THE LAST FIRST TIME



THE LAST FIRST TIME, by Colin Heintze:

Every time I went to Karkil I stopped for coffee. I had always enjoyed Karkil’s brew, a great deal of my enjoyment coming from the fact that no living lips had tasted it for two-hundred years.

From my seat on the café terrace I heard the ass braying. I smiled. It made me smile every time I heard it, and I could recall the scene as if – no jest intended – I’d seen it a half-dozen times before. I recalled the overturned basket of figs, the ass crying as its master took turns beating it and swatting at the urchins stuffing his wares into their pockets. More than anything, I smiled because I knew the hour was near. Soon I would meet Lisandre again for the first time. Then, I would kill three men.

I was preparing to leave when a man approached my table and sat across from me. This was cause for alarm. I had spent the better part of a decade coming to that exact café at that exact time, and never in all those years had a man sat down across from me.

He was older with a refined, scholarly bearing. He saw the distress on my face and threw up his hands as if I had a crossbow trained on him.

“No need to be alarmed,” he said. “I come in peace.”

“You are-”

“Not from around here?” he laughed. “Indeed. Neither, my friend, are you. I saw you here last year, and a few before that. I must know, what would bring a man like you to this haunted place?”

“I would ask the same of you.”

He laughed again and lifted his cloak, eliciting some strange looks from passing citizens. Underneath his fine Karkil silks he wore a coarse, faded blue robe.

“An Archivist,” I said. “Ah. It comes together. Why, you must be the hero of your order.”

“I suppose so. My order grew out of the destruction of Karkil, after all. There was so much fear, so much rumor, so much grandeur and wisdom lost to history. It is an honor to have been chosen-”

“Grandeur and wisdom,” I scoffed. “This place was a blight on history. The Gods were right in what they did.” I looked towards the people thronging the streets with singular hatred.

“Oh? You believe the rumors, then?”

“Not believe – know to be true.”

“I think I should very much like to interview you, then.”

The priest’s request didn’t come as a surprise. Archivists were the self-appointed keepers of the histories. Their pallid blue robes could be found at every significant event in every corner of the world. The ignorant and superstitious viewed them as ill-omens, as their presence usually coincided with battles, plagues, and disasters. My own experience told otherwise, for I had seen them on happier occasions common folk rarely frequented – the coronation of Contrell the Victor, for one. There as anywhere in the past two centuries, the Archivists had been a largely ignored fixture of some far corner as they scratched away in their journals.

I heard the temple procession moving through the streets and knew that time was short.

“I would entertain your request,” I said, rising from my seat. “But I’m afraid I’m late.”

“A pity. I would have liked to know what brings you here. My reasons, of course, are clear. But yours – what can a man like you gain from this visiting this accursed place? By now, you surely know that any treasure won in Karkil will not last the day.”

“That,” I said, “is my business.”

I hailed the barista and pressed a gold Crown into her hands. She nearly swooned in astonishment. The gold piece was no great loss. I would pick it out of the desert sands the next morning. Time, however, was precious. I nearly sprinted towards the alleyway.

I assumed my position in the alleyway as I always had, and not moment too soon. A slim, darting shape rounded the corner and collided with me, sprawling me into the puddle I had placed myself in front of.

“Sir, my apologies!” Lisandre cried. I globbed some muck from my hair and gazed up at her imploringly.

Her soft, ribbon-like fingers closed around my wrists. My skin remembered the touch of those fingers and for a moment I flushed with a rising ecstasy.

I kept to the script, saying, “Now, do not be embarrassed. No harm done, after all.”

“But sir, your clothes-”

“Traveling-clothes, made for hard wear. Do not trouble yourself.”

“Sir is very kind,” she said with a sardonic smile. I longed to fling myself on her then and there, the rapturous warmth of her touch spreading from my wrists to other, more sensitive places.

“Why were you sprinting through the alley?” I asked.

“I thought someone might be following me.”

“In the middle of town, in broad daylight? That causes you such great terror?”

“You… you wouldn’t understand.”

“No?”

“I can tell from your accent that you are a foreigner. My situation, it is particular to Karkil.”

Right on cue, the armed trio swaggered into the alleyway, Snot-face barking, “Get away from him, you harlot!”

They wore long, tawny coats over steel breastplates. The only one I ever bothered naming was Snot-face, him being memorable on account of once skewering my leg with the halberd in his hands.

Lisandre cowered behind me.

“I was right, they did follow!”

“Who are they?”

“Shut up, foreign dog,” Snot-face answered. “We’re supposed to keep her out of trouble, and that means no contact with foreign agents.”

I swelled my chest and took a few long, regal steps forward.

“Agent? I am no agent, sir, but a humble merchant from Rhal. You have insulted this poor girl, and now have insulted me. I demand an explanation.”

“Careful,” Lisandre cringed. “These men are Mud-coats, servants of the Queen.”

“I don’t care who they are! Where I’m from, people have manners!”

Snot-face was as arrogant as always, saying, “Get out of here, you. This is none of your business.”

“I shall not!”

“I’m warning you!”

I drew my blade. Snot-face readied his halberd. Lisandre cried out and clung to my back.

Once, I was sloppy and overconfident, a mistake I would not repeat. It had worked out, in the end. Because of the wound I sustained for her, Lisandre loved me more passionately than usual later that night. I was lucky, however, to only get a poke in the leg. Unless she was going to make love to my corpse, I knew I must go about the routine with hawkish focus.

Still, the fight got easier every year, less of an alleyway brawl and more of an intricate dance that, for all its elegance, required only the memorization of the steps. I recalled that Snot-face would lead with a thrust. I replied with a parry that forced him to twist away from my probing blade. I remembered his weakness against feigns, aiming the point of my sword at his groin. He dropped the shaft of his halberd to deflect the blow; I circled my blade mid-thrust and slid it into his neck.

He put his hands to his throat. Blood boiled out between his fingers. He fell to his knees gurgling unintelligible oaths.

Up to then, things had played out perfectly. The plan was for the other Mud-coats to turn tail once they saw the ease with which I dispatched their comrade. But, this time, something was different. Perhaps my riposte had been too late, or my thrust too forceful, but my blade did not slide out of Snot-face’s neck as expected. It stuck, lodged between two vertebrae.

I was presented with the choice of following Snot-face to the ground or letting the weight of his body pull the sword from my hand. I chose the former. The other Mud-coats, only moments before retreating, saw me on my knees trying to free my blade. They sallied towards me with weapons aloft.

Against all intentions, the intricate dance became an alleyway brawl. I withdrew my sword in time to block the first attack. The force of the blow sent me reeling, and before I could raise my guard another came singing towards my brow. What followed was a spectacle. None was willing to put himself in harm’s way, so we turned our bodies and swung wildly at each other as children might when they stick-fight. More than once we slipped in the mire. We drew ourselves up by the haft of our weapons, only to fall when raising them to strike. That day, the Mud-coats truly lived up to their name.

My victory was hardly glorious. My adversaries were not formidable, sharing no more than five teeth and three good eyes between them. They quickly succumbed to fatigue and, with it, my advantage returned. I managed to gain solid footing long enough for a series of slashes that slew one and disarmed the other. When he stooped to retrieve his weapon, I ended the contest with one, final thrust. He died poorly, I am sad to say, crying for his mother as his life drained into the mud.

I sheathed my blade and gasped for breath. Without the advantage of foresight, I should have been killed in that alleyway. But, I put my doubts away, recalling my adversaries’ reek of wine and frail, stooped postures. After all, the city would not dispatch her ablest warriors to guard a frightened young girl.

To that girl I offered my hand.

“Ugly business, that. I’m sorry you had to see it, dear lady.”

“You… do you know what you’ve done?” Lisandre said.

“My apologies. I couldn’t idle while you were being hounded and abused.”

“You stupid, stupid man. Come, we must leave.”

“Yes, I think that would be wise. Where shall we go?”

“There is an inn near here. It is frequented by thieves and criminals, they will not talk to the authorities. We need to get you out of sight.”

“What about you, my dear?”

She laughed cynically and led me away by the arm. “They will not harm a hair on my head. I am already doomed, you see.”

“I’m afraid I don’t…”

“Hush. Come.”

Lisandre pulled me through the streets and into the door of a hostelry. The innkeeper saw us arriving together and leered. I’d seen wolves eye a fattened calf with less enthusiasm than the innkeeper did Lisandre. Few women could aspire to her beauty, her features somehow combining the best aspects of girlish purity with the poise of a confident, well-travelled woman.

“You gonna stay the night, or you renting by the hour?” the innkeeper said through a toothless grin. Lisandre laid a hand on my arm as if to say don’t kill this one, too.

 “The night,” she answered.

“All I got is room six upstairs, and that’ll run you two Guilds.”

I put a Rhalian Crown on the countertop.

“Wassit?”

“Gold,” I said, leading Lisandre up the stairs.

Overall, it was a well-appointed room, speaking much to the wealth of Karkil that even a rogues’ den would have such pleasant amenities.

Lisandre sat on the bed, and me on a chair across from her.

“Thank you again, Sir..?”

“Samwrit, and no ‘sir’ necessary. I am no knight, after all.”

“Could have fooled me.”

“Don’t be mistaken, this isn’t something I do often, Lady..?”

“Lisandre. And I’m no lady.”

We shared a laugh. The laughter trailed off, the heaving of her shoulders turning into sobs. I reached over to console her.

“My lady, please, accept my apologies. You were right, I shouldn’t have gotten involved.”

“No, it isn’t that.”

“Then what?”

“I am doomed.”

“You keep saying that-”

She put a hand over my mouth.

“Will you listen… oh, Gods, how I am using you right now. No, never mind, it isn’t right to burden you.”

“Go ahead, Lisandre. If you promise to tell, I promise to listen.”

She looked at me, the conflict playing on her face. Unlike most people, she wasn’t simply extending a social courtesy. She truly didn’t want to burden me with her troubles, the sweet, selfless creature. Of course, I already knew her story, every word of it committed to memory.

