Father Dukensis unsheathed hands from up his green sleeves, snarled, and began just shooing people into their proper places. The other clans weren’t moving fast enough, were they? And they weren’t all wearing their robes properly, were they? No. And nobody was making their signs properly at the pentagram—of course they weren’t! Ugh! Urghrrrr…
“You all take your sour faces off, this is church, not some punishment… and the emerald duke should be up, up, over your eyes… then, it’s a finger raised at north, east, south-east, south-west, then true west… that’s it, five times. I wanna see that on each one of you when you enter the room.” He threw his hands up again. “Now—come on, now! How the young people s’posed to know it if the grown folk don’t even… urgh…”
All these black people who were about the same height, though among some clans, they were just evenly short—began to file neatly, raise their hoods with flicks of cocoa, honey or cinnamon wrists and bowed to the pentragram behind the altar. Fathers moved their daughters along to the benches, then stood behind them at protective watch. Mothers had each of their sons by the shoulders, guiding them to stand in five radiating lines around the altar. Then, each mother eased that one hand, resting it supportively at her son’s back. Sons raised their chins. Daughters in flat-ironed, twisted pigtails opened the prayer books.
The altar was a runed thing with dog’s feet, carved from jade.
As the procession finished, it swole up and enriched into a spiritual so mournful flowers could wilt at it—and so the morning glory vines going up the walls did. And, dogs would have bayed too, so of course all the animals in that great big place started to bark and howl with a deep regret that they also
felt but could not understand. Or, did they understand through that feeling?
The sound of it all, and the incense raised up past the green stained glass and caught in the vaulted ceiling of the cathedral.
Father Dukensis bowed his head, and when he raised it again, he carefully adjusted his hood with its symbol, the duke, so that it fell just over his eyes. “My people…”
The clans saluted him with a foot stomped and a fist in the air briefly, then let their arms drop with their voices into silence.
“One of our sons,” he eyed those making faces, “everyone’s son, has betrayed us. Or, it could become a betrayal, couldn’t it? If we let him keep running around outside in the Ow like he hasn’t got any gods-given sense–”
“No home training, no sir, Father Dukensis!”
Father Dukensis should have expected it, but Deacon Carrussis’ round, bottomless voice could always make a person brace themselves. People in the congregation also seemed to catch themselves at hearing it, as if they were naked to it and caught in a chill breeze.
“Oh, yes, sir, Father Dukensis!”
“Yes… Ah… my son. Here he lies, that liar. He has loosed Phobos Robobos, and he should pay for it, shouldn’t he? Help me! All of you help me to march this boy’s good-for-nothing black ass right back here, for all the grannies, and all the poppas, to set that boy straight! Wait—can you hear me? Can you see me and feel me, Dukensians?” He passed hands through the air over the person in robe laying still on the green altar.
Now, they were back in a fervor. The girls read loudly from the black-and-green books, the fathers shouted in chant, and the mothers stamped their feet and let their knees buckle as they rolled their heads over their shoulders, crying out at intervals that they had caught the energy.
The sons raised their daggers and pointed the power back at Father Dukensis on the altar.
And then the last son, laying on their altar, had been spoken of as a rude, silly boy. But, the body of a man was there. Robed in wealthy money-green like the rest.
“Oh, I see where you are now, Kashizaerian… death in the Ow is not even far enough away… I can haul you back here, ungh… ‘cause I brought you into this world, ungh… and only I can take you out, can’t I? Ungh!” Father Dukensis made fists in the air and pulled them to himself as he puffed up his chest.
“Yessir! Oh, Father Dukensis, you’ve got that boy now, pants fallin’ down round his ankles and evry’thang, you got ‘em now, father! Yes! Sir!”
An altar boy, his robes done in spiraling, sparkling lime designs came. Father Dukensis waved the incense smoke hanging between them. He selected a long pin from the many instruments in the box that was opened and offered up. He held this for all to see and scream their praises at.
One old woman and one little girl seated together among the fathers, because they were unmatched, stopped their worship.
The old woman shut her eyes and looked away from him, got a hand on the little girl’s shoulder when she tried to get up. Leaned down, covered the girl’s mouth and cussed when she started to scream. Father Dukensis leaned over the altar on one hand, found the place he wanted, then struck the pin deep, into his son’s gut.
Emerald sparks of their conjuring united with the ash of the bonfires, braiding heavy smoke up through the highest turrets. Beyond, it looked as if there were real, vile green weather above Mount Duke.
