"This place is a hell trap."
He was only a door-to-door salesman, forgettable in every way, but he came armed with words that blazed as vividly as the punishing afterlife he described. He was selling pamphlets, overpriced safety tips, and fire extinguishers.
"If a fire broke out, what would you do?"
He was pitching his goods to anyone in the tavern who would listen, and on a crisp Tuesday night that wasn't much except for the bartender's wide-eyed animal of a son. The boy glanced up from the newspapers he'd been studiously scribbling with the nubs of crayons.
"All it would take is a match in the wrong place, a misplaced cigarette, and FOOM! This place would go up like a fireworks factory, like the second coming of the war."
The child gasped, and the salesman knew he had captured his audience. A feat the boy would have otherwise admired. "Y'see, humans are pretty foolish creatures. We think fire is our friends, and yes, it's helped us through the ages, but the moment we underestimate it, it will turn on us, and eat us faster and worse than a plague upon the flesh, destroying everything we are, and make. Why, without the proper precautions, this place could kill us all. We'd roast slowly, like pigs. I can practically smell it... Roast little boy, skin crackling. Wouldn't take too much imagination, I see they put you on the spit often enough. And the crackling noise that once was the warmth of the house and the comfort of the kitchen fire... why it's the beams of this shabby building, it's our skin, it's our hair. Burning."
The boy cowered low as he was assaulted with the apocalyptic visions.
"Tell your mother you need to be better prepared."
And like anyone who is completely cornered by fear, he did at the soonest moment.
"Don't listen to him, he's just trying to sell you," his mother said gruffly as she polished the bar counter. The boy fidgeted and tugged at his hair, wondering when the last time he'd had a bath was.
"Aren't you scared the bar will burn down?" he asked in a quiet, wavering voice.
"I've often dreamt of burning this dump," the hard-lined face woman grunted.
"Maybe I'll burn it with you in it!" she snapped. "Now go bring out those beers to the customers. Hurry up!"
It was difficult for the spindly boy to carry the tray of beers, but he did as he was told.
The next day he lost a good deal of friends when he threw all of their matches in a grimy puddle. Their plans for the matchbox were epic, mostly involving firecrackers, smoke and stink bombs, and purloined cigarettes. Then the boy, thinner even than most street rats, filthy and wild-eyed, had started screaming bloody murder about how their skin would crackle off like a cooked pig's, and thrown it away. After a beating the kid was officially kicked out of the group, and was pissed on to officially seal the deal.
"We knew there was something off about that kid," they said. They had no idea.
By the time he was 13 or so, Shou-ye was beginning to have an idea. Laying naked next to a heaving, gelatinous pile of man put a lot of things in perspective. The bills hadn't been paid in years, and the rooms in the tavern were lit with flickering storm lamps. He hated them.
Next to him, the beast shuddered and snorted, sitting up.
Shou-ye lay on his stomach, chin resting on clasped hands, watching the patterns of light flicker across the wall, shadows and demons of hell inacting an endless dance every night.
If he pats me on the ass, I will beat his face in with a claw hammer, thought Shou-ye.
The man sat up.
If he grabs me by the hair and pulls me, I will slice open that marshmallow stomach with a bowie knife, thought Shou-ye.
The man was standing, lumbering naked, searching through drawers. His elbow bumped a lamp and Shou-ye found himself shouting. "BE CAREFUL! The whole place will go up. This place is a helltrap."
The man looked at him with a smirk, holding up the pack of cigarettes and lighter he'd been searching for. "That's the first time you've opened your mouth since we've been together," he said slowly.
"Not the first time I've opened my mouth, per se," Shou-ye shot back sharply.
"You know what I mean. First time I've seen a breath of life in your sad body. Fire scare you, boy?"
Shou-ye looked away.
"Look at me when I'm talking to you!" the beast fumed, and when Shou-ye fought the sweaty hand that tugged his chin he flicked the lighter, and a yellow-white flame licked Shou-ye's cheek.
Shou-ye screeched like a wounded animal and scrambled, scrabbling into a corner.
"You are scared of fire. Just like an animal."
"Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you."
"No," said the man thoughtfully. "Fuck you."
When it was all over a second time the beast chuckled and said, "Who thought it would only take a lighter to keep my son in line?"
Shou-ye was not doing better.
He was still anxious of fires, but he'd grown more used to them in the circus. One had to. It was not really the fear of fire that bothered him so much these days. Nor was it the sense of dread hanging over Asile like a heavy black cloud, insinuating itself against the circus, pressing and filling in the weak places like an unscrupulous lover.
He made Suu sleep in his bed most days, but nothing happened. Not a single thing. Not since that night.
He'd barely spoken a word since then. He was often still, a rarity for the agile knife-thrower, who always had a knife to polish, a move to practice, an instrument to strum. He would sit still and stare with those blind eyes into nothing, and even words did not penetrate him. A shaking usually did it, but it begged the question...
If Shou-ye was blind and made himself deaf, who could really get through to him?
He smelled the fire before he heard it, but when he did hear it was a roar.
"This place is a helltrap," he murmured. Hadn't he said such to Ban-Bao before they set out here?
He had always feared that sound, that smell. He avoided campfires and even cooking fires if he could. Tonight it was different, however.
There were voices in the flames. Whispering.
Come, Hei Shou-ye. Come to the fire. I'm your friend, I love you. I would never betray you.
The fire spoke with the voice of the Ringleader. And though Shou-ye knew it was false, he could not help but follow it.
As he walked deeper into the inferno, he wondered if his tattoos would bubble and boil up on his skin before his skin turned red and then black.
Ah, that's better, said the fire. Isn't it nice and warm to be with friends? You shouldn't shut yourself away, you know. Wouldn't you rather open up to someone?
"I am," said Shou-ye. "You're not as bad as I thought you were."
Then he lay down in the heat.