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Igms issue 3, p.6

IGMS Issue 3, page 6


IGMS Issue 3

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  "By revealing the truth."

  "And this truth was revealed by what means? By conjuring, perhaps?"

  "Just so," she said, with a small tilt of the head. "But it is truth, nonetheless."

  "If only the truth were so simple. A thousand people came to my carnival today. All but one have left with gladness in their hearts. They will remember for many years all the beautiful and wonderful things that they have seen at my carnival."

  "That they believe they have seen."

  "And what is stronger than belief? Go to them, Emissary. Ask them what they saw. Tell them, if you wish, that it was but conjuring; a trick. They will not believe you. They believe what they have seen."

  "They believe a lie."

  "And the truth is so valuable? What is the virtue of truth, Emissary? Can you say that you have never told a lie, in all your life?"

  "I have told many lies," she admitted. "Where it has been necessary. You lie, sir, purely for your own convenience. You lie, to draw people to your Carnival. You have fine tigers, and nimble acrobats, and talented storytellers; but there are a dozen carnivals which can boast such things. It is trickery and illusion that draws people to come here, and to place a quarter-teng piece into a bowl. You are a wealthy man, Weng Hao, but your wealth has come from lies."

  "I am accounted a wealthy man by some," he admitted. "But wealth is a relative thing. I force no-one to come to my carnival. It is the word that brings people here; the word of mouth. People speak of the beauty they have seen. 'You must go to Weng Hao's Grand Carnival Of Curiosities,' they say. 'You must see the Box Of Beautiful Things. Such beauty, such wonderful things, as you can not imagine!' This is why they come, Emissary. They pay but a quarter teng, to see things that they will remember for years to come; things they will tell even to their grandchildren. They buy beauty, and the memory of beauty."

  "They buy lies," Yi Qin maintained.

  Weng Hao shrugged. "If you say so. But I wonder, perhaps, if they see a truth that you can not. You did not wish to see beauty, when you came here, did you? You wished only to uncover your truth; but your truth is a sad, mean-spirited thing. You would deprive the world of beauty, Emissary. You would steal its dreams."

  Yi Qin said nothing. The night folded itself around the carnival tents. Geckos barked to one another in the dusty plain.

  "Show me the Box Of Beautiful Things," she said, eventually. Weng Hao smiled.

  "But of course! Come, let me enumerate its wondrous contents." He rose, and carried on speaking as they walked to the tent where the Box Of Beautiful Things was kept. "There is the most magnificent gold filigree, jewelry that surpasses the work of even Grand Master Lin Fu! There is porcelain, so fine that it is translucent, so delicate that even the Emperor has none to equal it. And the silks... colors, my lady, that you have never seen; colors that only your dreams have ever held."

  "Please," she said. "Do not recount these things. Let me see for myself."

  He ushered her through the opening of the tent, and followed her inside. The lamps had been extinguished; but he lifted the lantern he held, and its orange light spilled into the open box.

  Yi Qin, her arms folded together under her sleeves, looked into the Box Of Beautiful Things.

  A necklace of gold filigree, delicate as a spiderweb, bright as the morning sun on Mount Yang. A jade dragon, smooth as water, cool as a blessing. Silks, as vivid as dreams. Porcelain, pale as milk. Pearls and rubies and feathers. Shapes and colors and textures that made her heart ache.

  She knew none of it was real. Her thumb pressed, lightly, against the dart under her sleeve; but so lightly that it did not pierce the skin, and draw forth blood.

  She looked into the Box Of Beautiful Things for a long time.

  Then she sighed, and pressed her thumb hard onto the point of the dart. With swift, precise movements, she withdrew her bloody hand, and reached forwards, and inscribed the First Unspoken Word onto the beautiful black, lacquered wood.

  The First Unspoken Word; The Word That Releases Hungry Flames.

  Weng Hao shrieked, and flapped his sleeves in alarm, but there was nothing he could do. In a moment, the lacquered box was ablaze; spitting and crackling and consuming itself. Flames leapt to the heavy drapery, and in a moment the whole tent was alive with fire. Yi Qin walked, very calmly, out into the night air, and stood aside, watching the tent burn, watching Weng Hao's men bustle uselessly around it, for there was not enough water, here in this dry place, to have the slightest hope of quenching the fire.

