Muítal carefully glued a spar back onto Bloodhorn’s skyship, holding it in place with one hand while he rummaged through the debris on the table with the other, trying to find something to brace it with until it had set. The donkey’s hand fell on a blob of putty, and he managed to pinch off a piece one-handed. His fingers worked it rapidly until it was the shape he needed, and then he gently inserted it under the spar. That should do it, he thought, and sat back with a sigh, pushing his spectacles up to his forehead. Now all it needed was a bit of paint, and it would be ready for the next Market Day.
It was late in the evening. Kamádi had set, leaving only Rrísi in the sky, and by all rights he should have been asleep. But a puppeteer’s work was never done. He loved his job. How could he not? The children were always so happy to see him. Even the older ones. They tried to act like taking their little sisters or brothers to his shows was so beneath them, now that they were all grown up. But he would see them through the little peepholes he had in the stage, mouths open, eyes shining, as the victorious hero slew the evil villain, or the huge Vürtach swooped down on Bloodhorn’s skyship. Sometimes they would forget themselves entirely and jump excitedly to their feet, shouting at the stage. He had to remind himself not to tease them about it when he came out to talk to them afterwards.
But the puppets themselves always needed something. A new arm, or a bit of paint, or perhaps a change of clothes, just to keep things fresh. In fact, he’d been thinking it was time to change the whole show. Bloodhorn was a great favorite, and the Devah knew children liked to see their favorites again and again, but he had to think about the adults, too. The more parents who stayed to watch, the more tips he got. It also meant that the children were likelier to behave.
He glanced ruefully at the skyship. That damage had been done at the hands of an overeager gecko, whose mother he’d seen standing at the back of the audience several times over the past weeks. But this time she’d left her youngster to watch on his own, and he had somehow gotten behind the stage and grabbed the skyship before Muítal had been able to intercept him. The little jánah had been pretending to be a vürtach, holding his hands up to his mouth like pincers, and roaring as he came. Bloodhorn’s skyship hadn’t had a chance. His mother had apologized profusely when she came to collect him and found Muítal gently extracting bits of skyship from the youngster’s grasp. The boy had held his prize up to her proudly, exclaiming, “Mama! I eated Bloodhorn!” His mother, mortified, had given Muítal a handsome tip and dragged the boy away with threats of dire punishments, but the skyship was ruined, and he’d had to rebuild it almost entirely.
There were three long shelves crammed with puppets mounted on the wall over his worktable. He scanned these, considering his options. The saga of the Blessed Twins was always popular, especially among the younger jánah. He took down the lion and the fox, both of which were covered in white fur. The lion Aytáhti was in good shape, but Ambhánu had a large brown stain on her belly. He had accidentally dropped her when he came out to greet everyone and ask for donations, and one of the little ones had stepped on her. Well, she was little considering she was an elephant. The puppet had also suffered a broken leg, but that was easily fixed. It was the stain that worried him. He wanted the twins to match, so he’d have to re-cover them both with new fur. Oh, and their mother too. He frowned. No, too much work. Maybe during Sheetál, when it was too cold for outdoor shows. That was when he undertook any major renovations and experimented with new projects. He also did a bit of traveling, if he’d earned enough during the past year.
He could always fall back on the Talons of Kramah: Jvalah the eagle, Kahraman the tiger, Nipúna the mongoose, the jackal Pundárikam, and Badhrah the cheetah. The deeds of these five were legendary and so numerous that no one could remember them all. He could simply make something up and, as long as it had a lot of fighting, the kids would love it.
But then his eye fell upon a black panther puppet that had been stored next to the tiger. The panther wore a collar and held a crystal spear. Sejurna! Now there was an idea. It had been years since he’d done that one. The panther had been a slave and a gladiator in Amnol when it was ruled by the cruel Aminar Dak’sikhür. The night before he was to enter the Spiral Arena and slaughter thousands of rebellious Vajrah slaves for the Aminar’s pleasure, Sejurna had had a vision sent from the Devah Kramah, god of war. Kramah had told him that the liberation of Amnol was at hand, and that Sejurna would be a part of it. In the arena the next day, aided by the Talon Kahraman, Sejurna had slain Dak’sikhür, who had been possessed by demons. He and Kahraman had gone on to free Amnol from Sarpah rule. It was an exciting story, and many jánah believed that Sejurna’s ancestors had originally been from Tishínia. So he was a favorite among the adults as well.
