Dinner at deviants palac.., p.12
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.12

           Tim Powers
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  And why do the shepherds silence them now? They never did when it was gibberish.

  What are they afraid might be revealed?

  “Merge with the Lord.” A scream, then a rattling thud.

  Rivas wondered where Sister Windchime had wound up. Some of the new recruits were crying—the sacrament was a fairly scary spectacle to someone not used to it—and he wondered how deeply that vein of worried doubt ran in her, and what would be the effects on her of today’s events and conversations. He looked around as much as he could without turning his head but didn’t see her. Oh well, he thought. She’s not my responsibility. He closed his eyes as if in a trance and waited for the jaybush to get to him.

  When he opened his eyes again and blinked around, he was startled to see that considerable time had passed. In front of him was a circular clearing littered with bodies, some limp and some twitching and huffing as if with bad dreams; a few people were on their feet out there, gaping around in a sort of drugged bewilderment. The jaybush was only two people away to Rivas’s left, and he wished he’d stayed in his nap or trance or whatever it had been just a minute longer, so that he wouldn’t have seen the sacrament coming.

  “Merge with the Lord.” A young man jackknifed forward, and the tremendous crack as his head hit the hard-packed dirt made Rivas guess he was killed. He tried to concentrate on how he wanted to fall himself—bending the knees so he’d sit down first, try to get the arms up around the head—but a woman behind him was crying so loudly that he could hardly make his drink-fogged mind work.

  The jaybush stepped up to the boy next to Rivas. “Merge with the Lord,” spoke the white-robed figure, extending a hand. The boy hissed sharply as the touch was made, seemed to struggle to remain upright, then blew out noseful of blood and went down like a dropped armload of firewood. Some of the red spray dotted the jaybush’s robe, but there was already some drying blood spattered on the hem.

  “No,” wept the woman behind Rivas. “I don’t want to go to the Holy City. Not so soon.”

  Something about her voice struck the drunken Rivas as familiar, and he turned to look at her. She was about thirty, a bit overweight, and tangled black hair hung over her reddened eyes.

  He heard the jaybush step in front of him at the same moment that he recognized the woman as Urania Barrows, and even as he opened his mouth to say something to her the jaybush’s cold, bony finger touched the back of his neck.

  He wasn’t drunk now, though he was vaguely aware that he had been recently and would be again soon, as soon as he got back into his body. In the meantime it was pleasant to be able to see in the dark and move without using any muscles… though he was careful not to move too fast or too far, for he knew it would be easy to scoot right up into the sky and forget the way back.

  The big tent was far below him. He was level with the hilltop where he and the girl had paused earlier this evening, and he was still rising—must have bounced hard off the ground back there—but so slowly now that he knew there was no cause for alarm. It was nice to be alone up here, distantly aware of all the others way off there to the south east. They were linked now to the cold, sentient thing that couldn’t reach him; every few seconds he perceived yet another of them going there… no, more like becoming there, and stopping being in the tent… and much more distantly there were a few isolated awarenesses in the dark ness to north and east… one fairly conspicuous one, as a matter of fact….

  Suddenly he was certain that something out there in those miles of darkness was aware of him, was watching him. And he knew he could see it if he cared to, for he wasn’t seeing with his eyes now….

  But he was frightened, and was willing himself down, trying to put some hills between himself and that awareness out there in the dark; it was all he could do to move, and it occurred to him that fright in its pure state, without the hormones and reflexes of a physical body, was paralyzing, and that if he hadn’t just been in a body recently he probably wouldn’t have been capable of any motion at all.

  The thing out there knew he was retreating, and he could feel its amusement.

  Soon, it said, though without words. It’s always been me you loved best. Only.

  He didn’t choose to see it, but he realized that it didn’t matter, for he knew precisely what it looked like. It looked like himself.

