Since I have sometimes been known to praise my own serialized novels, which might be construed as immodest by some of you, I should at least have the common decency to admit when I’m not entirely satisfied with a new chapter because I fear it does not quite convey what I was aiming at and might seem a tad clumsy to an objective reader, but I have read it too often to really tell, so I’m hoping for your input to help me decide. Shouldn’t I? It would be only reasonable to expect.
But fudge it, who says I have to be reasonable about this stuff? So enjoy another great, special, exceptional, unique and quite enchanting chapter of our flawless serialized novel Angelic Duties!
Previously on Angelic Duties
In the first chapter, we met Profound Distress, watched her attempt suicide, be sent away by Abbot Glistening tears, and saying goodbye to one of her former lovers.
In the second chapter, we watched Profound Distress say her goodbyes to Blue Rose and drive off to Iustok, met a Gendarm called Kimbal with whom we first saved a lady in arguable distress and then watched how Lady Sorrow deals with people breaking Angelic Law.
In the third chapter, Profound Distress first has a rather unenjoyable encounter with Glonn Teneract, then with an Avatar of Lady Sorrow, and finally with a bottle.
In the fourth chapter, Cerya has a bad awakening with Glon, a bad reunion with Kimbal who guides her to her cottage and then leaves her – on bad terms.
In the fifth chapter, Kimbal leaves, and Profound Distress somehow makes do without him. Kimbal’s wife convinces him to invite Profound Distress for dinner to regain her good will, and she accepts.
In the sixth chapter, Glon happens upon Kimbal while visiting his mother, and Cerya becomes friends with a puddle of black goo.
In the seventh chapter, we remember times of better relations between Cerya and Kimbal, while in the present, he meets a butcher and explains to his children that a very important old friend is coming to visit.
Today on Angelic Duties
“Look at that, Laghmutch. Don’t they look exactly as if they’re about to decide whether to bite or sniff each other’s butts?”
Glon was the first to enter the room where Duncan and the strange woman were waiting for them. Yarnon followed.
“Very astutely observed, sir, witty as ever.”
“I swear, Yarnon, you can spoil my best jokes with your awkward toadying.”
Laghmutch Tawney closed the door behind them. He did not deign to speak and confined himself to rolling his eyes.
The windowless chamber measured about six times eight steps and was sparsely furnished with six upholstered chairs arranged around a low table and a small cupboard at one wall, containing some bottles of various beverages, and a half dozen beakers.
The young woman standing across from Duncan Klaut’s angular ruddy shape seemed his opposite in almost every imaginable way, and yet, their similarity was quite striking.
While she wore a bright white silken shirt with a slightly playful embroidered collar, immaculate trousers with a sharp crease, gleaming dark brown leather boots and a tiny silver ring in her left nostril, and the intricate patterns of a tattoo snaked from her very generous cleavage up her collarbone, his shirt was dark grey and of coarse linen, his trousers greasy and stained, his shoes worn and chapped, and of course there was no ornamentation to be seen on his body. Where her black hair fell back below her shoulders in shimmering curls, his grey stubbles were as uncared-for on his pate as in his face. Where his skin was wrinkled and weather-beaten like old leather, hers unblemished and of a smooth dark brown color like chocolate.
Still, the tension in their bodies, the wary, judging look in their eyes and their careful but confident posture revealed the warrior.
“What are those things at her hips? Damn me if I’ve ever seen knives half as long!”
Glon’s brows drew down at Laghmutch’s derisive snort.
“They are rapiers,” Duncan explained without taking his gaze off her.
“They are used as weapons of war outside the Concord,” Yarnon added helpfully.
“Where’s the Nuntius?” Glon asked.
She turned towards him, blinking as if surprised, caught herself and hinted at something akin to a slight bow.
“Nuntia Kerovia Czekhara, First Sword of the Empty King, ostensibly pleased to make your acquaintance. Pater Familiae Glon Teneract, I presume?”
Ignoring her, Glon turned to Duncan.
“So, do you think she’s dangerous?”
“Very”, Duncan replied levelly.
“And what do you think about him?” Glon asked the Nuntia.
With a disdainful smile, she shook her head. “Not at all. But what’s to be expected in a country of sheep?”
“Whoa!” Glon laughed. “Would my lady care to back up so much assurance with a little –“
“Sir,” Duncan interrupted him, “I do not think this is a good idea.”
She laughed, a very enticing throaty sound, and Glon’s gaze wandered towards her shirt’s neckline again.
“What?” she asked. “Are you afraid of me, old man?”
“Yes, old man,” Glon joined in her taunting. “Are you afraid of her?”
He could more feel than see or hear Laghmutch suppress a groan besides him.
“The way I reckon,” Duncan said, “Either I kill her, in which case you will get no deal, or she kills me, in which case you have lost me. I see no way the House will profit from this match.”
“The House will gain either the satisfaction of seeing this conceited cunt brought to heel, or of seeing you bleed to death. That sounds like two victory scenarios to me.”
“Withdraw your challenge,” Duncan said, turning towards the woman. “You are the Empty King’s First Sword, I am but a thug. There is no honor in besting me.”
“Duncan, what the fuck are you doing, I just told you to –“
Laghmutch gave an exasperated sigh.
“Pater Familiae, a word, if I may?”
Glon half turned towards him, spreading his arms.
Laghmutch sighed again, the Nuntia looked from one of them to the other, smiling bemusedly, and for a second, Glon was tempted to just hit the son of a Tawney whore in the face. Well, he’d probably just cut his knuckles on the bastard’s nose.
He stepped up to Glon and whispered: “She is our ally in a joint venture, Pater Familiae, which means she will try to gain more than we will from it, which means-“
“She is our enemy,” Glon growled, “Obviously. So what?”
Laghmutch suppressed another sigh, stepping yet closer, and Glon had to control himself not to retreat from him, so much did the idea of those dried-up wrinkled lips besides his ear disgust him.
“Whatever your enemy wants …”
“Deny it,” Glon repeated the often-heard advice almost involuntarily. “Yes, but you’re my enemy as well and you seem to want me to deny her -“
He was interrupted again.
“You know, reconsidering, I think your man the coward here is right. I am a bladesmaster, not a knacker.”
She turned away from Duncan and made a gesture as if dusting off her hands.
“How delightful,” Laghmutch replied, and Glon frowned at him. He was Pater Familiae. He should do the talking. But then, he did not much feel like talking to this strange insolent woman whom everyone seemed to be afraid of, so he settled for gawking at her breasts while Laghmutch continued: “Now the part where you show us our place and demonstrate your unfettered superiority is over, may we return to business? I assure you, we are all a little pressed for time here, what with scheming to destroy the Concord and such.”
She actually smiled at him and nodded.
“We may. However, I was under the impression the chubby guy was going to speak for your little cabal of turncoats because he is some kind of king of this dungheap.”
Glon gasped. “How dare you-“ he began, but she cut him off, starting to advance towards him.
“Save it for people you can impress with your posturing, but keep it to yourself while in the presence of the Empty King’s Custodian’s Nuntia, or you might find out just how far beyond your class you are. So, are you ready to listen, or do you prefer to be taught some very appropriate modesty about your station?”
Glon could merely stare at her, unbelieving, sparing only the occasional glance for her nicely swaying hips while she walked up to him – then his view was suddenly cut off by Duncan stepping into her path.
“No further,” he growled.
She smiled down at him – and for the first time, Glon noticed how tall she was. She actually stood one or two hands above Duncan – and asked:
“What? You want to start again?”
“You’re the First Sword. Don’t sully yourself by squabbling with an ordinary ruffian like me. Just tell him whatever you came to say. You can do it from here.”
For a few heartbeats, she pondered this, and Glon suddenly realized that, apart from Duncan, who had never before seemed as tired and old as right now, nothing was keeping her back. The Angels could not see within the field, and the Tawney’s had just provided this bitch with a portable Engine for her steam wagon, so she could slay them all right now and just leave the Concord without any fear of repercussion.
It was a very unpleasant insight, and for the first time, he wondered if they might be making a colossal mistake.
He could feel all his muscles contracting as everyone in the room waited for the blood to start flowing. From the corners of his eyes, he actually saw Yarnon quietly step behind him, while Laghmutch seemed unmoved by what was happening. He was a cold bastard, Glon had to give him that.
“Whatever you bumpkins prefer,” the chocolate woman finally said, shrugging.
Also, for the first time, he truly appreciated Duncan’s presence, however feeble the actual protection it might provide right now. Say what you will about the old grouch, he held his place between them, and did not budge. She would have to go through him to get at Glon.
“Sir,” the snake Yarnon whispered, “If she –“
“Oh for High Heaven’s sake, shut up. I can see the problem without your help.” Glon snorted and shook his head. “Go on then. Say what you came to say, and get out of my sight.”
“You lost our old Cleric, so we need the new one. When will you be ready to hand her over?”
Profound Distress had no mirror in the cottage, and there was not a lot she could do with her formal red robes anyway. She could tie them a little higher or a little lower, pull them a little tighter, or not, and that was mostly it for dressing to please.
Still, it was not an easy choice. She even considered, for a very short time, to go without her robes, wearing something casual, more revealing, but she quickly decided this was a bad idea on many levels.
Next, she attempted to pull down her cowl’s collar so as to reveal a little more neckline, but there wasn’t a lot of slack and it just made the cloth bunch up behind her head, so she gave up.
