Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Settled Dust, Part Fifteen

A Continuing Cycle of Haibun Poetry

The four camels slipped into the city, drawing no notice. A woman, a boy, and two pack animals were of no consequence. The guards allowed them by with only a cursory examination, enough to see obvious weapons or contraband. They didn't take time to dig through the grain and dried meat, however, nor did they check the saddlebags for concealed items. This was a trade road, after all, and the two riders were less than threatening.

Thus, two members of the Ghost Society entered warlord Khalid's walls, two that had suffered betrayal and lived to tell.

"Sloppy work," Haike whispered, his lithe camel matching pace with Namira's larger war steed. "Any fool could have found our weapons, had he taken the time."

"We appear harmless, do we not? Simple travelers, merchants?"

Haike nodded.

"Men will believe what they wish to be true. It's only necessary to create a facade that allows them to come to the assumptions you require."

"We are without a full grown man. They could have taken it in their hearts to rob us, or to rape you. What of that?"

"There are men who would rape a boy, Haike. Don't forget that. I took the chance because Khalid wouldn't put such a man on the gates. Merchants could swing wide of this town. If they were ill-used long enough, they'd do so, and Khalid's men would go without rations and goods. That's no good. You see my point. In any case, we have no full-grown men at our disposal, and bringing another into our fold would be far more dangerous than the small risk of trouble at the gates."

They rode further along, Haike dropping back behind her and keeping an eye on the pack animals. It wouldn't do to have beggars and cutpurses steal their bags. The trade goods were unimportant, only a disguise, but the weapons beneath would be vital to their cause.

Like needles through cloth
we defeat the mud-brick walls
about your sanctum

*****

"You're not like the other wenches," the old harem-master said. "You got good, smooth flanks, and it looks like you could run apace."

Valila nodded, saying nothing. Her voice, if nothing else, would give her away. She had used all her arts with body makeup to hid the scars of her profession, and she knew that her form presented nothing untoward. Men would salivate over her. It had ever been so, and would continue until time or injury stole her beauty. Like her Ka'Javiila or her killing daggers, it was a tool. Any impulse to vanity had long since subsided. True beauty was in the action, in the effortless perfection of a moment's violent and final motion. The preoccupation on form alone was the province of the weak-minded.

"You don't say much, girl. Are you mute?"

"No, I can speak," she whispered, knowing that her one failing was that of her surety, her stern disposition. Her master had often remarked that, had she been capable of the easy submission, the coy allure of a dancer, she would have been his finest student. She had tried, but that way of speaking, that way of holding her body--they had not come naturally to her. She had learned to be satisfied with being the Master's most deadly student, if not his most artful.

"Huh," he grunted. "Not much of a singing voice, then?"

"None at all, Master."

"But you can dance, eh? And you possess knowledge of pillow play?"

She nodded.

He put his pudgy hands on her, feeling the sternness of her muscle, the firmness of her flesh. He touched her in a way that, had it been in the least personal, would have caused Valila's anger to explode to hatred. With the old harem master, however, it was naught but business. He had done this work so often that he was inured to the arousal it would cause in a normal man.

"You've done some heavy work in your time, girl. I would venture that no single man could exhaust you in bedroom play."

"None have ever shown me stamina so great."

The harem master laughed. "Khalid's son may well yet. Not the fighter his father was, but he has the attributes of a buffalo. In him, I think you'll see your match and more."

Valila nodded, knowing that things would never progress that far. They had invited death into their ill-built palace, and many eyes would stare, dark and glassy in the moonlight, before long.

"I'll need to search you further, girl. One can't be too careful. I'll have to check that you haven't secreted any weapons in...within yourself, if you understand my meaning."

A cold tendril shot through Valila's belly. She had hoped they wouldn't be so thorough, but had acknowledged that they might.

She pulled her thin skirt upward to her waist and stood wide-legged. The old harem master looked into her eyes as he searched. It took only a moment, but that moment was as difficult a trial as she had faced in some time. This, she would never tell to Haike. This weight she would carry alone.

On the long backtrail
all the innocence I lost
blades for all my scars

Intangible things
lost parts of what we once were
debts carried alone

*****

Haike sat upon the other boy's chest and pummeled him until his face splashed blood and his struggling became vague twitches in response to the painful barrage. In the alleyway behind the palace, no one paid them any heed. It was simply another mute struggle in the dust, unmarked as tryst or assault.

He tied the boy, bigger and older than himself, with a short length of cord from his pocket. He pulled the boy into a darkened doorway by the armpits and sat him up against the corner of a dusty room, stacked with sacks of grain and the like. It would be no good to have him choke on his own blood. Haike squatted down and waited for the boy to recover his wits. The grain stacks were high enough that no casual observer would see them.

