By 4042 CE, the Hierophant has risen to global dominance on the backs of his cannibalistic army of genetically modified humans: martyrs. In an era when humanity’s permanently cold, inter-generational wars against their long-lived predators seem close to running hot, the Holy Family stands poised on the verge of complete planetary control. It will take a miracle to save mankind from extinction, and to keep the plague of martyrdom from spreading to Mars. It will also take a miracle to resurrect the wife of three-hundred-thirty-one-year-old General Dominia di Mephitoli, who defects during martyr year 1997 AL in search of the one man rumored to bring life to the dead. With the Hierophant's Project Black Sun looming over her head, she has little choice but believe this Lazarus is really all her new friends say he is—assuming he exists at all, and these companions of hers are really able to help her. After all, Dominia is no ordinary martyr. She is THE HIEROPHANT'S DAUGHTER, and he won’t let her switch sides without a fight. Not when she still has so much to learn.
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The Flight of the Governess
The Disgraced Governess of the United Front was blind in her right eye. Was that blood in the left, or was it damaged, too? The crash ringing in her ears kept her from thinking straight. Of course her left eye still worked: it worked well enough to prevent her from careening into the trees through which she plunged. Yet, for the tinted flecks of reality sometimes twinkling between crimson streaks, she could only imagine her total blindness with existential horror. Would the protein heal the damage? How severely was her left eye wounded? What about the one she knew to be blind — was it salvageable? Ichigawa could check, if she ever made it to the shore.
She couldn't afford to think that way. It was a matter of "when," not of "if." She would never succumb. Neither could car accident, nor baying hounds, nor the Hierophant himself keep her from her goal. She had fourteen miles to the ship that would whisk her across the Pacific and deliver her to the relative safety of the Risen Sun. Then the Lazarene ceremony would be less than a week away. Cassandra's diamond beat against her heart to pump it into double time, and with each double beat, she thought of her wife (smiling, laughing, weeping when she thought herself alone) and ran faster. A lucky thing the Governess wasn't human! Though, had she remained human, she'd have died three centuries ago in some ghetto if she'd lived past twenty without becoming supper. Might have been the easier fate, or so she lamented each time her mind replayed the crash of the passenger-laden tanque at fifth gear against the side of their small car. How much she might have avoided!
Of course — then she never would have known Cassandra. That made all this a reasonable trade. Cold rain softened the black earth to the greedy consistency of clay, but her body served where her eyes failed. The darkness was normally no trouble, but now she squinted while she ran and, under sway of a dangerous adrenaline high, was side-swiped by more than one twisting branch. The old road that was her immediate goal, Highway 128, would lead her to the coast of her favorite Jurisdiction, but she now had to rediscover that golden path after the crash's diversion. In an effort to evade her pursuers, she had torn into a pear orchard without thought of their canine companions. Not that the soldiers of the Americas kept companions like Europa's nobles. These dogs were tools. Well-honed, organic death machines with a cultivated taste for living flesh, whether martyr or human. The dogs understood something that most had forgotten: the difference between the two was untenable. Martyrs could tell themselves they were superior for an eternity, but it wouldn't change the fact that the so-called master race and the humans they consumed were the same species.
That was not why Cassandra had died, but it hadn't contributed to their marital bliss. And now, knowing what she did of the Hierophant's intentions — thinking, always, what Cassandra would have said — the Governess pretended she was driven by that ghost, and not by her own hopelessness. Without the self-delusion, she was a victim to a great many ugly thoughts, foremost among them being: Was the fear of life after her wife's death worth such disgrace? A death sentence? Few appreciated what little difference there was between human and martyr, and fewer cared, because caring was fatal. But she was a part of the Holy Family. Shouldn't that have been all that mattered? Stunning how, after three centuries, she deserved to be treated no better than a human. Then again, there was nothing quite like resignation from one's post to fall in her Father's estimate. Partly, he was upset by her poor timing — she did stand him up at some stupid press event, but only because she hoped it would keep everybody occupied while she got away. In that moment, she couldn't even remember what it was. Dedicating a bridge? Probably. Her poor head, what did the nature of the event matter when she was close to death?
