William’s unheeded narration died a lonely death amid the quiet of his rooms. Rain hissed against the panes behind the heavy red drape, though he had forgotten the inclemency of the night outside, sitting with his back to it; in his hand the little book from which he read had folded closed almost of its own accord. He stared at the talismans stitched into the ancient felt he had laid over Susan’s legs in the low-burning light of the candle, her body almost lost beneath the blankets. The scent of her blood recalled the damage done; he gave over trying to read, and sank more deeply into the chair, letting his eyes drift shut.
They opened again to deep, glowing fuchsia and the sensation of something aliform against his face and hands. Long pink plumes, gently bouffant, slid across his eyes, one after another; he turned his head and saw they formed the recherché raiment of a double line of lissome show girls as they passed by on either side, heads held proud. They were crowned with cocktail-coloured festoons, shimmering diamanté chains swinging from the cups of their bustiers, powdered flesh spilling over the seams. He was bewildered, by their number and their silence, buffeted all the while by the glitter-dusted shoulders and outstretched arms that rose and fell with the count of their routine, their gazes fixed to the distance, eyes outlined in peafowl blue. As they danced, the shadows on their faces swung upward and immersed them; William closed his eyes again, since they were no longer of any use to him.
Another light waxed roe-red over a course of buildings, strung in the distance across a broad lagoon. The air was densely moist; insects danced atop the water, and doubtlessly in the dim lacunas before the distant porticoes. The city lay beneath an idle sunset, its blazing colours lying heavily upon the domes and spires that formed the long spine of its profile. Looking down, he saw that his bare toes lay only inches from the tongues of water that licked toward him over a narrow, silty beach, straining the bounds of a full tide.
He recognized the famous lagoon, and the flank of the crowded city lying some small part of a mile distant, but not the cemetery isle on which he sat. The mausoleums of bronze and marble were crammed as closely as the houses of the living across the passive shoal, testament to the affluent merchant caste interred within, though their seals were undone by saline mist, their walls washed with streaks from the greening corners of their plaques. He sat down on a grave, perplexed. One of the tombs before him stood cracked and leaning, its door prised open. By its footings lay a white gull’s severed pinions.
A female figure appeared, gliding as if borne on air. She leaned forward in an expectant manner, hands clasped at her breast as she neared him, though her features darkened slowly with disappointment and she halted a few graves distant. A rattle scorched his ears, as harsh and sere as a gale whipping salt from a soda lake, dying away into a sullen, hissing chatter.
“Have we met?” William asked. Discerning the style and substance of her garments proved difficult; her dress altered with her movements, appearing one moment as faded palladian drapery, the next as some quilted court gown blurring into fleur-de-lys brocade, then patterned velvet. Her hair fell past her shoulders, its true colour as furtive and indefinable as her clothing in the twilight. Her frown proved more substantial.
“Will you never remember my name?” she sighed, voice dulled by boredom. Her face was a gentle, rounded oval, her skin the colour of sugar melting over fire.
“Sorry...” he admitted.
“I am the lamia Amernis.”
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?”
“When we meet I know that I am dreaming.” she remarked, raising a hand to her mouth as she yawned. She stepped around the stone between them, leaving in the earth behind her a tapered furrow, as though something trailed in her wake, and she took a seat beside him on the grave. “A woman with the look of you about her brought you across the water, and when her demands did not prevail, she treated you roughly and flung you to the ground, naming you the worst of all earth’s creatures. She rejoices at the misfortune of your mistress, and hopes that she may perish while you are sleeping.” the lamia informed him. “Perhaps she is your wife.”
Jumping up, William seized an intagliated headstone and ripped it from the ground, wielding it in both hands to smash a pair of slate crosses, then flinging it at the head of a porphyry cherub. He continued his destructive spree until there was little left of the stone in his hands, coming to a breathless standstill. The lamia toyed with a strand of her own hair, twisting it around her fingers as she observed his frenzy.
