The Carnival seems without a pattern, wild and savage, but that is not at all the case. There is a rhythm to the festivities that last three days and three nights, like the heartbeat of a body or the beating of a drum and at the very center of this rhythm is the Carnival Man, the conductor of so splendid an orchestra performing a colorful concert of forgotten symphonies.
By his word and by his thoughts alone, the Grand Carnival moves.
"Dance," he will say, and his revelers will begin a ball that has no boundaries, they will dance their feet sore on cobblestones and carpets alike, they will dance on rooftops and they will even dance in the sky.
"Sing," he will say, and they will form a choir that has no equal in any of the many realms of this world, more beautiful than wind rushing through a forest in spring and more sublime than birdsong in the desert.
Now, the Carnival Man is not at all a man, not by a long shot.
He is perhaps a god. Or, just as likely, a ghost. Or maybe he is neither, maybe he isn't at all. It doesn't matter, it never occurred to him to matter. He is absorbed with the composition of the tunes of the three-day Grand Carnival, busy with song and dance and drink and feast. Orgies follow in his wake like migrating birds follow summer and he sweeps the streets clean of all differences that might else linger in this world. Warmbloods, who would otherwise be filled with fear of the seemingly indestructible coldbloods, dance with them arm in arm, share pleasures of the flesh and even allow those same coldbloods to pierce their skin and drink warm purling life from their very throats. And the coldbloods who dismiss the all too human warmblood creatures as insignificant beings of a feebly fleeting existence find themselves adoring their impermanence and looking in awe at the death that lives in them like a bird is living in an unhatched egg.
The Carnival Man calls old and young alike, calls restless ghosts from their graves and gives them substance for his three days and three nights so that they may one last time find the comforts of the flesh. Even demons come to him, those who are shy and those who are shunned. Nymphs bear goblets to his tables; Pixies color the sky with their tiny wings; Mages and witches and sorcerers add fire and ice to the pixies' colors.
The Carnival of this generation opened its first tender buds in Al-Myrrahn, the mightiest city in the south-east, called by some the Oasis of Light, the famed capital of the Oyan Empire. It began with people turning away from their daily chores and facing the center of the city, the first stone that was set to build its walls and houses thereupon. All creatures who were close enough to hear the call of the Carnival Man left what they were doing and came, not one among them able to resist, not one among them willing to.
Among those invitees of the Carnival Man, those soon-to-be-revelers, there was one south-bound nomad of the north who had no more a home in any Empire that an errant zephyr. His name was Lykaris, and he should be considered a notorious bard and jack-of-all-trades. He was incidentally on his way to Al-Myrrahn as he heard the Carnival Man's call, and the pull of the Grand Carnival made his feet walk all the faster towards his destination.
All who feel the pull of the Carnival know immediately what it is they gather to witness and Lykaris's mouth was beginning to water already for those exquisitely singular and seductively delightful festivities.
The Grand Carnival would not be the Grand Carnival without masks. Assistants to the Carnival Man with colorful robes and bright yellow masks of their own were standing at Al-Myrrahn's gates and handing out masks to all the revelers that passed them by. They combed streets to put masks on the faces of those who were still naked without them. The masks of the Carnival are alive with color and they look to be imbued with something surpassing the usual nature of a common mask. They speak to the wearer with their visages of bird or boar, of fish or fawn, of devil or dryad. They sing to one another once they are placed upon faces, find one another, and they would vanish like fog once the Grand Carnival drew to its close.
Lykaris received his mask at the gates of the city. A green-robed assistant faced him with his yellow mask that seemed to utter a cry of catharsis.
"Friend! A mask, come take a mask! Put the mask on your face and reveal your features to the Carnival! Feast enjoy laugh cry and move your feet at the pleasure of the Carnival Man!"
He pushed a mask into Lykaris's hands, the countenance of a joker complete with a hat of gleaming golden bells that had the clear sound of snow falling, rivers rushing and yes, coin tinkling. The mask's smile was wide and deep and the eyes were hollows that did not seem at all to be empty. Lykaris put on the mask. The bells were jingling as he moved on and the Carnival came to life around him. The first day of the festivities had begun.
On the first day the dances made the city alive with footsteps and music from uncounted instruments and song from unfailing throats. This was the time of greeting and for those who had come alone to find one another and smaller or bigger groups formed inevitably. The Carnival Man was in the depth of it all, flitting from one group of dancers to a pair of new-found lovers, their arms entwined. He shook hands and made music and roundelays form in his wake. Lykaris saw him in the crowd. The Carnival Man preferred scarlet for his robes, scarlet and vermillion that were accompanied with sheepish black and ostentatious white. His robes shone and so did his silver mask that could never be seen clearly, eluding the eye when one tried to get a closer look. A flaring silver crown rested on his head like a dragon on a mountaintop.
