19 July 2011

Carnivale Mechaniste

Chapter 4: Meeting at Midnight

Midnight came and found Jax just beginning to stir awake in Madame Hassan's tent. The fortune teller was rolled in a blanket in a corner, snoring softly. Jax rose and slipped of the tent into the silence of the sleeping Carnivale. A few lights burned from trailers and RV's, but all was still and silent. Jax oriented himself by the nearby freeway and set out eastward, tiptoeing, staying in shadows; he hadn't gotten as far as the outer ring when a thought struck Jax. He stopped, looked around to make sure he was alone, then focused on an image of Helix, Aric's cat, and was satisfied to feel the low buzz in his gut and the sensation of draining energy. The world shrank, his muscles and bones twisted and contracted, and then Jax was creeping in the shadows, the darkness of the midnight hour clear and bright to his cat's eyes. He stole silently beneath wheels and under carts until he was beyond the outer ring of the Carnivale Mechaniste and loping swiftly across a inclined grassy field with low hills in the distance. Some primitive instinct in the feline portion of his brain guided him unerringly eastward. He had no idea if he'd gone two miles or not, but when he reached the crest of the hill, he stopped, sat, and waited. Beyond the hill was nothing but more grass as far as he could see; from where he sat there was no one else in view, and he could watch for Thyra's approach. As he waited, Jax realized he had no idea where he was, geographically. They'd been traveling non-stop for months, three-day stops at a time, and Jax had long since lost track of which state he was in. He was somewhat surprised to realize that he also didn't care, not even a little bit. For better or worse, he was a carny now, it seemed, and the life suited him. He enjoyed learning to smith, fencing for hours with Harman, learning magic, meeting strange new people...it was exciting. The only hamper to the experience was the issue with Thyra. Here, in the quiet, wind-blown open wild space, he could let his thoughts run free, let himself think thoughts that were too hard to face otherwise....

His parents weren't his parents, for one. That was a hard realization that had been a long time coming. They were adopted parents, or something like that. He'd been “sent” to them. He didn't look like either of them. He wasn't like them at all. But now, it all made sense. He'd been a freak or something and been adopted out, unwanted...That train of thought got too painful, and Jax had to shake himself out of it. He sat on his haunches and began straightening his fur, methodically and slowly.

Thyra, now...that was a different case. She was amazing, beautiful, captivating. And out of reach, it seemed. Their conversation earlier in the day had made it seem like, if it weren't for Aric she would be in to him. God, that would be awesome. Involuntarily, his thoughts drifted to the first vision he'd had in Madame Hassan's tent...he could feel again her arms around him, her breath against his face...

But then the next vision followed, that horror of pain and torture, and he couldn't help the feeling that the two were connected somehow. That, if he and Thyra did make that first vision come true then somehow, by some unforeseeable concatenation of events, he would end up in the desert, crucified with silver spikes. The question that arose in Jax's mind was, would it be worth it?

For him, the answer seemed to be a resounding, undoubted affirmative. But if the risk wasn't worth it for Thyra, then it didn't matter. Of course, she didn't know about the visions, but Jax knew that he would tell her, and he would have to let her decide.

Jax heard a flutter of wings above him and looked up. A bat was chasing bugs above him, and as before with the hawk, his vision telescoped to bring the bat into perfect focus. This time, the change was almost instantaneous and without effort. He was a bat now, and he was aloft flitting and darting in the air, sending out a burst of sound that returned to him bearing a wealth of information. The world around him was startlingly clear, and whenever he sent out a sonar burst, a whole new perspective was obtained. There she was! He could see her clearly, she had changed into a long, flowing dress of cerulean gauzy material that was nearly sheer and clung to her every curve. Jax banked and fluttered around her head, landing awkwardly on the ground in front of her, eliciting a shriek from Thyra. She stumbled back a few steps and put her arms in front of her face, dropping to the ground the basket that she carried over her arm. Jax phased back to his human form and rushed over to her, putting his arms around her, an instinctive reaction to seeing her fear. She responded to his touch immediately, opening her eyes and wrapping her arms around his neck. Standing like that, arms around her waist, faces close, seemed perfectly natural.

“The bat...?” She gasped.

“That was me...sorry, I didn't mean to scare you.”

“Jerk.” She said it like an endearment, slapped his arm gently. Their eyes locked and Jax seemed on the verge of falling forward into her eyes that shimmered in the moonlight, into her lips red as cherries, soft, warm, delicate and eager...he couldn't help falling, couldn't help it whatsoever, he was helpless against the hypnotic warmth of her body, against the kaleidoscopic lure of her eyes. Their lips met and Jax slid into a realm just shy of Heaven, a place of peace and passion and hunger for all of her...mind and soul and spirit and heart as well as body...

