Small Gods Page 12

“But suppose something went wrong,” it insisted.

“I'm not any good at theology,” said Brutha. “But the testament of Ossory is very clear on the matter. They must have done something, otherwise you in your wisdom would not direct the Quisition to them.”

“Would I?” said Om, still thinking of that face. “It's their fault they get tortured. Did I really say that?”

“ `We are judged in life as we are in death' . . . Ossory III, chapter VI, verse 56. My grandmother said that when people die they come before you, they have to cross a terrible desert and you weigh their heart in some scales,” said Brutha. “And if it weighs less than a feather, they are spared the hells.”

“Goodness me,” said the tortoise. And it added: “Has it occurred to you, lad, that I might not be able to do that and be down here walking around with a shell on?”

“You could do anything you wanted to,” said Brutha.

Om looked up at Brutha.

He really believes, he thought. He doesn't know how to lie.

The strength of Brutha's belief burned in him like a flame.

And then the truth hit Om like the ground hits tortoises after an attack of eagles.

“You've got to take me to this Ephebe place,” he said urgently.

“I'll do whatever you want,” said Brutha. “Are you going to scourge it with hoof and flame?”

“Could be, could be,” said Om. “But you've got to take me.” He was trying to keep his innermost thoughts calm, in case Brutha heard. Don't leave me behind!

“But you could get there much quicker if I left you,” said Brutha. “They are very wicked in Ephebe. The sooner it is cleansed, the better. You could stop being a tortoise and fly there like a burning wind and scourge the city.”

A burning wind, thought Om. And the tortoise thought of the silent wastes of the deep desert, and the chittering and sighing of the gods who had faded away to mere djinns and voices on the air.

Gods with no more believers.

Not even one. One was just enough.

Gods who had been left behind.

And the thing about Brutha's flame of belief was this: in all the Citadel, in all the day, it was the only one the God had found.

Fri'it was trying to pray.

He hadn't done so for a long time.

Oh, of course there had been the eight compulsory prayers every day, but in the pit of the wretched night he knew them for what they were. A habit. A time for thought, perhaps. And method of measuring time.

He wondered if he'd ever prayed, if he'd ever opened heart and mind to something out there, or up there. He must have done, mustn't he? Perhaps when he was young. He couldn't even remember that. Blood had washed away the memories.

It was his fault. It had to be his fault. He'd been to Ephebe before, and had rather liked the white marble city on its rock overlooking the blue Circle Sea. And he'd visited Djelibeybi, those madmen in their little river valley who believed in gods with funny heads and put their dead in pyramids. He'd even been to far Ankh-Morpork, across the water, where they'd worship any god at all so long as he or she had money. Yes, Ankh-Morpork-where there were streets and streets of gods, squeezed together like a deck of cards. And none of them wanted to set fire to anyone else, or at least any more than was normally the case in Ankh?-Morpork. They just wanted to be left in peace, so that everyone went to heaven or hell in their own way.

And he'd drunk too much tonight, from a secret cache of wine whose discovery would deliver him into the machinery of the inquisitors within ten minutes.

Yes, you could say this for old Vorbis. Once upon a time the Quisition had been bribable, but not anymore. The chief exquisitor had gone back to fundamentals. Now there was a democracy of sharp knives. Better than that, in fact. The search for heresy was pursued even more vigorously among the higher levels in the Church. Vorbis had made it clear: the higher up the tree, the blunter the saw.

Give me that old-time religion . . .

He squeezed his eyes shut again, and all he could see were the horns of the temple, or fragmented suggestions of the carnage to come, or . . . the face of Vorbis.

He'd liked that white city.

Even the slaves had been content. There were rules about slaves. There were things you couldn't do to slaves. Slaves had value.

He'd learned about the Turtle, there. It had all made sense. He'd thought: it sounds right. It makes sense. But sense or not, that thought was sending him to hell.

Vorbis knew about him. He must do. There were spies everywhere. Sasho had been useful. How much had Vorbis got out of him? Had he said what he knew?

Of course he'd say what he knew . . .

Something went snap inside Fri'it.

He glanced at his sword, hanging on the wall.

And why not? After all, he was going to spend all eternity in a thousand hells . . .

The knowledge was freedom, of a sort. When the least they could do to you was everything, then the most they could do to you suddenly held no terror. If he was going to be boiled for a lamb, then he might as well be roasted for a sheep.

He staggered to his feet and, after a couple of tries, got the swordbelt off the wall. Vorbis's quarters weren't far away, if he could manage the steps. One stroke, that's all it would take. He could cut Vorbis in half without trying. And maybe . . . maybe nothing would happen afterward. There were others who felt like him-somewhere. Or, anyway, he could get down to the stables, be well away by dawn, get to Ephebe, maybe, across the desert . . .

He reached the door and fumbled for the handle.

It turned of its own accord.

Fri'it staggered back as the door swung inward.

Vorbis was standing there. In the flickering light of the oil lamp, his face registered polite concern.

