PodCastle 529: Chesirah

Show Notes

Rated PG-13 for violent captivity and violent rebirth.


Chesirah

By L. D. Lewis

“It is almost time.” Chesirah smiled despite her screaming fingers. They were a blur, working feverishly to finish lacing together the last of her dark braids before Nazar the dollmaker made it home. She wove one braid into a dozen others and then a dozen more until she wore a high crown of them pinned in place by the dollmaker’s thick needles. She needed them to make her escape.

Fenox, as a rule, were kept creatures, usually by those of means, influence, and the odd eccentric streak. They needed a safe place to burn and someone to keep their ashes. Their keepers needed a conversation piece: something subservient and entertaining. By and large, it was a shit life, and Chesirah had a tendency to run, so she spent thirty of her adolescent years in the city of Kirjan, caged.

First there’d been the banker: a mountainous Common Man possessed of an arrogance misplaced in a species with such a short lifespan and a fondness for the misery of others. As his toy, “others” usually meant her. He liked to collapse the shell of ash she became when she cycled through her burning, and he emptied her into an ornate glass bottle. It had been a lovely blue color with a round bottom and a long, fluted neck and a heavy brass stopper that tinkled like a bell when she tried to escape and re-form the thousands of times she cycled at his command. He loved the tinkle of that ball. In her less subtle days, she’d contemplated killing him with it.

On her least subtle day, she did.

The view she had now was nothing like what she’d seen of Kirjan from the banker’s penthouse. The city outside her small, round window sparkled at night. It was known as one of Atlas’s most beautiful cities, an island tiered with jewel-toned architecture and bustling with wealth and secrets. The glowing arc of Irth beyond Atlas’s atmosphere washed everything with blue notes. Skyfaring vessels shuttled goods and their traders between the planets and looked to her like lazily drifting stars.

One of them would be her way out.

She was enshrined now in Nazar’s attic workshop: a long, red room where Chesirah existed in secret surrounded by carved heads with sightless eyes on shelves separate from their arms and legs and naked, varied torsos with immaculate breasts. Nazar kept her behind gilded bars adorned by weeping falls of beautiful blossoms, and a throne of colorful pillows she was sure he thought spoiled her. He’d hung a swinging perch at the center of the cage where she was allowed to sit like some bird, her legs swaying, the length of her raven hair reaching through the bars further than even her arms had gone.

Until recently, anyway. For a while now she’d been letting herself out at night while Nazar slept. She wandered the house with the most delicate of footsteps and touched with ghostly faintness objects she’d only ever seen handled before. More importantly, she’d ventured out to explore parts of Kirjan, the better to make her escape. She locked herself back in before sunrise. She was a few nights’ wandering away from escaping for good.

Chesirah finished braiding the last of the needles into her hair when the front door slammed. She startled. Pricked herself. Cursed. She could hear the dollmaker’s whistling through the floor, along with his shuffling footfalls on the creaky floorboards. He was relaxed, which she knew by now meant he’d had a good day. It was of no comfort.

She took a deep breath, steeling herself for their interaction as he clunked up the workshop stairs.

“Chesirah!” Nazar sang. “My muse, my wonder, I come bearing gifts.”

She stared at him, her large eyes dimmed. The lantern light glinted off the rim of his over-large glasses and the fine sheen of sweat on his bald head. He always seemed damp somehow.

Nazar panted excitedly as he heaved the trunk he had dragged upstairs onto a workbench. He lifted the doll out first, a near life-sized thing he placed gently on the counter like some beloved damsel before dropping a bag heavy with metal money dramatically beside it.

“We’ve done it.” He beamed. “Forty orders just today! Everyone wants you. Look what fortune you’ve brought me!”

“Uh huh.” Chesirah leered at the doll on the workbench as Nazar stroked its plaited hair. For the better part of two years, he’d feverishly worked her likeness into this thing. It would have been lifelike if not for its dead glass eyes. They were big and brown like her own, and rimmed with long, rigid lashes. The lids floated listlessly with demure intent if moved. He’d given it her full lips, free of any style, attitude, or expression that might disconcert its owner. Were it made to grin, she was sure he’d have given it her over-large mouth, lined with its pearlescent, dagger-like teeth designed for the tearing of flesh.

He’d carved the doll out of ebony wood to mimic her silken dark skin, complete with the faint shimmer she had at the peak of her rebirth, when she was fresh from ash. He’d watched her for months to emulate it. The banker had taught her to control her cycling for his amusement, and having mastered the process, she refused to burn for anyone when she could help it. Too long without cycling and she grew lethargic. Painful fissures, like parched, flaking desert flats would crack her skin, and the magma of her blood would rise to form keloids in healing over them.

She scratched at the tree-shaped scar on her left hand, remembering the day Nazar slashed the flesh from whatever parts of her he could reach in order to force her burning. A lifetime of threading needles had made him adroit at slinging his whip through the bars of the cage.

He’d kept at it with an unexpected intensity until tears of lava streaked her face and singed pits in the iron floor. She combusted, and watched him marvel at her brilliant green flame until her eyes melted.

Nazar never bottled her, though. For all she knew, he let her be. In the hours or days it took her to regenerate, he would draw her in whatever pose her ashen figure froze and hang the images on the walls. He would come into her cage and replace her charred pillows and flowers. He left her new clothes: a dyed muslin dress or two, and gold chains and trinkets with which to adorn herself should she want to make herself pretty for him. And then he would work, salivating, watching for when the ash shell began to crack and Chesirah emerged again, aglow and flawless and still very much in her hell.