“Here in Karkil,” she began, “we have a queen.”

“Yes, Melsephine. I’ve heard of her.”

“That is right. What most people outside Karkil don’t know is that she is a sorceress, a worshipper of the Lords of Chaos. They say she came from the East, is over a hundred years old – oh, I don’t know what to believe! But, I do know that her gods demand sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice? How barbaric!”

“They say there is a formula of sorts. The Lords of Chaos prefer some sacrifices over others. An unwilling sacrifice, the legends go, is of little sustenance to them. A willing one, quite a bit more satisfying. This is how Melsephine grows her power – by sacrificing her subjects to these cruel and dreadful gods. With each victim, she grows stronger. That is where I come in. I am to be this month’s martyr.”

“What savagery! What injustice! When is this due to happen?”

“Tomorrow, at dawn,” Lisandre moaned.

“Never! Come with me, I will remove you from the city.”

“No! That was why the Mud-coats were following me, to make sure I didn’t lose my nerve. You need to understand, I am a willing sacrifice. If I do not meet my obligation, then they will take three unwilling victims in my place. My mother. My father. My little brother…”

Tears boiled onto her cheeks. I wept alongside her. No matter how many times I had deceived that poor girl, at least I could say my tears were genuine. Her plight rent my heart and inflamed my sense of outrage.

“How can you stand it?” I asked. “Why don’t the people of this city rise up and destroy her?”

“We are wealthy, Samwrit. Much of our good fortune is a result of Melsephine’s power. Here in Karkil, the people are well-fed, have sturdy roofs over their heads, live fulfilling lives.”

“If they’re not chosen for sacrifice.”

“Yes.”

“Then it truly is a deal with devils – by both your queen, and your countrymen.”

“Yes.”

“But, there is time. I have money, a sturdy blade… we could contrive to rescue your family.”

“No, Samwrit. Thank you, but no. It wouldn’t work.”

“You would go willingly to your doom?”

“Have I any choice? There is only one thing that can save me, one thing the Lords of Chaos value over a willing sacrifice: a noble sacrifice, one done for love or the betterment of mankind.”

A thick silence permeated the room. Then came the part of the act I hated, the part that always sent me into a year of agonizing guilt and self-recrimination.

“I will be that sacrifice,” I said.

“You? No! I cannot ask that of you.”

I took her hands in mine.

“Listen, I’ll be alright, I know it. Please let me do this for you.”

“I don’t believe you. No man is that brave.”

“It isn’t courage, Lisandre. Haven’t you wondered why I am in Karkil? Moreover, why I intervened on your behalf?”

She shook her head. I pressed her hands to my breast, saying, “We are kindred spirits. You see, I am also destined to die.”

I opened my shirt where her hands were resting, revealing a chest covered with red spots.

The Whispering Death?” she said, drawing away from me.

“It isn’t communicable,” I assured her. “It can only be caught from drinking contaminated water.”

“I know.”

“That is why I came to this city. Oh, were I such a fool to heed the yarns of sailors and travelers. Everywhere there is talk of a cure, though always over yonder mountains, or across the next river, or beyond the sea. Everywhere the same stories, and nowhere a cure.”

“I see.”

Lisandre struggled to take it all in. In silence I rebuked myself for the lies, the stage play I had put on as thickly as the makeup covering my chest.

I leaned forward and put my lips against hers. She stiffened. I pressed my advance and she relented, turning to water in my arms.

I removed my lips from hers to nibble at her ear, working down the neckline to the globes of her breasts. She ran her fingers through my hair and moaned softly. We began disrobing.

***

     Lisandre was dozing on the bed after our sixth round of lovemaking. Every year it got better, more passionate. I had become an expert on Lisandre’s body. I knew how to bring out her pleasure, and, in turn, she brought out mine.

“Drunk,” I said to myself. That was the first time I had promised take her burden, when I was stone-cold drunk. Apparently, the Lords of Chaos didn’t consider the lies of a lecherous inebriate to be a noble sacrifice. In a few minutes, none of it would matter.

I looked out the window and saw dawn spilling over the horizon. I considered leaving. Lying to Lisandre was enough of a tribulation. Watching her die again – I simply didn’t know if I could endure it.

No, I thought. You have used this girl too long, too often. Don’t let her wake thinking that you abandoned her. Don’t let her die thinking she was deceived. What can witnessing her death compare to what she is about to go through, you cruel, conceited man?

     Her eyes were darting under the lids. I bent over and interrupted their roving with a kiss.

“When is it?” she said, her voice still thick with slumber.

“Dawn.”

She bolted upright in the bed. The covers fell off her and, even under the circumstances, I couldn’t help but marvel at the body they revealed: perfection as wrought from the imaginations of the sensualist sculptors and romantic poets. I heard the percussive rumbling from far away and knew it had begun.

“I love you,” I said. I nearly meant it. Curious how wronging someone, time and time again, breeds great affection.

“I love you, too.” She reached out to take my hand. Her hand passed through mine as if it were made of smoke.

“W-What’s happening?” she stammered. “Why can’t I touch you?”

