I’m excited to say that I won the December 2018 story contest on www.fantasy-writers.org. This is the first time I’ve written for the site, and didn’t imagine I’d grab the brass ring this soon.
Anyway, I’m really proud of this story. In keeping with the December holiday, story rules required that I include all of the following: 1. A feast 2. Songs sung once a year 3. Decorating a tree 4. A birth in unusual circumstances and 5. Breaking into houses for a benevolent purpose. Hope you enjoy Monkey Weather.
The day before Festa, Marya pu Nova, the widow of Tenth House, attracted the attention of a god. She woke in the hour before dawn before any of the staff or guests, after yet another night alone. Lighting a taper, she padded up the stone stairs and onto the open third-floor gallery.
The god watched her through the eyes of his children, the monkeys that roamed the rooftops, temples, and monuments of the ancient city of Lankoor. Tenth House had its own troop of them, under the rule of an old fellow humans called Greyface.
Marya accessed the roof garden by a slim ladder. At its center stood a small tree decorated with metal discs that turned in the breeze. Widows hung such coins on Grieving Trees, saving up a modest dowry for their next husband. Marya intended never to marry again herself, but tradition was tradition. One more brass pence, one more day.
Watch, said a voice in Greyface’s head. Greyface followed Marya back down.
"Happy Festa, Cook." Marya entered the basement kitchen as Tenth House's longest-tenured staff member lit the oven fire.
"Happy Festa, Madam." The older woman spied the monkey on the stair. "We have company."
Marya fixed Greyface with a sharp look. "You behave or you'll be put out."
She and Cook discussed what to serve the residents and guests for breakfast. They debated the proper preparation of ahtene peppers, which could kill if used too freely, and planned the next day's feast. So began the day at the Tenth Independent House of Lankoor. For Marya, the busier the better.
Tenth House had eight apartments and five guest rooms, plus common areas and servants quarters. By ancient law, the independent houses were run by wealthy widows under license from the city. Marya bought the house when the former owner passed away.
At breakfast, she greeted every resident, except for Lieutenant Wardmuligan, one of the imperial viceroy's colonial officers. He was a gallivant and late riser. She sent a tray of dates and yogurt up to his room. If he couldn't be on time, he could eat his meal cold.
Next, she inspected the maids' cleaning and addressed real and minor errors just to keep them honest. "She knows how to run things properly, our widow," the staff told their friends at other houses.
Greyface shadowed her all morning. He wanted to be on the roof, sunning and chasing females, but the hand of the god held him. Patience, said the soft voice. Plenty of time for that.
A commotion above them caught Marya's attention, and the monkey trotted after her curiously to the second floor. Another of the house's humans paced outside a closed door. Greyface disliked doors on principle.
"Madam, I swear he’s keeping some woman in there," said the maid. "This is a reputable house."
"Lieutenant?" said the widow. "Colaba has brought your breakfast tray. If you want it, you need to unlock your door. Please try to be less shocking than usual."
Greyface skipped out the nearest window and climbed around to the apartment. A man rose from a couch, while a woman sat up in the bed across the room, pulling a sheet around her. They whispered fiercely; then the woman lowered herself to the floor and maneuvered under the bed, her round, hard stomach scraping the bottom rail.
"Alright, alright." The man stepped to the door. "Good morning, Madam. Good morning, Colaba. Sweet-tempered as always."
"I thought I heard someone in your rooms, Master Wardmuligan. You must be careful of our Lankoori concubines. You will catch a disease, and where will you be then?"
"Still in hot, sandy Lankoor."
"This is monkey weather. The cool season."
"Is that why I'm sweating to death before noon?"
Marya left the maid and the lieutenant happily bickering and continued her rounds. She would need to do something about Wardmuligan. It did her no good for a colonial officer to scandalize the staff. He loved Lankoor’s fiery ahtene peppers; perhaps he deserved a tiny pinch more than was generally considered safe.
At last, Marya took her own small breakfast into the study to cast her fortune cards. Sometimes she understood them, and other times she didn’t; but she followed this habit as carefully as all her others.
Greyface took station on top of a cabinet. "You should be outside," she said. The little primate chattered something incomprehensible, but to the point. He would go where he wanted and sit where he wanted.