All of this to perfect the doll’s veneer.

He slid three small, neatly wrapped boxes along the floor toward her. Their soft tap against her bars brought her back to her insufferable present. She reached through the bars to untie their satin bows and peel back the patterned paper wrapped around them. Inside: a gossamer-fine gold ring for her pierced nose, a set of bangles, and an expensive-looking comb made from a bone of a creature who shouldn’t have died for something so ugly.

She left them in their packaging. Nazar’s gifts were never really gifts.

“You’re not saying anything.” He sighed. Annoyance tinged his voice and Chesirah’s skin prickled. His violence could be sudden, and she’d have to gather the damn needles again if he forced her to burn.

“You know what I am going to say.”

“And I thought we’d celebrate. Don’t you like your gifts?”

“Yes,” Chesirah replied flatly. She’d never been very good at disguising disdain, and her beckoning freedom made her much less inclined to pretend.

Nazar clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes. “Ungrateful creature.” He scoffed. “I give you everything. What, you want me to treat you like some slave? Some squalid little show-beast like the rest of your kind?”

“I want to be out of he —”

You can’t be trusted!” he shrieked. “You think I don’t know you killed that banker, girl?”

He moved closer until the gold tips of his shoes met the arc he’d carved in the floor — a fail-safe keeping him just beyond the reach of her flames should she feel vengeful. Lantern light flashed against his glasses, obscuring his mad eyes, and Chesirah felt the spark of panic in her chest. She fought the glow beneath the surface of her skin that would tell him he was frightening her.

“You think I believe he chose to swallow glass? You’re lucky to be here whole and not a mess of sodden ashes elsewhere. But me . . . I understand you, Chesirah. I concede that he did not treat you properly. You did what you had to do to get to someplace better, and now you have and you can’t see it. Here, you are secure . . .”

“I am caged!” Chesirah cried, her blood flaring visibly in her veins.

“You are treated like a queen . . .”

“A queen? What queen you know gets whipped like I do?”

“You are stubborn! It is the only way to love you. I am the only one to love you. How do you not know that by now?” He shuffled back to the doll, brandishing it at her as if it was evidence of something besides his obsession. “Look at what I’ve done for you. I couldn’t have done this if I didn’t love you. Now I’ll admit she isn’t perfect just yet. You have such a divine voice, my dear, and I think I’ve found a way to implant a device . . . You’ll have to be more cooperative than you were last time, of course . . .”

“Uh huh.” Chesirah smirked as Nazar began to ramble. In his excitement, he’d already forgotten his rage, forgotten even his attempt to threaten her into loving him.

Almost time, she thought. Any moment now he would sigh, exhausted with her. He would go back downstairs and boil his fish soup and stuff the seeds of a sleep aid into his clove pipe. By the time the acrid smoke wafted beneath the workshop door, he would be slumped and dribbling in his chair. And she would be free until sunrise.

“Sing me something.”

“What?” she scoffed. The banker hadn’t taught her to sing; that was her own gift, even if  he used it for his pleasure. Now, Chesirah refused to sing for anyone but herself and the wooden heads she lived with.

“Imagine your life as it could be,” he said wistfully. “You, the living embodiment of Nazar’s famous dolls, happy and traveling with me to perform for the world. You would be the one free fenox. Go on, sing. And for goodness’s sake, take that hair down. You always look so severe with it piled up like that.”

“You are a mad old man.”

Nazar’s jaw clenched. He reached into a drawer of the workbench and pulled out his coiled whip. She could hear the leather being squeezed in his fist. He plopped it on the counter. “I said, sing.”

Shit.

“We doing this?” Chesirah huffed and got to her feet. Her mind raced.  Pride choked any song in her throat, so there would be no singing. Her options were a violent few.

“If you would just do as I say . . .”

“I am not singing and you are not going to touch me with that, you understand?” she said evenly. She stared him down, even as her hands shook at her sides, reminding herself not to blink.

Nazar squared his shoulders and unfurled the whip at his side. “Are you going to stand there and risk a lash to the face, or are you going to turn around?”

Chesirah didn’t move. Time seemed to slow. Her eyes glazed as she observed with dread his steady breaths and the furious twitch of his cheek indicating his restraint had left him. She watched the whip writhe like a serpent at his beckoning, watched the gargoyle scowl crease the leather of his face, and the flicker of lantern-light in his little round glasses as he finely threaded the whip between the bars of the cage.

Snap!

The whip stung as it snared her left wrist, but the shrill scream in her ears wasn’t her own. She blinked her eyes clear and found her right arm extended through the bars and Nazar clawing desperately at the needles in his eyes.

You bitch! Whadidyoudo!” he shrieked, crashing into the shelves on the walls and tripping over the things he knocked from them.

Her heart pounded: get out, get out, get out! She plucked another couple of needles from her crown of braids and twisted them with shaking fingers in the lock on her cage. The limp whip fell from her wrist revealing stripes gouged into her flesh.

The needles broke. She groaned and tried again as Nazar stumbled nearer.

“Chesirah! Demon! My eyes!”

“Well if you just did as I said . . .” Chesirah muttered as the lock finally clicked and the bars swung away. She almost chuckled.

With a deep breath, she stepped out and moved around the screaming man, careful not to disturb his flailing. She locked eyes with the doll made in her image. It cared nothing for the bleeding eyes of its maker, the broken dolls, the fleeing fenox.

This was it. She was fleeing. But Nazar’s cries might bring someone to his rescue. They would find the doll and search for the fenox who looked like it.

