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Author : Rachael K. Jones Narrator : Tatiana Grey Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Rated PG-13. The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles By Rachael K. Jones In the desert, all the footprints lead into Oasis, and none lead out again. They come for water, and once they find it, no one returns to the endless sand. The city is a prison with bars of thirst and heat. Outside the gates the reptiles roam: asps and cobras, great lazing skinks, tortoises who lie down to doze in the heat. Where they go as they pad and swish and claw their way through the sand, no one knows, save the women who look over the walls and feel the deep itching pressure in their bones, the weight of skin in need of sloughing. Though Hester has sold asp eggs at the night bazaar for five years, she has never become a reptile herself, no matter what she tries. She takes eggs wherever she finds them. She has eaten those of skinks and geckos. She has tasted sun-warmed iguana eggs. She has traced water-snake paths through Oasis and dug for their nests. She has braved the king cobra’s sway and dart, and devoured its offspring too. Once, she found an alligator egg, and poked a hole in the top and sucked out the insides. But no matter what she tries, Hester has never broken free and escaped the city like the other women do. She even tried the asp eggs once, the ones that were her livelihood. It was the day after Marick the mango seller asked to take her as his sunside lover. Hester left home and dug asp eggs from the clay by the river. The sun spilled long red tongues across the sand, over the footprints always entering the city, never leaving, and Hester’s skin itched all over, and her flesh grew hot and heavy, and she longed for cool sand sliding against her bare belly. One, two, three eggs into her mouth, one sharp bite, and the clear, viscous glair ran down her throat. The shells were tougher than she expected. They tasted tart, like spoiled goat’s milk. She waited for the change, but the sun crawled higher and nothing happened. She has never told anyone about the day with the asp eggs. Not her mother the batik dyer, who spatters linen in hot running wax and crafts her famous purple cloth. Not Marick her sunside lover, who sells indigo cactus flowers and mango slices on a wooden tray. Not Shayna the butcher, her moonside lover, whose honey-gold verses roll from her tongue, smooth and rounded as sand-polished pebbles. Hester hasn’t told them, because they are why she longs to leave. The night bazaar meets on a different street each week. Each morning before, at sunrise, Hester finds three blue chalk symbols sketched on the doorjamb behind the perfumed jasmine bush. Sometimes she sees a falcon, a crane beneath a full moon, and a viper climbing a triple-columned temple portico. This means We assemble where the Street of Upholsterers intersects the Street of Priests, when the Crane rises. Or it might be a hand holding an eye, a wavy river, and a kneeling woman, which would mean Meet where Oasis runs to mud, and beware the police. Hester memorizes the message and wipes off the chalk with her sleeve. They meet in secret, because the night bazaar was outlawed when the emperor stepped down from her throne and became a snapping turtle. No one knew if she chose to change, or if a traitor had slipped her the eggs unawares. These days, vendors caught selling such goods moonside are made to drink poison sunside. Even possessing the eggs earns a speedy execution. But in Oasis, women at their wits’ end have always eaten the eggs, and fled. Hester packs the asp eggs in damp red clay and binds them, in sets of three. Any more would be a waste, and any less, insufficient to cause the change. At the meeting point, booths have already popped up in the dark. Hester drapes her bamboo frame in purple and gold batik, fringed with the shiny onyx hair of some young customer who bought eggs long ago. She lays out packets in three reed baskets and lights a lamp that burns tallow made from women’s fat. At moonrise, Hester’s chin lifts, and over vendors hawking their wares, she sings: Eggs of the asp collected riverside in the new moon dark Come, buy, and eat!   Opal-white eggs cool as desert’s night against your belly Come, buy, and eat!   The customers arrive, ghosts cut from darkness by moonlight’s blade. They are no two alike. They are old and young. They are blind and deaf and whole of body. They have hats and sandals, sunburns and calluses. They come singing and weeping and completely silent. The vendors sing to them all, a cacophony and a tapestry. Hester’s bones buzz from the dissonance, her skin as a quivering lizard bolting from rock to rock. On slow nights, Hester bargains for rare eggs, which she devours on the spot. They never work. A waste of good coin, the merchants say, clucking their tongues, but they take payment anyway. Traders should not eat their wares. Most vendors prosper from the illegal trade, but Hester barely makes ends meet because she spends so much on eggs. Shayna, her moonside lover, often teases her about her bad business sense. Marick never asks what she does moonside. By this, Hester has come to fear him. He does not ask because he already knows. Hester has to wait for sundown to pack for the next bazaar, since Marick won’t leave for work before then. People often compliment her attentive sunside lover — how he won’t leave her side until sunset requires it. When they are alone, he keeps his distance. He has not once touched her, not as a lover does. Perhaps he mistakes her distance for demure shyness, the way she lies still in bed, how she curls into herself during the midday nap. Ever since they met, Hester has a recurring dream where her body is a golden pot with an amethyst lid and she an asp inside it. In the dream, Marick plays the oboe, charming her out with music. She slithers to him, and he grabs her and devours her. When she wakes, she feels hollow and hungry inside. Her mouth tastes sour, like the eggs that will not change her. Truthfully, her shoulders relax when Marick leaves for moonside life, and she can go to the night bazaar. Hester wonders if Marick’s moonside lover is any different from her. Perhaps he loves Marick better. Perhaps he likes mangoes. Perhaps Marick touches him. Perhaps he is less afraid than she is. Hester’s first customer that night wears a priest’s robe tied all wrong, knotted at the shoulder like they do on the Street of Blacksmiths to keep their sleeves from the hot anvil. People often pretend to be another thing when they come to the night bazaar. The woman’s fingers stroke a linen packet, thumb caressing the round bulges. After payment, the woman unwraps the eggs and eats them. The moon glints on her teeth. Hester cannot hear the eggs burst above the din, but her insides quiver anyway. The woman falls into a heap before Hester’s booth. Her flesh splits open and she slithers out from her own breastbone, her shining black length cutting crescents in the sand. The newborn asp slithers through the gutter, making westward toward the desert. Hester drags the blacksmith’s sloughed-off body behind her booth for later processing. There will be more before the night’s end. They seem so sure when they approach the booth, like they know it will work for them. They often stop to browse the other wares, but their eyes slide until their fingers find the asp eggs. They do not waver. Assurance steadies their voices. She used to ask them why, back when she first started selling. Why the bazaar? Why tonight? Why this shape? “Because this body has grown too tight around me.” “Because breathing weighs me down, and I am exhausted.” “Because each night, I dream of walking into the desert and not returning.” “Because each morning, I watch the merchants pass into the gates, and I want to scream, ‘Stay away!'” At the night bazaar, they shed their skin and leave as asps and tortoises and crocodiles. They pass the gates unimpeded. They go out into the desert and erase the footprints leading inward. The night Hester met Marick, the bazaar assembled where the Street of Cobblers bisected the Street of Zither Players. Someone must have betrayed them. Perhaps a sharp-eyed officer traced the steady stream of determined lizards and serpents and tortoises scampering through the gutters and under the gates and out into the darkness. A cry cut through the selling-songs: Run! Run! It had happened before. It was why the booths collapsed so easily. Hester grabbed her basket and yanked the batik down. The crowd surged toward the Street of Cobblers, pressed from the rear by police with battering sticks. The cloth sheet tangled in the bamboo bars, and Hester wrestled with it. “Hester?” It was a young policeman, stick in hand. “The batik dyer’s daughter. I would know you anywhere.” She knew him too: Marick the mango seller. Now moonside, his crooked teeth became a cobra’s fangs. “Wait. I need to speak with you.” His boot pinned the batik sheet to the cobblestone. Hester yanked harder, heart thudding against her ribs. Poison, she thought. Bloated bodies at the wall. The sheet ripped, and she fled into the crowd. The next day, Marick arrived at her mother’s shop with six ripe mangoes wrapped in a tattered batik scrap, and a proposition. To mark her as his sunside lover, he gave Hester a gold earring shaped like a pot set with an amethyst for a lid. It was heavy for its size. Marick never mentioned that night at the bazaar. What happened moonside wasn’t discussed sunside. She could not tell if the coercion was deliberate or accidental on his part. It all amounted to the same for Hester. Marick’s love was a prison. His smile tightened when she glanced out the window to check the sun’s position. Test me, and you shall learn my nature, said that tightness. His gaze followed her everywhere. She always checked the doorjamb for the chalk signs before sunrise and erased them. Propriety forced him to stay away until dawn touched the rooftop. When they were alone together, she mirrored his smile, and the woman who gathered asp eggs curled in on herself, deep down where no one could ever find her sunside. She dreamed and dreamed of being consumed, of escape. Near moonset, as the crowd thins to a trickle and the reptiles depart, a hand rests on Hester’s shoulder. “Never trust a woman who gathers asp eggs, for she may become one,” Shayna whispers, breath warm and licorice-scented. “They don’t work for me, I’m afraid.” Hester turns so Shayna’s kiss falls on her cheek. “You cannot become what you already are,” she jokes. Shayna stops trying to steal kisses and counts the shedded bodies. Eight women lie bisected and cold: a good night. Shayna’s blades flick and twist, opening