“That had better not explode.” she murmured. A pile of medlars gleaned from beneath the two trees of Sachiin's discovery lay in repose upon the table, their strange autumnal smell reminding her again of their equally peculiar savour. He sat down across from her, easing his long legs over the bench. She dealt seven cards from the slick airport pack in her hands, face down onto the dusty grey timber.
"You have to be quiet for this. I'm going to pick up a card, and you have to tell me which one it is. If you only get a colour, just say which one." she instructed.
"I'm not psychic."
"You don't know that."
"Yes I do." he chuckled dryly. "The universe has spoken."
"Just do it."
He set his chin on his hand, murmuring answers as she worked through the suite. Her perplexity, writ faintly at first, deepened as the experiment concluded.
"You got every last one wrong." Susan frowned, gathering the cards and suspecting the blamelessness of his expression before looking round the feeble details allowed by the torchlight. “No Petrouchka again.”
“A girl’s got to eat.”
“Eat what? I’m the only thing on two legs for god knows how far...”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
"I told you... she's avoiding me."
In entering the chamber Kala'amātya troubled the smoking flame but made no sound, and Susan quashed an embarrassing start, keeping both feet on the ground. While he surveyed their seclusion mutely it occurred to her that he was providing an opportunity to demonstrate disinclination; when she made no obvious objection, he sat down at the end of the table and chose two medlars for himself. The torch stood mirrored in the polish of their eyes as a golden ellipse, and she was struck, then disturbed by the idea that they would have dispensed with it altogether if she had not required it, contenting themselves with a darkness that was no more opaque to their perception than rain was to her own. The glow was returned by their faces, its effacement of all minor detail rendering them so perfectly alike that one might have been the reflection of the other, though when she made a deliberate attempt to confuse them, she discovered it was not as easy as she feared. She shook her head at Sachiin none the less.
"You're dyeing your hair." she told him.
Kala'amātya drew his knife through the medlar in his palm and ate as though unaware of the scrutiny she accorded the entirely novel tableau; Sachiin’s stare narrowed in sympathy with the rest of his expression, shifting with the pressure Susan placed upon his foot under the table. She addressed herself to their visitor.
“Have you seen Petrouchka?”
“She left three nights ago.” Kala'amātya replied, while she selected her own piece of fruit.
“Because of us?"
"No." Sap sparked again from the torch.
"What do you think the weather will do?”
He cut around a blackened portion of the drupe; she spectated patiently, leaning on her elbows.
“We won’t get stuck here, will we? I thought we might get going, in case that happens.”
Again she waited, leaning further over her arms in an unconscious attempt to discern the wordless aspects of his discourse, finding only subtle disapproval of the inquiry in his gaze.
"Will we? Get stuck here?" she pressed. Kala'amātya chose another medlar.
“Christabel, he's not going to putt a fucking box of chocolates out his arsehole.” his brother assured her dourly. She sighed his name. “Susan…” he countered, wide-eyed. "You don't have to pretend it's not gruesome... look at him... it's like trying to small talk with a giant fucking shrunken head."
She examined their guest again, revealing a tilt in her expression that grew while Sachiin continued to enumerate objections until they seemed more to obscurely commend than execrate their object. Dealing seven cards for Kala'amātya, she explained the procedure briefly, receiving his silence as assent; he looked from each toward her as he rendered his verdicts.
"Six of clubs. Black king. Red queen. Ace of spades. Two of hearts. Small red. Black jack."
Susan frowned as she attempted to articulate her findings.
"You um... you got them all right..." He watched her colour at the implications as she stared at them in turn. "You're not... are you?" she demanded. Even as she spoke Kala'amātya's gaze caught and bound her own, altering to the colour in the foot of the flame, its consuming, gem-like blankness stoking her dismay.
"I can only read you when you're looking at me." he told her. In the darkness of the wall against which he had leant Sachiin rolled his eyes and sighed at her horrified credulity, picking up one of the cards.
"He's fucking with you. We can see them in your eye." he laughed, leaning forward so that she could perceive the red queen miniaturized upon the surface of his own. Susan snatched it back from him, including them both in her admonition, her tormentor receiving it with the faintest of half-turned smiles. Sachiin shrugged. "Yeah well, I warned you about him."
“What did those alujha want the other night?" she demanded. "Did they talk to you?”
“They came to troll Pet for putting us up... she called them a bunch of banjo-picking ballbags and told them to fuck off.”
“And what else?” His reply was complicated by another medlar and she turned to Kala'amātya for clarification.
“They were looking to be compensated for their loss of personnel.” the latter explained.
“You’re joking... what, money?"
"We told them we weren’t carrying any currency. Any claim they might have had was voided by their offensive anyway.”
Clearing his throat conspicuously, Sachiin let his stare settle on his brother’s face.
“See the rainbow this morning?” he asked. She grinned as she shuffled the cards.
“No... you’re not still afraid of them, are you?”
“It’s not fear, it’s respect.”
“I used to be scared of vacuum cleaners.” Susan chuckled, looking back to Kala'amātya. “So, what... you told them we were broke... and?”
“They said they’d take you, in lieu of money.” That she did not at first believe him was expressed in laughter and he elaborated. “Your inamorato explained his objections the only way he knows how, and since negotiating with someone aspirating their own blood presents technical difficulties, I was forced to support his position. After which they left.”
She scowled again at Sachiin.
"I thought you said it wasn't on."
"They started it."
“So... you beat them up and they went away with nothing?” The cast of Kala'amātya's gaze confirmed it. “Good.” she concluded, returning her attention to him. He bore it stoically, the lack of unequivocal refusal in his demeanour like some persisting mirage. She decided to test it further. "What's India like?"
"Difficult to summarize." he replied.
"Could you have a go?"
"It's adjacent to Afghanistan."
In the ensuing silence she turned her expression to Sachiin, who smiled back at her contentedly.
"I know it's probably horrible, but I really want to go to Afghanistan for some reason." Susan declared.
"I don't care for it myself."
"Shall we just go to India then?"
His disinclination was tangible, like a change visible through his skin. The thought that his plans might diverge from their own in actuality was like a kick from a stranger, and something she could not immediately accept. Taking the box of cigarettes from the end of the table she applied herself to picking out the gold tab from its cellophane.
"Why were you pretending to be an artist?"
"High spirits got the better of him." Sachiin mused.
"I don't understand why you weren't allowed to make anything. It just seems completely mad." Her knowledge of the ancient interdict sent Kala'amātya's gaze back to his brother, but he replied in his own time.
"It is the axiomatic fundamentalist ultimatum. All creation performed outside the divine inceptive act is necessarily profane, and ours was a profoundly idiopathic subversion of the natural process... any hieratic structure was obliged to instate an orthodoxy emphasizing absolute legitimacy to confute the presumption inherent in all independent creativity."
She emitted a smoke ring, watching it slow and double over as it dispersed.
"It suffices to say my motives may not have borne sustained inquiry."
Susan's frown migrated to the side of her face.
"I don't know about that... I just... I'm not convinced you ever do anything you don't really want to."
"I'm here, aren't I?"
"I don't know why... will you please just go back and find Lilian, for god's sake? It drives me mad just looking at you." Kala'amātya greeted her impassioned observation darkly. "Do you honestly believe she never wants to see you again? And don't say you don’t want to go against a woman’s word... you're not fucking pro-choice when it comes to teeth.”
“Would you have preferred to die of sepsis?”
“Some arguments are academic, some are not.”
Sachiin received her exasperation with equanimity, though the sound of his brother rising from the table pulled her off the bench in an impulsive attempt to prevent his departure. He stood as though awaiting some concession from her; Susan was loath to provide it, sitting back down only when he moved to do so, wary of any further evasive measure.
"I... while you're both here, there is something we should sort out." she told them. "I do know that if anyone's going to get dragged into an unmarked van, it's going to be me... if that happens, I want..."
"If you get picked up, we come and bust you out. Je m'en fous." Sachiin interjected.
"The only thing that can't happen, Christabel, under any fucking circumstances, is us getting pinched together. If I'm collared, you have to get as far away as fast as you can."
"There are fifty billion of me... you're all that's left of you. I mean it... do everything you can to help each other, but don't get caught on my account... promise me that."
The brothers looked to one another in a mirror-like consensus.
"If we end up in the pokey it's because we were dumb, or drunk, or both. I wouldn't pull his arse out a wet paper bag and the feeling's pretty fucking mutual."
"You haven't even thought about this, have you? You could wake up in a steel box with air holes and be stuck there for the next two hundred years while they do god knows what to you! You won't even get the chance to blag your bloody way out of it."
"That's the point of individual responsibility." Kala'amātya reminded her.
"I said I wouldn't bust you out." his brother muttered. "We got her into this shit and it fucking behoves us to get her out of it, if it comes to that."
"How long could you watch someone taping electrodes to her before you agreed to whatever they wanted?"
Susan slapped a hand to her forehead.
"Thank you. If anything happens to me, drag him in the opposite direction."
"The fuck he will."
"Acquire some defensive capability and it might not come to that." said Kala'amātya. Susan dropped her head and shook it wearily.
"Will you both stop nagging me? I told you... I hate guns, and I'd be complete rubbish at them anyway." She lit another cigarette, squinting when the smoke from the torch swung back into her face. "I did mean to ask you, though... what's it like, being shot? Out of ten?"
"Twenty nine." Sachiin muttered. "We don't have a luxury shock reaction. We get it all, the going in, the hitting the bone, the turning round, coming out back out again... it's very detailed."
"Is there anything you can do to stop it happening? Magic words... getting your tits out?”
Kala'amātya appeared to deliberate upon the extent to which he should oblige her inquiry, the pause lending such weight to his reply that she was startled by, then suspicious of its brevity.
"He's being polite." Sachiin sighed. "Do you really want the R-18 version?"
"Do you want to stop being a patronizing muppet?"
"Out of any ten people with a firearm, seven will be competent to hit a stationary object at close range, five at a distance, two if it's mobile." Kala'amātya continued, unexpectedly. "Ballistic weapons are the friend of the contemporary imbecile. If you have a brain, use it if you don't want it emulsified. Being female is to your advantage if you're willing to embrace the fundamentals."
"How do you mean?"
"Without training, you're too small to hurt anyone conventionally, so don't try, except in extremis." She was less than pleased by the blunt nature of his assertion, but did not interrupt. "Always cry. A significant proportion of human males from any cohort cannot execute a weeping woman. And offer sex. Feign enthusiasm. Someone will eventually cut your hands loose." Susan folded her arms, looking away from him. "There's no more discredit in that than there is in eating their food. If you're committed to survival, the only failure is to waste an opportunity."
"I don't know if I could."
"I'm pretty sure most of us would fellate a fucking warthog if it had a nine to our ear." Sachiin assured her. "You do whatever you have to do... I've done it, he's probably done it... live, and have a breakdown later." he added, far more gravely.
"How hard is it? To shoot someone, when they're looking at you?"
Kala'amātya did not respond and his brother interceded.
"It depends who you are... some people can gut you with a clawhammer but can't pull a trigger... others can strafe you stupid but couldn't slap a douchebag if he was teabagging their grandmother on the front lawn." She screwed up her face; he leant across the planks and took a hit from her cigarette. "Some people are born lucky and can do you both ways, right from the get go... the tueur fou, ange de la mort... but you really should learn to pop a cap, cloudcheeks, allez. It's not like we're asking you to hang someone from a fucking light cord and go at them with a baseball bat. It's baby steps to the psycho shit... for erm, most of us." he chuckled blackly.
Sachiin's companions looked to one another in silence.
Susan had come to recognize the small cues provided by their detection of approaching parties, and sat up while their erstwhile hostess shuffled along the passage outside, tripping over the heaps of plaster lying by the walls. She could smell Petrouchka before the latter hove into view through the arch in her saturnine mink, hands and mouth, chin, collar and sleeves blackened thickly by fluids that had lost their sheen and settled into tarry craquelure.
“Look... is like chernozopy hut, in Akusha..." the vampyre gurgled, laughing at the humble nature of their arrangements. “Black hair will grow from your ears.”
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce