H.C.E. CATECHISM, Second Edition, 3415 A.D.: What is the Unforgivable sin?
GODSLAYER: To think.
The poor bastard’s face lost all color and he just managed to croak out the name as I slowly took my dagger from his throat, leaving a barely noticeable line of crimson behind. I didn't answer. That's one of the benefits of being a living legend; you don't have to answer rhetorical questions.
"The High Council is in session, you've been summoned to attend."
“Summoned?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. White face wiped nervously at the sweat on his forehead and forced out an apologetic smile.
“Summoned? No, no! I meant to say requested. Yes, that’s it: politely requested!”
I glared at him a moment longer before nodding acceptance. I couldn’t help smiling as Whitey bolted down the stairway once he had my answer. Sometimes, it’s really fun being the Godslayer. Yea, I know it's a presumptuous name, but hey: I'm a presumptuous guy.
I made my way up the polished stone stairs, taking three at a time, whistling as I went. It hurt like hell --my skull was pounding with hangover-- but I have a reputation to keep up, ya know? Heroes are supposed to be cheery and ready for a good tussle at any moment. The fact I felt like day old dog puke notwithstanding, I had to look the part.
At the doors to the Council Chamber the guard on duty blocked the door with his spear, asking my name and business. Let's just say: he's no longer interested in my business, and he'll never forget my name. Speaker Sonit was addressing the other members of the Coalition Council as I entered.
"...plainly see that there is no need to keep such a vile and uncouth man on the Coalition’s payroll, when any of our elite guard could do the job just as efficiently!"
His back was turned and he didn't see me come in. Good, it gave me the chance to sneak up real close behind him. Not that I enjoy being so close to the man. He’s a foul smelling, boot licking, whiny little toady and if he weren’t a member of the Council I’d have made him a corpse years ago.
"I put it to the Council that this man should be retired, at least, if not tried for crimes against the Coalition . . .”
Gee, I wonder who he might be talking about. I put on my most evil grin and crossed my arms over my chest, waiting.
"We must get rid of this . . . GODSLAYER!" His whining turned into a squeal of fright as he turned smack into my grin.
His mouth worked in silence for a few moments and I watched his face waver between fear and indignation. An interesting sight, that. Indignation finally won out.
"The name is Sonit! S‑O‑N‑I‑T, Sonit!"
I patted him on top of his balding head as I strode by. "S'wat I said, Snit."
I went to the center of the huge, u-shaped, table and vaulted it, plopping into the vacant seat beside the Chairman. "How's it goin', Chief?"
Tobin Ree, Chairman of the Coalition Council, was having a hard time keeping a grin from his own face. His distaste for Snit is as well-known as mine. "It goes well, Godslayer," a slight cough there to cover the smile, "and with you?"
"Aw, it goes all right with me, Chief. You know us barbarian types: give us a blade, a bitch, and a bottle . . . we're set for the next month." Again, the smile. Tob knows better than to be taken in by my 'Me‑Ape‑Man' routine. Regretfully --or perhaps luckily-- some people aren't so perceptive.
"Well, we of the Council are glad to see that our heroic Godslayer spends his time --and our money-- so worthily!"
Tob raised one eyebrow as I turned to face the odorous Speaker Snit, who was wheezing from his forced trip around the table. Damn, had the man never heard of mouth rinse?
"And another thing," spouted the little man, "that is my chair you’re sitting in!"
Like I didn't know that. The man not only stank, he didn't appreciate the fine art of insult. I looked around as if surprised there wasn't another vacant chair at the table.
"Uh, really?" I said in my best barbarian.
"Yes, really." His nose jutted up in the air, confident that his position as Speaker would certainly cow the ignorant savage. "No one is allowed to sit at the table save a duly elected representative. I suggest you remove your person before I call the guard and have you removed!"
The thought of him calling for the guard, who was currently sleeping off one of my love taps, almost made me smile.
"Are you a duly 'lected rep... reprzentive?" I asked.
He hauled himself to his full stature, which put him at about my seated eye‑level. "Indeed, I am!"
Time to move in for the kill. I pulled a stiletto from my boot top and began paring my fingernails. Few things make people as nervous as a man paring his nails with a blade. I don’t know why, but it truly scares the crap out of them. Of course, it does help if you already have a reputation as a homicidal maniac.