“I love you,” I repeated.

She groped wildly at me, her hands passing through my phantom body with growing alarm. Outside the window, dawn’s advance had been arrested. A black pall washed over the city, choking the streets with ash. I heard the first shouts, the first sounds of crumbling masonry.

“Samwrit?”

“I love you every time.”

The walls of the inn crumbled. Lisandre screamed as a cascade of bricks and dust buried her on the bed. After the masonry came the fire. Karkil burned.

I blinked my eyes and found myself in the present, standing alone in the White Waste. I walked over the sands and dug, finding the gold Crown I gave to the innkeeper. Minutes later, I was on my knees digging for the one I gave the barista.

I wished the tears in my eyes were from the sand carried on the hot desert wind. I wiped them away, promising myself I would not return next year, saying I needed to stop doing this to myself, to her. I made the pledge, knowing it would not be kept.

 

***

     The first time I met Lisandre, the real first time, was nine years before.

My Name is Samwrit, and I really was a merchant from Rhal, at least what was Rhal before being absorbed into Contrell’s Empire. My specialty was in incense, as it was for my father and his father before him.

Few men brave the White Waste. If the stinging sands and burning sun don’t claim them, then the Dulgeri nomads do. That was the secret of my success: I spoke the language of the Dulgeri, Karkan, a derivative of the common tongue spoken in ancient Karkil. Of course, it didn’t hurt that three generations of my family had been trading along those caravan routes. For the Dulgeri, like all nomads, relationships are their gold and platinum, the obligations to kin and kind their only law.

Nine years ago, I was searching for my Dulgeri partners at all the oases known to me. I had with me a modest caravan: four camels loaded with supplies and goods, my assistant, and three porters.

The Dulgeri were constantly on the move, and the search was becoming frustrating. In the days of ancient Karkil, when the Dulgeri were the only obstacle between Queen Melsephine and domination of the entire Southeast, they proved an impossible quarry. Even Melsephine’s most potent divinations could not find the Dulgeri once they had taken to the interior of that same desert we searched with such futility.

One of the porters cried an alarm and directed our attention to a line of riders on the far ridge. Initially, I was elated, believing my Dulgeri partners were sending out their welcome party. But, the riders did not stop outside bow-range, as is the Dulgeri custom. In fact, they spurred their camels faster, bearing down on us with whooping war-cries. In moments our little caravan was surrounded. My porters and assistant were slain outright. I was forced to kneel beneath an upraised scimitar. My sword was heavy at my hip, though I dared not draw it. If anything, the riders seemed to welcome the prospect of a struggle, for the Dulgeri are a sporting race.

These men were indeed Dulgeri, though of a different tribe than my usual clients. They were doubtless overjoyed to have scored so much plunder and booty, and at the expense of their tribal enemies, no less.

As the raiders ransacked my wares I clasped my hands together and wept for mercy. The captain of the raiders, amused that I spoke Karkan, and downright delighted at my willingness to debase myself, sheathed his blade. He threw me a skin of water and pointed to the desert.

I groveled at his feet, praising his mercy. This display proved too much for him, and he raised his riding crop to strike. I stumbled to my feet and left in haste, hearing the raiders’ laughter as I scrambled up the dunes.

I had thought the raider captain to be merciful, but within a few hours I knew that my cowardice had inspired not sympathy, but disgust. My release was not an act of kindness, but an invitation to a doom far more agonizing than the quick flash of the crescent-blade.

By nightfall I had gone through the flask of water. By morning, I could scarcely walk. The White Waste is no place for a Westerner’s complexion and my skin itched terribly. My lips became cracked. White spots drifted through my vision, burned there by the fierce desert sun. Sometime during the night of the second day I collapsed onto the earth of an ancient floodplain.

What happened when I awoke was entirely unexpected, and went a long ways in explaining the delirium I suffered over the ensuing day.

The crowing cock came in the form of a foot prodding me in the ribs. I woke with a jolt, fearing that the raiders had come back to finish what they had started. Instead, I saw the gnarled face of a crone looking down on me. That face, however, was the least interesting thing that came into my perception. Around me were shops, stalls, houses, people engaged in trade and gossip and every manner of quotidian task. I was in a city, lying in the gutter like a besotted rogue.

“Drunk, eh?” the crone said. “Well, you’d better get out of the street or you’ll get run over by a wagon.”

She spoke in an exotic dialect of Karkan similar to the courtly language used by the Dulgeri chieftans.

“Where am I?” I croaked. The old woman cocked an eyebrow. To her ears, my Karkan must have sounded as queer and idiomatic as hers did to mine.

“What a question! You’re in Karkil, of course.”

“Karkil? Ma’am, Karkil was destroyed by the Gods two centuries ago, razed to the earth for the transgressions of its wicked queen.”

“Watch your mouth!”

There was a moment of silence as two people regarded each other, both believing the other insane. If she had any doubts as to my madness, they must have been settled when I started tearing out the threads of my jerkin with my teeth. She turned and made to leave.

“No!” I cried. “Don’t go!”

