Having failed once more to win the hand of fair Dulcina, who sighed for countless suitors from her father’s balcony, I was returning across the market when noon fell.
In the Raga all good men fear noon—a time when shadows shrink and true forms are concealed. In the dust and the heat you might doubt your own heart or that the man standing next to you is quite human. He smiles at you just like a man, but unless you see his shadow, lacking horns, are you sure?
In Div Kamia, noon also brings the tower—that bone-white shard in its shimmering square. If you are careless you will enter the square and encounter the being we call the Burned Man.
Everyone in Div Kamia knows the Burned Man. Everyone has seen his tower appear. The Burned Man stands before the tower with the white dust both rising and settling around him, and his face and his form are as black as the candles that Sanjiib fortunetellers burn in their tents. He is diminished, also, like a candle, and there are stripes—awful red—on his melted skin. His hands though, when he bares them from his shroud, are lovely: brown and sinuous as the river. No one knows why his hands were spared. No one has ever seen the Burned Man’s shadow.
I met the Burned Man by mistake, thinking neither of danger nor of noon. My thoughts were all with fair Dulcina; her rippling black hair, her strawberry mouth. For weeks I had stood with the other young men under her bower in the green part of town. Now I had taken the lute from my back and was plucking the strings with quiet despair. By the time I smelled the blowing white dust it was far too late to escape the Burned Man.
“You visit the goddess of the balcony,” he said, taking my arm as if we were old friends.
“I visit a girl—fair Dulcina,” I stammered.
“You think she’s a girl, but she is a fire.”
The Burned Man’s smooth mouth hovered at my ear. I simpered as I tried to pull away. Yet even as I breathed the camphor scent of his robes his beautiful hands fascinated me. I was terrified that they would touch me—and yet, all the same, rapt with their awful perfection.
“Are you saying Dulcina is dangerous?” I said, stalling. It was true the girl had a vicious father. We all knew to run if he appeared on the balcony, and to accept no offer of refreshment he made.
The Burned Man snorted. “A fire!” he repeated. “Guarded by a beast who has already killed one of her suitors. He stuffed the poor boy in a barrel of oil, then set it on a cart and sent it rumbling off toward Kismé. Why do you pine for fair Dulcina when it will only get you folded in half?”
The Burned Man spoke with a soft, flat voice, its edges rough like a pumice stone. I have known fellow singers who sound that way—who have lived hard lives and turned to drink. Their bleakness cannot rival that of the Burned Man, whose eyes are both cruel and terribly sad. The endless suffering of the Burned Man is the worst thing about him. It stung my heart like a scorpion’s barb.
“What do you care for a folded-up singer?” I asked him, ceasing, at last, my useless struggle. Heat and camphor swam in my head. His blistered face was an inverted sun.
“Because I was once a boy like you,” he said. And while noon held, he told me this tale.
The Burned Man’s Story
When you are young you think that you will live forever and that no harm will ever come to you. Your friends will stay friends and your lovers lovers, and the most dangerous thing is spotting a wrinkle in your looking glass.
Ah, this is not true, my boy! There are worse things than a safe old age. Trouble will come from within your own heart and still more from the hands of the ones you call friends. Such a friend I had in my youth: an esteemed young man named Indri Pasha.
Yes, Indri Pasha. The very same. The last king of beloved Div Kamia. You are thinking: that was years ago! Well, listen to me. To my tale.
Indri and I were two great peacocks and the whole city our menagerie. He sat on his beautiful lapis throne and I beside him, his beloved councilor. We shared our meals and our confidences and, of course, as we grew, also the charms of women. Do not blush or shrink from me, you who court the fair Dulcina. You know the allure of those gilded creatures. You know what they can do to friends.
Indri’s harem was the greatest in antiquity, and he collected there the beauties of a dozen lands. I say ‘he’ but of course he needed help. Kings cannot always think of pleasure. They have wars and skirmishes—famines, even—and they depend upon friends to see them through. Such a friend I was to Indri. It is why he loved me. Why I burned.
