The time had come for the Catechist of Yeratet to choose a new spouse. The final candidates knelt at three corners of a blanket, heads bowed, while the priest kneeling at the fourth corner recited the ritual questioning of God. Ivory pillars, inlaid with gold and jade, reached to the high domed ceiling of the Catechilis. Outside, sand whispered against the thick stone walls. The air tasted dry and smelled of dust.
Parteeka Ren Sussu took the opportunity to size up the other two candidates. The man on her left was tall and solid, with skin the colour of slate dust. Scars seamed his arms and neck like zippers, and one very old scar crossed his nose and his left cheek, just below the eye.
The supreme leader of Yeratet would never choose this scarred thug as his spouse. He had chosen but two men in seventy-two spouses. Parteeka struggled not to show her contempt. She must not underestimate the thug. He had made it this far through the selection. And showing the wrong emotion at the wrong time could undermine her entire carefully designed strategy.
The young woman on Parteeka’s right presented a more serious challenge. She was dressed cheaply but was small, with long brown hair, a tough body, and taut, tanned skin. This Catechist was known to like tough women. Indeed, his last wife, Turana, had been very similar to this girl. Well, Parteeka thought, there were more ways of being tough than having a hard body.
There had been a thousand candidates at the first round of selection; now there were only three. Parteeka had spent most of her fortune and called in favours gained over twenty years to get her this far, but here her influence had ended. The Catechist could not be bought. Still, if all went well, she would soon be the Catechist’s new wife.
The priest finished the ritual and drew out a cloth bag. “In this place you will speak only the truth.” He offered the bag to the young woman, who reached in and brought out her fist with something clutched inside. The bag passed to Parteeka, and she too reached in. There were two smooth balls. She ran her fingers over them, trying to feel a difference between them, then selected one at random and pulled it out. The scarred man took the last ball.
The priest folded the bag into his robe. “In this place, God and the Catechist hear all, see all, know all. Do not lie, for no one may lie in this place and live. Speak true, speak well, and you will become the spouse of the Catechist.” He stood, and strode from the Catechilis.
Parteeka looked down at the small black ball clutched in her hand. Two.
The scarred man rose. Tinted light from the stained-glass windows high above fell on his black skin. Muscles tensed beneath his clothes as he spoke. “Dorat has number one.” Parteeka did not recognise his accent. “Dorat tells you how he saw the Catechist of Yeratet and fell in love.
“In Serinda, on the other side of the world, the flame-spike trees flower for fourteen months a year, and the blossom is as thick as oil in the air. At dusk, the sky is filled with silver bats flickering among the towers. Some have said that it is the most beautiful city in the world. Perhaps they are right. It did not seem so to Dorat.
“Those who say it was beautiful have not seen the hanging square where crowds gathered to cheer the death of their neighbours, nor the way Serinda treated those who seemed different. There was beauty, yes, in the flowing water and the trees and the flowers and the golden temples, in the syrupy smell of figs and the dry spices, but a homeless child cannot appreciate that beauty when the militia are hunting him down.”
Tears began to flow down the man’s cheeks. Parteeka smiled to herself. This man was weak. The Catechist would not choose a weak spouse.
“Dorat does not recall his parents. He thinks they must have died when he was too young to remember, although they may have abandoned him. He imagines they were like him, for that is the way of such things, but he cannot know. He did not see any others like himself in Serinda, so maybe he was a freak of nature.
“Serinda was a beautiful city, they say, and a homeless boy did not look beautiful. His childhood was a fearful fusion of thievery, pursuit, and beatings. When he was hungry he would sometimes climb the flame-spike trees and gather their bitter, unripe fruits to sell at the market for a few pennies. It was poor work, and the thick pollen of the trees choked him and made his skin erupt and his eyes run tears. To Dorat, this was life.
“Come Septimaltide one year, Dorat made a mistake. Maybe you do not know, because in this part of the world it has fallen from use, but Septimaltide was a great feast in Serinda. On that day no man worked, and the Catechist arrived to celebrate with his people. Dorat believed that on this day, too, the militia would celebrate, so Dorat joined the crowds. He saw the Catechist’s glistening silvery ships descend from the sky, saw the flight-fields snap off, and the ramps descend. Saw the Catechist in his purple veil walk out in front of the crowds. And felt a hand clamp his arm, jerk him back, and turn him around. He looked up into the face of a militiaman.
“Here is what the militia did to a small, strange boy called Dorat in far Serinda: They took him to the palace. They stripped him, beat him, burned him, electrocuted him, kicked him, cut him, and left him on the cold stones. Dorat remembers all of this. He wishes he did not, but he has no choice.”
So, Parteeka thought, settling back on her heels, this Dorat would try for sympathy. It was an interesting tactic. She had considered it herself then discarded it. The Catechist would not choose from sympathy, her advisors had told her. He wanted ambition, success, influence, and ruthlessness. All of these she could offer.
Dorat was still speaking. “Eventually the lure of drink led his captors away. They thought, perhaps, that Dorat was dead. But he was not. In agony he pulled himself across the stones, up endless steps, and out of the palace. Dorat does not know how he managed this; he could not do it now.
“In the palace grounds he saw flame-spike trees. It seems unlikely that Dorat was thinking clean, but no doubt he recognised these as safety. He decided that if he could just climb one of these the militia would not catch him. He had done such a thing before.
“Dorat could not use one leg, and the fingers of his left hand had been crushed, but he was an agile boy — and so, with tears of effort and pain, he dragged himself into the stinging blossom. The branches were sticky beneath him. It may have been sap. It may have been blood. The ghost wind of evening was rustling the fire-spikes.”
There was something wrong with the man’s story, Parteeka thought. It had been nagging at her for a while. Some detail. Something she once knew. Ah, but she had seen so many cities on so many worlds. What was Serinda among them? But if she could remember, if she could prove he was lying….
“Eventually his eyes cleared and Dorat realised he could see straight into a room in the second storey of the palace. This room was ornamented with gold and silks and glittering stones. A great bed sat in the middle of the floor. As he watched, Dorat saw the Catechist of all Yeratet enter the room. Before Dorat’s frightened eyes the Catechist removed that purple veil. As all men know, as Dorat knew, anyone who sees the face of the Catechist, save his spouse, must die. But Dorat thought then that it was worth the price. Dorat, injured, weak, and bloody, saw the only thing of true beauty that he had ever seen in his short life: the uncovered face of the Catechist of Yeratet. In that moment, Dorat fell in love. There is little more to say except that Dorat never lost his love for that Catechist.
“So Dorat is here.”
The man sat. Love! Now Parteeka did sneer, raising her hand to cover it. Did the fool think that the Catechist required love from his spouse? This was even weaker than the sympathy ploy. The Catechist required power and ambition from his spouse, nothing else. With a quick movement she stood and cast her ball onto the blanket.
“I will speak,” she said.
The man, Dorat, sank slowly back to the blanket. Tears still rolled from his clear blue eyes.
“I think I was about five when I first tasted Jondian wine-truffles,” Parteeka said. “At the time I thought they were the finest food in the world. I was stupidly naïve, of course, but I was young, and the experience was enough to set me on my life’s mission. It was the first time that I truly understood the sacred nature of food, how a taste is more powerful than a gun and more important than life, love, or truth.” She glanced at the others. Neither of them seemed to be paying her any attention. That didn’t matter. She wasn’t speaking for their benefit. “I doubt that is a lesson either of you have learnt.
“I learnt to read in little more than a month to discover more about food. My parents were too ignorant to be able to tell me anything worth hearing, and what they cooked shouldn’t even have been thrown into a pig’s trough. They might have been decent people by other standards, I suppose, but by then I had learned what was truly important.
“In a book that my parents had obviously never opened I found a description of Hadiyan melting cake. The words were plain, but they were great poetry because in my mind I could see the cake, and I could already taste it dissolving on my tongue.
“I searched the city, walking from bakery to bakery, when my parents thought I was at school. It took me five foot-worn weeks to cover them all. At last, in a tiny shop I had walked past several times without noticing, I found the true Hadiyan melting cake. One look, and a hint of the spices in my nose, and I knew I must have it. But there was one problem. The baker wanted a quarter ounce of gold dust for it, and where does a five-year-old child find a quarter ounce of gold?”
The girl on the blanket looked up, frowning, as though Parteeka were addressing the question to her. Parteeka rewarded her with a thin smile.
