Content warning: sexual content, brief torture
For years, rumors of past illusionists drifted in these planes of silt and gravel like faint breezes; tales of tricksters summoning spirits with shiny wands, of hags trapping ghosts into slabs of dark glass, of shamans conjuring images of an antiquity unknown through the tips of their metallic staves; yet no fable’s acrid taste will linger more on a human tongue than the Shattered Truths revealed at Tiger-boy’s Theater.
His first act is staged in a cave, in front of a dozen peasants crouched on rock. Bodies huddled up, sharing the heat of digested rye and mushed cricket soup, emanating out of pores clogged with salt and filth.
Though some claim that they have seen him walk together with a squire dressed in an armor impossibly tight for a human body to fit, Tiger-boy comes forth alone. His gaunt silhouette eclipses the dusk outside the entrance. The rattle of chains accompanies him as he shuffles inside the cave, past dim shades and darkness, for less than a breath, barely enough time for the eye to perceive a tiger-like head perched on slumped shoulders.
These are the shoulders of a grown, tired man–not a boy, and this could be a mask made from stitched skin. Yet the peasants’ fingers dig deep into their bags of rye, crunch honey-crusted maggots, print worm-like cavities into the soft flesh of cheese that escaped the Royal Tax Collector’s notice.
Then Tiger-boy vanishes into a pool of darkness. He speaks, a deafening roar, but his voice is a fly glued in honey as he stutters.
“We-welcome.” The word stumbles into a tootle of lost breath, which he tries to stifle in a leather glove.
The grips ease off, some hands find the chance to scratch lice off a scalp or a flea’s sown trail under an armpit. If Tiger-boy had planned for a prologue, his haggard audience, underfed, overworked and trampled by the Royal sandal, will never know. Then, with a whooshing sound, an azure square appears on the inside wall. At once, the shadows scurry away from the tiger head; black and white stripes contouring an upturned triangle, its corners two amber eyes and a snout; white whiskers swaying over its sideburns. Yet all glares are tethered to the transparent canvas illuminating the rock. And all hearts beat in hope of a tale of revolution.
Decades before he becomes known as Tiger-boy, Tilum stands at a crossroads. Gray cloak, its hood a cleft of thick shadows, sacks strapped across his saddle, brimmed with fare and coin his mother handed him. His lips are dry with the crayon of adulthood–at his coming of age, he chose the color of firebug red. Yet his poise bears the timeless defiance of a youth who shrugs off the elder’s advice even if it’s confined into a single vow: never to go north. Never confront himself mirrored in the face of someone else.
Someone of Royal blood.
His mount’s mandibles crackle. Its antennas whisk the still air, heavy with pine resin and grape and awakening soil. Tilum tucks his hand inside his bag, sifting around the wrapped dried-up crickets, some berries and a flask of water, until he finds the broken bracelet his plough had unearthed years ago and hadn’t handed over to the Acanthian Consul. He rubs the cold, smooth surface. He plucks his hand out and grips his mantis’ reigns. Then, he turns his mount to the north.
He needs to see for himself if his mother’s last words about the Prince of Acanthe were true.
She was deft with words, his mother. Yet to a child raised in the confines of a shed and a field, most words are hollow husks. Husks that finally fill with images upon his arrival in the city of Acanthe: the buildings of bleached stone, the golden cupolas topping the Palace. Sounds: the hubbub of merchants, the lament of prisoners hanging in cages from the parapets, strange artifacts dangling from their necks like the bracelet he carries in his bag. And smells: the sweat of peasants, the stench of insect dung.
Tilum craves to throw off his cloak and hood, and infuse essence into the words in his head; fill them with names and faces and voices. His mantis’ strut carries him away from the avenue that leads to the Palace–where he should never go, where he’s going–into narrower streets, laden with the shadows of tall buildings. He rides among stalls full of dates, figs and quinces. Boys with clothes revealing planes of tanned skin gossip and laugh, indifferent to his passing. They’re beautiful; and he’s already forgotten why he’s in the city of Acanthe–and why he shouldn’t be. He dampens his parched lips with his tongue; a fount would be welcome–what in the Nine Hells is this carriage saddled to a pair of albino spiders? Strange chiseled animals adorn its gilded frame, and the tiger in its top corner could be the first one that Tilum sees.
Its coachman wears the wasp’s yellow and black, the colors of Royal servants. A velvet drape shrouds the insides of a small window; it’s pulled slightly and Tilum’s stare is caught into two olive-leaf-shaped eyes. Irises the color of a rainbow beetle, eyelids like centipede legs and a unibrow outlining the roots of a short forehead. Plump lips like leeches, crayoned firebug red, just like Tilum’s, and cheeks–skin the color of glazed wood–barren of hair.
Again, Tilum gropes in his bag to find solace in his broken bracelet when his mantis rattles its mandibles and flinches. He almost falls down as the olive-leaf-shaped eyes return his stare. It takes him a couple of missed heartbeats to get a hold of his steed and when he does, his hood drops to his shoulder, making him defy another piece of advice his mother gave him.
If chance takes his steps north, never to let anyone see his face.
The boy has opened the cart’s door and is running towards him; strings of muscle rippling under the skin of his legs. His short skirt swirls, his bare chest and curly hair–a willow’s foliage drenched in tar–are swaying. Golden snakes spiral around his arms, like the leather straps of his sandals coiling up his calves.
A scent of lemon and jasmine and male sweat intrudes Tilum’s nostrils and it’s only then that he notices the vendors, passersby and rent boys who have frozen. Yet not a single one of the newly-turned spectators shares his awe for the beautiful boy; no, their glares spearpoint at him instead.
As he finds himself dismounted and holding his mantis’ reigns, a numbness seizes his body, like an army of ants marching under his skin: his mother’s warnings were true.
“Have you lost your mind, Your Highness?” Fear strangles the boy’s hiss, and in the same fluid movement that gets him near Tilum, he yanks his hood up and fastens it, hiding his face again. Then, he shoots fiery glances left and right, pricking the vendors to rearrange their goods and the bystanders and gigolos to shuffle away.
“What happened to your crayon? And what have you done to your hair?”
“I… I…” stutters Tilum.
The boy’s eyes squint. “By the Nine Hells, the resemblance… Come with me.”
“Everything I showed you is true.” Tiger-boy’s voice sounds clearer now that the illusion fades into the rugged rock.
The peasants’ joints creak as they rise and amble their way out. Someone coughs, someone farts. Though this tale is not one of defiance and revolt as their hearts had hoped for, they keep their promise and part with their goods. When they leave, Tiger-boy’s companion–the squire dressed in an armor that is impossibly tight for a human body to fit in–appears, and helps him load their prize in their wagon.
