Talisen Fray writes fantasy that penetrates the shell of existence.

 

You were meant for more than this.

Cry of Desire in a Shrouded Land - Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Cry of Desire in a Shrouded Land - Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Once again it was that horrid time of year when the cashmere silk spiders crept from the bowels of the city of the angels and spun their pale web across its spires and domes, and Lukas the vendor of miracle tea felt a deep shudder begin in his testicles and rise to his dry mouth which had long ago forgotten the taste of kisses.

He took all the standard precautions and then doubled them. As fit the richest merchant in the city, he lived in a fully-enclosed compound with a poison chamber at the entrance. Spider-sniffers roamed the ground, their feathery noses crimson blotches against the soft green of gardens and lawn. Like dragonflies, a horde of spider-sweepers arced through the air to snatch webs from the corners and the walls, a mechanized buzzing rising from their clockwork wings. At the door of the poison chamber stood a young and very handsome exterminator with the pale skin of a Northerner, and in spite of his exorbitant fee—or perhaps because of it—Lukas did not object to the lusty eyes his wife laid on the lad. If only the exterminator murdered the spiders, every one of them, with a ruthless hand, he could do as he pleased.

And still these precautions could not buy him peace. Sitting in the darkness of his tearoom he fancied he could hear the scrabbling of spider feet on his dome, and in the quiet of the night he dreamed of glowing eyes, each larger than his head, on pendulous stalks and of webs that swallowed his screams and numbed his frantic hands. During spider season he sold no miracle tea, simply because who knew what eight-legged monsters might arrive in his guests' robes and hair?

The only regular visitor to the house then was Vidita the flower girl, a slave with a mound of dark hair from which tiny curls escaped to kiss her neck, who also had a waist that curved into a small round belly before melting into the cheap clothes that, more than walk or talk or even calluses, betrayed the lot of her life. In the morning, before the dawn muted by layers of silk over his dome had quite begun to creep through the foliage of his garden, she would arrive with a handcart full of rare flowers grown in a greenhouse in some other quarter of the city. She would stand for over an hour in the antechamber after the poison room while the exterminator thrust his wand deep into the vases, shook the flowers petal by petal, and watched her small flat feet—one toe had a tiny dull metal ring on it—without showing that he looked. He was very good, it was clear, for when the cart had been inspected there would be at most one, or maybe two, leaves that drifted to the ground behind her as she entered the massive home—or was it the prison?—of Lukas the miracle tea merchant.

With her bare feet making tiny thumps on the broad stone pathway, she would pass through the cool hibiscus-scented air of the gardens and reach the wide antechamber of the house where, with slow and practiced motions, she began the dance of distribution. A bouquet full of rarities and sweet scent for milady’s boudoir (a place Lukas had long lost his fascination for); a large goblet with several coin-shaped brilliants floating—no scent—for the dining room; a ring of posies for the tearoom entrance, never mind that there were no supplicants at this time of year; and a chunky glass vase full of strange pale green leaves for the master’s bedroom. Behind her floated a faint perfume that first brought Lukas a moment of peace and nostalgia and then, over the weeks of mounting tension, an increasingly sexual hunger that disturbed him like the long-gone fascination for miracle tea that had driven him, as a sheltered bookish boy, to undertake the adventure of legends and walk alone through the ghost villages and poison fields and dragon nests that guarded the secret of his obsession.

At first he dismissed his hunger; then he took to following the girl about, for a time at a distance for dignity’s sake and then closer and closer until he could have touched her pale skin had he reached out or breathed her scent had he inhaled. Vidita the slave girl accepted his attentions with a placidity that—when he lay awake at night thinking about her and stroking the throbbing pillar growing from his groin—disturbed him deep in his gut in a way which, had he allowed himself the insight, the spiders also did. He found his mouth salivating at odd moments, and when his wife fucked the handsome exterminator he not only watched from a hiding spot behind the wall but allowed himself an extra glass of his favorite honeyed claret—like blood held to the sun—in celebration.

Lukas cared little how the exterminator had met his wife. All that mattered was the boy offered him the authoritative platitudes he needed. Still he noticed that what the exterminator offered to his wife was a combination of aggression and shyness perfectly calculated to drive her within four weeks to tear the slim-fitting Exterminator’s Guild uniform shirt from his chest and slit the tie of his full breeches with one sharp poison-green nail that fell through pale pubic hair to his admittedly large ego and stroked it while it swelled, and swelled, and then thrust under her many skirts deep into the softness waiting there and drove her against the wall of the conservatory with her hands spread behind her, her long hair splayed around in an inky well and her bare feet arched in a way that stirred the watching Lukas with sadness and memory. In the moment of spasm, with a rictus of—was it disgust?—on his face, the exterminator reached a foot to the left and swept a vase of dark red roses onto the floor, bearing the sticky splash of water, the crash of shattering glass, and a thorn’s vicious long scratch down his leg with bared teeth. He did not look at Lukas’s wife when he pulled out of her, reaching for his breeches and walking away.

That night, in her chamber, Lukas’s wife wept. He allowed himself thoughts of sympathy, recalling when she was young and he had bought the miracle tea with his virginity, when he had suckled the tea from her pearly nipples and opened himself to her tribe like a snail without a shell, and how hopeful she had been then that life in the city would be all she, an itinerant dark-haired woman with a talent for dancing and fortune-telling, had hoped it would be.  But then the thought of Vidita suffused him and he left his peephole and escaped to his own chambers to wait, trembling, until she arrived in the morning. One adultery for another: the unspoken transaction would be complete.

She arrived quietly as she always did, and he smelled her perfume before he saw her. His wife had left the house early, bound for a spa far on the other side of the city, and he knew she would not come back before evening. He had sent away the other servants, and once the girl entered, he sent away the handsome exterminator, leaving himself—finally!—alone in his echoing house with the girl who looked at him with such knowing eyes. She wore something different than usual; what, he could not say except that suddenly he was aware of her breasts slowly rising and falling below her firm chin.

