This story has won an Honourable Mention in the prestigious Writers of the Future contest in 2018! Read here for more details.
One never knows where inspiration will strike from. I am busy drafting In Numina, and by no means was I looking to work on another Felix project while in the midst on it.
However, last week I run into Aradia on Twitter. I usually chat with other authors, but she is a musician – and a talented one at that. I ended up listening to her music pretty much in a loop…
And then on the weekend this happened. This story insisted on being written. So I took a short break from writing In Numina, and pretty much let the story write itself.
I suggest you watch this music video (lyrics at the bottom of this page), and then read the story. While I’m sure that the story isn’t quite what Aradia had mind when composing her song, I trust you will enjoy both.
I first saw her on the in the beginning Avrilis. It was the first night of the Megalenses Ludi, and festivities and happiness were spilling out into the streets. I spent the day in the Circus Magnus, watching the lavish performances put up by aspiring politicians courting the public’s favour. I stayed behind to drink at the many taverns and was stumbling back home when the sky was already dark.
Normally, a foolish choice. One tries to avoid the Campus Civicus after dark. But with the merry spirit of festivities, fuelled no doubt by the free food and wine at the games, even the criminal element seemed to take a vacation from overly violent pastimes.
As I made my way towards the bridge back to the city, I glanced at the direction of the cavalry training grounds next to the Porta Purgamenta. Some flickering light at the centre of a small crowd caught my eye. On a whim, I turned and walked there. I shuffled my way past the gawking spectators to the front of the crowd.
And gawked myself.
She was blond, young, and incredibly graceful. She wore a red dress of some foreign sort, with metal bits sewn into it. And she was dancing with fire.
I have seen fire twirlers before, of course, but none like her. She danced with a look of sublime joy in her eyes — a look that was turned not to us, but to some inner world. She held two small balls of flames, attached with short thongs to her hands. As she danced, and spun, and waved her arms, the fire balls traced intricate circular patterns through the air, and reflected in the metal plates and spikes of her dress.
The effect was enchanting beyond words.
Eventually, she danced a complex pattern, the balls flared up, and she swung her arms upwards and let go of the thongs. The flames flared as they soared up towards the moon, to disappear into the starry night.
She bowed down, and tossed a small bowl in front of the crowd. The rain of coins into it was commensurate with her performance, the spectators showing their appreciation generously.
I stayed behind as the crowd dispersed.
“That was an impressive trick, to send the flames up like that. Where did you learn it?”
“Where I grew up. Girls are taught to dance with fire, to venerate Artemis.” She named the Hellican virgin goddess of the hunt and the moon, our Diana.
“Wouldn’t that be blasphemy? To dance for coins like that?” I asked.
“The goddess still gets her worship, and I get to eat and worship again tomorrow.”
“Understandably practical. Would you let me buy you dinner, then?”
She looked at me for a long moment, then shrugged her shoulders. “Why not. If the goddess appreciated my dancing, you will not be the one to extinguish the dance. If she didn’t, that would hardly matter anymore.”
“You’re quite cynical for someone so young,” I said as we walked towards a nearby tavern.
“My village was destroyed in the interminable wars between Hellica and Lacedaemon. I have been first fleeing, and then just travelling, for half my life. Dancing with fire is all I know.”
We settled at the end of a long wooden table in the taverna’s patio, and I called for food and wine. A middle aged woman ambled from the back towards us, laid plates of olives, goat stew and bread on the table. She went again to the back, and came back with bronze cups and a small jug of sweet wine.
“To Diana.” I raised my cup.
“Artemis,” she echoed my toast, and we drank deeply. The woman sitting in front of me was still the same, but her spirit was changed. She was worldly and savvy beyond her years. The simple, unadulterated joy that had shone through in her dance seemed reserved for those times only.
We chatted some more about worldly affairs, about pointless wars and absent gods. I learnt her name was Aradia, which sounded more Quirite than Hellican to me — meaning it was probably neither, just a stage name without ties to a painful past.