Lykaris was bewitched by him and stopped his dancing to watch. The Carnival Man was moving through the crowd like a fish through water and took Lykaris's hands to lead him in the dance.
"A joker! I say, I haven't seen one in quite some time," exclaimed the Carnival Man, and his voice was that of birds' wings, of orchids in their bloom, a lover's sigh. It was the stars rising and the moonlight kissing water. "A true joker is always a more than welcome asset to my Carnival. Would you do me the honor, friend, of being a part of my retinue for the duration of this Carnival? I can assure you, your reward would be handsome, if not in the petty form of ephemeral coinage."
Lykaris felt the Carnival Man's power wash over him, through him. He felt vertigo gripping him and holding tight, though not at all in an unpleasant sort of way.
"I'll be whatever you want me to be. But I require no reward. By simply being here, I feel rewarded enough as it is."
"Hah! Spoken like a true joker indeed! But you must be rewarded, and doubly so for declining it!" The Carnival Man spun them around in circles, faster and faster and his robe became a flurry of reds like flowing blood in an untamed river.
"For the first day and the first night, you may do as you wish. Dance, love, and gorge yourself to your heart's content. I will call on you at the dawn of the second day when your services will be required at my court."
And with that the Carnival Man left Lykaris wheeling around in the crowd.
The Joker couldn't have said for how long he had been dancing when he noticed a woman dressed in white silks. She was wearing the mask of a white snow fox with honey-gold eyes and long, long whiskers. Her eyes held his and they met each other, palm to palm, fingers lacing into a pattern, and they danced.
"A fox," said Lykaris.
"And a joker, of the Carnival Man's retinue, no less," said she. "It seems I have been missing you for all my long existence without knowing that I did. Let us use what time we have and make up for all the past that never was and all the future that never will be."
"Yes," Lykaris replied, his tongue guided more by the Carnival than by his own mind. It didn't matter to him. Nothing would matter until the Grand Carnival was concluded and after that, who knew. Who had the mind to care?
They danced for some time and joined the feast at dusk. The fox didn't eat but waited for Lykaris to finish the piles on his plate, sweetmeats and fruit, venison, pork, and fish, stewed and baked and cooked. She waited patiently and once he was done she drew him towards her and sank her teeth, the teeth of a fox, into his throat, deep deep ever so deep. She was a coldblood, that fox, those who can feast only on blood and derive nourishment from nothing else.
When she pulled back, no traces of red showed on her snow-white fur or on her creamy silks. The Joker found that the silks irritated him as did his own coat and tunic. Like so many others all around them, he hurried to remove them. The fox assisted him and with the superior speed and grace of her coldblood hands they could soon join each other as lovers, exploring first, then matching their rhythm with ease and passion. Only on the periphery of his mind did Lykaris notice the orgy that caught everyone around them like sparks catch bone-dry twigs. In pairs of twos or threes or more than that, the masked revelers were enjoying each other, enjoying themselves. If any one of them had ever had shame, that was forgotten now. The Grand Carnival never left virgins in its wake.
The first night, which was the night of carnal love and feasting, ended all too soon, and for the life of him Lykaris could not have said why it was that he did not tire in the paws of the fox that were hands and how he felt not sated from the honey of her eyes or the molten sugar of her moans. He could tell that she felt the same but the night drew to an end eventually, and yet it seemed like a lifetime, the past and future the Joker and the Snow Fox would never have outside the Grand Carnival.
At dawn the Carnival Man's call drew the Joker, forced him to find his clothes and put them back on. The fox looked at him with desire, her silken dress scattered around her like a cloak of winter but like him, she had become a part of the Grand Carnival and the Carnival a part of her, and so she did not move to stop him.
A lazy sun that shone redder than usual woke to a lazy morning and rose slowly, igniting the sky on his way up. The Joker moved through the streets unerringly, passing revelers who were still busy with last night's business, bodies joined as one. He came to a stop in a market square at the center of the city, a square that held tables, laden still with food and wine and the occasional reveler. In the center of the square the Carnival Man stood, surrounded by those who were his retinue, his servants. Lykaris spotted three Knights and a Thief, one boy wearing Innocence as his mask and a woman wearing Light. There were five Shaman woman with wild animal faces and a man who was Shadow. One of the masks seemed to show Nothing. The retinue was not complete and more were gathering as Lykaris was watching wordlessly.
