Small Gods Page 8

Brother Nhumrod and Brother Vorbis looked down at him, tossing and turning on his bed like a beached whale.

“It's the sun,” said Nhumrod, almost calm now after the initial shock of having the exquisitor come looking for him. “The poor lad works all day in that garden. It was bound to happen.”

“Have you tried beating him?” said Brother Vorbis.

“I'm sorry to say that beating young Brutha is like trying to flog a mattress,” said Nhumrod. “He says `ow!' but I think it's only because he wants to show he's willing. Very willing lad, Brutha. He's the one I told you about.”

“He doesn't look very sharp,” said Vorbis.

“He's not,” said Nhumrod.

Vorbis nodded approvingly. Undue intelligence in a novice was a mixed blessing. Sometimes it could be channeled for the greater glory of Om, but often it caused . . . well, it did not cause trouble, because Vorbis knew exactly what to do with misapplied intelligence, but it did cause unnecessary work.

“And yet you tell me his tutors speak so highly of him,” he said.

Nhumrod shrugged.

“He is very obedient,” he said. “And . . . well, there's his memory.”

“What about his memory?”

“There's so much of it,” said Nhumrod.

“He has got a good memory?”

“Good is the wrong word. It's superb. He's word-perfect on the entire Sept-”

“Hmm?” said Vorbis.

Nhumrod caught the deacon's eye.

“As perfect, that is, as anything may be in this most imperfect world,” he muttered.

“A devoutly read young man,” said Vorbis.

“Er,” said Nhumrod, “no. He can't read. Or write.”

“Ah. A lazy boy.”

The deacon was not a man who dwelt in grey areas. Nhumrod's mouth opened and shut silently as he sought for the proper words.

“No,” he said. “He tries. We're sure he tries. He just does not seem to be able to make the . . . he cannot fathom the link between the sounds and the letters.”

“You have beaten him for that, at least?”

“It seems to have little effect, deacon.”

“How, then, has he become such a capable pupil?”

“He listens,” said Nhumrod.

No one listened quite like Brutha, he reflected. It made it very hard to teach him. It was like-it was like being in a great big cave. All your words just vanished into the unfillable depths of Brutha's head. The sheer concentrated absorption could reduce unwary tutors to stuttering silence, as every word they uttered whirled away into Brutha's ears.

“He listens to everything,” said Nhumrod. “And he watches everything. He takes it all in.”

Vorbis stared down at Brutha.

“And I've never heard him say an unkind word,” said Nhumrod. “The other novices make fun of him, sometimes. Call him The Big Dumb Ox. You know the sort of thing?”

Vorbis's gaze took in Brutha's ham-sized hands and tree-trunk legs.

He appeared to be thinking deeply.

“Cannot read and write,” said Vorbis. “But ex?tremely loyal, you say?”

“Loyal and devout,” said Nhumrod.

“And a good memory,” Vorbis murmured.

“It's more than that,” said Nhumrod. “It's not like memory at all.”

Vorbis appeared to reach a decision.

“Send him to see me when he is recovered,” he said.

Nhumrod looked panicky.

“I merely wish to talk to him,” said Vorbis. “I may have a use for him.”

“Yes, lord?”

“For, I suspect, the Great God Om moves in myste?rious ways.”

High above. No sound but the hiss of wind in feathers. The eagle stood on the breeze, looking down at the toy buildings of the Citadel.

It had dropped it somewhere, and now it couldn't find it. Somewhere down there, in that little patch of green.

Bees buzzed in the bean blossoms. And the sun beat down on the upturned shell of Om.

There is also a hell for tortoises.

He was too tired to waggle his legs now. That was all you could do, waggle your legs. And stick your head out as far as it would go and wave it about in the hope that you could lever yourself over.

You died if you had no believers, and that was what a small god generally worried about. But you also died if you died.

In the part of his mind not occupied with thoughts of heat, he could feel Brutha's terror and bewilder?ment. He shouldn't have done that to the boy. Of course he hadn't been watching him. What god did that? Who cared what people did? Belief was the thing. He'd just picked the memory out of the boy's mind, to impress, like a conjuror removing an egg from someone's ear.

I'm on my back, and getting hotter, and I'm going to die . . .

And yet . . . and yet . . . that bloody eagle had dropped him on a compost heap. Some kind of clown, that eagle. A whole place built of rocks on a rock in a rocky place, and he landed on the one thing that'd break his fall without breaking him as well. And really close to a believer.

Odd, that. Made you wonder if it wasn't some kin f divine providence, except that you were divine providence . . . and on your back, getting hotter, preparing to die . . .

That man who'd turned him over. That expression on that mild face. He'd remember that. That expres?sion, not of cruelty, but of some different level of be?ing. That expression of terrible peace . . .

A shadow crossed the sun. Om squinted up into the face of Lu-Tze, who gazed at him with gentle, upside?down compassion. And then turned him the right way up. And then picked up his broom and wandered off, without a second glance.

Om sagged, catching his breath. And then bright?ened up.