Waiting, Haike scooped up a handful of the dry dust from which the floor was composed. He rubbed it on his knuckles, removing the worst of the blood. He rubbed some of the dirt in his hair and across his bare arms. Finally, he obscured the paleness of his face with a light rub of the same dirt. He could do nothing about his eyes. He knew they would mark him, if he got too close to anyone, but a dirty lad helping to hoist and carry at the palace's kitchen entrance would arouse little suspicion.

The boy came around, starting to cry for help. Haike hit him hard in the gut. Still, the boy tried to utter a muffled shout. Haike gritted his teeth and drove a punch into the boy's groin. He folded in half, tears falling from his terrified eyes. Haike produced a small knife from beneath his trouser cuff. "Make no more noise, or I'll start cutting you in ways which won't heal."

The boy, pitiful, blood-spattered, with a broken nose and eyes swelling shut, nodded. "What do you want?" His voice sounded odd from the smashed nose.

"Tell me of the operations here behind the palace. Tell me of your tasks, the kitchen workers, and ways into the palace. Withhold nothing. Tell me only the truth. In this way, you could, perhaps, survive this incident."

The boy nodded. "I'll tell. Everything."

"Good. Do it quickly."

The boy's eyes had no fire as he told a fragmentary and elliptical tale of how the work entrance of the palace ran. In some dim part of his mind, he had already given himself up for dead. Haike saw this, and was momentarily tempted to smother him. It would not have been difficult, and he could have stacked grain atop the body, hiding it for more than long enough for what Namira had planned. Still, she had said that there was no honor in killing needlessly, and the boy was nothing to him, merely a point of leverage to take advantage of.

Haike punched the boy on the temple without preamble, knocking him senseless. With the time he had available, he tied him hand and foot. He used the corner of an empty grain bag to create a gag to keep him from crying out. Hoisting him was no easy task, but the dusk all around helped Haike stack the boy amongst the refuse on the wagon heading out. Rotten vegetables and other detritus heaped above the unconscious boy, but nothing heavy enough to harm. By the time he awoke, he would be trundling far away.

Haike continued to work the back entrance, fetching and carrying with the rest of the low help. One of the kitchen staff squinted at him. "I don't recognize you, boy."

"I'm the new boy. Bucho's replacement."

"Where goes Bucho, then?"

"To the Great Nothing, I guess. Or to the Coriyat, if that is what you believe. He fell before an ox cart and was crushed, just this last morning." Haike found it easy to make up such stories, and had no guilt for telling them. What matter, the words of a ghost, anyway?

"What do you call yourself, scrawny pup?"

Haike's pride moved within, asking him to stare the kitchen functionary down, but he knew that he couldn't. This wasn't open war, but secret and decisive slaying in the night. His own preferences would have to be put aside. He forced himself to be pliant. "I care not. Scrawny Pup is as good a name as any other."

The man sniffed. "Scrawny Pup, it is. Since you're the newest, it falls to you to scrape the tallow from the frying vats. Do you think yourself capable of that."

Haike nodded. For a short time, he imagined that he was capable of putting up with any appalling condition. He set to work scraping the noisome sludge from the cooking vats. The smell and feeling of the old, congealed tallow was alarming, but he consoled himself with thoughts of dead men, their flesh gone cold and rigid beneath the waning marches of the night. The thought of having no man who'd wronged him striding the surface of all the earth assuaged any disgust, any obstacle along the winding road.

Rough, merciless touch
the language of the balled fist
quick-spoken and clear

The trial is naught
pain and toil but shadows
across glory's road

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

How many time can I say this is a wonderful story and that I'm enthralled without being redundnat? Having the Haikus at the end of each segment does, ideed, add an element of elegance to the overall effect.

drthunder

Anonymous said...

Hey, your taking us on a whole new adventure! I'm not complaining. These are good stories. I'm glad you lack disipline when it comes to outlining. No good yarn should be held to an outline.

Swiftboat

Anonymous said...

The game is afoot! A very intriguing developement, the ghosts within the walls of the enemy's encampment. A bold stroke worthy of our duo.

bobby-t

malkatsheva said...

I love the idea that Haike consoles himself with thoughts of dead dudes when he has to scrape out the pots. I mean, I hate doing the dishes myself, but that's a marvelous image!

Patrick M. Tracy said...

Doc,

Compliments are never redundant.

Swiftboat,

Well, we can't let pesky warlords get away with trying to rub out our "heroes".

Bobby,

Well, it's like the old saying says, "Let all your enemies precede you through the gates of death."

Rachel,

I don't know if it's considered a good coping skill, but it seems like an unhealthy arrangement to ask Haike to do the dishes. I'd just do them myself and leave the kid alone.

Thanks, everyone, for coming by. I'll try to get another "Dust" out in the next couple of weeks.

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