“There is no surer sign of decay in a country than to see the rites of religion held in contempt.”
~ Niccolo Machiavelli
“Methum is very devout in religion,” droned on Priestess Madonna.
The message carrier had come early the next day. It was a black bird [as was poor Trevor before it] but its wings and rudder were tipped with a dark green instead of red. It was slightly more amiable, also, and less eerie. As the blue-colored Twelve sat before what remained of the Half-Castes, the bird pecked around Proxima’s feet and ate scraps out of her bag. The bird hopped around, and stared into Proxima’s eyes, intelligence burning in the beady black circles.
Proxima had grown to hate birds over the last few months.
After her encounter with Trevor and the General’s bird, Kaw – both which she’d killed – birds made Proxima feel very uncomfortable. Proxima had read Tolkien’s The Hobbit [which Cato had insisted she read]; and she’d always imagined that speaking with birds would be resourceful and interesting. In reality, however, the activity proved awkward and unnerving. Even this bird – Sheldon called her Brooke – was getting on Proxima’s nerves. Every so often, she waved her hand at it so it would go away.
She noticed it always came back.
Foxes peered at the blue light from behind bushes and tree trunks, in slight fear and slight interest. They sniffed the artificial people, seeming amazed by how their tongues and muzzles passed straight through them. Medea, who had tired of the Priestess long ago, and was skinning snare-caught rabbits, threw entrails at them. The Twelve seemed greatly annoyed by this, but it pleased the foxes, which pricked up their ears, yelping and barking, and chased after the meat.
So far, only Priestess Madonna had spoken.
Though bearing a kindly appearance, the woman had a very shrill voice that was hard not to notice and despise. Proxima was only half-listening [it was difficult to block the whole voice out], but something was not entirely right today. Neither Legate Cornelius nor Sheldon had spoken. Senator Flavius had put in a word or two, but that was it.
Only the woman with the annoying voice had spoken at length.
“If I may interrupt,” said Proxima, abruptly.
The Priestess looked violated all of a sudden, as though Proxima had no right to interject, but nodded and stuttered, “W-well, of course.”
Proxima said nothing.
“Proceed,” said the Priestess.
“What has happened? Why have none of you spoken?”
The Twelve looked at each other, and then all stared down at her.
“We have no purpose for speech,” said Flavius.
“Politicians seldom have little purpose for speech,” Proxima gave a sweet smile.
Flavius scowled, but did not reply.
So this is strange, thought Proxima.
“Well?” she said, “What is the matter? What is the cause of silence?”
“I have more to say,” Priestess Madonna pointed out.
“I agree. But I’m sure Dr. Holmes and the Legate have some words for us. If not, then why?”
“You sound suspicious,” rasped Senator Julia, pointing a bony finger at her.
“Haven’t I right to be? And now that you’ve pointed it out, should I be?”
“You probably should,” muttered Roderigo, who was busy paying no attention and scowling, whilst carving a piece of wood for no particular reason. The scraping of the blade against the wood was rhythmic and the ground around Roderigo’s feet was littered with shavings.
Cornelius cleared his throat, “Your manner has changed, Proxima.”
“I’ve seen the incarnation of the Bigger Man. I’ve slept by his side as soundly as a child. I’ve learnt and have been humbled,” she paused, “I’m not sure you want to hear the rest.”
“Mose Ruict was a traitor,” spat Flavius.
“I neither mentioned his name, nor did I say the matter was open for discussion. You have your purpose and that influences your opinion,” Proxima said the word slowly and watched as the faces of the Twelve darkened, “I have no use for such knowledge. All I wonder at is your silence. And you have yet to grant me an answer.”
I’ll have to speculate, it seems, Proxima though, with a bad feeling growing in her.
“Has something unpleasant occurred?”
“Has someone died?”
“Are we going to die? Any time soon?”
“Has…” Proxima’s voice caught, “Has something happened with Cato?”
“Speak,” Proxima said, shaking.
“Cato is… resilient,” Sheldon said carefully, “Anything short of Death himself couldn’t kill him. But…” he hesitated.
“To keep him asleep, we decided to put him on neuroleptics,” Sheldon said quickly, “But we’ve tried several, and it seems he is yet adamant to wake,” Sheldon paused, “So we’ve put him on an under-tested drug, which appears to be fulfilling its purpose.”
“The drug may have adverse effects on Cato after prolonged usage – such things as memory loss, seizures, dystonia, dementia and even, I am sorry to say, death.”
Proxima’s hands shook, “Can’t you keep him caged…?” she paused, bile rising in her throat, “Isn’t there another way?”
“We’ve no desire to entertain a very alarmed and deranged Cato,” said Senator Gracus, “Nor are we prepared to receive his accusations, our irresponsibility in sending you on this mission.”
“Of course not,” said Roderigo, still carving the piece of wood, not meeting the holographic eyes of the Twelve, “You’d rather have him die.”
