“Ana,” he breathed into the back of her neck, one hand busy on her, one on himself.
Ana leaned back into him for a moment, rolling her head onto his shoulder, quietly voicing her exhalation as the stubble on his cheeks rubbed against her ear. She was briefly cooled where her body touched his, the sweat-damp fabric of her blouse pressing into her skin. Kaul’s randiness was directly proportional to the outside air temperature. Hot summer days, temperatures in the triple digits and air thick and translucent with humidity, he wished nothing more than to spend every one of the long daylight hours undressed and glass-eyed from dissipation. In winter, he’d hang limp like a wet piece of twine for weeks on end.
They were in the middle of a twenty hectare wheat field, the stalks firm and healthy, still dark green. Kaul’s entire body worked behind Ana, putting subtle pressure to the backs of her knees, pulling her torso back and hanging his weight from her shoulders, trying to work her down to the ground. Ana was skilled at countering such gentle attempts at control, though, and kept herself upright. After a few minutes of letting him play, she made a more radical shift in her posture, and lifted him just off the ground.
“Stop it, Kaul. Before we skew the test results.”
“What?” he asked, mock-petulantly.
“You know what,” she said, setting him down and turning to face him. She touched the fading ink just below her collarbone. “There’s a reason farmers used to pay very well for my services.” The tattoo was an hourglass, the symbol of a Temple prostitute, a reminder of how she’d paid for her education. After she’d earned her doctorate in Anthropomagy, she’d had three goldfinches added to it, her own way of showing that she’d left the Temple service.
“If we hit every one of the test plots, you’re creating a consistent variation.” Kaul said.
“There are fifteen test plots and three controls, Kaul.”
“Yes?” he said, smiling, putting his hands on her hips.
“Yes,” Ana said, removing his hands. “And I have a committee meeting to present the latest interim test results in less than an hour.”
“Will you join me for dinner tonight, then?”
“Tonight is out. Tomorrow?” she asked, kissing him.
“I’ll be waiting for you. For now, do you need an escort back to your office?”
Despite a rather extended kiss behind the closed door of her office, Ana still made it to the conference room with time to spare. She noticed Dr. Steif Arrana’s notes already in the seat she preferred, immediately to the left of the black wall slate.
Ana instead opted for a seat where he’d need to crane around uncomfortably to make direct eye contact with her. She took her own notes out of her bag and pulled the cork out of a clay bottle of raspberry tea.
As she gave her notes a final review, the other committee members filtered in, with Steif coming in last, quietly but ardently arguing something with the Iana, the committee facilitator. Iana detached herself from Steif and sat at the small, separate desk she had immediately to the right of the slate. She passed copies of the meeting agenda to her left and opened her notebook. “Good afternoon, Doctors,” she said. “This is an interim progress report meeting for the ISO Theoengineering Committee on Agriculture, specifically related to draft ISO standard 7184-6, Divine Intervention Methodologies for Agricultural Yield Maximization – Part 6, Prophylactic Human Sacrifice.”
“Before we start,” Steif said, “I would like to propose a quick addition to today’s agenda. I’ve just got a few quick thoughts on Part – Solar/Lunar Calendar Interpretation – that I’d like to run by the committee. Should just take five minutes.”
“Any objections?” the committee head, Dr. Taydak asked.
“Yes,” Ana said. “Dr. Arrana’s thoughts could be easily addressed after we’ve gone through everything on the agenda for this meeting.”
“I’d prefer to take a few minutes now, while everyone’s here and we haven’t gotten too deeply into the Part 6 discussion,” Steif said. He got a couple of consenting nods.
“The problem is that you never take ‘just five minutes’ when you usurp me on the agenda,” Ana said.
“Always the timekeeper, Dr. Lissar?” Steif said. He kept a straight face, but several others in the room cracked grins, stealing glances at the old tattoo that she never bothered trying to hide.
“The meeting minutes should speak for themselves,” Ana said. “Iana, could you please review the minutes for the past three meetings, they should show that each time, Dr. Arrana has interrupted with a little ‘five minute’ matter at the beginning, and that each of these interruptions has actually led to more than an hour of discussion, pushing me clear off the agenda?”
“Look, Ana,” Dr. Taydak said. “There’s no need to be contentious. I’m sure that Dr. Arrana will be brief this time.”
“You need five minutes?” Ana asked.
“Just five,” Steif replied, smiling with his mouth, hostile with his eyes.
Ana took her old hourglass from her bag, dialed the aperture for five minutes, and started it.
The moon was slightly blurry in the heavy air that hid the weaker stars. Well after sunset, it was still stifling warm, and Ana’s light silk blouse was damp with humidity and perspiration as she slowly walked between her test plots.
She missed the drier days of summer, of the drought that had hit not long after they’d planted. The air smelled different when it was dry, the fecund odors of the growing plants were more subtle and pleasing to her, a bit of dust gave a nice counterpoint to the scent. Humid air always seemed a bit rotten to her, laden with tones of mold and mildew, the bitterness of mushrooms and other parasitic things.
Ana stopped, just before the intersection of two of the fallow strips, the barriers between the test plots. Long, tangled iron chains were buried along the length of the plots, to keep their Magic from interfering with each other, and Ana had long since learned to read the subtle vibrations in the buried metal.
“Ralli,” Ana said, just loud enough for the girl to hear her, not loud enough to be startling and spook her.
“Hello?” came the reply. “Professor Lissar?” Ana caught sight of her pale face over the dark patch of wheat to her right.
Ralli was a pale girl who was only truly pretty when her face was painted, with the kind of long, bony figure that was only attractive in certain postures. She always wore a long head scarf when on campus, draped to cover her elaborately braided cinnamon-colored hair, and favored opaque tops with high, tight necklines to hide her hourglass tattoo.
“Something bothering you again?” Ana asked, walking forward to meet the girl at the intersection of the fallow strips.
“The usual,” Ralli said.
“Which usual? Lovers, peers, or superiors?”
“Lack of the first,” Ralli sighed, falling into step beside Ana. “I ran into someone at the Temple this afternoon. He was coming out as I was going in.”