Ah! I get ahead of myself. It is not of my meager procurements I speak. Not the meek girls of Pench who I bought with silver, nor the Winterland girls who dove for the jewels in Indri’s bath. I speak of one particular girl. Indri’s last girl. Helené of Vervain.
Perhaps you think you have seen beauty. You have but known its twilit shadow— the moment that comes to you, just before the sunrise when the world is washed in a silvery hue. It is a fresh time, the morning of the world; yet it is not as sharp or as sweet as sunset. I speak of the beauty of the shadows, of the hard, dark angles in relief to the watch-fires. Helené of Vervain had such beauty. She bloomed at night like a breath-stoked coal.
Helené. Ah yes. She was a whore—a temple priestess I found for the Spring Rites. It was the fourth month, nearly time to plant, and I had gone to Pilara’s Manse to arrange the ritual.
Pilara’s Manse (you will remember it) once existed at the center of town. A black building carved round with onyx gods who postured in the throes of love and war. Her priestesses, all scattered now, wore veils of scraped muslin—cloudy black. Only at the very center of the temple, before the statue of the goddess, would they unveil. The priestesses were avatars of Pilara, and only men on the business of her beloved Yah might view them.
Of course, sometimes, men forgot. I’d known some who’d paid the priestesses to bless their fields. I would encounter them at temple, hitching up their breeches, and before the rains came they would suffer tragedy. It is dangerous to pay Pilara for favors even if her priestesses take your coin. The wife of Yah has many guises, and even the most lowly should not be scorned.
Entering the sanctuary that morning, from streets made sticky with the onset of monsoon, I expected to see the elderly priestess sitting before the goddess’s statue. But an acolyte told me she had died and that a new priestess had taken her place. I was sad. My mind wanted the crone who had performed the rites since I was a child. It was disconcerting to enter the sanctuary and hear the new woman’s fluting voice.
“We know you.” She sat before the statue, with Pilara’s eight arms spread above her in a wheel. At first she sat so motionless I thought the statue itself had spoken. Then she moved her veiled head and my heart gave a leap, for the slenderness beneath her clothing was not at all a crone’s sinew.
“I am sure you know me,” I said to her. The goddess is Mother to all men. “The time arrives for my master to bless the fields and to draw Pilara’s fruit from the silt of the river.”
She laughed lightly at the ceremonial language. Her hands—shocking white—emerged from her robes. There were designs of red chná traced upon them, yet this emphasized rather than hid her foreignness.
“No, no,” she said. “We know you, Master. We have seen you since we were a child. A fellow slave is always of interest to us.”
Her statement took my tongue for a moment. Few people knew I’d been sold. I’d been a clever child and my family had wished to prosper but, how, by Yah, did this woman—
“We were a slave, too,” she said. “Do you recall the great bazaar where they stood us on chopping blocks?”
“Chopping blocks?” I did remember a market. A hot sun and a wooden stage.
“I call them that,” the priestess said with a shrug. “Perhaps my father was a butcher. You were sent to the palace and I to the temple but, by Pilara’s grace, I have seen you come and go.”
It is important for you to understand: at no time did her voice betray bitterness. No irony poisoned the well of her speech, which bubbled from her throat and came sweetly to my ear. Though I learned she had been taken from the North and nearly sold to the pleasure dens, it was all said lightly, without remorse. In an hour I longed to glimpse her face—but she did not grant this until the end of our interview.
“Light a candle to the Virgin,” she instructed—Pilara’s third guise, the most revered. As she spoke she unwound her sacred veil and I beheld her face and her bright, coiling hair.
The fading candles of the sanctuary seemed to flame. Indri would be very happy. He would pay her, I knew, as he had not paid her predecessor. He would think this foretold a joyous harvest. Yet leaving the sanctuary, I felt uneasy. It was not his joy I desired, but my own.
Now I have not told you but perhaps you have guessed that Indri Pasha was a sorcerer.
Ah, you say! Of course he was. Surely no man who looks as I do could be so deformed save by magic.
