Numenera – Sulka Jackeen
[Here’s a narrative background of my character, Sulka, who is a “clever jack who fights with panache”]
For 32 years, Sulka was nothing special to anyone. Comfortable with his family, ill at ease with friends, terrified of strangers, he spent a too many years working hard to remain anonymous if not invisible in public.
He worked as a stagehand at a local half-shin theater that produced knock-off versions of popular Charmondian fare such as “The Gilded Tower” and “Assassins In The Palace”. Sulka’s penchant for blending in worked in his favor as he stayed in the shadows along the catwalks and under stages to aid the thespians and add to production values, but his position also afforded him one conceited advantage: living a life vicariously through the comedies and tragedies that he witnessed each night.
During his tenure as “stagehand’s apprentice” to a kind but impatient Mr. Wa-Halum, Sulka studied not the actors and actresses that played out their scenes below and above him, but their characters, the bigger than life personalities which were so different from his own, and when he was left alone after the performance to sweep the handbills and discarded wrappers from the aisles, he would re-enact his favorite scenes upon the empty, unlit stage.
He learned to handle a sword. To flatter a lord. To entice a lady. To catch a rogue in a lie and to avoid being caught in one himself. There, alone, Sulka was everyone he had never had been: smooth, composed, skilled, and desired, at least until he awoke from his dream, locked up behind himself, and went home for the night.
* * *
It was after one of these particularly satisfying recreations — “The Courtship of A Certain Young Lady” — that Sulka’s life was altered in ways he could never have imagined. He had taken a well used shortcut from the theater to his home, thinking of nothing in particular except on how he wished he could impress a beautiful woman like the way Larender impressed Fanthi in the second act, when he was struck by a sudden rise of temperature born on the back of a strong and unexpected wind. It whipped through the alleyway, disturbing debris and buffeting him as he tried to make his way through. The onrushing force was almost physical in nature, at times like the palm of a hand pushing against him, and again like a million tiny stings. He pressed through, laboring as if moving in slow motion, and when he reached the mouth of the alleyway, the onslaught simply…stopped.
* * *
For the next week, Sulka endured the most violent sickness of his entire life. At first this father blamed him for faking it, but his mother quieted him by the third day when they both saw that his maladies were real. Weakness, vomiting, a strange rash that presented itself as bright red splotches across his entire body, a fever that would not break, a thirst that could not be quenched, and a hunger that would not abate; all of these symptoms came on at once and Sulka was certain that he would die. At home, certainly, as he had not strength to die anywhere else, but aside from that, very much as he had lived: alone, unknown, and inconsequential.
On the last day of the week, he awoke with only the hunger and thirst remaining, and finally rising from his bed he proceeded to devour the entire contents of the family pantry before cleaning himself, dressing, and heading into the city to seek more sustenance. It took the better part of the day for him to finally feel that he had eaten and drank enough, and when he returned home his parents were both pleased and puzzled at his sudden change of fortune.
* * *
Sulka returned to the theater only to find that Mr. Wa-Halum had given his job away. The elderly man explained with genuine regret that yes, the company had heard that someone had taken ill, and that yes, no one was sure who exactly, except for the stagehands who knew Sulka by name, but he couldn’t expect the company to wait him out, could he? The show, as they say, had to go on, and that meant that they company needed a replacement stagehand. Dejected despite feeling physically better than had had in a long time, Sulka thanked Mr. Wa-Halum and made his way out of the theater. There, in the aisle that ran from the double doors to the stage, he passed Keeli Thumford, the beautify young actress who played the role of Fanthi.
“Hello,” she said as they passed, her with a quizzical look, he with his eyes customarily downcast. “Are you new to the company?”
Startled for a moment — and later he realized, only a brief moment — Sulka paused and looked deep into her eyes. He could see something there, something he never thought he would see: her, seeing him. “No, I’ve actually just now been let go.” His response surprised him; rather, his steady hands, the rhythm of his heart, the clarity of his speech…this was not him, yet he somehow knew that it was.
“Oh!”, Keeli replied, herself taken aback a bit. “I thought I knew the company, but I suppose I was…unfortunately…wrong.”
Sulka caught a sight, suddenly, as Keeli responded, and he paused. It was quite clear: a dilation of her pupils, a quickening of her breath, the pulse that ran the length of her neck. This was new; this was amazingly exhilarating.
“I was with the stage crew,” he said…and before he could stop himself, added with a smile “I’ve been working above and below you for years.”
Why he said that out loud and why he was unable to check himself, he could not say, but he did not regret it when Keeli blushed and smiled herself. She brushed her hand across the top of her stage gown without subtlety. “Well, Mr…?”
“Jackeen,” he supplied.
“Well, Mr. Jackeen,” she continued. “It’s been a pleasure having you over me, and beneath me, all these years. I wish you luck in your future endeavors.”
It seemed like a sensible thing to do, so bowed low as the actors did, and offered a “Good day, Ms. Thumford” as he made his way out of the theater with his head held high.
* * *
What was this change? Where did it come from? Sulka made his way home, unconcerned with the fact that he was now unemployed, but circumstance provided him the opportunity to focus on this strange personality that now inhabited his body. So many years had passed in relative solitude and now it was like he had been set free from some sort of cage and allowed to roam uninhibited through the world.
