Today, I’m a little more confident than last time, but I’m still very curious what you think of this new chapter of our serialized novel.
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 Iustik, 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 Glonn, 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, Glonn 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.
In the eighth chapter, Glonn meets the Nuntia, and Profound Distress is caught by Duncan.
Today on Angelic Duties:
“Where are you taking me?”
“To your brother.”
“Are you – you know, forcing me? I mean, what, if I try to leave, will you bodily restrain me and drag me to him?”
“Yes. And I will hurt you in the process, if necessary, because that is my purpose here, as you might remember.”
“You realize I’m not seven-year-old Cerya anymore, do you?” She forced a laugh, and it came out too shrill and too loud. “I’m a Cleric and –“
“And you realize everyone hates Clerics, they just cower from the threat of the Angel always hovering behind you, and Angels cannot hover here right now, so in your place, I’d not try throwing my weight around, because your whole weight has stayed out there when you entered, and all you’ve taken with you is the resentment people feel towards a bully they usually have to be afraid of.”
“But – but you realize that I will feel that same resentment towards you when we’re out there again, and my weight is back, and yours is gone in the same moment?”
“If”, was his only answer.
She had always been afraid of Duncan. Of course, not in a ‘He might do something to me’-way, she was a Teneract after all, and he served the House, but in the way she’d been afraid of those she considered good people all her life, because she wanted to be worthy in their eyes, and knew she was not, and she’d always seen the disappointment when he looked at her.
She started to wonder if it was time to fear him in another way.
“You – you wouldn’t kill me, would you?” The same forced shrill laugh again. She really ought to stop doing that.
“You know me,” he said.
And she did. But she still could not bring herself to fear him this way, he’d always seemed so honorable to her.
In fact, she could not bring herself to be afraid at all. This was her home, or as much of a home as she ever had. The feeling that her life might be in danger simply was not there.
They stopped before the door to the room where she got her first kiss from that blond servant boy she never saw again afterwards.
Duncan gently held her back at her shoulder while leaning against the heavy carved wooden door – that was new – and pressing an ear to it.
She could hear voices inside – one Glonn’s, annoyed and barely patient – another female – haughty and mocking – but could not make out words.
“Shouldn’t take long,” he muttered. “I gave it to her almost half a glass ago.”
A high-pitched chinking sound came from within, like breaking glass.
Duncan nodded slowly.
“There you go.”
She started forward, but his hand against her shoulder still held her back.
“What are you waiting for?” she whispered, feeling silly for whispering but still doing it.
He held up his other hand, five fingers extended.
He folded his little finger.
She heard Glonn’s voice from the other side of the door.
Still Glonn’s voice.
Pause. But no answer.
Glonn’s voice again. He still sounded angry, but less frustrated now, self-satisfied in that very loathsome manner he had.
Duncan folded his thumb into the loose fist he’d made and opened the door.
Within, Glonn knelt on the floor before a black-skinned woman in expensive foppish clothes lying on her belly, stretching one arm out towards a small beaker standing in front of his right foot, trying feebly to crawl towards him with no discernible success. Her mouth was wide open and her eyes bulged.
“Here,” Glonn taunted, “Come on, just a few fingers, I’m sure you can reach it, come on, here’s your antidote, if you really want to, you can still make it, you certainly have a few seconds left, don’t give up!”
Only now the woman on the floor seemed to notice the open door, looking first at Duncan, then at Profound Distress.
“Help – me!” she croaked. “Please…”
Profound Distress took a step forward, but Duncan extended his left arm, barring her way through the door.
“Come on!” Glonn continued his teasing. “You’ve almost got it!”
He nudged the beaker a bit forward with the tip of his foot until she could almost touch it.
With a sound somewhere between a whimper and a groan she shoved herself forward, finally reaching the thing – and tipping it over with her clumsy fingers trying to pick it up. A desperate sob escaped her as she continued trying to crawl towards the stain on the floor, sticking out her tongue in her eagerness to get to it.
Profound Distress could not watch this any longer and tried to bow below Duncan’s arm, but he anticipated her movement and held her back with the other hand.
“Only a few moments left,” he murmured. “We shall have to bear it.”
The woman gave a last shudder and a twitch of her extended hand, then stilled, and stopped breathing.
“There,” Duncan breathed.
He lowered his arms, trundled over towards her and looked down upon her with his usual unreadable expression.
“Told you I’m a thug,” he murmured.
“It wasn’t really the antidote,” Glonn explained towards Profound Distress, as if this would make it all understandable and just fine. “Duncan took it before drinking from the same bottle.” Then, turning towards him: “Now what are you standing there staring?”
“It’s sad, if you think about it.”
“What’s sad? That the stuck-up bitch got what she had coming? That’s sad to you?”
“Great talent, years and years of relentless training, exceptional skill, not to mention a human being, one of the many lights illuminating the world, extinguished forever for nothing more than childish pride.”
Glonn considered this for a few heartbeats before responding: “’Nothing more’, you say. But what else is there, what else is life?”
Duncan looked at him, his gaze as calm and unreadable as ever.
“What?” Glonn asked. “Come on, that was a good one, admit it.”
Duncan nodded, knelt besides the dead woman and gently picked up first the beaker, then her body on both arms to carry her outside the room.
Looking at Profound Distress, spreading his arms wide, Glonn asked: “Not like her exceptional skill was any good to her in the end, was it?”
She just looked at the shards of the beaker the woman had held still lying on the flagstone floor.
“Who was she?”
He sighed. “Just trust me, she had it coming.”
“Glonn, I’m not used to this any more. Could you please spare me the show next time?”
He shrugged. “I just saved your life, little sister. The least you could do is be a little grateful. Or a lot, if you know what I mean …”
“Don’t even think about it.”
He shrugged once more. “Pity. But still, we need to talk. A little bird told me you’ve been sneaking around the cellars here, which means you might have found our little something below your cottage, which means we might have a tiny problem here. A drink?”
“You’re joking, right?”
He smiled, and for a moment, he looked almost like a decent person.
“Not what she had, or what I had, for that matter. I could order fresh tea brewed for you. This will take some time, after all, and the air is quite dry down here.”
She looked at him, calculating the chances of her own brother poisoning her. He wouldn’t have let her witness the black woman’s death if he’d intended to do the same to her, would he?
“Will you drink the tea with me?”
He nodded. “Sure.”
Alright. Profound Distress knew House Teneract’s poison of choice, and it was quite uncomfortable even with the antidote. Glonn would not inflict that on himself if he could just as well have Duncan snap her neck. Besides, her throat felt parched, and she could really use some tea right now, and might even have accepted … no. Better not start thinking in that direction.
“Surely, my lady jests.”
“No, Kimbal, I see what you’re getting at, but we can hardly just … We can’t have a Cleric as a dinner guest and just pour her water without even offering -”
“Yes, we can, and it’s exactly what we will do.”
“But … Shouldn’t we at least offer her some wine? She could always refuse, if she -”
“You really don’t understand, do you?”
“I do! But don’t you see how it is completely impossible to have a Cleric in our house and give her nothing but -”
“Look, Katra, this is not complicated at all. In fact, it’s so simple even I can see it clearly at one glance. There are two possibilities. Either she prefers not to be offered alcohol, in which case it’s better not to do it, or she prefers to be, in which case it’s much better not to do it. You do not want a drunk Cleric in your house who still fancies your husband and also has an extensive track record for being impulsive and irresponsible in these matters. You don’t.”
She considered this for a few heartbeats before finally admitting that he had a point.
“But don’t you think we should have something besides water? Some sort of juice maybe, or … small beer?“
“Forget it. Juice is fine, though. But I won’t go out and get it. This whole thing is your project anyway. Just remember because this is important and no matter if you really understand it, please just accept it from me: She cannot drink Alcohol, or indulge in any other drugs. Her self-control is fragile enough as it is. We cannot trust her with that stuff.”
“Got it. Juice, water. Tea?”
“Tea should be fine, too. Just don’t brew it too strong.”
“… so I said: Don’t even get me started!”
Profound Distress laughed so hard she almost spilled her tea. She never realized Glonn could be that funny. She slapped her thighs and threw her head back and –
With a gigantic effort of will, she calmed herself and looked at the cup in her hands. It did seem kind of blurry, come to think of it. She blinked, but it didn’t help.
“Did you …” She shook her head violently. “Did you put – There’s something in my tea, right?”
He tilted his head, grinning broadly, and held his hand up, thumb and index finger a tiny distance apart.
“I might have added a little something to spice it up for you, to get you into a slightly better mood, you know, since you seemed a little highly strung.“
“You bastard! Wha- What time is it?”
She tried to get up, but found it more difficult than expected and sank back into her chair.
“You know, sister, that looked awfully stupid, what you just did.”
“You disgusting, vile, horrible piece of crud!”
“Oh come on, you know how you always enjoyed our little treatment sessions? I was just trying to rekindle old memories!”
He came towards her and bent over her, speaking lowly and directly into her ear: “You know, I also enjoyed those sessions a lot. What do you think-“
He jolted upright and stepped away from her when the door opened and Duncan walked back in.
“Oh, there you are back! I trust everything went alright with the Nuntia?”
Duncan nodded, looked at Profound Distress, and without any discernible change in his facial features, managed to show his feelings.
“It’s not the way it looks!” she yelled at him, pointing a finger at her brother. “He – he –he poisoned me, the fucking bastard poisoned me, I didn’t do anything!”
Duncan just nodded, while Glonn laughed, and winked at him.
“Duncan, could you help me out of here? I need to leave, I have a disappointment. I mean, I – what did I just say?”
“It sounded like you want to be somewhere else. I certainly understand, but I cannot allow it, much as I may regret it.”
Glonn chuckled, and the chuckle turned into a loud, cackling laugh as she awkwardly freed herself from the chair and tottered towards him.
“Sister, I always just loved it when you’re a little stewed! It’s so funny to watch your-“
“You know what?” she drawled, stopping only when she was directly in front of him. “You may laugh now, but I’ll tell you something: You will grow old. Sooner than you imagine now, you will weaken, and lose your hair, and your joints will ache, and your bladder will betray you, but I will always be like this, and I will watch you wither and decline until you don’t even recognize yourself in the mirror anymore and need help scratching your own ass, and I will be young and beautiful, and I will visit you just to laugh at you, and taunt you, and I will enjoy it, and you will know that I have what you never can, that this will never happen to me.”
He looked at her, he swallowed, looked at Duncan, and he said: “Let her leave. Take her away. Now. Before I do something which might please our mother. She’ll come back anyway, but get her out of my sight for now.”
Kimbal walked into the dining room, carrying five of their eight expensive porcelain dishes, looked at the table – and immediately dropped them, stumbling back until his left shoulder painfully hit the doorframe.
The precious plates fell onto the carpet and might even have survived, had they not been knocked against another by the fall, and thus shattered with a sound at once painful and reassuring, because it served to tie him to reality, which seemed to have been suspended otherwise.
On the backrest of one of their dining chairs perched a naked Avatar of Lady Sorrow, the same murderous beast he had recently seen mortally punish dozens of good people for the unforgiveable sin of approaching some old building, and – years ago but unforgotten – slaughter his parents without any apparent reason at all.
“What – why – am – are – what are you doing here?“
“You will admit Profound Distress.”
“I will … what? Yes, of course I will. I invited her. Or … What exactly are you talking about?”
The Angel lowered Her feet from the chair’s backrest in a strange motion where She spread Her wings slightly, stepped from the strip of wood and deliberately stretched Her legs out without the rest of Her body showing any inclination to do what gravity ought to have commanded, until Her taloned feet rested on the floor.
For the first time, he noticed that She had not just one knee, but an extra joint that enabled Her legs to fold up in different ways than a human, and now She stood surprisingly tall. Her head would have broken through the ceiling if She straightened up completely.
She stalked towards him, the porcelain shards crunching beneath Her feet but, of course, doing no discernible harm.
The Angel leaned forward and down, studying his face so very closely while he tried not to look at those silver orbs that served as Her eyes and not to shrink back from Her, gritting his teeth, doing his best not to think about the dreadful possibility She might touch him.
Beneath Her waxy translucent skin, he noticed something pulsing, something that reminded him of human veins, but was also clearly different in that it seemed to move and coil in on itself, and it was of a deep blue you’d certainly not see in human beings while they were still alive.
She made a low throaty sound while inspecting him, somewhere between a hiss and a rattle, and droned:
“You have no fear of us.”
He swallowed and refused to retreat from her scrutiny.
“I do,” he answered. “Lots of fear. You are monsters. But I refuse to bow to your tyranny.”
“Refuse,” the Angel echoed, slowly, but unconcerned, as if trying the word for size. After a pause, She repeated: “You have no fear of us.”
Kimbal opened his mouth, considering whether to object again, but before he could make up his mind, the Angel added:
“Know that it is not only you who will suffer if you disobey.”
“Are you … threatening my family?”
“We do not threaten.”
His fists clenched and unclenched at his sides as he bit his tongue and finally blurted:
“Why did you kill them? They hadn’t done anything to you!”
When he finally couldn’t stand the Angel’s detached empty gaze any longer, he repeated:
“Why did you kill them? What had they done? You know who I’m talking about, don’t you?” The last in the sudden realization that the Angel probably killed thousands of people each year and might really have no idea, if She wasn’t reading his thoughts, as She probably could.
Whichever it was, he still received no answer, and his nails dug into his palms as he tried to control his rage at this cold, uncaring, utterly invulnerable being in front of him. His hatred was somehow multiplied by its object’s sheer indifference, and for a moment, he felt he’d choke on his rage if he did not raise his useless fists and attack this monster in spite of the gesture’s ridiculous pointlessness. Only the thought that he would deprive his children of their father and his wife of her husband just to satisfy his own juvenile anger held him back.
“You do not feel anything about us, do you?” he pressed through gritted teeth. “You do not care at all.”
The Angel held its silence for a while, but finally answered: “We are Avatars of Heaven. It speaks through our mouths, and it bites with our teeth.”
“Why did you kill them?” he repeated a third time.
The Angel made that disturbing hissing-rattling sound again and leaned forward, impossibly balancing without any visible counterweight, until Its mouth was directly besides his right ear.
He dared not even breathe. But he denied his urge to flinch, to recoil before Her. He would not give Her that. ‘Heaven’s teeth can bite my –‘
“You will admit Profound Distress,” She repeated, and vanished with a jump clear through the ceiling, without seeming to touch its material.
He looked after Her, his mouth open, trying to work out what had just happened.
“I was going to do that anyway,” he muttered under his breath.
Reading group questions
- About the Nuntia: Do you regret she’s already gone?
- Do you think Profound Distress should have reacted with more shock at her demise?
- Do you think Duncan would have killed her?
- Do you see the Angels als monsters? Why or why not?