Gentle Reader, I have this posted on my website, but thought I’d repost it here. A short story from the same universe in which my novel BECOMING is set. Please enjoy and let me know what you think!
Cleone Darling Meets The Emperor Of Ice Cream
At The Great Exhibition (1851)
the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream”– Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (1922)
It was a mad crush of people, the maddest, the largest he had ever seen. Thousands of people, perhaps, if the papers were correct, tens of thousands of people in one building of glass and steel and light that looked so bright, so new, so phenomenal it belonged not in London but in some futuristic city, or even Mount Olympus itself. Aaron Hall had been all over the world, had traveled to the darkest reaches of Her Majesty’s Empire in pursuit of Glory and Fame, in the name of Queen and Country, but never, not once, not ever had he seen a building such as this, nor a more fitting place for hiding than in plain, crowded sight.
He paused near the American exhibit where a crowd gathered. There, the rough and tumble cowboys demonstrated how to load a revolver and Aaron found himself longing for such a weapon, such a smooth demonstration of death. A finite weapon. A weapon of choice for a loyal soldier such as himself. His sister, too, would love such a weapon. If he had had such a weapon, only minutes before, he would not have had to hide amongst this… crowd. Aaron touched the knife at his waist and, assuring himself the bloodstain was hidden from sight, tucked tighter his uniform coat around the sheath.
Such a crush. There, a gaggle of prostitutes arm and arm and rubbing their rather threadbare elbows against what looked to be Lord and Lady Statham. A group of artful dodgers so grubby even Fagin would pass them by stared open-mouthed at the pile of gold and jewels at the South American exhibit, and their expressions were identical, down to the wide eyes, as the two nuns next to them.
Too many people, and the artful dodgers had spotted him. When one urchin squawked and squealed and pointed in his direction, Aaron knew he had been made. It was madness, when dealing with rat-faced boys—not boys at all, of course, but creatures with whiskers and tails. How like his sister to send him to dispose of a nuisance and put him straightaway into a nest of vipers.
And here he had thought he escaped notice.
Aaron felt the urge for method and measure, the quiet and perfect decimation of the crowd so he could just breathe without bumping into another human being or otherwise. His gift was escaping notice when war and battle and bloodshed were involved, and there were several displays of all three, from all corners of the world. As he moved away from the crowd and went further into the Crystal Palace, it was darker, cooler, easier to hide. The rat-faced boys chirruped their displeasure, but could not find him among the people.
There, just past the Indian textiles, the Kashmir shawls that exuded money, and spices, and comfort, was a girl. She was crouched on the ground, sitting on her haunches in such a casual, savage way that were it not for her very proper gown, Aaron would not have thought her English.
“You will die, Soldier,” she said, without turning around. “And not only for killing a goblin.”
Aaron blinked, twice, before he walked over to this odd girl. “Goblin?”
The girl emulated the chirrup of the rat-faced boys and Aaron felt his skin crawl with invisible insects. “Some are meant to notice the darkness and trickery. Shall you see my runes, Soldier, before you die?”
Closer, he noticed that it was not a trick of light. Her hair was brighter than white, almost platinum in its blonde. “I am a soldier,” he said. “And we the all of us die.”
“Yes. And you will bring many to their deaths. You are, after all, the Emperor of Ice-Cream.”
“I have no ice cream, little girl. Did you lose your mother? Where is your governess?”
“‘Let the lamp affix its beam,’” she said. She turned to him and stared at him with eyes so blue they were purple, no, Aaron thought. They were violet. “There is no Emperor but the Emperor of Ice-Cream. It is one of her favorite poems, you know.” She paused for a moment. “Well, will be. She will tell it to another version of you, many years from now.”
The sadness in her voice made Aaron pause. “Who is the Emperor of Ice-Cream?” he asked.
“You,” she said. “One who will murder and create, who will die and be reborn again. That is your nature.”
Aaron shifted, uncomfortable, before he crouched down next to this girl. In front of her were items, a child’s treasure of toys and collectibles: a silver pocketwatch, a violet-covered notebook, a ruler, a spindle of thread, a nub of a pencil, and a tiny pair of silver scissors, for the cutting of thread, so he imagined. “Yes, we are all born and born again, according to scripture.”
This impossibly young girl rolled her eyes at him and despite his years, he felt offended and embarrassed, all at once. “I see you because he will see you, and he is connected to her.” She gestured to the treasures before her. “I have come here, into the belly of progress, to scry. And the Sisters Three tell me that you will meet him. Therefore, I am allowed to see you.”
He was wary in an instant, his soldier’s training taking over. “The Sisters Three?” he asked, as if he did not know.
“As if you do not know,” she said, echoing his thoughts. Then she smiled at him, impish and so childlike he began to doubt the words she said as the gospel they were almost certain to be. “How else do I know of goblin fruit and goblin men? ‘Come buy,’” she whispered, and flittered hands next to her cheeks, like whiskers. “‘Come buy.’”
“You are no human girl,” Aaron said.
She ignored him. “Witness the tempest prognosticator,” she said, and gestured upward.
