From the tower window where I am keeping the evening watch I see a figure emerge from the distant mountain pass. Summoning one of my fellows to take my place, I descend to the main hall and inform the others that we are to have a visitor. From there I walk briskly to the front courtyard to await the new arrival.
The newcomer is on foot, and so takes some time to breast the shallow ridge upon which the Sanctuary stands. As she does so I see that she is a woman. She is finely attired, though somewhat dishevelled from the journey. At her waist she carries both a knife and a sword in ornate hilts, and I have no doubt that she has had occasion to use her weapons en route. Despite the weight of the pack upon her back she stands straight and tall. She is perhaps in her mid-forties. Though grim and careworn from her travails, she is still very beautiful.
“Greetings, stranger,” I say as she steps into the courtyard. “Welcome to the Sanctuary of the Fountain.”
Approaching, she looks me up and down suspiciously.
“I have come halfway across the world to find this place,” she says. “How is it that the natives speak my language so fluently?”
“The guardians of the Sanctuary are also from distant parts of the world, mistress,” I tell her, “but the gift of tongues is granted by the power of the Fountain itself, so that we may properly greet all those who seek it out.”
She grunts sceptically. “Well, this Sanctuary of yours is certainly impressive. It’s bigger and more ornate than many a cathedral I’ve seen. Did the Fountain build that too?”
“It is said,” I reply, “that our order first built a small Sanctuary near the Fountain more than three thousand years ago. Since than it has admittedly been expanded considerably, but every single stone and timber was cut from local quarries and forests and laid by the guardians themselves. Although I will admit that certain of its fixtures and furnishings have been imported from other lands. The metalwork, for instance, since that is not a craft in which we are skilled.”
The visitor makes another sceptical noise. “Well, that’s as may be, but as ornate as it is, I doubt very much whether it could withstand a full-scale assault.“
I smile. “There is no danger of that, I assure you, mistress. No weapon may be wielded within sight of the Fountain nor its Sanctuary.”
“Is that so?” she says, placing a hand upon her sword with the clear intention of drawing it.
As if such a display could impress one of my order.
After a moment she sighs and withdraws her hand, as I knew she would. The laws of this place cannot be violated, whether or not she thinks they can.
“Well, never mind that,” she continues. “I didn’t come here to insult you.”
“Of course not, mistress,” I reply quietly. “You have come to partake of the Fountain.”
“It really is true then, and not some children’s tale? This Sanctuary actually houses the Fountain of Youth and Immortality?”
“It does,” I say, with such simple conviction that she has no choice but to believe me.
She breathes a long, deep sigh, and all of the scepticism and belligerence seem visibly to drain from her face. She seems about to collapse and I take a step toward her, but after a moment she recovers.
“At last,” she breathes, “After all this time, after all the hardships and privations I have suffered on my journey... I can hardly believe I’m really here.”
“You are here, mistress,” I assure her. “You have found the place you sought.”
For a long moment she seems lost for speech. Finally she takes a deep breath, throws back her shoulders and says, “Well, then. Well, then. Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Lady Merishan, High Countess of - ”
Before she can continue I hold up a restraining hand and interrupt her. “We take no account of our visitors’ rank or station here,” I tell her quietly.
Her face is momentarily clouded with anger. Clearly she is unused to being addressed in this matter. No matter. There can be no violence in this place.
“Please do not be offended,” I continue, “but whoever or whatever you may have been or done before you came here means nothing to us. At this time, in this place, you are no more or less than Merishan, a traveller seeking the Fountain. So it has always been and so it must always be.”
“But don’t you even want to know why I’ve come?” she demands.
“No, Merishan. We never ask our guests’ motives for seeking the Fountain. No matter what those motives may be, all must be received here as equals.”
Her frown softens as I knew it must, and she spends another few moments absorbing her surroundings. The sun is sinking through hazy clouds, casting a spectacular pink glow over the valley and the Sanctuary.