Marya turned over the first card in the deck. Korēs the Monkey King, Lankoor's patron god, eyes bound with a white cloth, dancing in his stone temple. The Monkey King stood for luck, though not always the type you wanted.
"That's fitting." Festa was Korēs's feast day. In the streets outside, merchants advertised the little gifts that the Monkey King would hide under overturned bowls to be discovered in the morning by children and expectant mothers. Grocers set out tables piled with sweets, dried fruit, and nuts. Wine barrels arrived by creaking wagonload for the night's merrymaking.
Marya turned the second card.
The Pregnant Queen. Saintly and sensual with full breasts and round belly, but looming behind her, a vaguely human shape. Some said it was the shadow of the Assassin, a card which gave Marya a turn whenever it appeared in her fortune.
Printap, the other maid, entered the study with a tray of tea, humming a Festa tune. Marya found herself singing along in her head.
I have a little temple that no one sees but me.
If you want to see my temple, I'll let you in for free.
She snorted, but the pretty maid grinned. Ridiculous. Vulgar. Festa was always that way. By the evening, crowds would be roaming the city, drinking, dancing, and singing far worse songs than this. It was a popular time to give birth and to get in the birthing way, too.
Marya turned the third card as Printap left.
A second Pregnant Queen. Impossible, since the deck held only one. For a moment, superstitious dread swept over her. She flipped the card back, then turned it again. The same. She revealed the next one, and found yet another Queen.
Someone was playing a joke, and she wanted that someone's hide, or their job, or something. Her eyes searched the room as though the miscreant hid somewhere and she could have it out right then. She met Greyface's excited stare. His small body trembled all over, like a cat ready to leap.
Marya fanned the deck of cards face up on the desktop, adding an entire parade of big-bellied Queens to the ones already showing, until, finally, the last card lay starkly by itself, dagger bared. The Assassin.
I've gone mad, she thought, and gasped as Greyface dove at her from his perch. He swept up the cards in a clumsy bunch.
Marya grabbed for him but he danced away. "Give those back, fiend!"
Greyface cackled and galloped into the hall. He raced through the open doorway to the portico. She chased after, heedless of the shocked looks from her staff. Outside, she halted in amazement at a sea of monkeys filling the square. They hung from the fence around Tenth House, swung from signposts, and crowded in a mass before her feet.
Greyface capered at the front, waving the cards overhead. Behind him, the mob of monkeys shuffled to either side, opening a path like an ocean furrow up the central avenue of Lankoor, pointing to the temple grounds above the city.
The hand of a god was summoning Marya from the safe routine of home. Awed and wondering, she squared her shoulders and started walking.
Marya gasped for breath as she and Greyface mounted the last steep step to Korēs's nearly-abandoned temple. The Monkey King was a god loved by common people more than he was celebrated by priests. He blessed mothers on their birthing beds and couples in their bowers. He was also god of the mischief-making primates that raided picnics, ruined gardens, and pelted the priests of other gods with guano and rotted fruit.
The crowd of monkeys ran ahead of Marya as she processed down the sanctuary to the great stone idol at the far wall. Reaching it, she knelt and prostrated herself.
"That's not necessary, my dear," came a voice from the shadows. "I'm the god of merriment, not thunder and lightning like some I could name." An old man shuffled forward, leaning on a twisting staff of polished wood. "Thank you for coming." Light revealed his features, huge ears like cabbage leaves, shaggy white hair, but most telling the cloth tied around his head to cover his eyes.
Greyface placed the deck of cards in the old man's hands and clambered onto the idol, joining the other monkeys ranged along its shoulders and the graven folds of its robes. The figure's huge, blindfolded head dominated its squat body, with a stone tail frozen above in mid-wave.
"It's not a very good likeness, is it?" said Korēs, the Monkey King. "I wore a different body then." He guided her to her feet with a gnarled hand. She wondered how he knew where to reach for her.
"My children see for me," said the god, reading her mind and waving a hand that encompassed all monkeys everywhere. "They are my eyes and ears, my fingers, my hands, and my feet.”
It was too much, and Marya went light-headed. Korēs steadied her with a hand under her elbow.
"Why am I here?" Marya's awe yielded to curiosity and a little fear.
