An Atikan Interlude - Part VI
Released August 11, 2019, this love story actually has a happy ending! Will this become more common as we draw through to the end of The Clovir Cycle? Only one way to find out!
Over The Moon
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Habit. There was plenty of it in the way that Puff Baggins handled her Thor’s Day mornings. First, it was to pull herself from the arms of whichever lover she had found in the tavern the night before, slipping away quietly before the woman whom she had seduced had a chance to awaken. Then it was back to her studio, tucked away in the third floor of a merchant’s shop in the Hightown Market. Once there, she would give allow herself an hour or so of practice on the instrument, to ensure that the encroaching hangover did not ruin her chances of putting on a good show. After that, it was down to the Market Square, to the gibbet.
She did not eat in the morning – she had long since learned to refrain from breaking her fast before a performance. A full belly made things more difficult, especially insofar as a desire to remain retch-free during the main event was concerned. She would have to wait to start, until after Executioners Alfred or Virgil delivered the sentence for the condemned to swing. And until the men of the White Guard had left and the Market resumed its normal function as trading commons for the nobles of the City of Isha. Putting a few tin pieces in the hands of the City Guard at the entrances to the Market, she would then ascend the platform and begin her performance.
The smell of the corpse, which was invariably trussed up, put into a cage, and ratcheted up to a bar that extended high above the crowd which milled about below, never failed to elicit a measure of nausea from Puff. The hangover made things worse, of course. But she knew that after a couple of hours of entertainment, the upturned cap she placed before herself would be so full of coppers and the occasional pieces of tin that she would be able to eat and drink for another week. As well as pay her living expenses to her landlord, but that was a secondary consideration.
Imagine her shock when, after one sunny morning in Septembus Month, another performer pushed his way up to the platform after she had finished paying off the City Guard, before she had left their company.
“Look of ‘im!” Puff said, pointing to the interloper and looking to the men with the upside down red triangles on their chests. “Go get rid o’ dat joker, if ya please.”
“Fuck yerself, dyke cunt,” spat one of the City Guard. “We take yer money so’s we don’t come arrest ya fer climbin’ up on da King’s property, but dat’s it. ‘Sides, ‘im up dere paid us already, too. Ya want ‘im gone, go take care of ‘im yerself. We promises not ta interfere. Best we can do.” The City Guard elbowed the man standing next to him, who emitted a raucous laugh.
Puff squeezed her hands into fists a few times, but that was the extent of it. She was not still so liquored up from the night before that she thought getting on the bad side of a member of the City Guard wise. Turning to the platform, she saw that the man had pulled out a pan flute. Taking a few moments to warm up, he began to play.
As the lute player pushed through the crowd, taking care not to bang up the instrument that was strapped to her back, something happened. She was forced to listen to the man on the platform. Talent recognizes talent, and Puff could not help but notice that he was good. Really good. Sublime, even. By the time she arrived in front of the platform, she was as spell-bound as the rest of the crowd. The man, who Puff now recognized as Erifracian due to the dark tone of his skin and hair, stopped and beckoned to her.
“You,” said the man, beaming. “You come up here. You play with me.”
Puff complied without question. The words that wanted to emerge simply would not make the voyage from her head to her throat. She simply did as she was told. The only self-directed action that she managed was to removed the checked flat cap that she wore and place it on the platform before the pair.
It was magic. There was no other word for it. It was as if one were the key and the other a lock, or vice-versa. They instinctively knew what to play, when, and they took turns playing the melody and the harmony. It was an instant partnership in the truest sense of the word, something that had been written in the annals of history long before the event even occurred.
Puff played and sang her own songs, while the man with the flute accompanied her. And then, when it was time for his own songs, foreign-sounding instrumental pieces that were as exotic as the man himself, Puff plucked along in a haze of bliss. Every person in the crowd felt it: God herself was putting on a show. If Puff had been able to pull herself from her reverie for long enough to look up from her instrument or the eyes of the man she played with, she might have noticed how even the City Guard, those wretched beasts, ceased their mindless chatter to watch.
When the spell finally broke and the feeling receded, three hours had passed. Puff’s cap was filled to bursting with coin. Bits of silver flashed in the sunlight. The woman’s eyes popped beyond any reckoning as she noted a few pieces of gold in the bunch. She scooped it up and looked at her fellow musician. Then she placed it back on the ground and took him in her arms. The man smiled and hugged her back. Eventually they broke away from one another.
“I watch you. Since Junius Month. You good… what your name?”
“Puff. What’s yours?”
“Abad. Look of dis, me friend,” said Puff, picking up the hat. She put her hand in and let coins slip back down as she pulled it back out. “I’ve never seen da like of it. Dere’s five gold coins in ‘ere. And t’ree times as many silver. I’ve not made dis much in a year. Two years, even. We’s rich!”
