King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 27, 28, 29, 30

And now this had come, brought to him by Gaston, the mule-driver who came and went between Aups and Carcassonne with loads of oil and wine, charcoal and cloth, trinkets and fripperies. Such few things as the village could not produce for itself and had the few coins to buy. He had brought it back and said it had been given to him—given not sold—by a man in the market. Gaston could not read. He had thought the priest might like it.

It was the priest’s duty to denounce Gaston—for though he could not read, it was unlikely that he had taken something and not asked what it contained. Then the tormentors of the bishop would come, and torment Gaston, and draw from him the name, or the description, of the man he met in the market. And if that did not satisfy them, of some other man. And if that did not satisfy them—who knew what tale they would put in Gaston’s mouth? Maybe that his parish priest had sent him for the book. The heretic book. Merely holding it put the priest in deadly peril.

Do not denounce him, then. Throw it away. The priest hesitated to throw away any piece of writing. They were too scarce, too precious. And besides: the tale this one told had about it a strange charm, a seduction. Maybe that seduction came from the devil, as the priest was continually telling his parishioners about the wiles of temptation. But then this book said that the devil was actually the one that the Church called God. The Father who had sent His Son to death. What kind of a father was that?

There was another reason the priest did not want to destroy this book. If he had read it correctly—and another strange thing about it was that it was written, if not in his own dialect, in a dialect very similar to his own and very different from the Church-Latin of which the priest had learnt some fragments in his ineffectual schooling years ago—if he had read it correctly, this book said that it was a part of Heaven to live happily on earth, man and woman together. The priest had been in trouble more than once with his bishop and his archdeacon, because of Marie, the housekeeper who lived with him and who consoled his middle age. Priests must be celibate, he had been told again and again. Or they bring bastard children into the world and spend the Church’s good on them. But Marie was a widow, and past childbearing. What harm did it do, what she and he did between them when the nights were cold?

The bishop was wrong, thought the priest with the first flare of independence his life had ever known. He would keep the book. He would read it again. It might be a work of heresy, or so they might say. But it was not the heresy of the heretics beyond the mountains, with their evil denial of the flesh and their insistence that men and women became perfect only by not breeding children. Though this book did say that men and women were not condemned to breed children for ever and ever. That there were ways of taking pleasure in each other, going to the Paradise on earth, as the book called it, without running the risk of childbirth. Guiltily, but determinedly, the priest opened the little eight-page booklet again, started once more to spell his way through the passage which described, in terms as plain as Shef had been able to make them with the assistance of Svandis and Alfled, the technique of the carezza, the prolongation of pleasure for woman and for man.

The parish priest of Pontiac, not far away, did his duty and reported both book and the parishioner who had given it to him. Days later, as the bishop’s agents attempted once again to force him to admit that he was part of the heretic conspiracy, he made a silent vow never to admit anything again. When he was released, bent and walking like an aged man, to return to his village under the strictest supervision, he said nothing. When his parishioners who had been called to the Emperor’s army returned, however, and spread their stories of demons in the sky and the might of the pagan or heretic sorcerers, their priest made no attempt to contradict them.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry