“The Madam, the Odalisque, the Cataphract, and His Sons” by Subodhana Wijeyeratne
They are not many, but there are still those who remember the time before the Liberation. Speak to them and you will hear a thousand stories. Listen long enough, and they will all eventually tell you the same one. The one which begins when the Cataphract returned to our village and beheaded his own firstborn son.
This was in the days when we were at war with the Rice-Ogres. Our village lay between two hills, trembling in the tundra breeze and quiet. If you had lived back then you would not have understood the tales the old folk were telling, for they were from the times before the Book, when nothing made sense. Those who are old now were young then, and these were the stories they listened to, and that is why it is hard to understand old folk and their ways. Because in their heads they carry dead worlds.
They will begin the story the same way. The Cataphract returns in early spring when the snow still lies dirty and crusted on the unyielding ground. With him come two companions with spears, as vast as tree trunks and as muscular as cattle, milk-skinned and silent—the first Rice-Ogres the village folk ever saw. Converts. They walk to the square at the middle of the village, crimson coat-hems swishing in the dust. With them is another, a young man who walks slowly, hands tied with rope, head shaved. His scalp is scarred and oozing. His footsteps are unsteady.
The Cataphract dismounts and passes his reins to a Rice-Ogre and walks to the middle of the square. Some children see his shimmering robe and run forward to touch it. But their mothers yank them back, as if out of a raging river, and retreat to the shadows, bowing and mumbling apologies. None of them look the Cataphract in the face.
The Cataphract stands in the middle of the square and doffs his helm and pulls out his scimitar, a blade wide enough to reflect the whole sky. Then two Rice-Ogres bring the boy forward. He is shivering and stares at the Cataphract as he comes. But the Cataphract will not look at him.
The boy falls to his feet.
The Cataphract speaks: “For the crime of betraying his comrades in battle, this man is sentenced to death. As his commander, I shall carry out this punishment. So it is writ in the Book, the Scroll of the Warrior, two-fourteen-nine. Can any cite alternate precedent?”
For a few moments, there is silence. Surely the Cataphract will not kill his son like this, the villagers think. Surely that time has passed.
Then the Cataphract raises his blade. A flash of silver, a torrent of red, and the boy is dead.
Afterwards—the old people say—the Cataphract picks up the boy’s head and wraps it gently with silk. Later he returns with broom and bucket and gets on his hands and knees. He scrubs away the bloodstains, black now against the rock like obscene lichen, off the stones of the square. After they place his son’s body on a pyre that evening, he weeps. For forty-nine days, he wears white and does not sleep with a roof over his head.
If you are patient, the old folk will tell you what happens next.
One thing the old folk can all agree on is that that they knew from the beginning that the Second Son was a strange child. Not just in his looks—his milk-tea complexion, his hair black like a Rice-Ogre’s. But in his mind too. What other little boy would sit in a sack in his father’s saddle-pack, fast asleep, while his older brother was being executed?
When he is six, he takes to wandering in circles around the square wearing a tin hat and waving a little stick with a flag on it. The villagers grin as he waddles past, puffing and pouting like a soldier on a march. The Cataphract finds him and carries him home. The boy barks like a dog all the way.
When he is ten, he begins to draw pictures on villagers” walls, and the things he draws are wondrous. Mountains exploding and trees with roots like cathedral walls and colossal beasts with long noses and big ears.
“It’s a pachyderm,” he says, grave-faced. As if it were some profound revelation, and self-evidently so. He says he saw them when he was younger. The villagers whisper and speculate where it could have been that he saw them. Perhaps if we knew who his mother was, some say.
But who would dare to ask the Cataphract?
As he grows he becomes less strange and eventually the villagers come to think of him as more one of them than even his taciturn and granite-hard father. So when the time comes, and he has secrets to keep, the villagers keep them for him.
You are beginning to see now, yes, that like all stories, this one is also about those who tell it?
