This is it, folks. The thirteenth installment of the first part of Tales of Sight, Clovir: An Overture. All religious discussion aside, the Bhagavad Gita, translated to ‘The Song of God,’ has a lot to say about a life well-lived. It has been a huge influence on me and my writing and I would recommend anyone interested in affairs of the heart to have a read.
I have a further announcement - there will be two more stories in Clovir: An Overture, making it top out at fifteen total, but these last two will not be released for free on my website. Instead, they will be part of an e-book that I will be releasing along with The Yoga of Strength on launch day (April 19, 2019). The e-book will also contain the first chapter of The Yoga of Pain. But, don’t fret - the first thirteen are not going anywhere. Plus, you can get the e-book for free! All you have to do is sign up for my mailing list by April 31, 2019. If you are already on there, no worries! You will get download instructions automatically e-mailed to you. If not, make sure to sign up for the mailing list before the end of April!
The shaking of her fist caused her sleeves to ride up. The brass of the Shackles of Vulcan gleamed brightly in the firelight. Esther pulled the scarlet of her robe down over her wrists, covering her shame. Her customer, a wide-eyed harlot by the name of Tara, barely noticed Esther’s discomfit, if at all. Splaying her hand out, the bones erupted from Esther’s palm to rattle around on the cobbles of the Purple Run.
Esther blinked as she surveyed the little bits of calcified corvid arranged on the ground. Despite the yawning nigh-decade that had elapsed since the Shackles had been applied, she still felt her loss terribly for a hair of a moment every time she went through with her charade. It was because at one point, Esther knew, it had been real.
“Tara Isabelle, Maiden of Kulch,” said Esther, letting her full performance semi-vibrato emerge as she spoke, “You have spent long years here in your Purgatory. But your time in Limbo will soon draw to a close. Look to the moon, it will herald your emancipation. Beware of the honey bee – if you see its Sigil you will must needs turn away from your path and select a new approach.”
“Eh,” said Tara, “‘bout as useful as dey usually are.” She trailed off, staring off into the distance, down the crowded street, before picking up the thread again. “What do ya mean by ‘emancipation?’ Rolf owns me arse, Esther. You knows dat – I’ll never pay off me debt ta ‘im. I’d sooner float up into da air then be let off me chain by dat tight son of a bitch.”
Esther looked blankly at her client. “I only interpret the Signs, Tara.”
Tara’s pout turned into a smile then. “Do ya really think? I might get free of ‘im? And where to go, then? Not back ta Kulch – dey’s a bunch of stiff arses worse’n the Priests.” Tara paused. “Maybe ye can trow da bones again?”
“That will not help. The bones are reflections of Spirit, Tara. They cannot tell you exactly what to do. You must interpret them yourself, in whatever way you think is best.”
“Hmm, I suppose I couldn’t ask fer more ‘n dat fer a brace of coppers,” Tara said, unconvinced. She smoothed the pink and brown wool of her dress, glancing for a moment at the backs of her hands. They were cracked from the cooling autumn air and the incessant scrubbing that Rolf had her doing the past number of weeks. “I might ‘ave to get some a yer salve again.”
“It’s ‘sav,’ Tara,” Esther said, unable to stop herself from correcting her customer. The error surprised her – that Tara could read was hard to believe. She had probably picked it up from an ignorant john, Esther decided. “The ‘l’ is silent.”
“Dat’s why yer da brainy magical type, and I’m just a whore,” Tara said good-naturedly. “Ye sure about dis? Yer divination is right?”
“Yes,” lied the defrocked Mage.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
The cold of the Harvest Month night disturbed Esther much more than was normal. Perhaps it was because the canvas of her tent was falling into disrepair. Perhaps it was because the wood in her firepit was wet with autumn rain. Perhaps it was because she was getting older. Not old, but older.
Certainly, all these were possibilities, but they were not what was bothering her. But Esther knew the reason, and knew it well by now. It was the eve of the anniversary of her rebirth into the cold dead world she had been inhabiting. The tenth one. Her decade of magic-free living. Esther pulled her sleeves back again, this time to examine without embarrassment the tarnished metal around her wrists.
