Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Tale of The Exile--The Third Night: Le Cirque d'Aberrations (Part 4)

Part 4—Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite

Jereth leads me out of the mansion, handing me a woolen cloak while wrapping his slender frame in a fine white fur. I appreciate that—there's a chill crawling its way through my spine and raising the hairs on my arm, and I have no idea how much of it is from the night and how much is from the Dreamlily. I watch him pick up a golden disk shaped like a sun and pin it to his furs. A shard of fireglass gleams from its center. A light and religious icon in one. Clever.

“I don't suppose I can borrow a candle from you for the evening?” I ask.

“Oh, I can't do that Gaven,” he favors me with a pointy, catlike smile. “Part of your sentence is that you're not allowed to carry light, remember? No arms, nor armor, nor candle. But not to worry, I have light enough for the pair of us!”
“Sodding elf.” I mutter. Depending on Jereth chafes like cheap leather breaches but I trot to keep up. The shadows seem thicker around his small circle of light. I shiver and rub my arms to keep the chill down.

We pass a garden, and I notice vines slithering, alive and hungry. It's just the Dreamlily delirium. Not sodding real. I clench my burned hand to focus myself on reality and ignore the fleshy bloom hanging from a vine that's split open and smiling at me. Once through the garden, we're at the gate. Jereth snaps his fingers at the roughnecks guarding it, and they fall into step behind us. I don't feel particularly safe with them around—I recognize the burly one from our battle last night, and he's recognized me too. His eye promise me murder. I suppose he's still upset that I knifed his friend. Tough. I wouldn't have had to stab anyone if they'd let us alone.

The Bastion district is busy tonight. People move through the streets chatting while carriages drawn by horses or unfortunate servants roll along the cobbles. Flecks of light from lanterns and candles flutter through the crowd like little angels to ward the dark away. Behind us the Tower rises, and I can feel it brooding. I have the urge to turn and look but I'm afraid I'll see it breathing.

“Why are so many people out?” I ask Jereth. I've seen city folk scurry like rats to get their ships closed before the sun goes down. Taverns close and bolt their doors at the first hint of dusk. But it's an hour past sunset now, and the streets are filled to bursting. “Are the gentry exempt from the curfew? Or is this a special occasion?”

“The curfew isn't enforced until ten bells,” Jereth replies, “but tonight is a most special occasion!”

“What's the big deal with this circus, anyhow?”

“That's hard to explain. Le Crique d'Aberrations is so very many things. A social event, an entertainment, a chance for lessons...”


“Oh yes! Le Cirque is full of lessons to be learned and messages to be sent, which is why I've invited you. Tonight will be instructive!”

I don't like the sound of that.

We've walked some distance by now and the stitches in my side are beginning to complain. I try breathing lighter to lessen the pain, but my vision goes blurry for a moment and everything goes light and far away. Oog. The lightheadness passes, but my side still hurts.

“Where's our sodding carriage?” I grumble.

“We aren’t taking one.” Jereth says airily, his hand flickering about as he moves. I see the crowd part away from the bright-eyed, laughing elf like a wave. “The theatre is not much farther, and it's good to have exercise. Aren't you glad you won't be out walking all night?”

I'm not giving him the satisfaction of a reply. Instead, I grab a rock, slide up behind him, and throw all my strength into a blow that cracks open his skull like an egg. I watch bits of bone tumble to the pavement, sparkling with strangely golden blood.

The dead noble turns to me, a cascade of glittering blood spewing from his hollow head as he moves. “Gaven?” he asks, faintly annoyed. More flecks of skull fall away, turn into butterflies, and take wing. “You've stopped. Why?” I stare, fascinated, as his whole head dissolves into flights of wings like mirrors that flutter like bubbles rising to the surface of a black pond...

I close my eyes. Opening them again, I see Jereth's head is still whole and the only thing in my clenched hand is pain. Dragon take it.

“Sorry.” I mutter and fall back into step behind him. The bodyguards behind us snicker. We travel in silence until we reach the theatre.

The theatre is a round, domed cathedral built to worship the arts. Black basalt buttresses hold the domed edifice together, adorned with leering wolf-headed gargoyles hung with green and violet lanterns. People are gathered around the entrance, talking, laughing, chattering on about nothing. From inside come the faint strains of music played on horns, concertinas, and an off-key harpsichord, a tune that flutters to heaven and back between slow, somber chords and rapid babbling ones. It reminds me of something I heard in church back in Calisapas once.