As had become their routine, he followed her on her rounds with the flowers, even lifting the heavy vases for her (a meaningless courtesy as they both knew she was stronger than he), winding from the front of the house to the very far back and ending not in his bedroom suite, as he had planned, but in his workroom, as she had planned.

The door to his workroom was crafted of a single piece of wood a hand's-breadth thick, with a rich figured grain like the whorls of Vidita’s hair. Cirlicued dark hinges extended nearly to the center of the door, and when Lukas the vendor of miracle tea reached out his trembling hand to open it, the rush of air smelled of sandalwood and rose hips. Vidita’s eyes widened for a moment, her nostrils flared. Like a gentleman he gestured for her to walk first, and her hips swayed as she entered.

He trembled, feeling the pounding call in his breeches but also the pounding of his heart as it threatened to crack open and spill memories, thoughts, wonderings he had kept silent for years. She sat on one of the elaborate ugly stools by the big table in his workroom, and her eyes kept flicking from his face to the contents of the jars against the walls, the mortar and pestle carefully displayed, and the distilling apparatus he had set up so long ago.

They had been angling for this moment for months now, the signals between them clear, if strange. This was the moment the vendor of miracle tea seduced his flower girl. Yet the air was charged with more than this, and Lukas thought for a moment he could actually see energy weaving around her small form. Like the spiders, this disturbed him, until he smelled her perfume again and forgot.

They sat in silence for a moment; then she took his hand. Her warm skin on his made him shiver. “I want you to give me the secret to miracle tea,” she said, her voice reminding him of the dry petals that had fallen from the fields of flowers near his wife’s grandmother’s cottage so far away from this city of exterminators. He glanced sharply at her, his business sense pricking, but she met his gaze with liquid innocence, and his cock took over. Sure, sure, he promised her, and in fact why not now? She nodded, the clear skin stretching over her cheekbones in a smile, and with more than usual fuss he began to lay out the implements, naming them as he went.

First the tea itself, greenish leaves mixed with herbs and pinches of minerals. At her insistence he wrote down the formula on the back of an old receipt in his scholar’s hand, but there was a missing ingredient that he would not write down. He showed it to her, a pale lavender powder glowing in a small glass jar. She did not speak, only watched his hands. They both knew this might be the first time a slave in the city of angels tasted miracle tea.

The tea distilled in a tall, complicated tower of tubes and glass chambers, but with a bit of bravado in his voice he told her that when he first began brewing miracle tea he would simmer it on the back of the stove in his living quarters overnight, and though slightly more bitter it had the same effect. She made a small sound which in another woman might have been an adoring coo but in Vidita sounded more like a sigh of triumph. He startled, looked at the tops of her pale breasts, and kept talking.

Once distilled, the tea was bathed in honey, turmeric, and scalded milk, and served in the cups Lukas himself had carved from kettlewood during his endless journey to earn the secret of the miracle tea. The air within the workroom seemed to thicken as he handed the flower girl her cup and picked up his own, the mug reassuring his fingers as they felt for familiar wood grain and drew from the seeping warmth. In her hands the cup was huge, and on her face was a mixture of the usual awe and a kind of avarice that scared him, because he had felt an echo of it in his own soul for so many years that perhaps he had suckled it with his mother’s milk or learned it at his father’s knee. She looked up at him, steam wreathing her mouth as she spoke. “This tea—they say it gives you your heart’s desire. Is that true?”

He winced. “Well…” His breath caught in the ache of his chest. “I suppose so.” At the relief that suffused her face he felt the words mount, mass, pour out of his belly without regard. “I thought my heart’s desire was to be wealthy, and the tea made me wealthy. I am wealthy, maybe the wealthiest merchant in this province… but I am not happy.”

Did he hope for sympathy from his little slave girl? She made no sign, merely watched him. He felt the tightness in his throat, the endless wakeful nights, as he took a sip of the tea and its familiar bitter sweetness washed down him with a kind of clear-headed euphoria.

“I have heard many stories from my customers, that their wishes came true after drinking the miracle tea, but it always ends up cock-eyed. There was an timid nobleman who could not find a wife, and when he drank this tea he suddenly felt brave enough to pursue the woman he’d always wanted, and finally they married. They have three children… he hanged himself last week. The old woman who wished for a second youth actually looks fifty years younger. I’ll tell you truthfully that she still moves and sounds like an old woman and it is very, very strange.”

What did Vidita think of the tea, of its taste which shifted to the desires of the drinker, and of its bitter aftertaste? And what was her own heart’s desire that she hoped to attain? Always a man afflicted with thought, Lukas the vendor of miracle tea seemed to see his life spread before him in a series of empty years broken only by the thrill and terror he had felt on his legendary journey, and now in front of him its culmination: a dark-haired slave girl with her own plans who he wanted desperately, wanted with no hope of true reciprocation. A kind of waiting silence reigned in his workroom as he sipped his tea and they watched each other over the rims of their cups.

Eventually, the miracle tea disappeared at the bottom of the cup. He finished his, set the mug aside. She sipped a bit longer with painful expectancy tightening her features, but soon she handed her cup to him and stood. “Thank you for the tea, and its secret, Lukas. And in return, my body is yours.” For the romantic in the scholar’s body, the terrible justice in her eyes made him flinch, but the urgency in his groin drove him onward and he nodded, moving forward to take her in his arms and finally—finally!—let his hands meet behind her back and cup her small waist. Warmth and her beautiful perfume radiated from her. He sighed and let his face fall into her hair and breathe her scent.

The silent house around them seemed to settle, and he could almost imagine each room darkening itself as the lights in a theatre dowsed one after the other before the performance. He let his lips graze her forehead and travel down her cheek, bending at the waist to reach her. Her skin felt like marble, slightly cool and very soft. He had never made love to a woman other than his wife, and every kiss was a new adventure. He ran his fingers down her neck, across her collarbone, and to the soft yielding crease between her breasts. She stood still, hardly a breath disturbing her poise.

