I couldn’t tell if I was awake or dreaming. The usual physics tests gave positive results. But I was in a place that was highly unlikely to be in my city. The assembly was invitation only as I saw people being turned away at the door. Yet somehow I was among the assembly with no one giving me questionable looks. I knew no one here. I was out of place by dress, language, and skin.
I was uncomfortable as fuck.
And I still wasn’t sure if I was awake or dreaming.
I hear more of their language and realized the nature of the assembly. All the visual clues solidified into one terrifying announcement. I am where I am not to be, ever. I have got to get the fuck out of here before my trespass is brought to light. Awake, dreaming, it doesn’t matter now I understand. Once the proceedings get underway, the line between Here and There will be blurred and entities on both sides will be jumping back and forth.
I make my way through the thick crowd for the door. I make sure to speak as little as possible so my accent doesn’t give me away. The closer I get to the door, the more people are noticing how odd I am. But no one stops me, a few even help to clear a path for me.
“Where are you going?” A cold hand grips my trailing wrist. The crowd turns in instinct at the loud authoritative voices. “I have not given you leave to depart.” I don’t turn around to face the speaker. My blood chills in fear as I recognize the two toned voice. He’s come, early. The proceedings haven’t even formally begun yet and already he has descended onto a celebrant. A bass voice rumbles over a shaking tenor.
“I don’t belong here, Sir. Per the terms I agreed to, I am not to be here, ever. Not this side of the door. Not among these people. Not among your own.” Drums hasten to begin and catch up with what he has already started. Shadows start to move among the crowd. The line is being thinned.
“Not among what people? These are my people.” The cold hand pulls at me but I do not yield my position. I remain facing away from him and who he is riding. I face the unlocked door. If I stretch, I could reach the door knob.
“Exactly, Sir. I am not of this [nation]. I am not a [citizen] of this house. I’m the wrong color, wrong blood, and wrong language.”
Two [servants] came around to me bearing regalia pieces. One carried a deep purple and black shawl and a black cane. The other carried a black satin top hat and little jars of face paint. They curtsied before me and held them out for me to take. The grip on my wrist did not release.
“What is with your obsession over bloodlines?” The two toned voice laughed. “Take these, and it will not matter the color of your skin, the mix of your blood, or the tone of your voice. Take these and you will become a [citizen] of my house. Take these and the [nation] will be open to you.”
I actively pulled against the hand holding my wrist. I stretched forward to grip the door, but he pulled harder than I and dragged me several feet into the crowd before I could recover my footing. Many of the crowd were angered my by action.
“You’re not him. And I’m not staying. Fuck all about this.”
He pulled me into a spin and grabbed my other hand. The man he was riding is young. An old suit, tailored for a much larger man, hung over him showing signs of excessive and brutal wear. Behind broken sunglass lenses, I could see his eyes were rolled back into his head. I saw the physical man very clearly. I saw no sign of the one that claimed to be riding him. He held me tight, as if to waltz through the crowd. “Tell me. Tell me who I am not.” His face contorted in a mockery of grinning. He pulled me closer and ground his hips against my crotch.
I did not react to the display of lechery and physical threats. “All these are available to you. All these you may take except for… the hat and the face. For you have your own face to wear. And the hat will call me down upon the wearer. And when I arrive, I never leave empty handed.” I pulled the youth into a waltz with me leading. “So I was told by someone you claim to be.” The crowd quickly pulled away from us, allowing us room to spin in a mockery of formal dance. “The same someone that warned me never to attend a gathering like this unless I have been explicitly invited, and the master of ceremonies is told about my presence. I have no invite. No one here knows who I am.”
“I invited you, you silly girl. And I am Master and Lord here.” The voice of the youth cracked on the words ‘Master’ and ‘Lord’. I tried to keep my composure, but the sound made me laugh anyway.
“You are a fraud until you prove to me otherwise.” We continued dancing in the cramped space. Around us, other celebrants fell into trance and were overtaken by other spirits. I still could not tell if I was dreaming or awake.
“Tell me, then, girl. What would it take for me to prove to you that I am he?”
I stopped leading our dance. We stood still while around us the proceedings continued with measured madness. The moment accentuated my status as Outsider. Here I was, in the middle of a fete, and it was as if I did not exist. He released his grip on my wrists. The youth he was riding was the same height as I. We stood facing each other, our noses sharing our combined scent.
“What will it take for you to believe?”
Why am I crying?
He flicked away racing tears with his thumb. “What will it take for you to come back?”
When did I leave? “Come back to what? I used to take pride in being able to come by the back door. Being able to go anywhere, but always in secrecy. Nothing I do is accepted by those that come through the front door. I have the skills that serve a community, that are shit for an individual, but I am alone! I am always alone! I am the scapegoat beaten into the wilderness. I am the sacrifice thrown over the cliff. I am the unclean and the unwanted and the unholy! Those of proper blood take my work and call it theirs. Come back to what? When you, your fucking self have drawn a line between me and your legitimate children and told me to never fucking cross it! Come back to fucking what! What deception and lies am I going to willfully blind myself with this time? What are you going to pour in the rum to sedate me for another while?” I felt my anger rising and realized there was a good chance the spirit riding this youth was truly him. I swallowed my rage and returned my voice to a more respectable level. “That is, of course, assuming you’re him. Of which, I am still not completely sure of, either way.” I took a step back and formally bowed. “I take my leave, Sir. Lest I speak a disrespect for which there is no proper restitution.”
