Book: Hero & Heroine 2 (Anthology of Short Reads) - Paranormal, Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine by Rayne Hall
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Rayne Hallabout this book: This anthology of paranormal, fantasy and science fiction stories contains contributions by Tara Maya, Keith Henson, Scott Rhine, Rayne Hall, Heidi Kneale, Deborah Walker, Kat Fruchey.
Here's an excerpt from "Dancing For Rain" by Rayne Hall.
"Special Ambassador!" a hard-faced woman in a green uniform called from the curtained door. "You're summoned to the Queen. At once."
Tension tightened in Merida's stomach. Would she be accused of bringing subversive literature into the palace? She grabbed her accreditation papers and her government's official gift. The necklace of tastefully square-cut garnets would surely make an impression in a country where people delighted in gaudy glass beads.
The guard opened the door to a fume-crowded chamber. Half a dozen braziers each churned out different-smelling clouds. Amidst the fog languished purple divans, tables with blue coral inlays, and cats on cushions of silver brocade. Hanging lamps furnished the light that the shuttered windows refused. Thick carpets swallowed every footstep.
The Queen sat so still, she might have been part of the divan, differing only in colour. Her tunic glittered in red and silver, drenched in jewels. She was the biggest person Merida had ever seen, with a faint silver aura of spirituality. The guard who had accompanied her bowed to the floor and withdrew.
"Your Luminous Resplendency," Merida recited. "It is my privilege to represent, as special ambassador the Virtuous Republic of Riverland…"
The Queen yawned.
Merida hurried through the rest of the rehearsed speech. She had expected a beautiful female to reign in her consort's harem, but this pasty face spoke of poor diet, lack of exercise, and decaying health.
The Queen's splendid stiff dress hid the body, but the pudgy hands and the fleshy folds of her huge neck allowed a guess at the fat softness underneath. The gems embroidered on her gown were real. More than a dozen pendants dangled from her silver crown, white shimmering mother-of-pearl disks, each garnished in the centre with a slice of yellow amber which reminded Merida of fried eggs. She saw the foolishness of the gift. The Queen owned more jewellery than all the ladies of Riverland did together, and the necklace would never fit her neck.
"Here are my accreditation documents," Merida said.
"That's nice. Put them on that table. Will you dance for rain?"
"Yes, your Luminous Resplendency. It's my privilege to..."
"That's nice. We need water." The Queen nodded, making the fried eggs wobble. She held the necklace up against the sparse light of an oil lamp. "Nice." She bared a doughy calf. "You may fasten it around my ankle. I look forward to the rain."
Merida did as requested, and the Queen clapped her hands. A brown-liveried maid shuffled in, bearing a basket. After perusing its contents, the monarch selected an embroidered handkerchief. Merida thanked her, wondering what other gifts that basket contained. She suspected that the handkerchief was the one of the lowest value.
The Queen clapped her hands twice, and the hard-faced female guard reappeared to escort Merida away. She was dismissed from the royal presence.
Dizzy with bewilderment, Merida sought the fresh air of the palace gardens, and found a profusion of lush rose bushes, obviously well watered, though planted without apparent consideration of symmetry and style. Masses of pale pink blooms smothered sagging pergolas with their weight.
Tinkling jewellery heralded the arrival of the chief concubine who the day before had put the guard in his place. The yellow aura buzzing around her like a thousand bees showed an agile intellect. She smelled strongly of mint and citron oils. Merida had been raised to avoid encounters with low-value persons, but curiosity won.
Without greeting or formality, Teruma said, "I can't give you a guest apartment because the palace has none. Once the Fool's Plea celebrations are over, you may have a room. Shall we go for a walk? This path here is shady, and we can smell the roses."
The soles of her sandals clacked on the slabs. She was really showing ankles and toes, just like the ethnologist had described. Calves even. Merida averted her gaze towards the flowers.
"We don't have value points here in Quislak, but I believe 248 is quite high. Amazing even," Teruma said. "How did you earn them?"
A glow of satisfaction warmed Merida's heart. At last, someone appreciated her personal value and respected her for it. She explained willingly which factors contributed to an individual's value, such as parentage, family connections, marital status, virtuous living, occupations. "The values are not permanent. It's possible to lose points, and having low-value persons in the family brings deductions."
"What are low-value persons?"
"Prisoners, lunatics, concu..." Merida checked herself. "Prisoners and lunatics. Some families go to great lengths to prevent that happening. They may even kill a relative condemned to prison, rather than take a drop in points. Divorce costs points, too. People go to great lengths to prevent a divorce in the family."
