The nuns are drunk; they’ve asked us to bring them the head of Catraz before the sun rises. Lyonn chews off the tip of her thumbnail and spits it to the floor beside Sister Baobosa’s club foot.
“Name your price,” Sister Baobosa says.
Lyonn strokes her chin. My sister was once the greatest warrior in Marrion, but then the wine took her. Now she’s thirty-five and all of eighteen stone, with a belly like a burlap sack ripping at the seams.
“Twelve pieces for me,” she says. “And twelve more for my brother.”
The nuns take in my pubescent moustache and coffee-coloured arms bedecked in jewellery. I expect them to make the sign to acknowledge our mutual faith, but Sister Haerga simply curls a lip. “Why do you need the boy?”
“Prayer,” Lyonn says, delighting in the irony. “Yves is my second, and that’s my offer. Take it or find someone else.”
The nuns confer. The eldest wraps her bony knuckles on the corner table. She gestures in one of the now-defunct finger languages. A few nod in agreement while another belches loudly, as though to settle the matter.
Sister Baobosa stands and drains her flagon, upends it on her head-dress so wine trickles down her cheeks and coif. She approaches, and the stench of her halitosis almost makes me gag.
“How old are you, pretty boy?”
“Seventeen,” I answer.
She extends a crooked finger and traces the yellow nail down my jawline. I stare at her purple teeth and the nuggets of plaque between them.
“You ever killed a woman, Yves?”
I scan the nuns’ faces. “I follow the six,” I say simply, gesturing to my necklaces.
“It was Yves who insisted on bringing you an offering,” Lyonn explains. “He suggested oranges from the orchards of Suiz. I assured him you would prefer the wine.”
Sister Baobosa grins indulgently. “Twelve pieces now, and the rest when you return. Go and sin for us. You have the blessing of the spirits.”
“And don’t forget to bring us the head,” another barks from the back. “We believe only in what we can see.”
They guffaw as Lyonn makes for the door. I linger for one final look at the sisters.
“You forgot to bless it,” I remind them. “The wine.”
Sister Haerga withdraws the flagon from her lips and extends her wine-stained tongue. She makes the sign of the six spirits on her wrinkled forehead, then dredges up a knot of phlegm in her throat and launches it at the floor. It hits the cold stone with a slapping sound, like a slug being catapulted against a wall.
Lyonn beckons me to the door. I follow her out of the Priory with the sisters still cackling into their drinks.
Seven floors above, Lyonn plunges a finger into the tin bowl and stirs her rice wine. Her curved knife sits between us. A kukri blade; between sips she gazes at her reflection in the clean steel. Looking back at her, I’m sure, is the teenage cut-throat that used to break necks and hearts in a single evening.
“Catraz drinks in The Apology on the nights of Odilla,” she says, watching me across the table.
I’m painting my fingernails in the colours of the fifth spirit, with olive and plum pastes mixed from beeswax and vegetable dyes. When finished, I open the tin of safflower powder and apply the maroon paste to my eyelids.
“The sisters surprised you, didn’t they?” Lyonn asks.
I don’t reply. The nuns must have been distracted by the prospect of a holy trial, that’s all.
“You haven’t danced the columns in years,” I remind my sister.
“And neither has Catraz. Don’t worry, brother, I was winning trials when you were still pissing the bed. You just worry about your spirits. We leave when these bowls are empty.”
She grabs the battered kettle and refills my bowl.
“Drink,” she commands.
I lift the bowl to my lips and the pale liquor coats my tongue with a sour film. I wince as I swallow, much to Lyonn’s mirth.
“Why do the nuns want Catraz?” I ask.
“Because she’s a little shit. She’s been after the Priory for months. You’ve never seen her, have you? She used to have wonderful legs.”
“She was the one, wasn’t she?”
Lyonn’s never told me about the woman who broke her heart, though I’ve heard rumours. She picks up her knife and tilts it to observe the deep line of her cleavage, her black skin shining with perspiration.
“You should have seen me back then, little brother. Men used to spoil their pants just sitting this close to me.”
I close my safflower tin. “I need to pray before we leave.”
Lyonn rolls her eyes towards the flaming torches on the Hangman walls. Two men stand at adjacent windows and piss into the moat that surrounds the tower.
“You’ve seen how the sisters pray these days,” she says. “You’re in The Well, brother, the holiest place in Marrion. To be closer to the spirits, all you have to do is climb.”
