When, on the dawn of day 57, Brother Yaaran didn’t show up, Handan thought for a moment that his fervent vows had been fulfilled, and that his jailer had died in some creatively painful way. After a couple of hours, however, he wondered what was going on, realizing also that the door of his cell was open.
He had noticed when arriving the first day that the monastery was a maze of vaulted hallways and underground passages, but he had never been authorized to explore them alone. Cautiously, he ventured out.
There were two paths leading out of his cell, and Handan decided to take the one he didn’t know yet. He walked across a long corridor with low ceilings, which led to a damp and dimly lit narrow tunnel with no end in sight. The path ended in a huge hall surrounded by nine windowless chambers with openings in the walls, and pervaded by a strong smell of stagnation and mold. Looking with more attention, Handan saw that the openings were wide and surmounted by round-headed arches. Huge wooden cases were nestled inside, and many of those heavy objects Brother Yaaran insisted in calling books were piled up without any apparent order. He could also spot a couple of round tables in the midst of the hall, both laden with books.
Brother Yaaran was there, working. “I’ve been waiting for hours.”
“How did you know I would have found this place?”
“Because you’re curious and intuitive, and the path you’ve taken was the natural way out of the monastery.”
“Still playing games with me, eh?” Handan said, annoyed.
“No. This is where you’re going to spend your time from now on.” The other replied. “Here you will find out what beauty is.”
“At last,” he said, impatiently. “The sooner I get this done, the faster I’m back to the Walled City. Where is it?”
“Everywhere.” The monk pointed at the shelves. “The Monastery has collected in the Labyrinth ― this is how we call our library ― all ideas of beauty we were able to locate. The majority comes from human cultures still in existence nowadays, even though some of them don’t have words for describing it, like in your case. We translated those books into the koine, and you can read them here. In other cases, those worlds and cultures no longer exist, and what you find here represents the only remaining vestiges. Different conceptions of beauty, myriads of concepts and images -like the million shapes of a diamond stone.”
“Myriads of concepts, you say?” Handan shrugged. “I don’t understand even one. My mind doesn’t work that way.”
“It doesn’t matter. Because the day you discover beauty, something happens to the mind, yours or anybody else’s,” the monk said. “It opens like a flower. Yes, you’ll understand what’s about. Feeling it, well, it could take longer.”
“Oh boy,” Handan replied, with a dismissive gesture. “I can live without knowing it, guess what about feeling it.”
“I’m look forward to seeing how it happens. I believe you will have to get at it intellectually first. But it’s not like that for everybody. For humans, generally it’s not,” he said. “Beauty is predetermined for us -by evolution, to be precise. That’s why it is instinctive.”
“In plain koine?”
“I mean that humans, consciously or not, tend to find beauty something that enhances their survival as a species. It has long been proved that partner selection works that way, for instance.”
“That’s lame. More, it’s absurd. I don’t perceive beauty, so that gets me extinct? I think I’m a good example it’s not true. Here I am.”
“It works at level of species, my young friend, not individual.” Brother Yaaran smiled. “In any case, there’s one characteristic of beauty that all creatures capable of rational thinking are able to conceive, even when they have no words for it. It’s a purely intellectual quality.”
“Have you ever wondered, Faen boy, why do some objects have intrinsic characteristics of harmony? Take numbers. We’ve talked about them during your first days here. The way you put them one after another in series may result in perfect sequences. Music is another case. And the universe itself is a magnificent example of chaos and symmetry at the same time.”
Handan mused in silence for a few moments, then laughed out loud. “Whatever you say, monk. Music, I got. Numbers, I’ve figured out. Beauty though… if my language has no words for it, it’s maybe because we shouldn’t bother,” he said. “It seems to me that your beauty is a problem of dumb humans anyway. So if they disappear, the problem disappears as well.”
“That wouldn’t be the case. Beauty itself will never disappear, until there’s a mind that conceives the universe. It would still be beauty, it would still be symmetry, it would still be dark against light. Only names will be different”.
“Fuck…” He stopped himself in time. “Nonsense.”
“Now you know how to interpret the signs, Handan Faen, and you’re capable of rational thinking. From today I’ll leave you alone, for you to roam freely in the trove of this library. Among all possible concepts of beauty, the Nine Worlds have created, you might discover one that works for you as well.”
“From where should I begin?” The view of the hall was frightening, and Handan realized with surprise he had never experienced that feeling either. Angst, that was something new to him. He had fought against all sorts of dangers and faced death without blinking – his hand never wavered. But staring at those walls crammed with books, going up to heaven like columns of granite, gave him vertigo and a sense of dismay.