Indri Pasha possessed such magic. Wherever he went a vague shadow surrounded him. When he wished to intimidate someone the shadow would swell. If he touched you with it you would know Yah’s might. This, I’d heard, was a crushing pressure that could break your neck or snap you in two. Naturally, men did not cross Indri Pasha.
Yet as I left the temple my heart schemed.
I did not yet know the girl’s name. I had only the certainty in my gut. I wanted her, and Indri would too—and indeed, a spark lit his eyes when I told of her.
Soon enough Indri went to the temple and, stumbling back like a drunk man, he assembled his gold. On the ritual night, when he left the palace, a clank of golden wheels followed him down. He would make a grand gift to the new priestess and ask that she bless, with her body, his reign.
I sat up all night on a high balcony and let the roar of rejoicing that attended the ritual consume me. It was no less the roar that would swirl Indri’s blood when he stood in the shrine and they were together.
When he came home with his empty wagon—looking spent and happy, his limbs streaked with oils, it was I who suggested he bring her to his harem, for I knew he would do so anyway. Indri and I had been friends twenty years. I could read him the way some men read books. He might have held back a few weeks without my encouragement, but with it, what permission would he not grant himself?
There is only one thing to tell of her bringing: one moment as we left Pilara’s Manse. Indri, like a bridegroom, had her brought to him, and I, his trusted friend, was the officiant. I stood with her on the steps of the temple as her priestesses wept at their sudden loss. The smoke that rose from their holy censors had a blue tinge to symbolize tears. Still, what did I care for such wailing when this new bright girl was under my hand? I touched her, reverently, on her shoulder and whispered:
“Now goddess, tell me your name.”
When she told me her eyes were lowered to the earth. Above us the temple bells tolled noon.
So it was done. She came to his harem, but both of us knew we had only begun. She grasped my hand tightly when I guided her from the litter, and as days turned to weeks I received many signs. They speak their own language in the harem. As procurer I could speak it fluently. It is a language of flowers and gifts and gems and colors with more meaning than red, green, or blue. You may find declarations in the opening of certain windows or in the angle of pink stockings hung on a line. As a man of common blood I could not breach the harem, but I patrolled its borders and received its sighs. Little gifts came into my hands, folded within favors meant for servants or for me. (I often received small gifts from the women who were grateful for my tales of the outside world.)
Hidden in petals as crimson as blood I received notes in Helené’s trembling hand. She was sad Indri had taken her from the temple but grateful she must serve no other man. She thanked me, for he bound her in girdles of jewels and was a kind lover, if overzealous. Indeed, all the city knew that he loved her and whiled away countless hours in her arms. Talk grew that he would make her Sultana, a title no Hhareem had won since Narissa of the Span.
“Would I then see you?” she asked me with a flower—a half wilting crocus the color of night.
“No,” I replied in a poorly rhymed poem. “A Sultana remains in the harem, always.”
“Ah! I am lonely!” This in a teapot. A cipher directed me to look through a latticed screen. Though the harem and palace did not touch they had several fortuitous vistas in common. On a clothesline fluttering high above the gardens I recognized her chemise with the star-trimmed hem. “I perish of loneliness for you.” I began to lose sleep but still I waited.
Helené waited too. We traded our notes. Perhaps a year passed before she discovered the passages.
I had encouraged her in this. Only Pashas know the secret highways of the harem. I had brought girls to Indri through false-bottomed chests which led to sub basements running under ground. I had smuggled him a shepherdess for his pleasure—disguising her with tin lockets and string like a bundlewoman. Yet any man might know these tricks and never gain the favorite’s rooms. Should such a one come to the very center of the harem he would be set upon by the eunuch guards.
Helené though, had found a path. We waited for some errand to take Indri from the city. When a dispute rose over some northern border, he rode off to settle it, and Helené gave me directions to her room.
