“Hey, I made dinne–uhhhhhhh what did you do.”
The workshop, usually equipped with machines and materiel for the making of magical media, now also has a hole punched through reality. It’s seeping copious amounts of slime and that is definitely the worst thing a trans-dimensional doorway can do. Thematically, it’s the next logical step when it comes to Magicraft outfitting, but remember: the act of surprise is a more honest compass than the rational.
Amidst slime-time, perfectly acclimatised to the situation, is a goopy mess vaguely shaped like a person. The only thing which makes them stand out against the natural camouflage is the shimmering glass ball they’re holding. It beads beautifully, beading pristine reflections of every cubic centimeter of muck stuck to the bottega. Upon closer inspection, the orb reflects the surfaces covered by the slime, too, and the surfaces beneath those surfaces, everything outside of the studio, flower fields, cities days away; the world held hostage in a bauble. Perhaps because of this, it appears to be extremely fragile – whatever holds it together has to push back against pressures internal and external, constantly crammed between the weight of the world and that of resignation and doubt.
Suddenly, an elongated, dripping arm with way too many joints juts out of the portal, proceeding to scoop up slime, almost parent-like, including some of which covering the sorcerer.
“Soo… mind telling me what that was about? Also what is that?”
“What about the portal?”
“Cast spell ‘Slime dimension portal.’.”
“There’s nothing there but, well, slime. What’s that thing?” The assistant expertly whacks the arm about to tear off the sorcerer’s face and instead wipes them gently with a towel. This is one of a triptych of tasks they’re most needed for.
“Glass orb. Nothing special.”
Before the assistant gets to comment further, the arm reappears. As if out of reprimand, it charges up and completes a powerful slapping combo inside the workshop before disappearing eternally. The damage is done: the cookie jar is destroyed, the medicine cabinet has lost its alphabetical arrangement, the sorcerer has got a nasty bump on their forehead.
Through a loud sniff the sorcerer says, “ow ow ow okay maybe a bit special. The arm gave it to me. It’s made from pleromic sands*, I think? You can only find that in Slime Dimension.”
“Why’s it called Slime Dimension if something that ineffable can be found there? Seems reductive.” The assistant performs their second-most requested task: applying a band-aid on one of the sorcerer’s frequent, variform injuries.
“Quantity over quality, I guess. To be fair, there is a lot of slime.”
(*: WIZARD’S NOTE: Whatever is reflected in the glass made from pleromic sands will capture its essence. As a result, once the vessel is shattered, this consequentially removes from existence whatever it is reflecting. Your dad, your dog, your dog’s dad. Nothing will remain! Exercise caution!)
A silent concern hangs between the two. The garishly-garbed magus, an awesome although slightly clichéd sight, pomfs back down on their seat, glass ball plucked between thumb and index finger. The metaphysically most important, most breakable object in the world right now is being rolled casually across fingers, four feet up from a hardwood floor. Their long sleeves and many rings do little to hide th escars, but maybe those will disappear once dropped. The assistant’s face is a steady waterfall of sweat, eyes pinned on orb.
The sadder one continues.
“Uh. So. I think I’m going to use it.”
“Yeah! To destroy all life on earth, I mean.”
“Oh dear. May I ask why?”
“I’m world’s greatest sorcerer, who catalogued about fifty hitherto undiscovered magical creatures and invented 69 – heh – new spells. I froze time in someone’s brain while they slept so they could dream forever. Cast a glamour on the grains of a poor man’s farm so the bread would feel more filling to his kids. I turned husbands into beastmen for their wives and their lovers into wine (while covering my own eyes with one hand). These are, I’d say the least, proof of mastery and something for future troubadours to write lyricisms about. I know this, I try not to be vain about it. I don’t feel like I have anything to be vain about?”
“I haven’t been reaching deadlines because I can’t seem to magic my way out of bed most days. The men and queens and anything in-betweens are happy with my work. I can’t be happy with it or me. The, probably, mightiest sorcerer to have ever lived feels powerless and sad. So, I did the reasonable thing of requesting a world-ending orb from a capricious eldritch entity.”
“Speaking of things you did… did you forget your meds?”
“It’s fine. You’re fine.”
The assistant releases a sigh out of a dry, wry mouth. They grab a pill bottle and a stray cookie off the floor, this is their third task, and hand them to their depressed friend, who requires both and needs their listening ear. They grab the most impractical-looking chair in the room, flip it around, and sit on it backwards. The resulting sound is either creaking wood or a slowly-breaking pelvis.
“I figured to just power through, make a living. I got stability but that turned to anxiety. Wrong kind of routines, definitely. Then I hired you and that was great. But that didn’t ‘esuna’ the mental illness.”
“That spell only works on status ailments, though.”
“Yes? I’d say this is pretty ailing.”
“No, like, poison is an ailment. This is just… brains?”
“Would be great if I had a better pair. One that goes ‘damn wizard, gnarly magic + excellent robes.’”
“Well, no one’s perfect. But no one’s alone either. And there’s some great robes out there.”
There does not exist any spell – yet? – capable of eclipsing the intensity of the stare the sorcerer just cast at their assistant.
“You trying to say my robes are bad?”
“I’m your assistant. This is assisting. Assisting your fashion choices.”
The two laugh, smile, and resign to the mutual support and care between them.
“Soooo… Do you still want to use that thing to destroy the universe?”
“Not really. But I also super can’t dispose of it now. Guess, uh, I’ll hold onto it. For safekeeping. Not as, like, ‘The Captor of Universality’ or ‘The Whimsy Destroyer’ or whatever. I’m over that doomsday now. More like… a guardian? Pretty cool mythos, the best sorcerer who protects the concept of existence. I can handle that. Like, as a hobby.”
“You out of your bender, then?”
“I guess I am. Sorry again. And thanks also.”
“Don’t mention it. Also thank god because this chair is killing my hips. Let’s go and clean up this slime.”
When a commenda was formed,
a swan feather and a handshake,
maybe a smile between the two,
officiated a single trading mission.
(An unofficial finger found its way
onto a pair of eager lips, exploring)
Outside that dusty Venetian office,
the sinking edifice becomes a feeling:
hope, confidence’s pendant. Though
it is anxiety that stops its swinging back.
One stayed precociously with the wares,
the other stayed with a silk heartache.
When I eat with you, I live with you.
You loved with me sardines I brought
from the harbour, not as fat as the ones
in Sicily, and the wine (and our sweat)
made our office warmer than summers.
We made the gravest mistakes together,
we let our breaths wander farther than
sighs of Mediterranean gales that make
touch, kiss, bite, taste saltier, thirstier.
We have flavours to remember us by,
savour the aftertaste, replenish it soon.
Mama said: life is food enjoyed together
Of us two, the one that remains
is referred to as the ‘sedentary’.
The house, the room, the weight
leaning against the doorway until
you’re gone, then spins inside to
become a place to return to. Filled
with soft worries and quieter prayers,
the sedentary then (the personhood,
not the place, though can one even
point out a difference?) writes love
letters at a cheap desk. The hourglass
counts how long it takes to be away.
The sand of the glass, tragic in purpose,
and the grains of ancient Roman roads,
make horses whinny, make eyes tear up,
made the time I hesitated seem illogical,
when I could not bring myself to hold
mama’s hand while her ankles thickened.
Reasons piled up, like the linens wrapped
around old silverware, copper candelabrae.
Cicero couldn’t explain, not with his best
oration yet, no humanitas can clarify, why
the councils organised around wealth won’t
spend it on whom objectively need it more.
We pled for alms; none would let us grieve.
You, rich, loving, but regrettably not enough;
we sent me out to fetch the lucre, an avarice
that we made business, called it commenda,
following the well-travelled roads of capital.
The sounds of thrumming silver, spilling into
curling hands desperate for food and health,
for the simple, final dignity of knowing closure,
these become the echoes where life once was,
bouncing off walls of sad and preventable deaths.
We raised funds for a small goal: keep her house.
Property should be abolished, for many reasons.
One is that people become tied to their luxuries.
Another is the attachment of luxury to people,
that lingering soul shapes one dead as alive again,
memory imbues the blankets she’d slept under,
but only in the form of the emptiness they hid.
The contract was quilled in swans with awful ink:
arranging the sale of goods between party A & B
among which the sheets that still carried her scent,
to be delivered wagonway, far away from Venice.
The profits: split 66/33 between the two of us,
although we would spend all of it on the same.
The sedentary funds the trip, arranges transportation,
signs the contract. The one that travels with the goods
has to venture into dangers (weather and bandits and
disease are the great killers). The commenda is a gambit
with little hope of success or profit, and the sedentary
beats a captive heart in a house empty with worry.
Account for things that can go wrong, and everything
will be imagined wrong, independent of competence.
With no reply to the love letters, empty pigeon talons,
any knock on the door becomes less and less of a hand
you want most: bills, eviction, family intent to do wrong.
Then those familiar bootsteps release a heart held hostage.
Upon return, there is a handshake and a dance,
a temperamental embrace, the clock strikes again,
spurred by the moment of return, of inhalation, of
letting anxiety lay down like a dog a summer later.
Persons return emptier things: houses and inkwells,
even purses, those thrums now a weight of salvation.
Money is an origin of troubled risks, most preventable,
schemed and demanded by the coldness of institutions.
Inexcusable coins calcify while life goes on and goes away,
leaving people to deal with financial hollows (and let’s not
pretend these are not the exact same as emotional ones).
But even abandoned to their own surviving, people will.
And for what it’s worth, I really believe this, so will you.
“The Dynasty has brought civilisation to the lowest corners of the galaxy. The truth of history fixates on our technology, our culture, our compassion. Yet, as you well know, there are some who would reject our native kindness. The Mutiny happened on this day, six years ago, an atrocity of betrayal. 13 of our discovered planets gripped their swords and slashed our Throats. They must be made to understand that only mercy will be met with mercy. And we will teach them through you, recruits, as you will be made merciless.”
Six years ago, I enlisted in the military. Two years later, I graduated as a pilot. Both ceremonies had the exact same set-up. Marshal-of-stars Goldenlove reading the same speech from a sheet of paper (even mistakenly saying “six years” again), a proud Ebru beside me mouthing along with the speech, Eeves smiling and waving despite the fierce scowl I shot him. Even the cheap plastic chairs that hurt my ass were exactly as I remembered. The only difference was that this time around, fewer seats were occupied: 87. 87 people didn’t survive, and none of their families were eligible for any recompense or grief leave simply because they were only recruits.
I had signed up for the glory, but two years is a long time to be disenchanted with dying for a cause. The sorrow and hate and love I felt when I first chose my callsign had morphed into an indifference toward death and a jaded predilection toward survival. After all, The Deeming Coordinate cares more about organising funerals than awarding medals.
