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The Night of First Ages

By CaymanRock All Rights Reserved ©

Drama

Blurb

An empty stage, a blank canvas, the end of the world. This is where our story begins. A man without a name barely clings to life, until the waves wash him into the land of the living. And, then the story begins. Slowly, at first, then faster and faster, this weird creature's mad effect grows stronger and stronger, until he finally gives in. A girl, with a history, with a past, raised with hopes that are suddenly dashed. She must escape. She has to run, and keep ahead of what she's done by running further and further away from the world she once knew. A world, slowly falling in on itself, disappearing. With every reminder of their past just over the horizon, they have to move on, deeper into their doubts and fears. A story about voices, about stories, and about the strength it takes to go on, when everything has been lost.

Chapter 1: Running

We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign – and no memories.

J. Conrad


And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.

H. Gruber


You’re running out of time.

The night is long and deep and you float along on the surface. Just barely. Only just. The place is strange – the stage set for this scene is completely devoid of light. Everything is soft and supple, whispering gentle encouragement and even more gentle threats with its every movement. And, alone. So, alone.

So hungry for just one more. Hungry forever for just one more soul to swallow up in her liquid embrace and forget they ever had a care. To sink it down into oblivion by the path of least resistance – to succumb, and fall into the awesome grip of an armless, formless shape that holds two worlds together by standing, lying, drifting between them.

The night is an Ocean and by some perversion of the natural order, you float above, as you have no right. You have no right to be alive, much less in this place. Who do you think you are, to give up on everything, and yet make it so far, never having a goal, or a single thought of your own in that empty little head of yours? Who do you think you are, to carry on beyond caring, the sole passenger of a voyage with neither beginning nor end, on your way to no place of your own choosing.

To be honest, I had given up on you ages ago. It feels like forever ago that I looked away, sure that your end was near and that there was no use in watching anymore – you had convinced me of that. And, yet, days or eons or minutes or years later, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what was and the fact that at one point I was utterly consumed by the story of a boy so set on his own destruction that he would be cast out into the void, looking for nothing.

But, then, I found you again. I can’t tell you just how shocked I was, if shocked is even the right word. I don’t spend my time caring, hoping, investing in people and their little stories. Yet, here we are: me, forever here, forever unable to turn away my all-illuminating eye; and you, a miserable wretch, claws frozen, clutched to your little raft, and the formless void of an Ocean not so much carrying you anywhere as away. Not so much away as under.

Because – let’s be honest here: things aren’t looking too good from where I am – towering insubstantially over you and the rest of your dim little world while the winds and the tide in this land sans repère spin you around in circles or else on a path towards a place that even I can’t see, from up here. And, nothing gets by me. Let me tell you.

Either way. So, here we are. You, the mangled, fleshly skeleton of a creature locked in a mindless struggle to dying the longest and most eradicating death that even I couldn’t imagine. You, the tired exhausted, beet-red eyes staring up, ever up in the fully glory of the night and the utter dead of the full shining day. You, of the sun-and-salt-bleached skin, tightening every inch, every pore into cracked fragility. Of the hair and nails so completely ingrown both into your own flesh as well as that of your little raft, that one and the same are indistinguishable from one another, sucking up sea and sun on the long trip nowhere. Until some final storm comes upon you and rips you into even smaller shreds, of the kind that the water will not support, that the Ocean will not look upon with either its massive irony, or vicious kindness, keeping its magnificent strength within its own unknowable bounds as it pushes pulses swells you along according to its own want or another great perversion of its own nature simply refusing to follow the rules.

Either way, I’m pretty happy to be up here, thank you very much. There isn’t a thing in the world that could make me want to come down there and deal with the foolishness you’ve gotten yourself into. You made your bed. Now, I’m just waiting for it to swallow you up, so I can move on to other things.

Come on. Haven’t you had enough? Wouldn’t it be easier to give up, give in to reality and let it press you down down into the cooling blankness that will take it all away? Because, let’s be honest, ‘all of this’ really isn’t very much. Certainly nothing worth fighting for.

Are you sure that this is what you want? More of this? This neverending series of blinding days and sharp, implacable nights? Are you sure-

-No

Sorry? What did you say?

You struggle pathetically for breath that you have forgotten how to summon. But, eventually, slowly, delicately, it comes. You mewling babe in this watery wilderness, again you say “no”.

Wonderful. Your first words will go down in this sad little history as being ‘no’. But, at least you’re being honest – there really isn’t that much else to do in a place like this – all the other options have been taken away. So, maybe we need to look at your refusal as a start. That’s what I’ll do, at least.

And, since you’re still so obstinate, let’s go over the facts, shall we? Your prospects are dim. Even the stars shy away, out of fear that your dangerous lot might be catching, that this utter upheaval of the possible might infect them, too, if they are caught looking too close or staring too long. (But, yes, even the uncaring stars are paying attention – tragedy is engrossing, and even the stars haven’t seen anything quite like this before).

…and, I might have been a little harsh in my description of things. You are moving. But, just at such a snail’s pace and with such a lack of any sign on the surface that you’re actually headed anywhere that, yes, it is easy to lose hope. But, ‘no’. Not you. You’re going to keep your mule-headed grip on the reins of your wooden doorway between the old world and wherever you end up, until you either make it there, or until what remaining motive you have to keep holding on simply seeps out from between your fingers and the ‘boat’ itself leaves you to your own unmoving lot.

More fun than watching grass grow? Well, I won’t be taking any bets.

Certainly not from you – you haven’t got two coins to rub together or to cover your eyes. But, you know all of this. We’ve been here before. We’ve been here forever and nothing changes. There’s a day and then there’s a night and then there’s a day and then there’s a night, but you never go ahead and FUCKING DIE!!!

I’m sorry. I cursed. I was raised better than that. I lost my composure. I lost my calm. It’s just that this is killing me – this is going nowhere. It’s just the same thing, day after day, night after night, and the best I can get out of you is maybe a syllable, and then I get to watch you work your courage up all over again just so you can say something so important, so penetrating, so goddamn poetic as “no”. Really, it’s all starting to be just a little bit much for me to cope with. Really! What else am I supposed to do with my time? It’s not like you’re a hotbed of intrigue and scandal and eloquence and mystery and pain and delight. No. You’re literally none of those things. You’re a scar on a piece of wood that is so much water that it has forgotten how to float, and has just become another wave, just another freckle on a mound of flesh with no eyes – all mouth.

I’m sorry. I’m getting carried away again. It’s just so much nothing. So much nothing that I just can’t LEAVE. I’m stuck here with you until something interesting happens. And, the sea keeps no history. It just does.

But, to be honest, it hasn’t “done” anything in the longest time. Just look-

Oh. Right. Sorry. You can’t. Alright, well, indulge me if you can – blink your blind eyes a few times to see if you can get sensation back into them.

Right. Just like that. Close your eyes – and keep holding on, there. I don’t want to lose you right when I’m trying to make a point. Close your eyes and let me look around for you and tell you what’s going on in this world.

And, now that I’m not distracted by your stupid face, I really have to admit, I’m stunned that you’re still alive. There’s plenty going on, just past the next rise, just around the corner from a not-too-far-off wave.

Really, there is just so much going on (and, we both have to keep in mind that this is all in comparison with your static lot). There are waves! The water is marked by the wind and marked by its own movement and it rises up and falls back all over itself on and on forever until – until…

I had forgotten what it’s like. There really is life out there, but I really had forgotten what it’s like, caught up in going mad watching you do nothing with my time. And, now, looking out, I can see just how unfair it is that I got stuck with you. There’s life everywhere.

Somewhere, just a few rises, just a few spills over, I can see the coast. I can see the far shore from here! And, it looks like magic.

First off – there’s land! Land! I never thought I’d see land again, much less spend any time talking about it. But, there it is, rightthere! Plain to the naked eye and so close that I can almost touch it. It’s still dark out, but let me tell you, there’s so much to see. There are people all huddled up and spread out and everything. People! Whole bunches of them sleeping, drinking, fighting, fucking, praying, dying. The whole lot of it. If it can be done, you can count on them to be going about it. And, it’s wonderful. People sing, people dance, people do myriad things so much so that it makes me dizzy to watch: How, after so long in the desert, do you choose just one plum to eat? How can you limit yourself to just that one delight? How to decide?

I could peek past the curtains of that sleeping man’s dream, and see his world held together as only his mind knows how – watch him strive time and time again to keep tethered to his world, his minute personal history, until he wakes up again, refreshed; but disturbed by the indecipherable clarity of his dreams as they slowly effervesce back into nothingness - as he goes about the effort of summoning up his another day.

I could watch with sick fascination as a barrel-bellied old man holds a lantern out in the night, gently rocking from side to side with the movement of the water – looking out, just like me – for something that I can’t see. I could watch him for hours – watch him as he looks out, never knowing if he’ll meet with gratification or waves of hungry prey, also running away. Or, if his ship will capsize for his inattention, and I’ll have to re-consider leaving you alone for this little indulgence in the living.

Or, I could watch the most beautiful woman in the world - the kind of woman that I wish I could meet, as she slinks about the dusk-riddled town, performing her perfect witchcraft, stealing about, looking for her missing peace, unable to sleep for her dreams, unable to sit for the hunger in her hands to do something, to make something more from her life. She’s hungry. And, that for which she hungers is no longer to be found. She’ll spend night after night, coursing ever farther from home, her bed, her man, ever further away in search of some nameless being, some unknown thing that could just give her release – just make her complete. For the first time, again, in far too long.

Her hunger leads her all about by the nose, to dim, empty alleys. To deserted market stalls where the whispers of the day’s hubbub hang in the air, carried on the breeze, until they congeal in the tumult of the real: the bawdy songs and lusty laughter of those burning candles to watch that the night is never over and the wine never runs out and someone always has a guitar and a few more hours before everyone has to get themselves to some bed, somewhere.

I swear, I could do any of those things forever, if I could just be rid of you. They’re not so far off, really. Just look. Open your eyes. See that, now? How the sun relents, falls down and spreads itself along the horizon just in time for you to breathe again, just in time for your skin to carry some warmth into the twilight before the inevitable happens again.

-No.

You’re damn right, “no.” You had forgotten, hadn’t you? You thought, just like you always do, that the day was going to go on forever and you could forget just why you have a death-grip that just won’t break? Didn’t you? You forget why you’re here and what you’re running away from and the utter and complete terror you feel every time the sun goes down. Not because the dark scares you. No. We’re both too old for that, anymore.

No. You’re scared of what’s in the dark. And, there’s no way they’ll forget you.

You moan and struggle, prisoner to your survival.

Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. But, really, what are you going to do? Kick? Scream? Piss yourself in fright? Not likely. I can tell you, though, that your defective little heart and mind will absolutely fall apart when it all starts to happen, and there is nothing that I’m going to do to stand in the way. These monsters are yours, and yours alone. You should have known better than to bring them with you. But, then, you should have known better than a lot of things.

The groaning swells up from where the sun’s blood-coloured lightshow waved its last goodbye, some not-too-subtle reminder as to what awaits you beyond the far hill of the Sea’s shifting horizon.

It must be nice to hear voices. I mean, besides my own, you know, what with you being so lacking in company. I find it hard to imagine that you could be so ungrateful in the face of such a slow-marching hoard, struggling with the waves, just to make it to you.

Everybody needs something and you need to stay ahead of these monsters. It’s not hard to see why, really. Dozens upon dozens of nameless, faceless things, only half-seen in the darkness, growing ever closer with an urgency that you can feel as they slowly, oh-so-slowly, try with insubstantial bodies to get closer and ever closer still. Whether your eyes are open or shut, it matters little. Their eyes are the ones that haunt you, that keep a hold on you long after the sun rises again, casting them back into the darker parts of the water until the sun sets again and they can rise up to haunt your fears, and get just a little closer. Again.

“No”, eh? Well, that’s too bad. You can’t not make a choice, not do anything and just expect your problem to go away. Certainly not when you’re being chased by monsters. Everyone knows that much.

What? No. What? I’m not distracted. I mean, this is a plenty good show. Your supernatural beasties are impressive. I mean, where do they go all day? Where do they come from? Are there more of them following you, too? All interesting questions that I want to see answered. But. But… But, those people.

Those other people are out there, so far away; but less so, now. They’re out there, too. And, some of them are even as tragic and mysterious as that beautiful woman, all dressed in black. That I can’t get off my mind.

Even as you gasp and try to thrash as your haunting rises up around you, getting close enough to feel their breath on your shoulders, your legs, your neck – even then, I’m thinking about her and the world she comes back home to, just before the sun rises, a little nearer that far horizon.

I can see her, standing by the road, all long shapeless dress and dark wraps, waiting for the farmers to make their way into town, half-asleep eyes looking forward to setting up their market stall, so they can sit down and gossip for the rest of the day. But, first, they must pass through this gauntlet, they must pay their dues to the dark woman with darker eyes.

They say she speaks only in whispers because she was once a banshee, and she lost her voice when she won the body of a beautiful girl from the Devil. Some say that her smile is wicked and black and that she lives in one of the fishermen’s huts, out on the cliff, and that the two are never seen together since she took his life over. Some say that she is the spirit of the sea and that the village owes its survival to her humour, and her whim.

No matter the story, she stands by the town’s gate, dark eyes boring into one and all as they putter in on trucks or drawn carts that ricket and sway with every cobble. Each gives her alms and silent thanks for her mercy or grace or power, each according to their belief; and each moves on, the light of the day finally falling on their faces, warming bones that could barely muster a shiver up until that point. When the convoy has ended, or the woman has found her fill, she disappears in a swaying whisper and isn’t seen again.

And, just like that, day begins. She will take no part in it. But, then, the daylight hours belong to another.

A rustle and a snort bring Raoul back into the world from the land of dreams. He stretches his limbs out – filling the whole of the bed that has been empty of Mira since the sun has set. Unworried, he makes his way through the grey morning air to wash himself clean and make his way down to the boats. As he scrubs and scrapes, the silent woman moves about, stocking the day’s catch from the farmers on the way to market, preparing Raoul’s first meal of the day and sliding into the cooling bed to make herself a cocoon within which she can hide from the day. Cleaned and fed, Raoul will twitch at the curtains one last time, ensuring that no light shines in to distract her from her dreams. And with that, he will walk along the cliff’s steep fall, towards the docks and away from the sounds of the waking town behind him. The men will wait for him, looking eagerly back and forth from the water to the spine of the rise, hoping for his shape to come down a little faster, a little earlier, so that their luck won’t be pressed. Yet, that is why they wait. So that their luck may be maintained. When he arrives, there is no cheering, no display of excitement or pleasure, merely the daily repeated muttering and a loosening of the ties that have kept them, for another night too long tied to the shore.

Today, though, something strange happens, something that hasn’t been done in too long a time. She cannot sleep, she cannot dream. She cannot pretend, as she so often has to, that so long as she lies still, she will eventually fall asleep. After countless fitful tossings, she gives over the illusion and gets out of bed. The house is hermetically sealed, letting in no light, letting out no hint as to what goes on inside. She moves about, reminded despite her efforts of the world outside and the almost necessary gossip that must be produced by such a small town as a result of the oddness within this house. She can hear the dull and dreary imaginings of the townsfolk as to just what she must have done to such a fine, upstanding young man to so utterly transform his life and make him so much a part from the town where he was born. This sort of gossip usually doesn’t bother her. But, today, the first day in forever, she is awake, and the thoughts that come from being up at such an hour swirl around her, unable to simply fall asleep and block them out.

Strange, that in such a small place, in such a tiny world, she would ever be dogged, overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings of others. But, she is strange and she knows it. So, better to do something with it than simply give in.

She moves to the door with the dusty doorknob, wiping it down before going inside. She is blinded, for a moment and peeved that the wind has dared move the curtains from where they belong. She springs across the room, throwing the fabric together, holding them tight. Her breath cools and slows as she stands there, unlooking, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness within. On the other side of the window, an army, a deluge of motes of light struggle each and individually to make some headway against the iron limbs of the curtains, screaming as they struggle and wriggling all their might for a single point of purchase. But, it is all for nothing. The room remains veiled from the light, and nothing can get in. Instead, Mira sits alone amid her paintings and wonders at just what went wrong.

Things were not always like this – silent, stifling in the immediacy of need, even as that need is ignored and pushed off for another day. Once, everything was intense and undeniable and she was alive. Before coming to this place she was a light up in the sky, surrounded by so many others whose only thought was that she was a star. She lit up the land with her smile and her passions sent men and women scurrying in every direction. She dined in the most sumptuous restaurants, stayed in the most elegant and regal hotels, travelled across her entire country and the world, being fêted, celebrated and coveted by one and all.

With her hands and a little colour she could teach lessons to the unfeeling and illuminate even the most jaded connoisseur. Hers was a way that may not have been revolutionary or avant-garde; but hers was a way, a face, a body that stood behind what she did and imbued everything with desire. One and all begged to have her, to see her, to be seen with her, to touch her, and to hold what she herself had touched. Her paintings weren’t so much works of art as objects of adoration that could be seen by the deserving and sent around the globe to meet the demands of the highest bidder.

Her nights were lit by flame and passion and alcohol and madness, and her days were swaddled a fog of drugs and alcohol and suffering and darkness. Until the next night came and she could do it all again. That is how she lost all her girlish charms and eventually became the goddess she once was, surrounded at all times by glittering and magic. There was no place to which she could travel and not lay waste to the countryside just by looking down at it, no room she couldn’t set still as a tomb just by opening her perfectly sculpted mouth.

These days, in this place, it is almost as if none of that had ever happened. These days, there is nothing of that world that still remains, but for a small room with a closed door, the curtains pulled forever tight, high atop a cliff that just about falls in to the sea and sinks away from everything.

These days, all that remains of that time are four walls stacked deep with paintings that steal scenes from worlds unseen, lives unborn – each and every one of them having come to her in the early days, the younger old days, when all she had to do was reach out, snatch from the air unknown dreams from across the globe, setting down moments and landscapes and beauties that she had never seen. That were never hers. And, these days all she can do is sit in the darkened room, her hands in fists, seeing with unfocussed eyes all of this art – in grey-scale.

Once, everything moved so fast. The hands, the mouths, the lights, the cars, the words – everything was all just so fast that you never could really breathe deep, for fear that that might be just what it takes for you to not keep up. There was always something to do, some place to be, and some reason to stay in place only long enough to be seen before moving off again, moving as lightly as a butterfly in the night to the next source of heat, next source of light, ever closer to the center of the world, where it was all happening.

Eventually, the thrills pile up so high that you can walk through them, under them, in the spaces that have been left unfilled while so much time has gone by. There, in that space, is the memory of her parents. Over here, the feeling of her first kiss with a boy in the same grade at school, who went on to tell everyone and, for a while, could be seen on every screen and every magazine for his unique ability to tell just what that was like, and how, even then, you could tell that she was always going to be… Someplace, between the memory of her first hotel hangover and the recollection of destroying her first set of paintings for being ‘unimaginative crap’, is nestled the thrill of being pressed back into her first airplane seat by the push of a roaring engine, followed up very shortly by her first sip of champagne.

Was it the thrills, or herself, that became empty, first? Was her work suffering from all her travels, or was her travelling being hurt by her need to work? At what point did it all become no longer about having the best, but about grasping at the feeling of the worst? How much was missing in her life, and how long could she cover it up with paint, before someone noticed what was missing? How many nights did she, succulent little miss rich girl, spend on a rotting mattress, staring up at a naked light bulb before the whole thing welled up inside her and spat her right out? Just what was it that compelled her to leave, all of a sudden? As ephemeral as inspiration the urge, the need, came upon her in the middle of the night, just as today’s need is coming upon her, now – and completely hijacked everything she thought she knew of the world, just so she could destroy it all – throw it all away?

How long had it been, at that point, since she had last brushed a canvas?

It could have been forever. And, for a minute, she was afraid. For the first time, something was calling out to her with the same invisible gleam, the same unheard alarm that she could always instil in others. Something was out there, something she hadn’t seen before. And, as far as she knew, she hadn’t even heard of. Because, if she had heard of it, it would already have been hers.

Creeping over and between bodies, she made her way out of the room, out of the building, out of the barrio, back towards the very epicenter of the world that adored her – only long enough to pack a bag and make her getaway. No forwarding address, no alerting the media via press conference or release. Not even a note left to the groundskeeper. One moment here. One moment gone. Just like that.

The only reason she was able to get aboard is that she had been disappeared for so long that the search had gotten so far afield that she was being searched for inside embassies and churches and under the beds of heads of state.

Everyone was looking for her where she might be, no one was looking for her to escape. Again.

She boarded the ship, almost as big as her personal yacht, opting for a room with no windows, turned out the lights and listened to the hum of the engine rise up and through the pipes in the walls and ceiling, singing along for the sheer madness that had come over her, and the utter seclusion she had been feeling so long washing away from within her.

The trip wasn’t long, but much longer than her other options would have permitted her. She could have travelled down the coast with a driver, in one of her private cars; she could have flown down in a plane, having bought each and every single one of the other seats on the flight, so as not to be disturbed. She could have called up one of her pocket billionaires to charter a plane to whisk her off on a cruise, only to escape him right between the afterglow and the comedown. But, no. She made her escape in a cell that would have (had anyone known about it) been correctional, for its amenities. And it might very well have been that. After the fifth day she stopped sweating into her sheets and gritting her teeth every time she tried to stand up to go to the head. It was almost a week before she could keep a meal down under the gentle, soundless swell of the waves, just out of sight. So, by the time she was ready to eat around other people, she was more than a little ashamed of how she looked and smelled.

As with anything, there are times in between everyone else’s sleep and work and bodily needs. There is a rhythm to the absences of others, into which she learned how to fit, just so she didn’t have to make excuses, just so she wouldn’t risk bringing her old life back from the dead.

