For the previous installment of this story, click here.
Or, visit the Cleansed By Fire portal page for comprehensive links to previous chapter installments and additional backstory and information about the novel.
Cleansed by Fire
Chapter 5, Blood and Tears (continued)
Domina waited. She didn’t mind that part. The best hunters did a lot of waiting. Striking too soon was always the biggest mistake. One wrong move too early, from a stray step to a clumsy attack, and the quarry will bolt and leave you with nothing. That was simple, clean, tactical logic, and Domina had always been a tactical sort. What was troubling her was just how difficult her prey was making himself to corner.
The Peteris of the UFC had already surprised her twice. First when he revealed that he had called upon his medtechs to scan some pilfered biological sample from her to search for nanotech, tripwire viruses, concentrated pheremones, biochemical weapons or other surprises that she might have had laying in wait inside her very body—none of which were things she would choose to use but which many of her peers had often employed. His action was a violation of the Conventions of Asylum, but a very difficult one for her to prove even if it suited her plans to do so.
Then that surprise visit last night after she thought she had sent him running in sexual frustration and embarrassment. Instead, he had stormed back in on her and started grilling her about Pope Kuang-Hsu; how he had gotten onto that lead she didn’t know, but that damnable AI Ghost probably had something to do with it.
In most ways, he had proven to be just the gentlemanly, polite devotee of following the rules that Domina had been expecting. But those two moves proved he wasn’t going to be quite as pliant as she had hoped. Clearly, more of his wife—and Ghost—had rubbed off on him than anyone knew.
So she waited.
She had been doing so, more or less, for the past several hours. After the unexpected visit from Gregory last night, she realized that despite her expectations, he might show up at any time. He wouldn’t barge in again most likely. All the same, she had purchased and had express-delivered a set of proximity detectors that she had placed throughout the hallways to ensure she would have warning if anyone entered the floor. She also had two vid-sentries mounted by the door to her apartment, one inside and one outside. She wouldn’t dare use them to record any conversations between herself and Gregory—and he would likely realize that—but it would deter him from violating her privacy.
Still, despite developing a somewhat grittier approach than was his tradition, Gregory clearly remained a chivalrous sort, and using shady tactics even against someone of her infamous reputation probably gave him a twinge of guilt. Bully tactics and violations of the conventions were moves he would likely tap reluctantly and infrequently.
But, no longer able to rely on the notion that he would announce his arrivals, Domina had gotten up very early, at a time Gregory was highly unlikely to be awake himself or to feel comfortable invading her space, so that she could get a good run in, making a dozen or so circuits of the hall that circled around her floor of Candlestand 33, and be able to eat at her leisure, bathe, and primp—a ritual that would become a daily one so that he would never again catch her in a casual or unscripted moment.
She couldn’t be sure when he would arrive anymore. But one thing was certain, he would return, politely or otherwise, and probably at least once a day.
And so, she waited.
She knew now that the sexual aura she was cultivating was not the sure-fire weapon she had hoped it would be, and this was probably her biggest source of frustration—the one thing that made her waiting almost interminable. Sex wasn’t her only tool, nor even obfuscation. She had other avenues, some of them deadly, and she had used whatever tactics necessary for the Holy Mother Church in the past. But sex had always been her best weapon in the service of the Vatican, even before she came to be Pope Tommis’ chief steward and lover. Tommis had hand-picked her long before then and mentored her as an operative for him, and knowing the potential she had, one of the first things he had done was grant her prior absolution for any sins of sexual intercourse. He knew the value of her body in motivating people to do what Tommis wanted or get them to let their guard down for some sort of retribution.
Thanks to Tommis’ blanket absolution, a papal decision that could not be reversed, her vow of chastity was a moot point and she could not be prosecuted by the Vatican for anything she might do with her body, short of aborting a pregnancy. And that would never come up, since she had, years earlier, paid for a physician to render her incapable of conception and make it look like a natural defect.
And yet, for all the edge that sexual innuendo, the art of seduction and even actual bedding had given her over the years, it was proving nearly useless with Gregory. She was getting to him, but she could not truly get through his defenses.
