Posted by: lordkyler | April 16, 2016

Incensed – Short Story Week

Young Greger stared at the red-painted door, hand hovering next to the bellstring. The weathered wood was carved with circles of arcane sigils and spiraling astrological signs. Scribbles and nonsense, Greger reminded himself. Cheap superstition to prey on lesser minds.

The sign next to the door, however, was written in plain Grutsch: Madame Esmerelda, said the flowing gilt script. Underneath, in smaller letters it read Potions, Divination, Needlework, and other Magicks. Reasonable Prices. Tacked below that was a far cruder sign, scribbled on a piece of scrap wood: No hexes, curses or love potions. That means you, Gretten!

It was all balderdash, Greger knew. Well, except for the needlework. He’d bought a scarf from her once that was so warm and durable it might as well have been faerie-made. But as for her other supposed powers and potions, well, he’d seen more potent farts. Esmerelda was many things, but magical she was not.

Despite all this, Greger still hesitated. He’d spent years researching this, dreaming of the day he would finally confront her and expose her charlatanry. but now that he was actually here, notes in hand, he couldn’t quite remember why it was so important.

He wasn’t exactly angry with her, and most folk in Håssenburg agreed she was a welcome and valuable member of the town. He wasn’t out to blackmail her. The thought of a few extra coins was certainly welcome, but he didn’t have it in him to extort a harmless person. Perhaps it simply a desire for that noblest of all ideals: truth. Or validation, which was close enough.

The thought was enough to steel his resolve. Greger lifted his chin, squared his shoulders, and proudly pulled the bellstring. Inside, chimes jingled and jangled merrily, their cheerful tone slightly undercutting his air of righteous indignation.

A few moments passed, followed by a few more. Greger’s shoulders slumped slightly as the minutes wore on, but he tried to keep a stern and dignified expression. He resisted the urge to pull the string again, as it was one of Esmerelda’s peeves. He didn’t dare begin this confrontation with  a tongue lashing from Esmerelda. He’d never really spoken to her personally, but everyone said she had a tongue like a surgeon’s razor.

Where was the woman? Had she stepped out to the market, or gone hunting for herbs in the woods? Greger teetered on the balance between leaving and staying, but just as he turned to leave, the door creaked open, spilling a cloud of greenish smoke into the cobbled streets.

A slender woman dressed in rich shawls appeared from the haze, moving with the lazy grace of a cat. She smiled knowingly at Greger, as though she’d been expecting him for an appointment and he was the one that was late. “Young Master Yorbensen,” she crooned. Her voice was smooth and exotic, much like her complexion, hailing from lands further south where she had allegedly learned her arts.  “I do not believe I have had the pleasure of your presence here before?”

Greger was caught off-step, and fumbled to regain his footing. “No, you have not, Madame. That is to say, I have not come here for pleasure, but neither have I been here before. In fact, Madame, I am here now to denounce–”

“Please come in,” Esmerelda said. Her words slid past his without apparent effort, like someone dancing between raindrops, and Greger found himself replying automatically in the midst of his opening tirade. As soon as he caught himself, he clamped his mouth shut and stepped inside, not wanting to make a fool of himself any further. He tried to remember the sequence of arguments he had constructed earlier, but all semblance of rational thought seemed to flee at the threshold. Forming a logical chain of thought in this place felt like weaving a basket with live eels instead of wicker, as pointless as it was impossible.

Incense hung thick and heavy in the air, moving with all the haste of dripping honey, curling lazy tendrils around Greger like caressing fingers. Shelves and cabinets lined the walls, and the floor between was stacked high with books and scrolls in every size, shape, and color. Every available space was littered with unusual instruments and curious curios – spinning astrolabes, bowls of small stones and smaller boots, a human skull with blue teeth.

One corner of the room was filled with dried plants and animal remains, presumably for use in potions. Greger gawked openly at the strings of claws and feathers, wondered about the cracked ram’s horn, and nearly ran out when he saw a jar full of eyeballs staring back at him. The glass cabinet above the workstation was filled with bottles, enough colored concoctions to rival any church window in color and variety.

