From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Cesare

Cesare crosses the plaza. A layer of morning snow covers the paving stones, sinks into the mortared cracks, clings in soft clumps to the brown statues and the slender obelisk of the Patriarchs. Cesare is an ashy smudge against the whiteness; the purple sash of the Electors makes her body definite, anchors it in a city that would otherwise belong to ghosts.

At the edge of the plaza, behind an ancient genderless statue and the stumps of a colonnade, Tamerlane carries baskets of colors from the warmth of his shop to a rented merchants’ cart. He is not an old man — his hair is still a rich sulfur-gold — but he moves slowly. Against the statues of the plaza, carved in postures of vigor and motion, he is like a part of the colonnade himself.

Cesare quickens her steps.

“Hail, Tamerlane,” she says. He winces, as though her voice has broken something fragile. Cesare never shouts, but there is something in her voice that makes one think of a lion holding back his roar.

“Hail, Elector.” The merchant hefts a bag of lampblack into the cart. “It is tonight?”

“It is. They buried Justus yesterday at dawn.”

Tamerlane raises a dark golden eyebrow. It is strange to hear the Patriarch’s name spoken—the name he was born with, the name he now bears in death. For the last twelve years, Justus has been known only as the Patriarch; tonight, that name will pass to another.

“Do you think it will be you?”

Cesare shrugs. Her black shoulder cape flutters irritably. “They won’t elect me. I want it too much.”

“It is dangerous to give power to those who want it.”

“It is dangerous to deny them.”

Tamerlane bows. Cesare takes a purse from the sash at her waist and counts out six silver coins.

“Give me red, if Bellona is elected. Blue for Janus.” Tamerlane scrambles to bag the powders, but the movement is stuttering, like the babbling of a man who normally speaks in a drawl. He knows the importance of these colors; they will tinge the fire that rises from the Electorate at midnight, announcing the new Patriarch. “Orange for Renatus, gold for Pastor, Green for Sylvanus. White for Ceres.”

“And purple?” Tamerlane asks.

Cesare shakes her head, but he pushes a small bundle of copper and lithium into her hands. “In case,” he says.

“In case.” Cesare tucks the purple bag beneath the panel of her sash. A dagger glints for a moment in the snow-mirrored light, then vanishes back into her shadow.

#

A man stands behind the genderless statue at the door of Tamerlane’s shop. He watches Cesare. His eyes are dark and frightened.

#

There is a bag of gunpowder in Cesare’s room. She is one of the seven most powerful men in Argentorat, but her lodgings are plain, nothing but a low bed, a chest of clothing, and a shelf of tattered books. The gunpowder is by her books, in a black bag that smells of ink and amber. If asked, Cesare would say that the powder is for the election, waiting for the touch of red or gold or white to name the new Patriarch.

But she has had it for a long time. As long as she has wanted to rule.

***
Sylvanus sits at the edge of the river in the heart of Argentorat. His black Electors’ robes are loose on his wizened frame, but the emerald-colored sash makes his waist a strong, heavy line. There is a dry dusting of snow on the grass, and it blows across his lap like loose feathers.

“Hail, friend,” Cesare says. She appears suddenly, almost out of thin air, though the grass behind her is dark from the sweep of her robe. “Have you decided whose name to give tonight?”

“Hail,” Sylvanus replies in his thin, reed-like voice. “No, I haven’t decided. I don’t think I will.”

“You won’t vote?”

He shakes his head. “What does it matter to me whom they elect? I won’t live to see the instatement. I’ve seen twelve Patriarchs, Cesare. Justus was my last.”

Cesare kneels beside him and places her hand on his shoulder. Her skin is dark and soft, her fingernails sharp and purpled with cold. “But I value your wisdom, friend. You know I have chosen not to vote this year.” Sylvanus nods. He did not know this, but he is so old now that he is used to forgetting. “We cannot both decline. You are far wiser than I am. I’m certain you could make a choice satisfactory to both of us.”

Sylvanus frowns faintly, flattered but puzzled. “Surely you have some preference?”

“In truth?” Cesare smiles. It is a rare thing, this smile. It makes her mouth into a thin, wine-colored line. “I would vote for you. All the others are fools.”

