“Why does everyone hate me so much?” Temeliel asked Ninlein. “I haven’t done anything.” But as soon as he said it, Temeliel realized that this wasn’t true. He had done bad things. They were just things that nobody knew about. He had talked to a stranger, and was considering conspiring with them to leave the compound. He had lied directly to the lord god Avourel’s face. He had listened to the stranger — George — when he’d told him that Avourel wasn’t a god at all, but a faker.
Ninlein put her spoon back down into her bowl of bean soup. “It’s not that we hate you.” She hesitantly reached out and patted Temeliel on the shoulder. “But you came from hell. I know Avourel is giving you a second chance to redeem yourself, but you must have done something bad to end up in hell in the first place.”
“And where did everyone else come from?”
Ninlein smiled. “We were created by the grace of Avourel, brought into existence through the miracle of his love and unlimited power of creation.”
Temeliel look down at this own soup. If Avourel had unlimited powers of creations, couldn’t he make something else? Like a nice, juicy steak.
He looked around. Everyone else was happy with their bean soup. In fact, Temeliel hadn’t ever seen any steaks. How did he know what they were? It must have been from his previous life. The one that got him sent to hell, if Avourel was to be believed.
“Where did I live before?” Temeliel asked Ninlein. “Before I went to hell, where was I? Are there other worlds?”
“No,” she said. “Lamacoln is the world and the universe, and everything created, was created by Avourel for our joy.” She paused. “And there’s hell.” She paused again. “And wherever the visitors come from.”
“Who are the visitors?”
“They come on feast days, through the gate,” Ninlein said. “But they’re not angels.”
“Are they other gods?”
“No! There are no other gods. Avourel is the be-all and end-all…” She trailed off. “I don’t know who the visitors are. We’re not allowed to talk to them.” She turned to face him. “Your questions are making me unhappy. Are you trying to undermine my faith?”
“No, no, I’m just…”
But Ninlein had already stood up and marched up to one of the Powers. He didn’t hear what she said, but he saw her pointing in his direction.
Temeliel looked down at his bowl. There was only a little soup left, and after he finished it, he was still hungry. He was scraping the bottom of the bowl when Omael lame over and loomed over him.
“Go back to your potatoes,” Omael told him. “And, tonight, you’re on nightsoil duty.” He looked up at Ninlein. “When he’s done with the weeding, show him where the fertilizer pits are. He can do some digging tonight. Then, after nightfall, he can start emptying the cesspit.”
Ninlein wrinkled her nose. “Will I be supervising him then, as well?”
“No, you can get some sleep. I’ll find someone else,” said Omael. “Meanwhile, if he says anything disrespectful, let me know. We’ll cut his tongue out.”
“It’s for his own good,” said Omael. “We’re giving him a chance to redeem himself and avoid going back to hell. A little bit of suffering here will save him an eternity of being burned alive by demons. It’s not up to us to ask why his soul is worth the effort of saving. It is the will of Avourel, the most merciful.”
“Merciful and holy,” said Ninlein.
“Merciful and holy! Merciful and holy!”
As the chant died down, Temeliel heard an angel a couple of tables over mutter to his neighbor, “Bet you a bowl of beans he’ll lose his tongue by tomorrow.”
Omael stomped his boot on the flagstone floor and all the angels looked up at him.
“I’ve got some more news for everyone,” Omael said. “You’re going to like it. We have another feast day tomorrow. New visitors are coming!”
Several angels cheered, but most were quiet, or grumbled under their breath.
“Didn’t we just have a feast day?” Temeliel heard someone whisper.
Omael turned to look for the complainer and all the angels immediately pasted enthusiastic smiles on their faces.
“Glory to Avourel!” he said.
“Glory be! Glory be! Glory be!” the angels sang.
At the conclusion of the meal, the angels dispersed to their work. Some cleaned up the tables, or left for other chores, while most were reassigned to feast preparation duty.
Ninlein ordered Temeliel to come with her. “And don’t say anything,” she warned him. “Not if you want to keep your tongue.”
What was the point of having a tongue if you weren’t allowed to talk, anyway? Eating would be a challenge, but not being able to taste the porrige and the bean soup wouldn’t be too bad a hardship, Temeliel thought. But he kept silent as he walked after Ninlein back to the gardens.
“After you’re done with weeding your row, I’ll show you where the fertilizer pits are,” Ninlein called back over her shoulder. “It’s one of Avourel’s miracle. The waste we produce is used to feed the plants that feed us. It’s a perfect cycle of nature.”
Even more perfect would be if nobody had to go to the bathroom at all, Temeliel thought. And if the food appeared without anyone having to work for it. He had a strong feeling that that was how it was supposed to be. And instead of working in the fields all day, people could spent their time doing more interesting stuff. He didn’t know what he would be doing instead, but he was convinced that there was something. Something interesting and challenging.
That night, dinner was awkward since nobody wanted to Temeliel to sit next to him. Spending the late afternoon expanding the fertilizer pit made him stink, and there was no point in bathing and changing since he’d just be on nightsoil duty immediately afterwards.
Finally, Hamalar, the angel supervising the evening meal, had him take his bread and bean soup and go outside to eat it on the steps. Temeliel found a corner just outside the entrance where he could sit and eat in private, out of sight of the Seraphim patrolling the plaza. He was tired of all the accusing looks. What did people think he did to make him end up in hell? And, more importantly, where did he do it? Maybe he used to be one of the visitors, he thought. What did the stranger tell him? That there were other worlds? Maybe he was living on one of those other worlds. What worlds? Who was he? He felt like his name was on the tip of his tongue, and it wasn’t Temeliel.
He had just finished his meal and was about to stand up take the plate inside when he heard voices approaching.
“What’s that smell?” The voice belonged to Avourel.
If he was an all-knowing god, wouldn’t he know where the smell was coming from? Temeliel leaned back against the corner where he was sitting.
“The cesspit needs to be cleaned,” said the other voice. Omael. “I’ve got someone working on it tonight. You know, our troublemaker.”
“Temeliel,” said Omael. “The name’s Temeliel now.”
Tememiel hear Avourel sigh. “I’m tired of having to remember all these names,” the god said. “Next time we wipe him and bring him back, I’m naming him Thing One.”
“Apparently, he’s been trying to create doubt and dissent,” said Omael.
“He’s almost more trouble than he’s worth,” said Avourel. “Well, Vladimir’s going to be here tomorrow. Maybe he can take him off our hands. I mean, he’s the one who wants him.”
“If not, I’ve got an idea,” said Omael. “I’ve already told Temeliel that if he keeps it up, we’re going to cut off his tongue.”
“Oh, nice one!”
“It will help keep everyone else in line, too,” said Omael. “I heard some grumblings earlier.”
Avourel sighed loudly. “People are so ungrateful. I should probably go in and say a few words to them.”
“You know what, you’re tired. I’ll take care of it.”
“You’re a good man, Otis,” said Avourel. “Oh, any sign of our three escapees?”
“No, but they couldn’t have gone far,” said the Power. “I don’t know how they pried the lock loose, but they’re still chained together.”
“They must have gone through the gate,” said Avourel. “Vladimir isn’t going to be happy.”
“Or they threw themselves down a cliff,” said Omael.
Or Otis. Or whatever his name was. But the fact that Avourel didn’t know where the women were — that was another sign that he wasn’t the all-knowing all-powerful god he pretended to be. And he didn’t know about George.
“It would help if we could get a search party out,” said Omael.
“If you come across any signs that they’re still out there, I’ll think about it,” said Avourel. “I’ll invent some way to explain it. Maybe I’ll say that they’re escaped demons. I’ll… uh… I’ll say it’s a test. That I let them escape on purpose so that my angels could see what demons look like and have fun hunting them.”
“Do you think they’ll buy it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I can think of something better. But you could be right. They might already be gone.” There was a moment of silence, then the god added, “Come with me to the gate. I’ll get you something to give the angels as a reward for all their work today. Maybe, I don’t know, a basket of scones?”
“They liked the blueberry ones last time,” said Omael.
Temeliel waited a few minutes, then peered up over the stone wall. Avourel and Omael were gone.
He thought about trying to escape. But George had asked him to bring supplies. And he wanted one of those blueberry scones. He picked up his plate and went back inside.