The local boys never understood him and seldom tried. They were a quick, sharp, deft pack of brutes who loved the alleys. He was taller than most of them, and softer, with warm hands and a firm, round belly. He had come to their city to study an art with one master, but the only arts that inspired the local boys were boasting and seduction and fistfighting.
They resented Aaron, when they took notice of him at all. He was no challenge to them in their world, but his very existence seemed to be a rebuke to their coarseness. He was an easy mark for them when they felt like playing the bully or showing off in front of their girls. All he ever got from the local toughs was a sharp remark and a belly-full of knuckles.
Aaron never belonged in this place, where men were expected to be quick to flash a fist or swing a stout club. The culture prized boys who could bring a bigger foe to his knees, and Aaron was bigger than most all of them. But he never seemed to notice that he didn't fit, and he walked everywhere and dutifully took part in the local life.
Yet Aaron seemed always half lost in his own world, unaware of the local toughs as they clouded around him with cruel intentions. Even after they had jumped him or challenged him and their fists began to clout into him, he suffered terribly from their plunging blows, but he seemed never to expect them, or to see that more were coming. He stood bewildered, absorbing the physical violence. A blow that any other boy would anticipate and block, he received wide open. And his blatant aching reactions -- he made no effort to mask his suffering with manly toughness -- only seemed to inspire his tormentors.
THE BOY BRAWL
Aaron's first exposure to the cruel attentions of his new home came a week after he arrived, when he was barely in his teens, at the town's annual Boy Brawl. This was a spectacle in the high springtime: A mandatory public mass brawl for all boys of Aaron's age, in the sand arena that stood at the edge of town. It took place under the eyes of all, and the young girls talked of it eagerly for weeks beforehand, speculating on the likely fortunes of their favorites. Even the matrons got a gleam in their eyes when they reminded each other it was nigh.
The citizens filled the arena grandstands, arriving early for the best views. The boys emerged into the center at the appointed time. They stood in a row and bowed stiffly, 40 or 50 of them stripped down for combat.
At a signal from the master of the arena, it began. The young men hurled together and scrummed in a mass in the middle, elbows and fists flying, each one seeking to put another in the dust at his feet.
Most of them charged for a particular rival at first. In the days leading up to the fight they had taunted and goaded one another, and when the brawl began each one lunged at a particular foe, full of the lust of combat. Nobody tried to fight as a team; that was considered unsporting. It was every lad for himself.
Aaron had no rival of his own, and all the other youths had dismissed him as too weak and soft to be a threat. Even at that age he had a visible curve of belly. But he knew he was expected to make an effort and he wanted the girls to approve of him. So after a few minutes hopping from foot to foot at the edge of the action with his fists raised, he took matters in his own hand. He walked determinedly up to a knot of fighters on the edge of the swirling mass and tried to latch one of the boys around the neck from behind.
The boy never even turned around. As soon as he felt the grip from behind he instinctively jerked his arm back with a fierce elbow-jab that rammed full into Aaron's belly. It was meant as a mere warding off, but Aaron hadn't braced himself and it caught the soft boy high in the gut and wide open. It drilled him deep in his stomach-curve.
Aaron staggered back and blurted a loud grunt, clutching his gut, and he blundered in place, howling, for a long time until he got his breath back. His antic performance was comic relief beside the tight, seething mass of the fighting, and it drew laughter and mockery from the onlookers. Above the noise a lusty laugh rang out from the woman who taught dancing to the girls near the temple, and she finished with an emphatic judgment: "What a big-belly oaf!"
Aaron blushed, and avoided looking up. He slowly pulled himself upright, and approached the mass again. This time he kept his big belly out of elbow range. He got as close as he dared, reached in, gripped one boy by the shoulder, and tried to turn him around. But the lad merely shook him off, then turned to see who was after him.
When he saw Aaron he sneered and made as if to turn back to the fight. But Aaron quickly squared off in what he must have thought was a fighting stance. His hands were up at his face. The boy, a lanky youth with wiry muscles, shrugged and faced him.
Aaron swept his arm in a wide swing toward the boy's face. The boy easily shied back and let the blow whiff past. Then he gave a look of disgust and punched Aaron hard in the stomach. The blow sank deep in his flesh before Aaron even began to react. The punch rippled his middle and drained his air again with a deep-bellied "OOFF!" and Aaron fell and rolled, kicking and groaning in the sand.
By the time he was on his knees and breathing right, the mass brawl had broken up into fighting pairs. Many had left the combat, too bruised to continue, and the remaining fighters had more room to maneuver. Each boy took up with a rival equal to his skill and strength. But some had no peer handy. So they went after Aaron to bide their time until a worthier foe presented himself and to build reputation with the crowed and have some fun at the expense of Aaron's pot belly.
Aaron didn't have to go in search of suffering now. It was delivered to him in heaping helpings. They abused his belly mercilessly with their knuckles. They knew exactly how to drive the breath out of him with their jabs and chops and yet keep him on his feet, though helpless, for a long round of stomach-pounding.
The first boy who deliberately made him a target that day was a short sparkplug of a lad. The smaller fighter merely menaced Aaron with a fist cocked as if to strike Aaron in the mouth, and Aaron quickly raised his hands to protect his face. The eyes in the crowd were on him now, lusting to see his pain, and his innocent reaction made the dancing mistress smile wickedly and mutter, "yes, protect your face, you soft-bellied fool!" while some of the girls who had crowded close to the rail gasped and gripped the arms of their friends in anticipation.
The smaller boy delivered his blow and packed all his weight into it. He torqued his arm and stomped forward into a jab-punch that hammered his clenched fist deep into Aaron's helpless belly. The strike had all the effect the slugger could have hoped. Aaron flew back, arms windmilling, eyes bulging wide, mouth open round to sound the low, loud "OOOOO" that announced his gut-suffering.
