M – for mature (fanfiction ratings apply)
The Augustine sent forth throughout the tribute lands his emissaries. Three times Boe waited with the eager applicants in the cold gray of morning, but thrice evening came with dismissals, equally cold.
Gouts of flame and burning serpents raged throughout the testing grounds. The emissaries stood with hands hidden in their brocade sleeves and chose those whose Way for pyromancy were unquestioned. Boe produced a spark between his cupped hands that guttered out.
The emissaries came again and tested those whose whose Ways were strong in the deep strength of geomancy. The ground shook and split, hardened to diamond and quickened to sand. The rock Boe struggled with shed flakes of mica and stayed immutable to further effort.
Mist shredded as the waterspouts spun and swirled in combat. The young men breached and dived through the troubled waters of the lake. Boe was wrapped in pondweed and tossed upon the shore at their feet. The emissaries stepped back with curled lips as he retched into the sand.
“I know I can do better,” Boe said. “I will be better prepared for the next challenge. I can be a protector of the realm against the evil of Shamana Shoo.”
“You answer questions we didn’t ask,” said the emissary curtly. He threw the clay tablet on the ground before Boe. The man was in a foul temper having been given the unwished for task of dismissing those unfortunates who hadn’t met the measure. “The Ways are denied to those who fail. You failed. Leave now and never be present yourself again.”
Boe picked up the tablet. Once out of sight and with his feet set upon the dusty road, he broke the tablet into pieces and threw the shards into the undergrowth. Boe then felt fear clog his heart, he looked around to make sure no other travelers had seen his act of defiance and took to his heels.
# # #
A tailor is a tailor by birth, a man’s place in the world is determined by the trade of his forefathers. Only the priests and magician warriors of the Augustine are freed from society’s shackles. Reluctantly, Boe returned to his father’s shop on the Street of Sales in the city of Raimonce. In time he took his father’s place.
Boe toiled over the dyes. He crushed walnut shells for the brown, ground the alum and clarified the urine of healthy men for the yellow. The smell of the weld broth brought tears to his eyes, distilled from the dung of a dog, a dove and a cock to create a beautiful green. Blue was a mash of the dwarf elder, vinegar and indigo.
In the crowded marketplace he haggled with merchants over linen from the fields of Gadyula, wool from the tribute lands and silk from Bommeci. In the privacy of his small shop, Boe would dye and cut the fabric. Mostly he made sturdy tunicas for the workers of a plain weave, but for his wealthy patrons he embroidered and trimmed lavishly to their tastes. His dalmatics for the men had a trim encrusted with pearls and gems. The stolas for the women were of the finest silk brocade.
His stitching was supernaturally precise. Boe could lose himself for hours till the lamps guttered out, he developed a permanent stoop. But it was while at his daily tasks, he discovered how the Way worked with him.
The wife of the wealthy merchant was beautiful and careless of the sumptuary laws. Daily she came to Boe’s shop with her friends and he would spend hours at their bequest measuring and sewing fine garments for them. But when they left one evening and their chatter faded away, Boe stooped to pick up a single strand of long blond hair.
When he shook himself alert some time later, the hair lay in loose coils around his feet. He bent to pick up the shimmering length and it poured through his fingers like the finest thread.
Boe was fearful. He hid the thread away in a cabinet in his shop.
Years went by. As had been feared, the hordes of Shamana Shoo swept down and laid waste to the tribute lands. Ash fell from the sky like dark snow from the burning hills outside the city gates. The magician warriors went out at the bidding of the Augustine to confront the woman the people of Raimonce called Mother Dugs.
The city was overrun by the displaced. An attempt was made to encamp the refugees at the racetrack of the circus, there were too many. They spilled out of the circus confines and crowded into the tenements and parks. They filled the avenues and slept in the graveyards and streets. Merchants woke to find their stores looted, bodies littered the streets from casual killings and the Skroi of the night guard refused to go forth upon their nocturnal rounds.
Boe stepped forth from his little shop one morning and into a hue-and-cry. A jostling crowd rushed down the street; the tradesman, the baker, the brewer and rat catcher. They swept him up in their midst with the hullabaloo of “Stop thief!” And away they went, the crowd growing larger with each corner rounded.
The pursuit came to an abrupt end. Caught in the back, Boe could only jostle and jump to catch a glimpse of the commotion taking place in the court-yard. From the buildings all around windows were thrown open and the curious looked upon the tumult. Already the self appointed were stringing a rope from an overhanging beam. A triumphant cry was raised as the thief was dragged forward.
She was a nondescript girl with straggly brown hair, her tunica was covered with mud and dust and she bled from her mouth. She struck and bit at the men holding her till she saw the dangling noose, then a horrible cry burst forth from her lips and she went slack-limbed in their rough grip.
A man Boe recognized as the potter from his street scrambled upon the steps below the beam. He raised his feathered hat with one hand and waved for silence.
“ThisDomba’s been a pox upon us all,” the potter shouted. “She’s the one who’s been sneaking into our shops in the dead of night and stealing our goods. Now we got her, and I say we hang her up to rot as a warning to any others.”
Shouts of agreement from the mob swelled and echoed in the courtyard. They pushed against each other to view the sport as the noose was lowered and fixed. The wretched girl swung her head about, panting with exhaustion with wide eyes staring about at the faceless crowd.
What it was was surely only in Boe’s thoughts, for how could she have picked out the one person in the crowd who at that moment felt mercy? But Boe fancied their eyes met across the distance, and before he knew it he felt his breath swell in his chest and he shouted.
