Embrace the Weird


Last year, my fiancee and I watched True Detective with rapt attention. The mix of two outstanding performances by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, the multiple levels of mystery and the deeply embedded sense of weirdness caught us right away. That very first episode, the Lynchian images of the first serial killer victim said we were not in standard territory. When discussions of time being a flat circle began and references to “The King in Yellow” filled the air, it felt like we’d found a police procedural which embraced the weird in a very real way.

(Too bad it embraced rampant misogyny as well, and didn’t take the main characters to task for their sins in the end, but that’s another discussion).

(Still, the Rachel McAdams character is an interesting start. But ladies with knife collections have a soft spot in my heart. And also under the ribs, right where the blade can get to the heart and vitals. But, one interesting character with a very nice knife collection does not a mea culpa make).

True Detective created a surge in readers finding Robert W. Chambers’ work, and later Thomas Ligotti and other weird authors, as they tried to decipher the cryptic signs buried in stick pyramids, crowns, and an estate called Carcosa.

This didn’t please the author, Nic Pizzolatto. He complained, in more than a few interviews, that people were buying copies of The King in Yellow, and not his own books. So the new season is heavy on the gloomy streets of a fictional Los Angeles suburb, and the hard-drinking, really damaged characters. But no literary references so far. No weird images. No hints of terrifying cults hiding under Lousiana charter schools.

Somehow, I don’t think this will push more people to buy Mr. Pizzolatto’s books. In fact, it’s engendered a rough response to the first three episodes of the second season of True Detective. Rather than realize people liked the puzzles, the weird hiding under the surface of a ‘normal’ crime thriller, they’ve backed away from it.

But I think the weird – the idea of an undefined strangeness under the world, leading to hidden depths and maddening truths – is a very key part of the way we see life these days. And by running from it, ostensibly because it’s taken sales and attention away, you’re losing the sorcery which made the first season so intriguing.

When in doubt, embrace the weird. The weird is, as Douglas Adams put it, Zen navigation. You may not end up where you intended to go, but you’ll end up where you needed to be.

 

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 9

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“Can you see it?” Anton tilted his head. Tellus did. He knew his efforts were in vain, but he could not let go

“Yes.” Tellus toppled his king. “I am beaten.”

“Gods, what a graceful game…” The High General shook her head. “He does this, constantly. I can never find his endgame strategies until it’s too late.”

“You two share very common instincts where the game is concerned. You tend towards calculation and cold approaches.” He took a sip from his wine glass. “The two of you playing would be fascinating.”

“Perhaps another night. I sense, however, another wishes to challenge.” Tellus reset the game. He stood up and offered his place to Anton’s usual opponent. “Please, High General.”

“Here I am Bellia, just another challenger before the master.” She sat down across from Anton. Her smile was impish. “Besides, even he must re-learn his lessons. Especially when encountering an equal.”

Tellus raised his hands. “Please, again, you give me too much credit. The compliments will swell my head and I will hear no end of it from Adia.”

“You might do well to learn from your more hot-blooded friend. Always invest passion.” His eyes glimmered and he fixed Bellia with a gaze. “Too much cold calculation freezes the mind. Do remember this.”

“Thank you.” Tellus bowed his head and touched his hand to his forelock. “I appreciate the lesson. I shall endeavor to apply it now and in the future.”

“The future is now, Tellus of the Anutai clan.” Bellia quirked her lips in a half-smile. She narrowed her gaze and let a lock of her hair fall across her eye. “Begin.”

There was no slow game here. The pendulum could not keep up. Pieces were exchanged at a furious pace. They played the game the way Adia fought with her swords: a whirlwind of strikes, feints and crippling cuts. But in the end, Anton remained the victor.

Tellus leaned back. “You two are very…familar with each other’s play styles.” Without asking, another mug of tea was placed at the table. He inhaled the mint scented steam.

“We have fought this battle many times.” Bellia rubbed her chin. “Maybe I should divert from my normal form. Actually follow the clock? Or, maybe challenge our guest to a game…?”

“Ah. Well…” Tellus paused. “My friend is watching a swordfight demonstration. I’m unsure how long she will be.”

Anton and Bellia exchanged looks. Tellus swore he heard at least one person giggle.

“I think there will be sufficient time for quite a few games,” said Anton. “Besides, who knows who will come wandering in. We may get a chance to play a four person variant?”

Tellus blinked. If Adia would be running late enough for a four-person game of ajedrez to finish… Tellus suspected he may be departing early, and alone, this evening.

***

Cool water splashed down her face and chest. Adia cupped both hands and drank. How anything with the chill of a mountain stream could reach under this city baffled her, but she did not care. Her body glowed with heat after two practice duels. Aches pinched her wrists and arms. Little muscles she never knew existed twinged.

Just as the cold became too much, warmth grew along her back. Ufric, all sweat and exhaustion, pressed against her. His cock, weight down by cold and exhaustion, nestled against her backside. She pulled him closer, borrowing what heat he offered. Cormac dunked his head under the stream. Dirt and grime washed away into the pool. Adia reached out and brushed away stray grains of arena sand from the puckered scars on his chest. She ran her hand down his belly and cupped his sex, pulling him into an embrace.

“The water’s cold.”

“We can step out, get dried off and warm.” Ufric wrapped his arms around Cormac’s waist. They created an envelope of living heat between them.

“You exotic boys and your temptations.” She toyed Cormac’s dark, curly hairs.

“Because we’re foreign?” said Ufric.

“Because you’ve got curly hair down around your swords,” she said. “I’m starting to appreciate those curls.”

Cormac chuckled. “Two people who appreciate my short and curlies. The gods are being kind.” He stood on his toes and kissed Ufric. Adia ducked down, looking at their lips meet. Their tongues played together, dancing.

“I could watch you two kiss for the rest of the night.” Adia turned around, letting her body rub against Cormac’s shaft while she toyed with Ufric’s. She kissed one of his scarred nipples.

“You can do that if you wish.” Ufric toyed with her short, dark hair. “You essentially own us, body and soul.”