seams, probing apart joints. The hair goes to the weavers, the bones to the lemon tree growers and to the scribes, and the meat goes to the vulture breeders and the candlemakers. The two women work quickly, distributing the haul to runners who buy for the sunside merchants. If any time remains, they slip off to Shayna’s bower on the Street of Butchers for a few hours in the dark together before sunrise. Their infant son, too young for a name yet, sleeps in a basket nearby. He has hair like damp sand. “He gets it from his father,” Shayna explains when Hester pets his soft head. Shayna talks about her sunside lover more than anyone Hester has ever met. It was especially tiresome during her pregnancy last year. Hester rolls over in the hammock in the dark. “Shayna, have you ever wished to leave Oasis?” Shayna turns, and the hammock sways. “I prefer not dying of thirst and exposure, thank you. I like my life here. I have my family, and business. Why?” “Sometimes I wonder where the reptiles go. They say there is an ocean out there, beyond the desert.” Shayna yawns wide. “You spend too much time at the night bazaar. You should start a proper family. When are you going to give me a moonside baby of my own?” “You sound like my mother.” With Marick and Shayna in her life, it is what everyone expects. Children thrive best with two mothers and a father. Hester only has one mother, though. Perhaps that is why she cannot become a reptile. “You haven’t answered my question,” Shayna points out, stirring, and the baby wakes and cries. Hester climbs from the hammock and rocks him until he calms. Outside, the dark sky is gray and heavy. Softly it starts to rain. Too late, she realizes her mistake. “Oh, damnation! It’s morning, Shayna.” She dresses and sprints out the door, through the rain, toward the Street of Dyers. An oil lamp sits lit on the stoop when Hester gets home, and the door is ajar. Marick, home from his moonside life, curls in bed with his back toward the door. Hester listens to his breathing for ten heartbeats, slow and regular like wind in the olive tree branches. When she is sure he is asleep, she stows her basket of asp eggs beneath the bed and lies down beside him. Marick always smells like incense and cinnamon at dawn, the way Hester smells faintly of butcher’s blood. In this way, they bring their moonside lovers home with them. At sunrise, the scents make a family. She dreams of Shayna and Marick and the unknown men who love them. Of her mother, alone by sunside, and Hester a child only half-mothered, now half-mother again to the nameless baby with the damp sand hair. If only she had hatched from an egg. Reptiles needed no mothers or father. They birthed themselves and named themselves and no one kept them from the desert. She is dreaming of the desert when she wakes in the evening, the day’s heat slipping away. Marick isn’t in bed, nor is he in the kitchen cutting up mangoes. It is only then she realizes: in her hurry to return from Shayna’s home, she forgot to erase the chalk from the doorjamb. Marick’s muddy footprints squat below that spot, the jasmine branches forced back, but he is already gone. So is her bundle of asp eggs. The moment Hester notices, she ransacks their home, searching for the missing eggs. She strips the bed and shakes out the linen sheets. She dumps the reed baskets piled by the door. She plunges both hands elbow deep into the refuse heap outside the window. Worms ooze around her knuckles. Never in all this time has she left evidence of the night bazaar. Never so much as a glance toward the doorjamb and its tiny chalk symbols. Her bones quiver inside the bag of her skin. The sky is streaked angry red, and moonrise bears down with vicious weight. Marick could return at any time with the other policemen, with the poison. Her fingers dig into her palms so hard they draw blood. It is against every rule for him to police her by day: against law, against custom, against decency. But poison makes no such distinctions, and if he found the eggs, she would have no defense. She could beg Shayna to hide her, but how would she explain it without exposing her sunside life? Hester wraps her head in batik and hurries to the western wall, where the reptiles emerge in a thin, long line across the sands. Above them, bodies swing to and fro over the gates, dry and mummified by weather and time. It was always a major affair when they hung out a new one. Marick took Hester to watch once. He held her hand, and neither smiled. If she could be that kind of creature. If she could cross the desert. If she could break free of the spidersilk bonds Oasis imposed, the thin invisible obligations tying woman to man to woman to child, a web which caught and snared. Hester finds herself at home again, standing before the darkened door. Behind the jasmine bush, she finds the chalk symbols: a pot, an oboe, and an egg. We gather in the alley on the Street of Midwives where the Emperor was born. She considers going into the house, lying down in the dark, and waiting for Marick, but her feet are already drawing her back toward the night bazaar. Hester’s money buys her half a dozen crocodile eggs, two cobra eggs, and a large speckled monitor lizard egg still warm to the touch. She swallows them down and will not let her stomach vomit them up, no matter how much her guts twist. Her head buzzes like when she drinks too much palm wine. Her hands tingle as if the poison courses inside her veins already. She hurries from booth to booth, begging for more eggs, but her colleagues only cluck their tongues and offer her rose petal tea, or silken shawls, or cool hands to the forehead. “I am not sick,” Hester insists. “I need to buy more eggs.” But they will not sell them to her. At last she hunches behind her booth, shivering in the chill, waiting, hoping yet for transformation. She has no asp eggs to sell, so the customers pass her by, until at last one does not. Despite his broad-brimmed veiled hat, Hester recognizes Marick, when he sets the missing eggs on the booth’s counter. He smells like incense and cinnamon. “Do not try to run now. Not this time.” Fear twists her gut hard, and all the raw eggs roil in her stomach. She gags and vomits into the sand behind the booth. The slimy white glair pools with her bile, studded with chunks of undigested shell. Her last hope of transformation, absorbed into the sand. The desert will take even this before it will take her. As her hope dribbles away, so does the fear. Hester laughs a short, sharp hyena bark. “Everyone pretends to be something different at the night bazaar, Marick. What are you supposed to be?” He hesitates, then twitches the veil up. Rose-colored moonlight bathes his face, a rare lunar eclipse. He looks small and fragile as a pressed flower, not at all like the man she has feared for five years. He leans forward, voice low and secret. “I need to know how the eggs work. Is there a spell?” Hester snorts. “You want our secrets before you betray me. You think you can ask, and I will tell you, as if this is not my bazaar and you are not a customer. As though the price is not my life.” Marick shakes his head hard. “No, no, you’ve got it all wrong, Hester. Have the police found the night bazaar since we became lovers? Do you think that is a coincidence? Whatever I am, I am no traitor.” It has the ring of truth to it, though she does not want to trust him. “What do you want from me? You take me for a lover and do not touch me. You follow me here and do not arrest me. You say you’ve been protecting me. What do you want?” He casts his eyes toward the gutter, which is littered with tiny reptile prints. When he speaks, his voice is not a mango-seller’s cries or a policeman’s growl but trembling and weak, a flute cracked and leaking air. “I am done, trying to live in this body. It doesn’t fit. Not with dayside lovers, or nightside lovers. Touches do not reach me. I wear my own flesh like a cloak, and I am alone inside. It isn’t mine. Maybe I was supposed to be a reptile? A woman? Half a mother to complete some child? I do not know. I only know that if I don’t shed this body, I will suffocate in it. Do you understand?” He sounds just as sure as every woman who has come before. “You just eat them, Marick. There is no spell. The eggs don’t work for men, though.” He shrugs, and the corner of his mouth lifts. “I will try, anyway. I don’t know any other way.” Marick unwraps the eggs and rubs off the clay. He cracks them one by one, sucks out their insides, chews and swallows the shells. Around his ankles, women skitter and slither westward on scaled claw and belly. Hester waits for his disappointment, but instead he collapses before her booth. An asp springs from his breastbone, a fine golden-eyed creature damp from heart’s-blood, and it joins the reptile exodus in the gutter. As she watches him go, a hollow place inside her rips open, as though the last of her hope has also left her and slithered into the desert. Mechanically she drags his unwanted body behind the booth. It has been many years since this chore unsettled her, since a customer’s discarded eyes fixed upon her face, but Marick was her dayside lover, the only one she had. For the first time since she joined the bazaar, a body becomes a corpse. When Shayna sees Marick, she steadies her head between her hands. “Oh, Hester, what have you done? The law might turn a blind eye to the night bazaar as long as we’re discreet, but it won’t ignore a dead policeman.” “He isn’t dead. He became an asp, Shayna!” The two women slump together behind the booth while Hester confesses everything. “What did he do? Why did it work for him?” Shayna jerks her chin toward the sky. “Eclipses are strange. Moonside and sunside join hands and pass. Perhaps the desert calls to its own.” Hester curls up tight and tries not to retch. No eggs for her, because she is already empty inside. She does not say, Why won’t it work for me? Shayna holds her at arm’s length. “You think I don’t know. You think I don’t pay attention.” She undoes Marick’s earring, holds the matching golden pot to Hester’s ear. “Tell me, lover, what makes you so afraid? Afraid enough to piss away your profit on all those eggs? Scared enough to leave me too?” “You are so happy here,” Hester manages through hitching breath. Shayna’s eyebrows pinch together like when she is considering the best way to slice open a ribcage. “Maybe the eggs do not work for you because you do not need them. You’re practically an asp already. You spend enough time among their nests.” Somehow, the thought comforts her. “And you, Shayna? What are you?” Shayna’s smile is all teeth. “I am a butcher, of course.” They drag Marick’s shell into an alley. In the night bazaar’s bustle, no one notices. Hester grabs the booth’s