When she had first encountered a Shackled Mage, she had giggled at the sight. Like a neutered bull, the wizened old man had seemed a bit useless. He was wandering Isha listlessly, jabbering at children as they ran circles around him on the cobbles. Forever barred from speaking their secrets, the Shackled were a warning for all other Red Mages – never speak about the Red Tradition or true magic, on pain of this horrific fate.
A fate that Esther now shared with her fallen brethren.
True magic was beyond her reach, Esther accepted that. Ever since the Red Praetorian, that keeper of the law within the Red Tradition, had shackled her, the only thing Esther could do with her old abilities was to remember them wistfully. And remember them she did.
She had been adept at lightning, that most chaotic of the elements. She would cast it until she collapsed, high up on the Testing Square at the Red Keep. How it would arc towards the mammoth peaks of the Crooked Spears. More than anything, she had longed to use it in combat, in magic battles like those she had read about in the dusty old Heraclytan tomes found in the Magisterium. Her lightning was shaded purple, a reflection of the pride in her heart. Oh, proud was she, Esther Spratt, deep in her heart. A pride that she had sloughed off along with all of the rest of her dignity. The irony was not lost on her that she found herself here, now, of all places. The Purple Run.
Esther shivered, willing away the cold. But it only bit her deeper for her efforts. She could not wait for the day after tomorrow, when her memories would begin to fade again. But tomorrow itself: Esther knew what awaited her. And she despaired.
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
“Primrose, ya in there, ‘er wha?” The shout was accompanied by a tapping thud on the cobbles outside her tent. “It’s dat time a da month.”
Esther rolled over, bleary-eyed. She rubbed her eyes and pulled the threadbare blanket up over her bare arms. “Give me a minute, Derrick.”
“Sure, sure, take yer time. I’ve got all the time in the world fer you, my sweet.”
Waves of revulsion ran down the Apostate Mage’s back. Mad Derrick was a strange mix of gentleman and psychopath, but perhaps that just made him a psychopath, Esther mused. Sighing, she pulled on her robe and smoothed her hair. Then she grabbed her flint and lingered looking at the fire pit in the center of the tent.
“You want some tea?” Esther called out. “If you do, please open the draft flap and I will get a fire going.”
Mad Derrick did as he was bid, maneuvering the pipe-cum-makeshift chimney above the firepit into the thin ring of flame-proof bear ash that looked like a grommet in the canvas. Esther took a moment to glance at him before commencing her labours. He was dressed in the black shroud of the Thieves’ Guild, his formerly black hair now a shock of salt and pepper. On his lapel, a blue marigold pin made of painted metal drew the eye from the onyx that surrounded it. As Derrick bent to enter the tent, Esther caught sight of the scabbarded trio of stiletto blades on his hips. That was only the three visible – Esther was certain that he had quite a number more hidden on his person.
“Please, have a seat,” said Esther, motioning to the stool next to the squat table behind her. Towering above them, the six enormous poles that kept the tent up were arranged in a pleasing hex pattern. It was a style of domicile lifted from the Erifracian desert people, made for easy breakdown and raising, though the people of the Purple Run had a more permanent idea in mind when they set up their shantytown. They were extraordinarily cheap, compared to the few buildings of wood and stone peppered throughout the Run and everywhere in Isha besides. The tent was only thing that Esther could afford, after her fall from grace.
“How are you doin’, Primrose? I came a bit early because I knew it was… ya know.”
“Yes, thank you, Derrick,” said Esther, turning from the roaring blaze in the fire pit. “I do appreciate it. It has been a hard few hours, I will not lie. It will be worse this afternoon. During my performance.”
“Fuckin’ Mages,” said Derrick, shaking his head. “Do you think that perhaps-”
“You know I cannot speak about such things,” Esther said, her voice low. She brandished her Shackles, just for a moment. “I do not know where you get your information, Derrick, and I do not want to know. All I ask is for your continued support and protection.”