“No, you two belong to each other. I’m just borrowing both of you for the night.” She felt them shiver as the cold finally sunk past the heat of the duels and practice. They stepped out of the fountain together.. The air slapped her as she stepped onto the stone floor. Before a chill set in, Ufric and Cormac pulled two long strips of cloth from beside the fountain and began to dry her.

Cormac knelt down, wiping drops from her feet, calves and thighs. He kissed the small crest of her navel. Ufric patted down her arms and shoulders. He wrapped the cloth around her breasts and belly. He kissed the nape of her neck. .

They fell together into the silks. Adia nestled between the lovers. She watched them touch each other, tracing the lines of their muscles and scars. They kissed just above her, grew erect against her, and ran their hands across her skin. “So where do we go from here?”

“We go where you wish. Just let us know.” Ufric touched the ritual scars on her chest, puzzled, unable to match them to battle wounds. Adia took his hand and cupped his palm against her nipple. And she laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Cormac blinked.

“I’m drowning in an embarrassment of riches. I don’t know where to start.”

“Well, if I can suggest… Cormac can do more with his tongue than talk.” Ufric glanced over to his partner.

“Oh?” Adia grinned and let Cormac nestle himself between her legs. He kissed her just above the tiny pearl most men forgot existed. She closed her eyes, sucking a breath through her teeth. The bastard knew what he was doing. She grabbed his hair and held him down.

“Don’t get greedy,” said Ufric. He leaned over and ran his teeth against her nipple. She gasped. He switched from teeth to tongue, distracting her until she held his head in place while Cormac switched his attentions. His hand took Ufric by the shaft, stroking him and kissing him.

Adia sat up and watched. Cormac toyed with Ufric until body grew as rigid in pleasure as his cock. She held onto him, kissing the hollow of his throat, playing with him, but kept her eyes on Cormac’s ministrations.

“Should I stop?” Cormac looked up.

“Yes.” Ufric gasped.

“No.” Adia rubbed herself while Ufric quirmed. “I want to see and feel him.” She grabbed Ufric tight. “Go on.”

Cormac smiled set to work once more. Ufric moaned into breasts then shuddered, crying out. Cormac played him a lyre, plucking his strings until he reached an unbearable pitch. And then the string snapped. Ufric collapsed between them.

Adia reached down and grabbed Cormac’s hair. She kissed him, tasting Ufric’s salty remains on her tongue. She pulled Cormac up, wrapped her legs around his waist, and buried his length inside her.

Ufric knelt behind them. He cupped his lover’s backside and toyed with him as they moved together. She felt his tongue dance where her lips and Cormac shaft moved together. Ufric even found a way to sneak a finger between them, so her pearl was never unattended

As the thrusts drew her closer and closer to a climax, red curled around her vision. She bit into Cormac’s shoulder, but it did not dissuade him. If anything, it sent a distinct shudder of pleasure through his back. He answered by almost howling into the pillows as his seed spilled deep into her.

When the color faded from her eyes, she had Cormac and Ufric surrounding her. They panted, and wrapped their arms together. For the first time, in a long time, she felt safe.

Safe, but not sated. She tickled Ufric’s curly hairs and said, “So… how much more time do I have with you boys?”

***

Livia sat back in a pile of silks and pillows and listened. The pipes carrying water and heat through the body of the building amplified sounds as well. Here, in the center of the house, in her family’s quarters, she absorbed it all. Voices and songs and poems and moans all became a chorus of information.

A door opened in the back of the room. Anton, eyes dark with fatigue, stepped inside.

“Hello, brother of mine.” She smirked. “I’m surprised you are not spending time with the High General, as usual.”

“She has been seduced away, sister of mine.” He walked up to the the bath, testing the water. Steam still clung to the surface. “I’m taking the last of your bath.”

“Greedy.” Livia waved him on. Anton undid his vest. Two small but well shaped breasts, nipples dark as his hair, appeared when he pulled away his shirt. When he undid the rest of his clothes, the signs of both the male and female sex became apparent. Although he chose to be male, he could become his female mirror should his other position require it.

“I’m being generous..” He sank in, down to his shoulders. Under the water, the deception runes burned into his skin glowed like hot coals under amber. “For example: tonight, nothing is on the prohibited list tonight.”

“Oh?” Livia sat up.

“There was no information beyond the usual gossiping. It may amount to something, but nothing which compromises the safety of Ivre.” Anton rooted around for the bowl of scented palm shavings. He squeezed a few into his hand and scrubbed his feet with rough, white rinds. “Is there anything sellable?”

“Mostly about your opponent and his friend. He’s got a sharp eye. And the swordswoman is very impressive. She picked up a fighting style without blinking.” Livia stretched her arms upwards, reaching for the ceiling. “She and the boys are getting along.”

“Well, that’s not surprising. They were thick as thieves on the trip in.”

“Oh, it’s not just physical attraction and camaraderie. They’re comfortable with each other. I think, if she stays, they may actually remain friends beyond the sex.” Livia turned on her side. “What do you?”

“I wish I could keep him. You were right – very sharp eyes.” Anton scrubbed his elbows. “It always fascinates me how different cultures react to different environments. Both Adia and Tellus come from places where death is a regular companion. Yet their worldviews and behaviors are completely different. I wonder if it is a matter of more than simply survival. The mangroves are not the desert, after all.”

Liva rolled onto her stomach and faced him. “I love hearing you play scholar, brother of mine.”

“You love selling the information my scholarly rants provides you, sister of mine.”

“True, but we all gain from the arrangement.” She picked up a pillow and tucked it under her chin. “Guess who wants all they can get on these two?”

“Hanud and N’Talle?”

She threw the pillow at him. It fell short. “Cheat. But correct. More specifically, they want information on Tellus and his bow. N’Talle believes it will help her with her work, and Hanud wants the information because N’Talle wants it.”

“Hanud’s takes after his father. His mother was more of the artisan. He did not inherit her talents, so he focuses on money and politics.”

Livia shrugged. “Such is the way of things.”

Anton rose from the bath. “Strom wants information on the boys, though. What will you say?”

