The sound of a carriage clattered behind. One horse, two-wheeled, iron-rims clanking. It had followed three streets now. Slow enough that carts passed cursing. I paused to put down the table-top, scratch, turn, observe. The driver hunched over for a capital C. Curtained windows. I saw a flick of cloth, a bit of face. A woman. Hunting me? I have instructed two madam associates. Sad to think either might seek their teacher's life. I would not spare them, I knew. They knew as well.
Granted, it might just be a weary horse on a busy street. If I jumped at every shadow, I would not last the day. I advised myself to abandon the burned table-top. Absurd, carrying heavy trash across the city. And yet it made a decent shield for the back. An excellent disguise. Passerby avoided me as obviously insane, possibly dangerous. Not that I did so for sly strategy or mad purpose. No, I determined to bring it to a friend who knew of carvings in wood and stone. I craved some hint of the identity of the sword-master of last night, who had crashed my world, smashed my mirror. The mind seeks stories in the turns of Fortuna's wheel. The mind is an idiot. There is no story in a spinning wheel but change and repetition.
Strange thoughts. I looked strange, a ragged figure carrying a burned table-top. Excellent. I was weary and hurting, fearing each alley, each face. Perhaps I was mad. What better disguise than the truth? I hefted my burden, continued on.
Two streets later I stopped before a beggar. The same child. She swept my path again, brushing fairy-dust from city cobbles, swaying to no music but the melody of a broken mind. She fixed her moon-gaze on the ghosts and angels about us. Clearly awaiting another shilling. Then she'd dart ahead, take position at the next corner. We would circle the globe thus. Well, I have dreamed worse eternities. Far worse. But I was out of shillings.
The carriage rattled behind. Farther on the street narrowed. If hunters waited ahead I’d be trapped. I considered the cross-street. To the left the river, to the right an alley blocked by a ragged puppet show. Stage built of a bed-frame, curtains of stained sheets. Cast-off from the charity hospital, seemingly. A few benches cobbled from river driftwood. I pretended to consider this dismal entertainment. It had no audience but me, a boy and a ragged man laying upon the ground, drunk or dead.
Eyes on the stained curtain, ears following the carriage. No more clanking wheel, it must have stopped. I put down my burdensome table-top, leaned against a street lamp, placing it between me and the carriage. I made a poor target for pistol or bolt. Neither is a proper weapon for a professional. When machine-magicians perfect the gun, twill be the death of assassin-burglars, of duelists and sword-masters. A loss to the world, possibly. Not today.
A puppet-head poked out from under the ragged curtain. "Can't do a show till we hear some clinking," complained a voice hypothetically from the lump of ugly face. An aged Punch, scarred and weary, twenty years after Judy left him for Jack Ketch.
The beggar-girl raced across, whispered to puppet and puppeteer. The boy joined in. He might have been her twin, or at least a fellow member of Rags and Tangles. High cheekbones, eyes like fevered cats. I heard words I did not follow. Gaelic, probably. Refugees from Ireland or Scotland. What a long way they came to starve. Parliamentary debate closed, the boy, girl and puppet went silent, turned to me.
I met their mad eyes and considered whether I was their fellow. I wasn't Irish or a puppet. I might be mad. Yes, a bedlam bearing burned trash, daydreaming the adventures of Spadassin Seraph. Perhaps I had no grand house, no valet-pirate, no feather mattress. No crystal decanter of whiskey on the bedside table. The thought saddened me.
I didn't believe it. Couldn't if I tried. Madness is the ability to believe this world is something else, that you are someone else. I have seen war, the world and the mirror. I understand full well why one desires to go mad. It just mystifies me how the trick is done.
Mad thoughts, granted. I met their waiting eyes and settled for a very sane nod. Upon which gesture Punch retreated, the girl pirouetted. The boy rose, stood beside the curtain. It lifted, revealing a second sheet. Behold the world: gray cloth dabbed with shabby yellows and whites for suns, moons and stars. Sticks sewn to the sheet in memory of trees. A faded blue sash for a faded blue ocean. That square stain of mud or blood? Surely a castle. It stood lonely in the middle of the faded-sash sea. An island fortress at the edge of the tapestry-world. A hole in the cloth formed a dark portcullis. An eye peering through. At me. I winked, why not.
One puppet appeared, then another. They hopped before this make-do world. Along came a third and fourth, movements ironically awkward for being the puppeteer's feet.
Now the boy recited. Voice girlish but strong. Did he babble what words he heard the moon whisper? No, this sounded similar to the girl's whispers Words of meaning, then. At least to mad children.
"In the beginning, so proud to be us. Measured by our eyes and no other. Peers we were each to each, and cared nothing for princes waiting at the door. The least of our blood was royalty in the measure of our love. All others, plaything people. We were the lords of table and battle and bed, of book and dance and secret chant. Nameless, except such names we took to wear as crowns of summer laurel. We were the night-sky stars, the storm wind, the winter geese-folk flying free, free."
A puppet with wings dashed before the sheet, bobbing with a 'honk, honk' goose-cry.