Chesirah raced to the door, swiping the lantern to the floor. She knocked the doll into the shattered glass and flaming oil behind her. The whooshing sound of spreading fire trailed her down the workshop stairs. She’d rehearsed this a thousand times in her mind, but never with such urgency. A new, desperate pitch in Nazar’s voice spurred her to his bedroom where she grabbed a pair of trousers and boots, then barreled back into the living room for the hat and topcoat he’d left strewn across his favorite chair.

She flew down the apartment stairs to the storefront and out the back into the alley, as she had done dozens of times before. Firelight flickered and smoke belched from the third story workshop overhead. She glared around wildly, pulling on Nazar’s clothes as she moved toward the street at the end of the block.

The alley opened out into a market street and most of the shops were closed at night. Foot traffic on the sidewalks was light. The smoke hadn’t wafted this way just yet, and no one seemed to find her remarkable.

Kirjan shone like a distant beacon before her, the arc of Irth pointing her way off this rock. She had only the faintest glimmer of a plan, but she tugged her braids down to fit the hat over them and started walking.

Nazar’s home was in a garden suburb inhabited by honest, respectable merchant families and the shops that contained their livelihoods. It was built on fertile hills, fed by springs and made of brick and stone and climbing flowered plants. Chesirah walked an hour before the buildings became taller. Brick and stone turned to metal and glass beyond the limit of Nazar’s suburb. Old Nyit women wearing bright scarves covering their heads and gold bangles trailing up their arms conjured smoke dragons from long clove-burning pipes over warring board games in open-air cafes. Their husbands, brothers, and fathers laughed loudly when gathered together on stoops, or softly into the necks of lovers they escorted. The Center City lights reflecting off the buildings here were enough to make night-time seem like just a new sort of day.

Chesirah moved through them as a ghost, paying mind only to those who whispered when they looked at her. A crack of thunder finally got her to look back. A dark, unnatural cloud of smoke marked the distant place where she’d left Nazar to his end. It blended into the growing storm clouds creased in flickers of violet light as they crept toward her.

“Wouldn’t have any change on you, would you, friend?”

Chesirah spun back to find a shabbily dressed man sitting alone on a staircase holding a cup outstretched in a grizzled hand.

The answer, of course, was yes. Not that she ever really thought about it, but as a fenox she was positively made of change. But that hardly seemed any of his business.

He must have read puzzlement on her face, because he shook his cup at her. Coins jingled within. His eyes were cheerful, dark pools set in gnarled, darker flesh, his skin seeming as if it was made of scars. He smiled, his teeth gleaming.

Feeling a little silly, she searched her pockets and came across Nazar’s purse tucked into a pocket of his topcoat. Far be it from her to ignore the customs of Common Men and draw attention to herself by not giving change when asked for it. Shit, it wasn’t even her money.

She dropped a few coins into the man’s cup and smiled uncertainly.

“Thank ya.” He nodded at her and then made sure to meet her gaze. “You be careful out here, sis.”

She kept walking, disturbed a bit by his words. They might not have seemed like such a warning if she hadn’t just burned a man alive. She reflected on his skin and the gleam in his teeth. He could have been a fenox. A masterless one like her. And the raised ribbons of his flesh could have been from years, decades of not burning. How could he have known what she was? And how easy would it be for people who wanted more than change from her?

This was all she could imagine of the modern, free fenox: destitute, hiding, scarred from decades of surviving on their own or to make themselves less beautiful, less attractive so buyers would not want them. Lore spoke of them as ancient and terrifying in their glory. Fenox were desert kings once. The wealthy Common Men who owned her kind now kept these stories close, recalling them in just enough detail to relive the pride of conquering such prosperous creatures without giving them ideas about their real worth.

She was countless generations removed from when these teeth of hers had an evolutionary purpose. There was so much she didn’t know — could never know — about who and what she was.

She reached the edge of Center City with its towering buildings, ornate glass storefronts, and electrically lit signs. The banker had lived somewhere near here, but the world was different from the ground than it looked from his penthouse. Irth felt closer, the warbling whoosh of passing skyships was louder. People glanced at her and her peculiar fashion a bit longer here, but the whispers were as likely to be about dozens of other vices as about her.

The problem was that now she’d also exhausted her plan. The marketplace and launching zone known as the SkyDocks towered overhead. She could go there, but then what? She could barely read, let alone hijack something. It seemed unlikely whatever was in Nazar’s purse could buy her passage to another planet. Perhaps she could stow away?

Damn it, dollmaker.

Wide, moving, mechanical staircases carried Kirjan’s nightlifers to the SkyDocks, an elevated avenue of bars, traders’ shops, and launchpads that wound its way like a canopy over the city’s center. Chesirah rode them quietly amid groups of friends and off-duty co-workers, all varying shades of opulent and beautiful. She knew their type and it was a luxury now to be able to ignore them. The lights had her attention. Green and gold and violet orbs of light burned in the eyes of streetcars and streetlamps. They flashed in signs over every entrance and lit the doorways that swallowed their patrons.

The air up top was tinged with the caustic odor of spent fuel. Industrial fans disguised as ornate mesh grates circulated hot breezes that none but Chesirah seemed to mind. Her heart pounded as she moved through the crowds along the promenade toward the enormous, scattered landing pads the ships used. Before, she’d only imagined being so close to them, but here she was, near enough to feel their rumble in her bones and have her hair blown by the wind in their wake.

