Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series) (9 page)

BOOK: Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series)
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Two huge painted images at once confronted the eye, a glowing golden man among a pride of amber lions; the Primo Lion of gold and brass, with a haloed infant god astride it.

Between these paranormal scenes, two men were seated upright at the table. One was another clerk, she discounted him. The other wore the habit of a Magister Major, and on his hand an emerald watched, like another eye.

Volpa, the Vixen, saw him only as part of the whole.

(She was not alone in doing that.) He had the face of a disciple from the pillars of the Basilica, and although she had never entered it until now, she knew. His face had moved beyond the human. As a priest should, he poised between Man and God.

4

“Have you been taught the story
of Danielo?”

Volpa shook her head. “No, signore.”

“He was a Hebrew, made slave to the great and cruel King Nabucco, in the wicked city of Babylon. There Danielo, through his wisdom, his visionary skills, and his faith in God, gained such power that men were jealous of him. They entrapped him and had him thrown into a pit of lions. The mouth of the pit was then closed with a stone, and sealed by Nabucco’s own royal seal. There is the picture of this event.”

Volpa regarded the picture of the golden man among the lions.

Danielus said, “In the morning, when they opened up the pit, do you suppose they found Danielo still alive?” Volpa said, “Yes, alive.”

“Why do you think that? There were many lions, all kept hungry. I see you have no answer. But certainly Danielo lived. Because God had closed up the mouths of the lions as decidedly as Danielo’s enemies had closed the mouth of the pit. God is capable of any miracle.”

The girl sat quietly in the chair. Mostly her eyes were lowered. She raised them in response to tones of the voice, a slave trying to divine an owner’s wishes. (Had she stipulated that Danielo lived simply since she believed the questioner wished for this reply?) Yes, a slave. But even Danielo had been a slave.

“I’ve been hearing, Volpa,” the Magister Major halted, reviewing her ugly name, then went on, “that you also can perform a miracle.”

She glanced up, away.

He said, “Why don’t you do it now? Show me your cleverness.”

She sat there,
eyes down.

“The woman who saw you do this until now, hers has been an erring soul. But at once she’s come to God because of what you did. Through your act, this woman has found solace and regained the hope of eternal life.” Volpa sat silent.

The scraping of the clerk’s pen beside Danielus was an irritant. It answered where the girl stayed dumb. She did not look either deranged or witless. Nor did she look like other women of her type—girls, rather, she was no more than fourteen. In another year, or less, might come the sudden blossoming one saw among the females of this City and this land. For now, she had a boyish quality, despite the curve of her breasts.

“Again,” said Danielus calmly, “beside a marvel which seems to have brought only good, we must place men of the Silvian Quarter, who claim to have seen you set fire to the house of your former master, Ghaio. More, to have seen you walking garbed in flames. Can you do such a thing?” Volpa raised her head.

She was a slave, but when she met one’s eyes, it was not a slave you saw. A warrior who stood firm, ready for the blow, and half indifferent to it. Eyes as clear as crystal—where had he seen this look before? It was rare enough among men …

“You must, reply, Volpa.”

“I don’t know. The black priests asked me about my dreams, and I told my dreams.”

“I have read your account of the dreams, Volpa.

Journeying with your mother, and the curious animals and plants, and the mountain that burned always with red fire.”

“She showed me how to make the fire. It’s simple.” Volpa said, he could have sworn
patiently
, “Don’t others do it?”

Danielus’ eyes and brows indicated, for a split second, inner laughter. “No. I’ve never known any make
a fire in the way the woman Luchita says that you did. Nor do any walk in fire unburned, save the three friends of Danielo, that Nabucco flung into a fiery furnace. But an angel kept them from harm and led them to safety.”

Something fluttered through the girl’s own eyes.

This was not laughter, more like a passing light.

“An angel then,” she said. “Oh, I see. It was that.”

“What are you saying? Take care.”

She did not. She gazed at him openly, frowning a little, and said, “I was in his bedroom, now I remember it. And he wanted to hurt me. He threw me down on the mattress and pressed his face to mine. I ran away across the room. Then I forget, but I had no clothes on me. And yet someone put my shift on to my body, and led me out, through the window, and then I forget again. But I see now, it was an angel who led me out from the fire. An angel who clothed me in my shift.”