After taking in the sight for a moment more she turns back to me and says, “There is of course a test? Some task that I must perform to prove that I am worthy to receive the Fountain’s blessing?”
I have to restrain myself from smiling, or even bursting into laughter. “No, Merishan,” I say. “There is no test.”
“What, none at all?” she cries in astonishment. I imagine she has spent the entire journey in mental preparation for such a test, and is thoroughly disconcerted by the news that there will be none.
The pink glow has already begun to fade as the sun sinks below the mountains. Some of my fellows have begun lighting the lamps in the courtyard. Two of the smaller moons stand low in the eastern sky.
“Merely to have come is enough,” I tell her. “Of the many who seek us out only a tiny few succeed. I need not remind you of the journey’s hazards. To have won through them to the Sanctuary betokens great courage and stoutness of heart. You are worthy, Merishan, and on behalf of my fellow guardians I welcome you.”
Once more she seems speechless as I take her arm and lead her through the portal and into the entranceway. The heat of the Sanctuary’s many fireplaces instantly replaces the chill of the valley. Oil lamps glow at regular intervals, each supported by a simple brass wall-mount, and the parquet floors are carpeted in woollen rectangles.
“So, can I visit the Fountain now?” Merishan asks.
“Not yet,” I say. “The Fountain’s virtue can only take effect by the light of day, and the sun has now set.”
“Oh,” she mutters, crestfallen.
“Besides, you are weary,” I remind her, as if such a reminder were necessary. “Far better that you should visit the Fountain once you are refreshed. Tonight you will dine with us and sleep in one of the guest rooms. Tomorrow the novices will bathe you and dress you in ceremonial robes. Then, when the sun is at its highest, one of my companions and I will share the honour of escorting you to the Fountain. You may leave your pack here in the vestibule and one of my fellows will take it to your room while we dine.”
She shakes her head as if in disbelief, as though she expects the Sanctuary to evaporate like a dream. Yet its marble vaults and pillars remain as solid as ever as I lead her into the dining hall. It is a large chamber, perhaps somewhat larger than it really needs to be, and is warmed by no fewer than four fireplaces, two on each side.
An extra place at table has already been set for Merishan, and my fellows bow reverently to her as I lead her to it.
We dine, as we always dine, on fish from the river, home-baked bread, and locally-grown vegetables and fruits. It is simple enough fare, but Merishan eats heartily.
“Compared to some of the things I’ve been forced to eat on the road,” she tells us, “this is a banquet fit for a queen. I wouldn’t mind seeing your gardens while I’m here.”
“That can certainly be arranged,” I say.
“So,” she asks, “what do you people do all day, when you’re not greeting visitors that is?”
“We have many duties here,” I reply. “We fish, we grow our vegetables and herbs, bake bread, cook, make and repair our robes, clean, paint, plaster, and maintain the fabric of the Sanctuary and the Shrine of the Fountain. A few of us have special dispensation to travel over the mountain pass during the summer, to the market towns beyond where we trade for things we cannot obtain or grow locally. And when we are done with all that, we meditate. Part of the garden is also set aside for that purpose. It is very restful there.”
“In that case, I’d certainly like to see that too. After all my journeying I could do with a little peace and quiet.”
After dinner we take wine. Our soil is not suitable for growing vines and so our stocks have to be imported at some expense. Naturally we reserve the finest vintage for our visitors, and Merishan seems to appreciate its quality, savouring her glass slowly and with relish.
After finishing her wine, Merishan yawns and rises, bowing to the other diners.
“Come,” I say, “let me show you to your chamber.”
I lead her along the carpeted corridor and up the marble stairway with its iron balusters to the guest room on the upper storey.
The fireplace is already aglow as Merishan and I enter the room. Just as I told her, her pack has been brought up and is sitting on a shelf beside the bed. The bed in its wooden frame is plain but spacious. Its comfortable feather mattress and pillow have been laid with clean white linen. The adjoining room contains a bath and a hand basin, each with its own piped water faucet, and a flushable water closet. All these things are genuine luxuries in this remote part of the world. Fresh washcloths and towels have been placed beside the bath, and there is a brass ewer for heating bath water by the fireplace.