During his next acts, Tiger-boy shortens the meeting scene to include fragments of the three following days. The audience seems to forget their plight and find solace in the sunsets Tilum shares with his new friend on a small balcony. Their dinners and their strolls seem to lighten the burden of Acanthian rule. Tiger-boy wonders. What if he shows them how they fondle? How they kiss?
What if he shows them how they fuck?
Tilum has never had his knees rub against satin before; a man’s hardened nipples had never pricked his back; crayoned lips had never heaved steamy exhalations to waft through his skull’s tufts; he’s never felt fingers scurry like arachnid legs on his skin, slither inside him, or the coldness of dripping olive oil fire up shudders through his openness; he’s never imagined such a use for olive oil; nor has he ever been seized by a presence so awkward, shoving its way inside him, into a place where all of his defenses crumble, leaving him incapable of trusting himself and the reactions of his own body that freezes in time; a time which ebbs back in a viscous oscillation accumulating waves of numbing pain inside him, accelerating into a bashing of flesh unto flesh and a chafing of something buried inside his viscera he never knew it existed; a piece of flesh commanding him to stop or keep going for an eternity; and as he lets this frenzied inertia carry him away, he starts pushing back and forth, clenching the satin sheets, expediting his body’s dismantling, his voice escaping him in gasps, in moans, in screams until the hand that was fondling him before muffles his crayoned lips; palm greasy and smelling of his own parts.
“Shut your mouth,” whispers the boy; breath briny and a tad musty.
Then he culminates in a thrust that fills Tilum in a broiling spasm of relief.
A few breaths later, he slips out of him and gets up from the bed.
Risqué paintings adorn the walls of the high-ceilinged room. An alabaster human statue lies in a corner, an iron praying mantis in another. There’s a small balcony and an arched opening that peaks into a bathroom. A marble-topped table on iron legs is full with fruit, cooked insects, amphorae and goat meat. Next to the bed lies a tripod with a cold hearth and a hookah, its girded pot the shape of a bug.
His lover grabs a towel from a silver hanger and rubs his loins. “You can’t stay in Acanthe, you know that, right?”
Tilum laxes prone on the bed, head pillowed on crossed arms. “Guess I can’t. But I had to see for myself first.”
His lover tosses the towel to him. “Well, you can’t do that. Apart from your crayon and your hair, you look just like him. Trust me.”
Tilum rubs his backside with the towel. “I can live with that. Trusting you, that is.”
They fuck again. Three towels later, his lover introduces himself as Chorus.
They lug cushions on the balcony to watch the sun dip behind the domes of temples and the turrets of the city walls, flaring up the bellies of the clouds in crimson. The porch is narrow and they pair their bodies’ heat against the evening breeze. Chorus leans on Tilum’s chest, fingers tracing his protruding clavicles. “I like that.”
Tilum always believed his clavicles were the heritage of his unknown’s father ’cause he had caught his mom resting a wistful gaze on them while he wasn’t looking.
“And I like that.” Tilum’s finger slides beneath his lover’s willow-like hair, over tiny scars on his clammy nape, as if something stung him repeatedly. Then, a thought gets in Tilum’s head. It’s not his clavicles that Chorus likes. “You’re in love with him, aren’t you?”
Chorus springs up. He gets back in the room and stumbles on Tilum’s bag, kicking it open accidentally. On the tiles of the floor scatter the dried-up crickets and the broken bracelet Tilum’s plough had unearthed years ago.
Tilum darts inside the room. “No!”
Chorus has already picked it up.
“It’s… It’s…” Tilum stutters. This could prove dangerous–as dangerous as the sight of his face is. Though the bracelet is broken, if Chorus is among those people who believe that these useless pieces of crap possess some kind of ancient magic that could help them shake down the Acanthian rule, he could…
Chorus smiles. He stoops and shoves the scattered dried-up crickets into the bag. Then, he throws the bracelet in too and hands the bag to Tilum.
“You know, you don’t have to be scared of me.”
“Let me show you something.” Chorus goes to the door, opens it, glances outside, then latches it shut. Then, he lights up a candle and gestures at Tilum.
Tilum follows him to the bathroom–jugs, chamber pots and a silver basin full of water. Chorus pushes a mirror of polished copper aside. He rummages in the corner where the wall roots to the floor. A click is heard and a straight vertical line cuts the wall in half, like a two-leafed door. Chorus presses against the two leaves of marble; and with a grinding sound, they slide on the floor and fold back.
“What in the Nine Hells is this?”
Chorus shrugs. “Well, my room was supposed to be given to the King’s nieces. And it doesn’t fall back in kingly perks.”
“What are you?” asks Tilum.
“A June bug in a cage, I suppose.” Chorus grabs his hand, ushering him into the darkness. “My father’s a king too. A dumb one, apparently, since he attempted to overthrow yours.” Tilum’s back scrapes against coarse stone tiles. “It cost him thousands of souls and my petty life in this stupid palace.” The candle is spilling light in a corridor running parallel to the wall. “But, at least, this place has enough secrets to keep a boy busy.” Chorus halts and fiddles with something. A clicking sound, again, and they pass through a similar gate into another chamber. Gray shadows skulk away from a slice of light that bursts in the room through a slit on a wall.
Chorus starts lighting up candles. Though the chamber’s ceiling is low, it is unexpectedly spacious. There’s a bunk with linen sheets, blankets folded in a pile, an oaken desk with an armchair, and behind it the wall is concealed by a piece of furniture that Tilum hasn’t seen since the last time he visited his home’s cellar.
A bookcase, brimmed with books. And though books might not get you killed, like artifacts not handed over, they can earn you the moniker of the insurgent, the scowling stares of people and, eventually, a sore back from whipping.
“Where I come from, they are not forbidden,” says Chorus. “My father’s emissaries smuggle them for me. Guess the king’s spies pretend not to notice. Probably think I’m harmless.” He shrugs. “Unlike you.”
Tilum’s feet glide him towards the bookcase. Inches before his index finger touches the back of a book, Chorus’ voice is heard, distant:
“I told you that you’re dangerous. Three times.”
“You know what happens when the King of Acanthe has twins?” says Chorus. “Come of age, they have to compete against each other for the silver crayon of the heir to the throne. I’ve no idea why the King cast you off, but I guess he wanted to have a back-up plan, in case one of his sons proves unworthy or something.”
“You don’t know if the King is my father.”
Chorus cackles, an irking yet arousing peal. “Yeah, right. It’s not the first time this happens. There’s a tale, you know.”
“Yeah, I’ve read it.”
Chorus’ brow raises in an arch. “You can read?”
“I can.” Tilum’s mother was one of the few Royal Bookkeepers when she was young. One of the few who were allowed to read in the kingdom of Acanthe. She used to smile when he’d take a candle and retreat to the basement after sunset.
Chorus lays a hand on his shoulders. “You’re full of surprises, aren’t you?”