batik fabric and drapes it over the ground. Shayna is a good butcher, well-practiced and quick, skilled at separating muscle from skin and meat from bone. The waxed batik absorbs the blood in brown-bordered swirls. Shayna cuts, and Hester sorts the pieces. Hester lays Marick’s heart in the pile for the vulture breeders. It is soft and round like a ripe mango on a plate, plum-red as an amethyst, tattered where the asp ripped through the flesh. As the heart drips onto the batik, Hester sees maybe there is another path to freedom, one she never considered before Marick transformed. How she could leave behind the mass of bodies — the heralds, the upholsterers, the weavers, the potmakers, the herbalists, the papyrus-rollers, the inksetters — all the close, warm mammalian musks, the raised voices, the songs and tambourines. How she could slip beneath the gates, slither into the desert, the sand burning her belly into hard scales; her tongue flickering, testing the air. Some irresistible pull inside knows exactly where lies the ocean she has never seen, beating on a far shore. Her flesh feels heavy and cumbersome, and she thinks she could shake it loose, leave it behind to mummify in the heat and sand. If this other path will work for her. Hester saves Marick’s heart carefully, wrapped tight in stained batik until the blood no longer soaks through. They sell the meat and bones to the vendors, but the skin they burn at Shayna’s bower on the Street of Butchers. Its wetness makes the fire smoke and sputter. “I can hide you for tonight, but you’ll have to leave tomorrow,” Shayna says as they wash up at home. “We can slow down their investigation, but they will find you. There were witnesses. Someone will talk eventually.” “Yes, of course. I understand.” Hester inhales Shayna’s familiar licorice smell, and longing prickles down her back. If this path works for her, there will be no more sunside or moonside, no lovers to fear and tend to and worry over. There will be no night bazaar, because in the desert, everyone is a reptile. Asps are asps by day or night. Hester waits until Shayna sleeps before she draws her last gift in chalk on the doorjamb: two stones, a dead woman’s eye, and an asp. Find me at the wall where criminals are made to drink poison, and come alone. Then she kisses her sleeping lover and their moonside baby, and she leaves. At this hour, the night bazaar must be packing up. A few snakes and lizards skitter through the gutters. Hester follows them to the gouge in the sand where they have dug a hole beneath the wall. They slither and wriggle and just slip through. Overhead, ropes creak as the mummified corpses swing. Before she can lose her courage, Hester unwraps Marick’s heart, sliced into strips like a mango, her final hope on a wooden tray. Hearts are eggs, she realized when Shayna slit open Marick’s body and piled his organs on the stained batik. Hester wonders what will hatch from hers. Hester eats it, piece by piece. If this fails, the police will find her. Her body will swing overhead with the rest, always within sight of the desert, but never able to go there. The heart slides into her belly, easier than glair, and settles in the empty space which once held fear. The quivering in her bones becomes a violent shudder. A change is coming, churning her like a sandstorm. She slips and twists inside her own flesh, full to the brim, a straining wineskin, a sated leech, an egg about to burst. It does not hurt much, the hatching, the shedding. No worse than picking off a scab. When it is over, she slides free onto her segmented belly, the sand warm, the wind drying her damp newborn back. Her tongue tests the air, and tastes water far to the west, beyond the husk of her old body, through the gouge beneath the wall. Over the wall the bodies swing and creak on their ropes, but they are only shells, and the poison rests between her teeth now, a gift for those she chooses to kiss. Oasis shrinks toy-like under her unblinking reptilian gaze. It is a nest, a golden pot with an amethyst lid, trapping asps until the music plays, but it cannot hold her anymore. All over the city, people pitch and turn inside themselves, sliding against the smooth walls of their prison, but only a few buck against the shell and break it. But the desert is a city too, vaster than Oasis, and the reptiles are its people. Hester tastes them on the wind. Blood and incense, jasmine and mango, they call to her, all the ones who went before, the peasants and merchants, the old women and the young, the Emperor and Marick all, now fully themselves, unchanging day or night. Their prints erase the footsteps trailing into Oasis. Their bodies are arrows which point to the sea. They are waiting for her. It is almost time to go. Hester waits beside her cooling body until sunrise breaks upon the city. Oasis turns over in its old familiar rhythm. Moonside lovers kiss and part. Footsteps hurry from house to house, and chalk symbols are found and read and quickly erased.  And then, for the first time sunside, Hester sees her: Shayna the moonside butcher, come to unseam her body. Hester knows Shayna will sell the parts piece by piece, a last providence for her Oasis family. A family can live for a month on the price a human body would fetch. Her hair will go to the weavers, her bones to feed the lemon tree groves, her fat to fuel the lamps, everything given back to the city that bore her. Except her heart. Shayna saves it in the same scrap of bloodstained batik that once held Marick’s. Hester hopes it will be enough. But now, the part of her that cannot be bought or sold slips beneath the wall, tastes the distant water, and goes to find it. The post PodCastle 633: The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles appeared first on PodCastle.
Author : Tony Pi Narrator : Wilson Fowlie Host : Jen R. Albert Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Previously published in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction. CW: Grief and mentions of suicide. Rated PG-13. Our Chymical Séance By Tony Pi To thoroughly inspect the spacious Silverbirch Room before the séance would take more time than we had, but I did what I could. No clockwork cheats lay hidden between the wall of books and the arched windows, and no mystical runes had been etched onto the crystals of the chandelier or cut into the fossil calygreyhound skeleton on display on the mantelpiece. All that remained was the grand salon harmonium, also the most troublesome. Madame Skilling could have hidden a charlatan’s trick anywhere among the instrument’s countless parts, from its mahogany upper casework to the hundreds of pipes at its heart. Cesar De Bruin rolled the key to the room between his palms as he stood watch, peering through the slightly ajar door. “Anything yet, Tremaine?” he asked. “Too many so-called spirit mediums have preyed upon my family’s grief, but they were charlatans with parlour tricks, all. I would rid myself of this one quickly as well. We haven’t got much time.” I couldn’t fault my friend’s dander. His only son Poul had shot himself with a palmcannon last summer, a year to the day. Cesar had this lounge closed to the guests at Château Banffshyre ever since. Had his wife not insisted on the séance, he would have been content to leave the Silverbirch Room sealed. “Laroux said he’d stall her, and he will. He’s nothing if not resourceful.” “Let’s hope. This Skilling woman’s convinced my wife that her ‘chymical’ method will not fail to contact the other side. I know too little of alchemy to prove her and her Ektoptikon device false, and Fay will not see sense. Have you nothing?” “In all likelihood Madame Skilling hasn’t breached this room, Cesar, judging by the dust.” I gave the lion’s-head handle on my new walking stick a quarter-turn clockwise, revealing a clever compartment in the shaft beneath the collar. Freed from its cherrywood cocoon, the foxfire-in-amber within shone brightly from its silver setting. I ran the illumination along the pedal keys, but they showed no signs of tampering. Discrediting a medium had not been my intent when I came to visit Sir Cesar De Bruin at Château Banffshyre. My team would always visit his Château before and after a dig in the badlands east of here. What better way to bid adieu to civilized comforts than to indulge in them? Or afterward, to wash away the patina of antediluvian dust in the thermal springs? The grand hotel had much to recommend it, thanks to Cesar’s vision: scenery, hospitality, and luxury unparalleled. The railway baron had built a formidable chain of grand hotels across the Canadas and ensured that tourists would choose his line when they traveled across the continent by train. The Banffshyre was the jewel of his endeavours. Cesar and I had become friends on my first foray to the fossil valleys of Canada Northwest nearly a decade ago, when rumours of newly unearthed Leolithic skeletons had lured me across the Atlantean Ocean. Though my doctorate was in Aigyptian archaeology, my research into sphinx cults had led me to fossilized specimens of countless leonine hybrids worldwide. By chance I had boarded the same empyreumatic train from Montraal to Calygrey as the De Bruins. I was surprised the President of Pacifica Railway of the Canadas was onboard and that he had heard of me. He had invited me to talk fossils over dinner with his wife and son in his parlour car. At journey’s end, Cesar wouldn’t let me continue to the badlands without a stay at Banffshyre at his expense. The palatial mountain hotel among the pines was Sir Cesar De Bruin’s dream rendered real with unparalleled workmanship. During that first unforgettable stay, I walked Cesar and Poul through the hotel, teaching them about the fossils embedded in its limestone blocks. In the evenings, Cesar regaled me with tales of the Canadian rail over brandy. I hadn’t heard about his son’s death until I arrived this morning with my team, when Cesar had met me in the foyer, a husk of his once exuberant self. I had gone through the same depth of grief when I lost my wife years ago, and asked if I could help. I could, he said, come to the séance. “This spiritualist from Huronto has bewitched my wife with promises of contacting Poul on the other side through her Ektoptikon. If only we could, truly could!” His voice shook. “Fay and I were in Calygrey, only seventy-five miles away. We should have been here. He had such a wondrous talent for music, one that should have taken the world by storm! What pain would possess him to take his own life? We saw no signs, and he left no note. The question of why wakes me in the dead of night, every night, and it too is killing Fay. A séance might bring answers, but only if it’s not a scam.” Hence my scrutiny of the Silverbirch Room. Jules Laroux nudged the oaken door open from outside and slipped in. “You’ve two minutes before they arrive, Professeur.” The stout man unslung his handcrank cinetoscope and tripod from his shoulder, leaned them against the bar, and poured himself a shot of whiskey. “I tipped the porter well to take extreme care with Madame Skilling’s Ektoptikon device, and the lift man to stop on every floor on their way down.” “Thank you, Laroux.” “Will it be enough time, Tremaine?” Cesar asked. I raised my walking stick to the pipes above the keyboard and stops so that they’d catch the light of the foxfire amber. “Only to clear the most obvious components of tampering, I’m afraid. But I suspect that whatever trick she has, if indeed there is one, would be part of her Ektoptikon.” “Trick?” said a disdainful voice. A fawn-like woman invaded the Silverbirch Room fleetly and soundlessly. Dressed in a deep purple silk satin dress with a white tulle jabot, Madame Skilling regarded us in turn, first Cesar, then Laroux, then me. “A chymical séance may be a novel technique for channeling the spirits, but it is no trick. Do not mistake the new alchemy for chicanery. Skeptics are welcome at my sittings, and become believers soon enough. Mister…?” “Professor Tremaine Voss, archaeologist.” I twisted my walking stick to re-seal the amber in its hidden compartment. “I never said I didn’t believe in spirits. Quite the contrary. I’ve roused spectres in Aigyptian tombs, fled from phantom tigers in the Orient, and faced down the ghost of a riddling sphinx. Put some to rest. Left others undisturbed.” “It’s me you need to convince. Jules Laroux, truth-reelist.” Laroux set his shot glass down. “Didn’t you take the lift with Madame De Bruin and your Ektoptikon?” Skilling smirked. “I sensed the stairs would be quicker.” “Nothing thrills me more than unmasking a fraud. You won’t deceive us with mere clockwork poltergeists or magic lantern shows.” Laroux patted his cinetoscope. “Mind if I film?” “You may not, Mister Laroux,” Skilling replied. “If you’re staying for the sitting, I require your full participation. Even the dead demand respect.” Laroux began to protest, but I calmed him. “Perhaps it’s for the best, my friend. If our efforts succeed in summoning Poul’s ghost, it’d be considerate to pay heed to the moment. But if you could explain the workings of the Ektoptikon, Madame, it will help dispel our doubts.” A chime from the mezzanine heralded the arrival of the limbeck lift on this level. Skilling smiled. “Ah, the Ektoptikon arrives. All will be clear soon, Professor. Gentlemen, if you could kindly draw the curtains?” I made my way towards one of the round-headed windows, relying only slightly on my walking stick for support. In the past, the thermal springs here have had a miraculous effect on the old injury to my left leg, and each time I bathed in these waters I felt as spry as a man half my age. I hadn’t time to partake in a soak as yet, but it was a comfort I looked forward to. As we pulled the red velvet curtains closed, a porter carried a sturdy metal trunk into the lounge with languid steps. Lady Fay De Bruin, clad in mourning black, trailed in behind him clutching a leather handbag to her bosom. I hadn’t seen Fay as yet this visit, and what I saw broke my heart. She was Grief herself, gaunt from fasting and pale from seclusion. Had her joy and pride died with her only son? I crossed the room to take her hand. “Fay, I’m so sorry for your loss. How are you?” “Adrift, Tremaine.” Fay brushed aside a stray lock of hair from my forehead. “I curse myself for being blind to Poul’s inner demons, for choosing to believe all was well when it wasn’t. A mother should know. A mother should have better instincts.” Her words made me question my own fatherly duty. If my son took his own life as Poul did, could I say I knew him well enough to guess at his heart? No, no parent could. We had to trust our children to tread their own path in life, for good or for ill. Fay would have agreed with that sentiment, once. Now she wallowed in a flood of what ifs and if onlys. The only glimmer of hope I saw in Fay was when she looked towards the spirit medium for support, who in turn nodded. Skilling raised her hands and wandered through the room, whispering an indecipherable incantation under her breath. Laroux watched the show with growing mirth. “I do that too, but only when drunk on absinthe.” The medium ignored him. She stopped halfway between the unlit fireplace and the harmonium, where she was struck by a fit of shudders. “The chill’s here. Porter, please put the trunk on the seat of the harmonium, then bring that table to this exact spot. Five chairs as well.” When that was done, Skilling unlocked the trunk. “May I have your assistance with the Ektoptikon, Mister Laroux?” “With pleasure. Let’s have a look at this thing.” Together, Laroux and Skilling lifted a magnificent device the size of a large pumpkin out of the cushioned box and placed it on the table, dead centre. Imagine a krakenesque chandelier gilded with red gold, its mantle an alchemical show globe sloshing with a cobalt fluid. Its eight tube-like articulated arms extruded from the symbol-laden pyramidal base, and for the nonce they lay curled against the crystal core as though in defense of the filigreed automaton. Madame Skilling flipped the symbol for tin to reveal a hidden keyhole in the base. She produced a slender silver key seemingly out of the air, and inserted it and turned it. The arms of the Ektoptikon unfolded like a blossom greeting the sun. The limbs didn’t snap flat against the table, but retained their signature curl. At the terminus of each was an intricate silver iris valve. “It’s less machine than work of art,” I said, appreciating the workmanship that went into the Ektoptikon. Like my walking stick, it was an exemplar of the new philosophy called Finesse Oblige: subtle gearwork, supernal grace. This design made alembic engines and other chymical devices resemble flailing, gutted automata. “But what does it do?” Skilling offered an oaken chair to Fay, so that she would be seated directly in front of an Ektoptikon arm. “Do you know the theory of ectenic force, Professor?” “Only vaguely. I read somewhere that it has to do with a hypothetical fluid in the human body.” “Hypothetical? I think not. During a trance it can be coaxed forth as ectoplasm, a phantasmal vapour that manifests under certain conditions and aid in the manifestation of spirits and their power,” Skilling explained. Laroux snorted. “I’ve seen frauds with their ectoplasm, always in the dark. In the light they’re just regurgitated butter muslin, or gauze rubbed with goose fat. Which is your hoax of choice, Madame?” The medium gave Laroux an icy stare. “Obviously advanced alchemy’s beyond your ken, cameraman. The Ektoptikon uses a newly-discovered chymical reaction to create ectenic effluvium. Breathing the vapours induces the emanation of ectoplasm from the participants at the sitting, which greatly magnifies our chances of contacting the other side. All we need is the catalyst. Do you have it, Lady De Bruin?” “Yes.” Fay took from her handbag a pink silk pouch containing something the size of a large goose egg, leaking a deep red light from within. I knew then, even before she revealed what the object was, that it was the rare amber that I had discovered in the badlands and gifted to Poul De Bruin ten years ago. Unlike the yellow foxfire-in-ambers of the Old World or the blues from Antilla, this piece had the characteristic carnelian colour of ambers with Ignisfatuus inclusions found in Canada Northwest. I had donated all the ones I found to museums across the Atlantean, but had saved this sample for a wide-eyed, eleven-year-old boy who had promised to keep it safe for life. Cesar caught his wife’s wrist before she could hand the glowing amber to Madame Skilling. “That’s our son’s.” “Which makes this better than any other because it was dear to Poul, my love. She needs it for the séance and she shall have it.” “You said reaction and catalyst, Madame,” I said. “Is the amber destroyed to produce the effluvium?” “Of course it’s consumed by the process,” Skilling replied. “That’s the touchstone of my New Alchemy.” “Technically, the creature in that amber is genus Ignisfatuus, not the Europan foxfire species, but what the paleontological societies are calling fellstars,” I told her. She didn’t seem impressed. “You quibble over small details, Professor.” While Cesar and Fay argued over the stone, Laroux pulled me to the bar to pour me a whiskey on the rocks. “Is that gem worth a lot?” he whispered. “To some collectors and museums, yes. Not many fellstars-in-amber have been found.” Laroux smiled. “Then I think I know her scam. Drop that rock into the blue drink, bubble it up to give a good show, but drop it through a hidden hatch in the machine and claim it had dissolved.” “I had the same thought. Stir in some fumes to make our heads spin, and who’s to say that we didn’t see a phantom or two?” I furrowed my brow. “And yet I wonder. Such a unique piece would be too easily identified. It could very well be that she really does need the amber for her alchemical reaction. Likely she intends to fleece the De Bruins with a series of costly séances, leeching off their fortunes while living in luxury.” The shouting match suddenly came to a halt. Though the amber was still in her left hand, Fay had worked her wedding ring to the tip of her finger. At last, in defeat, Cesar released Fay’s wrist. Madame Skilling took the fellstar-in-amber. “Dim the lights and take your seats. We are ready to begin.” The porter extinguished the magnesian lanthorns in the salon and left us five to begin the séance in earnest. The only illumination remaining came from the amber and the dregs of light creeping around the curtains, beneath the door and through its keyhole. Skilling claimed the eastmost seat and bade us to sit according to her plan. Clockwise from her, it’d be Cesar, then Laroux, then me, and finally Fay. As I was close to the fireplace, I rested my walking stick in the fire irons stand before sitting directly in front of a raised Ektoptikon arm. The spirit medium unscrewed the lid to the show globe and dropped the amber into the blue liquid. The reddish light became a cerulean glow as the fellstar shone from within the concoction. I thought I saw a fleeting frown, but she reclaimed the air of confidence and replaced the lid. “Excellent. Join hands and listen carefully.” I took Fay’s hand. It was cold. Laroux set his shot glass aside and grabbed my right hand. His palm was sweaty. “This will be unlike any other séance because of the Ektoptikon,” Skilling continued. “Once I activate the machine, it will generate ectenic effluvium through the duct in front of you. Effluvium has no pleasant smell but you must steel yourself and breathe it in. Within a few breaths you will feel ectoplasm flow like warm smoke out of your mouth and nostrils, but don’t be afraid if it turns viscous as it leaves you. Merely focus and do not break the circle under any circumstance. Once enough ectoplasm has materialized, I will enter a trance and guide Poul’s spirit to us. Any questions?” I felt Laroux’s grip tighten. Knowing him, he was biting back a snide remark in deference to the De Bruins. “What if nothing happens?” Cesar asked. “Cast aside your doubts, Sir De Bruin.” Skilling took Fay’s hand, and with the other turned the little key in the base another full revolution. The Ektoptikon whirred and hummed. Bubbles percolated through the glowing fluid in the show globe, changing the sapphire hue to emerald. The fellstar-in-amber was turning in the churn, bathing us in its eerie, mesmerizing light. Skilling took Cesar’s hand, closed her eyes, and began to chant and sway. Eight sounds like sharpened knives ran clockwise around the Ektoptikon arms in rapid succession. A foul gas hissed forth from the valves, assailing us with a stench that reminded me of frankincense laced with rotting cod and sheep milk gone sour. My face must share the same snarled disgust as the others around the table, but for the sake of the séance I had to endure the stink and inhale. On my fifth exhale, I felt it: a tasteless phlegm that coated my tongue, my teeth, and my lips. A white mist, not unlike a warm breath on a wintry day, escaped from my mouth in a constant stream. Yet instead of dissipating, it became semi-solid and gathered in a snakelike tendril that angled for the Ektoptikon orb. Fay gasped as the same thing happened to her. I almost thought she’d let go of my hand, but instead she inhaled even deeper. One by one, tendrils from the rest of the participants merged with the swirling cloud of ectoplasm around the glass sphere. I half-marvelled and half-questioned this phenomenon. What was this ectoplasm, I wondered? If it came from somewhere within us, what was its true function? Did we need it to live, and would something untoward happen to us if we forced it out our bodies like so? “Damn, I need to film this,” said Laroux, his words slurred by the mucosal ectoplasm in his mouth and nose. Madame Skilling’s incomprehensible incantation grew louder, and the Ektoptikon began to shake. The show globe, coated in ectoplasm, now held a roiling green tempest. The caged fellstar-in-amber rattled against the glass like hailstones in a storm. In the midst of the noise I heard a muted cracking sound, but it wasn’t the show globe breaking. The amber within had broken into shards. The light in the Ektoptikon didn’t abate with the destruction of the amber. In amazement we watched a ball of golden light pass upward through the glass and into the ectoplasmic tangle. No, that was wrong. The luminous object didn’t so much as find the plasm, but rather drew the substance to it. The pseudopods of ectoplasm seemed to vanish into the fellstar. At this, the ectoplasm in my throat suddenly thickened so much that I couldn’t breathe, and I felt stabs of pain in my lungs. I tried to call out to warn the others but found no voice. I didn’t have to. They too were afflicted, same as I. Skilling opened her eyes and seemed startled by the appearance of the unknown light. She used her last breath to spit out a spell, likely one to quell the spirits, but her words did nothing. The séance had gone terribly awry. I broke the circle of hands, as did Laroux, but Skilling held on to the De Bruins. I tried to look away from the hypnotic fellstar but found I couldn’t. It forced us to keep our eyes open and focus upon it. Laroux flung his shot glass at the fellstar, but it only sailed through the creature to smash into against the floor. I groped around the base for the silver key in front of Skilling, hoping to shut off the Ektoptikon before we all suffocated. But even as I turned the key and wound down the machine, I feared we’d already breathed in too much effluvium to make a difference. Cesar had the good sense to cover his own eyes with his left hand, which seemed to free him from the fellstar’s mesmeric effect. However, it didn’t stop the ectoplasm thickening around his nostrils and mouth. I could do the same, covering my eyes, but I didn’t. I had to understand what this fellstar was doing, which meant I had to keep observing. Laroux stood and grabbed his chair from under him. Lifting it with both hands, he swung it at the fellstar. For some reason the chair managed to catch the creature of light this time, though I didn’t know why. Unfortunately, Laroux’s attack also smashed the Ektoptikon globe, sending broken glass and blue liquid flying into Madame Skilling’s face. She fell backward, her mouth open to scream, but only a squeal escaped. Knocking the fellstar away from the mass of ectoplasm somehow caused the ectoplasm in our mouths to thin. I gasped for air, while the first words out of Laroux was an apology to Skilling. But though most of us regained our ability to breathe, the fellstar fixated on Fay, coiling up the ectoplasm still issuing from her mouth. Even as it was asphyxiating Fay, it lured her out of her seat, made her lurch towards the door. That creature of light had been trapped in amber for untold millennia, and it hungered. Cesar chased after his wife while I made my way to Skilling’s side. She was moaning. There were some cuts to her face but I was more concerned with her eyes. I didn’t know what that liquid was in the Ektoptikon but it might be caustic. “Don’t rub your eyes. I’ll get something to flush them clean.” Laroux dropped the broken chair. With one hand he grabbed a poker from the fire irons stand, and with the other he tossed me my walking stick. I recalled that there was a bucket with half-melted ice for the whiskey on the bar, and pushed to my feet. When Cesar caught up to Fay he stumbled to the floor, pulling her down with his weight but cushioning her fall with his thickset body. But the fellstar continued to drink in Fay’s ectoplasm, and she was on the edge of fainting from lack of air. Laroux swung the fire poker at the fellstar, but again it passed straight through the ball of light. My mind raced. Why did the chair work but not the shot glass or the poker? Wood versus glass and iron. Was it as simple as that? “Laroux, only wood will work!” He dropped the poker but there wasn’t much in reach except the bookshelves. He grabbed a thick volume and swatted at the fellstar. His strike connected, sending the ball of light flying erratically away from Fay. The ectoplasm choking Fay suddenly regained smoke-like consistency, allowing her to take a giant breath. Cesar lifted Fay in his bearish arms and carried her towards the chaise lounge. “Breathe, my love, breathe.” The fellstar fled the room through the iron keyhole in the door. “Don’t let it hurt the other guests, Laroux,” I said. “I’ll follow as soon as I can.” I knelt beside Madame Skilling and pulled out my handkerchief to soak in the cold water. “D’accord, Professeur.” Laroux threw open the door and raced through with an atlas in hand. As I washed away the alchemical brew from Skilling’s face and eyes, I started formulating a hypothesis as to what the fellstar was and what threat it posed. Foxfires and fellstars both belonged to the genus Ignisfatuus, colloquially known as will-o’-the-wisps. Amber was fossilized plant resin from ancient trees, and the theory was that these prehistoric creatures of light had been trapped and died in the sticky secretion before the resin became amber. The foxfires-in-amber had been in use since early civilization as fireless illumination, and it was known that wood blocked their light. Like resin, paper and wood also came from trees. “Madame Skilling, does your chymical reaction only work with foxfires-in-amber? And does ectoplasm only manifest when you use one?” “Yes, and yes.” She sat up, taking the wet kerchief from me. “Thank you, Professor. Go help your friend. I’ll care for myself.” “Your effluvium might not be the reason ectoplasm’s drawn forth.” I stood. “I suspect the foxfires and fellstars feed on animal ectoplasm, using their hypnotic effect to hold them. When you used the Ektoptikon, it likely revived the Ignisfatuus in the destroyed amber. The creature then coaxed ectoplasm from us to devour it. Maybe the ones you used before died or escaped in the process, but this specimen is hungrier and more predatory.” I called to Cesar. “Are you two all right?” “She’s weak, Tremaine. I can’t leave her.” Cesar touched Fay’s face. “Take care of that monster for me.” I hobbled out of the Silverbirch Room onto the mezzanine, finished in native fir. No sign of Laroux or the fellstar on this level or in the open lift ahead. “Laroux, where are you?” I shouted. The burly uniformed operator in the lift heard me but shrugged. “Who are you looking for?” “A droll man in a rumpled suit, wielding an atlas, chasing a deadly ball of light.” I stepped onto the balcony overlooking the main lobby of the hotel and looked down at the crowd of glamorous guests below. Neither Laroux nor the fellstar were among them. “Er, can’t say I’ve seen them.” I looked up instead. The Banffshyre’s octagonal central rotunda rose nine stories up, topped by a glass dome. There! On the fifth floor gallery, above and to my left. Laroux was leaning over the balcony, his hands locked around the legs of a young bellhop who had gone over the railing headfirst. The fellstar floated near them over the open area, devouring ectoplasm from their mouths and noses. The creature must have hypnotized the boy and lured him over the edge. The only thing saving the bellhop was Laroux, but who knew how long he could hold on when he couldn’t even breathe? The people on the main floor were oblivious to the death scene about to play out. Even if I could get to Laroux and the boy in time, what could I do against a flying creature of light? It was too far away. If only— The damned creature was made of light. Film captured light. Laroux had left his cinetoscope by the bar. I couldn’t run, but the lift man could. “You, sir, fetch the camera from the Silverbirch Room. Now!” I shouted. He ran. I entered the limbeck lift. Made of steel and glass, I could see out into the rotunda from the lift cage and keep the two in sight. I prayed that Laroux could hang on just a bit longer. The lift man raced back with the cinetoscope. I hung my walking stick on the lift rail and took it from him. The pancake-shaped camera and tripod unit weighed fifty pounds, at least. How could Laroux call this portable? “Fifth floor, please,” I said, as I unscrewed the lens cap