After two weeks she had made it from the centre of the world to the end of the Earth. She was smelly – not so much from being unwashed, as the fetid diesel smell of the inside of the nameless freighter – felt like she had too much skin on her bones, and not enough to fill the gap between the two, and nearly rabid with blindness and isolation after so long in her wall bunk.

And, nothing in Raoul’s world, at that point, had gotten him anywhere near ready for what was about to happen next.

Raoul had lost his mother to cancer, and his father to the ensuing drink, years before. It wasn’t so much a point of sadness as the affirmation of newfound peace and the end of their suffering.

He wasn’t so much detached from the world as detached by it – every bond, every link that he was supposed to have, to carry him through life, up and evaporated by the time he was an adult. So, painfully weaned of that kind of support, he drifted through the little town, unfocused and barely aware of what was going on around him.

“Grief,” they said, shaking their heads, but doing little else to help him. Sleepless through the day and night, he would walk in expanding circles until he made his way out of town – and promptly came back to the family home. The shack is small, hiding out, perched on the high cliffs that look out over the Ocean, all the way down to the jetty at its feet. People would walk by and hear his voice, thick with tears, crying out for parents who were long gone.

Eventually, the local trouble-maker caught wind that there was a boy in town that everyone was silently neglecting. So he brought a bottle of wine up to the house, knocked on the door and didn’t come back out until the sun was back up in the sky. Gabbon, with his ceaseless talk and endless energy had fed the boy hope – and he was alive again.

After that night, they were great friends. One – the essence of silence, smiling dimly while Gabbon would look over him from his drunken perch, feeding the younger man wisdom, without sharing with him any of the wine. When the question of what the boy would do with his time came up, there was great talk – the village had neglected to help Raoul while he was going through his dark time.

O, how Gabbon had made them regret that! Able to talk for hours (days on end) as to the horror that he faced, alone, and all the possibilities that would lie before them, if he could just get the boy properly under his wing. Hearing this, every house-wife in the village started a march, collecting more and more voices to add to their cause, until they descended on the captain of the Opia and demanded that they give the poor boy a place on the boat.

With a quick look at Gabbon, smiling at the back of the buzzing crowd (by a wild coincidence, he had an needed a crew-mate), the captain acquiesced, happy just to get the mad crowd away from him and his boat, lest something terrible happen. The mob walked back up the hill to the village, leaving Gabbon behind to be cursed at by the captain.

After that, all was well with the world. Raoul had very little to offer, not having spent much time on the water while his parents were alive. But he did bring his own version of luck. When he was aboard, the ship never foundered and never went astray. He was absolutely terrible at catching fish – having had no real experience, and having no feel for the job; but so long as he was aboard, the entire crew could be certain that they would make it back to shore in one piece. So seriously did they hold to this fact that after the few times he would show up to the ship late, or be too sick to get aboard, the crew needed only look at the storm about them to tell that there was something significant about this boy and that perhaps they had best not test their luck. On those in-auspicious days, the men would grumble and bitch about not bringing anything home; but all that was silenced by the regularity with which the other ships would find themselves in peril, on the days when Raoul would stay ashore.

Soon, talk was going about around town as to the circumstances of his birth, as to his long relationship with the seas, how his father had once choked on his own vomit, only to come back to the bar the following night.

Some of these were true. Most of them were not. But, no matter what, a myth slowly began to grow around the young Raoul, and his silence and shyness was more and more overlooked (and eventually forgotten) so that the entire village could no longer remember ever having neglected to come to the rescue of their albatross, their protector, the one who was touched by God, the one who could keep all the fishermen safe and ensure the survival of the village, even as time moved on and eventually left them behind.

That all lasted until the day Mira rode ashore in a little motor-powered dinghy, set eyes on him and whisked his little heart away.

Fortunately for the town, it was a holy day – the entire village was preparing for a feria to take place in the local square. Everyone was excited, more than a few of the village women having made certain to remind Raoul that their daughters would be there – and expecting to dance with him. All this was thrown overboard when the clouds gathered on the horizon, obscuring the sight of the slowly approaching freighter, coming around the Cape, set on eventually making its way into the Great Inland Sea. The winds were fierce, picking up table-cloths, knocking over chairs, not blocking out the whole sky, but bringing sure signs of some kind of fright to come over them.

Everyone was too absorbed in trying to keep the day together, everything on course, to notice that out there, on the very tip of the quay all that way down below there was a sole single dark figure standing on the dock, suitcase in hand as the motor on the dinghy buzzed feverishly away, trying to make its way back to the ship before the clouds broke and buried everything under a veil of tears.

All day, Raoul had been on edge, unusually talkative, his languid eyes and limbs flitting about with uncommon energy, some anxiety as to what must surely be right around the corner keeping him from sitting in place for very long.

Unbeknownst to him, all of the prettiest older girls of the village were slowly losing their minds for their inability to keep him focused on their words, incapable of getting him to do more than smile politely while the air whirled around them and the adults struggled to put on a celebration that they were sure would never happen.

But, then: “Who is that?” For, everyone had been accounted-for – everyone was there. Yet, there was a dark alien simply standing there, out by the edge of the Ocean, simply waiting for something to happen. Very quickly the entire town spread word, then got very quiet. Even Gabbon could say little as he shoved his way around, trying to get a better sight of the small creature that no one was making an effort to go greet.

Suddenly, the Mayor: “Oh, dear? Oh, my! I should go down there and greet her.” Then, the dock-master; then the fishermen, then the owner of the nearest boat all gathered up their voices to argue amongst themselves as to who would go down, pushing and shoving and pulling each-other back until the women went deadly silent, watching their foolishness with the cold clear eyes of the unimpressed.

Unbeknownst to the village, a single silent had unselfconsciously slipped away, making clear direct progress, never taking his eyes off the dark outline shivering under the approaching shadow of a storm that would soon surely blot out the sight of her from the village. Never looking at his footing or the loose cobbles along the way, Raoul eventually found himself leaving dry land for the even pathway of the wharf.

It might have been a look of recognition or a look of relief – no matter – as Raoul made his way over to her. No one up in the village could hear over the din of their own arguing voices, when she said, “I’m Mira. What is your name?” Taking her bag in hand (making nothing at all of the quick contact with her cool hand), he introduced himself and walked her up the hill, as if that were what he had been waiting all day to do.

If that day had been, up until that point, strange and confusing, that is never what the people of Puertazul ever talk about – it is always of that night. By the time Mira and Raoul made their way up the hill, everything in town had become strangely quiet, even the wind itself only occasionally bothering to stir the flags that had been strung from every window as all the villagers stood stock-still, only their eyes moving to watch the two make their way with no pressing need, all the way up to the outskirts of town, through the crooked, unpaved streets, and eventually into the square. There, Raoul simply put down the suitcase and lifted a hand to say “this is everyone.” Shaken loose by this noise, Gabbon, tenderly, gingerly, but above all quietly made his way between and around the others, whispering his regrets and apologies all the way until he stood before Raoul and said “and, what is her name, Raoul?”

With a smile somehow previously unseen, he said “Mira.”

“Mira! Of course! Welcome to Puertazul! We’re all so excited to meet you! You chose quite a day to visit our sleepy little village! Have you eaten? Are you thirsty? Tired?” And on and on the flow of his words went, completely ignoring his friend so as to be the one to escort this marvellous rare creature as she made her first introductions to the town that almost seemed to have brought itself together for this very reason.

Needless to say, everyone was very nice. She made introduction after introduction (finally speaking for herself for the first time since leaving home) to all the men (thrilled) and women (less so) and even the young ladies, who were…polite. Darker and darker the day was getting, the shadows not so much carried into town on her shoulders as looming protectively over her head, lest her radiance burn the assembled moths with her beauty. Merrily along she went, never flagging, never losing interest in each and every person that she met – tossing off charm as if it were her duty, entertaining more and more onlookers as she hit her stride in the rush of bodies. So skilfully was this done that no one even noticed her regularly looking over at the bemused Raoul, drinking wine slowly from a small glass as she made her way among the crowd.

Then, when it was done, when she had met literally everyone, even the youngest toddlers, the crowd broke, released from her spell to be made aware of the day, of the time, of the very nature of their all being so very together in that moment. Quickly, small cheers went out as men and women began to fetch food, lights, drinks, instruments to make music and dancing. That was the reason that they were all there, that day wasn’t it? Guitars, violins and accordions were lifted up, parting the darkness of the oncoming night as one after the other, the townspeople broke out in song, until everyone was singing. Yet, everyone remained rooted in place – all the necessary tasks had been completed, and the food wouldn’t be ready for a while, yet. Still, no one was dancing. Even the little children, who would soon have to be put to bed, were caught in time, lifting their breath to the breeze, unable to move.

They all noticed, everyone knew, yet all they could do was look at each other perplexed wherever they stood.

Until Mira broke the spell. She shifted her hips and spun on herself, the hem of her dress lifting up, causing one and all to clear a space as she clapped her hands to a beat that was already making the musicians sore. She stomped her feet in time with the clapping, and suddenly the others found themselves released. “Had the ground shuddered, when she kicked down?” they were ashamed to wonder. So, the great unmoving mass spilled out and around in the streets, people catching each-other up, arms and hands thrown all over one-another as the musicians found renewed energy and threw themselves into it, as well.

Everything else was a blur. Surely, everyone found time enough to eat – all could, if they struggled very hard through the headache and no one was talking too loud – reconstruct an entire night of sitting down at a great table to eat and drink, as even the musicians rested for a while, all filling the air with talk and laughter as Mira was fêted, her grace and beauty the topic of every conversation in which she didn’t take part, even as others would vie for the chance to get a little closer, maybe close enough to see her smile, hear her voice, share a few words with her, make her laugh. Not at all new to this, Mira made sure to respect the hierarchy, making the rounds of the fishermen’s wives after chatting with the Mayor’s wife for a few minutes. Everyone was so engrossed by her presence, so consumed by the sheer existence of her, that Raoul was left to his merry own business, politely ignored by all those who had been so set to make a fuss over him. The night was particularly dark, being held at bay by a few strings of lights, causing the entire village to sit closer to one-another, to talk a little closer, to drink a little deeper, keeping their eyes on the clouds and on the star that was at their centre.

Then, again, they were dancing, gathering heat, gathering speed, gathering volume as they caroused and careened around and then into each-other, the dark growing deeper and deeper as the clouds overhead sent down slow surges, dipping down in waves, clearly afraid of interrupting, unwilling to bring the feria to an end. And, then, when the last bottle had been drained, when the last glass was accidentally knocked over by some hip or bum, some faute d’inattention caused that last table to be jostled, Mira raised her mouth to the sky and the storm broke, breaking like a fever dream’s sweat over each and every one of them, coating them, covering them as the dancing re-doubled…

But, that day was yesterday. The excitement of novelty faded into pattern, routine. All at once, the world became whole for the both of them. As the days marched on, though, a silence grew until meals became messages, touches became entreaties for some rupture, some catharsis to bring back noise, bring them back together. Until even those touches were forgone for fear of being denied. Or worse, ignored.

Day and night were once spent together. Eventually, they fell away from each-other, and though they live under the same sky, the same house, in the same bed, the days and nights are spent apart, with only the times of fading light and fading dark belonging to them both.

But, you know what that’s like, don’t you?

While Raoul’s ship pulls away from shore, all you can do is hold your breath hoping to hear more of this strange other world while you float blinded by the light – too bright for your eyes.

“Tide’s not very cooperative today, captain,” one man yells from behind the tiller pouring more power into the engines, struggling to get away from the shore.

Another man grunts, making his rounds; checking lines, keeping the rest on their toes while casting regular glances at the solitary Raoul, who only gazes out at the water, unable to focus. Still, he isn’t bothered. It didn’t take long to learn that the other man is all thumbs, forever distracted – a little too simple to take care of himself. So, why bother causing trouble by making him something he’s not? With a quick spit over the side, the captain moves on, waking up dozers and sending the rest off to prepare for the open Sea.

For his part, Raoul simply keeps watch. For what? It’s hard to tell. He acts more as a talisman than anything else. As long as he doesn’t get in anyone’s way, he’s doing his job, by them.

So, his mind can wander. Never very far. Never much further than the

“You lost your job?! What could you possibly have done? They need you-“

“It happened again.”

“Again?!” A pained expression goes back and forth between them.

“But-” Gabbon starts to say.

“It always happens. I know. I can’t do anything about it.”

“So, you bring that thing out of the water and they just tell you to split?”

“Pretty much. I know how scary it is to me – it happens to me. I can only imagine what it must be like to see it from the outside. Not good.”

“No. Not good. But, boy, haven’t you gone to see the doctor?”

“And tell him what? I see things and like to jump into the Ocean, when I do? I know I’m crazy, Gabbon. I just didn’t think it would cost me my job…”

“Oh, sobrino….” Gabbon says, not focusing on anything. Almost despite himself, still caught up in his own thoughts, he moves over to the kitchen, laying out on the table between them small plates, and bottles of beer. Without seeing the world around him, he deals out cutlery, half-way through his beer before he comes back up for air, saying “I’m sorry. I really didn’t see this coming. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know! No one is going to want ‘crazy Raoul’ aboard after this. Maybe I could rent a boat? Maybe a small one? We don’t have much money…”

“What about Mira? Isn’t she some kind of royalty, or something?”

“What the Hell, Gab?”

“I don’t know. Ya hear things…”

“About Mira? Gab, I hope you don’t…”

“No! Never! Of course, I stick to the facts, never any mindless gossip-mongering. But…”

What.

“She came from Iberao, didn’t she? Wasn’t she some big deal, back home?”

“Not any more, gordura” she walks past the both of them on silent feet, carrying, then throwing in the rubbish-bin what looks like a bundle of clothes and fur. A small creature, indeed.

“I’ve got nothing left but the hair on my back, I’m afraid.”

He looks at Raoul, who scowls and shakes his head back at the man.

“His name is Miguel, by the way.”

“He has a name?!”

Her voice trails away as a twist of the wind pulls the door closed behind her, leaving you to catch your breath in the bath she poured for you, newly naked, freshly arrived.

Welcome. You’ve made it

Get some sleep – it’s going to be a long night.

Just listen to that, just like the waves that once kept you up that night. Sure, the surf crashes against the cliff and the shore, below; but you’re safe. You’ve made it to land. No longer are you going to have to hold on desperately for dear life. No more is your life in danger of simply slipping away, falling over forever into the bottomless beyond that once kept you afloat.

Dry land, high up, and so solid that you could practically kiss every step of it, just for being there.

But, then, there are conditions to this life.

There are others, now. You and I are no longer alone, and you’re going to have to learn to take my lead, to trust me a little more than you did before. We made it this far off the strength of your stubbornness; but this place has rules, conditions that you can neither see nor understand. But, I’m here with you. I’m still watching over you. Just listen to my voice and everything will be alright. I’ll guide you true, just as I did before. We’ll find a safer, higher place, where you’ll never need to worry about the water, where you’ll be forever safe from the monsters that rise night after night to chase you down. We’ll do it together. Just, don’t forget – it’s you and me.

Such a big world, for just us, though. So many people around. So many sights and smells – the land giving up its breath with your every step, the sweatingstinkingsighing people all around, filling your nose with their every exhalation. Even as they walk by, the utter contrast with the lifeless flat of the Ocean is brought into ever greater relief – so many moving bodies, and none of them reaching for you, ever reaching into you to pull you down.

And, all of them alive for so long, so full of their own history that you feel insubstantial in comparison. So exhausted and empty that they can move you around with a whisper or a word.

But, don’t worry, you can always count on me.

Because, we can’t stay here long. The Ocean is still there, just outside the window, throwing itself up with ever more vigour, hoping to knock down the high wall you’ve set yourself upon. But, it’s no stronger than that, this cliff, this solid ground. There is forever the water, reaching over and reaching in, giving the monsters a way to get at you, get closer to you, and if we don’t keep moving, they’ll eventually be able to reach up and finally get their hands on you. And, I know how much you’re afraid of that. We’ll have to keep moving, move further in and further away, until the Ocean is no longer a threat. We can do this. But, now that the rules have changed, we’ll have to use what’s available to us.

These people, all around us, they all want something. You can see it in their eyes and the way they move around, not touching the walls or looking up at the sky, anymore. The way their feet walk the empty, trodden paths they’ve walked forever.

They want to move. They want to burst, they want it so badly. We’ve got to find someone who can actually do it, though.

Wakeupwakeupwakeupwakeupwakeup. Don’t just lie there, move your bones. Your filament-thin flesh has got to do something with itself. Don’t just look at your hands, the gnarled, withered flesh that kept you hanging on so long. This isn’t the place for that. Your hands should better be hidden from view, swollen and ancient as they now seem. A pity we can’t make you any better than you are, but that’s just the way things go I suppose. Not like we could just pop you into a new body, or make your old one young again. Again, there are rules to this place, and you’re just going to have to adapt to them.

But, look over here, come, look closer. All around you, even as the moaning in the water gets closer, thrown forward by the waves below: the people who have found you, made you their own, sleep in their own fitful ways, struggling with the night in them to find a dream that will spur them, come morning.

Come on, don’t be shy – we don’t have time for that. Come closer. Let’s just look at them. Don’t get too close! You’ll wake them. That’s it. Just another step.

Look at them, there – all the age and exhaustion gone from them, no longer standing upright and brave. They lie there, the way you would, now, faces smooth, bodies pressed down into immobility even as their minds whirl and rattle.

Mira, beautiful, tortured Mira. Her dreams, you know, are never of this place. They’re all faraway. But, tonight, there is something about them. Far, yes, but leading from this place to unknowns. Even as her hand reaches out in a silent dance, grasping and cradling the man sleeping beside her, tearing the night with the sounds of his simplicity, she pats at the mattress and, tentatively, his body, as she creates for herself the fantasy of what could be happening right now. Good thing she doesn’t know we’re watching in.

Yes, you. You figure in these dreams. Of all the insanity of our long drift here, someone who has taken a particular shine to you. She sleeps only to be able to see you, come sunrise.

You can take her away. You can pry her foot from the deathtrap of this two-flea town and get her to fly, again.

Her dream is so strong that she can feel it pulling her away from Raoul, inches slowly growing between them – her body moving closer to you, even as she lies, reaching out for him.

I’m not sure if you know this, I’m not sure if you can tell; but something is wrong here. I can’t put my finger on it – I’ve been out of this place for a long time, too. But, I’m thinking that there may be something different. I don’t know that she should be able to-

No! Stop! Down, you stupid fucking idiot. You lay a hand on her and I will be so thoroughly gone that I can guarantee you’ll be consumed by the monsters come morning! Right. That’s better. You leave her be. She’s just dreaming.

Or, maybe, she’s hatching a plan? All these dreams, these images have so much intent, but so little structure. So many hopes for little moments that the bridges between them are just blurs. That’s fine, I guess. Not like you have much to say it, eh? Just a passenger along for the ride. Not like anyone is asking for much of you.

Just look at Raoul. All his dreams. All his dreams… They’re all about the past. The same day, just turning over and over again, as if he were searching for? Oh, poor boy. He knows. He knows what he’s done.

He knows that he’s spoiled the best thing that’s ever happened to him – just look at how he writhes.

Oh, the poor idiot. Burning his hand in the memory of the flame, because it’s gone out. Oh, poor Raoul. That’s right. Look at what he did to lose her – all his silent adoration, his bumbling ways. He knows that she was always too good for him, and his dreams aren’t even dreams anymore. He just drowns himself in the shallow pool of his good memories, hoping to remember just where it was that he went wrong.

It could have been how he didn’t ask enough questions, worked himself too hard supporting them, to have anything to offer but a hungry mouth. He knows that he let the rumours about her grow until they became overwhelming – locked them in this measly little house, where she can’t breathe. He knows he should have just said something, stepped up and taken the words out of their mouths. But, just the novelty of people having something to say about him, even if at a remove, was more than he ever could have expected. It caught him by surprise, even as it caught him in its teeth. And, now, here they are, lying together for the first time in what must be years, and all they can do is share the bed, even as their dreams are pulling them further apart.

Well, that was delightful. Let’s get out of here. This is life stuff is bringing me down.

Let’s go see what else is going on.

Ultimately, the story isn’t about you anymore, is it? After all that time on the water, it’s not like you have much to say. You’re just an empty vessel, more of a toy, yourself, than that thing you floated across on.

You’re going to have to realize that, whether you like it or not, these people have a lot more going on, and a lot more to say than you ever will.

And, much as I’ve grown used to it, I just can’t help coming back to her.

She sleeps peacefully, at first. Nagged by reminders and responsibilities, she manages to push them aside for the sheer novelty of dreaming – not sleeping away the bright, noisy days the way she usually does. It comes as a narcotic shock, your arrival. It has exhausted her in a way that her fury and frustration haven’t been able to, no matter how she’s struggled with them. Even though she has the good sense to remember her duties, she throws them all out the window with every breath, just to be able to hold on to something again. So, as she turns, in her sleep, to catch some new glimpse of what might be, she nearly loses herself over the edge of the bed, where she has been perched for hours. Waking, in the body’s sudden apprehension of danger, she hangs there, for a moment, caught between the bed and the floor, wondering at just where she is.

Everything looks different at night. Upside down. Lit from all the wrong parts until everything looks out of place, fitting better in a dream than the real world. But, then she smiles – that is a good thought. Sure, some things belong in dreams. But, sometimes, they show up at your doorstep, anyway.

She rolls over, to look Raoul over, to make sure that he’s as safe and senseless as ever. That done, she slides delicately through the air, barely leaving the bed before she’s on her silent way, stalking through the house the way she usually does. This nighttime is her kingdom – the place where no one else walks and she reigns supreme. For all her loathing of the place, it is hers. She can walk without disrupting the floorboards or making a sound over the carpets. She’s too good for that. Her feet hardly touch the floor, and she has to slow herself down so as not to get carried away, walking into the bathroom, where she had left you.

