Part 5: Helter Skelter
Light fills the theatre as the shutters are removed from the lanterns. I stand, stretch, and lean over to pick up my cap. Below, chatter rises from the crowd as it streams back out into the night.
“Wasn't that simply marvelous?” Jereth gushes.
“It was entertaining, I suppose.” I mutter back. “I did like the act with the singing skulls.”
Jereth raises an eyebrow. “Singing skulls?”
“You know. The necromancer.” I say. “Between the candle man and the small folk.” I feel cold. I know I saw that.
Jereth shakes his head and gifts me with a hatefully pitying smile. I really want to take a rock to his head.
Dragon take it. I'm going for a walk.
I step through the curtain. Jereth nods to the larger of the two bodyguards, the burly one I remember from last night, and he follows behind me just close enough to catch me if I try to run anywhere. There are lines in front of the privies, so I don't bother. I head out of the building to get air.
The great houses of the nobility loom over me. Specks of light from fireglass lanterns raise strange shadows on the basalt buildings. The pools of light are weak and tiny. Even here, where the richest of Miirians dwell. The Tower is there, glaring down at the city.
I stare at it, and it stares back. I can almost hear it speak, picking up words from the crowd directed only at me, stitched together from the echoes of the crowd's chatter.
Submit, Exile, the echoes growl. Surrender to your fate, and perhaps the Shadows will grant you a less horrible death. Fight me, and I will inflict upon you agonies pulled from the depths of your soul.
Dragon take you, Miir.
A pair of large hands clamp on my right shoulder. “Hello again.”
I twist to look at my assailant. It's the four-armed giant, Dmitri. Oh, sod me sideways.
“I just wanted to ask if you're a fast runner.” he says. “It will make the chase much more fun when I come for you after the show.”
“Excuse me,” says a voice nearby. I think it's Jereth's bodyguard. “Unhand him. The truce is still in effect, and he is Lord Jereth's guest.”
“As long as the show goes.” The man mountain rumbles. “That long and no longer.” He shoves me to the ground. “Enjoy it while it lasts.” He stomps back into the theatre, leaving us alone.
“Well, that was rude.” I grunt. The guard offers me a hand up. I take it...and suddenly he's slamming me against the wall. OW! The stitches in my side protest as my breath is knocked out of me.
“Let's get one thing straight between us, murderer,” he snarls. Flecks of spittle hit my face. I stare into his bloodshot eyes. “I'd help him if I could. It's no more than you deserve.” His hand tightens around my throat.
“Hey! What...” I gasp, pulling at his fingers. What now?
“Remember Cobb? He didn't make it through the day, thanks to that tear you made in his breath bag. But he lingered. Oh yes, he lingered. For hours I had to stand there, watching him gulp down air until he drowned in his own blood.”
“Who...Broke-Nose?” I gasp. Losing...air...can't think...his breath is really foul...
“GRAH!” He screams, shaking me like a rag doll. “You swine! Cobb was my friend! I'm going to feed you your own entrails!”
He tears my shirt off, then yanks the stitches from my side. I howl in pain as his hand digs into the wound and he starts pulling out strings of guts. The hand around my throat moves to my jaw, forcing it open, and he starts shoving the gut strings into my mouth. It's like being force-fed a long, hollow sausage...
I gag, and he drops me. I spit and grab for my side, to shove my stomach back in. My fingers brush linen. My shirt is intact. The stitches are whole. What?
While I'm trying to figure out just what is going on, the bodyguard kicks me over. Looming over me, he pulls something from his coin pouch. It's some kind of wooden gaming chit.
“But not yet.” he says, as if he didn't just spend a minute pulling my liver out. “No. Lord Jereth wants you for something, so I have to keep you alive. But this...this is a token. I'm in on the bet, put myself down for four nights. This chit is worth four hundred umbras to me if you don't live past tomorrow night.”
He puts the token away. “I'll keep the giant away from you if I must. But I hope that whatever it is Lord Jereth has in mind for you is fatal. If it's not, then know that I'll pop you like a blister.” He steps away, giving me space to stand but not to run. “So watch yourself.”
