If you've never smelled jasmine before, you won't mistake it. It defines itself. When the scent hits your nose, it fills your lungs with its spice, and its name becomes readily apparent: Jasmine. It's the only name that makes sense.
I learned this the first time I saw the twins.
To be fair, though I had never met them before, let alone seen them, I knew exactly who they were. What they were. I collect stories, legends, tales, and theirs was uniquely infamous. I was determined, when they came to town that I would see them. I wouldn't be, couldn't be, another addition to their tale, merely an observer. Someone who could write the next chapter.
When you go to meet Medusa, you know to keep your eyes on the floor, to avert your gaze, and to pack a mirror.
If you're crossing the Styx, you bring your coins for the ferryman's toll.
If you are to be traveling, you brush up on your riddles in case you have to cross strange bridges.
So I steeled my will, and rallied my sorrows to better set them aside. They feed on desire, and no man desires more than he with a heavy heart.
They're never hard to find. Appearances are rare, it's true, but they never fail to draw an audience by word of mouth alone. Indeed, when I arrived the little inn was packed almost to full. Men and women, young and old, all of them lost in the music, the sounds, and the smell. The smell of jasmine on the fire, soaking the air. It was strong, acrid, a shock to the senses, and set my mind instantly reeling. It carried the music more adeptly through the air, and I could feel the rapid tempo rush into my body, tempting my hips, climbing my spine, quickening my pulse.
That's when I saw them. Calling them beautiful would almost be insulting, like calling the ocean a puddle, or saying the sun itself was dim. Beauty was something that could only aspire to bask in their glow. The way they swayed and gyrated through the music was less like dancing to the rhythm, more instead like instruments shaping the music. Every beat was the slightest gesture of the arm, every measure ending with a twist of the hip. With the crowd so thick around them, the musicians weren't even visible, completing the illusion that they created the song as they moved.
My eyes were drawn to their taut bodies, scantily covered, the skin slick with oil and sweat. So inviting, so alluring, feeling that ache to embrace-
They had power, and a lot of it. If that wasn't clear before, I knew it now. If I hadn't come prepared, I would have been lost already, under their spell. My loss hadn't been recent, but apparently that small straw was enough for them to grasp, and tug. I pushed my way through the crowd, and found a table near the back. I spread out my tools on the table, the implements of my trade: some parchment, a rough pencil, a small dull knife, and finally (after some fishing around) the coin.
It was gold, but probably a fake. It was supposed to serve as a ward, but its price and convenience told me it most likely held no real magic of its own. Most people don't understand that items can almost never wield magic by themselves- to do so takes will, and heart, and blood. Magic needs life. Symbols, however, can have a power of their own. Snake oil is just snake oil, but it can be used as a very effective panacea. Like all symbols, it's simply a vessel for belief, for prayers, and if these ingredients are strong enough, for magic. In the right hands, anything can be a tool, or a weapon, or a shield. My coin though, had another purpose as well: on its back, carved indelicately, was my name. It was rough, but it did the job. When dealing with demons, remembering your name is important. Some may even argue it's the most important weapon you can hold.
I palmed the coin, keeping the carved side pressed firmly against my skin, and turned back to the twins. Their elegance was breathtaking. It was like watching smoke wavering through the currents of air, given form, and bending and twisting in ways that seemed both impossible and all too human.
The stories I had heard (as is the nature of my work) seemed to be misguided. Twins they may have been, and definitely sisters, but their differences were readily apparent. One was a bit taller, for example, and with lighter hair, though that could be chalked up to habits or custom, sunshine or chemicals. If you paid attention, the disparities ran much deeper.
Kala and Ella, as they were known (their real names lost to the sands,) were bastard twins. The village they were born in was less than a day's walk from the capitol. Close enough that it thrived in trade, yet far enough to maintain its own identity. It was a small town, as they always are in tales. Their mother, Deil, was the preist's neice, an orphan of the Uniting Wars. She was raised to be an attendant in the temple. Her upbringing was fairly unremarkable, and she was a compliant and obedient servant of the faith.
So it was a slight shock when she became pregnant. The populace was split on the issue. It was no secret that she and Kai'el, the priest's son, had been close their whole lives, the thickest of confidantes. He chaperoned her exclusively when she had need to leave the temple and conduct business around town. Deil, though, maintained her innocence so vehemently and so convincingly that many began to believe that her child was divinely conceived.
In due course, Kala was born. Many people thought that Deil would not survive the ordeal, as she remained in pain for three days after the birth. Finally, Ella followed, an unexpected addition to an already inexplicable family. As the girls began to grow, so did the questions of their paternity. They didn't appear to look like Deil or Kai'el, and in fact they bore little resemblance to anyone except each other. Beautiful and kind children they were, though, and normal. Their mother never claimed their divine parenthood, she only denied any illicit behavior on her own part. So the little town did what little towns do best: they forgot.