Livia walked to the bath. She dipped her feet in, letting the cooling waters tickle the soles of her feet.

“They are fine. Adia won’t endanger them as a couple or a fighting unit.” Livia peered at stubborn callous where the toe-loop of her sandals met skin. “Strom is ambitious. She wants her company moved to more lucrative positions. For that, she needs good soldiers.”

“It could be genuine concern, sister of mine.” Anton wrapped the towel around his waist. He sat down and combed the tangles from his hair. “It does happen now and again.”

Liva smirked. “Now and again. Genuine concern is a rare beast, brother of mine.” She waved him on. “No, go. Sleep. Dream of game pieces and your favorite general.”

Anton said goodnight. When the door sealed, she rang for a small bell. Two women entered. Alisha and Imari. In addition to being two of her sword fighters from the lower arena, they helped her in all business matters. Aegyptian river traders by blood, they fought with a very short, close style honed from pitched battles on moving barges.

“Is the report for Evericus ready?”

“Yes,” said Alisha. “Though I’m unsure if he’ll be all that interested in back channel gossip.”

“That’s where you are wrong.” Livia peeled off her clothes and slid into the tub’s cool waters. “The rumors are all he wants. Which is why he’s dangerous. But we’ll keep an eye on him until he becomes Anton’s problem.”

“And until then?” Imari poured herself a drink. Her sister unrolled the coded report for Evericus.

Livia inspected the summary of the night’s rumors. “Until then, we watch and profit. Get to our favorite spy. Then get some rest. The boys are back on duty tomorrow.”

The sisters departed, leaving Livia alone in her room. She sat back into the water and listened as the sounds of the pleasure house dwindled into the early morning.

Concern. She frowned, thinking of her brother’s last words. Rare beast, but not so rare it won’t be slaughtered given a chance.

Red as Blood: Memories of Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee passed away on May 24th, 2015. I first learned this news very early on the morning of the 26th, while looking through my Facebook feeds. My heart shrunk back in my chest. I nearly burst out into tears, but the presence of even a few co-workers forced me to keep my workaday mask firmly in-place.

But the mask kept cracking, until finally I found myself quietly crying in a private spot in our office.

When someone asks me, “Who are your favorite authors?” or “Which authors influenced you?” – Tanith Lee is always there. And I have the Science Fiction Book Club and Clive Barker to thank for it.

Set the clocks back to 1988. I wanted to get my hands on a copy of Cabal. But the US hardback (which also contained unpublished sections of The Books of Blood) was out of my reach. So as I wandered through Crown Books, an insert in a paperback fell into my hand.

Back then, the SFBC advertised in small cardstock inserts tucked into paperback books. I found one advertising twelve books for just a few dollars – including a copy of Cabal. They listed other books as well, a few with warnings about “adult content.” Signing up for the book club using my newly established checking account was already a transgressive act – my family would rather I do something other than add more books to the shelves in my room – so I decided to add a few adult content books.

Two of them were by Tanith Lee. They were Nelson Doubleday collections of her Flat Earth Novels: The Lords of Darkness and Night’s Daughter.

What I found inside changed me. Tanith Lee’s prose cracked me open. They were strange and sensual, dark and beautiful. I devoured these books, and immediately went to two more collections put out by the book club for The Secret Books of Paradys. If the Flat Earth seduced me, Paradys enslaved me.

In The Book of the Mad there was a moment when the main character was struck by a snowball. Lee described the snowball as ‘warm as toast.’ And I believed it. I searched for more of her books. In the Little Falls Library some mad, wonderful librarian had stocked a copy of Arkham House’s Dreams of Dark and Light. I checked it out and took it home with me for as long as I could.

Lee was a secret for me in high school. I was open with my love for other authors – Kafka and Barker, for example – but I kept Tanith Lee to myself. It wasn’t until college where I would find other adherents to the secret faith. The owner of Seven Mountain Books kept the DAW paperbacks in stock when he could find them.

When I found out she wrote two Blake’s 7 episodes, I was stunned. I hold Sarcophagus as the single best ‘bottle’ episode of an SF series ever produced. No one else would have opened a show with a prophetic vision… and have the vision come true at the very end, after giving each character in the crew a moment to shine.

My devotions would continue, following through her short story collections and novels. I can’t claim to have read everything – she wrote constantly, until the very end – but I continued to search and read. And I will continue to do so.

In the last few years, publishers have lost her (aside from a devoted few). My only hope is her loss will re-awaken interest in her work. We’ll see new editions from Subterranean Press, and more of her young adult works will find their way into eager hands.

I’m going to be rereading her through the year, and digging into books I have not explored yet. It’s the best way I know to say thank you to an author who opened me to new worlds. I’ll leave this with last thoughts from her website:

Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave
behind us stories told – on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the
wind, on the hearts of others – there we are remembered, there we work
magic and great change – passing on the fire like a torch – forever
and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need
no words at all.

Tanith Lee

Snow Warm as Toast

I will have more later. Right now, though, I’m writing a sentence which pains me:  Tanith Lee has passed away.

Now, to muddle through this work day with a smiling mask.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 8

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“The pleasure place has a dungeon?” Adia’s saw the lush comforts of the upper levels vanish as she descended. The soft lamps became guttering torches. Chains hung from the walls at random intervals. A low wind carried a damp, musky scent from deep within the catacombs.

“We service softer pleasures upstairs, but more rugged ones here.” Livia tapped one of the torches, knocking away ash until it brightened. “There is a certain decor which must be kept. Clients expect it. It adds to the mystique.” They walked to a double-barred doorway. Two guards in full armor, chain draped across their faces like veils, barred the way. They opened the door and allowed them to enter. “Welcome to the arena.”

Adia walked a miniature of the training arenas she knew from her time in central Alaque. She expected the weapon racks. Every blade imaginable, from small dirks to massive double-length swords with jagged cuts in the sides, rested in oiled wooden holders. This she expected from an arena.

But she didn’t expect the fountain.

