The Sweet Sunrise paddles lazily forward across murky water as I make my way to her deck. She is rather small as steamboats go, though no less majestic for it. The novelty of this experience has not worn off yet, and I enjoy it while it lasts.
Long as a barn, she has white flanks shining with fresh paint, railings, and a chimney cleaned to shimmering perfection. The flat bottom and broad hull make her look like a corpulent lady trudging peacefully downstream at a sedate pace. I do my best to enjoy the view as I walk leisurely along, stopping sometimes to catch a moment I may paint later. My notebook will soon be filled with sketches of the riverbanks, of the sailors and merchants, of the officers and passengers. Time slows down and I use the meditative state I am in to think.
We have been rerouted and I do not know why, nor do I have any influence on our course. I am not even part of the planning. Aisha received a sending and the Knight squad changed course on the spot, all previous plans abandoned. When I inquired about the delay, Jimena gave me an apologetic look and the promise that the current crisis is not related to me. Knights will go where they are needed, with or without their prisoner in tow.
I only wished whoever sent them off had ordered Jimena to bring me back herself. That would have been common sense, a resource that appears in short supply around those parts.
I am left with nothing to do. I am bound to stay under their surveillance as I am now while they take care of travel arrangements, decide on security matters and they plan the next operation away from my sensitive ears. My only role is to stay put and to behave. Even now, I can feel the curious gaze of Alaric, their dagger-wielding flanker, on my back. There is always someone keeping an eye on me.
I am not in control of my fate.
I hate feeling powerless. It does not matter that we use a trusted captain and have a security detail that a king would find adequate. When dawn presses upon my mind, I join Jimena’s secured sarcophagus with the thought that I am at the mercy of men I do not know and cannot trust. It goes against all that I am and yet I do nothing. It would be unwise to act on it and so I bide my time. Any measure I could take to regain some independence now would harm my situation if I were found out. I will have to trust Jimena, and that is all I can do.
With one last sigh, I finish a simple rendition of a dead trunk bent over the water, with its branches caressing the passing flow, and slam the book closed. I turn around to the cabin from which the helmsman steers the ship and decide to join him on a whim. It would be too inappropriate for me to visit the engine room and I do not want soot on one of the three clean dresses I brought anyway. The perch from which the ship is steered will do nicely.
I deftly climb the ladder up and ignore Alaric’s gaze on my back and lower back.
The box is small, with windows offering a clear view of the surroundings. A solemn man is at the wheel, smoking a cigar and inspecting with care the land around him. He wears a comfortable-looking and well-cut shirt and his black beard shows traces of grey.
“Excuse me, sir.”
The man turns and glares with a frown. I can feel his rising temper in the beat of his heart and the intake of breath, but the insults and complaints die on his lips at my demure air and pleasant smile. I am no Lady Moor, but I have never been hard on the eyes either and few mortals could resist the benevolent attention of my kind.
“And what can I do for you, miss? You’re one of those folks that came aboard today aye? Something about an unexpected business?”
“Indeed. We were set for Boston, but were waylaid.”
He nods in understanding and immediately returns his attention to the water before him. I cannot see any danger, but he frowns at things I do not perceive and adjusts our course with a few light touches.
“The name’s Scoresby, mam, one of the two pilots of the esteemed Sweet Sunrise. Pleasure having you on board. To what do I owe your unexpected visit?”
The irony of a bunch of vampires travelling aboard a ship named Sweet Sunrise does not escape me, nor does the pilot’s guarded tone. It appears that I have intruded upon his sanctum and no amount of passive Charm will dent his offended pride. I decide to ask the difference between helmsman and pilot later.
“This is my first time aboard a steamboat, and I could not help but admire all I could. Why, I haven’t seen a grander thing in my whole life!” I exclaim.
That is a lie. I witnessed a millennia-old sorceress remake the fabric of the reality while sipping an infusion and throwing witty barbs. Nothing can top that. I still go on with my shameless flattery, buttering the old grouch up with thick compliments and a pinch of manipulation so that he spills his gut.