Boe had to shout twice before heads turned in his direction and the silence rippled across the courtyard. Those who had stepped forth to hoist the thief up paused with hands gripping the rope’s end.
“Who cries mercy?” asked the potter peering over the sea of heads. The crowd parted to let Boe through.
“I do,” cried Boe, though with the prickling upon his back from all those watching, the tailor now regretted the impulse. “I take her and claim her as is my right as one of those she wronged. The tunica she wears was stolen from my display last week.”
A disappointed murmur, punctuated with a jeer and a whistle or two, swept across the courtyard. The potter set his feathered hat firmly upon his brow then raised his palms towards the onlookers.
“Boe has the right, though I think he will have the wrong of it when all is done,” grumbled the potter. “Who’s to say in these troubled times whether this Domba won’t run off and cause more mischief when she can? They’re all the same, this breed – vagabonds and skulks and I say they should be cast forth from the city gates. She can’t be trusted, let the smith mark her so all know what she is.”
“Don’t hurt her,” said Boe. But the crowd could not be gainsaid. Within minutes the smith had been found. The thief was held down and a red hot brand applied to her thumbs and to the side of her cheek. She shrieked only once. They threw the half fainting girl at Boe’s feet.
“I think you’re making a mistake,” said the potter to Boe. “You should have left her for the crows. These Domba know only falseness.”
When Boe spoke to the girl, no acknowledgement crossed the pinched hard features, marred by the crusted scab of the brand mark. There was a fixed blankness to the slate gray eyes that never rose to meet Boe’s stare when he spoke. She was whip thin, the tunica hung off her shoulders not her hips. Her lower lip drooped open to reveal a mouthful of teeth at odd angles to each other.
After two weeks, Boe lost his patience and beat the girl soundly.
“Poor Boe,” said the wife of the merchant. She regarded the stola she held with a narrowed eye and shook the garment out with a snap. “What possessed you to take such a lowly Domba in? Surely not for her looks, though one can always blow out the candles in the bedroom. I think it’s affecting your work, the stitching on this hem isn’t up to your usual standards.”
“My husbands says to let a Domba in is to let the devil in,” offered another woman. “They’re a shiftless lot; a bunch of bearkeepers, snake charmers and fortune tellers always wandering about the lands as if accursed.”
“They live in holes in the ground outside the villages,” said another. “So miserable and poor they go naked most times like savage beasts.”
The woman gathered in the shop tittered.
“It’s no wonder the night guard can’t be bothered with these vermin,” said the merchant’s wife. “Perhaps we should ask our husbands to set loose the rat-catcher instead.”
Boe left off his blows and stepped back with a frustrated look. The red dye spread across the floor of the shop. The girl was crouched on one knee with arms raised to protect herself. She spoke not a word.
“I hear young Hasics has been doing the most wonderful work with silk embroidery,” said the master carpenter’s wife. “Let’s take a walk.”
“Ladies, please don’t go,” begged Boe. “For you all, I will have a sale. Half price on everything.”
“Maybe later,” said the merchant’s wife. She drifted out with a dismissive wave. Her coterie followed.
“If only I had wine!” Boe threw his hands up in disgust and sagged upon his workman’s stool. The setting sun shone in through the open entry and illumined the dancing motes of dust. A wagon rumbled by on the cobblestones.
“When the merchant’s away,” said the girl with intent spitefulness. “She bends over and has fancy men take her up the arse. She brays like a jenny set upon by a horse. I spied her out one night and watched the show through the windowpane.”
“The devil’s tongue speaks,” Boe was aghast. He sprang to his feet and grasped the girl by the collar. “The potter was right, I’ve been too soft. To the back with you, I’ll get the whip and stripe your back raw.”
“What of you?” cried the girl. She twisted away violently. “I see the way you look at her, the way you bow and scrape when she comes here to shop. You may sell her clothes, but you’ll never see her unclothed…”
Boe struck her. She tumbled across the display upsetting the garments he was darning and crashed into a cabinet set against the wall. The cabinet door flew open and then contents within spilled out.
“No!” cried Boe and lunged forward, but it was too late. A shimmering cascade poured forth to prove the truth in the girl’s words.
Boe sunk to his knees and covered his face to hide his shame.
“What’s this?” exclaimed the girl on her hands and knees. She stared at the pile of glowing thread pulsing with a rhythm akin to the beating of a heart.
“With your words, you’ve pierced me to my heart,” said Boe. “I’ve tried to lead a good and honorable life and have held myself apart from the magics that have tempted me. I failed the Augustine’s trials, I cannot work the Ways of earth, fire and water. But who would have thought, who would have imagined, the Ways would play upon my hidden desires and shame me so.”
The girl played with the glowing skein. Understanding bloomed across her face. The thin lips twisted into an upward curve and showed off the jagged teeth.
“Not just earth, fire and water,” she murmured. “There’s passion here which work any Way it wishes. My mother was a witch and she could make dolls with innards of hair, fingernails and fabric and make the unwitting victims do as she bid. But I’ve never seen anything like this before. Show me how it is done.”
“I cannot,” said Boe.
“Show me how this is done,” said the girl.
“I will run out upon the street and cry witch,” said the girl calmly. “I may be Domba, but who would argue with what I hold in my hands? Except for the warrior magicians, the Ways are proscribed by the Augustine. They will tie you to a stake and light the faggots.”
Boe went to the door and put out the sign for all to see that he was closed for the day. He closed the door.