A handful of gold Crowns tumbled out of the seam my teeth had worked free, my emergency funds. She took a few steps forward and snatched one from my hand.

“What kind of money is this?”

“That is an Imperial Crown.”

“Yeah, an’ who’s this fella on it?”

“Him? Why, that’s Contrell the Victor! He united all the kingdoms of the West. Are you telling me you’ve never heard of Contrell the Victor?”

“Oh, well, La-dee-da.”

I shook my head, sighing, “It makes no difference. It is pure gold. I am in desperate need of water, and food, and a bath.”

“Come on, then. I’ll get you cleaned up.”

The Crone took me to her sewing shop where I was fed, watered, and allowed to bathe. She presented me with a suit of clothes, fine robes worthy of a Dulgeri chieftan. My gold Crown could have bought much more, but desperation can turn even the most miserable skinflint into an impetuous spendthrift.

I left the sewing shop and wandered the streets in a daze. There was simply no explanation for that city being there. The people had the same racial characteristics of the Dulgeri, but with a gentler, more refined countenance. Climbing a hill, I saw the city laid out before me. There were towers in the distance, higher than those in Rhal, lofty as even those in the Capitol. And, more astonishingly, a river, nearly a mile wide and bobbing with every conceivable type of watercraft. The only river in the area I knew of was the Vena. Two-hundred years ago it went underground, buried by the same calamity that destroyed Karkil.

I sat on the ground and wept, the strain of the last few days too much to bear. What, I wondered, did all these signs and omens portend? Had I died out there in the desert? Had I become the plaything of bored and capricious gods? Many of my faculties were still blunted by my ordeal in the White Waste, and rational thought was impossible. I became convinced of the delusion that I was dead or dreaming.

I took in the sights with a kind of reckless fatalism. I still had five gold Crowns and decided I would use them. I indulged my senses with rich foods, strong wine, and several pipes of hashish believing that, since I was dreaming or dead, any action on my part would be of no consequence. I spent lavishly, attracting throngs of sycophants. By late afternoon the gold was gone, my new friends remembered they had other errands to attend to, and I was left to sulk through the streets alone.

The sight of an ass that had overturned its cargo of figs, and the amusing scene that followed, cheered me a little. I was smiling when, walking through an alleyway between the market and tenements, a slim, darting shape raced around the corner and collided with me, knocking me into a nearby puddle.

“Sir, my apologies!” Lisandre cried. She fidgeted for a moment, torn between helping me up and continuing her flight. I globbed some muck from my hair and looked up at her lecherously. I had spent the afternoon in sybaritic revelry and, as is often the case, I found myself eager for further debauches.

She helped me up and I fell into her arms, her slender shoulders sagging under my weight.

“Oh no, sir, I have scrambled your brains!”

“How about a kiss, then, pretty?”

“Sir is very flattering, but I must be going.”

“Come on, it’ll be fun,” I said through a hiccup.

“Sir, please, I’ve been followed, I know it. I really-”

“Get away from him, you harlot!” Snot-face snarled as he entered the alley with his confederates.

Lisandre shuddered and lowered me to the ground.

“I’m sorry again, sir. I should go now.”

I staggered to my feet, shouting, “Who are you calling a harlot, you snot-faced reprobate?”

“Shut up, foreign dog! We’re supposed to keep her out of trouble, and that means no contact with foreign agents.”

I swelled my chest and took a few wobbling steps forward. Lisandre pulled frantically at my arm.

“Sir! Please, stop! Those are Mud-coats, servants of the Queen!”

“I don’t care who they are! Where I’m from, people have manners, and I don’t appreciate people calling me an agent, or anything else for that matter!”

Snot-face laughed and said, “Get out of here, you. This is none of your business.”

“Eat a dog’s arse!”

“I’m warning you!”

I drew my blade. Snot-face readied his halberd. Seeing me stumble and lurch about, he smiled in anticipation of an easy fight.

The wine and hashish had affected my already fragile mental state. I was fearless, still believing myself dead or subject to a particularly vivid hallucination. I charged, sword aloft, and began hacking. Cringing against the alley wall, Lisandre took in the spectacle of what must have appeared as a blood-mad barbarian in throes of the frenzy. When it was over, Snot-face’s life was spilling into the alleyway. His companions fled, wounded and panting in terror.

I replaced my blade in its scabbard and howled after them, “You’d better run, you piss-stained dogs!”

“You… do you know what you’ve done?” Lisandre said.

“Good riddance!”

“You stupid, stupid man. Come, we must leave.”

“Where?”

“An inn. Others of your kind frequent it, you should be safe.”

“Ooo, an inn, the Gods are kind,” I said, putting an arm around her waist and squeezing her rump. “Yes, by all means, let’s go.”

That was the first time I met Lisandre, the first time I promised to take her burden from her. It was the first time we made love, as well – a tawdry, dirty thing she gave me not out of desire, but obligation. It was an atrocity I would correct in future years.

Wine, hashish, and exhaustion sent me into a stupor long before dawn. I slept through Lisandre’s death and Karkil’s destruction, a trauma I would experience for the first time the following year. I only came to my senses when the blazing heat of the White Waste made sleep hopeless.

