THE CONSOLE-MATRON was pretty easy on me.
She suspended some of my violation points for good intentions and persuaded Elder Katherine to rescind her ban so I could attend the village gathering and display a proper repentance. I tried to practice being meek and mild around the house, but it was hard not to laugh at Sam. The console-Matron had registered a minor violation for him, too, and he was preening around, chest out, like a trotter cock with a new hen, amazed at his own dangerousness.
But I didn’t discount Aaron’s danger to me. There was a hungry dark glitter to his eyes when he looked at me, and I knew it wouldn’t be appeased until I was taken for the Healing. He’d barely contained his fury when he’d learned from Sam that we’d done our yeast mixing out at Tower Four. I had to find out what that power drain was all about and what Aaron was up to. I was having a hard time believing Poindros LS could rationalize infecting our fields just to get me Healed. Could their “field agent” be even more zealous than they’d counted on? Had Aaron finally gone around the bend, using the cybers to justify his personal program of purification?
I knew what I had to do, but this time I couldn’t even pretend I wasn’t afraid.
I rode in with the family to the next village gathering, looking as prim and proper as Helen could make me in her dress and bonnet, palms sweating and mouth dry, feeling the wild card disc slide over my skin on the snake-scaled chain whose red-gold burned the color of her hair.
Families strolled the radiating, dust-swirled streets, and we followed them to the village hub. The husbands were self-conscious in their good trousers and the vests embroidered by their wives. The matrons and mistresses had livened up their subdued dresses for the gathering with a bright ribbon or colored bonnet. They followed the vivid shirts and short dresses of children running across the bricked central square toward the steps of the community hall. Like all Poindran halls, it was a large, rounded building with a broad, conical roof, wood-framed over a radiating wheel of beams made from the same alloy used in the towers.
I wiped my damp palms on my skirt and tried to imitate Helen’s gracious manner as we returned the greetings of the families curious enough to get close to a spacer. I smiled and ignored those hovering at a distance to stare at the Jezrial who’d brought the blight. If they could have read my mind, they probably wouldn’t have gotten as close as they did.
Chimes rang out in a sudden clamor over the square, and I jumped guiltily.
I quickly gathered my skirts to follow Helen up the steps and through low doorways into the hall. Despite myself, I caught my breath as the hush of the place enveloped me and the murmur of conversation fell away. Helen’s silken rustling led me to a wooden bench among the circles climbing the sloping wheel around the great stone hearth at the center. Flames licked silently upward into the shiny alloy cone of the chimney rising to the roof peak. Sunbeams colored by the tinted glass in long windows raying down the ceiling sparkled like liquid jewels through the dim quiet.
Expectant stirring swelled into a sound of waves nudging shore as the three elders, led by old Rebecca, appeared at the doorway to the passage linking the hall to the Sororal House. Everyone rose as they paced down to the hearth in their white ceremonial vestments.
The song of welcome and reverence came naturally to my lips, and I joined the echoing chorus that filled the huge chamber. I sang, and sat with the others to hear the elders speak, and meditated on the words, and sang again, surrendering myself to the comforting response of the group, the wholeness of the community circle. It hardly seemed to matter that the text Elder Katherine chose dealt with the trials of sin and the wayward Jezrial. I let the stir of voices fill me, let the colored shafts of sun and the dance of the fire pour through me, and the murmuring words were only the cadence to a distant, wind-whispered song, one with a larger meaning.
Maybe I should have listened more closely.
Beneath the singing I could hear another voice, an insinuating whisper from the gold snake beneath my starched bodice, repeating the words field agent in flat, metallic tones.
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