“You know you ‘ave it, Primrose.” Derrick paused. “’ow badly would you want it, though? Freedom? If you had a chance-“
“Christ-man, Derrick? What the fuck do you think? I know you love this place, this Purple Run of yours, but I am living in Gods-damned squalor.” Esther pointed at the canvas wall behind the table. “Do you know what runs out there, in the ditch? Of course you do – the sewage trench was one of your ideas. I am living next to a ditch for shite and piss.” Esther let her imperiousness fade and her shoulders slump. “I will never be free, so long as-“ Esther felt the silencing magic clamp down on her words. She could not speak directly of her malefactors.
“As long as they own the world,” Esther continued, chastened, “I will always be shackled. And they have ruled the world for centuries – since the Heraclytan Empire imploded. It will never change, so I will die with this metal on my wrists.”
“Well, this is just it, Esther,” Derrick said, using her first name for the first time since she could remember, “somethin’ is comin’. Something that none of us – not a single soul in Isha, in Thrairn, on fuckin’ Clovir – can anticipate. Something that might well turn the whole world over on itself.”
“What are you talking about?” Esther said, pouring boiling water from her kettle into the small battered copper teapot. “Who is your source? Divination is a fool’s game, one I use to extract coins from the ignorant. You know that as well as anyone. Even cast by… one of them, it cannot be trusted.”
“Never ye mind that, my duckie. I knows ya tinks ye’ve got the whole t’ing sussed, that yer well and truly fucked. But let old Derrick ‘ere give ya some advice: be ready. It’s comin’. And I’m gonna need all da ‘elp I can get.” Derrick took a rusted tea cup just as Esther finished pouring the steaming brown liquid into it. “Now, Primrose, let’s ‘ave a look at yer finances. Like I always tells ya, we’ll make sure ya keeps enough ta eat, but the Guild ain’t a charity. Ye’ve got ta contribute.”
Sighing, Esther fetched out her big leather-bound notebook. The Thieves’ Guild might be doing it with a smile, whereas you were as likely to get a boot to the face when the City Guard had been at it - before Derrick and his boys kicked them out - but protection money was still protection money. As the big man at her table grinned and scanned the parchment, Esther bent down and pulled the battered brass lockbox from under her bed. It clanked with the sound of metal coins shifting about within. She then used the key around her neck to open it up and place it on the table before him.
“Take what you feel is right, Derrick. I am ever your grateful servant.” There was not a hint of sarcasm in Esther’s words.
“Grateful is right,” Derrick said, his smile widening. Then he grabbed Esther’s wrist, gently. “Ya knows, Primrose, I’d cut yer rate by half if ye’d provide me with… other services. I could set ya up wit’ one of da better gents – not like dat pig Rolf at da Green Dragon. Somethin’ classier, like da Sapphire Dove in da Merchant’s Quarters. It’d give ya a chance – maybe move into an actual ‘ouse. Da way t’ings are goin’ – ye’ll never be able to move on up.”
“You know my line, Derrick, and I will not cross it. I would sooner not make my Hell a more fulsome misery, whether that Hell be gilded or not.”
Derrick’s smile softened as he released her. “I knows dat, my duckie. Part of why I respects ya so damn much. Da offer is always on da table, 'dough.” Derrick drained his cup, seemingly unfazed by the temperature of the hot liquid. “Keep a mind ta what I telt ya. About what’s comin’. Dere’s always ‘ope.”
Derrick fished several pieces of tin and copper from the open lock box, put the coins in a pouch he kept strapped beneath the shroud on his back, and flipped the book shut. Closing and handing the lock box back, the Master Thief added, “Don’t worry about dis afternoon, me ‘oney – I’ll make sure da rabble’s kept in check.”
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
Rain. Of course there would be rain. Sighing, Esther pulled her robe taut around her body, picked up her washtub with one hand, and began her march to the Western Market. By the time she exited the Run, a few children were following, hooting and hollering as they bounced behind her. Black-shrouded figures posted at the neck of the alley nodded to her and fell in with the gathering crowd as Esther marched.