"Walk with me." Greyface reappeared at the old man's side to guide him out a back passage and through a twisting grove of ancient olives trees to emerge on a grassy hillside with all of Lankoor spread out below.
Marya breathed in the cooling air, surprised at the lateness of the hour. "What do you want of me?"
"Business. It's always business with widows. I wanted you to have a holiday to do your mourning and be done, but you all insist on Grieving Trees." He pondered for a long minute. Marya's eyes wandered over the city from the palace grounds below the temple hill, down through the sprawling streets and market squares, to the busy harbor jutting out into the Middle Sea. A strange homesickness filled her, as though she’d been away from Tenth House for a lifetime.
Korēs cleared his throat. “Let me tell you a story. Once, there were many gods and many cities. There was, in fact, one god for each city and one city for each god. Lankoor was mine.
"Gods are everywhere the same. We're born, we live, we die, we rise again. Some of us do it fast; I've always done it slow. Which is odd considering how brief are my children's lives. Quick as a flash from the forest roof. Lankoor was a green city then, not the dusty place you know. Always like today. Blue skies, fresh breezes. Perfect monkey weather.
“But, what is light without darkness? What is life without loss?
"Men of other gods came, bringing flame and sword. We fought; many died; and at last, I lost the war; though we called it a truce. The monkeys and I got the trees, the roofs, the hilltops, and men took everything else. We learned to live together. You even feast me once a year. I like the songs.
"But I got old at the wrong time. Those men you call imperials, colonials, came a-conquering just when I lacked the strength to contest them.
"I need your help-" Korēs’s bound eyes burned into Marya's, "- because I'm dying. Today. Tonight. Tomorrow maybe.”
"Dying," echoed Marya.
"I will be be re-born. That is, I should be. There’s a chance either way."
"The Pregnant Queen," said Marya. "I saw her - them - in the cards."
"Yes. Did you like my little joke?" He shuffled the fortune deck and fanned a full contingent of Monkey Kings, then shuffled again and gave it to Marya. "But I didn't send you the Assassin."
They fell silent. For the god of trickery and mischief, Marya found him quite relaxing.
"It's a god thing," said the god. "For some of you, the experience of us is a terror; for others, ecstasy; for many, a dream of a dream. Wake up." He snapped his fingers under Marya's nose.
Tears of frustration started in her eyes as she returned to herself. "What do you want from me?! What am I supposed to do that a god can't do? I'm just..."
"A widow? A woman without a man or a child to live for? Find my successor. Hide him. Protect him."
"How should I know where to find this new you, next you, or where his mother is, or who I'm supposed to save him from."
"Yes, it's very confusing." The Monkey King smiled, though age weighed him down like dirt falling on a grave. "But you are Marya pu Nova, the widow of the Tenth Independent House of Lankoor, and a very strong woman. That should be enough."
Marya wandered home in a daze as the moon rose into the lush blue twilight, announcing Festa Eve. By the time she reached the square where Tenth House waited, groups of merrymakers already coursed from tavern to tavern, singing their Festa songs.
I have a great tall tower that no one ever sees,
If you want to climb my tower...
Greyface rode on her shoulder, hands twined in her hair. Marya had never felt more a part of her own city. Her heart eased, the cool night a balm for grief. She even managed to put aside a moment of jealousy when a pregnant girl and her husband skipped past, lost in their future.
Once she noticed the first, she couldn't help seeing other expectant mothers. How many women planned this, to give birth at Festa? In the morning, they would find bitterbark tea under their bowls, guaranteed, folks said, to bring on labor.
Cook intercepted her on the portico. “Wherever have you been, madam?” Marya tried to focus on the mundane after her experience at the temple. "The staff is waiting for their Festa gifts, and the lieutenant says you promised him those ahtene peppers. I really do think someone is up there with him. He ordered twice his usual dinner brought up to him and hasn't come out." Cook moved closer and lowered her voice. "Look across the square, by that post. Those men have been watching the house for hours. Just watching. It's got my nerves jangling."
"I'm sure it's nothing," Marya said, dismissing Cook's worries. Paranoia and peppers. She was talking about peppers, when a god needed her help.
She closed herself again in her study as soon as she could. She let her thoughts wander, trying not to force them down some path of logic that might lead nowhere. She’d seen, what? ten mothers-to-be out and about? A city of pregnant women and women hoping to be. Life commanded, and flesh obeyed. A parade of pregnant queens, praying to Korēs for health and luck on his feast day.
Letting her mind float unguided went against Marya's nature. How to find the god's successor or the mother bearing him?
She couldn't go to them. They needed to come to her.
Decided, she left to find a scribe poor enough to want her business on Festa Eve.
Trying to explain things to a monkey was a humbling experience. "Under the Festa bowl." Marya demonstrated with a dish and a slip of vellum. "Only the homes of pregnant women.”
The old monkey bit off a corner of the note. He chewed twice, then spat it out with a sneeze. "No! Not for eating. For giving, for hiding." Cook looked in briefly, and left, muttering darkly that the widow had lost her mind. Marya agreed, but she was determined to make the Monkey King's magic work for her plan.
"Korēs," she prayed, "you need to meet me halfway. My eyes are your eyes, my ears are your ears, but if you want me to help you, I need a little help in return ."
Greyface pressed one tiny finger to Marya’s lips. His eyes met hers with an uncanny intelligence that made her shiver. He took the stack of vellum and ducked out the window, climbing one-handed to where his troop waited above.
Minutes later, they scattered. The last partygoers never saw the little army swinging nimbly over their heads, peeking into windows, slipping into houses, and leaving the widow's invitation under Festa bowls throughout the city.
Festa dawned without Marya pu Nova. Come mid-morning, Cook cracked the door to the widow’s bed chamber with Colaba craning over her shoulder, and found her still sleeping soundly, with Greyface snoring on top of the wardrobe. Well, better than her staying up the whole night, thought Cook. It unsettled things, having the widow behave so oddly.
The two women tiptoed through the room, straightening Marya's usually tidy belongings. At the window, Cook peeked between the shutters. There were now four men loitering across the square. Toughs. Men you wouldn't want to meet alone at night, or even on Festa morn with the streets empty, the shops closed, and only children and servants out of bed. She thought of waking the widow, but told herself whatever was going on was none of their business and would likely be no trouble.
Arguing in the apartment above woke Marya; muffled sounds at first; then the words grew clearer.
"I will not!" A woman's voice. Footsteps pounded down the second floor hall. "I won't hide under there any more, you hear? No more!"
Wardmuligan's heavy tread followed behind. "But Amalit, it's not safe!"
Marya threw on a gown, blinking away sleep. "What is all this?!" she called from the base of the stairs. "This is un--" She broke off as a very pregnant young woman in fine white robes and jangling gold bracelets barged past her on the landing like a galley heading to sea.
Wardmuligan hurried after her, with a quick "Your pardon" thrown Marya's way. "Amalit!"
The girl marched to the entry, looking ready to go to the edge of the known world and beyond, but a woman walking up from the street met her in the doorway. "Excellent," said the newcomer. "Someone else is here. I'm glad to see this isn't all some complicated prank."
"Who are you?" Amalit barred her way.
"Who are you? Oh, what a lovely gown. I wish I owned something half so nice." She pulled at the dress she wore over her bulging stomach. "I'm Varitat pu Khooba. This is Tenth House?"
"You're pregnant." Amalit sounded offended.
Varitat edged around her into the foyer. "Is the widow-owner here?"
"Amalit," said Wardmuligan. "Come back inside."
"Wardmuligan," Amalit called from outside. "There are men watching the house."
Veritat brandished a vellum note at Marya. "Someone put this under my Festa bowl this morning. How did it get there?"
Amazed that even one invitation had worked, Marya took it, one of a hundred from the night before. "I have no idea," she lied. "Left by the Monkey King? Someone is playing a trick. Your husband?"
"That idiot? No. And here's this other woman. Did she get the same invitation as me?"
Amalit strode past, holding her stomach protectively, and headed back up the stairs, pursued by Wardmuligan.
"Lieutenant!" Marya intercepted. "I need to speak with you."
With a gasp, Amalit stopped halfway up the staircase. "I think my water broke."
"Maybe I should leave." Veritat started toward the door, but two more pregnant women made their way into Tenth House, one supporting the other, and both clutching vellum notes. Cook, Colaba, and Printap stood at the basement door, staring at the scene in bewilderment.
"Everyone stop!" Marya nodded with satisfaction at the resounding silence.. "Colaba, escort mistress Amalee - Amalit? - back to the lieutenant's room where she appears to be his guest. Printap, take Madame Koohba to the blue room and see to her needs. Cook, go find us a midwife who can be pulled from whatever she's doing." She glanced at the two new entrants. One carried the confidence of an experienced mother, and the other trembled like a child bride. "On second thought, bring two midwives." Lastly she turned on Wardmuligan. "In my study."
Greyface was enjoying himself. He liked being around humans, all the comings and goings, all the yelling, anger, and passion. He padded after the woman and the man into the room with shelves and scrambled up to his usual vantage point.
The woman said, "Explain."
The man said, "Explain what?”
The woman said, "Don't be difficult. Who is this Amalit, and what is she doing in Tenth House?"
"Giving birth soon, I should think," said the man. The woman threw something small at the man. Greyface snickered. "Alright, alright. She's a friend." The woman stared at the man until he looked away. Greyface did that when one of the younger males in his troop got too high above himself. Though it worked better if you bared your fangs.
"Out with it, Lieutenant.”
"Amalit pu Avanon is the youngest wife to the crown prince."
The woman sat down at her desk. "I'm not going to like this."
"The child isn't his." The man walked to the window. "It's the king's."
"I knew I wasn't going to like this."
"The queen found out and secreted her away so that when she gave birth, it could be dealt with. The prince still loves her, so they couldn't kill her or just beat her until the baby dropped. They held her until a few days ago when I got her out. It was too good an opportunity for me to give the viceroy some political leverage over Lankoor’s royalty. Besides, she’s quite pretty, even if she is exceptionally large at the moment."
Greyface yawned. The mind of the god touched his. The god was tired. Greyface, he said. Summon my children. Summon them all.
"What about the men out there in the square; the one’s who've been watching us?" Marya asked.
"I suppose I wasn't careful enough sneaking her out. They're probably the queen's men, or thugs she hired."
Marya shook her head. All that effort to invite pregnant women to Tenth House on Festa so that, maybe, the Monkey King's magic would bring the one she was looking for - and all along, this girl was hiding in Wardmuligan's room. She flipped over the top card in the fortune deck idly, revealing the Assassin. She shuddered. "Lieutenant, are there any of more of you colonials nearby? Some fellow officers?"
Wardmuligan opened the shutters wider. "It's broad daylight. I doubt they'll be any trouble until nightfall."
Marya joined him. "It's nearly empty out there except for those men. Oh my, here come more invitees."
"I told you about Amalit, Madam pu Nova. Would you like to explain how Tenth House is suddenly the destination for every pregnant woman in Lankoor?"
"No." Marya said, sighing. "No, I don't think I would."
A wail of pain rose from the floor above, joined a moment later by a moan and curse from Veritat Koohba in the blue room. "Find us some men," Marya ordered Wardmuligan. "I'm needed elsewhere."
"I'll try the barracks," he called after her.
Four more women stood in the foyer, demanding to know where they should go, were there midwives, whom did those ruffians outside think they were, and who put these invitations under their Festa bowls? Three children hung off of one, and another brought her own mother. Marya's staff ran up and down stairs, carrying food, blankets, and water, and trying to give answers they didn't have.
A midwife arrived and was immediately drafted for the afternoon. No sooner did she disappear down the hall than a newborn infant's cry sounded from that direction.
Marya stole a glance out the entrance doors. More expectant mothers entered the square. One hundred invitations, she despaired. Why did I send one hundred? Would Korēs magic bring them all?! Maybe with so many people running around the place, the thugs across the street wouldn't try anything; or if they did, wouldn't be able to pick out one pregnant woman among so many.
But at the newborn’s first cry, the queen's men left their post, and marched toward Tenth House.
Marya stepped out to challenge them, heart banging. She opened her mouth to speak, but the foremost, a cruel barrel of a man, swung a fist to the side of her head, dropping her flat. Head whirling, she hardly registered screams and yelling from the house.
A voice shouted in her ear. Someone pulled at her. Cook. “Madam!”
