Pillars of Creation
Jobe cradled his viola underneath one arm and pressed his bow, length down, against his heart as he followed the servant to the king’s chambers. She craned her neck every tenth step to check on him. Shadows cast from the lantern held before her played on her face, seeped into the creases around her eyes and mouth, and the branded rune on her forehead. When their eyes met, she flinched, a weak whimper dying in the still hallway.
She managed to choke it down before grief twisted tears from her eyes, but even the short sound was treason. The king crushed disobedience from his halls. The branded runes made certain of that. One question from the king would compel her to bear witness against herself should the king suspect any misgivings.
Only Jobe and a few fortunate people were permitted access to the inner chambers unbranded. His reputation balanced the scales against the heavy suspicion of the king. A contract had been struck, bound by words of power and blood. Three years. In exchange, the king would grant him a favor.
“Who is it?” Jobe checked the dark hallway for listeners. “No one can hear.”
“Marta.” The lamp wavered for a few steps. “And Eagen.”
Jobe stopped and stared at the hand clutching the bow. The implications made his head spin. “When did he return?”
She stared at his hand as well, her eyes swimming in pools of shadow. “Please, sir.”
The tremble in her voice spurred him. The king’s displeasure demanded a heavy penance.
“I’m sorry.” Jobe pulled his cloak closed, careful not to snag the horsehair bow in the fabric. “What of the child?”
“Please. I—” Her shoulders shook, and with it, the lantern bobbed in a sea of sorrow. “I—”
“Hush, now.” No need to answer. Not with that reaction. “Lead on. I’ll leave you alone.”
She sniffed and cleared her throat of any lingering emotion. The lantern steadied in her firmed grip. All evidence of compassion buried deep, away from the jealous king.
She stopped at the king’s chamber door and lowered her head. “Our king awaits. Please enter.”
“Thank you.” Jobe extended his hand to pull the door but remembered his bow. “Could you please?”
Silent, she complied.
He stepped inside a room of flooding light, cascading fabrics, and decadence. King Levus sat behind a table carved from a single slab of wood, and ladened with fruits, breads, and cheese. A young servant in sheer clothing held a decanter of wine with both hands, her eyes intent on the goblet at the King’s side. Other servants in similar garb moved through the room in silk slippers, their limbs unsettling in their grace. All were women. All were beautiful. All were crowned with the same branded rune.
“Ah, Master Jobe.” King Levus popped a grape in his mouth and smiled. “Always a treat when we have an opportunity to use your talents.”
“A year left.” Jobe scanned for his usual stool and found it in a corner to his right. “What is your preference tonight?”
King Levus stroked his oiled beard, a wry smile too weak to remove the irritation from his eyes. “Straight to business. Fine. Pillars of Creation.”
Jobe turned away to free himself of the King’s gaze. A strong man, just entering his fourth decade, and a warrior without comparison. No number of oils and perfumes concealed the scars earned to wield such power. They pulled smiles into sneers and left a permanent displeasure in his eyes. His words creaked with the brittle notes of regret, no matter the volume, no matter the audience.
“Egreth. Summon the dancer,” the king said.
The rune on one of the women behind the king flared red. She stumbled from the weight of the command, regained her posture, and slipped through a door leading deeper into his chambers.
“Do you know who she is, Jobe?” King Levus leaned forward, one forearm on the table.
“Does it matter?” Jobe disguised his fear by testing a few notes on the viola. “What is her crime?”
The king slammed his fist on the table, sending the goblet to the ground. The woman at his side knelt on the floor to retrieve it. Another jabbed a towel against the spreading wine before it touched the king’s foot.
“Crime?” He grimaced at the women by his feet, his hand flexed open and closed. “Betrayal.”
The servant with the decanter straightened, filled the goblet, and set it before her king. She fixed her gaze on the full cup, waiting to refill it. The sheer clothing rustled with her heaving breath.
The door opened. King Levus flinched, faced forward, and sunk into his seat. A look of casual disregard belied by his tightened jaw and unfocused eyes. Marta walked into the room; her shoulders slumped. Dark jagged lines traced the path of recent tears. Heavy breasts swayed beneath her sheer tunic and a pouch of excess hung from her waist. She stepped around the king dragging two swords in her wake and turned to face him from across the table.
Thick fear tainted the air. The other women held their breath, eyes drawn to Marta but unable to focus on her. No one wanted her fate. No one could look away. She had been his favorite. Rumors suggested she would be raised to a lady and wed the king should she produce an heir.
“Marta.” King Levus pushed himself up. “What am I to you?”
Marta stiffened from the blow of his question. “No.”
The weight of his demand pulled Marta’s head to the ground. She fell to her knees, her forehead against the carpet and her arms flat against her sides. The swords never left her grip. They protruded toward the ceiling like quills.
“You are my king.” Marta choked on a sob.
“All of it, my sweet Marta.” King Levus spat through clenched teeth. “I want to hear all of what I am to you. Now.”
“You are savior to your people, bringer of prosperity, and winner of wars. You are—,” Marta groaned. “You are a cruel master. Petty. A coward. A man of his word.”
The room shared a gasp, fear now deep in their chests. Jobe shut his mouth and eased the muscles in his face. He had endured too much in service to the king to allow a misstep of emotion. Too much work remained. One more year. Just another year and then he could win his favor and fulfill a vow.
“A man of his word.” King Levus drank deep from the goblet and again when it was filled. “Why would you betray me knowing this?”
“No. Do not answer.” King Levus eased back into his chair and gestured with his hand. “Stand up.”
Marta pulled her head up and used only her feet to stand. In the process, her foot snagged her skirt. She wavered and stumbled a step but managed to catch her balance.