After I have acquainted her with the facilities Merishan sits on the bed and sighs.
“This place is remarkable,” she mutters. “To think that in this remote valley, as far from civilisation as I could have imagined, you have all the comfort I could expect to find in a hostelry in the capital city.”
“Those who have travelled so far in search of the Fountain deserve every comfort we can provide,” I reply.
“That’s just it,” she sighs. “I’m not certain I do deserve it.”
“Merishan, whatever you may have been or done - ” I begin, but this time it is her turn to interrupt.
“Whatever I may have been or done makes no difference here? Maybe not,” she says. “But it matters to me nonetheless. I know you don’t want me to go into the details, but let’s just say I have done many things that I’m not proud of.”
“Merishan, no mortal is perfect,” I tell her. “Do you think that I have led a blameless life? Like many of my order, I took the robe in order to do penance for my sins, and they were many. One’s worthiness to bathe in the fountain does not depend upon one’s moral purity. As I have told you, merely to have arrived here, to have trod the road to its end without turning aside, is enough.”
Merishan considers her reply for a moment. “So, then... no, wait a moment. What was that you said? No mortal is perfect?”
I bow my head in affirmation.
“So you are still mortal? You have not bathed in the Fountain yourself?”
“No, Merishan. My time has not yet come. Some day it will, but until that day I must continue my service to the Sanctuary.”
There is another pause, then Merishan says, “You know, you must think me terribly rude. We’ve been together all evening, yet it never once occurred to me to ask your name. And to tell you the truth, I find it hard to tell if you are a man or a woman beneath that robe and hood. Your voice certainly doesn’t give it away.”
I smile. “My name is Shalny, and I am a woman,” I inform her.
“Won’t you remove your robe so that I can see what you look like, or is that forbidden?”
“It is not forbidden, Merishan, but I should warn you that my order wear nothing beneath our robes.”
Now it is her turn to smile. “In that case, Shalny... I should like more than ever to see what you look like beneath it.”
Without further hesitation I let the robe fall and stand naked before her. She scrutinises my body intently, and I have the distinct impression that she is a connoisseur of more than just wines. Like her I am no longer youthful, but I flatter myself that I am still attractive, and her expression seems to agree.
“So...” she murmurs after a long moment. “One more question, Shalny. Is yours a... celibate order?”
“Well,” I reply, “it is true that we are forbidden to have physical relations with each other.”
“I am very sorry to hear that,” says Merishan.
“But on the other hand,” I say, “We are obliged to provide our guests with whatever comfort they require, so long as it is in our power to do so.”
“Ah,” she says. Rising to stand close before me, she reaches out a hand to stroke my waist and hip. ”Well, in that case, I... feel... it is necessary to remind you of your obligations.”
It has been some time since anyone touched me in this way, and I find myself powerfully aroused. “It is my honour to serve,” I say, reaching out my own hand to caress her cheek.
We kiss, entwining our tongues. Swiftly she disrobes and our hands explore every part of each other’s bodies.
My arousal is so great that I find myself climaxing after only a few minutes. As my body is overtaken by an astonishing burst of ecstasy Merishan laughs, not unkindly. “You really have been waiting for it, haven’t you?”
She continues to stroke me while the spasms of pleasure render me helpless. Then, when I am finally able to move again, she helps me onto the bed and embraces me.
“I hope you’re ready for more,” she says, “because that was only a taste of what’s to... come.”
And she is true to her word. For half the night she pleasures me with an effortless skill born of experience, bringing me time and again to paroxysms of ecstasy, each of them unique and unlike anything I have experienced before. I am hard-pressed to return her caresses, but I do what I can and she seems to appreciate my efforts, if her own sighs and moans are anything to judge by.
