Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pale Blank Skin I.

            Lumnos the Wordseller hated customers.  Occasionally some vague noble from would come looking for a history to claim as their own genealogy, or an agent of Summer would send a dream informing him of a sale, but on the whole he loathed the entire caste of casual browsers.
            Icy Winter did not encourage readers and that morning had proven this further with violence.  He had been woken up at three bells by the sound of breaking glass.  By the time he down the narrow stairs, weighted cane in hand, the invader was gone, leaving behind only the faint smell of lye.  He preferred his more common unwelcome guests; members of the city-tribes looking for pages with which to clean their backsides. 
            By midmorning his biblio was the center attraction for his little neighborhood in the city of Ruin.  Gawkers, wrapped up against the incessant cold wind which blew up from the south, huddled together and pointed at the open-centered spider web marring his shop’s smooth glass facade.  At times like this, when saddled with intractable difficulties, he nearly levitated with nervous energy.
            "Please go away, the shop is closed," he huffed at the sound of the opening door while trying to inventory the collection of bestiaries unsettled by last night's visitor.
            Two men had entered; a tall fellow in a long coat and longer scarf, carrying something lewd and silver, took up most of his vision, while the other examined the place with a predatory attention to detail.  He treated the books like trophies, dangerous prey. 
            "I can offer no more explicit a closed sign than this," said Lumnos, dramatically displaying the glass at the front, as if they hadn't seen it.
            "That's very nice.  Did you just have it put in?"  At no point was the tall man being facetious.  "Looks something like a net."
            "What is it that you two want so I can tell you I don't have it and be done with this aggravation?"
            In response the taller fellow produced a pouch of poorly cured leather and handed it over.  Inside was a jumble of silver and gold bits, quite a sum.  There was even a few coins, remnants of more civilized times.
            "It's usually customary to inquire about a purchase first," he said, handing the pouch back.
            "No, you see, it's a gift," explained the tall fellow.  By now Lumnos realized the silver thing in his hands was an instrument of sorts, a trumpet.  "Amongst my people, and his, it's customary, in certain cases."
            "By the smell I knew you to be more knuckle-dragging barbarians.  Tell me, are you from the snow steppes of Hyras or maybe you're refugees from the lands around Nock after their troubles?"  Lumnos knew what they were after, soft paper junk texts or maybe lusty etchings.
            The man in seal skins laughed.
            Lumnos began watching this other, quieter man as he moved about the shop, checking for what had been taken.  Now his alarm grew great; the fellow in seal skins had some awful looking sword at his side, a piece of black obsidian.  No, it was metallic, a perplexing substance.  If he wasn't a sensible person he would venture to say it was enchanted, but such things were lost to Winter these days.
            "Further south than Nock," said the musician, watching.
            "You don't look like wolf hunters from the Bright Expanse..."
            "Warm weather savages, to be sure," smiled the tall fellow.
            "Snow-eating madmen from the icicle forests?"
            "You certainly know your geography, but no, they ply lands northwards from where we hail."
            "Then please do name this made-up place," snapped the wordseller bitterly.  He had never been a keen reader of the wild places, civilization held his heart.
            "Have you heard of the Wondering Mountains?"
            "I seem to recall some place described as 'the Painted Peakes' in the journal of the cryotropolist Domos, but there is no word of him surviving his trek south and most experts discredit his text as a work of creative fiction in his name."
            "Then I suppose we are from such a fiction," joked the taller fellow.  It was difficult not to like the man, even though he invaded the books he came across.  He went over each that Lumnos did, seeming to check their first pages with an appraising eye, as if he could read the characters within.
            Then realization came to the wordseller.  There was a common con which involved two actors, each dividing the attentions of the proprietor in order to pocket or swindle goods.  He had read about such a plot but none bothered in his place; books held little attention on barbaric Winter.
            "That's just enough," he broke, gesturing over to the swordsman.  "I can't have this!  This won’t do at all.  Go stand by your friend."
            "This is whale skin, isn't it?"  The man with the sword ran his hand down the mottled blue spine of a leathery tome.  "Not a narwhal though, some other kind." 
            "You have a decent enough eye," said Lumnos, calming.  "The words are tattooed on thin sheets of orca hide making the whole thing waterproof."
            The savage took the book down and opened it, passing pages at random.  "What does it say?"