“Yes. Is good, no?”
“Yes. It is indeed good.” Puff looked at the man again, taking full stock of him. He had a dark beard, a kind face, and his eyes… his eyes were blue. Bluer than the sky above. Hypnotizing. He stood, not proudly, but there was something about him. Something rare. He had the look of a man completely without shame for himself. And it was magnetic. Somewhere in Puff’s consciousness it was acknowledged that it had been a long time since she had taken a man to her bed. She had been certain that it would never happen again. But now, looking at him, this soft creature with an unbelievable smile, a kernel of lust found its way into her mind as she felt her parts tingle.
“What are you doing in Isha?” Puff asked. “What I mean is, have you come for work?”
“I come for my Robin. She my niece. My brother move to Isha when we barely men. He has Ishan wife and daughter. Now my brother and his wife dead. Cyclopean Fever. Robin all alone. Cannot be alone. So, I come.”
“Do ye ‘ave no wife of yer own? I mean, did ye not come wit’ anyone? No family in Erifracia?”
“No wife, no,” said Abad. “No one. Mother and father dead. Just Robin.”
Puff looked the man over again. The pull was strong. So strong. It was incomprehensible, even. She looked down and noticed her filled hat resting on the planks. And then she saw the crowd. It had dispersed, and the City Guard were no longer paying attention. A couple of shabbily-dressed men were looking at Puff and whispering to one another.
“We need to get ourselves and our earnin’s outta ‘ere. Do ye ‘ave any plans fer today, Abad?”
“I must go and retrieve Robin from schoolhouse very soon. No other plan.”
“Good,” said Puff, letting the smile flow out of her eyes and onto her mouth. “Is very good.”
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The afternoon was like something out of a storybook. The hangover was well on its way to fading as Abad and Puff watched Robin, a little girl with dark hair and a smile nearly as wonderful as her uncle’s, play in the little park tucked away in the Merchant’s Quarter. It was barely more than a patch of grass with a few little iron toys for the merchants’ children to climb upon, but Robin did not see it that way. Puff and Abad took turns telling each other about their lives, in between comments about how cute Robin was.
Puff could not tell him everything, of course. Not about her childhood, not about what happened to her parents, not about her time at the Cistern Orphanage. Perhaps one day. But, in the meantime, there was plenty to talk about. And it flowed just as beautifully as their music.
Puff was surprised. As a rule, she did not trust men. Brother Mountpence and his ilk had made sure of that. But with Abad, the canny and soft-spoken foreigner, she felt none of the prickles of fear that most men elicited in her. She was feeling something new, something beyond anything she had ever before for another human being.
Charlie would not be happy, of course. Her long-time lover was never happy, but she had grown quite accustomed to welcoming Puff into her bed on the days her husband was away fishing up the shore. And, to be fair, Puff was fond of her as well. But what she felt with Abad…
Abad, for his part, was completely open with Puff. He told her all about the textile business he had run in Tunuska. It was a cloth-weaving operation, and it was flourishing before he received news of his brother’s and sister-and-law’s deaths. He had no problem leaving to come take care of his niece, but he was quite sad that his business in Isha had not quite taken off as it had in Tunuska.
The problem was with the competition, of course. Parvati’s Weavery in the Eastern Market was a force to be reckoned with – she did fantastic work and for extremely low prices. Abad’s Thrain was not so good, either, and he found that the wool merchants were all too keen to cheat him on the price of their raw product. It did not help that he had to accustom himself to using the thicker material and it slowed his progress. Linen, while a boon in the balmy southern country where he came from and which cloth Abad’s specialty, was not in nearly as much demand in the much cooler northern reaches of Thrairn where Isha was located. Everyone in the City wanted wool, so wool it had to be.
In spite of his problems, he was earning enough to keep himself and Robin from starving. He also made enough tin every week to pay for his lodging at the Lavender Fox, a small inn near Eastern Market. But there was very little left over every week, if anything at all.
“You ain’t got dose worries fer a little bit, at least,” assessed Puff, jingling the battered lock box into which she had poured their earnings. She grinned at Abad. “Ye knows, we could do it e’ery week. Play together, I means.”
“Yes,” said Abad. “I like that.”
Puff looked down, steeled herself, then reached to put her hand on Abad’s. He looked at the hand that came to rest on his. It was much lighter than his own, though it was criss-crossed with thin pink scars. He took his other hand and draped it over Puff’s.
“You kind person.”
“Oh,” replied Puff, turning red in spite of herself. “I don’t know about dat. Dere’s a buncha people in dis City dat’d disagree witcha.”
“No, you kind. I can tell. Mother, she say I know things. Stuff I should not know. She think I go be Priest of Yaruz, but I no want to live in temple.” He paused. “I no know if I do know things or not, but I know people. And you kind, Puff.”