They kiss. When their lips part, crayonless from their kisses before, as if they haven’t matured of age, Chorus says: “three nights you’ll stay. You’ll hide in here. And when you leave, promise me–“
“Why three nights. Why…”
Chorus’ face is still as if it has turned to stone–or alabaster. “Would you like to stay more or less?”
“More. Of course, more.”
A smile cracks the marble expression of Chorus. He kisses Tilum again. “I can’t afford more. And, as I said… When you leave, promise me that you’ll get as far away from this city as you can.”
This show is staged in an abandoned house and Tiger-boy casts his illusion against a wall of clay slabs. As he reveals more fragments of his Truths with each time, the breaths of his crowd blend into a fog that disperses through the hollow ceiling. People seem to enjoy the profanity; some hands descend to rub their loins. Do they still care for a tale of revolt? Or do they want him to lull them to a torpor of docility?
Perhaps he should show more flesh. Or he should unveil more of Chorus’ secrets. What will get him faster to his purpose?
His metallic squire says: “Perhaps it’s time to try both.”
“Or you can try to turn hell into a place suitable for a nest instead,” replies Chorus. They’re lying on his huge bed, Tilum wrapped in his embrace, bathed in moonlight.
Tilum laughs. “Nah… This can be done only in stories.” It’s their second night together.
“Well, your land is fertile with artifacts, though there aren’t many people brave enough to harvest them.” Chorus sighs, as if he has regretted what he just said, or as if he is weighing whether he should tell more. Whatever it is, he shrugs it off. “I wish you could stay longer. But they’re already asking if I have a guest…”
Tilum realizes that the sentence’s trail was leading to an ‘again’ Chorus skipped. “How many before me?”
Chorus springs up.
“Hey, just teasing you…”
But he leaps over the huge book that Tilum has brought into the room. Chorus gave it to him; it’s the tale with the lost twin. Tilum had read it when he was young, at his mother’s basement.
Tilum gets up too. “Know what? Why don’t you come with me?”
Chorus swerves, shoots him the exact glance he employed to dispose of the priers in the alley they first met. He opens his mouth, then shuts it again, the furrows of fury on his face flattening.
“I’m sorry. Being imprisoned for a lifetime… eventually gets on your nerves, I guess.” A sigh. “My escape would break the pact between my father and your king. It could mean war.”
Tilum resumes the same conversation the following night in Chorus’ secret room. Those last three days went by in a blur; their hours together shrank into seconds; the time in Chorus’ absence stretched into weeks.
“It’s a pleasant dream. You and I, leaving together. Living together.”
Chorus doesn’t jolt this time. “Remember your bracelet? It’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t escape even if I could.”
Chorus gets up. “Wanna see?”
Chorus grasps the desk’s edges and Tilum helps him haul the table a few inches away. Then, Chorus rummages on the floor. A tile flaps down with a click.
“This is where the King’s nieces would hole up, in case their enemies discovered this room.” Chorus slips in the darkness. “Wait here.”
A cough, swishing, clanking and Chorus’ hand emerges out of the darkness, palm full of dirt. Tilum helps him up; he’s heavy, probably because of a strange iron chest he’s lugging.
Chorus places it on the floor and wipes the dirt from his hands on his loose tunic. “You’re not the first one in here. But you’ll be the first one to see this.”
The chest is cubic. Under a thick coating of dust, its surface seems smoother than a copper mirror. Chorus fiddles with its lid and a ruby dot lights up under his thumb.
“Got a knife?”
Tilum hands him his dagger and Chorus wrenches its tip into the chest’s lid, levers it up and flips it open. Strange objects loom inside; complex, edgy shapes with tiny parts. Tilum illuminates them with a candle. And though their shapes are clear now, their use escapes him, their shells looking hollow in his eyes, like the words his mother taught him, before his visit in the city of Acanthe casted meaning into their molds. One–a glossy, chunky ring with no markings–looks like his bracelet. Another is a glassy, rectangular slab, thin as a book’s cover. A third one is a tiny box with a spiraling thread protruding from its side.
“All those artifacts, aren’t they…”
“Banned? Only in your stupid kingdom. Where I come from, we try to gather them, figure out how they work. It’s a pity they’re so rare in my father’s lands, and so common around here. Sometimes I feel as if your bunch of gods laugh at us mortals. Or perhaps…”
“Perhaps they’ve strewn them in your land for someone to use them against…”
Tilum’s voice is a whisper. “The King?”
For a second they stand stiller than the walls around them. Then Chorus chuckles and his expression lightens up, and it’s obvious to Tilum that this conversation is over.
“What’s this?” Tilum points at a dark, hollow cylinder with a slit across its middle, coils dangling from its bottom hole.
“The helmet?” Chorus gestures at him. “Be my guest.”
Though it looks to be made of iron, it’s surprisingly thin and light. A part of it, a visor over its slit, is busted. Its surface is polished and its inner coating is velvety, curved to host a head. Tilum resists the urge to try it on; Chorus might have offered it to him, but he did flinch when Tilum took it. “Where did you find them?”
“If I tell you, then I’d have to kill you.” Chorus’ voice sounds a bit too sharp.
Tilum searches for a reply not too hammy. Just when he’s about to settle for: after our three nights, I don’t mind losing my life, Chorus speaks.
“The labyrinth deep below the Palace is teeming with those things.”
Tilum has heard about the labyrinth. The monster lurking in the shadows beneath the Palace, feasting on the enemies of the King. Up until now, he had believed that it was another Acanthian tale. “You can’t possibly believe that there’s a…”
“A minotaur? No. But, what if something really exists? Some kind of weapon…Or deadly artifact?”
Tilum is left startled, so when Chorus yanks the helmet out of his hands, he almost pulls it back.
“Anyway. Perhaps if I find out how they work, I could be of some help…to my country…to your people too. It sounds stupid, I know–“
“Well. Anyway, now you know why I’m staying.” Chorus hurries to tuck the helmet in the chest.
An almost inaudible click comes from the corridors behind them. It’s followed by a grinding sound.
Tiger-boy’s squire says that his fame has grown faster than they had planned. Perhaps the time is ripe for a few drops of oil in the cauldron of the oppressed. Perhaps his audience is ready to explode against the colors of the wasp.
His new tent is roomy. Its canopy is short and it flaps against the wind, as if it’s struggling to pluck out its pegs and take wing. This time, Tiger-boy cuts his show off before its ending. He waits–this ancient trick of dramatic tension lying deep inside a human’s soul. With the words of his metallic squire repeated in a loop inside his mind, he follows his instinct when he puckers his tiger muzzle into something like a smile and announces: “and now, dear fellows, I beckon every free person who believes in my Shattered Truths to rise up.”
Chorus wags his head around, panicked like an upturned beetle, when the wall leaves slide apart and a man barges in. He’s slender with toned limbs, sporting a wasp-colored tunic. His oily mustache glistens over his golden-crayoned lips, his golden earrings sparkle, as do his eyes inside the tar pits of thick eyeshadows.
