The Hope's End

The Hope's End

by Stephen Chambers

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Overview

The Hope's End by Stephen Chambers

On a planet decimated by plague and political upheaval, young Vel has survived by living on his wits. A seasoned con man who has learned to think only of himself, Vel is forced to choose sides in a civil war. But the choice is made more complicated when Vel learns the truth about a mysterious alien race that predated the settlers of Hera.

It turns out that Vel may not be who he thinks he is.



At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429971805
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Series: Vel Chronicles , #1
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 327 KB
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Stephen Chambers began his first novel, Hope's End, as a high school senior and completed it after attending the prestigious Odyssey Writing conference at New Hampshire College.

Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1


YEARS LATER.

"And you're not going to see another one like it, I can assure you."
Midday in a crowded street full of merchants, their rickety wooden stalls lining both sides of the road. Broad Street on Solday--the only day in the seven-day week free of work for most of the city of Hope. During the harvest season, the grass farmers still worked, but most of the artisans and factory workers were free to spend the money they had earned the past week. And the merchants were happy to take it from them.
A boy in his early teens sat across from two women at a small table he had set up at one corner. The women were in their mid-twenties, both workers in a clothing factory in Old Town. They kept small bags on their laps, and the boy, Vel, knew that the sacks might be empty. Or they might contain all the money the two women and their husbands had in the world. In an old can behind Vel's legs, there was a concealed mound of similar bags, all full of weighted sacks of dirt.
A group of young children ran past, and one grabbed a piece of green fruit from a nearby stall--a man in the crowd snatched it back, but the kid got away. Perfectly common for the merchants to plant security in the traffic of the dusty street.
Vel was showing the women one of two elaborate black and white paintings that sat on the table between them.
"And you're sure this is an original?" the older of the two women asked. Vel thought of them by their hair color: the older was Red, the younger, Blonde.
Vel nodded. "Yes." He rubbed dust from his eyes, and said with restrained emotion, "My family has had them for generations. We've never even hung
them--they've been perfectly preserved for all that time in these." And Vel indicated the black cloth beneath the paintings. "Selling them now to help pay for a new house."
Blonde looked at Red, smiling. "You don't think Jason would like that one? I think he would."
"I don't know," Red said, and to Vel, "How much are you asking?"
Vel drew in a breath, pretending to admire the lines of black and gray that might have been old paint--or smears of dirt--on canvas.
"You know they're originals by Mitanis," Vel said, and he shielded the most expensive of the two from the dirt clouds of the street with the black cloth. "Probably a century or two old."
"They are nice," Red said, and Blonde brightened, looking happily at Vel.
"I think my husband would love one of these," she said. "Our anniversary is in two days. And we want to celebrate." She patted her stomach, and Vel realized that both women were slightly pregnant. Good for them, he thought. They each probably had a household of children already. Vel could imagine the pretentious brats, all helping to increase their parents' wealth. They were free on Solday because they worked in a factory and not in the fields or with Hope's garbage. Good for them.
"Three hundred crowns for the first one, two-fifty for the other." The second painting was slightly smaller than the first. Still, two hundred crowns was easily one week's wages for these women, possibly more.
Blonde started to say something, but Red shook her head. "Three hundred? That sounds high."
"That's less than what my father told me I should sell them for," Vel said. "I promise, I'm only trying to get what they're worth. I had an offer earlier today of two hundred for each, and I said I'd take it if I couldn't get anything higher."
"You've already had an offer?" Blonde asked.
"Yes," Vel said.
"And you want five-fifty for both of them?" Red said.
"Yes."
She shook her head. "That's too much. Come on, let's--"
"I like this," Blonde said, indicating the three-hundred-crown dirt smears. "What about two-fifty for this one?"
Red sighed, but Vel saw the way she was eyeing the cheaper one.
"I'll sell you both of them for five hundred," he said.
They didn't answer immediately, and Blonde looked at Red for a sign that she would agree, Blonde's fingers tugging at her bag, as if she was desperate to spend her money.
"All right, four seventy-five," Vel said at last.
"Four-fifty," Red said, and Vel pretended to consider it. He started to shake his head, frowned, and then Blonde said, "Oh, come on, his family needs the money. Here." She handed Vel a pouch of coins. "That's three hundred. We'll give you five hundred."
Red said, "Five hundred is--"
"It's less than what he's asking," Blonde said, flashing a smile at Vel, and he returned the gesture. "Come on, we don't want to cheat him."
Red frowned, undid her bag, and counted out twenty
ten-crown coins, putting them with the rest of the money in the bag Blonde had given Vel. Vel spotted more inside Red's bag--at least another five hundred crowns, probably more. Vel wrapped the paintings in matching segments of black cloth, waved at the women as they thanked him and started away, dirt-paintings under their arms. Then he turned, and with one hand selected a bag that was very similar to Red's purse, at the same time catching the eye of a boy leaning against a nearby building. The boy was his own age, taller than Vel and thinner, his hair cropped slightly shorter.
Vel nodded, and a moment later, the boy casually approached; as he passed, Vel slipped the matching bag into the other boy's hand and said, "The red one, Ponce."
Ponce nodded, not looking at Vel, and disappeared into the crowd after the women. Vel hid the can of bags under a mound of rotting fruit in an adjacent alley, and found Ponce again, still trailing the women. They wound through the street, past stalls selling weapons and others with candles and food. A man carried a satchel of expensive black market books, but the police soldiers in the crowd did not seem to notice.
Finally, Vel was ahead of the women, and he readied himself at a busy intersection. It was crowded even for Solday, he thought, and wondered how long this new money would last at the summer festival next week. People were buying new weapons and clothes for the approaching holiday, and, Vel thought, my parents are still working. With Vel, their one child, not even officially registered as was required, his parents would pay for their lack of children and money by laboring in the grassfields with the rest of the lower-middle class.
Vel watched the women draw nearer, both still holding their prized paintings, Blonde talking animatedly. Vel spotted Ponce, and they made eye contact--Ponce scratched his hair--and Vel sprinted through the street. Closer to the women, they still hadn't seen him, and Vel clipped Red hard, an elbow in her side, and she fell, losing her bag--Ponce caught it, letting the counterfeit fall in its place--and they ran.
Shouting behind Vel, "Hey, isn't that--"
"--all right?"
Vel and Ponce turned into a smaller street, then another, running too hard to talk, until finally they reached another, less crowded district, closer to the river. When they slowed, Vel put his hands on his knees and laughed. The two boys propped themselves against the outer wall of a long building, noisy inside. It was one of the factories, and through long, open windows, Vel could see rows of tables where dozens of people sat weaving, their shoulders hunched. They talked as they worked, hands moving almost unconsciously over piles of fabric on their tables, making clothes from fur moss, dyed from crushed berries and daylight. The goods would go to the government first, of course; the remainder would be sold to the merchants, then to the general public.
Vel tried to ignore the drone of conversations from inside, the excited voices that meant their work week was nearly ended. Most factories--where the government licensed private owners to hire artisans to mass produce everything needed by the city--were off work on Solday. This, apparently, was one that was not. Some factories made clothing, others crafted swords and arrowheads, and minted coinage.
"Vel," Ponce said, panting hard. He began to sort through Red's purse. "How much did you get?"
The factory building was built of strong, faded wood, like the majority of the city of Hope, although there were larger, older structures constructed of black stone--the Palace, the Church Cathedral, and the Garrs.
"Five hundred." Vel grinned. "I don't believe I've ever seen women quite that willing to part with their money. How much is in there? I saw at least another--"
"Seven hundred!" Ponce said, and he accidentally dropped a handful of coins into the dirt. "Can you believe it? What were they going out to buy?"
"Dirt on canvas. Come on."
Ponce recovered the coins, and they passed merchant stands similar to the ones on Broad Street. After putting all of the money in the same small pouch, Vel fastened it in a pocket on the inside of his pants. Ponce drop-kicked Red's purse into the center of the road, attracting some attention, but neither of them cared.
A woman at one of the stalls waved. "New sword? Either of you gentlemen? I have candles too."
They both stopped. The woman ran her fingers across the assortment of blades on the stand in front of her.
Vel looked at his companion. "Ponce?"
"You know I don't use swords."
"I think we'll pass," Vel said to the woman. "Maybe some other time."
She winked at him. "Maybe."
The two boys continued in the dirt street, kicking up more dust, and the street gradually became more crowded with merchants and shoppers. Vel wondered again what it would take for his parents to get jobs in the factories, rather than the grassfields. Factory workers made more money, got more days off from work, and were generally considered of a higher class than the farmers and cleaners.
The government and the Church encouraged children, outlawing all forms of birth control. Those without kids rarely rose above the rank of farmer or city cleaner. It usually took five or six registered children over their "fragile fours" to advance a family. Most factory workers had at least that many kids. Because children could not be registered until they officially
