Thursday, March 18, 2010

Two Old Grognards

“Ready for your close-up?” The young mouseling proffered the ungainly contraption that he claimed to be some sort of a camera at the two old men sitting at their accustomed table in their usual street cafe.

“For a what did you say, young mouse?” Politely inquired the bulkier and gaudier-clad of the two gentlemen.

“Demille here has pretensions of becoming a great phantasmographer some day, don't you Demille?”

“I but make an honest effort at mastering my chosen craft, sir. What heights or depths it may drag me unto is not my concern, only pursuing my vision and bettering my skills. To do anything else would be hubris and unproductive folly.” The mouse bowed obliquely, with only the slightest hint of sarcasm.

“Well said, Sir Mouse.” The fat man clapped in approval then gestured for the waitron.

“You don't mind too terribly much, do you old friend?” His companion and host suddenly realizing that he may have inadvertently offended his guest.

“I am in a heathen port, and as such I must abide by heathen laws and customs, in so far as they do not do violence unto my own customs and beliefs. To do else is to be a poor guest and a petty-tyrant. I like to think that I am neither of those things.”

“So then you will allow Demille to record our conversation, purely for artistic reasons, of course.”

“Of course. I have never been one to deny the Muse, except at times of prayer, and even then I always put in a good word for Her as best as I can manage. By all means, let your disciple make what they can from two old grognards sitting across from one another and grumbling in our beards as we sip our coffee. I for one think that you set him far too severe a challenge to his ingenuity.” Nerook shook his head in mock commiseration at the unfortunate mouse's apparently onerous burden. The mouseling blinked in confusion at the twists and turns of the conversation and decided, prudently indeed, to just bide his time, hold his tongue in check, and listen for an opportunity to present itself.  There was something in the air and he knew he just had to wait, like a hunter would sometimes lurk, waiting to catch his kin.  You can learn a lot from your enemies.

“I take no disciples, The occasional apprentice from time to time, but haven't you heard?” asked the one with the frizzy gray beard and unruly hair that stood up in an outrageous cowlick. Incredulity flushed across his features.

“Heard what? You know that I've been traveling since the whole debacle back in Bazra. I have not yet had the chance to get caught-up on things.” The colorfully dressed old man, the one with the immaculately trimmed beard and expertly barbered hair just barely visible from under his tastefully plumed turban looked dumbfounded, almost perplexed. It was a rare sight and the sheer unlikeliness of it led his companion to assume that he was merely being polite.

“Well then let me be the first to tell you the news: I am now considered to be a Mad Wizard.” Aesic sat back in his over-stuffed chair and tried to interlace his fingers, but being backwards-handed, it looked bizarre and almost spiderish. His companion pointedly looked away from the offending fingers; no one who had spent any amount of time in Talibarr was overly found of arachnids, though there were those rare individuals who didn't particularly mind being vampirized by cold-blooded things the size of small houses. There seemed to be no end to the verminous things as even the Mogul Archintate had to institute an open call for mercenaries and other fortune-seekers to come to Talibarr to hunt spiders. The bounty on vermin was considered very generous and the influx of violent outsiders seemed to have revitalized the populace, contrary to what the thoughtmongers and rabble-rousers had been preaching from their pulpits.

“Truly?” Nerook sipped his smoldering, pungently spiced and nearly obsidian coffee. “And this is a good thing, I take it by your Cheshire Cat expression?”

“Oh indeed, indeed it is. In a single week I have all but eliminated my backlist of 'engagements.' It seems that no one wants to challenge a Mad Wizard to a casual duel.” Aesic laughed again, this time with only a slightly wicked intonation that he had been practicing for weeks now. One had to keep up appearances.

“Duelling? At your age? It hardly seems fair...” Nerook chided.

“Fair enough. If they are fool enough to force the issue.”

“And you do nothing to help them along in this, do you?”

“You wound me old friend.” Aesic laughed heartily and tried futilely to twist his left hand back around to clasp it to his chest in a gesture of mockery, but it just couldn't turn that far on its backwards joint.

“I see. You do. You old hypocrite.”

“Now, now let's keep things civil.”

“Or what? You'll challenge me to a duel? Really, Aesic, have you gone soft in the head or something?”

“No. Alas, no.” Aesic stared down into his so-far untouched coffee, his face stricken with an expression that one rarely saw him use. It was a truly special occasion, in that regard. Demille fiddled and adjusted his camera as quietly as he could in the background.

“A story is trying to tell itself from the look on your none-too-handsome face. Do you wish to tell me?”

“No. Another time perhaps.”

“As you wish.” Nerook sipped his coffee and waited. He was a patient man. In his chosen profession one had to be.