We near the door and are waved inside. I look at the usher; he is tall and spindly, made up in whiteface with an ugly red smile. His teeth are yellow and peglike. His arms are far too long. His knuckles scrape the ground. Caliban!
I leap back, startling the bodyguards, and mutter a prayer to God or The Dragon, whichever will listen. Please don't let that thing touch me!

Jereth turns and looks at me, puzzled, as the roughnecks grab hold of me to keep me from bolting away like a rabbit. I try to slip away, but the larger one tightens his grip and twists my arm painfully behind my back.

“Gaven? Is there a problem?” he asks.

“Caliban!” I point with my free arm at the mockery, who shuffles back and forth as all eyes turn to us. “There's a Caliban right there! Can’t you see it?”

“Ah?” Jereth raises an eyebrow and looks at the usher with mild curiosity. “Oh. Yes. Of course. I should have mentioned that earlier. I forgot how familiarity breeds apathy. Yes, this gentleman is a Caliban, but you have nothing to fear.”

“Don't fear?” I sputter. “it's a sodding Caliban! A twist child! Spawn of foul magic!”

“You tell me nothing I do not know, Gaven.” Jereth says. “Please. Calm down. You're making a terrible scene.”

“Begging your pardon, sirs.” the inhuman user bobs his head, and I flinch, afraid he'll move, close his hands around my neck, mold my flesh like clay...”I be a twist child, true, but my twistin' be through and I can't pass it on to you.” His spider fingers grip the door and pull it open while his too-large hand waves us inside again. His painted face is still smiling, but it's only the paint.

I hesitate, but angry shouts from down the line and Jereth's faintly amused smirking spur me forward. I head through the door quickly, giving the freak as wide a berth as I can manage. He wiggles his fingers to get me me as I pass and favors me with a spiteful smile when I flinch.

We mill about for a while. Jereth makes small talk with some of the other nobles while I shiver. I've seen a lot of dangerous things since coming to Miir, but that's not what bothers me. Caliban aren't just dangerous—they're wrong. They were men once, until they came too close to dark magic that twisted and warped them, breaking them in body and mind, making them bitter, spiteful monsters that look just close enough to human to let you know they aren't. Worse, the rumor is that they can do the same to others, molding them into more creatures like themselves. They would never be suffered to live in Calisapas. Why, by God and the Dragon, do the nobles tolerate them here?

“So.” Jereth says as he pulls away from his conversation and leads me up stone stairs to a curtain. “This is tonight's first lesson! I don't know what sort of lies they tell you about these folk where you come from, but in Miir we know how to treat our unfortunates. It's a rare caliban that can twist others after their own twisting ends, and many acquire singular and useful magical talents in the process. Where a normal cripple loses much, a caliban gains!”

He pulls aside the curtain and passes through, leaving me to catch my breath and follow. The trip up the stairs didn't do my aching stitches much good. I follow him, then catch my breath for a different reason. The theater is just as grand on the inside. We're on the middle tier of three balconies rising over rows of benches on the ground. A vaulted ceiling supported by stone arches carries chatter and echoes of music from across the theater to us. More colored lanterns have been hung, speckling the crowd below every color of the rainbow. The balcony rows remain dark.
I settle into my seat, a high-backed wooden chair lined with velvet cushions. It's one of the more comfortable seats I've ever had. Jereth takes the seat to my left, leaving an empty one at my right. The two bodyguards remain standing next to the curtain, probably as much to keep me from bolting away as to keep others out.

“Well hello, hello, hello.” A well-dressed man with sallow skin and long black hair tied into a ponytail sidles up to us. “Are you the Exile?” he asks me, but doesn't wait for a reply. “Of course you are! A pleasure to meet you sir, a pleasure. Of course, I had you down for two nights, so I'm out a few coins, but no matter.” He chuckles to himself. “Did you know the odds go up tenfold if you survive four? I can see why House Dythanus might take you under it's wing...they'll make a killing if they can protect you that long!”

“Ah.” Jereth says with an off-hand wave. “Gaven Morren, may I introduce Viggo Von Kreguer, third son of Lady Vanessa. He oversees his house's trade with the desert tribes.”

“The pleasure is all yours.” I say absently, watching his hands bonelessly wobble and flop about. “You people are placing bets on my survival?”

“Of course!” The man nods so vigorously that his neck stretches like a thick pudding. His head rolls off his shoulders and lands into my lap, where it continues to speak. “It's not often anyone is foolish enough to test themselves against the Shadows, and even fewer who've made it as many nights as you have. Why, I dare say you're the most interesting Exile we've had in years! Of course, the night's still young...I could be talking to a dead man!” The head laughs. I don't. I really hope this is just delirium.