“I am sure you have seen so much and heard so many incredible tales! Would you mind sharing a few with me, to pass the time?”
His caution melts like snow under a fire spell, and he puffs his chest so much that I fear he may pop buttons. Too late, I realize my mistake. The fellow’s tongue is untied, the dam has been breached! A torrent of words escapes from his mouth with a Southern accent I realize I had missed.
“I’ve been on this ship for a good year, I have, and by the by, I’d say she’s one of the finest old ladies to grace this river. And I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been at this for a score years and the things I’ve seen and done, you could write a book about. Why, there is no finer pilot this side of Jackson, and I got the eyes of a cat and the mind of a fox, I do. No shallow or dark water there is that will make Andrew Scoresby lose his way, no mam!”
Not once did he glance in my direction. His gaze is always forward as he keeps us on course.
“We pilots have to remember all islands, reefs, sand bars and bends, yes ma’am, and they change all the time! We got to know the shape of the river like we know the shape of our wives, beg your pardon, better even! Like now at night. And here, we’re in luck because the stars and moon show us the way but when it gets dark as a negroe’s bunghole, beg your pardon, then it’s another thing altogether! All lines look straight, and all shadows look like snags. You think they’ll grab you like a scorned lover but no, tis but shades and bluster. And that bend that looks just fine will shove a rock up the old girl’s arse, beg your pardon, and cause the loss of fifty lives and a quarter million-dollar steamboat, it will. And that’s just the natural dangers we face. Tell me M’lady, do you believe in the… supernatural?”
He affects an air of mystery, or at least tries to.
“I try to keep an open mind,” I reply drily.
“Then listen here, there’s more that preys on ships than just treacherous waters, there is. I got a story from my cousin who was on the ship itself when it happened. He was a mechanic, mind you. Only eighteen at the time. I reckon the ship’s name was the Louisa and she could carry one hundred and fifty people comfortably.
“Once, they were making their way to the Kellog plantation pier. It was a dark night, darker than this one! A fine mist was covering the river and the land was so silent, you could hear the first mate fart from the engine room, beg your pardon.
“My cousin was off shift and he enjoyed watching the pilot work. There were two of them on the Louisa like on this one. An old crusty man by the name of Knutson and a new dandy one called Lannis. Lannis was on the wheel then. He was looking out the cabin and frowning mightily. Sometimes, he would mutter and turn around to look at bends that my cousin swear looks exactly like bends should look like! His nervousness must have been catching, because soon enough there was a small crowd at the fore, muttering under their breaths. Out of patience, my cousin went up to Lannis to ask the poor fellow what troubled him so?
“Heavens, the pilot replied, something is damn wrong with the river tonight. Be a good boy and go fetch old Knutson, because either my brain is playing tricks on me, or there is some devilish force at work!”
The pilot is not heated, fully absorbed in his story. He gesticulates wildly and points at imaginary things and people with one hand, the other still firmly on the controls. Even as he speaks, his attention never wavers from the river before him.
“The boy was scared beyond belief. Terror gripped his heart, but he did what he was told and woke up the old grumbler who first gave him quite an earful, but when he was told of the junior pilot’s words, his brow furrowed and he climbed to the bridge like a company of savages was at his heels.
“Lannis old boy, he bellowed, where in hell did you get us to?! Knutson old bugger, Lannis replied, we were abreast the Wallis farm an hour ago, and now God only knows where we are!
“The old man paled and climbed to the pilot cabin, muttering in his beard furiously. He came by Lannis’ side and took a gander around. Then with a great gasp, he recoiled and announced, Lannis my friend, no matter what happens you cannot have us flounder, you hear me? We must pull through!
“At his words, all the men at the fore were taken with a great fright, and they looked around to the shores but saw nothing but mist, reeds and gnarled trees with roots reaching into the water like witches’ fingers.
“Lannis carried on with old Knutson guiding him until they came to a sharp bend to the right in the river, with what looked like really shallow waters. There was a moment of silence as the pilot guided the ship port. He reached to his tube and called this engine room, telling them to go slow and steady.
