Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chapter Five

The performance had been over for nearly half an hour, but Wilder was still in costume, a shirt split down the middle between black and white with sleeves of the opposite color to the half of the shirt they were attached to, and a large spade dominating the torso, each side of the opposite color of the shirt behind it. The pants were also split between black and white, reversed so that the top of the white half of the pants met the bottom of the black half of the shirt, and the shoes and gloves followed the same pattern.

Ashen had already washed his makeup off from the night's performance, so he was probably going to disappear into town for a while, the way he had the night before. Right now he was counting up the money they'd gotten from the performance and storing it in the locked chest where he kept the money. Of course, last night he'd dragged back some fire-breathing freak, which meant each of their share of the performance profits was going to get cut again. Wilder just hoped he wouldn't bring someone else back.

Jaromil was still doing handstands for a few of the customers who were still lurking about the field where the circus had set up shop. Wilder walked over and leaned against one of the wagons nearby, watching while he tumbled and cartwheeled for the crowd. "Y'know the performance is over, right?" Wilder asked spitefully. Jaromil, in the middle of doing as many simultaneous back handsprings as he could manage, ignored him. Finally, Jaromil misplaced one of his hands and spilled himself over the floor. The audience laughed briefly and started to applaud as he picked himself up and dusted himself off. "You trying to make everyone love you by doing handsprings for free? Is it because you can't do anything good?"

Jaromil scowled at him and said "Leave me alone, Wilder."

"No," Wilder said, "That wasn't even that many. How many was it?"

"I lost track," Jaromil said.

"It was, like, three," Wilder said, "That's hardly any at all. Anyone can do that."

Suddenly a gloved hand grabbed him by the back of his head and yanked his chin upward, a cold, metal knife pressing itself against the skin of his neck. "It was six, actually," Ashen whispered into his ear. Wilder hadn't even noticed him walk up behind him, but now his body was tensing up for a fight. He just wasn't sure how he could win it, seeing as how Ashen was one errant twitch away from slitting his jugular open at the moment. A moment later Ashen removed the knife and shoved Wilder forward by his head. Wilder stumbled to avoid falling face first in the dirt and, when he regained his footing, spun around to face Ashen, his body tensed for battle again. Ashen was already sliding the knife back into his long, red coat, his body completely at ease. "Wilder, making fun of others is the easiest kind of comedy there is. If that's the best you can do with insults, I'm afraid I may roll my eyes so hard that one of them pops out of its socket, so I might have to cut your tongue out pre-emptively if you don't get some better material."

Wilder opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything, Ashen had pulled a knife out and lunged forward, jabbing a small cut into his cheek. Wilder took a step back and fell back into a battle stance, one hand reaching up to cover the stinging cut on his face. "I wasn't joking, Wilder," Ashen said, sliding the knife back into his coat and turning to walk away.

Alright, you can do this, Jenna said to herself as she stepped tentatively out of the safety of the fields and onto the street. Lanbrott was only a hundred yards away, now. A few people were still walking past her on the road, but this far out and this close to nightfall, the crowd was still pretty thin. You used to go into town all the time. Nothing's changed since then. Towns aren't any more dangerous and you aren't helpless. She looked into the town, alive with activity, a dull roar coming from the throngs of people hurrying to finish up their business before nightfall. "I'm not helpless," Jenna muttered to herself as she set off into town.

In just a few minutes, she was beginning to think of turning back. Every time someone started walking near her she got nervous that they'd spontaneously form a mob and try to run her out of town. Their glares constantly remind her that things were different, that now she wasn't just a normal, if short, girl, but one concealed by a mask. And what was beneath the mask was...

She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and shook the thought from her head before moving on. The eyelid on the right half of her face couldn't quite shut all the way anymore, so her eyes were never fully shut. Another reminder of what had happened to her. Every time she tried to close her eyes, or saw one of the frightened looks on the faces of the people around her, she was reminded of the dull, aching pain of flesh pressed against porcelain that was never meant to be, and wondered for the millionth time if she'd made the right choice in Solisacrum.

Her thoughts were scattered again when she realized she was standing in front of the market, now, thronging with people. Just a few more steps and she'd be in the crowd, unable to avoid being jostled and bumped around by them. Any one of them able to pick her up and carry her off, and no one near would care to answer her cries for help if they did. Jenna shook her head and plunged into the crowd, determined to stop being afraid of everything, and to stop mourning her scars. Slowly, she went from one stall to the next, looking for the paints she'd come into town to buy. She'd had to paint Ashen's and Wilder's faces using nothing but the scrapings at the bottom of the jars they'd found in the wagons after saving Wilder, but with the profits they'd made off of the past two performances, she'd be able to buy a new set. Lanbrott seemed desperately in need of a good show. Everywhere she went, the people looked downtrodden and resigned, or else not quite resigned, but instead worried and scared of something. She wasn't sure which was worse.