That was settled, then. He began taking down the puppets he would need — Sejurna, Kahraman, Kramah, and Dak’sikhür, who was actually a puppet within a puppet. When Sejurna first attacked Dak´sikhür, the outer puppet would fall away, revealing the hideous demon beneath. Muítal had been very pleased when he’d figured out how to accomplish that little trick. The demon was supposed to vomit black bile, but Muítal made do with a little smoke instead.
The Spiral Arena backdrop had a clockwork mechanism with a cylinder that ran beneath the stands. Miniature spectators sat in seats that had slots in the bottom. As the cylinder rotated, irregularly-spaced tabs would make the spectators stand and sit during the battle. It was a complicated set-up, but it was good for starting conversations with parents, who were often impressed enough to donate a little extra.
He felt on his forehead for his glasses, and put them back on to examine the mechanism. It squeaked when he turned the cylinder by hand, and some of the spectators did not rise smoothly out of their seats. Well, it had been a while since he’d used it. It just needed a bit of oil and some fine-tuning and it would be good as new.
He was carefully applying oil to the gears when there came a loud knock at the door. He started violently, squirting oil all over the inside of the cylinder. He groaned, surveying the mess. The oil was already starting to drip on the table. He put the mechanism down on a rag, then pushed his glasses back up on his forehead and rubbed both eyes with the palms of his hands. The knocking came again. With a loud sigh, he stood and stretched, and then went to open the door. There was only one jánah he knew who might come visiting at this time of night, and he was not looking forward to seeing him.
As he feared, it was his good-for-nothing brother, Ashok. The zebra sauntered in, wearing his trademark cap set at a jaunty angle, dressed in loose dark brown pants and a yellow-grey tunic that had definitely seen better days. He was grinning broadly. “Muítal! How are you, you old stick-in-the-mud?”
Muítal closed the door behind him and said, without much hope, “Look, Ashok, I’m kind of busy. Day after tomorrow is Market Day and I’ve got to get everything ready…”
Ashok talked right over him. “Yeah, yeah, I know, lots to do, too busy to visit with your own brother. It’s always the same.” The zebra studied Muítal’s worktable with a bored air. Then his glance fell on Bloodhorn’s skyship. “Hey, this is pretty nice, bro,” he said, picking it up and examining it. “Got some nice detail.” He hefted it in a calculating sort of way.
Muítal lunged for the ship. “Put that down, it’s very delicate!”
Ashok took a step back and held the skyship above his head. “Whoa there bro, it’s a skyship, right? You worried it won’t fly?” He pretended to drop it, catching it after letting it fall a few inches.
Muítal wrung his hands. “Please, Ashok! I just finished fixing it. I have to use it in two days!”
“Alright, alright! Don’t get your sari in a twist!” Ashok replaced the skyship on the table with exaggerated care. “See? Safe and sound. Nothing to worry about.”
Muítal avoided rushing over to examine the model for signs of damage, knowing this would only incite his brother to more crude jests. He leaned against the wall and folded his arms across his chest. “Alright, Ashok, what do you want this time?”
Ashok affected an air of injured surprise. “What do I want? What, I can’t pay a friendly visit to my own brother? I’m hurt, I really am.” He sniffed and pretended to wipe away a tear.
Muítal rolled his eyes. “That never worked on Mom, and it’s not going to work on me either.” He sniffed the air. “Have you been down at the opium den again?”
“Yeah, what of it?” Ashok said, a bit defensively. “It’s a job, ain’t it? Not all of us can make a living playing with toys.” He kicked at the leg of the worktable. The black panther’s spear was jostled from his grip and rolled to the edge of the table, stopping just before it toppled off.
“Ok, ok, you just smell like it, that’s all,” Muítal said. “And last time you came back with your arm in a sling.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes things get a little rough,” Ashok replied, kicking at the table again. This time the spear tumbled off the edge and landed with a little clatter on the floor. Muítal knew better than to pick it up — his brother was in a mood and there was no telling which way he’d jump.
“I am glad to see you, little brother,” Muítal said, trying to diffuse the situation. “I just worry about you, that’s all. Your boss — Saiteen, right? Is he treating you ok?”
“Yeah, sure, he treats me fine, just fine.” Ashok began to pace up and down the small room.
Ah, now we come to it, Muítal thought. He waited.
Ashok stopped pacing and, without looking at his brother, said, “Look, Muítal, I need to get out of here.”
“Out of where?” This was not what Muítal had expected. “The door’s right over there—”
“No, stupid! Not out of this room!” Ashok started to kick the table again, and then thought better of it. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Out of the city. I need to get out of the city.”