“He didn’t know?”
“No. We’d been out a couple of times and things just hadn’t gotten to the point where it was necessary for me to tell him yet,” Ralli said. “Everything between us has changed, now. It was a brief conversation we had, but there’s no doubt that everything has changed.”
“The fact that he was coming out of the Temple, of course, isn’t even part of the issue, is it?”
“It never is. Now that he knows I work the Temple, I’m sure he’s wondering why I haven’t given out yet. He’s probably sitting around right now, furious that I’ve just been ‘playing him along’, making him date me and build up something of a relationship before I would even kiss him, much less sleep with him.”
“You were warned before you entered the Temple service, you know,” Ana said. “I’m sure you got tired of your mentors telling you that you’d never have a normal relationship with a man once you’d earned your ink.”
“I know,” Ralli said. “It was nice to pretend for a while, though.”
The next afternoon, Ana led five graduate students across the wide strip of fallow land between two test plots. “All of our test plots are showing greater resistance to insect infestations over the control plots. The sympathetic effect is especially strong in the asphyxiation and live inhumation plots, which are showing exceptional resistance to flying and burrowing insects, respectively. One environmental challenge we did not plan for was the minor drought at the beginning of the growing season. However, we did note that the exposure test plots resisted the drought best, and are currently the strongest crops in the experiment. The only adverse effect noted in test plots was increased susceptibility to wheat rust in the exsanguination plots when compared to the controls. Any thoughts on that?”
The students followed silently for a few moments, thinking. Ana had trained them hold their tongues and offer answers only after they’d thought about them, instead of blurting them out.
“Sympathetic resonance,” Navari finally offered. “Dried blood and rust infestation are sufficiently similar in color and appearance.”
“Good. How would you test this hypothesis?”
“I would start with a Theographic survey,” she said, “to see if the infestation is radiating out from the location of the exsanguination or if it matches the Theomantic topography of the exsanguination/ley line interactions.”
“Very good. Assume the Theographic survey has found neither.”
“Poor technique? Contaminated Delivery instrument?” Vinav asked. The other four students both looked shocked that he’d question the professors’ technique, and relieved that he had stepped up to ask the question that they all knew needed to be asked.
“Independent review of the Delivery showed no deviations in either general technique or in any performance requirements stated in the test protocol. The blade was examined by my second immediately before the Rite and found to be free of corrosion or stain.”
Ana paused, letting them sweat it out for a while. “What I need you all to do is remember the first rule of investigating unanticipated test results.”
“Review the test protocol,” Ralli said.
“Sit,” Ana said, pointing to a flat, sunny spot of close-mown grass at the edge of another test plot. “I trust all of you brought copies of the protocol?”
While the students dug out their protocols, Ana found a pleasant angle in the trunk of a shade tree. She took a bottle of tea from her bag. The cool ceramic sweated heavily in the thick air, and rattled slightly from the tiny remnants of the ice cubes she had put into it before class.
Ralli spoke up. “According to Deviation 3 to the protocol, you performed the rust inoculation before you performed the exsanguination.”
“Why?” Ana asked.
“Most sacrificial methodologies are best performed under the full or new moon depending on whether the Delivery is via a positive or negative method. Exsanguination is the only positive method that favors a waxing crescent, ideally two or three days after the new moon when it most closely resembles the sickle blade the Veitish uses,” Ralli said.
“The test protocol should have accounted for moon phases.”
Navari looked up from her protocol, holding a finger over a paragraph. “Rust inoculation on the test plots was performed earlier than planned, due to a forecasted warm front that would take the temperatures above the ideal germination range. You inoculated the morning after the new moon – more than two weeks after the other positive methodologies were performed under the full moon, and the day after the negative methodologies were performed under the new. The exsanguinations wasn’t performed until the day after the rust inoculation.
“Very good,” Ana said. “When an experiment is performed properly, all deviations from the protocol are documented immediately. Evaluation of expected impact is performed prior to deviating from the protocol whenever possible, and actual impact is monitored from the moment the deviation is performed. When faced with unexpected results, the deviations are the best place to start.”
When Ana came out of the classroom where she’d been teaching her Introductory Anthropomagy course, Ralli was waiting for her.
“I have a favor to ask, Professor, but I don’t know if it’s proper,” she said.
“Ask quickly,” Ana said, beckoning Ralli to follow her. “I need to do some prep work for tonight, then I’ve got dinner plans I’d rather not be late for.”
“Oh,” Ralli said, quietly, “Never mind, then.”
“Don’t give me that,” Ana said, turning to grab Ralli’s wrist and pull her along. “If it’s important enough for you to loiter by a classroom, it’s important enough for you to ask.”
“I have a meeting with Dr. Arrana at six, Professor. Mezi was going to come with me, but I just found out that she had a bad backlash reaction in her energy containment lab today. I normally take Cimmora with me when Mezi can’t make it, but I can’t find her or Siet right now.”
Ana stopped, launched a palm strike into a door, and cursed three goddesses and two gods.
“I’m sorry to ask, Professor. I’ll be OK dealing with Dr. Arrana just this once.”
“No,” Ana said, taking Ralli’s wrist again and continuing towards her office. “When I tell you girls that you are never to meet that man alone, I mean it. Now, what are your plans for the rest of the night?”
“I’ve got Temple service this evening, from eight until midnight.”
“Get someone to cover for you, because you owe me for this. I’ll need you at my office, tonight, no later than 11:30, bathed and cleansed. Wear all red, as heavy and fully covering as you have. You’ll need gloves, too. Thick leather, red if you can get them, black or dark brown otherwise. Wear a moderate selection of bronze jewelry, nice stuff but nothing irreplaceable. Make sure there is absolutely nothing ferrous in your possession, understand?”
“Dr. Kura will be Invoking something larger than his head, and then I will intentionally break the protective circle. If there’s anything ferrous near that circle that is not of organic origin – like blood – I risk yielding control to the Invocate. If that happens, you will be intimately involved with one of next year’s test plots, understand?”