counted--having survived the first three dangerous years of disease and child-death--it was difficult for families with little money to raise many children to that age.
Ahead, a team of men were repairing a broken support beam on the front of a medicine shop called Pure Blood. A crowd of children had gathered in the street to watch the operation, as the men hoisted with ropes, some perched on the roof, slowly raising the wooden column onto one of the shop's front corners.
Vel glanced at the children as he passed, and when the repairmen lost the ropes--plank slamming to the dirt street in a cloud of brown dust--the children laughed loudly, backing away from the repairmen. The workers tried to ignore the noise, one cursing under his breath as they prepared to try again. The rich stay rich, Vel thought, because they can afford to have plenty of kids and mistresses. And the rest are locked in place because they can't pay for more children; they can't keep them alive to the age of four and have a chance to advance socially. Children sold on the black market were executed by the government, as were their sellers, and the couples who paid for them.
Ahead, on the left side of the road, between merchant stalls, hung a row of three men and two women, black bags over their heads. The people in the street ignored the gently swaying bodies that had been hung from the roof beams of a local tavern, feet dangling ten feet overhead. Their shirts had been cut away, to expose pale stomachs with the words Life over Lies carved crudely into the skin. Their hands were tied behind their backs.
Vel had never actually seen a public hanging, but these five had probably not been dead long, as most criminals were left on display for only a day or two before being cut down by the police and burned. And the "dead-on-display" was perfectly common. The principle of Church doctrine--Life over Lies--was usually scratched into the flesh of book printers and makers, owners, writers and dealers in black market children.
The executions were something that happened, a part of life that Vel had grown up with, only occasionally remembering that his parents technically defied the laws. Vel's parents did own books. It wasn't illegal to be able to read Enish--Hope's language--but it was against the law to own or manufacture any kind of writing, unless you worked for the Church or ranked high in the government, and then it was illegal to distribute it to the general public.
Writing and book production carried a death sentence, and book possession might bring ten or fifteen years in one of the Garrs; in prison. Criminals connected with black market books were often called Laumians, after a man named Laum who was killed twenty years before Vel was born. Vel knew little about the specifics, but from what he had gathered, Laum had believed in transcribing and distributing the holy scriptures of Blakes to the general public, rather than allowing the Church to maintain complete control over the gospel.
This, of course, went against the Church and government teaching that books in the wrong hands were damning lies, both in this world and the next. Proper upbringing and guidance was needed for the proper interpretation of all texts, which was why books were only legal for some members of the Church and government. And so Laum had been executed, and he was still cited as a heretic who was largely responsible for the book crimes in the present. Vel had never seen anything to indicate that his parents were Laumians, they simply liked reading books.
It was part of the reason Vel believed he had never been registered with the district clerk. Officially, every child on his or her fourth birthday had to be registered with the government. Then the child would be assigned a job--usually to be fulfilled starting at the age of fourteen. Most children were given jobs that their parents could teach them, and the clerks would then periodically check on their development. This continued throughout a person's entire life, meaning that every change in job had to be cleared with the government.
Technically, all "gifted" children were specially recruited for high positions in the Church or government, and they were taken to officer training or the Church, where they were taught. In reality, however, Vel knew that the kids chosen for these positions were usually chosen because they came from the Indenan or Balm or any number of other large, well-known families rather than for being any more "gifted" than anyone else. These families were the aristocrats--the owners of the factories, who usually had seats on the Executive Council and had many ties with the government and Church already.
Kids could also voluntarily apply for recruitment into the police or Church, in which case the parents no longer mattered and the kid became a member of the state, not the family. In these cases, the children were trained to fight, not think, and they became police soldiers or members of the Religious Guard. Though Vel had heard that often times the Religious Guard were educated along with those higher in the Church hierarchy. It was an opportunity for the young to advance, leaving their parents behind. If children were orphaned under the age of twenty, they would automatically be drafted into the police force.
