City of light, p.1
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       City of Light, p.1

           Greg M. Hall
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City of Light
City of Light

  By: Greg M. Hall

  Copyright 2011 by Greg M. Hall

  This book may be reproduced, copied, and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided this book remains in its complete original form and proper attribution is given the author.

  This is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and events portrayed in this novel are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, locales, or events is entirely coincidental.

  Traffic Control (Action)

  Closure (Fantasy)

  Rick’s Hostage (Horror)

  The Gig (Horror)

  My Pal The Bug #1: For They Know Not… (Sci-Fi)

  My Pal The Bug #2: The Haunted Drug Lab (Sci-Fi)

  That Stupid Kid (Literary)

  A cheer washed over the military supply train that trundled me into the city of Benshma, one of six created by the Andrian Empire to support their siege of Pingwot. Ruddy faces, normally lathered in the sweat of hard labor, glowed in the sheen of heavy afternoon drinking. Giggling children weaved and dodged the draft horses and carts, lobbing flowers at anything that moved.

  “They appear happy to see us,” I told the teamster next to me. To be heard over the cacophony I had to use my Homily voice, the one that carried to the back corners of the Cathedral when it was my turn to preside over mass.

  “It’s a tradition,” the battle-scarred Andrian replied. “The supply train’s arrival is the high point of their year. It’s a waste of time and money—these towns have been self-sufficient for years—but High Command has never gotten around to pulling the requisition.”

  A middle-aged man with a missing tooth limped up to pass a tankard to the teamster, who hoisted it above his head in thanks. “Doesn’t mean I’m not going to participate, mind you.”

  As the wagons halted near the city center, I thanked the caravan’s Captain for the passage, and offered him a special blessing—for what it was worth, since the man seemed an agnostic but too polite to tell me. He wished me well on my assignment, and pointed across the square at an imposing brick building, identifying it as the office of the Grand Siege Commander.

  Beyond the parapet of the civic building rose the high towers of Pingwot, ringed with a curtain wall the way a shock of grain at harvest is bound by twine. Impenetrable for six centuries, those walls separated me from the objective my Bishop had assigned.

  In the daytime, the city was an imposing sight. But nightfall would bring what I had traveled for six weeks to see.

  I hoped the lights were every bit as fantastic as people had described. After all, they’d likely get me killed; it would be a shame if they turned out a disappointment.

  The General was unavailable, the sentry at the door told me, but his adjunct, Major Rickard, would be more than capable of seeing to my needs. Rank didn’t matter; humility had been forged into me in youth by various Benedictine canes and switches. A raw recruit would suit me, as long as I was granted passage to the front gates of Pingwot.

  I quickly identified eagles as the motif of Rickard’s office. Judging from the man behind the desk, the décor was the result of a fraternal affection. His eyes, little beady things set close together, gazed at me over a hooked, sharp nose. The Major kept his hair pomaded and combed back over the top of his skull. Unlike the other Andrian soldiers, his uniform sparkled with brightly polished metal buckles and insignia, his studded leather vest supple with nightly coats of oil. This assignment had all the appearance of a temporary one for the Major, one held until the Andrian Imperial Council could find a neighbor willing to fight them.

  “Good afternoon to you, Father.” His voice, tenor in register, detracted from his otherwise intimidating persona. “I apologize to the Diocese on behalf of my commander: Every Moons-day the General presides over civil court proceedings in one of the other cities. I can assure you, however, I am quite capable of serving in his stead.”

  I tried a disarming smile. “Thank you, Major. You’ll find I require little and will stay out of the way as much as possible. I’ve been sent by my Bishop to conduct an inquiry into Pingwot.”

  He leaned forward. His hands curled around a marching baton on his desk like talons gripping a perch. “What would the Church possibly want from a city where they marry their cousins and live in their own filth?”

  I ignored the last part of the question; my travels have shown me so much regional and racial prejudice that I believe it would be easier to stop the ocean tides than eradicate stereotypes. “I’m here about the lights.”