            "Books don't say anything, they don't tell, they don't give grand speeches in bombastic voices, they may inform, and they always express.  They are an opportunity, if you choose to take it." 
            Unmistakable illiteracy showed in the way the tribesman handled the book.
            "Then what does this one express?"
            "Annoyance," he replied.
            "We only wish to purchase a book," said a voice from behind.  The musician was noisily engaged out of sight, lost in the maze of shelves and stacks.  By the sound of shuffling papers he had breached the office.
            "You only had to say that from the start."  He wandered in search of the musician, following the scarf back to its owner.
            "That's what the bits were for," explained the swordsman, following.
            "You said they were a gift."
            "Reciprocation was assumed, but as I guessed correctly, you are too civilized."
            "Who are you two?"
            "I am the Trumpeter and the fellow herding you about is the Fencer, if we have any other sorts of names you shouldn't bother to ask for them."
            "That's ridiculous!"
            "Why?" asked the Fencer coolly.
            "You're no fencer."
            They were in a sort of backroom now, hidden beyond a blind of shelves.  Lumnos liked the secret nature of the place, how he could seem to vanish and appear like a magician.  Having this sanctum invaded was a doubled aggravation considering last night’s burglary. 
            "A fencer is a person of elegant violence," he began, rhapsodizing.  "They are students of either the Weqian or An'bi schools, though since the Uplifting who knows what sorts of sword games they play up in Summer.  Fencers also comport themselves in a fashion which describes balance and nimbleness.  While you are certainly a person of mean strength I don't see the proper cadence to your steps or hip placement."
            This proved to be the wrong thing to say as the Fencer's jaw set itself strangely and he drew his weapon.  Now Lumnos felt a chill in the room, a place usually warm and snug from the small coal furnace he kept stoked.  Perhaps, he thought, the notion arriving in his mind unbidden, it had something to do with that sword.
            Shoving a sorting table aside the Fencer slowly brought the sword low, at his side, point back, blade downwards, and went still.
            "An'bi.  At least, this is what my muscles tell me when the word is said," explained the swordsman.
            "And this," he continued, changing his stance completely, turning a narrow profile on the frightened wordseller and wielding his weapon with one hand, the other balancing the pommel as if praying.  "This is what I think of when I hear the term 'Weqian.'"
            Lumnos was speechless; those were both textbook-perfect examples.  This, juxtaposed with the general primitive nature of the swordsman, produced a level of dissonance which was nearly unbearable. 
            "Where do you keep your white books?" asked the Trumpeter, giving up on savaging the man's ledgers. 
            "What do you mean?" sighed Lumnos, hands covering his face in exasperation.  "No, wait, I think I understand.  You mean, color."
            "You really should do something about your organization," lectured the Trumpeter.  "Books by the same author are all lumped together."
            "Which white book are you looking for that I might finally exorcise you both from my life?"
            "The Alabaster Palimpsest," said the Trumpeter.
            The Fencer had stalked over to the furnace to warm his hands while his eyes focused intently on the man.  A moment hinged.
            "I have no such book," he replied, a bit too quickly.  "Now if you'll please remove yourselves I can get to the task of cleaning up my livelihood."
            "The sweetest apple hides the poison seed.  A frame, tongue at the bitter edge.  Let's have this be a blank sour page for our play of words."
            The prose sounded awkward coming from the Fencer, not poorly, he had obviously practiced their cadence, but incongruous all the same. 
            "She's dead you know," said the Trumpeter, bringing forth a familiar green journal from the inner reaches of his coat. 
            "I hadn't heard," whispered Lumnos, settling slowly down into the familiar comfort of his leather-backed desk chair.  They had the proper words, agreed upon a few years back.  "You are her killers, I take it?"
            "That's right," said the Fencer with a knife-edge to his words, "so you'd best hand it over."
            Lumnos read him.  He had this talent, when he bothered to use it, where he could lay his eyes on someone or something and through a process of tangents treat their attributes as words, and their wholes as texts.  Always afraid of the censure of witchcraft, he rarely brought this entirely mundane faculty to bear, though the true reason was that most things and people held little interest compared to the texture and complexity of books.
            The Fencer bristled under the attention and went for his weapon.  Lumnos was surprised to find that there was a depth to the man, unspoken, strange and driven, which crested the surface in brutish splendor, like the tip of an iceberg, and stretched down into fathoms of which the man himself was unaware.      
