M u s e
Author's note: Muse was conceived at the keyboard during one of my random musings. I wondered: what if I had to... Show full author's note »
The Beginning of the EndHe added a dab of quicksilver and swirled the mixture around. This was it. It was time. He set the beaker down with a dull thump. Everything was prepared. And after tonight... well... it was the beginning of the end.
Jin tripped on the door frame in an uncharacteristic display of klutziness. She cursed quietly, and then took a few seconds to get her bearings.
The joker muses clustered together nearby glanced at her briefly, and then turned back to their tightly-knit group. Jin ignored some of the more disdainful looks.
Sable was near the back of the creaky dormitory, reclining in his usual spot on his bunk, looking at the same papers that he usually did. Jin was going to find out what those papers were once and for all. Lately he had been glancing at them more and more, his expression switching between excruciating indecision and genuine curiosity. Jin couldn’t stand it any longer; she had to find out.
Having adjusted to her surroundings, she chose her target -an old, burgundy velvet curtain, such as those used on stages- and leapt behind it on springy feet.
That was more like it, she thought, observing how the curtain barely wavered behind her light touch. After all, this was what she was “made” for.
Jin edged along the smelly old stage prop and silently made her way towards Sable, who had ignored the slight commotion and who’s face had assumed the usual indecision. He nibbled on his thumbnail, dark eyebrows and eyes scrunched in concentration. He would never see her coming.
There were only feet left in the cloth tunnel; Jin could practically reach the end... just a few more shuffles... Extending her fingers, she touched something soft midair. Something solid.
Momentarily mystified, she groped what seemed like thin air until a boy materialized in front of her.
It was a stealth muse. Jin opened her mouth to ask what he was doing, but the boy was faster. “I’m going,” he said before she could make a sound, and was out of the curtain with a dramatic swish.
Jin wasn’t too put off by this encounter; she didn’t pay the other muses much attention. That was, except for Sable.
Having reached the end of her stealthy journey, Jin soundlessly emerged right behind Sable and managed to focus on one boldfaced word: Jesse. Then Sable noticed her irregular breathing and as if in slow motion, turned his head around. Thinking quickly, Jin yelled, “Flying Jalapeno!”
“Hey-Zeus!” Sable shrieked. The moment was priceless.
This particular phrase gave Jin pause. “Who’s Zeus?”
“What the heck are you doing here?!”
“Can’t a man have his privacy?!”
“Hey-sous... like chef?”
“I think it’s pronounced Jee-zus, Sable. Jesus,” Jin said quietly.
“Not ‘Hey-zeus,‘ but ‘Jesus.’ At least in America. Stupid Earthlings. I never was clear on their religious beliefs...”
“I agree. Stupid Earthlings,” Sable said reflectively, and then appeared to think better of it. “Jin! What are you doing here?”
“A better question would be, ‘What are you keeping from me?’”
“I hate you and your stupid evasions,” he grumbled.
“I know!” Jin said cheerfully. “But since mine is the best, answer it!”
Sable appeared to consider this for a few minutes. He resumed the assault on his fingernail and a small droplet of blood appeared on the cuticle. Jin grabbed his hand away from his mouth. “Stop that.”
“Alright, well. I suppose now is as good a time as any. There’s something I need to tell you-” But Jin would never know what he was going to say at that moment, because there was an announcement.
It was accompanied by a collective head ducking in the dormitory as a familiar voice cleared its throat in their heads. Zephys, of course. The message relayed was altered slightly for everyone, depending on their talent, but for Jin it spoke, “Muse of Agility. Report to the southern tower.”
Jin had qualms about this method of communication; she felt it was too intimate. However, since she did know the speaker of the message personally, she supposed it was probably more awkward for the others.
“Talk to you later, after...” Sable said, far too eager to escape the conversation.
“Yeah...” Jin trailed off. “Hey, where’re you going?”
“Pavilion.” Of course. Sable was a muse of music, he would be playing in the music group and Jin and her fellow agility muses would be entertaining from above.
Sable was already out the door and so were the rest of the muses. She hurried to catch up.
What was happening was a performance of sorts. The muses were citizens of a land that revolved slowly around a planet that the Earthlings named “Earth.” Possibly the ideas of heaven formed on Earth came from a primitive understanding of this “Land of the Muses.” The ruler was named Zes. He was powerful and demanded regular performances from the muses in his royal court, which was where Sable, Jin, and the others lived.
Similar courts used to be set up in the land with lesser monarchs or nobles that controlled them, but by Jin’s time Zes’ was the only left; it had always been the most elaborate and the most ruthless anyway, and so had survived longer than the others. One mistake in this torturous place, and a muse was promptly executed in a method voted on by those present. One of the most popular methods was banishment to a barren land called Valdir, where certain death would await. Others included the guillotine, drowning in an underwater aquifer, -the usual assortment.
This was a danger that Jin and Sable had faced together since they were five. It was not uncommon to see a muse executed or banished; it was all part of the show. But they had managed to survive for eleven years.
Jin put on her green unitard along with the rest of the agility muses and tied her short, black hair back. Took a deep breath. Zes was a critic as well as a tyrant. He had a good eye and a short fuse.
She could see him sitting regal straight, hands on the delicately carved armrests of his royal chair next to a few visiting nobles, black beard and bald head framing his bushy eyebrows and hollow, deep-set eyes. His mouth was tight-lipped and set in a permanent grimace. All together, he made an imposing figure. Zes was 8’2” with a muscular frame that clogged doorways like a blood clot.