Twenty thousand people in Hope, Vel thought, and how many live like I do? I don't exist because my parents like to read. Because if they registered me with the district, they would be visited more often by the local clerk who might discover a dozen illegal books. Vel had yet to see anything that had convinced him it was worth risking fifteen years in prison or death to read. Most of his parents' books were boring treatises or made-up fantasies. Anyone can make anything up, Vel had thought; it isn't worth facing prison or making less money for that. And so what if it's illegal?
Ponce was thirteen, not yet old enough for a position in the fields with his parents--the spot he had been given and would most likely work for the rest of his life. Naturally, if Vel and Ponce were caught sometime in their routine, that spot would be traded for prison or something worse. But no, Vel thought, that won't happen, we won't get caught.
"You know what I think?" Vel said.
They had been moving in silence for some time, and Ponce smiled. "Yes."
"I think Darden's going to have to start helping us with these jobs." He rubbed his elbow. "He drinks just as much as we do."
"Just as much as the two of us combined, you mean."
They turned a corner, the houses growing bigger, more elaborate. Several restaurants and a bar lined the road. A beggar was shouting from the gutter, waving a small black stick in the air with a piece of white cloth attached to the end of it. The small cloth had what Vel thought of as a "spiraling cross" in the center of it, a tilted black cross that looked like an open, square wheel moving to the right. It was the Church insignia--called a swa--the symbol that meant Life over Lies, the general rule behind every law. Vel gathered from his rantings that the beggar had lost his children to the Church--they had joined without his permission, leaving him with nothing.
Most people in the street dressed similarly--coats and shirts, pants, occasional dresses--in a range of colors from black to red, all made in the factories and later sold by the merchants.
A priest in white pressed his way through the crowded avenue, armed men also in white flanking him, swords at their sides. They wore black armbands with swas on their left arms just below the shoulder, as a sign of their honor. They were the Religious Guard, the Church's private military, and the crowd let them pass. It was illegal for anyone to hire a private group of more than two bodyguards--except for the Church. Vel knew little about the Church, mainly because he simply didn't care.
The priest-soldiers learned prayer and swordsmanship. Whereas the police numbered in the thousands, the Religious Guard only contained a few hundred of God's soldiers. The Church proved the government laws through scripture, and the police enforced general obedience. The Religious Guard did very little, as far as Vel knew. They lived with the higher priests at the Cathedral, theoretically guarding their sacred interests--whatever that meant. Darden knows about them, Vel thought, because Darden attends services. Vel's friend Darden was somewhat religious. Vel's parents had always been too busy to take Vel to Church regularly, and he had never been curious enough to go on his own.
At the far end of the street, the dirt turned to a ditch of brown grass. The ditch dropped into a shimmering, flowing river, flanked by rows of some of the most expensive properties in Hope. The houses were surrounded by wooden fences, and Vel spotted a table of laughing, well-dressed men through several beams. They were drinking wine in their front yard. The aristocracy. With too many kids to name, they ran the factories for the government, controlled the merchants--and they took orders only from the Executive Council and the King.
Ahead, at the river, people descended to the banks with buckets, and a woman called out at her children to wait with their small pails, overflowing with water. She shook one of the kids and tilted his bucket, dumping some of the excess water into the river again. At this, the boy's face contorted, and he started crying.
A group of children had gathered near a trio of heads mounted on wooden poles. More criminals. Vel heard the kids laughing and poking the rotting faces with sticks, insects buzzing around them. A police soldier approached, shouting at them to stop, and the children scattered.
Vel and Ponce continued on their way. As they drew closer to the river, Vel's feet passed across a rectangle of smooth metal, imbedded in the dirt. Worn letters stared at them. Sections of the metal had long since crusted over, rusting into obscurity.
* * *
Hope--Founde
When I have
The rich pro
* * *
Vel's footsteps wavered, and Ponce squinted at him, following his companion's gaze to the ground. Vel had seen the plaque several times, but he had never directly walked over it before. It felt too smooth-slippery--under his boots.
"You ever wonder about this?" Vel said.
"I don't usually walk this way."
"Everybody's seen the plaque. You ever wonder about it?"
Ponce shook his head. "What's there to wonder about? It's illegal to mess with it, and the thing's too old to read. It's like the ruins."
Life, not lies, Vel thought. I shouldn't even be able to understand it. Vel couldn't remember how he had actually learned to read, but he could read, without a memory of having been taught. More than once, Vel had wondered if his parents had taught him--but then why wouldn't I remember the lessons? he thought.
"Wish we could get out there," Ponce said.
Vel followed Ponce's stare to the horizon--and there, above the wooden buildings of the immediate city, skeletal points of darkness rose in the distance. Miles of distance made their outlines vague, and Vel crossed his arms across his chest.