The Nazarene had provided her with a full dossier on Gregory, including psych profiles that should have been about 90 percent reliable—and probably were. She wasn’t sure how many different AIs the Nazarene had access to, but clearly, at least one of them was on a psychosocial template and so the Nazarene had worked up a number of handy profiles for her on any number of people before. She could predict with reasonable assurance most of Gregory’s sexual proclivities—the scents, textures, colors and more that would have the most impact—and even some of his more exotic tastes, and she had already played to several of them. So far, to no avail. It was unlikely that the Nazarene had failed to nail Gregory’s personality; but he had clearly underestimated the man’s reserves.
It would have been easiest, of course, if Gregory had just given in. And he might yet do so, but it was going to be a long, hard road, and she might not have that kind of time. Especially given that Amaranth had survived Uhuru and was now back in-planet. The men who gave in quickly were the best. It gave her precious little satisfaction to watch someone fall to her charms quickly, but expediency was more important than artistry in most of her intrigues and machinations, so the faster they shed their undergarments and handed themselves over to her, the better.
It also would have been pleasing if Gregory had been the sort to hide behind fidelity or piety and try to fool himself into believing he was impervious. That was a conceit that almost inevitably left a man with several weak points in his armor. Such men were ultimately putty in her hands. But Gregory clearly wasn’t hesitant to recognize his arousal and his failings, and thus whatever shame he felt he redirected into energy to marshal his desires or confront her instead. So far, this left her with precious few opportunities to pierce his armor.
She also would have been satisfied if he had simply been the type to lie about her effect on him. Trying to ignore her efforts or diminish them would have not only energized her but also kept him on a constant defensive stance. Instead, the bastard either tacitly acknowledged or overtly admitted that she was alluring and that she affected him, thus making any of her subterfuge useless, and putting her off balance instead.
Gregory was the worst kind of man for her to face. He knew his shortcomings and he was basically an honest person; he knew he wasn’t impervious and didn’t try to be. It was like facing emotional judo and libidinal aikido. The worst thing was that he wasn’t even actively trying to counter her; it was simply his natural responses at work. He was going to be a hell of a lot of work. And while Domina loved her work, she didn’t like to see it drag out, even assuming that the Nazarene’s plans would even give her that kind of latitude for time. And that would be a huge assumption.
And so she waited.
Because no matter how hard a target Gregory was to hit, everyone had a weak spot and everyone had moments of vulnerability. Regardless of how hard he was making the hunt, he was still prey. And she was still the hunter. He would be back, like any prey, to her hunting grounds because that was where nature dictated he must be.
And she would be waiting.
“Everyone is clear on their roles?” Stavin asked the assembled cell leaders, field leaders and assorted others. A number of nods and mumurs of assent went up in the virtual room everyone was projecting their sims into. The Grid was one of the few places so many of them could gather together at once with almost no risk. Even if some Catholic Union agency hacked into their meeting, they would only be able to trace the locations of a few attendees at best, and would be hard-pressed to catch them in the literal world before they bolted.
Still, while it was the safest way to meet, it wasn’t Stavin’s favorite. No matter how good the sims and how good the virtual environment, something was always missing. The emotions were harder to read, the atmosphere less charged. And none of that played to Stavin’s strengths. Despite that, it was clear he had command of the meeting, and even if he didn’t run Secular Genesis per se, he was certainly among its ranking leaders now.
And just about every important thing that was about to happen soon was his show. His inevitable victory. His glory.
He would not have anyone frigging it up.
“Those of you who have assigned tasks today, carry them out to the last detail,” Stavin continued. “The rest of you, do nothing. If I see any initiative today, any…entrepreneurial…actions, and I will personally have that person skinned. You can decide for yourself whether I’m being literal or figurative.”
For a moment, Stavin was certain he felt a flicker of tension and anticipation all around him, even in this virtual space. He smiled.
Today marks the beginning of the end of the Catholic Union, he mused.
(To read the next installment of this story, click here.)