He tripped and sprawled in the sand, writhing, and turned on his side, lost in the pain and panic of a breathless bellyache. His smaller opponent rushed up to him and gave him a firm kick in the stomach. That spilled Aaron onto his back, arms flung wide, in mindless agony, and his tormentor responded with a firm heel-stomp into his belly. Then he looked down at Aaron and spat, "get up, so I can beat you some more!"
Aaron, now beside himself in the throes of suffering and humiliation, nonetheless managed to obey his tormentor as best he could. He got to his knees, but was too breathless to stand.
The boy grabbed Aaron by the hair. Aaron's hapless hands flew to his head. "I said, stand up, SOFT BELLY!" he shouted and as he said it he delivered a swift boot to the belly of the helpless boy. Aaron collapsed again in the sand.
The merry dancing mistress led the applause and shouts of approval.
It was not to his credit that Aaron lasted more than half of the contest. He never managed to land a single blow, and he survived only as a punching bag, not worth the trouble of any one boy to take him out completely. They wouldn't knock him out, and he couldn't defend himself or fight back. All he could do was take his beatings under the eyes of the whole town. Until at last he was too deflated to get back on his feet, and crawled on his belly to safety out of the arena. When he could stand again, he staggered home and up the stairs to his room, too beaten and exhausted and ashamed to do anything but throw himself on his bed.
Aaron stood at the crest of the hill and took in the view. The ribbon of road ran in one long curve down into the dingy town that straggled between the headlands. The green sea rolled beyond. He could still name the larger buildings: the academy, the dance mistress's school, the mayory. Off to the left stood the round stump of the arena, with its flag, where he had suffered such a beating on his introduction to the town 18 years before.
The memories -- and there had been so many beatings dealt to him in this place -- moved him in no way. He merely remembered them. They left no mark on his body or mind. His purpose always was elsewhere, and his own.
And now the path led back to this place. He thought of how his new friends had shuddered or frowned when he told them where he was bound -- they had heard his stories -- but he had set out with the same calm good nature he brought to every task.
His first purpose here was to again find the one friend he had made in those years. It was an odd friendship, even he would admit, but he had kept up his correspondence with her, though they seldom talked of their realities. She, like he, had lived for the future, in hopes and ideals.
When he had come here first, a young stranger innocently walking into a den of menace, he had taken work as a serving boy in a tavern down the alley from his room. To call it seedy in a place where all had gone to seed was redundant. But he never saw things as such. It was work done for silver he needed, and he did it dutifully. Even if on many nights he seemed to serve more as the sport of the patrons than their server.
Alise Miral had worked the taps and rinsed the pots in the cellar. She was an orphaned distant cousin of the owners', a little younger than Aaron but already a tall, strapping, strong-minded girl. She was bound for better things than this scullery work, she would let you know. When she had got Aaron to speak of his own ideals and desires, she instinctively latched on to them as if they were her own. Some days he felt she was the only other person in that town with a heart.
So he would stand at the tables, with his large belly looming out at eye-level, inviting the attention of the roughs who took the place for their pleasure den, and patiently take their orders for drink. And he would go down to Alise and help her pour or prepare what was wanted. The space for their work was cramped and tight, and close contact simply was part of the job. It would be nothing odd for Aaron to find himself answering her questions about his destiny, or listening as she described the art she would make someday, with her pressed up to his belly by the wall behind her, one hand resting on his upper stomach, the other pointing or gesturing in front of his face.
They passed hours in each other's company for two years. When the owners first noticed, they grumbled that there would be trouble from such intimacy, but though they watched, nothing ever "progressed," as they could see it, and soon they lost interest and forgot the pair of oddities in their employment. Invisible to the world, Aaron and Alise in their way had formed an intimacy all their own.
Often when he came out of the cellar to deliver his orders his mind was still back with her, formulating the answer to a probing question Alise had asked, intending to continue their conversation in the cellar. And often that conversation had to wait.
Some customer, with gnarled fists and a cruel eye, would have marked him for prey. They resented him for so many reasons -- his quiet intelligence, his superior manners in an inferior position, the way he casually wrote what they could never read.
As Aaron walked across the room, the man would veer into him and bump him hard, then turn on him.
"What do you mean tripping me, you big-bellied clown?"
Aaron would pull himself up and answer mildly, "but I didn't ..."
"So you call me liar, too?" the thug barked. "So you think to make an ass of me here in front of all these fine gentlemen?" A flurry of laughter from the house, where every eye had turned to get a view of the coming scene.
"No, sir, I merely would point out that gl-UUUNGHHH!!" which was not at all what Aaron had intended to point out, but which was the sound he was forced to make by the ruffian's bare fist clomped firmly into his unsuspecting belly.
Aaron would flop back into a post or table, instantly helpless and hurled deep into agony, cradling his belly and making faces. It was his nature to feel intensely. It was his nature to always be abstracted from the immediate moment. And sudden attacks froze his mind to the core, left him unable to anticipate or control anything. He became a mere body -- the big wise kid had become a tall dummy with a round moon of a belly that pleasingly soaked up their fists.
The open room, with its hard, stained wood floors, became Aaron's torture chamber, where the tight-fisted fighting man measured up the rage and resentment of his day, his week, his life, and paid it out in harsh pummeling fists, plunged one by one into poor Aaron's soft belly.
He'd gore one up into him that hoisted Aaron to his toes, then wrench it out and leave the helpless man leaning forward, mouth hung open, and before gravity brought Aaron down again, the thug would spear the other fist into Aaron's helpless stomach, jiggle his loins and drive him clear across the room and back to the wall.
And as Aaron stood there sucking air, eyes unfocused, the man casually strode up to him, looked him up and down, and pronounced his judgment: "Soft-bellied wimp." Then he walloped Aaron in his belly with his fist, a kettle-drum thump of a stomach-punch that produced another robust bellypunch grunt.
His punch was like a hot iron in Aaron. The pain and violation were intense, but the shock went right to his core. He doubled far over. The crowd laughed richly as they watched Aaron do another suffering stagger-dance, dissolving into softness in front of them.
