“What was the decision?” I asked. “What was the designation that you could do what you did and it be alright?” Sivar prepared herself another drink. It took her a while to answer. We still had a ways to go before reaching the top of the beanstalk. I was not in a hurry… yet.
“Dion told me what he intended when he put you with Paulos,” she said. “I was completely complicit because I needed full control of your disposal. You gave me the opening with your contentious testing.” She paused. “They were going to route you to the Legion. I intervened, stating your unsuitability and citing a possibility for memetic auto-theological infection. I agreed with them that, with the past wiped from your mind, you would make a grand Legionnaire. We just needed to hasten your demise for reclamation.”
I felt the planes of my face hardening. My breathing trickled to small puffs; the vibration of the car was loud. Calmly, I pushed forward. “And?”
“I invoked an Old World precedent, declaring you not ready for eternity,” Sivar said with a mild flourish. “You were designated a Thrall of the Principality and your disposition was left at my absolute discretion.”
I cycled the word through my head, rolling it around picking up contextual traction. “Thrall… a slave.” I went over Paulos’ lessons in my head. “If I had run away, the other Prelates minions would have been compelled to return me because I was your property?”
“The Eastern North American Principality would not have, but since the designation was noted in your Book, your freedom would have been severely curtailed. However, since you have a new name… a new listing has been issued, one more… literal of the experiences you have received.” For the first time, in this conversation, I realized that Sivar was genuinely and uncomfortably trying to let down some her social armor to deal with a complete neophyte.
“What does it say?” I whispered.
“It depends on how the record is accessed,” she strode across the room back to where I was sitting. “To an official in the New World, it says, ‘Courtier.’ In the old, it says Courtesan.’ In Rome, it is likely to say ‘Cicisbeo.’ In others it simply says ‘Gentleman.’”
She returned to the seat near me. “To me… and the other Prelates, the Primates, and the Celestials, it says ‘whore.’”
The word seemed to fill me sending inclement horror torrenting through my veins, “It… it’s not about sex is it?”
“It is not about carnal behavior,” she sighed. “You can sacrifice your life for others, you can sacrifice your existence. You, your purity….” She was almost statuary of gold-stained alabaster, and virtually unmoving, “That is never for sale. It can be taken and incur no stain, but to give it away, in the volume we took and do so willingly, even in the service of others, is one of the few things the Managers of the Engine of Creation would call a sin. Demons are one of the things they have very strong opinions about.”
She let beats pass, watching my reactions. “You traded your Grace for the lives of Paulos and his Legionnaire comrades in arms. That is the reason Panacea filtered through love is so strong, an unknown sacrifice yet willing one. You thought you were giving up pain and appearance. It was far more. It’s almost as if the demonic essence revels in the fall it brings.”
I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath, until I whispered, “What does this mean?”
“For those who know….” she began, and faltered… gracefully, but she faltered. “It marks you. It is the sign that you thought something was so valuable that you sold your very self for it. Maybe you will sell other things. It is a warning.”
I felt the first strained notes of hysteria score my mind. I was rocking back and forth unconsciously, eyes fixed, face taunt, arms wrapped myself together. I breathed. I swallowed and then I got angry, scalding white hot angry. “Did someone think they were being fucking amusing by sending Paulos to kill me?”
“I do not think they know about the designation,” she smiled. “There is only one Prelate here. However I do think certain people, to whom Paulos made an oath, called that oath forth and sent him to destroy you to keep the idea of using demon essence to gain power in a proper state of taboo. There was nothing greater about it. I’m certain other Rangers who took the demon hunter oath will be moving against the other volunteers. Hrm, better do something about that.” She concentrated for a moment. “There, my guard is in motion. Hopefully too many people won’t get caught in the crossfire.”
“This was supposed to be the gateway for my future.” My fear poured forth, bringing blotching tears. “What am I supposed to do now? I’m going to be hunted all this life. I’m not trained for this. I didn’t want this. My eternity has been turned into the opposite of anything approaching ‘heaven.’”
“I was prepared to override the ruling and send you to the Legion,” Sivar said. “In fact, I did and the entry would not change. The Celestials would not remove the mark… and then I saw Paulos in the crowd.” She paused. “Vycta…Does it hurt you that they sent your lover…”
“Ex-lover,” I interrupted her.
“…to do the deed?” She finished.
“I was told that filtering the demon blood had been my ‘charge’ and I’d satisfied my obligation several times over,” I said, my voice tiny and dissonant. “It hurts. It is more painful than dying.”
“I want you to join my staff,” she replied.
I repressed the urge to double take. I was not sure what was happening here. “In what capacity?”
“Between you and me, nothing. I can come up with something for everyone else to believe. Have you thought of anything you want to do with your time?”