A series of carved lion’s heads spat clear water into a small pool. Tables surrounded a central area decorated with heavy pillows. Fruit and drink of every variety rested in simple bowls.From easy view of the seating area sat an oval shaped fighting pit. Sand, freshly cleaned and lined by a rake, filled the lower area. It was not a full arena, but it allowed the combatants a measure of separation from the viewers

“Ivre’s very proud of its running water, isn’t it?” Adia dipped her fingers under the stream. It prickled her fingers. Cupping her hand, she took a sip.

“Lord Protector Claudius insisted on it. He believed clean water, especially when fed by abundant underground rivers, was a sign of civility.” Livia offered Adia the main seat before the arena.

“So, how does this work?” Adia pushed the soft, rich pillows around. They almost drowned her.

“It is simple. The room is yours for the night, as are the two fighters within. When the door closes, they will arrive, choose weapons and duel for you.” Livia spread her hands, encompassing the arena. “The purpose of the duel is to disrobe your opponent. No damage is to be done to the fighters. After, you may choose to spar with them… or engage in other physical activity.”

Adia set the overstuffed pillows aside and sat on the bare floor. “This should be interesting.”

Livia bowed. “One hopes you enjoy yourself.”

The door closed. Adia pulled a small, round fruit from a nearby bowl. She nibbled on the skin. It burst in a gush of sweet juices.

“Not bad.”

A door to the arena’s left opened. Two men entered. They wore full helmets which covered every aspect of their face and head. One helmet carried a bright red crest. The other wore bright blue fringe. The only armor they carried were vambraces and grieves. Otherwise they wore loose pants and tunics. A cut would slice the clothing, but not scar the skin underneath.

The fighters selected two long, needle-sharp swords from the armory. They raised the blades in a salute and began the duel. The cuts became a whip-cracks in the air.

Adia leaned forward, engrossed in the dance. It reminded her of Tellus’ ajedrez matches. Move and counter-move, feint and counterattack – the dance of war at high speed.

Red and Blue knew each others attacks. They fought with precision, feints and counter feints matched in the sharp ping of steel striking steel. Blue dipped his shoulder. It was slight, but enough to allow Red a stinging riposte. He drove away the blade and on the backswing, cut Red’s tunic open.

The cloth parted and fell away, revealing an oiled, muscular chest. Scars and curled yellow hair decorated his skin in equal proportion.

“Oh.” Adia took a long, slow sip of wine. “Not bad at all.”

***

“Well played.” Anton applauded, and tipped over his king.

Tellus shook his head. “It was a near thing. You nearly had me.”

“Oh, nonsense.” Anton took a long sip from his beaker of wine. “I have never seen a midgame quite like yours. Who taught it to you?”

“The best teachers I know: elders in the Red Desert, waiting out sandstorms and the heat in their tents.” An uncomfortable crowd surrounded their table. Other gamers and even couples partway through undressing for further revels watched in awe. Tellus leaned forward, cupping his mug of tea. “Are the games usually so…well watched?

“Oh, no. But this is the first time I’ve lost in half a year. They’re curious.”

Tellus nearly choked on his tea. “Half a year?”

“Does that surprise you?” Anton reset the board in a flurry of quick moves.

“Surely other players of greater skill than I have come by and challenged you? I heard grand masters face three opponents every night, and never play fewer than five games.”

“Oh, very true. And we have many good players” Anton finished his wine. It was refilled before the beaker touched the table. “Do not sell your skills lightly. You should seek out more masters and grand masters. They could learn from you.” Anton raised his hand. “But do not go to the Five Princedoms and try it without gaining more of a reputation. They respond to upset tourneys with assassinations.”

“A fair warning, I thank you.” Tellus finished his mint tea and asked for another. “Though I am still not sure I earned such praise.”

“Then let us play again. I still think you are hiding something behind those lovely eyes.” Anton stretched out, cracking his fingers. “How about a speed variation. It should convince you I’m not playing for a loss to learn your secrets.”

“You would learn such secrets by winning, too?” The tea arrived, poured by a serving man in a long stream into his cup. Jasmine tea, matching Anton’s scent note for note. “And while I am flattered by the compliment – ”

“Yes, I had heard you were a ensayyadin, a man of the faith and oathbound. You follow Atamal, yes?”

Tellus stilled. “We do not speak the name of our god. He may begin to follow us – not the other way around. How do you know him?”

“There is a scholar in the city that hungers for knowledge of every faith he can.,” said Anton. He touched his finger on one of the counselor pieces. “He often discusses matters of faith as he plays.”

“I hope to meet him, then, and play a round or two.”

“And correct him where errs?”

Tellus shrugged. “Should it come to it,” he said. “How shall we time the moves?”

Anton waved over a young woman. In her hand she carried a small pendulum suspended inside a rig. It moved very slowly. Each swing caused a tiny strip of metal to click loudly as it waved back and forth. “Twenty clicks per move.”

“Better than heartbeats between sandstorms.” Tellus rubbed his beard. “This shall be a challenge.”

Anton flashed another smile. “Most excellent.” He nodded to the timekeeper. “Begin.”

The first piece fell like the peal of a hammer. Tellus barely drew breath before his hand reached out and responded. The spare, contemplative moments between the moves vanished. Within the time he would normally take to make his second move, the midgame had already begun.

Breathe, Tellus reminded himself. In every moment, there exist hundreds of smaller moments. Time is a dune sea, with more grains of sand than one can ever count.

Each tick grew longer. Between the ticks lay all the time he needed.

Pieces moved and fell. Anton’s ability to deduce his moves and counter moves astounded him. Every attack was a prelude to another, pushing him into ceding territory on the board. He was relentless.

Tellus imagined Anton as a great dust storm, flowing from the desert. He needed to deflect the storm, to channel it away and onto itself. He built thick walls, channeling the attacks, and left only one way for the storm to travel.

Anton moved. Tellus’ heart leapt. But, before he could reach for his piece, his opponent raised his hand. “Stop!”

The pendulum froze. Anton stared at the board, smiled and laughed riotously.

“Oh, were you not a man of faith I would kiss you.” He tipped his king over. “Congratulations. A second victory.” Everyone burst into applause.