“Yes, Professor,” Ralli said thinly.
Ana stepped out of the small pool of warm water in Kaul’s opulent bathing room. “Stay,” she said, pointing at him as he started to get out of his seat and reach for a towel.
“If wasn’t so fond of you, I’d never let you tease me this way,” he said. “Skipping dinner with me, and coming over just to unclothe, wash up, and leave instead.”
“Are you saying you haven’t enjoyed our conversation while I soaked?”
“Your conversational abilities are why I’m so fond of you.”
Ana offered a comb to Kaul. “Good. If you’ll braid me, I’ll have a little more time to converse with you before I have to leave.”
She sat on a low stool gave him the latest gossip about the Institute’s theatre department, since he was a major patron. His hands were less well trained than the servant’s while he ran the comb through her wet hair, but allowed a much warmer sensuality. “Put that away,” she said, reaching behind her to push him back when he brought his body closer to hers, his erect penis sliding slightly against her spine.
“This is why I could never be a wife or conc to you,” she said. “You have absolutely no appreciation for how easily you can contaminate my work.”
“If you were my-”
“Don’t finish that sentence. The next time I have to remind you that my thighs are no longer a medium of exchange will be the last.”
Kaul made no reply to that, except to back just a fraction of a step away while he continued to comb.
“Relax your jaw,” he said, as he started plaiting her hair.
“That shouldn’t affect the braid,” she said.
“No, but it’s affecting me.”
“Sorry,” Ana said, consciously trying to unclench. “I’ve had to deal with Steif today, and he’ll be part of the ritual tonight.”
“Not your normal committee work, I assume?”
“Keeping him on his manners while discussing coursework with one of my girls. He’s another one who makes certain assumptions about whores, Temple or otherwise. He’s a predator, though, not a simple, blundering, overmonied oaf,” she reached back and playfully slapped his leg.
“I’m an oaf who’s willing to learn how to do your hair!”
Ana laughed. “I warned you about the dangers of falling in love with me.”
When Ralli arrived at her office, Ana was wearing white clothing – a light linen blouse and trousers under a heavy wool robe. In contrast, all of her jewelry was rough cut obsidian, strung on black cord or leather. She was barefoot, and carried a pair of white kid gloves.
“Bring that,” Ana said, pointing to a heavy wooden box of ritual equipment. On the walk over, she explained the upcoming ritual and experiment. Kura was going to Invoke a Major Hieuric Spirit, and then Ana was going to intentionally break the protective circle in an attempt to destroy the Spirit before it could possess her.
“Set the box behind the altar,” Ana said when they reached the Laboratory. “Inside are three syringes. Go sedate the goats on the white cloth over there,” Ana said. “By the way, you’ve got iron all over you. The ritual starts in precisely 23 minutes, and you will be standing at my left hand at that time. Between now and then, if you find the iron that’s on you, put it out beyond the tree line. Remember what I said will happen if I lose control of the Invocate.”
While she walked over to the goats, Ralli touched each piece of jewelry she was wearing. All of it was certified as pure bronze, with no ferrous alloys, findings or fittings – she never purchased uncertified jewelry, even for non-ritual wear, just to be safe. Her pendant chronograph was also certified as completely non-ferrous.
She had put on no makeup, so there was no chance of any iron in it. Her braids were tied with hemp twine, and she had no pins in her hair. She ran her free hand over her long wool tunic, ankle-length suede skirt, and the quilted linen vest she wore over them. There were no buttons or hooks, no beadwork or embroidery, and the skirt had just a simple drawstring to hold it up.
Through all of this, she was trying to figure out a way to hold the leads for three goats while she located the veins in their necks for the sedative. She had set two syringes down on the ground, was holding the third in her teeth, and was straddling one of the goats to hold it still when Steif took the leads from her left hand. “Let me help,” he said.
She quickly snatched the syringe from her mouth, and said, “Thank you, Professor.”
“No problem, Miss Branna. When setting up a ritual of this magnitude, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask me for help if you see me idle.” He took her right hand in his, and guided it to the vein on the goat’s neck.
“So, do you know what I’m wearing that has iron in it?” she asked him. “I’m completely lost.” She slid the syringe in, a small part of her attention noticing that it had a bronze needle.
“Professor Lissar said she may lose control of the Invocate if there’s any iron in the circle. She says I’ve got some on me, but I can’t figure it out.” Ralli dropped the first syringe and pulled the second goat over to her. While she did that, she looked down to her feet. She was wearing low boots of black suede, and she’d already checked that the soles were stitched on, and free of tacks.
“Professor Lissar has some control issues. There is no problem with having iron around a Hieurnal spirit.”
“She says control over as many details as possible is the key to reproducible experimental results,” Ralli said, dropping the second syringe. As much as she hated to admit it, Steif’s touch as he guided her hands to the goats’ veins was very comforting.
“Her biggest shortcoming as a researcher is believing that Theoengineering is an exact science. It is the least exact of the sciences, subject primarily to Will, secondarily to Intent, and lastly to Technique.”
Ralli emptied the last syringe into the third goat. The first one was already laying still, the second slightly swaying as it stood. “Thank you so much for the help, Professor,” she said. “I’m going to run over there. I’ve got –” she checked her chronograph — “nine minutes to find whatever iron I’m wearing.”
“You don’t trust me?” Steif asked, following her as she walked towards the trees. Ralli stole a glance over, and saw that Ana was deep in Acute Trance, concentrating Caloric into a lump of charcoal in an incense burner.
“I always choose to comply with the wishes of a main celebrant.”
“That’s a dangerous policy, Miss Branna. Ultimately, your own judgment is what’s most important when you lend your energy to a ritual.”
“I don’t possess enough knowledge of Hieuric spirits myself to make a judgment on iron or no. Therefore, I will default to the judgment of the person most likely to be harmed,” she said, stepping between two trees.”
She started touching her jewelry again and pressed her eyes tightly shut in concentration, once more trying to remember everything she did after cleansing. Steif touched her vest, slowly pulling it open.