A cackle escapes him. “They’re in here!”
Chorus springs up, slicing the air with Tilum’s dagger, impossibly fast. Yet before its tip meets flesh, the guard slaps him with his backhand, throwing him against Tilum.
A second guard sidles into the chamber while more are heard through the corridor. She grins. “Good job! Now get this whore back in his brothel of a room.”
The first guard twists Chorus’ arm–a crunch, a shriek–and hauls him back crying into the opening. The second guard stands over Tilum. Her skull is shaved, her sinewy body is outlined against the dim candlelight.
“By the Nine Hells,” she says. “The resemblance.”
Tilum tries to kick her but she hops away. He scrambles for his fallen dagger, but she just boots him in the ribs, blasting the air off his lungs. Then she heaves him up, twisting his arm like the first guard did to Chorus, and a lancing pain races from Tilum’s wrist to his elbow to his shoulder.
“Don’t make me hurt you more, kid.”
Tiger-boy moves to larger southern towns, his metallic squire hiding in a new wagon with two robust mantis steeds dragging it. Still, his audience leaves asking for more. More profanity, more violence, more Truths.
Perhaps, his squire is right and he should speak of the most dangerous of the Shattered Truths. Spill the oil in the churning cauldron of the oppressed.
Tiger-boy is reluctant. His squire in the armor, which is impossibly tight for a human body to fit in, is not.
Tilum sees Chorus bent on the table. Chains shackle his wrists behind his back, while the guard who nabbed them is pushing his face against the marble top, next to a toppled amphora dribbling wine. Chorus’ spine lurches in the rhythm of a frantic heartbeat; a beat shared with Tilum while his own captor scoots him on a chair.
The room is crowded with the King’s Guard; young women and men sporting golden crayons and golden jewelry. Chorus has spoken to Tilum about them: they’re all King’s kin, those cousins who exceled in the art of war during their training. A very selected few are rumored to wield ancient magical artifacts, like the fire-spitting handguns. It could be Tilum’s impression, yet they move as if they know the place well. A futile thought dawns on his mind: how many of them has Chorus took in his bed?
A couple more guards spawn from the secret doorway–Tilum never noticed them getting in. There are no marks or scratches on the wall leaves, whoever ratted them knew exactly where to find them.
The boys’ panting echoes amidst grunts and chortles. The tension-clogged ruckus of hunter and prey scales down bit by bit, until someone’s footsteps are the only sound.
The guard behind Tilum grabs his hair and pushes his head forward so that he faces the floor.
“Prince Chorus…” The voice is indifferent, yet its familiarity paralyzes Tilum. “I knew you wanted to fuck me, but I didn’t expect you to get so far.”
Chorus doesn’t reply and the footsteps–careless, languid–halt in front of Tilum. A clang, and a searing pain branches up his hurt arm. His wrists are now shackled behind his back, around the chair.
Intricate etches trace the leather sandals; their thick chalky straps spiraling up to the knees. Silver nails, shaved shins, unmistakably male.
The guard holding Tilum’s hair eases his grip. His heart is pounding against his injured ribs, reminding him of the guard’s kick. His gaze climbs up on toned thighs, to a loose, milky tunic with platinum embroidery. Protruding clavicles–a spike of certainty hammered inside him.
The guard takes his hand off his hair and Tilum’s eyes finally ascend to the man’s face.
Long, bleached hair, caught in a single braid. Eyes hemmed into tar pools, a spider-shaped diadem craning eight limbs over his skull, and lips crayoned silver–the color of the heir to the throne. The insect’s eyes are glistening rubies–did they flicker or is this sudden lance of relief firing up Tilum’s imagination? The man looks older than him, and grins slyly, and that’s a grimace Tilum would never do.
The realization comes in stinging steps. The man’s eyes are chestnut pith; the bridge of his nose a slim crescent; rich lips despite the different crayon, round chin, lobeless ears. His mother had warned him; Chorus had warned him. Prince Ixor, firstborn son of the King of Acanthe, looks exactly like him.
No one ever comes to arrest Tiger-boy and his squire’s armor, impossibly tight for a human body to fit in, doesn’t prove of any use yet. Their cart starts tracking a snaking trail; east to west and a bit to the north, east to west and a bit to the north.
Villagers swarm and the air inside his tent is sultry; hungry mouths, rotten teeth and skin pores oozing, stirring weeks’ worth of dried-up sweat into a stench peculiarly similar to sizzling meat–or a boiling cauldron. Yet, despite the malodor and the lack of fresh air, his audience starts clapping before he has a chance to recite an epilogue.
His squire stays in the shadows, coming forth only when everyone’s gone. Tiger-boy wonders if it’s time to weave the Shattered Truths into a single Myth. The peasants might swarm for the profanity and they might swarm for the violence; they might swarm for the plot and they might swarm for the characters; but what of their purpose? What of the cauldron and what of the oil?
The metallic page replies that though not a human, it’s common knowledge that there are certain elements in stories, elements as ancient as humanity itself, which can work miracles. The start, the middle, the ending. The truth inside the lie and the lie inside the truth. The revelation.
The false resolution.
The culmination of Shattered Truths.
And the real resolution.
Prince Ixor doesn’t ask how Tilum grew up alongside a mother whose face and pale complexion bore no resemblance to him. How she slipped away from questions concerning her supposedly deceased husband and why she left her job as a Royal Bookkeeper and moved all the way to the country’s southern frontier, close to a gloomy settlement where no one greeted them.
Perhaps he already knows the missing parts in Tilum’s story. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t want to know them. Whatever it is, Prince Ixor doesn’t tarry with accusations. And Chorus doesn’t fritter with pleas.
“Shall we throw them to the dungeon, Your Highness?” asks the guard who seized Tilum, her voice carrying the authoritative ring of the group leader.
“No. I want their cries to wake this city of traitorous lizards. Remind those who dare to call my father weak who his son is.” He nods to a guard who just brought the chest in. “And this. Open it.”
He opens the lid up–Chorus hadn’t locked it. The Prince picks up the objects one by one; the bracelet, the box, the slab. Feels their weight, studies them.
“Stop moving, you piece of shit.” Thud; thud; thud; the guard holding Chorus pounds his head on the marble-top as if he’s mashing a beetle.
The knocks draw Prince Ixor’s attention, and the guard stops. “Oh, please. Help yourself with this two-tongued snake. Don’t wait for me.”
The guard exchanges glances with his leader.
She coughs. “Would you be so kind as to share your intentions with us servants, Your Highness?”
“Oh, my apologies, I forgot to mention, didn’t I? Cut off his tongue. Maybe that will keep him from spitting his venom.”