"Lift him up," someone called out. "Let's see your fist-mark on his belly."
He reached down and hauled Aaron up by the collar. Aaron's mouth gaped and he whined, but he had no voice. His hands hung useless at his sides. The defenseless curve of his belly thrust out, with a visible fist-stamp creased into the fabric.
The thug spun him around and quickly bashed the flat of his fist against Aaron's open belly. When the suffering boy started to fold over from that, he swing an uppercut under him, caught Aaron right in the stomach with it, and knocked him back upright for more bread-basket punishment.
He gave Aaron a hard uppercut jab high in his stomach. Aaron barked out a sharp "UUH!" and jumped up and backward, smitten with a wicked belly-ache and breathless lungs. He took the thug's next bellypunch with his gut pushed out. He doubled over completely, jack-knifed at the waist. His hands went up under the fold of his body, gripping his stomach where he had been hit. His mouth gaped open, but no sound came out. Then he fell to his knees, and plunged to the floor.
The ruffian had had his fill. Sated, smiling, he sauntered back to his table and returned to his drink, hardly even casting a glance back at the ruin he had made of the serving boy.
Aaron stayed down a long time, but the calls for drink began to ring out. He fought to his knees, crawled to a post, used it to right himself. He wobbled to the table and straightened his shirt as best he could, though his lower belly still protruded, and took the order. Then he shuffled painfully off to the cellar.
While this happened, he noticed, the cellar door had stayed open a crack, even though he always shut it. When he came down the stairs moaning, he found Alise busy at something. But her hands trembled, and she could not look him in the eye for some time and her voice had a deeper, quieter tone. She never spoke a word to him of his frequent beatings and abuse. But he noticed, too, that after he had gotten his stomach pummeled in the tavern she found more occasion to have her hand on his bulging belly, and he often felt her palm rest there, trembling fingers touching him undercurve or upper curve.
Aaron and Alise were to meet at the tavern where they both had slaved, long ago. This was her idea. He knew she had moved on from the tavern shortly after he left the town, but she still lived in its neighborhood. Alise had written him, however, that he wouldn't be able to find her house in the town's labyrinthine streets. "Meet me in the tavern. Be there in the morning, before there's a crowd," her last message said. Aaron thought his memory for such things was excellent and he easily could find her new home, but he went along with her suggestion.
He found the tavern little changed outside; the same wood and plaster, only darker and dingier, if that was possible. He stood there lost in harsh memories as clouds and sun passed over him, with his hand against the battered door. He remembered Alise's hand laid on his stomach in just that way. He sighed and pushed inside.
The warm, stale air of the place hit him like a remembered perfume from hell. He stood blinking in the dim interior. A young girl he did not recognize stood nearby with a broom in hand, dully sweeping the boards. She glanced up at him then resumed her work. He tried to place her, but then he remembered, of course she wouldn't even have been born yet when he last was in here. He began to hope the town had forgotten him entirely.
No sooner had the thought come to him than he heard a harsh cackle and a man's voice said, "Well look who's back in town! The Belly Wimp himself!"
Aaron knew the voice, and at once remembered the sneer of the man's lip and the force of his punches. The speaker stepped out of the gloom into the space in front of the door. His black hair was salted with gray now, but he had the same sinewed arms and he looked every inch the the horny-fisted brawling sailorman he had been when he dealt Aaron a dozen beatings in this very room.
But now he smiled, held out an open hand, and offered, "here, shake." Aaron innocently accepted the grip, which instantly clamped hard and pulled him forward into a harsh jab in the stomach from the man's other fist. Aaron doubled right over with a gagging groan.
The serving girl, broom in hand, watched wide-eyed and said, "oooh!, right in his belly!" It seemed to inspire the bully.
"Just as slow-witted and pot-bellied as ever, I see," he said to Aaron, who simply stood bent double, as if bowing to the man who punched him, and heaving for air.
All Aaron could manage in reply was "oooooooaah, my belly!" He had never known to restrain his reactions; when he got hit, his mind entered a sealed world of his own and whatever flooded his thought spilled out his mouth, if he had breath to speak it.
The thug grabbed Aaron by the scruff of the neck and hauled him deeper into the place, then threw him forward into a wall. A wooden shelf jutted out from the wall for patrons to set their drinks on as they stood, and Aaron hit it belly-first. It jutted right into his stomach. He took it with an OOF!, wheeled breathlessly, and sagged back against it, his knees buckling. The old tough caught him by the throat and held him up. Aaron's big moist hands flew to the choking grip around his neck, forgetting entirely to guard his round belly. The sailor made something of the occasion.
"Somebody said Belly Boy was coming back to town," he hissed. "Did you expect a parade? Here, I'll give you a fireworks show, right in the gut."
With one free hand he gave Aaron a cruel belly-whomping. Uppercuts, jabs, chops with the side of the fist -- his knuckles did a slam dance on Aaron's poor belly. Aaron himself called out in time to the punches, OOF! UUH! OOUGH! HUNNH! The thug clouted him over and over, bouncing fists off his big belly with hollow drum-thump sounds.
The serving girl stood transfixed, forgetting her work. The other patrons shouted encouragement. "Give him another one!" "Yeah, that's it, right in the stomach!" "Knock the wind out of him." "Look at his belly!!"
At last Aaron's tormentor let him drop. Aaron squirmed on his knees, bobbing his body, both hands cradling his punched stomach. The bully grabbed the broom from the serving girl's hands and said, "watch what I do to him now. Just for you. I'll give him a belly-ache to remember."
He stepped behind Aaron, pulled one of Aaron's arms back chicken-wing, and slid the broom-handle under it, then forced it under the other arm, at the shoulder. Now Aaron's arms were pulled back helplessly. He tried to clutch his stomach, but could only reach to his flanks.