  Weng Hao stood in front of Yi Qin and cried.

  "Why have you done this? You have destroyed it! You have destroyed the box! You have destroyed my livelihood!".

  "You have a carnival, Weng Hao," she answered him, quiet and adamant against the torrent of his emotions. "You have a carnival like any other, with tigers, and acrobats, and storytellers. Settle for that, and make your living without the Box Of Beautiful Things."

  She was sure that, if she had not been an Emissary of the Emperor, he would have killed her where she stood; or would, rather, have attempted it. Instead, he merely dropped to his knees. Tears spilled out onto his enormous cheeks.

  "You have destroyed beauty," he wailed. "You are wicked, Emissary. Wicked beyond measure! These are not just my tears! These are the tears of thousands, who will come to my carnival, because they have heard tales of the Box Of Beautiful Things, and wish only to see it for themselves; and I must tell them that it is no more. That it was burnt. That the beauty is gone, forever."

  "Until you find another conjuror," Yi Qin said, quietly, calmly, "who can work such magic for you. It is not, I think, as if you lack the money to pay for such a thing? But next time, Weng Hao; next time, I advise you this. Create a little less beauty. Create colors that are wondrous, but which people have seen before. Create jewelry that is no more than the equal of the work of Master Lin Fu. You have reached too high, Weng Hao. The Emperor does not care to think that, in all his realm, there is such beauty owned by another."

  Weng Hao stared at her.

  "The Emperor is jealous? You have burnt my Box Of Beautiful Things because the Emperor is jealous?"

  Yi Qin said nothing. There was nothing she could say. She simply turned, and walked away into the night, and remembered beauty.

  Xoco's Fire

  by Oliver Dale

  Artwork by Julie Dillon

  * * *

  Though the smoke rose in sprightly wisps above the beach, Xoco knew that Sea and Sky had no hand in it. It was the breeze rolling off the surf that coaxed the billowing cloud to dance. She threw another whitefish onto the flames and watched its silver scales bubble and boil, gills puffing in the moonlight.

  Xoco prayed again for an answer and cast her desires into the rising plume. Kimpana village was functioning again, she thought, if in a limited way. The gardens were producing. The fish were returning, slowly, of their own accord. Does the Shaman still need to hurt me, pin me against the floor of his hut and subject me to his savagery?

  I will do anything, she thought. Anything, if you let me kill him. Let me feel his blood on my hands. Let it course down my body, soothe the burns and cuts that scar my thighs and spirit. But when there appeared no response, she sat back, worried. Her hand unconsciously rubbed the rigid bulge of her abdomen, comforting the twin gods that roosted within.

  Xoco knew she wouldn't have another chance; the Shaman had gone up the mountain of prayers to meditate, to commune with the gods about the Gambi tribe that continued to harass and steal from them. She needed her answer now.

  The tide rolled in slowly, consuming the black sands of the beach, gently lapping first at feet and then ankles and then calves. Salt water snuffed out the fire. As she sat and pondered, Xoco suffered a constriction of her belly. She waited breathlessly then felt another. Warm water seeped from between her legs, mingling with the cool waves of the sea. Was this her answer?

  Xoco felt a sharp pain in her lower abdomen and pelvis; she couldn't prevent the scream
that clawed its way from her throat.

  "Mother, help," she whispered, but though she tried to lift her voice with a prayer, the suffering of childbirth wasn't enough to drive it through the palm trees, back to the village. She needed a sacrifice.

  In desperation, Xoco searched through the water, lunging for a fish she saw beached on the sand. It was an Angelfish, with a white stripe that glowed like starlight. Ignoring the short spikes that dug into her palm, she ripped it in two. Chilly blood and gore gushed down her forearms. It was not a delicate prayer; there was no fire, no smoke, but there was pain, there was suffering. It would do.

  "Sea and Sky, I offer this creature to you. I ask only one favor in return: take my voice and lift it with the breeze, with the mist and foam. Carry it to my mother for without her help, I fear we three will not survive this tribulation."