The Well is sixty storeys high, a cylinder of ancient stone towering above the heart of the city. It was taken from the church years ago when the common folk converted from gods to liquor. There are two hundred taverns and pubs in its walls, my sister tells me, though only a few dozen are well known, even to the most debauched residents of Marrion.
“The higher you go,” Lyonn says, catching her breath on the winding stair, “the more you pay to poison your liver. Nowhere beneath the twentieth floor is worth a bronze coin. They’re all shit-smelling hovels with beer that tastes like water and water that tastes like piss. Card sharks and crooked dice rollers, and wrinkled crones pouring their pensions into shot glasses.”
We ascend the meandering staircase ever more ponderously. Lyonn’s ragged breaths echo off the walls like the death throes of a wounded animal. She pauses at every window, sun-shaped cavities in the stone walls. Drunks stumble by, and many stop to flirt with my sister and delay our progress even further.
Finally we reach the fiftieth floor, home to three of The Well’s most frequented establishments. We pass through Raev’s Keep, heavily perfumed with the city’s best imported whiskies; then The Cat and Fuckmuffin, a poorly-lit tavern specialising in Suiz wines and infamous sellbodies. A beautiful Suiz woman plucks at a harp before a scrutinizing crowd; musicians in The Well either end their nights rich as royals, or with their shattered teeth floating in a rancid moat of piss.
Lyonn is dragged to a corner table before we make it half-way. I watch from the wall as she is bombarded with wine. A half-naked young man sits on her knee while a woman caresses her cheeks. I appeal to the spirits; my sister has lost her way, but I can save her. With the help of the six, she will find the righteous path again.
When Lyonn sees my expression she unburdens herself and stands. She whispers something to each of the sellbodies, and they send kisses through the air as we pass through a beaded curtain into The Apology.
We’re assaulted by the scents of cinnamon, woodsmoke, and silverweed, along with Flower, the nine year-old daughter of the owner. She struts before us in leather trousers, a sword at her belt and a scar stretching from her hooked nose to the crown of her shaven head.
“Lyonn the Sinner,” she says.
“How’s business tonight?” Lyonn asks.
“They’re running the barrels dry. Are you here for a drink or a bounty?”
“I’m here to make you forget the question,” Lyonn says, beckoning me forward. I drop to one knee and take Flower’s hand in my own, draw it to my lips and plant kisses on the knuckles. Flower looks down at me and smirks. I wonder if this is the real reason I’m at Lyonn’s side; to observe formalities, to play the part of the clown that no one understands. Is this the world we live in now? One where even children view the faith with contempt?
Flower bows and stands aside when she feels the silver coin slip between her fingers. I return to my feet, feeling smaller than ever.
The Apology is shrouded in the smoke of a log fire that crackles and spits in the centre of the room. Patrons sit cross-legged around low tables on fading floral carpets spattered with flakes of ash. Others lean on oak beams, sipping from cinnamon-topped stouts in glass vases. Tapestries conceal nooks around the walls, spaces reserved for plots, gamblers, or impulsive couples.
Lyonn makes for a tapestry guarded by two men wearing the black swan necklaces of the Quissa Isles.
“Catraz in tonight?” she asks.
One of them shakes his head. The other stares at me.
“I’ve business for her.”
The first guard opens his mouth to reveal a single blackened tooth. “There’s a price on her head. Would that be your business?”
“It could be.”
“That’s why she isn’t here tonight, and she won’t be here tomorrow night. If you stand here ten seconds longer, you won’t be here, either.”
Lyonn turns to me and smiles; it’s a smile I’ve seen many times before. The knife is out of her belt before the guards can even blink.
Catraz is alone, her legs crossed beneath a candle-strewn table of burnt mahogany. She gestures for us to sit.
“Let me guess,” she says in a voice deeper than any man’s I’ve ever met. “The sisters have asked for my head.”
She’s older than I expected, perhaps sixty; her thin, vulture-like face has a pale and clammy aspect, and blue bags sag under her eyes.
“They think you want the Priory,” Lyonn says.
“I do want the Priory. The Well is no longer a holy place, and the nuns are sitting on valuable real estate.”
Catraz raises an aged hand and drags the greasy auburn wig from her head. She scratches at her naked scalp, a purple-veined dome stained with liver spots. The sound of her nails fills the grotto.
“You were with them once,” Lyonn reminds her.