Tellus shivered. The adulation washed over him like icy ocean water. “Please, no, it’s not necessary. This was sheer chance.”

“Nonsense. Our grandmaster got careless after playing the same people over and over.” A woman parted the crowd. Tall and imposing, her eyes and hair were raven black. Thick ringlets fell across her ears and cheeks.

The sword caught Tellus eyes first. It was modeled after a simple soldier’s weapon. But the pommel carried an ornate, hand carved seal: a raven in flight over a city of Ivre’s tower.

“Ah, looks like I’ve been called out.” Anton sighed. “And I have some variety in my opponents.”

“Not enough, it seems.” The woman prodded Anton in the shoulder. “Will there be a third game?”

“I hope so.” Anton looked to Tellus.

“Yes, indeed,” said Tellus. “I would hope grandmaster Malleus would wish to even the score, lady..?”

“General.” She clapped her hand across her chest in a salute. “High General Bellia Ivre of the Raven Guard.” She pulled a low chair from one of the other tables. “But here, I’m just another enthusiast enjoying our Anton having to work for a change..”

Bellia folded her hands across the chair’s back rest and placed her chin upon her forearms. Her eyes were level with the board as Tellus and Anton reset the pieces.

Tellus finished the last of his tea in a deep gulp. A city where ajedrez matches draw generals and priests? This is either paradise or damnation.

When Anton made his first move, Tellus felt closer to the latter place than the former. He picked up his soldier and the game began in earnest.

***

Adia sat forward, fruit in hand, admiring the scene. It was down to helmets and loin cloths. Red and Blue, as she called them, took a pause after the last scrap of cloth fell away from Red’s legs. Each pieces of felled clothing taught her more and more about the duelists.

One was blonde and the other dark haired. Both were professional soldiers. The scars on their bodies mapped a lifetime of combat. They were fit. She could easily see sweat roll down the muscles defining their chests, bellies, legs and calves.

Red and Blue were lithe and quick. They had a savanna cat’s speed. The duel became an erotic art. By now, Adia knew the dance well. She saw Red’s arm steadily weakened over time. A large scar across the meat of one shoulder, dangerously close to the sinews, explained the fatigue. Even with the best of healers, the damage would create a disadvantage.

Red knew his disadvantage, and compensated with his greater speed, minimizing Blue’s attacks. But Blue knew red. He pressed his advantage with brutal strikes and quick lunges. It forced Red into expending more energy in defense, exhausting him.

Steel pinged against steel, faster than raindrops hitting the still surface of a lake. Blue drove Red back against the edge of the arena. Sand flew in arcs as his feet dug in against the assault. Adia at up. It would be decided here.

“Ha!” Red yelled out and dropped into a squat just as Blue dove forward into a disarming blow. Lunging forward, he caught the tip of his sword in the fabric of Blue’s loin cloth, just as it rested on his hip bone. It sliced the fabric. The loin cloth tumbled to the sand and left Blue naked.

“Damn!” Blue retaliated the only way he could. He quickly aimed his sword downward and caught the knot holding Red’s loin cloth. Spearing it like an apple on a stick, he cut away and left his opponent just as naked. Only their helmets remained.

Adia grinned. “Good job, Red. Exactly the blow I would have struck. Though, I think I’m the only winner here.” She tilted her head. Both were well formed, front and back.

“Now, the victor gets to rest while the loser gets to show me those parries he used.” She stretched and pulled off her boots. “Oh, and take the helmets off. ”

Red and Blue looked at each other and shrugged. Adia pulled her tunic off as they pulled away their helmets. No sense in further damaging her only clothes.

When she opened her eyes, Ulfric and Cormac stood in the sand, tired but smiling.

Adia brushed her hair back and laughed. “Really?”

“Yes. The guard pays well, but everyone has living expenses.” Ufric, once Red, leaned against a pillar and wiped sweat from his brow. “Besides, it was Cormac’s idea to start.”

“It was my idea to teach sword fighting to others. It just happened we could do both, together, for a lot more money this way.” Cormac grabbed two practice swords, and a jug of fruit juice.

Adia watched him place the swords before her as she peeled off her pants. Ufric stretched, working the muscles in his shoulders and back. They were so unlike the men of her tribe: rough and unshaven both above and below the waist. Hair curled around uncut members in untamed thatches. No fear of grove mites, or ritual cleanings with envenomed blades to keep the skin smooth for them.

“Thank you.” Cormac passed Ufric the juice jug, and followed it with a kiss. Adia held her breath. It was a simple kiss, quick and on the lips. But they lingered, touching hands and feet. Ufric brushed sand from Cormach’s cheek, and their eyes reflected nothing but love.

Jealous, Adia? she thought. No, not quite. But there was tint of envy. Lovers came and went. Life was cheap, especially under Mother Mangrove’s arms. Her tattoo kept her from unwanted children and unwanted attention; the venoms of her tribe’s sages kept disease at bay. Should she want a lover after the heat of battle, she could always find one. She was luckier than most.

But not as lucky as these two.

“Do the Raven Guard allow fraternization?” Adia hefted one of the swords, and took a practice swing.

“It depends” Ufric stretched his arm, glancing at the old wound.

When his lover was not forthcoming, Cormac shook his head and said, “It was once a tradition in the Gallatian Empire. Lovers were paired together in fighting units. They would fight as one, and if one died, the other would go into a killing frenzy.”

“Once?”

“Relations between men is considered a blight against purity by the church of the New Sun. Only places created by the exiles keep the tradition.” Cormac exchanged his juices for a blade. “It is why we never stayed with the Legion or joined any of the mercenary companies from the Five Princedoms. The unit chaplains…” He shuddered.

“Stop!” Adia playfully batted him on the ass. “Past is the past. You’ve survived it. You’re here, now, with a man you love in a place which lets you be you. Now, do you want to dance?”

Ufric smiled and smacked Cormac’s unadorned asscheek. “She has paid for the night. Can’t disappoint her, now can we?”

“No, that we can’t do.” Cormac walked into the arena. Adia followed, standing beside him and mirrored his stance.