Proxima took a deep breath, listening to the scraping of wood.
Arguing with them doesn’t solve anything, and it won’t prolong Cato’s life, she thought, But I can’t let Cato die. Not after everything I’ve done. Especially not after Federico’s capture…
“Okay,” she said.
“Okay?” said Cornelius, mildly surprised, “You have no complaint? No rant?”
“What use is my complaint to you? You don’t pity me,” Proxima didn’t wait for a reply, “But Cato means everything to me, and I’m going to have to demand the names of the remaining Targets.”
“You?” scoffed Flavius, “Demand?”
“Yes, me. I demand.”
“What gave you any right to do so?”
“Fine,” Proxima shrugged, though gracefully, “We’ll listen to Priestess Madonna lecture on and we can go one step at a time. Take as long as it takes. No problem there.”
Flavius’s face drew a smile, triumphant in nature but sympathetic in appearance.
Typical of him to do so.
Proxima continued, “But if Cato dies…”
His face went slack.
“Is that dissent I hear?” spat Senator Julia.
“I am merely restating the terms of this agreement,” replied Proxima, “The Emperor, Emperor Iago, promised me the life of my guardian for the removal of seven high-profile Methists – three of which I have successfully assassinated. Though my manner’s been a bit rough, I’ve kept my end of the deal. And if you think keeping your end of it is by long lectures and slow progress and the deterioration of Cato’s health – possibly leading to his death – you are mistaken. If Cato dies, you can consider this mission aborted.”
Cornelius stood up, “This is dissent, Proxima.”
“I have suggested a solution, which Flavius seemed much amused by. What I have said was not meant as treachery on my part; I was only restating the terms. I am an assassin, and I’ll have my bond,” she paused, narrowing her eyes, “You know that well.”
Sheldon and Cornelius regarded each other, pausing before simultaneously nodding.
“Very well,” said Sheldon, with a slight sigh, “We shall give you the names of what’s left of the Targets, but their details will be held back for the moment. You will focus on your current Target.”
“Who is?” said Proxima, irritated for good measure. The Priestess had spoken for perhaps half an hour, and had not mentioned anything about the Target.
“Your fourth Target is: Gorida Robiro, Methum’s High Priestess.”
Proxima paused, and nodded.
This name means nothing to me, she thought, sighing inwardly with slight relief.
“If you’ve been paying close attention to our Priestess – which I doubt you have – you’d understand that now is the Season of Surrender for the Methists,” Sheldon continued.
“The Season of Surrender is –” Priestess Madonna began, but was cut off swiftly.
“I will take it from here,” barked Sheldon, raising a hand, “It is when a father gives away one – or more, if he is pious – of his daughters to faith. He gives them to the High Priestess for the sake of faith. They all go to a common place – a Vatican of sorts – called the Vetagul, where they’ll learn all the different religious things that the Methists are so fervent about,” Sheldon waved away the notion with his hand, as if religion of all sorts meant nothing to him and was a load of useless bother.
Proxima wondered at this. At a time such as this, she would have expected all the people of the Empire to rely and call upon a deity – so hopeless was the Empire against the Dyonuxiots. Proxima also sympathized a little with Priestess Madonna.
Her fervor to speak and be heard... She probably didn’t get a whole lot of that. And how easily the others had cast her word aside, as though she didn’t matter at all…
Proxima shared an apologetic smile with her, now, as Sheldon spoke. The Priestess seemed not to notice.
Proxima knew Cato was religious, to an extent, though he didn’t follow the Empire’s religious conventions [a number of gods, sacrifices, reading the future, etc.]. He believed in a God and had a book he read often in a language Proxima didn’t understand – this much she knew. She, admittedly, wasn’t as religious as Cato would have liked, but she followed his train of beliefs to a respectful level. The things Cato believed in made sense to her [or those which he had discussed, anyway], but she wasn’t much bothered with religion.
Though, with recent events as they were, perhaps she ought to give it some more thought.
Sheldon continued, “There will be teams of Surrenders all over Methum, all going to and meeting at the Vetagul on the same day. You, Proxima, could easily pass as a Surrender.”
Cornelius nodded, “You’d be wise to avoid Escarr, Runorks, and any city of commerce. The Methists have become very wary of you, though – from what we know – they haven’t identified you yet.”
Proxima cocked her head to a side, “Anything else I should know?”
“No. Just, perhaps, find a dark hooded cloak. Something humble and modest, for you to blend in easily with the other Surrenders.”
“And our other Targets?”
Flavius stood, and as he recited the names of the other Targets Proxima’s eyes widened.
Target V: Chancellor Rialto Byna, Head of State and Law Maker.
Target VI: Officer Rilam Lalti, Chief of Methum’s largest prison.
Target VII: Lesra, Queen of Methum…