Sylvanus clicks his tongue against his teeth. With a sigh, Cesare leans forward, and her comrade’s hold on his shoulder becomes a daughter’s embrace around his neck. “Go to the Electorate tonight,” she says. “I want you to be there. All of you.”

“And where will you be?”

“I’ll light the fires,” she says, “to announce the new Patriarch.”

He turns his cheek, and she kisses him like a daughter. Her lips are cold. “Very well,” he says. “I’ll go.”

Cesare straightens the panel on her sash, and smiles again.

#

A woman kneels on the other side of the river, cupping icy water to her lips. She watches Cesare. Her mouth is hard and silent.

#

In the whole enclave of Argentorat, only one man is not afraid of Cesare.

His name is Arcturus, and he is a soldier. Cesare was a soldier, too; she fought beside him at Camarel and Lacun. But she came home from the war, washed the blood from her hands, and became an Elector. Arcturus is a soldier still.

Those who fear Cesare do not know the reason for their fear. Arcturus knows. She is swift and sudden like a snake, like one of the statues in the plaza. She wants very much, and is capable of denying what she wants. She is afraid of everything but what other men can do to her.

The man behind the statue, the woman on the riverbank, become Arcturus’s eyes and ears. Arcturus knows about the dagger, and the bag of purple, and the gunpowder in Cesare’s room.

Cesare has always envied his magic. He has always envied her strength.

Arcturus has a scar on his shoulder, the exact shape of Cesare’s fingernails.

He loved her very much.

#

“If you tell me it’s been a while,” Zayn says, “I’m going to kill you.”

Cesare laughs. It is not a sound but a motion, rippling up through the thin hourglass of her nose, the hard ridges of her forehead. The women are in the front room of Zayn’s house, drinking purple wine from dusty, long-stemmed goblets. Zayn sits in a chair near the fireplace, her knees tucked up under her chin; Cesare stands in by the window and swirls the wine in her glass.

“It has been a while,” she says. “But I’m not here for old time’s sake. I want to ask a favor of you.”

“I won’t do anything for you.” Zayn manages to strangle her voice before it becomes a scream. “I’m done doing things because you want me to do them.”

“Prison didn’t teach you to follow orders?”

A deadly stillness falls over the room; the wine swirling in Cesare’s glass is like a trespass. Then Zayn leaps up, flinging her goblet into the fireplace. It shatters in a spray of glass and flame.

“Do you want to see what your betrayal taught me?” she whispers.

Her long, crooked fingers make short work of the buttons down the back of her dress. The gray fabric falls away, unveiling a swath of skin furrowed with purple scars.

“You think you’re wise, Cesare,” she says, “but you know nothing of suffering.”

Cesare raises the glass to her lips but does not drink. Her breath comes in hard gusts that dent the surface of the wine. “I’m not sorry for it,” she says. “Would you have had us both captured?”

“Those men’s blood was on both our hands. At least mine are clean now.”

Cesare closes her eyes and presses an arm across the purple lids. “Yes,” she says; the darkness in her voice makes it a surrender. “Your hands are clean. Now will you hear me speak?”

Zayn says nothing.

“It’s the lesser Electors,” Cesare says. “They won’t be needed tonight. I want you to see to it that only the Seven are allowed inside the Electorate.”

“How do you expect me to control that?”

“Aren’t you sleeping with the Captain of the Guard?”

Zayn winces. But the knowledge is nothing to Cesare, nothing but a speck of dust in a room stained with blood. “Have the guards send the lesser Electors across the plaza. They can meet in my rooms.”

Zayn sinks into her chair. “What are you planning, Cesare?”

And it is Cesare’s turn to fall silent.

#

In the flower stall across the street, a young boy gasps. He sees Zayn take a knife from the loose folds of her bodice and move towards Cesare. He sees her fingers weaken and drop the weapon before Cesare turns.

In a barrack on the other side of Argentorat, Arcturus buries his face in his hands. He does not know if he wanted Zayn to succeed or not. The scar on his shoulder burns.

#

They meet in the plaza.

“Zayn should have killed you,” Arcturus says.

