Brutha hesitated. Now he came to think about it, the voice hadn’t said anything very much. It had just spoken. It was, in any case, hard to talk to Brother Nhumrod, who had a nervous habit of squinting at the speaker’s lips and repeating the last few words they said practically as they said them. He also touched things all the time-walls, furniture, people-as if he was afraid the universe would disappear if he didn’t keep hold of it. And he had so many nervous tics that they had to queue. Brother Nhumrod was perfectly normal for someone who had survived in the Citadel for fifty years.
“Well . . .” Brutha began.
Brother Nhumrod held up a skinny hand. Brutha could see the pale blue veins in it.
“And I am sure you know that there are two kinds of voice that are heard by the spiritual,” said the master of novices. One eyebrow began to twitch.
“Yes, master. Brother Murduck told us that,” said Brutha, meekly.
“-told us that. Yes. Sometimes, as He in His infinite wisdom sees fit, the God speaks to a chosen one and he becomes a great prophet,” said Nhumrod. “Now, I am sure you wouldn’t presume to consider yourself one of them? Mmm?”
“-master. But there are other voices,” said Brother Nhumrod, and now his voice had a slight tremolo, “beguiling and wheedling and persuasive voices, yes? Voices that are always waiting to catch us off our guard?”
Brutha relaxed. This was more familiar ground.
All the novices knew about those kinds of voices. Except that usually they talked about fairly straightforward things, like the pleasures of night-time manipulation and the general desirability of girls. Which showed that they were novices when it came to voices. Brother Nhumrod got the kind of voices that were, by comparison, a full oratorio. Some of the bolder novices liked to get Brother Nhumrod talking on the subject of voices. He was an education, they said. Especially when little bits of white spit appeared at the corners of his mouth.
Brother Nhumrod was the novice master, but he wasn’t the novice master. He was only master of the group that included Brutha. There were others. Possibly someone in the Citadel knew how many there were. There was someone somewhere whose job it was to know everything.
The Citadel occupied the whole of the heart of the city of Kom, in the lands between the deserts of Klatch and the plains and jungles of Howondaland. It extended for miles, its temples, churches, schools, dormitories, gardens, and towers growing into and around one another in a way that suggested a million termites all trying to build their mounds at the same time.
When the sun rose the reflection of the doors of the central Temple blazed like fire. They were bronze, and a hundred feet tall. On them, in letters of gold set in lead, were the Commandments. There were five hundred and twelve so far, and doubtless the next prophet would add his share.
The sun’s reflected glow shone down and across the tens of thousands of the strong-in-faith who labored below for the greater glory of the Great God Om.
Probably no one did know how many of them there were. Some things have a way of going critical. Certainly there was only one Cenobiarch, the Superior Iam. That was certain. And six Archpriests. And thirty lesser Iams. And hundreds of bishops, deacons, subdeacons, and priests. And novices like rats in a grain store. And craftsmen, and bull breeders, and torturers, and Vestigial Virgins . . .
No matter what your skills, there was a place for you in the Citadel.
And if your skill lay in asking the wrong kinds of questions or losing the righteous kind of wars, the place might just be the furnaces of purity, or the Quisition’s pits of justice.
A place for everyone. And everyone in their place.
The sun beat down on the temple garden.
The Great God Om tried to stay in the shade of a melon vine. He was probably safe here, here inside these walls and with the prayer towers all around, but you couldn’t be too careful. He’d been lucky once, but it was asking too much to expect to be lucky again.
The trouble with being a god is that you’ve got no one to pray to.
He crawled forward purposefully towards the old man shoveling muck until, after much exertion, he judged himself to be within earshot.
He spake thusly: “Hey, you!”
There was no answer. There was not even any suggestion that anything had been heard.
Om lost his temper and turned Lu-Tze into a lowly worm in the deepest cesspit of hell, and then got even more angry when the old man went on peacefully shoveling.
“The devils of infinity fill your living bones with sulphur!” he screamed.
This did not make a great deal of difference.
“Deaf old bugger,” muttered the Great God Om.
Or perhaps there was someone who did know all there was to be known about the Citadel. There’s always someone who collects knowledge, not because of a love of the stuff but in the same way that a magpie collects glitter or a caddis fly collects little bits of twigs and rock. And there’s always someone who has to do all those things that need to be done but which other people would rather not do or, even, acknowledge existed.
The third thing the people noticed about Vorbis was his height. He was well over six feet tall, but stickthin, like a normal proportioned person modeled in clay by a child and then rolled out.
The second thing that people noticed about Vorbis was his eyes. His ancestors had come from one of the deep desert tribes that had evolved the peculiar trait of having dark eyes?-not just dark of pupil, but almost black of eyeball. It made it very hard to tell where he was looking. It was as if he had sunglasses on under his skin.