Water tapped the brim of her hat. A slow creep of clouds had brought rain with it. She pulled a hand from the trouser pocket in which she’d had it jammed and watched a few droplets fall, splash and drip away. She smiled. Rain was the reason fenox were kept.

The banker had only wanted to view her at the start of her cycle when all of her was new and shimmering shades of obsidian. When she inevitably began flaking and graying, he shut her away in the dark because she was of no use to him when she was not beautiful. Eventually these unfortunate ugly spells of hers went on too long for him and he demanded she learn to control it.

This was unheard of. She became angry, indignant and refused to even try something so impossible. He threatened her with water; no big deal to a solid fenox, but the natural enemy of flame and ash was water. Dousing the ashes was a means of murder unique to the fenox, and Chesirah was young and angry, but not suicidal. And so the threat of water drove her to control her cycles. And the threat of being caught in wet weather when their burning began kept other fenox captive.

She stopped and turned her face to the clouds, letting the rain kiss her there. She smiled, pearlescent, pointed teeth shining like moonlight.

Suddenly aware of watching eyes, she closed her lips. A man huddled beneath his umbrella nudged her in passing. Whether Common Men encountered fenox in life or in lore, they would know her by her mouth. And somewhere in this city were forty buyers of her likeness.

Everyone wants you. Nazar’s dead words spread a chill through her body.

The chill could also have been from the rain. Suddenly, it was falling in sheets, obscuring everything that wasn’t a light itself. A buzzer sounded and the strips of green signals indicating safe flight all flicked red. People ducked into a nearby building beneath a glowing violet sign Chesirah couldn’t read. Every time the door opened, she heard laughter and smelled food. After years scented with clove and fish soup, her mouth watered. She decided Nazar would buy her dinner while she waited out the storm.

Inside smelled of spirits and vanilla smoke. Elaborately etched metal screens lined each wall, and amber light danced behind them. Matching table lamps illuminated faces, each in varying degrees of seductive, watchful expression. She headed toward the long counter in the back where customers leaned over stools meant for sitting and ordered drinks and small plates from uniformed men before a wall of ornate glass bottles. She tried not to flinch.

She wedged herself into a space at the counter, and tried to discern the system for requesting something to eat. Three servers seemed to be tending their patrons in an order known only to them, mixing drinks, exchanging tender, and holding spirited conversation with everyone and no one at once. Every now and then, one of them would disappear through a doorway at the far end and return with a plate of something fresh or sizzling.

Her skin prickled the way it did when she felt eyes on her. Too many faces surrounded her but all seemed to be minding their business. This was the sort of crowd she once entertained at the banker’s — young, affluent, and frivolous, but these people would have been infants then, and there was no cage around her now to tell them she should be the center of attention.

The eyes on her — she was almost certain — belonged to a woman wearing glasses tinted dark blue despite the room’s low light. Her blue tailored suit made her seem out of place, and she whispered in the ear of an impeccably dressed and (frankly) beautiful white-haired man beside her. Her companion’s face was wise without being aged, and vaguely feminine without being delicate. They had eccentric written all over them, and eccentrics were best avoided by fenox on the run.

A mustachioed server appeared and presented her with a menu. She couldn’t read it, so she pointed at a plate of meat and vegetables on skewers someone else was dining on. She kept her head down until he returned, drumming her fingers against the wood counter and standing rigid against the jostling of merrier patrons beside her. Her plate was placed in front of her and the server stood with a professional smile, waiting for payment. Anxious, Chesirah dropped coins onto the counter until the server’s impatient expression indicated there were enough. She glanced at the couple in the corner and found the white-haired man staring, amused.

Now annoyed and mortified, she took her food to a small table near the exit and sat with her back to the wall. She took a deep, long breath. For decades, her bars kept crowds at a distance. Without them, she found she was easily overwhelmed and hated that about herself. But all this playing at being normal would end soon enough. Now, though, the first meal she’d ever bought herself was hot and tantalizing before her and it was time to tuck in . . .

“My, my, my,” someone said in a purring baritone. “You are much too lovely to be alone and scowling like that.”

A large man with a substantial beard had approached her table unnoticed. His light eyes twinkled, adding to his air of insufferability. Chesirah blinked at him. Surely she hadn’t give the impression she wanted attention, but he lowered himself into a chair across from her anyway.

“The alone part is easy to fix, but I see I’m going to have to work for that smile.”

She kept eating.

“My name is Sam. And you are?”

“Not interested.”

“Well, Miss Interested,” — here, a self-satisfied chuckle and stroke of his beard — “you look familiar. But I own about a third of the ships on the SkyDock and you don’t strike me as a sailor. Where do I know you from?”

Familiar panic seized her chest. If this Sam man owned a bunch of ships, he could afford one of Nazar’s dolls. She watched the shine of his eyes as he appraised her. For a moment, she considered running off to hide in the storm. And then she remembered she had a card to play.

“You own ships?”

He licked his lips and grinned. “That’s right. Four of them active, two more in the garage. I transport fuel to the Berneo settlement and trade minerals to Irth. I guarantee you not a merchant in three planets can work without what I do.”

A simple yes would have sufficed, but she sat back and smiled coolly. Men’s egos were always such low-hanging fruit.

“Ever take passengers? I am bored here,” she said. It wasn’t entirely untrue.

“What would I get out of it?”

“The pleasure of my company.”

“Tempting. But I’m sure you can do better than that. You are such an exquisite thing.” He reached across the table and rested his hand on her wrist. In that moment, it felt too much to Chesirah like the grip of the whip.