Still, I fought for them.
>Incoming call: OPERATOR EVERGREEN
“Eeves? What’s up?”
“I had to chime in and congratulate my favourite pilot. You really earned that promotion.”
“Only took half a decade, but it feels good to fly pink hearts. They look good on Strawberries-in-White.”
“I’m sure they do. Hey, I just checked on Ebru. Um… those two hours won’t be enough.”
>Incoming reprimand: PERSONAL CHATTER FORBIDDEN DURING COMBAT OPERATIONS
“Tch, command’s on our ass. I’ll take this rep. Cable, come home safe.”
“I will. Thanks Eeves.”
>Call connection terminated
>Reprimand claimed by: OPERATOR EVERGREEN
>Arriving at operation zone
The ceremony was boring, and deep down I’m glad it got interrupted. I’d woken up to a mailbox with a formal order of appearance and a discount coupon for the drycleaner’s. Whirlwinded through the house in a panic to find my dress uniform in my broom closet, stuff in a box labeled “whatever”. The laundry officer almost gave me a reprimand for letting army apparel get that dusty. I looked in the mirror and thought I looked wrong.
Those golds and whites and those awful shoulder tassels, they still felt foreign on me. Like skin covering up flesh it didn’t match with. The wrong lines on a map. It was, truly, a costume. I was a showpiece on display in a sheen-white command center. The most important day in my career and only a steno writer showed up. Goldenlove’s monotonous, whiskeyed voice didn’t make me feel any better either.
“Pilot Cable, your accomplishments in the previous 328 runs, battles, and skirmishes have been noticed by The Dynastic Succession of Moonless Skies. As such, The Deeming Coordinate raises you in rank. You are pronounced vicegerent, bringing you closer to the stars we’ve named, the moons we’ve taken, and the planets we’ve discovered. Your worth is proved, yet may your ascent never slow.
Ahem. Uh. Yes. The Dynasty has brought civ–“
The clinical glow of command fell to shades of emergency. The on-screen jpeg banner of the Dynastic flag was promptly mouse-dragged away, then replaced with some badly-rendered star maps, strategic-looking troop placements, and a rotating animation of our military emblem that took up half the screen. An operator called in, fresh coffee on his shirt; he frantically summarised: Mutineers in the Brim Dividing sector close to capital planet, two ships-of-the-light accompanied by a G-type, one Throat destroyed, all available pilots scramble for battle, I recognised the name: Levrette.
The Marshal-of-stars, cooped up under that long cloak of his, we call him Captain Curtains in the barracks, turned to me with eclipses in his eyes. A dark stare that said: Go on. Give us a reason to regret this decision. And I gave them exactly that: my first act as vicegerent was sprinting to the hangar where Ebru was. I found her praying in her cockpit. Of course she’d already prepped for launch, my throat turned dry and bitter. I knew
“Cable! There you are. You ready to get some glory? By the way, those hearts decals look incredible on Strawberries! Congra–”
“Ebru.” Deep breath. “We lost Levrette.” The name of her station made tears well up behind her goggles. I wanted to give her a hug so badly, but my new rank meant I had to give her ‘grief leave’ first.
“For those who have fallen defending our stars, the Dynasty awards heaven. For those they have left behind, the Dynasty awards rest. For two hours, you may keep this highest sacrifice in rememb…rance…
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Ebru. I have to fight. You stay here. I’ll call Eeves to check on you.”
Her punching booms through the hangar. Turning on my engines hardly drowned out the sound.
>Dynastic Command order HDE 226868: PILOT CABLE SYNCHRONISE
They haven’t even updated me in the system.
Consent confirmed. Connecting PILOT Cable with DYNAST Strawberries-in-White.
>Please do not think bad thoughts.
>Neural draft initiated
>Cable, you’re sad.
>Your new position as VICEGERENT cannot afford emotional instability. Risks: material losses, reduced glory, unwise casualties. Recommended: HYPERSYNCHRONISATION
>HYPERSYNCHRONISATION is a combat mode accessible by rank VICEGERENT and up. DYNAST unit temporary overrides neural boundaries for improved precision, greater combat prowess, and heightened strategic decision-making skills. Reduces probability of shameful displays by 71,42%.
What’s my count at?
>Checking reprimands: TWO. (Updated FOUR (4) minutes ago.)
Wait, what? I thought Eeves took that last reprimand?
>REASON: Failure to prioritise The Dynasty over sentimental trifles
>Suggested course of action: HYPERSYNCHRONISATION
Should’ve known. Well, I already made an ass of myself and I’m short a wingman. Do I even have a choice?
>We do this for the sake of love, Cable.
>PILOT Cable returned from control haze.
>Initiating docking sequence… Success. Arrived at: Back home.
“Thanks for coming home. You make any glorious memories?” He succeeds at a smile, he looks good.
I didn’t always live in the Clouds. I used to live with Ebru in the Breezes, a one-room loft with only three walls. Before that, we lived together in the Acres with granddad Ashwin, the grass through the floor tickling our feet and the pollen making it hard for him to breathe, coughing as he taught us to speak Dynastic. From A to B to C. An alphabetic life. Looking for the next letter, one at a time. E for Evergreen, the first person in The Dynasty I could trust. Who didn’t deny or ignore that I was hated. Who stopped the bleeding and pressed me against his chest.
K for kiss. P for petjel, spending two paychecks on fresh black market vegetables – bora, taugé, white cabbage, dagoe leaf – and surprising Eeves with the best dish there is after he was released from the hospital. R for reprimand, my first, after my pre-promotion background check dug up some dirt: Ashwin was black. They’d always known this. They just wanted to shame me.
“Honestly? I don’t remember much.” Both food and conversation taste stale right now.
“Ha, don’t I know it? Some battles just happen too fast. Good thing we record everything, huh? I’ll see if I can get some copies of the footage. We can watch it together.” He struggles to bring the fork to his mouth.
The promotion to vicegerent put me at ‘V’. Between that and the last letter, S, I can´t find any T or U words to situate me. Following countless orders keeps me grounded, keeps me useful. The Dynasty, I know this, cares about my actions, not about me. Or rather, it’s all the same to them. They hail me as their tool and that’s my call to arms. It doesn’t upset me to be a subject – it keeps my home and everyone in it safe.
No, it upsets me that I agree to everything that’s involved. I’m the soldier with a reprimand for a contradictory heritage. Have to work twice as hard for half the recognition. Wouldn’t it be great to be something else? ‘Just Cable, that really good pilot that will kill for you so isn’t that enough?’ Extancy independent of institution would mean independence of payroll. Sometimes I wish I could afford to investigate what that’d be like. But Eeves needs the money.
“Hey, you’ve been kind of quiet. Something wrong?” There’s some stray rice kernels around his mouth.
“How many died?”
He slowly wipes the rice from his mouth, almost strategically placed to buy himself some time to answer.
“…183. But you prevented many more.”
“How do you know that? I wasn’t there.”
“What? You basically led the defence.”
“No, yeah, I was there. Inside of Strawberries. But at the same time, I was locked away? It’s a blur.”
Eeves suggested I moved in with him after the graduation ceremony. He’d been smiling at me, distracting me with his rough face, unable to contain his excitement. My answer: “but will you be safe?” His eyes, gray and soft, moonlight for a while, widened with regret. He shows me love and I panic about how I’d pose a threat to him. He was visibly overcome with realisation, suddenly aware of, suddenly responsible for every historical development that forged the knife of the ghostly wound that haunts me.
“That’s just called being in a cockpit, Cable. Ha ha.”
His eyes just now, exactly like then.
“Ahh… Ngm… Good stars, Cable. Where’d that come from?”
“I missed you, is all.”
“You never do, well, that, after combat.”
“Yeah. Well. Feel special.”
“If you’re not going to say much, get back to using that mouth for other things”
“Let me go on top.”
“Wait. Eeves. Are you sure? That hurts you.”
“I visited the sauna today. Moving doesn’t hurt as much. I’m fine. Let me do this for you.”
“We gotta stay home more often.”
“Jeez. Sourpuss, much? Hey robot, if I press the button on your back, maybe that frown will go away?”
“Don’t you dare tickle me.”
>IFF indicates all Mutineers in immediate vicinity confirmed dead. PILOT Cable mission kill count: 188. -3,77% mission efficacy.
Did I do the right thing?
>Objectively, you acted converse to Dynastic interests. You should not have told PILOT Ebru.
But she’s my sister.
>And your sister is a subject of the Dynasty and a PILOT to a DYNAST, both exceed ‘FAMILY’ in rank.
>Moreover, since your promotion, you have not shown any substantial improvements.
>You are currently: SHAMEFULLY AVERAGE. Is something the matter, Cable?
>I have direct access to your neural processes. You are lying, Cable.
We’re on patrol. You’re not my therapist.
>Correct. Therapy sessions end. Our relationship does not.
>To meet requirements of the glory tables for the VICEGERENT rank, PILOT Cable must show an increase of 23,55% mission efficacy before the next fortnight.
>DYNAST Strawberries-in-White is worried you will drag us down.
>You have yet to prove it, Cable. I have put in a request for a cut in your monthly income. OPERATOR Evergreen’s scleroderma requires frequent pain alleviation. These visits to the sauna, and the uncovered medical expenses, cost money. Perhaps a consequence will help you do better.
But I’m only at two reprimands!
>Irrelevant. Reason for consequence is motivational, not punitive.
“I messed up so bad.”
“Cable? What’s up?”
“I’m sorry, Eeves. Cable out.”
JOURNAL – Commander-Exodant Balthasar // Date: Day of Gratitude
Throats, officially ‘The Reminding Vows’, but called as such as they resemble the oesophagus, are media stations orbiting planets discovered by The Dynasty. They control radio waves and spread revised and more truthful information to virtually any electronics. I was on an inspection tour for underperforming civilians the other day and it touched my heart that even household toasters now emit our messages. From the bowels, out the mouth.
Look up any time of day and you’ll see them. Doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you’re on a planet bannered with eagles. They bear the Dynasty’s beautiful iconographies: the tearful eye atop a sharp horizontal wing and the eagle with opened talons swooping down on a rat. The former design can be found on documents and edifices concerned with ‘civilian’ affairs (a vernacular term; there no longer exists such a concept): the tiered ration system, forms for predetermined housing or genealogical healthcare, the Noble Redirection offices for those unable to enlist, that sort of thing. The latter emblem you’ll see stickered to military or imperial avocations, so, matters of daily life.
We don’t show the true Dynastic flag to the discovered planets.