“Please,” replied the woman, “call me Alycia.”
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It was in the middle of the night, long after the pair had coupled and drifted off into deep and joyful slumber. They had to stay very quiet while they made love, to keep from waking up the little girl that was on the cot a on the opposite wall. Puff thought a few times that perhaps it would have been better to wait until they had a moment alone, before Abad informed her it was an impossible dream. There was no one else but Abad to take care of Robin. So, it was either give in to her passions now, with the girl in the room, or do it later, with the girl in the room.
Puff was never much one for waiting.
She had her arm slung over Abad. Puff was snoring softly, as was he. Suddenly, she was awakened. She blinked her eyes open. Before her, the thick tousle of Abad’s hair had snaked into her nose and was threatening to make her sneeze. She pulled back and smiled. A smile which faltered as she noticed something. It was the man’s flesh. In the light of the moon that was streaming in through the small window in the side of the inn, it looked strange. Almost as if orange flames were dancing within, but not casting any light of their own. Puff initially assumed that it was a trick of the moonlight or a dream that had not quite left her. She shook her head.
Abad shifted in his sleep, rolling onto his back. The light that caught on his chest had the exact same effect as it did on his side. More flames, almost as if some inner fire were licking at his skin from the inside of his body. Puff hesitated for a moment, then woke the man up with a quick shake of his shoulder. He shrugged off his slumber and looked up at her.
Puff nearly fainted when she saw his irises. Gone was the bluer than blue shade of the daytime. It had been replaced by something blood-red and infernal.
“Ah,” whispered the man. “I should have tell you, but not sure how.”
“Tell me what?” said Puff hoarsely. “Dat yer a fuckin’ demon?”
“Djinn,” said Abad. “And only part Djinn. We go out to common room and I explain. No windows in there.” He rose and pulled the curtains. “I forgot to do this last night, so you not get scared.”
“A bit fuckin’ late for that,” Puff exclaimed, putting a hand to her heaving chest.
“I sorry, Alycia,” said Abad, putting out his hand. “Come, please.”
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A Gods-damned Genie. Of course the one man she fucked since she was barely a woman would be a Genie. Puff had heard stories of the creatures at the Orphanage, read to her by the one man who was a decent sort. Brother Fifield, the roly-poly old drunk, would stumble into the big bunk room before lights out and ask if anyone would want a story. He would never let any of the children sit on his lap, forcibly putting them onto the ground if they tried. But he would hold their hands in his after he did so, just to give them a bit of human contact.
“I love ye children,” Brother Fifield had admitted to Puff and a few of the others one time. They were gathered at his feet, and he in the big chair that the kids called ‘The Throne.’ Usually, it was one of the more severe brothers who sat there and preached about the Christ-man. This time, though, the fat Brother had not said a word to the kids about the man or God or anything like hat. He reeked of Cistern Ale, and there was a dark patch on his sapphire robe around the neck, which must have been dampened by spilled beer. “I love ye children,” he repeated, “and I wish I could protect ye.”
It was the first time that Puff had seen a man cry. Brother Fifield, with his hairy jowls and mousy hair, should not have been doing it in front of them. Puff knew that very well – the other Brothers had told them about the terrible cost of showing one’s emotions in this way. It was much better to bottle it up and pretend like nothing was wrong. Otherwise, it was the strap. Or, worse…
“Sorry,” had said Brother Fifield, “sorry. Ye’re only wee bairns and here I am, actin’ a Gods-damned fool. Here, Alycia.” Brother Fifield had reached his hand out to her. Puff had looked at it and thought about not giving her own to him. But then she saw something in his face that gave her pause. So, she placed it in his hand and he squeezed. Gently, but through that touch Puff felt the torrent of emotion that he had choked off so that he could stop crying and try to get Puff to trust him again.
Yes. Trust. This was what she had felt with Brother Fifield. And he had never once given her reason to break that trust. He was, for all his drinking and passing out and shitting and pissing himself in the courtyard, a trustworthy man. Just as Puff had thought Abad to have been.
But a fucking Genie?
“You know,” said Abad solemnly, “I am only part Djinn. No full Djinn, not anymore. It has been decades since men made of fire and ice walked the deserts of Erifracia. The prophet Yaruz, he told of the One God, and people started to forget about the Djinn. Yaruz brought good medicine to the people of Erifracia. But, he could not completely kill belief in the Djinn. My great- great- great-grandmother fell in love with a Djinn, one of the last. It is part of who I am.”
“So what do it do, den? Dat part o’ ye. In da stories, dey ‘ad powers. Could give wishes to dem what rubbed lamps, dat kind o’ t’ing.”