The girl stood up, her fingers twisting and moving through the living thread. Her slate grey eyes watched Boe warily.
For a moment Boe considered killing the girl. He would be within his rights, she was only Domba, had he not rescued her from the gibbet? A blow upside the head – he could cast the body outside upon the street for the dogs – the fellow shopkeepers would nod their approval and invite him to tea once again in the morning.
“Show me,” said the girl. And Boe was lost.
Boe reached out and plucked a strand of twisted brown hair from the widow’s peak of her brow. She observed as Boe’s face grew black, his eyes rolled back in their sockets till only the white showed. The air within the shop quivered as the horizon does in the heat. His fingers teased and pulled at the single strand till it stretched and spilled forth in coils upon the floor.
“Stop,” demanded the girl. She trembled violently and the color had drained away from her face – but her eyes glowed.
“I’m but a wretched little creature, plain and simple,” whispered the girl. “I’ll not stir men to lust like the merchant’s wife. But I can work my own Way with the thread you weave so cunningly.”
She reached out a hand to his chest and let it slide down. The tip of her tongue slid along the bottom of her open lip.
“There are those among the Domba who’ve become estranged and separate,” said Sefti. “They feel more akin to the wild animals of the forest and stream than their fellow men,” said Sefti. “They will dance under the moonlight till the Way touches them. They put upon the hides of the beasts they choose to be: man becomes bear, man becomes wolf – in form and in thought. My father became such and was lost – a day came when he stayed were-wolf.”
“What would you have me do?” Boe said.
“Make me a belt with the hair of the merchant’s wife,” said the girl. “Do this for me and I will come to your bed in her form but with my desires, and you will not find them any less.”
“Who are you?” said Boe trembling.
“Call me Sefti,” said the girl.
The soft raise of a breast, the arc of a high cheekbone over which spilled a cascade of hair, turned to trembling gold by the patch of light coming through the garrot window.
Boe reached out and caressed a shoulder, her flesh was soft and yielding. She shifted slightly on the downy mattress and his hand slid further down. In that moment, still more asleep than awake, he was intoxicated by the feel of pliant skin.
“How can this be?” Boe asked blankly. The taste of long swilled wine coated his tongue. An alarm thrilled his chest and set his heart abeating. “What are you doing here? What of the merchant?”
The woman was silent then she opened the full lips, bruised with spent passion and spoke with mockery barely restrained. “I’ve known of your love for so long, tailor. When the Domba came with your message, I came to you. What of my husband?”
Boe pushed away so violently he sprawled upon the floor. He groaned as memory pounded between hammer and anvil.
She looked down at him and smiled. She turned away and picked up the looking glass they had brought up from the store, the one Boe used to examine his fine stitching. Her smile grew wider.
“I’m beautiful,” she said. She spoke in the voice of the merchant’s wife.
She stood up and spun about with an supple twist of her toetips and the motes of airborne dust caught lingering in the sunlight spun with her. She was naked except for the cloth belt girdling her midriff.
“Look upon what you sewed in the darkness,” she said. A hand drifted down to her thighs. She raised the moistened fingertips to her mouth. “Was I everything you dreamed of?”
The wells of passion died. Boe was put off by the falseness and was overcome with loathing. Boe rose to his feet and rushed over to where she stood. He raised a fist and struck the smile from her face. Her knees buckled and she fell down. He reached down and tore the belt free.
The form of the merchant’s wife sloughed off in a cascade that vanished before it touched the floor. The golden hair poured away into a muddy mix of brown, the skin split apart from the brow and down, sticking for a pause to the raised scar upon her cheek and then pulled free with a crackle. She let out a scream that tore at her depths, her arms and legs beat against the floor till they pulled free.
Sefti lay upon her side. She drew her thin legs up and clasped the pipestem arms about her knees. Her bare flesh shuddered with horripilation, a deep sob wracked her chest.
“You’re not her,” rasped Boe. He backed away, clutching the cloth belt in one hand.
Drops of blood speckled her thin lips.
“Wasn’t I everything you dreamed of?” she asked. “Isn’t this why you saved me from the gibbet?”
“Get dressed,” shouted Boe. “I want the store swept, the garments folded. When I get back, I’ll have my meal. Get to work.”
The sallow face tightened, the pressed lips twisted and a rage burnt in the grey eyes.
A broom was against the wall by the door. Boe flung it down.
“Don’t try to leave,” he threatened.
“Where would I go?” she said. The scar pulsed livid on her cheek. Her eyes turned like stones in their sunken sockets. “I’m resigned to my fate… as will you be.”
Boe’s tongue stuck dry to the roof of his mouth, he couldn’t speak. He flung himself from the room.
# # #
Boe went at once to the shop of the potter, his old friend from his childhood days. He rushed in and potter, bare chested and streaked with clay looked up from his work. When the potter saw Boe’s flushed face, the whir of the wheel fell silent.
“Are you well my friend?” asked the potter. “You’ve the look of a man set upon by a dog.”
“I’m fine,” shouted Boe. He meant to speak of his transgression, but caught himself. Had not his quick needle stitched the cloth, had not he spun the thread with the Way? He dare not mention what he had done. Horrified, he realized he still clutched the belt cloth, crumpled into a ball within his clenched fist.
“The Domba,” said the potter and shook his head. “A man must live with what he does, but that was foolish. I heard the women left your shop yesterday without purchasing a single item. And your favorite customer, the merchant’s wife took ill last night. She languishes sick in her chambers and the doctors know not why. Who will come to your shop now? This is what one must remind oneself of.”
