BY SCHISM RENT ASUNDER – snippet 27:
City of Zion,
the Temple Lands
Subtle perfume drifted on the air circulating through the sumptuously decorated and appointed apartment. The overhead fan, powered by a servant in the basement who patiently and endlessly turned the crank at the far end of the pulleys and shafts, rotated almost soundlessly. The street outside was a broad avenue — well-paved, spotlessly swept and washed each day, fronted by expensive homes, and scrupulously maintained. Birds and softly whistling wyverns perched in the ornamental pear trees in the wide islands of green marching down the center of that street, or fluttered around the feeders set out by the inhabitants of those expensive residences.
Most of those residences were the Zion townhouses of minor branches of the great church dynasties. Although it was definitely one of the fashionable neighborhoods, it was far enough from the Temple to be a merely "respectable" address, and more than a few of the townhouses had passed into other hands, either because the original owners' fortunes had improved enough for them to move up to more stylish quarters elsewhere, or because their fortunes had declined enough to force them to sell.
Which was how this particular residence had passed many years ago into the possession of Madame Ahnzhelyk Phonda.
There were those sticklers in the neighborhood who found Madame Ahnzhelyk's presence objectionable, but they were few, and as a rule they kept their opinions to themselves, for Madame Ahnzhelyk had friends. Powerful friends, many of whom remained . . . clients, even today.
Still, she understood the virtue of discretion, as well, and her establishment offered that same discretion to her clientele, along with the services of her exquisitely beautiful and well-trained young ladies. Even those who deplored her presence among them understood that establishments like hers were a necessary and inevitable part of the city of Zion, and unlike certain shabbier establishments, at least Madame Ahnzhelyk allowed no gaming or drunken brawls. Her clientele, after all, came only from the upper echelons of the Church's hierarchy.
She was, almost certainly, one of the wealthiest women in the entire city. Indeed, she might be the wealthiest woman in terms of her own personal worth, rather than her position in one of the great Church families. There were persistent rumors that before she'd chosen her vocation and changed her name, she could have claimed membership in one of those families, although no one really believed it. Or was prepared to admit it, if they did.
At forty-five, her own working days were behind her, although she retained the slender figure and much of the ravishing beauty which had made her so successful before she moved up into the managerial ranks. On the other hand, her phenomenal success had not depended solely upon physical beauty or bedroom athleticism, although she'd possessed both of those qualities in abundance. More importantly, though, Ahnzhelyk Phonda also possessed a sharp, insightful intelligence married to a trenchant sense of humor, a keen sense of observation, a genuine sense of compassion, and the ability to hold her own in any discussion, no matter the subject, with wit and charm.
Many a lonely bishop, archbishop, or even vicar had availed himself of her exquisite companionship over the years. Had she been the sort of woman who was inclined to dabble in politics, the many and varied Church secrets which had been confided to her over those same years would have made devastating weapons. That, however, was a dangerous game, and one Madame Ahnzhelyk had been far too wise to play.
Besides, she thought broodingly, gazing out at the quiet neighborhood beyond her window, she'd had a better use for most of those secrets.
"You sent for me, Madame?"
She turned from the window in a graceful flutter of filmy skirts and whispering silk on satin skin. Despite her age, she continued to exude an aura of sensuality, a mature sense of her own passionate nature no youngster could have matched. She appeared incapable of moving gracelessly even if she'd wanted to, and a flicker of what might have been envy showed in the eyes of the plainly dressed servant woman in the doorway.
"Yes, Ailysa," Madame Ahnzhelyk said. "Please, come in."
Ahnzhelyk's courtesy, even with her servants, was natural and instinctive, but there was never any question who was the mistress and who the servant. Ailysa obeyed the polite command, carrying her sewing bag, and closed the door behind her.
"I have several minor repairs, I'm afraid," Ahnzhelyk said, raising her voice very slightly as the door closed.
"Of course, Madame."
The door latched, and Madame Ahnzhelyk's expression changed. The calm, elegant, air of superiority vanished, and her expressive eyes seemed to deepen and darken as she held out her hands. Ailysa looked at her for a moment, and then her own mouth tightened.
"Yes," Ahnzhelyk said softly, taking the other woman's hands in her own and squeezing them tightly. "It's been confirmed. The day after tomorrow, one hour after dawn."
Ailysa inhaled deeply, and her hands squeezed Ahnzhelyk's in reply.
"We knew it had to come," she said quietly, and her voice had changed. The lower class servant's accent had disappeared into the clear, almost liquid diction of one of the Temple Lands' most exclusive finishing schools, and some indefinable change in body posture mirrored the change.
"I still hoped," Ahnzhelyk replied, her eyes glistening. "Surely, someone could have sought clemency for him!"
"Who?" Ailysa's eyes were harder and drier than Ahnzhelyk's, but there was more anger in them, as well. "The Circle couldn't. Whatever I may have wanted, I always knew that, and why. And if they couldn't, then who else would have dared to? His own family — even his own brother! — either voted to confirm the sentence or abstained 'out of the lingering bonds of affection' between them." She looked as if she wanted to spit on the chamber's gleaming wooden floor. "Cowards. Cowards every one of them!"
Ahnzhelyk gripped her hands more tightly for a moment, then released them to put one arm around her.