When Merida had run to her parents' tower to shelter from her husband's violence, Mother secretly notified the man and invited him for the night. Then she sent her daughter under a pretext into the guest room, locked the door behind her, and ignored her night-long screams of terror and pain – an unforgettable lesson about how family loyalty mattered more than the individual. Fortunately, the next morning he had fallen from the tower roof in his drunken stupor.
None of these matters would ever be spoken outside the family, especially not to a person of low value, and Merida gave only general information. "Schools teach basic value reckoning, and high-ranking families regularly consult professional reckoners for complex calculations."
"Remarkable." Teruma rubbed an earring. "Your rain dance has been brought forward to tomorrow afternoon. Will this be a problem?"
Merida stopped walking. "That's out of the question. Our astrologers calculated that half moon fifty-five days from now is best, and Kirral confirmed the date."
"He changed it to coincide with Fool's Plea Festival. Five thousand spectators from all over the Queendom are gathering in the arena."
"An audience?" Merida cried, horrified. "Magic needs privacy! The agreement specifies there'll be no one present except the sixty-four musicians, four spiritual leaders, and four representatives of the Queen."
"So you can't cope?"
Merida's head spun. She should have known that laypeople in a primitive society neither understood the importance of astrology nor appreciated the enormous energy a magician had to raise. They assumed that magic was easy, a matter of reciting a spell or two, of snapping the fingers, and rain falling on command.
"By the way, the palace orchestra won't play," Teruma added as casually as if discussing an entertainment programme. "Nor will the legion marching band."
"Won't play? The Consort promised!"
"They worry that the foreign magic could harm them."
"Then he must order them."
"It's not good policy to force people in matters of religion or magic. We respect their fears and give them absolute freedom."
"Then why the prohibition about djinns?" The forbidden word slipped out before Merida remembered to hold her tongue.
For a moment, Teruma went rigid, her face tightening into white hardness. Then her posture relaxed into snake-like suppleness again. "Let's walk some more. The point is we don't force people to do something that goes against their beliefs. How would you respond if Kirral commanded you to dance around that spell tree over there, or to slit a goat's throat in honour of the Mighty Ones?"
"That's different," Merida said. "Riverian magic is safe."
"They don't think so."
"I can't work magic without music. Sixty-four court musicians were to have rehearsed the music I sent them." Panic rose, but she was resolved to cope. "Maybe I can do without the flutes, but I need drummers for the rhythm. Sixteen at least."
"I'll find someone who can drum."
Amateurs, with only one day to rehearse! Things were getting worse. She needed a word with the ruler.
Teruma seemed to read her mind. "Don't argue with Kirral. Keep out of his way as best you can during your stay."
Merida frowned. "As a special ambassador of Riverland, I deserve to be treated with respect."
"Sometimes it's wiser to use caution than to insist on rights."
"Then I'll be diplomatic. I'm a politician's daughter, and I've attended statecraft school." Merida did not mention that she had majored in languages, not politics, and Mother often complained that in three years of statecraft training, Merida had failed to acquire diplomacy. "I'll even play Siege with Kirral if that pleases him."
Teruma coiled a lock of dark hair around her middle finger. "It may not be wise to attract the Consort's attention."
"I'm not afraid!"
Teruma laughed softly. "I've delivered the warning. What you do with it is up to you. Good day, Merida."
Consort Kirral beamed when she strode into his study. Today, his moustache cascaded in ringlets. "Ah, our special ambassador. Have you come to play Siege?"
"Highness. I'm giving a year of my life to bring rain to the people of Quislak. Don't I deserve the courtesy to be consulted about a schedule change?"
Kirral dug in his drawstring pouch for saltnuts. He chewed and spat them on the low table before Merida. "You have invited yourself for half a year at our expense and think you are giving us something?"
Merida was stunned. "But... the government..."
"Your government. Your most Virtuous government," he intoned, spitting as he pronounced the word 'virtuous', "did not ask if we wanted you. They decreed that we should have you."
"Didn't you request help because of the drought?"
He pushed his feet into his slippers and shuffled to the shelf-shrine in the corner. He blew dust from the heads of wooden idols, replenished the incense and rearranged the roses. With his back to Merida, he said, "I asked your Virtuous President to aid the starving people in my country. I asked for water engineers. I asked for grain. He promised to send both, but in the meantime would we please give hospitality to a magician who wanted to try out new spells in dry conditions."
Sinking into the divan again, he let the slippers drop on the carpet and crossed his legs. "I agreed, because at that time I was engaged to your President's daughter. Your Virtuous President broke the betrothal and gave the girl to the Darrian Emperor instead." He snorted like a carthorse. "The marriage was off, the engineers and food supplies cancelled, but the magician was on her way and I was expected to house and feed her."
