Aphelion Issue 222, Volume 21
October 2017
 
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Pale Nations of the Dead

by James Lecky


In the four hundred and thirty sixth year of her death, the Llorona Xalbadora rose from her tomb to walk the streets of Pame Glorias and weep.

Pale she was, with skin the colour and texture of veined marble, hair as white as salt and eyes as dark as the heart of a dead sun. The crystal tears that fell from those eyes and shattered on the ground were ruby-bright, jewels the like of which no man had ever possessed and all men coveted.

"I will give my tears to none but the man I love," she said. "And to know my love is to know the end of all things -- life, hope and eternity."

There was in Pame Glorias at that time a man named Alois Engarten, a duellist by trade and a roué by both nature and inclination. He had known the bedchambers of a great many women, and amongst the ladies of the city it was considered both fashionable and honourable to have been seduced by him.

"The Llorona is, or was, a woman," his companions said upon hearing of her resurrection. "And you are a man who knows women. You should make it your business to seek her out."

"There is no woman born who would not love me," Engarten said. He spoke the words plainly, without boastfulness. "But to court the Llorona could mean my death."

"So then you are unequal to the task?"

"I did not say that."

"Then court her."

Accordingly, he put on his blue velvet tunic, red silk breeches and russet cloak and made his way to the western quarter of the city where the Llorona was said to walk.

As he passed through the streets, he nodded to this acquaintance or that conquest, exchanging polite words or knowing glances as circumstance dictated.

At length, as the last rays of Die Sterben Sonne gave way to the brittle light of an apathetic moon, he turned into the Boulevard Rosenzweig. It was there that he saw the Llorona Xalbadora for the first time.

She stood in the lee of a petrified magnolia weeping her crystal tears, and the ground at her feet was covered with tiny crimson shards. A crowd had gathered around her at a respectful distance, mostly men, but here and there the Golden Courtesans of the Boulevard could be seen, their faces hidden behind gaudy paper fans.

One of the men, a young bravo dressed in brown leather, finally dared to approach the Llorona.

"Mistress Xalbadora," he said, bowing low. "A cup of your tears would make me the richest of men, will you grant them to me?"

"I give my tears to none but the man I love," she replied. Her voice was sonorous and without emotion.

"But, Madame, I love you with all my heart." He turned and winked at the crowd. A low titter ran through them. "Surely you can find it in your heart to love me in return?"

"Kiss me," the Llorona said, and opened her arms.

The young man stepped into her embrace, placing his warm red lips against her cold white mouth.

He was dead a moment later, his vitality drained: his desiccated corpse fell from her arms and shattered like her tears when it struck the ground.

"Where is the man I would love?" the Llorona said and turned her dead-sun eyes to the crowd. No one answered, the only sound was the soft tinkle of her tears as they broke on the cobblestones, then she turned and walked away.

####

In truth, it was not the goading of his friends that set Alois Engarten on his amorous path, but rather his own growing sense of ennui.

In the lives of even the most debauched of men there comes a time when the sweetest wine tastes bitter, the finest silks chafe the skin, and the embrace of a princess cannot be distinguished from that of a tavern wench. If the touch of an earthly woman could not elate him, then perhaps that of an unearthly one might.

At a time when the Earth itself had grown indifferent, moving towards its final phase of life, mankind sought stimulus where it could -- in esoteric rituals, in the worship of ancient and alien gods or in the simple pleasures of the flesh -- and so it was with Alois Engarten.

He made his preparations the next day and rode west, out through the Gate of Sweet Remembrance towards the Avellino Necropolis and the tomb of the Llorona Xalbadora. He was caparisoned in his finest clothing -- an emerald tunic, breeches of imperial purple and high-topped riding boots -- a red cloak hung from his shoulders, a slender sword was by his side and his dark hair was held in place by a single silver band.

The necropolis was an ancient place, older, some said, than the Shining City of Pame Glorias itself. It had been splendid once, but the weight of millennia had long since stripped it of its majesty. The angels and demons that decorated its crypts and sepulchres were mostly faceless things, their features scoured away by the elements. The carved names of dead lords and ladies were indecipherable now; death had given them an anonymity which they had never sought in life.

Only one construction stood out from the rest -- the tomb of the Llorona Xalbadora. Wrought in white marble with devil-faced cherubs carved at its entrance, its very colour spoke more of the melancholia of death than the numberless basalt spires and granite monuments that surrounded it.