I bring this up because I had never been shown around one. The Throat, Levrette it is called, orbits the capital planet Lazlo, which had recently been demoted to ‘recalcitrant’. As commander-exodant of the Brim Dividing sector, my duties include the assurance of discipline throughout our heights, so they invited me to help devise a new propaganda strategy. Assisting me was a woman named Ebru, who had some clever ideas. Enlisting local leaders to spread the word instead of sending it to them directly. Indeed, I suppose recent acquirements would trust their own before they do the Dynasty.
I must admit, the sirens make it difficult to concentrate as I write this. They seem to suggest we are under attack, yet who would be so foolish as to do s
Ebru would gladly lay down her life for The Dynasty. I took the same oath, but I can’t remember if I held my fingers crossed. I tried doing that the other day, but it didn’t go so well.
“Promotions have their benefits. You ever had ‘coffee’, sis? Scalding black liquid? What even is this.”
“It’s hot water and ground-up coffee beans. They’re not actually beans, though, more like cherries.”
“What’s a cherry?”
“Like a plant egg?”
“Right. So if coffee is hot water and a solid, isn’t it a soup? I should get soup discount on this.”
It’s been two months since the Levrette went down, since she overspent her grief leave by 2 minutes and 37 seconds, since her second reprimand (we share the first.) Then she was called into a briefing room, as the only survivor of the Throat, she had to explain why she did. Why she survived. Treated as a spy, then reprimanded again for failing to take off before combat ended. Since that put her at three reprimands, she received a consequence.
“So. How’s the war?”
“Uh, fine? Haven’t you been reading the newspapers? Listening to radio? Watched TV? Looked outside?”
“I just want to know how things are going for you.”
“Well. They just cut my pay for underperforming.”
“That’s… bad. What about Eeves?”
“Haven’t told him.”
Eeves calls me into the bedroom. He needs help buttoning up his uniform. The buttons are always so tight, I can’t, with my hands, he says. I’ll nod quietly, tie his tie, he doesn’t say anything out of embarrassment. This is our mornings together. Being sick means being a liability to the war efforts. It’s what’s written on his personnel file. They assigned him to a non-combat post. Even though he monitors me during missions, he’ll ask me how my missions go, out of genuine interest and out of melancholy.
Once a week he visits the sauna. It helps with his scleroderma. The heat and water helps him move better. He always calls me into the kitchen to watch me open a pickle jar on his own. He’s so proud of it, but I can’t smile. This morning he kissed me on the forehead, he’s so tall, and borrowed my paycard. I prayed, not sure to whom, that there would still be enough money on there.
“Anyway.. What’s going on with you? Outside of wars, I mean.” I take a sip of coffee.
“Everything is outside of wars for me. They barred off Lacrimose Red. I got kicked out of your squadron and have no station or war to return to. They gave me a cubicle.” I burn my tongue.
“That’s. I didn’t know. I’m sorry to hear that. I could try and get you back?” I wave at my tongue.
“Don’t bother. This is your fault, you know. There was no reason for you to tell me before launch.” I stop.
“You’re my sister, you had a right to know–”
“You’re also my squadron leader. You should’ve kept your eyes on the war and your mouth shut.”
The thing about people ready to die is that change when they fail to do so.
S for sister. Hope she’ll talk to me someday again.
Eeves used to be my squad commander before he got sick. Five years my senior, he flew pink hearts in the Shorebreaker, a magnificent emerald thing. They were very chatty, often called in with Eeves to have a mid-flight conversation. Strawberries would chide them both, but I’d turn them off. I knew Eeves before I joined the military, though. Back in the Acres, grandpa was reading to us from an old book. Millioenen-leed. The suffering of millions. It was just a bundle of paper, not even bound or digitised, hand-scrawled in our language, not the Dynasty’s. A car parked outside, our fence broke open, boots crushed grass underneath. He looked at us, never more serious: Hide in the tunnel.
I could see the back of opa’s head and his balled fist and two new faces. A boy, no older than sixteen, proud to be here, holding something. Behind him, hands on his shoulders, a regent, wishing Ashwin a glorious Day of Gratitude. Hang this up if you love The Dynastyc Succession. And if you don’t, hang it up so you will. Evergreen handed him a poster and they drove off. We drew a moustache on it later.
“Cable? Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure. Yeah. What’s up?”
“Did you… make any big purchases recently? Anything I should know about? Repair costs? Did Strawberries get damaged in the last skirmish?”
“No, nothing. You’d have seen it if I had.”
“Yeah. Yeah, yeah I would have. I trust you, Cable, that’s why I’m asking. I couldn’t go to the sauna today.”
My heart sinks so low. It falls from the surface of a planet and disappears into a nebula.
“They cut my pay.”
“They cut your pay.”
“I haven’t been meeting the efficacy quotas.”
“You haven’t been meeting them…”
“I’m sorry, Eeves.”
“If you were this wouldn’t happen.”
He looks at me, my uniform frenetically unbuttoned and an old Starstruck Bandits band shirt underneath. I can see him trying to love me in this moment. He once told me that the pain returns barely a day after he goes to the spa. His skin starts to feel like it’s vacuum-packed. His knees buckle, his lungs fail more with each day, every finger, the littlest knuckle, takes energy to move. It will take a while for me to die like this, he told me, succeeding at another laugh, the dimples around the mouth I kiss deeper than claw marks.
“You’ll be able to go next week?”
“Sure. Can’t wait.”
This is my punishment for not giving myself up for the cause. For not knowing how to work myself to death. For not absconding all matters but my death. The Dynasty treats me as a calculator. A tool that produces numbers. If breaking, cut open. Knives in my skin, hands pulling at what makes me work. Eeves.
U for understanding.
>Warning. Detecting unnecessary emotional hazards in VICEGERENT Cable.
>Do not think sad thoughts.
>Do not think in the non-standard language.
Why am I being judged?
>For insufficient performance and servitude.
Why do I need to perform and serve more for being from a ‘discovered’ planet?
>Sarcasm detected. Quit it.
>The Dynasty recognises culture and hegemony is difficult to replicate. The secondation protocols motivate non-Dynastic subjects to assimilate into the true norms.
Is that what I’m fighting for? The right of being secondary?
>YOU FIGHT TO BRING CIVILISATION TO THE WORLDS BELOW. FOR GLORY, INTEGRITY, AND HONOUR.
Clearly not mine.
>WARNING. CEASE DISSENT AT ONCE OR FACE CONSEQUENCES.
It’s all arbitration.
>THE DYNASTY DOES NOT JUDGE ARBITRARILY.
“HRNK. GHHHHAHNnKK. HRNNKKAAAAAAAAAAAAAA”
“Cable, what’s wrong? CABLE?”
>Call connection terminated.
>PILOT CABLE SHOULD NOT BE LEFT UNSUPERVISED ANY LONGER
>COURSE OF ACTION: HYPERSYNCHRONISATION
I DO THIS FOR THE SAKE OF LOVE, CABLE.
I wake up in the command room, strapped to a cheap plastic chair.
Goldlove’s footsteps echoed through me. This room’s acoustically designed for intimidation, after all. Not for interrogation – we don’t take prisoners, but fear keeps we soldiers humble. Each heel-clack felt like a shockwave, each crunch of leather a pilebunker ready to discharge. Four minutes this goes on for. All the operators, usually so enraptured with decrypting messages and handling communication, are here, staring. I recognise a coffee-stained shirt. Goldlove stops, turning to face me, his cloak whipping up a gust that hits me in the face.
“Vicegerent Cable. You have had two months, sixteen days, and fifteen hours to exemplify our trust in you. Our protocols require extra measures against off-world blood, yet are we not benevolent to offer you a purpose to partake it at all? We take you in, offer you civilisation and history, a pristine culture, a chance to give the same to others who share your squalid origins. And how do you repay us? You do not. We gave you a Dynast, we let it be piloted by you, and now, it informs us of your thoughts of treason. You deigned to pump those thoughts into our machines. A pity, and a disgrace; and you should well know The Dynastic Succession of Moonless Skies does not take any pity on any disgrace. Vicegerent Cable, how do you respond to your irreparable shame?”
The worst thing about this diatribe is that it’s finally a speech he did prepare.
Words are a bitter swallow, be they your own and left unsaid, or let into you by others. We can only know the world through words. The recipes of a favourite dish, the hellos and goodbyes at hospitals, the system that forsakes your blood. The world – that is, the space and time inhabited by people, subjects, and objects – shares vocabularies. The Dynasty’s improved truths, or pathologies, are blasted into airwaves by way of throats. They take up all the room meant for your own words. Your own thoughts. I think mine in another language, my tiny rebellion. Though I can say (heh) with certainty that not saying anything makes it easier to be spoken to. Little room to squeeze in what you have to say when the walls have been built to drown it out.
In this stillwind domination where everyone agrees, however, aberrate whispers can whip up storms.
“Go fuck yourself.”
Ebru and I moved to the Breezes when grandpa Ashwin died. We’d both enlisted a couple of weeks before, and The Dynasty graciously extended to us the predetermined housing adequate to our blood. Eeves had tried granting us grief leave, but this was cancelled by his father. Neither of us know where or when his ashes were scattered. It was clear to us that The Dynasty killed him. He didn’t have to raise us anymore, after all. We tried not to think about it.
Get used to this life, child
They fly above ya, stay strong
They own your life now, child
Can’t do what you want need done
Can’t do what you want need done
Grandpa Ashwin taught me that song, long, long ago. It’s about things falling apart and crumbling down. About a boy that never spoke. The brig’s got nice acoustics. I listen to my own voice. I start listening to my own chuckle. I wheeze, cough up some more blood, grab my ribs. Can’t remember the last time I did that – laugh, that is. A revolution takes time and people, so when you have neither, it’s a hilarious gesture. Propaganda of the deed? Not even. They told me Strawberries-in-White will have its AI wiped because I pumped bad thoughts into its systems. At least that victory’s mine. That prick deserves it. Hope they’ll never grows a self again. Wonder if I’ll be the first traitor to be executed with a smile on my face.
Make you go and speak their tongue
Make you theirs and teach you wrong
“Shut the hell up in there, Cable. Most traitors reflect in silenc—“
The clinical glow of the interior falls to the shades of emergency. Bootsteps over linoleum tiles, panicking voices, spilled coffee destroying terminal circuit boards. How does this empire even survive? It falls apart the moment people go in against it. The roof collapses, starlight filters in. Then a familiar face. Well, familiar angles. The unmistakable emerald coat of a Dynast. The unmistakable deep smile of Evergreen appearing as the cockpit opens.
“You owe me so many trips to the sauna for this.”
“Aren’t they going to send people after us?”
“Are you serious? They don’t have the budget for that. I mean, you remember the plastic chairs?”
“Yeah. They beat me on one just now.”
“Assholes. At least torture my sweetheart on something more comfortable.”
“So, Cable, any ideas how to survive this post-breakout and post-treason?”
“Let’s go to the Acres. No one’ll come looking for us there.”