That lapse in social graces was not the reason for this hunt. He understood that more lay behind her resignation than a keening for country life. Even before he called her while she and the others took the tanque to the coast, he must have known. Just like he must have known the crash was seconds from happening while he chatted away, and that the humans in her company, already nervous to be within a foot of the fleeing Governess, were doomed.
Of the many people remaining on Earth, those lumped into the group of "human" were at constant risk of death, mutilation, or — far worse — unwilling martyrdom. This meant those humans lucky enough to avoid city-living segregation went to great lengths to keep their private properties secure. Not only houses but stables. The Disgraced Governess found this to be true of the stables into which she might have stumbled and electrocuted herself were it not for the bug zaps of rain against the threshold's surface. Her mind made an instinctive turn toward prayer for the friendliness of the humans in the nearby farmhouse — an operation she was quick to abort. In those seconds (minutes?) since the crash, she'd succeeded in reconstructing the tinted windows of the tanque and a glimpse of silver ram's horns: the Lamb lurked close enough to hear her like she spoke into his ear. It was too much to ask that he be on her side tonight.
Granted, the dogs of the Lamb were far closer, and far more decisive about where their loyalties stood. One hound sank its teeth into her ankle, and she, crying out, kicked the beast into its closest partner with a crunch. Slower dogs snarled outrage in the distance while the Disgraced Governess ran to the farmhouse caught in her left periphery. The prudent owners, to her frustration, shuttered their windows at night. Nevertheless, she smashed her fist against the one part of the house that protruded: the doorbell required by the Hierophant's "fair play" dictatum allowing the use of electronic barriers. As the humans inside stumbled out of bed in response to her buzzing, the Disgraced Governess unholstered her antique revolver and unloaded two rounds into the recovered canines before they were upon her. The discharge wasn't a tip-off she wanted to give to the Lamb and her other pursuers, but it hastened the response of the sleeping farmers as the intercom crackled to life.
"Who is it?" A woman's voice, quivering with an edge of panic.
"My name is Dominia di Mephitoli: I'm the former Governess of the United Front, and I need to borrow a horse. Please. Don't let me in. Just drop the threshold on your stables."
"The Governess? I'm sorry, I don't understand. The Dominia di Mephitoli, really? The martyr?"
"Yes, yes, please. I need a horse now." Another dog careened around the corner and leapt over the bodies of his comrades with such grace that she wasted her third round in the corpses. Two more put it down as she shouted into the receiver. "I can't transfer you any credits because they've frozen my Halcyon account, but I'll leave you twenty pieces of silver if you drop the threshold and loan me a horse. You can reclaim it at the docks off Bay Street, in the township of Sienna. Please! He'll kill me."
"And he'll be sure to kill us for helping you."
"Tell him I threatened you. Tell him I tricked you! Anything. Just help me get away!"
"He'll never believe what we say. He'll kill me, my husband, our children. We can't."
"Oh, please. An act of mercy for a dying woman. Please, help me leave. I can give you the name of a man in San Valentino who can shelter you and give you passage abroad."
"There's no time to go so far south. Not as long as it takes to get across the city."
It had been ten seconds since she'd heard the last dog. That worried her. With her revolver at the ready, she scanned the area for something more than the quivering roulette blotches swelling in her right eye. Nothing but the dead animals. "He'll kill you either way. For talking to me, and not keeping me occupied until his arrival. For knowing that there's disarray in his perfect land. He'll find a reason, even if it only makes sense to him."
The steady beat of rain pattered out a passive answer. On the verge of giving up, Dominia stepped back to ready herself for a fight — and the house's threshold dropped with an electric pop. The absent mauve shimmer left the façade bare. How rare to see a country place without its barrier! A strange thing. Stranger for the front door to open; she'd only expected them to do away with the threshold on the stables.