The brute pulled him up by the hair and made him stand. Aaron looked ridiculous as he tried to writhe himself out of this deeply vulnerable position, but he couldn't find a way. He gave up and simply hunched forward, gasping, his arms pulled back, as defenseless as if he had had another foe behind him, gripping and holding him open.
The brute chuckled, eyed him, and then went to work. Act Two of Aaron's Bellyache. The belly-beating that followed was twice as long and sharp as the first performance. Fists seemed to pummel Aaron's open belly from every direction; he lost himself in the suffering and felt himself drowning under attack from a swarm of enraged disembodied fists, clouding him like hornets, clouting his soft flesh. The jabs sank to his core and demolished his self-control.
Somehow he became aware that it had ended. The thug wrenched the handle out of his arms and handed it back to the girl, who was watching the sailor with a gleam in her eye. Then he bullied Aaron back to his feet and shoved Aaron back against the door.
"Come back any time you want your belly beat up!"
A woman rose quietly from the dark booth at the far end of the place. You never could see who was in that booth. At first Aaron saw only her silhouette. Then she stepped into a shaft of light. It was Alise; Aaron knew her at once by her face and shape and by the style of her clothes.
The thug gave Aaron a standing kick in the gut that tumbled him out the door and onto the street, flat on his back. He lay there under the sky, suffering. After a minute Alise emerged. Her face was blank, tight, expressionless. She helped him up to his feet. He wanted to say you look the same, you're still yo, I missed youu. All he could manage was a croak: "ooh, my belly!"
She replied, "come to my place. I will help you."
Her house was a short walk away (he could have found it easily), small but elegant. But as they reached it she gasped: The wood had been splintered at the lock, and the door hung open.
Aaron stepped ahead of her, but as soon as he passed the doorway he met two men charging out. The first held a two-handed sledgehammer. The one behind him carried an iron-bound wooden chest on his shoulder. They hardly paused to size him up. The one with the hammer swung it at the waist and mashed the heavy head of it smack into Aaron's large belly, flattening him against the wall with a pitiful OOF!
He held the iron mass firmly in place while Aaron squirmed and flailed breathlessly, to allow the other man to pass him and run off with the chest.
Alise tried to grab him, but he shook her off, and the hammer-man then dropped Aaron on the floor and took off himself, deliberately knocking Alise hard to the ground as he passed. In a second, they were both gone.
Aaron, still breathless, got to Alise and helped her up. She tried to run after the men, but he restrained her. She was sobbing and breathless herself, but not from the knock she had taken. "They got everything," she wailed, "they got it all! They knew, they knew just where it was."
She sank to the ground and he sat beside her. She looked at him guiltily. "Your object, what you came back here for is gone. It was in the chest. They took it, I'm sorry." Then she seemed to panic again. "And I ... they took from me ... oh!" she broke down in tears.
"Who were they?" Aaron gasped.
"I know those bastards," she wept. "They sulk around the temple. They did this for the priestess, Sonia, I am sure. She is behind this. But they don't know about my ... But now they will ..." She wept again.
Aaron steered her inside, made a hot drink for her, tried to calm her. In flurries, between her rage and sorrowing, he tried to piece it all together. She admitted she had told ... certain men ... that Aaron was coming back to town. But nothing more. "All I said was that you wanted something important to you and that I had it and that we were meeting in the tavern. Thar's all, I swear. I said it was valuable only to you, it had no worth here."
"That would be information enough, if it got to Sonia," he told her. During his first time here, Sonia had been a junior in the sodality of the temple, as well as a prima among the dancers. And she had taken an unusual interest in him, though hardly a kind one. She, of all the people in the town, seemed to guess that Aaron was more than he seemed, that his secret was bigger than this place and worth stealing. That he allowed himself to be beaten and abused by these louts because he had his eyes on something big.
"She never learned it, but I doubt she ever forgot that it existed," he thought. "Not her. She would have spent the years spinning her powers, guessing and testing, keeping her spies on all the roads. She would test her theories, dancing closer to the truth."
"What did they take from you?" he asked Alise.
"Nothing ... everything," she said mournfully. "I kept only secrets in that box. Your object. A few personal things. And my art. There was art in it."
"Your art? But your art isn't ..."
"It was not the art anyone sees. It was only for me. Deeply personal. I didn't want anyone ever to know, but now ..." her tears welled again.
"I will go and deal with Sonia," he said, standing.
She looked at him doubtfully. But what other hope was there? "Promise me one thing. If you do recover what is mine, don't look at it. Promise me?"
He did his best to put her door back in order. Then he rummaged her kitchen and made dinner for both of them. She ate glumly. He tried to distract and cheer her with questions. Alise showed him her art, hung on her walls. He wondered at the beautiful scenes full of light and the lovely forms she created that never could have come from any inspiration in this dingy town.
Then she pulled out the pillows and he made himself a bed in her front room, while she retreated into the back with the lantern. He lay with the moonlight on him and tried to think of a plan. Surrounded by the joy and beauty of Alise's art, and with her sobs seeping through the walls behind, his heart felt like breaking.
No plan came to him, so he slept. He awoke before dawn, and slipped out the door, with his hood high over his head, before Alise awoke. Better this way.
The thing that had been stolen from him was a small piece of a large creation. It had been something he carried with him from his home, and he left it in the care of Alise. But over the years, more and more of that larger creation had died or been destroyed. The little piece now loomed large. Much of his own hope and destiny was wrapped in it. At any minute he expected to feel a piercing sensation, like an icicle in the heart, when it fell into the hands of Sonia, who knew well how to turn any magic against a man.
Yet that moment did not come, and as he walked the streets he drew a little hope from that, though it puzzled him. He made his way by side streets, always in the direction of the temple.
As his mind groped for a plan, it also filled with Sonia. The sun was rising. With every step he drew closer to her. He knew well the ways and rituals of the high priestess. She and he might be the only two in this lazy town awake and active at this hour.
