Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series) (5 page)

BOOK: Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series)
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“Give me a kiss, girl,” said Ghaio. “That rosy mouth. And those white teeth—oh yes. Let me taste you.”

And Ghaio kissed her.

At this she managed, her horror acting as a bow, to fire herself away from him.

Ghaio fell on his face and breathed, in place of fragrant youth and charming fear, the smelly bed.

“Come back, you slut. Where are you off to?”

She had stumbled away, but before she could get up from her knees, he caught her leg. Ah, so smooth, like marble, yet not so hard, nor so unfeeling.

“Stay still. I’m your master.” He dragged her back
and now, turning, not even thinking what she did, she hit him in the mouth.

Ghaio yowled.

No other had smitten him, not in twenty years, and certainly not a female, nor a slave.

His face darkened. A new stench, the effluvia of rage, streamed from his pores.

“You’ll lie down here with me, or you’ll be made sorry.”

She was across the room. She stood by her discarded clothes, not bending yet to snatch them. A weird pose—her arms not clamped protectively to her body, coyly shielding breasts or loins, as even Venus, in certain lewd pictures, sometimes did.

No, the arms of Volpa were outflung. Her head poked forward a little, like a snake’s. And the scarlet wind of hair blew all about her, seeming sentient.

Its color—it had increased, become extraordinary—orange, like the golden citruses brought on trees from the East—some effect of the candles, no doubt—he scarcely noticed.

“Lie
down
, you trull. Lie down and take what I give. Or I’ll flay your back and peaches for you. Do you want that, eh? Have your master or have the flail—want
that
eh? Or
me
?”

Through Volpa’s brain things flashed. Not thoughts, let alone words. Lightnings, gusts of intolerable brilliancy.

She let out a barking scream.

It checked Ghaio.

What was she, this bitch, truly some beast?

A motion, of her body or of some other thing which was in the room with them, put out the candles, every one.

But they were not needed. For now Volpa herself gave light.

She was incandescent. The white
of her flesh was blazing, blinding him. He could no longer make out her features, eyes or lips—not even the fleece at her loins.

Yet the outer hair—surely it did burn? Oranges and gold, lava that poured from some erupting mountain Ghaio Wood-Seller had never seen.

“Stop this, you scunny harlot.” He got up off his couch. He rubbed his hands together, as he thought, to ready them for violence. But they were slick with sweat. That posture of hers. It was like that of some bird of prey, the wings out, the head thrust forward.

Ghaio stood on the mattress. He could not credit what he saw.

The hair of his slave—was
bursting
.

Who made that noise? It was Ghaio now, screaming.

“Holy Virgin spare me—God save me—”

The hair of the slave had exploded outwards, and for a moment the girl was the core of an incendiary storm. It swirled upward, to either side, behind her. Her hair had filled the room.

Ghaio’s eyes scorched. The shrill hair dazzled him.

Abruptly he was freezing cold. He clutched his arms about himself and shrieked as flames rushed up them. He was naked too, his robe burnt off, but clad in fire. Ghaio danced. In the middle of the light, he was turning black. And the shell of the room broke like an egg.

When the roof flew off, he might have seen the night held in a net of glory. But, screeching, he only danced, and swallowed fire, and was made dumb.

Volpa had lost interest in him. She felt herself droop, and as she did so, her mind grew cool and dim.

Two wings seemed to fold about her, and her eyes shut fast. She rolled
into a silent emptiness, exactly like a sleep that had no dreams.

“What’s that glow? Is it morning?”

“No, Lucha. A house is on fire on the Seven Keys Canal.”

“Fire—!”

“Lie still. It’s not so close. We doused the inn roof with water, to be sure.”

Luchita looked out wearily, between the pains, at her husband. “Only one house?”

“Three, to be exact. But they’re dipping up water from the canal. It’s almost out.”

Another pain came, and Luchita cried aloud.

Her husband hurried from the room.

She would lose this child. It was too early.

“Oh God—why do you make me suffer like this? I never even
enjoyed
it—”

She hated God. Pointless to dissemble. He would know.

