The Heretic – Snippet 21
“I won’t ask what you were thinking, because I believe I know the answer to that,” said Joab. “What I would like to know is what I’m going to tell the prelate to somehow keep you in the military.” Joab stopped walking, and Abel came to an abrupt halt beside him. His father eyed him. “Because with that kind of judgment, I frankly don’t know if you are officer material, son.”
Abel met his father’s gaze, but said nothing. He had the feeling that any reply he made would be the wrong one at this point.
“You do understand the seriousness of the situation?” Joab’s voice was low and intense — which Abel feared far more than his father’s shouts or curses.
They continued walking, Abel a half step behind his father.
One thing I hadn’t counted on, Raj continued, almost, it seemed, speaking to himself, when I had Center copy my mind and blast us both to the stars: having to go through puberty again and again and again.
After a few paces Joab began talking again, this time to himself. “The problem is that you not only defied me by going out there, you went against Stasis by using the lucifer that way. It’s not what you did, it’s how it looks.”
“I get it, Father.”
They made their way through the streets of Hestinga. Hestinga was only half the size of the capital Lindron, but it had many of the same amenities, and was considered a good posting by both priest and soldier. The center of the thoroughfares were paved with Redland stone, and the gutters were swept at least once a week to clear out the collections of sewage, garbage and dont and dak manure that piled up there in the interim.
Abel had been to villages that never got swept and people lived on layer upon layer of their own garbage. Hestinga smelled like a bloomherb flower in comparison.
Furthermore, once a year during flood-time, the lake filled to the point a bucket line was possible and the streets were actually washed down. This annual event didn’t even happen in Lindron.
The Hestinga buildings were not as grand as Lindron’s, however. Most were simple mud brick structures with cut-hole windows that were closed with woven rush mats during the heat of the day. Glass was far less common here.
The Hestinga market square was a group of temporary stalls. In Lindron, most of the merchants had permanent shops.
And in the market square were women. Not just at the market either. Abel spent a great deal of his time inside walls behind which females were not allowed. Here, they were simply. . .everywhere. He knew enough to hold his status and not to allow his head to jerk about like a springleg every time someone of the opposite sex walked past. He liked it better when he and his father approached from behind. That way, he could spend lots of time staring at swaying hips and shoulders without being noticed, and then steal a glance at the face in profile as he and his father, who were walking at an soldier’s pace, passed its possessor.
After several blocks of temptation, Abel began to forget who he was with and where he was going. He began to think instead of the problem of how he was going to get laid for the first time. Xander had told him about a whorehouse on the outskirts of town, but Abel somehow didn’t want this to be his first experience.
But if this feeling kept building inside him, and he never got a chance to meet any girls — well, then, the whorehouse might have to do.
Any advice on that, oh inner voices? What, nothing to say?
When the time comes, I am capable of providing the proper physical instructions.
One world at a time, lad. But here’s one that’s all right. Looks like she bathes in butter and honey does that one.
A raven-haired young girl who looked only a little older — and a little taller — than Abel wafted by in a cloud of flowing vermillion robe, silver belt and bracelets, and clean smelling soaps and unguents. She was gone as quickly as she arrived, and Abel fought mightily the urge to stop in his tracks and gaze longingly after her.
It was only when they arrived at the temple gates that Abel was jerked from his female-induced reverie.
The district temple compound differed from the surrounding edifices in that it was mainly built of stone, and Redland stone, at that. It was at least five hundred strides wide, and housed all manufacturing facilities that were allowed under the Law. This was where nishterlaub was reworked into permitted materials. A plastic casing for an ancient nishterlaub machine might be fitted with a wicker handle and made into a bucket, for instance. A plough might be made from a piece of the incredibly light, incredibly durable pre-Collapse ceramic.
Spacecraft tile beaten to ploughshares, Center had once said of it.
And it was here and only here, in the temple compound, that bullets could be forged and cartridges packed. There was an entire team of priests who did nothing else. Abel had once spoken with one of the priest-smiths, as they were called, and had learned of the intricate prescriptions and prohibitions the priest-smiths must take account of. One slip up, and an entire run of bullets or cartridges would have to be scrapped and recast in the proper manner.
In the center of the compound, a stepped pyramid rose a thousand spans into the sky. It was visible throughout Hestinga, and from quite a few leagues outside the village, as well.
Abel and his father struggled up the oversized steps of the temple pyramid as best they could. There was an easier path with human-sized steps on the backside of the structure, but this method of climbing was reserved for priests.
At least the steps keep Father occupied, Abel thought. I hate even watching his face. His being disappointed is ten times worse than his yelling at me.
A wise parent, Raj said, followed by his low, not-so-nice chuckle.
Finally, they reached the apex plaza and entered the small stone building that occupied the center of the plateau.
District Prelate Zilkovsky’s office was an inner chamber within an inner chamber. It was the chilliest room Abel had ever been in. A temple priest outside the entrance was on fan duty. He continually pushed and pulled a cane rod through a slot in the wall. The cane connected to a rush-woven fan inside set on a dont-leather hinge. The rod kept the fan continually moving air across the chamber.
Zilkovsky was fat. There was no way around that fact. The folds of his priestly robes could not hide the belly that lurked behind them. He was also nearly bald, with a wispy layer of hair that he combed to the side as if to hide the shiny skull beneath. It did not.
Yet for all his girth, the prelate moved gracefully. His eyes, though small and closely set, sparkled with animation.
Don’t underestimate this one, Raj said. I’ve known his like before. He’ll never be your comrade, but he’s best to keep as an ally, not have as an enemy.
Zilkovsy had no desk, but instead worked in a sitting area with several chairs gathered round. When Joab and Abel entered, he motioned Joab to sit. Abel, not having received such permission, remained standing.
“Commander, correct me if I’m wrong, but is this not the young man who once managed to drop a rock on his own head in the nishterlaub house?”
“You’ve got the right one, Mr. Prelate.”
“And now he’s managed to destroy a wagon transporting munitions to the Redlander scum, but, at the same time, has used proscribed methods to accomplish this?”
“That’s about the size of it, sir.”
“And only one casualty to the Scouts?”
Zilkovsky settled back in his chair. He took up a clay mug of beer, nodded toward a pitcher and cup on a nearby side table. Joab shook his head indicating he didn’t want any. Zilkovsky had a sip, smiled a mild smile of peaceful pleasure.
Abel had a feeling the beer was had a much better taste than the vinegary wine in his father’s office.
“Allow me to scan with Zentrum,” the priest said. He closed his eyes, breathed out.