She pressed herself against him, clutching him tightly, twining her fingers in his hair. They were on the ground, suddenly, writhing against each other, tugging at clothes. It was Jax who pulled away first, to his own surprise.

“Wait...wait a minute...” he breathed. Thyra pulled her head back and looked at him with surprise.

“What? Isn't this what you wanted? I've been thinking about you all day, wanting you. People were listening, before...in the Carnivale, someone is always listening...I couldn't say what I really felt before. This is what I want. I've never felt this way before...if it wasn't for my dad...”

“Listen, Thrya, please, this is important.”

“Don't tell me you changed your mind. I'd kill you. For real.” Jax could feel pressure in his head, Thrya probing his mind for information. With her, he didn't mind the intrusion. He opened himself, let her in. He watched her carefully as he did so, and realized she was testing him to see how he'd react. When he opened up, she smiled faintly and withdrew the probing telepathic pressure.

“No! Not at all!” Jax said in response to her verbal question, reaching a hand up and tangling his fingers in her fine blond hair as he spoke. “The opposite, if anything. It's just...I don't even know where to start...Do you know what happened with me and your dad after you left, last time I saw you?”

“I heard. Daddy hurt you.” She said it bitterly, angrily.

“Yeah, you could call it that. I thought I was going to die, honestly. Death would have been better than that pain. But that's not what I'm talking about. After he left, Madame Hassan found me, helped me up, took me to her tent. She gave me...what was it...heartroot tea, which really helped, actually. Then she had me look into her crystal ball, and that's where things got really weird.”

“She did a reading?” Thyra interjected. She sounded shocked and excited. “She doesn't usually read other carnies, as a rule. She says that knowing what will happen to the people you live and work with with is a really bad idea, generally. What'd she see?”

“Well, it was me who saw things. I think she saw it too, but I...I didn't just see, I was there, feeling the things that happened. Its hard to explain. I was me, but I was me as a...ghost? A...a spirit? I don't know, but I saw myself—how d'you call it, in third person, from above—and then I went down into myself...God, how do I explain it?...I was me, watching me, and then I was inside me. I know this has gotta sound crazy. I knew I was watching the future at the same time that I was experiencing it. That's the best I can say it. So...” Jax cleared his throat nervously, rolled to his back. Thyra rolled with him, lay her head on his shoulder. “Uhh...this is hard to talk about. I saw a few things...first, I saw us. Like this, but...together...”

Thyra looked shocked, embarrassed, and intrigued. “Together? Like, together, together?”

“Um, yeah. Like, all the way.” Despite the fact that they had nearly gotten to that point a moment ago, Jax still blushed.

“Um...wow. So...what—what was it like?”

“Imagine what we were just doing, but like...if making out like we just were is a candle, then what we were doing in my vision was the sun. But that was just the first thing I saw. I was there for a few minutes, not even minutes, really, more like a few seconds, and then I was moving up, or away, or...” Jax was at a loss for how to describe it, settling for waving his hands vaguely, “just away, I guess. I came back to myself again, in a desert...I was lying on the ground, naked, and I had these weird, magical-looking silver spikes hammered through my wrists and feet into the ground, like a crucifixion. It was...the most horrible pain imaginable...but worse was the feelings I had...knowing I'd been tortured and left to die, and I had this awful feeling that it was punishment for something...when I there, in the vision, I couldn't figure it out, but now...I realize that it was punishment for what happened in the first vision. That's the only thing I could figure out...and it scares the hell out of me, Thyra. I don't mind admitting, I'm terrified of that vision coming true.”

Thyra was silent for a moment, trying to absorb what Jax had told her. “What do you mean, punishment? For you and I...” Thrya ducked her head, blushing, as she made herself say the words out loud, “having sex? I mean...why would we be punished for that? By who?”

Jax gave a ragged chuckle, gently mocking. “By who? You really have to ask that? By your father, Thyra. 
Aric catches us, or finds out, or something.”

“Ok...so what else did you see?”

Jax took a deep breath, and tried focus on the memory. He knew Thyra needed some time to process things, so he let himself ramble. “Well, this is where it gets weird. For me at least. Maybe it'll make sense to you. I was there, dying in the desert, and then suddenly there was this rumbling noise, like far away thunder, and then the sun was blocked out, I thought at first by a cloud, but then I realized it wasn't thunder, it was a ship. Like, a friggin' aircraft carrier, but bigger, and it was flying, and I could hear sails and it had propellers...and then there were ropes thrown over the side and men rapelling down them and they took me up into the ship. Crazy, right?”