By this time the north has been peaceful for ten years and the sand-moas have begun to migrate again. Across the red and rough plains they come with their flat claws pummeling the hot stones to dust, trailing assassin-birds and basilisks in their wake. The king orders a road built and it sweeps past our village on a raised embankment. Soon it is teeming. A few times pale-faced Far Northerners with hair as coarse as a boar’s—and teeth as big—ask for a ball of rice or a handful of pickles. One woman begins selling deep-fried dough balls by the road, sweltering and naked-shinned, squatting by her wok. Soon there are two shops and five eateries. Then twelve shops and twelve eateries. Then they build roads into the fields and pave them with stone and soon they too are teeming.
Not everyone is hungry for food.
When the Cataphract hears that a Madam has come to the village he dons his robes and marches out of his house, magnificent in crimson, face set hard enough to shatter walls. His servants stride along behind him, as aloof as their master, carrying his blades and his hat. The villages fall away and bow as he walks past, even though the king has decreed that they need not do so anymore.
The Madam comes out to greet him and bows and bows again. She is a tall woman and a little too large and too old to consider selling herself. But this does not stop her dressing as if she were, and the coral horns on her head-dress are glossy and red. Her voice drips from her mouth like scented oils.
“My lord, sir—”
The Cataphract cuts her off.
“I do not approve of this,” he says.
“My lord?” says the Madam.
“We do not need this in our village.”
“My lord, I am authorized by the crown. I have my scrolls inside, if you—”
“I do not need to see your scrolls.”
The Cataphract walks over to the old house she has bought and turned into a House of Joy. He peers at the wooden frames and the gold-green-and-red carvings on the facade and the window seat where the odalisques for sale will sit.
“How much do you charge?”
“How much? For a whore? In your whorehouse?”
“I…well, my lord, it would depend.”
“On which of our, ah, companions you wish to spend time with.”
“What, then, is the average?”
The Cataphract glares at her.
“The, ah, average!” The woman looks at her feet and puffs. “Well, I’d say, it is difficult to be sure, but between five and fifteen kul?”
“Are you asking me a question?”
“You said between five and fifteen as if it were a question.”
By now a crowd has gathered and a few of the men have sticks and some of them start jeering when the Madam speaks. The Cataphract glances at them and they fall silent. The Madam goes pale and little spots of sweat dapple her upper lip and her eyebrows.
“My lord. It is hard to tell the average. I am not even open yet.”
“Four and a half kul.”
“Four and a half kul. That is how much you will make on average on every transaction.”
“Have you never read the Book?”
The Madam shuffles.
“Well, yes, my lord, but— ”
“Not well enough, clearly. I am a Cataphract, and my holdings from the king are one hundred kul per year. All know this. Is this true?”
The villagers mumble and nod.
“Therefore the merchants of this town are free to earn as much as thirty kul a year, the farmers twenty-five, and the clerics ten. Is this not also so?”
“Now, you do not intend to cater to clerics or warriors, I am certain. But how do you expect the farmers here to spend a fifth of their annual income on your whores? Is that what you intend to do?”
“No, my lord, but travelers—’
“Where are your employees from?”
“Are you deaf?”
“My companions? I have girls from the far north, if that is your fancy—”
“You will send their contracts to my house immediately.”
The Madam frowns.
Gasps. A few of the villagers retreat into the shadowy alleys, hands on their mouths. The Madam realizes she has done something wrong and bows so low her headdress scrapes the ground and then comes loose and falls with a clatter. After it comes a great mess of gray hair, like tumbling cobwebs, that blots out her face.
“Of course, immediately, my lord,” she says. “But, may I ask why?”
“The Cleric will look over them to ensure they are in keeping with the Book.”
“You have my word, my lord—”
“Your word is not enough.”
They say the Madam stays perfectly still for a long time after the Cataphract leaves. Some of the men in the crowd throw things at her and some other men try to stop them and a few scuffles break out. But after the crowd has dispersed, slim and furtive figures slip out of the House of Joy, smelling of incense and wrapped in robes—two big-eyed inamoratos and an odalisque with thick black hair. The villagers are mesmerized and watch as they rush up to the Madam and pick up her headdress. Then one young man wanders forward from the crowd and helps the Madam up too, though as he does, he looks at the girl, and not the Madam.
“Who are you?” asks the Odalisque.
“I am the Cataphract’s younger son,” says the Younger Son. He cannot think of anything else to say. All he can think about are the Odalisque’s eyes, green like emeralds, narrow like grains of rice.
“Look what your father has done!” the Odalisque says.