  Their answer was immediate. Xoco felt the familiar slick sheen of the prayer covering her body, the unseen light that dropped from the sky and sank in through her ears, her eyes, her mouth and nose like inhaled smoke. It invaded her lungs, encircled the delicate flesh of her organs. When it consumed her completely, she closed her eyes and whispered.

  "Mother, help." Her voice floated like feathers, past the tree line of creepers and ferns, off toward Kimpana where her Mother slumbered. And then the pain threatened to split her apart from the spine forward. She screamed.

  Mother arrived in moments at the head of a war party of spearmen, no doubt afraid that her daughter had been attacked by a wild boar or a Gambi raiding party. She wouldn't have suspected that Xoco was in labor. The twins weren't supposed to be born for another moon cycle, at least, and while Xoco knew that twins rarely carried to full-term, it was still too soon.

  Mother splashed through the water to reach her, dropping to a knee, cradling Xoco's body in outstretched arms. The burn-scars on Mother's face were smooth and shone in the moonlight and the Shaman's most recent work was evident in her swollen eye. What had that gained the village? A season of maize? A hundred sea bass? The fertility of a dozen cattle?

  "Xoco, what happened?" Mother asked. She hadn't even bothered to drape herself in a sarong to ward off the night's chill. "Are you all right? What are you doing out here alone. You know better." Mother's hand found Xoco's belly; her fingers probed Xoco's skin.

  "It's happening," Mother said. "It's too soon."

  "Perhaps you can convince these children to wait."

  "These?" Her eyebrow raised. Xoco nodded and was about to speak her confirmation when Mother cut her off.

  "Hush," said Mother. "Breathe, child."

  A silent moment passed between them; all that was heard were the gentle white tongues of the ocean lapping at their legs.

  "Send the spearmen away," said Xoco. She glanced to where the men gathered, their faces a tangle of black tattoo ink and nervousness. "They shouldn't be here for this."

  Mother clucked her tongue. "We may need them yet."

  "Send them away," Xoco asserted. "The village turned a blind eye when these babies were put in me; they don't deserve to be here when they come back out." Another contraction and Xoco gritted her teeth, squeezed her eyes shut against it.

  Mother understood the tone of Xoco's voice and her face contorted slightly. With understanding? With grief? She dismissed the warriors with a loose gesture. "You have more strength in you than I can imagine, Child."

  When the hunters were gone, Xoco looked up into her mother's eyes with severity.

  "This birth, right now. This is our answered prayer. We can be free of him now that his children are born."

  "How can you know these things? From a fire and the moon? I have been reading the souls of smoked fish for longer than you, Child. Even I can't be so sure of their answers."

  "I am sure," said Xoco. "These children will defeat him, Mother, and Kimpana will see that we no longer need him, that we can protect and provide for ourselves. They will be gods of deliverance."

  "Your father, your children's father," Mother swallowed. "The Shaman. He is not going anywhere. He has won the whole village over. Even the elders have grown fat with his fishes and fruits and meat. The young ones have become lazy. They will never return to that life of labor, Child. Moving from place to place when the land gives up. And with Gambi threatening us, with all the men off fighting or practicing their spears, there is no way. This is nonsense. Keep quiet. Concentrate on your breathing." Mother cupped some water in her hand and dripped it over Xoco's hot forehead, brushing away her hair. "Besides, you are about to give him two children. He will leave you be. You might already be free of him."

  Xoco couldn't restrain a cynical huff. "Just as you were free of him when you bore me?" She traced her fingertips lightly over the shape of Mother's swollen eye, felt the almost-glossy burn scars.

  It pained Mother to hear and Xoco regretted having said it. But truth was something that, in the war for survival against the Shaman, they had promised each other never to abandon.

  "The Kimpana may be lazy," said Xoco. "They may have condemned us with their indifference and selfishness, but they are a good people, Mother. You will see. We need only offer them a chance."

  Another contraction. Xoco winced, moaned.

  "We must get you back to the village. Lavria can help."

  "No, Mother. I want them born here, in sight of Sea and Sky. To remind them what freedom looks like, should they ever forget."

  "Child, I'm sorry, but in this you have no say."

  Mother yelled to the spearmen and they came at a run. She directed the men to gently lift Xoco under the arms and legs, supporting her back and being careful not to jostle or disturb the children that were so adamant in achieving their escape.