“Stop!” she snapped. The little bit of self-defense training she’d learned at the Temple came right to the fore. She slapped his hand away with her left, and struck him just below the collarbone with her right. Her eyes popped open. “Shit!” she said. “I’m so sorry, Professor. So sorry. You surprised me and I forgot myself.”
“It’s OK,” Steif said, calming and gentle. “I just figured out your problem.”
“What? Where is it?” Ralli looked down at her chronograph again. Five minutes.
“Your clothing. All of it.”
“What?” she asked, incredulous. She didn’t think he’d try something like that, so close to Ana, right before a major ritual.
“It’s dyed with ochre. If you’re going to make a habit out of wearing red to Hieuric Spirit Invocations, you need to invest in heavy woolens dyed with cochineal.”
“Damn!” Ralli snarled, following it up by cursing seven minor deities. “Would you please excuse me, Professor?”
Steif walked away while she stripped off her clothing. She picked up her gloves, and walked through the treeline, finding him waiting for her on the other side. As soon as she saw him, her left hand reflexively went up to cover her hourglass tattoo, and she walked rapidly to the circle, eyes on the ground at her feet.
“That pig,” Ana said as Ralli stepped up between her and Kura.
“Excuse me?” Ralli asked. Steif let out brief, quiet chuckle as he kept walking towards his assigned place in the circle.
“You could have kept the tunic on, it was the dye in your skirt and vest that were the problem. Put your gloves on, and keep Dr. Arrana out of your mind. I need you focused.”
Ralli breathed in deep, focusing tightly on the smell of the warm, damp grass beneath her as an anchor, and let a Clearing Trance wash over her.
In the distance, the Institute’s bell toward rang midnight. Kura pressed the hilt of a blade into Ralli’s hand, and called the Gods to witness her sacrifice.
Ralli woke, feeling as if someone were running a chimney brush down her throat, and choking on the bitter taste of whatever Ana was pouring into her mouth. “Acorn meats infused in spirits of grain, with the last vial of painsweat thrown in. Don’t move until the burn stops.”
“Don’t talk, either,” Ana said.
“Miss Branna, I will need to see you in my office as soon as you’ve recovered.” Steif said.
Ana pressed Ralli down as she tried to sit up. “What is this about?” Ana asked.
“We need to discuss punishment for an infraction this evening,” Steif said.
Ana looked at Ralli, whose eyelids started to flutter. “Stay with me, girl.” She looked up at Steif. “Miss Branna helped me set the ritual space, I will have her help me strike it. This will allow me to monitor her to make sure she’s recovering normally. I will send her directly to your office immediately afterwards.”
“Considering the hour,” Steif said, looking at his chronograph, “I’d prefer to discuss matters with Miss Branna as soon as possible.” He looked around and sighted another graduate student who’d been present for the rite. “You, there. Assist Professor Lissar.”
“No!” Ana said. “Kura and I led this ritual, we have custody of the space, all materials, and all participants until we have restored it. Miss Branna here helped me set the space, she is responsible for helping me strike the space, and you are interfering with her recovery. Now leave.”
Steif spun smartly and walked towards the Celestiology building.
Ana set to cleaning items and replacing them in the box until Ralli sat up. The girl was covered in blood – goat blood on her arms, face, and chest from where she’d slit their throats, thick, sticky menstrual blood running down her legs.
“I hit him.”
Ana looked over at her, one eyebrow cocked up. “Justified?”
“Probably not.” Ralli explained what had happened.
“Not justified. You should have just asked him to stop.”
“I know. He surprised me, Professor.”
Ana held her hand out to help Ralli up, and walked her over to where the animal handler had passed the goats on to her. Ralli’s clothes were there, neatly folded, next to two towels and a pail of water.
“What was the first thing you were told at the grad school orientation?”
“In Theoengineering, everything has meaning. Every action you take here contains a lesson.”
“Right.” Ana wet one of the towels and started rubbing the blood from Ralli’s face. “Tonight’s lesson was on dealing with surprise. First, never focus so intently on one thing that you can be surprised. Focus on your task, but always be aware of your surroundings. Second. An intentional, trained reflex may save your life. Unthinking reflexes will get you killed. For example,” Ana continued, rewetting the towel and scrubbing Ralli’s arms. “When the Hieuric Spirit forced your menses, it was attempting to fixate the iron in your spilt blood instead of the goats’ so it could possess you and escape my control. My immediate reflex was to bottle you, because I always prepare to bottle anybody who sheds blood when I’m dealing with certain types of Major Spirits. That intentional reflex denied the Spirit access to your soul chords.”
“What happens now?” Ralli asked, drying her face with the second towel while Ana washed her legs.
“Well. If I can tag you for sacrifice for bringing iron into a ritual after I’ve told you not to, I can assure you, Professor Arrana has very wide latitude for how he can punish you for striking him. And this is probably the one time where it would be inadvisable to bring a witness when you meet with him.”
“Because he will immediately declare the harshest physical punishment he thinks he can get away with?”
“But if I meet him alone, I’ll end up as his concubine until I graduate.”
“Don’t be so defeatist, or was that Exceptional grade in Basic Invocate Negotiation in exchange for ‘services rendered’?” Ana asked, tapping Ralli’s hourglass.
Ralli shook her head. “No. It was earned. What would you do in my position, Professor?”
“This is one matter where I won’t advise you girls. By your own action, you’ve put yourself in a place where he can make it very tempting for you to give him what he wants. I can not decide for you whether you have the courage to face his worst.”
“What did you do when you were in this position, Professor?”
Ana smiled at her and chuckled. “You’re learning. If you don’t get an answer to your question, reframe the inquiry. The first time, I spent the entire year playing Veitish for every single dangerous sacrifice he performed. Believe me, girl, you have not lived until you’ve had to garrote a restrained but unsedated lion. The second time, I decided against toughing it out, so I gave him a token drop of painsweat and let him bend me over his desk twice a week. I gave him the coldest fish I could manage, and he finally gave it up after four months.”
“I’m not that hard,” Ralli said.
“I know. That’s why I mentioned your Invocate Negotiation grade.”