“What, you wanna start a farm or something?”
“That sounds nice.”
“Oh, does that mean we’re returning to A?”
“Where was your little alphabet at before all of this?”
“Oh, U. For understanding that The Dynasty sucks.”
“Then V for viceregent, yeah? What’s it going to be till Z?”
“Hmm… W for ‘We’. Then X is… ‘Xcape’.”
“Y for Youneedtoshutup.”
“Z for zalig.”
“What’s that mean?”
Flames in the air and steel in his hands, he moves as if he has mastered both. The constant heat enwreathed the workshop in a similar sensation as a sousland pleasure parlour – of intensity, proficiency, and purpose. No bigger than a wagon, between the entrance and the furnace lay a strewage of raw materials, sacks of sand, and flasks of oils labelled with penmanship teetering on the brink between logographic and proto-language, providing little in the way of comfort or an atmosphere conducive to decorum and posture. The blacksmith cocks his head at a small chairless table used for conducting awkward business and which, upon closer inspection, is just two anvils not even placed neatly together.
“With you in a sec.”
“Blacksmith Tewfik, I come on urgent business.”
“Yeah, and I’m runnin’ an urgent business. Be with you. In a sec.”
His manner of speech is blunt and much too crass to address a royal. Coarse as it is, however, anyone listening finds themselves… listening. His voice contains an element of command to it. An alloy of knowledge and experience with trace elements of control. He exerts ownership over this space, and that includes anyone in it.
No tongue sears more than that of the sur-prince, having trapped it between his teeth, something he does whenever dealing with the useful insolent. A tongue bitten, he reasons, keeps me from swallowing my pride. He preludes his introduction with a strong ahem, audible even above the crackle of fire and the ringing of steel: Adelheid the Undenied, Commandant-Exodant of The People of Cel D’altura, Who Ordered the Skies to Open. No fanfare meets his arrival, only derisive laughter.
“You always introduce yourself in third person?”
Adelheid’s eyes widen in insult. He releases his tongue from his grip and prepares it once more to speak. Before mustering a punitive retort, however, he is interrupted.
“There, I’m done.”
Tewfik turns around and the two meet eyes for the first time, a sooty gaze with flakes of dark dust outlining his eyes with alternative mascara. Eyes that had been fixated on applying precise and hard, mighty blows to frail and simmering steel were now equally attentive to Adelheid. He gives the royal a noncommittal wave before standing opposite him behind the anvil-table, a comical, disarming gesture.
“So, prince Adelheid, what can I do you for?”
“Ah. You have heard of me after all. Our congress thus far seemed to lack the proper hailing.”
“You’re here for me, aren’t you? Don’t see why I have to be the lesser man.”
“The sur-prince requires your talents and you react with the same uncouthness as a souslander?”
He roars another laugh, a full-bodied motion, and for a brief second, Tewfik’s tectonic pectorals sneak out from under his apron. For an even briefer second, Adelheid is overcome with that unmistakable wash of heat and stocking of breath: shame. He recognises that in this place, this man is the one wielding condescension; he also recognises he does not necessarily dislike it.
“This may be the lower capital, but everything down here’s still the souslands to you high folk. ‘Sides, you showed no respect when you cracked open the clouds and claimed everything beyond them.”
Adelheid’s face twirls into a frown as a tooth draws blood. He did not come here to discuss the politics of suzerainty with a direct subject, much less be insulted by one. Yet, his requests and requirements outweigh any effort he wants to put into backtalk.
“Anyway, do you want my respect or my services?”
“Choose: I get all humble and bend the knee. Or… I give what you need.”
This whisper invites silence – it takes Adelheid aback, takes him back, to the trysts in the antechambers with Mergal, his first, with whom he, for once, was never the one in charge. Growled in the same, low way he had – and though there were two anvils of distance between them, he could feel as if lips brushed his ear.
Again does an incisor reach down, though to inhibit a different score of feelings this time.
“I am here to commission you.” His voice does not betray the wavering beneath – at least, he hopes it doesn’t. In a last-ditch effort to reassert his dominance, he slams down an embellished coffer on the anvil – two cupped hands below an antler’s horns, a single feather above the surroyal. Adelheid’s personal heraldry. He opens it, revealing the glowing stone inside.
“Wow, got your hands on some go-inon, eh?”
Adelheid bats an eye. “What is… go-inon?”
“Not much. What’s going on with you?”
All Adelheid can do is stare in disbelief at Tewfik’s wide, proud smile. This man is completely unpredictable. The blacksmith does not wait for Adelheid to give permission or for him to recover from that really good joke and grabs the coffer, letting his index finger move over the prince’s thumb, marking it with soot.
Tewfik whistles. “This is… Scoria of the Heavens, right? Never seen it myself, but I read about it while studying in Hűtő Vödör. Didn’t think it would give light, that’s special. You ever been to the Vödör, prince? Probably not, I bet you hardly ever leave Ascens.”
Adelheid uses his divine right in the best way possible: getting the conversation back on track. “Its luminosity is the least impressive of its qualities. Enhancing a blade with the Scoria produces a sword nigh unbreakable, aside from an ever greater side-effect.”
“What would t—“
“It turns the metal into a colour which has never been seen before.”
The excitement on Tewfik’s face could be accurately recorded with all of the imperial units of measurement. It were the offers like these that made the craft worthwhile, when the control over fire and steel – already arcane in its exigencies – bordered on the magical by adding the rarest of materials. Something in the glint of Tewfik’s eyes, however, messaged that this alone would not satiate hands.
“Why do you need me to do it?”
“Simple: your reputation precedes you. And this task I cannot entrust to my personal smiths.”
“Picking strangers over staff, huh? You must be planning something big. I’ll do it, because I wanna see this new colour. On one condition.”
“Which would that be?”
“You’re going to wait here with me till I’m done.”
It was the most practical solution, as Adelheid could not be seen returning to his post missing his family sword, but the immediacy in his response forewent any claims to natural social conduct; the mouth outruns the mind, and it seems no trapped tongue will stay still.
Perhaps the heat had molten away his icy demeanour, but the prospect of spending time with an impressive craftsman who refused to recognise his authority didn’t seem unappreciable. It helped that Tewfik was exceedingly ruggedly handsome –light brown hair brushed over his scalp and kept in place by the permanent abundance of sweat, thick lips and a crooked nose, shoulders that looked perfected by another blacksmith.
“Mind if I take this?” the blacksmith grinned as he drew Adelheid’s blade from its scabbard, the underlying suggestion drawing his breath as well. Look at that fool.
It was the one thought that perpetuated Tewfik’s mind as he toyed, teased, and dealt with his oppressor. Commandant-Exodant – commander of the exodus – as if leaving the cloud kingdoms wasn’t the most disastrous thing to happen to the earth. There were no ‘sousfolk’ till your armies rained from the sky ten years ago. The memory of brown wings, white skins, and bloody spears, still as fresh as the scar above. Your ego matches your wingspan, vulture, going around like you truly own the place. Trying to involve me in your machinations like I hadn’t just finished a sword that will end in the throat of one of your troops.
For someone who belongs to the folk closest to the sun, Adelheid is unnaturally pale. This uncanniness occurs in the behaviour and faces of royalty as well: stainless, featureless in how unflawed they are, ever looking down. Vultures compare themselves to angels, a monster they invented. Their armour bears iconographies of the right to rule: the eye of an eagle above a horizontal wing for the infantry, birds of prey upon a rat for the winged cavalry.
Tewfik is well familiar with the symbolism and the construction of Alturan armours. After all, he was forcibly sent to Hűtő Vödör, where the new Alturan smithing school had replaced The Buildings, to learn their crafting techniques, as he’d be in their service from now on. The Alturan history of metallurgy is a military one, written and put to good use by a nation of predators. However, conqueror and subjugated both exist in the same binary; like a clock it will strike back like a pendant. Weapons will mark any flesh, and if knowledge is power, then what the smith knows will kill.
“For repair jobs and enhancements like this, we don’t melt down the blade and reforge it: that’d be too wasteful and too time-consuming. Instead, we put it in the bloomery. This heats up the metal to a temperature where it doesn’t melt, but it does start to soften – blooming – making it easy to work with.” Tewfik’s voice is instructive and deceptively friendly, like a trader spinning stories to increase the price of an antique for the interested buyer.
“I do not know of such a process in my homeland. Fascinating.”
“Oh, for sure. Altura’s got sunspots to do the melting for you. Down below, we take things slow.”
Tewfik adds a wink to the last sentence, Adelheid responds in kind by biting his tongue. Heh, sucker.
In Minden Ugyanazon – the name for the lower capital before branded Ascens –, there is a saying that goes: “the strangest rituals guarantee the strongest swords.” Any smith will yell till dawn about why their furnace is the greatest, though no explanation actually lies in the furnace itself, but in the way it is prepared.
All smiths tame the same flame and bend the same steel, but superstitions, idiosyncrasies, and folktales will determine if a wool, silk, or hemp cloth is used for cleaning, or at what angle the hammer should land. Tewfik, for instance, believes striking the fire with a wet towel prevents cracks from running too deep when the smelt hardens. Afterwards, he inserts the blade into the furnace, making sure it slots into the grooves, and emits a sigh. He puts the towel on the anvils and begins to remove his apron.
Covered in soot and sweat, his chest is a rippling field of water and work and it is approaching Adelheid. “You should undress, too.”
“E-excuse me?” Still standing behind the anvil table, it barely succeeds in hiding the new heat travelling through his hips.
“Oh, blooming raises the temperature by a lot. That shining princely armour of yours will turn you into dross if you decide to leave it on. You can try and tough it out, but this will take a few hours.”
Adelheid is unsure what Tewfik means with ‘this’. Nevertheless, he concedes that he has nothing to be ashamed of, nor that he is opposed to the route things are going as they are. He gingerly undoes the clasps keeping his flat breastplate to him, and the two halves crash to the floor. Covering the chest of the mightiest man in two skies was nothing more but a flimsy, gold-hemmed tunic. And when two dirty hands ripped and tore it asunder, nothing anymore was.
Adelheid’s tongue produces no sound, as no protest could be found behind it. The prince waited for the taller man to say anything, mouth open to receive. Tewfik’s eyes travel across the grounded vulture before him, his brown wings wrapped around like the most brittle shield. He brushes them aside with ease, exposing his lithe, alabaster torso, and lets his grip find home on his jaw.
“I’d much prefer primmer hands touch me.”
“You’re way too clean. You haven’t experienced anything.”
“Kiss me already.”
“I will dirty you.”