When his lips reached her mouth she startled him with a hot, moist kiss, her lips parting against his and her tongue probing his teeth. Their breath mingled, and the scent of miracle tea blossomed around them. Shocked, he froze, and then the dam burst and he crushed her into his arms and ground against her in delicious agony. She arched her back against him, sending his desire screaming. He could feel his feet rooted to the ground and his heart beating in his throat, and his pulse in his erection pounding. He reached down to cup her small round buttocks in his hands through the coarseness of her clothing.

Somehow they pivoted so her back was against his worktable, not far from the glowing purple jar of secrets. She reached up to her head, pulling out a dull metal hair stick, and her hair tumbled down over her shoulders with a wave of scent that made him dizzy. She reached to her waist and with a small snick unfastened her slave’s robes, which fell from her naked body with a rush of air and left her dark nipples hard and tiny goose-pimples on her muscular arms. All this at once brought the tea merchant to his knees in awe and terror, and then his face was at a level with her bush and her bony hips, and he had to close his eyes to contain his lust. The two of them froze like that for a moment, and then she stepped forward until his face sank into the soft musk of her, and she bent over and her soft breasts brushed his forehead. In one movement he rose and stripped off his baggy breeches and drove into her, a tight slithery fit, and then with one thrust, another, and another, the world broke and exploded in his spasm while she lay, passive, under him. He bent over her with her back stretched against the workbench, shuddering with empty intensity, until it was over as if it had never happened. There was an awkward moment of silence, and then they turned their backs to each other to pull clothes together and sop up his emissions.

She left without a word, without a glance, their transaction completed, her grey robes softening her passing, and Lukas the vendor of miracle tea sank sobbing to the ground of his wealthy home while above his head the tea dripped once a second in its marvelous distilling apparatus and his blood shocked through his body in bitter awareness. The world was at his fingertips, and he hated it. And… Vidita the slave girl was gone. He lay there while time dripped and eddied around him until he heard the bustle of his wife arriving on the other side of the empty house, and he rose to straighten his robes, knuckle his eyes, and pull his dignity together.

It was then that he saw the jar with its secret ingredient was missing. The spot where it had been on the bench was octagonal, darker wood against the worn top of the workbench. He knew immediately what had happened, and that his bargain with the slave girl was complete, and if they met again they would meet as equals, a thought which gave both his heart and his cock a thrill. Even his sense of outrage excited him, and he began to feel the threads of a new story weaving around him with inexorable force. It was, in a sense, a relief for the middle-aged man who had everything he had ever wanted and found he was exhausted beyond bearing.

He heard nothing from her for weeks after that. A different servant came with the flowers, an older woman who inspired in him nothing but indifference. The spiders continued their pale ghosting of the city, and his repulsion toward them did not lessen. Somehow he ended up with a different exterminator, tall and spindly in the dark grey Guild uniform with an eight-legged badge on his chest, a thin mustache above his lips like a pen-slash. The days dribbled by, mornings spent opposite his wife, feeling the waves of her resentment and regret; afternoons tinkering in his workshop and bathing in memories of Vidita and wonderings of what was to come; evenings drunk to a stupor on the claret he had once cherished and now downed like common wine. There was the sense for Lukas the vendor of miracle tea that his long shapeless ordeal was ending soon, though how he knew not, and that he had merely to wait until the right moment to slip through the fabric of life and escape what he had wrought, and that somehow Vidita the slave girl was the chip under the wheel to make it happen. How she thought of him he wondered too, endlessly, but always with embarrassment he concluded she likely thought him old and uninteresting and now that she had what she wanted from him, she would stay away.

* *

No one knew where the spiders came from. An entire branch of royal scientists was dedicated to the study, launching expeditions to remote forests and abandoned cities around the known world, but every year with the coming of the swallows the silk spiders also appeared overnight, and every year with the dying of the cicadas they disappeared, leaving only their gossamer weavings as proof of their presence. Theories ranged from the bizarre—that they were visitors from a neighboring world who slipped through a crack in the universe every year—to the disturbing—that they were mutated from the castoff children in the city and chose this form to hunt for new victims.

What was known is that they had never been reported as aggressive to humans, seemed to live entirely on a diet of vermin and insects, and that they possessed a rarely-used venom that glowed light purple in the dark. Their greatest crime to the residents of the city of angels was having too many legs, and in fact there had been a royal law in effect for a couple centuries outlawing them from taking up residence there, for all the good such a law did.

A thriving business had sprung up around the spiders. The webs were woven into glistening gowns for fine ladies at the Empress’s court and their discarded claws (long, needle-like, and pale blue) into fanciful crowns. Little boys not affected by the general squeamishness would lay in wait to ambush the larger ones and decapitate them, to sell their curved abdomens for serving vessels and their coiled unspun silk to healers and the venom to apothecaries.

Naturally, there sprang up a guild of exterminators. Specializing in spider detection, and wearing tight charcoal clothing with narrow white stripes radiating from a stylized figure-eight over the heart, exterminators wore their special status in the city like epaulets. They were welcome at the best of parties and could command outrageous prices for their vigilance. They were governed by the head exterminator, a slender nervous old man with round black eyes and a way of sidling from side to side that brought his quarry to mind in a most unsettling way. No one knew the arrangement each exterminator had with this man, but they all resided in his house and ate his food, and during spider season the house of the exterminators was always bare of cobwebs and shone harshly against the pillowy roofs surrounding it. Many crossed to the other side of the street when they passed.

Outside of the guild regulating itself, there was no law surrounding extermination, and many a man (or woman) would shock guests over a well-stocked dining table by revealing that, in the days of youth, he (or she) had carried the wand and nets of an exterminator. There was a tight kind of pride about it, in certain circles.