“I don’t need anyone to tell me that,” Boe said.
The potter’s eyelids crinkled in irritation, he sought to capture Boe’s look. “Then why are you here?”
Boe felt the silence of his act settle upon his shoulders. There was no one to share his burden with, only Sefti with her swollen lip and bruised flesh.
“You wouldn’t understand,” he said, lowering his gaze.
# # #
He spent the day roaming about in the streets. Drawn by the shouts of the city criers, he made his way to the great concourse of the city. The warrior magicians had returned in triumph and marched in a great procession back into the heart of Raimonce.
Boe looked on, caught up among the throng with his heart oppressed. He remembered his failure at the trial and his bitterness swelled. He would never be a hero, not for him the adoration of the crowd. Unnoticed and unremembered for his deeds.
Scarlet clad men marched by the cheering crowds. Streaks of lightning hissed and cracked in the clear sky. Balls of blue light skipped above the crowd and stood the hair upon end to the delight of the children.
Boe was unable to turn away, the numbers were too great. His shoulder was set against another, he was caught upon all sides by the jostling crowd.
The ground shook under the heavy tread of the men clad in brown. The paving stones beat like a drum and people clutched one other with nervous laughs as the earth throbbed beneath their feet.
He was pressed up against the back of a woman. She pushed back her cowl with a fine hand. Long black hair spilled down her back and into his face, she turned her head for a moment with a slight flicker of annoyance at his nearness.
Water serpents flowed by, shepherded by the men garbed in aquamarine blue. Children sprang forward with shouts of glee and splashed through liquid coils.
The tenor of the crowd’s mood changed. The captives were being driven down the concourse. Whips snapped eagerly at the shackled figures. They dragged a massive float upon which was reared the massive form of Shamana Shoo, a crude statue for the masses to defile with ordure. But the raised shouts went from joy to confusion.
“Those are men from the city dungeons,” cried one. “My father,” cried another and fell to weeping.
“There was no victory,” muttered a bystander. “They parade our own and call a treaty with Mother Dugs a victory.”
But Boe no longer heard the crowd, his sight had shrunken so he could only see the the lustrous mane of black hair that cascaded down the woman’s back he stood close to in the crowd. No longer could he constrain his impulse, his hands crept upward of their own volition.
The woman wore fine clothing, gold chains glittered half hidden upon the curve of her nape. A woman such as this would never even look upon one such as Boe. But this close to the woman made the tailor tremble with a passion fed by his dark knowledge of the Way. The desire sprang to the forefront of his emotions; he could possess this arrogant woman as he wished.
One loose hair rested upon the fringe of her stola. He plucked it free.
Boe’s act did not go unnoticed, a man with the brutal face of a pit fighter turned and shouted. The lady had bravos for her protection. Boe was pushed to the pavement, kicks rained down upon his head. He scrambled away.
“No,” said Sefti from her swollen mouth.
Boe backed her towards the corner of the shop where the shadows were deepest.
“Put it on,” said Boe thrusting the garment before her. “Look, you see what I’ve done? added an extra strip to the width so it’s almost a corset? Put it on or I’ll beat you again.”
“Now or later, what does it matter?” she said in a low voice. She struck his hand away. There was nowhere else for her to go. “Touch me again and I’ll scream till they all come running.”
“No one will come,” said Boe and tried to stare her down.
They eyed one another steadily, each one trying to dominate. Boe raised a clenched fist and Sefti flinched, she let her gaze drop.
“Put it on,” cried Boe triumphantly. She was cowed. He grasped Sefti by the neck and dragged her into the middle of the shop floor. He looked once at the barred door and then pressed the girdle upon her.
“Let me do it myself,” said the girl twisting away from his grasp. She shrugged off the shift so it fell about her ankles. “Let off till I’m changed, don’t touch me.”
“We must be quick,” grunted Boe as he let his breeches drop. He meant to take her on the floor and be done with it quickly for there was a small twinge of guilt pushed back in his thoughts. “I’ll not have you share my bed afterwards nor stay in this form – the merchant’s wife fell ill last night, so will this other woman.”
“I am Endya Alanda,” said the black haired woman who rose before him like a vision. She drew her hands away from the girdle firmly clasped about her slim torso and ran them up to the full firm breasts. Her high cheeks delicately framed large hazel eyes, so unlike the narrow slits through which Sefti viewed the world. “I feel her thoughts, I see her memories. The audience applauds her every move at the theatre, even the Augustine thrills to her every, oh…”
She paused with her mouth open in a sudden smile.
Boe was bent over, kicking aside his sandals and breeches. “What’s this? What are you talking about?”
“You never asked,” said Sefti, her voice now a husky contralto perfectly pitched. “When I take their form, I must take something of them. You say these women fall ill then? What a dark genius we possess, the two of us.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Boe, whose guilty thoughts were swamped now by lust. His gaze was fixed on the patch of curly black hair down below the girdle. He stepped forward and let his hands grasp her about the waist.
“Your tunic,” she murmured and pushed him away. The smile has if anything become larger and the pearly white teeth showed. The light of expectancy burned in her stolen eyes and was mistaken by the tailor.
In a frenzy, Boe tore at the tunic with clumsy fingers so the buttons popped off. He pulled it over his head so for one moment the enchanting figure before him was hidden from view.
There was a water jug on the table behind Sefti. She grabbed the vessel and swung it as hard as she could at his head. The vessel shattered apart in a spray of clay shards as it impacted above Boe’s ear.