The Madam, on her feet, stares hard at the Younger Son. Then she reaches out and puts her hand on the Odalisque’s shoulder and whispers something. The Odalisque looks the Younger Son up and down. After a few moments she nods and helps the Madam back to the House of Joy.
The Younger Son watches them go. When the Odalisque gets to the door she stops and looks back and flashes him a smile so bright his chest ignites.
An instant later she is lost in the murk. But from that moment forth, all that came to pass was ordained. Or so the old folk will say.
The knock on the door the Madam has been expecting for a long time comes in the dead of night. She flings the door open for maximum effect and from the look on the Younger Son’s face she can see he has trouble seeing her, so she turns on one of the new lamps she has had installed, lamps that work with gas piped through the walls of the House of Joy.
The Younger Son hisses and turns his face away.
“It won’t do,” he whispers. “It won’t do for me to be seen.”
“But of course, little lord,” says the madam, and dims the light.
She steps back and bows. The Younger Son stares for a long time into the interior and as he does he sees gaslight flickering to life down the corridors. Then he hears footsteps, soft and swift, and moving at speed.
“You are closed,” he says.
“No, we are not closed,” says the Madam. “We are the House of Joy.” She licks her lips. “She will be pleased to see you.”
His eyes widen.
“Oh yes,” says the Madam. She reels him in slowly. “Do you think she hasn’t noticed you watching her when she is in the window? She has been waiting.”
The boy recovers his wits soon enough but by then he has walked in and the door has closed behind him and already the Northern Girl—the one with the stringy hair and the split face—is pattering around above them swinging a brazier of incense. All the doors in the House of Joy are closed and the rooms silent but for snores, and sometimes whimpers. The Madam leads him upstairs and past great portraits of naked men and women, their lush flesh oozing gold and their faces transfixed with ecstasy.
The Madam leads him to the Odalisque’s room and walks away without a word. When the Younger Son turns to say something she is already down the corridor, a wall of receding silk. Then he feels a hand on his forearm.
The Odalisque breathes in his ear.
“So you came.”
She leads him into the room before he can say anything. It smells of jasmine and he wonders why he has never noticed that she smells of it too. He sits down on the bed, slowly, and tries to clear his head.
“Ah,” says the Odalisque, coming forward. She kicks the door closed behind her, gently, and sets her hair loose at the same time. Great golden-white sheets of the stuff cascading about her shoulders and over her red-and-silver dress and the dragons and mermaids cavorting on it. She smiles. “You don’t waste any time, my lord.”
She comes up to him and puts her hands on his chest and sighs. Then she runs her hands down, down to his hips, and crouches.
“Do you have a gift for me?”
They lock eyes for a few moments, and when his heart has stopped hammering in his ears, he says, “Where is it from?”
“I beg your pardon, m’lord?”
“Your accent. Where is it from?”
“Where would you like it to be from?”
The Younger Son stands up and paces around her. She does not move. She waits till he is behind her and wiggles her backside and flicks her dress up and over it. He stares at her ripe near-nakedness and after a moment has to look away.
“I will give you a gift,” he says. “But you must answer some questions for me first.”
“Would you not prefer to ask them when we are more comfortable?”
“I would like to answer them in chairs, like gentlefolk.”
The Younger Son knows that he sounds like his father when he speaks like that and sure enough the Odalisque responds. She sits on the bed, hands folded in her lap, flawless face gazing up at him as blank as a fresh snowdrift.
“As you wish, m’lord.”
The Younger Son drags a stool over and sits in front of her. He reaches into his shirt and takes out a small purple envelope and puts it on the floor between them. She has a ring on one of her toes, he sees, a little silver thing, emblazoned with a hummingbird.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
The Odalisque begins to answer, and then stops, and frowns.
“In all honesty?”
“I only ever want you to answer in honesty.”
“My mother was a Northerner. So the Madam bought me cheap.”
“No. That isn’t allowed. Until I have paid my price.”
“And when will that be?”
She smiles again.
“Sooner, if you come and see me often.”
“What is your favorite color?”
“My favorite color?”
“Red.” She tugs at her dress. “Red and silver. Dark red. Wine red. Like that sweet wine from the Many Valleyed Islands.”
