Lieutenant Vivian Holloway Among the Bone Men.
Part 7: A Mocking Show of Contempt for the Agogi Oligarchs to the South-East.
Moztar Thegg brought him to the edge of the circle and sat him down by the sandy floor. He was still reeling from the orichalcum-inspired visions, his stomach roiling like a nest of vipers. But he could tell the great hall was much quieter now.
The revellers had stopped up their incessant chatter. The slow and steady tattoo of fingers on a lizard-skin drum rang out through the smoky air.
Thegg and some serving woman, swaddled like her master in black and white from head to toe, eased him down upon a pile of cushions. All at once, knew what it was like to be paint on a Gérôme canvas, or maybe a Delacroix.
How many years has it been since I last felt such luxury? Vivian asked himself. Before the war, surely. Before he had become used to sleeping through the sound of exploding trenches full of mud, used to the sight of death and dismemberment, the world drained of all its colour.
But that was a life he barely remembered, yet another casualty of the shelling and the snipers and the useless charges across No-Man’s Land. Even the war itself paled in comparison to this strange place, this so-called Verdant Land of Skla, with its fogs out of London legend and its natives with skin he could see right through, all the way down to their bones.
Vivian gaped as Thegg’s grey skull inclined itself politely from within its voluminous hood. He wondered for a moment if those transparent lips were stretched in a reassuring smile, or if that was just a trick of the light.
“Now, my friend from Earth so far away,” purred Moztar Thegg, “you will see what arts we have on Planet Algol, in the land of Skla.”
He turned to the sandy ground, surrounded by cloaked and hooded bone men, on their own piles of cushions or standing further back. Some men around the edges had drums and more curious instruments, strangely-shaped flutes and horns and even bronze fiddles they played in their laps. In the middle of the ground lay a large, low brazier, its fire casting a flickering, changeable light across the crowd. He could see two more atop tall spires, standing amongst those who sat at the edge of the bare ground to either side of him. There were women, he saw over the fire, directly opposite him, a huddled mass who hid even their skull faces behind dark-coloured scarves and veils. But now they seemed to part, jostling and pushing against the men around them, until a lone figure emerged.
Through the brazier’s dancing flames, Vivian saw a skeleton step forth onto the sandy ground. Its head was not a skull, but instead that of a beautiful girl, young and pink and hairless. More than just a head, she had a long pink neck as well, perfectly shaped.
But then Vivian realized the truth. She was a bone woman, completely naked but for the bells on her ankles, the bracelets on her wrists, and the pink paint that covered her head and neck and the very edges of her chest and shoulders. At first she swayed, eyes closed, but then the music swooped up and she was dancing, a flurry of twisting arms and shaking hips and stamping feet that sent the sand below her flying in all directions. Her face remained still while her body writhed and shook and leapt around the brazier. As the fire’s elusive light washed over her, Vivian could make out hints of her voluptuous curves, highlighted by tiny golden stars. A thin dusting of some sparkling metallic powder covered her, moved with her, showed her to his eyes that could not see her flesh.
As she danced, the pink paint began to mix with her sweat, and run down her arms and body. Growing thin upon her face and neck, it ran all the way down her spine to her rump, and down her chest, between her breasts and to her belly. It ran not in waves, but in rivulets, enough to suggest, to hint and tease, but only that.
Just like the gamma orichalcum, he thought. I see everything and nothing both.
But as soon as he was sure he had a grasp on that which he beheld, she was gone, spirited away through that wall of women on the crowd’s far side. A roar of cheers and clapping erupted all around him as the fire dimmed and guttered. He felt dizzy, almost as if he were falling from a great height. Thegg appeared before him and seemed to hold him up with his hands.
“My friend, are you not pleased? You are pale as our children’s bones!”
“The fire…” Vivian replied in a mutter, his lips like stone slabs. “Relight the fire…” But then he realized it was not the fire that was growing dim, but his own two eyes.
“Ah, so.” He heard the regret in Moztar Thegg’s raspy breath. “It is the orichalcum vapour. You had too much, too much!”
Yes, thought Vivian as he settled back into the darkness. Too much vapour. Much too much.