Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series) (10 page)

BOOK: Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series)
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Cristiano did not do this. He seemed to take no notice. He had tanned from the sun, and standing at rest, was like a statue of the Greeks or Romans, made in planed golden wood. But the hair was silver.

Then he lightly raised up the heavy sword, swinging it in flashing, veering thrusts. He had disarmed his third opponent in the time that might elapse between two strokes of a bell.

Before he walked to the Magister, Cristiano slung on the practice tunic. His was gray and full of holes. No pride? One could not pledge that. But he was young, and God Himself had made him strong.

“Tell me,” said Danielus, as they moved through into the castra cloister, which was empty, “have you any curiosity concerning the little slave?”

Cristiano looked at him. He said, “You mean the girl who can call fire.”

“Yes, just that little slave.”

“Should I be curious?”

“You found her.”

“She was there to be found.”

“Do you still doubt she can do what she does?”

“No, Magister. Not since you told me that she could.”

“I see. Should I then commend you for your faith in me, or chide you for accepting such a story secondhand.”

“Either,” said Cristiano. He leaned on a
pillar of the walk, as Danielus sat down in the shade. In the middle of the sunlit square of grass, a fountain played into a bronze cistern. Insects buzzed. There was the honeyed scent of flowers, but summer had passed its peak. “And your sister,” said Danielus, “how does she manage among the nuns?”

“I haven’t seen her for some while. She seemed content.”

“Not joyous, then.”

“Not joyous. The life’s hard for her.”

“She will have guessed that.”

“Yes. She anticipates nothing now, from this world.’

“I’m sorry to hear it, Knight. The world is to be valued, if only as the preface to a greater world.”

“On her knees until they bleed, scrubbing floors, awake all night praying, fasting or fed on bread and water?”

“You’re angry. Why? You also have done all that. You would do it now, and count it nothing.”

“She’s a woman,” said Cristiano.

Danielus said, “Women are so weak, evidently. She has borne several children. That was probably far worse than scrubbing a floor. Don’t you think perhaps God chose the female race for childbirth, because He thought them more valiant? The more able to endure?”

Cristiano said, “It was a punishment, I believed, for talk with a snake in a Tree.”

“That too, of course,” said Danielus. “But both were punished, both Adamus and Eva. If punishment is a corrective, and her punishment being the worse, did God suppose the woman capable of learning more from it?” Cristiano laughed out loud.

“I can’t debate with you, Magister.”

Danielus gazed
across the brown grass at the fountain. “I must go and visit my own devout sister on Eel Island. I’ve neglected her. I leave this evening and will be gone some days.”

“Is Veronichi well?”

“Well, but melancholy, and demanding, as ever. I do my best to cheer her. While I’m gone, read this thing the Council of the Lamb has gifted the Ducem. Others know and are reading it. Also, I should like you to visit in turn the slave we spoke of.”


Volpa
? Why that?”

“Anger again. Why anger now, Cristiano?”

Cristiano bowed his head, a false humility striving to be real.

“Pardon me, Magister. Whatever you wish.”

“She’s kept secretly, as you know. You know to keep silence. But you’ll find her changed—changing. Her name has changed, too. It was a graceless epithet she had. And foxes are enlisted by the Devil, it seems. Now she’s known as Beatifica. A name to exorcise all doubt.”

“And what would you have me do there?”

“See that they treat her as I instructed. Talk to her, perhaps.”

“Of what?” Cristiano shook his head. “Again, your pardon.”

“Of God,” said Danielus. “Talk to her of God, what else?”

Like the palace of the Ducemae, the house of Veronichi stood alone, on an island. Admittedly one that would have fitted fifty times over in Joffri’s gardens.

The Isle of Eels was sufficiently small that, among Ve Nera’s muster of seven islands, it did not count.

Nevertheless, the place was pretty in a drooping, mossy way. The old
water-steps had sunk below the surface only last year. One wall, which ran down into the Laguna Aquila, was also going, and in need of repair.

Fra Danielus had given the house to his half-sister a decade before, after he had brought her from obscurity in the slums beside the wall of the Jewish ghetto. Though she undoubtedly possessed their blood, she was a Christian.

