Written and revised over the past week. Hope you like it.
"Hold Your Breath When the Devil Sings"
After the Battle of Greenswards, Sergeant Bowman sat down next to me and offered a black cigarette.
“How many dead?” he asked.
“Fifty-six,” I said.
“All with that?” He pointed to my rifle.
“Eyes you got, man. Good eyes,” he said.
I knew then and there. Through the brown waters of fatigue and senses smashed into dysfunction, I knew. The notion was like a rifle-shot to the head. I saw.
I decided to play stupid.
“So,” I said. “What and where next? Where d'we go next?”
He smiled. Three of his front teeth had been knocked out, but he did not notice or did not care. His right earlobe had been shot off or torn off. Blood painted his jawline.
“Ain't no more 'us' for you, Darcha,” he said, rubbing his chin and frowning at a dead YS. “Not no more. Captain Ruppert, he done seen you. You'll be with Humble Queen right soon. Suppose I should say that I'm jealous.”
Sergeant Bowman laughed, which blew smoke into my face. He grabbed my knee and shook my leg.
“It's decided?” I asked.
“Damn, buddy, can't pull one off on you, can you?” Bowman continued smiling his toothless bloody smile as he patted the horn he wore on his belt. “They been watchin'.”
Bowman jabbed his thumb over his shoulder, indicating one of the blood-red officer's coaches a hundred yards away.
“Suppose they want you showered, prettied up. That Queen, you can't be dirty for her.”
I stared at the officer's coach.
“Put down your rifle,” said Sergeant Bowman.
But even when the officer, clad in yellow sash and immaculate white boots, came for me, I did not surrender my weapon until Sergeant Bowman, who had tagged along, was obliged to wrench it from my hands.
* * *
I rode alone. The black horse that Captain Ruppert had granted me was silent, longsuffering, with a back like steel. It did not mind when I spoke to it, or wept against its neck. Its indifference was a consolation.
We passed along a road called Slaughter's Way, which followed the ocean. At times the road wound down to the beach, and I would close my eyes against the salt spray. Mostly I had my thoughts to myself, with only the noise of my mount's hoofs and the rustle of grass for company.
The black powder that I put beneath my tongue took away most memories of the battle, and of my wife, and of the YS that we had held back from the very land my horse's feet turned. In the short intervals when I did not have the black powder I found myself stroking the .44 pistol that Captain Ruppert had allowed me and scanning the undulant lines of the horizon.
I passed one village, mostly empty save for three women, all clad in gray and white, who watched me pass with rifles in their small hands. They looked so thin I imagined they would tumble away in the cold sea gales. When I waved at them they retreated into a moribund house to peer at me through broken windows, their rifle muzzles protruding from the glass like fossilized tails of giant rats.
Then, the keep. I would have sworn on God's Bible that it had not been there a moment in the past.
It stood in the ocean, a hundred meters from the shore. It rose from a base of shimmering material that was either mother-of-pearl or its clone. If it was actual mother-of-pearl, millions of oysters had lost their lives to construct the base which could not have been fewer than two hundred meters in diameter.
The keep itself was three triangles, each with a base fifty meters across and each tapering to a point. Towers to the east and west were white. The center tower shone a glistening black, like the pupil of a cat's eye in torchlight.
From the base of the black tower flowed a black road, like oil spilling from a broken lamp. The road stained the mother-of-pearl base of the towers and snaked through the water and finally reached the edge of the beach. The road meandered purposefully for another three hundred or so meters before it reached my horse's hooves.
“Jesus Christ our Lord,” I prayed.
Down at the base of the towers, nearly a quarter mile away, there was someone riding out to meet me. I watched and waited for the Humble Queen's emissary. I prayed and prayed but God only responded in the sound of an engine.
When she greeted me I could not bring myself to holster my weapon.
* * *
After escorting me silently to the base of the tower, the emissary spoke.
“She's right, honey,” said the woman, after shutting off her motorcycle and booting down its kickstand. “With you she is especially right. Eyes, right?” Her voice was as shrill as a seagull's.
I did not answer. I stared at the dazzling ground around us. The luster of the mother-of-pearl caught even the gray light. Veins of purple, white, and blue flowed together.
“Come on, honey,” she said. I felt her touch my leg. “Expectin' you.”
I looked down at the woman. She had taken the scrap of purple fabric from her face, and it fluttered over her shoulder like it was a part of her hair. Her face was plain, plain. She had one missing front tooth.
“My name is Darcha Amun, and I am a married man,” I said.
“Oh, honey,” she said.
