Folastar smiles as he soars above Meithsal and heads towards its hinterlands, his heart lifting, as it always does when he is on his way home.
He has adjusted to the jagged skyline and the dizzying spires – the peaks of which he can barely see when he looks up – and the aerial ships that pass at breakneck speed, taking his breath away. He has lived in the heart of the city for a few years now, ever since he formally began his training for the Meithsic priesthood. He was crammed into a tiny dormitory with ten other students for his first year – a disorienting experience in itself – before gradually being moved up to better, more adequately equipped accommodation as he became more experienced, more accomplished in his study and rank.
He has a small apartment now: located in a relatively peaceful spot adjoining one of Meithsal’s many canals, he has carved out some peace there – a sanctuary he can relax in.
He is still, at heart, the child of a seaside village: running with fellow fishermen’s sons, gathering shells on the beach, laughing together. They never had much – money and necessities were always scarce and tightly regulated in their town – but they were happy during those moments.
There are things he loves and appreciates about Meithsal. The libraries, the museums, the great centres of culture and learning. So many things he could never have imagined during his younger years. He has been grateful for every moment of his time here, and he will certainly be a regular visitor when he completes all of his training, concludes his final rites.
But to live here? The rural boy in him yearns to leave Meithsal – its noise, its frenetic pace of life, its political intrigues and backbiting – for somewhere calmer.
Folastar was always more introverted, more introspective than many of the children around him. He was known to pause, often in the midst of play, to stare deeply at the skyline and the water and the sun-drenched waves lapping against the shore. He was given to contemplation.
His mother has always been a devout follower of the Meithsic creed, devoted to honouring human will and industry as a great gift of God, and Folastar loved to join her during her evening prayers. He would travel with her on her long pilgrimages – not just to the local prayer gatherings in their own town, but the longer trips she took to ancient sites of significance across the hinterlands of Meithsal, and her silent, respectful trips to the city’s most important temple.
Those times of devotion, of feeling connected to something larger than himself and his town and the worries about whether they would be able to eat comfortably that week … they lifted Folastar’s spirits and made him feel a sense of deep tranquillity that he still – to this day – cannot explain or articulate, no matter how hard he might try.
His childhood teacher was a sincere young woman who wanted to do her best by the students and nurture their specific skills and aspirations, despite the lack of funding and resources their local school had. Folastar remembers her fondly. Without her kindness, he would undoubtedly never have gotten into the priesthood at all.
It has never been traditional for young people from the manual classes sector of society to enter the priesthood. Folastar can still recall what a battle his teacher had on her hands to get him into the novice training cohort, when he was first eligible at the age of thirteen.
She advocated fiercely for him before Meithsal’s admissions panel – argued that he should be awarded a grant or scholarship, given his great aptitude and devotion to matters of faith. Then had followed the extensive bureaucratic processes, character references supplied by all manner of people in Folastar’s young life, and a seemingly endless battery of tests and examinations and terse discussions with frowning, clearly sceptical representatives of Meithsal’s priesthood.
Folastar’s stomach was constantly twisted by anxiety during that time, but it all paid off when – against all odds – he was accepted to join the novice cohort that year. The jubilation of his mother, his family, the entire neighbourhood, was enormous. His mother and grandmother wept with pride for weeks, scarcely able to believe that he had been accepted.
Moving to Meithsal was a challenge. He was overcome by stress – acutely aware of his precarious status as a scholarship student, how he could slip up at any moment and lose his place in the priesthood’s lower ranks if he didn’t maintain certain academic standards. He was looked down upon by his well-to-do classmates, who would take every opportunity to mock his accent, his unrefined behaviour, his lack of understanding in such matters as high etiquette and the hidden nuances of city life. They passed comment on his threadbare clothing – the best his mother and other women in the community were able to make – and did their utmost to make his life uncomfortable.
Folastar struggled greatly, knowing that he could confide in no one, and couldn’t let his family know how he was feeling. He wasn’t allowed to travel home for a visit, or even contact them, during this initial year of his training. It was all part of making the novices stronger in their will – encouraging them to pay less heed to worldly attachments, to disdain sentimentality, and to think only of developing their inner strength and commitment to their new lives.
The workload was difficult. Much more intense than anything Folastar had had to do in his old school. His teachers were strict and exacting – the complete opposite of the kind woman who helped him get into the priesthood in the first place – and would often look down their noses at him: insinuating, and even outright proclaiming, that given his background, they doubted he would pass the final year assessments.
“Your father is a fisherman, is he not?”
And then a ripple of mirth would pass through his classmates.
Folastar bore these moments silently, without complaint, not showing any sign of distress. But in private, he spent many evenings in tears, wondering whether he should just go home. Perhaps his teachers were right. Perhaps he wasn’t cut out for this. Perhaps he was wrong about his vocation.
Yet there was one constant in his life: prayer.
When his new life felt unbearable, he would take it all to God – his doubts, his inadequacy, the sarcastic comments from teachers and wealthier classmates, his constant terror that he was just not good enough to pass his exams, and was bound to disappoint absolutely everyone: his family, his hometown … and worst of all, God Himself.
He would take it all to God and lay it at His feet. Allow himself to be silent for a time. Slip into that state of ineffable calm that always overtook him when he carved out sacred time for himself. The state he had been cultivating within himself for years, even as a small boy.
These prayers would reinvigorate him and soothe his injured spirit. They bore him onwards. His moments of inward restoration helped him to survive the trials of the first year, until it was announced that he had passed his exams, and he was at last able to return home to his family again.
The joy of that reunion! The happiness he felt when he could embrace his mother, and was able to tell her that he had borne all of his trials and would be proceeding to more advanced training the following year!
A great celebration was held that very night. Neighbours and friends lined up to congratulate him, pressed their hands into his, told him that he was a credit to their town.
Now, with many more rounds of exams behind him – some of which he passed with distinction and others he barely scraped through – Folastar feels much more secure in his path. He has a much clearer idea about what he would like to specialise in, when he is at last a fully qualified priest.
Education. History. He dreams of going back to his hometown, or to a community like it, to help children who have an innate sense of their own vocation, but think they can never fulfil it, just as his old teacher did for him. He has a burning desire to give back in some way, perhaps by establishing a small school or teaching temple of his own.
A continuation of The Ballroom Project, a story I’ve been working on for a while. Folastar is the third protagonist of the tale, his story beginning after Guenneth’s and Alilah’s.