  If Rickard were capable of smiling, I’m certain he would have, but all he could manage was a sneer and dry chortle. “Yes, Pingwot has been engaging in their little mummery show for a few months now. I hardly see how such parlor tricks are worth the Church’s scrutiny.”

  “Word has spread; some in the Chancery worry that the common folk ascribe them to witchcraft. His Excellency has sent me to enter the city, evaluate the lights, and determine a more…worldly explanation.”

  Rickard nodded, and I wasn’t sure if he believed it as my whole story or not. I’m uncomfortable with fabrications—that had been forged out of me by various Benedictine canes and switches—but my story was more of a half-truth than an outright lie. Telling the Major more might provide the Andrians with something to tip the balance of the siege, and the Church remembered the hard lessons of being involved in politics back in the time of First Man.

  “It sounds like quite a small task for all the travel you’ve endured, Father.” His eyes narrowed on me. “But one should not make light of any quest for the truth.”

  Perhaps I just imagined extra emphasis on the last word.

  The Major leaned back, pulling the baton into his lap. “I can accommodate any request for access within Benshma or any of the Andrian camps or cities. Feel free to walk around the bottom of the Pingwot mesa and look. Unfortunately, that’s all I can permit. The City is under siege. You cannot enter it.”

  “But surely, since this is Ch—”

  “—Have your Bishop register a complaint with the Imperial Council, then. I understand my orders, Father, and regardless of what I do or don’t believe on my own time, I do not violate orders.”

  I wanted to press further, but could tell it was pointless. Rickard exuded discipline but not necessarily initiative, and since the Andrian empire hadn’t been in a real war for a while, I suppose the upper ranks of their military were rife with such bureaucrats.

  I thanked him for his time, but certainly offered no blessing.

  I wandered the streets of Benshma, the Festival roiling all around, my presence apparently a waste. I paused for a moment, looking up at Pingwot’s towers, tantalizingly close, when someone big and meaty bumbled into me.

  “Hey, chum—oh! Excuse me, Father.” His broad face was all cheeks and eyeballs, and though his grin slipped, I could tell it would be back up at any moment.

  “Quite alright,” I assured him, “I’m taking a risk standing and staring at the city.”

  The oafish Andrian glanced up, then back at me. “Oh, pay no mind to those cousinfu—uh, they’re not very nice people up there, Father.” He gave me an awkward look before his face brightened. “Oh! I just realized you’re empty-handed, Father!” He goggled around before calling to a serving girl with hair of burnished copper and ruddy cheeks. “Marta! Our guest here needs a drink!”

  “You assume I do drink,” I told him, though with a smile.

  “Oh, beg pardon, Father. That’s my way, I guess: beggin’ forgiveness is easier than askin’ permission.”

  I gratefully accepted a tankard from the girl, who I thought was far too young to attract the libidinous stare my new acquaintance lavished on her, an
d told him: “In this case, it’s worked out for you. But in my line of work, I’m obligated to warn you: it’s far easier to ask forgiveness here, than to ask Him when he calls.” I pointed skyward.

  He responded with a hearty laugh, a guzzle from his own tankard, and a slap on my shoulder. “Then I might be looking around for you in the morning, Father.” He performed a clumsy spin and dove into the mass of people, no doubt in search of something to engage in which would provide for a colorful confession.

  I picked through other loud, happy Andrians to lean on a waist-high stone wall to enjoy the contents of my stein.

  My taste buds were treated to a flavorful, dark ale, with a pleasing toasted malt aroma. Though I found it a bit gritty for my preference, it didn’t take long to finish. I studied the sediment of grain bits at the bottom of the mug, wondering if a second one was in order. Over the rooftop across the street, the towers of Pingwot beckoned in the early evening.

  What was the worst that could happen if I just…walked up there? After all, the people in Pingwot might want to kill a nosy stranger; so what if the Andrians wanted my head as well?

  I remembered a discussion I had back in the seminary about birth control in premarital relations. “If you’re already committing one Mortal sin,” my friend Roque—who later got himself
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