* *

The season of spiders changed nothing for Vidita, who had lived her childhood and now was spending the blossoming years of her beauty in the quiet house of the flower master of the south quarter that sat, like an aging wedding cake, in an unfashionable culdesac in a neighborhood that wore the ghosts of past centuries like cobwebs. To Vidita, whose duties included but were by no means limited to the upstairs housecleaning, they were merely another obstacle in her way, another complication to be swept with a hand broom from the corners, like her master’s sexual attentions, the jealousy of the other servants, and her own internal doubts and fears. If she thought of the spiders at all she pitied them for the disgust they engendered. She found in the shiny black-blue chitin of their bodies a queer kind of beauty, and she would pause in her work to watch the darting of pale claws against dark walls before she carried the spiders outside to begin their mysterious quest all over. The other servants crushed them on sight, but she did not like cleaning pale intestines from floors or the off-chance that she would scratch her hands on the edges of cracked shell.

She knew her childhood had shaped her differently than other children. Sometimes, at night in her very small room at the top of the house, she would think about these things and wonder how it would have been to be a different person. She had been a peculiar child and was now a peculiar woman. About her chin and eyes was a kind of wildness that she tried to restrain, but it was like restraining winter with all its crashing ice and thundering snow. As a girl she had floated about the old mansion leaving tasks half-done in her wake while her mother, who had been sold into slavery in the sixth month of her pregnancy, quietly walked behind her doing the work for both. She had clever hands with strong, flexible fingers that could reach coins long forgotten, tiny gems fallen from the hair of noble visitors, and a fish bone in the throat of the cook’s cat.

About Vidita there was something stronger than usual. It was not the startling beauty she grew into, or the intoxicating fragrances she crafted, or her quiet competence and obvious loathing of her work, or the chained intelligence that beat behind her eyes, or even the quirk of her upper lip that kept her face from boring perfection. It was deeper. Her feet seemed to sink into the ground when she walked. There was a sense of give-and-take when she spoke, as if she was weighing each word against an internal rubric. She knew this about herself, and she both embraced and loathed it.

Though she had been mocked as a child, now at age nineteen she ruled all the servants in the house with a twitch of an eyelid. This had happened slowly, in a dizzyingly subtle series of transactions. One chill morning when she was nine, she walked into the kitchen and found the cook pocketing three silver coins, the fish vendor turning away with a satisfied grin. Vidita stood, perfectly still, until the smell of day-old fish followed the vendor out, and then accused the cook of cheating their master, her voice rising from a whisper to a calculated shout, until the cook cracked and, falling on her skinny knees, begged Vidita for mercy. This Vidita gave, on condition that one of the three silvers every week would be given to her mother, and that two plates of the master’s own food would be set aside each day for them to enjoy. The other servants complained, but the cook knew a rock and a hard place when she saw them, and occasionally Vidita would share her food with this one, or that one, for tiny favors.

Perhaps it was watching her mother, who had been bought for a pleasure slave even though at that moment she was belled with the baby that would become Vidita, and the way her mother honed her beauty—a frailer beauty than Vidita’s, but probably less threatening to their fading master—and used it as her only weapon against the world, or perhaps it was her own strained journey into adulthood. Perhaps it was the study she had made of scents and herbs and the influence she exerted on the world through subtle fragrances. Perhaps it was the nights of waiting to hear her master’s scratch on her door and being torn between gladness that her mother could rest that night and vile anger that, though she could manipulate him for small things, and did, her virginity had been taken long before she knew she wanted to keep it, and that though his breath stank of onions and his flaccid member disgusted her, she could never close her legs to him without losing the careful world she had constructed. Whatever it was, Vidita the slave girl was not normal, and she did not allow Lukas the vendor of miracle tea to seduce her normally.

Months before, the slave who usually woke in the pre-dawn, snipped and arranged rare flowers in the close air of their master’s greenhouse, and walked through the empty city streets to Lukas’s compound developed a kind of wasting sickness that over time forced her to take to her bed. Her name was Elba. She had been bought three years before, an unmarried aunt sold by her brother to pay his gambling debts, whose gaunt face and hunched back belied a sweetness Vidita cherished. One night, over cups of Vidita’s complex herbal tea, Elba had confided that there was a butcher three streets away who wanted to buy her and marry her, but she knew their master would never let go of her sure eye with the flowers and her reliable, if not brilliant, service at a price her swain could afford.

Behind Vidita's eyes her plan clicked into place. The internal scale tipped from one side to the other and balanced in the middle.

She nodded to Elba and got up to brew a potion “for sweet sleep” made from valerian and smiler root, sweetened with honey, with a pinch of ease-me. She brewed a cup for Elba every night from then on. Their eyes would meet with a sober recognition as the cup passed between them, wreathed with sticky, soporific steam. Elba grew weaker, and the day Lukas the vendor of miracle tea sent a note to complain of her lax service, Vidita was in her master’s study, using the privilege of the bed-slave to lean against his shoulder and stroke his hair. “She’s getting old,” commented Vidita, and when the worry-lines creased his forehead added, “I’ve been interested in learning the flower trade. Perhaps I should take her place, and you could sell her before she gets worse.”

In another household, this kind of familiar conversation between master and slave would have alarmed all, but the lines between the people in this moldering house had been slipping for years. It was proof of Vidita’s power that her master nodded and without another word set into motion the next phase of her plan before slipping up from behind and creeping his withered hands around her hips and slowly pulling up her skirts so he could spend himself in her warmth and beauty. The scales in her heart tipped just a fraction heavier to her side as she allowed him; dark humor spurring her to tease him with her round buttocks, to reach through her legs and stroke his sack, to help him with his failing erection until finally the ordeal was over and she could go find a quiet corner and think about all she had set into motion.

Vidita’s plans tended to go well. Elba was bought by her butcher for a mere handful of coin and married the next week, already feeling better and looking almost radiant. At the wedding, for which Vidita had begged a half day from the majordomo, she and Elba clasped hands and exchanged one more deep glance of recognition before swimming back to the surface where safety resided, and commenting on the ceremony, Elba’s chance of children, and the strong shoulders of the butcher she had won. In her hands Vidita left a small cloth sack of fertility tea. The transaction was complete.