Do men still tell stories of Asmodeus—the lust-demon who prowls the edge of the desert? He takes the form of a great dark wolf whose tongue scents the air for tender flesh. No-one knows if he ravishes his girls or devours them whole in a fit of desire. Such a beast my waiting had made of me. In my mind I courted not a girl but a goddess. Her note might have been a map to fabled gold, so gorgeous and impossible did it seem I would find her.
Find her I did, though, on a night of summer lightning, Indri long gone and the city hushed. The air within the passages I wandered was thick with scents of ether and attar of rose. I fancied I could smell her—her oiled hair—the remembered fragrance drawing me on. Through underground tunnels and empty salons I passed and arrived at a golden, figure-carved door.
I’d brought a knife in case of incident, and my fingers had slowly adhered to the hilt. Indri, my mind whispered, could have planned this—he who jealously guarded his treasure. Though desire beat its small drums in my blood I had braced myself lest I encounter the guard. Rounding that last corner to that last room, in the instant before I saw the golden door, a shadow rose in front of me, and my hand convulsed in sudden terror.
Yet it was no guard, just an odalisque whose dark skin nearly matched the shadows. The knife did not pass from the sleeve of my robe and my heart slowed as she smiled at me.
“This way, effendi,” she said softly. With no more ado she pushed open the door.
I passed in, to the inner sanctum, my fear-damp fingers brushing small golden bodies. The door was elaborate with pornography, the carven lovers entwined in endless embrace—and then it was closed and she was before me. The walls were close: pink and red, without windows.
“My lord,” she breathed. I was no lord. But for a long while she made me forget.
I earned the pain that followed that night in the pleasure of those first few hours.
When I woke it was still the pleasure that had me, enveloping my heated skin. It took moments to comprehend Helené’s departure—that Indri now sat where my love had been sleeping. Oh, he had known and oh, he had tested me, and oh what revenge he would have on my crime. The great shadow of his Power turned the room to night and made my limbs into straw before he brought me to justice.
They had a way in those times of punishing thieves by removing their most offending hand. I had used both hands to cradle Helené and these were removed with a scimitar. Indri himself scalded the resulting stumps, letting his black Power flame at its edge, and then, in a voice as ringing as Yah’s he proclaimed the rest of my punishment.
I thought I knew every page of Indri’s life. Now he produced a hidden chapter. His Power was not confined to mere pain but could be used in the restoration and prolonging of life. He had thought, he said, long and hard on my fate, and in doing so remembered a once-loved dog. This had been the faithful pet of his youth until it bit his father’s hand. The reigning Pasha, Emir, slew the beast, unmoved by its many years of service.
“But my father was not so wise as me,” Indri said, his voice thundering through the hall. A halo of Power grew round him like wings, blotting the faces of his attendant wazirs. “I could not correct my poor Badal’s behavior, yet it was wrong to so quickly dispose of the beast. That night, I crept down to the midden heap and bent my magic on bringing him back. He was a small dog with a small life. I revived him easily and my spies report he roams with the street packs even today. He is ragged, poor thing, and missing an ear, but it is right, don’t you think, he should reflect on his crimes? It is for this reflection I prolonged his life, and why, sweet friend, I will prolong yours.”
Idri’s expression as he said this had only the faintest trace of malice. I did not doubt he wanted vengeance upon me, but he was like a stern father with a willful child. Or perhaps that is wrong. I once had a father. He too smiled slowly before bringing the strap.
In due course the thing was done. The Power reached for me, and I felt something change. I knew I would not die of my wounds—or of any mortal hurts—for a very long time. This did not stop Indri from giving me several such hurts before he ejected me from the palace.
Now let several dark days pass. Handless, I lay in a state of dreams. I had crawled to some stinking, lower-city alley to lie in my slick of dried blood and tears. I had not yet learned to steal food or to work without hands, as a second-class creature. A fever, also, lay upon me, festering like alley garbage in my roughed-over skin. In this state I thought I hallucinated the attentions of the woman who found me in the dark.
“Poor thing, poor thing,” the girl muttered. Her arms were as dark as Pilara’s Manse. There was water, I think. Perhaps a balm. A smell of summer herbs and wax. A velvet voice whispered in my ear, and only then did I think she might be real.
“If you wish revenge,” the girl said, “watch for the red and follow where it goes. Go and learn the goddess’s mind and return, if you can, to Div Kamia.”
Her small arms lay me down again. I lolled as insubstantial as a child’s cloth doll. Soon enough the fever passed from me—or at least the mere burning of my flesh. I woke and began my second life, not as a man, but an avatar of revenge.
Let us not speak of trifling things: how I ate or slept or lived in those years. I am certain that I did all these things—all the while slowly hounded from the city by guards—but it was no longer mortal suffering which concerned me, only the burning insult on my heart. Men chased me off for stealing fruit, for pushing my head, face-first, into a wine vat. Everyone knew who I was and, eventually, I fled their angry familiarness.
A man with no hands is a hideous thing, stinking and wretched in the eyes of Yah. A new city brought me no relief, only more merchants and raging shopkeepers. I realized I was condemned to wander even as Bajan and the prophets of old. Therefore, I roamed ever farther, from Div Kamia to the outer edges of the empire. It took a long time to walk so far—longer, for I was often starving. The seasons raced ahead of me. Monsoons caught me, and desert sandstorms made my bed. Once, I was uncovered by a Sanjiib caravan and brought to a corpse-yard for proper burial. The men fled screaming when I revived, thinking me an ifrit with unnatural powers.
I was at my most frail then. The city I had come to appears on no map. Beyond, the small towns and outposts began. The protection of Indri existed only on paper. There in that drowsing market square with its frightened herdsmen and shuttered stalls I wondered if I might kill myself; simply lie in my hunger and dust until I passed. I was too tired to move in any direction, and the ground, where the men had so recently tried to inter me, soothed me.
Resting with my head on a patch of dust I waited days to discover my fate. The Sanjiib merchants ventured back, tip-toeing around me and spitting if I stirred. They had picked up a passenger, a tall man swathed head to foot in a ragged black robe. At length his sandaled feet approached, his toes a bleached blond in their coating of dust. His skin above those streaks was black, and as he moved, the hem of a robe flashed scarlet.
“Red Desert,” I croaked. He would be a tribesman, though I’d never seen one of their kind so attired.
The fellow nodded. I drifted off. What did it matter if he were the Demon King of Kadaban! There was not a soul on earth who could help me; none to give succor to my limitless life. I fell back into dark, hungry thoughts—and was awakened by a thump and the hawing of camels.
The tribesman had let fall a waterskin and retreated to join the departing Sanjiib. As they passed me, the bridles of their mounts jingling, the tribesman gestured at me from his precarious saddle. In the long light of evening his finger was thin, pointing spearlike towards the setting sun. I sat up through sheer incredulity. The rags of cloth that fringed his hand were red.
“Watch for the red,” the girl had told me. (Has she been of the Red Desert too?) Her nonsense suddenly cohered, sweet at the mineral taste of water. Watch for the red. Learn of the goddess.
Suddenly, I knew where I was going.
When the water had restored me I limped on my way—to where the sun sets and the desert turns red. You have heard tales of the Red Desert, but what civilized man in full grasp of his senses has gone there?
It wasn’t easy. Nothing is. Not living. Not dying. Not knowing who to trust. I suppose it helped that, as I struck out, I had long since become uncivilized.
The space between the towns stretched. The walking took longer. I could not die. I could find little food or shelter, either. In that part of the world only rich men have oases. Their gardens and keeps were far too strong for a worn thing like me to break into, and so I rolled, at times, like mere refuse, down windy streets and between the sand-eaten towns. I stole fruit from the stands of pauper merchants and drank with the street-pack dogs in the muck. Then even the towns were gone. There were only rude outposts and caravanserai.
The priests were still there, in the desert. The men who would lead me to the goddess.