To learn that she was nothing but an unwanted burden came as a shock. Something had gone terribly wrong, but even if the Riverian government was responsible for at least half of it, loyalty to her country would not let her speak that thought.
"I'll honour my part of the arrangement by bringing rain to your country."
"Nonsense." He pushed the slippers on his feet once more and stalked up and down the room, a curved dagger dangling obscenely between his legs. "We have had foreign conjurers queue at the bronze door, promising to bring rain. They begged to be allowed to try." He raised his voice. "None of them had the impudence to demand six moon's lodging at the palace." He raised his voice even more. "In a private apartment! Plus a room for their servants! Plus assistance while they were nosing around. Ha!"
Merida wanted to throw a sharp retort at him. She was not a conjurer, but a member of the First Riverian School of Magic, with skills acknowledged even by her peers at home. She wanted appreciation, welcome, gratitude. "Highness, I can only imagine there must have been a misunderstanding."
"A misunderstanding? What an understatement." He lifted a goddess figurine and clanked it back on the shelf. "Put on a good show. Entertain. That is all I want." His eyes narrowed. "If your magic yields rain, you will find me very appreciative."
In a secluded corner of the garden, Merida clenched her fists into tight balls. With insults and indignities hurled at her, she owed it to her nation to leave at once with her head raised high. But preserving her pride here would mean crawling back to Riverland, admitting failure.
Balanced on one foot, she performed The Stork routine which enhanced concentration, followed by The Thundercloud, a particularly empowering martial arts sequence she had only mastered two moons ago.
The great Helva Hein would not have allowed circumstances to defeat her. Therefore, Merida Karr would not either. Indeed, the challenges permitted Merida to prove herself. She had to make this rain dance work, had to make her mission a success. When she returned to Riverland, reporting the obstacles she had overcome, the government practically had to award her honour points for her services to the Republic.
Straightening her shoulders, she assessed the new situation. The energy values of the moon, the planets and the drums had changed, and she had to compensate for the lack.
She had four options – all bad. She could ask other magicians to link their power with hers, but the native shamans would not only be useless but throw her own magic off balance. A second choice was to draw energy from an audience, which was highly unethical. The third option was to increase the amount of fire used to call the element of water. Fire scared her nearly as much as sharp-toothed rodents. Sick fear swamped her even as she thought about being surrounded by large flames.
This left one option: to enter a higher level of trance. Third-level trances were sufficient for large-scale magic under favourable conditions. To rise to fourth level was dangerous, and only ever practised in the safe presence of other qualified magicians. She would be vulnerable during the act, and weakened for a long time afterwards. Merida resolved to risk it.
On the stone steps around the arena, people sat so tightly together, their hips touched like peas in a pod. Merida was glad that the royal grandstand was spacious and its cushions spaced. When a procession of green-uniformed men carried life-sized idols around the arena, and when priests burned incense and chanted to the Mighty Ones, she took care not to show her disdain.
Listening to native music and watching dances, however, gave her pleasure. On the patchy turf, women hopped and swirled brightly coloured skirts in sinuous, passionate, playful movements while their men clapped out the strange rhythm. She counted the beats. Could it really be a pattern of nine? She had heard mentions of three-count music, forbidden in Riverland, but surely a nine-count rhythm was impossible. Perhaps she should not risk her Virtue listening to those sounds.
She shifted on her cushion. "Teruma, I ought to rehearse with the drummers."
"They're both busy." Teruma selected a cluster of dark grapes from a roving vendor's vine-ranked basket. "Have some grapes."
Hot anger mixed with cold dread in Merida's stomach. "You know I must keep to my special diet for the magic. I told you, sixteen drummers is the minimum, and they must practice with me, so that they can support my magic by nightfall."
Teruma licked at the grapes. "Two drummers is what you'll have. Now pay attention."
The master of ceremonies banged his beribboned staff on the ground. "Here comes the first fool of today: a wheelwright from Quislabat."
Ten thousand feet trampled an excited welcome for the brawny man and his good-speaker.
The master of ceremonies placed the red-glittering fool's turban on his head. "Kneel and speak, Fool. What is your plea?"
The man described how he had carelessly committed a dishonest action, which had gotten him embroiled in further crimes and made him an extortionist's target. "He regrets his deeds deeply," the wheelwright's goodspeaker said, "and wishes to end this cycle of evil."
Waving scarves, the audience shouted for mercy, Merida with them. The Consort, who had looked stern at first, allowed himself to be swayed by the crowds and pardoned the man. The audience cheered and munched grapes.
A young girl wished to marry a poor peasant. Her parents, who favoured a wealthy man she had reason to dislike, threatened to disown her. The girl begged the Consort to intervene. At the sight of thousands of waving scarves, the Consort not only allowed the girl to choose her own partner, but gave the couple a hide of land to settle. The crowd ululated in shrill delight.