But the first thing they noticed was his skull.
Deacon Vorbis was bald by design. Most of the Church’s ministers, as soon as they were ordained, cultivated long hair and beards that you could lose a goat in. But Vorbis shaved all over. He gleamed. And lack of hair seemed to add to his power. He didn’t menace. He never threatened. He just gave everyone the feeling that his personal space radiated several meters from his body, and that anyone approaching Vorbis was intruding on something important. Superiors fifty years his senior felt apologetic about interrupting whatever it was he was thinking about.
It was almost impossible to know what he was thinking about and no one ever asked. The most obvious reason for this was that Vorbis was the head of the Quisition, whose job it was to do all those things that needed to be done and which other people would rather not do.
You do not ask people like that what they are thinking about in case they turn around very slowly and say “You.”
The highest post that could be held in the Quisition was that of deacon, a rule instituted hundreds of years ago to prevent this branch of the Church becoming too big for its boots. But with a mind like his, everyone said, he could easily be an archpriest by now, or even an Iam.
Vorbis didn’t worry about that kind of trivia. Vorbis knew his destiny. Hadn’t the God himself told him?
“There,” said Brother Nhumrod, patting Brutha on the shoulder. “I’m sure you will see things clearer now.”
Brutha felt that a specific reply was expected.
“Yes, master,” he said. “I’m sure I shall.”
“-shall. It is your holy duty to resist the voices at all times,” said Nhumrod, still patting.
“Yes, master. I will. Especially if they tell me to do any of the things you mentioned.”
“-mentioned. Good. Good. And if you hear them again, what will you do? Mmm?”
“Come and tell you,” said Brutha, dutifully.
“-tell you. Good. Good. That’s what I like to hear,” said Nhumrod. “That’s what I tell all my boys. Remember that I’m always here to deal with any little problems that may be bothering you.”
“Yes, master. Shall I go back to the garden now?”
“-now. I think so. I think so. And no more voices, d’you hear?” Nhumrod waved a finger of his nonpatting hand. A cheek puckered.
“What were you doing in the garden?”
“Hoeing the melons, master,” said Brutha.
“Melons? Ah. Melons,” said Nhumrod slowly.
“Melons. Melons. Well, that goes some way toward explaining things, of course.”
An eyelid flickered madly.
It wasn’t just the Great God that spoke to Vorbis, in the confines of his head. Everyone spoke to an exquisitor, sooner or later. It was just a matter of stamina.
Vorbis didn’t often go down to watch the inquisitors at work these days. Exquisitors didn’t have to. He sent down instructions, he received reports. But special circumstances merited his special attention.
It has to be said . . . there was little to laugh at in the cellar of the Quisition. Not if you had a normal sense of humor. There were no jolly little signs saying: You Don’t Have To Be Pitilessly Sadistic To Work Here But It Helps!!!
But there were things to suggest to a thinking man that the Creator of mankind had a very oblique sense of fun indeed, and to breed in his heart a rage to storm the gates of heaven.
The mugs, for example. The inquisitors stopped work twice a day for coffee. Their mugs, which each man had brought from home, were grouped around the kettle on the hearth of the central furnace which incidentally heated the irons and knives.
They had legends on them like A Present From the Holy Grotto of Ossory, or To The World’s Greatest Daddy. Most of them were chipped, and no two of them were the same.
And there were the postcards on the wall. It was traditional that, when an inquisitor went on holiday, he’d send back a crudely colored woodcut of the local view with some suitably jolly and risque message on the back. And there was the pinned-up tearful letter from Inquisitor First Class Ishmale “Pop” Quoom,
thanking all the lads for collecting no fewer than seventy?eight obols for his retirement present and the lovely bunch of flowers for Mrs. Quoom, indicating that he’d always remember his days in No. 3 pit, and was looking forward to coming in and helping out any time they were short-handed.
And it all meant this: that there are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.
Vorbis loved knowing that. A man who knew that, knew everything he needed to know about people.
Currently he was sitting alongside the bench on which lay what was still, technically, the trembling body of Brother Sasho, formerly his secretary.
He looked up at the duty inquisitor, who nodded. Vorbis leaned over the chained secretary.
“What were their names?” he repeated.
“. . . don’t know . . .”
“I know you gave them copies of my correspondence, Sasho. They are treacherous heretics who will spend eternity in the hells. Will you join them?”
“. . . don’t know names . . .”
“I trusted you, Sasho. You spied on me. You betrayed the Church.”
“. . . no names . . .”
“Truth is surcease from pain, Sasho. Tell me.”
“. . . truth . . .”
Vorbis sighed. And then he saw one of Sasho’s fingers curling and uncurling under the manacles. Beckoning.
He leaned closer over the body.
Sasho opened his one remaining eye.
“. . .truth . . .”
“. . . The Turtle Moves . . .”