Besides, while she remembered quite distinctly how to please him, she had a well-founded suspicion that he might not like his wife to be reminded of that and, being Kimbal, he would probably not even look. He had always been one for doing what’s right, and she had admired that, at the same time it had always continued to puzzle and amuse her whenever he demonstrated this strange trait.
So she just left her robes the way she’d put them on in the morning and settled for brushing her hair and planning to get a nice barrette for it later on so she wouldn’t look completely the recluse.
When she left her cottage to get on her way towards Iustok, a huge steam wagon was waiting Outside the Barrier, belching smoke towards the sky, its driver glaring at her from below bushy eyebrows.
“Hey, you!” he shouted. “You’re that Cleric girl, right?”
They had no Angels on their side, and thus no special respect for their servants. Still, they should be smart enough to realize that it was in their own best interest to keep the guardians of the Barrier happy if they wanted to continue doing business.
“I am,” Profound Distress answered.
“Why don’tcha do us all a favor and reopen the fucking portal already? Are people here need to earn a livelihood and ain’t got time to wait for your stinkin’ convenience to gen’roulsy allow us doing business again, so how ‘bout it, huh?”
She smiled at him. He was an imposing man, and he seemed genuinely angry, and he was no more than twenty paces away, but because of the Barrier, it might just as well have been twenty thousand, and besides, on this side, there most definitely were Angels, and while they did not always protect their servants, as exemplified by the strange case of Slight Depression’s disappearance, they took the matter of trans-Barrier trade very seriously and would not admit an attack on a Cleric doing her duty to protect the Concord.
“I will reopen it whenever I feel ready,” she said, “And you know what? Your insulting rant has just made me so much less ready I might even wait another week, just to be sure.”
“Why you haughty little …” he started in a huff, but quickly caught himself, finally recognizing that this approach was not working, and that he was only hurting himself by insulting her more. At least she thought so, until he reopened his mouth after a puse: “We’ll all see how high and mighty you and your brood are when this fucking fence comes down once and for all. Lookin’ forward to seeing you smile then, you bitch!”
Profound Distress shook her head and laughed, genuinely astonished at so much stupidity.
She briefly considerd throwing something at him – the Barrier could be crossed from the inside by anything at any time – but finally just waved at him and turned away, climbing into the coach waiting for her, whose driver was staring at the bulky man beyond the Barrier with a look of outright disbelief and dread.
“I’m sorry, Your Holiness, I truly am, please forgive me for this, if I can do anything to …”
“Never mind”, she reassured him, “It’s not your fault. Just forget it and take me to House Teneract.”
The drive went by much faster than Profound Distress would have liked. She had no idea what she was doing, and although she was not unused to that feeling, she’d never before been so acutely aware that her own life hung in the balance, had never before felt threatened by her own family, had never even entertained the idea that there might be places beyond Lady Sorrow’s reach inside the Concord.
She was uncomfortably reminded of the song her mother used to sing for her when she was still young enough to be sung to.
‘The ghosts of the ones who assaulted the House are some nights found haunting the kitchen.
They had time to regret till they drew their last breath and their low-born carcasses stopped twitchin’.
We roasted their bodies and scalded their souls, such is House Teneract’s ire
Towards those who dismay us and try to betry us, they all end up feeding the fire.’
When her coach stopped in front of the House, she got out and went directly towards the cellar. One good thing about being a Teneract: No need to draw attention by asking anyone for the way.
People’s attention to a Cleric was a funny thing. When she entered the House’s great entrance hall, all the courtiers, every domestic, every aristocrat and merchant ceased in their conversation and stared at her for a few heartbeats before lowering their gazes and doing their best to pretend they had not noticed her, without quite returning to their previous exchange, feverishly trying to conceive of some harmless topic to chat about until the Angel’s agent had moved on.
Profound Distress obliged them willingly, because she did not care about their petty secrets and shallow sins. She moved on towards the stairs at the hall’s opposite end, leading downwards. The assembled courtiers gave her a wide berth without needing any prompts.
She knew that the cellar entrance was never locked, and it was still that way, although coming to think of it, she suspected that there might be limits to this kind of carelessness, now the Pater Familiae lived down there.
Well, she’d get as far as she’d get, and she’d cross that bridge when she heard the water rumbling below her.
Behind the cellar entrance, the familiar maze of corridors awaited her, although it had become noticeably more brightly lit and cleaner since her last visit.
She briefly wondered if she should continue her bold approach or try to be more cautious, but decided that, for a Cleric with a bright red robe, boldness was probably the best tactic.
She even had some idea about where the Engine would be positioned: An old storage cellar that was directly below the room her brother seemed to have chosen as his bedchamber. It only made sense. If she were hatching some plan against the Angels, she would want the machine that blinded them as close as possible.
