Chapter 13: The Faithful Duties of the Corpus Majoris
Inside her tent, Wenifas met with Fedring, Corpus Majoris of the Empress' Own. After some initial pleasantries, Fedring and Wenifas were quick to get down to business. Wenifas allowed the man to check her book of absolution, where she recorded who petitioned and for what rituals, along with any other notes she cared to make about the men (and the occasional woman) that came to visit. Invariably, Fedring seemed most interested in her notes. Yes, the Majoris made a big deal about her accounting, especially if it should be inaccurate. But it seemed to the priestess that the notes somehow provided the Corpus with the most value. Why should the high offices of the priesthood care so much about the men's thoughts and actions? Wenifas could only speculate.
Because they seemed so important, Wenifas worked hard on her notes. She was very deliberate and careful in how she portrayed the various men that came to see her. She wrote long passages about most of them and protected those she loved with accounts of righteous devotion. Although she might elaborate and touch a man's religious zeal with some length of poetry, she never fudged a word of controversy. She was not surprised that Fedring was quick to glance over the pages that detailed a man's piety and worship of the true gods, yet he lingered as he read of ignominy or heresy. What would he do with such information? Wenifas shuddered to think on it.
"My dear, you always keep such a clean book," Fedring smiled as he tapped a particularly long entry concerned with a rather lewd fixation of one of the men. "I only wish you would choose smaller volumes to keep your notes. Is this book not cumbersome to you?"
"I beg forgiveness, but I fill the small books too fast. Beside, I enjoy the heft of a bigger book. I can use it to hit the men, if they deserve it – or if they simply request it," Wenifas grinned. Wenifas knew the Corpus would allow her to keep any book she might like, so long as she turned it in when it was filled. She was quite sure he wanted her to use smaller books so he would have them from her that much faster. But she had no interest in separating herself from her own intelligence, especially not for Fedring's convenience. Why should he get to keep the book? But then, there was no point in arguing against the law.
"You hit the men with it?" Fedring set the book aside and wiped his hands.
"Some of them beg for it. Most of them deserve it. I have noted both in the book, of course," Wenifas said, and flicked through several pages.
"Of course," Fedring gave her a long-suffering smile. "I wished the others kept such neat records – and always with your numbers at the front. Yes, you are very orderly. The gods appreciate your effort."
"The gods are too kind, your lordship."
"Enough of the book. The money is in order. Let us see to the babe," Fedring held his hands out for the child. With a weak smile, Wenifas handed Evereste to the Corpus. Evereste was still small, less than a year in age. Fedring undressed the child and took off her diaper as he examined the babe for any sign of physical disease, malformation, or trauma. "She seems in good health. Has she been any problem?"
"Oh no, your lordship. She has such a sweet temper. I had much more trouble with Claiten."
"Boys are always more difficult," Fedring nodded. "Do you ask the others to look after her?"
"Not often though Delonias has watched her a few times," Wenifas smiled. "I think I am quite blessed. So far, Evereste is mild and happy. She crawls. She can almost stand. Soon, she will walk, and then she will start speaking."
"Yes, yes," Fedring feigned a smile. "Once again, I am impressed with your capacities."
With his inspection of the babe complete, Fedring handed Evereste back to her mother. Wenifas took Evereste with a smile. She tried not to let her anxiety show as she dressed the child. She hoped to put on a great show of respect. She was good at hiding her true feelings and putting on a smile for her petitioners. The work of a priestess could be difficult and arduous in its own way and often required a good deal of acting. But Fedring was not a guard. It was his job to discover any deception among the priestesses. Wenifas crossed her fingers. All she wanted was a smooth interview and to get Fedring out of her tent. It would be another month before he returned. Unless there was scandal...
"You may have heard there is dispute between Delonias and Sahna," Fedring began. "I am told you were witness to a confrontation at the three mark well?"
"I was," Wenifas confessed.
"And what would you say of it?"
Wenifas frowned. She preferred not to be involved. Still, he asked, and so she must answer. "I feel Delonias showed the proper respects. I feel Sahna should not have hit Delonias. She is senior – to me as well – but that does not give her right to abuse us," Wenifas said.
"Did she abuse you too?" Fedring asked with a raised brow.