to the camera. On the long train journey here, Laroux had told me about the alchemy of filmstock. “Film’s made of nitrocellulose, which is just cotton exposed to an alchemical process,” he had said. Cotton was plant matter. If I had extrapolated the nature of the fellstar correctly, then it might be possible to use Laroux’s film reel to trap the creature of light. As the lift doors closed, I pointed the camera up and through the glass at the fellstar and the handle, keeping to the rhythm that I had become so accustomed to whenever Laroux was filming. Chymical cylinders above and under us burbled and impelled the limbeck lift slowly upward. From this distance, I couldn’t tell if it my filming was having an effect. A bell chimed. “Five,” croaked the lift man. “Thank you.” Now that I was at the same level as the fellstar, I thought could see it flickering. “Go help them!” He nodded and hastened out while I kept cranking the handle. It’d be better if I could get closer. I used the cinetoscope tripod as an improvised walking stick, and hobbled as fast as I could towards Laroux and the fellstar while continuing to film. The lift man had his arms around Laroux’s waist, anchoring him. The closer I got, the more the creature flickered and dimmed. I was slicing the fellstar with every new frame, binding it bit by bit to the celluloid. The ectoplasm choking its current victims was thinning, allowing Laroux and the boy to draw breath again. At last, the fellstar winked out. Laroux mustered his strength and pulled the bellhop to safety, then fell on his back on the marble floor, his chest heaving. “That was a close one. Merci, Professeur.” I breathed a sigh of relief and replaced the lens cap. “You’re the hero, Laroux.” I turned to the lift man. “You too, my good man. Your name?” “Willem, sir.” “Thank you, Willem.” I tipped him generously. “I will put in a good word with Sir De Bruin.” Laroux and I returned to the Silverbirch Room. Both Fay and Madame Skilling were recovering well from their ordeals, it seemed. “What was it? Is it gone?” Cesar asked. Laroux put his cinetoscope down. “Let’s just say we’ve captured it all on film.” He stretched his arms over his head and yawned. “I need a good, long soak in a sulphur bath after this.” Cesar smiled. “Please do, Mister Laroux, and take advantage any other services of the Château, on the house.” I explained to them my theory as to what the creature was, and recounted how we had defeated it. “Like the legends of the will-o’-wisps, the fellstar would lure its victims to their deaths so that it could feed on the ectoplasm from their bodies. Madame Skilling, your chymical séance revives these deadly creatures from their amber prisons. You must never use the Ektoptikon again.” Skilling traced her finger over the remains of her machine. Her eyes were still red from contact with the alchemical substances, but we had washed them clean quickly enough. “Perhaps, Professor. Or perhaps you’ve shown me what’s missing from its current design.” She glanced at the cinetoscope. Then, with a flourish, she made the silver key in the lock seemingly vanish. “You cannot stop the progress of magic and technology.” “That may well be,” I admitted. “But now that they march in step, in the wrong combination they also unwittingly cause senseless deaths. I’ve seen it firsthand many times.” Fay stood. “Madame Skilling, I thank you for coming to Banffshyre, but my husband and I no longer require your services.” Cesar nodded. “My porters will see you safe to the train station in the morning.” “We could still contact your son, Lady De Bruin,” Skilling said. “I sense his spirit is near—” Eerily, the harmonium played four mournful notes, startling us. Fay’s eyes teared up. Did she recognize the music? “It seems Poul will always be near, even without your trances,” Fay said, taking Cesar’s hand. “Good night, Madame.” The post PodCastle 632: Our Chymical Séance appeared first on PodCastle.
Author : Tim Pratt Host : Hamilton Perez Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published at Strange Horizons. Rated PG for superseded oracles, despots past their expiration dates and probability witches. Another End of the Empire By Tim Pratt “I am here,” Mogrash said. “Give me the bad news.” “A child dwells in the village of Misery Chin, in the mountain provinces to the east. If allowed to grow to manhood, he will take over your empire, overthrow your ways and means, and send you from the halls of your palace forever.” Mogrash relaxed. This was, at least, not an immediate threat‚ not like the pronouncement of metastasized bone cancer she’d given his grandfather. He sighed. “So I’m expected to send my Fell Rangers to the mountains, raze the village, leave no stone upon a stone, enslave the women, and kill all the younglings to stop this dire prophecy from coming to pass.” “It’s what your father would have done.” “Yes, but I’m more modern than he was. Besides, we’ve seen this happen a thousand times‚ the attempt to stop the prophecy will make it come to pass, won’t it?” To read the rest of this story, visit Strange Horizons.  The post PodCastle 631: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — Another End of the Empire appeared first on PodCastle.
Author : Aimee Ogden Narrator : Elizabeth Green Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Previously published in the Hidden Menagerie Vol. 2 anthology and reprinted in The Dark. Content warning: domestic violence, violence against a child, gore Rated R. A Cruelty That Cut Both Ways By Aimee Ogden The thunderbird had left two carcasses by the barn overnight. Ezra refused to call in the hands to help. It was Sunday, after all, and their God-given day off, whatever the devil’s own bird might have done. It was only divine providence that the rest of the cattle hadn’t escaped when the bird ransacked the Greens’ barn — the blank-eyed creatures stood and stared from where they’d crowded at the back when Ezra cleared the wreckage of the door and let in the morning’s light. He and Sarah cleaned the two dead cattle while Liza read the Bible to herself in the kitchen and prepared the Sunday meal. Sarah had assigned her daughter the story of Ruth and Boaz for today, and she could hear her daughter’s voice drifting out through the open windows in between the rap of the knife on the wooden counter. She struggled over certain words — Moabite and guardian and foreigner — but her voice was clear and true as she sounded out the story of faith and patience rewarded. Sarah hoped she took the tale to heart. Not much flesh to salvage from the dead cattle. The blood had run out to make dark mud of the dusty ground, and the hides had been shredded by the thunderbird’s talons. But the livers and the tongues were still fresh and mostly intact, and Sarah used her best kitchen knife to cut them clean of the beasts. There would be gelatin from the bones too. Sarah said as much to Ezra, and he spat into the soil. Spittle clung to the dark whiskers on his chin, and his blue eyes glittered like ice chips in his face. “So we’ll eat for a day or two, and I’m meant to smile about that?” When he stood, his knees creaked. But she pressed her lips tightly closed against a retort, and he didn’t come any closer. Finally he shuffled himself back down into the dirt, muttering curses as he sawed at the cartilage in the steer’s hind leg. Sarah peeled a slimy shred of muscle away from her steer’s shoulderblade and added the bone to her pile. She hadn’t changed out of her best Sunday dress — the only one of the three she owned made of store-bought cloth and not patched-up flour sacks — and she was brown to the elbows and knees. Well, it would wash, and so would she. She wiped the damp hair from her forehead with the back of one wrist and said, “You reckon it’s brooding season?” This time Ezra shot to his feet despite his crackling joints. He crossed the space between them in three steps and cuffed her across the cheek. “I look like I’ve sprouted feathers to you, woman?” he shouted. “How the hell should I know when a creature like that sees fit to drop an egg? I raise cattle, not goddamn demon birds!” She murmured her apologies, but he didn’t return to stripping the other dead steer. He put his head down and stormed across the corral, muttering, hands clenched at his sides. She put her head down too. There was still work to be done, however many pairs of hands were set to it, and the blood that ran down Sarah’s chin mixed in the dirt with the blood of the cattle. The pain was a reminder, and one she’d earned. Not just that she had bought that sting and then some, with the secret sins she carried. But this too: that Ezra was more right than he knew. That bird was surely a demon, and the fate it bore on its leathery wings was Sarah’s and no other’s. For what wrong she’d done Ezra, whether he knew it or not. And what wrong she’d done Liza as well, of course. It would be a sin to deny that twist of the knife too. When it came for her and bore her downward, she would be ready. So long as her daughter was left safely behind, at least. Ezra had never, would never hurt the girl. And the thunderbird could bear her no ill will. If she’d played a part in Sarah’s misdoings it had been entirely a passive one. Sarah’s lip had stopped bleeding, though it felt puffy. Ezra was still pacing the perimeter of the corral, cursing his bad luck in women and land-claims alike. His cursing wasn’t so bad. At least while he blasphemed, she could tell where he was without looking at him. Back at the house, Liza’s voice had fallen silent. Monday morning the three ranch hands arrived by the time the sun was up. Matthew, Mark, and Charlie, who by rights ought to have been a Luke or at least a John, scratching their beards and shifting their weight from boot to boot as Ezra handed them each a weapon. For Matthew, Ezra’s second rifle (the one with the bad trigger); for Mark the pistols from Ezra’s desk; for Charlie, the wood-axe. They set out with Ezra on horseback, and melted into the red rising sun. “We’ll be back by dinner,” Ezra said before he mounted up. That meant Sarah would need to have dinner ready for four hungry men after doing their day’s worth of ranch chores. Liza helped her put the cattle out to pasture, then joined her in the corral to shovel manure. By then the morning was gone, and with it Sarah’s opportunity to do the week’s baking. Well, they could all eat flatbread for the next six days like the Israelites in Egypt and they’d be none the worse for it. Sarah and Liza went out to the east pasture to fix a bad fencepost, and to keep an eye out for the men riding homeward. “Where do you think the thunderbird came from, Mama?” asked Liza. She leaned into the fencepost to hold it upright while Sarah dug the old rotted