Eventually, I bade her goodnight, and we parted ways.
It was only a few days later when I saw her again. I had just resolved an extortion case for my latest customer, an up-and-coming senator from an old and rich family. He was overjoyed to be out from under that shadow. He paid my fees, inviting me to a celebration for all his important supporters as a bonus.
I heard him plan the party with his assistant as I was getting ready to leave. On a whim, I said, “If you want something unique…, I know this fire twirler. Well, I’ve only seen her once, really, but she was phenomenal. She is bound to impress your guests. I can see if I locate her, if you wish.”
He nodded at me. “If she was good enough to impress your cynical self, she’s bound to be good.”
And so I found myself out on the Campus Civicus at night again. I couldn’t afford a bodyguard. I was tense, wary of drunks and robbers, as I made my way to where I have last seen her perform in the open areas of the cavalry training grounds next to the Porta Purgamenta. I must sound like some star-struck sap, but something drew me to her. At least I admitted to myself that I was just looking for the excuse to see her perform again.
Sparks rose up on the clear, crisp, Avrilis night air like unearthly fireflies. I followed their light to the gathered crowd, then made my way to the front. I stood, mesmerised by her dance like the rest.
She wasn’t the cynical girl with whom I’d spoken. She was the wild, quicksilver being of pure joy, utterly absorbed in her performance. The smile on her face wasn’t directed at us, the flame that reflected in her bright eyes surely blinding her to the spectators anyway. She was consumed with the exhilaration of movement, of bending the fire to her will in intricate arcs.
My senses weren’t as befuddled with wine as last time, but if anything that only increased my enjoyment. Her dance was evoking many images, the patterns of fire conjuring scenes of wild gods and monsters. As she neared the end of her performance, I saw the patterns of flames leave afterimages behind her, which looked almost like a bird spreading wings. She finally let loose her small balled fires, and they rose up, expanded, shone increasingly brightly until they burned out and collapsed upon themselves.
This was also when I felt a little something extra. There was just a touch too much purity to that fire, an elemental nature. The fire she was dancing with was no mere product of rags soaked in oil, but a channelling of magia. No doubt that was part of the goddess worship where she learnt her dance.
“I have a proposition for you,” I said when the crowd dispersed for the night.
“You and every other man in this city.”
I laughed. It was amazing to see the transformation of the joyous dancer to the world-weary woman.
“This one is purely in your line of business. I have an acquaintance who is throwing a party soon. He would pay handsomely for a private performance in his mansion.”
“I don’t know…” was the hesitant reply. “I need a lot of space and it needs to be under the open sky. That is the only way I can dance.”
“Don’t worry, he’s got a large peristyle garden in his mansion on the Septentrionali. We can arrange for everything you require. You can name your price.”
“I’m not sure…” she hesitated. “The dance to my goddess is a solemn affair.”
“Imagine what you could do with the money. Performing for the elite this once could be your ticket to ever more invitations. In a year, you’ll earn enough to restore your village and its temple.”
Eventually I got her to agree to come.
One of the most regretful acts of my life.
The party was held on the Ides of Avrilis, under a clear sky and full moon. My former customer, Caepasius, had spared no expense in throwing his lavish party, trying hard to impress his senatorial colleagues who will soon act as jury in his trial. He had the damning evidence I had provided him, but one can never take too many precautions with our judicial system.
He had invited a large portion of the nobilitas, the “known” people. There were senators, aediles, praetors, rhones, and even an ex-censor, who was by far the oldest man in the group. Amongst those present were a few former employers, a few I’d hoped would be future employers, and several I tried hard not to run across. I did my best in navigating the complex social circles and cliques — keeping my back to the wall and my eyes open.
Late at night, when the guests were full of rich food and fine wine, slaves came out and started to extinguish the torches and lamps around the courtyard. Caepasius asked his guests to stand under the surrounding colonnades, and clear the central courtyard.