Ready or not, Vidita was relieved of her household duties and assigned to the account of the vendor of miracle tea. Her first day, a morning in the spring about a month before the spiders arrived, she woke while the dark sky still hovered like fog in the city streets outside and pulled on her clothing, bare feet slapping the tiles on the floor as she descended the six flights of stairs to ground level of the huge house, left by the back door, and slipped along a dark path to the glowing greenhouse, where once her master had spent many happy hours, to begin her first day as a flower girl. The chief flower slave was already there, and with a glance Vidita saw another conquest to gain. His eyes had the brimming sadness of lifelong disappointment, and she watched him carefully as he directed the forty or so slaves in their careful trimming, fertilizing, and watering of the flowers that by the light of glow-lamps all seemed variegated shades of dark red and pale moon-white.

She quickly deduced from the sideways glances and short conversations with other slaves that she occupied a strange place in the hierarchy of the flower-garden: their master’s favor and her prestigious assignment marked her as one to befriend, but her utter lack of experience and apprenticeship gave her a whiff of the imposter and invited scorn. Perhaps once she would have cared, she reflected as she mimicked the movements of careful snipping, de-leafing, and arranging, but now scorn mattered only if it inconvenienced her. She did give out a few of her rare smiles, choosing carefully to whom she opened the shutters of her soul, and as she had known it would, her choosy friendship immediately shifted the subtle dynamic threading through the greenhouse. Her largest smile she reserved for the tall, loose-jointed chief flower slave who watched all and made notes in his small notebook. It would take a few days, but he would be hers soon.

The walk to the compound of the vendor of miracle tea was a pleasant one in the last hour before the city woke. Cats courted her feet before darting off on their own errands, and the occasional cluster of birds burst from a chimney above her head. She had the time to order her thoughts, setting them before her in piles according to person; observing how they tied together and where the emotions lay. Her ultimate goal hovered, ambiguous but pressing, beyond all the machinations, and she breathed in the brief moment of freedom between master and master with a renewed resolution that one day, not long from now, she would never again answer to another.

No one in the house noticed that a new slave delivered the flowers, or no one cared. For the first week she might have been a ghost in the halls, following Elba’s careful instructions for placement and refreshment. She had plenty of time to observe that the miracle tea was kept in the back of the long house, in the master’s workshop, and to watch the occasional early comer who was escorted by a smiling, comely slave to partake of the magical tea. She could smell the desperation and heartache on them, and she wondered how the master of the house conducted his transactions and what he received in return for the wish-granting of the miracle tea.

She did wonder if it worked, but dismissed that question. What mattered was that people thought it did. Her childhood, like many of those in that city on the desolate plains of Bevedere, had been threaded with stories of the miracle tea that cost so much to drink that only the nobility had a chance to taste it and experience its marvelous effects. Her mother had once, in a moment sacred between them because the master had been gone for three full days, said that if she herself could drink the miracle tea, she would wish that no one would ever lie with her again. Perhaps her words were careless, but her daughter heard them and remembered.

When she felt the familiar prickles of a master’s gaze on the back of her neck, she swung into the dance, the subtle messages, the ignoring and the opening, and the aging man who had brought a miracle to the city had not a chance against her. She didn’t dislike him. There was something about his cheeks, once fresh and now sallow and sagging around a childish mouth, that incited pity in her. He still had a full head of hair, which was more than could be said of her master. And, he had the secret she would sell herself for, and his price was an easy one to meet.

The handsome young exterminator from the north, bitter with the weight of his life and possessing a sharp glance and single-minded selfishness that Vidita had never met except in herself, posed a problem for her simple plan. He watched her, watched her feet and her hands and her hair and her movements, and she knew he was an element she could not control. He would take and give nothing in return, and she both admired and feared that. She watched him watch her, and for all her watching she could not read his innermost cipher; what he needed, more than anything else, was a mystery to her, and she felt a more-than-faint unease as her plan progressed along its anticipated lines under his pale blue eyes.

 

* *

 

There are tales, in the remote village where the handsome exterminator originated, that tell of the first spider and the first man. In the tales, it is the spider that deserves sympathy, a subversion of the self-pitying human-centric perspective that thrives in the city of angels. When he wore the guild uniform, when he killed the spiders, the exterminator remembered the stories and dismissed them with a twist of his stubbly upper lip. He liked to tell himself that he outgrew loving the spiders when he outgrew his mother: very, very young.

His mother had captured him, as she captured most everyone. Her hair, white and shimmering, swept the floor when she walked. As a small boy, he was entranced and would fall asleep to dream fairy-lantern dreams under the silken fall of her hair until he woke alone to realize she had wandered away when she grew bored. He nourished a weary understanding that she would wander away from him, always.

She had been the daughter of poor farmers and was rumored to be half angel, a rumor she never discounted but that her mother—not a likely candidate for otherworldly lust, with her leathery cheeks and stooped outdoors-woman’s bearing—loudly disclaimed. The exterminator’s father was a bookish first son of the district lord, and he had fallen into obsession over her with the first sight of her ethereal beauty at a village fair when she had been selling cherries from the family farm.

The story of their meeting had passed into local memory in much the same way the spiders had. “Cherries, sir?” she said, and her voice carried that thrilling low quaver that convinced anyone nearby that she was desperately, hopelessly in love with them. The lord’s son shocked from his reverie on some obscure question of philosophy and, blinking behind the concave lenses of his optics, saw first the pearly clavicle that led to the endless twine of pale braid, thicker than his wrist, falling over her small left breast, past her tiny waist, and to her knees. He then saw the pulse that beat quickly in her neck. Then he saw her lips—strawberries in cream—and her solemn eyes that glinted along her cheekbones like puddles of midnight water, and he caught a whiff of something spiced, hot like a forge, and utterly different from anything he had ever smelled before.