“Egreth, sort out our Marta. We can’t have her look disheveled.” King Levus narrowed his eyes, both hands against his chin in contemplative thought. “Do you know why I allowed you forty days, Marta?”
“Please, my King.” Marta shook with the force of her plea. “You needed an heir. Please.”
“I need nothing!” King Levus shot to his feet, both arms supporting his weight on the table. Raised veins cross through the field of hair and scars. His chest heaved from the struggle storming within. “I waited forty days so the pain would be that much greater. For both of you.”
“He is nothing.” King Levus fell into his chair and swept the matter away with a flick of his hand. “Jobe. Begin.”
“But—” Marta took a step forward.
“You will dance Pillars of Creation, Marta.” The king’s eyes unfocused, his vision somewhere else. “You will dance it to perfection.”
She caught herself before her head hit the floor. On one knee, her body trembled. A soft prayer, broken by her sorrow, drifted to Jobe’s ears.
“Begin,” King Levus said.
Jobe drew his bow across the viola, a long, high note to set the stage. Marta rose to answer, her arms gliding through the expanse of empty air. One arm stabbed the space to her right, the sword point steady. The other curved around her bowed head, both blades perfectly parallel.
Her prayers repeated in Jobe’s head.
God above, forgive me.
Jobe lifted his bow, allowing the note to die between the breaths of creation. Her prayers haunted his mind.
Protect my baby.
He adjusted the angle of his wrist and dragged another long, deep note to answer the first. Marta swayed, life filling the void.
Protect my baby.
A shift of his elbow and a change of direction. A quick succession of notes. Marta’s feet fluttered, her body swayed, and her arms swirled.
Please, God. My baby.
Jobe sniffled, and fell into the music, away from the heartbreak unfolding before him. The notes teased each other, some pushing, others pulling, and in the space between energy blossomed. Marta glided from note to note. The muscles along her shoulders and back quivered from the power flowing through her.
I have no one else. He has no one else.
Some time into the song another person joined the floor. So shielded by his music, Jobe didn’t notice from where he entered. He resembled King Levus with less gray and more kindness. A fresh rune puckered the flesh of his forehead, raw and angry. His fists choked two sword hilts; their blades pointed down. He knelt before them, eyes wild, mouth agape, and facing the king, a horrid cry clashing with the beauty of the music.
“Brother!” Eagen thrashed against the shackles of the king’s command. “Please!”
Jobe retreated further within. Pure notes and pure power flowing through his arms and soul, burning away fear, but not her silent pleas.
“Please spare her.” Eagen pressed his head against a cross-guard, the point digging into the rune. Blood trickled down his face.
Eagen watched his lover dance, tears now mingling with his blood. His fate sealed; he lowered his voice to a prayer. “My son.”
The song spun, swirled, and sped in tempo. The Pillars of Creation coiled in Marta’s crouched form, arms encircled her torso from the front and her back. The blades lending their voice to the music.
She jumped and twirled, arms wide. The blades cut empty air.
Jobe tried to look away, but she was beautiful in her ability. High, twirling, graceful.
“Now!” King Levus slammed the table with his fist. “Stab her through the heart.”
Eagen cracked his head against the floor, so heavy was the command. Fresh blood turned his face into a mask of horror. Magic compelled him, forced him rigid, forced his arms forward and swords true.
I love him so, so much.
Marta landed, coiled, and sprung into the air again. Swords whistled. Eagen lunged, screaming. A twirling sword silenced the scream as lunging blades pierced the heart of grace.
The shock shattered the protective weave of music. Jobe breathed through his mouth to conceal the raw pain in his chest.
Somehow, Eagen pulled the swords from her heart. Blood gushed down his once blue and white tunic from his torn throat. He crawled to Marta and tried to shake the blades free from his hand.
“One last embrace for these two lovers.” King Levus stood and made his way to the door behind him. “You both are free. Farewell.”
All four swords dropped. Eagen lifted Marta into his lap and tried to speak.
“My love.” Marta raised her hand to his damaged throat. “Don’t die. He needs you.”
The King stopped with his hand on the door, back stiff as death.
Jobe knew what would come. He hummed a low tune, soft, comforting, and reached into the power he kept hidden from the King. Fast as thought, he wove silvered notes from strands of shadow and light. Deftly, he projected them out, their song heard only by the hearts of two lovers. Both stiffened from the sudden gift of grace. Jobe knew what they saw, knew this cruel reality ended and a happier life flashed in their minds. They would hear what he wanted them to hear. to feel what they deserved. A moment passed between a shared sigh.
“He,” King Levus said over his shoulder, “will join your corpses soon enough.”
“My baby.” Marta pushed the dying words between a gentle smile. “Beautiful. So beautiful.”
The door closed behind the king. All the women threw themselves to the ground, their anguish now able to breathe. The lovers heard none of their cries or the king’s promise. Even as they died, they shared a gifted memory of their son, spun with the light of hope.
Jobe sat on his stool, breathed a sigh of relief, and rested his head against the wall. The act didn’t break his agreement, or else the king would have reacted. One more year.
He wiped an eye with the back of his hand and breathed in deep to loosen the coil around his heart. Two years completed, and another year remained. He needed to steel himself. He needed to endure.
His limbs ached from the weight of death. He cleared his throat and rocked himself to his feet, eager to leave this scene and dive into the comfort of his woven dreams. The tune already tickled his throat. Guarded memories warmed to the touch of his awareness, waiting for his power to give them life. Much as he had done for the two lovers, he would gift himself another reality, experience all the happier moments of other lives lived, and recall the vow he made to the woman who had loved him in this life.
One more year.