Chorus’s Adam’s apple bobs, yet he remains silent.
The leader’s gaze sweeps the room. “A pair of scissors. Now.”
At once, the guards frisk the room. Drawers are flung out of the wardrobe and towels fly out of the bathroom. Then, a guard comes up with a pruner.
She nods towards the tripod’s quenched hearth.
It takes forever for the guard to kindle the cinder and heat the pruner’s edge ’till it glows. Long enough for the thought, that he might not make it out of here alive, to sink in Tilum’s mind. And this is all his fault. Perhaps he could beg them to let poor Chorus go–but his lover’s stoicism at his impending fate, ascertains Tilum of its finality.
Meanwhile, Prince Ixor plucks the strange helmet from the chest, tosses it in the air and catches it as if it’s a pomegranate. A boyish cackle. He traces his fingers on its surface, its dangling visor, its inline. Glances at Tilum. Peaks through the helmet’s slit. Turns it over and looks at its opening. Fixes his stare at Tilum again, and grins.
The guard holding Chorus grabs his hair and wedges a knee against his spine. He pushes hard, bending his back to arc like a bow. Chorus groans. The leader of the guards bends over him, pruner in hand, its blades glowing like embers.
The Prince approaches Tilum, footsteps quaking a room that starts spinning– the paintings, the statues, the table, Chorus, the guards, the copper tripod with the blazing hearth, all mingle into a funnel whirling around the Prince.
“Open your mouth, whore, unless you want me to burn what’s left of your crayon off your lips too.”
Tilum’s lips separate, but then he realizes it was a woman’s voice he heard, the leader of the guards speaking to Chorus.
Prince Ixor halts before Tilum, blocking the sight of his lover, imprinting in his mind the image of Chorus stretching his jaw and unfolding his tongue–an olive-tree leaf painted rose.
“It would be wiser to finish off with you once and for all. But a prince must save up a trick or two for when he becomes a king. And what better trick than a doppelganger?”
As Chorus releases a shriek that–clack!–suddenly twists into a beastly howl, Prince Ixor tosses the helmet in the air and lets it drop mutely on the floor–no, what fell on the marble is a fleshy piece; a carmine leech with a sizzling, charred tip, coiling around itself like a frightened worm.
The Prince hands the helmet to a guard. “I’ve changed my mind. Take him to the dungeon. And wake the master blacksmith up.”
Words are spells second only to scents; they’re stronger than images, stronger than sounds. And though Tiger-boy has had his inventory of words describing the city of Acanthe filled with meaning before, these spells were cast long ago.
This is the same Acanthe and a different one too. Perhaps it’s because cities are living, aging, dying things. Gone is the splendor that had frothed out of the jugs of the words in his mind; the shine, the colors, the shapes. The shadows of ruined houses drape everything in an ominous dimness, torrid heat emanates from crumpled slabs. Desperation bleaches the images (the rusted domes, the rows of crucifixes outlining the top of the parapets, artifacts still dangling on the necks of the tortured), hostility rings in every sound (the marching of bands of soldiers, the clacking of flesh-eating spiders’ mandibles), and the smells shrill with fear (the sweat of commoners, the stench of corpse).
His mother had once said that you can find an alcove in any hell to hide your nest. Someone he will never forget claimed that you can turn hell into a place suitable for a nest instead. His squire, now hidden inside his wagon, believed that this hell is ready for his final act. But Tiger-boy can’t help but wonder if it’s too late for Acanthe to turn it into anything.
If he never tries, he will never know. Tiger-boy pulls his hood tighter. He’s had enough. He’s ready to turn back when he spots a strange building towering behind two roofs. It’s bleached and arched and its stones are ancient.
The Acanthian Coliseum.
A darkness and a cavern’s cold. Tilum’s fingertips, crisp with grime, dampen as they sift dank tufts of hay on coarse stone; the same stone covering a wall that grazes his flagellated back; skin and rock separated just by a linen tatter turned papery from dried-up sweat and blood.
A wet warmness streams inside Tilum’s thigh and the stale air is stirred by the stench of urine. Instinctively, he reaches for his nose but his palm crushes on iron.
He traces the crossed rods welded into a cage that encloses the helmet Chorus’ kept in his chest. Its structure is crude yet sturdy and it ends in a tight collar fixed around his neck. A braid of loose wires brushes his nape. Prince Ixor was pushing the blacksmith who didn’t have the time to mend the visor. It’s still dangling between cage and slit. There’s no lock, no way to open it. No way to eat properly either.
When the guards come to hand Tilum his meal, he sees clearly through the slit, but as they leave the darkness returns. They were kind enough to allow him a couple of straws so he can sip the soup they give him every…day? Every other day? He doesn’t know. He’s been locked in here for three meals.
It’s a harsh punishment for someone who ignored his mother’s advice. But he has chosen the color of his crayon and he’s not a child anymore.
A clang, the iron door screeches open, a growl: “I should’ve known better before visiting your brothel of a room.”
The slit of Tilum’s helmet can’t shield his aching eyes against the blinding glow of a torch, so he peers at the shadows washing away and the flotsam they leave behind their inky shores: strands of hay, a jug of water, a clay platter, scattered crumbs of shit that he failed to scrub in a small hole on the floor, a bug skittering towards it and a jumble of rags–no, there’s a leg and a hand jutting out of it, holding a candle. Tilum’s eyes still hurt when he snags his gaze unto the halo of a well-known face.
It might be his split lips, pale and embellished with crusted blood instead of crayon, or the bruises under his brow, the newfound scar on his chin or his shaved skull; his slumped shoulders or his limping gait. Or, perhaps, it’s simply the darkness engulfing him fast. Yet even his eyes seem shrunken, though they glint at Tilum’s sight. Chorus plunges to hug him, his candle almost blowing out.
Tilum crawls away, the visor of his helmet rattling. He nestles in a corner, the cold stone igniting the skin of his back anew, while his panting breath has ceased stinking, confined in iron.
Chorus raises a trembling palm, nodding that it’s okay. Then he moans something. The wretched rasp of a voice crumbles Tilum’s last line of defense and he lets Chorus rub his shoulder. Cold fingers trace his clavicle, his nape. Yet, before they warm up, they hop on the backside of his helmet and the loose wires jutting out. Then, Chorus stabs the first wire inside the skin of his spine.
There’s a rush of sensations; a tingle that branches out throughout his body, and by the time Tilum welcomes this numbing feeling, the blackness before his shut eyes is replaced with an aurora of colorations that starts to twist into a spiraling rainbow. It’s drawing him to its center, as if he’s flung himself into the deepness of a well with only a tingle of distant sound disturbing him. As it becomes louder and louder, he opens his eyes; and the rainbow has turned into an azure frame encircling the outskirts of his vision. Strange words adorn it and when he focuses on them, they pop up into more words.
A moaning cry awakes him.