“Well, I should get to my seat before the show begins. I hear we have a couple of very interesting acts up later tonight. You know, if you do happen to survive, perhaps we can meet later...get to know each other better, you know.” He licks his lips, picks up his head, and moves down the aisle. I shudder and try to sink through the seat into the floor. I'm very relieved he doesn't take the empty seat next to me. He makes my skin crawl. Jereth seems faintly amused at my discomfort, showing off those unnervingly pointed teeth of his with a smirk.

Suddenly there is a presence behind me. A very large hand clamps down on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze that makes my bones grind.

“Did I hear you insult my friend the ticket-taker?” rumbles a very large voice. I turn and look up. And up. The man behind me is huge, bald, bearded...and has four arms, the upper two folded across his chest. I cry out and try to wiggle out of his grasp. I am shoved roughly back into my seat by his meaty grip. “I really hope I didn't,” he continues conversationally, a second hand landing on my shoulder while a third knocks my cap off my head and ruffles my hair. I want him off me. I want him off me now. “It would be such a shame to have to pull off your arms.”

Oh shit.

My stomach roils. I start plotting a desperate escape. Just as I'm contemplating how willing I am to dislocate my shoulder Jereth speaks up.

“Dmitri! What a pleasure to see you!” Jereth says with a smile that shows far more teeth than cheer. His slitted eyes narrow into slashes in the light from the open curtain. The giant lifts his hand from my shoulders, though he continues to fondle my head. “Gaven, this is Lord Dmitri Von Jeggett, one of Miir's finest wrestlers.”

Lord Von Jeggett?” I stammer. “Y-you're a noble?”

“That's right, friend.” He grins. Why does nobody here mean it when they smile? “And I don't like hearing people insult my kin.” I'm not imagining the arms...he's a sodding caliban! “You should be lucky my twisting happened so long ago...I'd love to give you a taste of what it's like.” He raises his arms – all four of them – over me, making me cringe down into my seat with a whimper. “Of course, I could still twist you into all sorts of interesting shapes even without...”

“Dmitri!” a voice calls. “Stop this!” An old man, also bald, with gray muttonchops and heavy bulldog jowls appears, leaning on a cane. I've seen happier wolverines.

“Yes, uncle.” Dmitri says, folding his lower arms behind his back, then turns to me. “I hope to see you later. After the show.” He grins again, squeezes my shoulder hard enough to bring tears to my eyes, and clomps off. The balcony shakes as he moves.

“–and this,” Jereth says, “is Lord Oswald, patriarch of House Von Jeggett.”

“Save your breath, Exile.” the man growls as I start to stammer out thanks. “I respect the truce, but I have you down for three nights. I will not stop him again. My advice is to swiftly find a hiding place when the show ends.” He moves to follow his monstrous nephew while I sit and shiver.

A servant walks up the Jereth, bows, and asks if he would like any refreshments. He orders something called a “fairy nest” for the pair of us. I'm still too shaken from my encounter with the giant to ask what that is, and I just hope that it doesn't contain any real faeries. After the servant leaves, Jereth nudges me.

“Look there,” he says while pointing to an elaborate box jutting out of the balcony above us. “See the most important man in Miir!”

The man he's pointing at, barely visible from this angle, slouches in his chair, regarding the theater with one finger tapping his chiseled jaw restlessly.

“That,” Jereth says, “is Lord Damien Von Kaje, patriarch of his house, Grandmaster of the Mason's Guild, and our current Keeper of the Tower, which makes him Miir's ruler. You hear all sorts of interesting things about him—that he can lift as much as three men, that he has no fear of the Shadows, that he personally beheaded four assassins, that he wings through the night to feast on the blood of the innocent...”

“A vampire?” I scoff. “Seriously?”

“That's what they say,” Jereth shrugs. “I don't believe half of it, and the rumors I do believe have been greatly exaggerated. But he's lasted twenty years as the Lord of the Tower, which is a position the entire gentry covet, so one wonders sometimes.”

“I think I'll keep wondering. I've had my fill of speaking to Miir's nobles.”

Jereth claps his hands with glee. “You hate them too! How splendid! That will come in handy when I call in my favor.”

“Yes, I've been wondering about that favor...”

“Shush. All in due time, Gaven. Tonight is for you to rest, relax, and learn a thing or two.”

I would ask him what he means, but it grows dark as the lanterns are shuttered one by one, leaving only the glow of people's candles to see by. It occurs to me that I'm the only one here without a warding light. Even Jereth has his shard of fireglass. There's a loud FWOOP! as the gaslights surrounding the stage flare to life, revealing a jester in blue motley, a high collared coat with puffy sleeves, and a three-belled cap jingling merrily as he takes a bow. The jester smiles at the audience; his inhumanly wide grin rips through his cheeks to his ears.