Beside Danielus, the clerk gasped and surged up.

Danielus spoke quickly, like the edge of a knife. “
Sit down
.”

Volpa said, “I understand it now.”

“What, Volpa, do you understand?”

“It was one of the angels I saw with my mother, when we were on the hill.”

The clerk had sat, frozen, turning the color of whey.

Danielus said, softly, “You say you’ve seen angels?”

“When I was a child. Only once.”

“Describe them.”

The flood of reason, the solving of her puzzle, had loosened her tongue.

“On a green sky against the first stars. They flew over. We thought they were birds—but they were men.

Their arms were crossed on their chests. They had great wings. Flames burned on their heads.”

Danielus heard the teeth of the
clerk chattering.

The room seemed very cold. Danielus said, “Volpa, do you know your Lord’s Prayer?”

“No, signore.”

“I will say it. You must say it after me.”

She nodded. Her face was bright, almost happy, as it must have been in the easy, happy, beautiful place she had detailed from her dreams.

“Father of all, who abides In Heaven—”

She spoke the words carefully after him. All and every one. With no tremor she pronounced the names of God, then of the Virgin, and the Christ.

When they were finished, he had her speak the prayer over alone. Unlettered, unable to read, and a chattel, she had been used to learning by rote. She was word perfect.

“You perceive,” said Danielus to the trembling clerk, “she has no fear of God’s name. Write that down.” The clerk wrote. The sound of the pen irritated less.

“Now Volpa,” said Danielus without inflexion, “won’t you call just a little flame, to start this candle for me.” She looked unsure. But then, her eyes strayed to the frightened clerk.

Danielus saw the peculiar transformation which went over her. He gauged its secret as no other had had space—or mind—to do.

Emotion was her impetus. Ghaio had meant to rape her—lust—and rage? Luchita had been urgent and weeping—sorrow, pain. Now the clerk’s religious terror.

Volpa drew off her woman’s veil and cap. The hair spilled out—still damp from washing, a dark lion’s mane, glorious red as a sunset. And from it, stroking, coaxing, she pulled a tiny little sun, and put it down on the candle, just as Danielus had asked.

PART THREE

      M
ATTHEW
:  

Why doth fire fasten upon the candle-wick?

      P
RUDENCE
:  

To show that, unless grace doth kindle upon the heart, there will be no true light of life in us.

J
OHN
B
UNYAN

The Pilgrim’s Progress

1

O
N THE FLOOR
, carnations were strewn,
as always in late summer. The feet of men crushed them, staining the mosaic with pink and red. At the great ebony table, resting on its ivory lions’ paws, these thirteen men who had crushed the carnations underfoot, sat now, all in black but for one.

And above them, hung the banner of white and gold, with its lettering like a spell:
Pax tibi Vene
.

Joffri, Ducem of the City of Ve Nera, (popularly called Venus) to which the banner wished peace, leaned his elegant chin on his slender hand.

His eyes were luminous with distaste.

Once every month, the Council of the Lamb attended on him, as their ostensible lord and patron. Sometimes he was able to make an excuse, as when he had had to have a tooth drawn, or, with more difficulty, when his favorite hound, lovely white Gemma, had died, gored by a boar in the woods of the plain.

But here he was today. And he had listened as they told him, as always, the sins of Ve Nera. How many citizens they had arrested, how many more were being watched over by their Eyes and Ears. Their disgusting black boats, nicknamed for the Styx, Death River,
were an eyesore to Joffri. He loved the mass, the drugging incense and beautiful singing, drowsing through the exhortations, with a box of sweets at his side, and wine. He respected God, who had given him wealth and pleasure, and a comely healthy body with which to enjoy them. But Joffri, who as a child had artlessly informed his confessor that Jesus Christ had said there were but two commandments, to love God and to love oneself, had no liking for shadows.

These twelve shadows about him now were powerful, however. More powerful than a Ducem? Possibly. The Magisters Major themselves must dip the metaphorical knee to this Council. Men in black who had no title save for their composite Brothers of the Lamb. Hoods or half-concealed, opaque faces. Repellent faces, like old parchment, cut for lips and smeared for eyes.