Abad laughed. “No more wishes, Alycia. Only full Djinn grant wishes. And those wishes be traps. Some magic is all that is left. And Influence.”
“Magic,” repeated Puff. “‘n Influence.” Puff took a seat on the fauteuil. On the low table before it, the flame of an oil lamp cast dancing shadows on the wall. It had a vaguely Erifracian look and Puff took a moment to appreciate the appropriateness of that particular item, given the events currently unfolding. “What kind o’ magic? An’ what do ye mean by Influence?”
Abad took a seat next to the woman, though he kept a respectful distance, given how obviously distraught with mistrust she was. “I can make fire float from lamp, grow into big ball, explode, if I want.” Abad pointed to a battered tin pitcher on the table. “I can make water turn into ice, no matter how hot.”
“So why don’t ye, den?” asked Puff. “Show me.”
Puff laughed. “Of course, ye can’t. Prolly against da rules or somet’ing, eh?”
Abad’s faced stayed solemn. “They are not my rules.”
“Who’s rules, den?”
“I do not know who they be. But I know that my brother Rumi and his wife Helen no get Cyclopean Fever from beggar on docks. Rumi used his magic to put out fire in his home and then next day had Fever. He write letter. For me to come. He speak of men with red robes. He tell me they kill him and Helen for using magic in Thrairn.” Abad paused. “Helen part Djinn, too.”
“‘ow come dey never killed Robin?”
Abad shrugged. “I wish I know. I worry every time I leave her to go to market. That I come home and she gone.”
Puff reached over and took Abad’s hand. “I’m so sorry,” she said. They did not speak for a while, simply looking at one another. Abad shuffled in closer and took her under his arm.
“Dat’s magic,” Puff dared after a time. “What about Influence?”
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The week that Puff spent with Abad after their fateful day and night was like something out of a storybook. Puff caught herself pinching her calf a couple of times, just to make sure that she was not still dreaming. They played with Robin, ate together, made music, and wandered the streets of Isha. Abad showed her the basics of weaving cloth, and she took to it like it had been something she had been doing her whole life.
She could not do it the way Abad could. He was a marvel to watch, as his fingers and shuttles danced across the loom and his feet worked the pedals. He had told her that the real reason that his ability to weave had taken a dive was that his Influence had died ever since the ferry he rode landed in Isha Harbour. Something in the air, something unnatural, were his words.
Influence, he had explained, was an ability to bend reality to one’s will. It was nothing so flashy as fire and ice, like the magic of a Djinn of old. Instead, it gave him the power to make things go his way. One way to describe it was ‘luck,’ he told her. His linens had been sought by everyone in Tunuska for its softness and strength. His abilities with the flute were supernaturally enhanced, at least when he had been at home in Erifracia. Here in Thrairn, he had said, there was something seriously wrong and he could not Influence.
When he admitted this, Puff told him she didn’t believe him, given his skill at the Market during their duet. He just laughed and smiled wide, so that she could see his teeth. They were big and white and she leaped into his arms. He had to drop the loom shuttle to catch her. They made love in the small room he had rented to ply his trade, located in a section of City right next to the Purple Run.
Abad had fallen in love with Isha. For all its faults, it was Robin’s home and he was loath to take her from it. Even if he could not Influence while he was here, he could survive. And now that he had found Puff, well… he could see himself staying a very long time indeed.
And so, he did. He played with Puff on Thursdays, after the hangings. They made so much money that he, if he wanted to, could have given up his work with the loom and focused entirely on making music with his beloved. Sure, the City Guard smelled their affluence out and extorted more money from them for their ‘protection’ from the mob. And sure, Charlie, Puff’s erstwhile lover, came screeching to one of their performances, shouting obscenities and threatening to hurt Puff and Abad. But that was the extent of it.
You might be expecting something strange or mystical or bad to have happened to the pair. But nothing did, at least not for years. Instead, beauty flowed. The couple bought a house in the Merchant’s Quarter. They did not marry, at least not in the Church of the Christ-man, but Puff bore two daughters whose skin grew inflamed in the moonlight. Robin grew into a teenager and was second mother to the girls, who they named Alya and Tabitha.
One day, after the girls had gone to bed and the house was quiet, Puff was seated at the window, watching the bright orange Harvest Month moon cast its light down upon the City. She put her arm out, to let the moon’s rays soak into her skin, then turned to Abad, who had begun to doze on their fauteuil.
“Ye lied ta me,” she said in a happy tone. “Ye said ye weren’t allowed to use magic.”
“Yes, that is correct,” he responded, half-asleep.
“Ye said ye couldn’t Influence ‘ere.”
“Ye said ya couldn’t grant wishes.”
Abad simply grunted in response, having been drawn under by slumber.
Puff returned to the window and grinned.
“Ye lied ta me.”
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