"Yes, so do I. So what?"
Ponce shrugged. It was illegal to break the city boundaries, illegal to go beyond the stone wall that encircled Hope and the plots of farmland. That wall was always manned, Vel knew, one soldier every twenty or thirty feet. The wall was about five feet high and without a pass issued by the Executive Council, the guards wouldn't let anyone go over.
Of course, there were reasons for common passes: when the government commissioned wood collections for buildings, fur collections for clothing, or the collection of metal deposits for weapons, they gave temporary passes for the teams who ventured out to the leafless southern forests. Wood from the trees, fur from the thick tree moss, and metal buried just beneath the forest floor that could be melted into weapons.
But often, only part of a team returned. The survivors supposedly told stories that reminded Vel of the made-up legends of the Nara and the demons of the wild. Vel paid them little attention, and Darden had once said that they were a handy way to keep people from trying to break the city boundaries. Still, despite the precaution of the barrier wall, people left. It didn't happen often, and Vel wasn't sure that it had ever happened in his lifetime--but people had fought past the soldiers, into the fields of high grass. And the ruins.
"I need to get home," Vel said.
"Nah," Ponce said. "We need to meet Darden, remember?"
Vel shook his head. "What are you talking about?" He smiled mockingly. "Darden can create his own illegal cash flow. He needs to start helping us with these jobs."
Somehow, Darden had avoided working in the fields, despite the fact that he was a full year older than Vel and registered. Darden's parents were farmers, just like Vel's and Ponce's--but Darden had shrugged off a life of tending grassfruit. Exactly how he had done it, Vel wasn't sure. And when Vel's parents brought up employment, Vel thought of Darden, and his delinquency; Darden was an inspiration.
They continued toward the river, nearing one of the bridges. There were four in all, widely spanning the river from east to west, from one side of the city to the other. It was still early afternoon, but already it was beginning to grow colder.
"Come on, Vel. You do want to spend some of that money, right?" Ponce's face brightened with the words.
Vel looked at him, and his lips creased.
"You're just using me so that you can liquor Darden into giving one of his 'life's-a-mistake' speeches, aren't you?"
Ponce kicked dirt onto Vel, and then broke into a run toward the opposite end of the bridge. "Last one's buying!"
"Wait a second," Vel said, but he was already hurrying to catch up, crashing into the crowd around him. A mother cursed, quickly pulling her children out of their path, and Ponce gave a cry, jumping onto the narrow railing of the bridge.
"I'll beat you from up here!" he shouted.
"You're not carrying the money," Vel said, and he closed on Ponce's early lead. They were nearing the bridge's end, and Vel slowed, hopping onto the opposite railing. A large cart of grain and produce sat at the far end of the bridge, blocking the road.
"Don't fall!" Ponce said.
Vel slipped on the wooden beam, but he caught himself, glancing briefly at the river twenty feet below.
"You go ahead," Vel said. "You don't have to wait for me if you want to drown."
"No, I meant the money. I was talking to the money," Ponce called, and he reached the opposite end.
Vel arrived a moment later, and Ponce laughed, pointing at an angry-looking elderly couple on the bridge behind them.
"You made a scene," Ponce said.
"No," Vel said. "When I make a scene, you'll know it. Let's hurry up, I'm feeling much too sober for this time of the day."
They passed a cemetery on the right, full of neatly arranged wooden grave markers, surrounded by a large wooden fence. Through the gaps in the fence beams, Vel saw black stones among the regular wooden graves. The stones marked the graves of former government representatives or high-ranking officers. Some of the oldest objects in the city of Hope were these unreadable stone monuments, long since smoothed by the elements.
Bright flowers rested over the newly dead--those few who had not been cremated. Still, the anonymous "city fathers" often garnered the most attention from the general public, and the ancient graves were littered with debris, more so than the recently deceased. Why do they care? Vel thought, as he passed. Why not pay tribute to tombs that might still contain a body resembling a human being? Tradition, he thought. It is a tradition to neglect the living for the dead.
The cemetery was large, spanning a dozen blocks in every direction, and beyond, Vel saw the outline of the stone Palace. The Palace rose three stories, occupying an entire block of its own, encircled by a regular, protective wall.
Vel hesitated, spotting something through the cemetery fence. "Ponce…"
"What?" And then he saw it too. A hole in the dirt--it looked as if the workers had been digging a new grave, with a mound of fresh sod beside it. Except that the hole was too small and too deep for a coffin, even a child-size one. And it glowed a dim blue.
Something about it was very familiar, as if Vel had seen this hole a moment before he actually had--as if he had been intended to turn at just the correct instant to spot the light. Vel gripped the cemetery fence and strained, pulling himself to the top, palms sliding on the strong wooden beams.
"Vel, there are cops stationed all around here; you can't--"
"Look at this," Vel said, and he dropped to the opposite side, approaching the fresh hole. Ponce held onto the fence but didn't climb over.
"Vel, stop it!"
The blue light had stopped, and now Vel stood over the small, deep hole. What is this? he thought. It looked as if it had begun as a grave and then fallen through, deeper than graves were intended. Vel saw only darkness at the bottom, impossible to tell how deep--it dropped at least twenty feet, probably much farther.
"You saw the light?" Vel shouted, without turning.
"Get back here or throw me the money!"
Vel glanced back, and saw Ponce, looking very uncomfortable in the street. A group of men passed behind him. They might have been police soldiers, but probably not; if they were soldiers, Vel would have already been arrested. The Palace was several blocks away, and the main police school was at the end of the street, meaning there were numerous garrisons of soldiers stationed nearby.
"You saw it?" Vel said.
"Yes, now stop it."
Vel looked at the hole a final time, and then he returned, climbing back over after three tries. Ponce punched Vel's shoulder, frustrated at being left alone in the street.
"Have you lost your sense of self-preservation? Why the hell did you do that?"
It was a tunnel, Vel thought. Something very deep underground--but what had the light been?
"What was that light?" Vel said. They started walking again.
The streets were emptier here, lined with barrooms and restaurants. As they moved farther from the river, more soldiers could be seen, some moving in rigid formations, others lounging outside the brothels with darkly dressed women.
"I don't know that there was a light."
"But, you saw it--you said you did."
"I don't know what that was, Vel."
Vel shook his head. "No, Ponce, either you saw it or you didn't."
"All right, I saw it. Let's forget about it--it was a goddamn graveyard, all right?"
"You're right," Vel said. "It must have been a demon or a ghost--there's no other explanation."
Ponce sighed, his cheeks reddening slightly. "Knock it off, you know what I mean. Not safe to be in there."
One building at the corner was boarded shut, a red X painted onto its door. The Pox, Vel thought, and he deliberately kept his distance as they passed. What had that light been?
An attractive girl with short brown hair watched them pass from her cross-legged position in front of a brothel. She smiled at Vel. "Got a friend who's sick, you want to help me out?"
"Is your friend as nice-looking as you are?" Vel asked, and Ponce made a let's-get-going groan.
"Serious," the girl said. "She's sick--in here." The girl pointed to the boarded building.
"Does she believe in ghosts?" Vel asked, glancing at Ponce.
"What?"
"Nothing. Is it the Pox?" Vel said.
She nodded and stood, making no attempt to brush the dirt from her pants. "Help me, please?"
"What's your friend's name?" Vel said.
"Come on," Ponce said, and to the girl, "We don't get conned, it works the other way around."
"Not a lie," the girl said, and she pressed open the X'd door, glancing back to see if Vel was following. "Please."
Vel knew enough about the Pox to know that if what the girl was saying was true, her friend had probably spread the disease to her as well. It happened by association, Darden had explained to him two days ago. One sinner is struck by the Pox as a punishment and like a fire it leaps to the other contaminated souls; all of it, everything about the Pox, was explained by the Church. If only Vel would go once in a while. Darden had drunkenly explained that Church services were a nice insurance against whatever kind of depraved life one chose to lead.
Vel's kind included. Vel had yet to see money as depraved, so long as it continued to pay for alcohol.
"Her name's Jak," the girl said, and through the opened door, Vel saw the outline of someone--very pale, skin and hair faded, as if their color was being sucked away--lying motionless in bed. "Please, you got any money?"
"You've got to love it," Ponce said, and he motioned Vel on.
"Money," Vel said. She is sick, he thought, and he turned away, following Ponce down the street. "Money's going to cure her, right?" Vel said, trying to flush the memory of the dying girl, Jak, from his mind.
"Maybe we should pray," Ponce said, and they both chuckled.
"Maybe."
Police laughed with more women at a corner ahead.
"You can almost taste the sin, can't you?" Ponce said.
"So long as it stays on this side of the river," Vel said.
"That's right," Ponce said, chuckling. "Where we go drinking, right?"
They were ignored as they turned onto another road, away from the Palace.
"So, you want to rob a cop?" Vel asked. It was a routine they had developed over the past few years. The first line referred to the impossibility of attacking a police soldier. The lines had developed late one night, with alcohol, of course--and the next morning none of them had really remembered why they said it. But, they still did. An obscure inside joke for three boys who had been very drunk, and Vel always began it.
"Yes," Ponce said, as he always did, "but I'm still seeing straight."
"As long as the executioner's drunk, the crime is not a crime," Vel said, and he spat. Usually it was Darden who finished the routine.

Copyright © 2001 by Stephen Chambers

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