“And your favorite food?”
“Candied cherries. But I can’t eat too many, or I’ll get fat, and no one will want me then.”
“I’d want you. Even if you were fat.”
They lock eyes again. Then the Younger Son gets up and walks towards the door.
“Thank you,” he says, and leaves.
The Odalisque rushes after him but he is already gone. She heads down the stairs but no one is there but the Madam, lurking like a bear in the shadows.
“Where is he?” she asks.
“I don’t know. I thought he came up this way.”
They both go back up and then they see the window open at the far end of the corridor. The Odalisque wraps her arms around herself and braces.
“Sorry,” she whispers. “I don’t know what I said. I tried but…”
“Did he pay?” asks the Madam.
She puts one massive arm around the girl.
“Good. Don’t worry, my little hummingbird. You did just fine.” She licks her lips again. “He’ll be back.”
Soon afterward old and affluent families from near the Lake take to promenading up and down on the roads. At first they stream past the village—now a town—atop camels decked with embroidered rugs. Then they begin to stop. After that they begin to flood in with their retinues and their desires and their gold, and everything changes.
By this time it is possible to get from one end of the town to the other just by jumping from roof to roof, and the Younger Son knows how to get from his house to the House of Joy in the same way. The Scribe’s Son is with him and both are silent and deft and move so lightly that no one below can hear so much as the clink of gold in their pockets.
“I just think,” says the Scribe’s Son as they go, “That you’re wasting your money. How do you know you won’t have fun with anyone else?”
The Younger Son stops, crouched at the edge of the building, and looks back at his friend.
“It’s not about fun,” he says. “Will you help me?”
The Scribe’s Son nods. His massive forearms gripping a roofbeam. His northern eyes slim like the Odalisque’s but gray like the tundra skies.
“It won’t work, though. The old cow’ll never let her go.”
“She’s one of her best.”
“She will let her go. She can’t say no to how much I’m offering.”
“Even if she does, your father won’t let this happen.”
“My father,” says the Younger Son, “doesn’t approve of anything, these days.”
“Yeah, but, remember what happened to your brother?”
The Younger Son is as still as a gargoyle for a few moments on the roof’s edge and the Scribe’s Son thinks that maybe he shouldn’t have spoken.
“Sorry,” he says.
The Younger Son nods and touches his friend’s shoulder.
“Will you help me?”
“All right,” says the Scribe’s Son. “Of course.”
Under their feet there are things that no one had heard of when the Cataphract had returned to the village. Brass bells made by the thousand across the seas. Bracelets and necklaces and varnish for one’s nails. The girls in the village see the courtesans walking around with flowers in their hair and now there is a shop that sells only flowers and it is crowded with women day and night. And next to that, a shop of oils and perfumes. Strange red liquids that disappeared into thin air, leaving only the aroma of apples. Men drip the stuff into their beards and curl their hair and walk the streets now with shoes made of cow-skin and cloth. None of them pay any mind to the old Cleric, who reads his books by the window, and sighs loudly when anyone wanders by.
The Younger Son and the Scribe’s Son slip into the alley next to the House of Joy and are around the corner and into the building in an instant. The Madam is not so much sitting on a chair as oozing over it and she looks up, wheezing, as they walk in. The Younger Son nods and walks straight up the stairs past where the ghostfaced Northern Girl lurks in the shadows. She was once pretty but a man cut her a long time ago and now no one wishes to see her. Even before the attack she was pale and secretive but now she is little more than a tragic whisper. She pauses from her sweeping to watch him go, face empty, eyes brimming.
He gets to the Odalisque’s door and coughs a little. He is bracing himself when the door flies open and she is standing there with her hands on her hips and her mouth in a knot.
“You’re late,” she says.
“Am I?” asks the Younger Son, and steps in.
She smiles and wraps her arms around him and kisses him. He breaks away and says, “Shouldn’t you ask for your present first?”
“Yes, I suppose I should.”
She holds out her hand, eyes averted.
The Younger Son takes out a package and hands it to her. Purple paper and a golden ribbon. The Odalisque frowns and walks over to the bed with it. She sits on the edge of the vast plains of red-and-gold satin bedspread and stares, open-mouthed.
“Really?” she says.