They danced for what seemed like hours. Flirting with the crowd by motion alone. A surreptitious glance over the shoulder, an outstretched hand mimicking an invitation. I almost lost myself again when Ella caught my eye, biting her lower lip with only her canines. The only thing that saved me from falling into her stare was the feeling of my blood cooling as it ran down my arm. When I looked, I saw that I had been holding the coin far too firm: the rough edges where my name was hewn had sliced open my palm. While I was cradling my hand, the music died off, and the twins left the stage. Before I could get up, someone laid a violet band of cloth on the table. The man looked towards me, but his eyes seemed to stare out into nothing. “She said it was for your hand.” he said, and vanished back into the fold.
I set the coin down on the table, and inspected the cloth. It was like silk, but smoother, softer. It felt like warm honey against my skin. It was the tie that Ella had been using to hold her hair back, I realized. This didn't bode well for me, I had been trying my best to remain inconspicuous. I shouldn't be part of the story. Clearly, despite my intentions, I had been noticed.
It was far too fine to use as a bandage, but I thought better of it. I would be ill-served if my pages became covered in blood rather than ink. I wrapped it firmly around my hand, watching the rich purple turn black as it drank the life pouring from my skin. After tightening the end, I tucked the coin underneath the dressing. I couldn't afford to take any chances.
Kaya and Ella were like opposite sides of a coin, if, for instance you had a coin that had heads and tails on both of its faces, and a penchant for landing on it's edge from time to time. Kaya defined perfect form. When she danced, every step, every move was timed immaculately. It was a technical skill that had been crafted to a master level. Her dance was like an expertly smithied sword, a wine of unmatchable vintage. She floated and teased the audience, drawing their eyes to her body, appealing to their lust. She would circle the floor, grazing her arms, legs, her hips ever so slightly against the onlookers in a way that was anything but accidental. Occasionally she would pull some of the women from the crowd, letting them become part of the show, becoming the objects of desire rather than just subject to it. (I had heard that if a married woman was drawn on stage, she would be with child by the end of the week, and the single women were married within a month; such was the power of simply being in her presence.)
Ella however, stayed away from the crowd. If it weren't for her furtive glances, always directly in the eyes of her admirers, she would seem to be simply existing in her own world. When she performed, she carried her own rhythm. Sometimes precisely in step with her sister, sometimes syncopated ever so slightly. If Kaya was a master crafter, Ella was an artistic prodigy. Her style flowed naturally, pulling off difficult bends and twists with grace and ease. She didn't need to grab the audience to get their attention, it came towards her in an almost organic way. While her sister exuded a certain libidinous sexuality, she seemed instead to embody a carnal innocence. Purity without naivety.
I finally noticed how dim the light was getting in the room. It was becoming too dark to write. I looked around, but could find no sign of the fire-keeper. In fact, after asking the inn-keep, it seemed he had been missing since the twins had left the stage. I paid him for a drink and returned to my table. If I couldn't continue writing, at the very least I wanted some fire in my veins to help steady my nerves.
Suddenly, the room went dark. The fire, and the sparse few oil lamps around the walls were doused almost simultaneously. Everyone became instantly silent, afraid. Moments later, four serving girls came out with lanterns on six-foot poles, arranging them in a square on the floor. The crowd began to part, and the sisters stepped out into the clearing. Slowly, somberly, they began their second act.
When the twins were in their fourteenth summer, they vanished. They hadn't shown up for morning prayer, and when Deil went to their room to rouse them, they were gone. The beds were empty, but nothing was missing. Every piece of clothing, every toy, every book, comb, and doll was in its proper place. The only thing missing were the girls and their bed-clothes.
It's here that the stories begin to differ.
One story said that Kai'el had gone missing as well, a father reclaiming his children and taking them away to give them a new life. Kai'el, in this version, was never seen again.
Three more included his disappearance, with a much darker end.
The first said he was found days later, nude, with his throat cut, drawing implications of ill intentions towards the girls (young and beautiful as they were.)
The second had him clutching a journal in which (again) his paternity was admitted, and his death caused seemingly while protecting the girls from wild animals.
The third also included the journal, with the last few entries stating that he had only seen the girls leaving, and was attempting to track them to return them to the village. In this version, his death was caused by an unexplained knife-wound to the heart, presumably from either a thief or the girls themselves.
There were even more tales that involved demons; some said that one came to collect them as payment of some dark compact either their mother or they themselves had made.
Others still simply said they ran away in youthful rebellion to join the handsome young men in the trading caravans.