Dry heat rose in her diaphragm and behind her eyes and began to course through her veins. “I am not a thing,” she growled, and confusion flickered across Sam’s face as Chesirah’s skin heated beneath his touch.

There you are, dear!” A sultry voice startled Chesirah back to calm. The woman from the bar, the one in the tinted glasses appeared beside the man named Sam, her expression eager to appear familiar. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

Chesirah wondered what kind of trap this was before the woman plopped down beside her and waved Sam away with a flick of her long fingers. “She’s taken, dear, you can go away now.”

Sam squinted at Chesirah as if reading a ruse, but ultimately pulled back his hand and inspected its odd warmth. He muttered something imperceptible before straightening himself and leaving the table.

The woman sighed when they watched Sam deposit himself on a stool on the far side of the room. “Pardon my intrusion. You seemed distressed.” She smiled broadly and held out her ringed right hand. “Esperanza. Ess, really.”

Chesirah inspected the woman for signs of treachery. She was elegant, lithe, her sand-colored skin possessed of a violet undertone in this light. Her face was freckled and the strange eyes behind her dark glasses seemed too large for her face.

“Chesirah,” the fenox replied and shook her hand with a tighter squeeze than perhaps was necessary. Ess didn’t seem bothered.

“Lovely name.” Esperanza purred, stirring her drink with a finger. “Chesirah, I’m going to ask you a couple of questions. And before you haul ass out of here, I want you to know my associate and I mean you no harm by them. We won’t chase you if you run.”

Chesirah studied the white-haired man casually watching them from the bar and considered the strong possibility that this Esperanza woman was lying. They could chase her into the storm, and force the burning that would kill her. “Fine.”

“You are a fenox, correct?”

Chesirah blinked but did not reply. That certainly wasn’t the first question she expected.

“It’s in the eyes, dear. We are not Common Men either.” Esperanza winked a strange, cat-like, yellow eye at her over the rim of her glasses. “You were previously in the possession of someone who has recently met an . . . unfortunate end?”

“More or less.”

Ess nodded. “That fire in the north. That you?”

“How do you know about that?”

“There are more people here who have than have not by now. Half a block’s still blazing,” she replied with an air of amusement. Chesirah had no idea it had gotten so bad. For the briefest instant, guilt fluttered across her face.

Ess chuckled. “Relax. It’s nothing this storm can’t rain out, I’m sure. That’s not what I want to talk to you about. No, it occurs to me that you are a skilled liberator of things. Yourself included, apparently. And we, my associates and I, are of a nature that we sometimes find ourselves faced with things in need of liberation.”

“You are thieves.”

“Among other things.” Ess sipped her drink.

Fenox as a culture had complicated relationships with thieves in the way livestock have complicated relationships with the farmers who raise them for butchering. And the extra s on “associates” hadn’t been lost on Chesirah either. There were more of them somewhere. Maybe here. Maybe Sam was one of them. Maybe this was a trap.

Maybe.

“What’s a fenox to a thief but a bounty?” Chesirah asked, more keen now to be done and gone. She continued to scan the room for anyone doing a bit too much noticing of her.

“Ah. We don’t prescribe to that brand of thievery. Do you mind if he joins us? We were afraid we might frighten you off if we sat here together,” Esperanza said, her head tilting toward the white-haired man at the bar.

Chesirah nodded. Nothing but a few feet of hardwood floor separated her from the doorway. The table was heavy, but she’d flip it on them if she needed to, before making her escape.

The man was lean and not terribly tall, and lighter of skin than anyone she could recall ever seeing. He sauntered effortlessly through the crowd until he reached the table and offered her a polite smile.

“This is Chesirah,” Esperanza told her associate. “She’s precisely who we thought she was.”

“I am Vannish,” he said with a deep, theatrical bow. This being the first time such a thing had ever happened to the fenox, she squinted.

“And you are who? King Thief?” she asked, assertively, she was sure.

“The Master of Ceremonies.” His eyes twinkled. “A ringleader. Beyond and before that, O Ladrón Mago. Today, your most humble and curious servant.”

“Uh huh.” Chesirah smirked.

“So, what’s your plan beyond dinner?” Esperanza asked.

“To get free.”

“And how do you plan to do that?”

Chesirah was silent a moment and tried to discern their motives from their pleasantly unreadable expressions. She was used to being addressed or gazed upon with some sort of hunger by people who wanted to have her perform or else do something to her. Sam was still on the far end of the room, shooting her his violent, hungry stares. Alarmingly, a few other sizeable men had joined him, their mouths obscured by thick beards.

These strangers, Esperanza and Vannish, looked at her with an interest bordering on casual. Chesirah squirmed.

“You don’t look like you’re from Kirjan,” she managed, trying to match their coolness. “Which means you must be from somewhere else. You two got a ship?”

They glanced at each other before Esperanza replied: “No.”

“Then all you need to know about my plan is you’re not part of it.”

Vannish’s smile didn’t falter. “Fair enough. We are performers, Chesirah. Players of something called the Cirque Nocturna. There are a good number of us from as many places. All are the last of some peoples, the misplaced of others. And occasionally we are in a position to liberate a thing or two. Given your new, impressively obtained status, we want to invite you to travel with us. You do well alone, I see, but there is something to be said for the benefits of family. And we have been family for a very long time.”

Ignoring this Vannish character’s riddle-speak, Chesirah asked: “How long, exactly?” If it was true that age was honest in the eyes, the strangers could very well have been ancient. She herself had lived longer than old men and was still young.