He was sitting at a large oak table covered with many delicacies of his choosing: lovely food such as cordyceps fungi victims and monkey eyes. Exotic food from the far corners of the Earth were prized in royal courts. But since some of the visiting nobles had more delicate palettes, there were also more common foods, such as plain, cheese-less mac and cheese (so specified by Arices, who liked to call himself the father of America purely because of their similarity in names, though with that kind of taste he didn’t really deserve the title).
The table was set under a transparent glass slab that protected the guests from weather elements and flying muses.
“Jin,” prompted a familiar voice from behind her.
Jin turned, “What are you doing here?” It was Zephys, middle-aged, prematurely grey with dark eyes that always had a glint of something flinty. He carried a couple books to his side. Typical.
Zephys was, of course, the announcer, as well as Zes’s right-hand man and a bit of a mad scientist. His talent had been a mystery as long as anyone could remember, but he was on the muses’ side, and Jin’s best friend besides Sable. For years he had been planning and trying to overthrow Zes and start a revolution, and for almost as long been trying to recruit guards and muses to his side, with moderate success. Zephys had tried many times to recruit Jin; even though she kept refusing -she didn’t want to get into trouble and it seemed like a lost cause, anyway- they were still the best of friends.
But what was he doing here, on the tower where only agility muses were supposed to be, when the show was about to begin? Shouldn’t Zes notice something out of place?
“I came to ask you-” Zephys began, shifting his grip on the heavy volumes.
“-you already know the answer,” Jin interrupted impatiently, she didn’t want her friend to get into any trouble, and besides, she needed to prepare, “I’m sorry, but I can’t join your revolution.”
“No, that’s not what I’m talking about, my dear.”
“You’re in a fine mood. But no matter. I’ll need to talk to you later, in my lab. You know, the back entrance, my dear.”
“Why-” Jin began.
“-just be there,” he interrupted, suddenly serious, “and take this.” He pressed a smooth, circular rock into her hand, “If ever you need to talk to me, flip it three times and speak to it. I shall hear.”
Jin opened her mouth to ask about a million questions, and didn’t get a single one out because just then Zes interrupted and Zephys disappeared and her mind snapped back to the task at hand.
“Let the show begin!” Zes bellowed. And it did.
Musical muses flooded out into the cobblestone pavilion, playing every instrument imaginable, from tubas to saxophones to banjos to piccolos and everything in-between. It shouldn’t have been in the least harmonious, but somehow the tunes blended together in a way that only musical muses could contrive to create. Jin could spot Sable playing his guitar with his favorite pick, one made from a Saber-toothed tiger’s tooth and extremely rare. She watched him play, sure that at the moment his attention would only be focused on the music.
At the same time, Jin watched Zes’ mood carefully. He did not seem forgiving today. One little mess up and the muse would be dead for sure. All it took was a snap of the fingers...
Sable was Jin’s life. He was her only reason for not giving up in all the horrors of the court. They had been best friends ever since she could remember, and because of him, Jin had never needed to bother with the other muses. How fragile was the string that connected a muse to life, with Zes watching. In an instant it was all thrown away.
Sable’s arm jerked sideways suddenly, but he was able to recover and keep playing with no repercussions. Jin looked closely at his eyes, and even at this distance could see that he was scared of something. Something was definitely wrong, and she could only watch it play out at this stage of the game. Then his arm twitched again and the string on his guitar gave an indignant twang. His other arm made the same strange motion. Then his legs. Soon his whole body was shaking and twitching; his eyes rolled back in his head and his head bobbed like a limp rag-doll. He tipped off his chair and the guitar clattered and echoed loudly on the cobblestones.
Zes stood up with barely contained glee and yelled, “Stop! Who dares disturb my entertainment?”
“Sable,” Jin whispered. She realized she was the only muse still standing at the edge of the tower. The rest had all backed away in fear, leaving her to watch in horror as Sable twitched and shook on the cobblestones, banging his head and drooling in a humiliating manner.
“What’s that, muse?”
“Sable, sir. His name is Sable,” Jin said, louder, her eyes wide like dinner plates. Where was Zephys, she wondered, somewhere in the back of her mind.
“Sable, is it? Well this unfortunate fool has dared to ruin my evening. Which will it be then, Nobles? Execution on the guillotine? Or perhaps drowning?” Zes gestured at the guests, who were jeering with pleasure at this unfortunate turn of events. “No, he deserves worse. He dares to continue his disturbance?”
“It’s not his fault!” Jin yelled, indignantly. How could anyone be so blatantly cruel?
“Do you have something to say, muse?” Zes boomed.
“Yes, I do!” She said, and without thinking, leapt over the parapet and dropped thirty feet to the pavilion, landing with a roll. She scrambled over to Sable, who had stopped twitching and was lying limp on the cobblestones. The other muses of music were frozen in fear, some still with their hands in the position of their last pluck or lips still closed around the end of a woodwind instrument. Jin kneeled roughly by Sable and gently caressed his face. “What’s wrong with him?” she yelled, to no one in particular. She wiped the drool from his lips and gently laid him on his back, righting his splayed limbs.
“What’s wrong with him?” Zes asked sarcastically. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with him! He has a little rebellious streak, that’s what! Get him on the first caravan to Valdir.” And with a snap of his fingers, Zes’ personal guards, muses of strength, were employed to drag Jin away and pick up Sable, who was now fluttering his eyelids and groaning.
“You,” Zes said, motioning at the struggling Jin, “Go to the dorms-” (As if she had a choice in the matter) “-We’ll deal with you later. Oh, and if you even think about getting out... the punishment will be worse than your worst nightmare.
I don’t think so, Jin thought, knowing that her worst nightmare had already been lived right before her eyes, and allowing the muses to take her by the elbows and “escort” her back to what would be her own personal hell for the coming hours.