“She steals it of course. That is not wrong. It is far less of a crime than denying your passion, and passion for food is a true passion: it brings suffering and struggle, pierced with moments of purest light. That is passion.
“I had long known where my parents hid their money. It was easy to steal a quarter ounce of gold dust. No doubt each assumed that the other had taken it, if they noticed at all.
“Over the next four years I searched out every delicacy our city could offer, plundering my parents’ savings when necessary. It was inevitable that one day I would be caught, but I had planned ahead. When, at the age of nine, they found me taking a diamond for a pie of jade-bird kidneys, and they beat me and removed what was left of their savings to somewhere safer, I had already gathered my own little hoard, skimmed off from the money I had stolen over the years. At this age I was already cleverer than my parents.”
Parteeka was striding around the blanket. She didn’t stop herself. Her advisors had told her to let her passion show. The Catechist would be listening, somewhere, judging them. She would show how driven she was. Let the others try to match her.
“In the meantime, my school had discovered my love of food and were trying to teach me cookery. Cookery! As though a true gourmet would cook her own food. I knew I must escape.
“I left home at eleven and never returned. I do not know what became of my parents. I did not care. My fate, my passion was more important.
“It was not difficult to find groups who shared this passion. We travelled the continent, dining on exotic feasts and treats that would cost an emperor his wealth if he tried to buy them. Sometimes we stole, sometimes we dealt, always we pursued the finest foods. We chased down legends and myths. We had many disappointments and wasted trips, but these were more than paid for by the delights we found. It was a golden time for a child, and I still have some gratitude to these people.
“But eventually I grew tired of them, too. Their ambitions were too mundane. They did not understand that there must something more. The dishes we ate were good, maybe even sublime, but they were not perfect. The perfect food should overwhelm the gourmet, not by force, but by seduction of every sense. It should leave her complete, her life over, with no more to experience. I had not yet found this food.
“I took what I could of their money and moved on. Do not misjudge me here. They would have done the same, had their ambition been sufficient.” This was important. The Catechist must understand that she would do anything for an important cause. He would want that in a wife. The Catechist’s wife must be ruthless.
“I began to dig deeper.
“I have eaten eyes from a live Yenus monkey, swan stuffed with a hundred hummingbirds and basted in secret spices, and eggs of the now extinct sighing owl.
“At the age of seventeen I joined the Lænon Mercenaries’ raid on Saphith Tertiary because I had heard that the natives had a unique method of preparing veal, and I wished to taste it before their civilisation was destroyed entirely. Later that year I organised and led an attack on the Gordonian Heretics, on what turned out to be a false rumour of a fragile secret wine. So it went.
“If it was that people died, then it was a price worth paying.” Ruthlessness and dedication again. No one could rule Yeratet’s stagnant empire without it.
“As I penetrated further into the mysteries of food, I started to hear whispers of one dish so astonishing that any who ate it would never be able to eat other food again. At first no one could tell me what it involved, but as I picked up fragments from those who had heard of it in passing, whispered from generation to generation of gourmet, the concept began to form in my mind, until after half-a-dozen years I knew this food. It was based on the liver of a bird so unusual it did not even have a name. I aimed my entire, now considerable resources at finding this bird. I hardly cared to eat, such was my passion. I travelled from continent to continent, and even from world to world to find one. But each time I found either no trace, or merely that the information was so out of date that the birds were long gone. On Gentale I almost reached my goal, only to find that the last bird had been slaughtered the day before and boiled in a common soup. I killed the man who had committed this crime. He deserved worse.
“Now I am convinced that these birds are extinct. All save one. I have discovered the last of the species. It is owned by the Catechist of Yeratet. It is the right of the new spouse of the Catechist to demand any dish for her wedding meal. I will marry the man, and I will eat the dish. Then my life will be complete.” It was a calculated risk, that truth. But above all, in this place, truth was essential. By now the Catechist would know her determination and power. That she would risk rejection by telling this truth could only confirm her qualities to him. He would choose her.
Dust swirled in the light. The others seemed deep in thought. Parteeka watched them carefully. The man, Dorat, was staring far away, as though locked in his memories. She wondered if he had even heard her story. She didn’t care. Her passion was stronger, more worthy, than his mere love of the Catechist.
Finally, the young woman sighed and lifted her head. Her gaze flitted around the open space of the Catechilis, like a bird trying to flee.
