By Mark Harbinger
Vicente Garces Custode/ Shutterstock
A small, fair-skinned man minded his own business seated in a moist grove under a tree that was adorned by a family of bonobos. This man’s skin would’ve glistened under the summer sun if the canopy above, or his incantations, permitted it.
Nor was his skin truly that hue. It had been a long time since Myrrek had allowed anyone to see him as he truly was. Images. Sounds. Odors. To an illusionist, these were all fungible. Layers upon layers, his students used to hear him mutter under his breath at the Academy.
They thought him quite mad at the time.
He agreed, more often than not. His life before the school was filled with personal sacrifice. Mastery or madness, whichever label you gave it, he came by it honestly.
This made his fellow instructors at the academy jealous.
Similarly, the apes that summer day were also suspicious of him. This person whom they observed smelled of human, but as they swung from tree to tree, they found his smell floated at the periphery of the grove and wasn’t attached to the man at all, as though he wasn’t there.
A wan breeze sifted through the foliage, flipping the odd leaf here or there, trying to invoke a sense of movement or moment.
But to no effect. The grove remained quiet, nearly mumpish. Myrrek filled this silence with thoughts of the horror he had unleashed upon the nation, using his considerable skill behind the scenes to help his childhood friend, now known only as The Xystarch, in her rise to power.
So many dead. So many more to come.
Myrrek had done well for himself and his close family. They were in hiding. And him living here, far from the affairs of state, protected them. But had Myrrek done for anyone else? As an outlaw, could he?
Myrrek sat in this place of nowhere observing the apes who couldn’t see him and did his best to think about nothing.
It might have been a nap. Myrrek’s eyes had been closed for a long time, but his consciousness felt unbroken. Either way, he was awake now—hearing the same squeaking and clapping that sent the bonobos scurrying.
Squeaking wheels of a wagon. The steps of a horse. Only one of each.
Myrrek prepared. Reaching out, both with hand and mind, he caressed and corralled the eldritch energies from the air around him.
In much the same way another might choose clothes to wear, he chose his form. He decided to imply strength. Tall. Male. Gunmetal gray braids atop his head. For his skin? A nondescript tan. He came to be covered in worn brown robes loosely draped over a massive frame, with a large carbine on one hip and a larger cutlass on the other. He decided upon a salty odor, strong but not unpleasant.
Hat? Of course. White, no feather. His image, sitting under the tree, pulled that cap over its eyes, feigning sleep.
The wagon was now in sight and Myrrek silently laughed to himself. All his preparations were for naught. The brown-skinned woman holding the reins had no pupils where her eyes would normally be. Amaurotic, she was.
Probably at least one other inside the wagon, he reckoned. Women didn’t typically travel alone, much less blind ones.
“Whoa.” The stranger’s voice, a rich sultry tone, emanated from under her own wide-brimmed hat and the curly black hair which covered her face. The horse stopped right next to where Myrrek really stood. The stranger turned her head.
“May I offer you a song and a story, in exchange for your company and some bread at your campsite, tonight?” she said.
It took him a beat to recognize she was talking to him.
“Whom, may I ask, am I hosting?” He instinctively had the sound of his voice come from his illusion self, but she wasn’t phased by this. She just sat still and stared at the spot where Myrrek stood, until he repeated it for real, out loud.
“Just me.” she replied.
At that, Myrrek let drop the illusion over by the tree, instead making that form his own, where he stood.
“And so it shall be. Well met.” He moved forward to extend a hand, to perhaps help her step down from the wagon, even though she couldn’t see it. “I am known as Babu’u, the Mentalist,” which (with the qualifier) wasn’t a lie. Myrrek never lied. At least not with words. “How may I address you, m’lady?”
“I am Pareesh. You honor me.” she said with a slight bow of her head. She reached under her seat and brought forth a small round reed, no larger than a robin’s egg. Holding it with one hand, she blew through it to create a multi-layered sound. She sounded the reed, in short bursts, as she stepped down—reed in one hand, the reins still in the other—from the wagon.