Cesare looks at him. There is nothing in the world so hard as her eyes. “You knew she wouldn’t.”

“After what you did to her? You’re a monster.”

“Maybe.”

“Damn you!” He catches her shoulder before she turns. “Does any of it matter to you anymore?”

“Any of what?” She pushes his hand away. “I want the same thing I’ve always wanted.”

Arcturus walks to the obelisk and leans against its pedestal. The snow is melting, and pearls of cold water trail down his back. “I’ve been watching you, Cesare. It’s getting worse.”

“What is?” She looks at him over her shoulder, her eyes and lips narrowed. “What is, Arcturus?”

“How did Justus die?”

She smiles thinly. “Your magic couldn’t tell you that?”

“Answer the question, Cesare.”

“I poisoned him.”

Arcturus closes his eyes and presses the back of his head against the stone.

“He wasn’t the only one,” she says. “But you knew that already. Do you know their names?”

“Wasn’t the war enough?”

“The war was nothing.” Her leonine voice cuts through the empty plaza. “You’re a soldier, Arcturus. You know nothing of murder. It’s easy in battle. You don’t think. You have a weapon and a body, and all you need to do it combine them, like opium and wine. They call it bloodlust. Do you see how right that is? It isn’t about you, and it isn’t about them. It’s about your bodies and what happens between them.”

Cesare stands over him. Her body blots out the sky. “Lust, Arcturus. It doesn’t touch you. But when you poison a man, you take him into yourself. You learn his habits, his thoughts. You learns his life before you destroy it. You aren’t even together when he dies. It’s only you, you alone, you and the thing you’ve done.”

“Damn you!” He jumps to his feet. “Be silent! Can’t you hear yourself?”

“Their names,” she says. “Corbinus. Leonia, Avernus. Pius. Cesare.” Her fingers find the scar on his shoulder. “Yes, Cesare. She was a servant in Justus’s household. She had my name, and I killed her.”

“Stop!” He strikes her across the face. She digs her nails into his shoulder, as though his touch is an ecstasy hardly to be borne. “I can’t look at you!”

“Then don’t.” She takes his face in her hands and turns it away. “If you’re going to kill me, do it now. Otherwise, let me go.”

But he isn’t the one holding her, and Cesare takes a long time to lower her hands.

#

There is a game the soldiers used to play, gathered around the cook-fires on the slopes of Mt. Lacun.

“When I am King,” they would say, “there will be no wars. I will move to the country and press wine and drown in it. Everyone will be happy.”

“When I am King,” they would say, “there will be no wars. When we fight, we will do it like gentlemen, with swords in the plaza and friends and lovers to cheer for us. Everyone will have justice.”

“When I am King,” Cesare said, “there will be no wars. I will pluck out the sick and the stupid and the lazy, and I will not take power from those who love it. Everyone will be strong.”

“When you are King,” Arcturus said, “you will make the world strong by murdering the weak.” He saw in his mind a row of gallows stretched to the horizon.

He does not know what Cesare saw. He only knows that she smiled.

#

The Electorate is empty. Six yellow candles drip in their settings; Cesare blows them out and fills their bases with powders, copper and lampblack and salt and metals. She puts the purple in the center of the room, directly beneath the rotunda. She mixes it in a black bag that smells of ink and amber.

Then she lays out the rugs, covering the marble floor and the ashy traces of her work. The ceiling above her is full of eyes. They have watched many elections, these frescos, and many instatements. They are bright and, it seems to Cesare, unafraid.

“You should be afraid,” she says. She arranges the chairs beneath the rotunda, six chairs around a seven-sided table. Then she is done.

She kneels on a rug. The air feels warm now, though it was cold when she began. She savors the touch of the Electorate against her body. There are many kinds of lust, and none of them are lonely.

The Electors will come in a moment; for now, she is alone with the Electorate. She weeps a little. It is a very beautiful building.

#

Like every great city in the world, Argentorat is built on the dead.

#

In Cesare’s rooms, the lesser Electors are gathering. Zayn sits at the window overlooking the Electorate. She rubs her hands together as though she is washing them. No matter what they tell her, she will not move.

