Het and the Rakshasa

(Part 4)

         When the Sergeant and Centurion strode through the palace gates that morning clean and shiny, they reacted with a start when Het rose to greet them, for she was so covered in mud that she appeared just like the dwellers. But the Sergeant recognized her stave and questioned her at once about her inexcusable appearance.

“Delay your investigation” pleaded Het, “For we have treated these people with nothing but brutality and cruelty! Out of your love for the Law, please let the Centurion sheathe his sword today!” The Sergeant denied her of course, for there was not one ounce of anything resembling love in his whole body. As he denied her, Het found her longing for the Sergeant slip out of her like a cold liquid, and she felt deeply saddened, for it confirmed what she had known all along. But it was an expected loss, and resolution quickly filled its place.

The Sergeant immediately began his investigation, rapping on doors and even windows with his perfect fingernails The buttons of his uniform suddenly seemed too bright and sharp to Het, and the glint from them hurt her eyes. She heard the sweaty palm of the Centurion rubbing over his sword hilt.

But true to their word, the dwellers had gathered absolutely everyone to the central square for the delayed funeral rites, and there was nary a soul to be found in any of the humble and stooped dwellings of that land. For once, Het saw the Sergeant taken aback. “Well this is awfully strange,” he said to Het with a cold look in his eye, and the Centurion fumed. It was then that the funereal wailing started, and following its sound and the smoke from the fire, the group made their way to the central square.

“Stop this nonsense!” said the Sergeant in his very reasonable policeman’s voice as they strode amongst the gathered masses, but nobody listened. They were filled with grief and resentment at having to delay their funeral rites, and many of them threw spurious glances at Het as they wailed. “Hold a moment,” said Het, and they held as the bread was laid out. “A little longer,” said Het as the amulets were laid on the eyes of the dead. “Just a little longer,” said Het, as the cloth was wrapped around the bodies. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that the Centurion’s expert sword arm was bulging with unreleased tension, and the cords of his neck were thick and red. But at the moment Het was sure he would spring forth, foaming at the mouth, the funeral was over, and the breaking of the bread began. It was then that Het jumped into action.

“May I have some bread?” she asked the fire-stoking woman, and was handed a thin and meager piece. She swallowed it down as the Sergeant watched, cold and irate, and then pulled herself up to her full height and planted her staff. In fact, Het was very tall, and her arms were corded like boughs, and her staff was so heavy that a rough man of the fields who worked a plough all day would scarcely be able to lift it. Even though she knew none of these things, everyone else recognized them very quickly, and so it grew very quiet indeed when she stood up.

“This bread is the finest I’ve had in my three years of service,” she proclaimed, loudly and precisely. “Why, I’d deign to say it’s better than the bread my grandmother baked.” The assembled dwellers nodded in approval, even though they knew the bread was bitter and dry. The land may have been cold and harsh, but they were gracious for what they had. “How is your bread, auntie?” Het asked the fire-stoking woman. The woman caught the glint in Het’s eye, and all of a sudden a wave of understanding and excitement passed around the gathered dwellers. “I’d deign to say it’s the best bread I’ve baked yet,” said the woman at the top of her voice, “The best bread in a century!” There was a loud chorus of approval, and other voices joined in.

“The best bread on this side of the Wheel!”

“See how sweet and fresh it is!”

“They should serve it in the capital!”

More and more voices joined in until it was a cacophony of praise. Ridiculous, overfed, hyperbolic lies tumbled back and forth through the air, and Het stood at the center of it all, with her eye bright and sharp, and both hands on her quarterstaff. She was beginning to lose hope, when there was suddenly a shrill and piercing scream.

The scream came from an old and shriveled woman, who was bent double over the great table, and bile was pouring from her mouth and nose. For, as they all remembered then, the Rakshasa could not stand the sound of lies, and it crawled right out of the woman’s mouth and writhed in a black and suppurating mass on the table. “Enough!” It shrieked, but Het scarcely gave it pause before she dashed forth and smashed its skull into five hundred pieces with a mighty blow of her quarterstaff. The blow was so powerful it split the table clean in two and send echoes all the way up to the palace where it shattered the lord’s prized crystal chandelier with the mere sound of its violence.

