Taking no notice of the unrelenting heat that baked up from the tile paving the high streets, the dead thronged the city streets in greater numbers than the living. Hourly, the bells of the Cathedral tolled. The faithful dead took comfort in this. A fog of lost souls shimmered dirty white and ash grey in the summer sun. They hovered in the air, filthy gray distortions of the people they once were, calling for long-dead cats to come home, or arguing with shopkeepers over prices set in coin that had not been used for a hundred years. They lingered around black water that trickled through weed-choked fountains in forgotten courtyards plotting against petty nobles long since gone. They congregated everywhere: in marketplaces and arcades, underneath Nur trees heavy with their sweet red fruit, on rooftops and under curtained verandas. The air was thick with shouts no louder than whispers; a constant susurrus of laments echoed from whitewashed mud walls and marble towers alike. The dead lingered everywhere in the city except the Grand Library. No one knew what forces kept them back, but every day they had come closer to that vaunted glass and marble hall of books, scrolls, and dusty parchments. This afternoon they stopped just short of the lowest stair on the steps that led up to the heavy bronze doorways.
The Librarian veiled her face whenever she left the library to venture out through the city streets. She rarely left the cool halls and the shaded archives of her own personal domain; she found the hungry dead who lingered along the city's boulevards in aimless throngs distasteful. She had no time for the spectral pawings and intangible kisses of lustful wraiths. It was not fear that kept her inside among her books and catalogs but rather a distaste for disorder and chaos. So unlike many nobles who kept to the hearts of their manors when the sun was high and the wraiths clustered most, she did not cringe at the prospect of being driven to madness by ghosts imploring the living for favors or threatening vengeance. An ordered mind, she reflected, could withstand any temptation or threat. She descended the great steps purposely and moved through the sea of dead that were especially thick in the Library Square.
Her heels, polished and fragrant sandalwood, clicked on the tile streets as she walked towards Lady Peony’s house of love. It was a short walk from the Library to the city’s most famed brothels. The Boy Courtesans there were tutored in all three hundred forms of pleasure known to the ancients, it was rumored. The Librarian had no time for such things, and could not confirm whether the rumors were true or idle speculation of the envious lower classes who would never be admitted past the great oak doors, much less afford the meagerest of the three hundred pleasures. She herself knocked on the heavy door, and ignored the half-naked teenager who pulled it open and smiled at her lazily. “I am here to see Peony,” she said staring past him.
The boy curtsied with a ridiculous flourish. The Librarian’s thin mouth grew narrower in disapproval beneath her veil.
When she arrived in Peony’s private chambers-- decorated in garish colors and conspicuous displays of wealth, The Librarian noted with further disapproval—the other three: Peony; Larissa, Mistress of the Docks, and the Queen herself were already seated. They were engaged in idle chatter while sipping brandy from ornate glass bowls. A flower floated in each bowl. The Librarian bowed perfunctorily towards the Queen, who waved away formalities.
A wide smile rippled across Peony’s fat, ugly face. “Naomi, glad you could join us? Will you have a bowl of flower nectar?”
The Librarian remained standing. “I have come here for one purpose.”
Peony sighed. Larissa smiled dangerously. “Always business, Naomi.”
Queen Narmal smiled nervously. She was very young, and the unfortunate inbreeding of her line had given her a strong resemblance to a rabbit. She was biddable, the Librarian reflected. She had very quickly learned how much the crown relied on the Library Guard and the Great Scholars to retain its power, unlike her predecessor.
The Queen’s hands fluttered. “Thank you for your valuable time, Librarian. I appreciate your help. Do you have any suggestions for our problem with the clergy? I—“
The Librarian cut through the unnecessary formalities and spoke to the Queen as if she were one of her scribes. “Take a letter. To Her Most Serene Holiness, The Mambo-Asogwe Genevra, Sixth of Her Name.”
Her Most Serene Holiness, The Mambo-Asogwe Genevra, Sixth of her Name, Regina Sacrorum, Bishop of Teriqun, Mother of Whores, Hierarch Temporal, and Flame of the Faith read the curt missive four times before tossing the parchment on the hearth. She sighed and sunk bonelessly into the pile of furs that all-but covered the silk damask of the pretty little chaise she had brought with her to the Celestial Eye when she had been elected by the Curia all those years ago. Her silver-and-cast iron colored hair fanned out over the cushions as she pulled a mink coverlet over her chest—left breast left bare as a reminder of her role as Sacred Mother-- and pursed her lips in thought. Her face, lined and careworn, took on a curiously girlish expression as she turned the contents of the letter over and over in her mind before reaching out to ring for an acolyte to bring her another pot of butter tea.
The girl who brought the tea, a pretty thing who could not be more than twelve, dutifully refilled Her Holiness’ bowl with the thick, steaming liquid after each sip. When she had her fill, Genevra waved for the girl to stop. Fixing the child with a rare smile that was more terrifying than reassuring, Genevra commanded, “Tell Terra to stop whatever nonsense she’s engaged in at once, and come to me.” Then, as an afterthought, “and thank you for the tea, child.”
The girl bowed, her gold and green sash fluttering in the draft that chilled the Pope’s private apartments despite the roaring fire and heavy tapestries that line the walls. “I will convey your wishes to the Grand Inquisitrix, Holy Mother.”
Genevra closed her eyes and listened to the acolyte’s footsteps; glass and bronze shoes echoed across the floor mosaic of St. Lily of the Broken Voice, and from down the narrow hallway. She stared into the fire and watched the shapes contort and frolic like lovers.
