The Lost Legion
The sky over the Garden was crystal clear, a vibrant shade of marine like the ocean on a windless day. In the twilight of Calibration, it was marked by neither sun nor moon, just a sprinkling of gentle stars that twinkled softly in the depths above. Talespinner watched it, his mind distant, his handsome face full of thoughtful serenity.
“What’s on your mind, O divinity?”
It was Ming-Li, his consort, clad in raiments of violet and silver to celebrate the turning of the seasons and the birth of a new year. She was soft-faced, her countenance peachy despite her advanced age, her cheeks tired and her eyes marked by crow’s feet. To the god beside her, she was a mere child; among men, she could have been a grandmother.
“Meditations. I wonder how Yu-Shan is this time of year.”
“You miss it, my love?”
He gently inclined his head, his dusty robes ruffling as he moved. “How could I not? It’s Yu-Shan.”
“But this is Great Forks.”
“Hush, babe. You know the law; Great Forks is not Heaven. Nor can it ever be.”
“I meant no disrespect, O divinity. But this is your home. Our home. The home you built for men, for your kin-folk, for your own people. We are blessed to live here. And now, in the midst of celebrating her anniversary, you sulk?”
He shrugged off the hand on his shoulder. “I am restless, Ming-Li. Sometimes I think I’ve lost faith in men; they are fickle, foolish, thoughtless creatures – and that is all well and good, you understand – but sometimes they seem to me so dull. You wouldn’t understand; you’ve never basked in His presence, never seen the potential – ah, but I waste my words. You’re a mere mayflower mortal.”
“And you are a petulant child, love. You would not have told your name to some ‘mere mayflower mortal’; your insult falls on deaf ears. And you used to be one too. You still remember that, don’t you?”
They fell silent.
Great Forks, of course, did not. It never does. The sound of carousing came drifting to their ears, horn-pipes, drums, a fiddle, for the passing of a year does not go silently among men, who – in their own crude ways – celebrate when they can with all manner of noise and clamor. Yet above this noise cut another: The pearlescent giggle of a girl, caught up in revelry, laughing at herself. Ming-Li turned her head.
There, in the emerald darkness of the orchard, was a woman picking peaches. Ripe juice trickling down her chin, she greedily clenched her fingers round the soft ripe fruit, and stuffed morsel after morsel in her mouth. She was obviously drunk.
“You’re being robbed, love.”
“Ah, fie. It’s not my fruit; but I suppose I am responsible.”
He grunted, turned on his heel without looking, and marched into the grove in the manner of an overworked constable. Long hair flowing in the breeze, he straightened his posture, adjusted his robes, and spied for the girl, measuring the wind. What he saw struck his fancy.
She was sixteen. Black of hair and short of body, she had a pallor to her skin that spoke of pampered youth, although the Sun had burned her on her face and on her hands; but her shoulders, bare, were fair as ivory. From the hint of gold in her complexion, he supposed, she was from the Middle or had ancestors from there; her eyes big, almond-shaped, her cheek-bones high, her face well-sculpted. She had tousled hair going nearly to her shoulders, and bright full lips all covered in fruit-juice, grinning like a moron.
The dress she wore was tied about her bosom, strap-less and shoulder-less, a big bow beneath her collarbones, muddy at her ankles. It was vibrant green, embroidered dragons snaking up her thighs and curling ’round her skinny little waist. Scarcely more than five feet, she looked frail but in good shape, judging from the fitness of her arms.
“Hello.” Talespinner said, his voice suddenly softening – much to his own surprise.
“Hi! I’m Peachsches, err, I mean-”
She burst out in a fit of laughter. “These are peachsches! I’m Lees- urp-”
Talespinner took a step back, afraid she might vomit on his robes. She looked a little green for a moment, but nothing came.
“Theshe are delicioussh.”
“I know. Are you alone?”
“No, I’m- with-”
This time it came. The girl threw up on the ground, emptying her stomach of a quite expensive dinner – and judging from her state, some very expensive liquor. A rancid stench struck the god in the face, but he didn’t flinch; he had seen far worse. Instead he smiled, the expression wrested from him by the girl’s naive apology.
“Shorry. Didn’t mean to do that… uuuhh…”
“It’s quite all right. It’s only on my sandals.”
“Ooohhh-h no, did I ruin your sh- sh- sandals?”
“I think they’ll manage.”
He waved a hand over the girl, letting an infinitesimal portion of his divine essence flow out. He could not actually cure drunkenness; or at least to do so wasn’t in his nature – but he could make the experience a little more pleasant. She straightened up, smiled, forgetting all about the pool around his feet.
“I- I think I’m losht?” she admitted. “I was eating peachsches.”
“I’ll take you back to your company, if you wish.”
The girl laughed, right in his face. Apparently what he’d said was somehow funny.
“My company ish a Dragon-Blood!”
“Cynis Nodo? Ah, that… explains a few things. Are you one of his… hm, lovers?”
She blushed, abruptly, deeply. “I- I wouldn’t dream of-”
He waved his hand. He was about to dismiss her as the unwitting prey of a dragon-blood who didn’t care about the dreams of those he used; but then a scent came to his nose, a vibrant, peculiar, tickling smell he knew more intimately than he knew his lovers’ body. It was the smell of a Tale, and it was waiting to be spun.
He inhaled it, touched it, tasted it, felt it surge through his being; the horror, murder, genocide – romance, twisted affection, angry bodies grasping in the night, loyalties, betrayal, tragedy and comedy, drama and destruction. His nostrils flared, he licked his lips, he focused his attention on this diminutive girl, and he breathed in relief. One day, she would tell it.
“Go, then, girl!” he said, his voice suddenly lighter, his posture weighing less. “That way! Don’t keep a Dragon-Blooded waiting! Are you crazy? Who does that?”
“Y-y-yes, sir!” she snapped, turning on her heel, recognizing something in his abrupt tone of voice. Her dress and face were soaked in peach-juice, her hair a tangled mess, her feet – he noticed – naked, her sandals long abandoned. He blinked as she vanished, in between the peach-trees, in beneath the canopy of emerald and back toward the party.
The woman drifted through the leaves like an elegant shadow. He turned to face her, a glow in his eyes, dimples on his cheeks.
“I take it back, the whole lot of it. Ha ha! A fool am I, a fool who saw Heaven and who thinks he can go back – who thinks he wanted to go back! Why would I ever want that? What’s Yu-Shan to a party in the Gardens? Fie on the gods, and fie on their Heaven too, ha!”
Ming-Li turned pale.
“Hush, love, hush – you know the law, you blaspheme, you-”
He sealed her mouth with a kiss. “What care I? I’m a god! Ah, what a wonderful day to be alive! Or night. Or… whatever this is, Calibration – it means nobody listens, nobody spies, my love – we can blaspheme all night long. The gods in their Heaven are a-playing at their games, and we’ll a-play at ours; I’ll make sure of it.”
He spun her round like a doll, kissed her again on the lips, the cheeks, the collar-bones.
“Come, come! Let’s see if Cynis Nodo wants another for his party!”
He took her in his arms; she smiled, and gently kissed him. Off through the trees they went, a woman and her god-king, a man and his goddess – for this was Calibration, when everything could happen.
And it did.