Those that saw her, and this not often, (she was reclusive) had sometimes remarked that she might have caught a husband, if she had mended herself and looked for one. But Veronichi served solely one God. Her rumored charitable works and drab clothing were her only fame.

As the boat was rowed across the lagoon, the sun westered behind the buildings on the shore, seeming to set them all adrift.

A City built on water, if not sand. Parable enough in that, for Venus was mighty and rich, and had lasted. Even the threat of war proved her superior station. Why else fight with her for spice or silk?

In the apricot light the small island drew near. Over the walls of Veronichi’s neglected orchard, savage pomegranate trees dropped tangled baskets of branches and budding red pods into the water. Eels still sometimes swam there in autumn, to gorge. When netted, they carried the taste of the seeds. Death’s taste, surely, since the pomegranate was the fruit of the classical Underworld?

The sunfall was—voluptuous. Overdone. The words of the Greeks came to Danielus, who had read very much and widely.
Nothing to excess
. Yet God employed brushstrokes of glory. In the hands of greatness, was excess quite different?

He must read in the library he kept here. This was part of his
reason for the visit, but he might not tell Veronichi so. It would depend on her mood.

She met him, coming down to the landing-place in a dull gown, her hair scraped back under a linen cap.

Her paintless face was the shape of a pip, narrowing at the forehead and at the chin. Her eyes were black as his own. She hid them under lowered lids, as she kissed his ring.

A game?

“I didn’t think you would come,” she said.

“But I told you I would.”

As they climbed the steps, the boat was rowing away, melting into the extravagant sumptuousness of the light.

The Council would like to tax such sunsets, no doubt.

2

Because the day was hot, she had come to sit in the yard.

There was shade here from one tall tree. The walls were so high she could not see the canal which ran beyond them, an oily dark green. But hearing it lap on the wall sides, and catching wafts of its summer smell, she remembered it. She had been brought along the canal, and then in at this yard.

The canal was named for the Virgin, Blessed Maria.

The building where now she lived she had heard called only the cappella.

Life was not as it had been.

Volpa was not certain if this were a chastisement or a reward. Besides, she expected almost hourly that it would alter.

She rose, as she always had, at first light. A woman, a nun, would come into the cell where Volpa slept, bringing her a cup of water. At first there had been trouble, since Volpa
did not sleep on the hard little plank meant for a bed. She preferred the stone floor, wrapped in the blanket. As a slave, she had never known a bed, although the blanket was a luxury prized, if mistrusted. Seeing the nun was displeased by Volpa’s preference, Volpa had initially tried to wake earlier and locate herself upon the plank. Often she failed. Then, the nun ceased to be disturbed. Volpa did not ponder on this. She was simply thankful to be left alone. In fact, as with everything to do with Volpa, a report of it had gone to the Magister Major, Fra Danielus. He then advised the nuns of the Little Cappella, saying they should allow the girl to sleep on the floor. (“While we attempt to smite out of ourselves the body’s whim for softness and pampering, she must only be envied, in this inclination for hardship.”)

After Volpa had dressed in the plain, good clothes now supplied her, she was taken to the Auroria, the Dawn Mass. Here, as the group of nuns intoned and chanted, the prayers were whispered to Volpa, who, accordingly, learned them all. These prayers were in Latin. However, she got them, and the whole service, by heart, and could soon speak everything perfectly on the cues, and with a pure pronunciation worthy of the Primo. (The diction of the Little Cappella was highly rated.) She did not, of course, grasp one word. Or perhaps, just one, here and there.

She knew the word for God, for example. Although not in all its Latin forms.

After the mass, Volpa broke her fast. In the beginning she was offered many things to eat, at which she stared, and from some of which she turned, revolted.

The nuns’ first annoyance was once again translated into reluctant approval.

Volpa’s breakfast came to be a piece of dark bread, dipped in watered
wine. She took no midday meal, but in the evening might eat a dish of unsalted rice or porridge, or a vegetable gruel.

As a slave, she had lived through necessity as a devout priest of the Church was admonished to. Lack had trained her to accept only lack. To be comfortable only with a hard floor, a meager diet, a blanket and a cup of wine—luxuries valued, if barely tolerable.

To the splendors of the cappella Volpa was also nearly impervious, as she had been indeed to the marvel of the Golden Rooms.
They
had disorientated her, the cascade of gold and crimson, the reflecting floors. Until she put them aside, one more element that she did not understand and so must not waste time on.

Here, shown the carvings, the glass, she looked, and looked away. She was able to recognize the silver cross.

Seeing it, she crossed
herself
, as her mother had taught her.

They did not conduct her to any further daily service until that of the sunset Venusium. Again, she quickly learned everything and faultlessly joined in.

Her mind did not wander at these moments. The exquisite inflexions that now came from her own mouth, fascinated the girl as much as they did the ears of those who heard her. Sometimes even she spoke the lessons over, when alone, walking the corridors of the cappella for exercise.

The nuns, finding that, promptly taught her other prayers and holy songs.

Speaking on and on, in company or alone, Volpa’s voice fined itself and gained a silvery quality. Only in normal speech did she still sound, sometimes, rough and guttural.

She went to her bed early, after supper.

The nuns had noted she was not quite a child.

She had breasts, and every month she
lost blood.

(Unremarked, she had reached fifteen.)

She was bored, too. The stitching the nuns gave her she did poorly. Also, finding she was not chided, often she left it undone. She could not read. She sat singing to herself the chants of the cappella, or walked slowly about the tree in the yard. At night, sometimes, she stole out, thinking to circle the tree, but the nuns were always about, performing penitential chores, going to and from their devotions, or watching by the altar, from where the yard was visible. Volpa knew instinctively that her dance must not be seen. Less than the interrogatory priests, she recalled the old man slave, and how he had seemed afraid of it, and yet afraid without
fear
. What had become of him?

Had she burned Master’s house?

It seemed to her it had only burned. Then the angel led her to safety.

She would like to see the angel again. She could not recollect how it had looked. But presumably it had been like the flying beings she had seen with her mother, on the hill, the great wings spread behind it, and the feather of brilliance on its head.

Seeing the image of the Apostles in the cappella window, receiving the power of God each in a flame that stood up on the brow, she noted a similarity.

She was called now by another name. She liked its sound. She did not really think of it as her own.

Crickets were cheeping in the warm stones of the wall.

A stink of fish rose up from the canal.

The Solus was over—she often watched from the doorway, learning the words of this mass as well. (As, at night, unable to dance to the tree, she learned the Luna and Prima Vigile.) She repeated the orisons clearly now,
not knowing what any of them said.

“Gaze upon us, O God, and shed the light, more wonderful than any sun, so that we may see our way.”

Cristiano stopped still.

The slave stood in the long shadow of the tree, through which a blade of sunlight pierced to touch her shoulders and the white cap that covered her hair. She was singing sweetly, and in perfect Latin, the words of the Midday Mass.

She had the voice—of nothing human. Not even the genderless beauty of the unbroken soprano of a boy. Cristiano, until now, had never even heard her speak. Something moved against his skin. It was like a brushing hand made from the air.

He marked himself with the cross.

Then his mind cleared, and the sun shifted. She was a thin young girl with nothing exceptional about her, who turned and blinked at him, then lowered her eyes.

And when he said her name—the inappropriate new name the Magister had given her—she mumbled, “Yes, signore,” ignorantly and without any grace.

Cristiano wrote to the Magister, who was detained on Eel Island. (It seemed his sister was sick.)

The letter, also in Latin, was formal. Nevertheless honest:

“The Little Church, as you would hope, as it is your property, and being its chief confessor, is healthy. No summer sickness has manifested. The sisters are hale.

“For the slave, this girl, Beatifica, they care for her as you commanded them. They say she is modest, and shows signs of devotion to the
Christ. They do not fault her in anything, especially since you told them to let her go on in her original manner, sleeping on the ground, and so on.

“They say she steals to the door of the Sanctuary to listen to the mass, even sometimes to the Prima Vigile, two hours after midnight. They have noticed that, where the glamours of the carving and windows leave her untouched, she responds to a sight of the cross, and the window which shows the Apostles. She says prayers over to herself constantly, distinctly, and with apparent delight.

“I too have heard and seen this.

“Some of them think she will wish, after some time, to become one of their number. You have not told them of her single talent. And they have had, demonstrably, no sight of it.”

BOOK: Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series)
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