I’d been aware of them for a long while now the way you become aware of new flowers after a rain. Since the nameless town of the Sanjiib merchants, I had caught, more and more, the flashes of red. They appeared in the shadows at temple doors. They sat in the alcoves set aside for street preachers. Red priests. They seemed to recognize me. Their scarlet-framed fingers pointed on.
The Red Desert is more than a name. The gods have done battle in that place. At its edges the sands take a rosy hue like a blood plume dispersing in crystalline water. Like any battlefield, the deeper you go, the redder and redder the land becomes.
When I passed the final priest the sands were ochre, the sun melting in the West like living fire. The priest (and who could tell if this was a new man or the very first that I had seen?) was waiting by his lean-to with his long, sharp shadow, and the night that fell upon us was cool as the day had been hot. The Red Desert, I remember thinking, was as feverish as a flush on a young woman’s skin.
“On,” the red priest bid me, pointing. I had fallen, half-dead at his feet.
“How much farther?” I gasped, coughing. Not enough moisture remained for my sweat.
“You must go on, to the temple,” he answered. Then both he and his lean-to were gone.
Was I hallucinating the man? Hallucination and reality mingled. Morning came and faded and returned. I lay on the sands like a fish on slow coals.
I could not die, though.
I could not die.
I got up.
I resumed my journey.
On, one foot before the other. On to the dark cliffs in the West. No more priests. No sound but the wind. The sands ever darkening like a stain.
I hallucinated the smell of water. That palaces appeared, and Helené waited for me. In my mind I killed Indri a hundred times and made love to my goddess upon his bones. I ruled them. I hurt them. I woke, still walking. The slave—the other slave—had told me to follow.
Then, like a slap to my blistered skin, I beheld the sharp dawn above the cliffs. A cool breeze that tasted of green things came to me and I stood in their blessed, sheltering shadow. The cliffs—yes, even they were red. And carved into them was the temple.
I call this place the Valley of Sleepers but at that moment, I awoke. The morning hovered, still and cooling, and water waited in a deep glassy pool. The shadow of the cliffs hung above it. Its long basin was carved in the fluid style favored by kings.
All around the pool were sleeping men, sheltered by the fanning leaves of plants.
The men lay entangled like the carvings on a door. Red priests and Sanjiib and pale-faced Northerners. Old men and young curled next to each other—young cheeks cradled golden on knobby, torn knees. Long robes in bright colors, poor trousers with patches, scuffed slippers, the heavy felt shoes of cameleers—all of them shifted together in slumber, overlain by green filigree traces of mold. In the heat and the damp of this hidden valley their clothing was peeling and sloughing away from their skin like mango rind, yet the men themselves remained perfectly preserved with skin young, old, and middling, untouched by decay. The gossamer treble of their snoring came faintly and shimmered the water of the pool.
I charged like a stallion into that water until its wetness stung my skin. Until I submerged myself utterly I had no idea of how blistered I had become. Screaming and thrashing I drank of the water and vomited half of it up again. Hours passed before the pain of my sunburned skin subsided and I relaxed to float as drunk as a lily pad. The sun moved and the sleepers snored.
I knew, of course: my journey was not done.
Insects and frogs chirred their small songs as I raised myself gingerly out of the pool. As I stood, letting the waters subside, I noticed, for the first time, my reflection. Alien eyes peered out at me from a thin unshaven tangle of a face. I touched it and the old man in the water did the same, then shed his ruined breeches and padded naked to the shore. Cool and fragrant night had fallen and torches burned in the temple doors. As I approached, the outdoor sounds gave way to the distinct chant of human voices.
The temple was made of basalt stone. Night already reigned within. Sinuous columns supported the ceiling, and unlighted passages trailed off. Torches and candles burned in the dark like stars in a miniature galaxy. Men guarded them: Red Priests who ignored me and murmured their prayers to the flickering flames. Slowly their chanting wound around me. Again I entered a kind of dream. Filled with calm lucidity I let myself stumble towards a shrine. An eight limbed figure towered before me—Pilara, vast as the cliffs of her home.