“I'm so sorry for your loss.” I cough, pulling myself up the wall into something resembling an upright position. “How many legs have you two smashed collecting debts for the gambling halls? How many women did you two steal from their parents to turn into whores? How many of them did you rape first.” I glare back at the bodyguard. “I know your kind, bullyboy. You're thugs, cowards, and murderers. Your friend knew the job was dangerous when he took it. Don't expect any pity from me because that stain was cleaned off the world and swallowed by the Dragon to burn for eternity.”
I don't wait for the bully boy to react. I duck back into the building, and climb the stairs back up to the balcony where Jereth sits.
"So, what's next?" I ask the elf.
"Oh, this next part will be a wonder!” Jereth says. “It's a series of acts sponsored by the nobles of various houses for the purpose of, shall we say, moral instruction."
Sounds dull to me. The nobles are all settling back into their seats. I notice empty chairs peppering the balcony. It's not as crowded now.
Someone takes a seat beside me. "Taking in a show, I see,” says a too-familiar voice. “Excellent. We should always take opportunities to expand the mind."
“Naros.” I groan. I was wondering when he'd turn up. "What do you want now? More threats? More deals? Have you come to express your disappointment in me for screwing you over last night?"
"I'm flattered that you seem to trust in my reality, even as the dreamlily makes all your other senses unreliable," the figure chuckles, "but no. No threats, no deals. I'm not even disappointed in you. You did exactly what I predicted you would. No, I came for the show."
"So you expected me to save Eric, then?"
"You made your intentions clear the first night! I would be a great fool to expect otherwise."
"So why the smoke and mirrors?"
"Just because you did what I expected does not mean you may have done otherwise. I wanted to make sure."
"Make sure of what?" I ask. I'm getting nervous. Jereth hasn't noticed us speaking yet. Could I be hallucinating this whole conversation?
"Quiet," he replies. "The show begins. You may find it instructional. And you did your friend Eric no favors last night, as you'll soon see."
The lanterns are almost all out now. Candles and fireglass gleam. Voices quiet, and an aura of suspense and anticipation falls on the crowd. The lights on the stage light. FWOOMP! The Jester stands in the center, arms outstretched to encompass us. His face rips into a grin. I notice new stage props: a long slab, fitted with leather restraints. A small table, set with gleaming saws, blades, and other implements.
"Ladies and gentlefolk," The Jester begins, "Two goals intertwined inform all our performances for you. We wish to entertain, of course, showcasing the talent of freaks and oddities from all over Demurra, Ivthia, and even beyond. But, important as that is, it pales in comparison to the lessons we wish to impart. A spectacle without substance is worthless indulgence. And what lesson may you learn? Well, we hope that you will take away the knowledge that even the twisted ones have useful talents. But as I am afraid such enlightenment may be lost to those born of privilege, several of your peers have generously provided alternatives. So, I welcome you to this, our second act--The Grand Guignol! Theatre of the Grotesque! A transfiguring look at the human condition!"
There is a commotion at the back. The audience applauds as someone is dragged, kicking and screaming, onto the stage. The Vampiress and The Living Doll take the man and fix him to the slab with the restraints, while the Jester juggles little balls which change from dark to light as they fly through the air. The crowd laughs.
"Tonight's first act is brought to you courtesy of House Von Hastur." He booms.
Several Caliban take the stage. Jester narrates as they act. "And what have we here? A pair of thieves, slinking through the darkness, mischief on their minds! Watch as they slink past the guards!" There's something very sick about all of this. Wait...No. It can't be. This all looks familiar. TOO familiar. The man on the table screams. "And here they are, about to claim their prize! But wait! The villains have been incautious, for the guards come to investigate some noise!"
Beside me, Naros chuckles. "The best part is to come.”
The Jester leaps onto the table, baring his flayed grin at the man writhing on the slab “Tell me, Gaven--” he calls to the crowd. What? “How does it feel to see yourself center stage as your crimes repeat?"
"Oh no! Perfidies!” The Jester says, clapping his hands to his cheeks. As the guards come, one thief turns to the other and makes a blowing motion...as if extinguishing a candle. Oh, fuck no. I grip the arms of my chair. I'm beginning to shiver. “In his haste to hide his crimes, he has blown out his partner's flame! He consigns his ally to the cold embrace of the Shadows, a monstrous crime indeed!"
I recognize the man strapped to the table now. It's my lowlife partner. I'm sweating in the chair, wondering if anyone is looking my way. I take a look around. No one seems to be staring at me...but there are more people now than there were earlier. Dozens of empty chairs are now filled. The nobles in the once empty chairs sit expectantly, like ravens around a dying man.
None of them have lights.
I sink into the chair. Naros slouches and grins that hateful smile. "Ah. The others have arrived. The Shadows of Miir have come to feast."
Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh fuck.
"Jereth." I whisper. "I need a light. I think they're coming for me."
"It's just the Dreamlily, Gaven. Be quiet!"
What am I going to do? Oh god, I'm going to die...The actors on the stage have finished with a humorous courtroom scene. I've missed most of it. They wheel the man on the slab back to center stage, now with a ridiculously large, lit red candle jammed in his mouth to gag him. The Jester and his crew bow and soak up applause. I'm nauseous.
"Now, we have a dilemma. What will we do with our wayward citizen, hmm?" The Jester says as he walks around my partner. "How should he be punished?"
My partner shrieks something, muffled by the wax. "Ah as he one oo ot his andle uffed! Ee! On't oo his oo eeee!" He sobs.
The Jester ignores him. "Well, if I remember correctly, the old Miirian punishment for thieves was to remove the hand that had offended." He picks up a cleaver.
"OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" my partner shrieks. "OH GAH, OOOOOOO! PLEAH GAH ON'T OO EH! OOOOOOO!"
The Jester continues to ignore him. Instead, he removes my partner's arm from the restraints. He ties it to a board with deep cuts, aims...I wince as the cleaver comes down. There's a sickening thud. He brings out a few implements and begins to juggle them. Every time he gets to the mallet, he strikes it down on the cleaver. Once. Twice. Three times. Four. The shrieks get shriller. My gorge rises. Finally, the Jester raises the severed hand and waves it at the crowd. "And thus is the lesser crime of theft dealt with." Applause. Some cruel laughter. "But what of the greater crime? Of coldly attemping to save himself at the expense of his friend?" He pauses. "Well, he has two hands, doesn't he?"
Oh, not again!
I can't watch. The man screams are hoarser this time, but it takes five whacks to remove his other hand, along with a twang from something, and gales of laughter. I'm staring at the floor between my knees. I don't want to know what that was. I'm desperately trying to hold my sick in.
"Watch, Gaven!" Jereth says, yanking my head up. I can't stand the glee in his voice. "House Von Hastur must have been extremely displeased with your attempt at larceny. If you had not been made Exile, that would be you up there. Watch and be thankful it's not!"
The Jester gives that rip-faced grin to the audience again. There is surprisingly little blood. I would expect him to be gushing buckets. "Well, I would say he's been properly chastised. But what're we to do with the poor man? We can't leave him like this! Let's give the poor sinner a hand!”
The audience howls. The Jester picks up the severed limbs, and then pulls out a needle and gut from among his implements. He can't be seriously considering...He turns to the man, who has by now stopped screaming. He places a hand to a stump, and begins to stitch. Could he be any crueler? He's sewing a useless limb to a crippled stump! It's not even the right hand!
"There we are!" The Jester says. "Now, try it out. And let this be a lesson, now and forever, of keeping your hands where they belong!" The man raises the stump with the wrong hand stitched on....and the fingers twitch. I can't keep it in any more. I lower my head and heave.
Either that was a Dreamlily Delirium dream, or the Jester has just turned my former partner into a Caliban.
I spend the rest of the act throwing up the dinner I ate earlier. Several of the nobles make disparaging comments about my conduct. Dragon take the sodding lot of them. They're entertained by this horror show. I can hear the applause. I've met the real monsters of Miir.
"Get me out of here." I gasp at Jereth.
He leans over. "Are you not entertained? That's too bad. I don't think the lesson has sunk in yet."
"Get me the fuck out of here. Or I'll go on my own."
He sighs. "No, Gaven. Not yet. There is one more act you simply must see before we go. Watch!"
They've wheeled my partner away. The Jester must have sewn his other hand back on while I was vomiting, because he's got two now, both facing the wrong way and on the wrong arms. There's a new, clean table now.
"Now, wasn't that fun?" The Jester crows to the crowd. "And now, we come to our next act of the evening, sponsored by House Dythanus." The Caliban lead another man to the stage. This one is paunchy and middle-aged, with a generous mustache beneath his nose but little hair on the top of his head.