Boe dropped to the floor and did not move.
Sefti’s hand bled, she licked the blood away. She stared at the fallen tailor on the floor sprawled between his work tables. She swayed on her feet and then a giggle slipped loose.
In moments she selected the finest garments Boe had on display. A quick look into a looking glass brought forth the smile again, but there was a sinister cast to the way Sefti lowered her head and peered at her new reflection.
Sefti slipped out of the tailor’s shop and disappeared into the streets of Raimonce.
# # #
“If we find the Domba, we kill her,” said the blacksmith. He drew his finger across his throat. “krrk. Why waste a good rope?”
“We should rouse the mob,” suggested the potter. “March upon the circus and drive these parasites forth from our city. Shamana Shoo and her brigands are gone from the tribute lands. Why should we house and feed a bunch of freeloaders and thieves another day?”
There was a rumble of agreement.
Boe clutched his head. He winced.
“Misfortune didn’t find you,” growled the blacksmith. “You brought misfortune upon yourself. Invited it in and look what was doled out in return. Fool!”
“Leave me alone,” said Boe.
They left together, pushing through the doorway and out into the Street of Sales. The blacksmith said something indistinct and there was a roar of laughter.
Boe took to his bed for two days, only rousing himself when the taxman came ringing the outside bell. The chest of coins he kept hidden had barely enough within to satisfy the man, but it was enough. His shop stayed closed.
When darkness came on the second night Boe collected his scattered thoughts. He slowly made his way down the narrow steps from the loft and rummaged through his many cabinets till he found the thread, Sefti’s thread. The crumpled ball of thread had been buried in a basket, far in the back the night he had made the belt from the hair of the merchant’s wife.
The one he had pulled with the Way to show off his abilities. He bit the inside of his mouth so hard he tasted blood.
A man or woman should not dress above their station, but tonight Boe pulled off the racks clothes he would have given to a client of higher status. He dressed as if he was a well-to-do man of the city. The last of the coin from his chest went into his satchel along with Sefti’s thread. Then Boe set forth.
# # #
Boe took a place in the line of people upon the bridge and waited. The bridge and enclosed amphitheatre were lit up by the soft glow of lanterns, strings of shimmering pearls whose reflections rippled in the dark water of the river.
There was a stir, and the crowd shuffled forward. Soft talk and relaxed laughter was the order of the night, though a sneering band of bravos strutting the opposite way caused a ripple of tension.
Boe held aloof. The gatesmen hesitated when they saw the fine figure he presented, but there was a question in their dour looks for there were no servants accompanying him. Finally, with a gesture they let him inside. There was a clink of coins and he was allowed up the stairs to the second balcony.
Below, groundlings crowded tight in the rush strewn floor against the stage, it was standing room only. A fight broke out and Boe was disconcerted to see some of those involved wore the yellow scarf of the Domba. Bodies were dragged away and order was restored.
This was a new experience for Boe the theatre was as alien to him as Shamana Shoo. When he looked up at the curve of the third balcony on either side he swallowed nervously. The distinctive conical hats of the magician warriors could be discerned at regular intervals. Why they were present and at guard was a mystery to Boe.
Boe took a seat as close to the railing and was relieved when none sat nearby, he had chosen wisely. He draped the trim of the dalmatica over the length of one knee as he’d seen men of wealth do and sat straight, unwilling to let his customary slouch diminish his borrowed finery.
Lantern light flickered and faded along with the murmur of the crowd. Boe leaned forward.
The archimime stood revealed in a posture, he inclined his head in a familiar greeting and spread his arms wide to take in the audience. He shook the tambourine
Set aside the weight of the day, the daily toil.
Ease the heart from the work at hand.
I beseech those low and high, fair and wretched,
Fix your gaze here, and I’ll spin you a tale,
Of a lover bent on murder,
His mistress – most perfect and corrupt –
Upon this stage, bare except for the story’s deceit.
The shadows of the players loomed up on the cloth background of the stage. They stayed silhouetted for an expectant hitch of the breath and then moved slowly. The lighting increased, the actors stood revealed and the play began.
There was a virtuous general, an ambitious lieutenant and a woman they both desired — though she loved neither. And Endya Alanda, beautiful Endya was to blame. She brushed the general’s cheek with a soft caress, but when his back was turned she urged the lieutenant on to worse and worse deeds for the sake of a smile.
Boe’s fears diminished with each graceful gesture Endya made upon the stage. He saw nothing at all in her moves and facial expressions that could have been Sefti. His suspicions fell apart.
The stage became the world, the players took Boe in as a confidant. When the general returned in victory, Boe rose to his feet and cheered wildly along with the audience, booed when the lieutenant seized the moment of betrayal. He wept when the lieutenant stopped and implored the crowd with silent motions to forgive the bloody knife upraised in a shaky grip.
Spoke the archimime.
This love pricks like a bed of nails,
My blood spurts forth into the gutter,
She’s hells demimonde, a cheap penny whore,
Her ready arms embrace men before and after,
But I’ll love her till the fiends suck the marrow clean,
From my bones, long cast down,
To the depths of the catacombs…
Then the archimime paused with an upraised glance towards the balcony above Boe. He raised a stentorian shout.
“All hail! All hail the ruler of the creation half finished! All bow down to the Augustine!”
The players halted and fell to the stage in supplication. The crowd followed. Boe had to step back from the railing he had eagerly hung over. He was able to see Endya Alanda before he followed suit.
