Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Settled Dust, Part Nineteen

A Continuing Haibun Cycle

Twenty-seven. Those were the warriors, mostly reclining and sleepy around low tables at the periphery of the big room. Valila scanned across them as she danced to the dull rhythms of the drummers. Some hoisted cups until the sour-smelling wine dripped from the corners of their mouths, others attacked the goat meat and flat bread with all their brutish gusto.

As a dancer or serving wench would near their table, some of the warriors would pull her aside, putting their greasy hands and mouths against whatever exposed flesh they could reach. Some pulled away, and some were allowed to do so. Valila danced well, for it was not so different than the deadly movements she'd locked within her muscles in her training. Deftly, she kept a perfect distance from every table, every grasping hand. She was neither seen to shrink away nor to be close enough to grab.

The feasting hall grew smokey and rank with sweat and passion as the party wore on. By now, many of the men were drunk on wine. They plied their rough and inexpert love play to the serving girls and dancers, sometimes in shaded alcoves made by rough curtains, just as often at the side of their tables, amongst the discarded remnants of their dinner. Only a few warriors, older and more temperate than the others, sipped at their wine and watched the remaining dancers.

Valila saw that the finer dancers were yet present in the center space, canny enough to avoid molestation by the lesser warriors. Though some of them were good to look upon, they were soft, and the dancing had spent out most of their vigor by now. She chose this time to put her full effort into the enterprise, moving in all the most provocative angles, sweat gleaming on her skin, her raven hair flowing all around her.

The warlord's son gazed at her, his eyes alight with a malignant sort of lust. He lacked the great physical presence that his father had wielded as a younger man, but his face had a cruel beauty about it, and he had the air of both quick reflex and wickedness about him. He sat forward on his throne-like chair, stroking his chin beard. He waved away a servant who offered him wine, only looking, looking. When one of his remaining men would move as if to snare one of the girls for their pleasure, he would glare a line of liquid fire at them, forcing them back to their seats without a word.

The other dancers, avid to be chosen by the warlord's son, danced with abandon, their breath coming in hoarse gasps as they tried to keep up with Valila. They were too soft, too coddled to put forth such an effort. One by one, they dropped to the floor, gasping, until only Valila remained, spinning and leaping, bending like the blade of a thin sword.

The young warlord, masterful, rose from his throne, gesturing the drummers to stop their music. The hall fell quiet, only the snoring of the sodden and the sighs of those yet coupling audible over the heavy panting of the dancers.

"You," the young warlord said, pointing at Valila where she stood, her breath slowing, the sweat cooling on her skin. "The harem master said there would be one woman among these cows that had some fight left in her. I offer you this bargain: should you leave me spent this night, I'll take you to wife. I warn you, though, I am as mighty a bull as walks this world, and no single woman has ever satiated my desire."

"When I'm finished with you, you will want for nothing," Valila called out, a hint of challenge in her voice.

The young warlord grinned. "We shall see." He motioned, and Valila followed him out the back of the feasting hall, into a dark, silent hallway draped with expensive tapestries from the west. He put his palm against her lower back, steering her as if she couldn't manage in the dimness. By his touch, she knew him to be well schooled in the sport of the bedroom.

"Your strength will give out, and you'll beg me to finish with you before the end. In that, you will be the same as all the others. That spirit? I'll deprive you of it long before the night is done."

Valila merely smiled, allowing him to push her into his bed chamber, where no man would come to his aid.

Inexpert drummers
love-sport and smoke covers death
that lingering smell

Who but the weasel
dances with such wicked glee
every eye gone blank

I am gone within
the false lamb with fangs so red
you the choice morsel

Khalid the younger collapsed next to her, shivering with the weakness of pleasure. Valila lay still, saying nothing, studying the dark smudges where the smoke from his lanterns rose to the ceiling. Her breathing gradually returned to normal. The pain decreased, but would not subside any time soon. Any hints of noise from the feast were gone now. The hour grew late. Both warriors and slaves had taken to their sleeping mats.

"I will...stand by my words in front of the men," Khalid whispered when his breath had returned. "You...would bring forth sons fit to conquer all the known lands."

"You would wed me, young warlord? A woman who you saw dancing, about which you know nothing?"

He rubbed his rail-hard belly, grinning up at the dingy ceiling. "Yes. What do I care what you've been up to before now? Clear enough--you've lain with a man or three before this night. All the better, for I can abide only so much soft crying and protestations about the pain of coupling. No, I have found you, and I plan to keep you. I need a strong woman, a woman with too much pride to ever weep."

"Hmm. To many, that would be a tempting proposal. You're in the fullness of your powers, and there would be no sense in denying, but I didn't come here to find a mate."

Khalid rolled to his side, looking at her with some interest. "You would deny me, going back to the harem master rather than bonding with me?"

"It wouldn't do to marry a dead man, regardless of the comely angles of the corpse's face."

Khalid blinked. "A dead man?" He recoiled from her.

"Your family owes a debt payable only in blood. Had you been a base braggart who spoke loudly of his prowess to cover a shortcoming, I would have freed your blood in the moment of your apex and watched you die of your own pleasure. Because there is something of regal wickedness in you, and because you can sometimes produce an honest response, you deserve better than that."

"'re that Ghost Society witch!" Khalid moved to leap upon her, but he was accustomed to fighting in armor, trusting to cuirass to cover his vitals.

Valila lashed out, kicking him low in the belly and sending him sprawling into the corner of the bed chamber. She sprang up, catching the weapon belt from the young warlord's trousers. There were two fine daggers hung there. She took one, throwing the other so that it would stick into wall next to him. "There. You are dead now, but you may yet come back. If you can fight past me and reach the door, your life waits for you there."