“If you wish,’ says the Younger Son. He looks at his feet, and then at hers, and then finally out of the window. “If you’ll have me.”
For a long moment, silence. He thinks that she has left the room, that that is her answer. He thinks how long the walk home will be, and that he would rather do it alone. If he leaves now, he thinks, he could. But he is interrupted. She comes up behind him and puts her hands through his arms and rests her head against his shoulder. Her hair tickling his cheek, the weight of her warm and heavy on his back.
“Yes,” she says in a voice like incense. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
The House of Joy is closed and the boys and girls are asleep and that is good, the Madam thinks, for it would not do for them to see her thus. She does not like to leave her premises, but on this occasion, she has no choice. Besides, she would not miss this for all the gold in the dead halls of the Rice-Ogres.
She slips out into the street and after walking down the road and along an alleyway more gutter than path she emerges onto the thoroughfare. It does not take long for her to be certain that no one recognizes her. Without her makeup and her head-dress she is just another old woman, veiled and crooked and lost in the rush of the town. They have begun to install lights everywhere now, little glass balls like miniature suns, and as hot to the touch. Recently a batch arrived from the east, made of stained glass, and nearly every shop has one. A single blue bulb over the general store. Two flashing yellow ones over the gunsmith. And further down, a whole glittering frame of them, flashing madly, as obnoxious and loud as the gambling den they advertise.
Sneaking down the street she sees herself briefly in a mirror and loathes her own face. She remembers that she became a Madam to avoid just this—being just another old woman. She does not recall the Cataphract’s house being so far away and is beginning to think she is lost when she finally finds it. A wall in the ancient style and a simple wooden gate made of mahogany. A red crest on it, a horse rampant and an orchid. She looks left and right and she is alone but for a rat nosing through some rubbish a few feet away. The moons are in eclipse tonight and their maroon light lies heavier than shadows on the land.
She knocks the door and half expects no response and there is indeed none. She knocks again and waits a while longer. Still nothing. A man walks past, humming to himself of a boat and the sea and a woman, far away, and the Madam hides her face.
When he has passed she knocks a third time and almost immediately one of the Cataphract’s Rice-Ogre servants opens it a crack. He has one of those strange metallic light-sticks from overseas and shines it blazing into her face. After a moment, he recognizes her.
“What do you want?” he asks.
“I want to see your master.”
“None of your business.”
“My master has no business with you.”
She has imagined saying what she is about to say many times, and she stifles a smile before she does.
“No, but his son does.”
The Rice-Ogre is quiet for a moment and then closes the door without a word. More silence, and then the door opens. This time the man is not holding a torch.
“Come,” he says.
He walks fast, with no allowance for the Madam’s aching back and cracking knees. Through a garden full of black trees with black leaves and glossy rippling expanses of water also black in the deep red night. There is a lamp burning in the house—no bulbs in sight—and she is amazed at its simplicity. Rooms spotless and empty but for two chairs in this one, a single table in that. On the walls, two or three silk prints, each probably worth more than the House of Joy, she thinks. Still, it is more like a barracks than anything else. How different the Cataphract and she are, she thinks. Hers a world of sin and velvet. His, one of steel and silence.
The Cataphract himself is sitting cross-legged on the floor in a reception room. Fully robed despite the hour, with his sword on his lap. There is nothing else there but for a single lamp, and in its trembling light his face is stern and still. She steps into the room but he holds up a hand and points to the threshold.
She steps back with a nod.
He points to the ground.
She kneels and bows low and says, “This is a matter that we should discuss alone.”
“Say what you have to say and be gone,” says the Cataphract.
The Madam shrugs and reaches into her robes and pulls out a small wooden box. She hands it to the servant, who weighs it in his hands and sniffs it and then opens it a crack. When nothing happens he closes it again and approaches the Cataphract on his knees. The old man takes it from him and he opens it too and stares at its contents for a long time. Then he looks at his servant.
“Go,” he says.
The servant bows low and casts one last glance at the Madam as he leaves. His clogs tap-tap on the wooden floor and the echoes of that bounce off the walls and multiply and the whole tumbling cascade of noise collapses in on itself. After a while it is quiet again and the Cataphract extracts a small piece of paper from the box and reads. He purses his lips and soon she can see that he is doing this so hard that he has squeezed all the blood from them and his mouth is no more than a black gash on his face.