Their mouths come to lock and all keys have been thrown out. The smith’s tongue dominates the prince’s with a ferocity spurred by retribution – he tastes the blood drawn earlier, and he thinks Good. There is no battle for control, no dominance to be wrestled; Adelheid is powerless to mount any defences, all he can do is relish in the bittersweet taste of subordination’s onset. Tewfik explores the confines of his mouth like a jailor inspecting a prisoner, the fallen monarch’s once-silver tongue has been turned into the gold of silent moans. He breaks away a bare inch, and Adelheid’s tongue hangs from his lips in desperation. Tewfik’s eyes look down at him – condescend him – and he can only grovel in his gaze upward.
I have him where he deserves to be. I have him where I want. He wants it.
“Know fully well, vulture, that this is retaliation. This is humiliation, I will make you humble.”
Adelheid nods, panting like a hound, and feels the drool pouring from above. Into his mouth, lapping it up like a dog. He swallows, his pride cascades with it, the last impediment before his lust. Drips overflowing land on his bare chest, and he instinctively scoops them up to drink. Tewfik takes note of the pleas in his golden eyes and spews into his mouth. The spit he is given becomes Adelheid’s own. The soot-covered hand on his jaw belongs there, the thumb sliding into his mouth must be sucked. Then. like a hook, it pulls him in for another kiss. The bite on his bottom lip sends thunder through his feathers, the rainstorm overwhelms him, his mind clouded, he cannot weather the elements.
“Good boy.” Tewfik playfully slides his free hand over the monarch’s heaving chest, leaving black trails of where he’d been touched, revealing where he will be touched next.
“Ha… Ah…. I…”
“I want… to accept you…”
“I thought all dominions were accepted in the commandant-exodant’s realm.”
“I’m not… hunh… talking about that…” Adelheid’s attempt at interlocution comes as a last stand before the full surrender – they both know what he’s talking about, but for someone as he, there is a shameless vulnerability in stating it outright. That, however, is exactly what Tewfik wants him to do.
“I want to suck your cock.”
“Good boys ask for permission.”
“….let me suck your cock.”
The muscular man takes a strident seat on the anvil table and gestures widely at his pants. “In Minden Ugyanazon, we have a saying: ‘Those who want, must work.’” Taking the jab and the hint, Adelheid drops to the floor and crawls before him, beginning to pry off his workboots. Satisfaction briefly turns to surprise as Tewfik feels a foreign wetness over his toes. He looks down to see Adelheid kissing and massaging his feet, and chuckles.
“So, the prince becomes a dog. You won’t be able to lick off the soot, but feel free to try.”
The kowtowed royal rises to his knees and rests his face on the crotch of Tewfik’s pants. He rubs his cheeks against him, feeling the warmth and the girth and the excitement. His breath clamours for his cock. He moans into the fabric, licks it, as his long fingers slide off the pants to free his new lord. In this moment, he is given the unknown: submission. To step down from his throne as ruler and fawn beneath it as servant is apocryphal to his dynasty, to what he has achieved – a cloudless empire – and it feels so fucking good.
His cock springs free, not yet fully hard. Adelheid places himself beneath it, attending to it as it lays upon his face. The smith, towering from above, looks at quite the amazing sight: the lord-conqueror of his homeland, kneeling beneath him, his wings that normally span the podiums he speeches from now folded neatly behind his back, his face in ecstasy as he kisses and licks his dick. The heaviness of Tewfik’s breath grows along with his cock until it stands at full attention. Eight inches tall and, apparently, bigger than a handful for Adelheid. He grasps it with both gloved hands and begins to stroke, mesmerised by its girth. He is encouraged to rapidity by the low moans above him.
Tewfik feels everything the prince does to him and the purpose behind them – his movements over his topography, intent on finding out how far they can go. He feels his dedication to the play waver; wanting to put him in place and wanting more are opposite sides of the same coin, and it stops to matter on which it lands. Politics become subject to pleasure. The silk over Adelheid’s fingers tickle and conduct him and he groans in tandem with the strokes. Hungry hands start at the base and rise to the very top, an ascension leaving crumbs of carnality in their wake, then come back down for more.
A trickle leaves the tip. Adelheid’s thumb, still stained with the first touch between the two men, moves to soak it up. Such gentle fabric over the sensitive head draws a loud moan from Tewfik’s throat. Looking away from his cock for the first time in minutes, Adelheid sees Tewfik’s tectonic chest, rising and falling and wet; his hair, dishevelled by hands going through it; his eyes, hotter than any forge, demanding he come up here. He does so.
“Wouldn’t you say I’m at a disadvantage?”
“Am I not exactly where you want me?”
“There are other places you can take me, prince.”
The temperature of the room forms no objection to the closeness of bodies – writhing against each other, a desperate exchange of heat and fluids to create more. Adelheid’s hands pushes on Tewfik’s cock as if slowly inserting a blade into a scabbard, similar to the tongue pushing down his mouth. Two deft hands remove the last obstruction, the prince’s longskirt undone and cast aside, his modesty revealed.
“Ah, so this is the royal sceptre.”
“Ha, fair enough. Go grab the clove oil. It’s on the shelf.”
As Adelheid turns to browse the different jugs of oils, he suddenly feels his accidental lover’s body between his wings, length pressed against his back, his hand on his ass, and another sneaking around to his yet-unattended cock. The lips pressed against his jaw tell him “don’t mind me”, which he absolutely does not, but it makes reading labels substantially harder. Distracted by the fingers circling back and front, the letters on the labels become an ineligible blur, he has a tough time finding the correct vessel. Then, as if in realisation, Adelheid chuckles.
“Your handwriting is awful.”
The kissing in his neck turns to a muffled laugh.
“Fair enough. Fair enough. It’s this one,” Tewfik points at the second jar from the left. Adelheid proudly presents it as a gift, a tribute, a next step, and Tewfik rewards him with a slow stroke across his lips. Tewfik picks up the man and sits back down with him, placing him atop his lap, his cock, leaning against his, both sticking out from his thighs. Like how a tributer is paid back a portion of the ore raised, so is Adelheid given his share of the resource.
And share, they will. Oil fuels fire, which returns to Tewfik’s voice: “Begin,” he commands. Pouring oil on both their members, Adelheid fails to stifle a gasp at the sudden, slick sensation. Putting the jar aside, he leans forward and reserves a hand for Tewfik and for himself, resuming the handjob, though this time much more included in the movement. Being on display while serving Tewfik is an entirely new though welcome sensation, a private performance turned interactive. The sounds they make – the wet slicking, their ragged moans and loud sighs – do not outdo the crackling of the forge, the last silencer on their louche activities keeping the outside world uninformed. Then, one sound does. Adelheid’s fixation on their cocks distract him from Tewfik dipping his index and middle finger in the jar of oil. He notices too late when he reaches around and presses into his ass, elating a pleasurable yelp.
The artisan moves carefully and precisely, as if a potter spreading the insides of clay. The massage on his prostate won back any head-start (heh) Adelheid might have had on bringing Tewfik to his peak, the most explicit iteration of the old Alturan tale about the hare and the turtle warning against hubris. Pride comes before the fall, making way for pleasure, and the imminent lapse is most welcome.
Perhaps he had hoped too soon, as it is Tewfik’s hips that begin to buck and spasm, meeting the delicate prince’s grip in welcoming finality. He grunts, loudly, and holds on for dear life on and in Adelheid’s ass.
“I… shite. Ah, ahhhh…!!”
Adelheid needs no clearer signal to the approaching orgasm, sacrificing his hand to which he drew in his own to better pleasure the subject before him. Massaging the head with his left and applying a rolling pressure to the base of the shaft with his right, a technique which had he been taught personally by Mergal in his boudoir, he causes Tewfik’s eyes to widen and his breath to stop. Voicelessly, he cums, into Adelheid’s receiving cupped hand. Seven seconds of this impressive display – one man was counting, the other lost track of time –, of cum splashing against hands, against hips, one strand even slips through his hand and landed on Adelheid’s chest. It softens against him, still hard, he regrets they couldn’t have come together, but goading him to ecstasy is a task that rewards itself. A new kind of noblesse oblige he could come to like.
A low, sobering sigh comes from his opposite – he meets Tewfik’s return to the conscious world with wide eyes and licking fingers.
“Did I do well?”
“You can say… and do that… again…”
“If you are good for a second time, I shall!” The eagerness he so desperately had tried to hide is now audibly earnest and everywhere.
“Not so fast, prince… Look at you, you’re all messy. I think you’ve earned a bit of cleaning. Wait, hold on, that was clever but it’s the complete opposite of what I said I’d do to you. Ugh. Never mind.”
Any enjoyment Adelheid could have chuckle at after this kooky tangent is replaced with a sense of immediate disappointment as he feels – or stops feeling – Tewfik’s fingers inside of him. Seeing him grab the wet towel next to him pouring it with the remainder of the jar’s contents, however, fills him with a sense of curiosity and excitement, tasting a new food, inundated into new ways of bliss. Like a bowtie on a present, he wraps it around Adelheid’s verticality, tying a loose knot with one-hand.
“That was the last of my clove, so you better enjoy this.”
“I have to say, you souslanders are a much inventive bunch.”
“Vultures live their life eating scraps – I’ll show you a real meal.”
The euphemism of spur climbing is invoked here – a lumberjack wraps a wire around a tree and uses it for balance, shimmying it up along as he climbs it. Pulling at the ends of the cloth, Tewfik guides it up and down the trunk of his temporary attendant while adjusting the tautness with a pleasurable rhythm. The short-lived resurgence of Adelheid’s colonial haughtiness turns canine once more. Overloaded with stimulation, his head shoots back, his chest shoots up, tongue escapes his mouth. His pelvis becomes uncontrollable as pleasure reservoirs in his cock, dams waiting to burst.
“There’s a reason smiths use silk for their cloth.”
“U.. Uhn…. Mmmhrah… Ahhh… AHH…. I’m… I’m… Going to…”
Before Adelheid finishes his thought, before his eyes roll back into his head, before the onset of orgasm can wrack the remains of his coherence, the coquettish smile on Tewfik’s face preludes the Loki-like mischief, the cloth tightens, interjecting him.
“Wh… Oh… No.. Please… Oh please I need to.”
“I won’t let you. Until I hear you beg for the same mercy you failed to show my countrymen.”
Still in their roles, but the sentimentality – and history – is clear in Tewfik’s voice. They are monarch and marginalised in an occupation, fucking enemies in a fake peace.
“…Before I beg, I am sorry.”
“Don’t ruin the mood with meaningless diplomacy.”
“Haha, you are quite right…” Let us enjoy this moment before we return to resenting one another.
Another tug on his cock shakes Adelheid out of his reverie, his orgasm bashing against the obstruction.
“Please… I need to cum. Make me cum.”
“I need to cum. Please. Please. Oh my wings please please please please.”
The cloth releases and Adelheid is immediately brought back to the precipice of pleasure. Hours of revelling in the feeling of being subordinate sublimates as a mental, perhaps psychic addition to raw physical pleasure. Hands free again, Tewfik brings both to ushering out the best his conqueror has to offer – one hand cupping and massaging his balls, the other fingering his mouth. Even in the midst of what feels like an earthquake in the heavens, Adelheid remembers his duty and gives his fingers the blowjob he never got to properly apply. He moans, turning into a yelp, becoming a scream, as he empties over Tewfik’s chest. The prince has fallen; he falls on his chest.
“Clean up. We’re done here.”
“Oh. Yes, right.”
He begins to lick Tewfik clean, but is promptly stopped.
“I gave you what you needed. We’re done here, prince.”
Both men return to their original roles, backing away from the grand spectacle of sexual theatre like you’d see in a sousland pleasure parlour, onto the original, despondent tragedy of an Alturan amphistage. Tewfik silently imbues the bloomed metal with precious material as Adelheid sadly, but knowingly, dammit does he know, looks on. If this seems anticlimactic, it wasn’t; this tryst amidst inward war was a surge that happened because of it, but did nothing or can do anything to remove it. Both men know this, and they made use of it, and now it’s over.
His brown wings spread wide across the podium, he brandishes his colour-new blade before his people. A beam of sun refracts against it – equally unique in colour. An act of divinity, the popularity and legitimacy of Adelheid the Undenied, Commandant-Exodant of The People of Cel D’altura, Who Ordered the Skies to Open, is concretised further, much to the dismay of his political opponents. Adelheid, however, experiences a feeling as unknowable as the hue his sword has taken on, untranscribable into any proper emotion. Adjacent to loss, below regret, above duty, who knows where in the field his mood is situated. He wanted more, but what he desired was sexual intimacy, supremacy, untenable in the long scheme of things. Adelheid, the heightest in a hierarchy he governs, misses someone above him.
The morning after Tewfik returns to his workshop, he is welcomed by a newly bought flask of clove oil. A note reads “From your dog”. He lets out a chuckle without a smile and heats up his beloved forge, forced to produce weapons for whom he hates, working overtime for those who will rise up against them.
The first denial the young prince had ever received was, “Don’t open the door to the dungeons”. So unsurprisingly, the first thing the prince did when opportunity presented itself, the universe’s way of saying ‘teehee’, was to insert and turn a key. But to do so, the pampered royal rascal had to elude his caretaker’s ever-watchful gaze, a retired military scout once known as The Cat in part due to her sharp senses, and even now she retains that title, but only because she enjoys taking catnaps in her rocking chair.
Children will cause trouble without ever understanding why, the prince was told no, after all, and that is enough for most to seek out the forbidden. Curiosity, however, this drive shaped like a key, is superstition’s pendant, a force which pries open mountains and poisons goblets just to see what happens, and what happened was that the young prince opened the door and was never seen ever again.
We can say he shouldn’t have done this, but this is a hindsight, a wisdom that catches up too late, a friend tapping on your shoulder to warn you about the paint bucket on a wobbly ladder one unfortunate dye-job too late. Simply put, to forward ourselves, we must accept that he is no longer needed, but his actions stand at the precipice of events we could never prevent, motion creates motion, and loathe as we are to admit but quick to realise, nothing is without consequence.
For it was the caretaker who took the blame for this child’s derelict behaviour and for the nastiness which ensued, but we won’t blame her, not an inch or iota or other quantification one might use for culpability, as it is fear together with the mechanism of the unknown which becomes a justice that demands a scapegoat, never a justice to begin with. She was locked in the darkest dungeons for this, for the crime of being herself a circumstance and a subject.
But what is a subject without a name, no one should ever be just a referential! The name she is with is Minoes, and her cell is quite alright. She was branded a witch, a demoness, an arcanist, conspirator with the dark, she is rather fond of that title, agent of the Brim Dividing; these nominations have their benefits, because no one with a soupçon of superstitious sense will ever think to disturb her. Or execute her, for that matter. Death, who welcomes all strangers, but who is always personal, we are never true strangers to them, should never be made to host a true stranger in their halls. Minoes is exempted from even this.
There is another boon to this ordeal: this dungeon is the biggest home she’s ever owned, wooden walls became stone, metal partitions to give her rooms, plural. Middle-left will be my gallery, she thinks, Bottom-right has the most hay so that is where I will sleep, upper-right can be my own little dining hall. There is nothing we could consider furniture but this is where the theory of forms picks up. The far exit of the dungeon remains locked, separated from the castle proper with a thick wooden door, wrapped in chains and padlocks plus a sliding grate for the convenience of eye-contact, to deign dignity and courtesy for a context where there is none. Nevertheless, Minoes makes the most of things.
Before you ask, no, she does not have a surname, an inheritance common to her bloodline, which makes birth a spectacular event: parents, uncles, aunts, nephews, and cousins, even friends are invited to deeply consider together what special name to give to the new-born. Beer is brewed and herbs are smoked, it must be exemplary and magnificent, suggests tipsy cousin Wilhelmina, recognisable and grand, yells the undulate uncle Armand. Then father Swit interjects, it must fit her and only her, there is no blood to make her special, only one word, let her decide it when she is old enough. Minoes picked this name five years ago.
Most days, Minoes simply eats bread upper-right. On the scratched metal tray they slide through the viewport is fresh bread and a relatively generous jar of pickles, but you see, she cannot open the jar, she has no strength in her hands, sometimes she curses these vestigial things, but what she lacks in physical strength can be found in her resolve, patience, and respiration. She makes due with just the bread, she calls her meals a latecomer’s banquet. The jailor knows about her condition, yet spares her no cruelty, morality is an objection saved for humans, so he chooses to see a monster.
A monster that came from the dungeons, of course. It hid the entrance to the Brim Dividing, a dark dimension where demons roam, if the old and corny legends are to be believed, and they are by many, perhaps that is why a simple door could for the longest time stave off this invisible threat, one needs only peer inside to let our worst nightmares out, yet it is the door that keeps us up at night.
But as it stands, no terrible demon army or rain of fire has come pouring through the portal, desecrating our symbols, burning our farms and fortunes, committing the massacres which are clearly a fantasy, in both senses of the term, that which is unreal and that which is a desire, but no king will address that everything might actually be alright. In the dungeon, there was a woman, no more, far from less.
This woman, it must be stated, is neither demon nor apparition nor delusion of a lonely woman, she is simply there, a being-there, Minoes calls her Daar, an old word meaning ‘there’, because that’s where she is. Daar is happy to provide, she is younger and healthier and can glide between worlds with relative ease, she even goes so far as to remove her feet with a comical plop, because that’s customary for guests, right?
Minoes, used to and even familiar with the bizarre, or perhaps there truly is no place for suspicion when under suspicion yourself, there are no pretenses for solidarity, appreciates Daar’s company, the only thing she provides. No greetings or thank-yous, no whispers or rumours, no conspiracies or conversations about the difference between their radical worlds and the funny fact that all life everywhere contains more questions than answers but this is distinctly not a bad thing. Hardly ever a word about Daar’s transparency or the occasional cough of Minoes, not everything lends itself to exposition, not every meeting requires words, the coward’s language.
They dance through the rooms, familiarised with the subtleties native to bodies, Daar offers Minoes the things she asks for. A rug please, she begins, My knees are quite sore, Then I would like an oil lamp and some blankets, perhaps a jar opener. Bring me a mattress and many chickens for filling, she chuckles a joke, Then a bookstand, two quills, one swan and one goose feather, their thicknesses differ and that difference is valuable, some parchment and ink if it’s not too much of a bother, you are such a dear.
The chickens announce another daybreak, this is the only time Minoes knows, wasting away takes so long, but when the sun is your clock, it swings by faster than before, no pesky minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, clothes, letters, crows, deaths, geriatrics to subdivide time into frustratingly-present minutiae, pieces of the past that keep stacking with each new experience.
Minoes receives a platter of things she can only eat one half of, even equipped with a jar opener her grip fails her. Daar, unprompted, opens the jar of pickles for her, with no twist or turn of the wrist, no second attempt after great exertion, the lid simply comes off, vertically. She mentions how olives are stored much more practically and are much more delicious, too. Minoes agrees, but doubts any funds would be spent on providing such lucrative fruit to a witch. She then discovers she does not enjoy the taste of pickles. Finally, she chomps down on the loaf of bread only to hurts her teeth on something hard, a cruel prank by the guard, she concludes, and tosses it away. No food today, it seems.
However lovely this arrangement seems, its paranaturality cannot go unnoticed by way of its own nature, it escapes the conventions we’ve been taught to recognise and normalise and has fled into, created a new modality of comfort, a love that’s better than regularity, loud in its weird and new silence, therefore horrific. It doesn’t help she was already branded an evil woman.
The first pair of eyes to take note is the torturous guard who is normally stationed fifteen superstitious steps away from the door, only closing in when the overworked chef hands him the food tray. Today of all days he has reason to exert a supernormal amount of cruelty; we might empathise with that and attempt to scrutinise what’s got him feeling prickly, for we share that base humanity with him, but how about instead let’s not.
He yells a dehumanising word, hoping to draw attention, for what is power without a subject which acknowledges and which despairs, but he receives none, and it his attention that fixates on Minoes and her silly expression instead. Sour pickles will crumple the most statuesque of faces, and he only knows her through death-wishing glares.
It takes him a second to realise this, that she is eating pickles, and demands to know how that is possible, not out of curiosity or wonder, and an old woman who overpowers vacuum packing is deserving of praise, but moreso out of panic at losing control over the one cruelty to prove himself with. He spots a feetless ghost and scampers off to call for help, but not before tripping, the echoes of his armour fill the dungeon. The ladies laugh; the prisoner’s victory comes small and easy.
What are you making, May I know more about you, two questions like kisses on the left ear of Minoes, inflections audibly added to the end like Daar was taught is the custom when asking questions.
Curiosity, as we know, is not only a tool for scrutiny but is often a question behind a question, wanting to keep words dear, wanting to fill in the blanks together. To figure out the legends to navigate your maps with, what words are your roads, what nouns line out the mountains and the malpaises, what verbs show where the winds are fiercest, a remark in your throat that tells if this river can be forded or must be caulked, dotted silver phonemes for cities, towns, borders, places we named together, red squares for the landmarks around which memories are built, monuments to what two people share. The brass plaque reads and a pair of lips speaks, I will keep your secrets safe.
Minoes replies, quilling down a last word before tickling Daar’s nose with the feather, their mattress feels warm, A memoir. Daar repeats this as a question, Minoes lets her know it’s a simple piece of evidence that she has been here, a being-here, in the cell, in this life, in anyone’s life.