I paused before her, breathing the dark and the distant tang of ambergris. The goddess’s carven hands contained offerings: votives or flowers, or small, cunning bowls. Dark liquid gleamed in many of these. The incense barely covered its smell. I shifted and the floor shifted with me, objects clattering together with a soft, hollow sound. The face of the goddess regarded me: a flat, onyx surface without mouth, nose, or eyes. The flat surface merely gave back my reflection: a draggle-man wandering a field of bones.
At present the air around the statue shifted. The shadows, dark already, deepened still more.
“What do you want?” asked the mouthless goddess. Her voice was a sigh like a childish breeze.
My skin tightened, my belly curling inward around its months of wander and want. Though I had drunk the water of her pool and soothed some part of my tortured throat, I swallowed and my answer came out rasping as if I had chewed and swallowed a fan leaf.
“I want to strangle my friend,” I said.
“Ah.” A candle fluttered. “You realize: you have no hands?”
“You—can’t you restore them to me?”
“For a price.” She sounded hesitant.
“What price have I not already paid?” I asked, thinking of the desert. “I am starving. It was you who bade me come. Now that I am here you must satisfy me.”
“Do you not tire of such feasts? My courtyard offers water and shade.”
“Your courtyard?” I trembled like a candle—the flames all leaping and juttering now. The shadows, seething, reminded me of Indri and the Power that would pulse above his noble head. They reminded me of the shadows that had melded on the walls of the pink-red cave of Helené’s room.
As the thoughts took hold the goddess laughed. All at once, the effigy vanished.
My knees crumpled as Helené stepped from the plinth. She wore white robes, as fresh as springtime. Her hair fell in coils of coppery gold, and no veil obscured her glorious face.
“I see you do not wish to rest,” Helené said. My dusty mouth fell open, groaning. “You poor man.” She held my chin and tilted my face with a cool, soft hand. There I was: kneeling on the bones of her supplicants while her perfume dispersed the stink of the grave.
“Year after year they come,” she said. “Year after year they name their price. Then they leave and curse my name—but they have done it to themselves. It is a lonely life, my love. Once more I ask: will you not stay and sleep?”
“I cannot sleep.” Tears filled my mouth. “Helené! Please—help me!”
“I am not her.” Her thumb stroked my lip. “I am but the face of desire. The Whore. Pilara. The burning flame. I can grant your fondest wish, but you will burn inside me.”
I nodded. Yes. I wanted to—did I not burn already in my heart? Had I not crossed the endless desert? My blunted wrists pawed the edge of her robe.
“There is water,” she said. “Water that soothes. Forgetful shade and peaceful dreams.”
“I have no other dream but you.”
She smiled. “Oh. You only think that.
With infinite care she drew me up, the tears in her eyes, to my shivering feet.
“I will give you your hands.” She smiled at me. “I will give you the power to vanquish him. You will have your girl and your city again. But you will give me everything.”
I nodded, suddenly unsure. Why should the goddess weep for me?
She took my stumps between her hands.
After that, I knew.
Have you seen a candle melted in a pan until it loses mass and form? Such a thing the goddess did to me—as greedy as a wick for nourishing oil.
The flames she burned me with were white. They devoured, like mouths, my bright, blank screams. She seemed to pull the fire from my heart, as if the spark had always been there, waiting for her.
I screamed and my lips melted into flaps.
I screamed and my stumps lengthened into hands. They were the only normal features she left me. I had knelt merely human. I rose as the Burned Man.
Sometime later I awoke—vengeful in my wrath and pain. The temple had vanished and the sands blew red, but the heat of the desert no longer daunted me. Helené had, as promised, taken everything and given me power and a pair of hands. I spread my beautiful fingers before me and noted the webs of shadow between them. I rose then, turning my magic to wings and returned, at once, to the house of my friend.
Now I must tell the rest of it: how I found Indri and how I destroyed him. You know there is no palace here. That my tower is all that remains. There are forces in this world, my boy, that even the strongest man cannot overcome. Many of these forces are hers—though they cannot work without us to prey on.
