“I don’t like this,” I said, not for the first time, as I navigated Mirna around a snake charmer and his ring of enthralled spectators.
Another side to Croevat’s street vendors had appeared the moment shadows blended together to form night, and we meandered among the crowds of tourists and performers at Mirna’s insistence. We were so close to the southern shore now. I couldn’t understand her sudden desire to chance recognition in a city. We had food, and a path that would lead us unnoticed to the sea, where there was a good chance we’d find passage to other, safer shores. Yet here we were, wandering the night streets of one of the less savory cities I’d seen.
Mirna had her rainbow bead necklace in her hand, and I noticed that she drew a new bead between her thumb and forefinger on every third step. It must be a way of helping her count out a map of our travels, I figured. I didn’t understand many of Mirna’s methods of navigating the world without the benefit of sight, but they always seemed to work.
“Describe it to me,” she said.
I took in the streets of packed sand and buildings made of the same stuff, though adorned with wood and colorful cloth stands and canopies. Lanterns glowed yellow and orange upon a crowd well suited for shadowy dealings. A burst of flame erupted before us as a few onlookers cheered. A woman on stilts doused the lit end of a torch in her mouth and then blew it back to life in the next breath. Several men stood watching the flow of traffic from the opening to a narrow alley and I had the chill suspicion that I recognized them.
“It’s crowded,” I said, my voice dropping. I’d been eyeing the men and noticed that they seemed to be watching us with more interest than I’d like. “There’s a fire show to our left,” I added absently.
“Your power of description is awe inspiring,” she said, squeezing my arm playfully. “Keep describing. What sort of shops are there?”
Not many of the stands had signs announcing their purpose. I squinted at the wares.
“It’s stands mostly,” I said, “and they’re shut down for the night. Baskets and food and that sort of thing.”
There was no doubt about it. The men had dislodged from their shadowy perch and were now wandering through the crowd a distance behind us.
“Mirna,” I hissed, “we may have been spotted.”
Mirna frowned. “Keep going, a little longer,” she said. “If they catch up to us, I’ll create a diversion while you get away.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I scoffed. “We’ve come this far together. I’m not abandoning you.”
Mirna rattled her necklace against her leg and resumed her bead count. “As I understand it,” she said under her breath, “if they catch you, Alpha could rip this world apart. If they catch me, they’ll be stuck with an annoying blind girl.”
“Daughter to one of the architects of the Council of Azminan,” I added into her ear. “This world can’t afford either of us being captured. Why are we here?”
Several children ran past, one boy jostling Mirna against me roughly.
“Don’t let that little thief get away!” she cried. “My necklace!”
I saw the bright beads in the boy’s hand as he darted behind a row of stalls. I pulled Mirna with me as fast as I dared, but there was no chance we’d be able to keep up with the urchins. They scattered in every direction, small flitting shadows crisscrossing past each other to create confusion.
“You can have my necklace,” I said in exasperation, dragging her toward the alley the boy had disappeared into.
“No,” she said sternly. “Hurry!”
I noticed that though the other inhabitants of the street parted for our pursuit, none made a move to help apprehend the thieves. We slid into the alley, which once we’d rounded the corner, wasn’t as dark and foreboding as I’d first assumed. More tourists wandered in and out of shops and taverns here, and I caught a glimpse of the boy darting left onto the next street. Mirna and I skittered after him, but by the time we turned the corner the street was empty.
“Why did we stop?” Mirna demanded.
“We lost him,” I sighed. “Mirna, truly, you can have my necklace.”
She shook her head. “Tell me about the shops,” she said.
I almost groaned aloud. We were in a strange city, hostile if you asked me, we’d just been robbed, and she wanted to go back to touristing. Mirna was capable of strange behavior, but tonight she was pulling out all the stops. Nothing about tonight made sense. I was about to complain when I spotted one of the men who’d been following us. He hadn’t turned his head our way yet. I ushered Mirna onto the new street quickly.
“Let’s see,” I said tersely, “there’s a glass shop. It’s closed for the night. Here we have a shoe shop, also closed. Madame Igru’s Fortunes looks open…”
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s where we’re going.”
I studied my friend for a long minute. Confirmed. There was something suspicious about her behavior tonight. I heard heavy footsteps approach and realized that the shadows of this strange city were playing tricks with my head. If we weren’t being pursued I’d have laughed at myself. Mirna could hear better than anyone I knew. She wasn’t behaving suspiciously, she was getting us away from those men. I led her in through the bell-laden door of Madame Igru’s Fortunes. The air was thick with warring incenses and every surface was either dark velvet or shimmering glass. Globes and crystals refracted candlelight, sometimes blindingly.