            "No, no you didn't," he stated and rubbed his eyes.  "But she is dead, that is true.  I must say I'm finding it difficult to think of one of the Icebound besting the green-haired alchemist."
            "It was an agent of Summer," said the Fencer, concentrating greatly against some unwanted emotion.
            "One of their internecine disputes most likely," nodded the wordseller.  "But you have her journal?"
            "We're trying to reclaim the past," explained the Trumpeter.  "This thing says that those words spoken by my aggressively minimalist companion represent a certain understanding between the late magician and yourself concerning this bundle of papers called the Alabaster Palimpsest. That, should these words be spoken, those speaking are to be given the thing."
            Lumnos almost replied, but then held back, reconsidering.  Here he was faced with an icy murderer and an obviously addled horn-player, their vices unknown, their pathologies on full display.  A simple dialogue would never convince them of the subtle nuance of the thing they sought, though they'd never admit to such.  What was needed was something more visual.
            "Let me find the thing," he said and then stalked off into the shop proper. 
            They walked through the maze of shelves and didn't notice that the crowd of neighbors had dispersed into a greying, cloud-covered sheet of sky, or that there was a large, blackened mass now slowly weeping blood beneath the a table in the main room.  Mechanics, lost to their perceptions, whirred towards strange futures.
            "Someone's been through here," mentioned the Trumpeter, glancing at the floor.
            "Of course," replied Lumnos.  "I have, several times a day."
            "No, a smaller person, a boy child most likely.  You can tell by their whorls left on the shards of glass up front and on your nicely polished wooden floors.  A scrawny one, long-limbed, with bad posture and exposure to lye."
            "Damn bloodhound savages," remarked Lumnos but he didn't bother to refute the man.  In fact, he picked up his pace, fearing what he would inevitably find at the end of the cul-de-sac.
            Many years of wrangling books had produced a man prone to byzantine caution.  From watching his few customers he had distilled certain principles of human motives, such as thievery and the general tendency to avoid confining spaces.  In making his shop as unpleasant for outsiders as possible he had maneuvered his book cases in such a way as to create spaces just a bit too tight, stacks of books dangerously tall, and spots where the light was just dark enough that no one would bother reading.  He kept his treasures at the end of one such hall, away from the office, which was the place where thieves would first come, if they bothered at all.
            Someone had. 
            There had been a shelf here, mostly containing family histories of clans long frozen in their icy cairns.  Behind these books one could just barely reach behind to a hidden catch which activated a cantilever pivot, exposing a small passage beyond filled with storage boxes.  If these boxes were removed it seemed one had discovered nothing more than a small dead end created by the natural progression of the shelving around it.  Only if you were perceptive did you pry up the loose floorboards and find the massive safe below.  Then there was the twenty tumbler lock to content with. 
            All of these were opened, cleared and exposed.  Lumnos felt a terrible sinking sensation, a violation.  The Fencer was far more emotional.
            The swordsman shoved the wordseller aside and stalked the open safe like it was wounded, yet dangerous, prey.  A spread of Lumnos's most prized tomes lay all around, incredibly valuable histories and treatises on knowledge all but lost to the cold world.  With a grimace the man demanded answers. 
            "I don't like plots or secrets," he grumbled, looking about for anything white.  "What a coincidence; we arrive the very day of a theft."
            He flicked aside the books, none of which were white. 
            "I'm not sure what's been taken," said the stunned wordseller as he rummaged through the leavings.  "It seems that they are all here."
            "Excepting the very thing we are after," predicted the Trumpeter.  "We're cursed Fencer, no other way to describe this.  I leave it to you to pick the cause; witch, demon or evil spirit."
            "You are correct," stammered Lumnos.  "It is missing.  The Alabaster Palimpsest.  Nothing else has been taken."
            After replacing the books they returned to the main area where cold wind blew in through the jagged shards, smelling of city-reek.  Today the wind came in from the Rot and so they didn't notice the corpse by its smell.
            "Someone's been in," noted the Trumpeter. 
            Indeed, there was a trail of rotten blood leading from the half-closed front door to the large circulation table in the middle.  Underneath was a blackened mass of putrid flesh, white where a dusting of lye showed.  As if in response to being discovered the blood pool beneath it began to expand violently.
            Time died and they all froze.  Outside the sky looked on blankly.  Three men stood locked in stasis, the corpse providing the only movement as it lifted itself on wormy muscles and floated upwards, dripping.

No comments: