Blind Charity

This is a vignette from a larger fantasy project that Lyle is working on. Look for Viorica to return in future works…

“Madam Zelgathi,” the doorman said, straightening. Viorica ground her teeth as the rivets of his armor scraped against the stone wall.

She blinked her remaining eye at him. “I would like to Commune,” she said.

He leaned on his spear, mouth open. Her stomach churned as she watched the little pink nub of his tongue search for something to say. “M’Lady,” he finally managed. “It’s not even been a month since your last Communion. Should you, perhaps — ”

The rivets of her leather coat scraped against his, and she made sure he was feeling the butt of her whip beneath his ribs as she leaned into him. He blinked up at her as they both stood under the wide brim of her hat. “I can see you just fine out of the hole in my head,” she said, inching the unpatched socket of her right eye ever nearer. He let out a pained hiss and went flush against the wall, his spear clattering to the edge of the battlement. He looked at his arm, stretched across the stone, cowering as a blue, spectral appendage snaked out of Viorica’s empty left sleeve and pinned him at the wrist.

She smiled. “I see no reason why I should not pass. Unless you’d like further proof that I’ve mastered my other Gifts?”

“By no means,” the doorman said, gasping as she let him go. “I ought never to have doubted you, Huntress.”

“Lesson learned, then,” she said. He pulled open the massive door to the Tower, and she strode inside.

The interior was bathed with a familiar green; shelves and pews and an altar all shimmering under opalescent light though there was no source to be seen. Before the altar knelt an old, gray-robed man who stood up as her bootsteps popped across the marble floor.

“Viorica,” he said without turning around.

She reached into her cloak for something, and what she withdrew she flung onto the red carpet that stretched down the center of the sanctuary. The bundle landed with a wet thud, rolling in a half-circle like a wing unfurling, a sinewy mosaic on the ground: a heart, two withered lungs, a spinal cord, a windpipe, a full lower-jaw complete with a set of needle-like fangs.

The old man sighed. “The heart is proof enough,” he said. “We’ve been over this.”

“I took the heart, and the rest came along,” she said. “Every bit of it eager to leave that filth, I am sure.”

“I don’t doubt it,” the old man replied. “But you do know that the size of the offering has no bearing whatsoever on its efficacy?”

“So they say.”

“Indeed. You are the only one who says otherwise.”

“And I see no need to change the ways in which I sacrifice. My ways have served me, Bishop.”

Your ways,” the man quipped, finally turning to look at her. “You have no control over how you sacrifice, or what.” His eyes were nearly hidden by hedges of thick, white hair, but the black orbs of his eyes still glinted in the ghost-light. “You offer a twitch on the Web of the Blind Charity. Do not think you are known by Him any better than we. Better to say He knows no one, no thing.” Viorica stood as still and as dark, as the statues ringing the sanctum. “You will lose your body at this rate,” said the Bishop.

“I am unconcerned by what you cannot comprehend,” Viorica said. Her words slid away, not with contempt but with something nearly sounding like pity. “God is not dead; we are deaf. Sick blood drowns Him out. Flesh keeps all from knowing and being known.”

“You speak with the ostentation of a first-week seminarian,” the Bishop said. “Do not turn our tragedy into your own personal apocalypse, Huntress.”

Viorica unfurled her left sleeve as a blue flame burst forth and settled into a shape roughly like that of a human arm. “If this is not proof enough, you know there are others who will stand with me. Or do you just forget the ones like us? Even Yoachim Doom-Speaker?”

“I attend to our history, not our hagiography,” the bishop’s voice thundered down from the altar. “The Charity makes us warriors, not ghosts! What good are you against the Plague if you are not fighting with silver in your belt with the rest of your brothers and sisters?”

Viorica stood, her flaming arm outstretched in front of her. From the socket of her right eye, another light glowed, adding its own aurora to the room. “No silver has burned an Ympyre as fiercely as what the Charity has given me. Were I to give every inch of myself, I would still be beside you — pure, unseen, and all the greater for it.”

The Bishop’s face sunk into a mess of wrinkles. He turned back to the altar, walking past it and toward the back of the sanctum. He said something that Viorica could not hear, and then pulled the handle of another door, black and nearly invisible against the wall. “To your fate, then,” he said. “May Tir’chwiru be kind to you — at least as He knows kindness.”

Viorica picked up the offal from the floor and strode forward. She did not look at the Bishop as she stepped into the portal he had opened. Once inside, he closed the door behind her, and she was alone in the dark with her parcel of flesh and bone.

The whispers started softly, like always — like the breath of fitful sleep blown over a flute. At the sound, she closed her eyes, began her prayers, and held out the offering in her hands.

She felt the weight and the cold all around her, like being wrapped up in a blanket freshly pulled from the river. She felt shadows lap at the corners of her pursed lips, wanting to pour down her throat. Her fingers twitched, and stung, and she felt the organs in her hands come to life, folding and crackling like burning paper, the feeling like a thousand spiders across her skin as the flesh withered and desiccated and finally disappeared out of the world altogether.

She waited — Waited for the feeling of pain, the feeling of power taking the place of her weak, fragile flesh. She braced for it, her breath quickened in anticipation.

She felt nothing.

She felt sick.

“What’s going on?” she said into the darkness.

Just as quickly she was flung out, ejected from the black like an infant from the womb and into the watery light of the sanctuary. She rolled over and retched onto the floor and the Bishop ran up to her.

“What did He take?” he said.

Viorica coughed, spluttered, holding all her weight on her knees and shoulder and patting herself down with her right hand. Her stomach twisted again, her ears rang with the sound of dissonant piping, and she blacked out.

When she came to, she was in the Bishop’s quarters, on the slab he called a bed. The cold crept over her and she realized she had been stripped down to her underthings.

“Don’t be too alarmed,” the Bishop said, wiping his hand with a cloth. There was a bucket beside him, and even from across the room she could smell the stink of her own bile. She wrinkled her nose, half in shame. “How do you feel?”

She felt nauseous, but more than that she felt empty. It was more than a sick empty; she felt like she’d walked off a cliff in a dream. There was a clawing void reaching all over her that she couldn’t wake up from.

“No different,” she said.

“That’s disconcerting,” he said. She lay back against the slab.

“Do you know what He took?” she said.

The Bishop looked at her, then settled into his little armchair — a rocking wooden frame, the only luxury he allowed himself in that place. “Why do you do this to yourself?” he said.

“I told you.”

“Of your madness, yes, you’ve told me that, but madness finds roots in the real, and I certainly never taught you that the real was ‘corrupt,’ as you say it is. What real thing is so hard for you, Viorica, to make you the way you are?”

She lay there, arms across her chest, looking up at the dancing lights as they flowed across the vaulted ceiling. Some would coalesce, and then burst like baubles of smoke just as quickly. She raised the stump of her left arm, inspected it alongside her whole right limb. “If we knew just how really sewn-up we are,” she said. “It wouldn’t be such a frightful thing — the ways our bodies come apart.” She lowered her arm beside her. “That new doorman you’ve got, he shakes like so many leaves stuffed in a pair of boots. But he could be my own son, if I squinted hard enough. And you want to send him against Ympyre?” She scoffed. “If he knew that that shivering body of his was a blasphemy, wouldn’t he be braver for it?” She turned from the pageantry of the lights and looked into the dour face of the Bishop. “If everyone were so brave, maybe then, my own children might not be born into a world so bloody as to demand they think on such things.”

At this, the Bishop dropped his gaze. He rose shaking from his chair and took two steps toward her. “No fear, then,” he said, with a somber face, as he placed his hand flat across her hip. “There is no chance of that.”

She felt a spark of hope as he said this, but it was swallowed up by the pit beneath the Bishop’s touch. She understood, all at once, what Blind Charity had taken from her — But what it had left in return, she could not even begin to imagine.