The gathered guests were murmuring expectantly. They hushed when they saw Aradia step from inside the mansion to the patch of marble paving at the centre of the garden. This was the first time I had seen her perform from start to finish. She took a short bow, more to the moon than to us.
She lit the two bunched balls of rags soaked in oil, grabbed the ends of the ropes to which they were attached, and started to spin them around. Slowly, she began to gyrate in a complex dance, the arcs of fire imprinting ever more complex images on our eyes. The traces of fire in our vision resolved into complex patterns that were reflected the metal trimming of her red dress. Again, I had the uncanny impressions of various beasts and birds of prey outlined by lines of fire.
More enchanting to me was the look on her face, with the pure happiness and purpose in her eyes; an intoxicating innocent joy in the power of the dance. She was a woman rejoicing in discovering her power.
The show ended with the same image of the fiery bird rising up, as Aradia let the fire loose at the sky. The crowd erupted with cheers, for the performance and for our host. It was too dark after the fire to let me see him clearly, but I could see the moon glinting off the white teeth of his smile.
The guests started to mingle, talking excitedly about the show. Wine and food were flowing, spirits were high. Caepasius was busy with his adorers and supporters, congratulating him both on the court case and on the party. Another satisfied customer, and more future business for me.
It wasn’t long after, when the Rhone of the Magia Inanitas approached me. I managed to avoid him so far that night, but he cornered me. All those who succeed in mastering the Magia Inanitas lose something, usually their sanity. In the case of Manlius, he lost some of his humanity.
“Is she for sale?”
“Your dancer. Caepasius said you brought her, so don’t pretend. I collect exotic things, and she would go well in my collection. Name your price.” His eyes, face, tone, were completely flat. I’ve seen more emotion on galley slaves after fifty hours of rowing. Even though the night was warm, I shivered.
“She isn’t for sale,” I replied and tried to walk away. He blocked me.
“She is either for sale now, or I will have to enquire about it from your next of kin.”
“She isn’t for sale because she isn’t my slave. She is a free person.”
“A free foreign person. Very good,” he said as he drifted away.
I rushed the other way, looking frantically for the dancer. I found Aradia in a side room, about to change from her red dress to a plain tunic. I grabbed her hand, and said, “No time, we have to go.”
“What’s the rush?” she asked. “Usually I get asked to perform again, and I double my pay.”
“Not tonight. There are some bad people here with their eyes on you. You should flee the city — or be enslaved.”
I guess the urgency in my voice was enough. She grabbed her satchel and we left. I tried to go through side rooms and corridors, or at least stay away from the main party. I didn’t know this house very well.
We were at the vestibule when I heard Caepasius exclaim, “Felix! There he is. Felix! I need to talk to you for a moment.”
I didn’t pause. I opened the door even before the surprised door slave could get up from his stool, shoved Aradia out and stepped through myself. “Through here,” I said, and led the way towards the main avenue.
“Don’t be an idiot,” came the grating voice of Manlius from nowhere in particular.
I ducked into another lane, dragging Aradia by her hand behind me.
Manlius’ disembodied voice spoke again. “You can’t outrun me, and you can’t hide.”
We were high on the crest of the Septentrionali and crossing the wide avenue of the Vicus Caprificus. The moon rose to the east. I turned west, back towards the city, but stopped as the image of Manlius appeared flickering and shimmering in the middle of the street.
“Bring her back Felix, and I might let you keep what passes for your miserable existence,” the apparition said.
We veered into the nearest alley and ran down the hill. Each street and alley that would lead us to the city was blocked — a mangy dog growling, a couple of drunkards waving clubs, debris piled high. Each alley to the east seemed bright with moonlight and inviting.
We reached the bay, the moon shimmering in long silver lines on the waters. Again I wanted to turn west towards the city, but the road was blocked by dock workers unloading a ship, with too many crates onthe promenade for us to pass through. We turned east again, towards the double lights of the moon and the Pharos lighthouse.