“Enter,” said a woman’s deep voice. We stepped through a series of bead curtains to find a woman who I assumed was Madame Igru seated at a table. “I’ve been expecting you,” she said with deep mystery in her tone.
“Right,” I said. I opened my mouth to share the full weight of my skepticism when I spotted the boy peeking out from behind a thick velvet curtain. “There he is; the thief!”
Mirna grabbed my hand. “He can keep the necklace,” she said quickly. “Perhaps in return for a reading?”
Madame Igru gazed at us speculatively.
“You can’t be serious,” I scoffed.
“You can come out, Nicholas,” Madame Igru called. “Fetch candles, and the crystal. Please,” she smiled, lifting her hand to two chairs opposite her, “sit.”
Nicholas entered a moment later with a large glass globe and three tall candles. He placed the globe before Madame Igru with gentle reverence, and proceeded to light the candles on tall stands around us. Madame Igru closed her eyes and began to hum and mumble, waving her hands around the glass ball. Nicholas watched from a perch near the curtain where he’d entered.
“You have a troubled heart,” she said with a grave tone. “A decision weighs on you.” I felt like rolling my eyes. She was quite possibly the worst fake fortune teller I’d ever seen. “There is a financial aspect,” she said, cracking an eyelid upward to check our features.
“Thank you, Madame Igru,” Mirna said politely. “Nicholas,” she called, “I wonder if you agree.”
Madame Igru’s hands came to rest on the table and I followed her gaze to the boy.
“Alpha is closer than you’d like,” said Nicholas.
“What do you know of Alpha?” I gasped.
“He wants the poem you read,” replied Nicholas. I clutched Mirna’s arm in alarm but she patted my hand reassuringly.
“Will he catch us?” she asked.
“That way is uncertain,” answered Nicholas. “I see both possibilities.”
“If he catches us, does he get the poem?” she asked.
Nicholas tilted his head, staring at the sphere on the table. “The purpose of the poem is intriguing,” he said at last. “Have you discovered the meaning yet?” The question was directed toward me.
The poem made little sense, talking of circles and spheres and opposites of things working together.
“No,” I admitted.
“It’s a recipe,” he said. “Instructions to the elements of a world. A binding command. To repeat it to Alpha, even without understanding, would give him the tools to unravel… well, everything.”
“Will she?” demanded Mirna.
Nicholas’ eyes met mine, and I had the sensation that I was gazing at someone impossibly old, not a little boy.
“That remains to be seen,” he said speculatively.
“Please,” said Mirna, “my father has told me about you. Is there anything you can do to help?”
“I have already,” laughed Nicholas. “And yes, I will again before the night is through.”
“Nice and cryptic,” I muttered under my breath. Mirna clutched my wrist in warning.
Nicholas laughed again. “Madame Igru, if you would,” he said.
Madame Igru lifted a pendant necklace from her ample bosom. Dangling at the end of the chain was a tiny key, which she lifted to the side of her nose. I heard a faint click as she turned it, and a seam spread down the center of her face. The two halves of her face parted on hinges, opening to reveal… light. Blinding, amazing light. I had the sense that I was peering in on a bright day somewhere. I could almost hear birdsong and splashing water at a distance. I glanced at Nicholas but he was no longer there.
“Do not look away,” he said into my ear. He was standing behind me now.
“What’s happening?” whispered Mirna.
“Your friend is being shown something,” he explained. “It will help her forget certain important things for now, and remember other certain important things when the time is right.”
There was someone approaching within the light. Or was it me, wandering into it? The birdsong seemed stronger now. Or was it an owl? And the light an orange mesmerizing glow from our fire. Mirna stoked the logs. I gazed around at the trees and the darkness skirting them. I couldn’t remember building the fire.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“It’s just us tonight,” she said. “Are you warm enough?”
I was plenty warm. The evening wasn’t even that cold, to merit such a large fire.
“Fine,” I said, wrestling with a strange feeling of disorientation. “I must have dosed off,” I admitted, stretching. “I had a funny dream,” though as soon as I said it, I realized I couldn’t call to mind one detail.
“I let you sleep for a while,” she nodded. “You seemed peaceful.”
I felt peaceful. I couldn’t explain why. The woods at night usually set my nerves on edge and having such a large fire should have made me worried, but I felt calm. As if somehow I knew that everything would turn out fine. I chuckled at myself inwardly. As if anyone could know something like that.
☆ I want to thank my readers for your support and comments. This short story marks one year of posting! Your feedback has given me valuable fuel to keep going through what I discovered to be a sizable undertaking. 🙂 It’s been worth it. Thank you, and please keep reading and spreading these words. -W. C. McClure ☆
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!