Authors: Paul Hoffman
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fantasy, #Adult, #Young Adult, #Adventure, #Epic, #Dystopia
For Victoria and Thomas Hoffman
isten. The Sanctuary of the Redeemers on Shotover Scarp is named after a damned lie, for there is no redemption that goes on there and less sanctuary. The country around it is full of scrub and spindly weeds and you can barely tell the difference between summer and winter—which is to say that it is always bloody freezing no matter what the time of year. The Sanctuary itself is visible for miles when there is no filthy smog obscuring it, which is rare, and is made of flint, concrete and rice flour. The flour makes the concrete harder than rock and this is one of the reasons that the prison, for this is what it truly is, has resisted the many attempts to take it by siege, attempts now considered so futile that no one has tried to take Shotover Sanctuary for hundreds of years.
It is a stinking, foul place and no one except the Lord Redeemers go there willingly. Who are their prisoners, then? This is the wrong word for those who are taken to Shotover, because “prisoners” suggests a crime and they, none of them, have offended any law made by man or God. Nor do they look like any prisoner you will ever have seen: those who are brought here are all boys under the age of ten. Depending on their age when they enter, it may be more than fifteen years before they leave and then only half will do so. The other half will have left in a shroud of blue sacking and been buried in Ginky’s Field, a graveyard that begins under the walls. This graveyard is vast, spreading as far as you can see, so you will have some idea of the size of Shotover and how very hard it is even to stay alive there. No one knows his way round all of it and it is as easy to get lost within its endless corridors that twist and turn, high and low, as in any wilderness. There is no change in the way it looks—every part of it looks much the same as every other part: brown, dark, grim and smelling of something old and rancid.
Standing in one of these corridors is a boy looking out of a window and holding a large, dark blue sack. He is perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old. He is not sure and neither is anyone else. He has forgotten his real name because everyone who comes here is rebaptized with the name of one of the martyrs of the Lord Redeemers—and there are many of them on account of the fact that, time out of mind, everyone they have failed to convert has hated their guts. The boy staring out of the window is called Thomas Cale, although no one ever uses his first name, and he is committing a most grievous sin by doing so.
What drew him to the window was the sound of the Northwest Gate groaning as it always did on one of its rare openings, like some giant with appallingly painful knees. He watched as two Lords in their black cassocks stepped over the threshold and ushered in a small boy of about eight, followed by another slightly younger and then another. Cale counted twenty in all before another brace of Redeemers brought up the rear and slowly and arthritically the gate began to close.
Cale’s expression changed as he leaned forward to see out of the closing gate and into the Scablands beyond. He had been outside the walls on only six occasions since he had come here more than a decade before—it was said, the youngest child ever brought to the Sanctuary. On these six occasions he was watched as if the lives of his guards depended on it (which they did). Had he failed any of these six tests, for that was what they were, he would have been killed on the spot. Of his former life he could remember nothing.
As the gate shut, he turned his attention to the boys again. None of them was plump, but they had the round faces of young children. All were wide-eyed at the sight of the keep, its immense size, its huge walls, but, though bewildered and scared simply by the strangeness of their surroundings, they were not afraid. Cale’s chest filled with deep and strange emotions that he could not have given a name to. But, lost in them as he was, his talent for keeping one ear alive to whatever was going on around him saved him, as it had so many times in the past.
He moved away from the window and walked on down the corridor.
Cale stopped and turned round. One of the Redeemers, hugely fat with folds of skin hanging over the edge of his collar, was standing in one of the doorways off the passage, steam and odd sounds emerging from the room behind him. Cale looked at him, his expression unchanged.
“Come here and let me see you.”
The boy walked toward him.
“Oh, it’s you,” said the fat Redeemer. “What are you doing here?”
“The Lord of Discipline sent me to take this to the drum.” He held up the blue sack he was carrying.
“What did you say? Speak up!”
Cale knew, of course, that the fat Redeemer was deaf in one ear, and he had deliberately spoken quietly.
Cale repeated himself, this time shouting loudly.
“Are you trying to be funny, boy?”
“What were you doing by the window?”
“Don’t play me for a fool. What were you doing?”
“I heard the Northwest Gate being opened.”
“Did you, by God?”
This seemed to distract him.
“They’re early.” He grunted with annoyance and then turned and looked back into the kitchen, for that was who the fat man was: the Lord of Vittles, overseer of the kitchen from which the Redeemers were well fed and the boys hardly at all. “Twenty extra for dinner,” he shouted into the evil-smelling steam behind him. He turned back to Cale.
“Were you thinking when you were by that window?”
“Were you daydreaming?”
“If I catch you loitering again, Cale, I’ll have the hide off you. Hear me?”
The Lord of Vittles turned back into the room and began to close the door. As he did so, Cale spoke softly but quite distinctly, so that anyone not hard of hearing would have picked it up.
“I hope you choke on it, you lardy dritsek.”
The door slammed shut, and Cale headed off down the corridor dragging the large sack behind him. It took nearly fifteen minutes, running most of the way, before he came to the drum located at the end of its own short passageway. It was called the drum because that was what it looked like, as long as you disregarded the fact that it was six feet tall and embedded in a brick wall. On the other side of the drum was a place sealed off from the rest of the Sanctuary where, it was rumored, there lived twelve nuns who cooked for the Redeemers only and washed their clothes. Cale did not know what a nun was and had never seen one, although from time to time he did talk to one of them through the drum. He did not know what made nuns different from other women, who were spoken of rarely and only then with distaste. There were two exceptions: the Hanged Redeemer’s Holy Sister and the Blessed Imelda Lambertini, who at the age of eleven had died of ecstasy during her first communion. The Redeemers had not explained what ecstasy was, and no one was foolish enough to ask. Cale gave the drum a spin, and then it turned on its axis, revealing a large opening. He dumped the blue sack inside and gave it another spin, then he banged on the side, causing it to emit a loud boom. He waited for thirty seconds, and then a muffled voice spoke from the other side of the drum wall:
“What is it?”