Thyra looked scared, more than disbelieving. “No, that's not crazy. That was a Dreadnaught, the airships of the Corsairs of Carth. That's bad, Jax. No one ever comes back if they're taken prisoner by the Corsairs.”

“Who are the...what did you call them?...the Corsairs of Carth?”

Thyra sat up, straightened her dress, and rummaged in the picnic basket she had brought with her. She produced a bottle of wine, two glasses, a corkscrew, and a surprising spread of food. “Nothing like a middle-of-the-night picnic, huh?” Jax opened the wine and poured it while Thyra opened the containers of food.

“I still feel weird about all this drinking,” Jax said.

“I don't even think about it, really,” Thyra said. “I was born and raised in the Carnivale, and it's normal for kids to have a drink or two at fifteen or sixteen. It's usually just a little bit, though. Most parents in the Carnivale don't let their kids have more than one at a time. It's all responsible. And besides, you're all by yourself, right? That makes you basically an adult.”

“So, what, or who, are the Corsairs of Carth?”

Thyra took a deep breath and long drink. “They're inter-dimensional pirates. They have those ginormous flying ships that you saw in your vision, they use some kind of permanent anti-gravity spell or something to make them fly, Daddy says, and they go from realm to realm raiding magical communities, taking prisoners for slaves, killing anyone who resists and stealing anything of value. Those Dreadnaughts are the sight most feared by everyone in any of the realms I've ever been to, and that numbers in the hundreds. You always know they're coming because at first you think it's just a really bad thunderstorm, but it always comes out of nowhere, this huge, black cloud shaped like an arrowhead, moving faster than any thunderhead ever could, and then from out of the clouds comes the Dreadnaught, huge and terrifying, firing cannons, and then they're right above you with those ropes, and hundred and hundreds of these armored, screaming pirates are scrambling down the ropes. No one can stop them.”

“How many realms are there?” Jax asked, to cover the cold wash of fear that ran down his back at the thought of being taken prisoner by the Corsairs.

“No one really knows, except maybe the Corsairs. They have mages dedicated to realm-shifting, and they can go pretty much anywhere. I've only been through one raid, but that was enough. It was horrifying. That raid is how I lost my mom...it was seven years ago, but I still remember it like yesterday. The Carnivale was on a little dirt road between cities, this was in the Pleurian realm, and then out of a clear blue sky there was this thunderstorm and everyone started screaming 'the Corsairs! The Corsairs!' and the ship was above us, shooting cannonballs and plasma bursts and things were exploding...Corsairs were everywhere, suddenly, and one just grabbed mom and went up into the ship with her, before anyone could react. My dad went nuts, then. He started casting spells none of knew he could do...evil, black-and-white magic. They captured about seven of us, three men and four women...I could hear the women screaming as the Corsairs ascended with them, the men crying and yelling and trying to stop it...

“We fought them off, though. They took off after we started killing too many of their pirates. After that, Daddy set up a system of defense, requiring everyone to have a plasma rifle or know some sort of offensive spell, and had Harman teach people close-quarter combat. One day, the Corsairs will come again and we'll be ready.”

Jax didn't know what to say. “I...God, Thyra, I'm so sorry...about your mom, I mean...”

“It's okay, Jax. I'm as over it now as I'll ever get...I just almost hope they do try to raid us again so I can kill some of those bastards...” The conversation turned to more pleasant things after that, Thyra telling funny stories about the Carnivale and the eccentric people in it, Jax sharing stories of his own past. Thyra was as fascinated by Jax's life growing up in one house his whole life, never moving, going to a normal school, as he was by her nomadic life with the Carnivale.

Hours later the wine was gone, the food nearly so, and they were lying down side by side, holding hands, muzzy-headed with wine and sleepiness. “Jax?” Thyra suddenly turned her face to meet his eyes. “About your visions...I was wondering...what you want to do...about us, I mean...”

Jax hadn't told her about the third vision, and didn't think he ever would. That one had scared him the most...especially because he remembered most vividly the way he had felt when his sword had plunged into his opponent's chest...the exultation, the calloused, hardened way he had watched the other man bleed out...
“That's why I told you about the visions, really. I wanted you to know what we were really risking. I didn't see anything about what happened to you, but I'm just worried that if we got caught seeing each other, that your dad would do something to you. Don't get me wrong, I'm scared of what I saw happening to me coming true, but...” Jax searched Thyra's eyes, held her face in his hands. “I'm willing to risk it, for you. Just kissing you, like we did before, that was amazing, so totally worth anything your dad could do to me.”