“How did you come by this?”
The Madam wants to smile again, but she is careful not to.
“My boys and girls are precisely that, my lord. Mine. And what is theirs, is mine.”
“Are you suggesting they are slaves?”
“No, my lord. Family.”
For the first time since she has known him the Cataphract laughs, and it is frightening. The Madam wonders for a moment if things will play out as she expects. If perhaps she has not made a great mistake.
“When did he give this to her?”
“This evening, my lord. He is at the House of Joy now. I thought you had better know as soon as possible.”
“I’m sure you did.”
The Cataphract claps his hands twice and the servant returns carrying his torch. He gestures the Madam to her feet but she does not stand. Instead she looks back at the Cataphract and says, “Is that all, my lord?”
“That is all.”
“My lord, surely, I am deserving of some reward?”
The Cataphract stands and she sees that though he is old, perhaps older than her, he is still strong and sprightly and handles his sword with ease. He watches her for a few moments, empty-faced. Then he sighs, and speaks.
“Your reward is that you have fulfilled your duty by the Book. It is not sufficient to get you into heaven, I think. But I assure you there was little chance of that in any case.”
The servant pulls the madam to her feet before she can speak and hustles her out of the door. When she comes into the street the rat is still there and it rears up on its hind legs and peers at her.
The Madam looks down at it and smiles.
“See, my friend?” she says. “There are some people you can never cut. But there are none who can’t be convinced to cut themselves.”
Then she walks home, humming to herself of a boat and the sea and a woman, far away.
When she was younger, the Odalisque hated sitting in the window. In the summer she would swelter in her robes. Old men, grimy and gap-toothed, wandering past, none of them able to afford her, but all leering and licking their lips. Sometimes they would stop and make obscene gestures and she could do nothing but smile. As if she approved of what they were doing and was inviting them to do those things to her. As if to say, yes, all those things, and much more, if you have the coin.
“You better sweeten that face of yours or I’ll send you back to where you came from,” the Madam would say.
Now, though, she enjoys it. Now the town is bigger and the poor folk no longer come this way. Nor the filthy, nor the old. And this day she knows will be the last time she has to sit in the window. So she ascends to her seat like a queen to coronation, resplendent in an azure silk dress hemmed with fighting dragons, white flowers in her hair. The Northern Girl is already in the window, for the Madam discovered that there are, indeed, those who have uses for her, and it does not matter to her that every time they use her, her scars multiply.
She sees the Odalisque and gets shakily up and as she turns around she pulls back her veil. Her bloodless skin is dappled with sweat, running thick and milky down her face. She says nothing to the Odalisque, and the Odalisque says nothing to her. Instead she sits and positions herself and when even the women start to take notice she knows she is doing it right. She smiles, but does not signal them over. Instead her eyes keep darting to the alley to her left, and every now and then she leans forward to get a better view.
Just after lunchtime the Northern Girl brings her some tea.
“No one today?” she whispers.
“Not yet,” says the Odalisque.
The Northern Girl looks at her and her tongue darts in and out like jittery pink worm.
“Are you sure it is today?”
“Mm.” The Odalisque looks back out of the window and then suddenly turns to the Northern Girl. “Why are you—”
The Northern Girl turns and flees, and a moment later the Younger Son leaps down into the alley. He sees the Odalisque, and she sees him, and she stands up and presses herself against the window. He comes towards the House of Joy, smiling luminously.
The Odalisque turns to step out of the window but when she does the Madam is standing there, holding her truncheon. Her mouth has shrunk into a tiny pink smear on her face. The Odalisque looks at the weapon.
“What?” she says.
The Madam steps forward without a word and brings the truncheon down on the Odalisque’s shoulder. She screams and trips and then the Madam is on her, grabbing with fingers as hard and sharp as talons. They struggle a bit but the Madam is too strong. She rips the flowers from the Odalisque’s hair and tears the dress off her until she is half naked. Then she rams her face-first against the glass.
“Look,” she whispers. “Look well and learn.”
