An Important Historical Episode
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Palm fronds waved slowly near the ceiling, moved by small boys in balconies, but did little to stir the humid, heavy air in the cave-like chamber. Below the green fronds hung a haze of delicious smokes both calming and narcotic. Below the gray haze sat a scattering of scarred wooden tables where men gambled with damp cards and sweaty dice.
A spectrum of liquors. A collection of dusky girls in gauze and silk moved about the room, slim hands on shoulders, lips to the ears of the richest, the winners, the powerful. Long fingers tracing collars. Near one end of the chamber sat a low stage flanked by spitting braziers that cast long shadows from their ornate casings against the curtained backdrop.
The shiny palm fronds rose and fell.
The small boys watched and whispered, communicating from balcony to balcony with complex hand signs that were then passed to a thin man in spectacles who sat a folding table with a ledger so large it over-hung the table's edges. He made notes with a quill, nodding to the older boy before him whose eyes were bright.
"Ha!" came a pleased shout from the floor, and the tall boy watched a man gloat as he pulled a pile of gold winnings toward his chest. The others at the table sat back, rubbing chins, throwing back drinks. The scribe wrote down the name passed him by the tall boy.
The loud jangle of metal from the chamber's guarded entrance caught the tall boy's gaze. He leaned over the guilded railing of his balcony and peered through the smoke to where the tall guardsmen were turning to face the doorway. He watched as a man flew backward, followed by the head of the second.
"Now!" shouted a high voice.
The tall boy stared as each of the women suddenly moved as one, arms high in the air revealing long thin knives that flashed in the torchlight. The blades fell to throats, and at each table men began thrashing in the stream of their own life's blood. Like gears, the silk-clad women moved clockwise around the tables, catching the gamblers in mid-rise, tangled in their chairs, scabbards and drunkenness. A few men leapt free to resist but were immediately dispatched by the nearest women behind them. Heads lolled from necks, and the floor shone wetly. A few black splatters reached the palm fronds, which the small boys continued to wave even as they watched with wide eyes.
Into the center of the chamber strode a woman clad in black leather, with a warrior's steel spikes at elbow, knee and heel. Her blonde hair flashed like light in the dim chamber.
The tall boy turned to see the scribe folding his ledger under his arm and slipping behind the curtained doorway, where passages led out. The boy considered following, then leaned closer to the wall, out of site of the floor. The other boys hung over the edges of their balconies like monkeys, now pointing and gesturing wildly, hands flying with silent exclamations.
The silk girls were moving smoothly among the tables, filling burlap bags with gold and gems, unbuckling weaponry from dead men's waists, reaching into inner pockets, removing rings, amulets, earrings and in one case, a jeweled eyepatch.
"Lady," a girl in blue silk reported, "the men are vanquished."
"Are you certain?" the woman demanded, her voice low and stern.
The girl nodded. The rest of the women now faced their leader, awaiting her orders. Sacks of treasure slumped at their feet. She raised an arm.
"Commence the reading!" she cried.
The women nodded, now smiling girlishly. They pulled notebooks of various size and design from beneath their silk garments and went to the tables, pushing aside the leaking bodies and moving chairs so they faced the torchlit stage. The blonde leader took a position of honor directly in front of where a young woman was opening her notebook and searching among pages. The warrior woman accepted a glass of peach-colored liquor and relaxed slightly, mindful of the spikes on her leather armor.
The woman on the stage cleared her throat, looked at the audience and opened her mouth to speak.
"Gertrude!" a deep male voice shouted. The name echoed in the cavernous room.
All heads turned to the entryway where a tall man stood with sword drawn. A long cloak hung from his broad shoulders, leaving bare his muscled chest and abdomen. As the women watched, he was flanked by a group of equally hard looking men, weapons drawn, their eyes glistening in the flickering light.
Gertrude stood slowly and adjusted her armor, pulling it tight over her chest. She stood with hands on hips, blatantly avoiding the hilt of her sword. The other women found the handles of their blades hidden beneath layers of gauzy silk and stood waiting, watching.
"You think to hold a reading with inviting us, Gertrude," the man asked, "your beloved male counterparts?"
Her red lips curved into a bland smile. "Most certainly, Earnest," she said. "Come closer. I have a poem to read you."
"Oh, yes?" he said, reversing his blade and sheathing it in a smooth motion. He strode forward, the eyes of the women lingering on his statue's body. Close to her now, his eyes on hers, he invited: "Will you whisper it in my ear?"
She wet her lips with her tongue. "Most certainly," he said.
Earnest leaned toward her.
"Hack!" she screeched, drawing her sword in an upper slash meant to disembowel him.
Earnest was prepared.
"Academic," he said.
He spun, catching her long blade in the furls of his cloak. He freed his sword while wrapping the thick wool tighter around her sword. Gertrude struggled, cursing-and suddenly they found themselves the center of a storm of blades and action as the two groups surged against each other.
She caught him in the back of the calf with a spike and he stumbled, gasping. Gertrude yanked her sword free and barely brought his up to counter her two handed swing at his head. He righted himself, calf bleeding now, and begin to push her back with quick jabs, catching her once on a bicep. She grimaced and fought on.
From the balcony the tall boy watched, hands slick on the railing.
People kept leaping to the stage to begin shouting poems, stories-but never got beyond the first lines before being pulled down or pushed off by the points of swords and daggers. People slipped on the bloody floor, some adding their own dead flesh to the litter of obstacles.
The tall boy wiped his forehead. Slowly he reached into his shirt and pulled out a small notebook, cheaper than those flashed on the stage, barely bound newsprint. He held it out over the railing, where below bodies jerked and lunged. His hand was shaking.
Then he pulled the book close to him, opened it to the last few empty pages, and began scratching with a blunt pencil, keeping watch on the floor action until the only two left were Gertrude and Earnest.
Punctured many times by her spikes, trailing blood, Earnest tripped over a body and caught himself, clawing at a table as Gertrude swung blindly, blood from a long gash on her forehead running crimson in her blue eyes. She fell back over a toppled chair and her sword clattered on the stone floor.
They both lay panting in pools of blood.
"Gertrude," Earnest said finally. "Are you there?"
One of the torches hissed. Then she answered: "Yes, Earnest?"
"When did this begin?"
She sighed. Her breath rattled wetly. "Does anyone know?" she murmured drowsily.
"By Odin's One Eye!" Earnest cried. "Why were we cursed to be writers?"
The boy watched the two of them reach for each other, slipping in the cooling blood. They died with outstretched arms, faces silhouetted by spreading circles of crimson.
The boy waited.
He glanced at the doorway behind him, wrote another sentence in his book, then slammed it closed and slipped out of the balcony. He spent two hours moving the sacks of gold from the chamber to his small room ten alleys away. With the gold he hired the services of a wizard specializing in cross-dimensional transportation, making it possible for him to attend Princeton, renowned for its campus literary magazine and dramatic clubs.
The boy's name was Scott Fitzgerald.
James Stegall: Pure Genius.