Aaron had not noticed the barometer, but he had heard of its awesome feats. “The leeches,” he said.
“They run in bad weather.” She lifted her notebook and began scribbling words. “It is a cruel, but effective device.” She stopped writing and turned to him. “Like you, Warmonger Now.”
Aaron Hall froze at that symbolic and ancient name. He turned around to see if the fagins and their dodgers had heard. “Not so loud, dearest. Now what is your name?”
The girl shrugged and resumed scribbling in her notebook. “If she is the Last, then let me be known as the Last before the Last. The Sisters Three spake thus.”
“The Last,” Aaron said. His voice was a breath, an exhalation of wonder. “Does she exist?”
“Soon,” the Last before the Last said. “Soon.” She flipped to a blank page before she began sketching the tempest prognosticator in her notebook. “So now you do not deny your godsoul? Or the fact that you were hunting goblins?”
Aaron was quiet for a long moment. “We ought not to speak of such things.”
The Last before the Last smiled. “I am Cleone,” she said. “Cleone Darling. It is a heavy name with great import. But my only visions are of her.” She did not sound bitter. Only resigned. “Can you even imagine?”
Aaron confessed he could not. He had heard whisper of her, the rumors of the Last Prophetess, but he did not know she was Fated to come now.
“Soon,” Cleone said, still sketching. “Soon. Not now.”
“What will be her name?”
“She will be called both Light and the Bringer of Doom,” Cleone said. She made a gesture familiar to Aaron, but not to anyone else at that great progress of illumination and wonder, rubbing her fist on the ground, then to her breast, her lips, and her forehead. “So say the Sisters Three.”
“You are an oracle.” It was not a question.
“Yes,” Cleone said. “But not the Last.”
“The Last,” Aaron said, “before the Last.”
And with that she smiled, a smile full of joy and sadness. “Yes, Ares-skin,” she said. “I am that.”
He was surprised at the sympathy he felt for this young girl. To be born an oracle, but only to be able to predict the coming of the next? He at least was born with all the power and glory befitting a Warmonger, Now or Then.
“It is a grave position,” she said. “Full of import and madness.” Then she leaned forward. “We all go mad, in the end. From Cassandra, the First, to the Bringer of Doom, the Last. But at least she will have a Sword Bearer to ground her.”
That, at least, was new to Aaron. His Brothers and Sisters, his Cousins and Family, spoke in whispered hushes of the Last Prophetess to be. The one to side either with Nature or Magic in the God Wars to come. But she was never a duality. Not until now. “A Sword Bearer?”
“That one is a Tin Soldier, unlike you, Warmonger Now. He is all doubt and hidden strength. Darkness and Death flow through his veins, but shush.” She lifted a finger to his lips. “Do not tell.” Then she smiled. “Although you will tell your Grey-Eyed Sister. But she will not tell. She longs for this more than anyone, methinks. The Last Prophetess.” Her eyes grew faded, distant. “‘What magic lives in the world will be jailed.’”
“What do you know of Magic?” He grabbed the girl by her shoulders and shook her, just a little. “Tell me of Magic and the Last Prophetess. Does she side with Magic?”
She blinked violet eyes at him and he dropped her when he saw they were full of tears. “No, sir,” she said, her voice childlike. “I don’t know. I see visions, of her, of the girl, and she is not my girl, but sometimes, she is. And she has him, and I don’t have anyone, just these three women whispering.” She grabbed her head and began to rock back and forth. “Whispering of She. The Amazon and her Sword.”
“I am sorry.” Aaron stood and backed away. “I am sorry.”
“Go, Ares-skin,” she said, still rocking. “Go and tell the Athena-skin that she will be born soon. And she must be found. And he must be found. Look for the clues. In the book,” she said, “of purple stained poesy.” When she reached out and snatched the knife, he almost stopped her. But something—his godsoul, perhaps, or knowledge of war and bloodshed and battle—stayed his hand.
Cleone Darling lifted the knife and, with a casual flick, sent it sliding under the display of the tempest prognosticator. She smiled once more, shining bright, even teeth. “What is death,” she said, “if not its own prognosticator of tempests large and small?”
When she began to hum, still rocking, fingers playing with her treasured toys, Aaron Hall left her there, among the bronze and glass, among the steel and light. Left her to her scrying, her whispers, her visions of the Sisters Three. Left her and escaped, before the faux fagins and their goblin kin found him again.
When he was gone, Cleone turned back to her notebook, sketching a face that was as familiar to her as her own. A face with ink blotches for eyes and black scribbles for hair. A face full of amused humor, eyes tinged with melancholy. Her face. The face of She.
The crowd, drawn to the nearby wonders, began to surround the marvelous machine, edging closer and closer to her space.
“This is the last prophecy of mine,” Cleone whispered, just loud enough for the newlyweds Darcy to hear her and remember the oddness of the scene, the glory of the day.
And later, in the comfort of dark, the new wife confessed to her new husband that she swore she heard female voices answer, three ghostly women, murmuring their assent.
Amy L. Montz
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