Jenna couldn't find a painter to buy paint from, though, and she realized that it would take her much too long to search the entire market to find one. The local painters might not even be in the market. There might be only a very small number of them, and they might all operate out of their homes or in the same building in some other part of town. They might work out of the backrooms of a shops which sold something else entirely, and she might pass them by without knowing. She might have done so already. The only way she could find what she was looking for would be to ask someone. And the best way to get someone to talk to you was to buy something from them first.

She took a deep breath and walked up to a merchant selling apples and put a few kopeks on the stalls counter, saying "Can I get an apple for this?" The words spilled out of her so quickly she wasn't sure if she'd be understood. The shopkeeper, who had been stacking apples at the other end of the stall, turned to look at her and glared suspiciously at Jenna's mask. The shopkeeper glanced down at the coins on the stall. Jenna had intentionally put down enough to reasonably pay for an apple and a half, so that she wouldn't have to waste time haggling and so the shopkeeper would be in a good mood.

The shopkeeper glared at her and said "No."

"What?" Jenna asked, "How much do you want, then?"

"Two rubles," the shopkeeper said.

"What?" Jenna asked, unable to stop herself. "No, fine," Jenna said, pulling out enough kopeks to make two rubles, with some to spare, and putting them down on the stall's counter. The shopkeeper counted them up and then pulled an apple out from below, wormy and spoiled, and handed it to Jenna. Jenna shoved it into her dress pocket, trying to keep her voice friendly and calm as she asked "Do you know if any painters work here in town?"

"No, go away," the shopkeeper said.

"No," Jenna said, angry tears beginning to sting at her eyes, "I won't go away, not until you tell me where I can find a painter."

"Over there!" the shopkeeper said, pointing at a nearby butcher's shop, "Now leave before you scare off my customers."

"Thank you," Jenna said bitterly and turned towards the shop, muttering to herself about how the shopkeepers decrepit features and poor manners were probably scaring away more customers a masked girl spending thirty seconds to buy an apple were. She stepped into the butcher's shop and waited in line behind a young woman for a few moments while the butcher brought out a slab of meat for her. She grabbed it and ran off to cook it up before it went bad, and the butcher looked down at her.

"Well," the butcher said, "Yours is a new face. Traveler, celebrating a special occasion while you're in town?"

"Sorry, no," Jenna said. Meat was far too expensive to waste money on, especially when the painter's shopmate would probably be willing to help bring him business anyway. "Is there a painter here?"

"No," the butcher said, looking a bit confused. Jenna looked around the shop for a moment, at a loss. She'd been in cities before. She'd grown up in one. She knew she should've expected someone to lie to her to get rid of her, that there were spiteful people in the city, but now that just being around so many strange people alone was so unsettling, even something so small and common seemed like a slap across the face. She squeezed her eyes shut again, or as far shut as they would go, and took a deep breath, determined not to cry over something so small and insignificant. Trying to be the tough city girl she used to be. "There's a painter not far from here, though," the butcher said helpfully, "Just down Sven Street, fourth house on the right, say you're there for Dimitri."

"Really?" Jenna asked, looking up at the butcher, trying to discern whether he was telling the truth or if he was just as spiteful as the hag who'd sent her here.

"Of course," the butcher said, grinning, "Now go get him some business so I can get to mine." He smiled and gestured to the line behind her, two people impatiently waiting for their meat.

"Oh, sorry, and thank you!" Jenna said, rushing out the door. She worked her way out of the crowd and onto Sven Street, glad to be out of the thronging markets, and counted the houses down until she reached the fourth one on the right, and then she turned and knocked on the door.

A few moments later a man opened the door, stuck his head out, and asked "What do you want?"

"I'm here to see Dimitri," Jenna said, "I'm told he's a painter?"

"Ya, ya," the man said, then turned back to the house and shouted "Dimitri, some freak is here to see you!"

Jenna nearly flinched when he said the word "freak." A much skinnier man appeared at the top of some stairs just inside the house a moment later and asked "For me?"

"Ya, she says she's here for you," the man at the door said as Dimitri walked down the stairs.

His puzzled look turned apologetic when he reached the bottom and saw Jenna's face, scarred and hurt, and he turned to face the man at the door and said "Pietrov, do learn to tell the difference between a freak and an eccentric." Pietrov scowled and muttered something under his breath as he walked away inside the house. "You'll have to excuse him, he's taken the new taxes harder than the rest of us," Dimitri said, "How can I help you?"