“Welcome, ladies and gentlefolk, to our humble production!” The jester says, waving his hands to encompass the crowd. His voice, bearing a hint of Garamondi accent, flows throughout the theater, carried by the walls to the ear. “The cirque of the strange! The theatre of the grotesque! The festival of phantasms! Witness wonders and terrors as the cruel oddities of nature prance and play upon the stage, expressly for your entertainment and education!”
As he speaks, more Caliban take the stage behind him. Two, six, ten...by the Dragon, there has to be nearly a score of them!

“Welcome, friends, to Le Cirque d'Aberrations!” the Jester says, taking another bow and then moving off to the side to introduce the acts.

The first act up is the Living Doll, a hairless woman with skin like china dressed in a lacy white dress that bares her arms and legs and a modest portion of her chest. She has stitches all over her joints; neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees, ankles. She looks like she's been hacked apart and sewn back together. She takes a bow, and pauses, stock-still, staring at the ground. The jester runs over, and from off stage there's a loud CRA-A-ANK! CRA-A-ANK! CRA-A-ANK! as he pantomimes turning a key in her back. And then, she dances. A melancholy chime tinkles as she does, her movements graceful but not fluid. Like a dancer from a music box, every step is precise and mechanical as she spins, kicks, twirls, kneels, and leaps in time to the music. Off to the side, the jester mimes pulling on puppet strings.

Up next is the Candle Man, dressed in red and yellow. His skin has a waxy shine, and his cornsilk hair flickers like a flame. He produces three batons, and begins to juggle them. The jester stands to the side, occasionally tossing new batons to the Candle man. There are four batons in the air now, five, six, seven...then he dips one end of the batons through his hair, and it catches. The crowd coos in wonder. One flame, two, three...seven blazing torches fill the air. The candle man tosses a flaming brand to the jester, who easily sends it back. More flames fly between the two caliban before the Candle Man takes one of the brands and sticks it down his throat! In the very same motion, he pulls it out again, now extinguished, then grabs the next flame and eats it as well. Each torch is swallowed down and dropped until a single one remains. The Candle Man takes a bow...then stands straight, looks to the ceiling, and puts the last torch to his lips. He breathes a stream of fire into the air, sending gasps through the crowd.

Then comes the Necromancer in long black robes, who lays out eight skulls in a row. He waves his hands and the skulls begin to sing in a sprightly tune in grave voices:

“Bumbum, bumbum, bumbum, bumbum...
bumbum, bumbum, bum...
Bumbum, bumbum, bumbum, bumbum...
bumbum, bumbum, bum...
Necromancer, we're so alone...
don't have no bodies to call our own...
avenge our deaths so we have closure...
then let us know our cursed lives are over...”

I sit entranced as the acts continue. A band of a dozen midgets flip on wires high above the stage with no nets to catch them, then pile on each other in intricate human towers. The jester calls a man to the stage and reads him a fortune, predicting he will lose a precious thing but gain wisdom in the process. A tanned man claiming to be a Western Islander stretches his flesh like rubber, then walks across coals to lie on a bed of nails.

Dmitri Von Jeggett, the four armed giant, makes a special appearance. He bends iron, then asks for volunteers from the audience. The young man who joins him on stage seems deliriously happy to have the huge caliban throw him around like a rag doll, twist his arms into vicious and painful-looking arm locks, then turn him upside down and drive his head into the stage. I wince as his limp body is lifted from the stage and carted to a physician. The giant then promises to bring similar agony to his opponent at his next match, just one week away. He is booed off the stage, but the boos seem like a staged response, insincere and melodramatic like a practiced ritual.

After he leaves, I'm startled out of my seat by an unholy shriek as something swoops from the arches. I cringe as it files past. A woman with red hair and leathery bat wings lands next to the jester and takes a bow. The jester introduces her as the Vampiress. She begins to swoop and twirl, launching herself into the air again. The wings are real, but the flight is not—I spy a cunning wire on her.

The jester returns to center stage and looks to the crowd.

“You there!” he points. “Please, could you come up to the stage?”

“Uh, me?” The man says, looking around. The ring of people in the seats around him lean away, leaving him exposed to the jester's too-wide grin.

“Indeed, sir! Come, and have your fortune read!”

After a minute of hesitation, the portly man slides his way through the crowd and pulls himself up to the stage. Some of the caliban have brought out a table and a couple of chairs. The jester and the man take seats at opposite ends. The man is sweating in the heat of the gaslights.

“Tell me a bit about yourself, sir,” the jester says, shuffling a deck of cards.

“Well, er, I'm Matthias Grell...” the man starts.

“Fat cheating whoreson!” someone heckles.

“And...and I own a modest dry goods store in the Pen...” he stammers out.

“Shadows take you, pig!” another voice in the crowd shouts.

“You don't seem very popular,” the jester says, handing the deck to the man.

“There are some,” the man glares at the crowd, “who resent hard work and success.”

“True, true.” The jester gives the man an uncomfortably wide grin. “Please cut the deck, then draw the top three cards.”

The man starts to do so, but the jester suddenly grabs his hands. “Stop!” he says, eyes wide.

The fat man sucks in a breath. “What! What is it?”

The jester cocks his head to the side. “You have something in your ear.” he says, reaching up. He pulls a large gold coin from behind the man's head, getting scattered chuckles from the audience. The fat man frowns. The jester places the coin aside. “Please. Continue.”

The fat man cuts the deck and pulls three cards, but as he does something drops from his sleeve and clinks on the the table. He looks down, eyes wide, mouth open in a little 'o' of shock. The jester picks it up and shows it to the crowd. It's another coin.

“Why, you must be successful indeed, to have such expensive lint,” the jester says. There's much more laughter from the crowd as the fat man fumes. “But let us begin the reading.” The Jester takes the cards and lays them in a row before him. “Now then. This one,” he indicates the middle card, “represents you. It's the King of Cups, who represent a fair man, a man of business, responsible, a man of equity.” The man smiles. but the smile fades as the jester continues. “However, this card is reversed, which changes the meaning to indicate a man who is dishonest, double-dealing, who engages in roguery, exaction, and injustice.”

“Now wait just a Shadow-taken minute...” he begins, but the jester cuts him off.

“This card,” he indicates the card to the left, “is your past. It is the Eight of Coins, representing work, employment, skill in craft in business. However, it is also reversed, and now signifies poisoned ambitions, vanity, wealth obtained through dishonest means, extortion.”

“You son of a whore!” the fat man's face goes an unhealthy beet red. “You turned them around when you took them from me! I ought to...” he stands, and as he does there's a RIIIIIP and dozens of coins plunk down and roll across the stage. Gales of laughter explode from the crowd. The fat man swings a clumsy punch at the jester, who snatches his arm from the air and holds it disdainfully to the side. The jester picks up the last card and slowly lifts it to the the fat man's eyes.

“This card is your future.” The jester says. “It is The Star. It signifies loss, theft, deprivation, abandonment. As you can see, it is not revered, so the meaning stands. I predict a downturn in your business. My advice is that you find a new livelihood now, strive to be a better person, and keep your thumbs off the scales.” He tightens his grip, and the fat man winces. “Now, kindly remove yourself from my stage.”

The fat man growls, then spits in the jester's face and clambers down to boos and catcalls. He tries to return to his seat, but none of the crowd will let him pass, so he storms out of the theater. The jester wipes his face tolerantly and gathers up the coins.

“Well. What an unpleasant person.” He says. “But every cloud has a golden shine in the sunset. At least now I can return a portion of what his dishonesty took!” So saying, the jester flings the coins into the crowd, which writhes as the it turns in on itself, trying to snatch up the tiny glittering points of precious in the darkness.

“There's hardly any magic in that.” I grumble. “Of course the man's business is doomed...the jester just implied he was a cheat.”

“I wonder how he did that business with the coins.” Jereth muses, his long fingers flicking the man's fate away with disinterest, gaze fixed on the scrabbling mob.

“That's simple.” I say. “He had the first coin hidden in his palm when he reached behind the guy's head. He planted the second when he grabbed the guy's sleeve. While he was doing the reading he had one hand under the table...probably had a knife to the guy's belt pouch, just waiting for him to get upset and make a sudden movement.” I've never seen anyone so thoroughly humiliated by some simple pickpocket tricks. “Is this a normal act?”

“Yes, indeed.” Jereth says with a dismissive wave. “The jester does this sort of thing every show. He likes to humble the proud.”

The jester is still taking in the applause from the crowd. “And now, ladies and gentlemen” he says, “we break.” The caliban return to the stage and take bows. “It was good of you all to come, but for those of you on the ground the show is over. Those in the balconies have decreed that the sights to come are for their eyes alone. Worry not, though, for there will be another, grander show for you, and sooner than you ever thought possible! Au revoir!”

He bows again, and the gaslights go out.

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