She would have risen from sleep in a state of mind unlike his. From the second she opened here eyes she would be whole, complete, knowing herself in full, never a doubt. Unlike him, Sonia lived in full assurance of herself.
Now she was stepping into the ritual bath in the temple omphalium. Now she was rising from it, glistening; now the acolytes were toweling her gently. Now she was performing the ritual ablutions, now perfuming her dark and elegant navel with the sacred nectar. Now she was sliding her delicate arms into the gown, of finely-woven, well-wrought stuff, colored over with arcane designs and open at the center to bare her belly; now she was strapping the golden sandals to her feet.
And now he stood in the shadow of the temple itself. He had expected to meet the two thugs standing guard, as usual -- Alise had told him to expect that. But there was no guard, only a girl's face in an open panel of the ancient double-doors. She stared at him, expressionless.
"My name is Aaron, I would like ..."
"You are expected. Follow me."
The panel snapped shut, then the door opened. The girl walked down the hall, not turning to see if he followed. As she led him deeper inside, the heat and the perfumed air grew stronger. He followed her into the sanctum, and then she bowed and left.
He took a deep breath in the warm, damp air. It was as he remembered, from when another woman had reigned here and Sonia had been just one of the sodality. The red and gold; the lotus pool bubbling quietly in the center of the room, the canopies and pillows around the walls. The acolytes sat cross-legged by the pool, four on each side.
And between them stood Sonia, tall, lithe, regal, aquiline-nosed. Her black eyes flashed at him under the arches of her brows. Her face was lined and her waves of inky hair bore streaks of gray, but she was the same lightning bolt of a woman. She wore a crimson gown, and her sensual slit of a navel seemed to mock and beckon him, as ever.
"So kind of you to answer my summons, Aaron," she purred.
"Sonia, I ..."
"Yes, I was Sonia to you once," she raised her voice. The acolytes exchanged furtive glances. "Now you may address me correctly as Regina Umbilica -- Lady Belly-Button, to you," she added with a turn of her lip.
She walked slowly toward him, around the ring of girls. Her every move and gesture called constant, if subtle, attention to her bared navel, the core and source of all her power and magic. "You remember me, Aaron? You remember how I once held you here? With this?"
She flourished her hips and her long, elegant belly, He swallowed hard and took the chance. He had only a guess, but it was all he had.
"You haven't got it," he said. "They didn't bring it to you. The louts ran off with it themselves."
"You pot-bellied FOOL!" Her voice rang out. He had guessed right, but now he knew he would pay for it. "Do you think I need anything from YOU?" And she flung her arms up high, and as she did the air flickered around her and out of it congealed eight slender fists, a fan of four at each side of her, magically conjured. Each one was her hand, painted nails and all. Aaron knew this magic, and he startled. He had never seen this from her. She had grown so strong.
Sonia turned her wrists and wreathed her fingers, and as she did the conjured hands fell into formation and swam through the air toward him. Four darted forth and grabbed him, wrists and ankles, and held him in a grip unexpectedly strong, an open X. But the others came soft-handed. One tousled his hair, two caressed and teased his belly.
The fourth reached low and stroked him hard in an instant, as Sonia took a seductive step toward him and smiled.
"Your will-power is still as weak as your soft belly, I see."
"Sonia, I ..."
Her eyes blazed and she scribbled in the air with her fingers, her lips set tight, and the caressing hands quickly clenched. The one in his hair turned to a grip and held his head upright. The three below arced out and torpedoed back into him, one after another in rapid succession, plunging their knuckles into the meat of his belly. "OOF!" "UUH!" "OOGH!"
The small, sharp hands hit as hard as the sledgehammer. They circled quickly and lunged at him again, hit him again, an uppercut bellypunch, a pounding clomp down into his stomach curve, and a furious jab right in his core.
"OOH! UUFF! h-OOUFF!"
The sub-priestesses stared transfixed as Sonia punished him, writing out her wrath on his belly. Sonia flicked her hand, and the fists paused. "Would you like to try again?"
He gasped for air. When he found enough he croaked, "Yes, Lady Belly-Button."
"Better." With a clap of her hand she dismissed the acolytes. They filed out with a swish of perfumed silks. When the last of them had vanished down the corridor, she said, "Ariadne, join us." The young girl who had admitted Aaron into the temple stepped out silently from a door behind one of the tapestries and came to Sonia's side.
"Those stupid geese have no skills suitable for a priestess," Sonia said. "Only the wealth of their parents keeps them here." She turned her glance to the girl beside her, still watching Aaron's reaction to her.
"Aria, here," she said slowly, "will be my heir and successor as Regina Umbilica. I have begun to instruct her in the finer ways. Her power is formidable, but raw. As you shall see."
Aria walked a slow, precise circle around the hanging man, eyeing him up and down. As she stepped out from behind him she laid a cold hand on his flank and let it follow the curve of his round stomach. She rested it on him, then gave a sharp shove with the heel of her hand against Aaron's upper stomach. He let go an involuntary "OOF!"
"His belly is just as you described it to me, my queen," she said at last. Sonia smiled.
"Firm as a pillow and taut as a sponge," Sonia mocked. "Every time he gets a real man's fist slammed in his gut, the wimp loses all his breath."
"What a soft-bellied wimp," Aria said.
"And ideal for our plan, isn't he?" Sonia smiled.
The priestess herself now walked a circle around Aaron, a hand on his belly the whole time, one then the other touching him there; he felt her heat.
"I don't even want your magical trinket, bellywimp. Not now. All I want is my revenge on those two louts who think they can thieve from me. Do you know how furious it makes me?" Aaron could feel the tremble in her touch. He pictured the eight floating hands, each armed with a sharp knife.
"Frankly it was only ever curiosity that drew me to try to steal it from your painter-girl. But my former captain of the guards, and his idiot sidekick, think I would pay a queen's ransom for it. Of course, they're just smart enough to not trust me. They demand that I send Aria, alone, with the gold."
She stopped in front of Aaron and locked her eyes onto his.
"And so I shall. But you'll follow her."
"Why," he said. "I'm not good at spy work. They'll find me."
"You want your precious object back? You will do as I require. I told you I don't need it any more. You can have it, and whatever else is in that chest. I want those men."
"They will discover me."
"Of course then will, you big-bellied oaf. That is what I intend. Your capture will allow Ariadne to delay their flight, long enough for me to snatch them up."
"I don't understand."
"Understanding is my business. Your business is blundering into a trap. Something you do quite well. I will need time, and your weak belly is going to buy it for me."
"What if I refuse?"
"What other hope do you have?" she said, scornfully. Then added, with a cruel flicker of a smile, "And what will your Alise say if you fail?"
He hung silently. Then he drew up what strength he could rally. "I need to know more. Now. If I am to play my part properly."
Sonia ignored him, turned and walked to her desk, reached into a drawer, her back to him.
Aria spoke. Her voice high, angelic, and cold as crystal: "They will beat you up. For me. The captain is very desperate to please me; he has tried again and again to gain my favor ever since the day I arrived. He is a fool to desire so; he has no notion of my power. I would freeze his heart. But he is a man. I have shown him nothing but the coldness he deserves. That is why he intends to take me with him, along with the ransom and the magical secret."
Aaron looked at Sonia, at her desk still. She answered without turning. "Do you wonder why I want my revenge on him? But he is so transparent, so ... male. Why else would he ask for exactly Ariadne to bring him the gold? He is beautifully sadistic, but very simple, even for a man. He is the one who plunked his hammerhead into your belly last night. Yes, I know that, too. I know many things, Softbelly."
Sonia flourished one hand; the magical grip finally relaxed and Aaron fell heavily forward to his hands and knees. The magical floating hands melted into nothing. He knelt, rubbing his wrists.
"Go now," Sonia commanded. Aaron rose unsteadily to his feet. "Aria will show you out and tell you what you will do tonight."
TIME TO MOVE
He approached Alise's house from the back alley, and stood beneath her studio window and tapped. "Alise, it's me," he spoke low and hurriedly. He heard the back door latch rattle, and he slipped inside.
"Have you got it?" she asked breathlessly.
"No, but I will tonight. At least I think I will." She dropped, crestfallen.
"Sonia doesn't have it, either."
"Then who --"
"I can't tell you, but there's a plan to recover everything, and I must play a part in it, it seems."
"Whose plan? You tell me nothing. I have a stake in this, too, remember? You owe me the truth!"
He looked away from her gaze.
"Lock the door. Come in to the middle room and I will tell you what I know."
At the end of half an hour, she still had many questions, but Aaron was out of answers.
"First, Ariadne will go to the rendezvous," he explained again. "If she is alone -- and they will be watching -- she will be told the meeting place."
"And you will be on the next street or alley, watching her," Alise said, repeating what he had told her. "And you will follow her to -- wherever the deal is to be done. And they will capture you. And I still don't understand how you get my chest back. I am going with you."
"No you are not," he shot back. "It is a trap, I go to be captured and beaten. If Sonia fails, there's no telling what they will do to me."
"If Sonia fails, I won't. I am going with you. You said sunset? There's no time to argue. Get on your feet. Let's go."
They tracked Ariadne as she made her way to the east end of town and down a blind alley between two shops.
"I can't see her," Alise whispered to Aaron as they stood at the end of the row. "She could be playing a trick on us."
"This is part of the plan," Aaron assured her. "There's an old well back there. She'll find a scrap of parchment under the stone curb of the well. It will tell her where the deal is to be done. She has to move quickly after that; they only gave her a short time. And she has to signal to Sonia."
Ariadne soon stepped out again on the street, pulled her cloak tight around her neck, and walked quickly down the road toward them. Alise ducked into a darkened doorway and grabbed Aaron around the waist and pulled him in with her. There in the tight space he felt Alise's heart pounding against his back as her hands held his stomach. Ariadne passed without a glance.
When the echo of her footsteps on the cobbles had faded, the peered out. They saw her ahead. "Going toward the docks," Alise said.
They had to walk quickly to keep up, and carefully to keep their distance. When they got in sight of the water, the moon had risen and in the white light they saw three hukling merchant ships, fat and dark. And at the far end a trim-keeled two-master with a full cloud of sail, straining like a hound on the leash and ready to bolt for the open sea. And Ariadne had just gone up the plank and stepped aboard.
Alise and Aaron hurried from shadow to shadow till they stood by the ship, and they read "Falcon" in gold paint on her taffrail. They listened. A man's voice, from below decks, the words indistinct. Then Aria's clear laugh.
They crept up the plank and onto the ship's wooden deck. They crouched behind a coil of rope and peered in the direction of the voices. Through an open door, lantern-light shone.
"I can see my chest," Alise whispered. Aaron looked. Through the doorway he saw a wooden box. Its lock had been smashed, but the lid was closed.
They heard the man's voice again. "Now let's have a look at that gold."
"Wait here," Aaron said; "you don't want to fall into their hands. Or Sonia's."
Aaron crept toward the door.
DANCE of PAIN
Alise saw the dark shape leap down from the spar and land on Aaron's back, knocking him to the deck. The thud of his body dropping shook the slender craft, and with growls and curses the captain of the temple guards surged up the stairs, pulling Ariadne with him by the wrist. Aaron was on his knees, rubbing the back of his head.
Alise shrank back as far into the shadows as she could. Evidently the captain's henchman, up in the rigging, had not seen her. His view was blocked by the spread of the sail, and he had seen Aaron only when he approached the door.
"Found your spy," the other man growled to Aria. "Caught him lurking."
Ariadne pulled away from the captain 's grip. "He's not with me. He's a pot-bellied fool who thinks this magical treasure is his. And he thinks I should be his, too."