So: to Indri in his palace. Indri who paled at my return. I came to him as a fearsome cloud—a ragged thing battering down from the sky. A woman sat near the arm of his throne, but at first I did not know her.
I twisted my friend between my hands and left him boneless on the floor. Only then did I turn to the startled woman who held a small child in her arms.
We were the only people in the hall. My new Power made a barrier that Indri’s men could not cross. The woman let the child slip to the floor and, for a moment, I thought she would scream in terror.
But Helené of Vervain laughed instead. She laughed with the sound of a brassy bell.
For the first time in years I felt uncertain (years, yes, for she had had no babe, before). I had crossed the Red Desert on my belly and bared myself to the goddess’s flame, yet this was the strangest thing of all: my paramour, beside Indri’s body, laughing.
“The goddess is good,” she told the sky. Her child howled and, with her foot, she shoved him towards me. “Oh, I had thought you perished, betrayer—yet you lived, and suffered, and now free me from these chains.”
The bewildered child sobbed between us, cowering from her laughter as from my face. I was equally bewildered. Was this really Helené? Helené whom I had bedded? Who’d said she loved me?
“How have I betrayed you?” I asked. “It was Indri who discovered us.”
“But you discovered me.” She backed away from the child. “You came to the temple and took me from my goddess. I had been sold and dishonored—yet you sold me again. You! A fellow slave!”
Fire had been the substance of my days, but her words sent a cold trickle down my spine. “Helené!” I held out my hands to her; watched her flinch in disgust at my reaching fingers.
“I swore I would destroy you,” she said. “I swore I would destroy you and Indri Pasha. I thank the goddess for answering my prayers and aiding in my slow revenge.”
She laughed again at my confusion—but already that confusion was dissipating. I remembered the stinking alley where they’d dumped me and the maid who had bathed me and pointed me on. On and on; all fingers towards the goddess, seeing red—what I wanted to see—all the way.
Helene nodded. “I begged Indri to spare you—to curse you when he would have cut you down. I knew you would crawl to Her temple for mercy, but there are crimes Pilara cannot forgive. You men who worship Her as Mother neglect to consider her other aspects.”
As I stared at her, rage and sorrow fuming in my heart, her whole form seemed to blur at the edges like a thing viewed through water. I wiped at my eyes, and her child kept howling, and I had gone so long hoping, and now all hope was gone...
“The boy,” I said.
Helené smirked. She made no move to pick him up.
“The boy!” I insisted—yet my rage brought laughter and you who have suffered love must know what I did.
The child’s screams hovered over my vengeance and continued when his mother’s screams had died. They lasted until I picked him up, gently, with the only part of me still unburned and, with the dust of the palace settling around us, carried him down the hill to Pilara’s Temple in the city.
The End of the Burned Man’s Story
The Burned Man’s voice had faded to a whisper, and his grip had loosened as the first hour drew near. I sat stricken in the dust at his feet and watched his tears drop –tiny stains on the ground. I wanted to ask: Whose child was it? And: What happened to the temple? for he had not told. Yet a terrible silence hung over us, and we seemed like the last two souls in the world.
“The curse never fades,” the Burned Man whispered. “All I loved is gone, and still I am here. I would spare you the same with fair Dulcina and the dangerous men who guard her bower. Do not return to woo with her. She is as lovely as a goddess but her touch will burn.”
As he spoke he stepped back and a bell rang once—whether in my own world or in his. I had but a moment to note the flicker—the shadow just peeping from under his robe. Then the tower and the square vanished, leaving me in an empty lot behind the market. I thought I heard a child cry, but it might have been my own voice—the wheeze in my throat.
I alone in Div Kamia have seen the Burned Man’s shadow. I alone am certain that he is a man. A cursed man. He has seen the goddess and lived and yet, even so, his torment endures.
I thought on all that the Burned Man had said. I thought of his face, once a young face like mine. I thought of Dulcina on her grand balcony, and of her deadly father, and of my treacherous heart.
Hugging my lute to my aching chest, I sat there a long time before I made my decision.