"It was the Grand Inquisitor," she said. "None of them dared to defy him, especially after what the Charisians did to the invasion fleet . . . and after Cayleb named Staynair as his successor and Staynair sent that dreadful letter to the Grand Vicar. The entire Council is terrified, whether they want to admit it or not, and Clyntahn's determined to feed them the blood they want."
"Don't make excuses for them, Ahnzhelyk," Ailysa said softly. "Don't even make excuses for him."
"He was never a bad man," Ahnzhelyk said.
"No, not a bad man, only a corrupt one." Ailysa drew another deep breath, and her lower lip trembled for just a moment. Then she shook herself almost sternly. "They're all corrupt, and that's why not one of them would stand in his defense. The Writ says all men reap as they have sown, and he never sowed anything strong enough to stand in the face of this storm."
"No," Ahnzhelyk agreed sadly, then squared her shoulders and walked across to the window seat and stretched out along it, leaning back against the upholstered arm at one end where she could look out on the soothing tranquility of the street once again.
Ailysa followed her, and smiled slightly as she saw the three gowns hung ready for mending. Unless she very much missed her guess, Ahnzhelyk had deliberately torn at least two of them, but that was typical of her. When she summoned a seamstress to repair damaged clothing, the clothing in question was damaged . . . however it had happened to get that way.
Ailysa opened her bag and started removing needles, thread, scissors, and thimbles . . . all of which, except the thread, she reflected wryly, had been made in Charis. One of the things which had inspired Ahnzhelyk to suggest her current role was the fact that she actually was an extraordinarily skilled seamstress. Of course, that was because it had been a wealthy woman's hobby, not because it had been a servant's livelihood.
Ailysa sat in a far humbler but still comfortable chair and began working on the first of the gowns while Ahnzhelyk continued gazing pensively out the window. Several minutes passed in silence before Ahnzhelyk stirred and turned her head, propping her chin on a raised palm as she regarded Ailysa.
"Are you going to tell the boys?" she asked quietly, and Ailysa's needle paused for just a moment. She looked down at it, biting her lips, then shook her head.
"No. No, not yet." Her nostrils flared, and she began once again setting neat, perfect stitches. "They'll have to know eventually, of course. And Tymythy already suspects what's happening, I think. But I won't risk telling them until I've got them someplace safe. Or at least," she smiled with bitter, barren humor, "someplace safer."
"I could get you aboard ship tomorrow." Ahnzhelyk's statement sounded tentative, but Ailysa shook her head again.
"No." Her voice was harsher. "It wasn't much of a marriage in all too many ways, but he is my husband. And at the end of his life, I think perhaps he's finally found at least a trace of the man I always knew was hidden somewhere down inside him." She looked up at Ahnzhelyk, her eyes brimming with tears at last. "I won't abandon that man if he's finally found him."
"It's going to be horrible," Ahnzhelyk warned. "You know that."
"Yes, I do. And I want to remember it." Ailysa's face had hardened. "I want to be able to tell them how it was, what they did to him in 'God's name.'" The last two words dripped acid, and Ahnzhelyk nodded.
"If that's what you want," she said gently.
"I want to be able to tell them," Ailysa repeated.
Anzhelyk only gazed at her for several seconds, then smiled with an odd mixture of fondness, sorrow, and memory.
"It's such a pity he never knew," she said. Ailysa looked at her, as if perplexed by the apparent change of subject.
"Knew about us. Knew about how long we've known one another, what we kept hoping we'd see in him. It was so hard not to just take him by the front of his cassock and try to shake some sense into him!"
"We couldn't risk it. Well, you couldn't." Ailysa sighed. "Perhaps I could have. Perhaps I should have, but he was always too busy playing the game. He never heard me when I threw out a hint, never recognized a suggestion. They just went right past him, and I was afraid to be too explicit. And," it was her turn to smile sadly, "I always thought there'd still be time. I never imagined he might come to this."
"Neither did I," Ahnzhelyk said, and leaned back in the window seat, folding her hands in her lap.
"I'll miss your letters," she said.
"Lyzbet will take my place," Ailysa said. "It will take her a few months to get all of the delivery arrangements settled fully into place, but she knows what to do."
"I wasn't talking about that." Ahnzhelyk smiled crookedly. "I was talking about your letters. Quite a few of the others really do hold my past against me, you know. Those who know of it at all. You never did."
"Of course I didn't." Ailysa laughed quietly, softly. "I've known you since you were less than a year old, 'Ahnzhelyk!' And your 'past' is what made you so effective."
"But it felt so strange, sometimes, discussing him with you," Ahnzhelyk said wistfully.
"Yes, it did. Sometimes." Ailysa bent back to her stitchery. "In many ways, you were more his wife than I ever was. You certainly saw more of him after the boys were born than I did."
"Did you resent that?" Ahnzhelyk's voice was quiet. "I never dared to actually ask you that, you know."
"I resented the fact that the power games he played here in Zion were more important to him than his family," Ailysa replied, never looking up from her work. "I resented the fact that he pursued his comfort in brothels. But that was his world, the one he was born to. It wasn't your fault or your doing, and I never resented you."
"I'm glad," Ahnzhelyk said softly. "I'm glad, Adorai."