I was naked, the clothes I had acquired in Karkil having gone the way of the rest of the city. Gone, too, were the measly few copper coins that remained from exchanging my gold Crowns.

For a time, I held to the belief that I had spent the last day in a fit of madness. But, the more I thought about it, the more I entertained the dreadful notion that my experiences in the doomed city of Karkil had been real. A madman might have lost his clothes while in a fit of dementia – that alone was not enough to convince me. My body is what persuaded me, for it was no longer very thirsty, nor dirty, nor hungry, and the drumming in my head was unmistakably the effects of too much merrymaking.

Survival took precedence over musings on my sanity, though. I was naked and alone in the White Waste, worse off even than before. I took a few minutes to recall conversations I’d had with the Dulgeri during previous visits. If, indeed, I was in what used to be Karkil, I reasoned there should be an oasis about fifteen miles northeast of me. The Dulgeri had a powerful taboo against the area that was formerly Karkil, and I had been warned to steer clear of it. Assuming I was standing in what was Karkil, I could find water by nightfall. From there, I could wait until my Dulgeri friends visited that particular oasis on their yearly rounds.

The march to the oasis was arduous. I crawled the last few miles before I was able to submerge my head in the muddy waters and fall onto the banks with an exalted sigh. By day, I rested in the shade of the palms that clustered around the tiny watering hole. By night, I scaled their trunks to forage figs and dates. On the third day I was met by my Dulgeri partners, their long column of camels and horses pulling up to the oases and gawking at the red, naked man scrambling out of the foliage to greet them.

 

***

     I was given a set of silk robes – anything else would have been agony on my sun-scorched skin – and taken to the Chieftan’s tent. We exchanged the customary greetings. He was quite interested to know my story, and once the pleasantries were over I wasted no time recounting my tale.

I told him everything, omitting my adventure in Karkil. Like I said, the Dulgeri had a strict taboo concerning the place, and for all I knew admitting to having visited it may have put me under the scimitar once more.

“When did this happen?” the Chieftan asked.

“The raid? A week ago, I suppose.”

“You survived all this time on a single flask of water? You are quite miraculous, my friend.”

Advice on dealing with the Dulgeri: do not listen to the words coming out of their mouths, but the words written on their faces. The Chieftan’s words were gracious; his face, suspicious, the eyes narrowing to shrewd slits.

“I wish I could remember it all,” I hurried to say. “But I was delirious through most of the ordeal.”

“Your path should have taken you near Karkil. Did you, by chance..?”

“My friend, am I still delirious? I was under the impression that Karkil was scourged by the Gods two centuries past.”

The Chieftan nodded and took a sip of his coffee.

“Yes,” he said, warily. “That is true. But, it was not scourged completely.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Every year on the anniversary of its destruction it appears in the desert. Every year, it replays its final day, its people going about their lives ignorant to the doom that awaits them.”

I feigned incredulousness and laughed, “Surely, friend, you do not believe this?”

“I have seen it with my own eyes, the tall citadels and minarets appearing in the distance.”

“I saw many things during my delirium. Nightmares, hallucinations, spirits of the earth – but no city from antiquity.”

“Then a warning, friend: never go near that place. Only doom and madness can come of it.”

I nodded. We talked a few more hours until I wearied with exhaustion. I did not wake as the Dulgeri carried me to a tent and bedded me down on supple carpets. That night I dreamed of Lisandre: her lips, flushed like rose petals, brushing against my ear; her breasts gently heaving as she drowsed on the bed; her hands caressing my cheek. I slept much as I recuperated with my Dulgeri hosts. Every minute, I dreamed of Lisandre.

 

***

     I visited Karkil for the tenth, and final, time.

My Dulgeri partners had been driven to the brink of extinction. The raiders from a decade ago, I realized too late, were a portent. In my father’s time no enemy could have penetrated so deeply into my partners’ territory. Nothing comes quickly in the White Waste. The wars are long, grinding affairs, the losing tribe forced piecemeal into increasingly marginal lands. That is the fate that befell my partners, and as their fortunes went, so did mine.

My counting-house in Rhal went under. My former partners’ enemies were mine, and they now controlled the caravan routes. My competitors showered in Crowns while I sold asset after asset in the forlorn hope that my allies would be restored to their former glory. They have become jackals scavenging a living off the wastes, hunted down for sport should their roving ever bring them outside their desolate haunts.

It was the last time I would see Karkil, the last time I would see her. My finances were exhausted. The protection of my Dulgeri allies was finished, and every step my camel took treaded deeper into enemy territory. Only a madman would risk such an undertaking, but when it came to Lisandre, I was indeed mad. I had to see her one last time.

Providence sent a sandstorm over the desert to conceal my advance towards Karkil. Fate, it seemed, had ordained my return. I could no longer doubt that powerful forces wished to see me reunited with Lisandre. I uttered my thanks to the Gods as my camel shook the sand from his eyes and groaned his indictments.