He did not know her name but he took her hot yielding hand and kissed it and proposed marriage on the spot, nevermind the gasps that rose around him, the engagement his mother would need to break, and the disapproval of his father who nearly cut him off from the family inheritance (the hills and mines surrounding the rustic manse his grandfather had built, the crystal glassware and silver for the table, the small but precious library accumulated by an uncle, and horses of top breeding stock) before falling under the angel-girl’s spell himself and beginning to follow her around slavering like an embarrassing hound past its prime and in need of a blow to the head. In fact this behavior continued past the wedding and for a few months after she came to live with the family, and then it stopped. No one knew why except the old man, who would from that moment til his death never stay alone in a room with her for even a breath, and the girl, who showed not a whit of curiosity when, around her, his eyes took on the terrified gleam of prey confronted with a threat too big to contemplate.

Her son, when he came, was born an affectionate child with a queer affinity for those creeping long-legged seasonal guests, the spiders, and other than a long hard stare when he was pulled bloody and limp-penised from her at birth, his mother never paid him more attention than she paid the dogs that seemed to tumble always around the doors and hearths of the rambling old manse in the country. In fact she seemed to care for the roses more than she did for him—an observation which created a deadly hate for the flowers in the boy, particularly the deep, red-as-sin bowls of petals that would appear for a few days in the early summer and saturate the area with their spicy perfume that had an undertone to it of rotting meat. Once the boy cut every rose off its stalk and mangled the petals in the pig sty and yet still his mother did not look at him.

In the country, spiders were less a hated obstruction and more a seasonal inconvenience, like calving season or the harsh snow and ice of winter. The young exterminator found he could sense the first spiderweb floating in the breeze and catching on a jutting chimney, and he seemed to hear the subtle clacking of the spider legs on the roof, the walls, the floors. He cried the first time he saw a spider killed and he took the intact abdomen back to his rooms, where he washed the pale insides and the glowing lavender venom from it and then studied it for hours. There was a traced design on the inside—a map, it seemed to him, possibly of the stars, possibly points of importance in a city or a country, inked in subtle glowing red against the pale grey of the carapace. That spider season, when the webs grew so thick that the doors had to be cleared from the outside before they could be pushed open and all outdoor travel ceased, the boy spent his time in his father’s library, reading every book lining the walls and even bringing his father’s distant gaze to bear on the topic. They never found the key to the mystery, but they did spend many still hours in the refuge of the library, and later when the exterminator was far away, he would remember these times with a kind of affection that embarrassed him, even in the silence of his own consciousness.

The trouble began at age seventeen or eighteen when he saw a girl enough like his mother to be her daughter washing her hair in a stream some half a day’s ride from the manse. He did not question the stirring of his loins, and he did not ask her permission when he pushed her down on a sun-warmed flat rock near the water, with her heavy hair trailing behind her like a rope, and impregnated the girl, who—due to a concealed history of his mother’s—would turn out to be his half-sister and who would come knocking on the door of the manse in a blizzard with a new baby on her hip, begging for help and ultimately shocking his world to pieces. That day in the fragile spring sunlight was like a dream for him, and remembering it would always be the disconcerting overlay of a false memory: that he had fucked his mother, finally. In a way, he was glad when the girl came to the gates and accused him of his crime, because he got to see his mother next to the girl, and to see that though they had the same delicate head like a flower on the narrow stem of a neck, the same glittering whiteish hair, and the same grace of movement, his mother had fine traceries of lines beside her eyes and a kind of power that her younger doppelganger could never achieve.

The girl was taken as a chambermaid in the mansion, the child raised as the exterminator’s younger brother, and though his mother never said a word to him—perhaps because she never did—the young man packed his favorite books and the spider shell from his childhood, some food and some money taken from his father’s unlocked strongbox, and rode away from the rambling house in the country in the north in search of somewhere, anywhere, that the mother he loved too much did not haunt him.

The journey was fraught with challenges, as travel was during these times, but he sleepwalked through them. He found himself equal to every excitement, whether it was going without food for several days, finding a way to cross the rushing spring-heavy river without losing his horse, his money, or his life, or defending himself from an undernourished group of brigands that beset him some three months in to his long ride. His mind was always on his mother, and he hated himself for it. When he remember the girl he had ruined, he had only a small stir in his groin and no stir in his conscience. He would see a strange sight—such as the towers of Omeg, like crystal needles against a cobalt sky—and think whether his mother would like it or not. This did not please him.

Women pleased him, for a moment, until inevitably they failed him by not being his mother. He loved them with casual grace and then left them, a trail of them, from the north to the southern city of the angels, where he charmed the haughty receptionist at the Exterminator’s Guild into giving him an appointment with the Guildmaster in weeks, instead of months, and then—there were rumors the Guildmaster leaned away from the distaff side in his sexual inclinations; surely that played a part in the young man’s quick rise to power, or so some of his jealous, and senior, guildmates said—into an accelerated training and a series of plum positions in the greatest houses of the city. His empty aspect, his undeniable skill, and his air of privacy gave him access to the secrets that thrummed through the city. Usually, he was uninterested in them; however, a strand running through certain causes and effects that he noticed was the swirling rumors about the miracle tea.

A tea that granted wishes: seemed too good to be true.

Factoring in its expense—one cup, consumed in the silent workroom of the heavy-eyed teamaster, Lukas, would cost as much as a moderately-sized house in the better part of the city—and the whispered rumors of its strange effects, and the handsome exterminator acquired a new obsession. Or rather, transparently, hoped to wipe away the old obsession with the new.

What did he care the side effects if a single draught of tea could erase his mother from his heart, from his groin?

He was paid well, but not well enough. There had to be a different way to drink the miracle tea.

Unaware that he shared his wish with countless poor, moderately prosperous, and even almost-wealthy people in the teeming city of the angels, he appreciated the stroke of luck that was colliding with the wife of the tea vendor when they were both drunk and a flicker of mutual appreciation appearing between them. It was a statement in passing that she dropped in her husky and foreign accent, a mention of the damned tea under the bewebbed street lights, but it was enough.