And in the entranceway sat the Llorona herself.

She did not look up as Engarten rode towards her although she could not have been ignorant of his approach, instead she contented herself with a game, moving the skulls and finger bones of her neighbours around a large checkered board. She wept as she played and her tears broke upon the macabre playing pieces.

"Good morning to you, Mistress," Engarten said as he dismounted. "It is a fine morning for a game."

She raised her head then and he stared into her black eyes.

"Go back from whence you came," she told him. "Unless you would stay here forever."

"If it meant being in your presence I would dare to enter the very halls of hell itself."

She did not smile, but a faint movement pulled up the corners of her white lips.

"A bold one. Do you come to seek my love, then?"

"What other reason could there be?" He bowed gracefully. "Alois Engarten at your command."

"Sit," she said, and indicated the other side of the board.

He did as he was bid and sat watching her. The hands that moved the bones were long and slender, the nails bloodless. Her face, with its intricate lines of blue veins beneath the skin, was finely sculpted. In life she would have been beautiful, for she was beautiful now and not even centuries of death had ravaged her features.

Before long, he began to discern vague patterns in the game, and as each skull reached the far end of the board, moving from square to square in a complex pattern of back, forth and side, it was discarded. But to his mind the rules were arbitrary, changing from moment to moment with the Llorona's whim.

"What is it you play, Xalbadora?" he asked

"The Royal Game of Ki," she said. "From the days when the sun was young. Younger, certainly, that it is now."

"Will you teach me to play?"

She shook her head. "You would not understand the game, its rules are many and ever-changing, the life of one man is not long enough to comprehend them. The dead know many things, for the tomb is a great teacher."

They sat in silence as the day passed and she completed the moves of the Royal Game. When she had finished she said:

"Can you hear them?"

There was no sound except the wind blowing through the tombs, moving through the bones of the dead and their monuments, changing pitch and timbre with each new obstacle it encountered.

"I hear nothing," Engarten replied.

"The dead are speaking," she said. "Listen."

And it seemed to him that he could hear something in the wind, snatches of what might have been speech, fragments of ancient melodies, vanished before he could understand them.

"The world is old," the Llorona told him. "Its dead are legion and so are the secrets they hold, for the dead know all the Beautiful and Terrible Words ever spoken. If a man could speak the language of the dead, what mysteries might he unlock?"

"I would learn if you would teach," Engarten said.

"Then drink my tears," she said and held out her hand. Three perfect red drops rested there.

"I do not think so," he replied. "If your kiss can destroy a man, what will your tears do?"

"You are wiser than you look," she said.

"So I have been told."

Again, there was that small twitch of the mouth which could have been a smile. "The secret language of the dead would destroy you, do not seek for it."

When the sun had gone and a sliver of dreary moon replaced it, Xalbadora stood and began to walk towards the city, her bare feet scarcely making an impression upon the ground.

"I have work to do," she said. "Walk beside me if you wish."

He left his horse tethered to the marble tomb and fell into step beside her. As they walked, he even dared to reach out and touch her arm. She allowed the intimacy without comment. Her flesh was frigid, but the very feel of it inflamed him. He wanted her as he had never wanted a woman before, and her icy indifference made her all the more desirable.

As they neared Pame Glorias her tears increased, their colour as dark as heart's blood in the moonlight.

"Why do you weep, My Lady?" Engarten asked her.

She stopped and turned her head to look at him. The white hair fell across her face like a veil.

"I weep because it is my duty," she said. "Someone must weep for the world, for the dying of the light and the frail deeds of the Latter Days. Someone must remember the pale nations of the dead. If not I, then who will?"

She left him at the Gate of The Thirty Tyrants and entered the city alone. Those who saw her quickly turned away as if her sorrow was contagious, and she was left to walk and weep in solitude.

####

Day after day, Alois Engarten returned to the Necropolis to sit by the side of the Llorona Xalbadora and watch her play with skulls and finger bones. In time, she grew not only to accept him but to accept and even welcome his furtive caresses. Once, she laid a tentative hand on his arm and allowed it to linger there for a long moment.

"I wish to kiss you," he told her one evening as the wind blew an atonal sonata through the greater and lesser mausoleums.