She was daringly slow, for a moment on her knees she looked up and before she touched her forehead to the stage, a smile meant for the Augustine flitted across her face. There was something crooked to the curve of the upper lip that sent a shiver down Boe’s spine and broke the illusion of the performance.
The play continued. Treachery was revealed and the lieutenant and the mistress stood accused in the Revelations Chamber. They were found guilty, first the lieutenant was executed and Boe gasped as his head rolled about the stage. Then the mistress stepped forth under the executioner’s shadow. Something unexpected happened then.
The archimime had spoken for the players for the length of the tragedy, but now he stepped aside. With a voice that soared and trembled as a bird’s wing in flight before the strike of the hawk, Endya Alanda sang.
I was a child, I rejoiced at the sunrise,
A spirit not wanting, free of the dross.
I was a child, I lamented night’s fall,
When wicked men came to my bower,
And bruised my flesh for a coin’s price…
There was more. The audience wept as as she stepped to the executioner’s block and bent the graceful arch of her neck. Before the axe could fall, the lights went out. The crowd roared. Applause echoed into the star swept sky.
The players appeared for the curtain call, a rain of rose petals descended from the upper balcony. The magician warriors showed the approval of the Augustine, serpents of fire lit the sky, the ground rumbled.
Endya Alanda stood clear of her fellow performers. She smiled and curtsied low before her devoted fans. But she bowed to the Augustine.
One voice was raised against her.
“Fraud!” Boe shrieked. He leaned over the railing and shook his fist. “Impostor! I know who you are! She’s a bitch! Stop her. Can’t you see what she’s doing?”
His shouts were seemingly lost in the tumult. The audience rushed forward, screaming and sobbing for their adored star. Some climbed up onto the stage to be pushed back by the actors. They put themselves between the crowd and Endya.
For a moment she looked and now their eyes truly did meet across the theatre. Boe saw the stolen face contort in fury, she gestured and shouted. Boe saw Domba men push their way through the crowd, they were coming his way. He saw them appear at the far end of the balcony, rushing up the far steps.
Boe felt a fear such as he had never known, he feared for his life. He gathered his robes and turned on weak and trembling legs. Down the nearest flight of stairs he tumbled, pushing aside any in his way. He burst out the entrance of the theatre.
There were Domba on the bridge, the way back was blocked. Boe leaped over the railing and tumbled down the embankment. He crouched in the reeds, hip deep in the muck. He heard the shouts of the pursuers and they stirred him to movement. He began to move down the riverbank.
But his foot turned and he fell with a splash. Something white and bloated turned and bubbled in the mud beneath his sandles.
Boe shrieked. The filmed eyes of Endya Alanda stared into his and then the body sunk from sight. Her scalp had been flayed clean, not one hair remained.
The Domba fell upon him. He saw an upraised club and then everything shattered and fell into darkness.
Boe was allowed to see Sefti twice.
For a long time, the Domba kept him in a dark and secret place. The passage of time became meaningless without measure.Then the day came when he was put into the Correction Carriage and driven to the palace past the mocking children. Through the gates of the Imperial Quarters, through the verdant groves and sparkling lakes strung around the fluted towers. Through the endless gates and rooms to Sefti’s quarters they took Boe, two Domba held him in a firm grasp and cast him before her.
Sefti took a seat, the servants rushed forward to attend to her needs. They brought her a basin of hot water into which they dipped a small towel and wrung it steaming dry. She washed her stolen face and neck with a delicate touch. Her cheeks became flushed and pink. When she was finished, she held the cloth up like a veil and stared over the rim at Boe with the straight black lashes drooped over the hazel eyes.
“You look well. I see you’ve grown a beard,” she said. “That’s good. They’re all the rage. All the young women now want their lovers to look like Domba. Because of me, we no longer have to step aside in the streets of the city. They see me with my kind in attendance and want to be like me.”
Boe was speechless.
Sefti stood up.
“Do you like it?” she spun about and he remembered the morning after when she had the form of the merchant’s wife. She wore a swathed gown of yellow silk embroidered with flowers of cherry red. “From Bommeci. They say the silk worms are trained to make the flowers, can your little skill match that? It has to be yellow, everyone wears yellow now. ”
Boe tried to speak, but no words had passed his lips in countless months. All he could muster was a croak.
She raised an arched eyebrow and dropped the cloth to the marbled floor.
“All of you out,” she screeched. The servants started like insects caught unaware when the shutters are pulled open. “Get out, get out. All of you now.”
They rushed out, the two Domba men remained. One closed the door with a slam.
“This girdle I wear is getting frayed,” Sefti said. “I need a new one. Come to think of it, I’d like several. I’ve plenty of hair for you to work the Ways with.”
“You took Endya Alanda’s scalp,” rasped Boe. “What a monster you are. I won’t do anything more for you”
Sefti circled Boe with a sneer. She prodded the satchell he still wore at his side and then kicked him in the small of the back with a sandalled foot. Boe slumped forward.
“Break his legs,” she commanded. “No! Don’t touch his hands, I need those. Gag him”
Boe couldn’t believe what he had heard. It wasn’t until they held him down that he realized what was about to happen. Too late, he began to struggle. They forced a gag into his mouth and smashed a club down upon his shins.
Sefti went and stood by the window.
“He can’t harm me now,” Sefit said to her kindred once Bow was able to understand through his pain. “I want to speak to him alone.” The two men left at her command. She bent over his broken body and spoke.
“Do you remember the merchant’s wife? Of course you do,” Sefti said with her crooked smile beneath Andya’s flesh. “Let the rat catcher hunt them the Domba down. Well, I never wore her form again, but when I came into favor with the Augustine, I made him send the Stroi down into the city streets to restore order. I told him there were malcontents who needed to be dealt with.”
“No,” whispered Boe.
“Yes,” said Sefti. “The merchant’s wife, the smith, and the potter: each suffered as they would have had me suffer. I had her put into a cell with a thousand rats, they ate the flesh clean from her living bones. I had the torturers use a hot poker on the smith till he was riddled through. I let him see me as I truly am before I took his eyes. As for the potter, well… I watched him dance on a rope for long hours till even I wearied of the game.”
“My legs,” whimpered Boe.
“You still have them,” said Sefti. “They have nothing. Now, this is what you will do. I have the scalp of Endya Alanda, you can make new thread so I can keep her form, the Augustine is smitten with me… with her. But two other consorts stand in my way now, they’re jealous and plot against me with whispered word and slight. I won’t suffer this rivalry, they have to die. The Augustine is mine alone. Here is their hair – make the thread. I’ll have it woven to cloth, and then you can make the garments I need. I had everything from your shop brought here. Get to work tailor.”
Boe felt tears dribble down his cheeks into his beard. Sefti turned away
“You’ll do it,” she said.
# # #
Years of misery while Sefti played a role of secret intrigue and deception till only she was the consort of the Augustine. Three women appeared to take royal bed, but it was always only Sefti with her crooked smile showing when the Augustine was in his slumbers.
Boe was imprisoned in a tower cell, close at hand if she needed his talents. His legs mended poorly, he needed a crutch to make his slow way to the one window where he could watch the world pass by. His beard had streaks of white.
Sometimes they forgot Boe. He almost died of thirst once until his jailors remembered. Always it was the Domba, they treated him poorly. He noticed they had shaved their heads and always took great care to not leave any stray hairs behind.
A night came when he was roused from his uneasy slumbers. He was dragged from the chamber with great speed and down secret corridors. His Domba jailers were agitated, they spoke rapidly back and forth in their secret tongue. They forced him down to his knees behind an arras and held his mouth shut. He felt the covering hand shake. Through the slit he could see what transpired.
A man in armor stood before the throne of the Augustine, his harness was broken and mudstained. A great wound disfigured his features, but he stood nonetheless at attention.
“Where are my magician warriors?” shouted the Augustine. “Damn you! Give me back my magicians!”
The Augustine was burdened by gem encrusted robes that bore down on his lean and narrow shoulders. His spindly neck could barely carry the weight of the crown upon his head. But rage gave him a strength never seen by the sycophants who stood in a shocked array about the chamber.
“They’re all dead,” said the man, the Strategos of Raimonce. He cast his helmet upon the floor with a clang. “They went forth against Shamana Shoo and none live to tell the tale. She’s come back from hell and with the most foul art imaginable at her command. Tthe masters of fire, earth and water were stripped of the Ways and left undone upon the field of combat. They were herded to the River Gahul and slaughtered, bewildered and hapless as sheep till the waters ran red. She piled the bodies up in two tower of rotting flesh upon either side of thethe banks. Their hats were burnt up in a great conflagration. We are undone.”
Silence crouched upon the royal chamber.
“What of my soldiers?” the Augustine said.
“What can flesh and blood do against the Ways?” said the Strategos. “My solders fell by the hundreds, we were routed by the ravening fiends she commands. They’re scattered and lost, what little I could gather I led back to the city. I’ve barred the gates, but I’ve too few to man the walls, and those fall to ruin.”
The Augustine lurched off the throne and struck the Strategos. The soldier took the feeble slaps without complaint though his scabbed wound broke. The gathered sycophants grovelled, except one.
“My dearest lord,” she said. “You exert yourself. Send the soldier to the wall where he can submit his life for his failure. Come… rest.”
Sefti — for Boe knew instantly it was her — wore the form of a statuesque lady with auburn hair and whose eyes were the colors of emeralds. She wore one of his dresses, a gown that flowed to her ankles, as auburn as her mane and adorned with ivory patterns. She glided forth from the crowd and pulled the Augustine away from Gostophes as if he was a child.
“I must remain,” whimpered the Augustine through his spittle flecked lips. “Bring me the sword of my ancestors. I cannot abandon the city.”
“Our lord is undone,” said Sefti. “Go, my lord. Take your ease. Let the Grand Councillor and the Viceroys Three deal with this matter.”
But once the Augustine had shuffled forth, she turned on the gathered sycophants. The emerald eyes flashed. She drove them out with kicks and screams and they fled in disarray. Boe was reminded of the servants she had frightened how many years ago when last she summoned him.
“To the walls with you,” she spit at Gostophes. “Men are only good for fighting and dying. Go die.”
When the room was cleared the Domba pushed aside the arras and dragged Boe to her. She stood before him with her arms akimbo.
“We’ve a ship in the harbor,” said the older Domba. “All the jewels and gold we would ever need. A world awaits us sister.”
“This is my kingdom,” said Sefti. “I took it and made it mine. I won’t give it up so easily. What is this Shamana Shoo but yet another rival who needs to be dealt with?”
“Cast aside these glamors you wear and we can flee,” begged the other. Sefti shook her head.
“I knew I had to ready myself for this day,” she said. “So I had the Krymenos, the master of hidden men, send forth his spies to the north. All I asked was one little thing, a single strand of hair from the head of Shamana Shoo.”
