Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Beyond Price, Part V, short fiction by Rebecca P Minor

Please Note: this story steps solidly into PG-13 territory for occasional frankness of content from this point forward

Veranna knelt on one knee, her arms opened wide, her face to the stars, her chest rising and falling with hungry draughts of air. A trickle of perspiration ran down her bare back, and the night air chilled the trail it left. But she had finished the dance, the most technically challenging she had ever performed. Magnificently, even to her own critical appraisal. The crowd of men beyond the stage lights whooped and whistled.
“I give you, the enchantress Veranna!” Bodini boomed from stage left. “Faerie princess of all delights!”
“Dance it again!” a man yelled through cupped hands.
“Yeah, again,” others echoed. “Dance, princess!”
A tall, ruddy-haired man in a smartly-tailored waistcoat, knickers, and a short cape lined in gold satin shouted over them all, “But without the skirt!”

Uproarious laughter crashed over the audience, but no fewer than a score of men concurred with the dapper man. Apparently expensive taste in clothing was no indicator of discriminating opinions in other areas.
The request pummeled Veranna like a punch to the chest. Her eyes flitted stage left, and in the wings, she glimpsed the rest of the dance troupe waiting to perform their collective number. They snickered behind their hands and cast sneers toward Veranna.
Bodini held palms outward to the crowd. “If you want strippers, you go to wharf. Not my girls. They are too rare for such things.”
“Rare?” the dandy yelled. “Let me get my teeth into the meat, and then we’ll see.”
More raucous laughter broke out.
Veranna’s muscles shook. She was not sure she could rise from her pose, let alone dance again. The blood rushed through her ears in pulsing whooshes.
More coarse demands volleyed from the audience, and Bodini fielded them with increasing anger. The crowd’s tone shifted from jocular, to disgruntled, to incensed. Veranna grew vaguely aware of the dance mistress emerging from the wings, stage right, and marching to her side. She clasped Veranna’s arm.
A chorus of boos howled like the winter wind.
“Time to get out of here. No final number,” she said.
With the mistress’s assistance, Veranna rose. She turned, dazed and terrified. Something wet exploded against her crowd-ward shoulder.
In a fog, she stared at her arm. Red juice and small yellow seeds ran down and dripped from her elbow. The dance mistress shoved Veranna toward the wings, and another projectile sprayed fermenting juice when it exploded against the mistress’s head.
“Go! Get backstage,” The mistress compelled Veranna onward.
Veranna took a staggering step, fending off a hail of fruits and garbage as it stormed in. A sudden deluge of needling swarmed over her body, as if all her flesh was losing circulation. She ducked an incoming half-cabbage.
A final glance back at the crowd froze her strides. There, at the stage’s edge, a silver-cloaked man strode, disconnected from both the crowd’s uproar and Bodini’s demands they desist. The stranger’s precise steps carried him along the stage. No one looked at him—it was as if no one saw him, not even Bodini. He trained his shrouded gaze upon Veranna.
A man’s warm tenor drowned out all else, like an echoing voice in a silent hall. You are a gem beyond price, my emerald, my Veranna.
The tingling sensation surged across her in waves. Veranna lunged toward the stage’s edge. The cacophony of the arena’s chaos resumed. No one so much as paused in their throws or wide-mouthed shouts—there was no indication anyone else had heard the voice.
“Who are you?” Veranna yelled, but the air, still throbbing with bellows, swallowed her voice.
The cloaked man stood just beyond center stage and waited, statuesque.
Veranna escorted offstage-quick gesture study
“What are you doing?” The mistress grabbed her shoulders and flung a wrap over them.  “Not that way, fool of a girl.” She wrestled Veranna to the wings and out of the streaming debris.
Veranna collapsed in the dark behind the shelter of the proscenium. The metallic ring of weapons leaving scabbards shrilled from the edges of the arena, and the roar of the crowd shifted again--this time, to fearful gasps. It all receded to the back of Veranna’s mind. She snuck a glimpse around the edge of her protective wall.
The silver-cloaked man was gone.