Rage drove my reply. “I need to learn how to kill better, survive surprise attacks, give assassins pause.” The anger and hate had full sway. “I tested well on pranic manipulation. I would like to continue to learn, grow stronger. Maybe I can get strong enough to fix myself and….”
She cut me off. “Listen Vycta, this isn’t something you can take back… it is judgement. You cannot get your purity back any more than you can reverse the changes to your soul the Angels, the Sun, and the demon prana have made in you. You cannot be human or as you were.”
When she was speaking, leaning over me, I had two distinct images warring in my head: a stooping hawk, with talons at the fore coming in to strike, or the stooping hawk landing to cover me with hard protective wings. I was assaulted with these images and I saw her social armor come back up. I felt the claws. I wasn’t injured, not with wounds, but the mood had turned.
Sivar paced the chamber. “If you join my staff, I can get you the training you want. It will be rigorous to the point of exhaustion, but your abilities will definitely grow. For the sake of appearances, I will put you in my harem and….” She snapped her fingers. “That’s it!” A positively evil smile settled on her lips. “This will be an entertaining bit of military and political theater.”
Sivar paced the chamber manically. She stopped talking, only smiling for several minutes and she looked, locking eyes with me. “So, you requested a fortune… done. The money that would have been used to buy you a property on the inner ring of the principality will instead be invested in a top flight private pranic instructor. That kind of money will buy private instruction for several months and will be outside of the usual economic tracking.
“Publicly, you will be one of my lovers, the latest addition to my harem. We’ll say that I was enamored with your mutations and tattered innocence, and took you under my wing. You will have to learn manners, and make occasional appearances at events and maybe some other things, but the bulk of your time will be devoted to prana. And whenever you choose to leave, you can. You will have enough money to invest in a mid- or outer-ring home without denting your interest-earning capital for supporting yourself.”
It was ludicrous, of course, but I had to ask, “Why?”
“They will want you,” she said. “Legion, private military, and scientific interests will probably want to experiment on you; religious interests will want to kill you. As far as the world is concerned, I will have you. Politically, it suits me because I want to know what you are up to and if turning you into a pranic killing machine is what you want then I will do that. It will keep the staff on their toes. Plus… there are special friends in the harem. They are allowed no other women but myself and if you take a liking to them, maybe we can arrange a show or two for myself or my friends?”
My jaw was somewhere on the floor. She was a horrible, horrible, magnificent woman. “What is the catch?” I would get training…and maybe I could somehow get Paulos. I squelched the thought and concentrated on money and power. I actually wanted to punch myself for thinking that way about Paulos.
Sivar shrugged. “The situation gains me no real power, but I can manage the confusion to my and your benefit and you can play the act as far as you please,” she said. “But, I am told you do not sleep with women.”
“No offense,” I said. “Women have never moved me erotically. I am well socialized in being able to moon over an intelligent and attractive lady, but that is where it stops.”
“Had you been with a women before death?” she asked.
“No,” I replied.
“I’ve always known,” I replied. “As I got older and I had better command of my senses I realized that it was not just appearance. Smell, touch, feel of men are different, even kissing, especially kissing. There were plenty of men who had sex with women to prove their manliness. That seemed wrong for me, like I was using them for a selfish end. Sex, unless you’re paying for it, is not supposed to be purely selfish.”
She stared at me like I had developed another head. “You are a romantic. Oh, Holy Christ. I am dropping a romantic zealot into the heart of my harem. This is going to be magnificent.”
The lawyers met us at the top of the beanstalk, armed with paperwork. Over the next few hours, agreements were hammered out. During the discussions, most of them were unsettled by the amount of attention Sivar paid me. I still had not put on my shirt and cloak. When I was standing nearby, she was always touching me.
She was very good a touching, she had a deft touch, her fingers were almost suspiciously uncalloused and she smelled faintly of lemon verbena. I focused on her scent and the details of her touch; otherwise I would have been driven crazy by the excessive attention, but it was enough to create that semblance of initial romantic fascination.
To meet that effort, and not look like she was merely pawing me, I had to come away from the bars of my cage and find something fascinating about her.
When I lowered my guard and let myself feel, I immediately felt it. She was a mountain of prana contained in a kaleidoscopic ziggurat of wards, spells, and effects I had no name for, let alone experience with. To my unshielded skin, her touch was like being stroked by a tame blast furnace. Touching her was like feeling a storm rumbling beneath my fingers.
So we exchanged soft touches and lingering caresses until the paperwork was signed and the lawyers ran out. We were alone again.
“You were oddly affectionate,” she said, taking a seat across from me sipping from a fluted glass.
“I was trying to match your displays of affection,” I said sipping from a mug of mead. “It is one thing to be perceived as kept. It’s another to be seen as caught. I may not want to sleep with you, but you are a fascinating woman. I could stare at you for hours over your pranic print alone. You probably have astoundingly ornate clothes and sets of armor that make you look, not meaning to be sacrilegious, like a goddess.”