But, you’re not there. You’re gone. The dream has burst, and all she has got left is a look of sadness and confusion on her face. You were never real. Of course not. Things like these don’t happen. No one ever suddenly appears and changes everything. She had, once, but what has really changed?

She wipes her cheeks, resigned to making her way back into her usual rounds, her usual routine.

But, something is amiss. Of course, no one just appears and disappears out of thin air. Of course not. But, there is a shape she recognizes, there, in the bathtub,. A dirty outline. A trace of something different, unusual, has been left on this thing that gets filled and emptied, day after day. She crouches down, putting her hand where she so hopes your body will be. But, it’s just wet.

She looks closer, but stops. Her head swivels around to where all this strange light is coming from. The door is open.

She’s felt more alive. She’s danced among the stars, flown over cities without batting an arm, cradled light in her hands and had millions staring at her from all over the world. But, she hasn’t run in lifetimes. All her energy and fear spill out from all her limbs as she runs around the village, and down the hill, huffing with every footfall. This is unbecoming of a lady, much less the town witch; but the electricity in her body can barely be contained by the rushing of arms and legs.

She doesn’t yell, not wanting to wake anyone. So, she covers every street in no seeming order, peering into sleeping alleys and dead shop-lanes as she charges on, faster and faster – ever more afraid that someone might come upon you before she does. Take you away, make you their own.

She runs so fast, though, that those thoughts don’t really have shape. She runs through all the streets and stops to catch her breath with a mighty, angry curse.

Of course you wouldn’t go anywhere. You have nowhere to go, no one you know. There is only one place you could go.

You don’t hear her, even though you know she’s chasing after you. You don’t need to hear her. One foot in the water and the other on land. That’s enough for you. Seems like you got a little something in your head after all, eh?

“Miguel! Miguel! Stop! I can’t…. huff huff huff. I can’t breathe! I need to stop. I need to-” She catches your hand and her legs give out under her. Hair falls in a curtain, shadowing her face even as it sways energetically with her breathing. When enough time has passed, she sweeps it all away to look at you, still holding you in place.

“What. Where are you going?”

Where are you going?

“I have to keep moving. They’re coming for me”

Oh, no. Don’t you dare. Don’t you tell her. If you do-

“Monsters. The monsters are after me. They’re going to kill me. I need to keep moving, or they’ll find me and they’ll…”

“Kill you? Raoul, what the Hell have you done!”

It must have been the door slamming behind her, the sound of her escape giving her away. She never makes any noise – he usually doesn’t notice her coming or going – only that his food is ready when time comes for him to go to the pier.

This night, though, is different. Raoul is suddenly awake.

He doesn’t move. He holds his breath, waiting to hear something moving out there. Nothing. The cottage is small and still, as ever. He sighs and moves out of the bed, eyes locked on the still emptiness that Mira should fill. At the door he looks out into the hall. No boy, no girl and not a peep from the eternally noisy Gabbon.

Nothing.

“Mira?” A whisper. Little more. Afraid of being wrong, afraid of provoking her into anger, he breathes out her name, and then stops.

“What is happening? Where is everyone?!”

He casts about, looking for answers from the quiet walls. But, of course, not a thing talks back.

Only one solution to that. He goes to the kitchen and pulls down from the wall the telephone receiver and turns the dial. Before the bell on the other end of the line can catch its breath, Gabbon is filling the wire with noise.

“Raoul? That you? Something going on? Everything alright? What’s wrong?”

“Gab”

“Raoul. What happened?”

“I lost her. I lost them. I don’t know where they went.”

“I knew it! Alright. You go into town. Ask the bartenders if they’ve seen anything. I’ll ask my people if they know anything, have seen anything.”

“Your-“

“Don’t worry your head. I’ll meet you back at your place – we’ll find them.”

“Thank you, tio.“

“Don’t thank me, yet”

So, in a night already overfull with ghosts and ghouls, two men add themselves to the strangeness roaming about. Like an awkward, wayward shadow of Mira’s usual outings, Raoul trudges worriedly to all the known watering-holes, spreading the story of his missing woman and the strange creature he pulled from the sea.

No one believes him – how could something so strange happen in a place like this? – how much has he had to drink, that he’s managed to misplace his Mira. And how, oh, how, could he have been such a fool as to invite a younger man into his own home and let him run away with his woman? All he gets are laughter and derision for his questions. No one knows and everyone seems more than willing to tell him just what they think of him and his spectral lover.

There is nothing to do. Soon enough, he has run out of places to look, people to ask, and the sun has begun throwing out edges to the shadows, giving the sky colour before giving it light.

Better to go home and hope that this is all just a bad dream. Better to go back to his bed and hope that Mira will find her way home.

“I’m not Raoul”

“I know, Miguel, honey. I know. I wasn’t talking to you”

“He can hear you? Can you hear-“

“No. I was talking to myself. I just don’t understand. How is it anyone would want to kill you? What have you done?”

Find your words. Let them loose. Just, don’t tell her about me.

“I don’t remember. I don’t know. I just know that they’re chasing after me. They come from the water, and they want to hurt me. I have to get-“

“Away. Right. Everything’s going to be alright. I’ll get you away from here. I won’t let them get you. How far? How far behind you are they?”

“Not very. They get closer every night.”

“I don’t understand. Is the village safe? Can we go back?”

You look out over the water, shattered light bouncing off of every wave and swell. For the moment, the groaning seems far away. No hands or faces are reaching out of the water that you can see. Their eyes… their eyes don’t seem to be breaking the waves.

“Fast. Fast. We have to be fast. If they catch me, they’ll-“

“You’re so afraid. Who could want to?” She picks herself up, rubs the wetness off your face, and starts to pull you back.

“We’ll be fast. Very fast. But, we need to get you some clothes, if we’re going to go anywhere.”

“Alright, Diego, I’ll let him know about the next lot. Are you sure you haven’t heard of any last-minute additions? My friend, his girl up and disappeared. You know, I’d be real sore if I ever found out you held out on- alright, alright. I’ll tell Arturo. You be good.

“Damn fool wouldn’t know a woman from his left foot – good thing it never runs out on him. Where the Devil would Mira and her bloody mer-man have – dammit,” Gabbon says, looking at his reflection in the rear-view mirror, “I had better not be right. This is stupid. What am I doing…“

The truck swerves and banks as it rushes off the road, into the sand. It roars as it slows, the tires treading the beach with difficulty, glowing lights locked on you and Mira, even as you struggle to look past the woman shielding you with her body.

HONKHONK.

“That could only be that damn Gabbon” she mutters under her breath.

“How do you know?” you ask, still not able to keep up.

“Because he makes enough noise to wake the dead, that’s how” she says curtly, putting a hand on your forearm, as you turn around.

“Boy, are you alright?!” Gabbon hollers, as he makes his say slowly along the edge of the beach.

“We’re alright, Gabbon. We’re fine. Just leave us-“

He exits the cab with a slam, looking past her and straight into you.

“Are you alright, boy? She hurt you?” he asks, making his way around you, noticing your nakedness and not caring. Mira winds herself between the two of you, not letting go.

“We’re fine, Gabbon. You can go, now. We just went out for a walk.”

“Boy- Mira, let go of the damn boy, you’re going to wrench his arm off”

“Gabbon, you get back into your truck and quit the drama. Just let us be. We’re fine.

“Says you. You’re still not letting him say anything.”

“He doesn’t have to. He’s fine.”

“He needs a doctor. No one should be walking around on the beach in the nude in the middle of the night.”

“No?”

“No, Mira. Don’t look at me like that. I don’t care what games you want to play in your own home, but the boy doesn’t belong to you and you can’t start fucking someone new around when you haven’t even finished with the last one.”

“What is that supposed to mean?

“Listen, witch, I don’t have the time to answer stupid, condescending questions. Give the boy over. I’ll take him back home to Raoul and you can go find another poor shit (sorry, lad) to suck the soul out of. This one’s already spoken for.”

“Oh, yeah? You think? Raoul is probably dead asleep, right now, and you’re just causing a ruckus because you can’t get your hands on your new-“

“Mira. Raoul called me. He’s searching around town because I told him to. I’ve been driving up and down the coast looking for the two of you for hours. I’m tired. I want to keep my promise to my friend, even if I have to go through you.”

“He’s not sick. He doesn’t need a doctor”

“Did you even hear a word that I just said? Listen, woman,” he claps a hand on her arm and yours, and starts pulling at them.

“You leave him alone, and everything will be fine.”

“And, if I don’t-“ her jaw clacks shut on her tongue and she falls in a heap to the sand.

“Sorry you had to see that, my boy,” he says, kneeling over quickly to collect her, in his arms.

“Is she going to be alright, Gabbon?

“Yea, lad. I’m sure she will. She just needs a little rest. Got a little over-excited, you know? Probably just tired.”

“I’m tired, too, Gabbon.” You say, pawing at your now-dry eyes, and taking small steps to keep up with the lumbering man.

“Well, you can lie down in the bed of the truck, and I’ll keep an eye on Mira, up front. Alright?”

“Am I going to have to hold on?”

“No, I’ll make my way slow” he says, throwing some blankets at the boy, “you just get warm.”

“Raoul! Raoul! Wake up, Raoul!”

“What! What happened?”

“Oh, not much, really. Just a midnight beach-rescue of Mira and our boy. By yours truly.”

“What happened to Mira?”

“I think she fainted from excitement, poor girl. She’s the one who found the boy. She was trying to get him back and just fell asleep in the truck, on the way back. Good job, she did. Tracking him down.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. She told me the whole thing on the way back. Great instincts she has. Couldn’t tell, by looking at her, and by her taste in men.” Ribs Raoul gently, to no effect.

“Well. Wow. That’s amazing. Great. I’m. I’m-”

“No need for that, sobrino. Just doing my part. Nothing you wouldn’t have done for me, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, Gab. Of course. Of course. Listen, is there anything I can-“

“Don’t even start with that, kiddo. Just draw the boy a bath. He’s chilled to the bone after all that time out in the open air. Just warm him up a bit, then get yourself back to bed. I think you’re set for a big day, in the morning.

“Absolutely, of course. Thank you, Gabbon. For everything.”

“It was no problem, my boy. No problem at all.”

After setting the sleeping Mira down in the darkened room, the large man makes his exit – quickly and discreetly.

Raoul sits down in the kitchen, his eyes alight and his hair a mess.

Time for us to take it from here. Just tell him: “Raoul, you go to bed. I’ll just find a chair to sleep.”

He starts to put up an argument, when you gently lead him back to his bed, and he sits down, careful not to wake Mira.

We whisper: “I’ll be alright. You just get some sleep.”

He drifts off quickly, calm and comforted by being in his right place. You, for your part, still wearing Gabbon’s blankets, should probably find some place to keep an eye on everything. The sun’s not fully up, yet, and you never know when the monsters will finally get here.

“They’re still coming”

Oh, that they are. But, we might have just out-run them, for a night. For once.

In the morning come voices. The house is surrounded by them. Not the sound of monsters, though. This is something different. The whole cottage vibrate. Whispers and warm wind coming in through all the windows, even though the day has only just started.

After all the silence, all the struggle of our travel, after all the voices of your departure had died down, the one thing that comes as an absolute shock are the voices, the myriad wants and wonderings of others.

After all the months of silence between us, the one thing that’s hard to absorb now are all the voices, just outside your window. The entire village, the entire town is now entranced, not only by what you are, but by the drama that has been carrying itself out in their very midst.

Everyone has a thought, an opinion. And, suddenly, everyone in town has gathered to peer in on just what they’ve allowed to go on amongst them. No burning torches and pitchforks in the middle of the night – these people are assembled to speculate as to what has been brewing at their very sides, just what flavour of madness their neighbours have been spawning while the rest of them have continued so normally. Everyone has a stake – every change has its avatars and its nemeses.

But, here, without coordination, without a plan, all the people who only just last night slept ever so soundly, people are losing their minds figuring out just what is going on. And, how they might leave their imprint on it.

The sound is deafening.

They wonder at just how, those who have only now being revealed to be frauds, Mira and Raoul have always been.

Fun times, these people.

And now, in your weakest state, you have nothing to say. All there are are voices.

And, yours cannot be one of them.

You’re the mer-man. And, everyone has gathered for a look.

“Mira! No!” He grasps at her, holding her as tightly as he dare, in their conjugal nest.

“No! Raoul, No! They have no – “ She battles with him, her hands falling on real flesh, more than just the product of her desires and dreams, for the first time in an eternity. So, for all their distance, this is the fight that they never had. And, perhaps, for all your own innocence, you had better hide your eyes from what is about to come. It’s all that was ever supposed to happen.

So, looking away, they catch a glimpse of themselves for the first time in years – her security no longer hidden away by darkness and his strength no longer kept at bay by the Sea.

They struggle and bite, no longer relegating their arguments to silence. They fight in an arena hidden away only by walls and averted eyes.

And, they both come back to life.

She hasn’t heard him speak, heard his voice in far too long. Nothing more than the mechanical breathing of her former lover.

And, all of a sudden, they are alive, again. No more whispers or darkness of habit – both scratch and claw at each-other for understanding, for once having something to say, running out of the words for the ferocity of their meeting.

Look at the war you started, coming here. Things were so much more peaceful, more rational before you got here. Now, everything has been up-ended and nothing makes sense, anymore.

When the fighting dies down, and the birds have flown off the roof, there is a palpable silence. From the streets outside, Mira and Raoul have frightened away all but the most brazen children and old men.

A knock falls lightly on the door.

“Mira? Raoul? Is everything alright in there? I heard there was a bit of commotion, and everyone ran away from here like the ground was on fire.

“Everything alright?” The door sneaks open, and Gabbon’s bleary eye tries to take in the scene without surprising his friend in an un-dignified state.

“Hello, Gabbon. Do you think it’s over?” You ask, peeking back out the door.

“Oh! Zagal! Get over here! What are you doing?”

“Nothing. I’m just waiting for Raoul and Mira to finish talking to each-other.”

“Cute turn of phrase, but we had better give them some peace, for a while. “I’ve never liked that girl, but being around the two of them too long will likely scramble your brain, if you know what I mean.” He puts his arm on your shoulder and guides you away from the cottage, further into town.

“Now, the day is nearly half gone. We should probably get you something to eat, no? Something to coat your ribs, maybe?” he asks, reaching over to press a finger between two ribs almost to the joint.

“Ow.”

“You’re all skin and bones! It’s going to take a lot of work to flesh you out, again. Just what happened to you, exactly?” he asks, collecting a few oranges and rolls from the absolutely dumbfounded grocer, his eyes locked on you until you leave his stall, and then quickly scurrying out into the street to share the news with every passer-by. As you walk through the streets, quietly answering Gabbon’s insistent questions. Soon, your passing leaves behind dozens of altered, distorted stories, all leading like crumbs back to the silent cottage where Raoul and Mira still are.

“I can’t remember.”

“What? Were you struck on the head? Did you get sick? Did something happen to you?”

You smile, under the pressure of all his offered stories, all his requests for some wonderful tale that he could recount at the bar, burnishing his own prestige, collecting free drinks all the while.

“I just don’t remember.” He grabs at your head, tilting and parting the weedy mass to examine your skull for signs of damage. “Well, it doesn’t look like you need a doctor – do you need a doctor, lad?”

“No. I don’t think so. I don’t really know. My head is fine.”

“Well, I guess that’s somewhere to start. Now, what in the Hell were you doing naked on the beach with Mira, last night?! If I didn’t know you better I’d tell you just what would have happened, if you looked like you were hiding anything. But you didn’t even take pants with you, did you, lad?”

“I don’t have any pants.”

“No? Well, it’s a good thing that Raoul had a pair to spare, or we wouldn’t be walking around, today! Don’t you think?”

“I guess so, Gabbon – I don’t have any pants of my own.”

“Sweet. But, no sense of humour. I guess things could be worse. Now, lad, what was it that Mira had said about you going somewhere? Was she trying to take you away? Was she trying to take you home, with her? Was she trying to take you back where she belongs?”

“No, no, Gabbon. She was trying to take me back to her home with Raoul, so I could put some clothes on. Clothes are important.”

“Yes, lad, that they can be. But, but what were you doing down on the beach, lad? Strikes me as an odd time to try to go for a swim, what with the moon hardly out. Why didn’t you wait for another time? Maybe, during the day, or something?”

“Something’s coming for me, Gabbon. They’re chasing me. Mira said she would help me get away. I have to stay ahead of them. They want to kill me.”

“I had heard something about the generalissimo putting his foot down, but I haven’t heard of anything in our quiet little neck of the woods. Tell me, zagal. Where are you from? What side are you on? If you really need to get away, you should have tried to contact me – me and my people are – wait.

“Is that why you washed up? Are you one of the boys from up the coast? Your accent is maybe a little too clean to have come from-”

“Gabbon, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m here. I just know that they’re coming after me and that I have to keep moving. I have to stay ahead of them.”

“But, how, boy? You can only stay ahead of the bastards so long before you have to go home or make some kind of stand. Isn’t that so? How are you going to keep running, if you don’t know where you’re running to?”

“I know where they’re chasing me from, Gabbon.”

“Where, boy?” he asks, as you turn to look down at the water at the foot of the village, and point at the horizon, all around. “They come after me from there. They chase me from there. I need to stay ahead of them, . If I go far enough, maybe I’ll be able to find a place where they won’t be able to follow me.”

“And, you’ll be taking Mira with you?” he asks, his eyes suddenly getting long and lined.

“I-I don’t know. I just know that I have to stay ahead of them. Mira says she wants to take me somewhere safe. I don’t know if Raoul will be coming with us.”

“Well, I care very much what happens to the lad. I’ve gone to a lot of effort to take care of him and make sure that-“

“I know, Gabbon. You’re a good man. I know.”

“You do, do you?” he says, running his hands over his lapels appreciatively.

“We can all go together?” You look at him, not so much asking him for a specific answer, just hoping to get any answer at all.

“Well, I’m not sure that those two – oh. You mean all of us, together?

“Hahah, sorry, lad. But, my work keeps me here for a reason. People need to make it out of here while the going is rough. If I were to just disappear from one day to the next, I can assure you that a very substantial number of dead men would be hanging around my neck.

“No. Better to not even know where you’re going. If you are what you say you are, I just hope that you make it home. If you’re anything else, I think I’d rather keep the details of my own story to myself, if you don’t mind.”

“No, of course not, Gabbon – I can’t even tell you my own story. It wouldn’t be fair to ask you for what I can’t give back.”

He gives you a quick clap on the back, and you turn in the direction of the cottage. “Well, lad, that’s very understanding of you. Let’s see if I can’t muster up some information for you. It’s what I’m good at. And if you’re going to be heading wherever your feet please, I might at least be able to find you a few gaps in the fence, to get you on your way.

“You won’t report me, lad, will you?” He asks, concern evident in his eyes again. His grip on your neck suddenly going still, as your steps slow down.

“I don’t know anyone but you, Mira, and Raoul? Do I report to them,” you say, mimicking his easy smile, putting your own arm around his shoulders.

“Good lad,” he laughs. “Good lad!”

As you approach the cottage, there are no more birds on the roof, and no more villagers walking idly by, hoping not to be caught out for their curiosity. Just like any other street, cats lie lazily in the sun and shadows while watching everyone and each-other.

“Mira, Raoul? Hello?”

You both press out into the hallways, before you risk making a misstep.

“Everything alright?”

“There you are, “ says Raoul, from the kitchen, sitting in his little metal chair. He stands, not looking at you

“Gab, I hate to ask you, but-“

“Anything sobrino. What is it?”

He smiles, clapping the older man on the shoulder.

“Can we borrow your truck? We don’t know how far we’re going to be going, and I think that if Mira has to walk even a mile in shoes, she’s going to absolutely-“

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Raoul. I only have one truck. You know that I need it to do my work. Why can’t you ask someone else?”

“Who, Gab? No one else in town talks to us. I tried asking all my parents’ old friends, and all they wanted to do was gossip. And, when Mira asked, all anyone did was either drool or scowl. We need your help.”

“You’re right. I should have thought a little harder about your problem.”

Raoul’s smile shines a light that makes you and Gabbon both squint.

“So, you’ll lend us your truck!”

“No”

“No? What? You just said…”

“Just because you want to go on some mad adventure with this one” he elbows you in the shoulder, before continuing, “doesn’t mean that the rest of us have gone completely crazy. I told Miguel, here, that I was going to get him some information. Since you need transport, I can do you one better – I’ll drive the lot of you to the border. I was just going to write some names down for the boy to take with him; but if we get there at the right time, you should be able to get across without too much of a hassle. From there, you’ll be on your own; but at least you’ll be on your way. And, at least I’ll still have my damn truck.”

“But, what will we do, once we get across?”

“Well, names are a lot easier for me to give out than automobiles, so, I’ll write some down, and-“

“Then, let’s go,” says Mira, coming out of the bedroom with a mass of dark clothes in her arms. She bends down to throw, then stuff, them into a sack.

“You can write whatever you need to in the truck. The sooner we get started, the better. So, Gabbon, you-“

“Hold up, Mira. Thank you very much. ‘The sooner, the better’ is not the case here, and if we make it too early, he might just have our recently-arrived friend arrested… Don’t you think?”

“Well, can’t you just…” she asks, kicking her head around, looking back and forth between him and you.

“Well,” headkick, “no,” conspicuous glance, “I can’t just produce papers for the lad in an afternoon. Everyone knows that it takes a lot of time, and quite a bit of money, if it’s going to be believed. So, as we currently have little of either, how about we just stick to my plan, and you’ll all actually manage to make it across?”

Mira opens her mouth to object, again.