"Oh, is that so?" The captain said, grabbing Aaron roughly by the collar and hauling him upright.
Then he paused and looked around. "Where's the girl? That painter-slut. She was with him, following you."
That wasn't in the plan, but Aria took the news without missing a beat. She shrugged. "Ran off. Got cold feet. Who knows? She has no spirit."
The captain looked suspicious. "Ran off to tell Sonia, perhaps? When you double-cross a witch, you trust nothing."
The other man said, "too many spies already. I don't like how this is going. Let's kill him quickly, bind up your wench, and be off."
Ariadne ignored him and turned her body to the captain. "You think you're worthy of me, captain? Prove it and I'll go willingly."
The captain hesitated a second. It was all she needed.
"I hear you're a handy man with your fists and a staff," she cooed. He straightened up and held his chin out. The captain's henchman stood with his mouth open. She gestured with a white hand to Aaron. "I don't care what you do to this big-bellied oaf here. But before you do it, I'd love to see you give him a belly-ache to remember me by."
In one gesture the captain flung Aaron away from him and grabbed up his fighting-staff from the rack where it hung in the cockpit. Every man in town had such a weapon: They were cut from saplings, six feet long, with a rounded club at one end six inches across and tapering to three inches wide at the base. The base, too was rounded; the whole was polished and hard as bone.
Aaron remembered well what that thing could do to his soft body. The captain took down another staff and threw it to Aaron. He fumbled it, dropped it, picked it up again, held it awkwardly.
"Hans, get below and guard that damned box with your life," the captain said. "The artist-bitch may be hanging about yet, and who knows who else."
"We should be ten minutes out to sea and headed for the Southern Isles by now," Hans muttered, but he obeyed.
"This won't take but a minute," the captain said, spinning his staff deftly in his hands, twirling it in front of him, and eyeing Aaron hungrily.
Alise feared the thumping of her heart would give her away. She stilled her breath.
Ariadne stood staring at Aaron with a serene smile. "Look at his belly," she said.
Aaron shifted his feet. The captain laughed. "His belly is the perfect target, my dear lady. Let me show you what I do to such worthless men as this. En garde!"
The captain took a menacing stomp forward and poked high with the small end of his staff. Aaron took the fake entirely, raising his arms up, holding the staff crossways, as if to block a blow to the face.
The captain, laughing, clacked his own staff against Aaron's knocking it clear out of his hands, then he spun on one heel and with his back to Aaron jabbed the thick butt of his staff firmly into the other man's curved-out stomach.
"Ooooh!" Aria cooed approvingly.
"UUUUUH!" Aaron bellowed miserably. He tried to draw a breath, but nothing happened. Another involuntary moan let out the last of the air in him, and he stood now breathless. The captain was still in motion. He pivoted away from Aaron's helpless bulk, jabbed the small of the staff on the deck with a hollow thump, and lept into the air still gripping his weapon. His momentum carried him in a full rotation around the rod, and as he swung around he lashed out his leg and rammed his boot-heel into Aaron's stomach.
The force of it flung Aaron back into the rigging ropes, and bounced him forward again. But the captain was on his feet again, with his staff stuck out like a lance and Aaron got it right in his round gut. Really it was his own force that impaled his weak belly on the thing, but the captain got all the credit for it in Ariadne's eyes.
The thudding force of the blow pushed Aaron back into the rigging ropes, and he clung to them, suffering horribly from the breathlessness and the withering belly-ache he had. The captain punched the staff into him again, high in the stomach, and that dropped Aaron to his knees, huffing and sobbing.
The Captain stood over him a long second, to see if he'd rise. Aaron only bent over further and moaned.
With a laugh, the captain turned and walked to the dock side of the ship, and began to loosen the rope. "That was easy." He made as if to kick off the gangplank that led to the shore.
"Get up, get up, you weakling," Ariadne hissed at Aaron through gritted teeth. But he was too winded. He looked like he was trying to find his stomach, somewhere up inside him.
She wheeled to face the captain and the furred hem of her robe slapped Aaron's face.
"Oh, but surely you can do more? I have seen such skills often in the arena. Surely you know more than one way to beat a belly so ... deserving as his. Show me how you use your bare fists."
The captain grunted doubtfully, but he obeyed. He walked up to Aaron and began prodding him with his boot. "Up, Softbelly; the lady commands it."
Aaron wanted nothing more than to stay down, but he knew he had to perform his part. There was no other way. He found a grip on the foremast, just a few feet from Alise's hiding place, and slowly pulled himself up. His breath was coming in long gulps now, and he could not help himself from bleating pitifully, "my belly! my belly!"
The captain took his proper fight stance and raised his fists. Aaron tried to mimic what he saw, but the attempt was woeful.
Aria threw in a taunt: "Aaron, dear, did you really think I would want to be the mistress of a man with a soft stomach?" And she let her icy laugh ring out.
When he heard that, the captain flew at Aaron. He threw the first punch at him overhand -- swung his arm, and POW! socked him near the top of his belly, on the stomach-curve. Poor Aaron said "OOPh!" and froze in place.
Ariadne let out a lusty "Ooooo, right in the belly!"
The captain really was an expert at this art. He hoped Ariadne appreciated the subtlety of this strike. The punch had been a "stunner." That is, it left his opponent helpless, but with his back arched and his belly wide open. It was a set-up punch.
The captain stepped in and jabbed his fist straight into Aaron's gut. It mashed his stomach, and the force of it drove him back against the mast, suffering and bellyaching. And the captain followed that up with a two-punch combination, straight in the stomach.
Aaron folded in half with another "OOPh!" and stood there clutching his belly with his tongue hanging out and a sick look on his face.
The captain straightened up and put his hands on his hips. "Yes, my lady. Right. in. his. belly!"
Four belly-slammers in 10 seconds. He hoped she'd been counting. Aaron had no breath in him, and his knees began to buckle.
"You're not going to let him go down so easily, I hope," Aria teased.
