Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Heart of the Thief, Continued


Below is more from my fantasy work in progress, currently called "The Heart of the Thief." I'm starting to enjoy writing this, though it is a challenge to move beyond fantasy cliches, which I'm not sure I have as of yet. Here's part one and part two.
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“A truncheon works best for ending unpleasant conversations,” replies the Thief. “Though I tend to avoid people and their conversations as much as possible. Violence is always the result of a failure of preparation. You can't hurt what you cannot see.”
            “Are you a magician? A lesser apprentice of Dazbog?” asks Cassilda with a smile.
            “I know how to blend in with the darkness, how to find an alcove in an instant, how to walk down a street as just another person. There's a certain amount of magic about it, yes, though I doubt that wizard knows anything about it. It's not about casting spells or performing arcane rituals. If I do not wish to be seen, then no one will see me. There's no method to be taught. There was only the dank darkness of a dungeon and the bequest of a dying man. The mark...” He stops himself, realizing that he has just spoken of more than he intended. The courtesan doesn't need to know of his secrets, yet here he is, speaking like Dazbog, revealing things that should not be discussed. 
            “I lied earlier, Thief. Your reputation preceeds you. It seems you have great powers. Don't worry. I won't reveal your secret.” Cassilda turns and touches his shoulder, flashing her eyes, lips set in a pout. He has noticed her beauty, of course; even if his feet were not compelled by magic, he knows he would have followed her. Having neither money nor status, there have been no courtesans in his life. I never waste an opportunity he thinks.
            “You are very easy to read for a master of disguise,” says Cassilda, removing her hand. “Here we are. Beyond this door is a hallway that leads to the bailey, which we will cross to get to the atrium, where we will find the gentry of court retiring. Please leave everything to me, Mr. Thief, for your services are not yet required. Play that lute, I guess. What will we call you? I know you thieving folk like to use aliases, but Mr. Thief is a little too crass, don't you think?”
            “Smith,” says the Thief, shrugging his shoulders.
            “Blacksmith? Silversmith? Arrowsmith? What kind of smith? You're supposed to be a troubadour, not a beater of metal. There was a poet by the name of Robert Zimmers who played the lute at a tavern in my youth. You look like him somewhat. Zimmers it is. Onward, sir,” says Cassilda.
            They quickly cross the small courtyard and enter the atrium, a large rectangular room with an open ceiling to reveal the stars and a pool in the center to collect rainwater. On long, low benches the gentry and minor nobles recline, with courtesans and other service people standing around them, some offering bottles of wine, others whispering in ears. Incense burns in an urn; the air is filled with a saccharine smell, thick and sickly-sweet. Brightly-dressed people flitter about, exchanging hands, moving ruffled sleeves into pockets, removing hats and plucking peacock feathers from the glittering gowns of the courtesans, who smile and hold out their hands. The Thief passes a mummer wearing a beaked mask, his arms moving in wide circles, crow feathers flying from his black coat. Across the pool a lady lets a fat man in an ill-fitting tunic drool over her neckline like a ravenous beast, his greedy lips making porcine sounds. An ape with a chain around its neck leans in a corner, oblivous to the crowd, slowly pawing at the floor with feeble gestures. Cassilda weaves through it all and steers the Thief toward a gentleman sitting by the edge of the pool, his swollen feet submerged in the water, his face lined with pox marks and a drooping mustache. She curtseys, extending a gloved hand, her smile ingratiating, a wide, inviting line of whiteness and courtesy.
            “My lord Dempsey, it is a pleasure to see you again,” says Cassilda. “How are you feeling this evening?”
            “Absolutely terrible, just terrible. This damnable inflammation is unbearable. Praise Rankar that they heat these pools. Otherwise, I don't think I'd be able to move.” Lord Dempsey adjusts his feet, both of which are fat and deformed at the joint of the big toe. “Worst of all, no one is paying any attention to me. The ladies flock to younger, more agile men. I am not that old, you know, it is only the gout which robs me of my strength. Furthermore, I am richer than any man in this room. I feel insulted.” Lord Dempsey sighs, his red striped tunic deflating.
            “I'm afraid that is all my fault,” explains Cassilda. “They know that you are my favorite.”
            “Indeed,” says Dempsey, examining Cassilda. “Though I have not seen you much of late.”