“Bah—It is a beautiful day. Why spoil it with gloomy thoughts. I have been meaning to ask you old friend about--”

An explosion ripped through the crowds of passersby directly in front of the little open-air street cafe. Smoke curled upwards in jagged shreds while bits of bodies and random objects rained down on the street. Then the screaming started. Sirens began clamoring away in the distance and within minutes emergency robots and a Magistrate were on the scene. Ambulance-gates were quickly erected by first-responders and a variety of field-surgeons, medics, nurses and others were soon tending to the wounded, tagging the dead for whichever death-option they were registered for, and carting away the unclaimed body-parts. The screams were replaced with soft music and the orderlies soon had everything sorted out and cleaned up so that whatever evidence could be recovered was already streaming into the nearest Magistrate's offices and an investigation was underway.

Long minutes passed. The two old men kept to their seats. They knew how these things tended to work, having been on both sides of various insurrections, rebellions, and uprisings in their mutually misspent and idealistic youths.

Neither man said a word. They sat quietly. Sipped coffee. Observed their surroundings in ways that would allow nothing to escape their occult attentions and intense non-physical scrutiny. Nothing. Demille squirmed, uneasy at the scene of two old men sipping coffee and doing nothing in the wake of a terrible explosion, what must surely have been the work of criminals, perhaps even Navarre, the Emperor of Terror himself. The very thought of it chilled Demille's rodent blood and sent a shiver up and down his spine.

Finally the mouseling could stand it no longer.

“Will you do nothing?”

Aesic merely looked at him with a sinister twinkle in his eyes and shushed him with a kindly gesture, as though hushing a restless child while the two old farts were out on the river fishing for sturgeon.

Demille looked away.  Something in Aesic's expression unnerved him.  He shivered but kept the camera recording. He didn't see much point, but who knew what would come of things? He did have some excellent, if morbid, footage of the explosion and its aftermath. But that would automatically be Public Domain by virtue of it having been a record of an event of civil disturbance. He'd get credit, the usual scholarly by-line, but it wouldn't make him famous.

“There he is. Do you see him?” Nerook set down his now empty coffee cup.

“Where? Oh. Yes. Would you care to do the honors?”

“If you don't mind. I am a bit out of practice you know. Things have been so very quiet since we left Bazra.”

“You are being too modest. Go ahead. Our friend here would be thrilled to see a master at work.”

“As you wish.” Nerook closed his eyes and settled his pudgy hands onto his ample belly so that the rings all interlaced in a way that Aesic would never be able to do with his backwards hands. The fat man sighed slightly, settled into his over-stuffed chair and quickly made a gesture that was more of a flash than any sort of recognizable movement.

A man stood before the table. He was disoriented, dazed, not a little fearful. Aesic openly appraised him, examining closely the markings and insignia on the man's uniform. It was the sort of overly ostentatious decoration that a fascist would wear, especially the sort who would never actually have to fight in the wars that they instigated, fomented, fetishized and fantasized about. But this one was that special something extra.  Not content with merely preaching hatred, or chanting slogans, or assembling pointless protests, this man had stepped over a line from which there was no coming back.

Nerook sniffed in disgust. He held up his cup and the waitron quickly refilled it. He sipped his coffee and stared blandly right into the very soul of this man who had assembled a bomb and then detonated it in the middle of a crowd of people who were complete strangers to him.

“Who are you? Why—how did you bring me here? Where am—Oh No!” The man panicked at the sight of the crater behind him and the last of the medical teams packing away the debris and the last of the trash that had been part of the emergency response effort. Already the Ambulance-gates were irising closed and more Magistrates were starting to examine the area.

The uniformed man made to run away. Nerook made another subtle, smooth gesture and the fascist was suspended half a foot from the street surface by his spine which for some reason suddenly thought it belonged to a higher elevation than the rest of his body. Fortunately for him his body followed his spine, though for a brief instant Nerook had considered not being quite so kind.  He was getting old.  Sentimental.

“I am but a humble and simple barber from Tanjoor,” Nerook nodded perfunctorily to the fascist. “My associate here is an esteemed artist who is recording your execution for posterity,” Nerook gestured to Demille who nearly peed himself at being referred to in such glowing terms; “and my companion across the table from myself is known to you as Aesic. I believe he is a Mad Wizard.”

“Indeed. The designation was made official just in the last two weeks. You do keep up on recent events, don't you sir?” Aesic made a gesture of his own and thin red tendrils of smoldering color writhed out across the intervening space and began to methodically convert the rather stylish uniform into a sticky, tarry mass of filth that clung to the man's skin and perhaps was even infiltrating itself into his epidermis. In any case the effect was excruciating.

“Go ahead torture me. I can take it--”

“No. You cannot.” Aesic snorted and with another gesture caused the fluxial sludge to flow in a pattern that spontaneously fractured every bone in the man's legs and arms. He, of course, was obliged to scream mightily. Thus it was a kindness to the other patrons of the cafe that Nerook took the liberty of inverting the man's screams back into his lungs that they might echo throughout his body and not infringe upon anyone else's otherwise very pleasant morning.

“You are a piss-ant polemicist with delusions of being something you know nothing about. Tell me, have you written a manifesto?” Nerook allowed him to answer the question.

“You wittless old fraud, of course I have; I've written three manifestos--” The sludge covered his mouth, choking off further elaboration.

“Yes. Of course you have. And there was a time in my life when I would have debated a bit with you in regards to the works you chose to emulate or plagiarize, but I am getting old and I just do not have the attention span I once did. Are there any questions that you'd like to put to our friend here?” Aesic looked meaningfully over at Nerook.

Nerook stood up. He loomed over the man in a way that was at once impossible and remarkable. His voice rumbled like mountains grating against one another at their roots and a wrathful light shone from his eyes that would have scalded anyone with a conscience had they been standing before him.

“We drove your kind out into the wilderness to die like the diseased dogs that you are. I would pray for your soul, but it would be an affront to the All Mighty and it would dishonor my brothers and sisters in the faith were I to even remember your name in the course of my prayers, and I shall not do this, not for the likes of you.”

“What shall we do with him, old friend? Certainly we cannot allow him to go free. He has proven his willingness and ability to cause harm to others with no regard for the consequences, save for some regret at possibly being caught, of course.”

“No. He does not go free. I will not allow such a poisonous worm as him to spread the lies of ignorance unchallenged. He has decided to teach the masses a lesson through terror and violence. I say that we give him a lesson in terror and violence.”

“You mean...”

“Yes. Why not. He owes us both a favor and can you think of a better teacher in the truth of Terror and its meaningful application?”

“No. I bow before your wisdom in this matter. I shall call him forth.”

“It is your turn after all.” Nerook chuckled sinisterly.

Aesic dashed down the last of his coffee, pushed back from the table and stood as well. He reached into a pocket that had been expertly tailored into his lounging robes and produced a small pouch of black velvet from which he then extracted a sliver of some shimmery-indistinct material that was set into a delicate cameo and strung upon a length of alternating mauve and black pearls. He held the token up into the morning sunlight and softly muttered some sort of whispery incantation or code sequence.

Promptly, exactly nothing happened.

Both men casually ordered refills on their coffee and Nerook asked for a bottle of Pernod and a clean glass. The waitron smoothly and unobtrusively attended to their orders in professional silence. Demille huddled in his seat trying not to pee as he started to realize some of the implications of what he was witnessing.
A man walked up to the table from behind them all. He stood precisely so that the camera could only get the barest profile of him. Demille thought that the man wore some kind of a mask, but it was hard to tell for sure. The stranger poured himself a glass of Pernod. He saluted the two old men who had summoned him to their impromptu court of the Revolution, the real one, not the pipe-dreams of egomaniacs or sociopaths with delusions of grandeur like the hapless fool suspended before them like a turd hoist on unseen fish-line.

“I believe that we have an agreement, do we not gentlemen?”

“Indeed so.”


“And I have the distinct impression that you would like me to relieve you two of this –clumsy ugly fool-- No?”

“That is correct.”

“Ah, but what am I to do with such poor material?”

“Teach him the true meaning of Terror, Navarre. It is what you do, is it not?”

“Ah, then you are giving him to me as an apprentice then, a disciple to learn the intricacies of my art, yes?”

“No. Once you have educated him as to the meaningful application of the techniques of Terror, he is to die.”

“But how so should he die?”

“Quietly. Silently. Unheard, unseen, unknown and unregarded. Forgotten.”

“To become a non-person then?”

“To become a missing person, one who claims full responsibility for his crime. His life will be a sordid testimony to the sad and sometimes violent extremes that knowledge of his own mediocrity can lead a man. His damnation will be the paltry and inconsequential legacy that he leaves behind as some sort of a testimony to the discredited creeds he willing and uncritically, unquestioningly allowed to pollute his mind and twist his soul. He was willing to kill and to destroy for the sake of his sham ideology, let him then suffer the consequences of such a choice, even as we all will, in our own time, answer for our own deeds and decisions.”

“Well said, sir. Both erudite and pompous in the right measure, I salute you.  Know then, even though I do not share your revolutionist sentiments, I applaud the courage of your convictions. I respect your judgement.  I will do as you instruct. Our debt is to be settled by this matter, yes?”


“I agree.”

“Then it is as good as done.”

The masked man made his own stylish and flamboyant gesture and was suddenly absent.

The hovering man was gone as well.

Aesic and Nerook resumed their seats, ordered more coffee and picked up their conversation where they had left it, prior to the rude interruption. Demille excused himself, packed up his camera and walked all the way home in something of a trance. He had finally peed himself, but he didn't care. He had captured a conversation between a Mad Wizard, a barber and Navarre himself. He was going to be famous.

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