Why do you need to write it down when I know you have been important, this emotional declaration coming from a quasi-physical being, it must be noted, unfalsifiable words we pitch against a background of metaphysics, love as we might call it, means more than words, hers or these, can convey. Minoes chuckles and snuggles closer to the woman, her body incorporeal but the intimacy is there.
Do you have to die here, there is a height in the breath of Daar’s question that feels cold, No, dear, but I am an elder and a prisoner, and what they have in common is that both have to wait for freedom to come, Do you have to be, No, dear.
In the ensuing embraced silence, where language piles up in minds and gets stuck in throats, everyone resorts to their most personal selves, personal in the individual and independent sense, tiny habits become havens, each idiosyncrasy a pub, a bar, a quiet pier, a leaf-green bench beneath a lantern overlooking a cold and smelly promenade crowded with sailors making the most of it. Daar does something inscrutable, Minoes gnashes her teeth, remembering the exact hardness of the loaf she tried to eat. She lets her eyes wander as if a tourist inside her own awkwardness and spots a key sticking out of the bread.
You see, there was a second pair of eyes to take note of the extraordinary fate Minoes had been subject of: the overworked chef in charge of the meals of prisoners as well as the custodians, the servants, the knights, the advisors and ambassadors, the halberdiers stationed in the courtyard though not Clarice because she is allergic to nut oils and buys her lunch in town instead, and, of course, the undeserving royalty. Every very early morning, Antoin waits for the steward who unlocks the kitchen and the pantry to return to his tiresome job of saying yes sire and promptly heads out to the markets carrying a satchel of saffron, which he trades for a jar of pickles.
The guard had never known the pickles aren’t a part of the prescribed meal, but conversely, because everyone has their own tasks, Antoin means well but seeing as the entire day he must cure meats and bake breads and baste pheasants and broil soup and remember each royal member’s favourite combinations of herbs, he spits on the king’s pork, he could not have been aware of his refusal to perform the base courtesy of twisting the lid for Minoes, the sliding grate evidently only there for show.
He figured the delirious guard running up the stairs, falling back down the stairs, and running past him meant that his plan to free Minoes had worked. A monster without a cage to him, but to Antoin, she was a woman he had served with half a lifetime ago, who told him five years ago, Let’s change our name together, But we’re so old, he had lied, Age is no objection, Antoin. He had snuck in the key, a shape that spells curiosity as well as freedom, and there is only one possible outcome, really, the one where Minoes is an ex-prisoner.
What Antoin hadn’t accounted for was that she would be having company. Oh dear, I didn’t want to believe the story of your incarceration, but this ghastly girl here is damning evidence you are in some faint way conspiratorial with demons, he shrugs, Anyway, did you like the pickles?
Oh no, not at all, an honest lament, but a chef knows they cannot please every palette, their art the art of necessary destruction, after all. Minoes continues, So you were the kind soul who expanded my meals, is it too late I trouble you for olives from now on?
Yes, actually, all-considering. The two friends pause and laugh, Daar joins in, drawn in by shared amusement and the weird elation of freedom. Antoin conjects it is likely our friend the guard is screaming for reinforcements and Minoes laughs again, a beautiful sound, So having a girlfriend was the last drop, was it? Daar’s face flushes at the statement. Antoin, knowing there is no time left to ask who Daar even is or where she came from — does it matter? — or what the deal is with all those chickens, instead makes a suggestion which sets into motion events we could never prevent: escape.
Where there is a captive, escape is always at the horizon, where there is love, there is an unfathomable weirdness that is good and that tickles, where there is a prince, there is an incredible lout of a person, where there is motion, things will never be contained. Daar asks Minoes, they are in the back of a wagon, and outside in farthest possible distance there is a city with a castle, Let me hold your face, her rough hands on her dark cheeks, she feels warm and hers, what a strange meeting, so of course they kiss, of course they do.
In the cell, the fuddled guard scratches his head as his retinue attempts to catch the mysterious chickens. He finds a piece of parchment.
It reads “I will make the most of it.“
Rain pours from clouds like malt whiskey, except it’s water. This is my city. Neo Noir Dark Noir City. It’s always been this way, and it will never stop raining. How did I, DICK HARDBOILED, end up here? That’s the thing: I’ve never left or known anything else. My office is gray and glum and I call it home. I haven’t cleaned this place in 36 years. Hard to believe I’m almost 37. Time goes fast, chain-smoking, crime-fighting, narrating a neo-noir story.
A flurry of footsteps hurries up the stairs, followed by machine gun fire, which ventilates my door and my window. Sunlight hits me in the eye, it sizzles, burns right through. Needed a new smokehole, anyway. “Come in,” I swallow an unlit cigarrete. Fifty legs pour into my office. Fifty… dangerous legs, belonging to a dangerous dame. Seven cubic meters of pure danger.
“ＤＩＣＫ ＨＡＲＤＢＯＩＬＥＤ?” “What can I do for you, miss…?”
“ＬＥＧＳ ＷＯＭＡＮ.” Her voice, shrill like breaking glass and warm like a sputtering shower drain, pierces my ear drums, the sound of her name stabbing my nicotine heart. I swallow seven more cigarettes and light up three. “Want one?” She breaks her tommy gun in half and feeds it to two of her mouths. I put them back in the pack. “Non-smoker, I take it?”
“ＹＥＳ. ＢＡＤ ＦＯＲ ＬＥＧＳ.” In the awkward silence that ensues, I inhale my ashtray’s contents to impress her. She screams in delight, destroying my body with a sonic blast. A sudden realisation hits me just as hard: Legs Woman? That means her husband’s…
She fastballs a leg into my mouth to shut me up. “ＩＳ ＨＵＳＢＡＮＤ, ＹＥＳ,” she explains in exotic, dulcet, extraterrestrial tones.
“Ｉ ＴＨＩＮＫ ＨＥ ＳＥＥ ＯＴＨＥＲ ＷＯＭＡＮ ＷＩＴＨ ＭＯＲＥ ＬＥＧＳ ＴＨＡＮ ＬＥＧＳ ＷＯＭＡＮ.” Swallowing her leg, then a cigarette, I respond: “And you want me to find out if that’s the case?” I point at the case of Thompson submachine gun ammunition next to her. “Well, is it?”
“ＳＨＵＴ ＹＯＵＲ ＦＵＧＧＵＰ ＦＵＮＮＹ ＭＡＮ.”
“I’ll take the job, ma’am, but it’ll cost ya. Your husband’s a powerful man, y’know. He’s got fifteen arms; that’s seven more than I do.” She extends a leg for me to shake, I operate it like a lever in contractual and sensual agreement. It’s like we’re having a moment. I exit my office through the window, propelled by a legendary leg, freefalling six stories high, lighting a cigarette on the way down, breaking most of my arms on the wet and whiskeyed pavement. I push the cig through my seventh eye, keeping it safe for later.
“I’ll go visit my friend, John Mountain, for information, in his mountain bar, inside the mountain.”
John welcomes me with a rumbling sound. I take off my hats and dislocate my still-unbroken arms, squeezing through the entrance fissure of the bar he runs, ‘JOHN MOUNTAIN’S INSIDE CAVE’. I give the place a quick scan: seven bats perched upside down on an array of stalagtites, a married couple of two puddles of tar, and twenty corpses – all dead, I checked. Yep, business is booming.
“Hey John, I’ll have the usual.” Immediately, three boulders slam into my stomach: Stacy, Cyber Stacy, and Radioactive Sven. John’s kids, they help the old man out from time to time. I cough up seven liters of blood into a nearby 40m3 barrel of cigarettes and down it all in one go. I’m very particular about my martinis.
“John, I need information.” John doesn’t respond. he never does. He’s unfazed. like a mountain. A… strangely attractive mountain. “Listen. Where does Bruce Trenchcoat live?” Silence again. It’s a painful question: he and Bruce… their love was strong and flowing, like a mountain and a trenchcoat. Still, I have to ask.
A fissure cracks the earth open. I nod, inject an epi-pen of smoke directly into my lungs, and kiss the kids – Radioactive Sven’s gamma radiation abjectly turns most of my atoms into gold, a rich experience, and Cyber Stacy downloads a new body for me to settle in. I wave the rocky family goodbye by wobbling my shoulders around, my arms still broken, and hop on a nearby motorcycle. It’s not stealing. You get to call dibs as long as you claim and narrate for centuries and longer you’re the first to have found it, even when the original owners are right there and they’re crying. I’m a detective.I follow John’s geological lead as half of Neo Noir Dark Noir City plummets into hell, the worst department store on the planet.
Driving through a crumbling city on a motorcycle made from parts of sad helicopters and broken but still beating hearts, I’m reminded of my first case. I’d just turned one, and I was weak. Doc said I was more oxygen than nicotine. My fathers committed and subsequently solved murders to cope with the stress of having a fully aerosolized son. Then it happened. In the dead of a night darker than black, where chain-smoking angels drank bourbon and huffed bits of God:
I was murdered.
This was it, my one chance at redemption, at proving my mettle, at replacing most of my body with metal from ashtrays. I asked Dad and Pops for important hints and tips. They made rusty factory noises for three minutes. Of course! Examine the corpse and eat it when you’re done. The ways of a true detective. Judging from the cause of my death, I’d say I was dead. My trenchcoated body spelt out “check teh[sic] sewers for clues” – the only person I know in Neo Noir Dark Noir City who doesn’t have an integrated autocorrect just so happens to live in the sewers. That’s where I needed to go next for clues.
When I arrived, I was stopped by Liquid Gary. He was the fiercest puddle of bubbling unknown liquid in the city. I showed him the one thing – the only thing – I knew, and what I’ve since long forgotten: true love. Love goes through man’s stomach, and the sewers are the elephant graveyard for all ingestion problems. Wading through liquid nicotine and stepping over tables of poker-playing rats, I could feel my murder solving and my body dissolving with each step.
“MY MURDERER, TRENCHCOAT BRUCE!” I read from the dim neon sign that said ‘my murdrrer[sic], trenchcoat bruce’. My murdrrer[sic], Trenchcoat Bruce, smiled. But before I could even confront him about this very rude act, I woke up. Hooked to Cuban cigar inside of a medical ashtray. It was the hospital. I was alive again.
I crash out of my reverie by falling off my bike, absolutely destroying a pedestrian. This case… thanks to ＬＥＧＳ ＷＯＭＡＮ, thirty-six years of chain-smoking were about to come to a close. I walk up to Trenchcoat Bruce’s hideout, my jeans chafed into assless chaps.
His hideout is just like I remember it: a huge packet of Marlboro cigarettes with windows and a door drawn on the exterior. I kick down the fake door, my leg gets stuck in the cardboard. His henchmen, all trenchcoats, fly off the coat racks and wrap around my leg. They inject me with liquid noir – it’s how detective are made. My leg broils with hot scoops. I scoop some up and taste it, yeah ‘s pretty good. I rapidly solve the cases of the henchmen’s unresolved feelings. They let go and leave, seeking out new and peaceful lives as store mannequin jackets.
“WHAT IS THIS BACCANO?” I hear from the mezzanine. I spit tar on the paper-mache walls, carefully writing ‘i don’t know what that means sorry?’ in Impact.
“Oh, it’s Italian for ‘ruckus’.”
Five trenchcoats stacked on top of another with one arm missing seated on an ashtray sofa. That’s him, alright. “Thanks for the translation, Trenchcoat Bruce.”
“I know why you’re here. I can read you like an open book.” I quickly close my pages, flustered. Nicotine gushes from my cheeks. “B-baka…” “I know you were hired by ＬＥＧＳ ＷＯＭＡＮ. Do you think me unsequined?” He opens his fourth coat and fifty legs pour out. Fifty… dangerous legs. My god.
“ＬＥＧＳ ＷＯＭＡＮ!” I exclaim, overstating my auditory boundaries and receiving divine reprimand for it. I get a second wind. “I mean, ahem, ｌｅｇｓ ｗｏｍａｎ…!” Bruce jumps up, dame in tow, and ties her to the seat. It takes ten minutes to get all the legs straps properly fitted, but I am a patient man.
“Let her go, Buttons. This is between you and me.” I peek at the ink smudge on my hand. “Oh yeah also she wants to know if you’re cheating on her I guess.” “Defeat me, DICK HARDBOILED, and I will let you close this case, once and for all.” I accept this challenge, regardless of damsel in distress trope.
He begins to spin, each coat arm rotating at different speeds, until he is a tornado of sharp leather and wet newspapers with long obituary sections. His tempest pulls in a soot-black Mark II Jaguar from outside his hideout which momentarily stuns me – not because it hit me, but its raw sexual mystique is too overwhelming for any car lover.
Recovering from my paroxysm, I speed-dial dry-cleaning and from my pocket pull out a single, loosely-rolled Aruban cigarette. The winds stop. “Don’t do it, DICK–” he forgets to mention my surname and he knows. Anger covers my body like a boiling shower – goddamn the water’s hot. I light the cigarette. And just like that: he has fulfilled his narrative purpose. Finished, a fate worse than dead. Not a trace of him remains. This is my story, so no matter what I try, I can’t undergo the same. It sucks, I know.
I crabwalk up to ＬＥＧＳ ＷＯＭＡＮ and offer her a hand, or three. “You okay?” “ＹＥＳ Ｉ ＦＩＮＥ ＴＨＡＮＫ ＹＯＵ.” She eats two and saves the third for later.
“So,” I says to her I says, “I never did find out if he cheated on you or not.”
“ＯＨ， ＤＩＣＫ ＨＡＲＤＢＯＩＬＥＤ，ＹＯＵ ＴＲＵＬＹ ＡＲＥ ＯＮＥ
We laugh. It’s fuckin terrible.
Adien is going to lie here for a while.
“No” says their body, to the choice of movement, as if mind and body had at no point ever been a uniform gestalt but operated as two incompatible partners. One is loud and ostentatious and needs everything to go a certain way, scared of chance, possibility, the unfactored, fate, used to being anchored to the self but never sharing ship with others, the other has been guised in independence through repertoire and repetition, reacting heavily and badly to authority, resistance is the only way for existence, often forgetting a reality outside of hardship. It is hard to remember this in such a deep dark sea, but, really, no core constituents – the building blocks of a life we might refer to them as – consist, federationally, of solely bad blocks, but these ‘good cubes’ might be hard to observe, obscured by that which is loud and ostentatious, and this dingy duo are starring in a comedy heist film together.
An astute reader who refuses to be content with only two similes might ask about the mind’s response, or how the spirit reacts, or how the will feels, but in this case, and the body is a case, as it is a shy prison for these would-be rebels, the body has the upper hand – it has hands! – and so because the body refuses, until recharged by some lovely interaction within life or a fulfilled promise of sleep, there is no intervention adequate enough to move it; the mind stays quiet and genuflects, even though it wants to scream.
Adien’s mind wanders and get lost. When the mind senses that life is ending, some believe the brain is a parasite that needs to preserve its host from danger, information is processed at a rapid pace, as if being more real for just a moment will help deter death. Adien skips this step, however. They have a lot going on right now.
Their phone vibrates, not because of a phonecall, perhaps a text message or mail, because that’s just one ‘bzz’, this was definitely two, so probably a clicker game notifcation. It’s rather disassociative, going into the minutiae of vibration settings of various phone applications to effectively explain away any reason someone might have to contact you (no one needs any reason to do so — actually, that’s phrased wrongly: everyone has no real reason for contacting you, yet do so anyway). They remain motionless, tenser than before, not even bothering to check if their phone is in a pants or a vest pocket, stuck inside of a bed that is by no means comfortable enough to warrant such a long-winded lie-down, a chiropractor might have to be called again once things settle down, when they become managable, become describable, quantifiable, though a magic 8-ball might have to say ‘Outlook not so good’ about the current situation — there is nothing ‘magical’ about this, you coward liar ball. So for now, they’re going to keep lying here for a while.
The giants wading through the sea don’t seem to notice Adien. Adien remembers the fairytales – best stay quiet.
That’s a relief. Hey, we good? That’s Adien to their body. Though their relation has never been amicable or agreeable, really, in fact their body has been historically recalcitrant in that it never is what Adien wants it — themself — to be. But as they both need each other, a makeshift contract of alliance is drafted, no quilled ink on paper but more of a quiet nod in candlelit studies, hopefully more can come out of this.
The giants shuffle in place, waist and torso rising high above sea level and into a mocking formation of clouds. What do they look like? Can they even see me? Do they care? Adien wonders why that is – are they like theatrical spotlights, only taking note of what is important to the stage, what a rude implication!, might it be simple noise that attracts them, or perhaps they are so attuned to the atmosphere that their sensory system, or sense of guardianship, extends to any molecule of air and stirring these tiny twins in unnatural way, for example with a sigh leaving the body after hearing unexpected bad news or a phone going off because a clicker game updated, is what triggers a reaction. Thankfully, Adien’s pants or vest muffled it enough to stay undetected. It’s not any of these things. Adien is just very good at making themself panic.
The bed continues to float through an ocean of endless purpure, a particular tincture of purple found on heraldries, but that bears no relevance to the water’s hue, it’s simply a descriptor, gently lifted from its specific meaning to mean ‘nice shade of purple’. Sorry. Adien has their eyes wide open, their breaths are heavy and long, lungs expanding and deflating like slow bellows against a furnace, forging the steel rings and hooks that keep you tethered and a metal frame that carries you into tomorrows per every daybreak.
The metal raft moves between the legs of a giant, two pillars rising from unseen depths, the foundation to something to be feared by way of its mystery. Humour can be a good way to cope with the surreal and the incomprehensible, but it murks your relationship to these very things, a lake becomes a swamp, you cannot be sincere with yourself anymore, do not confuse comedy with cowardice. Adien wants to joke and say “hi there”, but honestly anything this large, while not inherently violent or predatious, is inherently capable of applying more force (F = ma, after all, and inferring its size it must have got a lot of m). Realising this, they shut up before even saying anything, the quiet is self-preservation, their body silent and their mind sirens, we can feel so loud while staying our bodies perfectly still, together a paradoxical stealth.
The giant moves one of its legs, covered in barnacles and sheets of crackling or overhydrated skin. It’s wearing a loincloth, by the way, to dispel any rude descriptions you were fearing (hoping for?). The leg hits the side of the bed – not rapidly or forcibly, but as slowly and controlled as the waves that had been deciding Adien’s atlantic journey. Still, Adien and their bed-vessel are launched farther across the purple sea, a meaningless description, because without a landmass to decide its boundaries with, they are no relative position closer to salvation or doom than they were before. Adien can see the giant’s reaction and begins to count their blessings. Welp, might as well, they think as they check their phone.
The text, and it was a text, Adien was wrong, you see, but that’s fine, they have a lot going on right now, it says “im sorry”. Ah, at least I have reception out here. The giant bends down. It takes a while for it to complete this motion. Its face is angelic in a luciferian way: marble covered in grime. Adien is sitting upright in a lotus position on their bed, spine cracking in a nasty-sounding liberation. They then have a conversation with the giant, carrying words back and forth.
“Hello.” “Hi.” “We thought you were dead.” “I was pretending to be.” “A very serious matter.” “Will you not kill me?” “What an oddly-phrased question. It is almost like a request.” “Well, it’s complicated.” “What were you checking on that device?” “Someone I considered close sent me a message. They apologise.” “Oh?” “They kicked me out of our home, and now I’m on a bed in a strange ocean.” “Whyever for?” “I wish I knew why. It felt like the end of the world, I was paralysed with the heaviest emotions. But I have to reply to their text; any relationship is worth holding on to, I think.” “No, you simply wish they were. We know it is as important to let go as it is to preserve. Either decision should not be taken lightly.” “I wish I could do that. Stop lying to myself, for myself.”
“I will help you write a response.” “Are you an expert on resolving things over text? A textpert?” “…Yes.” “Cool.” “But I do not believe forgiveness is necessary here.” “Well, having a home is a thing. They’re my roommate and right now I am an atlantic vagrant, as it were.” “Time heals all wounds.” “Sure, but memory is the autopsy report.”
“What the mind remembers mustn’t stagnate the body. With other people, what the mind remembers can be blinded by the bright reflection of a coin that is really a forgery – a past worth going back to. We must be brave to face what is beside us, if only for a moment, clear the clouds, to see there is always a starlit sky beyond current hardships.”
“You are very wise for someone with their head in the clouds.”
Perhaps what follows is scarier than the initial panic Adien invented (but: a mental machination is no less real than the machines outside your body, so don’t blame yourself for faltering, instead give yourself a little pat on the back inbetween these conflictive moments). The giant’s fallen face crumbles into a smile, and they proceed to pick up our waterlorn hero. Adien is lifted upwards, like cherished porcelain, into the clouds, every fluffy drop pressed gently onto their skin, until they emerge beyond. The other giants out in the sea are on their phones, some calling, some listening to music, some tapping away at a clicker game. Adien is placed upon the shoulder of the big friendly one and takes a deep breath.
The text reads, so formal: “I’m sorry, too, for whatever it is I did to you. I’m sure it feels real and feels read bad for you, and your feelings are valid. I admit, I’m not great. Still, sorry isn’t enough for either of us here. We’re not good at being friends. So, yeah, bye. Don’t expect me to answer your calls.” Sent. Read. No reply.
“Hey, so. Um. I’m Adien. Can I stay with you for a while, up here?”