“Permission to speak freely, your Holiness?” Terra asked, the martial tone in her voice belied her plump, grandmotherly features. The Pope merely closed her eyes in response; her eyelids looked paper thin and blue veins crisscrossed them like streams on a map. Terra sighed. “Genevra, this is madness. The snows around the Eye have fallen ceaselessly this year. Navigating down the mountain and through the pass is difficult in the worst of times. The journey is too hard for—“
Genevra’s eyes popped open. She smiled without warmth, baring tea-stained teeth. “The journey is too hard for what? For a feeble old woman? For a luxurious and weak-minded old cleric grown fat and lazy on tithes and yak butter tea?”
Terra paled, remembering how Genevra had not batted an eye when she had ordered heretics burned alive during the Vale uprising; she had not even lost her calm when ash had settled on her bared left breast in a film. “Your Radiance, I had not meant—“
Genevra’s voice softened. “No, you did not. But I have no doubt that is precisely what she meant. If I refuse, I risk upheaval and chaos in the Curia.”
“But if you go you risk your death.” Terra looked drawn and weary. A heavy sadness veiled her pea-pod green eyes.
Genevra drew herself up, stiffening her spine and forcing the roundness out of her shoulders. She was too thin. “My death is a certain thing. But until that time, my word is law. My commands are sacred and canon. Tell the stablemistress to ready Norka, Varki, and Sto.”
“Your Radiance! Will you not take a litter instead? I can arrange for the guard to—“
“Canon.” Genevra closed her eyes again.
“Yes, your Radiance. I will make arrangements at once.”
Norka, Varki, and Sto, the papal yaks, grunted in greeting as their mistress entered their paddock. The smells of the beasts and their dung was heavy and pungent. The pope pressed a sleeve to her nose as she accustomed herself to the stench. It had been years since Genevra had ridden Norka, the big bull, as far as the meadow that bloomed red and blue with fireflowers in the summer less than an hour from the outer gate of the Celestial Eye. The rarified life she had lived since was full of the smells of incense censors, perfumed acolytes, and silks kept in cedar chests. This ripeness of life, the smells of animal, sweat and shit nearly overwhelmed her and her eyes watered. She had expected the animals to become shy or indifferent to her return, but all three beasts shambled over to her, jostling for position and attention. She ran a bony hand affectionately over Varki’s thick coat. The cow rolled her eyes affectionately. Varki was the prettiest, her golden fur curled prettily at the ends, her eyelashes long and heavy like a courtesan’s. Sto, noticing that she was not being petted, turned her attention to stripping one of the glau bushes in the paddock bare of leaves. She chewed slowly; it gave her a contemplative air.
Norka was saddled and liveried. Green and gold ribbons marking him as the Pope’s own streamed from his horns. Varki and Sto carried provisions for the journey. As tradition demanded, no one was present to see Genevra’s departure. Her heart heavy at terse parting she had given Terra, Genevra climbed stiffly into Norka’s saddle, and beckoned the two cows to follow.
Snow had begun to fall, and the morning light was pearlescent and eerie.
Genevra’s hip ached. Hours before, Sto had stumbled into a sinkhole hidden by snow. Alarmed, Norka had thrown her. It had taken all of her strength and patience to get the cow back onto the narrow mountain road. The wines in her saddle bag, expensive and rare vintages from the dale arbor, were lost and possibly unrecoverable. It had taken over an hour of petting and soothing before Norka was ready to set out again.
The Pope was bruised and sore, barely able to stay in the saddle. A deep, rasping cough rattled through her chest. She smiled grimly to herself, at least Terra wasn’t here to see the disastrous state of her robes. The nipple on her bared left breast had lost feeling. She gazed around her to see if there was any place suitable to set up camp for the night. A small sound, barely more than the softness of snow on snow drew her attention. Through a dense copse of evergreen pines she glimpsed a movement of grey and black against the snow. Snow Leopard. Best to keep moving, then. She urged Norka onward.
The pope sat in front of a fire, trying to apply a poultice of leaves and herbs to Norka’s flank. The bull balked at this, and it took her greater reserves of patience and persistence than she knew she had. Still it was necessary for her to tend his wounds if they were to continue on to the city. He had been clawed badly by the leopards and had barely escaped with his life. Sto, who had still been slow and weak from her accident had not been so lucky. Her remains roasted and sizzled over the fire.
Genevra’s mouth watered at the rich gamey smell and the thought of fresh meat as she draped her new snow leopard fur, improperly skinned, over her exposed left breast.
A clamor rose up from the Library square. The Librarian frowned, looking up from the piles of scrolls and books spread before her. She had much to do, and the distraction of noise did not suit her at all. She pulled away from the ornate desk worked with pears and pomegranates in Nurwood and strode over to the windows that overlooked the square. Once an appropriate puppet was found for the Curia to elect as the new Pope, she would have noisy heretics burned. She pulled the heavy drapes back, daylight flooded the room, and she tightened her veil around her face to protect her delicate eyes fom the midday brightness.
The Librarian blinked in surprise. The streets below were filled with people. Living people. At noon, when the spirits liked to congregate most because the sun’s warmth reminded them of having life. How could this be, she wondered. Then an unpleasant grimace crossed her face as the crowd parted to reveal an elderly woman seated imperiously on a yak that limped across the square. The woman was wearing soiled silks, and had one breast bared.
The Librarian closed the heavy drapes against the daylight, but not before she saw Pope Genevra VI smile up at her in pointed triumph.