Monday, November 30, 2015

The Human Café: Chapter 1

1. a café that is human
“That’s horrible,” Lana declared. “It sounds like you’re eating people.”
“Yumm,” said Caesar. “Humans!” His mouth was already full, but he scooped another bite nonetheless.
Lana rolled her eyes and jabbed him with a mostly disinterested scowl. “Don’t be an imbecile, Michael.”
I chuckled a little, and stared out the window, clicking my pen absentmindedly. There were a few flies butting their heads against the glass, tangling themselves up in the cackle of the neon sign. I don’t quite know how they got in; or how they were alive, at all. It should have been too cold.
When I looked back down, the bold letters watched me, bleeding through the cover page faintly. The Human Café. I’m not sure why, but the name felt perfect. It held onto my tongue, as I mulled it over in my mouth. “Not like that,” I said. “A Café that is human. Or full of humans.”
Lana shrugged. “It’s still horrible.”
“I like it,” Caesar stated, making a thoughtful face. “It has an air of mystery. Intrigue. Suspense.” He held up his fingers, pinching some invisible measurement, “and just a dash of cannibalism.”
 Lana didn’t bother with a response. She was shouldering toward her paper with her pencil in hand, and her other arm around the notebook so that we couldn’t see what she was working on. (I had a pretty good idea what it was, nonetheless.)
“Do you really not like it?” I asked her.
She returned the same indifferent expression, and said nothing. She let her eyebrows do the talking for her, and they were not overly impressed. I looked back at Caesar, who was making swipes at the touch-screen of his phone, seeming, as it were, to possess his attention completely.
“Which one should I start with?” I asked.
He made another swipe, frowned, and slapped his phone down on the table. He looked at me, as he took another bite of food. “Do the one about the werewolves.”
Lana made a disgruntled sound, tucked beneath her breath. Caesar made a face at her, and speared the uneaten food from her plate, folding a pancake in half to fit it into his mouth more conveniently. 
“Well which one do you think I should start with?” I asked.
The eyebrows gave me a sort of shrug. “I don’t care.”
“Just not the werewolf one,” I muttered.
“You can do the werewolf one if you want,” was her response. I knew her tones well enough to know that I should keep looking. She still hadn’t looked up from her notebook, and I watched the end of her pencil bobbing.
It was easier for her, I thought. The pictures in her head were crisp, and they had edges. She could capture them, actually hold onto them. She could put them into her fingers and squeeze them out onto paper, as if she knew exactly what they were supposed to look like.
But the pictures in my head were disorganized smears. They swelled and shrunk like the tide, sometimes sharp and sometimes blurry. They came at me in rushes, and they retreated in droves. I could never hope to hold them. I only hoped that they would catch me up when they rushed in.
Hers were destined for pages. Mine could hardly be contained on them.
“What about the Queen?” she suggested, finally. “That would be an easy one to start with.”
A smile crept over me gradually, concluding in a nod. It would be an easy start. And maybe that was best.
Okay,” Caesar said, “but then the werewolves? Or that one guy who hunts evil spirits?”
“Maybe,” I said, and I clicked my pen again. When I touched it to the paper, I felt that familiar lurch of energy nibbling in my fingertips and that itch in my mind. The picture was there.
The gates. The soaring gables. The glowing, golden peaks of a thousand spires. And those eyes, staring up at me. The eyes of the world.
It seemed so close. And when I closed my eyes, I might as well have been there. I might as well have been one of those ships, caught in the swells and smashed against the rocks. I might as well have just gulped the salty waves, for all the good I did trying to stay afloat. I couldn’t hope to contain it all. But I tired. I pinned it down, as best as I could.
And when the pen started to glide, it carried me off with it.

