Fantasy Western

This story contains themes or mentions of suicide or self harm.

Little Lissa rose from her bedroll in the closet as the first lights of morning crept beneath the curtain that divided her domain from the cathouse beyond. Out there, the air would be breathless with the memories of swirling silk and the creak of boots on floorboards when patrons had danced the girls to the rhythm of Annie’s mandolin. Ghostly aromas of whiskey and perfume still clung to the air, a grim reminder that Lissa’s days of wearing finery and being courted for her favors were over, dead as the dust that coated everything in the Boundaries. Out there, memory was scornful and cruel. In here, she was cocooned in the few comforts remaining to her. 

Her closet was cozy; her closet was safe. Here, the brooms and the mops ignored her, keeping their silent company with the buckets, astringents, and unctions. She did not have to be politic with these nor demure to their mockery. They were eyeless, voiceless, mercifully lifeless.

Her bed was a pallet of old wool blankets, topped with a quilt that had once been a spread for the bed in the Iris Room, one of the suites to which the courtesans of the Rose led their patrons when their eagerness for drink and dancing had passed, and their urges turned greedily toward the romp in the sheets that was the real draw of the house. There were seven such rooms, each named after a different flower, in keeping with the house’s theme. Every two years, the Madame ensured that the rooms were refurnished, and that the old linens and quilts, pillows and carpets were traded to the hock-shop up the street. Some, though, she kept back for the odd necessities. When someone died in town, on one of the couches in the dope parlor, often as not, it was Madame Kate’s sheets in which the corpse was wrapped. She hadn’t parted with Lissa’s quilt out of the goodness of her heart; such was not the Boundary way. She had charged her once littlest courtesan—now courtesan no more—a round bronze coin for her bedding, which was fair.

Directly behind the head of Lissa’s pallet was a storage shelf, behind which she had secreted the real treasures of her closet: her books. They were leather-bound, although the jacket of the one entitled Spirits and Haunts of the Great Wood was coming to tatters, with gilt-edged pages of hand-tipped vellum. The hot, dry air of the Boundaries was unmitigatedly oppressive, and despite her best attempts at keeping the volumes oiled, her tomes, she understood, were doomed in the long term to dissolve into dust. There were pictures among the words, hand tipped illustrations that she had faded with years of caress, but it did not matter; when Lissa closed her eyes she could call up every one. In this way, she supposed, her books would never die as long as she drew breath. It made the loss all the more painful with the understanding that her days were drawing to an end.

Morosely, Lissa peered into the small mirror she kept hanging behind the shelf. In the place where her nose had once ended in a delicate point, there was a pus-clotted red crater; a section of her upper lip was missing toward the corner of her mouth on the right side. There were other lesions blossoming on her skin, all painless, as the progress of her affliction had left her without any feeling across huge swatches of her skin, including her face.  

She was being quietly eaten alive.

It had been Madame Kate who first recognized the sore on her nose as a sign of Bubas’ Gripe, a disease Lissa had never seen with her own eyes. It was one in a long list of maladies known to enter a brothel through the front door, and on two legs. Opal-Eyed Flossie had once told her that such diseases were a curse carried by men, but suffered by women. Lissa, herself, was ready to believe it. The Madame had been blunt with her about her condition. Little Lissa of the Eire Rose’s life would end in months, if not sooner, by her own hand. When she’d listened to Kate’s descriptions of the way the lesions would consume her flesh and rot her mind until she was a raving, oozing horror, she had determined to make her own end.  

Without a word to the cats of the house, she would walk westward into the dunes beyond the hardpan, into the trackless Great Wastes where only the great steaming machines of the Attakondai could go, loaded up with rubes eager to see the Dominion of the dwarf peoples of the Newfoundland. She would follow the sun toward Attakondai. The desert's cruel magic would evaporate her body to dust when she crossed its boundaries, but she would die facing west, toward the homeland she had never known.

In some way, Lissa knew that she had been cheated. Dwarf-born children from the colonies were owed to the Attakondai Dominion; everybody knew that. The parents of the child had a year’s time in which to deliver their infant to Founder’s Gift, the city by the sea, at the nexus of the four great gates. There, the child was guaranteed an education and a future. The parents had no choice in this, if they did not want to be classified as criminals by the Attakondai Dominion and, consequently, the rest of the world, as a part of the compact struck between the empires and the Dominion a full century gone.

Lissa believed that her mother and father had been en route to the Steamcruiser station at New Palermo to catch their ride to Founder’s Gift City when they had died. No one had ever filled her in on the details; such things simply . . . fell through the cracks in the Boundarylands. They were a place of transience, of forgetfulness. People came to lose themselves; sometimes to lose others. Lissa had, at some point shortly after her arrival, simply been left behind. If an Attakondai agent had been dispatched concerning her tardiness to appear at the surrender site, they had failed to locate her. Lissa herself did not have nearly the clinks to pay the Steamcruiser fare, and she had been employed at the Rose, indebted to Madame Kate, by the time she’d learned of her privilege.  