Chorus gestures. His hand moves as if he’s trying to hug the darkness. Then his finger points to his head.
It takes a few minutes of Chorus nodding and gesturing for a wild idea to get into Tilum’s head. He shuts his eyes again and focuses on absolute darkness. Before he has the time to realize how absurd this sounds, an image of a tiger materializes in his vision along with strange words. There’s a yes and a no and he can actually think to select the yes, and another sentence emerges: are you certain?
By the Nine Hells, he is.
Tilum opens his eyes. “What?”
With a trembling candle, Chorus illuminates what was Tilum’s hand. Instead of fingers he sees pink beads of flesh, girdled in short snow-white hair. He twists it around. Golden fur covers the backside of his paw.
A clang from the door.
Chorus moves his one hand up and down, moaning, and Tilum focuses on shutting whatever magic his helmet has off.
The door opens again.
“And now we’re square.” Tilum would swear that there’s sympathy pulling the strings of the guard’s anger. He grabs Chorus by the nape. “Next time I’ll break your fingers. Then we’ll see if you can blackmail me again.”
He tows him out of the room and Tilum’s left in the darkness alone before he can say goodbye.
Shadows shroud the crowded tiers of the Coliseum, amplifying the coughs, the laughs, the screaming of vendors, the occasional threats, and, mostly, the talk. It’s a night of speculation, of whispers of magic and crucifixions. Is Tiger-boy a natural Illusionist or does he rely on a forbidden artifact? Is he an entertainer or a rebel? And will the King raise his thumb at his marvels or will he nod for his death? A word is repeated, multiplied, altered then restored again like wave froth; revolution or revelation or resolution or revolution.
Darkness shrouds the arena on the center of the Coliseum. It’s a fathomless well of tar, as if the sturdy planks of its floor have collapsed and the tons of sand have poured into the lower dungeons.
Then, the trumpets blow a festive tune and the whispers are crunched into coughs. The crowd ripples as all heads turn towards a centipede of glows emerging from the King’s gate. It crosses the Coliseum’s aisle, slowly filing towards the King’s Deck. The marching girls and boys in wispy attire begird two figures. One is an old man. A spider-shaped crown is cupping a wig of white hair cascading on his embroidered white robe while he’s leaning on a platinum scepter to ferry his enormous belly onward, as if it’s a walking stick. Beside him limps a hunched bald man. Though he’s dressed in tatters of puffy colorful clothes like he’s a huge rainbow beetle, his lips are crayonless. Tiny bells ring faintly, entangled in the two bristly braids of his forked beard.
The first one is King Ixor. Accompanied by his mute Fool.
Tilum’s muffled panting, the rattle of his helmet’s visor, the racket of his footsteps and their echo; all sounds thunder like the clatter of a rainfall against the tunnel’s liquid purl (dribbling, gurgling, pattering) as he’s scrambling his way through the shadows.
He’s spent a week fiddling with the helmet in his cell. It revealed to him a labyrinth of unknown words, a plethora of options. Premade disguises: suits, dresses, men and women, even some creatures of myth, like fat ground dragons with long ears and a proboscis, or rare animals like the tiger shape it has as a default setting. It turned out to be easy to use: you just focused on a shape and it tried to disguise you. You could also look at something to take its form. A wall to blend in for example, like when he camouflaged himself in his cell. Or a guard, like the one whose head he crashed from behind before his escape. There were other options too, like casting illusions in a wall, but these proved harder to juggle and time-consuming.
Slush spatters the wasp-colored tunic he stole from the guard who had refused to tell him where they were keeping Chorus. The rest of the cells were empty, and now his tunnel gets narrower and goes downhill. It twists and turns and forks out left and right. He read about a trick somewhere, to always turn left in a labyrinth to find your way out, so he turns left. Something brittle crushes under his soles. He picks a piece up, feels its smooth surface. Two round holes, two sharp slits and a row of shingles below–by the Nine Hells, these are teeth! He flings the skull away, resumes running.
A creak, and he stumbles to a halt. He shuts his eyes and searches for the face of the guard inside his mind, the guard who had brought Chorus to his cell. His tiger head flickers and is replaced by the caged iron helmet with the braid of wires plugged into his skin. Tilum is lost amidst strange words when suddenly a ruby star shines at the end of the tunnel–a glow similar to the one atop the lid of Chorus’ chest. The light bursts into a tiny spark, leaving a dim will o wisp, suffocating fast under the weight of the darkness.
Tilum solders on in a tornado of twirling shadows, a vague shape in its eye. His walk comes to an abrupt end when the shape acquires an outline spawn from a well-known nightmare, an Acanthian tale Tilum has heard before. The monster lurking in the shadows beneath the Palace. Feasting on the enemies of the King.
It could be an armor, impossibly tight for a human body to fit in. Frame full of angles, rust-caked surfaces dented like a shattered husk, strange parts jangling: worm-like tubes, bug-like boxes, antennae-like coils. On its top rises a lump instead of a head, as if something is protruding from its chest. Two elongated things jut out from its shoulders like bull-bug horns; they look cut-off, braids of loose wires snaking around them like ivy.
A whisper escapes Tilum’s lips: “The minotaur.”
He struggles to keep his knees from shaking when the creature starts fizzling. Then Tilum realizes that one of its legs is twisted and the thing leans against the wall with a hand-like limb– the other is a stump.
Flashing blue arteries delineate its body momentarily. It starts emitting a reverberating buzz, fluctuating in pitch, resonance and volume. It’s chopped by pauses into shorter or longer strings of syllables; some of them seemingly repeated; three of them almost intelligible:
“Please. Help. Me.”
Then, with a jangle, the creature collapses.
Tilum eavesdrops on the echo of the creature’s crash swallowed by the tunnel’s wet murmur. He remembers Chorus’ words: What if something really exists? Some kind of weapon… Or deadly artifact?
He nears what now seems to be a pile of rusty debris.
“I won’t hurt you.”
Tilum stumbles back, tries to cling to the wall, this time a curse escapes him.
“I reassure you that I haven’t met your mother and that my frame is not manufactured to support sexual intercourse.”
Tilum glances backwards, forward, at the pile on his feet.
“It’s me.” Only then does he realize that the female voice is speaking inside his head.
“What… What are you?” he mumbles–does he have to speak or thinking is enough?
Apparently, speaking does the trick. “I’m afraid there’s no time to explain. My batteries are depleted. I need light and I need it yesterday.”
“Where…where do I find light in this dungeon?”
“I’ll show you where, but you’re gonna have to drag me. Now sit down, please.”
“Please, just sit down.”
He finds a dry corner, mops it, but–
“Closer to me. My signal is weak.”