“Good.” Adia nodded. “Now, show me that parry you did. Then, Ufric, you pulled this one low lunge I’d like to see.”

Cormac nodded. He took a starting stance. Adia mirrored it, and then she lowered her sword. “Just to ask, are you two only interested in each other?”

“We never would have suggested this if we weren’t interested in you.” Cormac brushed against her, lifting her arm back into place. He let a little ripple of breath hit the nape of her neck. Gooseflesh rose along her skin.

“I hope I stay interesting, then.” Adia put her hand behind her back, toying with the curly hairs around Cormac’s cock. He responded quite well. Laughing, he returned to his stance and walked her through the parry. They mirrored each other, sweat dripping onto the sand.

After a few more mirror passes, Adia and Cormac began to dance in earnest.

Life in the Hermitage

Old hermit Roy Ozmer reading a book at his house: Pelican Key, Florida

(Old hermit Roy Ozmer reading a book at his house: Pelican Key, Florida)

It’s been a month too long since I’ve posted. Chapter by Chapter revisions of Ivre continue. I’ve actually gotten a bit ahead and haven’t posted recently. For the one person who’s reading, I apologize. I’ve also been redrafting a short story, and working on flash fiction, but my focus has been elsewhere.

It’s been working on a massive garden remodeling project at home. I’ve been throwing myself into writing project documents, process documents and other items for work. I’ve had people visiting, and visited people.

I’ve been writing in bits and pieces, reading – but never fast enough – and finding room to breathe. And I’ve been pondering Metaphysical Graffiti, working on an outline and where I want the story to go. What does it say? What am I saying?

But I’m still here. Still noodling away. Word by word, line by line, haiku by haiku.

A little time in a hermitage wouldn’t be remiss, however.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 7

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“You build their homes like toy blocks set upon each other.” Tellus gazed up as Strom guided them through the streets. If this was where some of the poorer citizens lived, he could not see it. The streets, paved even, were clear of garbage. Even the tiniest of rooms had an open area with a small garden growing in a planter. “I feel for the old ones who live on the topmost areas. All those stairs…”

“That’s what the lift carts are for. You can’t see them, but many of the homes have small carts in the back on ropes.” Strom pointed to a stucco house seated atop a building, connected to the street by long and winding stairs. “My mother, gods rest her and keep her, lived on a topmost home.” As they traveled, she pointed out building styles from across the continent – Cunis, the Suzaranate and Gallatia, and beyond. “We tend to get a lot of travelers settling here.”

The street joined and crossed with two others in a triangular plaza. Tucked in between the high walls of the noble section, the gates of the scholar’s quarters and the great curve of the inner keep was a tall, reddish brown building.

The main archway carried a sign in many different languages, but each one read the same. The Wayfarer’s Rest. Columns created a small sheltered area outside the doors. They carried on up for at least three levels. On the higher floors, multi-layered cloth covered the entrances. Privacy for the rooms there, perhaps?

Strom walked them inside. One was already pulled aside, held open with a small urn. They walked inside, scraping their boots against a strap of metal provided for the purpose. Pegs hung beside the door, should anyone wish to leave rain soaked gear to dry.

More columns and arches. Tellus scanned the room. Like most taverns and rest homes it held a bar, stairs to the upper rooms and tables in a common area by a fireplace and small stage. But the execution was unusual. A gridline of columns and arches supported the entire room. From the X where the arches met hung glowing lamps, illuminating the seats below. Every table was hexagonal, giving one a good amount of room to sit, yet not dominating the space. There was no traditional flue fireplace. Instead a stone box jutted out into the room, holding the fire and several haunches of meat roasting on spits.

A stage, hexagonal like the tables, rested in the far corner across from the door. A woman in a red tunic and loose trousers sat in the corner, with a massive stringed instrument in her lap. She plucked at it with a relaxed fury. A man danced beside her wearing a mirror of her outfit. He carried bells on his wrists and ankles, and beat a counterpoint to his partner’s song with a small drum

In the far back was a massive stone bar, carved from some salvaged piece of marble . Behind there bar were doorways to a kitchen area and a stairwell into a basement – the storehouse no doubt.

Tellus heard Adia whistle at the sword on the wall. It was twice her height and wide as an arm-span. To him, it resembled a reaper’s scythe more than a sword. This weapon carried no finesse. It was designed for brutal, efficient slaughter, hewing through lines of soldiers like a storm felling trees.

The bartender filled a clay mug for a patron. He belonged to the sword: they looked cut from the same dark metal. A claw mark decorated one eye. The other, pale blue, reminded him of an old hunting lizard’s gaze

After a moment, he left the bar and went to the fire place, checking on the meat roasting there. The woman who took the bar was almost a laughable contrast. Where he was a massive war machine, all muscle and fury, she was a hunting snake. Build more like Adia, with the grace of a hunting cat, she carried scars across her arms and face. She picked up several bottles from beneath the bar and began mixing their contents, flipping them around as if they were toys.

Tellus throwing knives and darts tucked into her belt. He imagined her hands sending the sharp blades into a poor soul’s vitals instead of juggling bottles of spirits. Now and again, she gave the massive one’s backside an appreciative glance as he carved off long strips of lamb or boar for various customers..

“For someone who once sliced warhorses in half, he manages to carve meat with amazing delicacy.” Strom smirked. “Oh, and start with the ale. Few are ready for the way she mixes spirits.”

“I do not drink ferment.” Tellus wondered if it would be limes and waters again. There appeared to be little tea around.

“Well I drink the ferment.” Adia watched the bottles fly through the air. “Thanks for the warning.”

“You’re welcome.” Strom pushed through the crowd. “Visik, damn your eyes the boar smells as good as ever.” She clapped the massive cook on the shoulder. He grinned and sliced off another fine cut of meat, serving it to her on the end of his fork. She ate it without reservation. “Gods, this is heaven after rations and lizard meat.”

“Lizard meat is amazing if cooked correctly. I need to teach your company how to properly roast one of those beasts in the field.” Visik cleaned the knife on an oilcloth and sheathed it. The butcher’s blade hung at his side like the tiniest of swords. “Glad to see you’re back. The markets were buzzing when the raven came in reporting the attack.”

