Immortal Soul Weeps: Of the Arbour short story, 1

The final line was sung and the theatre dome was filled with the clear sound of the young man’s tenor. It cut through the silence of the room, forcing hair to rise on the backs of guests’ necks and breath to catch in throats. The orchestra let their final note fade behind the vibrato note, until only the string quartet accompanied the lone young man standing at the centre of the polished stage.

Then the note ended and the spell was broken. Silence fell over the theatre for several heartbeats, then the audience began shrieking with cheers and a thunderous applause. The tenor bowed and grinned, the conductor stood from the orchestra pit, the rest of the performers reappeared from behind the red velvet curtain cutting the stage in two: but the audience, all standing in honour of the opera, were not calling for any who had appeared before them.

One young man split off from the rest of the group and ducked through the boisterous crowd until he reached the foyer of the theatre. It was void of all life save for that of the hosts standing beside the main entrance, but they didn’t even acknowledge his presence as he ghosted over the thick carpeting toward an unobtrusive wooden door tucked behind a smooth cherry wood bar. It was closed, unmarked, but when he tried the worn brass handle he found it wasn’t locked, and gave easily when he pushed.

The door opened to a narrow stone hallway, completely unadorned, with plain walls, heavy chandelier brackets and only a simple runner carpet down the centre. The green room opened nearby, he knew, and after the performers were presented to the audience they would return to wash their faces of lead powder and carmine, shed wigs and costumes, and chat about the success of the night’s performance.

But he wasn’t looking for the green room.

He continued down the hallway and smiled when he saw several vellum posters tacked to the wall. He slowed as he passed and glanced over them. A beautiful woodcut usually of men and women in elaborate gowns and headpieces, with a block letter title at the top, the names of the main performers underneath the image, and there, at the bottom, the name of the fabled creator: all were the most successful plays and poetry readings of the past four years, like The Heart of the Gladiator, Desert Bones Whispering, The City’s Gentleman, and, the most famous of the operas to date, the one he had just witnessed for the sixth night running, Immortal Soul Weeps. But it wasn’t the titles, or the beautifully printed woodcuts of lovers embracing, of men fighting monsters, or the record-breaking performance dates, that caught his eye. It was the name signed at the bottom of each page, hand copied onto each poster that was released throughout the City: Fen of the City.

Elusive and enigmatic: the greatest playwright and poet of this era never showed his face in polite society, never graced the stage with his presence after a performance, he was more of a ghost than a real being to most of the uneducated public, and a mysterious, exotic foreigner to the City’s courts of gossip. Once, after his first sold out performance in the City’s most prestigious theatre in the Exchange—therefore the most prestigious theatre in the entire Nation—for The Heart of the Gladiator, his first play that focussed solely on romance, there was a ball held in his honour in the wealthy quarter, Holy Emperor’s Way. According to the rumour mill, that was the only time he had ever appeared in public—and he had been dressed in thick folds of black velvet and cream lace, with a beaked masquerade mask, in plain black encrusted with pearls,  that hid his face from those desperate to meet him.

Fen of the City was a mystery, which only helped his plays gain popularity. Every time his work was performed, the audience expected to see him on stage after the final note had fallen silent.

The man chuckled to himself and rolled his eyes, then continued down the hallway until he reached another plain door. When he tried this one it was locked, so he knocked and leaned against the jamb, a small smirk playing at the corners of his lips.

Several moments of hesitation passed, then he heard a soft voice ask, “Who is it?”

“The reigning prince of agriculture,” he retorted, laughter ringing his voice. “Who do you think it is?”

Another pause. “Seriously.” The voice was flat and lacking amusement, and it only made him snort to stifle his chuckles.

“It’s your brother, Flynn. Open up, you smug hermit.”