“I didn’t vote for ya, Snit. In fact, I voted for the other guy and I didn’t even know what his name was. I figured any ass in this seat had to be better than yours. Besides,” I said, tilting the chair back on two legs and looking behind him. “It looks like you’ve been spending way too much time sittin’ on yours lately anyway.”
“This is insufferable!” He turned to Tob, his pudgy little face purpling and sweating. “It is bad enough that this savage embarrasses us in front of other nations, must we bear his insults in our own Chamber? Mr. Chairman, I demand something be done about this man’s behavior!”
Toby held up his hands in front of him, intending to supplicate the annoying little piglet no doubt. Sorry, Tob, I thought as I cut him off. I know you want to keep things calm but I have a point I need to make here.
“Demand? You?” I laughed long and hard. “Who are you to demand anything, Snit? You’re a petty ass-kisser who bought his seat on this Council with his family’s money . . . and just barely at that!”
I swear, I thought his head was gonna explode. It was a sight to behold; the man’s face went through every color of the rainbow and his mouth worked without any sound coming out at all. When he finally did find words, he spat, more than spoke them. Spittle flew in all directions as he worked himself into a tirade. I wiped a stray fleck from the tip of my nose with one finger as he screamed at me.
“You . . . barbarian! You question what I am? What are you, eh? A murderous lunatic on our payroll! A mad dog we keep around to frighten our neighbors! You are an embarrassment to this government and it is time we put you down, just like we would any wild beast.” He turned toward the other Speakers who were exchanging uncomfortable glances back and forth. These were all career diplomats. Confrontations like this were not their cup of tea. “I say it again, Noble Speakers: this Godslayer must be retired. His position –-while once necessary-- is outdated and pointless. He is only one man. What can he accomplish that a squad of Coalition Guard cannot?”
“Well,” I answered him, “For starters I can find my own ass without a road map and written instructions. I’ve seen your Guard in action, Noble Speakers, and I can’t promise they could do the same.
“As for retiring me, I suggest you put the very thought from your minds.” I reached out and stabbed my stiletto deep into the black oak table, right between the middle and ring finger of the hand Snit was resting on it. He squealed and snatched the hand back to his chest, cradling it against him though I hadn’t so much as nicked the worm.
“My position is hereditary, not elective, Speakers. I do not have a constituency to keep happy; hence I have no restrictions on my behavior. You should, perhaps, keep that in mind.” I looked pointedly at Snit who moved a few careful steps backwards under my gaze. “The Godslayer’s duties are spelled out in the Articles of Confederation. You remember those, don’t you? Those old papers on display in the front hall you all took an oath to uphold and protect?
“The Articles give me one task and one task only: to find anyone stupid enough to declare himself divine, and kill them. In pursuit of that duty, I am not only entitled, but encouraged, to eliminate anyone who stands in the way of my task. I can use whatever means I deem necessary, without recourse to this body, or fear of prosecution. You should know that, Speakers. We do teach the Articles in school after all. I will view any attempt to eliminate my position as a threat to my prime duty and kill the person who dares suggest such a thing, be they Speaker or no. That individual’s death will take days and it will involve salt, honey, and sandpaper.” What I’d use those for I had no idea, but I’ve found it’s best to let people use their own imaginations in situations like this. It scares them far more than my worst threats ever could.
“Do I make myself clear?" I stood, leaned over the table and gave Snit my most evil grin. I don't know why, but my grin has a tendency to make people uneasy. An old instructor of mine once told me it had a way of sayin' to folks something like: "Gee, your throat looks tasty." Now, I don't know if there's any truth to that but Snit’s only response was the sound of his body striking the granite floor.
Some people just have delicate constitutions.
I flopped back into the chair, crossing my heels on the polished oak table. Several Speakers winced at such a crude display of irreverence for a historical landmark. Sheesh, what a bunch of tight‑asses!
"So what's the deal, Chief? You got a job for me, or what?"
Tob looked over the table at Snit’s still form but two other Speakers were seeing to him while a third went to the doors to summon some of the Guard to take him to a doctor. Tob sighed and shot me a look that spoke volumes of what he thought about my outburst. I shrugged the disapproval aside. I’m the Godslayer; I don’t have to be nice. It’s a perk of the job.