the eyes of the world
The city lunged out of the water like a crown for the earth itself; a bristle of golden spears bound in a cloak of red and white stone walls, reaching for the heavens.
Some said that it was built upon the very waves, floating like some massive ship, anchored to the core of the earth. Others said that it stood upon a single column of unfailing stone, defiant of the constant, tidal battery. For centuries that oceanic force had marched against those walls, their dark heads lowered, trying to clamber over. But the waves were nothing more than flies, battering at windows.
A fleet of a thousand ships could hardly have done more. Men were no more than sea foam, at the foot of that city. The sun was her ally, constantly pouring over her slender towers, draping her in gowns of light that no human conjuring could rival.
Two giant bulls’ heads—each over fifty men tall—stood on either side of the Gate of Poseidon, the bronze guardians of the city within. The harbors that sprawled between them were like shackles on the sea itself, with a forest of towering warships howling and swaying in their midst. But in the black shadow of Calypso’s Walls, even those monstrous figures seemed like toys.
The city was a monument of colors—thousands of them, all spattered against the roar of the gold and the cold blue behind it. Flowers, trees and plants of all kinds overflowed their rooftop gardens and laced the architecture with green ivy veins. People just as bright and crowded overflowed their homes and filled the streets with a river of living paints, an ocean with its own tides and currents.
But high above the bellowing water and the gale of voices and streets and snoring ships, a single tower rose like an alabaster tree-trunk to support the sky. The sunlight split around it, forking off in branches that sloped back into the city. In this tower, fearless of the height and the wind and the distant water, a woman sat on a balcony, with nothing but a few feet of stone, and a thousand feet of air beneath her feet separating her from the streets and the waves.
She was not an old woman; but she sat as though innumerable centuries sat upon her little shoulders, alongside the freckles that she tried to hide. Her veil fell to her toes, but it did nothing to keep out the heat of the sun on her bare arms or the gnaw of the wind against her stomach. Her hair was woven through her crown—or the crown through it—and it sat upon her curls like the city itself sat upon the tossing mane of the ocean—Defiant. Immovable.
Here, there was no noise. Not from the city or from the harbors or the sea. Just the winds, which crashed into each other all around, an invisible brawl that she was caught in the middle of. But those could do nothing to unsettle her. She hardly seemed to notice them. In fact, she was hardly there at all. Her mind, and her eyes, were somewhere very far off.
The lion, which served as her throne, held so still that it seemed more like some oversized golden statue than a living thing. It blinked slowly and lazily, its quiet breaths joining the breeze and filling them with a very different flavor than any of the others.
The woman did not mind. Her eyes were set very distantly on the horizon and her arms outstretched. The winds wound themselves through her splayed fingers and crawled up her arms. She tasted every breeze, plucked out the words they carried. The choicest of them were even allowed to slither in past her veil, to perch on her freckled collar, and to whisper in her ear. When their whispering was done, they slid away. Amidst the torrent of sound and taste, the lion was just one flavor out of thousands.
As the woman sat like that, a tremble entered her arms. They were becoming too heavy to bear. Soon, she might need someone to hold up her arms, to keep her firm against the wind. Perhaps sooner than she used to think.
Nevertheless, she continued to stare; and she stared until her arms quivered so badly that she dropped them back to her sides.
She slumped on her seat, and the great living sofa stirred slightly, to accommodate her with a low purr, more comforting than concerned. Someone stepped through the huge, open doors behind her and onto the balcony.
“Your Highness,” he said, “are you alright?”
She did not look at him to speak. “Something is happening,” she said. “My eyes are strained. My arms are tired. There is something wrong with the stars. The winds…” She couldn’t think of the word. What was wrong with them? “They’re different,” she concluded. “Something is changing.”
“What would you have me do, your Majesty?” asked the voice again.
She was silent for several long moments. She laced her fingers through the course mane on which she rested her head, and breathed in its familiar smell. The lion smelled like lilacs. She never knew quite how. But he always had. And suddenly, she was curious. Even with the weight of the world, pressing on her shoulders, she wondered. Was it in the soap? How often did they really wash him? And who was actually responsible for doing it? She nearly laughed at the image of the great beast, dripping wet. Did he struggle?
“Your Reverence?” The man repeated. “Are you alright?”
“Help me rise,” she said quietly, and instantly, two men were at her side, with their gentle hands on her arms pulling her back to her feet. The lion rose beneath her, and she hung her arm around it as they walked inside. “Where is Perrius?” She asked weakly.
“I am here, my Queen,” replied another voice, as the figure neared her.
“I am growing weaker,” she said.
“Not so, my lady,” he replied earnestly. “The physicians assured me that you would begin to regain your strength very soon.”
“What do fish understand of stars?” she muttered. The ground had changed under her feet from sun-warmed balcony steps and painted roses to thick fur carpet. “I know my strength, and it is slipping from me like sand through an hourglass. Something is shifting in the weight of the world, Perrius.”
“My Queen needs only to rest,” Perrius said soothingly, but she shook her head.
“No. The time for rest is over, Perrius. Another time has come.”