“He slowly turned her starboard and the measures of depth were coming like bells tolling for midnight. Thirteen feet, they said, mark twain, eleven feet, ten feet! The men were clinging to the railings with desperation for they had never seen the old pilot scared and they knew in their heart that if they were stranded here, a cruel fate would befall them. Nine feet, they heard, eight feet and a half!”
Scoresby is now screaming with enthusiasm. I hope the other passengers to not think I may be assaulting him.
“Then suddenly, Knutson screamed: now! And Lannis grabbed the horn and yelled give me all you got, dammit, full speed ahead! The chimney vomited great gouts of smoke and the paddlewheel slapped the water with great vigor. They all heard sand scrapping the keel but a moment later, the ship was through!
“A great ovation rose to the sky and the two partners were celebrated for their skill and admirable sangfroid. Soon, the mist lifted and everyone could see a lantern to their right. The Kellog pier was in view, with a man sitting on a recliner who stood up and waved his hat like a flag when he saw them. Everyone started to relax and talk about that strange occurrence, and whatever happened to the river? Everyone that is, but the two pilots.
“Full speed ahead, screamed Knutson, don’t stop for anything!
“My cousin was terribly surprised and asked the old man what was wrong! His teeth were chattering, and hair was falling from his beard from the stress. Lannis was not much better. Cold sweat made his jacket cling to his lanky frame.
“The Louisa forged ahead as the passengers stared, mesmerized, and when it became clear that the ship wouldn’t stop, the man on the pier threw his hat down in anger. And his eyes were black as the devil’s heart, they were, not just the iris, the entire eye! Abject horror seized all aboard. They were so scared they almost suffocated, and a few of them even lost consciousness.
“Fools, Knutson said, we’re not out yet! And so the pilots kept going and soon enough, the shores became normal again and they landed safely a bit later.
“When my cousin asked the pair how they knew it was not the Kellog plantation, Lannis answered. The pier was right, he said, the man was right too, but the shore was wrong. Then old Knutson brought his partner, my cousin and a bottle of whiskey to the mess and talked about a legend that there was a wicked man who lived on an island in the middle of the river and made his wealth stealing from passing ships.
“One night, the river flooded and plunged the entire island under the water. The devil took his soul then, and will only let it go if he can bring enough dead to offset the weight of his sins. And that, m’lady, is why pilots are so important and why we need to know the river perfectly.”
I do hope we come across this interesting character. I bet he would taste nice.
“Thank you sir, I feel safer now that I know we are in such good hands.”
“Right you are mam, right you are.”
How I wish I could stay and hear more of those outlandish tales. Perhaps there will be more time after I answer this call I just felt. The Mississippi is long and my destination unknown.
“I thank you for your time, Mr. Scoresby. I will leave you to your work.”
That was a pleasant distraction. Unfortunately, I will have to shorten it. With one last smile, I step down the ladder to answer the summons of my smiling jailor.
The ability to feel my essence is a tremendous advantage in just about everything I can do with my powers. It is so helpful, that I have no idea how I managed without it.
I can better control my aura, which is now significantly more powerful and I am confident I will be able to hide it almost completely within a year. Healing can be directed now to specific wounds instead of just happening. I can move faster, more easily, and for a longer period of time.
All that I do tires me less and I wake up earlier every day. I also noticed that Charm works by sending a very thin tendril of essence to the targeted person or their aura, which means that I no longer need to imagine a rope, nor do I really need eye contact, though it helps.
I cannot explain why eye contact helps. This strange logic always leaves me feeling ambivalent. The rational part of me, the one that trusts science and enlightenment, finds it all very strange. I would go so far as to say nonsensical. The deeper part understands it to a level that no words can do justice to.
It remembers the fairy tales and the ghost stories, the strange rules of dusk, midnight and dawn. The power of oaths and beliefs. I am part of this realm and I know how to play the game, though I would be hard-pressed to explain exactly how, or why, it works. It is all quite peculiar.
One of the side effects of an attuned essence is that one can use it to ‘tug’ at another vampire. A sort of signal, if you will. I am convinced that Alaric is being if not rude, quite cavalier in poking me so. His familiarity grates on my nerves.
“Good evening Ariane, I see you found entertainment in this dreary place.”
Yes, until I was interrupted. I would find more entertainment by SHOVING MY CLAWS IN HIS GUT AND PULLING HIS INNARDS INCH BY INCH, but alas, he may object. And so, I show a fangless smile and keep a pleasant tone. I just need to reach Boston to be rid of those buffoons until the next turn of the century, or until someone mistakes their gaudy carriages for a bank convoy and blows it to smithereens. I would be happy either way, as surely, they would eventually let Jimena lead a squad. Even the most corrupt imbecile must eventually run out of incompetent people to promote to leadership positions.
“Good evening Alaric. Do you require anything?”
“Ask not what you can do for your Knight, but what the Knight can do for you,” he says with a laugh, “We are public servants of a sort, after all.”
This is my first real conversation with him, as so far I have only kept the company of Jimena, who has been very protective of me. I appreciate the efforts of my blood sister as I doubt Alaric has my best interests in mind.
“Very well then, what can you do for me?”
“I thought I could help you pass the time. We have not properly been introduced yet. I am Alaric of the Roland, the team’s Shade, at your service.”
Alaric’s voice is mellow and cultured, with a hint of British accent even when he speaks Akkad. He bows to me like a dancer after a performance.
“… and I am Ariane of the Nirari. I assume that I do not need to introduce myself.”
“I daresay you do. I have read the reports, not met the woman. Our only past meeting was too short and a bit too intense for my tastes.”
“What with getting your heart skewered?”
He affects holding his wounded heart with a convincing impersonation of a dying mortal, before returning to normal and continuing our conversation as if nothing had happened.
“Precisely. Lord Suarez is a prickly man where honor and duty are concerned. He often supports Knights when they operate on his territory. His censure was that much unexpected and, shall we say, heavy-handed.”
“You should be grateful. My own sire would have made an example out of you.”
Alaric leans against the railing and smiles disarmingly.
“Thankfully Anatole is not completely suicidal. So tell me, how was it, being a city Master? Tending to your flock, one Charm at a time?”
“It was varied and interesting. How is it being a Shade?”
He lifts a brow.
“Do you know what a Shade is?”
“I do not.” I confess, somewhat miffed.
“Well then, allow me to enlighten you.”
Alaric stands straighter. In one moment, he turns from dilettante to calm professor. Even his voice has changed.
“Knights are expected to face any sort of situation and are trained accordingly. The formation of squads allowed us to develop a higher level of specialization and although we are good at everything, we are experts of a few key subjects, divided by roles.
“The Vanguard is a soldier and an assassin, a weapon expert trained to slay its targets whoever and wherever they may be. The Shade is the scout and tracker who guides the team forward. The Vestal is the thinker, strategist, and magic expert. Finally, the Voice is the ambassador and infiltrator of the team.”
“Does your squad not have a Voice?”
The Shade takes a mildly disapproving air, one I would expect from a mentor whose pupil asked a question he should have known the answer to.
“This role is Anatole’s, obviously.”
I refrain from commenting. When your ambassador gets your entire squad ripped apart by a furious Battle Lord, it might be time to ask for a reassignment. Alaric takes my silence for the condemnation it is but instead of defending his leader, he smiles knowingly and steps closer. His demeanor changes again and I am now wondering if he should not be the infiltrator. He sheds personas like one sheds shirts.
“If you are looking to join our ranks, I am sure Jimena could vouch for you, though perhaps you should hold before doing it. You have never been part of our world as an equal. There is so much to discover, so many new experiences to be had.
“You should see the balls organized by the Masks with their byzantine codes and exquisite games. You could join a coven and live in one of our cities, be part of glorious Hunts for dangerous rogues or those new packs we have seen appear. There are plays that only our kind can produce and music only we can play, and more of course.”
He is close now, so close that I can smell his own perfume, similar to mine but not quite the same. The cold spice of vampires, alluring and dangerous. With a hint of vanilla and ethereal trickery. I find it enticing.
“Where mortals have passion, we have patience and dedication. Who but us can wait ten years for a sculpture to be completed? Who could create gardens that will bloom in half a century? Who could learn how to make love like we do?”
“Who could hold such grudges?”
“Hah! You will find that it is rarely so. The enemies of today are the friends of tomorrow, sometimes. Only the Rolands keep grudges for centuries, I believe.”
“Like Anatole and you then? Just my luck.”
“I hold no grudge towards you. I swore an oath to uphold the code and I have no doubt that you will gain your freedom after we reach Boston. Then who knows, ancient enmities could disappear in favor of more… pleasant arrangements.”
“Such as those you mentioned previously, I suppose?”
“Music? Of course.”
The Shade’s smile is roguish and handsome. I am quite sure he thinks highly of himself and that some may swoon in his presence.
“Are you good at… music, Alaric?”
“You will find that my reputation precedes me.”
He is so close now. I could lean a bit and kiss him.
“I have a reputation too, for surviving.”
“A well-deserved one.”
“It would be because I know who I can place my trust in,” I say as I place a finger on his lips. I am not done. “You follow a man who wants my death and forced me into twenty years of isolation. I will see the balls and hear the songs, and perhaps when I am done, we will all meet again...”
I smile and show eight fangs, just to remind him of who he is talking to.
“… and share that Hunt you mentioned.”
The Knight’s smile freezes, then blooms again. He looks almost impressed.
“I will look forward to it.”
It is then that our ship reaches a stop, and the moment is gone. We part and watch the Sweet Sunrise attach to a small pier and goods and people making their way in and out. Alaric watches with attention and I find no reason to break the silence.
Five minutes later, a cabin boy comes running and stops when he spots the two of us. I can taste a trace of terror in the air before his rational mind silences his instincts. He approaches, swallows with difficulty and stands at attention.
“Yes?” I ask curtly.
“Excuse me madam, are you Ariane Nirari?”
“That’s the thing…” he licks his lips nervously, “there is this Indian outside, says he knows you. Says he knew you’d pass by and that you two should talk. Should I… should I tell him off?”
An Indian who knew where I would pass? Could it be…
“Did he tell you his name?”
“Yes, mam. He said his name was Nashoba.”
Nashoba, so you were alive all this time. Incredible. I must speak to him, I may not have another chance
“I will see him immediately. Where is he?”
“At the pier, madam.”
I pick a coin from my pocket and toss it at the urchin. Double payday for that little twerp, for there is no doubt in my mind that Nashoba bribed him as well to carry this message. I am half expecting Alaric to stop me, as Anatole would have. Instead, he follows me behind and to my right, as if he were escorting instead of guarding. I would be grateful but I highly suspect that curiosity got the better of him.
My steps take me down the now empty plank as I take in my old friend. We have not kept in touch, though he could have contacted me by dreams. I was wondering if he had perished and now I realize that perhaps, he simply didn’t have the strength.
Nashoba is dying.
He is still handsome in a lost artist sort of way. He still has liquid brown eyes and mismatched cloth that reveal skin. There is grey in his hair and his hairline receded, but that only would make him look wiser if it were not for the rest. His skin is sallow, with a yellow tinge. It clings to his frame too tightly and his posture is slightly stooped, like someone who is in constant pain. He smiles before he turns to me and I am surprised once again when I realize that he came alone.
“We meet again, daughter of Thorn and Hunger.”
Behind me, Alaric hisses softly when he hears the tongue of Akkad in a mortal mouth. He does not react further, and I decide that it is safe to speak, for now.
“I did not know if you were still around. I met… some fallen tribesmen.”
“Yes, they went North, did they not? We left in waves after the white men took the last of our lands and set us on the trail of tears and death. One of the waves was lost in the swamps and… you know the rest. My new home is West of here now. We just settled.”
“I had heard your people had been exiled, but…”
“We were. You will have to remember that for we mortals, oaths are only binding among equals.”
“Oh, I will not forget that lesson ever again.”
He bows his head slightly and gives me a sad smile.
“Yes. Dalton’s loss must weigh heavily on a mind that does not age. My apologies.”