Someone up there likes me, he thought. And it's Me.

Sergeant Simony waited until he was back in his own quarters before he unfolded his own scrap of paper.

He was not at all surprised to find it marked with a small drawing of a turtle. He was the lucky one.

He'd lived for a moment like this. Someone had to bring back the writer of the Truth, to be a symbol for the movement. It had to be him. The only shame was that he couldn't kill Vorbis.

But that had to happen where it could be seen.

One day. In front of the Temple. Otherwise no one would believe.

Om stumped along a sandy corridor.

He'd hung around a while after Brutha's disappear?ance. Hanging around is another thing tortoises are very good at. They're practically world champions.

Bloody useless boy, he thought. Served himself right for trying to talk to a barely coherent novice.

Of course, the skinny old one hadn't been able to hear him. Nor had the chef. Well, the old one was probably deaf. As for the cook . . . Om made a note that, when he was restored to his full godly powers, a special fate was going to lie in wait for the cook. He wasn't sure exactly what it was going to be, but it was going to involve boiling water and probably carrots would come into it somewhere.

He enjoyed the thought of that for a moment. But where did it leave him? It left him in this wretched garden, as a tortoise. He knew how he'd got in-he glared in dull terror at the tiny dot in the sky that the eye of memory knew was an eagle-and he'd better find a more terrestrial way out unless he wanted to spend the next month hiding under a melon leaf.

Another thought struck him. Good eating!

When he had his power again, he was going to spend quite some time devising a few new hells. And a couple of fresh Precepts, too. Thou shalt not eat of the Meat of the Turtle. That was a good one. He was sur?prised he hadn't thought of it before. Perspective, that's what it was.

And if he'd thought of one like Thou Shalt Bloody Well Pick up Any Distressed Tortoises and Carry Them Anywhere They Want Unless, And This is Im?portant, You're an Eagle a few years ago, he wouldn't be in this trouble now.

Nothing else for it. He'd have to find the Ce?nobiarch himself. Someone like a High Priest would be bound to be able to hear him.

And he'd be in this place somewhere. High Priests tended to stay put. He should be easy enough to find. And while he might currently be a tortoise, Om was still a god. How hard could it be?

He'd have to go upwards. That's what a hierarchy meant. You found the top man by going upwards.

Wobbling slightly, his shell jerking from side to side, the former Great God Om set off to explore the citadel erected to his greater glory.

He couldn't help noticing things had changed a lot in three thousand years.

“Me?” said Brutha. "But, but-

“I don't believe he means to punish you,” said Nhumrod. “Although punishment is what you richly deserve, of course. We all richly deserve,” he added piously.

“But why?”

-why? He said he just wants to talk to you."

“But there is nothing I could possibly say that a quisitor wants to hear!” wailed Brutha.

“-Hear. I am sure you are not questioning the dea?con's wishes,” said Nhumrod.

“No. No. Of course not,” said Brutha. He hung his head.

“Good boy,” said Nhumrod. He patted as far up Brutha's back as he could reach. “Just you trot along,” he said. “I'm sure everything will be all right.” And then, because he too had been brought up in habits of honesty, he added, “Probably all right.”

There were few steps in the Citadel. The progress of the many processions that marked the complex rituals of Great Om demanded long, gentle slopes. Such steps as there were, were low enough to encompass the faltering steps of very old men. And there were so many very old men in the Citadel.

Sand blew in all the time from the desert. Drifts built up on the steps and in the courtyards, despite everything that an army of brush-wielding novices could do.

But a tortoise has very inefficient legs.

“Thou Shall Build Shallower Steps,” he hissed, hauling himself up.

Feet thundered past him, a few inches away. This was one of the main thoroughfares of the Citadel, leading to the Place of Lamentation, and was trodden by thousands of pilgrims every day.

Once or twice an errant sandal caught his shell and spun him around.

“Your feet to fly from your body and be buried in a termite mound!” he screamed.

It made him feel a little better.

Another foot clipped him and slid him across the stones. He fetched up, with a clang, against a curved metal grille set low in one wall. Only a lightning grab with his jaws stopped him slipping through it. He ended up hanging by his mouth over a cellar.

A tortoise has incredibly powerful jaw muscles. He swayed a bit, legs wobbling. All right. A tortoise in a crevassed, rocky landscape was used to this sort of thing. He just had to get a leg hooked . . .

Faint sounds drew themselves to his attention. There was the clink of metal, and then a very soft whimper.

Om swiveled his eye around.

The grille was high in one wall of a very long, low room. It was brightly illuminated by the light-wells that ran everywhere through the Citadel.

Vorbis had made a point of that. The inquisitors shouldn't work in the shadows, he said, but in the light.

Where they could see, very clearly, what they were doing.

So could Om.

He hung from the grille for some time, unable to take his eye off the row of benches.

On the whole, Vorbis discouraged red-hot irons, spiked chains, and things with drills and big screws on, unless it was for a public display on an important Fast day. It was amazing what you could do, he always said, with a simple knife . . .

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