Raul scanned the rows of seating, wondering if Arym had found a place already and was saving a spot for him. Row by row, he began at the near side and ended at the far side. That was when he saw her - not sitting down, but just beyond the far end of a row. She was standing on the fringes of the crowd round a stall behind which stood a flabby-armed woman almost as broad as she was tall. Whatever she was selling seemed to be popular because it looked as if Arym was going to have to wait to get nearer. Leaving his spot, Raul raced down the steps and back out onto the aged flagstones of the celebreon floor. He then took the shortest route, across and in front of the Devotionals, in his haste even forgetting to stop and bow to the statue of The Saviour.
By the time he reached her, Arym had eased herself to the front of the stall. It was laden with gaudily-painted statuettes in every shape and size. That which the fat stallholder was in the act of handing to Arym was just about the most sugary of all, with the new Blessed standing on a pedestal of roses.
"Look lovely beside your bed this one will," the woman was cooing. "You'd see her last thing at night and first thing in the morning!"
Squeezing through a gap between two other customers, Raul made it to Arym's side. The statuette, now in his sister's hands, looked even more tawdry close up. Then he saw the price dangling from its over-pink neck.
"You cant afford that!"
Arym spun round, the look on her face telling Raul that her losing him had been no accident.
"Go away, little brother! Mind your own business."
"But look at the price!" hissed Raul.
"So?" Arym handed the statuette back to the fat, sweating stallholder. "I'll take it."
"You must be mad! That's costing more than we earn for two months industry!"
"So? It's my money."
Something about the way she said it, an indefinable change to the timbre of her voice, gave Raul the spark of understanding. He looked quickly beyond Arym, searching the now thinning crowd surrounding the stall. Raul spotted Kohn and Shaani almost at once. They were standing to one side, just beyond the stall, and looking their way.
"Where did you get it from, then?" hissed Raul.
"I've been saving hard," sneered Arym.
"You're lying. You lifted it, didnt you?"
Arym opened her eyes in wide and mocking innocence. "Not me, little brother!"
Raul glanced Kohn and Shaani's way once more. There his question was answered. Sliding a hand into his jacket, Kohn withdrew a shiny leather purse just far enough for Raul to see it. Then, grinning broadly, he slid it back out of sight.
"What have you done?" Raul almost yanked Arym off her feet as he span her round.
"Mind your own business!"
"You agreed to go in with them, didn't you?" Raul was finding it hard to keep his voice low enough for only Arym to hear. "Are you stupid? That purse must have had a fortune in it. The celebreon guards are probably looking for it right now!"
The fat stallholder had finished wrapping the statuette in tissue paper, an extra pretence that the thing had a value which justified its price. She was about to slip it into a box for good measure when Raul pushed in front of Arym.
"Sorry. She doesnt want it any more."
The woman stopped what she was doing, looking for all the world like a larger and flabbier version of one of her own statuettes.
"I do want it!" Arym was holding the money out even as she tried to lever Raul to one side. "She's my favourite Blessed!"
Temper flaring, Raul snatched the banknote from her fingers. "This month, Arym!" he shouted. "Next month there'll be another!"
"That's not true!" screamed his sister. "Dyana's different to all the others. I want to be just like her!"
"So how's having that thing going to help? Its a lump of plaster, that's all."
"Hey, you watch your tongue!" the fat stallholder snapped at Raul. "These are devotional images." She returned the figurine to Arym's hands with an overdone reverence. "It'll remind you of the Blessed Dyana every time you look at it, love," she said in tone that was as oily as her face. "It'll inspire you."
Arym took it. "I want it, Raul - and I'm having it." She looked up at him, her eyes flashing with mockery. "Now give the lady the money - little brother."
As the jibe struck home, Raul felt an uncontrollable flash of rage. Outside the building there were beggars being hounded while here, inside, his sister was using stolen money to buy the sort of trash they spent their days making. How did all this square with the fine words of the Lyrene Promise?
"Give her your own money, then!" he yelled. Holding the note in front of Arym's eyes Raul ripped it into shreds.
Considering her bulk, the stallholder's reactions were surprisingly swift. Seeing her sale disappear she bounded forward, arms outstretched, to snatch the statuette from Arym. She was just beaten to it by Raul.
"Give me that back!" screeched the woman.
Blood boiling, Raul hurled the statuette at the woman's feet. As it landed on the flagstones it shattered into a cascade of gaudy pieces.
"See!" shouted Raul. "Hollow! As hollow as your precious Dyana!"
Their raised voices had been slowing the surrounding gossip, but the sound of the shattering figurine had stopped it completely. Into this silence the fat stallholder cast a single, condemning shriek.
Within moments the cry had been taken up by those close by. Raul felt rough hands grab at him, pinning his arms to his side. He could hear the fateful word being spread, racing through the congregation like a contagious disease.
"Blasphemer! Guards! Blasphemer!"
Quickly added to it came came more shouting, harsh and guttural. "Let us through! Make way!"
The crowd surrounding Raul parted. Two uniformed celebreon guards strode into the divide, their feet resounding on the flagstones. Raul's arms were released by the bystanders only for him to be gripped even more tightly, one guard on each side, before they restarted their litany: "Let us pass! Make way!"
They kept it up until Raul had been marched through the crowds of open-mouthed and nudging pilgrims, and up to a small studded oak door at the far end of the celebreon.
There he was released and thrust into a tiny, wood-panelled room. The door slammed shut, muffling the constant babble outside.
All he could hear clearly were the sounds of his own laboured breathing and the cries of 'Blasphemer!' still echoing in his head.
Raul and his half-sister Arym live in a nurture-house, are cared for by the state, and have never known their mother. It is a simple existence, until the day that Raul finds he can no longer suppress his doubts about the regime that surrounds him.
Suddenly Raul and Arym are thrust into a very different life - one that will test the limits of their strengths and the power of their beliefs.
- shortlisted for the Wirral Paperback of the Year, 2009
"The most poisonous book in my collection" - review posted by Farah on The Inter-Galactic Playground
"I think that this is a very clever and interesting book ... exploring an idea of science ruling society with a very strict regime and absolutely no influence of religion" - response by Izzy to the above review.
"Coleman manages to create an entire new world, a world so different to ours yet so familiar, with expertise and subtlety" - Hackwriters
"This book is really an argument for freedom to believe what you want ... The Cure is also a very moving, emotional book, that can't fail to incite a response in it's readers (probably even if they don't like it!) - Amazon review
"A powerful defence of free speech and intellectual freedom and a strong indictment of today's consumerist society in which the trivial is celebrated while the spiritual is not" - Bookbag
"A clever and sharply written piece of satire" - Financial Times
"A fantastically compelling novel" - Family Magazine
(c) Michael Coleman 2020