And what was that moron even thinking, plan against the Angels? What kind of suicidally idiotic idea was that, trying to dupe the all-powerful and ruthless creatures who’d held the authority over everyone’s life and death in the Concord for times beyond memory?
Or was he even involved?
He had just recently become Pater Familiae; he could not possibly have ordered these Engines built and distributed, he’d not even had time to position the one below Slight Depressions cottage. But then, it was surely no coincidence that he had moved below ground, and he had not seemed all that nervous when she’d chided him about his disregard for Angelic Law.
Profound Distress found herself on the second level of the House’s cellar, and had yet to meet anyone guarding or even working there, or to encounter a locked door.
She wondered if she was already out of Lady Sorrow’s sight, and what might happen if she was found down here.
Would Glon suspect her of suspecting him? And if so, would he dare dispose of her? She did not for a heartbeat doubt that he’d be heartless enough to do it. She only wondered if he would risk the retribution. After all, he was Pater Familiae. He could not just spend the rest of his life below ground and hide from Lady Sorrow. And even if he did, She would be able to harm him indirectly if She really wanted to. Surely, some Engine filled with black goo could not be enough to protect one from an Angel’s wrath?
But then … What had happened to Slight Depression? She had no doubt that he was dead, it was only unclear how, and where. And who, of course. It might even have been Lady Sorrow herself, if he had known about the Engine in his basement, or if She had just assumed he was involved somehow.
Assumed? An Angel? Yes, there seemed no way around it. Lady Sorrow was not omniscient. Profound Distress had been only a few steps from Her, and She had asked where she was.
The realization hit her very suddenly, but did not leave any room for doubt once it had: She needed to return to the Hermitage and talk to Glistening Tears about this. She probably should have done that earlier, but then, there had been a clear order to the contrary from Lady Sorrow herself.
Profound Distress descended another stairway lit only by the occasional sooty lantern and turned left towards the next –
“What are you doing here?”
She could not help but flinch as the darkly-clad shape emerged from out of a shadow. He wore a hood and his clothes were black and inscribed with the arcane sigils and symbols of House Nevys, but they were much more practical and tightly-fitting than the robes she knew of the House demonologists. A Nevys Gendarm, perhaps?
“You might reconsider your tone of voice when talking to an agent of Lady Sorrow doing her duty,” she blustered in the hope of intimidating him.
No such luck.
“You must be that new Cleric,” he said, smiling derisively. “I’ve heard of you. Why don’t you go back to your duty somewhere else?”
“Or what?” she asked.
How much did he know? Could Lady Sorrow still watch over her, or was she already within the haze cast by those strange Engines? If he was really certain, why was he not coming closer but standing there with his hands in front of him as if unsure whether she was a victim or a threat?
“Or I’ll make –“
Someone shouted behind him: “Kalleas, get in here! Fuck!”
He waved an admonishing hand in her direction before turning and jogging towards the voice. She followed, though she could feel her heartbeat, and her palms grew slick with sweat.
It was a different room than she had imagined; it was the one where she used to hide her diary until she stopped writing in it at the age of 13.
Three Engines, considerably larger than the one in the cottage’s basement, stood side by side, illuminated by more lanterns and candles than she’d ever seen in one room. A Tawney Mechanist, unmistakable by his silvery metal bracelets, lay beside one, twitching and … moaning, the sound strangely sexual rather than painful. Besides him stood another, two arms’ lengths away, looking frantically around for something helpful to do.
“He – it – the substance!” The Mechanist pointed towards the man on the ground.
“What did I tell y-“ The Tawney man turned around towards Profound Distress. “Get out,” he said. “Now.”
“I will know what this is about.”
She did not feel the certainty she wanted to put in her voice, and sounded like it.
Suddenly, the man before her relaxed visibly and looked at something behind her.
“Great!” he said. “Can you take care of this, I have kind of a situation here.”
Profound Distress whirled around and looked into Duncan Klaut’s piercing pale blue eyes. He smirked at her frightened look, and she noticed with a detached surprise that his breath seemed to smell of licorice.
“You know,” he said, “You should be glad it’s me. Luck does smile upon fools and children, I guess.”
Book group questions
- Do you think Duncan is afraid of the Nuntia?
- Do you think Glon should have been more assertive towards her, or maybe more cautious? (I know you have no idea, but neither did he, so just go with it. Or don’t. These questions are voluntary, after all.)
- So, that scene with the merchant guy at the Barrier? Yes, I know, that should have been done earlier, and much smoother, but I forgot to do it, and it has to be there, so I had to insert it here. Sorry.
- Did you like Jakta’s nursery rhyme?