“Where is she? Is all right?” Bodini’s voice boomed in the stuffy air of the wings.
Veranna remained in a heap on the floor, her body heaving with sobs the dance mistress’s platitudes had no power to assuage. Heavy footfalls shook the floorboards beneath her. The acrid stench of alcohol confirmed Veranna’s assumption who now hunched over her.
“Filthy dogs!” Bodini spat. “How dare they?”
“My apologies, Master Bodini, but she would not move,” the dance mistress said. “I might have had her cleaned up by now.”
“My little sugared date,” Bodini said. “Why do you cry? You are safe now.”
Veranna’s stomach roiled. Funny, one man could call her a piece of meat and that raised Bodini’s ire, and yet, how many times just this week had he referred to her as something edible?
“I just . . . want . . . to be alone.” She hiccupped through her tears.
Bodini’s heavy hand stroked her head and ran down her tresses all the way to the small of her  back. “Hush now, is not good time to be alone. Guards have driven mongrels off, but is not quite safe yet. Bodini makes sure you are safe.”
Hot rage boiled up from Veranna’s core. She snapped her face toward the caravan master. “You’re the one who caused all this, you demon! By making me dance naked out there in front of all those jackals.”
Bodini recoiled, and his eyes flared. “Ingrate. I just saved you from having to ‘dance naked out there for all those jackals,’ as you say. Lesser man would have made you do it and then rolled in coin it brought him.”
Veranna pulled her fist back and let it fly. In a swift grab, Bodini caught it in his palm. His initial shock gave way to a sly smile. “I understand why you are angry, my wild rose. This will not happen again tomorrow. We set guards at performance start, and then men will remember their manners—and their purses.”
“There’s not going to be a tomorrow night!” Veranna railed. “Let me go!” She pounded on Bodini’s shoulder with her other fist, but she had as much effect as if she were punching a tree trunk. The caravan master caught her other hand, then moved both her wrists into one, crushing palm.
“Devna, leave us,” Bodini said.
The dance mistress gasped. “Master Bodi—”
“Leave us, I said.” His voice conveyed the non-negotiable tone that Veranna imagined had entrenched him as caravan master for so many years.
Veranna shot a pleading look to the mistress. Devna responded with a sad shake of her head, then rose and disappeared into the blackness behind the stage.
Should I scream? Panic tore through Veranna’s body like storm winds. If she made a false accusation of Bodini, gypsies did not deal gently with such betrayal.
Bodini reached down to his belt with his free hand, and Veranna sucked a huge breath. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and raised a questioning eyebrow. She let the breath escape in a slow stream.
“My sweet,” he said. “You are mess. Hold still.” Firmly, he wiped away the eyeliner Veranna imagined must have been streaked down her face in black trails. “Much better.” He smiled.
“Please let me go,” Veranna whispered. “You’re scaring me.”
Bodini leaned to her ear and breathed through her hair. “You have nothing to fear, Veranna. Not with how I love you. I mean every word when I say you are princess of matchless splendor.” His exhale shuddered.
“If I’m so valuable, why do you trot me out in front of a bunch of men every night?”
“You don’t like to dance?” Bodini drew back from her ear and looked her in the eye.
Veranna’s brow furrowed. “That’s not it. I . . .um . . .”
“You cannot hide it, you don’t like to dance,” Bodini said. “You need to. All these years, I have watched you, and I see it in your eyes. That is why you are so gifted. Not because of anything you have been taught—in fact, I have forbidden much of that, or else mistress will spoil your ethereal quality with rules. Your dancing is raw passion of soul, and because of it, I am hopelessly enthralled.”
Veranna tensed. Her glance flitted all directions, but her tight corner offered little in terms of escape.
Bodini sighed. “Would you stop acting like caged animal? Many things have I been called, and many of them would be true.” He chuckled darkly. “But rapist is not one of these. I don’t intend to earn such title now.”
Veranna tugged at her wrists. “Can you blame me?”
“Very well. If I release you, you will stay and listen?”
After a tight swallow, Veranna nodded. Bodini’s grip loosened, and she slipped her hands free. He did not, however, give her any more space, and his eyes continued to linger on her flesh.
“You love me too,” Bodini whispered. “You just don’t know it yet because your eyes are so darkened with nightmares and lies. When you wake and see clearly, I will be waiting, and you will become my wife. A true queen of the caravan like no gypsy has seen.”
“If you love me so much, let me stop performing and don’t dress me like a whore.”
“Sometimes you speak as woman, but those are words of girl.” A hearty laugh gripped Bodini. “Ah, but perhaps your mother has not told you. There is deal. Debt is debt—is not my fault she chose to pay with you. I can be lover and businessman both. Some men cannot. That is why I am rich man and they scrape for coppers.”
“No, she told me,” Veranna dropped her gaze to the ground.
Bodini leaned back and scratched his cheek. ‘What if . . . hmm.”
Veranna waited. She clutched her skirt.
“What if I say debt is paid on wedding day? Then you can dance for me and for the sheer bliss of losing yourself to music and your oneness with it. Nothing unholy about pleasing your husband, eh? Only for crowds if you choose. And your mother faces no threat if you choose not to perform.” He slipped his hand behind Veranna’s head and pulled her forward. Into her ear, he whispered. “She has not known freedom like that since you were born, and such cares are what spent her beauty. Perhaps you remember how beautiful she once was.”
She’s still beautiful, you beast. Under the pain you pile on her. As much as Veranna wanted to shriek the words, her lips would not comply. She trembled in Bodini’s grip.
“No need to answer now. You think on it. I am patient man.” He kissed her neck in the hollow of her jaw, then drew slowly away.
The inferno beneath the glaze over Bodini’s eyes sent a shiver down Veranna’s spine, but he did no more than stand, straighten his belt, and help her to her feet.

“Go home, bathe and sleep. Tomorrow will be better day.”

7 comments:

  1. Ugh, such a creep. She needs out of there!

    Another thrilling installment, Becky!

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    1. Thanks for keeping up with it, Bethany. Change is on the wind for her--soon!

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  2. I am enjoying this series so far and can't wait to see how it turns out :-)

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    1. Thanks for stopping in, Peter! Glad to hear the segments have been keeping you coming back.

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  3. Even though he's such a creep, I actually didn't expect him to be quite so... contained? Restrained? Small blessings, I suppose. ;)

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    1. I find it makes the characters more interesting when they play against expectation...plus, a calculating villain is always a little more shudder-worthy than an all out baddie, don't you thing? Thanks again for the encouragement.

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    2. I agree 100%. Straight-up stereotypical characters are boring - and devious ones are much more frightening!

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