“My Queen, what would you have me to do?” His tone was almost a plea.
Without opening her eyes, she pointed to the far chamber wall, her hand trembling as she extended it. “A boat is approaching. Small. It glides like a swan over the water. A man guides her, bathed in the dust of cities I have seen only in whispers. Bring him to me. He has a gift that I would see.”
The familiar hands of Perrius wrapped around her own and closed her fingers before gently laying them against her chest. He eased her onto her bed. “As you have said, my Queen, it shall be. But until he is here, I beg you to rest.”
“I shall attempt to,” replied the queen, with a deep, raspy breath. “But I fear my dreams shall be no better for me than my waking.” 
On his little craft, the lone man attracted no real attention as he nuzzled his way forward on the breeze. As he cut across the waves and toward the spiderweb of harbors, the shadow of the wall rose slowly to swallow him up, inking the water black.
Here, so many ships had lost control over the ages, crashing against those rocks. But the waves were no threat to him; they were a wild horse to be broken, and he had saddled their spirit long ago.
The traveler, in his heavy robe and hood, nestled his little craft between two towering vessels that looked down on him like war-horses on a newborn mare. Two men, their bare torsos shining and tan in the light, met him there and helped him up as he climbed the ladder to the dock. 
“Greetings, stranger,” called the portsmen, their tongues strained with accent.
“Greetings, friends!” called the stranger, but his language and tone caught the two men off guard; it was their own, natural one.
“You surprise me,” said the porstman. “Your tongue knows our words well.”
“My tongue knows a great deal of words,” replied the stranger. “It is my custom, when coming to new lands, to first learn the language that they speak.”
“You must be a scribe,” said one of them. 
“No, only a traveler, with open ears.”
“No simple traveler, I think,” said the other, “to have come very far in so unusual a vessel.”
“Yes. Very far,” he nodded.
“And what brings you, from so far, to our city?”
“What excuse must any man conjure to make such a pilgrimage,” he chuckled. “Is this not the Crown of the World?”
The portsman seemed to understand, now. “You are a pilgrim! Do you come to visit the temple?”
“I am no priest,” he said in response. “I have come, rather, to visit your palace.”
The two men traded frowns with one another and aimed them both at the stranger. “The palace? What business does a simple traveler have there?”
The man opened his arms, a faint smile still playing about his face. “As you’ve seen already, my friend, I could be no simple traveler. I have gifts to present to your Queen, but more—I have news that she must hear.”
“It is not so simple to gain her audience,” said the portsman with a shake of his head. But at the same moment a figure on the far end of the dock appeared, striding toward them.
He was tall; draped in a thick, purple robe that left his arms and most of his chest bare, and carried a long, silver scepter in his hand. He must have overheard, because he called out with a loud, important voice as he neared.
“As it so happens,” he said, “this time, it is that simple. The Queen has requested your presence, Stranger.”
Confusion crossed the faces of the portsmen, but did not touch the traveler, who looked pleased. Perhaps he had expected this all along. The tall man pointed at him with the scepter. “I am Lord Perrius; Steward and Champion of the queen. No one is allowed entrance to her chamber without offering. You bring a gift?”
“I do,” said the traveler, gesturing to his small ship below.
Perrius nodded to the portsmen. “Retrieve it,” he said, and pointed his narrow eyes back at the stranger. “What gift do you boast before your queen?”
“Dirt,” he said, very boldly. 
Perrius fixed him with a scowl as cold and dangerous as the scepter. “Do you mean,” he said coolly, “that before the magnificence of our Queen, all offerings seem as low as dirt?”
“No,” said the traveler. “I bring a gift that, before any man, seems as low as dirt. And that is, dirt.”
The Steward lowered his scowl all the more. “A thousand captains and sea-lords have requested the presence of the Queen,” he said venomously. “They have bought her audience with the treasures of temples and palaces, fleets of gold and crates of pearls, the wealth of slaves and silks and spices, creatures from lands unknown, all surrendered at the feet of the Queen. And yet you would stand before the mightiest ruler in the world, with DIRT?”
“Her majesty has all the wealth that she could boast,” replied the man. “But I have come with something else. Stories. Truth. Is not truth, after all, what she seeks?”
Perrius snorted. “What scheme could a wandering minstrel have that would bring him to speak his nonsense before the queen of Atlantis?”
The traveler met the man’s eyes with a boldness that may have chilled a lesser figure. “Perhaps you should ask your queen,” he replied. “It was she, after all, who sent you to retrieve me.” 
In her chamber, high up in the city, lying on her bed beside the massive lion, the queen smiled, and the wind whispered between her toes. The man was brave and something about him was unlike any other that she had seen. There was something in him, and in the chest that the portsmen drew out of the little boat, that made her stomach tingle with excitement.
“Bring him to me, Perrius,” said the queen. “I would look upon the eyes of this stranger.”
The man on the dock nodded. “Come,” he said. “For better or worse, your foolishness has earned your audience.”
The traveler looked up toward the high tower and smiled thinly. His bow was a slight but authoritative one. “Your Servant thanks you, your Majesty.” 

Enjoy what you've read? Check back soon for Chapter 2! If you are interested in reading the book in its entirety, please consider helping me out by pledging a gift on my Kickstarter page to help me get it printed, and receive a copy as soon as it's ready! 

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