"I hear you're a painter," Jenna said.

"Yes, do you need something commissioned?" Dimitri asked, his eyes lighting up.

"Um, no," Jenna said, "I was just wondering if I could buy some of your paints? I'm just passing through and don't have time to make my own." This was technically true, but in truth she didn't know how to make her own. The painter who'd sold paints to her back in Redpool had never given the recipe to anyone but his own apprentices. She had to save up money for weeks to just buy a jar of one color. Getting a full set took her nearly a year. When she'd married Erastus, he'd bought entire sets for her. She hadn't even been to see the painter he'd bought them from. She wasn't even sure if they came from a painter.

"Oh, another painter? Come in, come in, what's your name?" Dimitri asked.

"I'm Jenna," Jenna said as she stepped into the house.

"I admit I don't often have people buying paints from me," Dimitri said. Jenna wasn't sure how to respond. She'd gotten much worse at conversation since falling out of practice recently. "Are you buying the whole set, or just stocking up on one color in particular?"

"The whole set," Jenna said as Dimitri led her upstairs to his room, which was cluttered and messy.

"All ten colors is a hundred rubles," Dimitri said, and Jenna realized that she actually had no idea how many colors came in one of Dimitri's sets.

"I haven't got that much," Jenna said.

"Well, how much have you got?" Dimitri asked, kneeling down beside a chest, unlocking it, and pulling out a few half-used paint jars before bringing out the full ones.

"Twenty rubles," Jenna said. Ashen had donated his spare cash to her, saying that he didn't think that a town as depressed as Lanbrott would have much to offer in terms of interesting decks or gamepieces, but Jenna wasn't sure that he wasn't just being nice.

"Well, how about this," Dimitri said, "I'll give you four of the paints for that much, but only if you'll let me draw you." Jenna tilted her head in confusion a bit. "I hate to pass up a chance to draw an angel like you," Dimitri said, "Have we got a deal?"

"Sure," Jenna said with a faint, uncertain smile.

"What colors do you need?" Dimitri asked.

"Well, red, yellow, and white aren't negotiable," Jenna said, looking at the ten full jars of paint Dimitri had gotten out. "And blue," Jenna said, "I like blue."

"Alright, now hold still," Dimitri said, pulling a piece of paper and a slat of wood off his cluttered desk and fishing around in the chest for a few moments until he came up with a piece of charcoal. Dimitri asked, "If Pietrov comes and tries to eat you, I'll protect you, alright?" Jenna smiled and laughed a little, and Dimitri smiled back and began drawing.

It was a bit more than ten minutes later that Dimitri said "Alright, finished," and Jenna let the tired tips of her mouth drop back down to their normal spot. Dimitri handed the piece of paper to her, and Jenna sucked in a bit of air when she saw it. He'd drawn her face unmasked, an astonishingly good representation of it, two perfect eyes beaming out at the viewer, the far tip of her smile unblemished by scars.

"She's beautiful," Jenna said.

"Only as much as her model," Dimitri said.

"Well..." Jenna said without finishing.

"Jenna, the most beautiful woman in the world will lose her beauty with age. But you're a painter. You can make beauty. And that will stay with you until the day you die," Dimitri said.

"Thanks," Jenna said, smiling. There was a pause for a few moments while Dimitri packed up the other paints into his chest, and Jenna pulled the twenty rubles from her pocket. Dimitri handed her the four small, unopened jars of paint in exchange for the money, and Jenna thanked him again on the way out.

Once outside, Jenna realized night had fallen. The streets were nearly deserted, now, and looking back into the market, she saw several young boys about fifteen or sixteen years old which experience told her weren't friendly. She headed off into an alleyway and began threading her way through the city's side roads, planning to get back onto a main road as soon as she was past the market. It was only a few minutes later, though, that she realized the difference between this city and Redpool. The difference being that she had no idea how to get back onto the main roads and, after a few minutes of attempted backtracking, she realized she was now hopelessly lost in the belly of the city.

After about twenty minutes of mounting panic, she finally managed to figure out enough of the city's layout that she knew the general direction towards the gate she'd come in, and once she hit a wall she could just follow it to the gate and then out into the farmland. The lanterns on the wagon would be visible from there.

Glancing over her shoulder, she thought she saw two men she was afraid might be following her. Looking back ahead, she saw someone round a corner, leering at her and slightly out of breath, like he'd been running to get there. Panicking, she took a turn down an alleyway on the side, only to find it was a dead end. The three men appeared at the mouth of the alleyway, leering at her and stepping closer. One of them called out "Hey, what's wrong? We're just a couple of friendly strangers is all." Jenna didn't answer, but just slowly backed down the alley. One of the men broke into a run and Jenna ran towards the other end of the alley.

She hadn't even reached the end of the alley before one of the men grabbed her by her arm, pulling her towards him. She tried to yank her arm away, and hit at his hand while calling for help, but his grip was like iron and he smacked her across the face, cutting her cries for help short and chipping off a piece of her mask. The man shoved her up against the wall, one of his cohorts grinning at her while the other looked down the alleyway, keeping watch. Jenna started to call for help again, but the man shoved a knife against her throat and hissed "Shut up" at her.

Jenna fell quiet, the cold knife pressed against her throat, breathing heavily and silently praying for someone to find her. "You think we should take the mask off?" one of them asked.

"No," the other said, "I like her better this way." The man with the knife grabbed her by the arm and shoved her towards the other, who held her roughly by the shoulders and pulled out a knife of his own, slipping it under the neck of her dress and slowly sliding it down, parting the fabric as he went. Jenna closed her eyes and started sobbing, muttering under her breath an inaudible plea for help. When the dress had been cut down to near her stomach, the man slipped hand beneath her dress, rubbing it against her bare skin. Jenna shrieked in panic and pushed herself away from the man, straight into the one standing behind her, who turned her around and hit her across the face again, more chips flying from her mask. Jenna fell to the ground from the blow, and curled up into a ball. The man knelt down beside her and, yanking her head up by her hair, hissed at her "You scream one more time, and we'll kill you once we're through."

"Please just leave me alone," Jenna said through her tears, but the man ignored her and dragged her to her feet, ripping her dress almost completely off. Jenna closed her eyes, her mind panicking and desperate. A moment later, her eyes popped open to find the source of the screams, a panicked warning soon turned to an incoherent scream of agony as one of the men's arm was snapped at the elbow by Ashen, who then grabbed it with his skeletal right hand and tore it off completely. The man holding Jenna let go of her and tried to run out of the alley while the man keeping watch bolted, but Ashen flung a pair of knives at the both of them, tearing through their legs and bringing them to the ground. The lookout and the man missing an arm both staggered away, clutching at their wounds and sobbing in terror, while Ashen turned on the man who'd been holding Jenna, breathing heavily.

Raising his skeletal fingers up, Ashen plunged one of them into the man's left eye and ripped it from its socket. The man collapsed at Ashen's feet, curling up into a ball and holding one shaking hand up to try and cover the bleeding wound. Ashen lifted the man back up to his feet, and the man shouted in a desperate panic "No, please! You can have her! Just please don't kill me!"

"Did she ask you to stop, when you attacked her? Did she ask you to leave her alone? Did she beg?" Ashen asked, still breathing heavily. The man was silent. "Did she?!" Ashen asked, slamming him against the wall of the alley.

"Yes!" the man shouted.

"And tell me, did you consider, even for a second, granting her mercy?" Ashen asked.

The man's one remaining eye widened in horror. "Please," he said, "Please, I swear I'll never touch her again, just let me go!"

"Or what?" Ashen asked. The man sobbed and looked away from Ashen.

Ashen raised his skeletal fingers, preparing to stab them through the man's eyes and through his skull, when Jenna called out "Ashen, stop!" Ashen, his eyes locked on the man's bleeding face, hesitated, his fingers twitching slightly. "Please, Ashen, don't kill him!" Jenna continued, "Not for me. I don't want his blood on my hands."

Ashen turned and looked towards Jenna, who'd reached her hand out towards Ashen, as though trying to pull him away from the sobbing, bleeding man who'd now fallen back to Ashen's feet. Ashen stared at Jenna a moment, the ripped dress exposing her soft flesh, her blood slowly dripping from the bottom of her mask, its metallic scent worming its way into Ashen's mind. He stalked towards Jenna, but two steps in he knelt down, clenching a bony fist tight and punching the cobblestone alley below him. One of the stones cracked. The man limped out of the alley, and Ashen stayed still and motionless, his eyes shut. Slowly, he opened them, staring at the shattered stone. Counting the split pieces. He started counting the tiny chips in addition to the bigger pieces, and it was nearly five minutes before he gave up trying to get an exact count. There were too many, and kept losing track. It would take him all night.

He looked back up to Jenna. She'd curled up into a ball, clutching the torn remains of her dress against her chest, terrified. "Jenna, come here," Ashen said, still a bit winded from the run here and calmly taking off his long, red coat. Jenna was motionless. "Jenna, have I ever hurt you before?" Ashen asked. Slowly, Jenna rose to her feet and then ran over to Ashen, who draped the coat over her shoulders and strapped it into place. "Let's head back to the wagons," Ashen said. Jenna smiled wordlessly while the two of them left the alley.

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