Ralli finished drying herself off, and put her clothes on. She picked up the box of ritual equipment and followed Ana back to her office. “Professor?”
She hesitated, trying to push the question out.
“No.” Ana said. “Your life was not truly in danger from me tonight. I do believe that lessons learned in fear are very well remembered, but I never play games or put my safety needlessly at risk in ritual space. If you hadn’t found the iron, I would have sent you away from the Rite and dealt with you inattention to detail later.”
“Good morning, Doctor Lissar,” Kaul’s doorman said. “The Master of the house is entertaining, would you like me to announce you?”
“No.” Ana lowered her head, scratched the back of her neck. She knew what it meant when he was ‘entertaining’ at two in the morning. “No, thank you. Just tell him that I’d stopped by after he’s gotten some sleep and started the new day.”
Ana walked the streets of the city. She should have warned herself about the dangers of falling in love with Kaul. She’d spent so much of her scarce free time in his company over the past years that she no longer had another option for those dark hours when she needed to just hold onto something familiar, warm, male, and breathing to fall asleep. Besides, after putting him off for several days, there would certainly be some preliminaries to sleep involved, and she simply wasn’t interested at the moment.
She walked past the Temple, seeing another one of her students among the young women reclining on silken pillows on the marble benches of the gallery. The pre-dawn hours were always strange for the Temple Prostitutes. The Petitioners were often slightly desperate and not very choosy, so it was a good time for Apprentices and newly Certified women to gain experience. On the other hand, it was also the most likely time for a dangerous Petitioner to arrive, and the younger girls hadn’t always developed an instinctual grasp of the warning signs yet.
At the sight of her tattoo, the Temple guards allowed her into the private grounds. She could just see a few off-duty girls in a quiet alcove talking, occasionally freshening their tea cups from a gently steaming urn sitting on a couple of red coals. Ana would have been welcome to join them. Much like the average man, the Temple believed once a whore, always a whore, and a cup of tea in the richly scented garden during the small hours was one of the benefits of whoredom.
She was about to walk on when she heard a door open. “Good morning, ladies,” a male voice said, slightly shivery from adrenaline withdrawl. Ana turned and stepped a little closer. “Would any of you be willing to settle an old man into sleep?”
Over the spiced warmth of the tea, the cloying sweetness of night-blooming flowers, and the subtle argument of five different perfumes, she caught a slight whiff of animal blood and sweat. The girls looked at each other, silently negotiating which one would accompany the priest up to his room.
“Veitish,” Ana said, walking to the edge of the alcove’s lamplight. “If sleep is all you’re after, I am also desperately in need.”
Ana came into the conference room twenty minutes before the Committee meeting. She pulled the cork from a tea bottle and continued her documentation of the previous night’s ritual. A small part of her attention heard two sets of footsteps coming up the hallway, Steif’s and Iana’s, but oddly, there was no conversation between them.
Ana heard Steif very audibly inhale in annoyance as he got to the threshold of the door. She glanced at him quickly, and surprised herself by saying, “You look unusually tense this afternoon.”
“Tired, actually. Just before a truly extraneous ritual last night, a student who’d been poorly prepped by one of the main celebrants punched me. This prevented me from retiring as soon as it was finished, because I had to discuss disciplinary action with her.”
“The discussion should have been brief. If you didn’t get to sleep until much later, I suspect that’s your own doing,” she said.
“The girl made the discussion needlessly difficult,” Steif said.
“That girl is under my protection.”
“You shouldn’t play favorites. Especially not on the basis of non-academic employment.”
“I am the institutional memory for the Temple girls that study here, Dr. Arrana.”
At her desk, Iana made herself busy.
“This isn’t the place to talk about this, Dr. Lissar,” Steif said.
“You and Kyedi and Matar. Always trying to maneuver them into your debt or under your control. Every time you find some new trick, I hear about it, and I make sure the rest of the girls hear about it. I remember it for the next year, and make sure those girls know.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about faculty members committing quid pro quo sexual harassment with students.”
“I really don’t need to listen to this.”
“Like I said, you seem very testy for an old man who just extorted free sex from a young whore.”
“For your information, Dr. Lissar, nothing of the sort happened between myself and Miss Branna.”
“Really?” Ana leaned back in her chair. “Because I was just down at Administration and saw that you’d filed the disciplinary papers already. Just a little written reprimand for having hit you? I wouldn’t expect you to commit to such a trifling consequence until after the service had been rendered.”
Steif laughed, sitting down in a chair directly opposite her. “That’s just the thing you’re not understanding, Dr. Lissar. No service was rendered. I swear, people might actually take you thigh merchants seriously if a man could have a single conversation with one of you outside the Temple and not be accused of some sort of malfeasance.”
Ana looked hard at Steif. His triumph bothered her – he would never, ever tell a bald lie to her in front of a witness. What has that girl done? she wondered.
Ana walked her Research Construction and Conduct students through her test plots of wheat again.
The heat still hadn’t broken, but in the distance, to the west, tall thunderheads could be seen. A stiff, steady wind was preceding the clouds. “Serenipity,” she said to her students. “We were hoping to test these plots under various extreme circumstances. First, the early season drought, then the oppressive, humid heat that settled over us for weeks and refused to move on. Two unique challenges to the fitness of these crops in a single season. Now we have a truly violent storm leading a cold front.
“What is the problem with this, though?”
“Reproducibility,” Vinav said. “Extreme conditions stress the plants, pathogens, or both, leading to questions as to whether any measurable results are the result of the experiment or environmental variation.”
“Good, but not perfect.”
“Due to the nature of Theoengineering, there could also be a constructive or destructive interaction between the experiment and the environmental variation,” Jemes said.
“Exactly. Does a drought aid or hinder the effectiveness of a live inhumation or exsanguination? The most common actual cause of death in an exposure is dehydration. What if a storm precisely like this one that is bearing down on us right now comes through on the first day of an exposure, causing accelerated death by hypothermia as a direct result of the subject being soaked with cold water?”
“On that count, at least, Zoral’s wide-spectrum exposure baseline study should assist you in interpreting your data,” Navari said.