By the time Merishan finally manages to exhaust herself it is at least two hours after midnight. I feel quite exhausted myself, but cannot allow myself the luxury of sleep. I disentangle my limbs from Merishan’s as gently as I can - no mean feat in itself - and rise and stretch. Kissing Merishan tenderly, I slip the sheets back over her, recover my robe and slippers and place a few more logs on the dying fire before stealing out of the room.
As I make my way back to my own modest chamber to wash and prepare for tomorrow’s events I pass a number of my fellows who are still up and about on some nocturnal duty or other, and I fancy that I catch some of them casting sly glances in my direction. It may be my dishevelled appearance, or the fact that I am so obviously making my way from the guest quarters to my own. On the other hand, I find myself remembering that the fireplaces in the guest rooms have a broad chimney breasts, and that some of the communal fireplaces feed the same chimneys, and that sounds may travel between them.
Well, no matter. Let the others stare and smile. I have done nothing amiss. As I hinted to Merishan, sexual relations between our order and our guests are not so much permitted as virtually inevitable. In any case, although the experience has left me somewhat tired and lightheaded, it has also filled me with confidence and optimism, and I am prepared to face the coming day with enthusiasm.
There are still a few brief hours before dawn, and as I settle down to sleep those hours away I cannot prevent myself from becoming aroused once more at the thought of Merishan’s touch, and in her absence I find my hands straying to the places where she touched me - at least, such of them as I can reach. This kind of self-indulgence is not strictly permitted among our order, but I suspect that under the circumstances this small transgression will be overlooked.
After a short while I climax gently, fall into a blissful slumber and dream of pleasant things.
I am awakened by the dawn bell. Normally I would feel tired and irritable after so short a sleep, but today I feel refreshed and invigorated.
This is after all to be a special day. It is not every day that the Fountain grants a visitor immortality.
After bathing and dressing I make my way to the dining hall to break my fast with the others.
While I am eating one of my fellows, Revi, approaches and informs me that she has been assigned to accompany me to the Fountain with Merishan.
“Very good,” I reply. “First we will prepare the pathway and the Shrine, and then I will awaken our guest if she is not already awake.”
The next hour or so is spent in ensuring that the path to the Shrine of the Fountain is clear of leaves, droppings and dirt, and that the shrine itself is spotlessly clean. While we work, Revi cannot help asking me, “What was it like? Making love with her, I mean?”
I smile wryly. “Yes, I know what you mean. We are not supposed to concern ourselves with matters of the flesh.”
”You seemed to be very concerned with them last night,” she says before she can stop herself. “I... I’m sorry, Shalny. That was rude of me.”
“No, it was spontaneous,” I tell her. “Something else that is not encouraged around here. But I am not offended. You are young, and still in the process of learning discipline.”
She bows her head in contrition, and for a few moments we continue our work in silence.
Eventually I say, “After I accompanied Merishan to her room she said, ‘You know, you must think me terribly rude. We’ve been together all evening, yet it never once occurred to me to ask your name.’ ”
And I go on to tell Revi every last detail of my experience with Merishan. Before I am half-done Revi is reaching beneath her robe to finger herself, as I confess I expected her to.
“This way,” I whisper, and lead her to a concealed niche near the Shrine. There we disrobe and I allow her to make love to me with all the urgency and vigour of her youth. What she lacks in experience she more than makes up for in enthusiasm and we bring each other to two intense climaxes apiece.
After we are done the temptation to just lie there in blissful euphoria is strong, but so is the chance of discovery. Admittedly the penalty would not be unbearable - double cleaning duties for a moon or two, most likely - but I would prefer to avoid it even so.
Besides, we must attend to Merishan. The novices must nearly be finished bathing her by now.
By the time we have dressed and tidied up somewhat the sun is approaching its zenith. We find Merishan already bathed and dressed in the ceremonial robe. The novices smile a little sheepishly as we enter. They look a mite dishevelled, and I am sure that Merishan has ordered them to attend to her every comfort as well.
