In the big top, applause erupts. A tableau has been unveiled, depicting sumptuary laws across the ages. A woman, her hear uncombed, her face unwashed, wearing little more than shapeless yards of burlap, faces a crush velvet goddess accoutered with garnet freckles and an elaborate rose gold coif. Sparks fly from the goddess’s fire-diamond eyes as the silver embroidery on her gown melts, leaving an abstract pattern of smoking black rivulets upon the melted fabric. She is reduced to a charred skeletal form: hollow, naught but ash.

The plebian woman’s body is suddenly alive with multi-colored tattoo ropes writhing and twisting upon her flesh like a mass of exotically-hued snakes. They ripple in time to the spasmodic gasps of her cackling laughter. “Progress” is written in a child’s clumsy, hesitant scrawl upon her breast.

“I am you.” she hisses triumphantly.

The curtain falls. The emcee steps onto the stage.

“Another spectacular trick by that master illusionist, Impetus.”

Blind with eyes wide open, the troubadour stumbles through the chilly gloom of a cavern. Faltering, he calls out for help. His own need comes echoing back to him.

Then a figure composed of the supple, winding curves of a babbling brook appears. It slinks towards him, leaving a white and turbid wake as it slices through the silty air. A beaming, luminescent moon sprite, the ever-present light in the darkness. She reaches out a supple hand just as he feels his heel sink into the soft nothingness of oblivion.

Understanding glitters in the depths of her opalescent irises. Roaring flames burst from the pit behind the troubadour, sweeping them both upward, tumbling, crashing, their limbs entwined and flailing, each forceful bush of flesh against flesh bringing the pleasant agony of friction’s heat.

Well-placed thrusts of fear stab the troubadour’s gut. An instinctual tocsin beats at his temples, blaring a countdown to destruction. Prescient warnings go ignored: there is the tender, gentle heat of a yielding mind, a probing body.

But her effervescence melts at the first sign of day, as a belching roar off in the distance warns of the prodigious hunger of the sprawling metropolitan beast waking from its fitful doze.

Suddenly, terror: it’s not a cave, but a furnace. And the heat turns from red to white to blue, a fresh wave of agony coming with each spectral shift. The damper has failed and the bellows is set to automatic, the engineers caring more for efficiency than integrity.

The troubadour jolts awake, in darkness. Or is this the delusion?

Witchcraft. A dream. A pleasant seduction. A beautiful bud of truth unfolding. Grafted on a pricker bush, it withers on barren, wizened limbs. But reach out to reserve the seed and expose flesh to hungry, snapping teeth.

Purity. A dream. For how could truth, framed by hopes whose ornate veneer wears away to reveal delusion, remain pure? No, delusion: another word for a lie. A hideous blemish marring the perfect surface of the Ideal. An open, oozing sore turning a voluptuous beauty queen into a repulsive crone. Besides, the Ideal was unattainable. The masses, those divinely-inspired philosopher-kings, said so. So it must be true.

Madness. A dream. To root one’s hopes in the impossible. No, madness maddened: to see the gaping, bottomless chasm at the end of one’s quest and still press on.

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