“Very good, Navari. You paid attention to what the priests did at home?” Navari had been raised in a farming community – the only one of the four students in the seminar that wasn’t from the city.
“Yes, Professor,” she said, smiling.
“There is a tremendous effort underway among Anthropomages to create rigorous baseline data for different sacrifice methodologies. Without having that baseline data to draw off of, this experiment you are standing in right now would mean nothing. Fifteen test plots per year, left open to whatever capriciousness the Gods wish to throw at them. The sacrifices I Delivered on this ground this year, last year, the year before, and before that – would be nothing but wasted meat.”
The wind picked up stronger, students’ eyes watering as they faced into it to look at Ana.
“None of you are pursuing Anthropomagy. None of you will ever feel the violent surge of fire in your spine when your own hands separate a body from a soul.” Ana stepped closer to them. “You will never ask yourselves, ‘Was he really guilty?'”
Her students looked down at that, uncomfortably.
“This does not mean that you should use any less care in the practice of your work than I do. The Gods give us this power and expect us to use it well. All of you should question, ‘Am I doing right work here? Have I prepared everything properly? Will this truly benefit the many?’ A waste of power is a waste of power, whether a human life is lost in the process or not. And when I perform sacrifice, I at least have the stark reminder that human lives are affected by my work.”
She looked directly at Jemes. “Nobody must die for you to read the motions of the stars and comets, but if you read them wrong, they may.”
To Navari, “You will never legally Invoke something that demands human blood.” To Seit, “Oracle Trance is only ever paid for in gold and silver, never in blood.” To Ralli, “You will never personally draw human blood to control a storm. If the need is ever that great, they will call an Anthropomage to deliver it for you.” To Vinav, “No human will ever be worth so much that you will sacrifice the life of one to heal another.”
She stepped back from her students, turning away from them to face the storm. “None of you will ever kill to appease the Gods. However, if you use the power you are given carelessly, or selfishly, if you ever waste it, people will still die.” Ana reached up one sleeve of her robe and unbound the garrote she kept wound around her upper arm. “If people die because of you abusing or neglecting the power you are given, the debt will be the same as if you had come up behind them in the darkness, and strangled the life out of them yourself.”
Ana turned around to face her class again, holding the garrote out before them.
“There are only three people in this city who would be allowed to perform a spontaneous sacrifice of an unsedated innocent to perform a Lightning Warding. However, it would be an unethical abuse of power, and I really don’t feel like lecturing to four students and a corpse in the rain. Instead of continuing the lecture indoors, I’m going to dismiss you early with an extra assignment. I have copies of the supporting materials for the test protocol reserved at the library. There have been seven deviations to the test protocol approved thus far. I want each of you to pick a different one, and give a discussion of any baseline data we used to justify it. I want you to weigh both the supporting and contrary positions.”
As Ana had expected, Ralli hung back from the rest of the students, waiting for her to finish watching the incoming storm.
“So, Professor,” Ralli said, falling into step beside Ana. “There are three rules to keep in mind when dealing with an Invocate. What is the third?”
Ana looked over at her, giving her something between a smile and a frown. “Forgive me if I’m wrong, Miss Branna, but I believe it’s Professors who ask students questions that they already know the answers to, not the other way around.”
“But you’re curious enough to play along, aren’t you?” The question was asked just a bit too desperately, despite the smile on her face.
“The third rule is that face is vital to an Invocate. If you have the advantage, always leave at least a token of victory.” Ana looked down at Ralli, at the embarrassed grimace on her face. “You foolish, foolish little girl. You found a way to back him into a corner instead of giving out, didn’t you?”
“How bad would it be for him if you were to officially find out that he initially told me not to worry about having iron in the rite, because it doesn’t matter when dealing with Hieurnal spirits?”
“He actually said that?”
“Yes, just after I sedated the animals. I insisted on following your instructions, though, which is when he followed me out beyond the trees and told me about my clothing.”
“Keep walking,” Ana said, too levelly, and stood still for a moment. She listened to the vibrations of the iron buried below her feet, weighing what she’d just been told, what it could mean. When Ralli was several steps ahead, she started following, just slightly faster so she slowly caught up. “Officially, which would require you to submit to an invasive interrogation to prove that you’re telling the truth, I could charge him with intent to cause malicious harm to ritual participants. As a minimum he’d be stripped of his priesthood and pension. Beyond that, considering my rank and the degree of danger involved in the rite, I could certainly insist on his life.”
“And, if you were to unofficially find out, Professor?”
“Without a formal accusation, relations between him and I remain at status quo. Was there a spoken promise between you two that you would pursue the matter no further if he filed only a token punishment?”
“No. I promised nothing.”
“So you still hold that knowledge over him.”
“That was a huge mistake for him to make, trying to send you into the rite with iron. Listen to me, Ralli. I have no idea how he will deal with you now.”
Yet, when she had sent Ralli on, and stood between her test plots, she felt the lightning strikes around her charging the twisted chains beneath her. By the time she left the open fields for the dry safety of the Institute’s buildings, she had received no answers, but at least knew what form they would take.
Ana hoped for the best as Kaul’s doorman led her into the sitting room, but her fears for the worst were confirmed when she saw him. Kaul sat before a fire, alone, wearing a wool tunic and thick linen trousers, and drank a gently steaming liquid from a thick clay goblet.
She sighed quietly, put on a light smile, and stepped over the threshold. “My darling,” she said. “I have, right now, a full night without work or ritual planned, no students have dropped emergencies upon me, and I’ve nothing to do until well after noon tomorrow.”
“Ana, my love,” he said, turning towards her, smiling. “All the time in the world to indulge in pleasure, and you honor this old man with your presence?” Kaul stood up and met her with a deep, full embrace and gentle kisses to her graying hair.
“I’d hardly consider sixteen hours without obligations to be ‘all the time in the world.'”
“By your standards, this is an extended holiday.” Kaul unwrapped his arms from her and walked towards his hearth. “When is the last time you arrived here before supper and were able to stay through lunch?” He filled a second clay goblet with steaming, spiced wine from a cauldron near the flames.