"No," she said. "Without love my kiss would mean the end of your life."

"Do you not love me, then?"

"No." Then, after a moment. "Not yet."

He took her hand and laid his lips upon it. "This will suffice for the moment," he told her. Her skin tasted of rust.

####

Since the first moment that humanity had crawled upon the planet, it had known, even if only at a mitochondrial level, that some day the world must end. But the end had been impossibly distant, so far removed as to be insignificant. Now, with the coming of the Latter Days and the strange and wondrous things that were wrought upon the earth, the impossibly distant had become imaginably close.

Alois Engarten had sought a dalliance to refresh his jaded spirit and instead found a deep enigma that nagged at his spirit. He was a man who had never known love -- other than the physical joining of bodies -- and it puzzled him that he should find his time and thoughts occupied by the Llorona, even forsaking his usual mistresses in order to pursue her company.

One evening he stood at the gates of the necropolis and dallied for a while, listening to the wind and the distant voices that sang within it. Before long, the Llorona came and stood by his side.

"What words do they speak," he asked her. "What stories do they tell?"

"What stories would you have them tell?"

"Yours, for one."

"I am the Llorona Xalbadora and I weep for the world -- that is all you need to know."

"I would know more, if you would tell me."

She took him by the hand and led him to her marble tomb.

"When I lived I was a Golden Courtesan," she told him, "the mistress of the Margrave Voron Arost, who paid me to bear him two sons. I should not have loved them, but I did. When he bartered them to the Last Day Temple -- two little lives in return for a century more of his own life -- it destroyed me. But I had no tears, for the Golden Courtesans must never show sadness. Instead I took my own life with a draft of stinging rose, and for a while I was able to weep into sweet oblivion.

"But the nations of the dead are restless now, they have claimed my misery for their own and returned me to life that I may cry my unshed my tears for them."

He drew her close and held her to his chest. The coldness of her was an almost palpable thing and her crimson tears fell upon him.

Unbidden and uncaring, he tilted her chin and placed his lips upon hers. In that moment, Alois Engarten had no thought for himself, or for the end of his life, content merely to comfort her.

Her lips were cold. They tasted of sweet dust and the lingering taint of stinging rose.

"I love you," she said.

"As I knew you would."

But even as he kissed her once more he knew that, in time, he would tire of even her cold caresses. For men such as Alois Engarten the fires of desire burned strongly and brightly but were soon extinguished.

"I will not love you forever," he told her. "But I will love you as long as I can."

"That is all I ask," she said.

But the day would come, he knew, when she would no longer haunt his thoughts and the daily ride to the Avellino Necropolis would become a chore rather than a pleasure; when the gentle mocking of his companions would become a thorn in his flesh and he would fight duels to revenge some perceived slight.

For the first time in his life, Alois Engarten knew the pain rather than the pleasure of love. And he knew the truth of the Llorona's words:

"To know my love is to know the end of all things -- life, hope and eternity."

If could not thrill him, if the touch and smell of her became an anathema, then what earthly woman could replace her?

"Your kiss has broken my heart," he said. A single crystal tear dropped from his eye and broke on the marble flagstones.

"And freed mine," she told him. She held out her hand and offered him her tears once more. He took and swallowed them without protest.

"Come," she said, and lead him into her tomb. "The pale nations have much to teach you." Her dead-sun eyes were dry, for she had no more tears to shed. Her duty to the pale nations was done, ended with a kiss, and sweet oblivion awaited her.

####

In the four hundred and thirty sixth year of his death, Alois Engarten arose from his tomb to walk the streets of Pame Glorias and weep.

Pale he was, with skin the colour and texture of veined marble, hair as white as salt and eyes as dark as the heart of a dead sun. The crystal tears that fell from those eyes and shattered on the ground were ruby-bright, jewels the like of which no man had ever possessed and all men coveted.

THE END


© 2009 James Lecky

Bio: James Lecky is a writer based in Derry, N. Ireland. His work has appeared or is scheduled to appear in a number of different zines and anthologies both in print and on line including Sorcerous Signals, EDF, The Absent Willow Review, Silver Blade, Mirror Dance, Aphelion, Emerald Eye and The Phantom Queen Awakes. His Aphelion appearances include The Season Without Sun (August, 2008) and The Glass Cage (February, 2009).

E-mail: James Lecky

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