She had fallen through the cracks.

Gingerly, she took the second book from the shelf in a left hand that, though less so than the right, felt wooden with the progress of the Gripe. This leather cover was dyed a deep burgundy, and the bronze letters on the front proclaimed the title boldly. The Mysteries of the Genius, it read. Within were the writings of a man laughably aliased Professor Odinblessed Pomferoy. Lissa was enamored of the book’s contents. Professor Pomferoy told of his experiences among those who made their living beyond the cyclopean walls of their Dominion. He had interviewed the so-called satellite merchants—outfitters and gadgeteers, mostly—who purveyed the trinkets that had become a staple of civilized life throughout the colonies and the world. His book was stuffed with speculation about the nature of life beyond the gates of the Manticore and the Sphinx, gleaned as a deduction from careful and lengthy observation of his subjects.

“It can be concluded,” he wrote in a particularly thrilling passage from his analysis of the Attakondai defense forces, “that the technological wonders which the dwarfs have allowed outsiders to glimpse is overmatched by those inventions they keep close. Consider the dragonbore, for instance: an implement freely available for purchase from any respectable Attakondai outfitter. It belches fire and a lead ball at great speed but with negligible accuracy. Only those hunters bored with the bow or cross-bow will even attempt to pursue quarry with such a weapon, and then only when possessed of the inauspicious spirit of gimmick. It is a clumsy, heavy, malodorous thing that stings the eyes with its smoke and has maimed untold numbers of animals, certainly more than it has killed. Sportsmen everywhere denounce it as a cruel and irresponsible gadget.

“And yet, consider that this is merely the weapon we, as outsiders, have been allowed to see.

“The people of the island empire of Jamatai have a word that fits the Dominion's attitude toward outsiders quite appropriately: gaijin. It refers to any person not native to Jamatai, and it is universally disdainful when used. Where in other cultures, there may be a shared feeling of disdain for another perceived ‘lesser’ race, the terms and spit-spoken slurs used by these are targeted and specific. The Jams, instead, have chosen to reject all outsiders with equal prejudice, and although they are willing to trade with we gaijin, they are not willing to share. Not culture, not ideas, not diplomacy; they are an empire as much of xenophobia as in geography. Compare this with the Attakondai Dominion, which rejects even a glimpse of their nation beyond its seemingly endless battlements.  

“They, who think of we aliens, as they call us, much as the Jam does of gaijin, have allowed us the use and testing of a weapon unique to their civilization, the quaint dragonbore.

“It follows that if the Genius-lords are willing to permit our usage of such a weapon, it is the least among their military advances, the very spume of a wave that reaches farther, and into a more profound ocean, than any outsider has yet been able to ascertain. They may have a weapon the size of a ship’s mast, which throws a great iron boulder capable of cutting down a full line of soldiers, and which may be re-armed as easily and as quickly as a crossbow. It is a sobering thought.”

Lissa had often imagined herself perched on the balcony of the Eire Rose, giant dragonbore at her side, reducing the nameless town into which she’d fallen to rubble. Pretty Annie was foolishly walking the streets in this pleasant fantasy when Lissa unleashed her fury, only to be obliterated in a spray of bone and blood.  

Smiling to herself, she returned the book to its place, and patted the cover. It was a nice story, and one that she told herself more and more frequently these days.

Last to feature in her waking ritual, Lissa retrieved the mask that hung from a nail next to her little mirror. It was made of porcelain, and had been given to her as a gift from a grey-bearded Rusk patron. She had taken him to the Bluebell Room for the deed, and once it was done, he had laid the pretty thing in her chubby hands with a grandfatherly smile. Given the setting of this exchange, the effect had been more unsettling than anything else, but it was the one time a customer had given her a gift. The other girls were flush with the generosity of the transient johns. Balcony Ida had been given a string of freshwater pearls just last week, while Ravishing Rosa, that same day, had rolled out of the bed in the Lily Room to find a jewel-encrusted Damascus dagger tucked into her shoe.  

Lissa only had her mask, and it was a bittersweet possession. Where the other girls were often given trinkets and baubles that would accentuate their loveliness, she had been gifted with a thing that was beautiful in itself, but was ultimately meant to conceal. The face it hid beneath a pretty visage adorned with spangles was ghoulish, festering—the face of a corpse. She wore the mask so that she might be useful on the active parlor floor without putting the men off of their pleasure. Her time in the light, as a courtesan adorned and adored, had ended. Now, the more functional truth of her life was laid bare as the bones that had begun to show their color beneath her sores and lesions: she owed the house her meals and her bed, not to mention existing debts for costumes, and she must be able to earn them if she wished to stay. As she had no possessions beyond a pair of books, a mirror, a mask and a trio of satin dresses frayed beyond redemption, Lissa had taken the pallet in the closet and called it good.