Madame Esmerelda led him through the labyrinth of stacked tomes, past bundles of dried leaves and heaps of cloth scraps, until they passed through a curtained doorway to a smaller, darker room with a low table and two embroidered cushions for seats. The center of the table contained a brazier with a heap of slumbering coals.

Greger hesitated to sit, but Esmerelda practically forced him to take a seat, pressing down with surprising strength. She shuffled around and sat across from him, using a small poker to stoke the coals back into life. Greger fidgeted, unsure of how to start now. Somehow the fortune-teller had taken the reins from him.

“So, young master, what did you wish to talk about today?” Esmerelda said, pulling out an ornate wooden box from underneath the table. She unlocked it with a key from around her neck, and Greger could see the box was filled with smaller boxes, bottles, and tins, all labelled in an unfamiliar script. Belatedly, he remembered her question.

“You don’t really work magick,” he blurted. He didn’t sound nearly as certain as he had been a minute ago, but Esmerelda merely raised an eyebrow. She selected a white powder from her box and sprinkled it over the flames, producing a burst of blue flames and smoke. It smelled sweet, like sugar pastries.

“And what has led you to such a conclusion?” she said patiently, like a grandmother listening to a grandchild’s rambling tale. Greger could feel the color rising in his cheeks, but he managed to keep his tone level as he spoke.

“I’ve been watching you for years, and I’ve never seen you do anything that a normal herbalist or physicker couldn’t do.”

Esmerelda tilted her head to one side, curious. “The arcane arts are not to be trifled with, my boy. Those who are wise never flaunt or abuse their powers. Those that do are always destroyed by them in the end.”

Greger shook his head vigorously, as much to clear his head as to show denial. Something about this place was making him sleepy, and he needed to stay sharp. The fragrant smoke wasn’t helping either. “I’ve been taking notes,” he said, waving the sheaf of papers in his hand. “Over the past three years, you’ve claimed your magicks were at least partly responsible for over two hundred events.”

Silence hung thicker in the air than incense for a moment. Esmerelda stopped stirring the coals for a moment, staring into the flames as though deep in thought. “You take after your father, hmm? A man that couldn’t listen to a symphony without tallying the notes.”

Greger recognized an attempt to change the subject and pressed the advantage, clutching his papers like a sword. “Do you know what most of these claims have in common? The grandest ones? They’re made after the fact. Aside from your physicker’s work, you’ve never made a claim before it happened.”

“Is that so?” Esmerelda asked, sounding bemused. She threw another pinch of something onto the coals. A puff of saffron-colored smoke puffed up from the brazier, smelling sharp and hot like vinegar. Greger found himself flushed from the thrill of near-victory and the growing heat of the room. He was growing almost dizzy, actually, and had to hold to the table for support.

“Two hundred documented events,” he repeated. “I looked into them all. Spoken to witnesses, visited the places. What do you have to say about that?”

“That you should be more interested in the young ladies of the town and less interested in spinsters like me,” Esmerelda said. Her tone was soft enough to be taken kindly, but firm enough to drive the point home. “A handsome lad like you should be getting into other sorts of trouble. Hildi Skepenhaus fancies you, you know.”

Now Greger blushed in earnest. The golden-haired lass had caught his eye more than once. What was he doing, talking to some old lady anyway? He was like some little boy who felt clever for spotting the hands in the puppet show. Why not go home and pass by Hildi’s house right now…

Greger stopped and came back to his senses, like a man who has just caught himself drifting into sleep. Madame Esmerelda might render a valuable service to the town, but she shouldn’t pretend at magic powers she didn’t have. It was… rude, at the very least. Hildi could wait.

“You won’t catch me with that,” Greger warned, more sharply than he’d meant to. He was growing angry now. “That’s the other half of your trick, isn’t it? Clever talk and manipulation. I didn’t realize for a long time, but you could rival the Trickster for knowing just how to push someone. I know you do much good with this talent, but I also know you have used it in anger, haven’t you?”

Esmerelda’s eyes flashed with annoyance, and her lips became a tight, dangerous line. “Tread carefully, child,” she said in a strange sing-song tone. “I have never harmed anyone that did not deserve it, and you are not as clever as you think. I will not see my reputation tarnished by a boy’s idle fancies. Keep your silence, and I will be kind enough to forget you have spoken thus.”

But Greger’s heart was pounding now, and his head was spinning, and all the suspicions that had been pent up inside for so long were now bursting from him like a geyser. “You can’t hide behind your lies any longer, Esmerelda! Everyone will know you’re a fraud. Everyone will know–”

“Enough!” Esmerelda shouted, and suddenly she had eyes of lightning and a voice of thunder. She was on her feet in an instant, but when Greger tried to match her, the brazier suddenly exploded between them. A geyser of sparks and cinders filled the air, and roiling smoke blossomed to fill the room – a frantic swirl of red and black fumes that seemed to form half-seen demonic shapes as it churned.

Greger coughed and cursed as he stumbled backward, sprawling on the ground. His heart was beating at a woodpecker’s pace, and he found himself sweating profusely, as though someone had just primed a pump through his pores. Esmerelda hadn’t touched the brazier. But it couldn’t be magic. It was impossible. His notes…

His notes were wrong. Esmerelda was a looming specter in the hellish haze. She had transformed in an instant; her hair a wild mane free of its shawl, her fingers curled like claws, and her eyes blazing like a dragon’s. As Greger stared in horror, all of her features seemed to twist and distort, becoming exaggerated nightmares. The air itself seemed to quake around her, and everything was melting like soft wax.

“Do you question my power now?” Esmerelda hissed. Her voice filled Greger’s mind like the roaring of the sea, drowning out logic and rational thought, washing away all of his arguments and protections until only stark naked terror remained. “Never speak of this again, foolish child, and I may be merciful. Now leave!”

Greger’s legs obeyed before his mind could even decipher what she’d said, and he burst from the room in a panic, pushing through stacks of books with reckless abandon, stumbling and tripping his way to the red-painted door with its squirming symbols. He ran into the streets and kept going until he could go no further. Everything was spinning and melting and going black…

The last thing he heard was laughter.

•••

Esmerelda tutted to herself as she watched the boy stumble and collapse in the gutter, the laughingstock of several young women that were passing by, including that silly Hildi girl. He’d be fine in a few hours, but his reputation might take a beating. Served him right.

She shook her head as she picked through the mess Greger had made during his mad exodus. It would take months to let everything build up a sufficiently mysterious layer of dust again, and more than a few items had broken. Perhaps she had overdone it just a little, but she quite liked it here, and wasn’t about to underestimate any possible threats to her security. She’d learned that lesson well enough in Ruskonia.

Still, it was s shame about the devil powder, though. It was rare stuff, strong enough to give her a kick, even though she was immune to half her goods by now. No choice, she told herself as she crawled under the table to reset the foot-pedal and reload another packet of devil powderHe fought through the slumberweed and kept his wits with the swayleaf. If only. She’d be lucky if he didn’t go blabbing about his experience as soon as he woke up, which was good for her reputation in some ways and worse in others. Nothing left an impression on the mind quite like devil powder.

Esmerelda packed some stillseed into her pipe and took a long drag, feeling its calm seep through her. She sighed. Funny how the mind could be so profoundly influenced by the right plants. With a little theatricality to distract, nobody even thought to question her incenses and teas as the true source of the “magic” she wrought.

Greger, my boy, you are lucky I am one of the good ones, Esmerelda thought. Or else I might be ruling this village instead of solving the problems of housewives. Let us pray a true witch never comes to this town.

She took another drag on her pipe and set to cleaning up the place. There were appearances to maintain.

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