"As a matter of fact, we do have a job for you,” he said, leaning back in his chair and rubbing at his eyes. “That’s why you were summoned. Word has reached the Council that there’s been a mass conversion to a new deity in Ohia, on the Northam continent."
"No sweat, Chief, schedule a clipper to sail me and Lifetaker here to Northam and the godling is dog food!"
I fondly patted the hilt of my favorite slicing utensil, standing to depart. That's one thing about me; when I have a job to do, I get it done. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people bull‑shittin' about doing something instead of just doing. I've always preferred to do unpleasant tasks as quickly as possible. It leaves more time for the important things, like drinking and whoring. Tob gave a slightly embarrassed cough and motioned me back toward the chair.
"Ah . . . well, yes. You see, Slayer, that's not exactly what we had in mind."
My eyes narrowed suspiciously, and I folded my arms across my chest in a posture just slightly less menacing than charging him with a naked blade screaming: ‘Die you motherless son of a dog’!
"What do you mean: 'Not what you had in mind'?" I asked, letting my eyes roam across the others seated about the room.
All the Speakers, except for Tob, tried to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible under the scrutiny of my evil gaze. The Chairman sat calmly and met me glare for glare. Gotta hand it to old Tob, he's a brave one! Not real smart sometimes, but brave.
"It's like this, Slayer: the new god –his name is Chakar by the way-- has taken the mantle of an agricultural god. You know . . . fertility rights, sleeping with young maidens to enrich the harvest, that sort of thing."
My eyebrow twitched all of about a millimeter at this stupendous news. I had offed 'fertility gods' almost as many times as I’d sampled their brand of worship. Well, maybe not that many. After all, killing several gods a night would be too arrogant a claim for even me to make.
"In return for the . . . favors of the nubile Ohian maids, Chakar promises to keep the crops bountiful through use of his magic."
Ooh, another big surprise!
"What's your point, Tob? These horny little godlings are a dime a dozen."
He rubbed a hand nervously along his jaw line. Bad sign, that. Tob's an old political in-fighter; he rarely gives off any sign of anxiety. Then again, if I was the one telling a two hundred twenty pound, quasi‑fanatic homicidal maniac --with a lot of sharpened steel strapped to his person-- that I was taking away his favorite toy, I might be a tad jumpy myself.
"The difference is this Chakar fellow is actually doing what he says he can do. Over the last two seasons, the harvests of his followers have nearly doubled."
"So? Is that supposed to impress me? 'Cause it don't. Ohia had a few good seasons, you think that's reason enough to keep me off this godling?"
Tob shook his head as he resumed his seat at the head of the table. "That's the problem. Ohia hasn't had two good seasons. Their last harvest was the worst they've had in memory. The Kingdom’s been in severe drought for four years and famine is prevalent in many areas. The only exception is in the areas controlled by Chakar. The crops in those areas are growing like . . . like manna!
"People are flocking to his worship by the hundreds. If it keeps up like this, Chakar will have control of Ohia before the year is out."
"I still don't see a problem here, Chief. I swoop in, fillet the bugger, sweep out again, and Ta‑Da! The Kingdom is saved by your local blade carting deity-devourer."
I thump myself on the chest, drawing up to my full --not insubstantial-- height and strike my most heroic pose. It's rather awe-inspiring actually. I should know, I spent years practicing in front of a mirror.
"Oh, what a pretty pose! Pity it doesn't think as well as it primps."
The comment was delivered in a tone so cold it nearly dripped ice. It came from a side door to the Chamber, just over my left shoulder. Even if the voice wasn’t completely feminine, I could have told you the speaker was a woman. There's no man on earth who can pack that much scorn into a single statement. I think it has to do with hormones or some such. I turned slowly on the balls of my feet, arms uncrossing, each hand coming to rest ever so gently on blade hilts. I took her in with a single glance. Tall. Auburn hair with traces of red, bright green eyes flashing with impatience. Smaller in the bust than I usually care for, but with long sexy legs supporting a decidedly feminine physique. Beautiful, and aware of it too. She stood there, a queen waiting for the tardy servant. Yep, no doubt about it, add all the clues together and you get just one thing . . .
She blanched, and her jaw went slack. She recovered quickly though; I'll give her that. It's an old trick of mine. When you first meet someone they invariably expect you to be polite, or at least civil. I hate being predictable, so I usually throw out little introductory comments such as: "Horse‑face", "Beetle‑brain", or some such. It keeps people off balance and helps turn an untenable situation to my advantage. Some folks never really recover from the initial shock and I control the whole conversation. This wench wasn't one of those though. Like I said, she recovered quickly.