“Aye, it would be, damn vultures.” Strom licked her fingers. “Gods, I’m hungry enough to slaughter a bullock for your spit. But then I’d have to drag it here by hand…”

Visik laughed. “I missed you, pup. Best damn lance corporal I ever had, you were.” He cast his eye to Tellus and Adia. “And apparently acting as a guide for newcomers to the city?”

“For now. They helped us with the raiders. May I introduce Adia and Tellus.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance. It’s been a while since we’ve had a visitor from the Red Desert. Not since the Junatai clan made their last long trade loop.” Visik offered his hand to Tellus, who shook it, and to Adia, who tried to crush it.

Visik just smiled. “It’s has been nearly six years since the last member of your tribe came through my door, lady of the Black Blade. Father Ocean and Mother Mangrove keep you. Welcome!”

Adia grinned. “A good welcome, indeed.” She pulled out the voucher. “This should cover our stay, and we thank you in advance for your hospitality.”

“Hanud’s credit?” Visik peered at the marking. He glanced to Strom, who nodded and shrugged. He handed the voucher to the lady behind the bar. “Right, Ionna will sort you out then. She can validate the seal. Have to pardon the caution. Hanud rarely gives those out.”

“I suspect the cargo we assisted him in saving would be worth more than our stay here,” said Tellus

“As he is a member in good standing of the league of city merchants, I cannot say anything ill about him.” Visik lead the way to the bar. The clogged floor opened around him. “Not without the wife giving me what-for, as she runs the bloody thing.”

“Lay off, Visik. If we denied league membership to anyone with less than friendly personalities, I’d be the only member.” Ionna held the voucher with the edges of her fingers. She brought it to a lamp behind the bar, peering at the symbol and ink through the light.

“The handwriting looks like his.” Ionna turned the page sideways. “Yes, the way he accents his N’s is unique. Now, let’s check the seal.” She produced a tiny loop of wood with two small pieces of crystal fixed in either end- a miniature version of a lookout’s scope. “Ah, yes. There it is. Love signet rings. They have their own character. And this is his, all right.” She stamped it with her own signet ring and tucked it away beneath her vest. “This will cover four nights in our most basic room. It comes with meals, but the meals are always chef’s choice. You eat what he cooks.”

“Does it always smell like that?” Adia eyed the roasting boar again.

“Usually it smells better.”

“Then I have no problems eating anything and everything the chef prepares. How much for bedding and the like?”

Ionna shook her head. “Bedding comes with the room, as does one bath a night. I’ll have Senna set you up.” She whistled. From the back appeared a young woman with the bartender’s eyes and the chef’s muscles. “We have two new guests. They will be needing separate rooms. Can you see to them?”

They were laid up from the main hall to the sleeping quarters. The stairs curled around, like a vine crawling up a tree, and spilled out into a corridor lined with rooms. A few torch sconces hung along the walls, waiting for evening to come. The curve of the stairway deadened the noise from below. Senna guided Tellus to the far end of the hallway. Across from his room, another was open. A young man, hair and features matching Ionna’s, stuffed scrap cloth and rags into a mattress.

“We have a deal with the cloth merchants. All of their scrap gets washed and sent to us.” Senna opened the door to her room. “Here you are.”

No opulent rugs or filigreed decorations covered the walls. The room held all the simple essentials: a bed to one corner, facing the door, a small table, shelves in the walls for candles, a trunk for the storage of personal items. But each essential was well made: the bed carried a fresh blanket and a mattress. It rested on a framework of wooden slats, not a simple plank with four legs. The trunk looked strong enough to withstand any blow. The wall sconces were clean and well kept, with some kind of candle tucked inside a clay jar.

And then there was the large, rectangular structure in the far corner of the room. It was small, one could sit in it if you tucked your legs close, but it was stone and the inside gleamed with some kind of glazing. Another small, glazed box sat beside it. Tellus blinked.

“Is that a tub?” He reeled from the decadence.

“Indeed. There is one built into every room. We will have hot water up soon, but if you want cold water it is in the tank beside the tub.” Senna walked over and pulled an odd device from the tub, attached to a chain. It looked like a metal tube, think and reed like, attached to a sphere with a series of holes in the bottom. “And the sprinkler.”

“The what?”

Senna dipped the sphere in the tank. “You fill it with water and place your thumb over the top.” She did so, and lifted the dripping sphere. “The water stays in until you remove your thumb.” Lifting her thumb away, the water spilled from the sphere in a small rain shower.

“Ah, a well dipper! Rarely see one so small like this. Thank you.” Senna’s brother entered with a skin made from some creature’s stomach and poured it into the tub. She thanked him, and tested the water. It steamed, and almost scalded her fingers. It would need a moment too cool.

“The room is all yours. Your companion is set across from you. If you need anything, use the bell pull.” Senna pointed to a length of rope along the wall beside the door. “And welcome.”

Tellus waited for Senna to head downstairs before checking on Adia. She had brought her table to the center of the room. Laid out in front of her were both swords, still in their sheaths. Opening her satchel, she removed several small phials of carved, polished wood, a brush, and a sharpening stone. Lighting the candle, she kneeled before the table.

“Mother Mangrove, hear your daughter as she travels far from your sheltering branches. I thank you the gifts you have given me to survive.” Adia unsheathed her swords. Carefully, she ran the sharpening stone along the cutting edges, smoothing out any nicks and burs.

“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for the beasts in your arms. They keep us swift and strong. I thank you for the gift of their venom and blood.” She poured a few drops out of the phials onto the brush. Thick and jellied, she painted it onto the edge of the blade. Lifting one blade into the candle flame, she let the heat melt the jelly. As it cooled once passed from the flame and formed a black patina against the blade, seasoning it.

“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for the scars you have given me.” She touched the two ritual scars above her breasts, the two on the small star scars just over her hips, and on the scars above her knees. There were many others, but these scars mattered most. “They remind me of the harsh world, and all which is needed to survive.”

