Friday, June 03, 2005

vignette: mika’s last lesson

“Remember the compass points,” Benjamin said softly, his voice trailing like cigarette smoke after each gesture his slender fingers made. Sunlight, made green by the thin colored tapestries that covered the windows, gently illuminated his round shape. The old man sweated profusely as he demonstrated the forms for his favorite student, now at the cusp of ending her apprenticeship.

Mika watched him intently, fighting the urge to move. She furrowed her brow in intense concentration, focusing on her teacher’s hands as he described patterns in the still air of the conservatory. The Rite of the Compass was one of the final things she had to master before her examinations, and after the events of the previous night, she was more than determined to at last leave the Enclosure, even if it meant bidding farewell to the man whom she loved more than her own father.

“First to the East, to the Kingdom of the Sun,” Benjamin intoned, his hands palms forward, as if pressing against an invisible wall. “The Kingdom we call home.”

Mika was familiar with the East, having spent all fourteen years of her life within its secluded corners. Instead, a suggestion of a mime performing crossed her mind for an instant, a remembrance of an illegal TV show in the dormitory, provoking an impossible comparison between those silent slapstick comedians of the unseen and her rotund, opinionated instructor. She forced the beginnings of a smile back and pursed her lips, setting her “serious face” like a mask. She did not want to laugh or spoil the moment.

“Then to the South, to the Palace of the Last Star,” Benjamin said, flaring his fingers like strewn uncooked noodles.

Mika recalled her lessons about the South, where the Last Star was said to have fallen, destroying the residence of its mysterious Queen. The Palace was rebuilt around the fallen piece of heaven, which became the Queen’s personal artifact of power, raising her status to become one of the Cardinal Rulers of the World. She was rumored to be as cruel and beautiful as she was powerful, reminding Mika of the woman she loathed the most, Vinra-of-Skins.

“Now show respect to the West, to the Satrapy of the Sea,” spoke Benjamin, extending his arms to one side, the fingers of each hand crossed over each other as if they were braided.

Little was known about the Rulers of the West, except that they dwelt below the vast oceans in cities said to be made of coral, pearls and fish bones. What was known was that they took their guardianship of the waters with startling earnestness; if a ship dared to travel without the proper offerings, it was a certain guarantee that within the span of a mermaid’s sigh it would vanish in a churning vortex or be crushed by waves of terrible solidity. This did not concern Mika that much, considering she never developed a fondness for the sea and did not think that she would ever go on an ocean voyage for any reason.

“And finally, to the North, to the Emperor of -”

Benjamin’s voice was interrupted by the sound of a brass gong and the heavy scent of vetiver, announcing the unexpected arrival of Vinra-of-Skins, accompanied by her grotesque entourage awhirl in a confusion of sounds and colors. As her troupe capered and spilled into the conservatory, Benjamin and Mika fell to their knees and pressed their foreheads to the wooden floor. Very few personages were permitted the honor of looking at the King’s favorite mistress directly in the eye, and that number did not include the master and pupil whose lessons Vinra-of-Skins had so casually cut short.

Mika closed her eyes and hoped that the woman would look and leave as quickly as she had arrived. Vinra-of-Skins was not known for her kindness.


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