He left his post at an ambassador’s the next morning and won an appointment at her house. She was a side-target, and when the opportunity came he dutifully fucked her, next to, in the general malice of the universe, a vase of red roses that reminded him bitterly of his mother. As usual, the woman failed at filling the hole in him, and he turned away from her to resume his post by the door, in the poison chamber, to watch for the servant who by now he had an inkling might be his way to the miracle tea.

He was waiting outside the poison chamber door some days later, dismissed but not distracted, when the slave girl slipped through it, clutching something under her cloak.

“What have you stolen?” he asked. She flinched.

“I have stolen nothing. There was an even trade.” Her fingers tightened on the object under her cloak.

“Show me what is under your cloak or I will force you back inside to the teamaster.” There was no threat in his voice, only grey certainty. She glanced at him with her eyes that reminded him of the slanting gaze of a rare midnight fox, which he had in his youth once startled while it was licking dew from his mother's rosebush leaves; seeming to weigh her choices, she pulled a jar from her cloak, the contents of which, glowing clean purple in the dimness of the webby alley, pulsed with recognition to his long-ignored core of memory and spider-woven mystery. "Why did you steal this spider venom?" He disliked his questioning voice, disliked not knowing.

"For my own purposes," she answered, and walked away from him with her cloak fluttering behind her, as moth wings or spider silk in the moist afternoon.

He followed, hating his own fascinated footsteps and the hope that rose up within him and choked him. He knew she had the answer for him, knew it somehow the same way he knew sunset would come soon and that nothing mundane could make him forget the curve of his mother's breasts faintly glimpsed beneath the pale sheet of her hair through a keyhole once when she undressed for her afternoon bath. Though this slave girl tried to evade himstopping at a dyer's shop, chatting with a haggard butcher's wife for an hour, paying some small boys a chiltin to distract him—he followed her to a molding old mansion in a faraway neighborhood and watched her enter.

He requested an audience with the master of the house.  The flowermaster was defenseless before him, doddering age slain by youth and virility, and with little persuasion the master awarded a post to this straight-backed young man with the hot eyes.

 There were many spiders in the house, to which the exterminator dealt death with his usual calm-eyed efficiency, while ignoring the cooing of the servants and the soft-subtle display of skin from the chambermaid with the sunset hair who usually had to kill them and was relieved to be free of their scuttling claws and the frankincense smell of their blood. He did not, however, exert much energy in discharging his new responsibilities. Instead he followed Vidita from house to greenhouse, from greenhouse to the teamaster's home and up to her eave-hidden bedroom at night, even sleeping in front of her door when she would not let him in. He did not attempt to touch her. It wasn't her body he wanted.

Around him and Vidita, figures of servants, masters, visitors came and went; they had a misty aspect, as if they were dreams or nightmares. Only the two were real, solid, had weight and heft and feet that thudded on the ground. He searched her room but did not find the spider's venom. At night around the servant's table he could feel her attention on him, and when he met her eyes she would cock her head, evaluating. He had the sense that she could read below the surface, to the part of him that so ached at night that he paced, rocked, read, rather than face it. He both hated and courted that knife-gaze of hers; alternately he would bully and plead, for what he knew not.

When her proposal came, there was the sense it had already been made.

She had now brewed, she said, the first batch of miracle tea. What she lacked was a partner that could gain access to the nobles who could afford to pay her for it, who would buy her freedom. Three months of serving her, she said, and an extra-large serving of the tea would be his. And, she would share the profits with him—a little.

He consented, of course. He had consented before she began speaking. Saliva coursed through his mouth at the thought of his reward. What would it taste like, his freedom?

They started small, with the wealthy wine-merchant down the street. Vidita refit one of her mother’s gowns and found some shoes. The exterminator made the appointment, first gaining entrance to the merchant’s home through virtue of his office and then, while conquering each blushing daughter with a single glance, humbly explaining to the aging seller of vinegary overpriced wines, that for the first time miracle tea would be available to, well, not average folks, but, for example, honest men who had worked their entire lives to raise ungrateful children and who deserved, definitely deserved, a poke at happiness. The wine merchant, whose sagging jowls bespoke a lifetime of overindulgence, took little persuading, and the next day Vidita visited his home and stunned him first with her own undeniable beauty and second with the cup of actual miracle tea she held out to him. No one knew, or cared, what his wish was, but the following week he sent to the exterminator a handsome gift of Alcation wine and a scrawled note saying it had come true and he would tell all his friends.

That was the beginning of the perilous waltz they danced throughout the many-layered social strata of the city of angels, both neglecting their duties nearly to the point of punishment by their doting master, both hoarding the coins and the power that came their way for an ultimate end neither revealed to the other.

Time passed. The spider infestation reached its peak and faded away.

Vidita bought her manumission, and her mother’s.

The exterminator drank the miracle tea.

There were rumors that the original vendor of miracle tea had not left his home for months and hadn’t served a single cup of tea from his workroom either.

The exterminator never wondered what Vidita was thinking, or feeling. He did question his own emotions—probing with the withered stick of memories at the sore spots, the places where his mother’s face loomed, the forbidden urges—and concluded that the miracle tea had lived up to its name: he no longer thought of his mother in the way he had. Something had disappeared with that savory cup of steaming tea, handed to him with Vidita’s sure grace and consumed under her less-than-curious eye.

He had not slept with a woman since he drank the tea.

It was months before he realized.

Then he shrugged and counted his coins. He had other things to do than love, and fuck, and pulse with the force of living.

* *

The day on which the annual Evensong Dance was held opened unusually tender for Lukas, because he woke to find his wife sobbing on his bedroom floor and, for once, he had enough soul-fabric left over to reach down from the bed and stroke her long coarse hair and ask what was wrong. She crawled into bed with him, her cheek and shoulder cold from the stones of the floor, and in an echo of their long-gone lust they curled their toes together and canted knees. “I miss my family,” she said, “and I miss my youth. I threw it all away here. The city didn’t want me, they didn’t want my magical stories or my voice, they only wanted your miracle tea and the shoddy dreams it gave them.”