It was a part of the conditions of exile, rules for the clinging to the half-life that was the lot of the Apostate. In exchange for a commutation of their death sentence, they were to perform theatre: weak and pathetic attempts at rebellion, at intervals ordered by the Red Praetorian. The more heinous their crime, the more frequently they had to do their risky and humiliating work. They were only to be released from their task when they were in some way assaulted by the crowds that gathered. If they were lucky, the assault would come in the form of a flung piece of fruit. If they were not so lucky, it would be fresh shite. Even worse were the punches or kicks - many an unfortunate Apostate had died beneath the punches, kicks, and stabs of an excited mob.
These displays were engineered to make rebellion against the Crown look and feel stupid and asinine. The Crown and the Red Tradition supported one another, maintaining Order by sowing false Chaos. Owing to the Red Tradition’s stratagem, the Shackles prevented the Apostates from referring directly to the Red Tradition and magic – real magic. The people that gathered to watch them foolishly rant and roar, inciting them to the same scorn that Esther had felt when she had seen her first Apostate, so many years before. The Tradition had spies, ones with schedules, who watched and ensured that the Apostates did not fail in their demeaning tasks. Failure meant death, and the failure of an Apostate in the eyes of the Red Tradition was achieved in one of two ways: by not showing up at the appointed time or by not making him or herself look so pathetic, weak, and inflammatory that they did not end up attacked by the crowds.
Showing up was a matter of swallowing your pride. The latter part was no real trouble, either – go to the right part of Isha, and you could guarantee you would find yourself a group of human beings vicious enough that they would be all too happy to find a pretense to lay a beating on a fellow misanthrope. The Purple Run was out as an option, of course, ever since Mad Derrick had retaken it for the cast-off parts of Ishan society. The Red Tradition avoided the place as much as the City Guard did. But close to the Purple Run, in the Western Market, well…
Satisfied that there were enough people gathered to witness her humiliation, Esther threw down the washtub, her make-shift dais for addressing her ‘adherents.’ Not for the first time, she told herself how lucky she was. Lucky that Viktor, the Red Praetorian, had only required that she do this once per year. Esther knew of other wretches, the not-so-fortunate ones like Milton Card who were required to do it week after week, risking it all over and over again. Then again, Esther’s ‘crime’ compared to Card’s was like comparing apples to some strange fruit from far-off Kashya.
Sighing, she stepped up, feeling the frigid autumn rain penetrate deep into her robe. Around her, beady eyes, sneers, and predator smiles eagerly anticipated what would come next.
“My fellow Ishans, I am glad that you have come,” Esther said, allowing her performance semi-vibrato to ring out in the Market square. “I have a tale to tell you, of deceit and treachery, by our own foul Regent, the pretender King Janus…”
✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶
It was worth it, Esther decided in her bed on the night of her fell anniversary, the roaring fire from the pit in the tent drying her robe as she lay shivering. Esther could not be sure that the street rat that threw the old tomato at her before she even got properly warmed up in her speech had been hired to do so by Derrick, but she would have bet her last bits of tin on it. The boy, who could not have been more than eight, took a fist to his face for his efforts, laid upon him by an older urchin who was enjoying the show and would have had it go on for a while. The eight-year-old was fallen upon by several others, and he took the beating that was probably awaiting Esther. Yes, Derrick’s protection was definitely worth it.
Ester rolled over and smiled. She had gotten through yet another year as an Apostate, and here she was, still breathing. She could not be sure that what Derrick had told her – that there was a great change coming – was actually true. What she could be sure about was that she was much happier as a living person than fried to bits by orange lightning, the fate promised to her by Viktor had she not toed the party line in her exile.
She still had her youth and her beauty, sort of. More importantly, she had her bones, the weathered white things she had stripped from a raven when she was a Novice at the Red Keep. She reached over to the table and picked up the leather bag, drawing it open as she did. Then she dumped them in her palm, rolling them around with her thumb, not able to help herself from marveling. Even though she was defrocked, even though the magic had left her, her love of Fate, of Destiny, of all of the dreams promised by True Divination – those had not gone with it. She would continue to live, to follow her heart.
Much to Esther and her clients’ delight, she would continue to ‘trow da bones.’