With a quiet glance at the persistent stranger in the mirror, Lissa fitted the mask over what remained of her face and fastened it at the back of her head with silk ribbons. Thus beautified—thus obscured— she was ready to face the world.

Drawing herself up to her full height, Lissa drew back the heavy curtain. A piece of carpet that had once graced the floor of the Honeysuckle Suite, the cloth moved eagerly beneath her hand, as if it knew that they were friends; she had rescued it from the hock-shop, and it kept her privacy in return.

The tall clock in the parlor kept time reliably, knocking out eight bells as the littlest resident of the Eire Rose Parlor and Bathhouse exited the establishment through the back door. Sitting with quiet dignity among the miscellaneous refuse that wound up behind the veil of lies that was the face of every boundary town was Lissa’s hand cart. She stooped and collected a sandstone slab to prop the door before retrieving her two-wheeled helper and going on her way.

The street was deserted; it always was in the mornings. Even when the rubes were in, they did not rise until either their stomachs or their hangovers bade them to do so. Others, those that had reclined for the evening in the Turkish parlor to sample the hashish and dope would be even slower in greeting the world, their eyes rheumy and encrusted as they torpidly blinked against the sun. Even the ladies of the Rose would not roll from the gentle embrace of their beds—their truest lovers—until noon. In short, there was no need; it was a mark of the profession. The ladies labored at evening, and reclined in the morning.

The only other person in the town, Lissa knew, who would have found his feet by seven of the morning would be Fat Wilhelm, the chief cook and proprietor of the Bloated Boar Bierhaus, Inn, and Tavern, but as she pushed her cart toward its entrance, she saw that the big doors of the house were shut. Like the Rose, the Bierhaus was affixed with an internal set of batwings on spring-loaded pivot hinges, another gadget commonly traded to the outsiders by Attakondai peddlers. The over-door, commonly called the “big door” by the locals, was only shut after business hours or in the most dire need. The windows were also shuttered, she saw, and, instantly grasping the implications, she broke into a run. Just as she did so, the bell from the bell tower began to chime its warning.

A zephyr was moving in.

Lissa cut around to the back of the Bierhaus, which was unlatched, and strolled into the kitchen, bold as brass. Once her eyes had adjusted to the light and the dimness had resolved, she saw Wilhelm standing behind the kitchen counter, busying himself with kettles and crockery that were frothy and alive with steam. The Gripe had taken her sense of smell along with her nose and the feeling in her hands, but Lissa’s imagination had always been lively, and her mind sang with the aromas she knew must be rising from those cauldrons of beans and boiled ham.

“Well met, Wilhelm. Are we in for a bit of a blow?” she asked by way of greeting.

“Yar. Smelt anger on ze wind zis morning,” the portly Gaul did not look up from his work, as his knife hand smoothly pared the rind from a rasher of Hetarian bacon. “Knew she was gonna zephyr.” 

To hear the cats of the Rose tell it, Fat Wilhelm spoke the common tongue of the colonies like a man with pebbles in his mouth, but the truth was that his speech was passing fair. Lissa had always liked Wilhelm, and understood that most of the courtesans abused him behind his back because they believed themselves above him, which was foolishness. In the Boundaries, you were a rube, or you were a hustler. There were breeds, and there were brands, but in the end, they were all of a kind.

“Who’s that working the belltower?” Lissa tipped her chin in the direction of the sound.

“Sent Mina out.”

She sighed deeply. “Means I’ve got to draw the shutters. What about getting some lunch to the Rose before the storm finds us?”

“Beans’ll be tough, but better zan eating rocks, I tink.”

“I think you are probably right. Pack it up for me? Be a dear? I want to beat the sand.”

He did so, along with two pots of bachelor’s coffee, made by brewing blackened stale bread and a handful of other ingredients, and a basket of corn biscuits seasoned with pork cracklings. All of this, he wrapped up in a muslin cloth and set it in Lissa’s cart himself. She thanked the man, and trundled across the narrow street with the provisions and cart in tow.

March 26, 2024 18:31

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Patricia Casey
19:24 Mar 31, 2024

Hi Aaron, You articulated your descriptions wells. I especially enjoyed your opening paragraph. Lissa's history was sad and seemingly unavoidable. You captured your characters' personalities well. Patricia


Aaron Bowen
15:14 Apr 01, 2024

Thanks, Patricia! I appreciate the comment.


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