“What would I not give to have a lover curse me with such conviction?” she lamented.
“It’s fucking overrated.” William assured her bitterly.
They looked up at a strange, attenuated grunting. To his surprise, a glabrous, pithecoid creature shuffled out of the salty mist and halted before the sepulchre, blinking and snuffling like an idiot cast from a dungeon. Its head was broad, planate and bald; tufts of coarse black hair protruded from its wing-like ears, and its thickly-fleshed arms reached almost to the ground. It came closer upon twisted legs, peering at them with eyes like balls of lignite, grasping half of a human arm in its right paw. It was certainly the most olid beast to have troubled William’s senses; it pressed the knuckles of its free hand to the ground and lowered itself onto the moss before Amernis as though invited to, where it took to crunching on the dismembered limb, stripping it of flesh and regarding William opprobriously in the midst of its gnathic labours.
“This is Dadjin.” said the lamia, watching it ingest both flesh and bone. “He is a Khorezmian ghoul, but comes here, for he esteems its dead above those of other folk. They are kept savoury by wine, usury, and whoremongering, even into their dotage.” William nodded, opening his mouth to breathe so that the visitor’s odour would not sicken him.
“I’d offer you my hand but it’s got sentimental value.”
The ghoul snorted, and addressed him in a thick pidgin of corrupted Latin and his own ancient tongue.
“Why should Dadjin desire your rude thews while a seasoned bounty lies all around?” He recommenced his unsightly repast; Amernis watched him fondly, and the trio sat together for some time, William watching the fabric of her dress change from mazzarine to royal purple.
“For the first time in my life I don't give two fucks about Rana. It’s Susan... every time I look at her I think... what the hell am I doing?” He let his arms fall laxly. “She gets eighty years, I get ten thousand. Pourquoi? I can't even keep a vampyre off her. I’m such a fucking loser.”
“For shame, that you did not guard her against this night creature.” Dadjin scolded.
“Who will defend her if you can not?” the ghoul insisted.
“You don’t have to rub it in.”
“I know not how you can speak of this disgrace.”
“She had told me to fuck off...”
“Do you follow a woman’s word in everything?”
“Yes.” William declared, glaring wide-eyed at the censorious creature. Amernis interrupted her colleague’s reply, leaning forward to cough gently into her hands, then shake spittle from her fingers, in which sparkling diamanté chips and fuchsia feathers were inextricably immured. The ghoul concluded its own meal and bent forward to wipe his face upon the pillowy moss, first one cheek, and then the other.
“Why do you never bring me happy tales?” the lamia complained, frowning down at William as he lay his head in her lap. Her eyes were called toward the water, and a small, shallow-bellied boat of dark wood drew up into the shoal, its prow pushed against the sand by an unseen current. She cast him from her lap and slid down over the beach, wading out into the water and clasping her hands to her chest as she peered into the hull. It was empty.
“I would leave this island, but what of Amernis?” the ghoul confided in a voice like the slow grinding of a hinge. “Few come to seek their doom with her, but she will not join me in my victuals. Dadjin says let it be your need that steers your hand, for soon your wants will follow, but she will hear nothing of this, and in her pride she does surely suffer.” He scratched his side with claws blunted by excavation. “These black dogs come to us all. It profits no beast to wring his hands on their account.”
The furrow carved in the lamia's wake began to fill with seeping water. Across the lagoon the buildings seemed to sink into the horizon as the evening consumed its mantled hues, narrowing the spectrum until only black and blue survived, like smoke steeping from the ashes of a bonfire. Amernis spoke with her face half-turned toward them.
“As for your wife, the dead are best left buried. Dadjin will tell you. And of Susan... her brief years are blessed as yours and mine are not. We are stone... she is a new thing every morning. Remember always, in your foolish imperfection, you are her beloved ideal. Now, go back, Sachiin. You are missed.”
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
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