Still making the sound, she then walked around Myrrek and wrapped the reins around a tree branch near his head.
He was in awe of her skill, but he wouldn’t treat this as witchcraft like so many others would’ve. Due to his studies, he understood how some so-called ‘veils’ between us and our world were just filters that enhanced understanding.
She lifted her head: “I have better hearing than most. As long as there is sound, I can sense the nearness of close objects.”
This doesn’t explain why your mind didn’t accept the sounds from my spell, Myrrek thought. But, to her, he asked, “Do you require any assistance?”
“No. Thank you.” A cloud passed over her face as she walked past. “You’re too kind.”
At that, he went over to sit under the tree for real, as he watched (and listened, for her reed heralded her upon the shore) fetch water for herself and for her horse, whom she called Kismet.
She then set up her camp. From time to time, she would reach for something and her sleeves slid to reveal right red scars on her forearms.
They were lash marks from the look of it. He wondered if she had done that, or someone else.
They broke bread together and boiled the river water for drink. Although she did have some wine on her wagon. She offered it, but the old man refused.
After they finished eating and lit the fire, Myrrek asked for the song. So she, her eyes fixed on less than nothing, sang a tale of brazen heroes and forlorn lovers left behind.
Myrrek had heard many such tales. Her voice was lovely. He applauded her.
“Thank you. You are too kind.” She bowed. “And now, my story.”
“I grew up in a family of Jromani, a wandering troupe of performers, staying out of the affairs of the state. We all sang and danced. We learned the reed instruments, although back then I was the least proficient, of course, being only seven.
“That Jromani family adopted me. I was sightless from birth, born into a family of poor town folk who abandoned me as a baby. In this, I was fortunate, for my Jromani family heard my cries alongside the road and took me in. .
“The next you already know; for, once, on a day not unlike this one fourteen summers ago, my family and I came upon an old man alongside another road. That old man was you.”
Myrrek said nothing, making a conscious effort to relax back harder against the tree and wait for the rest of the story.
“I was too young for setting up camp but I had another job. I was to invite you for dinner and a show, as our guest. Under your real name, Master Myrrek, you accepted.”
Myrrek: “I remember now, both show and dinner were generous. You all danced into the wee hours of the night,” he said.
“As did you, Master, I was told.”
“Well, my movements could no doubt have been mistaken for a medical emergency by a family less skilled than yours,” he quipped.
Now she did smile: “And the next morning, you offered payment. A payment my family accepted…”
Myrrek chronicled his memories to fill the pregnant pause. “Yes. I walked to the edge of the clearing and broke off hollow branches of the Bei-bei tree. I carved five flutes from those branches, setting a spell of making upon them. I gave you each one.”
Now, her anger was plain. Her head shook, hair flailing in the firelight: “My family already had a trunk full of such instruments, better quality than yours. Your purse jingled at your side, even as you hunched over the sticks, working your spell…”
“But, it was a spell of great making!” Now, it was Myrrek’s tone sharpening. “The flutes, once played, turned to gold—did they not?!”
“Not all of them. Once we thanked you and broke camp and left, at the very next turn, my father angrily told all of us to throw away the stick flutes. Never trust a wizard, he told us.” She grabbed her elbows. “Everyone did so. But, I kept mine.”
“And, yes, it was as you said. I hid it for fear of upsetting my father; but, many days later, in a stream bathing with my sisters, upon the very first time I produced it and placed it to my lips, it transformed to gold. Real gold. My sisters were astonished.”
Myrrek waited for the rest.
“Even more, when I attempted to play it, I was no longer a novice. My fingers moved as though with a life of their own, and songs came to them, through me and the flute. Now I was the best player in the family, by far. Others could hold it, but no songs came to them.
“It was only that that prevented my father from selling the gold flute. For, a seven year old prodigy was a draw that guaranteed great wealth and fame for our traveling shows.”
Ah, Pareesh. Now, Myrrek recognized the name. He had heard tales of her in his travels.
She continued: “However, my step-sisters never could live with me being the center of attention. They started to pick on me, even hurt me, each covering for the other.