She stepped back from me and went to her motorcycle. After rummaging in a saddlebag she picked out a tiny pistol.
“Didn't want to do this, gorgeous,” she said.
I realized, as if waking from a dream, that I had the .44 pointed at her. I had no recollection of any motion of my body or the pistol or anything else. The woman did not appear concerned.
“I will not,” I said.
“In a way this is okay,” she said. “Gonna get all of the sleep you need.”
I did not fire the .44 when she pointed her tiny pistol toward me. I expected a crack from the gun but all I heard was a click, and a sting in my neck.
I fell into her arms. I felt her pulling me off of my horse.
I dreamed of oceans.
* * *
Three days later I dined with the Queen.
She touched my leg and said, “Look up.”
I looked up.
Above us rose a vaulted ceiling, twenty meters high. Randomly placed white lights, glowing as dimly as Christmas bulbs, highlighted the glistening uniform purple-black which was the color of every wall, ceiling, and floor in the keep. Also above us hung a bright chandelier in the shape of an oyster shell.
“Even when you're looking away from me, they're lovely,” she said. “You're not eating, darling.” The Queen dipped her shining hand into the mouth of a spinefish gaping at her from a pewter tray. She extracted a piece of white meat. I heard her chewing.
“Eat, eat,” she urged.
I took a strawberry covered in white chocolate from one of the numerous trays.
“Good,” she said, laughing. Something moist hit the side of my face. “Good. Dessert first. Ha. Like sweets. Tell me about your – your eyes.”
We were alone in the great hall. There were no other conversations save our own and the whispering in my mind. The noise of the ocean was as a distant pulsing of blood, a heartbeat on the other side of the wall.
“What about them,” I said.
“What color were your father's eyes, darling? What color were your mother's eyes?”
“I do not know.”
“Ha ha ha,” she said. She prodded me with her elbow. “You would not, would you? That is correct.”
“Hulga!” called the Humble Queen, cutting me off. “I think Drooga here would like champagne.”
The Queen laughed again and jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow. “Champagne will get you oiled up, darling,” she said. “Maybe it put some lead in the pencil, right?”
The Queen laughed, a ribald sound that echoed through the hallway. For the second time that evening, I felt moved to look her in the face.
Her skin was as white as bleached cotton. Despite her reputation she was not fat. She was naked from the waist up, her breasts painted a light purple. A necklace made out of mother-of-pearl dangled bib-like from around her thin neck.
“Look at me with those baby-blues whenever you feel the notion,” said the Queen. “Are you wearing makeup? Eyeliner?”
I frowned, looked away from her.
“Aw now,” she said, and let out a nauseating belch.
I heard footsteps, and the quiet muttering of Hulga, whoever that was. The sound of champagne slopping into a glass and Hulga's feet skittering away.
“Darling,” repeated the Humble Queen. “Have another glass. Please. You know, we do not have to delay the inevitable.”
I looked her in the eyes. Their whites were bloodshot around the dark purple irises.
“You took me away,” I said, speaking precisely. “So you can have a child...with eyes like mine. Yes?”
Her smile did not falter.
“Is it a secret?” she said.
“No. I should not be here right now. I should be in the field. I should not be...” I felt myself grabbing for the pistol that was not there. “I do not belong here. I belong first in the field, and then at my home with my wife.”
“Oh no,” said the Queen. Her breath reeked of butter and fish. “No, darling. You are here right now, where I tell you to be. You are serving us here.”
“Bitch,” I said. “Self-indulgent, spoiled, drug addicted, absolutely...”
My voice broke off as I felt a needle entering the side of my neck.
“Thank you, Hulga,” the Queen said, as I watched her face waver and bend.
I fell forward without a sensation of falling. I wondered when I was going to hit the ground or splash into the ocean. A hand grabbed each of my shoulders, and I could not tell if their owner stood behind me or in front of me.
* * *
I sat at the window and stared at the ocean.
The ocean was a spectacle, a rolling moor of darkness interspersed with moonlight. If I squinted through the fog I could see what was surely the Isle of Min, which had been YS territory for the past fifteen years. The lights on the Isle wavered in the sick, lurid shades of green preferred by the YS for both their craft and their personal adornment.
“What are you looking at, lover?” asked the Queen.
I did not look away from the window and I did not answer.
“Does your nether-region sting, darling?”
I stared at the YS lights.
“Come away from the window, lover,” said the Queen.
“Do you look at the Isle?” I asked her. “Do you ever consider what it means? Why--”
“Why the YS don't make more forays out of it? Because of the wonders of the army, my love. Now please come.”
The Queen lay shamelessly nude in the middle of her bed. The pure white sheets had rearranged themselves into neat squares and tucked themselves off to one corner.
“Come and have some milk with me before bedtime, my darling,” she said.
I looked back to the Isle of Min. The green lights shuffled restlessly.
“Come and tell me of your wife.”
I looked back at the light. I made a wish upon it: that I would be back with my men or back with my wife, either in safety or in peril. I wished the Queen ill, that she would perish under the weight of one of the YS, crushing her body that had so recently used mine. I wished all of these things as fervently as I wished for my own eyes to close, to dream of something else other than an acid-green ocean and the Queen's fingers.
I stood from the windowsill. A square of light passed my shoulder and then dissipated into the purple of the walls.
And I started to know something else; something I dared not admit even to myself.
* * *
The sucking sound of a breathing YS echoed through the chamber.
I opened my eyes and saw it standing on the foot of the bed.
It wore nothing save a green sash, as is their custom during battle. Outside there hummed one of their ships, casting its green light through the room, casting bladelike shadows from each post of the four-post bed.
I was nude, but so was the YS.
Reflex launched me toward it. I grabbed for guns that were no longer on my person as I covered the eight feet between myself and it in two strides and felt myself slam against it.
The Queen screamed.
I snatched its forelimb and twisted. The YS made a noise like a musket going off beside my head.
The Queen screamed again as I continued to twist and shoved my fist into one of the distal mouths of the YS. The teeth in its throat closed around my arm, but I had learned years ago that all the teeth could do was scrape, not puncture. I grabbed the first lump of tissue that I found – a taste organ – and yanked and pulled my arm from the distal mouth.
I threw the organ against the wall as the YS groaned and gurgled and spat ichor onto the bed.
I turned and saw the Queen against the bed, holding a revolver that was nearly as long as a rifle.
Another YS stood in front of her. She fired.
The round did not strike the YS, but shattered a mirror on the far side of the bedroom, bringing down a rain of shards. Before she could fire again, the YS was on top of her.
Killing a YS from behind presents no difficulties, even when it is girded for battle. I grabbed at a tentacle on its back and twisted, making it squeal and squirm and twist around into its various shapes. I grabbed one side of its green sash and twisted that too, tearing it from its body.
“Shoot again,” I yelled to the queen.
However, she did not shoot. She was pummeling the YS on the head with the butt of the gun, hitting its proximal mouth.
The gun went off.
I tore the YS off the queen and threw it against the wall. It was draining, and ichor hit me in the face.
The thrum of their ship lessened from a bone-rattling drone to the buzz of an insect as it sunk away from the window.
For a moment I breathed deeply and wiped the ichor from my chest.
I heard the ship crash into the rocks below us, twisting in the rocks. Its synthetic hull shrieked as its sentience died with the ship itself.
I calmed my breathing.
A clamor sounded in the keep below us. The sound of another YS ship droning up the side of a mountain and the other residents of the keep – God only knew who they were – wailing as if in sorrow over their damnation.
I breathed and out several times.
Acid-green light cast ghost shadows throughout the room.
I walked to the queen. I extracted the pistol from her clawed hand. I wiped the blood from its barrel onto the white sheets folded into squares on the corner of the bed. Four shots left, at least. I opened the cylinder and counted four.
The door to the bedroom burst open and two more of the YS fell inside of the room. Their yellow sashes fluttered in the weak light.
I held my breath and aimed the pistol.
* * *
Three weeks later, when I found Sergeant Bowman in an abandoned building three miles from the coast, he did not recognize me.
“Put it down,” he said, his beard scraping against the butt of his M1.
“I ain't holding anything, son,” I said.
When he recognized me he started crying. After ten minutes he calmed down enough to begin asking me questions.
“But what about you?” I asked him. “Where is everyone else?”
“Didn't hold their breaths,” he said.
After we spoke for a couple of more minutes, he led me into the interior of the building, which I gathered had been a hotel.
“I live in this room,” he said, pointing toward a green door. “If you want to leave here I understand.”
He retired, and I sat up watching the dark ocean.
I had found my house a week earlier. There was no sign of my wife save for a handwritten letter taped to the table. It was in her handwriting, but she had not signed it. It mentioned her going to the keep to find solace offered by the Humble Queen.
I sat and watched the ocean until a square of acid-green light appeared next to the horizon, floating above the water like a flying fish.
Did she live? Even my eyes, the lust of the Queen herself, could not see.