“Long enough to know what we’re doing,” said Vannish.

“So, you sing and dance and steal things.”

“Again, reductive, but yes,” said Esperanza as she sipped her drink. “You are still young, beloved. More in experience than in years, through no fault of your own. We would keep you safe and give you direction, at least for a little while.”

But the fenox hadn’t heard a thing that mattered past we would keep you.

Chesirah’s skin began to prickle again. Danger was mounting somewhere in this room but it was impossible to know if it was from the growing stag party in the corner or the mysteries at her table.

“I know enough about what I need to know about, beloved.” Chesirah sneered. “So let me tell you what I know about thieves. First time I saw the inside of a black box, I was twelve. A thief put me there. That’s how they transport us, in these cast-iron cases just wide enough to squat in if you’re small like I was. And see, before we get where we’re going, they leave us in there for days or weeks or however long it takes to get us cycling. Starve and stress a fenox and we burn faster, so that’s what they do. Once they can see our flames from these three little slits toward the top of the box — too high for us to see out of and just wide enough not to suffocate our burning — they know it’s safe to open it because ash can’t fight for its life.”

Vannish gazed at her in mournful sympathy while Esperanza looked down at the ice in her glass. And as she stirred with a long finger, it appeared to be refilling itself.

“Know how long I was in that box? Six weeks before I lost track of time. Dirty. Sick. Dying, if that kind of thing could kill me. By the time I became whole again, I’d been given to a man who spent the next thirty years of his life trying to break me. And I killed him. Then I went back into a box and came out the pet of a man who beat me out of love for a few years before I killed him, too.

“There is no safe place on Atlas. Not for fenox,” Chesirah snarled. “I am getting the fuck off this planet before they find some new unimaginable bastard to hand me off to. I don’t know what your game is, Players, but anybody in the way of that can get wrecked, too.”

Esperanza gave either an impressed or condescending nod. Of the two Players, Vannish seemed the most disappointed, but he recovered quickly. “Understood,” he said. “I admire your tenacity.”

“I’ll bet,” Chesirah said as she stood to leave.

Esperanza raised her glass in a salute, now full of brown spirit and tinkling ice. “If you’re headed to the flight line, avoid the workers in muddy green uniforms. They’re your friend Sam’s crew,” she suggested.

Chesirah paused a moment, laden with questions as the strangers waited for her to leave. Instead of asking them, she scoffed and then rushed up the narrow entryway and out the door. The rain had been reduced to the streams from overfull gutters and slack awnings, and hung as a mist in the humid air of the SkyDocks. Now, distant thunder rumbled pools and puddles as she followed the green launch lights to the flight line.

A breezeway over a floating bridge separated the nightlife from the commercial launch space. Over one side she could look out over the northern city lights. She glimpsed the sodden gray haze over the remains of Nazar’s suburb in the distance. An enormous plume of smoke rose from the neighborhood to melt into the night sky.

She leaned against a support beam, pretending to be some introspective tourist as she watched the launchpads. Skyfaring vessels were not shaped unlike sea ships. They varied in size and color, and bore markings on their flanks instead of sails, but were varyingly shaped like arrowheads. There were meandering crewfolk tucked beneath awnings and atop cargo crates smoking their pipes and talking before getting back to work. More than a few of them wore murky green uniforms.

Escaping using the crates was not an option. Damned if she was going to put herself in another box. If she wanted to hang around the work zones and not draw attention while she pieced this scheme together, she needed a way to blend in.

Someone was going to have to come out of one of those uniforms.

Innumerable dark, narrow alleys separated buildings along the docks. And surely there were items of the bludgeoning variety somewhere within one of them. The problem would be luring her mark into an alley. A lifetime spent encouraging folks to leave her alone left developing her seduction skills woefully underdeveloped.

Typical.

Should be easy enough, she told herself. A demure gaze from her big, brown eyes, a bat of lashes, a coy smile, a bit of skin. She smoothed Nazar’s long coat. Thought a moment. Then lost the coat, rolled the hat inside it, and crammed the bundle into a nearby trash bin. The sheath of muslin playing at being a shirt would suffice for the evening crowd. She made out what she could of her reflection in the gleaming glass wall of the breezeway and fixed her braids to spill over her shoulders, one shoulder, down her back, fuck it.

She’d gotten Sam’s attention with less effort.

A whistle.

“Hey, Miss Interested!” a giant man called after her.

Shit.

Sam stalked toward her as the center of a group of other curious and gruff men came too close now for her to duck away as if she hadn’t heard him. Danger returned with him. She sighed and reluctantly turned to face him.

“What are you doing on this end of the docks? Going somewhere?” he asked, that impish smile playing about his lips. The other men, a half dozen or so of them, had that hungry look in their eyes, but otherwise stony faces.

“I’m a little busy right now.”

“That right?” Sam grinned and smoothed a hand over his beard. “Listen, I was trying to place why you’re so familiar to me and my friends here helped me out. You wouldn’t happen to know a guy by the name of Nazar, would you? Weird old man. Makes dolls up on the north end.”

Her heart hiccupped in her chest. “Nah,” she said and started away.

“You’re not gonna lie to me twice in one night,” he called after her.

“Can’t help you,” she called, fighting down panic as she picked up the pace in her stride. This wasn’t going the way she planned. Maybe she should get off the SkyDocks, disappear into the city for a minute until Sam was gone . . .

Another whistle. She looked up, noticing that she appeared to have the attention of all the crew in muddy green uniforms, who outed their pipes and left their work zones to stand and block her path on the flight line. She spun. Sam’s friends had fanned out behind her as well.

“See,” Sam sauntered forward. “A few of these gentlemen purchased something in your likeness from Nazar this morning. I’m not a doll man myself, but far be it from me to question what another man wants with them. Nazar’s shop burned down tonight. And these men are out a lot of money. A dead man can’t pay that back.”

“That’s not my problem,” Chesirah said, her skin vibrating in anxiety. Where could she go? How?

“You say that, but this little standoff here’s on the Interplanetary Trade Commission’s property which means you’ll have police attention soon. Even if they don’t shoot you on sight for gumming up the Atlas’s economy, they still want to know who killed a man and burned down a city block.”

“Shootin’ her’s not gonna do anything, Sam. That’s one of those fenox creatures,” a round, shabby man spat.

“Oh that’s right.” Sam chuckled. “I’ve never had a fenox. Don’t seem worth the money or the stress. But you, honey, are spectacular. So, I’ve offered these men what they paid in exchange for letting you be.”

“All right, then let me be.”

“I’m a businessman, girl. I pay them to keep you alive. And I get to keep you.”

“That’s not going to happen.” Chesirah scoffed. There were a thousand things to be unsure about just then, but her willingness to be kept wasn’t one of them.

“It probably should, though. I’ll give you a moment to consider your options.”

Chesirah panted, and her mind reeled. She could jump over the edge of the SkyDock, but all her bones would be broken and she’d be as good as caught anyway. Behind her, Sam’s workers closed in and stood ready to follow his next order. A steady beeping behind them revealed a black box on a cargo cart edging toward the standoff circle. Bored police officers in their pristine blue uniforms appeared on the fringes of the growing crowd with their sidearms trained on her. They shouted threatening orders: who to face, where to put her hands as she faced them, answer these questions, and do it all now.

“Do you want to die today?” someone yelled, as if being shot might be any more to a fenox than a painful inconvenience.

Police aerial vehicles arrived, whipping the flight line with deafening wind and blinding spotlights. Chesirah squeezed scorching tears from her eyes as she tried to orient herself in the sudden chaos. How anyone was expected to adhere to orders demanded over speakers in blaring, indistinct monotones was beyond her.

Sam called in the middle of it all: “Your time is up.”

“Get on the ground!” said the police.

“Fenox are monsters. Just kill her,” said someone else.

“Did you hear what she did?” said a third.

“[Crackle crackle]… NOW!” a police officer shouted over the speakers.

Shutupshutupshutupshutup . . .

I am not goin’ back!” Chesirah bellowed in a voice akin to a thunderclap.

Time slowed. The world outside her body went silent. Her heart’s pounding, slowing, stopping, filled her ears. Sam and his men and the police and the nosy bystanders began to vibrate in her sight. Her skin cracked in glowing black jags and her breath ignited. Fiery wrath pulsed from her body in great ripples that crunched the metal and concrete and scorched the faces of her would-be captors before roaring black flame consumed them all.

She burned bright, and in the moments before she became more fire than flesh, she was able to make out Sam and his men in their frenzied melting to screaming heaps on the rippled concrete. Helicopter blades tore free of their housing and slashed into the docks around her.

“Well, that’s new,” she said to herself, soundlessly, as her voice was more ash than not.

For all she knew, they were her last words.


Fenox do not cease to be when they are ash. Rather, they wait, dormant in a state of black Nowhere. For all they know, it is a state of black Everywhere, but lacking the senses that come with a body, Nowhere is just as likely.

They bide their time as thoughts. Memories. Life intangible, without its mechanics.

As such, Chesirah considered it might be hard to tell if she was dead. Death could be forever in this void, never whole again, never knowing what happened to kill her. It could be argued there was peace in it. There is no spectacle in the dark. No masters. But rage, being an intangible thing, was always very much with her.

Death at this particular time, so close to her freedom, would have been inconvenient.

But what had happened? She’d never blasted so widely before. And her blast had never been black. The standoff circle had been well beyond the distance Nazar had carved his arc in the floor of his workshop. Was this normal? Was this some dead skill, something her ancestors had been capable of centuries ago and bred out of the modern fenox’s memory?

Impatience was another intangible thing she felt as much when she was ash as when she was whole. But she had to wait. For now, at least it was quiet.

For all intents and purposes, she slept.

And then a breeze. She was not dead.

It wasn’t a real breeze, more the slightest feeling of restored touch. She had a finger. A hand. She clenched it into a fist. An arm. Re-forming always felt like climbing. Her left arm, too, grew unsteadily from her ashes and she began to pull herself up jerkily out of the pile until she was an entirely solid thing, cold and naked, and kneeling on a round, wooden table.

She was inside someone’s quarters, surrounded by windowless deep blue walls. There was a bed, a desk, a long bookshelf burdened with some things that were books and some that weren’t. Whoever it belonged to kept things neat. An electrical hum grew in her ears.

The remaining needles that’d been stuck in her hair pinned a note to a neat stack of muddy green shipworker’s clothing left on the table beside her. Panic struck again.

Did Sam’s people have her?

She couldn’t read the note but scrambled into the clothes anyway and armed herself with the pins just as she heard footfalls on the metal floor just beyond the room.

The door slid open, and before she could doubt herself, Chesirah launched two needles . . . into a thick, hard-bound book Esperanza held before her face.

“You’re awake,” Esperanza said cheerily as she walked in. She’d abandoned the suit jacket and seemed much more relaxed in shirt sleeves but she still wore those blue-lensed glasses.