The girl tiptoed to the ragged figure lying dead or drunk. She gave him a kick. He twitched, she nodded, tiptoed back to her position opposite the boy. The boy frowned at this. She shrugged. Brushing tangles from eyes and memory, the boy continued.
"We ran laughing across the world, mocking its muddy face. The wandering folk, magic and untouchable. Glorious in our days, terrible in our nights. A' times it pleased us to march into villages blowing horns, dancing mad steps. Then the common clay threw green branches before us as holy pilgrims, as fairy conquerors, as divine kings returned from Hell or Avalon."
A dirty handkerchief popped itself upon a puppet. It jumped ghostlike about. The girl turned, gave the specter a critical eye. The ragged man sat up, began puffing on a flute. Hesitant as the first bird-notes of dawn. And as moving. I shivered. The boy nodded, continued.
"Other times we appeared sudden within castle walls. A lordling looked from high window, wondering what our shadows foretold. Then we stood silent as trees, still as stones. Ominous gibbet crows, holding within our laughter. Until the lordling would tremble, offer us their coins and children, their golden cups of rich red wine."
A puppet twitched its head to mime downing wine. The piper trilled a rising melody, fit to fill a king's cup. I heard the carriage door open, watched a veiled woman climb out. The beggar girl twirled, monitoring puppets and piper. I tensed, eyed the woman, desperate not to kill before a child. A blue ball, with white stars.
The boy continued. "We tumbled and tangled hearts and bodies, furious in our love. We feuded and laughed, each of us all the world to each. We leapt from high trees into deep waters, daring the next to follow. Raced across desert dunes, leaving mad poems in the sand. We stood alone on mountain-tops singing to the wind, in honor of the next of our blood the wind should meet. Glowing coals we snatched from fire, held to the stars, laughing at the agony and the joy to be us, us, entirely ourselves and nothing lesser."
The girl lifted a hand to the sky, holding a theoretical coal. The absurd bobbing puppets moved with sudden hints of grace, inspired by the strange words, the notes of the piper. The veiled woman now stood beside me. Ignoring me. She held white hands together. She wrung them in grief. I stared in horror. I'd prefer she wave a knife.
Steps to my left, and an old sailor tottered to a rough bench. He sat. His shoulders shook. Steps to my right. A tall woman in gray. The eldest Gray Grace from the cathedral stairs. She hurried over, sat beside the sailor, patting him on the back for what comfort that gave.
The boy took a breath, recitation driving his starved frame to shake. “Slow came our passing; terrible the end. From sweet jealousy of love, we turned envious of excellence in craft and power. We gave our hearts to knowledge, not to wisdom. Pride turned to rivalry; rivalry turned to fear. Alliances were made with dark creatures and mad things, folks of air and fire and blood. The clans withdrew to cave and forest, mountain-top and sea-depth, each seeking some final mastery. Few returned. Those that did wore faces we no longer knew.”
A stray dog leaped a bench to land before the beggar-girl. A wolf-creature. Black-furred, ribs hinting a diet of kicks and trash, the occasional feast of rat. It whined from a cave of yellow teeth, red tongue. The girl considered, then reached to pat it once upon the head. I flinched, expecting blood. But the creature sighed, sat, ears cocked for the rest of the story. The boy nodded at its good manners and continued.
“Strife came. Struggle within clans as the ambitious sought to rule over brother, over sister. Then between clans, each seeking supremacy over the people once wind-free. And first we dueled in formal games of blade and chant, hand and art, hoping to limit the spilling of the blood once cherished. But game became war. All our excellence of mind and spirit we turned to slaughter. So the folk died or fled, lessened in number, diminished in the graces of fire and life and love."
The dog howled. The old sailor wept. The veiled woman wrung pretty hands. The piper trilled a dirge. And all the puppets collapsed in grief to the floor of their rag-tapestry world. I turned to the busy street, wondering what it thought of this madness.
Nothing, apparently. Passerby gave the show a glance, then turned aside as one does from any city-scene asking coin or pity. Across the street, four dock-workers stood arguing portage-fees and beer. A certain exaggeration to their shouts and stamps made me suspect they play-acted. Still, not every theatre is meant for me.
A rider in livery of the Magisterium trotted in smart style down the street. His sniff declared he had no time for gatherings of rags, dolls and dogs. A girl hawking fish from a push-cart quickened pace, deciding we had no custom to pursue. A baker in flour-bedecked apron stumbled by, comically fussing with four baskets of bread. He gave the puppet-audience a snort for our lack of commercial energy.
The boy cared not a fig. He swept fingers through tangled hair, revealing an ear pointed as a lynx's. Then recited in a voice high and clear:
"After war came silence. Wind swept the empty hills where once we danced sunset, sang sunrise. Villages forgot us, castles crumbled, towers turned to stone shells where lizards scuttled dead leaves. Last we were, lost we were, wanderers we became. A half-people, the shadow-clans, remainders of the glory of -"
A gun fired beside my head, putting fin to the play. Pity; I would have liked to hear how it ended.