Muttering to himself regarding the temptations of women and the dangers of solitary travel in the deep woods, Marcel wends his way back the way he came. After coming up with a particularly clever turn of phrase perhaps applicable for a future homily, he looks up from the path to find that he is nowhere near the water. Instead, he is walking past a large deadfall thick with tangled branches and shriveled leaves.
“Sorcery,” he whispers. He stops, grasping his crucifix.
“Indeed, but not the sort you might consider in your philosophy,” says a voice, laden with irony yet conversational in tone.
Marcel whirls, staff at the ready, to see a wizened man perched on a seat formed of the thicker limbs of the deadfall. He wears what appears to be an exotic turban, along with robes of rose and gold. At his feet rests a wavering lamp of blue light. One end of his mouth twists upward in a grin at the friar’s expression.
“Fear not, Marcel le Hyers,” he says. The friar does not change his posture, and the man waves offhandedly. “Or continue to do so, if it pleaseth thee.”
“How dost thou know my name?” asks the friar.
The man chuckles. “How could I not, when I know so much else?” He shakes his head as Marcel pulls out his medals and holy water. “Nay, I am no demon, nor do I offer any diabolic pact implicit or explicit. I respect thy quick mind and eagerness to seek out truth. In that capacity, I am here to answer a question of thine.”
The friar gives him a dubious look. “What question would that be?”
“Whatever one you choose, within limits. Let me think.” The man taps a finger on the side of his head. “First, as thou art mortal, I shall exclude any query dealing with what the future holds, as such are tawdry and dull. Second, as thou art a holy man, I shall exclude any dealing with matters of the lunar sphere of your cosmology or above, lest I be forced to deal with theological minutiae. Third, as thou art on some mission of import, I will exclude said mission, as well as any queries regarding lycanthropy or any of the sundry goings on in the town of Vyones, so as not to cheapen myself via exposition.” He sweeps his arms outward dramatically. “Aside from that, ‘tis yours. Dost thou wish to know some secret of thy alchemists? The hiding place of the brazen head of Gerbert of Auriliac? The birthdate of a certain inquisitor?”
He folds his hands together and smiles. “All of these are acceptable queries. Thou mayst ask but one, however, and no bond is laid upon thee for doing so. Yet the question must come now.”
Marcel looks away from the turbaned man down the trail he has traveled. His fingers alternate between clinch and release upon his staff. With a grunt, he turns back towards the wizened man and smiles.
“Your offer is a tempting one, I will admit. But I’m not a fool enough to not see that a test lies behind it. Such a suspicion leads me towards refusing your offer, but I fear that might itself constitute failure, so I will play the game.
“Every scholar has asked himself a hundred-fold what question to the Almighty should He, like He did with Solomon, grant the unveiling of a mystery. And now the opportunity has arisen for me, though if thou art the Almighty, you dress more like a Mohammedan than my faith would like.
“Very well, let us decide what question would profit me most.
“I dare not ask those questions whose answer would solve curiosity alone. For being told the exact spot of Atlantis lying below the waves would prove as useful as knowing the color of the leaves upon the fig tree our Lord cursed for not bearing fruit. That is, none. Besides which, you could easily lie and I’d not know the difference. So those questions are out.
“So too are those questions for which I already have an answer to. While you’d confirm the truth of my thoughts, my store of knowledge would still remain the same. And in this instance, it seems a poor waste of a great potential profit.
“That leaves those questions whose answers I can further explore. To know which philosopher has come closest to solutions, either Plato or Aristotle or some other figure, might allow me to seek answers to questions long after our discussion is a faint memory. But though that would be treasure enough, your second condition on the question limits even that possibility. For knowing the first principles of philosophical thought would surely pertain to those lunar regions you hold with distain.
“So we are left with historical questions of little effect on my present concerns. It is indeed a conundrum. But it occurs to me that if thou knowest all things, then you know better than I what I should ask. So my question is this…
“What is the answer to the question that would presently best serve the interests of my friends and myself?”
The wizened man laughs, clapping his hands. “Excellent, friar, simply excellent! ‘Tis well asked indeed. Thou shouldst have been in charge of converting the Saracens, rather than the benighted and late Philip. Let me see…” He considers for a moment. “Thy answer is, ‘She can be distrusted only so far.’ Fare thee well, my fellow seeker after erudition!”
The curious man blinks out, leaving Marcel alone. He is lost in thought for a moment, then shakes his head and moves onward.