Part III - All That's Left is Blood :: 51
He dried her off, careful not to let her slip from his grip. The rag wasn’t the best but it was what he had. At the beginning of this new life, he had been weary of bathing her but soon grew accustomed to her naked form. It was beautiful and tragic all rolled into one for him. Now, it was just her, another daily task to accomplish. Bathe Brisa. Feed her. Talk to her. Read to her. Tend the thistle. Cook. Clean. Tend. Rinse, repeat.
“Our neighbor is coming over tomorrow,” he told her as he finished dressing her in her bed clothes. “Ms. Elara is looking forward to seeing you. You two should have a nice long chat.”
Nothing. Her eyes never focused on anything. They were simply there, reflecting back to him his own face. The pupils never contracted, never dilated. She never made a sound. The only movement he had seen her make in the past six years was the automated swallow reflex when water or food moved over her tongue.
“I’m going to go into two tomorrow while Ms. Elara is here. She’ll keep you company. Won’t be gone too long.”
He picked her light frame up and carried her into the bedroom. Slowly, he set her down in the bed and covered her up. He leaned down and kissed her forehead.
“Night,” he whispered. She stared up at the ceiling. Sleep would take her within a few minutes, the only times her eyes ever closed. He wondered if she ever had dreams, and if she did, what they were like. His own dreams were amorphous, shadow-filled affairs, all of them painted in a dark black hue. Their impact had dulled over time and they no longer lasted past his waking up.
A thirst had grown in him over the years. The grueling manual labor of farming thistle had worn any levity out of him and without Gareth around, he had no real social contact outside of his middle-aged neighbor. Elara was a former Humboldt priest and had been one of the many healers in and around Millewhist that Cyrus had sought for possible cures for Brisa. All endeavors turned up empty in that regard, save from a burgeoning friendship between himself and Elara.
She lived on the property next to Gareth’s and had met Cyrus in an official capacity in the village square market. Elara ran a small stand in front of the school she taught in, selling all sorts of wares, even thistle. She’d sell out before noon on most days, then teach the remainder of the afternoon. As far as he could tell, she had seen quite a bit in her lifetime and the Waring Woods were her way of getting away from all of that. He couldn’t be certain though. Elara hardly ever spoke of her past and dodged all inquiries on the matter in conversation.
He woke the next day, prepared breakfast, and awaited the arrival of his neighbor. When Elara knocked on his door, he let her in and offered her food. She declined in her warm, motherly way and instead began fussing over Brisa’s hair.
“I swear Cyrus, I’ve shown you a thousand times but you never put the poor girl’s hair the right way.”
He cocked a grin. “It’s more difficult than it looks.”
“Nonsense. It’s easy. See, there.” She pointed to the braided ponytail that she had magicked from some dark reaches of womanly knowledge.
Cyrus shrugged. “You’re just better than me.”
“You can learn. But not today. I know you have business in town.”
He nodded, leaned over Brisa, and planted a kiss on her cheek. “I’ll be back soon. Shouldn’t be long.”
“Oh, we’ll have a nice chat,” Elara told him, patting the motionless girl’s hand. “Maybe even a picnic.”
“Oh, that should be fun,” he said, smiling at Brisa.
His ‘business’ was a glass at the village pub. The stress of caring for Brisa, the thistle, and making sure gold was available every day to buy food and supplies for working the land was growing more and more strong on his shoulders. Money was hard to come by; he had taken many odd jobs just to break even. Caring for Brisa was expensive, not to mention the money he had wasted on healers that had promised to make her better.
His many sorrows were quickly drowned in whisky, his poison of choice. It didn’t help matters that his thirst was slowly draining whatever gold reserves he had built from the previous week. The brown liquid he consumed filled him with a confidence that he used to have without need of drink. It was a high he chased from glass to glass.
The pub was busy today, moreso than normal. He walked up to the bar, found his usual seat, and wrapped his knuckles on the bar top.
Behind the bar stood a tall Orc, his tusks filed to small nubs jutting from his jaw. He nodded to Cyrus and offered two glasses. Cyrus took both.
He tried to hone in on what was going on but the din was too thick for individual conversations to bust through.
“What gives, Hornfire?”
“Something’s going on in the Cracked Plains. No clue what,” replied the large orc. “Lot of business, though.”
Cyrus downed one glass. “Nothing wrong with that.”
Cyrus downed the other.
“Something lighter?” Hornfire asked.
“Keep the usual coming. It’s been a rough week.”
“Thistle ain’t so popular anymore. The Elder Council in Millewhist’s thinkin of banning the chewing stems,” the tender informed Cyrus as he poured another tall shot.
“Tell me about it. I grow plenty of it but getting rid of it is like trying to uproot a tree stump by hand.”
“You gonna be able to pick up your tab?” Hornfire asked him, tilting an eyebrow as Cyrus downed his third glass.
“Of course. Unless you’re feeling generous.”
The Orc laughed. “I don’t like you that much.”
“Figured,” Cyrus replied. He wrapped his knuckles one more time.
“Money trouble?” came a voice beside Cyrus. He turned to the voice’s owner.
“Who asked you?” Cyrus replied before he looked over the short man that had just sat next to him.
The man had long brown hair, doughy cheeks, and small brown eyes. A full beard hid his chin and jaw, falling as far as the middle of his chest. Cyrus could see some scar tissue and areas where the beard was patchy. Had the man been burned?