The Birth of Existence: Of the Arbour mythology

Once, very long ago, before time had name or meaning and existence was only a swirling tempest of chaotic oblivion, the only life was that of the Immortal Soul. It was the very essence of change; in one moment, the Immortal Soul was a solar wind, whipping nonsensically through the vast plains of nothing; the next, it was the single white light shining proudly in the endless dark and seething shadows. It knew not how long it had been alone in the void, but it grew bored and it grew lonely. Seeing in a strange dream a sphere of deep blue, endless green and craggy brown, the Immortal Soul decided to construct a world to consume it’s boredom. It created the continents and seas, the mountains and verdant fields, the fierce storms and gentle clouds. The invention of this world forced Time to manifest, and its idea came to life. But even after it created animals to frolic and play in this new world, the Immortal Soul remained lonesome. It fashioned itself an image to cure it’s empty soul, but the quest failed, and it remained lonely. The Immortal Soul, the essence of change, became a creature of two arms and two legs, with skin that shone like the stars it once became in it’s boredom, and eyes of the moon, hair of sea crests, white and silky. The Immortal Soul altered it’s own reality to become a Man, a being it envisioned in whirlwind dreams. It chose for itself the name Xerxes, but even with the formation of it’s own entity, the Immortal Soul was still unhappy. He looked upon the beauty and isolation of his masterpiece, and he did something he never had experienced before: he wept.

Salty and cool, the unusual tears slipped down the cheeks of a god and fell to the surface of the beautiful imperfection he had sired; and in their wake came new life, a delicate and angelic reconstruction of the Man he had brought to life for himself.

The being he shaped bore the same iridescence as he; the same silvery eyes; long, pale yellow hair imitating the watery rays of morning sunlight; flesh clear and thin alabaster. He was amazed at his new creation. The being was small and fragile, curled upon itself like a newborn animal. Such splendor and glory: it was too elegant for the crude lines of his male form, and she became a Woman. She rose to her feet and in a moment Xerxes the Immortal Soul descended on the earth to stand by the side of his creation. Such a beautiful thing deserved a beautiful name; he called her Skye, and gave to her a tropical kingdom of dazzling lagoons and whispering trees above peaceful canals. He was immediately enamoured with her, and he impregnated her. From deep within the fertile walls of her womb sprang a young Woman, fully grown, bearing the same desaturated hues as mortal mother and undying father.

Impressed by this daughter, Xerxes named her Alexia. From the Woman Skye came a succession of four more children: a son called Ankhum, a middle daughter he named Symrine, another breathless copy of Skye called Marxyn, and the youngest was a son named Mikal.

Satisfied with these creations, Xerxes the Immortal Soul returned to his seat in the otherworldly realm, and watched with joy as his sons and daughters explored the world he made for them. Alas, Time passed, as it always does, and he was forced to witness as the Mother succumbed to her own mortality and rejoined the ashes of the earth. And though it broke his heart to watch the life seep from her eyes, nothing he attempted could restore to her the vigour she once harboured. Upon the death of the Mother, chaos began it’s rule. Alexia, the eldest and most powerful of the children, wrenched control of the Mother’s god-given kingdom after her death, and made her brother Ankhum her prince and ally. Displeased with the unfair tyranny of her rule, Marxyn and Mikal formed their own alliance and attempted a coup.

Xerxes could only watch as battles of war ravaged his once perfect land; the shapeless, shadowy hands of oblivion pulled him back even as he attempted to return to his creation and end the needless bloodshed. Symrine, the only daughter loyal to the peaceful will of the Mother, remained a neutral party, but war eventually destroyed any affection shared between the daughters and sons of Xerxes and Skye. The Immortal Soul witnessed the downfall of his beauty; alliances shattered, and each of the five children stole away on their own chosen blocks of land, creating five separate kingdoms, all harbouring deep-seeded animosity to each other. To ensure the safety and segregation of their people, each of the queens and kings devised a marking to be worn upon their faces, forever acknowledging their holy ruler.

Thus able to easily discern enemies from allies, tribal wars erupted between the kingdoms, further isolating them. Xerxes watched and he wept. The daughters and sons of his first heavenly creation had lost sight of their purpose and lost deep in their hearts the unconditional, everlasting love of the Mother Skye and Xerxes the Immortal Soul. In one final act, Xerxes returned to his garden and spoke to his children. To their blackened hearts he begged for an end to the bloodlust and destruction, but his words met with deaf ears. Loyal Symrine promised to honour her father’s wishes; with a wave of her elegant white arm, she called back her forces from the jungles of her siblings and left their kingdoms in peace. Hard-hearted Alexia and simpering Ankhum refused and their combined fury birthed a maelstrom of warriors and ordnance. Bitter Marxyn and Mikal reacted to Alexia and Ankhum by fashioning watercraft capable of wielding unworldly devastation. Wars devoured the once liberated and harmonious land he fashioned to ease the loneliness clutching his soul but, as he sadly watched his daughters and sons prepare for war, he knew his creations were faulted, that no Man or Woman could ever be free of sin and lust. With a breaking heart, the Immortal Soul abandoned his body of Man, his vile creation, and fled to the darkest fathoms of the silent void, leaving behind a world of beauty in destruction, only to return when the hearts of his loyal flock cry out his holy name, and praise the wayward psalms of Xerxes and Skye.

Heir Apparent: Of the Arbour flash fiction

Jain was furious.

There was no other word for it. The rage building up inside her, pressure building in her chest, was primordial and black, threatening to overcome her. Shortening her breath, darkening her vision; she clenched her fists in her silk skirts and shut her eyes, slowly counting in her head to help calm down.

“Lady Jain?”

“Do not speak to me right now,” she snapped. Opening her eyes, she saw her scholar and steward, and two guards who were sworn to protect her and follow her every move, all gawking at her in stunned silence. “Ye can’t just go and—and—”

“Lady Jain.” The steward’s voice was oddly comforting, and she fixed him with a dark stare. He didn’t even flinch, but kept smiling cordially. Behind him, the ill-fated messenger was looking at his feet, visibly trembling as he turned his crushed hat in his hands. “’Tis the will o’ yer father, the king. Ye can’t go against it.”

“Why?” She flung her arms out, making the soft silk of her dress rustle and whisper. “This is all mine, no? And he’s got a mind to just steal it all from under me?” Tearing her heated gaze from the steward, she looked at the room they stood in. It was Castle Hailstone’s vast library, with oak shelves and leather-bound books from all ages and regions, and cherry wood desks, plush armchairs, and velvet curtains. Oil portraits of the Wastes’ past counts decorated the papered walls, gilded on the edges. “What does my mother think o’ all this?”

“’Tis the word of the king, milady,” the steward said again. Jain’s eyes narrowed into sharp slits as his falsely cheery smile flickered, then faded out and his lips pressed into a humourless line. “Ye can’t go against it, nay matter what ye wish, and neither can your mother. Your brother is the new heir—”

“But I was born first!” she shrieked. The rage poured through her veins like white-hot fire, erupting beneath her pores to make her itch and writhe. Her corset was too restricting; her breath was laboured, and her jaw trembled with the effort to keep from screaming herself hoarse. “I am the heir! He can’t just take it from me just because Mother spawned something with a prick!”

Beside her, her scholar’s eyes bugged. “Lady Jain, I never—”

“No,” she interrupted, holding up one perfectly manicured hand to keep them from talking. “Ye’ll listen to me. I am your future queen! Father will see the error o’ his ways, and he’ll fix. He always does.”

A thin silence fell over the library as her final words left her lips. Biting her tongue to keep from further lashing out, she glared down her subjects—men who were sworn to protect her, because she was the Nation’s rightful heir—visually daring them to speak out and defend her father’s foolish actions.

After a pregnant pause, the messenger cleared his throat. Jain’s scowl darkened, upsetting what could have been pretty features, and he quickly looked away from her gaze.

“Just so ye know, milady,” he whispered, gripping his hat so tightly that his knuckles turned white, “yer brother’s name is Gideon.”

Jain watched with blind eyes in heavy silence as the steward saw the messenger out of the library and castle, thanking him quietly for his information, and he was serving his king so well. The hate and anger was receding, bubbling back to the depths deep inside her where it usually hid, rarely to be provoked so heinously. She blinked several times to clear her vision, then slowly sat back on her velvet, cushioned armchair and set her hands on the cherry desk in front of her.

She waited with demure patience until the steward returned. He bowed deeply, folding his hands behind him, and said, “Yer father, His Majesty the king, wishes ye to finish your studies here in Hailstone, milady, and then he will have ye sent to the City to meet your new prince.”

Jain swallowed something hard that had formed in her throat. “Get out,” she hissed, and the rest of the men in the room bowed respectfully, then backed from the room, leaving her in solitude. The deafening silence of being alone pressed in on her from all sides, forcing her to ponder what her father did to her and to the kingdom. Staring blankly at the smooth lines of the cherry desk, Jain sat, and she waited.