Meeting with the Consortium

--by Shame

The air tasted of smoke -- smokes rather. Some were acrid, lung-singeing, others as soft as scented fog. Some muddied the head, others cleared it. But all of them obscured the still swamp air - a haze in the breath, in the corner of one’s eyes. Her hair smelt of smoke, it lay curled and quiescent in the folded fabric of her robes. The druid was sleeping, finally without hints and murmurs of nightmares, a smile curving his lips now in a face sunken suddenly with age. When he opened his eyes they were clearer now, deeper, wells of luminescence and age she was afraid of studying too closely -- before now she had never thought of him as old. The boss was closeted with business -- closed doors and smoke tinged with brimstone -- working through sheaves of maps and atonement. The elf, after several days of raging against the bonds of the settlement like a tiger in a cage, had left again.

She was alone --

-- playing with smoke and vertigo on one of the places many balconies, eyes tracking lights near and far as they moved through the dim swamp -- her jittering, not as bad as on the Peninsula but unceasing since then -- held still by soft smoke and the heavy humidity of the air. When she moved smoke and sweat mingled perfume-like on her skin.

The innkeeper came up behind her, each gentle click of hooves like like a rat-tat-tatting on Shame’s flesh, breaking open her tension-quivering skin and letting her bones jump free ivory spiraling down into darkness.

“There’s someone here to see you,” the innkeeper said, words made heavy by her long-voweled accent.

“Who?” Shame asked, edges of irritation showing through her words. Edges, on edge. She looked down. Vertigo.

“One of the wind traders,” a note of disapproval in those heavy vowels.

Shame turned away from the edge, swamp, dim lights trailing their slow dance in murky air. She felt the edges shifting, smoothing, the knives her in smile now -- the rest an impenetrable skin. “Where is he?” she asked, cat-like mouse-pouncing note of eagerness in her voice.

“The lower balcony,” a pause, “He’s ordered sheesha and wine and fruit,” another down-turned sound, disapproval, warning.

“I’ll be with him in a moment.” She stood, bare feet pressed against the grain of the floor. A wind trader -- she’d heard stories from the various merchants she’d courted and questioned. She had not expected to meet one til she arrived at the great city to the south, Shattrath.

She descended through smoke and air to meet him. There was a whirlwind waiting for her in the parlor -- it took her a moment to realize it wore the shape of a man. She froze, hand outstretched to part the translucent curtain that separated her from the storm. Eyelids fluttered, heels rocked. She closed her eyes to try and steady herself, but she could still see whirling vortexes red-lit through the lids, so she opened them again.

He was reclining on a divan. Or it. wore a man’s shape, and over that dark robes, low-pulled cowl, gloves. Two divans, and between them a table arranged with sheesha and wine and fruit. Smoke, dark, ash-black, hazed the air -- but when she inhaled all she tasted was ozone.

That was him.

Not the smoke.

The whirlwind turned to her as she stood posed too-long in the doorway, her frozen fingers brushing thin silk. It stood. Graceful. Electric currents coiled and uncoiled beneath its man-shape, helices and matrices furling and unfurling -- a million sparks in a single cat-like movement. It walked to the curtain, parting it with a bow. Shame jerked back her fingers before he looked up again, hand dropping to her side, back straightening, chin lifting, a smile curved her lips and did not reach her eyes.

“Lady Shame?” a voice like honey over smoke, modulated, an accent that hinted at desert-hot sun though she couldn’t tell if it was real or practiced.

“Yes.” She extended a hand, not disagreeing with the title -- though there was not a hint of azure in her blood -- sometimes titles were shields, she could always cast it aside later. She didn’t like the smooth golden glide of his voice.

He took the offered hand, bending over it as if to press his lips to it, but all she felt was the soft brush of the edges of his cowl. She almost flinched back from the contact -- as if the whirlwind would spill over into her with a fatal lightening-clash and odor of burnt ozone intensifying. It didn’t. Beneath the thin leather of his glove power moved in graceful spirals - counter pointing the pulse held in her flesh.