Deil, practical and caring as she always was, begged her leave from the priest to travel and seek out her daughters. The priest agreed, going so far as to conscript a young soldier to be her escort and protection on her journey. Many asked her how long she planned to search for her progeny. “Until I find them.” was her only answer. It was seven years before she returned.
She refused to speak on the matter, beyond a few sparse details.
“Did you find them?”
“They are safe. They are women now.”
“And the soldier?”
“Reston is alive and well. It was his choice not to return.”
If she knew any more, she never told it. Deil was patient and kind and loved by all, so instead of pressing the issue and dwelling on it further, again they forgot.
Even when the twins showed up there to dance, nobody said a word. They were treated as just another troupe, another act. Nobody mentioned to them that their mother had passed within months of returning. Nobody asked questions, they simply came and watched the dance. If there were any memories left of those girls playing and laughing in the street, everyone kept them buried.
When they came out for their second act, they were dressed much more conservatively. Gone were the tops that had tightly shaped and hugged their breasts, showing just as much as they covered. Gone too were the skirts that rode so low they almost whispered secrets. Instead, they were clad in loose, long dresses. Their arms were left bare, but were dressed with fingerless gloves that stretched almost to the elbow. Veils covered their hair, and hung just below their chins, barely showing their faces.
If their first performance was about lust and temptation, this one was almost the exact opposite. It was slower, more tender, like a mother's embrace. It was accentuated by many broad sweeps and spins, causing their skirts to radiate out in a flourish, yet never exposing more than a bare calf or an unshod foot.
Kala's eyes still held a voracious hunger, but sated, like a tiger with a full belly. Ella's still shone with innocence, but also a deep sadness, like innocence broken. They danced the afterglow; one given freely, the other taken by force.
They shared each other's strengths and sadness. Kala gave her sister buoyancy to help uplift her, while Ella kept her twin rooted without flying away. Many in the crowd wept openly, men and women alike. If my eyesight hadn't started blurring, I wouldn't have realized I was doing it too. I used the back of my bandaged hand to wipe my tears.
Thankfully, the dance was short. Before much time had passed, the lamps were removed, and the fire was re-lit. The fire-keeper had returned, without incident. I watched him as he stacked fresh logs into the fire, his robes swaying as his arms tossed in the fuel. The glint of a hilt at his waist caught my eye. It wasn't unusual for the keepers to go armed, especially the ones who served in taverns, but I could almost swear he was wearing armor as well. His robes seemed a bit too bulky for his build.
Eventually, it became clear that the twins would not be returning for a third act. The crowd started thinning out, quietly, people leaving alone and in pairs. Many that had shown up alone left hand in hand with a new companion. Married couples seemed to hold each other tightly as they wandered out into the night, speaking in hushed tones. Before long, I was the only one left. I ordered another drink and continued to work on my notes. I was having a very hard time concentrating. I wasn't sure exactly what I had seen. These girls were supposed to be predators, but it seemed everyone had left in safety. Actually, they seemed a little better off when they left. Happier, more confident. Even the fire-keeper, who had been presumed missing for a while, was safe and sound.
Actually, was that him, with Kala in the corner there? I watched them as he spoke to her so casually. If she had power over him, it didn't show. She hung her hands in his robes, almost proprietorially. I watched as he kissed her forehead, and she smiled, gazing at him lovingly. I didn't feel well. Perhaps the drinks had not been such a good idea.
“You know, for someone so concerned with magic, you've done a very sloppy job of protecting yourself.” I felt the lips warmly against the back of my ear. Ella's hand came up to my shoulder as she stepped around me to sit at the table. I couldn't even begin to respond. She reached over, picked up my hand, and began unwrapping her hair tie from it. “I mean, right here, I have your blood and tears, neatly wrapped up.” Her smile was gentle, knowing. The coin clattered to the table. She picked it up and held it to the light. “Now this I haven't seen in a while. I suppose they told you it was Kai'els?”
“Y-yes. Not that it matters, really.” I could feel my tongue drying out.
“If it makes any difference to you to know, it is. At least, I think it is.” She laid it back in my palm. It wasn't bleeding anymore. In fact, it looked to be at least 3 days along in healing. “Do you want to know the problem with stories?” she said, sliding my papers out from in front of me, glancing through them.
“Enlighten me.” I don't know why I was feigning boldness, but it came out sounding weak.
“The problem with stories,” she said, looking into my eyes, “is that everybody always tells them without ever thinking to go to the source. Maybe someday, someone will think to ask us.” She stood up, kissed me on the cheek, and began to walk away.
I gathered up my papers, looked back at Kala and the fire-keeper, and followed her out. I guess, eventually, we all have to become part of the tale.