She stared at me for a moment and I felt the faintest breath of her power move through the room, “I am not sure what to say. You are telling the truth, you truly feel that way. Are you so emotionally nimble?”
“First you were afraid and suspicious of me, and a few hours later I am fascinating,” she said. “In someone with no Court experience, it is a remarkable thing to see.”
“I am used to making myself feel things,” I replied. “Feigning enthusiasm is an absolute requirement in the job market in Austin, Texas.”
She waved her hand. “Well, you are not working now. Did you feign love with Paulos for his protection, to learn his skills?”
“No,” I replied, “just as I do not feign fascination with you.”
Sarcasm crackled from her words, “So then, my former enemy, just what do you find so fascinating about me.”
“Your pranic signature,” I replied. “Your power is immense. Touching you is the closest I will ever come to touching a sun. When I draw my hand across your fingers, I feel the rumble of a storm beneath smooth, perfect skin. In your gaze I see measured approach, even in your most chaotic action. There is consideration and purpose about you that in this quiet place stands out more than any of your beauty.”
She looked like she swallowed a fish. “What did you do when you were alive?”
“A failure,” I said simply. “I failed at most things I attempted. Towards the end I played games and worked to eat. Death was the only thing I really lived for… and I’ve cocked that up right well too.”
“Did people die when you failed?” she asked.
I smiled. “I was nothing so great. Small things. I was not aggressive enough to get the story. I could not lie for a living and have bosses that pretended otherwise. I reached a turning point; I failed at something I thought I should have succeeded in. I failed repeatedly. It was such a personal failure that I lost the vocabulary I used to describe myself, to define myself. To my own self, I was just gone.”
“Why work so hard to preserve yourself then?” she asked. “Some people arrive here innocent as babes, others have no memory of their lives in the land of the living.”
“I believed, needed to believe, that there was something else,” I replied. “And part of that belief required me to be able to see and appreciate it.”
“Just because we are in Heaven does not mean we have stopped being human,” she replied. “Well…mostly human.”
That earned a laugh.
“The thing is, despite the whole death, pain, vomiting fire, I have talents never realized when I was alive. If I opt out of society, I can be totally self-sufficient here.
“With our deal, I can maximize those talents and when I am no longer of any use to you, I won’t be released flailing to the jaws of eternity. There is always a positive in these things… usually… at least in hindsight.”
“They would eat you alive out there,” she replied.
“Technically, they’ve already have,” I replied with a faint smile and I found myself crying again. “Too soon.”
“Well, let’s go through some exercises,” she said. “We do not want to misrepresent your actual capacities and waste time getting up to speed.”
“Yes, Your Eminence,” I said, thankful to lose the pain in work.
When we arrived at Sivar’s palace, I asked to be isolated and Sivar was more than accommodating, not that her compound lacked space to get lost in. I continued to play the attentive new kept man for two weeks before my teacher arrived.
My teacher was a four-foot tall, green-skinned Chinese woman who arrived clad in gold burnished Legionnaire’s armor and had an aura that was substantial, but well in the shadow of Sivar’s.
The two women seemed well acquainted with each other and were delicately deferential to each other. Oddly, Sivar would not tell me who the woman was or how I was to behave in her presence.
They talked in her office for several hours while I waited outside in the hall. I fidgeted for a few minutes before I decided to stop being churlish. I had plenty to do. Between breathing exercises, making pranic shapes and making them fight, and levitating at awkward angles, it seemed that virtually no time had passed when their voices grew louder as they approached the door.
I righted myself and went back to sitting casually, but they were both smiling knowingly as they exited the room. They had been watching the entire time.
They stopped five paces away and the visitor took another three steps forward. “During our time together, you will call me Sifu. We will begin your training in the morning. Good day, student. You are dismissed.”
Sivar did not give any sign of agreement or disagreement so I departed, resolving to go to bed early. Sifu’s definition of “morning” was probably more in line with a pure time definition, rather than the day and light cycle in the city.
As I expected, some time during the “night”, a servant woke me and I was escorted to the gymnasium, where Sifu waited, wearing a red silk gi adorned with a stylized rose in gold leaf.
“Sit, please.” She gestured to the clean white marble next to her as she folded gracefully to the floor.
She watched me carefully, her prana gently wafting from her and over me. “You have no reason to trust me, but I will say that the considerable cost of me coming here was not me coming to teach you, but something that I smuggled from my Principality, a prized psychic enhancement.”
“Psychic steroids?” I temporized. “Okay, what are the side effects?”
She smiled, “Psychological addiction,” she replied. “There will also be the possibility mutagenic side effects.”
“What kind of ‘mutagenic side effects,’” I asked.
She breathed out a golden sirocco of prana that wreathed about me. It smelled of ginger and lemon, and puffed with each breath I took. It spun away from me, the bits I breathed out rushing over into it and she absorbed it, coughed out a smoky cloud of gold and inhaled it with an irritated frown.