Kashizaerian Dukensis sat with both his dirty boots hitched on the silver ring round his chair’s legs, an old dry hen’s bone in one greasy hand, and the other, cleaned, on the glass machine before him. He was amazed. A machine, but made of glass? Lights inside. No gears, no clicking anythings that he could see. Just lights and flickering bright panels. Sweet, shimmering music from inside there too. On the surface of the glass box, three reels with numbers and symbols painted on clicked and whirled in unison when he pulled the lever.
Star… Star… 13.
“Bah! Why is such a bad number even on the reel…” but, he smiled at it. Kashizaerian was so enchanted that the pain in his gut subsided some time ago. Though, he feared to get up from the machine again.
Kashizaerian was a thin young man when he didn’t mean to be, being a bachelor, but he filled out instantly into something even more handsome—this he delved into in pure innocence of himself—whenever times were good and he had more meals than usual. So, he was lithe and funny in one season, and then got brawny and warm enough to hug well in the next. And, he could dance. He laughed whenever he remembered how he could dance.
Kashizaeriean could smile like a winter’s dawn. Beautiful promise of warmth, but then he’d escape, so easily, if you didn’t know how to keep him. If you did not bundle yourself up against his cold ways, work fast to win him and keep him inside.
Well, his mother used to say so.
“What is a man?” he half sang to himself. He kept breaking up the song with ‘purburrs’ from his tired lips and bluffs of air sucked in and out from his cheeks, trying to make… what he believed was better off as prose. He wanted it to sound harder, like it was falling down a mountain side, as he once fell, or stumbling round creek rocks. A man wasn’t a kid with a-old chicken bone in his greasy hand, playing games like this all day through. “But then again, man? Here I am, man.” Another pull of the machine’s handle. “Eat that, you can.” He watched the reels inside the lighted box spin. “Make me…” bluff-bluff. Purr-purr, “…a better man, man.” He waited, “Man? Oh man!” then, “Damn!”
Star… Diamond… Raspberry.
“What a waste of this man’s beautiful, precious time.” But he pulled he lever again.
Akila, the only other person in the gambling place that was his age, spotted him eventually—of course she did. A handsome and almost tall fellow, with dark skin she rarely saw on people. He wore the robe of a rich man, or the color of a rich man’s royal bank notes. But, then again, this young stranger possessed the mannerisms of a fool. A sly fool who didn’t care what anyone thought. His pants were half down his bottom when he scooted up in his seat and the cape fell away a moment. The beautiful green hood he kept down, but those arms and legs looked so strong the way he sat in his half-angry hunch, she assumed his face must be just as good.
Akila raised her silver tray of beers in steins, and vials of shimmering libations over her shoulder and waltzed over with hips at full swing. Some rich boy run away on holiday.
“Sirrah, might I offer thou—”
He grabbed her bare leg. Akila’s skirt was short—shortened—by profession, but patrons making full use of the uniform was
never something one… expected.
Akila had dug her soft blue painted nails into the silver polish of the tray balanced on her shoulder. The same color over her eyes warmed up as her honey face blushed. She set her teeth against the anger rising in the pit of her chest. But, then again, found herself wondering… hadn’t he looked her over first?
The hen’s bone was now somewhere on the floor between them. The young man in the green hood, his hand really holding the meat of her leg, studied Akila’s eyes, and then her body for another time before he must have realized that there was also emotion going between them. Hers was not the same as his.
“…Well?” she fumed.
“I’m sorry… but it’s what you’ve got on.” He waited, then came up with, “You’re really sexy.”
Akila’s knees went right then, and she ended up offering him the drink she almost spilled on him to help cover for herself. Next, balanced on her heels a little, leaned and unfolded a cloth napkin over his knee where he might set down his drink while he gambled.
“I’m very… um… thank you.”
“Yeah… yeah, you definitely look great.”
“I’m Akila. I also, you know… I take a break for supper at—”
“This is a gambling machine. It is, isn’t it?”
Akila had been caught up in his eyes. “Oh, yes… that’s true. You’ve not seen many of these have you? I haven’t either, really… well, until I came here. There are others here in Searing City, and in Purvillion too. Every real big city with a gambling parlour is going to have these soon. They’re called slot machines. Money goes in, and so much beauty comes out. Aren’t mages brilliant?”
He smiled. “The hell.”
Akila thought there should be more, but that was the man’s whole sentence. She checked over her shoulder to make sure there weren’t any other customers that time of day, and that nobody was watching her from the bar.
“Look, this is really incredible, right? I’ve not seen another brown person in a really long time.”
He’d gone back to the machine. “Mhrm.”
“Where are you from? I thought we didn’t get way out here. Gods, it gets lonely… you know, I can cook a mean turkey leg, bake gold bricks…” he ignored her. She licked her lips quickly, “And, so, you’re a mage?”