“And worse, as I became a young woman, the young men who would’ve normally ignored me took an interest, ignoring my sisters.
“Eventually, they hit upon a plan. One evening they plied me with drink, and then, once I slept, they broke the golden flute before flinging it, and me, out of our hostel window. My sisters were going to convince my father to sell the gold pieces…”
Myrrek wanted to reach out to her, to comfort her. But instead said: “It doesn’t work that way.”
“Right. Once it was broken, it became wood once again. Now, everyone in the family was furious. They believed I had broken it, for my sisters kept up their charade.
“After I healed, I realized a decision had been made. My mom and sisters cried, never looking me in the eye.
“One day, early in the morning, my father took me on a long journey. I tried to convince him of the truth and cried when I couldn’t. His eyes only watered once, as he reached beneath the bench of the wagon and handed me this…”
And then she pulled out the very recorder, now neatly broken in half, tightly wrapped in black-dyed burlap. It looked absurdly small in her adult hands. She turned to him and cradling it close to her chest.
Myrrek: “You want me to fix it?”
“I want to return it.” She handed it to Myrrek and then laid down, as if to sleep.
He waited a long long time, before gently saying, “You said you healed.”
She replied to the night sky: “Physically, yes. But I no longer dance as before.”
“It’s no better than many others. I no longer perform. My father dropped me off to live with the silent ones in the Golden Temple.”
Ah, Myrrek thought, there was wisdom in that choice. The Gold Priests were truly altruistic, helping everyone and anyone who asked. They only demanded one thing: absolute silence.
“I stayed there until I heard whispers of a rogue mage who hung out here, sometimes giving gifts.”
Myrrek went back to sit down on his side of the campfire. Holding the broken switch and thinking about what was and wasn’t his fault in this world. He thought of privilege and responsibility. Returning.
Such were his thoughts as he watched the fire die and the stars in the sky emerge.
When she awoke, Myrrek was gone. But, on the ground where he had been sitting was a single flute, along with a note of parchment. Despite her blindness, somehow the wizard made the words of the note visible in her mind, as she held it up:
“I still owe you a gift—for you never really used the one I gave you.
“As a younger man, I took great joy in clever twists of power and intrigue; but, I tell you plainly now—the gift was never gold.
“Yes, most who received such from me pawned off their gold at the first opportunity. And so they received payment. But, for those that loved the music and kept the flute and played it, there was another gift. For the flute would have eventually returned to wood, anyway.
“Since that one is broken, I give you this. Another simple flute. It has been my own for a long time. It is wood and wood it will remain. It has no magic in it.
“The magic is in you. You are Pareesh, the musician. I am here to tell you—you are still Pareesh.
She looked at it for a long time. He was right, she hadn’t tried to play since her sisters attacked her.
She lifted the wooden flute to her lips, expecting the flute’s music to emerge.
But, it didn’t.
Instead, she made the music. After all those years of passively letting the music flow through her, it turned out that time wasn’t wasted. Her lungs remembered how to blow, her lips remembered the vibrations, her mind knew the movement of her fingers.
Indeed, she maybe had never played better.
After a while, she stopped and cried a bit, placing the instrument against her forehead, as though in prayer. The Golden Priests would not approve, she decided. As she had played, she could hear a family of creatures—bonobos perhaps—returning to hang above her in the trees. Apparently, they were enjoying the greatest flute playing in five hundred miles.
And so she played again for them. And for herself.
About the author: Mark’s writing has been featured in various online e-zines over the past twenty years. Publications in the pandemic era include: 2 stories for The Noncomformist literary website (2019, 2020); a humorous fantasy short in the 4th edition of the Running Wild Anthology of Stories (2021); self-publishing both an urban fantasy novel and an anthology comic (2021); and, most recently, his poetry has been in BlazeVOX (2022) and upcoming in Poetry Pacific (2024). A semi-retired attorney and IT educator—Mark also directs a philanthropic foundation and enjoys being a father, a husband, and a proud servant to Murray A. Goodness (the Cat).
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