The beast ceased his complaints as the ground leveled. He moved at a trot, the earth the baked remains of an ancient floodplain. There, I was safe. No Dulgeri would come within ten miles of that place.

I basked on the ground and waited, sleep an impossible endeavor. As dawn spread over the White Waste, I saw phantoms milling around me, buildings fading into perception. Far-off noises gained sharpness and clarity, and within moments I could hear the wheels of wagons bouncing over rutted stones and peddlers barking their morning bargains. A familiar crone nearly ran into me, crying, “Oh, damn my eyes, I didn’t see you there!”

There were several hours until I was to meet Lisandre for the last first time. I supposed it would only be appropriate to indulge in my final taste of Karkil coffee, as well.

The coffee was scarcely in front of me when I heard a voice over my shoulder saying, “A girl.”

I wheeled in my seat and saw the face of the Archivist beaming at me.

“I understand now,” he said. “It’s a girl.”

“What of it?”

“You must truly love her to risk so much, and at such expense.”

I nodded. At first, my visits to Karkil were a pleasing diversion from the more important, and profitable, business at hand. Yet, as I sat there absent-mindedly stirring my coffee, I realized that over the years the incense trade had become less and less important to me. Had business been my chief concern I would have attempted to ingratiate myself with the other Dulgeri tribes, would have diversified my claims and opened new routes. Sitting at the café, I knew that the incense trade was an excuse to seek out Lisandre, not the other way around.

“My words wound you,” the Archivist said. “I apologize, I spoke out of turn.”

I nodded again, wondering if my inner turmoil was so evident. I had aged much in the past few years. I no longer took good care of myself. I woke every day mourning the absence of Lisandre dozing beside me, and bedded down every night with arms aching for lack of her body cradled within them.

“Do you believe it?” I asked the Archivist.

“Believe what?”

“The tales about the Queen, the Lords of Chaos. The offerings.”

“A noble sacrifice is a powerful thing,” he admitted. “It is coveted by gods and demons. Why, in my travels to the East-”

“And what would you know of sacrifice, Archivist?”

“I wasn’t always an Archivist, young man. Once, I longed for wealth and comfort. But, in time, I found my true calling.”

The ass was braying in the market and I knew it was time to leave. Perhaps, in Lisandre’s arms, I too had found my true calling. I got up, saying, “Thank you.”

“Yes? For what?”

“Perspective.”

“Mm?”

“You catalogue everything that happens in this city, thousands of people failing, triumphing, living, and loving. I realize now, that for all these thousands, I have only ever seen one.”

I left him on those words, marching towards the alleyway where I was to meet Lisandre.

 

***

     Everything went according to plan. I was at the inn with Lisandre. Mud covered my backside and flecks of Snot-face’s blood peppered my breeches.

“Thank you again, Sir..?” Lisandre said.

“You should not thank me. I am a scoundrel.”

“Could have fooled me.”

“A scoundrel.” I repeated. I ran a hand over my face and moaned. I knew I was deviating from the script, that I was perilously close to ruining my last, best chance of the ecstasy of Lisandre’s love. I did not care anymore.

The look I gave Lisandre was pitiful. To my amazement, she rushed over to console me, our roles unexpectedly reversed.

“You did what you thought was right,” she said. “Please, sir, do not drown yourself in guilt. They were the Queen’s butchers, nothing more.”

I sniffled and wrapped my arms around her. For a moment, she seemed unsure how to proceed, but her warmth and kindness compelled her to give succor.

“You are a sensitive man,” she said, stroking my head. “People too often kill without mercy, without remorse.”

“Thank you, Lisandre. But, killing is not the cause of my sorrow.”

“How do you know my name? Did I tell it to you without knowing?”

I longed to seize her by the shoulders and confess. Ten years of lying to her, ten years of making that inn my brothel, that woman my unwitting whore.

I saw the concern in her eyes and repressed a shudder of self-hatred. On the morn she was destined to be fed to the Lords of Chaos – as far as she knew – yet her sole, singular focus was my comfort well-being. In my foolish infatuation with her body I had been blind to the wondrous heart that beat within it.

“I love you,” I muttered. “I mean it, this time.”

She gave me a queer look.

“This time?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’ve been through a great deal. Won’t you lie down?”

I did as she suggested and fell back onto the mattress. A moment later, her body was beside mine, her luscious curves pressing against me. Her hand moved up my leg.

“What are you doing!” I cried.

“I don’t know. I feel like I know you.”

I shook my head. She thought that day to be her last on earth. Who wouldn’t want to have a little fun before venturing into the hereafter?

I took her hand away and said, “Lisandre, no.”

“No?”

“I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry. I was wrong to presume.”

“You should go.”

“Is that what you want?”

“No. Stay – but, I will not make love to you if you do.”

She nodded and pressed herself tighter against me.

“I will stay anyways.”

I turned away to conceal my tears. She wasn’t simply pursuing one, final thrill. She had never gone to bed with me out of obligation. All those years perfecting my seduction of her were unnecessary. She loved me, the real me, truly and without guile.