The monk stood up. “From the beginning. Like in a circle, every point is as good a start as any.”
And so he began -hopping from a hexagonal room full of shelves to a red-stone pyramid, from one dust- covered book to another. And to more weird halls, more domes, more steep stairways and hidden rooms -full of yet more books, of all formats, colors and weights. Handan’s head was spinning so fast he had the impression of being high. If he had believed that learning signs was the most challenging thing he had done, he found out he was seriously mistaken. Nothing was as hard as what he was going through in that place. Days and nights spent without speaking to anybody, surrounded only by those silent companions looking down at him from their high shelves.
The more he explored that self-collected universe, the more he found it disquieting. As Brother Yaaran had promised, the signs he had learnt and the koine were granting him sufficient access, even though a substantial part of the material still remained impossible to decipher. But what he could read was more than enough.
There were books related to the history of the Nine Worlds, so many that he could not figure out their number no matter if the monk had also taught him how to count. He had thought for a moment to start with them, but smaller and more curious texts soon grabbed his attention.
Some were describing the beginning of life, like the repository containing the scrolls of Merope Five. Erieloch’s Elders Sayings stood just nearby -volumes so old-looking and dusty he was ready to bet they had never been opened. In one of the connecting chambers there was a set of books describing the Oxein-I Zhulong Clan’s concept of logic. He began reading, but managed to finish just the first page. Words, while technically making sense to him taken one by one, conveyed absolutely no sense when put together. Handan gave up any further effort. He also found something called Hariman’s Chronicles, left over by an extinct species that had allegedly visited, even though not colonized, the part of the Nine Worlds now under human domain.
But he eventually lost interest in browsing those artifacts. They represented things he could not relate to, worlds he had no images for. Let alone the mysterious beauty, which he was supposed to locate somewhere in those shelves and that was still eluding him, he hadn’t found anything worth the burning pain in his pupils and those long hours of mind-bending concentration.
On day 91, however, he stumbled on something that rekindled his attention. It was a set of chambers labeled Other Earth, which Handan suspected had something to do with the origin of humans. After a good night’s sleep, he started browsing them with renovated energy. He soon found out that the most volumes were written in various languages, none intelligible to him, but also that the central chambers of the hive were entirely stacked with texts in the koine.
One was about a place called Alexandria’s Library ― with many difficult words and fascinating concepts ― and it described a world whose functioning looked to him somehow wrong. Another was titled Edo in the Heian Period. That reminded him of something ― one of his victims had once talked about a city in the Seventh World with the same name. Probably not the same place though, he mused.
A series of unlabeled writings was what especially attracted his attention. Their words had no apparent meaning, but reading them aloud produced eerie sounds ― like music of some sort. He didn’t know why, and yet he found pleasure in it, like a balm soothing his strained senses.
On day 111, Handan went to see Brother Yaaran, and put a book on the monk’s desk. “Have you found beauty?”
“I still don’t know what it is. But those texts made me feel something, even though they look to me nothing different from other people’s memories stored in this odd format.”
“It’s not the same ― people’s memories don’t belong to you. Even when you get access to them in a way or another, you’re played by them, so to speak. You have no choice but to follow them wherever they lead. But this…” he touched the book, slowly turning its pages, “…this, Handan Faen, is something different. It’s you who gives shape to those images. You forge reality through those words. And for any of us that reality is a different one, like a multiverse without end.” He closed the book and handed it back to Handan. “The book you’ve chosen ― it’s poetry, from Old Earth, from a city now in shambles. The man who wrote it lived a life we can’t relate to, no matter if he belonged to our same species. But we’re still able to fill these words with a meaning that’s ours only. And you’ve sensed what beauty is even before having a name for it,” he replied. “The discovery of beauty through knowledge that goes back to thousand years ago is also a voyage into the depth of your own self.”
“I still don’t understand what you mean.”
“It doesn’t matter. Your mind is ready now.” He stood up. “Follow me.”
“Outside. We’ll travel to the Eastern Lakes.” Brother Yaaran took his sword. “To what is considered the most stunning landscape of World Number Four ― ours. Many brothers go there to rest when their time has come. It’s something you have to see with your own eyes, Handan Faen, and experience its sublime and terrifying power. If there’s a place where beauty is made object and shines, it’s out there. Take your crossbow.”
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