“I don’t want to tell my story,” she said. “It hurts and I have had enough of pain. It hurts like you cannot imagine.” She fixed Parteeka with a glare. “You know nothing of pain and not all of the words in the world could show it to you.” She stopped for a long while. A smile formed on Parteeka’s lips. The girl was not going to speak. She would lose by default.
Again the girl sighed. “How to tell it? How do we tell any tale? My name is Martia Ponacia Quendente. I guess that doesn’t mean much to you. Why should it? Why should you care?” She ducked her head, her cheeks flushing. A flush of anger not embarrassment, Parteeka thought.
“My people are Gordonian Heretics.” She glared at them, perhaps expecting comment. When none came, she continued. “No doubt you think us evil. We believe that the Catechist of Yeratet is an abomination before God. No man should stand between the people and God. It is for a man to learn through suffering. The Catechist prevents this. Abomination! My people have suffered much and so we have learnt much.” She shook her head, and her long hair shimmered across her back. “Maybe I should thank you for that. You have given us the suffering, but I find I cannot do so. Can I thank you for Prestat’s death? You do not even know who Prestat was, but you killed him. He was my brother. I found him dead on the sands. Do you care yet?”
Martia’s hands balled into fists in her robes. Why should they care? Parteeka wondered. Why should the Catechist care? People died.
“Let me tell you of the Hander Wastes. In the evening, the winds throw dust into the air, and the setting sun turns the sky a heavy red. The storms can strip skin from your face in seconds, and the howling winds force sand into your mouth and nose and fill your lungs with choking dust. It is our place.
“We fled there to escape the Catechist’s persecution, and we made it ours, with its bitter beauty that suits us so well. The ever-present dust is our friend and our enemy. But they — you — followed us even to the desert. For a dozen generations, the Catechist has pursued a campaign against my people in our desert retreat. At first we were unprepared, and his troops drew lines of blood across the sand. We, a peaceful, contemplative people, were faced with the heavily armed soldiers of Yeratet. They were merciless. They killed all they found and swam in heretic blood. We were almost wiped out.
“Eventually, we learned to fight back. If we can learn from suffering, so can you. We swore to make your people suffer, to cut the Catechist at his heart, to make him bleed as we bled. So he would learn. And so we did. We became as dust in the wind, creeping into cracks in your cities and towns. We were everywhere, but uncatchable. We killed and we killed. I myself have cut the throats of the Catechist’s soldiers and bureaucrats and people. I have placed bombs in his cities. Blood for blood. Do you care yet?” Martia glared at them. Her eyes had gained a fire.
“My father was captured by soldiers and burned alive. My mother died when your razorships came across her party on the open sands. My brothers died with guns in their hands. I am proud of them all. I have seen your soldiers murder children, rape women, torture men. The Catechist did this because we challenge his right to rule.
“We live beneath the sands, and in huddles in the rocks. No flame-spike trees and running water and playing children for us.” That was it! The flame-spike trees. Suddenly Parteeka realised what was wrong with Dorat’s story. A smile broke over her face. It enraged Martia. “You think you have suffered, but you do not even understand my words! How can you smile? I have told you how my father died. That means nothing to you. To me it is beyond words, it is pain and longing and despair and you do not even care.” She took a calming breath.
“We have fought for over a hundred years and we have learnt well how to fight. Now your soldiers do not dare to enter the Hander Wastes except in their ships and armoured creepers. Your people cannot rest easy in any city because we can come there and kill you. And we have. And heretic blood has soaked into the wastes.
“In two generations, nothing has changed. You do not advance nor retreat. We bleed each other.
“The stalemate has gone on too long. Our peoples have died and died and died, and the sands are darkened with blown blood. It is time for peace between our peoples. I will bring peace.” Her skin was flushed. She ducked her head. When she spoke her voice was almost a whisper. “I…I will marry the Catechist.”
“And then?” Parteeka asked.
“And then?” Parteeka repeated, her body thrumming with tension.
“And then I will kill him.”
Parteeka laughed. She had won. Already she could taste that perfect meal in her mouth. Her heart thundered beneath her breast. The Catechist would never allow someone who wished to kill him to become his spouse. And as for Dorat, he had made a mistake. This was the place of truth. No one could lie and hope to live. She knew his lie. She faced him, triumphant.