A great cheer went up and the broken body of the Rakshasa was beaten and bludgeoned by the furious crowd and dragged into the muck where it was later eaten by dogs. The old woman was brought immediately to the dwelling of a healer where she recovered through the healer’s strong skill in herbal cleansing and lived another decade, demon free.

But it wasn’t over for Het, by far. If anything, she gripped her quarterstaff even tighter, for while the crowd had been filling the air with lies, she had noticed something bizarre that filled her up to the brim with dread. The Sergeant had been trembling and quaking the entire time, just like the old woman, and his handsome face was lined with pain.

And Het turned to him in fear and said, “You too, have a Rakshasa inside of you.”

“Of course,” choked the Sergeant, “It takes a demon to find a demon, didn’t you know? That’s why they made me a Sergeant.”

“You don’t have a Watchman’s Eye at all,” said Het, choking back tears, “You just know whether someone is lying or not.”

“Yes,” said the convulsing Sergeant, bile pouring from his nose and ruining his perfect mustache. “I am very good at catching liars and criminals. If you want to fraternize with the filthy, that is your business. I, however, am a perfect policeman.” Het had to admit, he was right. He was a very good policeman, with very clean fingernails. But he was a very poor person.

“Liars and criminals are not the same,” said Het, and struck the Sergeant a mighty blow across the chest. At that, the Centurion, who had been waiting to kill someone all morning, sprung forth with a lustful, sputtering cry and drew his sword. But although he far outmatched Het at skill with the sword, he was a very poor swordsman. He got a few good cuts in on Het, which she bore for the rest of her life, but she was filled with the terrible fires of Will, and he was not. The moment she got a good blow on his over-swollen sword hand, it was over. He whined like a dog as Het gave him a thorough beating.

“Kill me,” he begged, broken and bleeding, and cried piteously. It was the only thing he ever said to Het.

Het looked him over in pity, unbuckled her sword belt, and then threw it in the muck, for it was a killing weapon, unlike the stave. In this respect, Het was a very good swordswoman. She left the Centurion weeping and bade the dwellers teach him a more useful skill than killing. It was said he became a middling carpenter, but that’s a story for another time.

Het turned back to the Sergeant. He had coughed his Rakshasa out into the dirt, and it was dragging itself feebly away from a ring of furious dwellers, who were harassing it with sticks and stones. The sight of it disgusted Het, for it was a greatly fattened and pampered thing. She bashed its brains out with very little thought and hurled its body into a sucking mire. When she returned, the Sergeant was bent over, quivering and cold. Without the demon inside of him, he was a small man, thin and sickly looking. Het was suddenly aware how much taller she was than him.

“You fool,” babbled the Sergeant, “What will I do now? How will I make my living? How will I afford the money to keep my boots shined and my nails clean?” Het looked at him, all clean-pressed and sharp, his eyes feverish and hateful, and over to the funeral pyre, which was burnt nearly to ashes, and the sorrowful gazes of the dwellers who bent there. Truly, she thought, she would waste very little time on this small and cruel man, so she walked away.

“Thank you for slaying the Rakshasa,” said the dwellers, and went back to their harsh existence. They were gracious for it, nonetheless. Het shed her uniform and her boots and spent the last of her pay buying a good traveling cloak, a set of rough-spun clothing, and iron-nailed boots.

“Where will you go?” asked the fire-stoking woman. “To the Road, of course,” said Het, for that was the nature of things. Het abhorred violence. But there were Rakshasas about, and worse. Indeed, though her stave was used for cracking skulls very rarely, the skulls it cracked were very famous indeed. You may have heard of a few, and perhaps also how she came to be the doorkeeper of YISUN’s speaking house, and how she met Prim again on the road some time later. But those are stories for another time.

Before she left, Het offered her old clothing to the dwellers, who declined. “Your boots are very impractical for walking in the mud,” they said, and Het had to agree. If you had to wash all the stains out every night, stains ceased to have meaning.

It didn’t stop Het from taking a bath later, however. Some habits die hard.