“You’re in trouble.” It was not a question. “Do you need someplace to stay? I’ve got that spare room in the back—”
“No, no, that won’t do any good,” Ashok said, waving away the suggestion. “I kind of— well, I kind of got mixed up in something.”
“Go on,” Muítal said. He’d never seen his brother so agitated.
“Saiteen, see, he works for this Sunborn jánah, name of Rüktiv. We do little things for him, you know?”
“No, I don’t know,” said Muítal. “Why don’t you tell me?”
Ashok threw up his hands in frustration. “Ah! You’re so stupid!” Immediately regretful, he waved his hands placatingly. “I didn’t mean that, Muítal, I really didn’t. It’s just— you’re so sheltered here, you and your toys. You don’t know anything about what it’s like out there.”
“So tell me,” Muítal replied. This was the most his brother had said to him in years. “I’m listening.”
“It’s like you always gotta show the other guy who’s boss, you know? They say something you don’t like, you gotta make sure they don’t get any ideas. So Saiteen, he runs the opium den, right? And sometimes his customers don’t pay, or the guy he gets the opium from thinks maybe he can skim a little off the top and nobody’ll notice. So then Saiteen sends us around to explain why that’s not healthy.” Muítal tried to keep his face neutral, but Ashok knew him too well. “Look, it’s not like I enjoy doing it, ok? It’s just a job.”
Except you do enjoy it, Muítal thought, remembering how Ashok had teased him with the skyship. You just don’t want to admit it. Aloud, he said only, “Alright, I get the idea.”
Ashok began pacing again. “Saiteen’s got this thing going with Rüktiv, I don’t understand all of it, but this Rüktiv is trying to set up his own little organization. Seems he’s worried about one of his wives getting too much power.” Ashok shivered. “I know his wife, she’s nobody to mess with. Anyway, so he’s carving out a territory, taking his time, keeping it quiet, right? He doesn’t want Trahmsi, that’s his wife, to find out. Except something goes wrong.” He stopped and looked over at Muítal. “Did you hear about that ruckus in the Spiral Arena today?”
Muítal frowned. “No, I was here most of the day. Wait!” He snapped his fingers. “Giri came by for dinner, he said something about it. They canceled a bunch of bouts because they had to purify it, right? I wasn’t paying much attention.”
His brother looked at him speculatively. “Giri. That’s that elk you’ve been seeing for, what, three years now?” He grinned suddenly. “What, you got something going on with this guy?”
Muítal could feel his long ears burning. “He’s just a friend, Ashok.” Now it was his turn to be defensive.
“Well, you tell him he better treat you right. Nobody messes with my brother and gets away with it, see?” Ashok jabbed at an imaginary elk with fists held high.
“Drop it, Ashok,” Muítal muttered. “Do you want my help or not?”
“Ok, ok,” Ashok said. “I was just kidding with you. You like this Giri, that’s your business.” He lost his grin and drummed his fingers on the worktable. “See, Rüktiv got in a duel with this peacock, name of Krista. They used to work together years back, but there’s some bad blood between them. Rüktiv hired a champion, but two of Krista’s buddies put him out of commission. Then one of them threw Rüktiv into the arena!” Ashok shook his head admiringly. “I tell you, I would have paid good dalán to see that.”
“Threw him into the arena?” Muítal was shocked. “Isn’t that illegal?”
“Oh, sure,” said Ashok. “He could have gotten those two in big trouble. All he had to do was walk out of the Spiral Arena and talk to the Arena Master. But Rüktiv’s a little hot-headed, see?” Ashok smirked. “And by hot-headed I mean the guy’s nuts. The peacock says something to him, and he gets mad and attacks. Boom, now he’s gotta finish the fight.”
Muítal was nodding. “He accepted the challenge. But surely afterwards he could have filed a complaint?”
Ashok shook his head. “First off, Krista wipes the floor with him. They were fighting over Rüktiv’s wives, not Trahmsi, his other two wives.” Ashok saw the confusion in his brother’s face and waved his hand dismissively. “Doesn’t matter, it’s not important. The important thing is that after he lost, he got a pistol and tried to kill Krista, right there in the Arena.”
Muítal realized his mouth was hanging open, and closed it with a snap. “You’re right, he is nuts. No wonder they had to purify it.” He shook his head in wonder. “And he’s Sunborn? He won’t be showing his face anytime soon. He’ll be lucky if he only has to pay a fine.”
“He’ll be lucky if he survives,” Ashok said. “The peacock shot him down, and I hear he’s not doing so well.”
“Alright, so what’s the problem?” Muítal asked. “He’s out of the picture, he can’t do anything to anybody right now.”
“That’s the problem, he already did!” Ashok grabbed his hat with both hands, pulling it down over his ears. “One of Saiteen’s boys was in the Arena watching the fight, and he sees the whole thing. He comes over to watch the fun, and as they’re dragging him away, Rüktiv sees him, and screams ‘Kill them all!’” Ashok waved his arms wildly, still holding his cap. Then he slumped against the wall, dejected.
“He sounds like one of my villains.” Muítal picked up Aminar Dak’sikhür, manipulating his strings so that the puppet also waved his arms. “Kill them all!” the Aminar shouted, in a voice that bore a strong resemblance to Ashok’s.
“But don’t you understand? He’s real, not some damn puppet!” Ashok put his hands over his eyes, and took several deep shuddering breaths. “Now Saiteen says we have to find these jánah and kill them.” He took his hands away and gazed wildly at Muítal. “I’ve never killed anybody! Yeah, ok, I might have roughed up some idiots that had it coming to them, but I’m not a killer!”
Muítal felt very cold. “Ashok, I… I don’t know what to say. Can’t you… can’t you just say no?”
Ashok practically screamed, “No, you stupid donkey! I can’t just say no!” He clenched his hands into fists at his sides and then, with a great effort, he got himself under control. “Muítal, you’ll just have to take my word on this. Nobody tells Saiteen no, not unless they want to go dancing at the Edge of Heaven.” He put both hands on the table and stared intently at his brother. “Look, I know we aren’t best buddies or anything. But I’m begging you, Muítal. Can you help me out?”
Muítal slowly put down the puppet Dak’sikhür, his mind awhirl. “You’ll need money,” he said. “Do you know where you’re going?”
Ashok nodded, relief showing in his face. “Sadahm. Or maybe Samüdra. I can get work in either of those places, and they’re plenty big enough to hide in for a while.”
Muítal frowned. “And by ‘work’, you mean…”
“No, nothing like that,” said his brother hastily. “I’ll find something at the docks, something nice and anonymous. I’m giving that up, bro, really, I swear!”
Muítal didn’t say anything. He hoped that was true, but he knew his brother too well. Hard work had never appealed to him, he was always looking for the angle in everything. But his brother was the only family he had left, and he couldn’t bear the thought of losing him.
He was silent for so long that Ashok began to look anxious again. “Hey, bro, you ok?”
Muítal gave a little start. “Just thinking. Wait here.” He went back into his bedroom and came out a minute or two later with an old leather bag that clinked as he handed it to Ashok. “Here,” he said. “This should be enough to get you passage on a ship. Not a skyship!” he added hastily. “I don’t have that kind of money. Besides, you’ll be out of reach for longer on a boat. Might give Saiteen a chance to cool down.”
Ashok clearly wanted to open the bag and inspect its contents, but he managed to curb his curiosity. “You don’t know Saiteen,” he said grimly. “But yeah, it’s a good idea. Thanks, bro.” To Muítal’s great surprise, Ashok leaned forward and wrapped him in a fierce hug. Before Muítal could return the gesture, Ashok pushed him away and headed for the door. “I’ll get a ship out of here in the morning, Sadahm or Samüdra, wherever they’ll take me.”
“Write me when you get there?” Muítal asked hesitantly. “Just so I know you’re ok?”
Ashok gave him one of his flashiest grins. “Yeah, sure. I’ll do that. You’re alright, bro, you know that? Say hi to Giri for me.” He laughed at the expression on Muítal’s face. “Yeah, yeah, I know. Alright, I’m going.” He headed for the door, then let out a sharp cry. “Dammit! What in the Nine Hells?” When he lifted his foot, Muítal could see something sticking out of the soft leather slippers his brother always wore. He recognized it immediately — it was Sejurna’s spear, the one that had rolled off the table earlier. Ashok plucked it out, cursing, and threw it across the room. “You oughta clean this place up better, bro.” Without looking back, he waved a careless farewell and slammed the door shut behind him.
Muítal sighed, and went to pick up the little spear. It had been bent almost in two, and on its tip there was a drop of fresh blood, his brother’s blood. He shivered. It was a bad omen. He thought about calling his brother back and telling him to spend the night here, but immediately rejected the idea. His brother would never agree to it, and besides, he could take care of himself. He had so far, hadn’t he?
Still, when he finally went to bed that night, it was with a heavy heart, and his dreams were filled with the sound of his brother’s screams.