The Heretic – Snippet 27
It was not precisely a whorehouse, Abel discovered. There were indeed sleeping cots for rent, and these separate from the other beds for rent by the quarter hour. There was food of a sort to be had, and Golitsin ordered them both a dak steak, a loaf of barley bread, and a jug of wine.
The central hall was filled with roughhewn tables and chairs, with pedestals strewn about upon which stood women. They were elaborately veiled about the head, but otherwise unclothed.
They swayed to the loud blare of rivercane pipes and some sort of percussion instrument that was made from even larger, halved reed set on a resonating frame.
Interesting that some form of Hrand’s Planet kahlpipe music has either been preserved or reinvented, Center intoned.
Do you even know what this place is? Abel asked. And do you approve?
Oh, we know where you are, lad, answered Raj. At least, I do. As to whether or not we approve: that’s really none of our business, now is it.
Damn right it’s not, Abel answered with an enthusiastic shake of the head that surprised Golitsin, though he took it for assent to something else he was talking about.
A waitress approached, almost as naked as the veiled dancers, and Abel saw Golitsin pay with a clay piece rimmed with hardwood. It was a sum equal to nearly a month of his lieutenant’s pay. Abel waited to see the waitress bring back change, but there was none.
“I can’t pay you back. . .I. . .didn’t bring those kinds of funds,” Abel said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Golitsin shouted over the music. “The prelate said to tell you it was your Scout’s bonus.”
“Bonus? For what?”
“Killing Redland devils, I suppose,” Golitsin replied. “Now drink up, because I don’t think you’re going to like the taste of that steak otherwise.”
“Not sure anybody told these Bruneberg cooks that you’re suppose to put meat in them.”
Abel drank. Then he sat back and for the first time really looked around.
The women were stunning. Or at least their nakedness was. He hadn’t seen a woman undressed since…well, since Captain Blackmore’s wife had flashed her breast at him while he’d stood detail outside one of Blackmore’s all-night officer’s bones game one night. He’d been fifteen. She’d stumbled outside and tried to pull him into the stables. After he resisted, she’d shown him her breasts. After he’d continued to resist, she’d reached under his tunic and grabbed his cock, as stiff as a musket barrel by now.
“He won’t come out,” she whispered. “He’s winning, you know. He’ll never come away when he’s winning.”
And Abel had almost done it, almost followed her into the stable. But another officer who was not Blackmore and who was not winning had stumbled out to relieve himself in the yard.
And, just like that, Captain Blackmore’s wife or concubine or whatever she was, had transferred her entire attention to the officer.
Abel heard the pissing abruptly stop. Laughter. And then the creak of the stable door opening. And the sounds from within that he knew were not the sounds of rutting donts, no matter how much they sounded like them.
I won’t stand holding my musket tonight, Able thought. I won’t. But which? And how?
He turned to Golitsin. “They have special dispensation for this kind of thing in the priesthood? Special prayers or something?”
“Never heard of Zentrum smiting a brother who responds to his urges now and again,” Golitsin replied. “So long as you don’t break Stasis by, you know, trying something wrong.”
“I don’t know exactly. There’s stories about brothers that like to. . .do things. . .you know with metal instruments.”
Abel shook his head. “I don’t know. Tell me.”
“I’ve only heard stories, I mean,” Golitsin quickly replied.
A bit too quickly, Center said. Standby and I will perform a first pass interpolation to determine the priest’s deviancy from norms and specific instances of —
No, no, no! Abel shouted in his mind. I don’t want to hear any of that, let alone see it!
“But they say Zentrum finds out things such as that, if you do them, I mean. That Zentrum knows when a priests breaks Stasis, even then, even doing that.”
Quite possible, Center said. But even for a planetary defense computer with powers as immense as Zentrum, that would seem to be one calculation too many.
Golitsin tugged at Abel’s sleeve as the steaks arrived. “How about that servant girl?” he said. “They are for sale, too, you know.”
Golitsin began to flirt with the wench, who, after a moment, allowed him to pull her onto his lap. She cut up his food and fed it to him while the priest begged like a flitterdak chick for the next.
Abel noticed that the knife in her hand was trembling a bit much, as if she were having trouble controlling the urge to plunge it through Golitsin’s upturned chin. But after he finished off another cup of wine, the serving girl pulled the priest away toward one of the curtained doorways in the back of the room that led — well, Abel wasn’t sure where they led. It certainly wasn’t to the sleeping area, which was down a clearly marked separate hallway well-lit with torches.
And so he found himself alone with his wine and half eaten steak. Golitsin had been right about the lack of meat, but incorrect about the amount of wine it would take before he didn’t care. Even with his head swimming with drink, he could still taste the sawdust filler when he chewed.
Sawdust and meat that wanted to return, he discovered. Return from the slurry of death in his stomach and emerge once more into the land of the living. Abel stood up, stumbled blindly in a direction he had decided might lead to a chamber pot, or at least to an empty alleyway.
And she was there, leading him. Gliding through the crowd, clearing a path in front of him, taking him through a curtained doorway, down a hall, and into a stall where a genuine toilet and wash basin sat. He heard the sound of rushing water somewhere nearby and looked around until he realized it was under him, under the floorboards. He was over the River.
He saw that when she opened the toilet hatch and he looked down fifteen feet into dark, rushing water.
“Don’t fall in, Sweetbread,” said the voice from behind the cerulean veil.
“I can swim,” Abel said. Not well, he knew, but he could. He’d learned, at Raj and Center’s insistence, in the lake at Hestinga.
“It isn’t that,” said the voice. “It’s that the carnadons would have you to pieces before you managed to drown in the cataracts.”
Her tone was playful, but with a trace of contempt, as well.
Not for me, Abel thought. More like for all men.
Aye, Raj said. You’ve got the right of that.
Abel turned away from the open hole. “Actually, I don’t think I need it now, I –”
That was when the swell hit him. He jerked back, and hung his head as fast as he could over the opening and let rip only just in time for the bulk of it, the spill of it — steak, wine, day’s rations, everything — to rain down in a putrid waterfall to the River below.
“Ah! Ah, by the bones and breasts of the Lady,” he cried out, “let this stop.”
He didn’t notice then, but later realized that this was when it must have happened, that she realized he was either a Scout, knew the borderlands, or was a Redlander himself. For who else would think to call upon Irisobrian at such a time?
He felt her hand upon his arm, softer this time. “Here now, drink some water,” she said. The other hand had dipped a clay cup into a nearby pitcher.
He took it, rinsed his mouth, spat into the River again and again until he’d banished enough of the taste of his own innards to resist the urge to turn once more to the blank hole and start the puking process all over again.
She handed him a bit of cloth. “Wipe your mouth.”
And then what looked like a weed.
He examined it, turned it in his fingers, didn’t recognize the small leaves or the pungent smell.
It is mint, Abel, Center said. Probably imported from the Schnee foothills. Quite safe.
He chewed. Good. The nausea faded.