“And,” he continues, “so long as you don’t barrel across the country to the next crossing, and you actually deign to talk to the man I recommend, he should be able to get you across the next crossing. And on and on.”

“Ha! That’s if we go that far…” Raoul says, trailing off before he realizes that the look in everyone else’s eyes say just how possible that actually is. He gulps his breath in,

“Right. So, what next?”

“Well, I’m going to have to head home and get the truck. You-” he says, casting a quick glance over at Mira before continuing, “-should pack up your things quietly until I get back. I’ll be gone a few hours, so you don’t need to rush. But, don’t talk to anyone or tell them where you’re going. Frankly, we’re not sure, yet, just who is chasing the boy. And, I don’t want to alert anyone to our departure before it’s absolutely necessary. We’ll be leaving at night. You’re going to have to meet me after the lights go out. Then we’ll give them as little to go off as possible.”

“Seriously? Gabbon, don’t you think you’re laying it on a little thick? This isn’t a spy nov-“

“Mira, with respect, you have no idea what you’re talking about. So, how about things go like this: If you’re going to be using my truck, you shut up, get ready, and meet me at the edge of town?”

Quiet grows between them. You look back and forth, and Raoul only stares out the door. Mira works her sore jaw, but nothing comes out.

“You alright, over there?” he asks, with a touch of concern in his voice.

“I’m fine, just fine,” she says, going back into the back rooms to collect more clothes and toiletries.

“Raoul, you put together all the food you can – we don’t know when or where we’re going to be able to stop for food. So, stock up.”

With that, Gabbon turns, and goes, giving the other man a little look, before heading out.

“Here, Miguel. You hold this open, and I’ll put the food inside…”

It’s funny how the things that hold you down are so insubstantial, yet only the things you really need weigh you down. Once, all you wore were the wind and the moonlight, both pressing on you, until you became little more than the outline of a real man.

Now, you wear clothes. Your hair has been cut short, and you carry your own weight. Not to mention a collection of the less-breakable items necessary for your feeding.

There had been talk of maybe bringing an old carbine that had once belonged to Raoul’s father, but Mira quickly scotched that idea.

They are civilized people, after all. It’s not like they would ever resort to hunting or scraping by. This is an adventure. Not a fairy-tale.

So, when the last of the street lights go out at their appointed time, you set out with Mira – a mirror-image of how she looked when she arrived – as if she had been simply frozen awhile, in mid-step on the way to her final destination.

So, now, you clutch and struggle with the weight of a sack on your shoulders, your thin skin offering complaints even as you settle into a regular pace along the village’s little outlying paths, leading further up away from the Sea, and further into the alien wild of the Continent.

“Meet me at the edge of town.”

What a laugh – as if that were one spot, and not the imaginary edge of an imaginary place. How does he expect us to know-

The red truck coughs and growls to light as Gabbon finds you before you go too far off for you to be found.

“Over here,” he whispers hoarsely.

“No shit!” Mira says, as she climbs into the cab, letting you and Raoul make do with your sacks, as you climb into the truck bed.

“What’s the plan, lass? What’re you going to do? Now that you can’t run away into the night with our poor little Miguel, Raoul is going to follow you to the very ends of the Earth..”

“Talk as much as you like, old man. I’m just glad that we’re ditching you at the border.”

“If you hurt him, Mira…”

“What’ll you do, chase me down? Make a horror of my days? Curse my name?”

“I really hate you, sometimes.”

“I think you’ve hated me since we met. You can’t stand that I stole your little toy.”

“Mira, the day we met you, the day you appeared out of the blue – everyone – we all had the highest hopes for what you could do for the boy. Then, the stories started spreading and we never saw you… You possessed him, and you disappeared into that little house.”

“Gabbon. You’re a fucking criminal. You break the law. Raoul and I are what we are. What we do might confuse you. But, at least I don’t take money from those poor...”

The roar of the wind and gravel grows while you and Raoul grip the sides of the bed, holding on as the truck takes off, tracing the outline of the coast, almost falling into the moonlight bright waves, below. Raoul keeps his eyes locked on the red glow of the road behind, unable to look at you.

He’s terrified of what might happen. All because of you. All because of him. All because he wasn’t strong enough to not fall into the water, again. So, now, it is being taken away from him.

All his comfort and confidence are already further behind than the rocks being kicked off by the speeding tyres. His only world is now out of sight, and as the trees of the forest block off the sight of the water and the sky, you both grow quiet. For your part, glad to be gone; and for his, fearful.

When you finally arrive, the darkness is complete. The clouds that have been dulling the sun all day now do their part to muddle the night. There is only a small, low building appearing out of nowhere, in a clearing cut in the woods. Behind, lies a whole new country, a whole new place.

But, to your eyes, it just looks like the same trees take over again.

Gabbon pulls all the way up to the barrier, and honks his horn to let his man know of his arrival.

For all her anger and venom, Mira has fallen asleep hours ago, and startles back to life with the sound.

“What the-“

“We’re here. Time for you to get out and save our boy.”

“You sure you don’t want to come with us? It might be fun.”

“You know I can’t cross the border…”

You and Raoul get to your feet and climb out of the truck, oddly shiny in the dimness of the night, almost as if the dust of the road had been washed off by the voyage.

Even the taillights seem to glow brighter, as if they have more reason to shine than before.

“Now, you and Mira get your papers out. When Jean gets off his ass-” He honks the horn again “-and gets out here, I’ll have a quick talk with him about Miguel, and you’ll all be set to go. Just, don’t get into any trouble out there, or it might come back to me. And I’m trying to keep my nose-”

“What the Devil do you think you’re doing!? Driving up to my gate and honking your horn at me! I work for the government! No one treats me like this!”

“Listen. Relax. I’m sorry. Has Jean started yet? I thought he was supposed to be here by now…” Gabbon looks down at his watch, diving low to try to catch the glow from inside the truck.

“Hey, you! Don’t you hide from me! Out of the vehicle! We’ll be setting you right.”

“Who are you?”

“I ask the questions around here. Who are you? Give me your papers. What makes you think that you can show up in the middle of the night in your fancy truck and just wake us up like we’re supposed to do your bidding at all hours?!”

“Again. I’m sorry,” Gabbon says, still not getting out of the truck. “My apologies. Would you please just let me know when Jean will be here? He’ll explain everything. We’re actually old friends. We’ve known each-other for years.” He gives the guard a sly wink of understanding before letting the man answer.

“Listen, you” the guard says, opening the door, wrenching the portly man to the ground, “I am not Jean. I am the guard. There is no Jean. And, you will answer my questions, right now, or in jail.” Not having had time to change gears, or pull on the brake, Gabbon’s truck edges forward, further and further towards the lowered gate.

Struggling with the fat man, the guard reaches to his belt and pulls out a pistol, pointing it at Raoul. “You. Stop the truck. Then, come back here. NOW”.

The guard is only barely able to contain his excitement and not fire off his gun into the sky, for emphasis. Raoul rushes off, leaping into the truck and bringing it under his control without breaking down the flimsy wooden barrier.

Gabbon, his face in the dust, tries to talk even as the man pushes him down even harder.

“Listen, this is all just a big misunderstanding. I thought Jean was going to be here – he told me he would be here. Somewhere along the line, there must have been a miscommunication. I’m sorry, monsieur, if I offended. I meant nothing by it. This is all. All just. I’m so sorry.”

Well, this is exciting, isn’t it! Some real action! Violence! Don’t you like that? A life hangs in the balance – suddenly Gabbon could become not. Isn’t that wonderful?! Don’t you think? Much more interesting than watching these two others bitch and gripe, don’t you think?

I really thought that things would be better, back when we were out on the Ocean.

Truly, I apologize.

I thought that we were going to be stepping into the middle of things.

Instead, all we did was end up stirring the pot on some lukewarm melodrama in some hick backwater.

Really, that was my mistake.

At least we’re headed somewhere interesting.

I think.

But, waitaminute.

Something’s different.

I can’t put my finger on it (all the way up here).

But, something has changed.

The red on Gabbon’s truck, it really is more red. You can see it in the dark, not that it being right under the guardhouse’s little light hurts. The damn thing should be covered in dust.

But it’s shinning like the day it was born? And, the decrepit piece of junk doesn’t have a single spot of rust left on it, when I swear that just a few hours ago…

Just what is going on, here?

“Gabbon, what do we do?” Mira yells, clutching her bags and looking around, eyes flashing in the night, unable to focus on anything.

You see? This is what happens when you take waifs out to the country. The moment anything interesting happens-
“What is that?” says Raoul, looking into the dark.

Of course, there’s nothing out there, nothing but more woods, more wilderness.

What could he possibly be looking for, out there?

“Don’t you move!” The guard yells, his heel still on Gabbon’s back, even as he pulls at his collar with his free hand.

“Raoul, just be still. I don’t think we want to alarm this kind gentleman with the gun,” says Gabbon, choking on his shame and the accumulated dirt.

“I quite agree,” says a voice, in the darkness.

Everyone turns to find the source of the agreement, only for the guard to collapse to the ground, on top of poor Gabbon.

Everyone freezes. But, only for long enough for Gabbon to move like lightning, picking up his girth, diving into his truck and shoving you aside.

Without a word, he starts the machine up, struggles to get the gears to change, then shoots off – throwing out a wide ring of gravel as he takes to the road, his rear lights glowing merrily in the darkness until they and the sound of the truck are obscured by distance and the trees.

“Not very polite, is he? I thought he might have at least introduced himself, before sounding a retreat. And, yet, I might have been wrong about him. A pity.”

The man in the dark costume, a small piece of leather still held tightly in his dark hand, turns to face you.

“I assume that you are part of the criminal element, too. Will you be running off, as well, or has your only method of egress escaped you?”

He smiles at the thought, a crack of bright in all the degrees of darkness.

Far as you all are away from the guardhouse, the man, the voice, looks like little more than a silhouette in the night – darker than the forest only for the fact that light is falling behind him, blinding you to just what he is.

But, Raoul, still intent on walking away from the spilling light, takes a few more steps, and stops.

“Gabbon thought we’d be the only ones. He said we wouldn’t even have to wait. No wonder the guard was so upset.”

If you look over his shoulder, you can just see them, crouched in the dark. Not a one of them lighting a fire or shining a light. But, there are a few cigarettes burning, little taillights that die away in the dirt. And, behind those cigarettes, there are men.

And, behind them, there are women and children. All of them clutch bags of clothes, some of them eat food from their sacks with the dull intensity of trapped animals with nowhere else to go. They’ll go on smoking and eating and watching, until something forces them into action. Until then, they’ll just keep watching the crumpled guard to see if he’ll wake up, and take vengeance on anyone about.

RKAK RAKAK

Three shots fire out in the night, and before you know it, the herd is all over Raoul, swarming him and swallowing him from the dim light that still exists in the night. From one moment to another, the crowd that had been so placidly sitting in the low pen, behind just a little strand of barbed wire, bursts forth and runs off in every direction, disappearing into the woods; but never making a sound. Not a scream, not a voice, not a name spills from their lips as equal parts run into the woods where you came, and the rest run straight for the fence. With no one to stop them, they break free and cross the border.

“Is he dead?” Mira asks.

She approaches the man, getting oddly close for someone she doesn’t know, but maybe that’s just a matter of her having been surprised by the man, in the first place.

“Ah! There is a lady amongst us. I’m terribly sorry you had to be witness to all of this, my dear,” he says, pressing his lips to the back of her hand as he makes his introduction.

“I’m afraid that the cur will wake to see another day… Oh. No! Don’t be afraid. Those shots were meant for that gaggle – I had to give the authorities some reason to look for the real culprit, and not myself.”

His words set you at ease, even as his shining teeth make you want to get close enough to see the face behind them.

“Of course, but of course. I should have guessed. But, now, what shall we do, monsieur?” she asks, her voice becoming light and sweet, her heels coming together and her shoulders rising up as she speaks, becoming as bewitching, in turn, as the man before her.

“Why, we shall have to quit this place, mademoiselle. That is what you had originally intended, non? I doubt that you had come all the way to the border only just so you could stay here, staring at it,” he says, with a glance at you, still staring about into the woods, after all the people who have just disappeared.

“Oh! Forgive him. He is my friend. He is just so very new to travel that I’m afraid it might have taken him by surprise.”

“But, not you, I’m sure…”

“How could it, monsieur, when the right man was so obviously in control of the situation?”

“Oh, yes. That,” he says, reaching under his jacket to settle the blackjack into a pocket.

As you come into the light to meet them, you see that he is wearing what looks like.

No. It’s not possible. Not so far from civilization… How could this be possible? The agent of your rescue is wearing a dinner-jacket and spats.

He’s wearing a tuxedo, all the way out here, at the edge of the world.

How is that possible?

As you come closer, he sticks out a hand to you, which you take and he shakes you strongly.

“Well met, young man. I’m terribly sorry if I gave you a fright. This creature was acting like an absolute pig, and I couldn’t keep myself from stepping in.

“I hope your nerves are alright?”

“Oh, yes. I’m just fine. That was very loud, but I’m just fine, thanks. Thank you for helping Gabbon. I don’t know why he ran away like-“

“Miguel? You understand him?”

“I understand him. Yes. Is something wrong?”

Mira turns to the darkness and yells for the still-immobile Raoul:

“Everything’s alright. Come over here. We’re safe. The gentleman doesn’t speak ’our-“

“As a matter of fact, I do. Wouldn’t make very much sense, not being able to talk to the border guards, if my business bring me by so very often, now would it?”

“No, I suppose not,” says Raoul, reaching out in turn to shake hands with the man in the dark.

“Come with me,” he says. “We have quite a ways to go.”

“There are trains. Carriages. Big empty ones, for animals. But, all those people…”

The man in the tux stops and grabs Raoul’s shoulders. “Trains? On tracks, you say?”

Raoul looks over at Mira before answering, “Yes. Yes, I think.”

“Excellent. Excellent,” he says, using his arms to gather the three of you up. “Yes, yes. That I can use. That I can make work.”

“What is your name, monsieur? I’m afraid I never caught it.”

“But, of course,” he says with a shrug, “I was so engrossed with that horrid man’s rudeness that I nearly forgot to introduce myself. Some call me Job. Others Jacob. For simplicity’s sake, people usually settle on JJ. Come now, put those bags down. We don’t want to look like the rest of those scramblers, do we? No. Not us. Simply walking in the forests between connections. Come now, the station isn’t far off.”

The open road was one thing. But this, this is an altogether more civilized way to travel. Planned, scheduled, organized.

Just look around you, no more dust on your face, no more wind in your hair. This is travel the way it’s supposed to be: not an experience, not a struggle; but a release.

Mira and JJ talk quietly just down the train carriage. The leather creaks at your back with every shift of your body. The whole world seems to tilt lightly from side to side as this mammoth machine works its way down the line.

You’ve done it. You’re getting away.

The sun isn’t even up yet, and you can hear the waves washing further and further away. No groans worm their way into your ears, giving you fear.

You can breathe, now. For once, you can look around. Today, the world isn’t a place you have to escape. Today, the world can be yours.

That small place, the village that you’ve left behind; that place, you’re beginning to forget. Some small spit of land, woefully trying to defy the Ocean with its height and history, even as the villagers go out, day after day, to feed themselves of its avails. Even they were subject to its fury, denied their livelihood by its caprice. Only, they didn’t know it. They chalked up their failings to the wind and the mood of the gods. But, everything came down in the way we know – it’s all the Ocean. And, you can’t get far enough away.

The land spills out all around you, hungry to rush by the windows, just to be seen. Even as you struggle to stay awake looking at it, you thirst to see more. Strong sturdy land, that won’t rush about or suddenly swallow you up. This place is safe.

Look at all those lights, the little lives of people and other animals holding to one place because they can. This is where you should be. Trees sprout up sporadically, shade and shadows in the rising light, swinging by without ever threatening to strike. Town after town shine their stability through buildings and homes – some of them so high as to rival the trees! Have you ever imagined a place like this? Could you have?

One long, endless day after endless night, your back against the water, with only my face to look upon – did you ever think you would make it this far?

Maybe this is why you’re here. Maybe this is what brought you here – not the fickle movement of the waves or mindless impulse of the wind. Maybe this place just being here was enough for you to make your way. It had to be. It had to be so.

Because, what else would make that kind of journey worth it?

“Are you talking to yourself again?”

“Sorry? What? Sorry.”

“Nono. Don’t worry about it. Mira told me everything, monsieur Mikael. That is your name, yes?”

Another place, another name. Just go with it. Better than arguing with the man…

“You won’t need to worry any more about those bad men following you. I can assure you: where we’re going, you’ll be safe. The City is magnificent, full of sights and sounds the like of which you’ve never even imagined. The Masters will feed you and keep you safe.

“And, I’m sure that my contacts can keep me abreast of the situation, in case the little drama at the border wasn’t enough to mask your escape.

“But, tell me, now, just who was it that you were running from? Mira says that you’re from up the coast, but I haven’t heard of any troubles out there in ages. Was it the government? Honestly, I thought they only created trouble in the cities (where, I frankly can’t imagine you living). Did some member of your family report on you, some neighbour?

“Don’t worry,” he laughs, “you’re in safe hands. My country respects the generalissimo’s right to do what he wants, in his kingdom. But, where we’re going is a civilized place. War and worry have no place, there. There is nothing but beauty. We’ll find you some nice clothes – nicer than the peasant fare you’re currently wearing (so out of date), and we’ll show you the world the way it’s meant to be.

“But, tell me, what shall we do with our Raoul? I’m afraid he’s far too sullen and quiet to be of much use to us. Surely, we can find a place for him in the stables, maybe find him a shovel he can use to muck them out, if you know what I mean.

But, Mira! What a revelation! What a gift! Never would I have imagined that a country like yours could produce such an artist. I’ve never heard of her – which is no cause for surprise – but, with her manners and her ways, I have no doubt that she will very easily find her place, with you at her side.

“Enough about me. Tell me, boy, what is it we can do for you?”

His hand on your knee isn’t enough to make you draw away, not that you would. His eyes look deeply into you as you struggle to find your words.

His dark, curly hair, is cropped short to his skull, giving him the look of having been merely dusted with it, where Mira’s flows and flies about with every movement. His clothing means nothing to you, the fine dark fabric over the pure white of his shirt. The purpose of such formal wear flies past you, but his manners are kind and generous.

“You’ve already done so much. I couldn’t ask for more.”

“Where did you learn your tongue? I swear, I would place you as a native, but in those clothes, the story is harder to read.”

He leans in closer, nearly on you, now. “Is that your story? Do you belong to us? Did we send you over there to have some effect, take some stock as to what is going on? Tell me, what’s the situation, all the way over there?”

“I really couldn’t tell you, monsieur. It’s all so far away, now, and I’m so tired.”

He looks at you slyly, understanding far more than you say.

“Quite right. I’m with you. Well, if you ever need to talk to the Ministry, when we’re in town, please just let me know. I am your humble servant, Mikael.”

He gets up to make some arrangements in another carriage, opening and closing doors in rooms that look like where you sit, on and on, down the line.

Mira sweeps into his chair, looking you over with a victorious smile.

“You’re doing great. Of course you are. I should have known. From the moment you started talking to him, of course I should have known that you’d be up for this. Just so you know, I’m in for the whole game. This is so much more exciting than anything I’ve done for years.” She stretches. “I’ve grown a little rusty, but it is just so thrilling to be back in all of this. That man. His manners. His style. His connections.

“I swear, I’ve never heard of his ‘Masters,’ but they must be well off. And, that means that they’ll be able to give us whatever we need, wherever we need to go. This is just so exciting! Finally, a story worth being awake for.” She leans against you. “I’m just so glad you came along, Miguel.”

“Why does he call me Mikael?”

“Oh, that. It just makes sense. You speak too well to not be from here, so I just adjusted for you. You’ll see – it’ll make things just so much easier. Doors will open for Mikael that never would for Miguel. There’s so little in a name, but so much, you know?”

“What are we going to do?”

“Oh, don’t you worry about that” That smile, again. “I’ll take care of everything. Of course, our hosts are going to want to dazzle us, show off, stun us with their generosity and power. I don’t know just how JJ fits in all of this, but they are surely not the kind of people who will just have us over for dinner.” A small laugh.

“The kind of people who can command this sort of opulence are truly important. They probably feel they’re making their small contribution to the situation. No matter. I know the type. All they want is to feel special; otherwise they wouldn’t be going so far out of their way to make us feel special. And, that’s the key to it.

“We’ll make a good impression, ingratiate ourselves to them and them to us, and before you know it, they’ll be bored and far too rich to just set us out on the street.

“How I’ve missed this – people with so much that they don’t know what to do with it. Such fun.

“And, you, I look forward to seeing just what you-“

Picking up on your conversation, Raoul settles himself down next to you.

“Do you really think it will be that easy, Mira? Do you really think that these people will just let us into their home, carry us all this way, and not ask for anything in return?”

“Raoul, this is a different world. You don’t know anything. These people are the best. It’s what they do. Just look at this train. A personal car? A private carriage? Chandeliers on the ceiling and everything looking so new that it’s hard to even bother to look out the windows? These people are of a different class, and they are hurtling us towards their bosoms. They want us. Badly.

“But, why? Have you stopped to ask ‘why’? I don’t trust that man. That ‘JJ’. What kind of name is that, anyway? He’s too smooth and too smiling and I don’t trust him.”

“Seriously, Raoul, the only thing that would make you more of a peasant is if you had a piece of hay in your hair. This is a whole new world. Your rough hands will touch nothing but the best cloth, the best silver, the best of everything. Mikael, he’s a real gem. Really. If I didn’t know any better, if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I would start to wonder whether he didn’t plan this all himself.” A quick nudge to the shoulder.