“You lied, Dorat. I have been to Serinda. I have seen it. There are no flame-spike trees, nor golden temples. No running water and flowers. There are only age old ruins, and dust. The Catechist destroyed Serinda a thousand years ago.” The fool had not even been able to get his story straight.
Dorat stood again, and lifted his chin. “I never lie. I saw the flame-spike trees in Serinda bloom. I saw the Catechist of Yeratet remove his veil, and he saw me. And it was a thousand years ago.
“No person can see the Catechist’s face and live, except for his spouse, and this Catechist was only half way through his forty-fourth marriage, so I could not become his spouse. He could have had me killed; he should have. But he did not. Perhaps he was tired. That comes to us all. He chose to step down from his calling and return to the seas of youth. He chose me as his successor.
“I am the Catechist of Yeratet.”
Cold sweat broke from Parteeka’s skin. She heard Martia gasp, then spit and come to her feet.
He was the Catechist. And Parteeka had seen his face. If she did not become his spouse, she would die.
“I am the Catechist, and I am tired. Today I have not come to choose a spouse, but to choose a successor. You are the final candidates.”
Parteeka saw Martia’s hand dart for her belt, as though to draw a weapon that wasn’t there, then drop away. She saw fury and betrayal cross the girl’s face. For a moment, Parteeka thought Martia might attack the Catechist with her bare hands, but then a look of resignation replaced the anger.
“Know this, Martia,” the Catechist said. “Serinda was the original city of the Gordonian Heretics. It was they who tortured and nearly killed the boy Dorat, and when I became Catechist I swore that the first thing I would do was wipe out these people. In that I have failed. It will be up to the next Catechist to decide what to do in this matter.”
He bowed his head.
“I have asked myself for a thousand years how I should choose my successor. What makes a Catechist? They should be strong, supple, determined, brave — both of you are that. They may be just, although that is not so important. They must be a leader. I could find a thousand men and women like that. But they would not be the right person. So, what makes a Catechist?”
He looked at both of them, as though expecting an answer.
Martia trembled with fury beside Parteeka. The girl wouldn’t answer. But Parteeka would. What made a Catechist? What answer did the man expect? She would tell any lie he wanted to hear. No less than her life was at stake. Her story rushed through her mind. Whatever she said must not contradict that. She could not risk being thought a liar.
Or could she contradict herself? Was that the key? The Catechist was waiting for something that wasn’t in either of their stories. She and Martia were both still here. Neither had yet ruled herself out. So what was he waiting for? There could be only one thing. Take the risk.
She cleared her dry throat.
“Is it that a Catechist must compromise?” she said. The Catechist’s blue eyes turned to her. Yes. She was right. “Is it that a Catechist must give up her desires, her beliefs, her previous life to dedicate herself to Yeratet?”
The Catechist seemed to incline his head, ever so slightly. She smiled. She could tell this lie. She could make him believe it.
“Parteeka Ren Sussu. Would you give up your desires, your beliefs, and your previous life for Yeratet?”
She held his gaze. It was easy. “I would.”
The Catechist turned to Martia.
“Martia Ponacia Quendente. Would you give up your desires, your beliefs, and your previous life for Yeratet?”
Parteeka couldn’t breathe. How well could the little heretic lie? Would she lie at all?
Silence stretched between them.
Parteeka dared not move. The sand was rough against her soft skin. Sweat soaked her shirt.
Then Martia turned her head and spat. “Never.”
Parteeka’s heart leapt. The stupid girl!
She stepped forward, bowing her head. “Catechist. I will always — ”
He cut her off with a raised hand.
“Above all,” Dorat said, “a Catechist must be true to herself.”
He reached inside his robe, pulled out the purple veil of the Catechist, and stepped past her. He placed the veil over Martia’s head, and then whistled sharply. Doors burst open around the Catechilis. Armed soldiers ran in. Martia tensed, then relaxed.
“I lied,” Parteeka said, desperately. “I lied. I would never give up my desires and beliefs. You must believe me. I lied.”
Dorat, the old Catechist, stared past her. The tears that had begun when he told his story still flowed from his blue eyes, but he was smiling, smiling. Parteeka could hear the scratch of every grain of shifting sand.
Then Dorat faced the soldiers.
“We have seen the face of the Catechist,” he said.