The ceremonial robe is made from the finest, sheerest white silk. It falls from Merishan’s shoulders to her ankles in graceful folds, lightly belted at the waist, covering most of her body yet concealing virtually nothing behind its shimmering translucency.
Its effect is not, at least ostensibly, intended to be erotic or glamorous, but to my mind it does enhance her sexual allure. She looks gorgeous.
The novices bow and exit, leaving us alone with Merishan.
“Is that you, Shalny?” she asks. I bow in confirmation, and introduce Revi to her.
“Revi and I have the honour to be your escort to the Fountain,” I inform her, and we kneel before her.
Merishan swallows. “Well, I’m ready, I suppose,” she says, “though I’ve never been so nervous.”
Standing, we each take one of her hands. “There is no need to be,” I tell her. “All is prepared. The Fountain is ready to welcome you.”
And with that we lead her out of the room and down the stairs to the main hall, where a number of our fellows have gathered to watch. As one they bow to Merishan as we pass.
“So much honour,” she mutters. “I still find it hard to believe I’m worthy of the Fountain.”
“You are worthy,” I insist. “Were you not, the Fountain would have dried up the moment you set foot in the valley.”
“Truly. It is very rare, but there have been occasions when the unworthy have arrived here, thinking perhaps to take the Fountain by force. But as I have told you, there can be no violence here. Finding the Fountain dry, and unable to rouse their anger against us, they had no choice but to depart in disgrace. But I can assure you that no such humiliation awaits you, Merishan. The Fountain will accept you. We have all felt it.”
By now we have arrived at the Sanctuary’s side entrance. The day is cool and bright as we step out onto the path leading past the garden to the cliff face from which the Fountain issues. More of our people have lined the route. They do not cheer or applaud, but merely bow in quiet reverence as we pass.
Noticing the hedge that lines the path beyond the Sanctuary’s wall, Merishan says, “I suppose that’s your garden.”
“Yes,” I reply. “Parts of it are allotted to the growing of food plants, and the rest is given over to shaded bowers where one may meditate and contemplate the bounty of nature. Unfortunately the hedge prevents us from seeing inside - it is necessary to shield it from he wind, you understand. But we will take you there after you have visited the Fountain.”
“The Fountain,” she sighs, and becomes silent once more.
The Shrine of the Fountain stands before the grey cliff wall that forms part of the foothills of the northern mountains. It is a small open-sided marble pavilion with a crystalline skylight set into its roof, enclosing a pool into which the clear waters of the Fountain flow.
The Fountain is a natural spring formed by rainwater channelled through porous mountain rock, but somewhere along its path it receives the enchantment that gives it its unique properties. There are some among us who claim that it is touched by the gods. The crystal in the skylight is said to have been mined from deep within the same mountains, and imbued with the same enchantment.
As we approach the Shrine the crowds hang back, watching in reverential silence. The three of us step onto the marble floor of the shrine before the pool.
Then without a word all three of us let our robes fall, and we make love vigorously. No matter that the others can see us. Let them feast their eyes upon our passion.
Since I have already spent last night with Merishan I allow Revi to receive most of her embraces (and some of mine) this time. From her asonished cries it is clear that Revi has never felt anything like this before. As I have already discovered, Merishan is extremely experienced in the arts of pleasure.
As the sun approaches its zenith, all three of us climax suddenly and simultaneously. Perhaps the Fountain itself, sensing that the time is near, has decided to hurry us along. For me it is every bit as intense as it was last night. For Revi it almost seems to be too much to bear. Emitting a long wail as of agony, she goes limp in our arms.
Once our own ecstasy has subsided Merishan and I tend to Revi. She seems to be unconscious, but her breathing is shallow and steady.
“Is she going to be all right?” says Merishan.
“In this sacred place no harm can befall her,” I reply. “You just... surprised her, that is all. She will wake soon.”
Sure enough, after a few minutes Revi’s eyes flutter open and she sees us kneeling over her.
“Oh... oh, my,” she says. “That was... that was...”
Shaking her head, she sits up, and we help her to her feet. “Thank you, Merishan,” she sighs, embracing her again. “That was truly beautiful.”
“It is nearly time,” I tell them both, and they reluctantly disengage.
Merishan turns her gaze toward the Fountain and pool. “Shalny,” she asks, “aren’t you ever tempted to just forget the rules and bathe in the Fountain yourself?”
I smile. “No, Merishan. I know that my time will arrive some day, but not yet. No, nor for a great many years to come. But your time is here now, so listen well.”
The sun has all but reached its peak, and is shining through the crystal window onto the marble floor at the far side of the pool.
“The power of the Fountain is drawn from the elements,” I tell Merishan. “First you must immerse your body completely in the pool so that it can absorb the enchantment of the Fountain’s water. Then you must step into the light, exposing your body to the air and also to the fire of the sun, channelled through the crystal from the earth. Only then will the Fountain’s power take effect, restoring your body to a state of eternal youth.”
“Eternal youth,” she murmurs, looking nervously at the pool.
“It is time, Merishan,” we both tell her. “Enter the pool.”
Merishan takes one last look back at Revi and me, then without further hesitation steps boldly into the water. Taking a deep breath she kneels on the floor of the pool and lets the water close over her head.
She seems to stay under for a very long time, but I have no fears for her safety. Nobody can drown in this pool.
Eventually she rises, a goddess emerging from the waves, and walks over to the steps that lead up to the floor beneath the skylight, squeezing the water out of her hair as she ascends. As the light, warmth and air caress her body she gives a sigh of pleasure, and the Fountain’s magic begins to work upon her.
Revi and I embrace, watching in awe as the miracle occurs. The lines on Merishan’s face, testament to years of toil and stress, begin to fade. From head to foot her skin is becoming tighter and her muscles firmer. Her stomach becomes less flabby. Her breasts and buttocks no longer show signs of beginning to sag under their weight, but are restored to their original perfect curvature.
Very soon now she will possess the body of an eighteen-year-old in perfect health.
All of this is wondrous enough, but it is insignificant compared to the changes occurring inside her body. Her heart and lungs are becoming stronger, her back straighter, her blood purer and all her senses more acute. Even her thoughts must now be clearer and more analytical, her memories more detailed, her emotions more poignant.
And as for her sex....
Indeed, as to that, one need only observe the expression on her face. For as the process nears completion her arousal is becoming increasingly intense. She is feeling a forty-year-old woman’s desire in an eighteen-year-old’s body, and as the transformation reaches its climax so does she.
So profoundly sensuous and intense are her sensations that she cannot make a sound, but can only stand in the light while she is seized by climax after climax after climax. Revi and I continue to watch in fascination, gradually bringing each other to climaxes of our own, while Merishan gasps and sighs.
At last it is complete. Merishan’s face relaxes into an expression of tranquillity, her back straightens and her arms fall to her sides.
And there they remain. Merishan, rejuvenated and beautiful, stands still in the light.
Revi sighs. “She is not the one.”
“No,” I reply. “I didn’t really think she was, but we must continue to hope.”
The two of us walk over to where Merishan is standing and feel her body up and down. The transformation really is astonishing. Any imperfections or deformities she might once have possessed are gone. It is not just the light that is making her skin glow. Her muscles really are tight and firm. I cannot resist caressing her bottom and legs while Revi kisses her breasts. Her muscles really are tight and firm.
Between us Revi and I slowly bring her to another long, sensuous climax where she stands. By the time it is done the sun has moved on and the Shrine is in shade. We kiss Merishan tenderly on the lips. She does not speak or make a sound.
“One day,” I tell her, “there will come a visitor who will enter the Fountain and be rejuvenated, and then walk out of the Shrine of his or her own free will. And on that day the world will rejoice in the knowledge that its Deliverer has arrived, for only one utterly without malice or guile shall be granted that gift.”
Merishan listens, standing perfectly silent and still before me.
“For even the smallest amount of malice or guile will cause an infinite amount of suffering if it has an infinite amount of time to do its work. You told me yourself that you have done many things of which you are not proud. It is for that reason that the Fountain has made you as you are now.”
Merishan continues to listen, remaining perfectly silent and still... for in truth she is unable to break her perfect silence or stillness.
The Fountain has made her muscles firm, it is true; so firm that not one of them can move in the slightest. Merishan, the beautiful and immortal... is a statue of flesh and blood.
Only her eyes can still move, and they bore into mine accusingly.
“I know what you would say to me,” I whisper. “I could not warn you, Merishan. Those who come to us must be allowed to seek the Fountain of their own free will. Only thus can the Deliverer be found. I am sorry, Merishan, but this is the way things are. Indeed, it is the way they have always been, and the way they must always be.”
Then Revi and I retrieve our robes. Once dressed, we pick up Merishan’s paralysed body and carry her upright out of the Shrine and back onto the path. The others watch reverently as we make our way into the garden.
The garden is laid out just as I told Merishan. At one side is the vegetable garden, where several of our order are hard at work growing our food and medicinal herbs. The other half comprises the tree-lined garden of contemplation, where our order come to sit and meditate in shaded bowers.
At regular intervals within these bowers stand nude figures. Of course, Merishan understands that the figures are her predecessors; those who came seeking the Fountain and, like her, were granted immortality of a kind.
The garden is much larger than it appears; I sometimes think it may be capable of expanding infinitely, without ever seeming larger from the outside. Perhaps that is the real reason for having an opaque hedge along its border: to prevent the eye and mind from having to contemplate the paradox of its shifting dimensions. At any rate, there are not tens, nor even hundreds, but a great many thousands of frozen figures inside. The oldest is believed to be over four thousand years old, though of course they show no sign of age. Indeed, they are all achingly beautiful to behold, their faces frozen in expressions of quiet melancholy.
The shapes and colours of their faces and bodies betray origins from every part of the world. In their past lives they may have been thieves, murderers, rapists, tyrants, extortionists, slavers, usurers or kidnappers. Or perhaps they were merely vain, proud or ambitious.
Whatever they once were, however much harm they may once have caused, it no longer matters. They are no longer capable of harm, and so we offer them what comfort we can in their helplessness.
Revi and I carry Merishan for some distance through the garden, passing hundreds of other frozen immortals, before arriving in a bower with an unoccupied space where we finally set her down. From here Merishan can look one man and a woman in the eyes and observe the left profile of another man and the back of another woman.
Once we have installed Merishan in her new home we embrace her once more and slowly bring her, and each other, to another slow, lingering climax.
“We or others of our order will visit you as often as we may,” I promise, “although there are many more immortals than there are servants of the Sanctuary, so you may have to be patient between visits.”
Afterward Revi departs to resume her regular duties, but I choose to stay for a short while.
Embracing Merishan once more, I caress her gently, whispering in her ear.
“I spoke the truth when I said that I too would take the Fountain’s blessing some day. It is part of the penance that has brought me - indeed, all of our order - to this place. We cannot escape. We are all compelled to remain here, and each of us shall at some time in the future be compelled to enter the pool, to be replaced at our duties by new penitents.”
Taking a breath, I gaze into Merishan’s eyes.
“I know only too well that I am not the perfect Deliverer,” I say, “for I do not lack malice and guile. On my appointed day the Fountain will also turn me into a statue. If you like, you may consider this your revenge upon me for failing to warn you of your fate.”
After a long moment I see a single tear fall from Merishan’s eye.
In all the long years of service that follow, and the countless millennia of immobility that lie beyond, I will always treasure that teardrop as a symbol of forgiveness... and, I dare to hope, love.