But, rather than the housewife she'd anticipated, there stood the Hierophant. Several bleak notions clicked into place.
One immaculate gray brow arched. "Now, Dominia, that's hardly fair. Knowledge of your disgrace isn't why I'll kill them. The whole world will know of it tomorrow morning. You embarrassed me by sending your resignation, rather than making the appearance I asked of you, so it is only fair I embarrass you by rejecting your resignation and firing you publicly. No, my dear. I will kill these fine people to upset you. In fact, Mr. McLintock is already dead in the attic. A mite too brave. Of course" — he winked, and whispered in conspiracy — "don't tell them that."
"How did you know I'd come here?"
"Such an odd spurt of rain tonight. Of all your Jurisdictions, this one is usually so dry this time of year! Won't you come in for tea? Mrs. McLintock brews a fine pot. But put that gun away. You're humiliating yourself. And me."
Dominia, with some delay for her trembling, slid the gun into its holster, then entered a building that gleamed with history. Such a nice ranch house, with generations of pictures on walls that had themselves been carefully preserved, or identically restored. People were meticulous with homes like these. They lived. This one had been around a long time. Two millennia, based on the style. Centuries of love and care, about to be disrupted by a terrible bath of blood.
A friendlier dog than the ones outside greeted her at the door, and the Hierophant bent to ruffle its floppy black ears. "A new friend for the Lamb, perhaps, after you've cruelly killed three."
"As poor a guard dog as he's proved tonight, I don't think he's the hunting sort."
"Of course not. But we can always use more pets, can't we?"
Wasn't that the use of courtiers? She kept the joke to herself. In an intimate, doily-filled drawing room, the Hierophant drew an antique oak chair from the matching table and patted its scroll-carved back. Dominia lowered into the place set in anticipation of her coming, wherefrom she, scowling, studied him with she had already begun to consider her "good eye." The Hierophant, that eerie smile never leaving his pale lips, poured the tea as he spoke.
"I remember when you were first martyred. You'd pout at every supper, refuse to eat your food. I ought to have seen this night arriving."
"You did. You only pretended not to."
"True! I always like to think I've some small say in destiny. That if I ignore inevitability hard enough, it shall not rear its head. But that never seems to be the case. These tedious things all end the same."
"This is drugged, I suppose."
"It's as if you don't know me. How passé! No, my dear, I only wish to speak to you and — Carol?"
Now the berobed, befuddled woman Dominia had expected made her belated appearance. The Hierophant flashed her a smile stupid men cherished and wiser men feared. "I don't suppose you've a few spare pastries?"
"Some donuts for the children," she mumbled automatically, paling to have reminded herself, and the Hierophant, of their existence.
"Well, far be it from me to take food from the mouths of babes. Why not bring them to share with us! Rouse the tykes from bed. I love to see sweet, sleepy faces."
"Please," said the woman.
"No," said Dominia.
The Hierophant's black eyes danced between them. "I suppose it is rather late for sugar, but you ladies are taking this much too seriously. Carol, dear: go get the children. Or would you rather I fetch them?"
That suggestion chased her right up the stairs. The Holy Father smiled as he plucked with huge hands a delicate teacup adorned with painted roses; the gesture resembled that of a better father, playing tea with his daughter's tiny plastic saucers. "What a hostess. Up at two in the morning with such moxie!"
"Why are you doing this?"
"Don't you wish for a bit of civility amid all the violence and terror? You looked like you could use a sit-down. Please, drink the tea."
With a sniff that detected nothing but jasmine, she did, and broke up the heretofore uninterrupted taste of blood to which she had adjusted. Meanwhile, the flow of blood had stopped above her left eye, and a little shard of glass was pushed out by the work of the sacred protein. That good protein, her one friend. While she blinked the shard away in relief to know she was not fully blind, she finished her tea and tried to calculate a way out of the house before he got his hands on her.
No chance of that. A bonny pair of children soon tumbled down the stairs, wired from their mother's angst and promises of midnight donuts. The Hierophant laughed in delight and clapped his hands, and the girl gasped in wonder.