The young warlord pulled free the blade and stood, now uncomfortable with his naked state. "Why? Why come back here? Alone, you cannot imagine that you might escape. And...this madness, laying with me as a whore?"

Valila flexed her legs, feeling the carpet beneath her toes, preparing. "Insults to my folk are always repaid, Khalid. We are not immune to death. We aren't superbeings of the Coriyat. We choose to always pass from this world with our principles intact, however. As for our tryst, does it not deepen the impact upon your spirit? That I've come to you unmarked, knowing you in the absolute way of the flesh? And what shame is there in a whore? We are all paid to do something. What I do this night is done for free."

Khalid shook his head, his black hair falling over his shoulders. "You've shamed me, witch, but I will live. When the door behind you opens, I will be the one to exit this room, and I'll nail shut the door behind me."

"Perhaps. But there will be no keeping the secret of what I've done here."

Khalid leaped forward, faster than Valila had guessed. The whistling of blades parting the air was the only noise. The carpet rolled beneath her feet, and suddenly she thudded to the floor, the young warlord above her. She grasped his knife hand, but he was stronger. The point came nearer, nearer to her face, hovering just a hand's width from her eye.

The known and unknown
we, close with sweat, blood, and seed
yet still mean strangers

Bodies acquainted
striving now for death's purpose
wed by the dagger

Haike heard the noise and swung out into the hallway, hugging the wall. He drew the short bow back, holding three fingers an inch from his ear and aiming the arrow. He had expected them from the other way, but it didn't matter.

The woman he'd seen before, the kitchen worker. She stood there, face pallid with fear, but standing resolute. Haike did not ease off the bow.

"Is it true?" she asked. "What the sorceress said about you?"

Haike felt the strain on his arms as he held the bowstring taut. "True enough."

"Your touch will kill me outright?" She walked closer. "I'll just fall to ash, and be gone?"

Haike allowed the bow to unbend, tucking the arrow back into its quiver. "No. There'd be blood and pain, just as with any violent death."

"If it were like that...painless..." she turned her face to the ceiling. "I'd ask you for that boon. I'm sick with the cruelty of this world."

He put his hand against the handle of his machete. "If you held still, the blade could make short work of it."

The kitchen worker moved near to him, her eyes shining with tears. "You could simply kill me, without a moment's hesitation?"

The boy nodded. "If you wished me to, I would. That isn't why I'm here, however."

"You're..." The kitchen worker reached out, touching his face gently, smoothing his hair.

"Only a boy? Some have said as much."

She shook her head. "Different. Different from everyone."


"I want to help you."

Haike focused his chilly eyes upon her. Without any comment, he touched her wrist, her upper arm, her waist, her calf muscle. "Mima, is it?"

"That is my name."

"You seem sturdy enough. Perhaps you could aid me."

At that moment, the noise of two warriors coming down the stairs floated across the dim underhalls. Haike pushed Mima back into the storage room and nocked an arrow. The men, both sodden with drink, staggered closer, laughing at some jest or prior adventure. "You need at least two wenches for a proper..." one continued, leaning on his comrade.

The thrumming of a bow string sounded twice in the dank air. Arrows appeared in the drunkards' bellies, stealing the strength from their legs and toppling them to the ground. Twice more the bow muttered, sending arrows into their flesh once again. Haike shot across the floor, his machete flashing, the warrior's blood spraying across the stone as they died. He bent, skimming the gore from his blade.

"Now, if you wish to help, haul these two away and hide the bodies. I'll wash down the worst of the gore."

Mima grabbed the first warrior by his feet and strained to pull him away. His cape soaked up much of the blood, but there would yet be a blood trail. Prepared for this instance, Haike put aside his bow and carried out a pail of water, a coarse brush, and a large towel. The fatigue of the day began to creep through his muscles, and only iron willpower allowed him to continue unabated. Where was his mistress? The hour grew late, and he dreaded the thought that, at the coming dawn, he would be forced to slip away alone.

Insects to the torch
we slouch forward into doom
crying for release

Ever and oft used
the timid one now bloodied
with oppressor's gore

Let dawn's light tarry
let not the sun orphan me
in this savage land


Anonymous said...

Thanks again for another great step forward in the intrigueing saga. m

Anonymous said...

Wow! Two installments in short order. A special treat for sure. Just when I think we're reaching the coda, the action picks up again. I'm certainly glad for that, I'm not eager to see this finished.

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrick,

This is good. It never goes like I imagine it will. You keep me turning the pages.


Anonymous said...

Ooooh! I never get tired of this story. I hope Hot Khalid gives her a real struggle before she chokes the life out of him or perhaps impales him through the eyeball or the perineum or some such hideous thing. I am enjoying every darn word.

Patrick M. Tracy said...


Glad you liked it. I figure that I'd better get a wiggle on and finish this before the cows come home...


Coming with another one, so hang on!


I'm glad that I keep it "angular" and hard to predict. I generally don't know how each scene will go until it's written, so everyone's surprised.


Great to see you over here again! I've been lurking, keeping track of your livejournal, but been kind of remiss in the comments department of late. Hope I can finish up this tale in a way you'll enjoy.

Mushster said...

I just popped in to see if you were still around and to say hi. So glad to find you still here and continuing to entertain and keep us all thinking. :)

Across Inconstant Breath

Would that this skin this frail armor atop the husk of slow departure -  Would that it held against the teeth  of night's maw a...