“It occurs to us, Lord Ducem,” one of them said now, “that as war approaches, our authority must be increased.”

Who had spoken? He mislaid their names. Besides, sometimes they changed, one resigning his post (or removed) another mysteriously assuming it. But wait, Fra Danielus, that astute and intelligent man, had sent a list this very morning. Danielus seemed privy sometimes to the Council’s acts, and would, if asked, assist his Prince.

Where was the list in Joffri’s brain? Ah, here. Yes, lean, stooping, little-eyed—Sarco, a strange, foreign name. “Brother Sarco, I thought the Council’s authority omnipotent.”

“I thank God, Lord Ducem, it is not. We too are bound by Veneran law, and by the proviso that keeps ambition, even in the best causes, chained.”

“Indeed. Well, whatever you need,
naturally.”

They rustled in their robes, like things of black paper.

“We hear,” said Sarco, “that the fleet of the enemy, when launched, may number a thousand ships.”

The Ducem let out a laugh. Checked himself.

“No, brothers. I pray not. The spies of Venus—pardon my lapse—Ve Nera—reported less than four hundred vessels, and another fifty perhaps to be made sea-worthy. Our own fleet we have held at one hundred and thirty ships.”

“More ships must be built,” said another of them, a bulkier one, Jesolo, the Ducem thought.


Yes
, brother. So they shall be. But we have a small problem there. To get them, we must add to the taxes. While already the merchants and tradesmen must pay
yours
. And they’re unwilling—”

Sarco interrupted the Ducem fluidly, as if without discourtesy, “Our taxes, my lord, are necessary to stay men from sin. Since they lack the will to curb their gluttony, drunkenness and vanity, such levies as the council sets restrict them perforce, for the benefit of their souls.” “Of course,” said Joffri. “I didn’t imply, brother, any feeling against the esteemed council. Only against myself, the poor Ducem, should I require to
add
to the burden.”

Far down the table, another man spoke. He was a new one, Joffri thought, swarthy and hoarse-voiced. The name refused to surface.

“Already the City’s stirred up with fear of war.

When they’re afraid, men become more pious, or else they give way and run amok. They indulge appalling vices. Things are done at such times that invite the brimstone of Sodomus and Gomorrah. Do we recall the years of the Death Plague?”

Joffri grimaced. He had been born too
late for that horror, and was extremely glad of it. He nodded any way, to keep the unnamed misery in temper.

Sarco finished, “Such scenes must be prevented.”

“Oh, quite.”

“We have here a letter in which we, the Council, set out that extra scope we consider proper to us, for the season.”

One or two of them rose, and came to Joffri, with the thick scroll, bound by a spotless tassel, and stuck with vermilion wax. The wax was imprinted by the seal of the Lamb.

It was a nice little lamb, as it kneeled there. A gentle lamb.

God knew what they wanted now. All a-bed at the Venusium bell … a new tax on any traffic along any canal—worth a fortune, that one … or on the carnal act, perhaps, within marriage

They could order a rich merchant or even a lesser prince to ride publicly in sackcloth, in a Styx boat, to the Primo, beating himself the while, for some heinous (exaggerated?) crime of blasphemy or sloth. Now and then, in the last two years, they had done so.

“I am grateful, brothers, for your care for my City.”

Joffri did not think himself a coward. Only wise.

When Sarco said, mildly, “Your City, Lord Ducem, but also God’s,” Joffri bowed.

He was so delighted to bid them farewell. But despite the carnations he had had scattered, their odor stayed with him all up the stairs. A sour stale smell of bodies and minds bound always tight in darkness. For a moment, he knew he feared the Council more than Jurneia and her thousand ships.

* * *

After reading a copy of the
Council’s letter to the Ducem, which Brother Sarco had given him, Fra Danielus went down to the castra, to the practice court, to watch Cristiano exercise.

In the summer heat, all the Bellatae were stripped to the waist. Wrestling, they flung each other over, laughed or complained, and ran back together. They were like battling stags. And seeing the Magister, they vaunted themselves, excelled—or made mistakes.

BOOK: Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series)
3.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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