Caepasius domus was close to the tip of the Septentrionali, so it took us only few minutes to reach the Pons Ignis. There was nothing to do but cross it onto the island of the Pharos. Behind us we could hear the toneless, emotionless laugh of Manlius. “Trapped now… like the animals that you are.”
I looked up the hill, and saw the image of the egret at the tip of the Pharos’ spire superimposed on the moon. The two sources of nightly light in our city, both pulling at me in the same direction.
Aradia must have felt it too. “I have seen this before, when I first danced as a child in my village,” she said.
“No time, let’s climb,” I replied. I held tightly to her hand, and we run up the winding path. Aradia was leading me now. We reached the steps climbing up the large base of the Pharos. We didn’t even break stride as we started to climb. We reached the wide platform, from which the marble spire of the Pharos itself rises.
“Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. She will be mine, though your best you’ve tried.” I saw the ghostly image of Manlius appear on the platform as well, between us and the stairs.
I turned to Aradia and said, “Dance.”
“What? But I don’t have any fire ready. I need it, Felix!”
“Just get ready. I will get you the fire.”
I tore the hem of my tunic into long strips, wrapped them each around a small stone to give weight. I tied them to the end of the leather thongs Aradia used for the twirling. “Start dancing,” I said.
She spun the two makeshift balls gingerly, feeling their weight. I took out my knife and a flint, and glanced up. I saw the apparition of Manlius walk slowly towards us. With each step his apparition acquired more substance. He was bringing himself across the gulf of space from wherever he was, to stand with us in person.
I chanted an old fireside charm. I struck my knife at the piece of flint and shot a spark at one of the whirling balls that Aradia was holding. This close to the Pharos, all magia is amplified. The spark shot at the rags and lit them into a bright blaze. I did the same at the other ball of rags.
Manlius, now fully corporeal, started laughing that demented, soulless laugh. “Now, now, children. You should not be playing with fire.”
“Dance!” I cried again at Aradia, but she didn’t need any encouragement. Her gyrations and whirling got wilder and wilder. I had to step back lest I be burned.
Manlius raised his arms, in an attempt to manipulate the fire. Aradia kept dancing, and the image on my retina was that of the fire-bird swatting away with a wing at him. Manlius reeled, then turned to face her again with a look of feral rage.
He tried again, and again she pushed him away with her fire. The hem of his sleeves singed and smoked. I don’t know what made me do it, but I glanced up. The egret at the tip of the Pharos was burning brighter than usual. The eternal fire in its beak was streaming in tendrils around it, highlighting it, making it into a bird of fire itself, spreading its wings as if about to fly to the moon.
Down on the platform, I had to step further back. The energies that Manlius was manipulating were being rebuffed by Aradia and her own fiery bird. I saw Manlius hovering a few feet over the ground, trying to send down incantation upon incantation to cage the bird. In a blaze of movement, Aradia released the balls of flame at him. The image of a rising phoenix was so bright that I had to turn away and fall to my knees.
It took me a few moments to regain my eyesight. There was no sign of Manlius, not even a greasy charcoal stain. I crawled to where Aradia laid on the stone platform. Her skin was grey, as if all colour was sucked out of it together with that last mighty burst. I cradled her head in my arms. Her eyes fluttered open.
“I’m so sorry,” I began, but she coughed.
A faint smile rose on her lips, and her eyes were as joyous as when she danced. I could not hold back the tears that rose in my eyes.
“Don’t be sad for me,” she said. Her eyes looked beyond me to the moon. “I have performed that final dance, the one I was destined to do. I have given Artemis the worship she deserves. Her mysteries are now crystal clear to me. I broke my chains, and I can feel her calling me…”
I bent to kiss her forehead, but she had already left this world to be with her goddess. I held her body close for a long time, the tears falling from my eyes and leaving streaks upon her soot-covered face.
If you enjoyed this Felix short mystery, why not give Murder In Absentia a chance? For the price of a coffee, you’ll get many hours of enjoyment! And if you enjoyed Aradia’s music, make sure you visit her website and get her album Citizen of Earth!