Silently, Wenifas cursed herself. Why did she let that slip? Now that it was out, she would not lie about it. Getting caught in a lie always made matters worse. "Not at this time," Wenifas shook her head. "Not physically," she admitted, and hoped it was enough.
"What has she done to you?" Fedring asked.
"It was only harsh words, your lordship. It was some time ago, and I do not hold them against her," Wenifas confessed. "Indeed, I do not recall exactly what was said. Might I forget her words on purpose? I beg forgiveness, and I offer the same to my dear Sahna. May the gods forget this accusation."
"My oh my," Fedring frowned. "This is turning into quite a mess."
Although it was an old and amorphous complaint, the priestess suspected a remedy would be demanded. She crumbled to her knees, and pressed her forehead to Fedring's feet. "I beg mercy for Delonias, Sahna, and myself," Wenifas stated as she kowtowed before the Majoris.
"Do you? Well, that is quite noble of you. And tell me, what punishment would you deliver if you were in my shoes?"
With wide eyes, Wenifas began her answer. "If Sahna demands punishment, then Delonias must suffer. I would give her two lashes, one for each insult, and demand she tithe two days work, one day to the office of the Corpus and the other to the Sisters of Charity. Then, I would demand a public apology from Sahna, and give her warning. She is not to inflict corporal punishment. That is the charge of the Corpus," Wenifas hedged.
"Measured words, and they show your understanding of the law," Fedring gave an approving smile. "I shall think on it. And for yourself? What of your own accusations? Or do you feel Sahna is in the wrong?"
"I beg my words be forgotten by all concerned. May the wind take them," She hung her head.
"They weight little enough I think," Fedring offered a reassuring smile. "The gods may erase them for a pittance, but a diem should be sufficient."
"Thank you," Wenifas bowed deep, her forehead at Fedring's legs. He was certainly in a good mood.
"I do not see your boy about," Fedring stated. "How is the lad?"
"Claiten," Wenifas breathed the name of her son only too happy to speak of anything else. "Shall I send for him that you might see?"
Fedring shook his head. "It is best he is not about. But I have questions concerning the boy. Is he well?"
"He is strong and happy. He practices with the dagger you gave him. He loves it very much."
"And his schooling?"
"He has learned his letters and can make them all. Now I teach him spelling. He can count. He can add and subtract. Multiplication evades him still. He does not see the point of it," Wenifas admitted. "He likes the songs and knows a dozen. His favorite is The Charge of Ooroiyuo."
"That is always popular among the boys," Fedring said. "Instead of multiplication, perhaps try division first? Sometimes we must take a step back if we wish to go forward," he advised with a smile. "I see Claiten about camp with the other children. He is full of energy and guile. He is a good size for his age. He will be of great service to the true gods."
"Do you think so?"
"Very much," Fedring nodded. With a cough, he cleared his throat. "Now, if I can see after you."
With a sigh, Wenifas set Evereste among her blankets. She stood and slipped out of her dress. She stepped out of her panties and pulled off her half shirt. She dropped her soft fabrics to her feet and stared at Fedring as if this didn't bother her at all.
Blinking and squinting, Fedring stuck his face in her crotch. "Do you have any complaints?"
"No sir. The Gods have blessed me with good health," Wenifas started.
"Mmmm..." He said, and stabbed a fat, cold finger at her flower. Wenifas bit her tongue and tried not to shiver. "You appear clean," Fedring noted. "Lay down."
Wenifas felt her heart sink. Such physical interrogation was not always warranted – but it was never denied. She sat down and gently rested on her back. "Any particular ritual you should like?"
"The Rape of Leticia," Fedring said.
Wenifas realized he was in too good of a mood. A shiver ran up her spine and the hairs on her neck stood on end. She hated the Rape of Leticia and even refused to sing the songs. But there was no denying Fedring. Slowly, she laid on her back and assumed the proper position. She closed her eyes and smiled that it might discourage her from crying. As she could do anything with her legs, so long as she pretended slumber, she stacked them left over right and pulled them up halfway to her chest. For this ritual, she was not to react until he touched her. Then, she should fight him. She did not think she could fight him off, though she would try. Of course, there were certain rules to the ritual: no biting, no injury to the shaft or eggs, no gouging at at the eyes. A little bruising would cause a normal guard extra, but the Majoris would pay for none of it. He could do anything with the body of the church, and as a priestess, Wenifas was certainly considered his jurisdiction. If he became excessively violent, that too was his prerogative. As a high officer of the church, he could hit, bite, scratch, even flay a priestess if he deemed it necessary. He could do as he wished with a body of the priesthood, even unto death.