"My friends, my followers," the Carnival Man said to his retinue with a voice that worked like a spell on those who listened. "Today begins the second day of the Grand Carnival, and the second night. The day is for the gifts and offerings, the night is for truths. Gifts to one another, to all you meet in passing. Offerings for the Grand Carnival, offerings to be gathered in the circle of this market square. And the truths for those who want them but always for yourselves." He whirled his hands in a flourish and spun smoothly on his heels. "Clear this space of the remnants of last night, and take the offerings. Let them rise to piles as high as mountains!"
So he spoke and so it was done. People came and brought to the members of the retinue what they would offer, small trinkets, a coin, a lock of hair, precious stones even, or silks in all the colors of the rainbow. The risen ghosts brought earth from their tombs and the demons brought scraps of shadow, stitched to willow bark. Children brought their favorite toys and bells of varying sizes, shapes and sounds that made most valued offerings.
Piles formed soon enough and they were truly grand. The Carnival Man checked on his retinue every few hours or so, judging their progress and relieving them each of their duties for a time. When it was The Joker's turn to walk the streets to give gifts and receive them, he met the fox again, before too long.
"The joker. I missed you."
"So did I, Fox. I give you this gift," he said, handing her a book, old and weathered with the once-golden letters on the cover faded to pale echoes of their former selves. "It is a book of poems and ballads, the first I ever had. I know its contents by heart now, so often have I recited them in my travels, but this book is nevertheless dear to me. In a way, I'd say that it is a part of who I am."
She took the book in both her paw-hands and held it close to her chest.
"Then I shall always treasure it, more than any other thing that I ever possessed or will yet come to possess."
One of her white paws vanished in the folds of her silken dress and when Lykaris saw her withdraw her hand, the quick fingers were holding a hair ornament, light and shiny, rattling in its vibrant, foreign beauty.
"My gift to you is this hair stick. It was crafted by a famous artisan, long ago, and holds some strange magic that I cannot begin to fathom. I give this to you, but it is not for you to keep. You will know whom to give it to when the time comes." She handed him the hair stick, amazing in its intricacy, almost warm to the touch. It was made from some light, silvery metal set with sparkling blue, gray, and white stones. One end was woven into an arcane design with what looked like a tiny coin at its center. The other end had a sharp point like a needle or a dagger. The ornament caught the eyes and looks and glances of passers-by like fat fish in finely woven nets.
"I thank you, Fox." Lykaris brushed her mask with his right hand. He held her gaze for a long long moment that was all too short but could be no longer in the Carnival's great symphony that ruled them like a savage storm rules the oceans.
And with that look that spoke of a future so clear that it should better be feared, they parted once again. Lykaris returned to the market square slowly and the Fox vanished in the crowd. Music and dance were still in every corner of the Carnival as were food and drink.
As a purpling sky came to prelude dusk, people were gathering again in groups everywhere and lit candles, one for each. One at a time, the revelers rose to tell a truth which might come in the form of a tale of varying length, even as a poem, or sometimes, a song.
In the market square, the retinue told their truths and the Carnival Man for once did not move among the crowd but stayed with them and listened to what they were saying or singing. When it was Lykaris's turn, the Joker rose slowly to his feet and felt the words forming in his throat and riding his tongue. He hardly noticed when he started speaking.
"I came from nowhere though I know where I came from
and I go wherever although I never go anywhere
to all I meet I say I find and see and live with desire
but I search in dark blindness and know little and hold
desire like a sieve the water. I am thirsting and starving
and my jokes
are brittle. I am a prisoner awaiting
He sat down again and blew out his candle, casting their circle in a little more darkness. Lykaris had not planned a word of what he'd said, but he knew that it was a truth he had never before put into words, a truth he had often felt and never admitted.
A Knight spoke next and then the Thief. They all extinguished their candles once they were finished with their own truths.
The Carnival Man went last. His candle was the only one in the entire city left burning when he spoke.
"In truth," he said, "I am all of you. In truth, I am no-one. In truth, no-one is eternal but Death." And with his index finger and his thumb, he squashed the light from the candle and the entire city of Al-Myrrahn was dyed in perfect darkness and shadow and silence. They were all expectant, they were all waiting. Then, a tambourine slashed through the silence three times and the candles came back to life. People rose from the solemnity of the truths and returned to the laughter of celebration, a celebration held in candlelight.
What was left of the night was soon devoured by another morning, another rising of the sun. Once again the Carnival Man gathered his retinue around him.