He turned his feet towards the marketplace, not his usual route, but oddly because he wanted to experience being among the crowds. He stood in line for services he had no intention of procuring simply to engage those who had business there. He loitered in public places easily striking up conversations with passers-by and miraculously wasn’t looked at as insane or as a vagrant. He seemed to know what to say to whom, and when and how to say it to put a person at ease, to make them laugh, to keep a conversation going, or to end it on his terms. He was sure he would have been able to move anyone to tears as well, but he considered that to be indecorous for a public place on the most amazing day of his life.
Over the next few weeks Sulka spent all of his time expanding his experience with his fellow citizens. He started out small, with conversation in queues, but quickly desired more interaction with a greater number of people. He considered returning to the theater and to Ms. Thumford with is newfound confidence, but he felt that acting would be a waste of his talents. Actors faked being interesting; Sulka knew that he was, even if he couldn’t put a finger on the why or when he came to this conclusion.
Instead, he dove into crowds and aligned their gazes to himself with witty conversation and slight theatrics that only became more pronounced over time. In a stroke of brilliance, he obtained a rapier with the last paycheque and set about practicing the feints and thrusts as he had seen them performed on stage. He considered himself quite good for someone with no formal training.
* * *
It was during an engagement along a pier that Sulka came to understand his new trajectory, thanks in part to a woman, and Ieros deLeon.
Sulka had become quite the personality around town. He was greeted with a firm handshake by men, and sly smiles and sidelong glances by women. He engaged with both young and elders, switching between their concerns without any effort. One day he found himself holding court among some of the city’s dilettante population when he felt someone grasp his arm, forcibly turn his head their way, and plant their lips firmly against his.
He was barely able to register what was going on, enveloped as he was in the surprise and the scent of some woman who had just imposed herself upon him. The crowd that encircled him hooted and hollered their approval, but it was short lived. Almost as quickly as she had attached herself to him, this stranger was forcibly disengaged by a man who radiated the most controlled anger Sulka had ever seen in his life.
“Forgive me, friends,” the man said with a smile and a sudden shift in temperament that Sulka was sure the crowd had missed. “My sister has been at the bottle a tad bit early this morning, and she seems to become quite the escape artist when she’s into her third draught!” He smiled and gestured widely, with the range of aplomb that Sulka recognized as entirely theatrical and not the least bit on the up and up. The crowd, however, was in for a shin and laughed when they ascribed this woman’s behavior to being an errant drunkard. This straight out of a second-rate matinee, Sulka thought. Something is going on here, not the least of which is this man stealing my thunder.
“Believe me when I tell you, friends,” Sulka said, striding into the center of the crowd that enclosed the stranger, the woman, and now himself. “This woman is certainly not the least bit under the influence.” He rubbed his to lip with his fingers, examining what he wanted everyone to believe was the remains of her lipstick. “Of alcohol, at least.” He stared down the now agitated man as the crowd whooped it’s approval.
“In good faith, friend,” the man said as he shot a sympathetic gaze to the woman who struggled in his grip. “She’s not well in the head. She sees things not as they are. She called a gull her sister once. And she can’t tell the difference between a prince…or an ass.”
The crowd ohhhed, sensing that this theater was escalating right before their eyes, and without a script.
Sulka smiled, raising his hands in mock protest. “I’ve always considered the ass to be a noble beast, friend,” he said, and the stranger tilted his head with interest. “Princes wave their scepters around for attention,” and Sulka gestured at the man. “But the ass,” he said, hooking his thumbs into his belt so as to draw attention. “Actually knows how to use it.”
The crowd burst into laughter, and even the woman chuckled a bit, but the stranger allowed a brief cloud to pass across his face before releasing his captive. She stood her ground, but the stranger slowly approached Sulka. “You have quite the wit, friend.”
“I feel it’s my duty to make up for what others lack. Friend.”
“I see you’ve got yourself a blade. Do you consider yourself adequate enough to use it?”
The two men drew their weapons as the crowd backed off, but not away.
“I’ll let your sister decide,” Sulka said, and the two men crossed swords as the crowd cheered them on.
* * *
That was the unfortunate start of a long standing rivalry with deLeon, the only person who could match Sulka scheme for scheme, performance for performance, and bombast for bombast. It wasn’t very long before Sulka — and, he believed, deLeon as well — started to think that the universe had somehow welded their two fates together. No matter where Sulka was, there was deLeon. No matter what kind of operation deLeon was running, Sulka opposed him. They were like two sides of the same coin: back to back and impossible to separate.
There was very little work outside the theater for someone with Sulka’s talents, but he couldn’t escape the reality that he was exceedingly good at convincing almost anyone to see things his way. At first he was content with the adoration, but soon it turned towards the physical, and then the financial…sometimes both. As a consequence of his dealings, Sulka found himself constantly on the move, not just to avoid the ramifications of his actions but also in search of newer, greater challenges. And every step of the way, there was deLeon, acting as a foil, or as competition for the same resources, but always ahead or just behind Sulka himself, not matter where he found himself.
Not every destination required a score, however. Sometimes a layover in an anonymous locale was all that was needed to recharge, and on this day the port town of Bellhollow would serve that purpose.