  And just before the hill rose up and blocked the night sky in front of him, he caught a faint hint, more an attitude than a thought, of the thing’s ambition: below him, in the tent, was a physical body steadily deteriorating; out there in the hills was a physical body steadily solidifying. Was there a link, was there some sort of transference at work that was only symbolized by the transfer of blood? Was that thing becoming him? Would it one day complete itself and walk off, leaving him in a mindless little cellophanelike bag sharing the wind currents with dandelion seeds?

  Just as he was about to be swallowed up by the tent that had been growing nearer and nearer beneath him, he realized that he had picked up another half thought from the distant thing: it was glad he had used the drunk defense rather than the pain one, because the thing didn’t want any… any… what word, he wondered, expressed the flavor of the concept? Something like brothers, he decided as, inside the smoky tent now, he let himself be drawn down to his body; something like… rivals.

  Sound crashed back in on him so abruptly that he jumped like a startled cat, and his brandy-fouled digestive system rebelled at the sudden movement; he rolled to his feet and with clenched teeth and sweat-cold forehead sprinted out of the tent without looking at anything, and on the dirt track outside rid himself of a lot of the brandy and a surprising amount of wild anise. Fortunately it wasn’t an uncharacteristic response to the sacrament.

  After a while he walked back, dug his heels into the dirt and leaned his weight back against the fabric of the tent. It gave a little, and he wound up resting comfortably at a twenty-degree angle, facing east. Well, he thought, at least I didn’t get down on my hands and knees this time and go woof woof woof. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths of the dawn-chilly air.

  Suddenly it stuck him—dawn air? And yes, the sky behind the black hill was a little paler than black. Christ, he thought with instant panic, was I out all night? Has Uri’s band left?

  He floundered back upright and looked around. A few hooded figures were still hunching back and forth across the clearing in front of the tent, and he made himself walk swayingly over to one of them.

  He grabbed the person by the shoulder. “Listen,” he babbled, “I… was supposed to be… I’m a member of that band that was supposed to go to the Holy City, you understand, but I just now recovered from the goddamn communion. They haven’t left yet, have they?”

  The person—Rivas couldn’t tell in the dimness if it was a man or a woman—yanked its shoulder free of his hand. He couldn’t see tears on the blur of the face but he could hear them in the voice as the person choked, “I—don’t know. Ask the ones there by the entrance.” The figure hurried away from him and was almost instantly enveloped in the shadows of the eastern hill.

  Not feeling at all reassured, Rivas reeled to the tent entrance, which was still brightly lit from within. “Has the band heading for the Holy City left yet?” he croaked at the half-dozen people clustered there. “I’m, uh, supposed to be, like, with them, all right?” He glared around belligerently.

  Dark hoods turned toward him, but against the light from inside the tent he couldn’t see faces. “They left hours ago, brother,” a man said in not a very friendly tone. “And their shepherd oversaw the loading of them all into a wagon, and he made sure he had every one of them, even the unconscious ones.” The man took a step closer. “What’s your name, brother? Trying to get into the Lord’s city by lying is a pretty serious sin.”

  Another robed and hooded figure stepped forward from the group. “His name is Brother Boaz,” said Sister Sue. “Grab him, he—”

  Rivas was off and running through the darkness toward the path
that led up the hill, hearing nothing but the hard quick thumping of booted feet close behind him and his heart laboring in his chest, and he was wishing he’d done some exercise during his years in Ellay; and then an open hand slapped him solidly between the shoulder blades and he went flailing forward, off balance, his feet unable to keep up with his plunging body, and he hit the ground in a long grinding slide that left him retching in a cloud of dust as he struggled to get air into his impact-emptied lungs.

  Strong hands yanked him roughly to his feet; he’d have collapsed again immediately but the two men held him up and turned him around, back toward the tent. Sister Sue was walking up to the swaying trio, and in the brightening light Rivas could just see her broad, savage smile. “He’s a redeemer,” she told the figures following her. “He’s the one who killed our shepherd in the Cerritos Stadium. He knows a way to resist the sacrament.” She stopped in front of him and her ferally happy gaze made him squint defensively. “But he’s… susceptible, aren’t you, little brother? He can be made to be uncertain about things like who a musical instrument belongs to, and how old he is. Yes.” She laughed softly and reached out and touched Rivas’s abraded, bleeding cheek. “Yes, I think that after a couple of administrations of the sacrament while you’re securely tied up, and then being kept awake and chanted over for about seventy-two hours, you’ll be completely repentant, don’t you think, and eager to tell us all the details of your sins.”