"What benevolent rulers the Queen and her Consort are," Merida said. "Even in this totalitarian monarchy they allow the people to decide. Can anyone just turn up to plead their case?"
"We receive more than eight hundred applications every year. From those I chose thirteen. The next case will be interesting."
One green-uniformed official wanted a pardon for raping his virgin niece. This time, no textiles fluttered. The chorus of booing voices drowned out the criminal's and his good-speaker's whiny appeals. Kirral sentenced him to daily public whipping for a moon, starting immediately, followed by eight years of quarry labour.
Merida joined the cheering. Rapists were evil scum who deserved the harshest penalties. But when the whip hit the man's flesh, when he sagged in his bonds and his screams turned to groans, she bit her knuckles. Her guts contracted at every sizzling lash.
"He thought he'd get off lighter here than by confessing to a regular court," Teruma said casually. "But people don't forgive peacetime rape."
"If you knew he had no chance, why did you choose him?"
Teruma just laughed.
Merida insisted. "You should have told him not to apply."
The head-wife plucked a fat grape. "I warn all candidates that they may lose as well as win. I even offer to arrange their safe journey home should they choose not to take the risk. You really should taste these grapes, Merida."
The next fool begged forgiveness for poisoning his neighbour's well.
"Cut off his arm," Kirral said. "Now."
"No! Please, have mercy!" The man tried to run, but two greenbelts restrained him.
Kirral sent the master of the ceremonies back into the arena to announce: "The Consort offers you mercy. He lets you choose: either one arm, or both hands."
A moment later, the well poisoner's scream shuddered through the arena. Merida tried not to look at his crumpled body on the grass, or the arm on the bloodied block, or the executioner holding his dripping sword high as in triumph.
The man with the staff announced: "We will be taking a short break for refreshments now. After the break, we have more performances for you, more fools, more pleas, more executions! For the finale, we have a special act. A dancer has come all the way from Riverland to entertain us."
Merida thought she must have misheard, but he went on: "This kind of dance is used in her home country to bring or stop rain. You may expect a spectacular display, for she will dance on a platform inside a ring of fire. Yes, people of Quislak, a ring of fire."
Merida marched through the massed applause and waving scarves to the Consort's divan. "Highness, I protest! You promised sixty-four professional musicians rehearsing the supplied music in advance, a venue where a river meets a lake, under a watertight canopy, with no more than four observers. At dusk." She flicked her hand at the massed humanity in the arena. "You can't expect me to work magic in these circumstances. Magic requires a special date, a special place, preparation, privacy."
He touched his moustache which today ended in forks like snakes' tongues. "Then we shall announce that the Riverian is not able to perform a rain dance after all. That she has raised the people's hopes with empty promises."
Merida wanted to scream her fury into his face, and to shake his shoulders until that feathered turban fell off. "I'm a qualified magician of the eleventh degree, not a public entertainer!"
He stroked his chin in a slow downwards move. "Be a good girl. Entertain us with a pretty dance."
Wild anger fuelled her resolve. She would prove the worth of her magic by calling more rain than they had ever seen. With none of the specifications met, the challenge was enormous, but she would succeed. She would draw power from every available source within and outside herself, regardless of custom, sense and propriety.
"Please get the height of the fire square doubled," she told the head-wife. "No, make it triple. Quadruple! Or is there no firewood either?"
"Do you want to meet your musicians while I arrange the wood?" Teruma asked pleasantly.
"No! It's too late. They should have started learning the music and rehearsing moons ago. Just tell them to drum like this: doum-tek doumtek. Do you think they can cope with this? Or is a simple four-count rhythm beyond Quislaki intelligence? Or maybe their fingers will be hacked off?"
"They'll manage," Teruma said, unruffled by Merida's fury. "Now listen carefully, Merida. If you want to leave the Queendom, I'll arrange a carriage to take you away right after your show."
"It's not a show!" Merida snapped. "It's an act of magic. Since I'm bringing rain – lots of rain – the roads won't be passable for a carriage for several hours. The very least this country owes me is hospitality." Instincts screamed at her to flee this horrible land, but she would not let undisciplined fear dictate her actions, and she wanted to observe the effects of her magic. "No, you're not going to get rid of me so easily."
Teruma's eyes darkened. "Think about it while you have the chance."
"I have other things to think about. Such as this 'show'."
She would bring so much rain that the people would bathe her in gratitude, the Consort would beg her forgiveness, and the Virtuous Government would award her at least 100 honour points. She would even write her own treatise, Weather Magic and its Application under Adverse Circumstances, and her name would be honoured side by side with that of the great Helva Hein.
(The story continues in the book.)
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