“Kashiz… Kash…shiz… air re-an? Kashizaerian.”
“I’m Akila.” She waited impatiently for him to do more than pull the lever or grunt. “Okay. I’m just going to call you Kash.”
“To call a person out of their name. A-ki-la. That’s pretty. So, hey, what happened? I thought my name was pretty too.”
“I didn’t say—”
“No, it was the way you said my name. You want me.” And then he turned and smiled as if he was going to eat her. “Oh gods, and look what I did to you, poor thing. You poor, pretty thing…” and he used the napkin she’d folded in his lap to wipe her leg free of whatever grit and grease had been on his hand.
“You gotta tell me, how does this thing work? It’s eating all my money.”
“Right, so then it’s working fine.”
Kash paused to put the heel of his hand on his forehead.
“Oh no, headache? Want me to get a potion for you?”
“Nobody can fix it. Playing helps it, I think it does. So, help me keep playing. Unless you’re offering for me to play with you?”
Akila did a half-good job of playing offended and smacking his shoulder somewhat.
Kash finally pushed his hood back. His coarse raven hair had been woven into about a hundred complex braids running over, under, into each other, branching into runes and symbols over his scalp. At the back of his neck, the ends of the braids were hidden underneath small golden panels. Three arrowheads that pointed into one another.
“Boy, do I love your hair. I haven’t seen hair done like that on a man in a really, really long time.”
Kash pulled Akila into his lap, the free drink finished. She set down her tray on the stool next to theirs.
“Now, tell me how this works.”
“Where in all the realm are you from? At first I thought you were… but, no, I’ve never met a man like you before. Not in my whole life.”
He shrugged and said, “I didn’t come from so far away, I walked here.” Then, “when I pass my hand over this stained glass portion here, the lily flower, I feel as if it’s coming to me. It wants to bloom, I’m asking it to bloom with my hand, and then good numbers come up on this reel. Even numbers, and powerful numbers… an eight, for instance. There’s some kind of conductor beneath this, isn’t there? And it knows how many times I’ve pulled the lever, over there, and how long I’ve been waiting. The lei lines inside must be exactly, exquisitely done.” He smiled, “I’m so mad at that!”
Akila put her arms around him instead. “Have you any idea how long I’ve been waiting?”
But all of Akila’s attempts at Kash failed after that. He was into the machine, and so she helped him with it. Kash was thrilled by the thing. He seemed more relieved of his headaches, the more she helped him to understand how it worked. She described how it looked on the inside, a dome within a dome of glass, or like a faceted jewel. She told Kash about the the last time the mage came by to service it. She told him how often gamblers won each day, and how much gold they won. She told him the patterns of the other machines, and that there were far better machines at the casino down the street where she also worked. Someone once won three thousand gold pieces there after playing the biggest machine for a day and a half, and then somebody else once sat at the same machine for three grueling days of bar-maid-ing (with no tips at all) and had to be thrown out when they were stinking and penniless and annoying the one barmaid assigned to him that whole time!
“Don’t let that happen to you, Kash.”
“You’re my lucky charm.” He kissed her arm.
Akila was delighted, until she realized that was a strange place to be kissed. It wasn’t very… focused at all… “My real kisses give the best luck.”
Then, she fell out of his lap. Kash had got to his feet. He raised his hands up overhead, waiting.
Diamond… Diamond… Diamond.
Akila swore and recovered for a solid moment before the orange glass machine went off in alarum. Enchanted music seemed to ring from everywhere. She told Kash she was sure it’d never done that before. “What did you do!”
“How much did we win?” she shoved him.
“The whole thing. I beat the machine.” He gazed up at her, beaming, “Everything evil, writhing and chirruping smile upon you—”
“What did you just call me?”
Then, Kash opened his arms. His fiendish smile set again. He came forward as Akila startled back, stepped out of her shoe and bent the heel. His lips did not move. His teeth were tight. But some sure unholy chanting spoke through him. Out and around the bared teeth, through the whites of his eyeballs… The voices billowed from behind his cape and cast the deep green hood over his braided head.
There were voices of women, men, children chanting in agony, “Kashiz, Kashiz, Kashizaerian!”
A black gale flew out from behind the green cape. Kash yelled, snatched arms around Akila and turned her around. He slammed them both down into the glass machine. The bright ambrosia shell burst. Its delicate stained glass innerworkings melted and crumpled around them.
The man she wanted was over her, shuddering, as beads of hot white light bounced and popped along invisible lei lines loosed overhead. The force of whatever it was had torn Kash’s wild hair from its braids. He gasped hard as sweat and blood slipped down the sides of his face.
But the kind stranger had retreated far inside of himself, perhaps deep into another world.