“If you wish to be precise,” she said, “It was a week after last year’s Lambing… seventeen months ago?”
“You work much too hard, my love,” Kaul said, handing her the goblet and holding up his hands to quell her protests. “You’ve given this city thirty years of your life, in the Temple, at the sacrificial altar, at the lectern. You can let some of that weight off of your shoulders, you know.” Kaul wrapped an arm around her waist, took her free hand, and swung her very gently into step. “You’ve still got health and vitality to you, my love. Dance to your pyre on light steps, instead of letting the cares of an entire city grind you into a grave.”
Ana laughed, letting him lead her around the room once. “Sit,” she said, then, stepping out of his arms. She reclined, nestling tightly to him and took a drink of wine. She kissed Kaul with warm, wet, sweet lips. “After this harvest, I have two more years of primary research on the ISO 7184-6 validation project. I’ve already told the Institute that this is my last major project. I’ll keep teaching and taking advisory positions on research boards, and there’s still my Veitish duties, but we have a second Senior Master.”
“Which means,” Kaul said, “That I’ll have the privilege of a full sixteen consecutive hours of your company annually, instead of biennially?”
“Quarterly. At the very least,” Ana said. She wet her lips with wine again and kissed him, deeply. He accepted the gentle intrusion of her tongue into his mouth with a very soft moan and a light caress of his fingers down her cheek, but he didn’t pursue when it slowly retreated. As Ana had feared, the sudden drop in temperature that had followed the storm had slain his libido.
Still, for the better part of an hour, she punctuated their conversation with more of such embraces, with soft breaths to his neck, with long strokes of her hand up his thigh. None of these worked, though, nor did the more direct approach of simply straddling him where he sat and slipping her breasts free of her blouse.
“Dinner will be served very soon,” Kaul said, planting a soft kiss just below the notch of her collarbone.
“Come now, it’s not that cold outside,” Ana said, rolling her hips. “You can’t even see your breath yet.” She kissed him again, so deep her teeth touched his. More than once, she resisted the urge to resort to certain Mysteries of the Temple, and shift his energy to her desires.
“Perhaps a solid meal will rekindle my fires,” he said when she finally released him.
“Perhaps,” Ana said, carefully hiding her doubts.
As she’d expected, the solid meal left him contented and lazy, sleep sneaking up on his eyelids as they drank more wine by the hearth, moving stones on a game board. Despite that, he was winning games handily, taking quick advantage of one poor move by Ana after another.
“There’s more on your mind than a pair of itchy thighs tonight, my darling,” he said. She frowned at him, arching an eyebrow. “Don’t give me that look, Ana. I was born privileged. I stay privileged, because even half asleep and through a haze of wine I can read a person.”
“It’s been a very long week.”
“Every week is a long week for you,” he said. “The only way you stay sane is by leaving your worries at your desk or at the Temple during your precious few free hours. Tell me.” He clapped loudly, and told a servant to bring hot tea. “It’s one of your girls, isn’t it?”
Ana said nothing, picking up stones from the game board and putting them away.
“You know how I can tell, don’t you?”
“You’re not truly in the mood to make love right now. You’re looking for somewhere to hide from your worries, something to do so you don’t have to think about them for a while, someplace to be so you don’t have to try and solve a situation that’s right in front of you, but has no solution.” He reached out and took one of her hands in both of his. “You want to wrap yourself tight in the embrace of your sweet Papa Kaul, and pretend that nothing exists beyond the edges of his bed.”
A servant set the tea service onto a side table and retreated. Kaul chose a calming tea from among the small jars of loose leaf on the tray and reclined on a long couch while it steeped.
“I’m sorry, Kaul,” Ana said, slipping into a hollow of his body.
“Using you as a place to hide from my worries.”
Kaul laughed softly. “This is part of what love is, Ana. Sometimes it’s simply a quiet, safe place.”
“I keep telling you not to fall in love with me, Kaul.”
“You may as well tell the rain to fall upwards into the clouds.”
“You forget who you’re talking to. Give me two virgins, a gold hammer, and a handful of holly ash, and I can make that happen.”
“I think you would be hard pressed to find two virgins anywhere near my estate,” Kaul boasted.
“There’s something under my skirt that suggests otherwise at the moment.”
“Every field must be allowed to fall fallow from time to time. You of all people should know that one, my darling.”
“Mine’s been fallow long enough, and could stand a good plowing.”
“That must be a fearsome itch if you’re talking like my stable boys,” Kaul said, reaching an arm out to pour tea from the pot.
“Please. I’m being positively cultured by stable-boy standards. Perhaps you should keep the tea warm while I go out to the stable, and pick up some of their current coital vocabulary for you while I’m out there?”
“Neither of us claims exclusivity over the other,” he said, but subtly tightened his grip on her and pressed the mug of tea into her hand.
Ana responded by settling deeply into his embrace. “Eh. You long ago spoiled me for younger men.”
Kaul twisted around to retrieve his goblet of mulled wine. “Since I can’t do anything about your lesser, yet more pressing problem, why don’t you let your Papa Kaul unburden you of the other one.”
“Oh, unholy gods,” Ana said. She took a slow sip of her tea. “It all starts, of course, with Stief.”
“So can we assume that you’ll elide over several minutes of vitriolic cursing?”
“We can. But if you want to know what your stable boys really talk like…”
“I’m sure the content would be similar, but my stable boys prefer monosyllables.”
“Point taken. Insert a prodigious bout of obscenity,” Ana said, and started by recounting the night of the Counterpossession experiment. “Ralli comes up, stripped to her sandals and jewelry, with him leering along behind her – oh!” she said. The garrote on her upper arm had slipped its knot and fallen off. Kaul took it from her and set it on a table out of her reach.
“You are not working tonight, remember?” he asked.
“I remember,” she said.
“So, keep talking,” Kaul said. Ana continued, his gentle hold on her and the warm tea both starting to show their effect, as her words became a bit slower, a bit quieter.