We spent the night talking. It was better than any lovemaking, bringing my soul to heights of ecstasy unknown to the mere execution of carnal love. Towards morning she drowsed. I stole my arm from under her, letting her head slide off my chest onto the soft down. The first rays of sunshine were spilling over the horizon.

I looked at my love dozing on the bed. Fresh tears came, and in trembling staccato I said, “I will take your burden.”

I heard the booming report from outside the window. She tossed under the sheets, saying, “What was that?”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.” She reached for my hand. Her hand passed through mine as if it were made of smoke. She bolted upright in bed and groped wildly at me.

“What’s wrong? Why can’t I touch you?”

“I love you,” I repeated.

I reached out to pass a phantom hand over her hair. In doing so, I bumped my knuckles against the bedframe.

I withdrew my hand and looked upon the scraped knuckles with horror. Lisandre was naked, now. The sheets that had been wrapped around her had fallen through her body and pooled on the mattress.

“Lisandre, I… I…”

She smiled venomously, her face taking on an aspect I could not recognize, let alone believe.

“Fool,” she jeered.

There was a brief instant of pain as chunks of masonry rained down on my head. Through the haze of dust and tremendous pressure on my lungs, I heard her shrieking with laughter.

Cold, hoary hands tickled me awfully. Tentacles with razor-lined suckers entwined around my body, twisting away patches of skin. I felt myself descending, sliding into an abyss echoing with evil cachinnations as cold and mirthless as Lisandre’s. The last thing I heard before the blackness overwhelmed me was her hard, grating voice.

“Fool,” it laughed.

***

     Lisandre was standing alone in the White Waste. A man approached her, his dusty blue robes appearing black against the burning midday sun.

He drew to a halt and bowed at her feet. From his travelbag, he produced a silk gown. He handed it to her with a great deal of ceremony, averting his eyes as she dressed.

“My Queen,” he said. “You are restored.”

Though I had no eyes, no form to speak of, I could see. Melsephine wished it so. I looked upon the face of the girl I knew as Lisandre and saw it was largely unaltered. The nose and brow had a slightly different proportion, nothing a sorcerer couldn’t conceal with the simplest of glamours. The real difference was in the eyes. The warm, compassionate eyes I once knew were hard, cruel, dancing with visions of steel and fire.

“Braydyn,” she responded. “You have done well.”

“Pardon, My Queen, but Braydyn was my great-great-great-great-grandfather.”

“Then he did as I instructed. He founded an order to prepare the world for my coming, to document the changes that happened in my exile. He did well. I shall bring him back as a reward.”

“M-My Lady,” the Archivist stammered. “You can bring people back?”

“Yes. That is within my power, now.”

Melsephine turned away from the Archivist. To him, it must have appeared that she was reminiscing. He could not perceive my shade, did not know that she looking at me with a mocking smile.

“The Lords of Chaos were greedy,” she began. “No matter how much I fed them, they hungered for ever-greater sacrifices. They approached me with a bargain: if I sacrificed myself with all of Karkil, they would endow me with powers unknown to Gods and mortals alike. I was to be a willing sacrifice. If I could contrive a noble sacrifice to replace me, I would be restored, more powerful and terrible than all the devils of the underworld. To these ends, Karkil would appear every year on the anniversary-day of its sacrifice. The people would go about their lives with no knowledge of their impending ruin. On this day, and this day only, would I chance at finding my replacement.

“Who would have thought the Lords of Chaos were so pedantic? I could deceive half-wits or terrify the weak-willed to accept my burden, but my masters would not accept a sacrifice inspired by anything but virtue or true love. That is when I knew I must find a man. That is when I seized three beggars and trussed them in mud-coats, for I knew that man would need to believe he was my rescuer.”

“It seems the Lords of Chaos underestimated you, My Lady,” the Archivist said. “I kept my distance from the merchant Samwrit but, rest assured, he never left my sight.”

“Your records were indispensable, Braydyn. Without your briefings, I never could have made the fool love me.”

The Archivist bowed again. He made no attempt to correct her mistake concerning his name. He could see as clearly as I that she was struggling to adjust to her newfound omnipotence. Her eyes swam in her head, perceiving all of time, dimension, and the infinite realities that lay before her like an open book.

Melsephine stooped over and dug a shining object from the desert sand. It glinted in the light as she held it up for inspection.

“Contrell the Victor,” she said. “I think I shall start with him.”

“We have many records on him, My Queen.”

The dread queen turned to me once more and smiled. With a wave of her hand she dispelled my shade, my ridicule having ceased to amuse her. I felt the hands pulling again at my legs, the grotesque, unspeakable forms wrapping around me. The world darkened and sank into a mire of offal and gore.

Melsephine laughed as I was sent back home, back to the bowels of the Lords of Chaos. As my shade descended into the abyss, so did my hope – the hope that, somewhere within the dark goddess Melsephine, my great love Lisandre persisted.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

Colin Heinzte is a lifelong science fiction and fantasy fan whose work can be found in Kaliedotrope, Lore, and Fictionvale.  Along with W. H. Minor, he also co-authored the space opera adventure Demon’s Bounty, which will be available this spring.


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