As soon as Tilum sits on the dank rock, he feels something warm flowing through the cables into his nape and then, a swelling mass of stimuli and data barges inside his mind in the form of rippling colorations, noises and smells. The cables heat up, firing up a numbness throughout his body, a numbness that quenches with a spark scorching his skin. It lasts a few seconds and now it takes all of his willpower to keep himself from puking. The tunnel’s cool, stinking breath feels like a welcoming breeze as he waits the nausea out. And, as soon as the shadows around him halt their spinning dance, he realizes that a map has formed in his mind. This maze is huge, almost as large as the city of Acanthe. He could wander for years in here without finding the exit, had he been alone. But he’s not. And now he knows exactly where the light is.
The first servants of King Ixor’s convoy reach the King’s Deck and hurry to light up the torches, while the guards position themselves around the marble throne. The trumpets keep blowing while the King’s Fool drops on all fours in front of the throne; moves cranky yet accurate with experience, as if he returns in his natural shape. A servant places a broad pillow on his back, so that King Ixor can rest his feet upon it after he sits heavily on the throne. The music ceases and a silence laden with fear and trained by decades of oppression sinks in the Coliseum. Then the King yawns, gestures slightly, and the trumpets blow again, cheerfully.
All heads turn to the center of the arena which is consumed by total darkness.
There’s no minstrel to sing of Tiger-boy’s achievements, no poet to announce his titles. Dancers don’t open his act. Just a silent whoosh and amidst the thick darkness a pool of yellow light spews, illuminating a hunched figure with the head of an animal. The light tracks him as he inches his way towards the King’s Deck. Bewildered glances fence on the tiers, a few thoughtless spectators stifle their cackles into coughs. Finally, Tiger-boy reaches the King’s Deck and bows with the calculated precision of an aged performer.
King Ixor gestures him up. “So, mister Tiger. You’re well aware that using an artifact to summon your magic is a punishable act.”
“Then, please, go ahead. I don’t have all night.”
A thunderous voice, not quite different than the one that was lastly heard, emanates up to the furthest tier of the Coliseum. Unlike his frail body, Tiger-boy’s voice seems to have resisted the sandpaper of time.
“King Ixor. Indomitable people of Acanthe. What you’re about to see is the truth and only the truth.” Amber eyes hook onto the King. “And, by the Nine Hells, you know it.”
He flings his arms open as if offering his body for crucifixion. Fingers spread, he spins around, and though there’s no feline fluidity or tiger’s grace in his swirl, it’s sudden and swift and spawns a film of azure light; a membrane that inflates like a bubble. Trapped sparks float inside it, as it gets taller, forming an enormous, diaphanous half-globe that cups the whole arena at the center of the Coliseum. And now a thousand exhalations siphon out of the gaping mouths of the crowd, including the King’s.
Including the Fool’s.
And this is how Tiger-boy starts his tale of Shattered Truths, from the first time he visited the city of Acanthe until he met MTR-7919 LRL in the labyrinth beneath the dungeons of the Palace.
It takes Tilum nineteen hours to tug MTR-7919 LRL under a broken hatch that allows a sheaf of refracted sunbeams to pass through it. And the two of them linger there for five days and nights, for the equivalent of a four-hour charging cycle of her secondary pack of batteries–apparently her main one is dead.
He stays with her. In turn, MTR-7919 LRL zaps out a few crunchy roaches and a couple of rats to feed him. She bores a hole on a wall until she finds a groundwater well. She quenches his thirst for knowledge by uploading to his mind an information package of history modules, which, in one of the poems she recites to beguile his boredom, she calls a handful of shattered truths. Then she answers most of his questions concerning the age before the Great Flood, describing some of the objects they call artifacts nowadays.
And, no, Tilum, MTR-7919 LRL is not a minotaur. This tale is older than her, older than Acanthe, older than the Nine Hells you believe in, older than your mind can grasp.
A minotaur she might not be, but a weapon she is.
She guides him inside the labyrinth. Tilum is kind enough to listen to the strings of words she calls poems–the reason they dubbed her Miss Lyricah, back when they had assigned her to guard this base. This was six hundred and seventy-one years ago, twelve years before the Great Flood. Other humans had been lost in these tunnels before, she claims, yet all of them had fled at her sight. Where they had ended up, she knows not; she preferred not to chase them in order to preserve what little remained of her charge.
Up until she detected Tilum’s presence, thanks to his helmet. This was her last chance before her secondary pack collapsed, and her boards corroded into a short-circuit of oblivion.
She gets to learn his story too. One time, inside the labyrinth beneath the city, while they’re rummaging in a pile of detritus, searching for a leg to replace her broken one, she says that, were she in his shoes, she would educate the people about their past and the wrongdoings and achievements of their ancestors.
“But how am I to do that?”
Miss Lyricah, as she allows Tilum to call her, has no answer.
“Hey, this a hand?”
“No. It’s something better.” She weighs it; it’s lighter than her original cannon, but looks equally destructive.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Miss Lyricah tries the cannon on her shoulder; she needs a new mounting or… She notices his question and instantly replays their recent dialogue; he’s asking her how should he inform his people about their past.
“I do not possess a plan. But I can help you with one. The capabilities of this cannon are significant. You could say it can bring hell upon your enemies–“
“Hell, you said?”
He nods her to hush. They’re deep inside the maze and Tilum’s breaths sound hollow.
After a while, she speaks again. “I fail to grasp the reason behind your smile.”
Tilum sighs. “Well, a few days ago, I had told Chorus that the best thing you can do is find an alcove in a hell to hide your nest. He had replied that maybe you should turn hell into a place suitable for a nest instead.”
“I fail to comprehend the conclusion of this monologue.”
“Well, I had replied that such things can be done only in stories. But we were both wrong. This can be done with stories.”
The tiers are boiling with swears and curses, a churning cauldron of oppressed souls, mouths spitting, arms waving, fists flying high. King Ixor gestures with his scepter at one of his guards–a woman–who nods. After a while, more guards cluster around him, yet the King is not leaving his throne or his Fool upon whose back he’s still resting his feet. His gaze is fixed on the illusion. And this time Tiger-boy unravels the whole story, until the King’s appearance when he was still a Prince.
Then, suddenly, the heroes of his story–gigantic images, so that everyone can see–disappear. The ethereal hemisphere becomes diaphanous and the turmoil that welled up in the Coliseum ebbs back. A charged silence spreads throughout the tiers.
Tiger-boy’s booming voice shakes the earth. “And now, dear fellows, I beckon everyone who believes in the Shattered Truths to rise up.”
A shiver propagates as if the Coliseum is a body with all its hairs raised. Only King Ixor stays seated while the leader of his guards pats his shoulder, gesturing to follow her.
King Ixor throws an angry glance at her and she cowers back to her position. Then, he pulls his feet from his Fool and kicks him to get up. The old man straightens his spine painfully and stands by the throne.
