In a high, airy room of the Parliament Building, looking down on the great square, a short man in military uniform paced angrily. Standing to attention, Principal Anastasias of the Providence Central Institute for Girls, almost two heads taller and infinitely more distinguished than his superior, might have been tempted to smile at the little man’s posturing, but he waited in respectful silence. The Lord High Protector certainly looked like a rosy-cheeked buffoon, but his small hog-like eyes glittered with malice.
“Of course, she must be punished like any other unruly child,” the Protector said, wheeling round smartly on his heels to face the principal. “But was it absolutely necessary to lock her in the House of Correction? Would a good whipping not have sufficed?”
The principal put his hands together in an ecclesiastical pose, and an expression of serene superiority settled on his hawk-like features. “The city is already rife with sedition, Excellency, treason, and heresy among the Ignorant population. The girl is just one example of how evil has wormed its way into the population, picking out the most susceptible and turning them into champions of the Serpent Witch. In your own household, Excellency, the Lady Selene—”
“Leave my wife out of this, Principal! She is my problem and mine alone. A single headstrong female with delusions of grandeur hardly amounts to a threat to State security.”
The principal bent his head in the briefest of bows. “As you wish, Excellency. You know the Lady Selene’s capacity for meddling better than anyone. You must decide how best to curb it.”
“Thank you, Principal Anastasias, for according me the right to act as master in my own home,” the Protector said with a facetious curl of his lip. “Now, this girl. She has, of course, rebellious tendencies—it’s in the blood and to be expected. But she must not be allowed to go too far. It is your job to stop her, to nip these notions in the bud. Imagine if her rebellious instinct drove her to commit an unpardonable crime. How could she be executed? How could we execute our only, most precious hostage?”
“Perhaps, Your Excellency, it would be better to crush the venomous serpent now, before she has a chance to contaminate other young minds. It could be done…discreetly. Now that she is safely locked away, who would know?” The principal spoke softly, suavely. “Remember Eve, the bane of Mankind? The Book says—”
“Don’t quote the Book at me!” His Excellency the Lord High Protector stamped his glossy-booted foot. “Have you not listened to a thing I’ve been saying? You seem to forget that the vermin who spawned this child is loose in the desert. Of course, you could easily hide the murder of an anonymous schoolgirl from the population. What would they care anyway? But you could never hide it from her mother. And if, in her wrath, the green whore decided to throw her army of demons and monsters at Providence, then what? What defence have we ever had but the Serpent’s own daughter? And you want to cut the little bitch’s throat? Talk sense, man!”
“The hostage is not our only defence, Excellency,” the principal corrected. “The Lord Abaddon, they say, is assembling a formidable host in the desert. He desires the destruction of the Witch as much as we do—”
“Because he desires her power,” the Protector interrupted.
“And once he has destroyed her,” the principal carried on unperturbed, “think what an ally he would be. His army could rid us of all the traitors and partisans of the Witch and turn Providence into the most impregnable citadel, the hub of the greatest power the world has ever known.” The principal’s eyes glittered; his voice was loud and exalted.
The Protector eyed him coldly. “So, you would have me open the gates of Providence to Abaddon and his demons?”
“Demons, Excellency?” the principal objected in the smoothest, most diplomatic way. “The Ignorants have certainly spread lies about the Iron Horde, as they have about their filthy Serpent Witch, to create fear and unrest among the population. But who has seen these demons? Of course The Book makes great mention of the evil spirits that inhabit the desert, but surely this can be taken in a, let us say, metaphorical sense, suitable to the understanding of, how shall I put it, unformed minds?”
The Lord High Protector’s expression hardened. “Stick to what you know, school-teacher. Go back to your maidens, give orders to your matrons, timetable your sewing classes. But leave the defence of Providence to men who have seen more than you have dreamt of in your worst nightmares.”
The principal bowed his head, but not before the Protector had seen the furious glitter in his eyes.
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