“But, I was there. I saw it all. This is going to be the best thing for us. Just think! An adventure! Beauty and fine things for the first time in your life! And, all you have to do is follow my lead, and we’ll have them wrapped around our fingers, in no time.”

“But, I don’t know the language. I’m shut out.”

“Well, if that’s the case, and if you don’t want to go to any effort, Mikael and I will just have to-“

“When did he become Mikael, Mira? At what point did he decide that that was his name?”

“Raoul. You, you just don’t understand. This is the way things work. Do you think that ‘JJ’ is the man’s real name? None of that matters, now. Where we’re going, nothing matters, except what these people think of us. And, if you need to stay locked up in some closet, that’ll be just fine, so long as you don’t ruin this for us.

“Because if you open your mouth wrong, and they realize that we belong on a turnip truck, or something, we’ll end up being sent right back home, and this time we won’t have someone as kind as JJ to get us across. We’ll never be able to get back here. And, there is no way that I’m going to let myself get trapped, again.

“Frankly, I’m a little hurt that they haven’t heard of me in the Capital, but in a city as big as that, I’m sure we can find the right people to make the kind of impression I did, back in the day. Then, it’s going to be just like riding a bike. Mikael and I will take you with us (he’s a fast learner), and you won’t ever have to say a word.

“Just, trust me. This is my world. This is where I belong. There’s nothing I can’t do, with these tools at my disposal.”

“You’re going to sleep with him, aren’t you?

“Who? JJ? Certainly not. You never sleep with the help. It lowers you. And, anyway, I’m too good for that. I just need to feed their desires a little, and they’ll be climbing over each other to throw gold at our feet. Hell, even our Mikael, here, might be able to do the same. Older ladies always love-“

“We’re nearly there” JJ chimes in, appearing as if from nowhere.

“What? Already? Where has the day gone?!”

“Ah, that. Just clouds, I assure you. But, anyway, the City is far more beautiful at night than it ever is during the day. More to offer,” he says, with a smile, moving down the line.

A few moments later, the man returns, pushing a silver cart, silent wheels breezing through the carpet.

“Now, JJ, what can you tell us about the Masters.”

He chuckles, laying out plates, and removing domes. The food steams, everything glistens and swells in the car’s gaslights.

“The Masters are from a very old family, they are very wealthy.”

“That’s it? Not quite a full life story, JJ.”

“I’m sorry, mademoiselle. They value their privacy and it’s really not my place. I serve them. I work for them. But, I go out of my way to not share information. That is not my place.”

“You love them.”

“Very much. They have given me everything in life and I could never do enough to pay back that debt. They have done everything for me and all I can do is hope to give them what I can.”

“By smuggling people of dubious political affiliation and legality across national borders?

“I try to do what I can to bring joy into their lives.”

“You’re very diplomatic.”

“Thank you.”

“Do you often do things like this, like the guardsman, back there, for the Masters?”

“Discussing such matters would be inappropriate-“

“I’m sure.”

“But, I do have to say, I am personally quite glad to have come across you lot. I think you’re just what they need.”

He goes quiet, and you all look at him. For a moment, his poise and charm are gone and it’s almost like you’re talking to a real person. Then, the moment passes, his smile flashes, setting you at your ease, even as Mira’s eyes narrow, appreciating the change that comes over him.

Just like that, people can change. You should learn that.

I’m not sure if you were paying attention, but the same thing just happened to you. It was a subtle change, the kind of thing that only occurs when you walk over a grave, or set foot in the sea. You yourself don’t change (well, maybe in your case, you do) but, the world itself changes around you, and by that alone you suddenly go from being one thing to another.

JJ can control it, he has some influence on just how it happens. This is something you should learn, if you’re to survive in this new world of yours.

When JJ leads Mira away, keen to show her all the wonders aboard the train, Raoul turns to look at you. “Where you’re from – is it like this?”

“Like what?”

“Like in here, like out there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Mikael – do you know where we’re going?”

“Aren’t we going to the Capital? To meet JJ’s Masters?”

“Yes. That’s what he says. I sure hope that’s where we end up. But, do you know where the Capital is? Do you know this country? Are we going in the right direction?”

How to answer him? How to tell him how little you know – that the feeling of safety is fleeting and that the only way you can make it anywhere is by keeping those monsters, and the night that calls them up, behind you?

“Raoul, I’m going to keep going. Either until I find some place I recognize or I can tell that I’ve made it far enough.”

“How far is that?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Because we’re here, because of you. We’re running away from home to get you where you belong. I’m just a little scared, niño, that we’re going so far. Eventually, we’ll need to stop. Do you know how to do that?”

“What?”

“How to stop.”

“I don’t know anything. Just this feeling in me. That I’ve got to keep ahead of what’s following me. It wants to drag me down – make me dead. And, I can’t let that happen.”

“Of course not.”

“No?”

“Of course not. We won’t let anyone hurt you, Mikael. We want what’s best for you. But, this new country, this new world – the further we go, the further we go from what we know and –“

“The more you become like me?”

The thought stuns him, because it’s not wrong. The man knows what he is, but he stops to look down at his knees while he thinks about what you said. He’s never been in your shoes, never been like you; but you have him finally thinking. He pulled you out of the water. But you’ve pulled him and Mira (maybe Mira just pulled you both) out of their own place. You, you don’t know anything and you know that. Right now, Raoul is looking at himself becoming like you, and a current of fear runs through him. This is not what he lived for. This isn’t what he worked for, for so long – to build a world and a life, only to leave it when some mystery-creature gets pulled out of the Sea! Can you see that? You’ve pulled a good, simple man away from his world, just by washing up on this far shore.

And, now, your fears have him running wild away from the person he had spent so long becoming (and the person he had spent so long loving). You’ve un-manned him. And, now, today, right here, he has to turn his brain over and get it running, just like you.

If he doesn’t, he doesn’t even know what he’ll lose.

He looks over at Mira and JJ, the image of airy conversation: dignified and polite, even as they paint pictures for one-another of what they want the other to see. He sees this and all he can do is stay quiet, all he can do is stay mute. He’s a man, an adult, yet, now he’s relegated to the side, a table for those who have either nothing to say, or too little knowledge to be of any use.

He looks at you, and sees himself. He looks at Mira, too absorbed in conversation to bother with the two of you. You’re all in this, together. But, for all of that you’re all grown-ups of different degrees. You and Raoul don’t break the bank. You’re caught up in the wake of these two other people who are calmly and happily deciding in polite conversation just what to make of the other, and what to make with that.

“Mikael, Raoul? Is there anything I can get for you gentlemen?”

Raoul coughs and clears his throat. “Ah. Some. Something to drink? Please?”

“No worries. Absolutely. And, monsieur, please – you can speak your tongue. You’re in good hands. I’m your man.”

You smile and watch the man walk with confidence down the car, and disappear to find beverages. Raoul’s eyes stay on his knees, silence radiating from his as he tries to make sense of the rapidly-moving world, carrying him from one place to another so powerfully that he can’t get off without risking his life.

“For you, messieurs.” He places water in thick, heavy glasses before you, jittering and jilting with the motion of the train.

“Should we get some sleep, JJ? The trip will be long, won’t it?”

He answers some dismissive affirmative, keeping the conversation low enough to not be heard by either of you. He’s the captain of this ship, and all you can do is hope for his attention and care while you’re held on this course.

A light catches your eye. A light on the horizon that grows and pools and spreads.

“What is that,” you ask, pointing at the window. No simple spot of light is this. As it grows closer, it grows even bigger, making you look for its limits, until, soon enough, you can find none.

“Ah, there she is. Isn’t she magnificent? The City. She looks her best at night.”

Words can’t encapsulate the place. It spills out over the plains, collected light that shines together like nothing the sea could ever offer. It sweeps the horizon. Millions of dots, collected sources of light not caring about the dark, going so far as to spite it, flooding the streets and beaming out from virtually every window. Who needs the sun, when you have a city that shines like that.

As one all of you stand and you gape out the windows.

Before, when the train had been travelling through the countryside, the world had been but darkness on all sides. Even before the border, there was so little to the night that all you could really do was hold on. Like when you were at Sea. Now, with all this light before you, it seems that the world at night can suddenly be more than a fearful scramble towards the sunrise. Really, that’s all it has been.

You can sit. You can smile, you can relax. This is a good place. Far away from the Ocean. You might even be safe, here.

The train enters the City as if from a tunnel. Though all through the dark, the trip from the coast, nearly a day away, hasn’t taken long. The sun is still dim and low in the sky, barely making headway among the clouds. But, the City glows and glows, its shine growing brighter as the night covers the land, turning it into a county of stars.

And, then, the tower. JJ yammers on and on as to how impressive its construction – how the pinnacle of human achievement comes from the most advanced works of men – how nothing in the world has ever been so tall, so strong as this light breaking the horizon, reaching up to pull down the beauty of the stars into the City of Light.

“As beautiful as she’s ever been,” says Mira, looking up at the tower appreciatively, as it grows taller and taller in the windows, its feet periodically blocked by the building that have sprouted up from the countryside. Every building looks down upon their neighbour, even as the next one over looks down, too, the concentric boroughs of prestige and privilege each knowing their place while looking jealously at the place where they think they belong.

“You’ve seen her before?” asks JJ, himself breaking his gaze away from the sight after but a few seconds.

Not so, for the rest of you. “I had seen pictures. I’ve seen taller buildings in my time, but just look at how she shines. A little distracting, isn’t it?” she asks, as she turns back to JJ, and stops, unable to read his face.

“Like nothing else in the world. Well worth it. And, anyway, she shows us a different side of the City, with her light. Like a more exhilarating moon, really.”

“That sounds nice,” you say.

The train pulls into the station, having worked its way in, ignoring the boroughs and their boundaries – simply stealing its way in. The darkness away from the Tower pools, moving with every body making its way in the night. Mira and Raoul’s village, at least, slept for some small hours of the night. But, here, in this metropolis, people are always moving, always working towards something. And, tonight is no different.

The station is full. Full of strange people and strange voices. They cram the benches along the walls, and lie in small circles away from the tracks.

“Who are they,” you ask.

“They look just like the people at the-“

“Aliens. Foreigners, fleeing the war between the red and white armies.“

“Aliens?” asks Mira.

“They’ve flooded the City. They have been pouring in for years, now. Every time things get a little crazy, more of them come to town. This is just the latest batch. Soon enough, they’ll be working their way back into the continent, or further on. Some of them cross the Ocean. Isolated little-big country of immigrants. Makes sense, I suppose…” He trails off, thoughts of leaving, of possibility pooling, distracting him from his task.

“Hey” Raoul says, taking the man by the arm, shaking him gently.

“Where was I? Ah” he says with a smile, reaching into his pockets, and pulling out two gloves, as white as his shirt, as white as the light of the Tower. First, he gloves his ringed hand, and then the other. That done, he is ready to go, his mind already far from this place. Breezing past the surrounding people, their faceless voices and silent, pleading eyes, you make your way to the street, following in JJ’s wake.

“Ah! Breathe that in! The smells of progress! Love it!” JJ becomes energized, eyes dancing like quicksilver under the glow of the electric light. His body paces in a slow circuit as his head turns and swivels, marking the face of every passer-by, looking for something in particular.

“René! Where is René!” He yells into the night, to the ambivalence of most, until a porter comes up to the well-dressed man.

“Back so soon? Something happen? I would have thought-“

“Where is René? Why is he not waiting for me?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, sir. He only just left a few hours ago. Would you like me to call ahea-”

“No. No, dammit. I’ll have him whipped, when I see him. Just call me a carriage for my guests,” he says, waving vaguely, silent and wide-eyed. Not unlike those still inside the station.

“Yes, sir. Well, I’m afraid that the new horseless won’t accommodate the lot of you.”

“Just work it out. I have to be back at the Manoir. Just make it happen.”

Money changes to hand from gloved hand without eyes meeting. Just another day among the civilized, this. Or, night. It’s becoming so hard to tell. Within minutes a few sharp whistles shock the night, only adding slightly to the constant rumble of vehicles and voices that seem to converge around this place.

When the carriage comes up along the sidewalk to meet you, you almost don’t notice, for all the noise. “Come on, get in. We can’t keep them waiting,” says JJ, pushing you towards the carriage, then opening the door for you when you fail to understand its purpose. Once the three of you are in, he climbs one of the spokes to talk with the driver, his brimmed hat shading his eyes, even at this hour. Then, just as quickly, he leaps into the car, slams the door shut and stares at Mira.

You and Raoul look out the windows, necks straining with every new sight, hardly able to let one go before another appears, blocking out a dozen others until your necks snap back to stare at something new.

“Now. Is there anything we should know, anything we should do, once we arrive? I’m afraid I’ve been out of the life for quite some time, and I don’t want to embarrass our hosts by making a misstep…” She is evidently concerned, some memory or doubt worming its way into her mind. For the first time since JJ has appeared, she seem slightly less than fully sure of herself, slightly less than perfectly able to just shepherd you through this mad dash away from home.

He leans forward to pat her knee, and adjusts his hand to her wrist when she throws it out to prevent such contact. Through it all, Raoul simply keeps his chin up, looking at the high, narrow skyline.

JJ smiles, just out the corner of your eye: “Don’t you worry about that. The Masters are used to people from all sorts of situations. We just want to make you comfortable.”

“All sorts of…?” she trails off, still looking at the man.

“Well, we’ve had guests from abroad, before. Typically, it’s more – ahem – exotic people, from our colonies and others. That’s not to say that they won’t be positively thrilled that I’ve come across you. I simply mean to say that you have nothing to worry about.”

“Many guests?” Raoul says, his stilted speech coming out in a rough cut, even as he keeps his eyes dancing about.

JJ’s head shakes quickly, assessing with more than a little bit of shock, the presence of the man sitting next to him. “The Masters, they are very friendly. And, the Manoir, it is very big. They simply believe that it would be a shame for such a place to be empty, but for the two of them, all the time.”

Raoul’s forehead bends and twists as he goes over the words. Mira, though, doesn’t waste any time: “I understand completely. Raoul and I were more than happy to have Mikael, come and stay with us, even though our cottage was little bigger than this cab!” she says with a laugh, using the full force of her body to keep JJ’s eyes on her. Even you have to turn your head to look.

“You’ll find that you’ll be lacking for nothing, during your stay. We have a seamstress and launderers, so we can get you out of our provincial clothing, and into something more elegant,” he says, looking meaningfully at you. “And, I’ll be on hand to provide you with anything you might require.”

“That’s so kind of you,” she says. “But, won’t the Masters need you?”

He waves her off with a smile. “I’m hardly alone in caring for them. And, while I am responsible for the lion’s share of the household, I pride myself on catering to the needs of all our guests.

“That’s so good of you. Really, JJ, I can’t tell you what it means for us…”

“I pulled you out of a tight spot. It’s no different from what anyone else would do.” He says with a soft smile.

“Really. Thank you so much.”

“Really. It’s nothing at all,” he says, giving her reassurance before leaving the last of its inflection with you.

“Now, the river is still flooded. What a bother. So, we won’t be able to take the most scenic route through a few of the out-lying boroughs to the Manoir. But, I’m convinced that you’ll appreciate the view nonetheless.” He says with a quick smile, before turning to look out the window.

You look and see just where it is you are all going. Though the clouds themselves are wavy with the sheen of the light bouncing off so much sunken land, they simply seem to be pointing to one place. Somehow, despite the majestic park and long gravel lane leading up to the tower, there is a building at the base of the tower, cradled by its feet, filling a natural vacuum, making the whole sight seem more complete. So, as the horses kick stones back at the cab, you all stare, your heads out the windows at the black and white majesty of the Manoir at the foot of the Tower that keeps the City at her feet.

While the rest stare up, further up, you grab at Mira’s hand, and grab hard. She grabs back, impressed, herself. But, her mind doesn’t travel where yours does. She doesn’t look past the Tower and Manoir at the bridges that ring the horizon, beneath the buildings on the far swollen bank. She doesn’t worry about just what it means that the water is pooling and gathering so high on the land that so much water runs its course just a few steps from where the Masters live. It doesn’t cross her mind, as she doesn’t live with the fear of it, just what it might mean – that you’ve travelled so far only to end up so close to the water, again. And, this time, there is no high cliff to protect you. The city is half-water, the Earth merely carrying on its habitual lie of stability. You hold her hand hard, unable to say a word. You hold her hand the way you held on when you were at Sea. It seems you still have a ways to go.

When you arrive at the Manoir you see that it is a surprisingly humble building, for a mansion. Nothing as great and majestic as the City’s long apartment blocks, nothing so cohesive and planned. It’s almost like the Manoir was meant to be hidden, here in the shadows of the City’s eyelashes. Because, here is where things actually happen. Here, in the centre of the world, the centre of the City, is where all the decisions are made – the ones that make the world turn around and send nations on their way towards each-other. Almost as if they wanted people to be able to ignore the truth – that the building is hiding in plain sight and so plainly that it can snuggle up right next to the greatest icon, the tallest tower in the world.

But, it’s what’s on the inside that really takes your breath away. Not that JJ takes you in through the front door – the carriage parks next to the stables, at the rear. A small, narrow door, leading to a small, narrow stairwell leads you upstairs.

“We’re going to have to do something about you lot before you meet the Masters. There’s no way I’m going to let you walk into a room with them with all the dust and grit from the road hanging off you. But, just another storey, and we’ll be at your rooms.

The bare, simple stairway gives onto a wide hallway that exists in perfect contrast with what you’ve seen so far. This is no outside world, there is no harsh darkness and dancing light. This is a place of reserve and elegance. The lighting is dim, and the atmosphere one of quiet intimacy. Nothing above a whisper. No bawdy house is this.

When JJ finally arrives at your rooms, he opens the double doors

“And, this is where I leave you. Dinner will be in a few hours. I’ll send someone along to collect you, at that point.”

“JJ, who will be at dinner?

“Why, the Masters.”

“And, who else, JJ?” she asks, a little charmed, a little exasperated by his diffidence and his inscrutability.

“Ah. I’m afraid I don’t know, mademoiselle Mira. I only just got back into town. Why? Are you afraid of running into someone you might know?” His smile, a challenge, extends all the way to her, and no further. There is something going on, here, that you don’t understand.

Don’t worry. I’ll fill you in, later.

The suite is bigger than the cottage that Mira and Raoul kept at Peurtazul – JJ walks around the room, turning on lights and opening doors to even more adjoining rooms. He points out beds and bathroom, ignoring the many shining trinkets that you don’t understand – so many things you need explained, as he leads you to the window.

“See what I mean,” he says, opening the glass doors and letting them swing inwards and walks up to the railing.

Just beyond the river, everything strobes with the passing motion of the light above. A regular beat rings out through the City, brightening eyes, and giving all a sense of direction, a sense of where they are. If you look hard enough, you can almost see how the entire world radiates out from here, out from this place. As if all of History, all of the world can find its root in one light that never goes out, not even when the sun rises in the morning.

“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful in your life?”

No.

“Yes,” you and Raoul chime in counter-point.

Raoul looks you over with a little smile, open, visible; but unreadable.

Almost without meaning to, Mira steps towards you – the two of you – ignoring the City, ignoring the show of light, ignoring JJ, even. For a moment, her whole world, her whole history is in this room.

JJ walks down the hall to the grand, sumptuous double staircase that acts as the spine of the great building. On the next floor he opens a set of double doors and walks in without introducing himself. This is what he was made for.

He walks around the room, noticing all the tasks and chores that haven’t been done in his absence. He notes, but he doesn’t stop to correct any mistakes. He has been gone far too long not to catch the pulse of the building. And, all the other servants out of sight could only mean an important meeting or an elaborate dinner; and neither of those are on the calendar.

“Is anyone there?” he asks, hoping to find monsieur Jean-Christophe. Monsieur Gérard would brook no questions and no interruptions. Still, no one is around to answer.

“Dammit.”

He walks over to the far wall, slides a key into the lock, and opens a door leading back to the narrow stairwell. He pauses at the top, hoping to hear some voice, some clatter of familiar heels on the steps below. Still, nothing.

He takes the stairs down almost two at a time, not appearing to make any effort, but every economical movement exercised to get him back into things.

At the bottom of the stairs – there it is – the familiar explosion.

The ceiling is low and there are people yelling. There are people yelling all the time. There are meals flying around, being prepared, there are other servants, elegantly festooned, crouched over in a feral weariness, desperately imbibing coffee and cigarettes, ready, resigned, daring to be thrown back at the front, at the constant war – seeking to keep the Masters satisfied while shielding themselves from any repercussions for anything whatsoever. This is the life he loves.

He is not the oldest. He is not the most loyal. He is the one, though, that the Masters have elected to keep as their maître de corps, forever vigilant in preserving not only the natural order of the Manoir.

Smells, of filth and food assail him as well as the humid heat, his first reprieve after the long cold ride back into town.

“How come René wasn’t waiting for me at the platform, as he usually is? What is going on?!” He yells at no one in particular, only for no one to answer. A sure sign that no one has any idea what he’s talking about.

A few raise their head and give him a quick look, or nod; but nothing more than recognition.

“Obviously none of you realize just how important this is: twice in one day people I was expecting to meet are not where they are supposed to be.”

He cows them into silence, all the better to terrify them with his fury, once he gets the upper hand back. For that is the work, inside this fleshy machine: carrying out duties while seeking to rise in the favour of the Masters. And, nothing acts as a better foundation for favour than the incompetence of your fellows.

“Where in the fuck is-”

“Job! You’re back! Is something wrong? What happened?
“Hello, Maurice. Nice of you to find your tongue. Now, will you tell me just what is going on? Twice, today, I’ve had plans fall apart in front of me. Just what do we have René doing that’s so important that-“

“Come with me.”

Maurice leads the man down the hall, both tilting their heads at precisely the same angle, as they walk between bottles of wine and produce on the way to the cellar.

“Maurice, tell me-”

“Not yet, Job. Just another second.”

They both turn into the cavernous space, musky with the smell of dirt and dead things. A dozen rows or more of wooden shelves keep food off the ground, enough food to feed two men, or two hundred.

And, as usual in the cavern. Both of them walk past all the hanging herbs, roots, and vegetables, past the legs and shoulders that hang, too, to the darkest, quietest part of the cellar; and the whispering begins.

“Whatinthefuckinghellisgoingonhere! Since when do you talk to me like that in front of-“

“Yes. I’m sorry. I imagine you wouldn’t have come back so soon, if it weren’t important.

“What do you mean, not important? The coyotes never showed up. I was waiting for the package, just drifting along like an idiot, for almost a day. I waited, for that ship to arrive, and it never did. So, I turned around, hoping to be back a few hours ago. But, the current carried me, carried me much further than it should have. Nothing I could do. So, I stopped killing myself, let go of the oars, and ended up at the border. Then, of course I had to cross back. Ended up with a couple stowaways that the Masters might like. That’s why I only-“

“Job. The meeting’s tonight. What are you doing here?”

“What do you mean ’tonight”? That’s impossible. I waited for them all night. I’m exhausted, right now, because I waited for them and they didn’t show. Why are you telling me that I’m-”

“JJ. I kid you not – you’ve only been gone since noon. Only gone a few hours. What happened?”

“I don’t- I don’t understand. I’ve been gone three days? How is this? I was gone three days!”

“What are the Masters going to say? What does it mean?”

JJ raises a gloved finger to silence the man, “Wait.” He pats himself down and stops

“You stay here. I’ll be right back.”

“JJ – what is going on?”

A bell chimes through the basement. Every head turns to catch the meaning.

“I need to – I don’t have time for this.”

JJ’s eyes dart back and forth as he walks back towards the kitchen, Maurice in tow.

“I need – go do the final check on the courses. Make sure that everything is ready.”

“I have to go collect the new guests and see if I can collect my thoughts. You’re sure the rendez-vous is today?”

“JJ. Did you hit your head? We need you to get a hold of yourself. This dinner is going ahead, no matter the little drama you had planned.

“Drama? What do you-”

“You know what I mean. The meeting didn’t have to happen so soon. I’m not sure exactly what you’re up to. But, right now, I don’t care. Dinner. Then, you’re on the hook for the meeting. Whatever you had planned is going to have to wait.”

Both enter the kitchen. As JJ makes his way to the stairs, the other man says, “I hope it was worth it.”

JJ almost turns his head to scowl; but moves on, taking the stairs two at a time.

He races so hard that he has to stall himself at the top. Taking a cooling breath, he steps out into the hallway and walks towards the suite, pulling at his jacket and gloves, smoothing his hair one last time before opening the door.

“Ah. I see you’ve managed to get yourselves dressed.” He says, scanning the room to find only you and Raoul. The two of you fidget, trying to fit into your clothes as if they belong.

“Now, we look like you,” you say, with a foolish smile.

“Quite right, sir. And quite dashing, at that,” he responds, with his own smile.

“I still don’t know why I have to-“ Raoul cuts himself off as Mira steps into the room.

“You, mademoiselle, are stunning.”

She smiles at that.

“Your seamstress works wonders,” she says, splaying the bottom of her dress with a little half-twirl.

“All she does is craft the frame. The painting is the real work of art.” He says, stepping forward to take her hand with a little bow. She blushes and smiles at the floor, walking forward, matching his pace.

As he begins to walk towards the hall, he casts a glance back at you and Raoul.

“Coming, gentlemen?”

Mira and JJ bubble and titter as they make their way down the halls. They are wide enough that you could all walk abreast, but Mira and JJ lead the way, arm in arm. Raoul stuffs his hands in his pockets while you offer him your arm so you can mimic the dignified way in which JJ walks before you. Raoul ignores you.

At the stairwell, a cluster of stars glows brightly enough to catch all your eyes. Beyond is a skylight that looks up into the steel trellis of the tower above, but most eyes stay on the chandelier and the house below. Every landing is as empty as the one above, and even when you make it the marble landing at the bottom of the stairs, the only indication you have that you are headed in the right direction is the unswerving path JJ takes towards the dinning room. Other men and women, dressed much like JJ, wait outside, some talking, others waiting with platters, and others still, taking empty platters away.

One of them catches sight of JJ and Mira, and quirks a smile before opening one of the double-doors that give on to the dinning room.

JJ’s steps only quicken long enough for him to disengage from Mira, and open the adjoining door.

“Messieurs and mademoiselle DaCosta,” JJ proclaims into the room, ahead of you, causing everyone at the table to go quiet. Even the servants stop their service to look at the new group of arrivals.

“Come in, come in – don’t be afraid. You must be hungry. Please join us,” says a shrill voice, coming from the far side of the table.

The long wooden table is dominated by two men, one on either side.

One man is small and round, the remnants of his head of hair tossing about like mad waves to try to cover up his top. Across from him sits a tall man with a dour face, who rises to smile in an almost pained way as he takes Mira’s hand and raises it to his lips.

“I am overjoyed to finally meet you, milady. I am Jean-Christophe and the man at the head of the table is Gérard. Welcome to our home. We’re so very happy to have you.”

While he reaches over to shake your hand and Raoul’s, Mira doesn’t wait for sign or signal, walking across the room, eyes drifting over the heads of the other guests, quickly assessing the quality of those sitting next to the three empty seats that will obviously be yours.

When she finally makes her way, Gérard doesn’t stand up, but squeals with delight. “What a saucy minx! What elegance! What style! I love it.” He says in one voice, while snapping his fingers behind his head, as if to accentuate his happiness. Within seconds, a well-dressed man is leaning over Gérard’s shoulders while this last yells at the man, not taking his eyes off you: “That’s it! It’s settled! Move everyone down. I want her to sit beside me.”

The guests utter no sighs of discontent or exasperation – they have seen it all before. Those who understand the language are quick to wipe their lips and make delicate exits from their seats. The rest wait for such cues before making their way to their feet, looking a little scared as they do so.

JJ enters the room, now, making small movements with his hands, pointing and guiding the others as they quickly make space where there was none before, moving all the other guests down and together without making any noise with the cutlery and crockery.

The tall man walks down the table with you and Raoul, not raising any disagreement or objection. He makes small conversation with Raoul, asking him polite questions while all this last can do is nod and smile politely, not always understanding and largely communicating as much.

“There we are. All settled. Now, sit, and tell me about your trip. How did you ever get to be so good with our language?”

Jean-Christophe offers the both of you a quick last smile before making his way down the table, towards the quietly grouped guests who struggle to start conversation and not knowing what to do with themselves, considering the disturbance.

Within minutes, though, he has massaged their discomfort and they are talking again, quietly, as Gérard lavishes his attention on Mira.

“Come now, don’t be shy! After that entrance, I’d be so disappointed if you closed in on yourself, love. Come, now. Where are you from?”

With a quick glance at you and Raoul, and a sip from her glass of champagne, she dives in: “It really is an honour to finally meet you, monsieur Gérard. JJ has been so kind and generous, ever since helping us cross the border – there was just some little confusion about our papers that he was very keen to smooth over.

“You see, my friend Mikael, here, and I,” she says, placing a hand on your arm, “are travelling artists. I haven’t been on tour in a long time. So, as I assemble a new portfolio for a new exposé in the great art halls of the Continent. I am travelling to see what I’ve been missing these past few years.”

“Aha! A comeback! A return! How lovely! And, artists! Really, I couldn’t tell, just by looking at you – you wear a dress so well.” He looks down the table at you. “And, what are you, my boy, a sculptor, and she your muse?” he asks, whetting his lips with a little wine before licking them dry. Before you can reply, Mira is already in full swing. With a smile, she says ”No, no. I am a painter, and he is a poet. Actually,” she says, looking at you full in the face for a moment, before turning back to your host, “he’s actually my muse. Without him, I wouldn’t have found the confidence to come back into the world. I had put it all behind me, you see. My career was started very young, and I left the world very quickly. But, he convinced me.” She says, giving your hand a quick squeeze, which you return.

“Really? Mira? Mira DaCosta? I’m afraid I haven’t heard of you before, lovey? Are you sure you did shows in the Capital?

“Oh, yes. But, they were such a long time ago. I’m not at all surprised that I’ve been forgotten by time. All the more reason for me to make a comeback, no? The world is missing out.”

“Is it ever!” Gérard says with a cackle, before turning to his other guests in amazement “Have you ever seen a girl with such confidence? Such loveliness? My dear, I haven’t even seen your work, and you have inspired me.” He says, laying a soft hand on hers for a moment, before taking another sip of wine.

“And, this last, the strong, swarthy fellow you have with you?”

“Ah. He is Raoul, he has been our interpreter while we have been out by the coast. He is very knowledgeable – a former fisherman. He has helped us capture the wild beauty of the world beyond the shore. At the edge of civilization, if you will.”

“Raoul. Yes. I can see that he is a very… elemental character. Does he speak the tongue?”

“No, not really, I’m afraid.” She says with sincere sadness, before going on. “His skills lie more in the physical. He keeps our equipment organized.”

“Ah. Of course. I see. And, where is all your equipment? Are we going to have to move you into larger rooms, my dear?”

Mira stops to look at you, with a smile, taking a long draught of her champagne before putting the glass down and answering. “Our equipment is all at the station. We thought, considering the hour, and how long we’ve travelled, that we had best make our introductions.” She stops to laugh a little. “It’s not like we need canvas and brushes to prove ourselves as artists. And, we were just so happy to have the chance to finally meet you…” She brushes the hair out of her face as she looks up from the table and levels back out.

“But, please. Tell us about yourselves. We are so new in your lovely City that we are a little lacking.”

“Ah. About us. What shall we tell them, dear,” Gérard says, wiping his mouth with a napkin.

“Why, whatever you wish, my dear. I’m sure that whatever you tell them will be true.” Jean-Christophe replies with a little toast to this distant figure.

“Why, we are hosts.” Gérard says, with a little toss of the head, after downing what’s left of his wine, and raising his glass for it to be filled. “We host parties and dinners and soirées and events. We have all this space, and there are just the two of us, so we go out of our way to host people as often as we can. From time-to-time we have people from out-of-town for a night or two – just what any good host would do, really. Some times, as we are so well known for our events, the local luminaries will come by, some few leaders of the state. Mostly just so they can take a little break, if you see my meaning,” the man says with a smile, after seeing that his glass has been refilled.

“And, for the rest, we own a few local publishing houses. Perhaps, young man, you might be interested in sharing some few lines with us? Something to help us pad out the market, if you will?”

The man stops talking while you are staring around the room. The flames atop the candles sway a little as every head turns to look at you; and you, in turn look at everyone, unable to make the connection between his words, and what you, yourself are meant to say.

“Well?” Gérard clears his throat and says, pointing at you with his eyes only barely more intently than the rest of those sitting at the table. You turn to look at Raoul, who seems to have caught on to what is going on, before turning to face Gérard.

Don’t panic. You mustn’t panic. Just breathe deep, and say what I say:

“That sounds lovely, monsieur. Once my baggage makes its way from the station, hoping that none of those refugees makes its way off with my bags, it would be my pleasure to share with you some of my work. I warn you, though, that they may seems strange. I have travelled a long time and may not be to your taste.”

Mira gasps as you say this last, turning quickly to look at you, before returning her focus on the host.

“At least you are aware of such a possibility, my dear. Too many of your fellows come to my table, just dripping with ambition and eagerness to spread their paltry writings over all and sundry. I do have to say, I’m more than a little impressed by your humility. For someone so young, it comes as quite the refreshing change.”

“I feel I should warn you, sir, Mira and I, perhaps we are not as young as you seem to think.”

“Speak for yourself,” Mira says, with a full smile she shares with the table, before the lot begin to laugh along with the Masters.

“Where are you from, young man? I can’t place your accent. I would have assumed that you were from the Capital, but Mira’s story proves that wrong? Tell me, is this your first time in the City?”

You struggle, and everyone at the table sees you struck so suddenly, unable to make your reply. You look at all of them. Some, just like you, don’t belong. You can see it in their eyes. Those who don’t speak the tongue see you foundering and whisper snippets at you, ignorant guesses at who you might be, just what it is you should say. You understand them all, but nothing comes out, nothing comes through. You’re stuck, here, at this table, naked again, for all you don’t know.

You look at Raoul, engrossed by his meal, and then whip your head at Mira, and apology already in your eyes. “I’m sorry.”

She pats your hand and turns back to Gérard. “I’m afraid my ‘young’ friend is far better with the written word than these lovely parties. Please, allow me to answer for him: He is a mystery. And, that is part of what draws us together. I find it amazing that someone can be so naturally in this world, such a magician with words, and yet know so little about himself.

“When I met him, he was a simple traveler. Rootless, without a home or country of his own. You see, he had been washed around inside all our neighbouring lands for so long that he forgot where he was from.”

“You mean, he’s a gypsy? He doesn’t look like one. And, he certainly speaks too well-”

“No. Even they have a place they call home, a community. My brilliant friend, here, was a traveller for so long that he can’t trace his way home. He is brilliant at language because he has been everywhere. But, he knows no one. His poetry is about freedom and loss. The beauty of the impossible home.”

“And, you have caught him, I see.” Jean-Christophe whispers from across the table, a little smile on his lips.

A soft snapping sound from the double-doors leading into the dinning room, and like a switch, the servants return to their rounds, their movements so perfectly repeated that there is no in-between – they simply go from being utterly still to moving along their habitual routes with the same practiced elegance and speed that they typically display.

Even the guests begin to show signs of life. They are stilted, stuttering, more than one knocking glasses over or cutlery from the table, all still utterly entranced by your mimicry of a civilized man.

“Sounds exhausting to me,” says Gérard, with a flourish. “Yet, your condition, your situation likely wouldn’t be so alien to the other of our guests – especially in such turbulent times, as you likely saw at the station. The streets are filled with strange faces – so many people have left their homelands to come here, from the great beyond.”

“Yes. Quite.” Interjects Jean-Christophe. “We were nearly convinced that you were part of one of those groups, one of those escaping hordes from your side of the border. Are things really so bad, in your country?”

You look over at Mira, who searches your eyes for some indication as to how to pursue.

“Trouble? Bad? On our side of the border? We are from the coast. Perhaps the news hasn’t made its to us?”

“Raoul? Have you heard anything from Gabbon about ‘trouble’? The Masters seem to think that something is going on-“

He stops to take up a glass before answering – “Why hello, mi amor. How nice of you to remember that I am here. Are you having a nice time with all your new friends?”

“Raoul? What do you mean?”

“I mean that after three courses and the better part of an hour’s conversation it’s nice that you remember that I’m here, too. It’s so nice, after all the years of us not talking, of my killing myself down in the sea, trying to keep you happy, that all we needed was a little trip, a little quedarse for us to be brought together like this.”

His speech is low and almost as dignified as any other’s at the table, but for the way he never meets her eye, only casting glances out around the table, daring anyone to understand, almost hoping that the table’s strange collection might provide a comprehending witness to their little drama.

“Mademoiselle Mira?”

“Just a moment, JJ,” she hurls a little indelicately, over her shoulder, unable to take her eyes off Raoul. With a flick of his hand, Gérard, sends JJ away.

“Raoul, I’m sorry that you feel that way. I was just asking you a question. Did Gabbon ever say anything about-“

“Convenient. Convenient how you need something from someone you so obviously-”

“Mira, Raoul. Please, excuse me,” says Jean-Christophe, breaking into the squabble, surprising nearly everyone at the table by speaking in the same tongue as them. “I’m sorry to interrupt what is obviously a private, personal conversation meant for the two of you. But, would you happen to know how far the advance has gone? We are woefully short on information, on our side of the border and we are hungry for news.”

With a teeth-pulling rictus barely meant to mimic a smile, Raoul says, “No, I’m sorry.” Mira jumps in with “Messieurs. We have travelled quite a ways to get here. I’m afraid we are still rather tired from the road.”

Archly, and only barely muttering over the lip of his glass, Gérard says, “Yes. We understand. Jean-Christophe and I have our own days like that. Please tell Raoul that he can excuse himself, if so wishes.”

Turning to look only just past you, Mira transmits the offer, to which Raoul responds. “No, thank you. Please tell him that the food is very good.”

“What is going on?” You say, to general surprise, causing Gérard to chuckle lightly before Jean-Christophe answers: “We’ve heard that there has been a coup. That the country is now divided in two and that there either is, or soon will be, a civil war.”

A hush falls over the table. Even the most newly arrived of the other guests, no matter where they are from, recognizes those words. How a storm can rise and rage, cutting a country in two with fighting of people who were once one… Not all of them have come to the Capital for the same reasons; but enough of them have met, have heard the stories of those who have, and those stories have spread like wildfire in the imaginations of all those who run. For, how is there to protect oneself from such an even, such a malady that may spring from nowhere, anytime?

He is both here and he is not. Job-Jacob is struggling with the facts in his small cell on the top floor of the Masters’ Manoir, but he is also reaching out with his mind, trying to remember, just where he is. Where he should be.

The truth and the facts conflict with the reality he knows. He knows that he waited.

He did, didn’t he?

He knows that he’s tired.

He is, isn’t he?

But. But, then. How else? How else could it be that he has left only just today, at noon, no less and returned in just a few hours – with Mira, Raoul and yourself in tow? How else could he have gone so far to find the lot of you and bring you back, travelling by night in the private train and absorbing all of your stories – how could all that have happened in just a few hours?

What is happening? I hate to say it, but even I’m getting a little concerned for the man.

Is he quite well? Is his head screwed on right?

He rips off the gloves, letting them fall around him in a little shower of white cotton. His dark skin warms as he clasps his hands, worrying them until they are hot from the effort. He, then, reaches to his breast and pulls out the letters. A record of flaw, of deficiency, of error. They are not his, but that is the price of keeping servants – they are like children – they know no boundary and they will make their way into everything. With time.

His hot hands shiver in anticipation as he draws the letters out of his jacket. They, at least, are still real. They, at least, are still there. His plan might have fallen apart under the influence of some malign force, but the letters, they are still safe.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the ring of keys he keeps, quickly finding the one for his small secretary. Gingerly, he inserts the key and turns the lock. Finding everything in its right place, he aligns them into uniformity, and closes the desk again.

His hands are still shaking as he returns the precious papers to their pocket, causing the keys to dance and sing until he thrusts them back into his pants.

He growls out a low wail of frustration at his weakness, wanting to strike the walls, his face, anything that would get him back on track, back into focus.

Instead, he crawls around his narrow bed, reaches for the fallen gloves, and puts them both back on, hiding his hands and the dark steel ring.

-I will get to the bottom of this. I will. This is madness. I will get to the bottom of this and tear them down, he says this to himself as he straightens his tie and hair, before setting out down the hall to manage his responsibilities, to ensure that the Masters are well kept and fed and watered and that the guests don’t soil themselves in their ignorance. Not until he is done with them. Not until he has taken what he wants. For once.

While JJ is creating an interesting little story for himself, Raoul is struggling to tread water. Even doing something as unimaginable and unforeseen as pulling you out of the water and into this new old world was less difficult, less taxing than sitting in place while everyone around him talks about him and over him. While you and Mira can, by some bounty of your past experience hold your own without seeming to struggle for it. For his part, Raoul, has lost his place in the world. Un-rooted, all he can do is sit in his chair, mimic the comfort that others possess in his un-worldly and ape the understanding that the rest seem to display so easily.

His smiles and laughter, though, are forced and brittle, appearing only slightly after their cues, when he participates at all.

“Raoul, are you well?”

“No. Yes, lad. I’m doing fine. This is just strange for me. How do you like the food?”

“It’s good. It’s so nice that everyone wants to help so much.”

“This kind of thing happen to you often?”

“I really don’t know, Raoul,” you say as JJ steps back into the room, guiding the collection of the last course before it is replaced by a fresh one.

“You seem to be doing well, my boy.”

“I’m just doing what you do, Raoul.”

He wants to hate you. Before you, nothing was this complicated. Until you materialized he at least knew what his world was about. Now, he struggles to pay attention to every detail, fearful of any mistake. Worried not so much of being caught out as a fraud as of disappointing Mira. She sits at Gérard’s right hand, while Jean-Christophe quietly and delicately massages his side of the table. As Mira and Gérard foment wit and laughter Jean-Christophe simply watches on while so many make their connections and tell their half-truths. When JJ walks by, the older man raises a finger, steel ring on his hand.

“Yes, sir.”

“How many courses do we have left?”

“Three more, sir. Is there something wrong with the food?”

“No. Not at all. I simply see that some of our guests look like they could use some air. Could you please set out the deserts and digéstifs in the sitting room, and we will all be able to mingle and walk around a little.”

“As you wish, sir,” he says, without looking up from the floor.

He steps out of the room, and after a moment, returns, other men and women in dark suits move about the table in synchronicity, lifting empty plates and cutlery before filling all the glasses; then disappearing.

Conversation dims as the guests are struck by a moment’s confusion.

Gérard catches on with alarm: “Jean-Christophe?”

JJ breaks in, “Excuse me, messieurs, mesdammes, dear guests – deserts have been lain out in the sitting room, where there will be music and other entertainment.”

Gérard looks across the table with an arched eyebrow.

Jean-Christophe stands up after dabbing at his mouth delicately with a handkerchief.
“Thank you, JJ. That’s wonderful. Messieurs Mikael and Raoul? Would you be so kind as to join me?” JJ exists the room.

Raouls stands up, recognizing his name, even in Jean-Christophe’s strange accent. You follow after the man as he leads you both back into the working rooms. The three of you walk along the low arches, Jean-Christophe tilting his head to keep from brushing the ceiling. You meet an intersection where JJ is locked in conversation with a man carrying a tray littered with drinks. Their eyes follow you as you turn away from them.