Cale put his head next to the drum so he could be heard, his lips almost touching the surface.
“Redeemer Bosco wants this back by tomorrow morning,” he shouted.
“Why didn’t it come with all the others?”
“How the hell would I know?”
There was a high-pitched cry of muffled rage from the other side of the drum.
“What’s your name, you impious pup?”
“Dominic Savio,” lied Cale.
“Well, Dominic Savio, I’ll report you to the Lord of Discipline and he’ll have the hide off you.”
“I couldn’t care less.”
Twenty minutes later Cale arrived back at the Lord Militant’s training buroo. It was empty except for the Lord himself, who did not look up or give any sign that he had seen Cale. He continued to write in his ledger for another five minutes before speaking, still without looking up.
“What took you so long?”
“The Lord of Vittles stopped me in the corridor of the outer banks.”
“He heard a noise outside, I think.”
“What noise?” Finally, the Lord Militant looked at Cale. His eyes were a pale, almost watery blue, but sharp. They did not miss much. Or anything.
“They were opening the Northwest Gate to let in the freshboys. He wasn’t expecting them today. I’d say his nose was out of joint.”
“Hold your tongue,” said the Lord Militant, but mildly by his unforgiving standards. Cale knew that he despised the Lord of Vittles, and hence he felt it less dangerous to speak in such a way of a Redeemer.
“I asked your friend about the rumor they’d arrived,” said the Redeemer.
“I have no friends, Redeemer,” replied Cale. “They’re forbidden.”
The Lord Militant laughed softly, not a pleasant sound.
“I have no worries about you on that score, Cale. But if we must plod—the scrawny blond-haired one. What do you call him?”
“I know his given name. You have a moniker for him.”
“We call him Vague Henri.”
The Lord Militant laughed, but this time there was the echo of some ordinary good humor.
“Very good,” he said appreciatively. “I asked him what time the freshboys had arrived and he said he wasn’t sure, sometime between eight bells and nine. I then asked him how many there were and he said fifteen or so, but it might have been more.” He looked Cale straight in the eyes. “I thrashed him to teach him to be more specific in future. What do you think of that?”
“It’s all the same to me, Redeemer,” replied Cale flatly. “He deserved whatever punishment you gave him.”
“Really? How very gratifying you should think so. What time did they arrive?”
“Just before five.”
“How many were there?”
“None younger than seven. None older than nine.”
“Of what kind?”
“Four Mezos, four Uitlanders, three Folders, five half-castes, three Miamis and one I didn’t know.”
The Lord Militant grunted as if only barely satisfied that all his questions had been answered so precisely. “Go over to the board. I’ve set a puzzle for you. Ten minutes.”
Cale walked over to a large table, twenty feet by twenty, on which the Lord Militant had rolled out a map, which fell slightly over the edges. It was easy to recognize some of the things drawn there—hills, rivers, woods—but on the remainder there were numerous small blocks of wood on which were written numbers and hieroglyphs, some of the blocks in order, some apparently chaotic. Cale stared at the map for his allotted time and then looked up.
“Well?” said the Lord Militant.
Cale began to set out his solution.
Twenty minutes later he finished, his hands still held out in front of him.
“Very ingenious. Impressive, even,” said the Lord Militant. Something in Cale’s eyes changed. Then with extraordinary speed the Lord Militant lashed the boy’s left hand with a leather belt studded with tiny but thick tacks.
Cale winced and his teeth ground together in pain. But quickly his face returned to the watchful coldness that was these days all that the Redeemer ever saw from him. The Lord Militant sat down and considered the boy as if he were an object both interesting and yet unsatisfactory.
“When will you learn that to do the clever thing, the original thing, is merely your pride controlling you? This solution may work, but it’s unreasonably risky. You know very well the tried solution to this problem. In war a dull success is always better than a brilliant one. You had better learn to understand why.”
He banged the table furiously.
“Have you forgotten that a Redeemer has the right to kill instantly any boy who does something unexpected?”
There was another crash as he hit the table again, stood up and glared at Cale. Blood, not a great amount, dripped from the four holes in Cale’s still-outstretched left hand. “No one else would have indulged you the way I have. The Lord of Discipline has his eye on you. Every few years he likes to set an example. Do you want to end up as an Act of Faith?”
Cale stared ahead and said nothing.
“Do you think you are needful, you useless Zed?”
“This is my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault,” said the Lord Militant, striking his breast with his hand three times. “You have twenty-four hours to consider your sins and then you will debase yourself before the Lord of Discipline.”
“Now, get out.”
Dropping his hands to his side, Cale turned and walked to the door.
“Don’t bleed on the mat,” called out the Lord Militant.
Cale opened the door with his good hand and left.
Alone in his cell the Lord Militant watched the door close. As it clicked shut, his expression changed from that of barely constrained rage to one of thoughtful curiosity.
Outside in the corridor Cale stood for a moment in the horrible brown light that infected everywhere in the Sanctuary and examined his left hand. The wounds were not deep, because the studs in the belt had been designed to cause intense pain without taking long to heal. He made a fist and squeezed, his head shaking as if a small tremor were taking place deep inside his skull as the blood from his hand dripped heavily onto the floor. Then he relaxed his hand, and in the grim light a look of horrible despair crept over his face. In a moment it was gone, and Cale walked on down the corridor and out of sight.