“Demon,” she frowned at me. “How are you not dead or demon.”
“Love,” I replied.
“So young in Heaven and you found a girl to instill so great a love?”
“It was… arranged and yes, at the time, he was so great a love. The kind of love that one thinks exists in a fairy tale; the king that can last forever and overcome all things and then it does, at the cost of itself.”
“Do you still love him?”
My face hardened. “No.”
She leaned forward slightly. “How can so great a love die?”
“Very quickly,” I sighed. “He was sent to kill me after I died a hundred times for him. That is thankless enough, don’t you think?”
“Did you kill him?”
“I did not even have to fight him,” I chuckled. “Which was good, because I probably would have lost.”
“Do you think you will have to fight him?”
“Will you hesitate?”
“No,” I replied. “He was also my first teacher. He would be shamed if I did not shatter a few hills trying to kill him.”
She took the words in. “I think you can kill him. After we are done, we will be sure you can kill him.” She paused. “If we approach the regimen vigorously.”
“You never said what side effects to expect,” I replied.
She smiled, her teeth were smooth and white. “I had hoped to distract you with promises of revenge and strength. The events still affect you strongly despite your calm exterior.”
“That ugly, huh?” I asked.
“I was taken aback when I read the chi scenting,” she replied. “The problem is that you look… mostly… normal. Bald head, black eyebrows brown skin, brown eyes. You are a kept man. You have too much leisure. My training will take an extraordinary allocation of time and effort to avoid distortion.”
“How much of the fee Sivar paid you from my settlement is for your time and how much for the… enhancer? No wait….” I collected my thoughts. “Will I run out of enhancer before the tutorial time is done and if so, how much does it cost?”
“She said that you asked for an estate in the center ring,” she replied. “That is more money that even the most ambitious soul would see in their first one five hundred years. Lets say, two hundred years gets me as an instructor.
“Each member of the Queen of Jade’s Immortal Army swears fealty to her for five hundred years in return for training and the Green Blessing. You have me for a year and six months, and if we ration the Blessing it will last as long… but you will not have me here to help you with the withdrawal. Unless you want more. I understand you will have resources.”
“I do not want to become a long-term addict to so fluid a master,” I replied.
“Talk to Sivar,” she replied. “To maximize your training, you need a two-year supply. We can exhaust it in one year if you train to my specifications, and you will be ready to take on the Hero who killed your love, or any of the older Legionnaires, even the Queen of Jade’s Guard.” She smiled. “I think she is even awake. I told her you would come talk to her early. Go ahead.”
Sifu left me stewing in my anxieties. I thought over what little I knew about the possible consequences. I thought what Sivar told me about the people who would eventually pounce from some innocuous hiding place. The same people who sent Paulos to kill me. I hurried to Sivar’s massive residential suite.
“You can afford it,” the Prelate replied. Sivar had been almost too easy to find. But she was not necessarily pleased. She asked me to relay everything Sifu told me and the risks I would be entertaining.
“Is she lying?” I replied.
“What do your instincts tell you?” Sivar turned the question around.
I frowned. “It is an amusement for her. She likes seeing what someone would risk. She, if she is of the Jade Queen’s Court, is used to seeing men sacrifice 500 years to service and probably wind up in even more bondage to this ‘Blessing.’ I do want it, but there is just something massively unattractive about certain types of addiction. In a suitable social environment, it could be workable, but alone?”
“She said that she could time things so she could help you with withdrawal?” Sivar prompted.
“Yes,” I replied. “Your Excellency, how much danger am I in as this… demon thing?”
“In this Principality, relatively little,” she replied. “But in others… it could be very difficult.”
“You mentioned a public perception that I am being kept by you,” I replied. “How will you explain me disappearing for a year?”
“You are on retreat to get your new… urges… under control,” she replied. “Diplomatic, true, and salacious.”
“Wh..” I almost asked, “What do you think,” but I stopped myself. “What do I need to do to secure the funds for her? How long do you think it would take for her to smuggle some here?”
“Oh she brought it with her,” Sivar replied. “She wanted to see if we would negotiate.”
“How long will I be in debt?”
“Maybe a few months, six or seven at the most,” Sivar mused. “No debt at all if you use some of your capital. But if you’re going to rely on the interest…” she shrugged. “You won’t have the liquid funds for a home at the end, but the capital will still be intact.”
“Alright, let’s do it,” I said.
“Excellent,” Sifu said from the doorway. “I give you my word that I will not short you on training or care when your time with the Blessing comes to an end. I will do all in my ability to make certain you are not left an addict. You have my word. I look forward to starting tomorrow morning. I would suggest you take today to be frivolous and free. The next year and some months will be something akin to hell.” (by Hank T Cannon)