He felt a surge of resentment at her words and then realized she was right, and as she went on and her slightly accented voice wound around him its story of regret and despair, the sure knowledge that she, too, had dried up and withered away inside in their huge and pretentious house in the city of spiders, which had been all he had known until he met her and bargained with her, welled within him. He said nothing more, only let her whisper against his chest, but he felt the unfolding of their next step within him and waited only for his next sight of the slave girl who had stolen more than spider venom that day in the workroom.

He did not recognize her at first when he saw her that night. What he did notice was the swirl of whispers that surrounded him and seemed to eddy from the woman at the far end of the room, the woman of fabulous beauty who stood with the handsome exterminator at her elbow and the wealthy and powerful of the city fawning at her feet. He noticed that she smelled like triumph, and that the whispers seemed to tie them together, but the dullness that had slipped over his heart kept him from caring. He spent too much time diving into the buffet with its tiny naskla eggs, peacock eyes, and lemon puddings, and into his cut-crystal glass of wine that was not his favorite claret but fulfilled the same purpose without the guilt, to notice her bright eyes on his face, until suddenly he snapped from his lethargy and realized that his Vidita the slave girl, the woman he had fucked in his workroom and who still woke him at night with the memory of her hot kisses, was the goddess at the far end of the room, and everyone was looking between them as if they were connected. What had she done with that purple venom? What had she told the world of him? She looked at him with defiance edged with something broken that he could not read.

Perhaps once he would have cared about his reputation, but now he only felt gladness that the agony of waiting was over now the confrontation had begun. He slanted toward her through the crowd that gave way before him in an eddy of silks and colors, the faces he had seen brutalized in desire and twisted in hope falling away before his glance, the hands that had clutched the mugs in his workroom as if he held the key to the lock of death now pulling sleeves  and skirts from his touch. Whispers surged around him like the susurrus of spider’s legs and then faded away. He held her eyes—those splendid eyes—and walked toward her, and no one else in the room existed.

She wore something long and deep cobalt blue edged in crimson so rich his mouth watered, but the fabulous fabric could not obscure the fragile poise in her face. Her glorious hair was woven into an elaborate crown atop her head, and he realized that gems winked at him from the twists and folds and her dusky slick hair was almost a shadow amid stars. On her hands were pale gloves—was she hiding her slave’s calluses?—and on her feet tiny heeled slippers with scales like a fish that glinted and glimmered in the candlelight. He remembered her naked body and felt a jolt to his groin and kept walking, seeing nothing but her, the people surrounding him like paper figures blown away from his perception.

When he reached her she looked at him hotly, defiance in every perfect line of her body. He felt a smile tugging the corners of his mouth up and saw confusion seeping into her expression.

“Has it given you your desire? The miracle tea, I mean.” He had wondered, since that day he seduced her in the workroom in the bowels of his quiet house, what her desire had been. He saw it now in the proud set of her shoulders and the sadness that leaked into her eyes. She glanced around her, at the noblemen fawning on her, at the exterminator like a bodyguard at her shoulder, and at the old man bent in humility before her, and the dimple in her cheek glintered for a moment, a star in the pale firmament of her face, and then he saw the rimming of tears in her eyes. She nodded. No words.

“Here. You should live in my house. It’s got a better workroom.” He thrust a heavy ring of keys at her.

She took it without a word, looking down at the brass circle and the puzzle pieces rimming it, a weary understanding dawning on her face. The handsome exterminator took the keys from her hand and they exchanged a glance Lukas could not read. Probably they would move there together. The next generation of desire-granters, their own desires sublimated and broken under the wheel of too much fame, too much money, too much hope.

From somewhere nearby, Lukas’s wife had walked up to stand beside him. They might as well have been alone, in that glittering room where the greatest and best of that world’s society gathered to flaunt jewels and bosoms and cocks. With one of those foreign movements that once had fascinated him, she turned her head and stared at him, her glance sweeping over the keys in the exterminator’s hands—barely flinching when she saw the boy she had fucked who had walked away from her without a word after and who did not seem to recognize her when she stood before him now—and up to Lukas’s face, where she seemed to read something that brought a fierce smile to her dark lips. He looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time in years. Awareness arced between them. He reached for her hand, once so strong and smooth and now beginning to show the years in wrinkles and aging skin and bulging knuckles.

“We’ve spent long enough here,” he said to her, and his words were partially aimed at Vidita. If it was possible, he wanted her life to be less shadowed than his, even though she was stepping into his shadow. “Let’s go find your tribe and see if your father is still alive.”

She, though yesterday she might have given in to her homesickness and cried at the idea, now simply looked into his eyes and nodded.

It was time. He knew that it was time by the thudding of his heart and the thundering of his blood. He reached down for his wife's hand—gloved or not, he would always know her hand in his—and lifted it into the air. The crowd around them, which had been to a man milling nearby and whispering in the hopes of overhearing something from the drama principles, hushed. The words built in his throat and released in a torrent, the freedom that rode them pushing through to the farthest reaches of the room.

“I have shared my secret of the miracle tea with Vidita. She is now your miracle tea vendor. Go to her for your sick needs, your last-minute saves, your torrid miracles. I won’t bear your burdens any longer.”

And without saying goodbye, without a kiss on the cheek to the woman who had brought him back to life, he left the city of the angels.

* * *

In a few months, the cashmere silk spiders appeared again in the city of the angels, whispering with webby caresses across the sun-glinting domes and towers and reminding the frantic city dwellers, yet again, that they could sweep the silk away, they could splatter spider guts against walls and crush hated arthropods dawn til dusk, or they could mimic and coopt the spiders and their endless silk, but they could never, ever escape.

 

Girl, Wolf, Woodsman (Dark Roots Short Series #1)

Girl, Wolf, Woodsman (Dark Roots Short Series #1)