Fedring loosed his belt and dropped his pants. He rubbed at his cock as he stood over Wenifas. He had trouble getting the old soldier to stand.
Wenifas could not handle the silence. She wondered if it was folly to speak, then thought it was folly to remain silent. "Have you performed many visits today, my lord?" She finally asked. She refused to open her eyes and look at the man.
"This is my fifth," he admitted as he spit in his hand and rubbed at his little man once more. Still, the soldier refused to stand at attention. With a frown, Fedring slapped it around, as he might punish a petulant guard.
Wenifas frowned. "Even for a man of your potency, that is too many. Will there soon be a new Minorus to help you in your office?"
"I should hope," Fedring huffed. "The Empress seems to think I can handle this camp alone. Although I appreciate her faith in me, it is a daunting task. It does not help that I have been under the weather this last little while, and I am not fully recovered."
"The gods try even the best of us. I shall have less complaint the next time I am sick."
"It is draining to see after so many capable and loyal priestesses," Fedring sighed. "Do you have any sanguine stimulata?"
"I do not," Wenifas admitted. "I currently have conicle, blue tips, and a bottle of fine Kelmish red at my disposal."
"No, none of that," Fedring grimaced. "I suppose just the look of you is enough for most men," he added. "You are still young and quite comely."
"I thank you."
"I do not flatter you. It is only my honest assessment." Fedring noted. For a moment, he let his limp man hang between his legs. Wenifas wondered if she should volunteer assistance but was repulsed by the thought. She decided to lie still and pretend not to notice his stare. It seemed like an eternity before Fedring finally spoke again. "My dear, have you taken shade?"
"No, my lord. I am a desert flower," she informed, though lately she skipped doses. As part of the order, she must take the desert flower to keep from conceiving. Indeed, she'd forgotten she was overdue. How long had it been? Still, the flower would dislodge a child up to a month out. She had time before her rebellion became problematic. Besides, after a month, there were other ways to keep from conceiving – though they became increasingly complex and messy the longer a woman carried. As Wenifas laid before Fedring with her eyes closed, waiting to perform the Rape of Leticia, she told herself she'd take the flower as soon as the Majoris left. She would not allow the Corpus to seed her under any circumstance.
"The desert flower..." Fedring mulled over her words. He flicked and poked at his limp wand once more before he finally thought better of it. "A pity," he noted, and picked his pants off the ground.
"Am I to take the shade now?" Wenifas asked. Shade was not a substitute for the desert flower. One dose of shade made a lady barren now and forever. Although some among the priesthood longed to join the Order of the Shade, Wenifas was not among them. She thought shade was tragic, especially since the choice was made by the church and not the priestess.
A part of her hoped Fedring would order the shade. Her defiant side relished the idea of secretly ignoring such an order. She wondered, would she defy him? For how long? She had enough of the desert flower to last another year, maybe two or even three if she stretched her doses and took risks. After that, would she still refuse the shade? Once her supply of desert flower ran out, it would be difficult to secure any more. A priestess of the shade purchasing desert flower... others might tell. If she was caught defying the orders of the Corpus Majoris her punishment could be anything including banishment from the Empire. Certainly, she would be stripped of her priesthood. And her children too.
"No, no shade. That day has not yet come," Fedring smiled. "In fact, I ask you not to take the desert flower for the time being. I ask that you return to the Order of the Blooded Moon."
"Yes my lord," She smiled. "I thank you."
"It is not me you should thank, it is the gods," Fedring said with little real humility. "They would bless you with another child, or at least the possibility of another. They do tease from time to time."
Excitement overcame the priestess, and with it a spark of resentment. She was to have another child! Yet, Wenifas felt that she alone should decide if she would take the desert flower, or the shade, or have a thousand more children! She hated that such things were within Fedring's power to grant. Just to spite him, she considered taking the flower until commanded to do so. And then, she would not!
Or so insisted her rebellious thoughts. Such thoughts were easy. It was action that was forever difficult. Besides, such action would see her without compromise, without employment, without a people. Consistent and open rebellion would see her stripped of everything.