#

Despite what he says, Sylvanus has not known Cesare since she was a child. No one has known her that long. But he has known her for longer than the other Electors combined, and this makes him unreliable where she is concerned.

He thinks, for example, that she does not want power, because she has never shown respect to those who have it. He thinks she does not lie because she has always placed such high value in the truth. He thinks because she is strong she has never been afraid.

He doesn’t realize that only those who want power can despise powerful people, and only those who love the truth know when not to waste it. He doesn’t realize what Arcturus realized long ago; that Cesare has always been afraid.

They file into the Electorate, red Bellona and orange Renatus and green Sylvanus and the others. They do not ask after Cesare. Perhaps it is because the sky is so purple, they cannot imagine holding her closer.

****

Cesare stands in the plaza. The snow is gone now; her shadow is invisible, black on black. From the windows of his shop, Tamerlane can see her. From the window of Cesare’s room, Zayn watches.

Arcturus crosses the plaza. Cesare turns at the sound of his footsteps. Her hair is loose, and it flows over the tailored shoulders of her robe like a cape of dark silk. Her eyes are red with weeping and something more than tears.

“What’s happening?” Arcturus asks. He can feel ghosts like cold wisps of snow in the air; Cesare’s past is with her.

“Don’t be afraid,” she says. “They are only choosing a Patriarch.”

He almost asks why she isn’t with them, but he knows. All at once, he knows.

“You’ll kill him,” he says.

Cesare does not smile; she is through with smiles. “All of them,” she says.

Arcturus flings her against the obelisk. She does not struggle and he rips aside the panel of her sash and draws the dagger.

#

Tamerlane gasps and closes the shutters of his window. Zayn presses her face against the cold dark glass. The scars on her back burn.

#

“Fight!” Arcturus spits. “Do you want me to kill you?”

Cesare does not move. The statues themselves seem to writhe in fear, but Cesare does not move.

“I only want one thing,” she says. Like a snake striking, she grabs his wrist and pulls it against her neck. “Do it, Arcturus. Slit my throat. Do you have any idea what’s going to happen in the next few moments?”

“No,” Arcturus says. He presses the dagger into her cold dark skin.

#

Inside the Electorate, the candle flames sputter. Three of them die.

#

Cesare shoves Arcturus back into the center of the plaza. A hot stream is running down the side of her neck.

“You can’t kill me,” she says. “In a moment, six of the seven will be dead. Without me, there will be no Patriarch.”

Arcturus is not listening. He sees it again, his vision of the gallows against a purple sky. He runs at her, his hair streaming wildly in the night air. Cesare drops to her knees and rolls away.

His dagger sparks on the pavement.

Cesare is panting. Her breath tastes like blood.

#

Sylvanus begins to read the votes. One, two, three for Cesare. As he unfolds the fourth, the candles sputter again. Two of them go out.

#

Arcturus’s magic is weak. He could see through a stranger’s eyes, but he could not make Zayn kill twelve men in one night. He can makes the flames die, but he cannot understand why they are important. He only knows that Cesare is thinking of them as she stumbles to her feet.

She wipes blood from her lips and neck with the back of her hand. She is shaking with agony, not all of it physical, not all of it painful. When Arcturus comes towards her a third time, she takes him by the shoulders and covers his mouth with hers.

His magic burns between them. She forces her tongue past his lips, her fingernails into his flesh, and savors the burn of his dagger along the skin of her waist.

There is not enough force in the blow; it does not draw blood. He drops the dagger as she takes his magic within her, as she pushes him down to the paving stones, and she steps between him and the Electorate.

#

Four votes for Cesare.

The last candle flames reaches the powder.

#

She is alone when they die.

Fire sprays through the rotunda, sparks of red and blue and green, gold and orange and black. Purple floods the sky. Slabs of frescoed marble shatter in the air like shards of glass.

“Cesare!” Arcturus cries. She does not turn to him.

In the light of the fire, her shadow melds with the shadow of the obelisk for one eternal moment.

Then the light goes out.

meganMegan Arkenberg is a student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who somehow finds time to write fantasy fiction, horror, and short-form poetry. Her work has recently appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Dreams & Nightmares, and Modern English Tanka. Megan procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance.