Metempsychosis

 Cohis Brayhem stood at the edge of a pier in northern Ri’shurai. He was love-drunk and somewhat high. The waves of clean air awakened the small fibers of his skin, caressed his eyelashes, embraced him by the waist. He felt fulfilled in every way. Even the sun was sweet, like a mango resting in a dark basket. And the sky was cloudless and serene. Nameless birds arrowed traceless tracks close to the shore, up high. He had wandered there a thousand dreary nights, remembering her, remembering.
His lone shadow projected up the banks, to the city’s lowest markets. It was quiet there. He seemed made of dirt, as still and thin as an abandoned sign post. He visited the pier to make peace with tumultuous thoughts, and paranoia. The paranoia began when Imperial forces arrested his boss, Engul, and executed him, leaving the thieves in Ri’shurai with no obvious leadership. Brayhem worked for Engul for several years, and many jobs were entrusted him. Some would consider Brayhem powerful. But recently he took to raising chickens and pigs and butchering them and eating them. Not to procure a legitimate living (for he knew nothing of a legitimate living), but instead to avoid the poison of a potential enemy.
“You are no longer safe alone.” After years of working in Dream-tear, a city a hundred miles southwest, Istokleia, one of Engul’s distant associates, finally spoke to him directly.
“With every due respect, I was never safe,” replied Cohis.
“Granted. First things first. I need us on the same side.”
“I figure that,” said Cohis. He didn’t bother to face Istokleia. Although many young cutpurses rumored that to see her face would fatally hex you, he knew she marked targets for death by planting knives at their bedsides. He laughed, internally; that he owned no bed may have been a saving grace.
“For the connections you’ve established in Piraz-dai, Ataraxia — we hadn’t a foothold in those cities until you established them.”
“Sometimes I make myself valuable,” he said
“While I might express gratitude for cropping the path for me, Engul was a dear friend to me –”
“Not too dear, I imagine.”
“– and I can’t appear weak or naive.”
“You have already determined whether or not you can trust me.”
“Indeed. It’s true I don’t want you in this city any longer, coyote. In fact not even a night longer, only I wish to be fair.”
“Fair? You don’t know these streets, or its people. You have no authority here.”
“I payroll enforcers who would beg to differ.”
“As do I.”
“Where are they now?”
Cohis sighed. He pivoted nervously and glanced at Istokleia, except her face was hidden within his shadow. He discerned the melon-like scent of her oiled hair, and the tea on her breath, the grain ale. “I travel here alone,” he said, his voice suddenly quieter. He scanned his surroundings: in the distance, the strange silhouettes of men and women gathered. They descended from the markets, onto the shore. And waited well beyond the pier. They were not his soldiers.
“I told you, it is no longer safe.”
“Is this a threat or…?”
As Istokleia spoke, he interrupted her, and started pacing back and forth.
“Because they’re not close enough to save you, are they?” he hissed. “You’re a small fragile thing weighing against my wrath.”
“If you are at all wise — calm yourself,” she said. “Yes, they’re with me. But they will serve you at my say so.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You may know who I am, coyote, as well as I know you, by reputation.  I prefer low level criminals not know who I am. I need you to lead, in my stead, in my apparent absence. To speak for me, to communicate my will, to issue orders.”
“Aint shovin your fist up my ass to play me like some fuckin dummy,” he said and spat on her shoes. The people gathered on the shore approached the pier, slowly, a stone’s throw away.
“You won’t take the throne of the king even as it is empty?”
“I’m exhausted,” he admitted.
“Because you sleep with eyes half-open. With me, you would be untouchable.”
Cohis inhaled sharply. His limbs seemed to freeze in place. He shook his head, and tears lined his eye lids. What could she possibly know of his fear? Or loneliness?
“I am staying at the Engul’s estate, but a dark cloud descended upon that family and nothing seems capable of dispersing it. I’m overstaying my welcome, I can feel it, and have arranged a room at the Lunar Cradle, one with a warm view of the Myrrh, and sufficient privacy.”
She stepped away and bowed cordially, lifting slightly the hem of her elegant dark dress. Her face was startlingly beautiful to him, her skin honey-like and tanned, except for the scars. A circle the width of a fire poker dotted each of her cheeks.
In the company of trained killers whom he couldn’t identify, she left him then. Night time was close at hand and while the wind rustled the cypresses, and the gentlest waves sluiced through the sands, upon the planks Istokleia’s footfalls were perfecty silent.
*
Now the sun sinks into the horizon. Aurora rides atop a brown and white-spotted horse, with his cranky child Democricio stretching in his arms, all cried out. At night, the gates of Ri’shurai close, but a steep toll can briefly open them again. Aurora has a few coins in his pack. A change of clothes he tore to belt-like strips, a bit of water and milk and some fruit he crushed in its rind. There is also a secret gift from Princess Katreina: a key to a room in Ri’shurai, so that he and Democricio do not “live in squalor.”
Fortunately the gate is busy. He walks his horse to a stable and pays the man. At the gate he is asked his business and he answers honestly: artist, I paint mostly, to which the gatekeeper replies, there is no demand for your profession here. Aurora answers dishonestly: I have jobs set up already, and this seems to satisfy the gatekeeper and end the questioning.
On his initial visit, many years ago, Ri’shurai wasn’t as much of a city as it was the idea of a city, yet to be realized. Most of the planning was directed at stopping people from spreading sickness and disease so quickly in the poorer places of Ataraxia, but its multiplication in size and the diversity of its culture occurred mostly from northerners and eastern traders seeking a sedentary existence. There weren’t so many churches, temples, bars, gambling halls, hostels, or outdoor cooking huts. Shops open at dark was unknown then.
He hates this place, as it stands now or how it was then makes no difference, he hates the entire thing: its pervasive reek of fish feces and the salt of the Myrrh, the calmly suffocating mugginess that coats everything in an air of the dead and uninspired, a kind of hell where roofs leak and a shutter hangs off a hinge and flowers in the sills droop bug-bitten and ember-burned and sorrowful, it’s like the children don’t know how to smile, but they’re excellent scavengers — fatherless, motherless, they scuttle along the sand-colored streets with scraps of garbage in their mitts. As he passes by, they peer at him with the expressions of mischievous dogs.
Democricio sucks on Aurora’s milk-and-fruit drenched sleeve. The inn is quiet and well-lit and there are some strangers talking in a common room. Their room is up one flight of stairs and occupies a corner. Already awaiting him is a linen-lined basket within arms’ reach of a cot and there’s a wood-stove with a tidy pyramid of logs, and finally in the corner beside a window there is an easel, the sight of which warms his tense and swollen heart. He gently lets Democricio into the cradle and wraps him up in some soft linen so that finally the boy can get some rest.
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