“Excuse the lateness of the hour, my lord,” he said. “But I thought we should talk. About tomorrow.”

The sword clattered out of Fri'it's hand.

Vorbis leaned forward.

“Is there something wrong, brother?” he said.

He smiled, and stepped into the room. Two hooded inquisitors slipped in behind him.

“Brother,” Vorbis said again. And shut the door.

“How is it in there?” said Brutha.

“I'm going to rattle around like a pea in a pot,” grumbled the tortoise.

“I could put some more straw in. And, look, I've got these.”

A pile of greenstuff dropped on Om's head.

“From the kitchen,” said Brutha. “Peelings and cabbage. I stole them,” he added, “but then I thought it can't be stealing if I'm doing it for you.”

The fetid smell of the half-rotten leaves suggested strongly that Brutha had committed his crime when the greens were halfway to the midden, but Om didn't say so. Not now.

“Right,” he mumbled.

There must be others, he told himself. Sure. Out in the country. This place is too sophisticated. But . . . there had been all those pilgrims in front of the Temple. They weren't just country people, they were the devoutest ones. Whole villages clubbed together to send one person carrying the petitions of many. But there hadn't been the flame. There had been fear, and dread, and yearning, and hope. All those emotions had their flavor. But there hadn't been the flame.

The eagle had dropped him near Brutha. He'd . . . woken up. He could dimly remember all that time as a tortoise. And now he remembered being a god. How far away from Brutha would he still remember? A mile? Ten miles? How would it be . . . feeling the knowledge drain away, dwindling back to nothing but a lowly reptile? Maybe there would be a part of him that would always remember, helplessly . . .

He shuddered.

Currently Om was in a wickerwork box slung from Brutha's shoulder. It wouldn't have been comfortable at the best of times, but now it shook occasionally as Brutha stamped his feet in the pre-dawn chill.

After a while some of the Citadel grooms arrived, with horses. Brutha was the subject of a few odd looks. He smiled at everyone. It seemed the best way.

He began to feel hungry, but didn't dare leave his post. He'd been told to be here. But after a while sounds from around the corner made him sidle a few yards to see what was going on.

The courtyard here was U-shaped, around a wing of the Citadel buildings, and around the corner it looked as though another party was preparing to set out.

Brutha knew about camels. There had been a couple in his grandmother's village. There seemed to be hundreds of them here, though, complaining like badly oiled pumps and smelling like a thousand damp carpets. Men in djeliba moved among them and occasionally hit them with sticks, which is the approved method of dealing with camels.

Brutha wandered over to the nearest creature. A man was strapping water-bottles round its hump.

“Good morning, brother,” said Brutha.

“Bugger off,” said the man without looking round.

“The Prophet Abbys tells us (chap. XXV, verse 6): `Woe unto he who defiles his mouth with curses for his words will be as dust,' ” said Brutha.

“Does he? Well, he can bugger off too,” said the man, conversationally.

Brutha hesitated. Technically, of course, the man had bought himself vacant possession of a thousand hells and a month or two of the attentions of the Quisition, but now Brutha could see that he was a member of the Divine Legion; a sword was halfhidden under the desert robes.

And you had to make special allowances for Legionaries, just as you did for inquisitors. Their often intimate contact with the ungodly affected their minds and put their souls in mortal peril. He decided to be magnanimous.

“And where are you going to with all these camels on this fine morning, brother?”

The soldier tightened a strap.

“Probably to hell,” he said, grinning nastily. “Just behind you.”

“Really? According to the word of the Prophet Ishkible, a man needs no camel to ride to hell, yea, nor horse, nor mule; a man may ride into hell on his tongue,” said Brutha, letting just a tremor of disapproval enter his voice.

“Does some old prophet say anything about nosy bastards being given a thump alongside the ear?” said the soldier.

“ `Woe unto him who raises his hand unto his brother, dealing with him as unto an Infidel,' ” said Brutha. “That's Ossory, Precepts XI, verse 16.”

“ `Sod off and forget you ever saw us otherwise you're going to be in real trouble, my friend.' Sergeant Aktar, chapter 1, verse 1,” said the soldier.

Brutha's brow wrinkled. He couldn't remember that one.

“Walk away,” said the voice of the God in his head. “You don't need trouble.”

“I hope your journey is a pleasant one,” said Brutha politely. “Whatever the destination.”

He backed away and headed toward the gate.

“A man who will have to spend some time in the hells of correction, if I am any judge,” he said. The god said nothing.

The Ephebian traveling group was beginning to assemble now. Brutha stood to attention and tried to keep out of everyone's way. He saw a dozen mounted soldiers, but unlike the camel riders they were in the brightly polished fishmail and black-and-yellow cloaks that the Legionaries usually only wore on special occasions. Brutha thought they looked very impressive.

Eventually one of the stable servants came up to him.

“What are you doing here, novice?” he demanded.

“I am going to Ephebe,” said Brutha.

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