Like current alternating --

-- not grounded --

-- her fingers weren’t shaking, jittering, flesh bouncing on bones in a too-fast vibration.

They were still.

He cleared his throat, gloved hand still touching her fingertips. He had said something and she had missed it. An ice-petaled flower bloomed in the pit of her stomach. She swallowed once, letting her eyes settled on the clasp of his cloak where a garnet gleamed like living fire. Attentive expression, slight smile, make him repeat himself.

Eventually he did. “Ah lady, I am called Rasheed. I am a...representative of the Consortium. We’ve heard you’ve been wishing to speak with us. Would you care to have a seat?” He gestured to the twin divans.

She let the smile broaden slightly, looking towards him, attention pinned to that red stone as a stable point in a fast-spiraling world. “I would.”

He led her through the curtain, which swung shut behind her, the movement disturbing the heavy smoke which coiled through the air. She sat, retrieved her hand from his insubstantial grip. She felt a profound sense of relief when he was no longer touching her. They were facing each other now, claws sliding inexorably through the velvet, soon to emerge.

“Well then Rasheed, let us discuss business.”

He leaned towards her, elbows resting on the table, formless face peering through dark smoke spirals, “Let us instead speak of profit.”

She tilted her head to one side, fingers hesitating over his offerings - drugs, fruit, wine. She settled on fruit as the most innocuous of the three -- though thinking back, old myths dusty tomes dead goddesses and women first made, maybe it was really the most dangerous. Suddenly-still fingers choose a lychee from the silver tray, selecting it with absurd care. She peeled off brittle skin, rosey-brown, revealing white flesh near-transluscent. Teeth bit down, severing, sweet juice revealing almond-shaped seed. “How can you be so sure?”

Rasheed made a sound like that laugh, something about the flow of his face suggesting a smile, “The Consortium does its research Lady Shame, and can squeeze profit from a stone. You’ve come from beyond the Portal -- and while we have yet to penetrate it, gold it seems flows easily both ways.”

She considered for a moment his whirlwind form and the Portal’s devouring spiral meeting. Clash of flows and whirlpool ripping whirlwind double helix reduced to sparks each slowly going out in the darkness between. Shame smiled, “You’re correct -- about the gold. But if you’ve done your research you know I’m just an emissary - an exploration. From what I’ve heard your Consortium would prefer something a bit more... extensive.”

He made that sound again, half-laugh, smooth as honey, warm as desert wind. Nothing about him suggested awkwardness, and how do you read a man with no face? She felt vulnerable, too heavy in her skin. His fingers toyed with a wineglass, “You’re correct. I’ve been asked to convey our good will, proof that the Consortium treats its subsidiaries well.” The hand not playing with smooth glass stem brought forth a bulky parchment envelope from his robes.

“And that?” she asked, still turning the word “subsidiary” over in her mind. It was not a word that would go over well -- it had a bitter taste.

“Good will.” He gestured for her hand, which she extended into the no man’s land between them. He opened the envelope, parchment rasping, and poured it out into her palm.

Earth-fire, spring-grass, sea-depths-frozen, sun-yellow rolled into her cupped hand. Gems. It was a shock, like cool silk, warm oil playing across her palm each one singing a distinctive note of vibrating music like crystalline celestial spheres. She realized, abstractly, that this was wrong. Stones didn’t speak, let only sing, let alone feel like warm oil. She realized, somewhat more abstractly, that Rasheed was speaking.

“...invite you and your elf companion to stay at our base at Stormspire.”

She shuddered, palm tilting, rolling the gems back into the envelope. When she withdrew her hand she struggled not the wipe it surreptitiously on her robe. “We will take your offer under consideration. You will hear from us soon.”

And then, thankfully, he took his leave.

ER Emblem Award

This story has been highlighted as a Weekly Featured Story.

Lilithia 12:54, 3 October 2007 (UTC)

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