They stumbled back into a house in chaos. Every pregnant woman there was in labor at the same time. Children, grey-haired mothers, and harried maids raced through the halls, while the intruders chased after them, demanding the prince's wife.
Where is Wardmuligan? Marya wondered. Korēs help us. "Get..." She pulled at Cook's sleeve, but couldn't think what she wanted. "Get... something. I'm going up there." She hauled herself up the stairs to the second floor, gripping the railing.
The lieutenant's room was a place set apart, suspended in a bubble of magic. On the bed, Amalit groaned quietly, tended by the midwife. The baby's head crowned. All around the room, rank upon rank of monkeys waited, hushed and motionless.
The child slid out into the cold world. A sigh passed through the room like a breath of air before night. Marya felt the Monkey King's power fade to nothing.
The spell broke. Sounds of commotion carried into the room. The newborn cried, a loud yell, full of life.
Shh, Marya pleaded. Don't make noise. It’s not safe.
"What in ten hells is this?" The barrel-chested man shoved Marya in the back on his way into the room. He kicked at the closest monkeys, sending them tumbling and shrieking. The midwife threw herself on Amalit and the baby as he loomed over them.
Greyface leaped at the ruffian from the midst of the troop, gripped his head by both ears and bit down savagely. The man bellowed as blood exploded from his nose, and fled with an army of monkeys at his heels.
He ran into a full retreat of his gang. With newborns in every room, they argued about which child to seize and were rapidly losing their interest in the pay they'd been promised. Veritat barricaded herself in her room, from where she hurled household objects with terrific accuracy.
Having forced the ruffian downstairs, the monkeys abandoned their pursuit. The man roared at the backs of the toughs as they escaped to the streets, then he cast about and seized Colaba, pressing a knife against her throat.
Marya came down the stairs, carefully, one step at a time. "Let her go."
"Bring me what I'm after, and I let this one live. Make me wait, and she dies."
Cook emerged from the basement door behind him and tapped his shoulder. He spun, and she blew ahtene pepper into his face in a burning cloud. He tried to scream, but his throat closed in a vice and he simply dropped, releasing Colaba.
"You told me to get something." Cook scrubbed her hand on her apron. "It's all I could think of."
Wardmuligan burst in, trailed by five colonial soldiers. "Are we too late?”
Marya hugged a shaking Colaba to her, and they sat for a moment on the landing stair. Quiet descended, graced by the tender sounds of mothers and infants. The lieutenant's men happily took on the role of saviors, calming everyone, and dealing with the gang’s leader still writhing on the floor.
As Colaba returned downstairs, Wardmuligan settled next to Marya, cradling a blanketed bundle. "She's gone."
"Who?" Marya felt her head had been used as an anvil then stuffed with straw.
"Amalit. I guess she slipped out in the confusion, or - I don't know - dropped down from the window?"
"What about the monkeys?"
"Never mind." She leaned over the wrapped bundle. "What's this?"
Wardmuligan laughed. "There are a lot of women with a lot of babies in this house, but this one seems to be motherless." He held it out. With more terror than she'd felt through the whole ordeal, she took it, the weight in her arms like a feather.
"And don't worry." He stood and brushed off his uniform. "The fellows and I will straighten all this up.”
Marya stared into the child's sightless eyes. A girl, she realized, and stifled an exhausted giggle. A girl. Are you the Monkey King's successor? she wondered. Is Korēs truly reborn in this tiny body?
"Hello?" A young woman poked her head through the entrance, followed by her bulging stomach.
Tenth House came to be a place women came at Festa to bring children into the world. In thanks, they left little toy monkeys as gifts. Some glittered with gold; some shed sawdust at a touch. Cunning or simple, Marya tied a string to each and carried it to the garden to decorate the Grieving Tree.
On her third birthday, attended by Greyface and adoring troops of monkeys thronging every nearby roof, Marya let the little girl hang the toys herself. Amalee’s nimble fingers felt among the bottom branches for an open space, setting the widow's old weathered coins swinging. “Here, Mama? Can it go here?”
When they were done, Amalee played while Marya gardened and watched. Bits of Festa songs drifted up from the square. Marya changed the words as she hummed along.
I have a little godling who sits upon my knee
The whole wide world will wait its turn, for she belongs to me
Lankoor, city of the Monkey Queen.