The captain slung his fist in an uppercut motion and socked Aaron in the belly. The blow caught Aaron's body in the act of sagging forward, and it connected with enough force to drive him back upright. It also made him say, "OOP!" in a way that made Ariadne laugh.
Pain rose up visibly in Aaron like a shock wave. He turned away, grimacing, but the captain whipped the other fist and caught him with it as he turned, right in the stomach. "OOP!" By then he was in a complete bellypunch-panic.
The captain gripped his collar, pulled him out, then shoved him into the ropes again. Aaron bounced back and the captain just let him ram into his fist. The punch got Aaron -- again -- right in the belly. It stopped him in his tracks and dumped him on the boards. He rolled around like a scorched bug, kicking his legs and cradling his belly and moaning.
The captain wiped his hands like a man at the end of a job. Aria grapped his forearm. "More," she purred. "For me."
The captain was a raging bull. He hauled Aaron upright and bullied him some more. Aaron's hands never left his gut. Then the captain pulled him up in front of Ariadne, and said, "Never offer yourself to a real woman if you've got a soft BELLY!" and with that last word he rammed it into him again. From close range this time. Aaron's hold on himself had sunk low, under the belly-button, and that gave the captain a perfect window of stomach. He hit that pot belly right where it counts.
The punch drove another satisfying OOF! out of Aaron's humiliated belly. He backed away, bobbing and making pathetic sounds.
But the captain stayed with, him, swinging when he saw his chances. He jutted one up into Aaron's doubled-over belly. That made Aaron pop upright in shock. Alise saw his big-eyed agonized face for a second, then the captain swung his arm and gave him a side-of-the-fist bop in the stomach. It was just a rap, but it hit him right on the solar plexus and there went Aaron's breath again.
He put that pot-bellied wimp through his paces. He thoroughly humiliated his belly. Took him apart slowly, sadistically. Tortured him with wringing bellyaches and long, gulping bouts of breathlessness. All the while the captain poured a torrent of verbal abuse on him. He called Aaron a "pot-bellied wimp." Even if he had had breath to speak, Aaron couldn't have denied it.
Ariadne was openly cheering the captain now. "That's it! Shove your fist in his belly!"
In the end, Aaron was on his hands and knees again, staring at the rough boards with his belly hung down, pulsing out and in, as he moaned -- "oooooh! ... oooooh!" with all the wind knocked out of him.
"Kick him in the stomach!"
The captain obeyed. The boot-whomp lifted Aaron into the air, flipped him over, and dumped him flat on his back in the middle of the deck. The captain planted a heel on the bulging curve of Aaron's stomach, and ground it down to pin his victim to the boards.
Just then a flight of eight fists surged over the gunwales and before the shocked captain could react, three of them took him by the arms and hair and gripped him and slammed him back against the mast.
REVENGEThe captain hung eight feet off the deck. Another Sonia-hand closed tight around his throat. Hans, who must have been watching from below, ran up and three more disembodied hands flew at him and held him helpless while a fourth began choking the life out of him.
Sonia strode regally up the gangplank and boarded the Falcon.
"Get the chest," Sonia commanded, but Ariadne was already in motion, hurrying down the steps.
Her chest! Alise's heart jumped in her throat. She dashed forward, toward the open door, after Aria, but Sonia caught her by the hair.
"What have we here?"
Aaron saw Alise stagger back, hair pulled, mouth twisted in pain, and his heart roused itself. He could suffer anything himself, but this was too much for him. He willed himself to lunge out at Sonia's leg, to try to trip her, but before he could move a sharp jolt cleaved his body. A pain that seemed to come from within him. His vision dimmed and purpled and he felt himself without strength.
Sonia hardly noticed him. She was focussed on Alise. "Why did you come here, slut! You could have spoiled everything."
"You took what was mine!"
"You! Miserable bitch, you had something too good for your feeble soul to ever comprehend. I took what was MINE. Whatever else is in that chest is trash to me. But if it is so secret to you, we'll have it all out in the open soon enough."
She turned to the doorway. "Aria, come!"
Ariadne already was emerging, stiffly, eyes gleaming. Sonia flung Alise down beside where Aaron lay prostrate.
"Where is it? Aria?"
Ariadne flicked her hand and the captain's discarded staff flew into it. Sonia stared, open-mouthed. Then, with a lunge of her arms Aria plowed the staff-head into Sonia's elegant belly.
Sonia folded and fell with a sharp "OOF!" followed by a long, wailing moan. Aaron and Alise lay still. They saw Sonia's hand scratch on the deck in front of her bent head. Her other hand was pressed to her navel. She wailed like an animal.
Ariadne threw back her arms and shed her cloak and revealed herself richly arrayed in a full gown, shimmering gold and silver in torchlight and moonlight, radiantly bare-bellied, her navel deep-set, her curves goddesslike. And clasped at her throat was the magical object from Aaron's world. All the power of that lost place funneled through that artifact and into her. Aaron could feel it at once.
Sonia's magical hands melted into air, and the limp bodies of the two men slumped to the deck of the Falcon. Now it was Ariadne who flung her arms high and spun out eight forms of her own hands into the night air. They pounced on Sonia and rifled her body as she sobbed "no, no, no." They took rings, bracelets, necklace -- every magical element and ornament. Two hands brought them to Ariadne, who donned them one by one.
And then the gripping fingers raised Sonia and held her upright in an open X.
And then the free hands started punching her hard in the belly. Aria seemed to have no need to direct them with her fingers, as Sonia had done. They obeyed her mere thought. She turned from Sonia's torturous "OOFs" and looked down at Aaron and Alise.
"I have appropriated your item. It was the final piece of power that I required to gain mastery over Sonia. Poor Sonia, who never could rule herself."
Sonia gasped out half a curse as Aria, but a fist in the stomach silenced her.
"You have proven useful," she told Aaron and Alise. "I have no further need of you. You may go."
[to be continued]