In Theoengineering, everything has meaning. Nothing is coincidence.
Ana repeated those words to herself as a mantra as she walked one of the fallow strips between her test plots. The rain earlier in the day had softened the cropped grass, and she slipped along without sound. The only clue a listener would have to her presence would be the circle of silence she carried with her, as the night insects hushed at her passage.
She herself was a listener, what she sought would be heard long, long before it could be seen. And it would be felt by her feet long before her ears heard it.
She felt it. To her left, forward, distant. She walked quickly, eyes closed so she could better sense the humming metal below her while she guessed the most efficient path among the fallow strips. The sound again, farther to her left than the first one. She adjusted.
As she walked, she touched her throat, measuring, comparing the distance between her fingers with her visual memory.
She heard sound. Ana wished she could run to it, but knew where the balance lay. She needed to reserve her strength and she needed to allow events to proceed to a point.
She was getting closer to where she’d heard her quarry when it called again, much closer than she expected. Ana ran off the fallow strip and crouched down among the tall stalks of wheat, careful to damage as few as possible.
At Kaul’s, she had claimed somnolence from the tea, and offered to ensure the sheets would be warm and welcoming for him while he stayed up and read over some business notes. Instead of sleeping, though, she had left a note on Kaul’s bed.
I am sorry to sneak out on you like this. If our companionship survives the final two years of my research, I will marry you.
Footsteps moved across the fallow strip in front of her. These were hurried, not noisy on the moist grass, but certainly not silent. The sound again: weak, desperate.
Ana waited. A different noise, her wheat being crushed as a body fell and rolled. A voice, tight and hushed, ironically being much quieter than the high-pitched slapping blows that carried so well in the still, cool air. Ana moved slowly, hands busy in front of her, her feet wet and bare.
Ana got to where she could see the struggle in the pale blue light of low moon, his bare buttocks and her thighs reflecting brightly against the night-blackness of green crops and dark clothing. She knew what would happen, what would be her cue. She knew from experience that Ralli was trying to force her body to relax so it wouldn’t be painful, just a particularly vile petitioner earning himself a place on the blacklist. She knew from experience that Ralli wouldn’t be able to do so under these conditions.
That girl is under my protection.
Despite the snarled warnings and the knife at her throat, Ralli screamed at the moment of entry. It was Ana’s cue, any sound of her approach masked, his attention focused, eyes closed, so he never saw what passed in front of his eyes while she kneed him in the kidney, briefly paralyzing him with pain. Ana yanked the cord tight. She took a small piece of wood from between her teeth and quickly slipped it through the extra loops she’d tied into the makeshift garrote she’d made from her sandal ties. It locked the cord tight around his throat, freeing her up to grab one of his arms. With her other, she made a gesture, quickly spoke quiet words in the secret language of the Anthropomages.
“Left arm, Ralli! Get his left arm now!” she said, while he struggled, unable fight both Ana and the cord around his neck.
The girl shook her head quickly, clearing her own panic, and grabbed onto Steif’s arm.
“This way,” Ana said, pulling Steif out of the field. “Come on. Drag him.”
Steif struggled, so busy trying to get his hands to the cord around his throat that he stopped trying to get out of their grasp.
“Faster,” Ana said. “He can’t die here.”
“Why not?” Ralli asked.
“He’ll skew my test data.”
They dragged him out onto the fallow strip and dropped him in the center of it. He frantically clawed at the leather cord, tearing his skin and breaking his nails in his last desperate moments of life.
“Go in there, find the knife he used,” Ana said when his struggles devolved into random twists of his body. She noticed that Ralli was bleeding from her mouth and nose and from a long superficial gash down the front of her shoulder.
Everything happens for a reason. Nothing is coincidence.
Once before, Ana’s garrote had slipped off of her arm. She had ignored it that time, setting it on a table next to her couch just before she left her apartment. She was meeting a man, a friend of a friend who knew nothing about her except that she was a Priestess. He did not know that she had recently been robed as a Junior Veitish. He did not know that she was a former whore until he stole a quick glance down the neck of her modest tunic when she bent over to pick something up. That knowledge caused a sudden shift to the evening that she didn’t notice until it was too late.
During the subsequent months of self-recrimination, Ana swore two things. First, that she would learn to defend herself. Second, that she would never ignore a warning from one of her ritual tools again.
“Give me the knife,” Ana said. As she expected, it was a regular kitchen knife, steel bladed. Useless for her purposes.
“Are you wearing a brooch, a hair pin, anything?” Ana asked.
Ana swore and hurled Steif’s knife away, far down the fallow strip. She ran to the nearest tree, finding a fallen branch on the ground. She snapped it in half over her knee, frowning at the broken ends, selecting the one that looked a little bit sharper. Returning to Steif she knelt down, her right hand going to his crotch, seeking the pulse in the femoral artery. Her left hand she placed over the center of his chest. His heart had stopped but the soul hadn’t yet fled. She’d bottled him while she’d locked the garrote, trapping it within him.
“Please turn away, Ralli. Cover your ears.” Exsanguination with a broken tree branch was not something Ana felt a Weatherworker should watch or hear.
Some minutes later, Ana finally laid a hand gently on Ralli’s shoulder. The girl turned around, saw her professor, her rescuer, a woman she considered her friend, holding a piece of Steif’s tunic. Under the weak light of the moon, the fresh blood that saturated it was black and shiny. “The blood of the man who raped you. Come to my office in the morning. I’ll tell you how to use this to make sure it never happens again.”
Ralli took the cloth with only a slight hesitation, and walked off in the direction of the dormitories. Ana walked in the opposite direction, towards the unclaimed land beyond her test plots, a wide expanse of prairie grasses and wildflowers, broken occasionally by a big, squatting oak. She stripped off her clothing and crawled through the grasses, rubbing the dew against her skin, slowly scrubbing off the blood.
Eric Vogt graduated college with a degree in Psychology and Creative Writing. Instead of writing sonnets about why your mother would like you to have fries with that, he discovered that technical writing allowed him to find interesting, well-paying jobs that often have strange effects on his fiction.