“Raoul, where are we going?

“I don’t know. I’m just following the tall man who said my name,” he says over his shoulder.

“Just a little further,” the man says to the two of you.

You step out after the two men into a tall room, smelling of men and mechanical things.

Carriages in different states of repair litter the ground, their insides all over the floor. You step out into the air to catch dirty men in dirty clothes sitting on barrels with bottles in their hands.

“Don’t bother,” the tall man says, before they can manage to scramble to their feet. Their eyes betray alarm, but they stay seated, unable to speak with the man in earshot. He reaches to pat one of them on the shoulder before bending down to take a few of the bottles from a bucket on the ground.

“Much obliged, Dominic. If you lot find yourselves thirsty, please, help yourselves to a few bottles from the cellar.”

“Yes. Monsieur. Thank you very much, monsieur.”

“Just – no singing. D’accord?”

“Yes, monsieur. Of course,” the man blushes out around his smile.

“Come and sit with me, gentlemen. Come, have a drink with me and let’s look out at the lights – I’ve had enough of the company indoors, but I never tire of the view of the City, from out here.”

Little silhouettes, the empty shadows that stand where people are supposed to traverse the banks of the river, so many looking up at the Tower and the Manoir, while the three of you look out over the City – responding with a gaze in kind.

“Señor Raoul, I’m sorry if we pressed you too hard, back there. Please, let me assure you that you owe us nothing, and that we didn’t simply invite you to our little soirée because we wanted anything from you, much less information. We have a sincere curiosity for the world and didn’t mean to offend you with our questions. You will be a valued guest, no matter how many questions you can – or choose – to answer,” says the man, using a pocketknife to open the bottles and pass them around while you sit, insulated from the house, on barrels looking out onto the small lawn leading down to the riverbanks and the city beyond.

“I’m. I’m just not used to being in such company, monsieur. Mira and I, we are from a small town, and I’ve never even seen a house so fine, much less a city so big. I didn’t mean to be rude. This is all just so new to me.”

“There’s a lot of that going around, these days,” he says with a smile.

“In my life, the City has never been like this, not since my childhood, in the time of the Commune, and the last war. But, the world has changed so much, since then. Gérard and I, and our little group of friends, we will never allow such a thing to happen again. The river can rise, and other countries can send out their exiles by the thousands, but we will never allow the City to lose itself, again.

“Monsieur Mikael. Something about what was said at dinner upset you. What is it?”

“I don’t know. I’m so new to all of this. I don’t know what to make of it.”

“Are you sure that it isn’t that you don’t know what side you’re on?”

A feeling of alarm, but also of recognition, comes over you. You look at the man, hunched forward on his barrel, looking out at the City lights. He doesn’t look back at you, doesn’t force you to confront his words with reply. It is as simple as that, for him: he got it out in the open. Raoul looks at you, more with curiosity than anything else. Even he, a native, has no skin in the game, no side to pick or choose, as he wasn’t even aware that such a situation

“No. I don’t want to be on a side. All I want is to stay ahead of my… my pursuers. That is more important, to me, than any side winning.”

“Even here, in our country? You think the war or whatever is going on will drag itself even to our little city?” The man asks with a smile, the city lights flashing off his bottle. “Just look at the place – look at all we have, everything that surrounds us – such a marvel doesn’t arise in war and conflict – men and women have chosen this place to make themselves and make themselves new. What is it you want, my boy? When your heels cool, what do you dream of?”

“Just to stay ahead of what’s chasing me.”

“He doesn’t mean to be difficult, monsieur. He truly can’t remember. I think he was struck on the head, or spent too much time in the sun, or something.”

“Yes,” he says, quietly. “I have read stories of such things happening. And, for all the guests that this house entertains, I never would have thought that such misfortune would strike one of our own.

“But! Worry not,” he says, slapping you both on the knees. “We’re far too well connected for anyone to come to this City, looking for you, without us knowing well in advance. Rest, and think about it – your world is about to become very different. Whatever you want it to be. So, start thinking about what that might be.”

“I,” he grunts as he gets to his feet, “need to go check in on the party.”

“Not such an asshole, that one, is he?” Raoul says with a smile. Laying down on the grass to look up through the weave of the tower above. The stars are out, now; or they would be out, if these clouds that seem to be following you would just give over for a day. Or, a night.

“You know? He might not be wrong” He tilts his torso up on his forearms. “Me? I can fish anywhere. Hell, I could go down by the river, so long as there’s water that connects to the sea. Maybe you, me and Mira, we find ourselves a place where I can fish. You? Maybe you do the same. God knows I’ve been doing it for long enough that I can teach you a thing or two.

“So, maybe instead of running all the time, we find you a place like that where you feel safe, and we make a new life. Having you around to take care of might make things different enough for Mira that she’ll be happy again. I know that being so far from home and all alone in the village wasn’t the best for her. So, maybe some place around here, along this river, we can find a place where all of us are new and we can start from the same place. All at the same time. Then, maybe we could be happy.

“What do you think about that, lad? Do you think Mira would like that? Do you think she would want to stay here? Because,” he says, lying down, trying to catch a glimpse of the moon around the tower and the shuttling clouds, “if I had to learn the language, maybe this wouldn’t be such a terrible place. Not too far from home, you know, if we want to go back for a visit. Just often enough to ensure that Gabbon isn’t running the place into the ground, or anything like that. I don’t know. It might just be nice.”

Jean-Christophe walks back towards the house, stepping up to a figure that could practically be his shadow, swathed in the darkest of blues, and standing un-moving at one of the glass doors along the back of the building.

“Good evening, my dear Jean-Christophe. Delightful company you have for yourself this fine evening. As promised, I brought a few friends of mine for the entertainment and edification of your little group of guests. I was just wondering,” he says, looking outside over the other man’s shoulder, “was I supposed to bring entertainment for those two young gentlemen, as well? I can assure you, there is more than enough to go around, I just haven’t met the dears. You know – had the chance to gauge them for their…. tastes.” He says, licking his lips and revelling in the shiver of disgust and disapproval that comes from the other man as a consequence.

“Yes, Maggiore, as ever, I am grateful that you were able to attend, and bring with you your charming friends. Is it safe to assume that the rate is unchanged?”

“Quite, monsieur,” he says, as the other man reaches into his jacket for a billfold, pulling out a large stack, tied up with a bow. “Though, you might want to subtract the glass of wine to which I helped myself on the way in,” he says, weighing the money in his hand. “Is that a problem,” he asks, standing with the money out imitating scales with his hand.

“No, please. Put away the money. A glass of champagne between friends is par for the course. Now, if you will excuse me,” he says, looking into the building and preparing to dive past the drunken man.

“Just one moment,” he says. “I pray of you.” He stops, looking Jean-Christophe in the eye.

“Well. What is it?” he asks.

“Well,” he says, glancing quickly over the other man’s shoulder, at the scene outside, “Far be it for me to criticize the management of such a venerable château – you are one of my favourite clients. I truly love its halls every time I have the opportunity. But, I must point out that JJ is here, tonight.”

“Yes, Maggiore. He attends to us. He was part of the dinner service. What exactly is your point?” He looks down at his extended pocket-watch in exasperation, as yet still unable to escape the other man, by the mere convention of politeness.

“Truly. I apologize for putting you out, monsieur– I don’t mean to be a bother, but is JJ not supposed to be out at the border, receiving our next group of friends? If I am mistaken, please forgive me. I can see that you are, in effect, throwing quite a nice evening for yourselves and your guests… A few of whom, not to mention that whispering vision of a young woman I saw deep in conversation with our own near-and-dear Gérard, I have not yet had the good fortune to have yet met. Was someone else sent in his place? Oh, do tell me! You know how bored I get – skulking along at night, in the woods, forever on the lookout for the new and tasty.” His rheumy eyes having given over trying to get a glimpse of you and Raoul, they narrow on the man in front of him, as though a fog of narcotics had suddenly been sucked from the room, allowing the other man to show his face as he begins to focus on the situation at hand.

“No, let me assure you, JJ is still the member of our staff who will be responsible for that task – in the future. It was simply decided that this dinner was too important to be left to anyone else.”

“So, you thought it wise to leave my business affairs in the capable hands of whom, exactly? Because, if your best and most trusted is standing, glaring at me, from just down the hall, I can’t see how what you just said is supposed to provide me any comfort. Had I know, I would have gone myself, rather than risk our long-standing agreement-”

“Maggiore,” Jean-Christophe says, stepping back to reveal his full height and bearing, as well as the immaculate perfection his full suit allows, “when you come into a man’s house, hoping to cause some commotion by walking the halls of those better than you - you do not embarrass us or make us uncomfortable. You embarrass yourself by acting as your own emissary, when any man with a real name and an actually place in the world would know better than to go into people’s home to solicit them for money and information. We entertain important people, in this house. We help the leaders of this country make important decisions, in this house. And, when we allow you to gain access to information in times like these, it is simply so that those poor souls begging to come into this country can make their way out the other side without soiling the streets of this fair City. Do you understand?

“If I say that my boot-black has gone to the border to collect a wagon-load of your human tinder, then, you will take it on my word and my reputation, that a man far better of both birth and occupation has set about a task ensuring your sustained welfare. Far more than mine. Do we understand one another?” Ending his monologue he picks up without looking a bottle of champagne, and sets it in the other man’s outstretched hands, causing perspiration and melted ice to run into the bank bills. Then, he walks on, not looking at JJ before turning the corner and making his way into the sitting room, where everyone has collected for the second part of the night’s activities.

JJ rushes up, taking the bottle for the other man while he wipes his hand on his jacket, worrying them dry in the folds of his long, deep-blue cloak that he insists on wearing.

“Are you mad? What are you doing talking to the Masters? Couldn’t you see that I was just down the hall? What possessed you to do that?!” He asks, walking alongside the other man, still holding the bottle while they take the servants’ passages deep into the building. The tall man stops, once his hands have dried.

“Listen. I will take shit from your master, because he runs this town. But, I’m not going to skulk around in the basements with the rats and your lot while a second-rate servant gives me lessons of etiquette.”

In the cold of the basement, the heat coming off the man is almost enough to send shimmers through the air. JJ stretches out an empty hand to calm him.

“Don’t you dare touch me, orphan. We are going back to a room, where I know Jean-Christophe and Gérard too, will see me, and from there we are going to walk all the way up to my quarters – sigh – where I will wait for all the girls and boys I brought into this beautiful house to be sent back to their rightful beds. And not sully the eyes of their betters by letting themselves be seen in the light of day.”

He stops, for a moment, at the great table in the middle of the kitchen, all the other staff having gone to their rooms, where they whisper and wonder at the lives and goings-on of those just a few metres away. He leans against the thing, looking around himself slowly, seeming to be shaking his head from side to side.

“Ah, this one’ll do.” He says, picking up a glass and tipping it over, to let its bottom out. He blows delicately as if that would do any good, JJ having to work off the cork with his teeth, his gloves too soft to provide any purchase, with them on.

“Thank you, my dear,” Maggiore says, once the glass is full again. “If you like,” he says, around the lip, “feel free to help yourself to one. I’m just a little hard-done-by, tonight. Your man, back there, really gave it to me. Hard.”

“Do you think that that might be because you went out of your way to have him do so,” asks JJ, refusing to take a drop from the bottle.

He steps around the table to collect a bucket and some ice for the other man as he continues: “Maggiore, you and I are nothing like the Masters. I serve them. You served them. Only, you are currently drunk, and I am not.”

“I don’t serve them,” he says, lifting the bottle, wet again, up out of the high-hat to fill himself back up, “I am a purveyor. I purvey for them. And, the rest of the City. You’d think that that would provide me with a little...”

JJ takes the bottle in hand, burying it back in the ice, while steering the tall man back through the tunnels under the building.

“I try my best not to think, Ser Maggiore. It only gets me into trouble,” he says, the crack of a smile showing in the dim halls, as they make their way to the servants’ stairs.

“Job,” the other man says, trailing behind him. “Why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be at the border, dealing with the coyote, and giving him those papers you showed me? What happened to the plan? Why aren’t you there?” He asks. “What happened…”

JJ stops, setting one foot on the bottom step, then pulling it back. He turns to face the man, hands shaking a little, as if throwing away little papers, different options.

“Let’s talk in your room. Everyone is supposed to be in their rooms, but I’ve had a very strange day. I’m very tired. And I wouldn’t want anyone to hear.” He says, before setting off, shining bucket acting as a guiding light to the other man as they make their way doggedly to the top of the stairs.

“Funny,” Maggiore says, after the first few landings, “that you didn’t tell me to wait until we made it to the rooms, before you let me spill my guts out,” he says, sucking lightly to drain the last of the glass’ dregs.

“Ser, everyone in town knows your story. And, everyone in town knows that you think you deserve more than your lot. Had the entire party been waiting for you in that kitchen, they still wouldn’t have heard anything they haven’t heard before,” JJ says, opening the door to the small suite of rooms the Masters provide to Maggiore on nights he is responsible for the entertainment of the guests. He sits down heavy in the chair, turning to JJ, his glass extended, a little sad pout on the tall man’s lips.

“Out with it,” he says, a little unsteadily.

“I don’t know what happened. Something strange… I was out there, at the border, waiting for your man, just as you said. I was up for the better part of the night. But, sometime around sunup, these three came running at me. It took me a minute to figure out that they weren’t the only ones making a break for it. They all look worried and scared and the rest of them, there must have been a hundred, were already flowing out into the country far faster than I could stop and collect and organize.” He runs his hand through his hair, not having noticed that he has already taken a glove off, and put it on the table next to Maggiore’s bottle.

“They just came out of nowhere?” The man asks. “With no warning?”

JJ sits down across the table, slouching his arms crossed, deep in thought.

“There might have been a pop? Like a starter pistol? I swear, I don’t think I fell asleep – it’s not like I had to pick myself up. It’s just that the sound of the Ocean was so soothing, so soft, and I was waiting and waiting for so long.”

“You sound as bad as I do.” Maggiore says, with a smile. JJ laughs in recognition, the oddness of his story finally sinking in as he finally gets to do more than live it – he can finally talk about it out loud. “So, the group wasn’t brought to the border by a coyote? You didn’t meet with anyone? All you were able to collect are a few, and bring them back here?”

“That’s the strange part. I went to the border, I collected what I could, and I made it back, got them ready for dinner. But, Maggiore – they can’t be from the group that we were expecting. I made it there and back again in just a few hours, when I could have sworn that it had been more than a day each way!! I don’t know what’s going on! I feel like I’m going mad.”

“So,” the other man says, setting down his glass having not drunk a sip. “What you’re telling me is that you went to the border and collected some pathetic wretches for me, only they aren’t the right ones. They’re not even my wretches. But, you brought them back. Here. Instead of getting rid of them or something, along the way. And, while doing that, you lost a day or two, in addition to the hundred-or-so new bodies that I was planning on having for myself?

“And, you tell me all this while you should actually be at the border?! Is that what you were saying?”

“Yes, Maggiore. I’m sorr-“

“Just one moment, there.” He says, picking up his drink, again. “You foiled all my plans without malice or intent. Alright. I’ll make of that what I can. But, you said you didn’t meet with the coyote – what does that tell me about your mysterious letter? Were you also able to lose that, while you ‘weren’t sleeping’? Or, was that, by some miracle, prevented from just disappearing into the air,” he asks, hand clutching hard at the thick stem of his wine glass, the whole thing not yet shaking, but not far off.

JJ reaches into his jacket and nearly rips out the bundled letters that he has been carrying on him, as dinner ended.

“There. They’re right there. Just as I promised.” He says, signing heavily.

Not as you promised, though. Those papers are supposed to be a thousand kilometers away, and moving away faster still, soon to be sent to all the cities of the Continent, causing tremors as they churn through the presses, embarrassment enough to change both our fortunes and maybe pull this building down around our ears. That’s why I came here. To spit a little in the faces of these feckless bastards before they even know what’s coming to them. Instead, I see you, the Masters looking as hale and hearty as ever.

“So,” he says, picking up the wilting bundle with his free hand. “I’m stuck with a conundrum of my own. You’ve failed. You’ve failed the both of us, and that isn’t something you do. You’re Job! Or, Jacob! Whatever. The bastard of the Arian field, the most capable man in the Capital. And, you’ve just completely foundered on so many levels that it’s actually more than a little painful to hold, here, in my hands, your very life. You had done so well, so far, and I thought that you were sincerely angry and capable enough to commit this kind of regicide and pull the strings running through this country down into the river where they would drown and drown.”

“Instead, what?” he says, finally throwing back the glass of champagne, “you had a crisis of conscience and decided against following through with the plan that you had put together, and had convinced me to follow you into committing? I just don’t understand you, boy. I thought you wanted to become something. I thought you had blood cold enough to do it. You certainly managed to talk a good talk, when you had to. And, I thought that by lifting these little letters you were really graduating into the realm of adults, ready to do what it takes to get what you want, even if that includes ripping off the hand that feeds you. I really thought you had it. But, here we are, right where we started, just like every one of the parties I’ve seen your oppressors, your masters, throw in the past – not even bothering to toss you the scraps, afterwards.”

By now, JJ is sitting all the way forward in his seat, head in hands and knees right up against his ears. Maggiore has been talking for so long that he can’t tell whether or not the other man is in fact crying, or simply shaking with fury at his situation.

“I don’t want this,” he moans. “I am everything that I said I was. I am. The situation. It just got out of my control. And, now, I don’t know what to do.” He says, not moving from his chair, even as the other man gets up, a little unsteadily, to his feet.

“Do what you always do, orphan. Come up with a plan. Promises. A way to take something, anything away from those ‘men’ who feed and shelter you, the men you claim to hate so much. Do like the rest of us – take what you want. Stop serving it up to everyone else. It makes you pathetic.” He straightens his vest, and opens the door, not letting himself look at the man who has sunk so low, by the manufacture of his own devices.

“Do have some lovely champagne. You should try some – it might help your mood.”

And, with that, he is gone, little more than the smell of alcohol in the night, off to look for his next drink. When JJ finally does lift his hand, he reaches over to pour some champagne into the now twice-dirty glass, only to find both empty. And, thick, heavy rings of moisture that have sunk all the way through the mass of letters that Maggiore had left behind.

“Alright, lad. Shall we get back to it?” Raoul asks, not quite ready to leave, but aware of his duty to Mira in this strange place. And, with the help of a little more beer, finally ready to move back indoors to learn how to dance with these dragons. “How about it? Do you think you could guide me through this gauntlet? Help me get some bearing so that I can make nice with Mira?” He says, wrapping his arm behind your neck as you stand up, not letting you look down at your suit to pick off the pieces of grass that have somehow managed to cling to either side of your trousers and jacket, almost as if by magic.

“Raoul,” you say, “I’ll do what I can to help. I really don’t like seeing you and Mira fight. But, you don’t really think that I can help, in there, do you? You may not know as much about these people as Mira does, but I don’t know anything at all. I’ve been following your lead from the first day,” you say, a look of fear in your eyes glancing off the sheen in his own.

“Well, lad, how about this: imitating me has done you well enough, so far. How about we spend a little time with me imitating you for a while? Eh? How about that? Think it might work?” he asks, with a final squeeze, before dropping his arm to his own clothing to pick off the persistent blades that haven’t found themselves there. You both walk towards your reflections, the light of the city darkening you both as you walk closer, becoming bigger and bigger shadows amongst the shrinking glow as you step up to the door, and Raoul opens it for you.

Monsieur,” he says, with a little smile, and a tip of the head. The door opens, and the illusion is lost – the glowing horizon and its monstrous figures are split down the middle as you step into the dim darkness, inside. You both stop for a moment, to regain your bearings.

“You, there,” Raoul yells, snapping his fingers at the figure at the end of the hall, “where is everyone? And, where are our drinks?” he yells, with a smile, his confidence with the language improving, though it does little for his actual ability. You cast about looking to see just where Raoul is calling out, until your eyes fall on a darker part of the night – a long, tall figure, wearing, despite the party, his cloak, dark-blue light the night just before it sinks to black, and his top hat.

“Where has everybody gone?!” He asks again, the tall man not moving, simply looking at the both of you from his perch at the end of the hall. Raoul, incensed, starts walking towards the man, only to be pulled short as the both of you step up to him. You start straining mightily against his arm to stop him before he bowls the taller man down. “What is the meaning of this! Have you lost your tongue? Is the question too complicated for your feeble mind, little man?” He asks, trying to get his face close enough to see, but forever unable, on account of the cloak’s high collar.

The man stays silent, smiling a little as Raoul begins to bounce up and down, trying harder and harder to make the kind of impact that will make the man finally speak. “Well,” he says, nearly leaping into the man’s face, “What’ll it-“.

Raoul is cut short and nearly falls on his face as you give him a quick tug, just as he had reached the height of his little jump. He turns to you.

“You crazy, little-”

Before stopping himself again, looking you in the face. He begins looking back and forth. “What’s going on, Miguel? You know this guy?” Still, the man says nothing, simply watching, and the more you look at him the more you can see that he is watching you, and not moving.

“No, Raoul. I haven’t met this man. JJ knows him. He isn’t part of the staff. I think that he’s another guest.” The man smiles a broad smile, breaking up the darkness and providing you a place where you can look to try to find his face.

“I see that my reputation precedes me. Though, I am surprised that the lad would describe me as a ‘guest’. But, the name will do. And, who would you ‘guests’ be?”

You step in to provide Raoul’s name. The men shake hands, and Raoul apologizes for the confusion, hoping not to have caused any offense, as his accent picks back up and his confidence begins to flag. “And, you are Miguel, if I am not wrong?”