"Quite right," Fedring looked about the tent, somewhat distracted. "Now, have any petitioners mentioned a great serpent?"
"A serpent, my lord?" Wenifas asked, shocked by the question. Again, she could feel the hairs standing on the back of her neck as her mind turned to Derris. Did Derris confess? Did he speak with another of the priesthood after all?! Blinding rage erupted behind her eyes. Men were so stupid and simply refused to think with the right head! Fedring stared at her. Did he want her to admit it? He was giving her a chance to confess before he leveled his accusations and final punishment. Wenifas cursed Derris for a fool!"Such talk is rampant, my lord. All the men speak of their great serpents." Wenifas shrugged. A stupid look of confusion stretched across her face, that he might not suspect her guile.
"I make no joke," Fedring stared. "I've heard rumor of a creature about the camp: a beast of great length, with green eyes, and mighty wings."
"I suspect I would know if I'd seen such a terrible thing," she hedged.
"Oh yes. I understand it is quite ferocious," Fedring said with a frown about his lips. "Have any petitioners spoke of such a thing? Or perhaps your son?"
Her son? Wenifas realized Fedring knew nothing of Derris and his contact with the creature after all! He was simply fishing for information! She realized if the beast had to bite Derris in order to share his thoughts, then it must have bit Fedring in order to share his thoughts too. No wonder he complained of feeling ill! A jolt of elation surged through her. Meu must be real! Derris spoke nothing but truth! The accusations about the Corpus Majoris were true!
And to have him standing over her as she was naked, unable to do anything about it... She wanted to cry. Wenifas calmed herself and locked eyes with Fedring. "No, my lord," she lied. "This is the first I've heard of it. Shall I ask about it?"
Fedring stared at the priestess with disappointment and suspicion on his face. Wenifas wondered what he thought. She kept her stare blank, as if she wanted nothing but his opinion.
"Don't bother the men with such fanciful tales. They have important work to do, but if one should mention it..." Fedring began. "Now, I have but one more question, the strictest of formalities. Is there anything you need to confess? Before the gods?"
Wenifas turned away. This was the strictest of formalities. As such, it was not to be taken lightly, though he made it appear just so. To say 'no' was a dangerous thing, for any small infraction could come back at her seven fold. That was the law. Wenifas knew it was always best to confess some small sin, so that's what she did. "Forgive me, my lord. I am thinking mean thoughts during the rituals. Not always, but during the visits of one man in particular. Yet, he is worthy in all the ways I am asked to measure. I ask that my heart be softened and that I might accept his seed and metal with grace and humility."
"What man is this?" Fedring asked.
"I should not like to name him, my lord. I feel the fault is all mine and do not want to slander him, even before the gods," Wenifas hedged.
"But the gods already know, and so do I," Fedring stated. "Yet, the confession is yours to make. I would hear the name from you, and thus the penalty will be less."
She meant to complain about one of the prison guards that served in the stone tower – but for a split second she thought to name Derris instead. A flash of blind intuition told her it was the right play. There was no reason to be honest with this vile man. She almost said his name. At the last second she changed her mind and decided to speak the truth. After all, isn't it always best to speak the truth? "It is Cairn, my lord."
Honestly, she did not like the man. He was uncaring, and tended to stink. It would not hurt her feelings if such a thing got back to the guard. If he should stop visiting altogether, that was all the better.
Fedring stared at her with a critical eye. "Be glad for his patronage," his tone was chiding. "What if he and all the others should stop petitioning? There are many priestesses about the camp."
"Yes, my lord," Wenifas hung her head. She realized Fedring must know the man and probably held him in high regard. She should have guessed as much. They were both awful men.
"What more is there to confess?" Fedring asked. There was an edge to the question. She realized her slight accusation had angered him.
"Nothing comes to mind, my lord." Since she had made a confession, Fedring could not say she had defied his call to repentance. So said the law. If anything else should come up she simply had to say she was distraught over her first confession.
"Very well. Your penance is another ten percent this month," Fedring began. "If Cairn should visit, you shall donate half his fee. May you remember the favor he grants you."
"Yes, Majoris. I will make a note of it," Wenifas promised. She hid her astonishment. An additional ten percent! It was an inordinate punishment! On top of that, she was to donate half of Cairn's donation?! Indeed, Fedring must be close to the guard. She had never suffered such a punishment! Wenifas cursed her luck.