“It’s been a while, Cyrus.”
Cyrus leaned over to get a better look and almost fell off the bar stool. The man grabbed Cyrus’ shoulders and re-steadied him on the stool. “Woah there. Bartender, I think he’s done.”
Hornfire laughed and began serving another customer.
“Who are you?” Cyrus asked, still trying to place the face.
“Don’t tell me you don’t recognize your favorite Manipulator.”
Recognition dawned. “Emmet,” Cyrus exclaimed. “You’re alive!”
Emmet laughed and slapped Cyrus on the back. “Same goes to you! Of all the places I ever expected to find a Cyneweard, it was not in a dingy pub on the edge of the Waring Woods. I still remember the trials we had out here.”
Cyrus nodded. “Yeah, I don’t think I ever properly thanked you.”
Emmet waved him away. “No need. It’s been, what, ten years?”
“Twelve,” Cyrus replied.
“Shit time flies.”
“Yeah, sometimes not as fast as it needs to. What brings you out here?”
“Job,” Emmet replied, sipping at his flagon of mead.
“What do you do?”
Emmet looked at him from the corner of his eye while taking a long pull. “Odd jobs, here and there, on a contracted basis.”
Cyrus furrowed his brow. “For whom exactly?”
“Whomever,” Emmet replied. “Long as they’re paying.”
“Good gold in it?”
Emmet nodded. “Yeah. I get other things out of it too.”
With a long, loud smack, Emmet drained the rest of his drink. He set the large flagon down and belched his approval.
“Another?” asked Hornfire.
Emmet shook his head. “Nope. Me and my friend here need to go have a chat.”
“We do?” asked Cyrus.
Nodding, Emmet stood and reached out a helping hand to Cyrus. “Uh huh. Let’s go.”
“For a long walk. We can catch up some more.”
“Ok, let me pay up.”
“Don’t bother,” Emmet said, pulling five golden coins from a pants pocket. He dropped them on the counter and told Hornfire to keep any change.
The two men exited the pub, Emmet supporting the buzzed Cyrus down the gravel pathway. They walked until they were near the edge of the Waring Woods, just outside of the village limits. Cyrus could see smoke coming from the stove chimney of the farmhouse.
“Ok,” he asked Emmet, “what’s this about?”
“How familiar are you with the changes going on in the former Capital?”
“I know it’s not ‘The Capital’ anymore.”
“Right. They’ve chopped it all up. Turning it into a worker factory instead of a city. Anyway, the old aristocracy is not too happy about this.”
“I thought the Purge took care of them.”
“Well, you and I are here, aren’t we?”
“More nobles made it out than you think. They’ve been slowly building up power by buying or establishing mines that are feeding The Machine its resources.”
“I’m still lost here. What does this have to do with you being here?”
“They call themselves ‘The Remnant,’ the last bastion of a bygone era. They have the sole aim of returning everything back the way it was.”
“And you’re helping them?”
“No, I have my own reason for doing these things. However, they pay well, for the right kind of work.”
“What kind of work?”
“Sometimes I clean up messes, other times I make them. Understand?”
“You’re a mercenary.”
Emmet nodded. “I have my own reasons. Namely anyone who was a rebel who is now growing fat off the crumbs left by the people they killed.”
“So you kill people?”
“It’s not different than what I did as a Manipulator. I push things in certain directions. Threaten people to make decisions go a certain way. Kill the right people to make a problem go away. Again, just what I used to do, except now I’m getting paid.”
Cyrus’ eyes grew wide. “That’s what Manipulator’s dead?”
Emmet nodded. “What, you thought we had desks, did paperwork? No. We killed and massaged things into submission for the Emperor.”
“And you’re ok with doing that?”
“As long as I get to end the lives of some Rebel scum, then yes. Perfectly ok doing it.”
“Scary,” Cyrus said, backing away.
“Parton did it too. Same job. And he taught you some of his best skill sets.”
“Are you offering me a job?”
“I’m offering you an opportunity, Cyrus. You have the skill set to do this. I know you do. If you need money, this is the best way to get it. No more farming. No more worrying about money.”
“I have...obligations. I can’t just up and leave whenever someone needs me.”
Emmet put a hand on his shoulder. “Look, I know you can’t make this kind of decision quickly. My job will last a while here. You let me know in a couple of days if you’re interested in what I’m offering. Drop by the pub when you’ve made up your mind.”
Cyrus nodded but had no plans to join his old family friend. Murderers for hire? Even now, after the war is over? And what would happen to Brisa? He couldn’t abandon her.
“Thanks,” he finally responded to Emmet.
“Your confidence in me. Something I’ve sorely lacked these past few years. And for the whisky, of course.” Cyrus looked up and saw that twilight would soon be approaching. He needed to get back to Brisa.
Emmet tipped an invisible hat. “Not a problem. I’d like to hear your story. I mean, I thought you were dead and all.”
“Look, Emmet, it’s been great seeing you but I really need to get back to the homestead.”
Emmet nodded. “I understand. Remember, I’ll be here the next two days. Make a decision and let me know. Regardless of how you decide, I’ll buy you another drink. We still need to catch up.”
“You had me at free whisky.”
Emmet laughed. “Alright. Skedaddle. I’m going to find some more trouble.”