post out of its hole. They had both tucked their skirts up inside their apron strings to let off some of the oppressive heat that clung to their bodies. “Did they have thunderbirds back in Chicago?” “No. Move that post closer, will you?” It hurt Sarah to have to ask that; her daughter was twelve years old and not built for ranch work. But Liza complied, and Sarah slipped the new post into the old hole. The barbed wire wrapped around it, front and back and front again, and helped to hold it upright. “There’s not many of them, and no one’s ever seen one but here on the prairies. From what your daddy and I have heard, at least.” She stepped backed and fished the hem of her skirt free to wipe her brow. “As far where it came from, well … “ She didn’t dare say hell lest Ezra decide she’d been stuffing the girl’s head of fancy again. “Somewhere down south, maybe.” Liza didn’t look satisfied with this answer, and small wonder that. “Come on,” said Sarah, and tucked the loose damp curls that had come free back into her daughter’s braid. “We’ve got work to do back in the corral and the kitchen before our day’s done.” The men weren’t back by dinner, and Sarah’s tentative heart lifted as the shadows lengthened and the Dutch oven cooled. Maybe her prayers had finally been answered. Her lies she would carry around her neck until they dragged her downward to perdition, but she did have a daughter to see to, and in spite of herself she longed for the kind of reprieve only God in His infinite mercy could grant. A woman and a girl couldn’t manage a ranch on their own, no, but they could sell the cattle and make their way back east on the money they earned from it. They could learn to walk with their heads high again, to raise their voices without flinching and to sing without looking around first to see who might hear. When the sun dusted the earth again, she nearly told Liza to start packing. But she bit her tongue and bided her time reading with the girl by lamplight. Half an hour past dark, and she heard the jingle of reins and raised voices outside. “Daddy’s back,” said Liza, looking up from the Bible, and Sarah’s belly twisted around her supper. She lurched out of her seat as the door banged open. Ezra and Matthew crashed through the door with Mark’s arms stretched between them. Charlie loomed in the doorway, a pale bloodstained ghost. “Get us some clean water!” Ezra bellowed, and Sarah rushed to comply. The men laid Mark out on the kitchen table, and Sarah gasped at the sight of his shredded leg. Had that been the work of the thunderbird’s talons, or its beak? What a foolish question. She snatched up a pail and cried to Liza to start a fire. Boiled water and bloodstains on the kitchen floor. When Mark finally slept, still stretched out to his full height on the table, Ezra sent Matthew and Charlie home. Sarah lingered in the kitchen doorframe, watched the light in the oil lamp dance in the beads of sweat on Mark’s face. She told herself that it wasn’t her fault, that Mark’s fate wasn’t her own misdirected punishment. Nor yet a cruel wish deflected off Ezra to an undeserving target. Well, now they’d both suffer for it. Him trapped in the shredded prison of his body; her bent under the burden of a mouth to feed. A mouth without a back to bend to labor. The tiny twisting tongues of flame from the lamp licked at her like hellfire. “Go to bed,” Ezra grunted, when he pushed past her. She folded her arms across her chest. Liza had already retired, exhausted by the day’s events and the night’s terrors. “I should stay. Do for him as can be done.” “There’s nothing to be done for him.” Ezra leaned toward her, and she put the doorframe between them. “I said go to bed. I ain’t going to say it again.” Sarah fled, and dressed herself for bed with numb fingers. When she heard grunts from the kitchen, the feeble kick of stocking feet against old wood, she closed her eyes in prayer. The first plea on her lips was that Liza, at least, might sleep through this. They buried Mark in the pasture, deep beneath the dry grass where the wind whistled. He had no family to stand beside his grave as it was filled, and none to ask any questions that might rile Ezra’s temper either. Charlie didn’t have his letters, and Matthew had a dreadful stutter, so Ezra read from the Bible when the wooden coffin disappeared beneath the pebbled dirt. There wasn’t proper food for a funeral spread, but Matthew and Charlie came back to the big house for a bit. Liza and Sarah put out bread and butter and cold sliced beef and the men ate and nodded their thanks. She wanted to reach out to them, touch them, reassure them of their guiltlessness. But she could hardly do any such thing with Ezra looking on. When the men went out to get at least an afternoon’s worth of work done — all the more important now there were only six hands to set to eight hands’ worth of work — Sarah tugged at Ezra’s sleeve before he could follow the others. “This is the end of chasing that bird,” she begged. “Isn’t it?” Sarah could not abide the thought of another man bearing the punishment for trying to avert the fate that ought to be hers. A cruelty that cut both ways, that one. Ezra slapped her so hard her ears rang. “I swear I’ll never point a shotgun at that damn monster again, less it comes knocking at our front door.” He jerked his shoulders up and down, and Sarah wondered what it was he meant to shrug off. “There’s mucking in the barn that won’t wait. Get Liza and get to work.” They had been married long enough that she spoke Ezra’s language, the pauses and the subtly emphasized words, the muscles in his face that tensed and slackened. Ezra would never again put himself between the ranch and the thunderbird, no. But he might see to it that someone else still would. Liza had already bent her back to the soiled barn, and her hem was pinned up to keep it from dragging through the filth. She paused to straighten her back when Sarah arrived, and leaned on the handle of her muck rake. “Mama,” she said, and though her voice was dry as old bones, tears swelled up in her cinnamon-brown eyes. “Why is the thunderbird tormenting us?” Her voice dropped low. “Could it be something I did wrong? If I missed my prayers, or if — if I didn’t mean them enough?” Sarah reached out and pulled Liza into her shoulder. The smell of manure filled her nose and mouth: rich and grassy as God’s green earth, and as tainted. “No, my darling,” she said, into Liza’s hair. Too hard to explain to the child the particular taint of original sin that ran in her blood. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It was never you.” Two weeks and three more dead cattle later, Sarah was in the yard when a stranger on horseback rode up. He had a hard-weathered face, brown as sun-baked prairie soil, but it relaxed in a smile when he greeted her. He wore a pistol on his hip and a pair of rifles slapped the flank of his sorrel mare. She offered him something cool to drink, and wished she could offer it as some sort of meager thanks. But he hadn’t come here to save her, of course. He told her he’d come to do the job advertised in town. “I’ve killed them birds before. Not always easy, but don’t you mind — it can be done.” He grinned at her over the rim of the cup of water she’d fetched. “You know, there’s folk who like shooting them down because they think they’re holy to the Indians, but that’s not so. The Winnebago have a thunderbird, but to them it’s a messenger to the gods. Not some ugly leathery sky-beast.” He took another deep drink, then chucked the rest of the water into his own face. Droplets rained down from the gray-black stubble of his beard. “Besides: they die awful hard for birds, but too easy for angels.” Sarah dropped her eyes to her feet, not at the cowboy’s words but at the sound of Ezra’s voice. He was yelling, across the yard, at her or at the man, she couldn’t tell. He didn’t like it when she spoke to men without him present. She half hoped he would strike her in front of the stranger — earned or not, she would take freedom from this man’s hands if he saw fit to offer it. But no, Ezra had raised his voice in exultation at his hired gun’s arrival, not in any fit of temper. He tagged up to the stranger, pouring out golden charm like a river of whiskey. Any reservations or doubts had to wash away under such a tide as that. Sarah’s certainly had, when she married him. But then she’d had other reasons to let herself be carried along so easily. She’d been his mark as much as he’d been hers. In any case it was nothing strange for Ezra to present the Sunday-best version of himself in front of friends and neighbors and passers-by; it was only for Sarah and sometimes his hired men that he rolled up his shirt-sleeves. They sent Sarah away while they talked money, until Ezra shouted for her to fetch the hired gun something stronger to drink than water. She fetched him a cup of Ezra’s second best corn-juice, better than what he gave Matthew, Mark, and Charlie at Christmas but not as good as what he kept for his own personal use. Its smell peeled Sarah’s lips back from her teeth, but the hired gun took a deep draft and barely pulled a face. “Tastes like killing monsters feels,” he said, and handed Sarah the cup. When he swung himself back into the saddle, riding so tall and straight and handsome, she could almost doubt the thunderbird’s odds. Almost. But maybe if he failed in that quest, he might come back to the farmstead looking for another. A princess in a locked tower, a dragon at the gate … No — she banished that foolishness from her head, with a jerk of her wrist to fling the rest of the corn-juice into the tall grass. She was no innocent maiden, and never had been. Liza’s daddy had been a handsome man, too, and look where that had gotten her. Ezra’s hand twitched, but he didn’t slap her, not with the hired gun still in earshot. “I paid good money for that chain-lightning,” he growled, and she knew he’d make her pay the wastage back later, in coin of his own choosing. She looked out to where the hired gun rode out through the ranch gate, which Charlie hurried to swing closed behind him. She shivered with fear and terrible desire when a shadow slid over her, but it was only the sun passing behind the clouds. The tall handsome stranger with his rifles never came back, in seek of pay or otherwise. Other hired guns came and went in his wake, two or three a week at first, and then fewer as time went by and tales of the size of the monster that haunted the Green ranch spread. Some were as tall as the first, and some were as kind, though few were as handsome. But each and every one of them had eyes only for the prize, a reptile-bird hide to drag back to town and a pocketful of silver to spend on the resulting celebrations. Sarah didn’t blame them, not when Ezra saved his vile outbursts of temper until after these men had come back empty-handed or not at all. Until after they had disappeared into the sunset seeking easier quests to set themselves against. And as charming as Ezra was, Sarah was his opposite. The years of marriage and the hot prairie sun had taken their toll in equal measure: her hair was so fair and her eyes such a pale blue, it was as if the color had been bleached out of them. If she’d had a clever way with words once, a sharp tongue that had turned heads, it had been a long time that her tongue had lain still and silent in the bed of her mouth. She was a piece of the landscape on the Green ranch and nothing more to these men. Maybe, she thought, as the summer days stretched out hot and dry, that was all she was to the Lord her God too. Her sins weren’t great ones, but they were ugly little things. Ugly enough for her Maker to turn His head, maybe. And for Him to deny her the quick easy end of a visit from the thunderbird. Or maybe He was waiting for her confession: not to Him, for she’d given her penance on bent knee a thousand times over. But to Ezra himself. And Liza. The sharp edge of Sarah’s lie curved backwards on her, too. In the small quiet space they had together in the evenings, Sarah found herself studying her daughter’s face. With Ezra out working late, his time pulled taut by helpless anger as well as necessity, she could enjoy her daughter’s presence without the shadow of his nearness to darken it: her dark darting eyes and the delicate point of her chin. Sarah’s hand-me-down nightdress hung too big on her body. “Liza,” she said, her voice dusty in her mouth. The girl hunched over the Bible by candlelight; she didn’t straighten up at Sarah’s voice, only slanted her eyes her mother’s way. She looked like a startled coyote, trying to figure out which way to flee. The yellowed linen of the nightdress tented sharply over the peaks of her shoulder blades. Sarah’s tongue worked against her teeth, as if that might scrape the words free. The girl’s frame barely held up under the thin layer of flesh it was clothed in; surely it would shatter under the cruel weight of unvarnished truth. She reached across the table and stroked Liza’s brown hair. “Your papa and I are proud of how you’ve buckled down to work around here. Times have been hard, with Mark gone and with the extra work the bird makes for us. It’s a blessing to have you.” That last was true, though it hadn’t always been so, had it? She let her daughter’s curls fall from her fingertips and tried not to think of the girl’s daddy. She swallowed the acid words that had pent up in her throat: that ghost could lie abed a bit longer. “Get to bed now. It’s late.” When they got up the next morning, another rotting husk lay in the farmyard. This time, the body didn’t belong to a steer. Matthew’s eyes stared heavenward; Sarah rushed to force them closed while Ezra stood over the body and Liza hovered just beside. “I’m sorry,” Sarah said, to Matthew’s upturned face, and threw her coat over him to hide his cracked-open ribs from Liza’s eyes. The sun bore down unblinking on her shoulders; there was nothing that could be hidden from heaven. They had the body in the ground by noon. No one had the will to mutter more than a few words over the fresh grave, and Charlie only stayed long enough to see his friend buried. “Nothing tying me here now Matthew’s gone,” he told Ezra, and slung his half-slack bag up onto his shoulder. If he had tears glittering in his eyes, Sarah took care not to look. She put her hand on Liza’s shoulder and watched the last of the hired hands walk away from the ranch for good. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the tautly corded muscles in Ezra’s neck and the vein standing out below his jaw. Time to keep her mouth shut and stay out of the way. “I can help out more on the ranch, Daddy.” Liza stepped away from Sarah, and Sarah’s hand fell back to her side — too late to call back the girl’s words, nor yet Ezra’s sudden attention. No, he had never struck the girl. Not Sarah’s sweet daughter. “I got a strong back, and I don’t mind the work.” Ezra didn’t move at first. Sarah reached for Liza, to pull her back and shoo her toward the house before she had to bear witness to one of Ezra’s displays of temper. But Ezra’s fist moved faster than her outstretched hand. He clipped Liza across the jaw and sent her sprawling. “Now you tell me,” he bellowed, “how one scrawny girl’s meant to replace three grown men!” Blood dripped through Liza’s cupped fingers, three red drops that stained her dusty apron. She yelped when Ezra stepped forward and swept back his leg for a kick. Sarah moved. Not much, not far. A little sidestep that carried her across Liza’s legs and the spill of her skirt. Her face pulled tight over the bones beneath, and whatever Ezra saw there made him pause. He stepped back. “Just get in the house,” he said, and turned away to dust his hands on his shirt. “It’s past one and I already dug a grave this morning. Get some dinner on my table before it gets any later.” Sarah stood over her daughter until he’d walked out to the corral, and then hustled her to her feet and into the house. Sarah and Liza worked silently, preparing the food and setting the table to Ezra’s liking. Hot marrow soup with the last of the overwintered potatoes, liver fried in the pan, old bread softened with a smear of butter. Sarah sliced up a cold joint too, for Ezra’s favorite sandwiches, and laid it in sight on the middle of the table, then turned to the pail of water to wash up her knife. “I suppose you’re not too hungry,” she said to Liza, who hovered near the table. “Go sit in your bedroom for a spell. You can read, if you like.” Liza vanished. Sarah sat down at the table with her hands in her lap. Steam rolled off the marrow soup, and the over-rich stench filled her belly with sourness. It took another twenty minutes before Ezra banged through the door. He sat down, loosening the handkerchief around his neck, and looked about. “Where is she?” “Resting. You ready?” “Damn right,” he said, and shoved his plate toward her. She served him his supper. Early the next morning she led the sheriff’s deputy from town out, far out past the ranch’s fences. Out, on horseback, to the great nest that lay hidden in the scrubby trees, out by the cliffs that fell down toward the drought-shriveled river. She showed him Ezra’s body, torn nearly beyond recognition, where he lay amid the shattered remains of three enormous eggs. The pinkish things that lurked beneath the fragments of shell were too terrible to look at, and the deputy kicked them out of sight into the corner. “Damn fool,” he said, and covered his mouth as he frowned down at Ezra’s mortal remains. “Not the first idiot this bird’s claimed, and sure as shooting won’t be the last.” Sarah shook her head. “Don’t think ill on him. He was protecting me and Liza to the last. Got it in his head the thunderbird must be brooding, to linger around here so long.” She dragged her sleeve across her face. “Well, he was right, rest him.” The deputy tipped his hat, guilty and solicitous all at once. “What’ll you do now, ma’am, if you don’t mind me asking? That’s a big ranch for you and the girl to manage all on your own, even if new hands do hire on. And it’s not altogether safe, a widow woman and her girl all by themselves.” “No, I’ll sell the ranch.” Sarah studied the ruins of Ezra’s face. Not enough left of him to tell what sort of expression had colored his final moments, whether he had left this world behind on wings of regret or surprise or terror. “Go back east if we can. My sister still lives in Chicago. Liza ought to grow up around family if she can.” The deputy replaced his hat on his head. “Ezra’s got kin in Independence, too, hasn’t he?” “Yes.” Sarah nodded slowly and so stiffly she was surprised her neck didn’t creak. “But I can get more outwork back in a big town like Chicago, I hope.” “I suppose that’s so.” He sighed, and settled to one knee beside Ezra. Sarah didn’t envy him the task of dealing with that human wreckage. “Well, you’ll be missed around these parts, Miz Green.” “Thank you,” she said, and walked out of the shelter of the trees, where she could stand up straight, where the sun’s white heat poured down on her face. She took two deep shuddering breaths, and swallowed her rising gorge. A shadow blotted the sun’s warmth off her face. She looked upward, and found the thunderbird wheeling overhead, wings spread. Her throat tightened. Not now — she wasn’t prepared to go now, of all times. Better to leave Liza behind with no protection at all than with a man as likely to harm as to help, yes. But not by much. Sarah fell to her knees. There was no forgiveness to be had, not from a dead man twice wronged and not from the Creator God whose punishment she’d so terribly flouted. And Sarah wasn’t sure she would have wanted forgiveness anyway, even had it been there for the asking. The thunderbird gained height, then tucked its leathery wings. It dropped toward Sarah in a freefalling dive. “I’m sorry,” Sarah said, but it was Liza who she sent those futile words to. She closed her eyes. A gust of wind beaten on leather wings, lashed Sarah’s face, and she screamed. But not alone. Another cry raked the air, so close that it drove the breath from her body. Pain drew her belly back toward her spine, but not her own pain: secondhand pain, borrowed pain. She opened her eyes. The thunderbird huddled not ten paces from her. Its claws tightened in the spilled innards of a yowling mountain lion. The lion kicked twice, gave one last feeble cry, and relaxed into death’s waiting embrace. The thunderbird’s red-gold eyes found Sarah’s. The beast was too big to be believed, the size of a pair of circus elephants put together and then flensed down to bones and dry leather. The bony crest on the back of her head was nearly as long as Sarah standing to her full height. She held Sarah’s stare as she raked into the mountain lion’s exposed belly. Gore stained her fleshy beak and spattered the wrinkled leather of her belly. New gore and old. “I’m sorry,” said Sarah again, not to Liza this time. To the bird, demon or angel or creature of the earth. The bird stared her down as she staggered out of the copse of trees and out onto the open prairie. Eastward, toward the ranch. Time to go home to Liza, help her pack up. They’d have to travel lightly, two women alone. A few changes of clothes in Liza’s hope chest, the brass candlesticks, the Bible. A pot and a pan, and, of course, Sarah’s best kitchen knife. The post PodCastle 630: A Cruelty That Cut Both Ways appeared first on PodCastle.
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