The cavalcade forms up. In beats, without words, the drummers argue a bass line. While higher registers wait in silence, contraltos and bassos scat and moan, improvising the tune (the lyrics never change). The soulful melodies these deeper voices come up with are much too cool, and none capture the hot quiddity of their subject. “Make dat shit bump, y’all,” a counter-tenor exhorts. “Put some stank on it!” So the music picks up funk and swing. A girl bounces and stretches with the other dancers. They have black skin, or brown, or golden; hers is gray, waxen, and flyblown. What ails this girl, her bones slipping so weirdly in raddled tissues?
Once there was a prince of Ruyastan who was born in secret and hidden behind a false wall with a nurse to hush her and soothe and give suck. The prince and her nurse lived in narrowness for ten years, reading and watching the world through a crack no bigger than a needle. During those years, the dowager queen hunted down and killed, for jealousy, every one of the prince’s half-brothers and cousins, carelessly begotten in cities and villages and forgotten apart from notes in the royal genealogies.
Sené. Pregnant Sené. Sené of the tired skin. She whose face held a million wrinkles, each one etched deeply as if carved over the course of forty years. Sené whose blood was only twenty-four years young. [Faru, Faru running through the bush.] The shining eyes of her boys made her smile, but not much else touched her. Not a full-throated bird’s song, not the sun peeking pink at dawn, not her husband’s fleeting caresses.
[Faru leapt right, darted left. His hoof / slipped and his hind legs buckled.]
Quentin Ketterly could tell that the cards weren’t special when the fortune teller held out the deck to him. Real Cards, like those he carried in the case around his neck, didn’t show wear like Madame Serena’s did. And when he touched the deck, as she instructed him to, they were warm with the midday heat of the tent, not cold to the touch like the Cards always seemed to be. He didn’t know why—neither he nor Hiram knew much about the Cards at all, save for how to use them some.
People around here never wanted our family. Crow boys, they called us, a flock of five brothers and our father, all of us with long black hair. Flapping our over-sized, garage sale sleeves and falling over the fences the neighbors put between us and them. And maybe too because of the feathers. Our father hung black feathers from the side mirrors of his truck, along the eaves of the house, and he dangled them from the shriveled limbs of our dying fruit trees. All those feathers spinning in the hot wind.
Before the flute is a flute, it is a bird. This is the first act of magic. This is the first lesson the girl learns, when the world is still young and shaggy-coated with lingering winter. Sometimes things can be other things. An axehead hides in a chunk of flint. Before it is a meal, a mammoth is a squealing calf tagging along behind its mother. A fox is a white spirit barking curses until an arrow finds it and turns it into a friend that shields your ears from the wind’s teeth.
Lady Mary was young and Lady Mary was fair, and she had brothers who loved her and lovers who adored her. But she was savvy, sly as a vixen, with hair like the color of the butchered sun. And of all the people she knew, of all the people who’d pledged their heart to her pleasure, she cared for only one: Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox, of course, had ginger locks and sharp white teeth, freckles like a map across his fair face and when he smiled sometimes, it wasn’t hard to see why they called him Mr. Fox and not Edgar, or Edward, or Egan.
By the time Quentin reached the Ketterly Riverboat, he was down to thirty-seven cards, not counting the two Jokers. He ran his index finger along the edge of the deck, tucked securely in his waistcoat pocket. He was unarmed, not the kind of man who ever felt comfortable with a pistol, though he had once regularly carried a knife on his hip. Back then, his playing cards had been as disposable as everything else in his life: his women, his possessions, his inheritance.
Like the Isle of Lenas upon which it sat, the town of Lodorest had been dying for decades. The final blow, however, came all at once. Outside of his father’s home, Manil shivered in the night air. He heard shouts and cries and screams, the roar of burning houses. Other sounds, too, drifting up the dirt streets, coming from the shadows as if the darkness itself was a monster feasting on the town: laughter; barking commands; angry bellows from deep-voiced men. Manil stood with his mother and his uncle. Manil barely came up to Uncle Janeed’s hip.
We were the first generation to leave that island country. We were the ones who on the day we came of age developed a distinct float to our walk, soon enough hovering inches above the ground, afterwards somersaulting with the clouds, finally discovering we could fly as far as we’d ever wanted, and so we left. Decades later, we brought our children back to see that country. That year, we all decided we were ready to return. We jackknifed through clouds and dodged large birds. We held tight our children, who still had not learned to fly. Behind us trailed rope lines of suitcases bursting with gifts from abroad. We wondered who would remember us.