The half-sphere hologram in the center of the arena reveals to the people of Acanthe scenes from the information packages Miss Lyricah uploaded to Tiger-boy’s mind. Their wondrous past and their ancestors’ achievements. Their mistakes and wrongdoings, and how it all crumbled to dust by greed and ignorance.
The same greed and ignorance that forbids them to read and find out about their past. The same greed and ignorance that gets them crucified if they don’t hand off the artifacts of old.
This is the oil drop splashing in the churning cauldron, and now the Coliseum starts to shake. Tiger-boy’s illusion finally reaches its ending and the hemisphere sinks into a depression of light. But now a hundred flames glow all over the tiers. The cries of the guards struggling to gather up are smothered in a deafening uproar; the crowd is furious. Some guards hurry to the King’s Deck, others storm the arena.
And Tiger-boy, his head flickers between two shapes; when it steadies, a helmet inside a barred cage is perched on his hunched shoulders. His legs are shaking with the Coliseum–the illusion has consumed him. Yet his voice thunders louder than any scream or cry, and though everyone’s busy attacking or fighting or striving to make it out alive, they will all recall until the end of their lives the words he had memorized for this moment; words he doesn’t even need to utter to start the fire.
“The king has a twin who he did everything in his power to hide from you. The king has a twin who was never given the chance to compete for the crayon of the heir to the throne.” A pause. “And yes. I did use an artifact to offer you my Truths. I’m ready to be judged. By the indomitable people of Acanthe.”
A single word spreads all over the Coliseum, faster than fire, unmistaken this time: revolution. People start pushing against each other. Waves of bodies pour down from the higher seats to the lower ones. They crane like grapes over the ledge, start falling down in the arena. Some bones break, but most people get on their feet; only to face a group of guards charging at Tiger-boy.
King Ixor springs up and screams: “It’s all lies! There’s no twin of mine, it’s an illusion!” He turns towards his Fool. “You! Tell them the truth! I never cut off your tongue, you bear an oath of silence! You’re no fucking prince, you… By the Nine Hells, you’re not even named Chorus, Chorus is fucking dead!”
The Coliseum is a cauldron set ablaze. The flames feast on wood and flesh alike, smoke rises, fueling a low cloud that sprinkles a rain of soot onto the arena.
The Fool, standing still, hooks a cold gaze to the King.
“Tell them!” yells King Ixor. “I would never have given him a fucking magical helmet! I’m not such a…” It’s obvious that he wants to add ‘fool’ but he lets the sentence trail off.
Chorus steps forward and with a subtle move, his hand slithers inside his flamboyant clothes. When it jerks out, it holds a silver-hilted dagger.
The King gasps and scoots back on the throne. But the King’s guards are trained to notice such moves and a scimitar cuts off Chorus’ darting hand. Another one severs the bald head, sends it rolling onto the marble floor, the bells in his beard ringing.
The guards surround their King while those inside the arena are nearing Tiger-boy who stands beneath the King’s Deck.
Still bathed in yellow light, he seems frozen. Tiger-boy’s companion, Miss Lyricah, knows that this illusion must have drawn all his life-energy out from him. Waiting under his feet, inside the underground dungeon, she finishes off with her last diagnostics and self-tests, and gets ready to take action.
“My precious companion, please rise.” Tiger-boy’s voice is sad.
Miss Lyricah has already sliced the planks of the arena’s floor during his act, so she just jumps up and, in a fountain of splinters and sand, lands on the center of the pit. And she’s not the wreck he met in the so-called labyrinth; Tiger-boy has helped her repair her frame that looks like an armor impossibly tight for a body to fit in. Tiger-boy has helped her become a weapon.
King Ixor, still on the King’s Deck, raises his scepter–it has a barrel, it’s a rifle!–and takes aim. Miss Lyricah’s cannons zap him out, then finish off with the rest of his escort. The chaos dwindles as word of the King’s death is passed on. Miss Lyricah’s cannons smoke when she notices that the yellow light has disappeared and Tiger-boy’s body lies dead in the shadows.
She turns her cannons towards the guards in the arena.
The final act, the real resolution of Tiger-boy’s Theater of Shattered Truths is played after its ending.
The rays of the rising sun warm a field of churned sand painted brick-red. People wander the arena, searching for their dead amongst hundreds of corpses full of dirt and charred wounds. They weep when they find them, solder on when they don’t. Somewhere between them lies Tiger-boy too.
A young man nudges his friend and they hobble towards him. Their bodies are smeared with dirt and blood; one’s calf is slashed. They stand still, shedding their mingled shadows onto Tiger-boy’s corpse. One asks the other if it’s him; the other one nods.
Tiger-boy’s body is trampled, bruised, drenched in red mud. One man bends down, gropes his helmet.
A whirring sound is heard and both men jolt. They turn and gawk as the metallic beast who slaughtered most of the guards with its magic, approaches them. One of them flinches, pulls his friend’s arm, loses his balance, and they both crumble onto the mud. They manage to rise up and totter away, crying for mercy, waiting to be sliced by the beast’s flashing rays. Instead, they reach the dungeon’s gates and there, one of them halts and the other falls upon him. They turn back and steal a glance, before they leave the massacre.
The beast has turned its back and walks towards another gate of the arena, holding a body in its arms. As it paces behind a weeping old man, the two young men notice that the body the beast is carrying is wearing an iron helmet.
The tale has different endings depending on the storyteller. Some say that Miss Lyricah resurrected Tiger-boy and his Theater of Shattered Truths kept roaming the country. As the people grew accustomed to the technology of old, they slowly lost their interest to his show and Tiger-boy and his metallic squire left forever. Others say that Miss Lyricah never took him out of the arena; his body was found and his helmet broke open, and he bore no resemblance to King-Ixor—in fact, in one version of the tale, he’s a woman, a rebel who was planning the revolution for years and used this story of old to drive the people to revolt. Other versions claim that he was Chorus, or a lover of Chorus.
For years, rumors of past illusionists drifted in these planes of silt and gravel like faint breezes; tales of tricksters summoning spirits with shiny wands, of hags trapping ghosts into slabs of dark glass, of shamans conjuring images of an antiquity unknown through the tips of their metallic staves. Yet all those fables waned following Tiger-boy’s appearance. And no matter the ending of each version of his story, its acrid taste will linger on human tongues forever since they all agree that it was his Theater of Shattered Truths that ended the reign of Kings and brought forth the technology of old to Acanthe. As for the helmet’s default hologram of a tiger illusion, of the person who crafted it and tuned it a long time ago, well, that’s a different story.
Copyright 2023 Antony Paschos
About the Author
Antony Paschos is a Greek author with short stories in Galaxy’s Edge, ZNB Presents, James Gunn’s Ad Astra, Metaphorosis, and other magazines. He has also published three books and several short stories in Greek. He is a member of the Athens Club of Science Fiction, and lives in Athens.