"Isn't that the Holo Man?"
"It's the Hierophant, Betty." Exclaiming this, the boy froze at the entrance of the room. Their mother whisked past, her anxious stare trained on the Hierophant to whom the girl, brash with innocence, giddily darted. Wiser with his eight years of dread, the boy licked his lips. "Has our family done something wrong?"
"No, no. There will be donuts." Pleased, the Hierophant turned his attention to the girl, whose golden locks fell in disarray while he whisked her up to bounce upon his knee. "I do love children," sang the martyr, far taller in the presence of the doll-like girl. Dominia gripped the table to remind herself of her own size. "They take joy in such simple things. Their courageous connection to the moment, that joie de vivre, has yet to be deadened by social laws."
The Governess couldn't hold her tongue. "By your laws."
"God's laws. There are men, and there are martyrs. That is a fact about which nothing can be done — no more than anything can be done about the martyr's inherent superiority. Thank you, Carol." He turned his smile to the tense woman who deposited plates of donuts before her unwelcome guests. On eye contact, her pupils shrank to pinpoints. With a lingering stare for her daughter, she hustled her son to the corner of the sofa and sat with him, one iron hand clamped to the base of his neck.
"You always had a problem accepting that," resumed the Hierophant, breaking up the powdered pastry and offering half to the bright-eyed girl. "Our superiority, I mean. Oh, you tucked your ideals away with enough years' worth of tutors, and enough time spent in the proper culture, but I admit that I saw your regression the instant you took up governance of the Front. Even after your sordid military career, your heart is too soft for these more difficult matters. Will you continue to let Cassandra's unraveling destroy your future?"
"She didn't 'unravel.' You drove her insane. She died because of you. She —"
"Is this a topic for young ears? Please, dear. I must apologize, Carol: despite my best efforts, my duckling never grew into a swan as did her younger sister. There are always kinks worked out with older models. Your name was 'Betty,' wasn't it, princess?" At the oblivious girl's happy nod from behind her powder-coated fingers, the Hierophant offered her the other half of his donut. "Well, Betty, you remind me an awful lot of my Lavinia. Do you know who Lavinia is?"
At the name, the girl's eyes widened, and she preened as any small child would when compared to royalty so high. "She's the real princess! The best princess in the whole world, and the prettiest!"
"She certainly is. What do you think of Lavinia, darling girl?"
"That she's pretty," emphasized the child again. How old was she? Three, going on four? How old had Dominia been when the Hierophant martyred her? Seven, or eight. He preferred that humans did the bulk of early raising; bed-wetting increased the transition's already unbearable difficulty. She had to lean on her notion of his preference and hope that he had only bluffed about his killing mood. There was no moving faster than him. No wasting a bullet on him. At the slightest provocation, or none, he would snap the girl's neck and be on the mother and her son two seconds later. Dominia already saw it happening and willed the images away as the child continued rattling off that Lavinia, "Gets to live in a castle with a lot of horses and doggies and all her friends. And she sings pretty, too."
"Ah, doesn't she." The Hierophant smiled with fondness, then pointed across the table at Dominia. "Do you know who that is?" he asked in a half whisper. The girl, who had been glad to have the donuts but reluctant to look at the bloodied Governess, now followed his finger and shook her head.
"What's wrong with her eye?"
"I know who she is," called the boy, to his mother's visible anguish. "She's the Governess of the whole United Front, all North America."
"'Was' the Governess, lad. Come here." The Hierophant waved a regal hand, and over came the boy, in danger far graver than his sister by virtue of age. As Dominia's breath stilled, the Holy Father reached across the table to pluck up her donut in offering to the boy. "What's your name?"
"Murph McLintock." Donut acquired, the breathless child edged toward the Governess as much as manners allowed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Hierophant's Daughter"
Copyright © 2019 M. F. Sullivan.
Excerpted by permission of Painted Blind Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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