“No harm done, my friend. Now, I assume this is not a courtesy visit?”
My tone may have been a little more abrupt than I intended and Nashoba notices it.
“No, indeed. Are you displeased to see me?”
“No,” I add with regret, “I just wished it had been sooner.”
I just exposed my friendship with Nashoba before Alaric when I confessed I missed him. This was a mistake. I am being careless again.
“Forgive me, it took all my strength to delay the inevitable and then, manage it. This is the most terrible ordeal my people have ever faced. I had no time for myself nor for my friends. And now, I must apologize, for I come asking you for a favor, as you have guessed.”
My hands are bound now but perhaps there is something I can do.
“I would like you to help me die.”
“I beg your pardon?”
Nashoba smiles once more and his posture conveys so much vulnerability that even my instincts are silent. There is no Hunt to be had there. He is as defenceless and weak as a child.
“You have noticed my failing health. I am in constant pain. I want you to help me on my final journey. Please.”
“What is going on here?” says a voice that tightens my chest. Anatole is here without Jimena. This is the worst thing that could have happened.
“Who is this man?”
“He is a supplicant, come here for the Last Gift,” answers Alaric, “he asked for her by name. They know each other.”
“Do they now? Do you speak English, savage?”
“Probably better than you, pretender.” Nashoba answers sharply.
Anatole’s face is a mask of horror, then it twists into a scowl of deep hatred. His aura overflows and I shiver at the cruelty I perceive beneath. I have no idea what is happening, I only know that I must not let Nashoba be hurt by what may follow.
“If you wish for the Last Gift, I will gladly provide it,” says Anatole with a sinister smile.
“You dare? The Last Gift is sacred, you philistine!” I hiss.
“I decide what you take, creature.”
KILL HIM. No, wait, no, I need to beat him through words, but how? Think Ariane, think. What can I trade for?
Ah yes, his pride. I need to play this well. I remember Lady Moor and her demeanor, her poise and haughty expression that made anyone feel like insects polluting her air. I do my best impersonation and though I know I fall short, the cold in my voice surprises even me.
“I did not imagine that a squad leader would stoop so low as to steal his captive’s leftovers and deny her nourishment. What is next, oh mighty one? Will you borrow my spare boots too?”
My aura is frigid. It spreads over the pier like a blanket of ice.
Anatole frowns. Taking Nashoba now would go against his vow to keep me well-fed as well as common courtesy. Alaric’s eyes narrow at his leader and his crossed arms show mild disapproval, something that his squad has refrained from showing so far. I hope it is enough. How I wish my blood sister were here instead of the cabin with Aisha and the axeman, Alec.
“If you must, I will allow you to draw from his sickly essence. We will keep watch, of course. Do not try anything.”
Oh, this… brute! The Last Gift is sacred, and he is going to police it? I clamp my jaw before I say anything I might regret. Nashoba was unwise to provoke this fiend, though I know why he did it anyway, despite the danger. My friend is scared. Scared, and in pain.
I wish I had more time to talk to him. I can tell that the burden in his shoulder is heavy. In a way, death is a mercy.
I take the shaman in my arms. He winces in pain until our eyes meet. Gently, I Charm the pain away. I smother it and shove it in the background where it can be ignored. Nashoba takes one shuddering breath and almost collapses. Tears of relief drip down his pallid cheeks.
“Are you ready?” I ask softly.
“I was ready before coming, you know, because I…”
“… can see the future,” I finish with a smile. I gently take his neck as he eases his head back. I bite down.
I take the rope and tie it to my neck. I left my shirt and other things on a stone. That way, they will know what I have done and maybe little sister can get a spare shirt. I am strange. The others don’t like it. They call me cloud head. Now they are bullying little sister too, because she is my sister. I will die now and everyone will be better. Me too. I hope. I pick the stone and walk forward but something bumps against me. I look down. There is a big turtle. She bumps my leg with her tiny head.
“Hello.” I say.
The dream vision is so clear, I am a shaman now, bound to the turtle spirit. She is enduring and smart, though she is slow too. She values vision and planning because when it takes so long to walk anywhere, you cannot afford to do the trip twice.
The one I foresaw is here, she’s here! She is an Anglo girl, and her mind is cold like a mid-winter night. She is lost, I can tell, like me. She cautiously steps out in the open and sniffs the air. Quick, I will present my offering, my blood. I hope we can be good friends.
Dalton is dead and this part of my life is gone. Ariane, Daughter of Thorn and Hunger, leaves. It will take a long time for her to earn this moniker, but I am confident that she will one day, long after I have passed. With the earrings I gave her, her foes’ feeble tracking attempts will fail. I wish I could see her again before our last meeting, though I fear I will not have the strength to spare for a dream visit.
They invited us as Dancing Rabbit Creek and some of us went expecting a party. I knew what was coming but there was nothing I could do. Our land is claimed by the United States. To stay, we will have to become citizens. I have seen what befalls those who are not of their race and though some of us will stay, they will just suffer longer. Leaving remains the most pragmatic choice.
I am sick and tired. The ache in my liver is now a constant pain that permeates everything I do. I am reaching the end of my path and my tribe will survive in Okla Humma, the land of the red people. There is only one thing left to do before I can finally rest. I have to give her the key so that she may grow into what will give this world a chance. I must strengthen her gift. Then, I can finally sleep. At long last… I am so very tired…
It is done.
I pull back and Cradle Nashoba’s unmoving shell. He is dead. We have known each other for thirty years and we haven’t talked in twenty and now the chance is gone. Time caught up to him like it caught up to my father and others. I feel… brittle. I can find no other word for it. Beyond sadness, I am overwhelmed by a sense of vulnerability that does not affect my body but my spirit. This is one more anchor to my human part I leave behind.
I slowly lay the body on the ground.
Once more, I wonder how someone could look at a corpse and think the person is asleep. The mouth is open, distended, and the vitality is gone from its muscles. My friend has passed and what he left behind is a painfully thin flesh puppet. It already stinks of relaxed bowels and soon, rot. There is no dignity in death. My kind is lucky to leave only ash behind.
I jump in surprise when Anatole grabs the body by the ankle, and starts dragging it towards the boat.
“What are you doing!” I hiss in anger.
Anatole turns to me with a smirk.
“Taking out the trash.”
And with a lazy swing, he drops the corpse into the river.
“Nooooo! You heathen! How dare you!”
DEFILER. I move forward, have to recover the body but something holds me back. Alaric, I realize, has grabbed me under the arms and lifted me up so that my feet cannot find purchase.
“Why would you do that? He was my friend!”
“I am not surprised that a bumpkin like you would befriend a barbarian.”
“Calm down Ariane,” says a voice from behind, “this is just a husk.”
“It’s not about the husk it’s about respect for the dead! It’s about us, and what value we place on the departed! How can you do this?”
Anatole’s cruel smile widens. He is most amused. KILL HIM, KILL HIM NOW. That’s it, I am done with those idiots! I will…
I will do no such thing.
I stop struggling and let the coldest part of me smother my heart before it can kill me. This is what Anatole wants, one more trap to force my hand into resisting him. He knows the game is almost over. Now he resorts to dirty tricks in a last-ditch effort to execute me before the journey ends.
I can play that game too.
“Release me,” I ask Alaric with a soft voice, and he does. I glare at Anatole and slowly, painfully, force myself to smile too.
“Corpse defiling now, Anatole? You are a failure of a Knight and a leader. You are no hero, you only have the appearance of one. Nashoba was right, you are just a pretender.”
The word bites deep, deeper than I thought they would. He takes a step forward and his claw-tipped hands spread with animalistic fury. Oh, yes, you hypocrite, I can sting too.
“Bring her back on board and confine her to her quarters.” Anatole says with a voice strained with anger.
I dodge Alaric’s hand on my way up. The shaman’s body has disappeared in the current and it is too late for me to do anything about it. One more debt to be repaid.
The future is uncertain. Revenge isn’t. When I am ready, I will find this man and kill him myself. I will add his essence to my garden and every night for a year, I shall pass by his kneeling statue and repeat the word that wounded his pride.