Fedring hefted a purse of coin – tithes, taxes, fees, and donations levied against the office of priestess for the previous month – nearly thirty percent of her earnings. He stuffed the pouch in his pocket. "All seems in order; your monies, your children, yourself... May the gods continue to smile on you," Fedring said, though his demeanor was now crusty. He already signed her book acknowledging receipt of the funds, and so their business was finished.
"And you, my lord," Wenifas said as she stood and pulled on her small clothes. She gathered Evereste in her arms and tried to look contrite.
"Yes... Just so," Fedring said with a huff and finally left her tent.
He came to her in such a good mood, and only her words about Cairn had upset him. Wenifas stood and followed Fedring to the entrance of her tent – mostly to be sure he was truly gone. Fedring stepped down the long row of tents and stopped in front of the one owned by Delonias. He rang the bell as he glared forward. With a frown, Wenifas let her tent fall closed. She hoped her friend had no stimulata on hand.
For a time, Wenifas played with Evereste, but the young girl was tired, and wanted to resume her nap. Wenifas took Evereste into the other room and set her down to sleep. For a time, she sat and watched as her babe gave in to slumber.
Wenifas wondered if she should take the desert flower, just to spite Fedring's orders. With Evereste down for a nap, Wenifas unlocked her jewelry box and pulled out a slight jar of the flower. She measured a dose of the weak poison and stared at the orange and red bits of petal. She did not mind the bitter taste. After some men, she relished it. Many of the priesthood said the taste of desert flower could wash away the worst of men. Wenifas agreed. It was pungent and overwhelming and frequently caused vomiting.
But Fedring had not violated her, not in the physical sense, and so she decided against a dose. Her defiance continued, and now none could fault her. She slipped the badge of the flower from her robe and stuck the red crescent of the Blooded Moon on her dress. She swept the crushed petals back into the vial, and returned it to her jewelry box. With that finished, she laid down next to her babe and closed her eyes. She did not sleep for long. She woke to the screams of Delonias as her friend begged for mercy. Sweet loving gods, have mercy!
Wenifas felt she would not get it. Tears came to her eyes. She pulled her covers and pillows over her head that she might not hear any more of it. Between the screams, Wenifas heard the light chime of her bell. She huffed. Of all the times to come calling! But she'd not take any petitioners. It was her right to refuse. She thought to let the petitioner ring to his heart's content, but after the third ring came in quick succession, Wenifas stood in a rage and stepped out to answer.
"I am not...!" Wenifas began as she pulled aside the curtain of her tent. She meant to say she was not accepting any petitioners, but she was halted in her fury. Confusion overtook her. "Are you..?" She began, not knowing what to ask.
Before her stood an older woman, rail thin, with fire red hair. Strangest of all, the woman was almost completely nude. The only thing she wore was a bandage on her arm. Despite her advancing age, the woman was quite pretty, and despite her obvious poverty, she smiled as if the world were her oyster. Wenifas glanced among the tents to see if anyone else witnessed this woman's impropriety! One could not go among the camp in the nude! She backed away as she held the tent open and waved the stranger inside. What if Fedring should see her, naked in the noon day sun?! And at the door to her tent?! Then there'd be hell to pay!
"Please, please!" Wenifas pulled the older woman into the tent. Wenifas checked again to see that nobody was watching. She closed her tent with a sigh of relief.
With the tent closed, Wenifas turned to the naked stranger. The strange woman sat and ran her fingers along the faded pattern of carpets. She seemed unconcerned with her nakedness.
"Let me get you a dress," Wenifas stepped from the room. She glanced among her clothing and hoped she had something to suit the thin, naked stranger. "This should work..." She began as she returned to the front room.
The stranger stood, a smile stretched across her thin lips. As Wenifas held out the dress, the stranger grabbed the priestess and kissed her before the girl could turn away. Wenifas pushed her off.
"You are too forward..." she began to scold as she took a step back. She licked her lips and was about to to demand the proper tithe – or simply refuse the woman outright – when she realized the woman was not as she seemed. The older woman continued to smile as she stared at Wenifas with grass green eyes. Confusion roiled through the priestess's mind. In a fog, she sat down as fantastic and impossible thoughts inserted themselves in her head. Several tents away, Delonias began to scream once more.