To my surprise, the crowd cleared the path between me and the sole door to the large room. I noted as I left unimpeded, the living paid no notice to me, but the spirits watched me with piercing silence. As I reached the door, I turned to look back. He was right behind me, silent and leering, moving closer than my own shadow. I did not hear him track my steps. He held out a cigar. “At least light this for me, so that it can not be said you did not serve me while you were here.” Ah. He has a point. I fumbled in my pockets for a lighter and then realized the purpose of his request.
I spat on the uncut end of the cigar. My spit ignited on contact with the tobacco. I let it burn with open flame until the cigar had a proper sized cherry then gently blew the flame out. Weaver Bitterheart handed the now lit cigar to the spirit-ridden man with formality.
He took the same top hat that had been formally offered to me, and donned it himself. “See you around, girl.” He gestured at the door and it was opened for me. I nodded my farewell and left what I now knew to be a dream.
“Ah, Mademoiselle, we have been expecting you.” The maître d’ bowed deeply as I walked through the open door. I knew I had just left a dream, a disturbing dream, and I wanted a safe and quiet place to sit for a while. I looked the maître d’ in question. I knew him, but I didn’t know him. I felt that I have seen him a hundred times, and yet I was seeing him for the first time ever. I did not betray my confusion. I greeted him warmly.
“Ah yes, Mademoiselle, your table has been set aside for you, and the number of chairs as well.” He led me to the far corner of the outside garden. Summer was yielding slowly to Autumn. The air had enough of a chill to announce the beginning of the change. Still green vines completely covered the brick walls that framed my waiting table. The maître d’ sat me so that my back was against the corner. He lit a small lantern on my table and called for coffee to be served to me. Two empty chairs were placed across the small round table. “No one will disturb you, Mademoiselle. We have yet to receive confirmation about your expected guests, you may be sitting alone for a while.”
“This will do, Kind Sir, thank you. I have always been alone, what is one more evening?” He tried to hide the sadness in his smiling bow, but I’m well used to seeing pity. I pulled a book from my purse to resume a study of geomancy but I could not focus on the text. What the hell am I doing here? If all I’m going to do is mope, I can do that better at home. At least I’ll be able to get some work done while I’m at it. Just as I put the book away to prepare to leave…
“Where are you going, Girl? You have work to do.” A black top hat trimmed with royal purple satin is dropped on the table. A cane with a silver skull head is leaned against it. He sits down, chuckling warmly, and placed a smuggled bottle of rum next to my empty coffee mug.
“Do I now? And whose life am I fucking up along with my own?”
“You’ve forgotten your manners, I see.” The mirth was gone from his voice.
“And you know how ugly I can get when I’m forced to play that game. Don’t fucking corner me.”
He looked at the vine covered walls behind me and started laughing. I smiled sadly and nodded at the obvious. Too late.
“You look like shit. And not in a good way. I have need of your services. Are you capable?”
“Have I ever refused you before?”
“Lots of times.” I raised an eyebrow. He seemed sincere and straightforward with his answer, but I was being facetious with the question.
“When does the mark arrive?” I pointed at the empty third chair.
“Soon. That is… if you’re game.”
“You’re giving me an option. I’m not used to that.”
I looked up at my sudden tablemate. Doubt clouded my vision. I felt a sudden urge to flee and hide, to run away screaming in fear, to hide from the looming darkness that is always waiting to finish my destruction. Someone was sitting there, but I did not know for sure who. I did not know the difference between what I wished to see, what I was seeing, and the truth that eluded me completely. I had to take it on faith that I knew who my tablemate is. I did not know what to believe.
When in doubt, keep walking.
“So… what game am I dealing and how bad do I crush his hopes?”
His laughter darkened the environment even further. “There’s my girl. Tarot, if you please. Save the poker for later. I just want you to read for him, but read without flinching. No mercy in your words, no softening the blow. Whatever the cards show you, you show him.”
“Don’t I always?”
“No. Sometimes you hold back because you fear the querent can’t handle the truth. But I’ll burn that out of you, yet. You make a fine scourge of a woman. Bitch Queen, indeed.” He started laughing again.
My vision was nearly completely blinded. I saw enough to take out a certain deck of tarot cards from my purse. A deck that I do not use to read for others. He confirmed that was the deck he wanted me to use this night.
The maître d’ approached the table with someone in his wake. “Excuse me, Mademoiselle. Your second guest has arrived. Are you prepared for him?”
I closed my eyes. “Yes, I am. Please seat him.” The darkness gripped my heart. I yielded to it. My heart stopped.
The dream ended.