not really asking.
"Do you love anyone?" he asked.
She looked away, to the vistas beyond. "Too many, really. Including your kind of love."
"My kind of love?" he said. He understood her, but he really hadn't thought it had been that obvious.
"The one that's not allowed? Oh yes. I know that one very well," she said, nodding towards the acolytes by the conference and, he thought, in particular towards the one he'd been looking at. She continued, "Even if most of it was only physical - I hope I'm not making you uncomfortable with this..."
"No, no," he said.
Heci said, "Unrequited love is a bitch. You give all you dare and don't get the same back, even as you want to give so much more. You have to continually accept that you are not the one setting the limits, but the other person, who decides how much of you they are ready to take."
She shifted, rubbed her back against the tree. "So even when it was mostly physical, there was always some degree of love there. You just have to accept it for what it is, and allow it to exist in your heart as long as it cares to stay there."
The idea that he would have to live with these feelings, unrequited, for the rest of conscious time made Parlan intensely uncomfortable.
"So how do you deal with heartbreak?" he asked, truly hoping that her answer would imply some end to the way he felt, some course these feelings would naturally take that would eventually lead them to extinction.
And she did not. She said, "The heart is resilient and cannot be broken, merely disassembled for a while."
They sat there for a while, looking out at nature and God's creations, and when the sun went down he left without a word. He kept the peace and walked back to his room, where he sat and read scripture long into the night until he couldn't stand it any longer, then took a shower so cold he gagged from the shock, crawled trembling into bed, wrapped himself in the sheets and shivered into sleep, the warmth rising slowly from within him.
The next morning it was his turn to visit the mines, as everyone who worked on the settlement had to do from time to time. It was a long day's walk and gave him time to think. Something about last night's conversation, in that shade of the silent tree, had begun to comfort him even though the shock of it had been too much for his tired head at the time. There was an inevitability to his feelings that he had not realized before his talk with Heci.
The mines, when he got to them, were the same pit of stink, ash, smoke and misery as they always had been. The Amarr Empire kept slaves, and on this planet some of those slaves tilled the fields alongside the acolytes, while others, not yet ascended, lived and worked in this place. Some day they, or their children or their own children, might be lifted up to the fields, but until then they slaved under the eyes of God.
Parlan was inured to their pain - the world was full of suffering and it made no more sense even if one brooded on it - but he eased it the best he could. For hours on end he walked among them, in their thousands, bringing them water as they hacked at the earth. As he poured he sometimes thought of the one he loved. Some of the slaves thanked him, others - too tired, he reasoned - did not, but in every pair of eyes there was a quiet acceptance. They did not resent his presence here, nor particularly welcome it: He was merely here, and they were thankful for him while he stayed. This life they led was their lot just as Parlan's was his, until the day God decided otherwise.
He spent most of his day there. Some of the incoming slaves from the fields, attending briefly on their own business, mentioned that there'd been a commotion back at the settlement. He didn't care. His lot was to be here, and give his love to these people.
At the end his robe was caked with dust, and he could not even see his fingerprints for the clay that had covered his skin. When he finally went back to the settlement he saw everyone outside, with serious faces, and something starting in the open expanse of the conversation area.
As he watched, one of the settlement slaves - an assistant to the head minister, and someone he knew had family in the mines - was dragged out there, stripped, and tied down. The minister announced that he had been guilty of the recent theft.
The slave overseer arrived, with his tools. It went on for a while. Everyone watched, some looking upset, others - including Heci - horrified and disgusted, and a few looking hungry for more.
Parlan did not react, one way or another. The clay felt cool on his dry skin.
There is a mindset where you achieve quiet and tranquility not by accepting things the way they are, but accepting that they are the way they are.
When it was over he retired to his quarters, where he read scripture until he fell asleep in his chair.
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