“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for my sharp eyes, my strong hands, and swift legs. I will not dishonor your gifts, and shall use them to survive. Honor to you, to the tribe, to the family I have now and the one which is to come.”

Tellus closed the door and left Adia to her prayers. He needed time with his own gods before the night grew long.

***

“Welcome to Zarina’s Tavern.” Tellus was not a short gentleman. But the owner of the pleasure house made him feel small. She dominated the doorway, dwarfing two bodyguards. Dressed in loose, flowing silks the color of a ripe peach, her skin was a very light brown. She wore no jewels save for a simple belt and a necklace of gold embossed with swirling circles. “Please, enter. We have been expecting you.”

They stepped into a room filled with gods. Right from the doorway, Tellus saw an image of the eight armed good-queen of the Suzaranate, the starburst symbol of the Gallatian Empire’s New Sun, and even a prayer rug with the symbols of his own gods woven into it.

Adia gaped. A mangrove sat in the corner of the room. The branches tangled into the shape of a wide hipped woman, hands stretched to the sky. She walked right to the mangrove. Touching her scars, she raised her hand to the holy tree, mirroring the rise of the branches. When she finished, she rose.

“Thank you. I never thought I would see Mother Mangrove outside of our jungles.” Adia bowed. Tellus had never seen her so well behaved. No quips or gruff observations. Just awe.

“She was a gift from a member of your tribe. As were all of the gods here. My adoptive mother’s grandmother began the tradition. She felt it important to say all faiths and joys were welcome in this home.” The woman bowed. “I am Livia Paaulus, daughter of Marcus Allinius Paaulus. Welcome to Zarina’s rest. What is your pleasure?”

“A question first.” Tellus pointed to the prayer rug. “Where did you receive this? It is from the Danutai tribe. They have not ventured from our desert in two generations as traders.” The knotwork on the rug, and the particular shade of orange in the symbols for wind and vision which made the unspoken name of his God, marked for the trained eye to see. The Danutai tribe discovered an oasis in the great desert and took it as a sign to follow the god of water and earth, their time under wind and vision having passed.

“It is at least four generations old. A traveler from the tribe – a wind walker – presented it to the house after my great grandmother assisted him in translating several old scrolls he found.” Livia smiled. “Do you wish to hear the full story?”

“One night, yes, thank you.” Tellus withdrew the letter of credit. “We have been presented with an opportunity to enjoy your hospitality by Hanud, the bowyer.”

Livia took the letter into her slim fingers. She held it to one of the lamps. Her eyes darted across the page. “Ah, this is indeed from Hanud. Thank you. You are welcome to all we can offer. What is your pleasure?”

“I am told you have a champion level ajedrez master.” Tellus bowed. “I’m hoping to test myself.”

“And I heard this story about a sword dance between two men?” Adia followed the gods on the walls with her hand. “I’m interested in seeing this.”

Livia smiled and bowed. “Then follow me.” She parted the great rug covering the entrance to the pleasure house. “We are here to give you a respite from the world.”

They entered a spiritual brother to the common room at the Wayfarer’s Rest. The columns and buttresses mirrored each other; pillars arranged in a harmonious grid. A stage, a bar and the offset chimney all mirrored the other buildings.

Men and women sat around the tables, talking, playing table games, or just lazing in each other’s company. The house workers were always visible by the necklaces, carrying the same swirling patterns Livia wore. He saw pleasure, but no open whoring or groping. There were spots where the veils around the pillars were thicker, but they only masked faces, not activities. He guessed the assignations took place upstairs…and the basement.

Livia brought Tellus to a table in the back. Unlike the others, it was square, and inset with a red and white grid. A half complete game of ajedrez sat on the table. On one side, behind the red, was an older Gallatian gentleman in long, white robes. A sunburst covered the woven stole around his shoulders.

His opponent was slim and graceful, with long dark hair wrapped in braids and skin the color of beach sand soaked in ocean water. Clear blue eyes watched the board. He folded his long, delicate fingers on the table and waited. Tellus saw grace and poise and sharp intellect in the beautiful man’s smile.

“There.” The man in white moved his red cavalier, attempting to trap his opponent’s counselor and two soldiers. “Check.”

Tellus saw the error right away. The beautiful man made no sign of triumph. He moved his plain soldier and moved it into range of the cavaliers’ attack. It triggered a flurry of movement. Pieces were swapped and exchanged.

When the board came to rest, the man in white frowned. He tipped over his general. “I concede.”

The beautiful man lowered his head. “Thank you for an excellent game, Elder Pisio.”

“Once again, Malleus, you confound me. Maybe one day the New Sun will grant me the vision to see through your ploys.” Pisio stood. “But I now have more to contemplate as I play the others in the mission.”

“You are welcome back any time.”

The priest rose and bowed. He tilted his head to Tellus and Livia, and departed, covering his vestments in a dark cloak.

“Tellus of the Anutai Clan of the Red Desert, may I introduce Anton Malleus, ranked ajedrez champion by Gustavi Sanrius.” Livia offered him the seat. Tellus bowed from the waist. Anton returned the bow, rising.

“It is a pleasure to meet you. I have not played anyone from the Red Desert tribes before. What form of the game do you follow?”

“We follow the original form, as played by the Aegyptian kings, though I have played the Gallatian, Urkuran and Princely variants.”

“There are some who say it was the Suzaranate which introduced the game to the Aegyptians.”

Tellus nodded. “True, but that variation was played on all four sides of the board. It is a very different game from the two sided version which the Aegyptians spread.”

In the back, Adia laughed, snorting a little. “Oh, if they start discussing faith and philosophy, Livia, you will have to drug Tellus to remove him.”

“I shall leave when asked, please never fear.” Tellus sat in the chair across from Anton and helped re-arrange the pieces. “Which game do you wish to begin first?”

“I always begin with a simple Aegyptian rule game. As a guest, you advance first.” Anton rubbed the skin of his thumb against a small callous on his finger. Tellus knew the touch. Already, his opponent felt the pieces in hand.

“Thank you.” Tellus moved his queen’s soldier ahead two squares and the game began.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 313 other followers