Boe’s breath caught in his throat. Sefti held the strand out, pinched between her thumb and index finger.
“Spin us some thread, tailor,” she said.
Boe took the thread. But try as he might,, no matter how he caressed and pulled at the strand, nothing happened. He grunted and snorted, raised his clenched fists to his brow until the coarse twisted strand almost broke apart.
“I can’t do it,” he panted. “I can’t find the Way.”
Sefti let out a little gasp. Her borrowed face grew white, for a moment she was lost. Then two spots of livid red lit her cheeks, her eyebrows tightened.
“Kill him,” she said.
Boe heard the rasp of steel as the Domba drew their hooked knives free.
“Please,” he spoke quickly. “I can do this. It’s so hard to do, especially with these men quick for my death. I just need a little time, I need some privacy – take me back to my chambers and grant me an hour. Summon the weavers, I’ll have your thread.”
“No time for weavers,” she said. “Make enough for a belt, like we did for the merchant’s wife long ago. I only need enough of a glamor to make my way into her encampment, to fool the guards and put on a performance like none ever seen on the stage. Then the cold steel of a Domba knife from the shadows! And I shall finally have the prize I’ve sought for so long, co-ruler of Raimonce.
# # #
The satchel was wrapped in rags, Boe’s rough pillow upon the flagstones. It was mildewed and worn, but inside was Sefti’s thread. Kept hidden and at the ready these long years.
The thread spilled in a heavy coil at his feet. Boe’s fingers intertwined the disparate strands together into one, the thick grey of Shamana Shoo and the thin brown of Sefti. Drops of perspiration dripped from his brow, his hands trembled as he bent to his task. Needle and thread, stitch and sew, twist and braid.
“I’m done,” Boe said. He put down his needle.
# # #
A postern was concealed behind a rocky outcropping where the city walls curved towards the harbor. Here Boe waited at the head of the hidden path, along with the older Domba in the darkness before the morning.
The outstretched land underneath the hills was spangled with lit torches, the great tent of Shamana Shoo had been raised like a tiger ready to pounce upon the city. Around the muddied plain swept the countless array of fiends, fantastical figures riding tough ponies. The air thrummed with their warlike chant.
Torchlight turned the sky above a dismal red. Faces peered down from the crumbling embrasures, screams and shouts rose from the city in dismal anticipation of the coming assault.
“Be quiet,” grunted the Domba and pulled Boe down behind the rocks. “Not a sound or I’ll cut your throat.”
The night turned to leaden grey pause before the morning and then it seem from where they watched a great shiver overtook the assembled horde and shook it apart. The tent suddenly sagged and fell. Already the outliers were fleeing into the hills followed by the panic stricken masses.
The Domba stood up and let loose a cheer. He capered about the outcropping no longer fearful of watching eyes and waved his scarf.
“Look at them run,” he shouted. “She’s done the deed. Mother Dugs is surely dead.”
Boe was silent. He watched only the path until Sefti appeared below them, struggling up the muddy pitch.
There was something almost ogreish in the figure she presented. The thick arms drooped from the bedecked furs and feathers swaddling the thick torso. The heavy thighs rubbed together. Of all of Sefti’s transformations this was the most unbelievable, there was nothing recognizable of the svelte shapes she had worn so far. The thick grey hair stuck out like iron spikes from the craggy, seamed face of Shamana Shoo.
Boe stared as she staggered up to them, bent over and gasping for breath. Her lungs worked like bellows. The bloodied knife dropped from her hand.
“My brother?” asked the Domba. “Where is he?”
“Get me inside,” choked Sefti. She tore at the heavy garments. “Quickly, before I’m seen. Take these clothes off so I can remove the belt.”
They led her into the sally port and barred the outer entrance. The Domba helped Sefti pull off the crude robes. Boe hobbled slowly back with the auburn dress draped across one arm until his back was pressed to the inner door.
Sefti pulled off the belt and flung it free.
Her flesh bubbled and shifted like bubbling oatmeal. Clumps of hair, grey and brown sprouted and fell off in clumps. She shrunk and she expanded with the rapid crackle and snap of sinew and bone, now Sefti – now Shamana Shoo. She began to scream.
The Domba stood stock still, paralyzed at the horrific sight. Unseen by her henchman, Boe threw open the inner door and hobbled out onto the walkway between the walls.
Boe drew in his breath and let loose a crackling scream.
“Shamana Shoo is here!” he shouted. He waved his arms wildly. Above him the soldiers looked down as they heard Sefti’s howling and his cry. “Alarm! Alarm! The enemy is here!”
“Name of the devil,” gritted the Domba. He grasped Boe by the scruff of his neck and drove the hooked blade up beneath the ribs. “You traitor – what have you done … She saved us all…”
Pikesmen came pouring forth. The Domba cast Boe aside with a twist of the hooked knife and took to his heels. Boe slumped down in his blood and guts.
She was Sefti – and she stumbled out of the depths of the sally port. Sefti’s hair had been entwined as deeply as Boe had suspected it would be with Shamana Shoo’s. There was no changing back to any fixed form now. She was — Shamana Shoo howling incoherently. She was — Sefti upon her knees whipping her head about and holding up her hands as they plunged the shafts into – Shamana Shoo.
Boe watched with fading vision as they raised the shifting, thrashing body up on a thicket of pikes and carried it away as a grisly trophy.
“Only a man can destroy himself,” Boe mumbled. The words ran out with the last of his life. Darkness followed.
Copyright ©2011 by John Eric Sweat