“A lot of us were,” Catraz says, replacing the wig. “We stumbled through life with our eyes closed, blind following blind. Now when I close my eyes I see a lot more than six spirits, and all of them are fucking blurry. Who’s your friend?”
“My brother, Yves. He follows the six.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed his pretty nails and necklaces. Did you come to pray over my corpse, boy?”
“I came to see that it was done right,” I say. “You were once a sister of the faith and the spirits haven’t forgotten.”
“The bitches in the Priory haven’t forgotten either, unfortunately. He’s young,” she adds to Lyonn.
“Half my age and twice my wits, but he doesn’t know how to use them,” Lyonn says, chastising me with her level stare. “He thinks love means whispering words into the sky. He should try whispering between a pair of sweaty legs, then he’ll know what love and living mean.”
I wince at my sister’s vulgarity, but Catraz laughs, a throaty wheeze. “Give him time. Only those who have been blind can see in all clarity.” She drains her glass and slams it on the table. “So how’s it going to go, Lyonn the Sinner? Are you going to butcher me here as you’ve butchered my guards? As you butchered my husband?”
I look at my sister.
“Ah, I see your brother doesn’t know everything of your colourful history. We were lovers once, your sister and I, did you know that, boy?”
Lyonn only stares into the dancing blue flames before her.
“My fellow sisters weren’t too pleased with the idea, of course. Relations are forbidden by the six, and the age difference… well, I could have been her mother. I ended it. I left the service of the spirits and later took up with a man. Your sister gutted him while he slept, hung his entrails around my room.” She turns again to Lyonn. “I’ll wager you were pleased to finally receive the bounty for me.”
“If it were up to me I’d end you here and now,” Lyonn says. “But the sisters don’t want it that way.”
“They want a trial of the six,” Catraz says. “Fitting, seeing as neither of us believe in them.”
“I believe in the nuns’ silver,” Lyonn says.
They contemplate each other, their eyes shining with the reflections of flickering flames. I try to make sense of them; two women, both so confident in their ignorance. I wonder how it’s possible for two such capable people to fall so far astray.
Catraz runs her tongue along her lower lip and pinches the life from a candle. “It’s been too long,” she says, her lips curling into a hungry smile. “What are we waiting for? Let’s give the spirits something to talk about.
“And you, boy,” she adds, addressing me, “let’s see how close to the spirits you feel when the first spray of blood hits your face.”
The roof of The Well is naked under a brooding charcoal sky.
I climb one of the Jury Ladders that rise from the circumference of the rooftop, while onlookers jostle for position on the rungs below. Lyonn accepts vases of Suiz reds from the galvanized drunks who have secured standing space on the roof. Across the arena, Catraz tightens the straps of her leather cuirass and inspects the edges of her blade.
Odilla’s Bell is rung, and the combatants climb. The trial is fought across an assemblage of wooden columns, four feet in diameter and fifteen feet high. The onlookers below crane their necks while I pray to the sky, asking for the virtuous requests of the nuns to be granted. The nuns, I think with a returning disappointment, drinking their unblessed wine.
Catraz and Lyonn take their positions on the outer columns. Lyonn plants her feet shoulder-width apart, sideface, eyes twinkling at her opponent. Catraz turns a slow circle, eyeing the spectators watching from the Jury Ladders. Her gaze rests on me. Even in the dark I feel her eyes fixed on mine, the smile playing on her lips.
The second bell rings, and silence falls upon The Well. For what seems like minutes, the only sound is the wind.
Gradually the onlookers begin to chant. Still Catraz pins me with her penetrating stare. The voices beat like a terrible drum through the night air; I feel it in the pit of my stomach, throbbing against my ribs, and Catraz’s magnetic eyes underscore the rhythm that pulses through my veins. In her gaze I see the lust for life, the fearless acceptance of the next world, the stubborn refusal to regret.
When Odilla’s Bell rings for the third time, a great roar erupts. I offer one final prayer, but see nothing above except suffocating clouds, and my prayers stick in my throat. The trial begins.
Lyonn draws the kukri knife from her belt and hurtles it with a backhand toss. The curved blade spins towards Catraz in a winding arc, slicing the air three inches above her head before returning to Lyonn’s outstretched hand. My sister catches the leather hilt of the spinning blade in her gloved hand. An inch out and she would have lost her fingers.