  Xoco felt herself being lifted out of the water, almost as if she were experiencing it through a story told by someone else. When the water stopped dripping, something warm from between her legs took its place. Xoco heard her mother curse the gods, something she'd never heard her do before.

  "Hurry," hissed Mother. And the group of them spirited Xoco back into the jungle, carefully stepping over the deadfall and vines that obscured the floors in a patchwork of greens and browns -- all shades of gray under the dappled light of the moon. The pain drifted from the center of Xoco's mind. She noticed it like she would a garment, not core to her being but secondary, as though it draped her consciousness but didn't consume it. The world continued to darken. She knew she was bleeding; she could feel the hot runnels of blood trickling down her underside. She worried only about her children.

  Unnoticed by Xoco, Mother had run ahead of them. When they finally made it to the village, past the thatched roofs of the main cook buildings and the small overhanging huts where families peered sleepily from entryways, Lavria was already waiting in her home. Her gray, brittle hair stretched unruly from her head and she rubbed sleep from her eyes.

  The men set Xoco down like the gods' own treasure and Lavria stirred hot coals, adding twigs and grass, just wet enough to produce more smoke than flame.

  At another contraction, Xoco let a cry escape her throat.

  "What shall we do?" whispered Mother. "Need I find some fish to offer? Work your prayers, Lavria."

  But the old woman quietly lay her hands on Xoco's belly. She positioned herself between Xoco's propped up legs and murmured thoughts and observations that Xoco couldn't discern.

  "Bring a calf," said Lavria.

  The hunters looked at each other. It seemed obvious what they were thinking. No such lavish gift had ever been offered on anyone else's behalf. And a calf, one of few that they had remaining, was a handsome offering.

  Lavria didn't look up at them. "If you don't do as I say, you will explain your actions to the Shaman himself. Because if you continue to delay, either child or mother, or maybe both, will surely die tonight."

  Three of them ran at her words, no doubt to find the nearest calf to be slain and burned to protect Xoco's children. But the suggestion that they might die frightened Xoco. She was willing to
part with her life if need be, but never her children.

  Lavria cupped her hands and pulled the smoke over Xoco's body, praying. It blanketed Xoco like fresh rainfall, coating her completely. It was a prayer for sleep so that they may deliver her babies, or perhaps a prayer to lessen the pain. Xoco's vision swam and her consciousness faded as the gods whispered lullabies through the prayer smoke.

  She became scared then that she'd be absent at the birth of her own children. Xoco felt the darkness falling and resisted its arrival. She forced her eyes open.

  One of the warriors returned with a squirming, squealing calf and Lavria, without ceremony, slid a knife across its throat. Xoco felt the warm blood splash against her thigh.

  "Sky and Sea," said Xoco.

  The group stopped and turned to her.

  Mother asked, "What, child?"

  "I want them to be named Sky and Sea."

  After the gods, she thought. For they will be gods. They will deliver us from the Shaman and his cruelty.

  Mother nodded. It would be so.

  Xoco's head lolled. She caught flashes of red and brown, screams and conversation, the putrid, bitter smell of drying blood mixed with smoke.

  "What is it?" she heard a voice ask.

  "Three legs?" asked another.


  She felt pain. She heard a knife being pulled from a sheath. More, different pain.

  "Twin girls," and then, "Joined at the spine."

  Gasps. Muffled prayers.

  "Can they live?"

  "I can not know." And fear stabbed through the darkness, so much sharper than pain. "But yes, I think so. For now."

  With that bit of reassurance, Xoco allowed her mind to glide out of her body, into darkness, away from the pain. Into the land of sleep, of Sea and Sky.

  The night brought restless dreams, and the morning brought sweet ones. But with it, too, the morning brought the Shaman back down the mountain of prayers. Xoco sensed his approach and woke.

  The hut was empty. Sunlight trickled in through the thatched roof, rays of dust, like ribbon, sliced the air. Two babies cried in the distance and Xoco sat up, igniting a fire below her waist. She could not help but moan from the pain. In a different time and a different world, one in which she didn't have children, Xoco would have continued lying there until the aching and cramping abated. But her babies were crying, and her tender nipples leaked fluid, and she could think of nothing else but getting to them, filling their bellies, making the crying and fear go away.

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