“You . . .” Chesirah squinted.

“Yes, yes. Pardon our intervention. You seemed . . . distressed, again.”

“Where am I?”

“All your pieces in order?” Esperanza took stock of her and nodded her approval. “Come with me,” she said, and left.

“I’m not going anywhere with . . .”

“Darling, you’re on a ship. If you want to know how and why, you’ll have to come on,” she called back.

Chesirah grumbled and joined the woman out in the hall. The walls were gunmetal grey and tiny blue lights ran along the edges of the floor. “I thought you said you didn’t have a ship,” she said.

“We didn’t. But circumstances necessitated we get one and Sam happened to not be using this one at the time. Liberators and all that,” Esperanza explained.

They emerged in a common room outfitted with lounging couches, a gaming table, and a small bar in the far corner. Chesirah recognized Vannish immediately, but a couple of other people were there as well. They didn’t seem nearly as interested in her as Vannish was.

“Welcome back,” he beamed.

“I don’t understand,” said the fenox. “How did you get to me before the police?”

“Black box,” said Vannish. “I drove the cart. With everyone else more or less indisposed, we weren’t exactly challenged. As something of an authority on dramatic exits, I must say you certainly know how to work a room.”

“Bridge is this way.” Esperanza winked and walked her around the room to a door on the other side. “Mind your eyes.”

The door slid away and Chesirah was blinded a moment by bright and dazzling blue. As her eyes adjusted, she made out the dark, familiar arc in the blue’s periphery. A second more and she could identify wispy white bands floating across the surface.

Clouds.

Perhaps she was dead because this was Irth.

Well, this was the ship’s navigation room, but they were navigating toward the impossible vastness of Irth in the wide window. Chesirah dodged around control panels and pressed her palms against the glass in awe.

“We’ve been to Irth before. Often. Much of our team is there at any given time. The planet is well settled, but its inhabitants have never heard of fenox. There are millions of other wild species requiring study or being plied as resources, and the people have so much of their own drama that you’ll be of little interest. We put into port on one of the settled continents. If you don’t like it there, you have other options.”

Vannish joined Esperanza in the doorway with one of his contented smiles.

“So you’re not going to keep me?” Chesirah raised an eyebrow.

“Of course not,” said Vannish. “Our offer still stands for you to stay, travel, and work with us. And we hope you do. But we have no interest in slaves.”

It’s a strange thing to reach a certain age and never have had a kind thing done for oneself. To have that first kind thing being spirited to another planet in the evasion of doom may be even stranger. Chesirah frowned, as she was wont to do in strange situations.

She took in the swaths of deep green land she’d never noticed before. All of it was hers to roam. No spectacle. No masters. The cosmos was infinitely grander than the one rock in it that did not value her. It was nearly impossible for Irth to be worse than Atlas.

“I’m free, then,” she muttered, barely believing the words. A sort of agoraphobic chill rolled in her veins as the planet consumed every corner of the window. Free and alone.

And as suddenly and unexpectedly as her joy had come, regret had finally shown itself. It wasn’t for what she’d done to Nazar’s neighbors this time, or to the Common Men on the SkyDocks. It was for her people, the trapped descendants of Atlas’s fallen desert kings. She’d only felt a world away from them all until now. Every day for the rest of their long lives, the fenox would endure life instead of live it. They would stay isolated and broken and far removed from their former glory until the only freedom they could imagine anymore looked like the graces granted to them by Common Men.

But so many put themselves there, she thought angrily. They accept their lives. They choose weakness. I solved my problem. The others who want to can solve theirs.

Yet here she was on a ship, inches of glass and scant atmosphere separating her from the only dream she’d ever had. And instead of looking at her future, she stared at the scar on the hand she still pressed against the window and thought of the man who asked for change. A niggling itch beneath her skin suggested perhaps that in deciding to escape, she had also decided to abandon.

She was still young. She had barely saved herself. But maybe — if the feeling stayed —  enough time with Ess and Vannish and these “liberators of things” might bring her back to where her people still suffered, and she would have a new world to offer them. And flaming retribution to offer anyone else.

“Some of them have to remember how great we once were,” she muttered to herself. Some of them will get free while I’m lost on this planet trying to figure it all out.

Chesirah spun back to the strangers in the doorway and tried to maintain an indifferent expression, as if the idea of the world before her hadn’t suddenly become terrifying. “Alright I’ll bite. Tell me about these Players and this Cirque Nocturna. You obviously went through a lot of trouble to help me and I don’t want to be rude.”

Ess grinned. “Oh? Is that what changed your mind?”

About the Author

L. D. Lewis

L. D. Lewis is a coffee enthusiast and writer of SFF primarily centering Black women and femmes in extraordinary worlds and with extraordinary power. She also serves as Art Director for FIYAH Literary Magazine for Black Speculative Fiction. Her novella A RUIN OF SHADOWS was published in April 2018 by Dancing Star Press, and she was awarded the 2017 Working-Class Writers Grant by the Speculative Literature Foundation. She lives in Florida, on deadline, and under the judgmental gaze of her cat, Gustavo.

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About the Narrator

Stephanie Malia Morris

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Stephanie Malia Morris works in a bookstore by day and a library by night. She has narrated for StarShipSofa, Far Fetched Fables, and all four of the Escape Artists podcasts, guest-blogged on subjects ranging from book recommendations to zombie turkeys, and performed Shakespeare in a handful of weird churches. She is a recent graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop.

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