Beggar Moon

When the Beggar Moon rides the sky, fat and golden-red as a daemon light, do not go down to the Beggar's Masked Ball.

Stay with me, your mother says, stay and sweep the floor.

Stay with me, your father says, stay and sit by the fire.

Stay with me, your brother says, for under the Beggar Moon the Beggar King will find you.

But the faire song throbs through the empty streets, tapping at the panes and seeping under the door; and the moon-laid path on the paving stones lures the city daughters. Laughing, you run hand in hand, between the sensible houses, close-shuttered against temptation, chanting the Beggar Moon's song as you go.

And there in the market square the carnival waits, all color and movement in the still night. It curls around you, drawing you into its glow, as though the Beggar Moon itself has sunk to earth and opened its gates to admit you. As though the faire is a ceaseless whirling thing that the moon might catch up, still pulsing with light, and drop in the cleft of another valley, another city, a creature that plays to itself for lack of another audience.

Half hesitant, half bold, you flirt on the edges and come first to the fortuneteller's booth. There where the tide of light begins and ebbs, the sibyl waits in her embroidered tent, the stories she has told woven into the curtains. Thin, for the weight of her fortunes have worn her to the rim of her soul. And at her feet a moon-bright cat blinks up at you.

You cross her palm with silver and take your fortunes in return. To the wainwright's sister comes long life and happiness. To the brewer's niece many children. For the silk merchant's daughter great wealth awaits. But from you the teller will take no silver. She hisses and shakes her head.

Pretty girl

Your mother will find you no more

If under the Beggar Moon

You walk

But you laugh your scorn for the moonlight has entered your blood. You plunge deeper into its limpid current, eager to be swallowed by it. The air flashes around you, thick with incense and foods never tasted. Puppets gambol on hidden strings, playing tricks to tempt your maiden blush. Beaded bracelets and rings wink at you from curtained trinket booths. A collared bear lurches in an ursine jig hand in hand with a red-capped dwarf. Amulets flutter from their sellers' hands, sworn to guard against plague, ill fortune, and death. Tumblers twist, bend, and unwind in an ever changing inhuman dance. But in your wake, the moon-bright cat follows, a silent golden shadow.

The fire-eater teases the tanner's daughter with flames, as though he himself has consumed the moon. Around the milliner's niece the jugglers weave a web of flashing balls. And to the shy young girl-child of the innkeeper's wife, the potion seller offers a vial pledged to bring her her love. But at you each laughs, the moonlight pooling in their eyes, and chants their refrain.

Pretty girl,

Your father will find you no more

If under the Beggar Moon

You walk.

But under its goblin light you walk, and at last thrust yourself into the pulsing heart of the faire. There the girls of the Beggar King's Court swing their night-kissed braids and raise their braceleted arms against the music. Their tattered skirts whirl, a patchwork quilt of crimson shadows flung out to float upon the air. The golden slippers on their feet beat the dust, the moonlit square the taut skin of the drum that they dance upon. But on their faces hang painted masks, carved and beribboned, with only a chitinous gleam where their eyes might be.

Around them leap the Beggar King's men with feline grace, painted smiles on the handsome masks of their faces. Their dark rags flash and their dark eyes glitter and the city's daughters, drugged with music and light, whirl away within the dark bands of their arms. All but yourself.

You evade the offered hands and cling to the throbbing rim of the Beggars' Masked Ball, alone but for the cat purring at your feet. Not for you the fire-drunk dance, to wake from forgetfulness to an unknown face, to creep back into the chiding dawn, and whisper warnings over some child's bed. You are not snared so easily.

The golden cat gazes up at you, the light resting in its eyes like two gilded pearls. It begins to weave away between the intertwining bodies, a single living moonbeam among the glittering shadows. And you follow while the voices sing.

Pretty girl,

Your brother will find you no more

If under the Beggar Moon

You walk.

But away from the undulant music you walk, away from the witch's glamour of the faire. Beneath the arch of the city's gates, you pass out onto the moon-swept weald. There, beyond the shadow of the walls, the night is bright with a false day, the Beggar Moon its simulant sun. The barren down stretches 'neath its copper glow till it meets the gloom at the hem of the forest.

And there, twixt light and dark, you find him.

Find him enthroned on a broken stone, his familiars curled at his feet, whorls of black and cream and mist-gray cats. Find him with his hooded robe of scarlet rags fluttering around him as though it dances to the song of his rune-carved flute. Find him, the mystical piper who called the night into being, yourself a single glistening note that will vanish once he ceases to play. Yet cease he does and his tattered cloak lies still and you remain.

Give me a glance.

His voice purrs from the depths of his hood, warm as gold, a glamour in itself. And for a moment you are lost. But the gaze of the Beggar King is perilous. His eyes are black wells behind the mask of his face. Their blackness will caress you and you will bleed. So you shake your head and laugh and the glamour breaks in crystal drops and falls around you.

I will not. But I will look at the face of the Beggar Moon, for he cannot look away.

His eyes pool with obsidian tears. But the Beggar King cannot cry, for he traded his heart long ago. So he smiles, the painted curve of his mask bending with his mouth.

Give me a kiss.

His voice curls around you, twining soft fingers in your hair. And for a moment you are lost. But the Beggar King's touch is perilous. He will flay your skin and make it run with golden fire until you have melted into him. So you shake your head and laugh and the glamour crumbles into crimson dust that floats away on the breath of your laughter.

I will not. But I will give my kiss to the Beggar Moon, for he cannot take it.

His red lips part. But the Beggar King cannot kiss the air, for the sylphs of the wind have learned to flee him. So he sighs, his ragged cloak rippling with the sound.

Give me a song.

His voice whispers, teasing hidden notes out of the shivering air. And for a moment you are lost. But the Beggar King's song is perilous. He will take your voice and you will walk soulless, a revenant in the night. So you shake your head and laugh and the glamour fades into a cricket's lament, lost in the eldritch shadows of the trees.

I will not. But I will keep my voice and sing it only to the Beggar Moon, for he has no pockets to hide it in.

You smile, for you have won the game. His witching words cannot bind you. His glamour cannot win you.

But under the lambent light his scarlet rags melt and his mask falls away. He stands, wrapped in gold, the Beggar Moon in his barley hair, his eyes as blue as innocence.

And for his beauty you cry.

And with your tears your heart falls, falls into your hands, into the tawny light.

His cats, green eyed and supple, take it in their small red mouths and bear it to him. He cages it, soft and warm, in his slender aureate fingers and his cats sing for you. They kiss your mouth, lick the dust from your skin. And their rough-edged tongues peel away your clothes and needle-prick claws comb out your braid. They wrap you in their velvet and hang the pearls of their eyes in your hair and bring to you silk slippers woven from the light of the Beggar Moon.

Then the daemon cats sit and purr around you and their purring is the drumbeat of the earth and the thrumming of your heart. And you are clothed in naught but your own moon-glazed skin and shadow-dark hair and the golden slippers in which you must dance. Dance until the moon breaks and your heart bleeds. Dance until the Beggar King weeps diamond tears.

Pretty girl,

The Beggar King will keep you.

The Beggar King will eat your soul.

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