Catraz responds with a fierce toss of her own. Lyonn leaps with surprising dexterity to the next platform, avoiding Catraz’s knife before releasing her own an instant later, so that both knives catapult towards Catraz at once. She ducks the first and catches the second, all without moving her feet. Applause and approving roars from below.
Both women remain motionless for a moment, watching each other. I look for an indication of action, but these are two masters whose bodies give nothing away. Watching from below, they must seem like statues.
Suddenly Catraz leaps, releasing her knife mid-jump. Lyonn reacts a millisecond later, hopping to her left and tossing her own. Catraz stumbles and drops to her stomach, hugging the column with her arms and legs. Lyonn’s knife soars harmlessly above her, but Catraz is slow to return to her feet, and her own knife soars between Jury Ladders and disappears into the night sky.
Lyonn’s supporters yell triumphantly and I whisper thanks into my hands. Into my hands, I realise, and not to the sky. Lyonn simply coughs into her armpit, showing her first signs of fatigue. Catraz returns to her feet wielding a new kukri, passed from the ladder behind. She weighs the new blade in her hands, catching her breath, while Lyonn rearranges her feet. The bell rings again.
Lyonn makes the first move, tossing her knife with a wide forehand. Catraz dodges the knife and leaps forward, reducing the distance between them to a dozen feet. Lyonn avoids Catraz’s next toss with a forward leap that brings the women even closer together.
Lyonn throws again and Catraz, off-balance, is too slow to react. The spinning blade of silver cuts through her neck as if it were a bag of flour. The head falls first, dropping onto a garden of scrambling fingers that try to claim it. The body tumbles after, held aloft by a sea of blood-splattered hands.
Most of the crowd cheer while others utter lamentations of despair; others still lose the colour from their cheeks.
Lyonn is dragged down by admirers, who proceed to pour drinks into her open mouth. I look automatically to the sky to thank the six, though I hear nothing of them above the sound of the crowd.
“Your spirits saved me,” Lyonn says with a wry smile. “Be sure to give them my thanks.”
Catraz’s head is in a sack under my arm. The bottom is damp with blood.
“Did it hurt?” I ask. “Seeing her die?”
Lyonn watches me carefully.
“Almost as much as it hurt when she left me.”
Her eyes are glazed with tears, but she doesn’t let them fall. The crowd behind us beg for her attention and she raises a hand to acknowledge them.
“I never wanted to be the Sinner, you know. I just didn’t want it to end… I regret it, what I did. You don’t know how it feels – it broke me. That’s when I lost the faith; none of it mattered anymore. I wish you could know the power of a love like that.”
“Maybe one day I will.”
“I wanted you to see tonight,” Lyonn says, her face softening. “This world. Her. That there might be more to life. You can choose your own path, you know; there isn’t only one.”
A swathe of bodies arrive to drag her back to the party. The mask that appears on her face is uncanny – the wide smile, the carnival energy in her eyes. The others would never know what was going on beneath. I hadn’t.
“Come straight back up here when you’re done,” Lyonn calls to me, and she disappears between bodies and glasses.
The severed head of Catraz sits on the table, surrounded by flagons of wine. Sister Baobosa takes it in her hands, all bone and blue vein, and tosses it over her shoulder, satisfied. The nuns cackle.
“And where’s your beloved sister, the Sinner?”
“Celebrating. She has an appointment in The Cat and Fuckmuffin. Two appointments.”
A bead of sweat detaches itself from Sister Baobosa’s nose and drops into her wine. She sneers at me and removes a bag of coins from her habit, throwing it at my chest.
“Now clear out of here.”
I hesitate. “Will Catraz meet the spirits with honour?”
Sister Haerga spits another slug onto the stone floor. “Piss off, pretty boy, and don’t come back.”
“Unless you have more of that wine,” Sister Baobosa adds.
I close the door behind me but still hear the nuns’ hyena laughs from the other side. The sound echoes through the hall as I stand at the window, watching the sky bronze at the horizon. I lift my necklaces over my head and hold them before me like a prisoner holding his own chains.
I imagine my sister several storeys above; the smiles and laughter and music that orbit her. I recall the look in Catraz’s eyes before the trial.
With a final look at the clouds, I toss my necklaces into the sky and make for the stairs.
Tomas Marcantonio is a novelist and short story writer from Brighton, England. His fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, both online and in print. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom. You can follow him on Twitter @TJMarcantonio