The Odalisque looks and though her eyes are full of tears she can see well enough. Two Rice-Ogres are holding the Younger Son. She does not know what to make of this but then she sees a glint and the Cataphract walking slowly towards the boy and screams, “No! No!”
The Younger Son hears her, perhaps, and looks up. The Cataphract halts behind him and says something but the boy does not respond. A crowd has gathered now and at first they are silent, but when the Cataphract starts speaking, somebody boos. The Cataphract ignores it and keeps speaking. Something about the Book and retribution and whores, but the Odalisque is not listening. To her the world is nothing but the Younger Son’s face and she drinks in every twitch and shadow, though she is pressed hard against the glass, and the window is fogging up with her sweat and breath and tears.
The Cataphract stops speaking. More boos, more jeers; a couple of young men step forward, but one of the Rice-Ogres whacks one across the face and drives the others back. The Cataphract raises his blade and the Younger Son and the Odalisque lock their eyes. They keep their eyes locked even after his head has tumbled to the ground, and the Madam has resumed smacking the Odalisque over and over again on her back and her legs. They keep them locked even after the surging crowd has driven the Cataphract and his servants off. They keep them locked until finally the Younger Son’s eyes slide closed and all that is left of life on his face is a smile, the same smile he smiled when he first saw the Odalisque.
After a while the Madam leaves and the Odalisque collapses in a heap. People stare at her through the window. Someone taps her gently on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” whispers the Northern Girl in her ear.
None could see the Liberation coming except those who could, and they only said so after it had happened. In the days leading up to it there are rumors of guards rebelling and a Kuvatalese invasion and half the navy being sunk in three days of thunder on the water half a world away. Then quiet. Then almost as soon as the first telegraph line is completed—a thin umbilicus to the rest of the world running atop great crucifixes—someone kills the king with a grenade.
With that great red cloud goes the last illusion of normalcy. As if, overnight, everyone goes mad. This is how the old folk remember it.
The Cataphract is sitting at the threshold of his house with his sword across his lap when the crowd breaks in. They surge at him, ululating and hacking at the trees and smashing the ceramics in the garden. Shards glint on the soil like splatters of azure blood. Some of them carry guns and they shoot the two Rice-Ogres, and when another servant tries to defend the kitchen they push him to his knees and call him traitor and shoot him through the head too. Then they eat all the food and drink all the wine.
During all this the Cataphract sits as still as the eye of a storm. Then one fool comes too close. A flash of silver and she falls in two bloody pieces.
Someone throws a stone at the Cataphract and it hits him on the head. He feels the warm barrel of a gun against his temple but then someone says something and it disappears. He tries to get to his feet but someone kicks him hard in the chest and he knows he has broken a rib. Now every breath like a blade, ice-cold and thin, slipping in and out of his lungs. Someone else kicks him and he hears a voice in his ear.
“If it weren’t for your age, you old bastard, we’d skin you and use your hide as a flag.”
They find his library and piss on it and some of them come back with copies of the Book. They pelt him with them. Some tomes are ancient and as heavy as rock and one of them knocks him out cold. When he awakes the house is ablaze. Someone has shattered his blade and people are dancing in his pond. He crawls past them and they turn, faceless against the conflagration, and watch him go.
Finally, out in the street, he gets to his feet and he sees that the whole neighborhood is in flames. He sees too that he is lucky, for there are dead bodies out here, and others who are not dead yet but soon will be. But the Cataphract has seen battle and gore does not faze him. Instead he thinks he must get to a bookshop soon and get a copy of the Book, for his own is now surely ash.
He does not know how long it takes him to get to the center of town but when he does he sees that there is a huge bonfire and they are burning even more books. He reaches for one from a basket but a boy steps forward and spits in his face and pushes him over.
As he lies there he sees something else the old people remember well.
A group of people is hauling something towards the fire—an old woman, flailing like a fish, screaming. It is the Madam. One of the women dragging her stops and stares at the Cataphract for a moment and comes towards him. It is only when she draws close and squats in front of him that he realizes that long ago he saw that face pressed red-eyed and despairing against a window.
The Odalisque has a knife in her hands. She is dressed like a farmer and has a red sweat-band tied around her head. In the yellow-red light of the bonfire she is beautiful and terrifying and as cold as a diamond.