"The extent of your vocabulary astounds, Godslayer! Perhaps next you will astonish us by use of more than one syllable!"
I shrugged, always willing to oblige a Lady. “Loudmouth bitch."
Chuckles passed around the room, and I could hear Tob, going through his diplomatic cough routine behind me.
"Shall we exchange more pleasantries, Lady, or do you wanna tell me who you are and why the hell I shouldn't gut you and leave the carcass as worm food?"
Tobin rose from his chair and stepped forward. "Slayer, allow me to introduce Lady Catrina Anit, Ambassador to the Court of the Ohian King. Lady Catrina . . . the Godslayer."
The Lady acknowledged me with a slight nod of her head and I did likewise. Tobin offered her his arm and escorted her to a chair that rested against the wall, beneath the Coalition flag. She couldn't resist one more shot at me as they passed by. She leaned in close and whispered through a diplomatic smile, so low only I could hear.
"What, parents couldn't afford a real name?"
Oh yeah, she was a bitch!
She hesitated a moment before sitting and raised an arched eyebrow at the seated members of the Council. All the males rushed to their feet with an awkward thumping of chairs and half-spoken apologies. Her Highness deigned to acknowledge their gesture and seated herself.
"Mr. Chairman, may I request that you stop dancing around the subject, and explain to this . . . gentleman exactly why he can neither kill Chakar nor, as he so eloquently put it, leave me for worm food?"
Big mistake, that. Tob doesn't like being told what to do, especially when he's the one running the show. It's a male thing. In any event, her Royal Snootiness had just earned herself an extremely unpleasant enemy.
"Ambassador Anit," Slight stress on the title there, he was leaving no doubt who held the rank in this room. "Ambassador Anit, I broach this subject to the inestimable Godslayer in my own way and in my own time. If my methods do not meet your standards of timeliness, I apologize."
Yea, right. If that was an apology, then I'm a monkey’s uncle. Uh, scratch that last . . . I've been compared to a simian too many times today.
"The fact is, despite your rudeness toward him, Godslayer is a national hero and I am loath to simply drop our requirements on him, as so much unwanted baggage. I hope I make myself clear?"
I was pretty sure he had. Actually it was pretty easy to tell by the way her face went through several shades of crimson before finally settling into a sort of mottled purple. As for her eyes, well, let's skip the part about: 'if looks could kill'. I’d thought her eyes were bright green before, but they’d turned the color of polished emerald. Not that I'd ever seen polished emerald before --Godslayin’ doesn’t pay that well-- but that's about the color I imagine it’d be if I ever got the chance. She might be an Ice Queen but damn, she was the kind of woman I'd love to grab a hold of and bend . . .
I turned to stare blankly at Tob and realized he’d been speaking to me. Oh well, it had been a nice fantasy . . . I shook my head to clear it.
"I still don't get it, Chief, what's wrong with the old tried and true?"
"The truth of the matter is we think this Chakar may be, um . . . You see, he does things that aren't possible . . ."
That was it. I'd had enough. Friend or not --boss or not-- he was going too far. I closed the distance between us in a heartbeat. I stared death down into his eyes and spoke between gritted teeth.
"Please tell me you don’t actually believe this maggot is a god. Think really hard before you answer that, Tob, and remember: my job is to eliminate godlings and anybody who propagates their claims." My hand slid purposely toward Lifetaker and Tob tried to answer through a suddenly dry throat. I could hear the sounds of chairs being hurriedly pushed back behind me as the brave Speakers prepared to flee, should the savage draw his blade.
"For pity's sake, would you give up the male chest pounding thing already? Nobody actually believes Chakar is a god, so take your hand off your . . . sword, and sit down!"
Her waspish tone and pointed pause left no one in doubt of her double entendre'. As I turned to look, her left eyebrow shot up in a questioning challenge. I grinned and chuckles spread around the room.
"Well, you've gotta admit . . . it's a really big sword."
She had the decency to blush and the chuckles turned into full-fledged laughter. I crossed the floor and plopped down into the vacant chair beside her.
"All right then, pretty lady. Why don't you tell me why I can't kill Chakar?"
"Simply put,” she said, “the Ohians are the most accomplished producers of textiles in the world. If the King were deposed, our own economy would suffer a devastating, if not fatal, blow. Seventy percent of the clothing on the market today is manufactured, or at least brokered, by the Ohians. I’m sure the details of cloth production seem silly to you . . ."
"Not at all, Cat . . . may I call you, Cat?"
"No, you most certainly may not!"
"Good. As I was saying, Cat, I don't find it silly at all. People who don't have clothing get very cold, and people who are very cold, get very angry. I think it helps them keep warm or some such. Anyway, angry people start looking for someone to be angry at and it just so happens that elected officials --such as the ones in this room-- make excellent targets.
"Therefore, it behooves you to ensure that the Ohian monarchy remains stable. Obviously, the only way of accomplishing that is by eliminating the threat Chakar poses to the Crown. Just as obvious, though it galls me to say it, is the fact that you can't kill the bugger. If you did, the local population would explode into a full-blown rebellion. Hungry people are the only thing meaner than cold ones. The only viable solution is to discover exactly how Chakar is producing blockbuster crops during a drought and have the government institute a similar program, after which the furor around Chakar dies down enough for me to perform an extraction without alarming the natives."
I sat back, rubbing absently at my unshaven jaw. "It also occurs to me that if such information were to fall directly into the Coalition's hands rather than the Ohian's, we would control one of the most powerful Kingdoms in the world. I have no doubt that inside of, oh . . . say five years, the Ohians will be petitioning for membership in the Coalition. So how'd I do, Cat, do I get a cookie?"
Her jaw hung open in disbelief. Surprise: the barbarian has a brain! I leaned forward, putting on my most diplomatic grin, and whispered in an aside. "They couldn't afford the name, but my parents paid for a top notch education."
She stared at me in shock for another few moments, then she grinned, threw back her head, and laughed. I was impressed by her laugh, it wasn't the polite tittering you expect from the well-bred ladies. Hers was a real laugh; ripe with humor and straight from the belly. It had an earthy quality to it that I liked.
Sheesh, listen to me; the grunt waxes poetic. Oh well, I guess you just can't escape a classical education, no matter how hard you try. I pushed out of my chair and tossed a sketchy bow to the Lady. I turned toward the door, pausing to slap Tob's shoulder by way of apology.
"Okay, Chief, I'm outta here. I'll find the secret to Chakar's magic and bring it back to ya', gift‑wrapped!”
I paused in the doorway, looking back for a response, only to find Tobin, busily examining the scuffs on his boots. I looked questioningly around the room, but all of the Speakers had hastily found more important things to look at, such as the ceiling and their fingernails. I turned fully back to Tob.
"What gives now? Did I leave something out?"
"No, your assessment was letter perfect. The thing is, the Council is all too aware of your, shall we say, fondness, for your chosen means of employment? You’ve been known to let anger get the better of you now and again, especially when situations are delicate."
"Tob, if this is about that ambassador from Nuevo Spania, with the large bosomed wife again . . .”
"It’s not, though that would be a good example of what I'm saying! The point is: this mission is too delicate to risk your losing control the first time you see Chakar perform a phony miracle. This time we want you to take along a partner, someone who knows enough to keep their anger in check."
"Sorry, I'd like to oblige, but you know I work alone."
"I'm afraid that wasn't a request, Slayer."
"Really? And what if I refuse?"
"You do like getting those regular paychecks don't you, my friend?"
Good point, that. Like I said, Tob knows me real good. Well, I guess even a living legend has to swallow it sometimes. Besides, if the guy got in my way too much, I could always drop him off at the first available river bottom.
"Okay, Chief, who is it?"
The first hint was when everyone in the room was instantly preoccupied again. I had this tiny suspicion I already knew the answer, tickling just at the base of my brain. I really hate that. Ticklish brains make me nervous. The suspicion exploded into full-blown realization as I turned face first into the satisfied grin Lady Cat was wearing.
"Oh no . . . you wouldn't!"
. . . the prose is smooth and easy to read, and the suspense had me wanting to know more all the rest of the way through. The culmination of the plot was surprising to me, a little saddening, but a great read overall. I really enjoyed Where Dead Fish Go and you will too, especially if you like suspense novels with a strong supernatural component, but not the usual (tired) supernatural of zombies or vampires.