"Today is spent feasting and drinking and building the pyre. You will build the pyre in the center of this square, surrounded as it is already by the offerings of yesterday. The revelers will bring the wood you need but only you with your own hands can make the pyre from it. This is how it must be, how it has always been and how it will be long after your bones have lost their flesh to the claims of earth, fire, water, or wind. Build me a pyre!"
And they did. All day it took them, and the pyre rose higher even than the piles of offerings, so wide it grew that there was hardly any room left in the market square and the pyre's wooden summit licked at the clear sky and cast a mile long shadow over Al-Myrrahn. At dusk they put the last twig on the pyre and the Carnival Man gave a satisfied nod.
"It's done," he said, and so it was.
Music was fading to a soft background noise, and Lykaris felt the eyes of every being in the city turn toward them.
The Carnival Man stood close to the pyre and his retinue were forming a line in front of him. He spoke briefly with each of them, and his voice that was impossible to miss or ignore before, did not even carry to the next one in line when he held those private audiences. Sometimes he gave something to a member of his retinue, other times he didn't. He shook everybody's hand and kissed them on the forehead. With this ritual, that person was released from his service, and they moved to stand in the crowd as one of the crowd, eyes on the Carnival Man.
"Ah, the Joker," the Carnival Man said when it was finally Lykaris's turn. "The Joker who has earned himself the grandest award of all of my closest servants. The first thing you earn is a bit of a prophecy though I wouldn't call it that, and I think you wouldn't either. Perhaps it is advice then, a rather good one, too, as advice goes; stay in this city for as long as you please once the Grand Carnival ends, then go north. When you see an ancient chimera tree, rest. And say hello to her for me if you wouldn't mind, for we are old friends, that tree and I. Rest under the leaves of the tree until you find what you are looking for. And as for the second thing," he said and his hand vanished into a pocket of his red red robes, "take this."
He withdrew his hand and dropped an object into Lykaris's outstretched palm. It was a shiny oval of bluish purple, crystalline and beautiful, the size and shape of a flattened chicken's egg. Lykaris had no idea what it was, but the Grand Carnival allowed no questions on such matters.
The Carnival Man kissed his forehead.
"Goodbye, Joker. Goodbye, dear Lykaris. May you always remember this, for I know I will."
Lykaris moved to stand in the front row of the circle of revelers. Across from him he could see the Fox again in her white silks, her honey eyes watching him.
When the Carnival Man had released the members of his retinue from his service, he turned to address all revelers.
"You have come here in answer to my call. You have celebrated with me and with each other. Alas, the Carnival is nigh at an end now, only the last night is left, the night in which you will all bear witness."
And so the Carnival Man climbed atop the pyre, nimbly and fast as if he were made for climbing pyres, as if he enjoyed it. Perhaps he was, perhaps he did.
As he reached the summit, he stood as quiet and unmoving as any statue and looked up to the sun, and when the last remnant of the orange circle had vanished behind the horizon, leaving fading color in its wake, he called down to everyone.
"Light the pyre now, light it and watch! Toss your offerings in the flames and watch! Hold each other's hands and watch! Let the music rise again, more ardent then before, and watch, watch! Come, come all, and watch!"
The flames of torches nuzzled at the pyre from below and grew steadily. Smoke was rising to the heavens and the Carnival Man's robes were soon a shroud of scarlet and vermillion as he danced and turned atop the pyre. The smoke was thick, but flashes of red could still be seen in it. Even as the flames were reaching the highest point of the pyre, the dancing Carnival Man was still whirling around in the inferno. The offerings were tossed into the flames with him. The music was loud and full, stronger than it had been in the three days and two nights before.
The pyre was reduced to cinders, the fire burned out only scarce minutes before dawn. People came to gather up the ashes, a handful each until they were all gone. The masks faded from their faces as they left the market square, returning to where they had come from, to their labor and their chores, to their woods and their houses, their castles and their graves.
Lykaris spent some more time in the city, resting in her sandy streets and slowly, the Great Carnival was committed to his memory, its taste never really leaving Lykaris's tongue. He left after a few weeks, and he would go north to find the chimera tree and what else there was to find beneath its leaves. But all that was Lykaris's story, another story, and it was not the Carnival Man's. All the Carnival Man had taken was a tiny sparkling chip, a piece of Lykaris's soul that looked like a joker in the fire's teasing light.
© September, 2013 Alexandra Seidel
Alexandra Seidel writes fiction and poetry. Her writing has appeared in such venues as Strange Horizons, The Red Penny Paper, Jabberwocky, and others.