The Heretic – Snippet 28

“Can we — I would like to. . .not go back out there,” he said. “I mean, I don’t really have anything to pay you with.”

“You are inside, are you not? You have paid the night charge.”

“But, I thought that just covered a pallet.”

A laugh from behind the cerulean veil, this time not contemptuous.  Sweetly amused.  “Come.”

She led him out and down the hall in the opposite direction from the main hall. At the very end, they passed through a beaded curtain and onto a veranda.

The view was stunning. They were at least a fieldmarch from the near River bank, suspended over water that was raging through the rocks of the cataracts below.  Far on the opposite side of the River, nearly a quarter league away, firelights twinkled through the silhouettes of willow and fern trees.

High above, Duisberg’s three moons gathered.

She led him along the veranda — it seemed to encircle the perimeter of the structure, he paying no heed to where they were going, only looking out at the expanse of the River, the white flash of the rapids in moonlight.  And listening to the surge of the water pouring through the teeth of the Land.

“Here,” she said, and pulled him through another curtain.  The River was gone. He counted three doorways, and then she pushed aside another, a beaten flax curtain, and he followed into a chamber.

It was not what he expected. Not fancied with fabrics or colored papyrus. A makeshift bed. A table with a wash basin. A clay oil lamp.

“This is mine,” she said. “Where I sleep.  Where I live.”


“We can have time here,” she said. “At the other, they will roust you when the sand has run its course through the tumbler.  And if you don’t come out, they will use sticks.”

“I don’t want them to use sticks.”

“No, this is better,” she said.  “Also, seeing is not allowed there.  Here, you can have this.”

She reached up and worked a clasp loose near the back of her neck. Then she carefully began to unwind the veil.

Which gave him a moment to step back and look at her completely for, what he realized, was the first time.

She was of medium height. Her skin had a darker hue, not sun-darkened, but naturally so. Her breasts were ample, not small or overlarge, her nipples brown and, so far as he could tell, perfect. She smelled of something he had never experienced before.  Something wonderful.

Lavender, said Center.

Lavender. As she lifted her arms to undo the veil, he glimpsed the undersides of her forearms.  Something odd.  He looked closer.  Three stripes.  They were covered with something, something chalk-like, to hide them.  But here in this light, so near to her, they were quite clear scars.  Scars like those he had seen before.

Blaskoye clan scars.

The veil fell away. Her eyes were blue. Lapis lazuli.

“Thon schonet er, damme Blaskoye,” he said to her.

You are very beautiful, Blaskoye woman.

He saw the recognition, the understanding, as she started back.

“You — you speak with an accent,” she said. “You are not a clansman.”

“I am a lieutenant of the Scouts.”

“Ah, of course. A sworn enemy.”  He thought he heard the contempt that had vanished seep back into her reply, but this time it sounded as if it were directed at herself. “I should have known.  I should have.”

“Yes. An enemy.”

“I had thought you might be. . .someone else.”

“Who?” he asked.  “A Redlander? Is that what you thought? Is that what you are?”

“Not anymore,” she said. She dropped the veil beside her wash basin on the table. “Have you killed many Redlanders?”

“No,” he said. “A few.”

Only one woman.  She looked like her. The same eyes, at least. He tried to push the thought from his mind, but could not.

“Have you fucked many Scouts?” he asked her.

This caught her off guard, and she laughed.

Her lips, he thought. They don’t tell you about the lips, full like that, behind the veil. Before he could stop himself, before he even knew what he was doing, he reached up and touched her lips, ran a finger across the softness, pulled his hand slowly away.

“You will be the first,” she said.

And she was the first, his first. He didn’t tell her. Perhaps she knew. It wasn’t pretty. Her bed creaked and several times she had him slow, stop the noise. If they were discovered, she whispered, he would be dragged away, she would be beaten. So finally they pulled what covers she had off the bed and took her on the floor, which squeaked less.

And somewhere below them, he knew the River ran, the carnadons gathered.  He pushed the face of the Blaskoye woman he’d killed from him mind, willed himself to replace it with her face, her form.

And almost could do it.

Almost, but not quite.  For when he came, it was both the lamplit form of the woman and the feel of his hand on the trigger of the Blaskoye musket as he shot the other, shot the Redlander woman, that filled his mind like an explosion of desire, rage, and grief.

There was one solace.  This one, this Blaskoye clanswoman or whatever she was, was not dead.  She was still very much alive.

“You are young,” she whispered.  “You can do it again.  Quickly now, do it again.”

Could he?

Yes. Oh yes, he could.

So he did.  And this time, it was only her and the River.

* * *

She led him back to the pallet and slipped away before he could speak to her again. He hadn’t even gotten her name. He lay still, unable to sleep, unwilling to converse with Center and Raj.  For their part, they respected his obvious wish for quiet and remained silent.

Then Golitsin stumbled into the room — which slept five, although only four pallets were occupied — and collapsed beside Abel. He was making an odd sound, somewhere between a whistle and a moan, and at first Abel thought he was crying.  But then he slapped the pallet and let out a guffaw and Abel knew it was laughter.

“What?” he said groggily.

“Three,” Golitsin said.

“Women? Times?” Abel sat up.  “What?”

“Yes, each,” he said.  “Then all at once.”

Abel shook his head. Had he heard that right?

“And years,” Golitsin said. “One for every year I didn’t. That I haven’t.”

“So the last time was –”

“Here,” said Golitsin.

Abel nodded, turned over.  “I guess that’s all right, then,” he said.

“By the Bite and the Bolt.”

“Whatever you say.”

“By the Law and the Land.”

“Okay, Golitsin.”  Abel’s stomach suddenly spasmed.  The nausea rose again momentarily, and with it a thought.  Abel fought down the one, but not the other.  “Golitsin, did you — is this the only reason you came?  Just this tonight? You knew the state of things in Cascade, didn’t you, the reasons the shipment never came?”

“Not the extent.”

“But you knew?”

Golitsin sighed. “Yes, but you’re wrong,” he said.  “I may be a bad priest, but I’m not that kind of bad priest.  Zilkovsky trusts me or he wouldn’t have sent me. I know him enough to know that, and so should you by now.  That’s why he got your father to send you along, I expect. He trusts you, too.  And he knew what I’d do here, and maybe overlooking where I happened to spend the night while here is payment for my being such a good priest for the past three years.  That other kind of good priest, I mean.  Anyway, we’ll get to the bottom of the problem with the shipments.”

“All right,” Abel said. “Goodnight, then.”

“You think I’m damned?”


A pause, then Golitsin spoke again in a lower voice.

“You get yours, kid?”

“I guess.”

“Either you did or you didn’t.”

“Yes. I did. Okay?”

“How was it?”

Abel didn’t answer.  Golitsin started to say something else, stopped himself.  Then Abel heard him collapse on the pallet, let out a great sigh, and begin to snore.

This seemed to be what Abel’s body was waiting for. The snoring. Familiar. Like after a day on patrol. The clump of spent and tired men who had nothing in common other than the fact that they had all just risked their lives on the same enterprise, taken the same chances, reaped the same reward, which was survival to fight another day.

Abel finally fell asleep.