“Don't say that, Jax...you don't know him...and the Corsairs, the spikes...I never told you, but those sounded like mage-spikes, they're used to prevent mages from using magic. They're outlawed in most realms, including Earth, but I wouldn't put it past Daddy to use them if he was angry enough.

“I don't think Daddy would do anything to hurt me. He might lock me in our RV for like, ever, but...you? He would kill you, Jax, if he caught us together like you saw. He'd probably kill you if knew we were together like this, just hanging out. He really has it out for you, I just wish I knew why. I just don't know if it's worth it, Jax.”

“For you, or for me?”

“Either of us! Especially you. If anything happened to you...it would kill me. Just break my heart right in half. I'd rather not be with you than see you get hurt.”

“And I would risk it, just to be with you. Even if the only time we ever saw each other was like this, sneaking out at night. It's worth it, to me.”

Thyra was silent for a long time. At last she said, “If you really feel that way...But we just have to be really careful. You have to turn into animals to get out, and never the same thing twice in a row . We probably can't see each other every night, it'd be too risky...”

Thyra seemed ready to ramble on like that, making plans and backups, so Jax silenced her by kissing her. She seemed shocked at first, then melted into him, completely and willingly. With his arms around her, her body pressing soft and warm down against him, her lips wet and tasting of vanilla, Jax felt happier than he ever had in his life, complete and content. Their kiss deepened and he felt that ever-boiling pool of energy inside him, the ocean of magic, rising and bubbling over, hot and raging just at the surface, felt that magic surging and expanding like magma rising to the top of a volcano, about to overflow...in some distant, vague part of himself, Jax wondered what the magic would do, what would happen if he let it explode and do what it will, but he knew, in that same far away, weak part of himself, that that would be a bad idea.
This time, it was Thyra who broke away. She rolled off of him, stood up, adjusted her dress, which had somehow gotten rucked up around her hips, affording Jax a tantalizing glimpse of long, muscular, shapely legs. “I...if we don't stop now...” she said, her breathing ragged, voice thick and trembling, “...then I don't think I'll be able to.”

Jax didn't trust his voice, but he knew exactly what she meant. Especially with the memory of that vision stark in his mind, he knew that they were treading a fine line between control and abandon. He stood up, took her hand, but kept space between them, afraid to get closer, knowing if he did, he would get caught up in her once more. She seemed to agree, tacitly. “I'd better go,” she said, eventually.

Jax nodded. “I'll miss you like crazy,” he told her. He kissed her once more, a quick, light kiss that lasted far too short a time, and then backed away, watched her descend the hill with the basket over her arm, a breeze blowing her dress against her body, outlining it perfectly, as if to give Jax a memory to hold on to until he saw her again. As if he needed any better memory than this night.

When she was out of sight, Jax wondered what to phase into for the short journey to Helfdane's stall. He heard a chirruping above him, a small sparrow fluttering and turning on a wing in the lightening pre-dawn haze. One glance was enough, now, to allow him to effect the shift. Within seconds Jax was hundreds of feet up, wings beating faster than thought.

Flitting down between the waking Carnivale, Jax came to perch on the anvil in the forge. Seeing no one, he hopped down to the ground and over to the small cot that was his bed, phased back into human form, and instantly fell asleep, dreaming of Thyra's lips, of her skin sliding against his.

They met once a week, after that, late at night, well away from the silent, slumbering Carnivale. During the day, they avoided each other assiduously, rarely even seeing each other during daylight hours. Then, when the last lamp had been extinguished, Jax phased himself into an animal and made his way two miles east of the Carnivale. There, he waited for her, and they found each other in the starlight and kissed hungrily, talked about their weeks and the things that filled them. For Thyra, it was performing in her Dad's show in the center ring, doing odd chores and helping with the everyday logistics of running the complex organism that was Carnivale Mechaniste. For Jax, it was the increasing load of work orders at the forge and practicing with Harman. The Romani, when he realized Jax had no combat training at all, began teaching him basic hand-to-hand fighting techniques. After a few weeks of training, Jax discovered an affinity for swordwork, a talent that was as surprising to him as it was for Harman. This troubled Jax, however, the memory of the third vision remaining indelibly printed in his mind. He kept his fears to himself, however, even from Thyra.

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