            “Forgive me, my lord, I have been rather busy with trifling matters. I have something planned for us tonight. This gentleman here is Robert Zimmers, the famous singing poet of Zerrica whose songs are sung in taverns across the world. He is an excellent storyteller, having captivated audiences with his tales of romance and history. His lute playing is simply divine. I thought he could accompany us on a tour, after which, of course, you and I will retire to private quarters for an intimate discussion between friends.
            “Zimmers, I believe I have heard of you,” says Dempsey. “Wrote some song about the times and how they are changing. The men of Zerrica are usually more ivory-skinned than copper-colored, though. What is this about a tour? Cassilda, you know I cannot stand on my feet for long in my condition.”
             “ The poet was wondering if he could perhaps see the temple...”
            “The temple? Why does he wish to see it?” asks Dempsey, suspicious.
            “He has traveled far and wide, and seen many great wonders, from the living mountains of Stephanopolis to the burning chaos of Evenmort. Yet the temple of Rankar and its precious relict, the last piece of the elder god, why, what could compare to the pride of the Capetian dynasty? They say it holds the universe together, gives light to our ancient world. When it fails, we will be shrouded in darkness. Who would not wish to see such a holy thing?” asks Cassilda. The Thief has watched her eyes as she spoke. They glittered with green flame.
            “You know no one is allow to see the Heart,” whispers Dempsey. “Frankly, you should not be speaking so freely of such matters. These are troubling times, Cassilda. They say tensions with Galvania are increasing. There may be spies about.”
            “Things are always tense with Galvania. They have been for ages. Have you ever met a Galvanian, my lord? They are a most carefree and amiable people. Why, one of the couriers, a most respected man, has a Galvanian wife. Sometimes I wonder if it is all a ruse by the nobility to keep us commoners civil.” Cassilda sits down next to Dempsey, crossing her legs. “My lord, there is no danger in showing us the temple. I would most appreciate it, and would reciprocate the favor in a way of your choosing.”
            “You are being crass, Cassilda,” says Dempsey, though he displays a pained smile. “I'm not sure my brother would tolerate it.”
            “Your brother, the high priest? Why, you are family. And besides, you are a very important man at court. Do you think the guards would deny the Duke's Standard Bearer from seeing the temple?”
            “My military days are over, though I still hold the title,” says Dempsey with obvious pride. “Fine. You have convinced me, my dear. Please fetch me my cane. I will take you and your foreign friend to see the temple, though the Heart is out of the question. I've only seen it once myself, you understand.”
            “Splendid!” says Cassilda, handing Dempsey his cane. The Thief says nothing, but follows.
            She watches out the carriage window as they climb, seeing the gilded towers, the throngs of gilded people as they march upward on the neverending steps, on pilgramage for themselves, noblemen, merchants, priests, thieves. The fortifications give way to the splendor of the palace, which spreads itself up the mountainside, the power and wealth of the Capetians on full display. Only they could build their house on the great Mons Ascraeus with their plundered fortune, stolen from nations at sea, built with the bones and blood of a thousand kings. She swam in their seas long ago; she knows the calls of ocean birds; she always has the smell of salt in her lungs. She watched as the man she loved as a father was torn from her grasp and thrown overboard while the waters churned and the sky flashed bruised colors, aubergine and crimson. There seems to be a storm brewing on the horizon, back towards the ocean, a mighty tempest that she can feel, even up here, thousands of feet above the waves. Some things you can never forget. The fat lord prattles on, speaking to the supposed master thief about dockside whores. The reason none of the girls will go near him is because he has syphilis. Only the rich, nobels, and priests get ahead she thinks, looking at the climbers. Yet things are changing. The wizard had laughed and said that war was the least of their worries. Plague. The coming of the death-sleep. The final darkness. Coldness...and nothing. She doesn't know how much of it she believes. The Thief has said nothing of the spell; he listens patiently, absorbing Dempsey's foolish words. He hasn't given any sign that he suspects anything; frankly, she thinks him something of a dullard, a petty thug rather than the romantic swashbuckler Dazbog described. All things have their use. What was it he used to say? Whales have their oil, fish give their flesh, and man takes it all. A great mollossus pulls their carriage, using its stunted wings to ascend the steep path, its shaggy head lolling from side to side, seeing the world through compound eyes. Not a day goes by that she doesn't think of the ship. Do I live only for my vengeance? Maybe she will ask a priest at the temple to tell her. But it is forbidden to speak to the holy ones. She has no respect for them, shaved, starving, walking skeletons wearing elaborate robes of red-dyed silk, suffering for their god, giving themselves in the fervent belief that their hunger will feed his quivering heart and prolong existence.     

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