“Look,” she says. “Look well and learn.”
They drag the Madam, still bellowing, towards the fire, and then fling her down into the dust. People cheer. The Odalisque takes the old woman’s wrists and cuts them and the Madam screams. Then she moves down and wordlessly slits the woman’s tendons. Then she drags her by the hair to the fire. When she gets close she tries to lift the Madam but she is too heavy and still resisting, so two other figures rush forward and they pick her up and fling her into the flames. She wails and shrieks as she burns but the roar of the fire is so intense and the chanting of the crowd so loud that the Cataphract can only hear it now and then. But even that little is enough.
He curls up into a ball and covers his ears.
The Odalisque who is no longer an odalisque turns to the old man. He shoves her away but she kicks his arm and then pins it to the ground with her foot and reaches for his neck with her knife. She cuts away the little necklace there and pulls one of the three pendants off and flings the rest back at the Cataphract.
“The only reason you’re not in there,” she says, “Is that at least you thought you were doing good.”
She walks away.
The Cataphract closes his eyes.
Everyone suffers after the Liberation, and the world fills with impossibles. Guns so huge that their enemies can fire them from beyond the horizon. Devices to project voices across oceans. The town, built with so much energy and of so much wood, burns and burns and burns for days. Nothing is left in the river but dead things, bloating and stinking and clogging up the waterway in a vast and undulating putrescence.
But after that they build another road and this one is large and flat and paved with smooth black stuff. And along with this rise frames of pourable stone, and these are cased in glass, cool and silvery, which reflect the sun onto where the paddy fields used to be. Soon they rise so high that they hide the sky, and where the people of the village used to go about their lives with the wind on their cheeks and the smell of the earth in their nostrils, now there are now fluorescent shop-fronts and ever-jangling casinos. And everywhere, strangers. Strangers who live next to each other and go to the same eateries and work in the same offices, but are strangers nonetheless.
Remember who is telling this story. Remember how this is the story of how their world ended.
The old man should receive a pension but he refuses it, for he does not believe it is owed to him. None of his neighbors speak his language and when he is angry sometimes he tells them that they should, because it is language of here, the language of before. Before what, they ask, and he tells them they should read the Book. But they do not know which book he is talking about, and when they ask him he shakes his head and says, “There is only one.”
He works at a supermarket bagging groceries and he knows he is lucky to have even that. His fingers are gnarled with arthritis and his movements too slow and precise for the clamor of such a place. Sometimes the customers get irritated and pack their own bags and depending on who is in charge at that time he might get a dirty look or a stern talking to. Sometimes he wishes he had his old blade to hand, but then he reminds himself that he is lucky, lucky, and nods and says nothing.
He never smiles.
One day near the end he is bagging up and it is raining outside. The vivid signs of the brothels and the restaurants and their twins reflected on the obsidian-slick road. He is thinking about something else and when he hears the cashier ring he gets into position and looks up. He locks eyes with the customer, and she with him. They both freeze for an instant and he sees the pendant at her neck and thinks perhaps she will do something. But her eyes flicker away undisturbed and he sees that there is a little girl next to her, tugging on her arm, round-faced and grinning and furiously stuffing a yellow sponge roll into her mouth.
“You’re going to choke,” says the woman.
The girl grins through chocolate-stained teeth and the old man sees she looks just like the woman, and that one day she too will be cursed with great beauty.
The old man begins to pack her bags. When he looks up he sees the Scribe’s Son paying the bill. He averts his face and keeps working, his heart swelling like a dying star in his chest. He fumbles with the bags and the Scribe’s Son tsks but the woman says, “It’s fine.”
When he is done they take their bags and the old man keeps his eyes on the floor. The woman and man and child scurry across through the rain, laughing, with their bags on their heads.
The old man stares until he realizes that he is the only one looking. The till rings. He returns to work.
Subodhana Wijeyeratne is a graduate student and author currently living and working in Tokyo, Japan. He has been writing for over twenty years and has had pieces appear in Expanded Horizons, Electric Spec, Aphelion, Aurealis, and The New Accelerator, amongst other. His first collection of short stories, Tales from the Stone Lotus, was published in 2017, and is currently available on Amazon.com. You can follow the latest from him at subowijeyeratne.com.