  Rivas realized that he’d never been truly scared before now. “Look,” he quavered, trying to keep from breaking down and crying and probably wetting his pants too, “look, you don’t have to. I’ll tell you right now, Christ, everything, all of it, I swear, please—”

  Sister Sue laughed again, affectionately. “No no, little brother. We’ll do it our way—the Lord’s way.” She turned to the four figures behind her. “He’s strong with fear. All of you hold him. Get a rope around him—but not around his neck. Soon enough he’ll be happy to merge with the Lord, but right now he’d certainly rather take his own life.”

  With stout leather thongs they tied him to two big timbers which had been crossed and bolted together to form a big standing capital X, and a wide basket of woven bamboo was wedged over the tops of the beams as a sort of roof. The X stood over on the seaward side of the big tent, by the trash pits and the latrines; people seldom lingered on this side normally, but the sight of someone being disciplined roused morbid curiosity even in Jaybirds, and when the news about Rivas got around the shepherds had to set up a sticks-and-string boundary fence to keep the crowd back. The bright dawn had given way to an overcast sky, and the clouds whirled occasional skirts of rain across the valley, leaving patterns of round, dark pockmarks in the dust.

  Rivas’s ludicrous spread-eagled position was uncomfortable from the start, and during the morning it became increasingly painful in his shoulders and back; his arms would eventually have become entirely numb if he hadn’t kept flexing them against the bindings, and wiggling his fingers… though by midmorning he had to roll his head around and look up to see if the fingers really were moving as ordered. The most tormenting things were aches and itches that he couldn’t do anything about, and the way his nose kept tickling as if leading up to a sneeze which never came, and his consuming hangover thirst. Blood and sweat slowly dripped from him or soaked into the wood, and he couldn’t get rid of the idea that as every drop left him the hemogoblin out there in the wilderness became stronger and more solid, and that as every dragging hour eroded Rivas’s alertness and capacity for connected thought, the thing out there became more intelligent.

  At around noon the rain became steady, and soon after that it began coming down hard in battering sheets that raised a foggy spray of splashes from the muddy ground and rattled a loud, continuous drum-roll on the tent and the hillside and the basket above Rivas’s head. His black hair was slicked across his forehead and his clothes were darkly plastered against him and the breath seemed even hotter in his head because of how cold he was. The crowd of Jaybirds dispersed reluctantly, and before long they had all gone back inside the tent.

  Rivas had by now become almost calm. He knew he was not as strong, mentally or physically, as he’d been at twenty-one, and that if he became a Jaybird again now he probably would not again succeed in escaping the dreadful faith. But he knew too how short was the lifetime of the average far-gone—and he suspected that he’d be gone, and definitely far, in record time. Sister Sue had been right this morning in guessing that he’d gladly have killed himself rather than wind up here… but now he could see little difference between the two courses. And it seemed to him that there was something fitting about not dying until everything one ever had was used up… not dropping the glass until it was empty and even gnawed a little—There was a term he’d heard once… test to destruction…. To learn how much punishment something can take before breaking, you eventually have to break it….

  … He could think of a lot of smooth rhymes for “break it”….

  At least, he thought feverishly, I won’t wind up an old man. He spoke hoarsely into the rain: “I never did want to wind up an old man.”

  Then, and it scared him even though he could tell it was just delirium, he thought he heard the hemogoblin’s voice from miles away across the rainy hills: Well then I’ll come over and wind him up.

  He shuddered, and shook his head to clear it of all these morbid, self-pitying ideas. There you go again focusing only on Rivas, he told himself. You’re just fascinated by the Gregorio Rivas story, aren’t you? Especially the tragic ending.

  What about the Urania Barrows story? She may be just a supporting actor in your story, but what about hers? Or is yours the only one there is, and when you’re not actually looking at people they disappear or collapse like stage costumes that aren’t currently in use? Now that would be an interesting position for you to take, Rivas; maybe even if you somehow get out of this you’ll just end up as Noah Almondine’s main successor in the art of cutting out paper dolls.

  He couldn’t hear over the thrashing hiss of the rain, but through the deeply moored timbers of his rack he could feel the thudding of approaching footsteps. He closed his eyes so that they might think he was unconscious…. The jaybush might just touch him anyway, but it was worth a try.

  “Brother Thomas!” came a sharp whisper.

  Rivas’s eyes snapped open. A robed and hooded figure stood in front of him, holding a knife. “Sister Windchime?” he rasped.

  “Yes. I don’t want to get my hair wet or they’ll know I’m the one that did this.” Quickly she plowed the knife edge down the gap between Rivas’s right arm and the wood, and as he shook off the slimy loops of wet leather she did the same for his left arm—and then had to hold him up with her free hand, for he’d started to fold helplessly forward. Reaching down, she cut his legs free too, and Rivas reflected dazedly that this was one strong young lady. “Now run,” she said. “No one should ever deforced to take the sacrament.”

  “Thank you,” Rivas gasped. “I—”

  “Go, damn you!”

  “Right, right.”

  Rivas ran wobblingly toward the seaward hill, his shoes splashing in the new mud, and when he got to the slope he crouched behind one of the scrawny bushes at the foot of the hill until he got his breath back and stopped seeing a rainbow glitter seeping into his vision from the sides.

  After a few minutes he scrambled to the next bush, then to a boulder he could lie behind, then to a shallow gully…. Half an hour later he thought he heard shouting in the wind, but it was hard to be sure, for by this time he was well up into the inland end of the valley, and the patter of the rain on stone and leaves, and the trickle and splash of newborn streams, tended to drown out more distant sounds.

  He paused, though, and looked back down the valley. The Regroup Tent was a gray mushroom far away, difficult to distinguish from the bulks of the hills because of the mile of veiling rain that hung between it and him.

  He grinned. Redeemer, red
eem thyself. So long, Sister Sue.

  Late in the afternoon he found a building—once some kind of office, apparently—and decided that smoke against this gray-mottled sky would not constitute much of a risk, so he frictioned up a fire of plywood shelves and antique invoices in the open doorway and warmed himself and baked his clothes dry. He tried not to torment himself with thoughts of food or—though he had managed to slake his thirst at a pool of rain water—liquor. Finally, dry and warm and at least not much sicker than he’d been this morning, he admitted to himself that there was nothing he could do right now except, with massive reluctance and not even a drink, review his situation.

  Well, he told himself, Uri’s gone now, but everything you could do you did do. You not only have Barrow’s five thousand fifths, you earned them: you took the sacrament twice; you were actually shot, though nobody’ll believe that; twice a hemogoblin attached itself to you; you had to kill four men; and if it weren’t for the unlikely intervention of that girl, Sister Windchime, you’d be a grinning, babbling moron at this very moment. Oh, and that guy knocked you down this morning, and damned hard, too. And you cut hell out of your thumb. And God knows if you still have a job at Spink’s.

  He glanced around at the rusty, dusty old filing cabinets and wondered if any of the generations-dead people who’d worked here had been in the habit of caching some liquor somewhere. One heard of such finds occasionally.

  Suddenly and shamefacedly he remembered the incomparably greatest suffering he’d sustained during the course of this last, unsuccessful redemption: the loss of Uri herself! For thirteen years he’d planned to go find her as soon as he’d got some real money and could give her the kind of life, she deserved, and for these last three days he’d been out actively risking his life to find her… and now she was gone, snatched from him just at the very moment—what a touch—the very moment when his three-day search, no, thirteen-year pilgrimage, was within seconds and inches of being completed!

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