In the window the red glare faltered, then waxed again.

The girl came in, with the old midwife from the marshes, old Maria with her ten black teeth.

“Best be quick,” said this crone, “Venus is afire.”

The girl looked scared and sprang from the room.

Luchita said, “Three houses only, so he told me.”

“Three so far. And the alleys full of wasps—”

Luchita stared. The witch pointed straight at the window. Some insects were buzzing there drearily, dropping in and crawling on the floor. “A nest in his wood-stacks.

It was the wood-seller’s Red House. The heat of the fire hatched them too early. Only one body’s brought out. The slave man from the yard, curled up and black. But they say there was a girl, and the miser
himself, Ghaio.”

Pain came. Luchita cried loudly.

Dying wasps hardly born drizzled in twos and threes into the room. Poor things, like the child, forced on too soon.

The witch trod on the wasps. She would be as blunt with the woman and the baby.

But the fire was dulling now.

The crone peered from the window. “There’s a beggar at your door,” she said. Everything was of interest to her save her trade, she had seen too much of that.

Below in the street, the beggar looked up at the window as Luchita howled.

Two men, shouldering from the inn to visit the fun on Seven Keys, strode by the beggar, knocking her aside.

Volpa sat down on the ground by the inn door. She had forgotten who she was, and where she was, if she had ever known either. Lusterless wan brown, her long hair flimsily veiled her. Her skin was like unleavened dough. She had been reclothed in something, perhaps her shift—but did not know it. She was cold, so cold. She rested her head on her knees and forgot the world.

Above her, meaningless as bells, the cries came and went for another two hours, until Luchita had brought forth her stillborn boy.

PART TWO

Then saw I a vixen seeming starved.

D
ANTE
A
LIGHIERI

The Divine Comedy

1

T
HE NIGHT TURNED
SLOWLY
as a wheel, spiked with stars. But he had forgotten that. The heat of new summer had brought scents and miasmas. These were shut out. The thick walls fortressed a lagoon of coolness, and the flavors, solely, of olibanum and myrrh.

Heaven was like this. Pure, chilled, perfumed, and silent, save with faint fair musics. A sky of burnished ghostly gold.

The window rose behind the altar. In darkness without tints, until a flutter of summer lightning briefly and inaccurately colored it, the white face of the Virgin, framed in a damson mantle. She maintained her vigil, as did he, the knight of God kneeling at her feet.

It was required of them. But some kept the Vigil (from the midnight bell until the dawn Auroria) only for the six watches obligatory during the course of one year.

Cristiano was of that number who kept the Vigil once in every month, save during times of war. In winter, evidently, it was the most taxing. Kneeling straightbacked before the altar from midnight until sunrise—some seven or eight hours. (Some slept, slumping. Others regularly got up and marched about the chapel. Some fainted.)

After his very first
watch—he had been seventeen years of age, and it was winter—Cristiano, who had not moved all night, had gone out into the courtyard, his legs had failed him, and he had vomited. Within a year though, he had grown accustomed, physically, to the ordeal.

There was no overt competition among the Bellatae Christi, the Soldiers of God. The proofs of faith, both in arms and in prayer, were a private matter. So Cristiano perfected his skills as a worshipping priest in the same spirit that he honed his fighting ability. By the age of twenty, few could outmatch him in the practice yard of the Militarium. None, in the church.

Of course, the Vigils had long ago ceased to be for him a test of endurance. While he himself had never seen the act in that way. He had understood and believed that the Vigil would bring him nearer, not only to God, but to the
Will
of God. So, even pain had not delayed him. Perhaps, in fact, had driven him the faster to his goal.

For there was always pain, in the first hour or two.

Under the lashes of it, Cristiano would rise up into his mind, which soon became then a clear sparkling crystal, not unlike the substance of a star. Here he would wait, timelessly indifferent to the qualms of a body which only youth—and considerable reserves of trained strength—kept in the desired position.

As his soul stood above the body, pain was next burned away by a sheer white radiance.

When the radiance began, which was usually in the first or second hour, but sometimes in the third, Cristiano would tremble. For this coming of white light was the announcement, the
herald
, of the approach of God.

Although he would give way to nothing human, to this Cristiano surrendered.

And then, he would enter into a
sphere of ecstasy so otherwise unimaginable, and afterwards so unretainable, that all things, world, time, reason, life itself, seemed stopped or left behind. It was the foretaste of the immortal state, this transcendence. It was beyond any physical pleasure, impossible in its wonder and effulgence, yet nearly always now achievable, by him.

Only the sounding of the dawn bell could bring him down from the height. Then he would sink back, drained yet renewed, into the leaden casque of flesh. Thin sun beams on the stony floor would scatter as his shadow finally crossed them.

That he relished such delight was unavoidable. Was it thus greed, to keep the Vigil so often? No. He had faith that nothing would be given him, should he be found unfit. And once or twice, when the supernal had failed him, that is, he had failed
it
, he had felt a horrible downfall. But despair was a sin. He threw depression from him swiftly, and working the harder at his office of priest, fasting, scourging his body, so pushing this body further off from him, he would find always that the next Vigil brought him again into the realm of the Divine. Into the exquisite duality of awareness and oblivion, which he knew to be God.

Cristiano was a virgin. Among the Bellatae chastity was the code, as with every priest. If any broke the rule and were discovered to have done so, the order thrust them out.

To Cristiano such a thing would have been insanity to contemplate, too stupid to consider. Besides, what joy of the flesh could compare to the crucial and excruciating ravishment gained by communion with God?

In war, there was another joy, it was true, which came also, since such wars were holy, from God. Then the crystal of the mind was not
diamond white, but a deep red, like the bloody spinel. The vigor that coursed through the knight was like fire and wine, carnal enough, permissible only since God had willed it. (Such had ignited the Crusades in prior centuries.) When Cristiano rode in a sea of gore, swinging blades of steel in hands of brass, he was, even then, God’s instrument, less a man than a battle chariot, and Christ astride him, the Charioteer.

To take life in the service of the Creator was neither sinful nor cruel. It was just.

Returning to the world was always strange. The City, the beings which peopled it, were alien and curious.

Cristiano had attended the Dawn Mass. Now he visited the knight’s castra, broke his fast, with bread dipped in wine, and washed in the cold water from the Primo’s clean wells. He was no longer tired, and would not look for sleep until this evening.

Less than an hour later, the boat took him through the Silvian Marsh. Today, before the full heat of morning arrived, the smell of salt was strong. Green reeds and brown grasses grew along the water channels, taller in places than a woman. Gulls and other birds soared and sailed, and here and there in the reeds nests were visible, stocked with young chicks. Elsewhere, some men waded with nets and slings.

Houses still stood in the marshland. Many were ruinous. Gardens had become lakes, from which rose dying cypresses. The old amphitheater was only a ghostly hump on the horizon towards the sea, but they passed close to the Roman temple. Ragged boys, who were fishing there,
shouting, went stone-still, seeing the warrior-priest rowed by. Between the greened-over columns, they squinted out at him.

Even the boatman was wary. They always were.

When the boat bumped home against the bank of the channel, the Silvian Quarter rising in its yellowing summer tones behind, he took his payment and dropped to one knee.

“Bless me, brother.”

Cristiano gave him the blessing—it was a fault, but with indifference. The man did not seem yet quite real.

Nor any of it.

Only Christ Himself, a deity who had once been human, could take in the fall of sparrows after the height of the sun.

Cristiano walked up the alleys to the inn. The morning was loud with living bustle, like the activity of the birds in the marsh. Washing hung out, and there came the clang of pots, a fug of cooking and dirt.

By the inn door two or three beggars sat on the ground, their backs to a wall. Cristiano paid them no heed. Men had their stations from God, or a calling to some task, as had happened with himself.

His bother-in-law, the drunk, slunk out. “Soldier of God—Cristiano—welcome, welcome. She’s much better today. Will you have a cup?”

“You know I won’t.”

“Yes, Cristiano. She’s in her garden.”

In the room, the early drinkers glanced uneasily.

BOOK: Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series)
12.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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