“Actually,” Raoul jumps in, placing a hand on your arm and the man moves forward to take your hand in his, almost seeming to pull the wall behind him, too, as he floats towards you. “That is my mistake. I got his name wrong. Thick old tongue getting in the way, again. That’s just something I call him…. Because it’s easier, with my accent. Actually, this one’s name is Mikael.” He says, almost spelling the name out for you, before handing his gaze off to the other man.

“Ah, I see.” Says the other one, his ungloved hands radiating warmth as he takes your hand in his. He leans forwards, to kiss you on both cheeks, before continuing, his shadow swallowing you up for a short time that you stand under his gravity. “Mikael, Raoul. I am Ser Maggiore. That’s how I’m known in these parts.” He says, with a smile that puts the both of you at ease. “And, as for you, Señor Raoul, the party has moved on to the sitting room. I think you should be able to find a drink and more better company, in there.”

“Ah, well,” the other man says, “Thank you.” And, with a quick tilt of his head, leads you on before wishing the tall shadow goodbye.

None of the courtesans sits alone, and there are no secluded groups of women. Some walk around the room, smiling at one and all, placing a familiar hand on an arm or shoulder, while the rest do the talking, some still engrossed in making decisions, making the world turn around.

But, they are being seduced. By time, and these women. One or the other will eventually catch them up, slow them down, and cause them to be distracted from their goal, their purpose. Eventually, every man needs his rest, and these ladies of the night make it their purpose to see to it that they men don’t get lost, too carried away by their machinations.

The Masters sit together with a group of young men, by the fire at the far side of the room, drinking and laughing without a care spared for the rest of the revellers. They have been taken care of. By that man. Maggiore. A tall man with long hair, he walks with a cane, though he is indoors. A sign of something, a signal that you can see but can’t understand. He also wears his cape, though all the rest have given their overcoats and other accessories to the serving staff. There is something different about this man. He doesn’t stop to drink, only laying a quick hand on one of the walking ladies, whispering a few words, and sending her on her way to some secluded or ostracized man who obviously needs her affections

His eyes roam over everything, his height allowing him to look down his long features down over everyone in the room, and into their hearts. With just a glance, he knows what they want, what they hunger for, and he can re-direct his ladies towards satisfying that in short order.

He scans the room, never laying eyes on anyone, never staring, though he looks into them and through them.

He scans the room, that is, until he sees you. His eyes widen and jerk away, not breaking his rhythm; but still betraying some sign, some shock.

Meanwhile, Raoul has stalked Mira as she works the room. “Is this how we ensure our survival?

“You mean ‘diplomacy’ and ‘charm’? You mean actually spending time around people, for a change, for more than the bare minimum of what’s required?”

“Call it what you like, mi amor. This whole place feels crazy, to me.”

“This place feels crazy to you because this place is civilized. You don’t understand this place because you’ve never been beyond your little village and for the first time in years I can act on the skills and knowledge I had in my past life. My old life. Raoul, you don’t need to be around and watch over me. I’m the man, here. I’m handling this situation.

“By the time I’m done, the Masters will either host us for as long as we like, or send us on our way like conquering heroes. We can take care of Mikael, we can take him wherever he needs to go, without ever being afraid for money or comfort. “Don’t you understand,” she says, reaching out to take his hand, as she steps into his shadow, looking up into his dark eyes, “this place is perfect. This is exactly what we need.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean Mikael. I mean leaving your village, I mean the border, the train, everything. All of this fell into our hands and it’s perfect. We couldn’t have asked for any better. And, it all just happened. Now, I get to be part of the world again, and you get to see what that’s like. Weren’t you bored, back there? The monotony, the grind, the everyday blandness of life – wasn’t it disgusting? Wasn’t it the worst?

“All it took was one little change, and here we are, back in the real world. No more of the caught-in-the-past backwater where you grew up. Now, every day can be an adventure. Every day we can see and do something new, and we’ll never have to be tied down again, if we don’t want to.”

“All we have to do is charm them?”

“Yes.”

She kisses him, drunkenly, both hands on his face, before leaning back to stare at him, squaring her shoulders, a sharkish grin on her face.

“Are you going to fuck them?”

An explosion, a war. Something terrible – a slap to the face or a sudden yell that draws the eyes of everyone in the room. Something is supposed to happen. He knows her. He knows what he said and the callous indifference to their history that it betrays.

But, all she does is smile, still.

She steps forward to stand beside him, sliding an arm through his stiff limb.

“Raoul. Just look at them. Do you really think that the Masters have any interest in anyone like me?” She asks, little above a whisper, but loud enough to be impossible for Raoul to ignore.

All the well-dressed, beautiful women circle the party sitting around the fireplace, but none of them join in. None of them have been summoned. Gérard is screeching his laughter at all the most painful times, placing his hands on limbs and under jackets, threatening his targets to squirm with his eyes, even as he nips and tears away little pieces of their confidence.

“They don’t like women?”

“It’s a whole new world, mi amor. Don’t forget to breathe,” she says, giving him a pat on the cheek, before breaking through the rounds of women circling the Masters and their group, to walk all the way up to them and take a seat of her own.

“Nice trick with the champagne, back there,” JJ says, finally catching the giant Maggiore leaning up against the corner, right where you and Raoul left him.

“I made all the champagne disappear!!!” he says, with excitement communicated by his voice alone.

“And, you were kind enough to leave the lot for me to clean up.” JJ says, standing at attention, almost as if the other man weren’t there, both so used to being ignored that they have no difficulty politely ignoring the other while both watch the surging crowds dip and swoop through their machinations, in the next room. “What do you think-” JJ says, before he is cut off by the taller man.

“I want that one. I’ll take him as the price of your falling me. Tonight.” He says, looking at the other man with a quick pivot of his entire body, before turning back to look at the adjoining room.

“What? Which? Who? Why-“

“Oh, come on. Don’t ask why. I’ve already told. Look, it’s been really great to plot with you, these past few years. It really was. But, nothing came from it. And, I don’t spend any of my time locked up with strange men, unless I get something I want out of it. If you can’t make good on your promise – “

“I can! I Will! I just need more-“

“Don’t interrupt me, Job. I’m not in the mood to walk all the way over to your Masters and explain to the both of them, individually, just what the plan was and just how you failed. Do you understand?”

He looks at the shadow, the outline, as if only just seeing for the first time.

“You. You would do that. For just one. Just one mistake.” JJ says, now, looking at the room, his mouth open, unable to absorb everything that is going on, his mind going over the number of people in the next room, both high and low, who would like nothing more than to bury him by spreading the tale of his misdeed to one and all.

“You thought you had those two by the balls, and for a while, there, I actually thought that you did, too. But, you’ve got nothing. Except for access. And, if you want to hold on to it, you’re going to do me a little favour. I don’t care how you get it done. I don’t care what you have to do, but I am leaving in the morning, with my little menagerie. And, when I leave, you are going to see to it that that juicy little gem is on the boat, with me. Do you understand?” He asks, his voice having become a low whisper that virtually crawls along the carpet before making its way up JJ’s tuxedo and into his ears.

He stutters and stalls, thinking hard about his problem, his situation.

“Who. Which one is it that you ‘want’?” He asks, his raw throat shredding the words, as he whispers them back at the other man, eyes darting quickly to his sides to ensure that no one is coming up the hall at them.

“Mikael. Miguel. Whatever. That one.” He turns to look at JJ. “He’s special, isn’t he?” JJ gasps as he tries to get the conversation back under control.

“Yes. Yes, he is. But. But, I need him, if I’m going to make our plan work. I don’t know how long, but-“

Your plan. Nothing to do with me. I just happen to be the worst possible witness to what could very well be the end of your world. Now, do we understand one-another? Because, if we don’t, I could just step into the room, and…”

“No! No. Please. Don’t. I’ll do whatever it takes. Whatever I have to. I’ll get it done. You can count on me. “

“Actually. No, I can’t. I’m just curious to see if this was a mistake or if you’ve just been able to dodge the truth, all this time. Either way, I look forward to finding out. Thank you so much for your time. Kindly extend my appreciation, as well as my regards, to your Masters. I do so enjoy coming over for these little affairs.” He turns, and sets a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “And, if I hear anything of my involvement in any plot, believe that my less-than-reputable friends are always looking for ways to snipe at people like these. Just keep that in mind.” Moving almost like the wind itself, he opens the door and breezes out, onto the lawn and away from the Manoir, stepping over the reinforced banks of the river to wait for your arrival.

The night moves on, the moon making its stubborn way through the sky, though the clouds are too thick to track its progress. Slowly, tripping from one moment to another, the party finds itself spent, people doubling up to take their final throws to the bedrooms that they have been assigned, no one left to their own devices. First, as is their right, it is the Masters who make their way up, Jean-Christophe guiding Gérard delicately as he exhorts one and all to make the best of each other because, “He’s too old a fucker to do more than watch, these days.” Slowly, and with shifting glances, each group making a final appraisal of every other, just to offer a quick wink or leer. Others, to look over at what they will be missing while with another.

Mira makes her long walk to where you and Raoul sit staring deep into the fire while everyone drinks deep, gazing longingly at each-others’ bodies. She places her hands atop your deep-backed chairs. “Well, gentlemen, are we all ready for lights-out?” she asks, gazing fondly at the both of you, before taking first Raoul’s hand, then your own, and drags the both of you to the stairs.

Draining his glass, then setting it down along the way, Raoul asks, “what about that lady you were talking to…” as another slinky woman stalks along behind another group, springing on them just as they make the stairs. She smiles at him and kisses him on the cheek while he slides his hand around her back and over to her far hip.

“Raoul. Always so considerate” She says with a little laugh, not letting go of your hand.

“I haven’t been this tired in years,” he says, tipping into her a little, before straightening out. “Not since the day you-”

“I arrived!” she says, making a little celebration of his remembering. “That’s right,” she says, as you begin to take the steps upwards.

“But, but you. You’re used to staying up. So late,” he says, leaning on her a little harder, now, to make his way from one step to the next.

“I’ve always been something of a night owl,” she says, looking over at you, then at Raoul, with a little wink.

“I should have known,” he says, struggling a little harder, “the day I met you. You danced and danced until everyone else was asleep. You danced so hard you made it rain!” He says, a little incredulity making its way into his voice.

“That I did, my love. That I did,” She turns to you, “I always enjoyed dancing, and back when I lived in Iberao, I would dance all night and all day and all night, again,” she says. “It was a little more than the little town could take, really. That’s why I hid away, at first. I was afraid I had hurt some feelings. Only, I stayed there. That was strange for me. But, now, I’ve got a reason to move again, Mikael. I’m ready to do it. Being here just reminded me of what it was like, what it meant to be alive, on my own terms. I can’t go back. I can’t let myself be tied up, like that, again. I have to be free, like you. I have to keep moving, like you, or I’m going to die. Again. And, I don’t want any of my days to be like that anymore. I want my days to be like this – scary, unpredictable, un-knowable until the very last second. I’m never going to go back to that place,” she says, walking faster, now, Raoul only keeping pace mechanically, only staying aloft out of habit, as you walk by the many closed doors with low voices muttering, yelling, or snoring as the varied guests and their escorts add their bookend to the day.

She swings the doors wide, pushing Raoul into a side room with a bed, and then, closing the door behind her.

“I’m so happy that we’re here”, she says, coming to stand behind you. “From here, the whole world is open to us. Where do you think we’ll go?” She asks, setting her head on your shoulder, looking across the river to the rest of the city, seeming unchanged for the light that keeps moving over all the buildings, even though so many of the lights are now dark, windows dimmed to shelter those who sleep, within

“I don’t know. I like it here. Raoul says he would like to stay, or go somewhere nearby. But, I still don’t-“

“Forget about Raoul. We don’t need him. He’ll just slow us down. Come on!” she says, taking your hands in hers, bouncing them up and down to punctuate her point. “We can go anywhere. Where do you want to go?”

“Mira, I don’t know any of the places that are out there. I’m not like you – I haven’t been there, yet. I haven’t heard any of their names. All I know is that I have to keep moving.”

“Really? Do you,” she asks, a little sadness, a little impatience making their way into her voice. “Are you sure? You do this so well, move into new places, and make people love you. You’re so good. Are you sure there isn’t anywhere you want to go, anywhere you need?” She looks at you, eyes more and more intent with every question, every sentence.

She looks like she wants something, but there is nothing and no one standing behind you. The thing that she wants is you.

“Come on. Let’s run away somewhere, just you and I. We can start fresh. I want to. I want to start painting again- I’m sure we can make money off of that. And, you’re young, smart. Once we find a place where you belong, I’m sure that we can find something that you’re good at that will make us lots and lots of money, so we’ll never get bored and never have to lock ourselves up, like we used to.

“We can go out, and dance, and make friends, and have them all be jealous of us. Wouldn’t that be nice, Mikael? Doesn’t that sound like something that you want?” She asks, her face getting closer and closer to yours, even as she tramples over any objections you might have.

“Wouldn’t it be nice for us just to be alone, together? Like we were on the beach? I’ll follow you wherever you go. You know that. I just don’t want to be without you. You’re a breath of fresh air, and I’ve been suffocating for too long, locked up for too long. I’ll do anything you want me to. I love you.”

“But, what about Raoul,” you ask.

This is where you should start to get worried. This is where you should start to get alarmed.

“What about him,” she scoffs, stomping a foot as she stands up and walks away, only to turn on herself and begin gesticulating as her voice gets louder and louder.

“What does he know? Nothing. He can barely get by in the City. I’ve been living with the man for years, now, and he’s never let me into his life. I didn’t know him at all. Not like his friends,” she says, pulling the word out of her mouth with difficulty. “We’re nothing. He didn’t care what I did, so long as the meals were ready when he wanted them. The rest of the time? He didn’t care that I was paralyzed, that I couldn’t paint, couldn’t talk to anyone, that I was basically spending entire days on end in bed because I hurt so bad and had no one to share it with. He had the entire village! They all loved him. And, they all hated me, because I came in town and infected him. So, they ostracized me, they forced me to live alone with no one but his shadow, when I had lost, given everything up to be with him. I gave it all up and ended up nowhere – barely hanging on to the end of the world, not even strong enough to speak up. I was so sad and afraid and embarrassed that I had become one of those sad women who don’t get a fucking say. I wasn’t made for that. I deserve better. I was a star! Even though those assholes upstairs have managed not to hear about me. They probably just forget. You step out of the spotlight... But, that’s alright. I’ll find it again. It’ll be mine, just you see,” she says, clutching her fist. And then, opening it. “But I want you there with me. I want you to be with me when I become a star again.”

Just look at her. I had such hope for her, when you arrived in this place. I never thought she would resort to this. She’s just like JJ and the Masters, she wants to add you to her menagerie. She sees something strange in you and she wants to make her story yours, no matter what. I really liked her, at first. She is quite pretty. But, now, in the muted glow of the city outside, I see that she really just wants to carry out her petty drama, with that sad mule of a man, passed out in his bed, just over there and she wants to use you to get back at him. Her, and all the others. They want to take you from me.

You know it’s true. Eventually you’ll get to know them well enough, and you know that the questions won’t stop. Questions about your past – and we both know that you don’t want to answer any of those

“Mira, I don’t know where I have to go. If this is a safe place, we can do those things you say. You and Raoul are all I have. I trust you. Of course I want to stay with you.”

“Mikael, don’t you understand? I want to run away. Let’s run. Let’s go further. Let’s leave Raoul and JJ and the Masters, and this City behind. There are so many places I want to show you, so many beautiful cities are out there, so many amazing things to see, and I want you with me. Not Raoul. I want you. I love you.”

She doesn’t. Not really. She wants you, but she deserves better. Better than Raoul. Better than you. You’ve still got your ‘monsters’ chasing after you. If anything at all, I’m not going to let you be brought down by those things. I’m going to make sure that you stay ahead of them, but you’re going to have to listen to me-

“But, what about Raoul? We can’t leave him? Where will he go? How will he get back home, Mira?”

All of a sudden, there is a nimbus of hair around her head, and she is yelling again. She is done whispering and supplicating – I forgot to pay attention to just how much she had been drinking – and she is unleashing a storm enough to rattle the windows. She goes on and on, repeating herself, pulling at you, yelling at you while she begs you to see sense and just agree to go with her.

She’s trying to pull you away from me. Can’t you see? We used to be so close, used to be a team. But, now, she wants the two of you to go strike off on your own, make decisions without me. Do things without me. I can already tell, you’re letting her get to you. You’re letting her infect your mind. Soon enough, you won’t be listening to me any more. Soon enough, I’ll just be a silly malady from your forgotten past, and you’ll be living a life I can never touch with the woman of my dreams.

I got you this far. You can’t do this to me, or you’ll ruin everything.

“No.” you say, ejaculating the word out into the air without warning or provocation.

Who told you to say that?… It’s like I’m not even here, any more. Are you forgetting? All we’ve been through? Everything I’ve done for you? How I kept you alive when you had nothing else left? How I watched over you when you were all alone? Are you just going to steal away with this beautiful woman, who is much, much too good for you?

Because, don’t forget, you’ll always need me. And, if you leave with her, when you really need me, I might not be there, anymore. And, you’ll always need me

Just how bad is evident in a million things that are changing around you, that you can’t even notice. In the way the window rattles, even though Mira has quieted down from your verbal slap and is simply staring you in the face while you listen to the better part of your nature, oblivious to everything around you.

Just how bad is evident in the lights all around you suddenly dimming and changing shape, without anyone noticing. How the electric buzz that kept them all aloft is suddenly changed by a soft hissing, and their light changes to being so much softer and so much more delicate. The whole world is shifting under your feet, and without me, you might not be able to stay afloat. But, don’t worry. I’m still here with you. I’ll keep you safe

A knock on the door causes the both of you to spin around, still caught in the confusion of your choice, and Mira’s vain attempts to keep you by her side. You both go still, waiting to see if it was just a figment of your imagination, to see if it happens again.

The door opens and JJ peeks his head in, causing Mira to drop her head in shame and frustration, a curtain of hair cutting herself off from the rest of you.

“Monsieur, mademoiselle, are you alright? I thought I heard voices-“

Bringing a hand to her face to wipe away her tears, Mira says: “Yes. No. Everything is fine, JJ. Please excuse us. Monsieur and I were just about to go to bed. Now, please-“

“Excuse me, miss Mira, but the Masters have asked that I extend an invitation, before it is too late.” Her head snaps up, and Mira looks down at her dress, suddenly going from fragile to regal, her bearing changing as she re-gains her composure. “Yes, if you provide me a minute to do my toilette, I do believe I can make myself suitably-“

“I’m sorry, miss. The invitation is for monsieur Mikael.” He says, finally making his way in to the room – not to be ignored.

“What” she gasps, unable to hide her surprise, her hands falling to her sides.

“The Masters, they have asked that to have a small chat with the monsieur, before you all go to sleep. Monsieur, will you please come with me?” You look at her, before looking back at the man, your mouth going dry and empty.

“Go” she cuts at you, from behind, the words almost shoving you into his arms, as she goes into the empty room, slamming the door behind her.

“Please, this way,” the man says, guiding you towards the small servants’ door, at the end of the hall.

“The Masters? They want to talk to me?” You say, your confusion evident, even as you take the stairs down with the man, deep into the house.

“Yes. Well, no. Not quite. I’m afraid that I had to dissimulate so as to get you away from mademoiselle.” He says, opening the door to the kitchen, leading you towards the garage, where the coaches are parked.

“JJ is everything alright?”

“Aha,” the man says, tension cracking his voice, even as he sets a hand on your shoulder to steady himself. “Not quite. It’s just that the Masters have made the most peculiar request of me, you see. They have asked that I take you to their country house, far from the City, in anticipation of their arrival in a few days. They wanted me to personally ensure that you were on your way before morning. I was worried that I had waited too long to begin our voyage, but I was fortunate enough to find you awake.”

“What about Mira and Raoul? Will they be-“

“Worry not, my friend. They will be following in the morning. They’ll likely be right behind you.”

“Alright.” You say, not arguing with the man as he steps into the carriage, and offers his hand to you, simply believing his story and intentions, no matter how unlikely it would be that his story would make any sense.

Sometimes I forget just how naïve you actually are. You’re not supposed to get into cars with strange men, don’t you remember?

But, I’m not worried. I know how this story is supposed to go. I’ve been paying attention to what’s going on. And, I know why the windows are still fidgeting in their frames all around the City.

“What is that,” you ask, as the first shock buckles the ground, lurching you into one-another, and then knocking the world back aright, even as you struggle to keep your feet. All at once, and all across the City, chaos and mayhem erupt. Not a single citizen is able to sleep as it overwhelms every borough, every street. Entire faces of buildings are re-shaped as great bursts of noise rip through them and the ground quakes in irregular pulses. The lights flicker in and out, as the two of you struggle to find a wall, a safe place, under this barrage, and the entire Manoir begins to fill with noise as wailing men and women struggle into clothes, and away from windows as great masses of earth and buildings go flying through the sky, shooting from one place to another faster than the eye can follow.

Near and far, people run circles in the streets, unable to see the threat at their very feet, afraid of being caught up in the carnage as buildings break and rubble goes flying everywhere.

Anyone else might get caught up in the chaos, feel afraid, try to get you to safety. But, not me. I know that you’re safe, right where you are.

The room rocks, and Mira is nearly thrown from her bed onto the plush carpet, her dress tearing in places as her body struggles against their civilized confines to keep herself in one piece. She is used to the dark, but nothing like this. As the ground under her shakes and all the tables and other of the room’s appointments begin to scurry around and fall over, she crawls on hands and knees to open the door latch, and see just what’s going on. Using the door as a brace, she struggles to lift herself up, slowly getting to her feet as the world continues to heave beneath her.

“Mira”, she hears her name being called from the next room.

“Mira!” Raoul yells, his feet managing to stay more or less steady amid all the jerking and heaving.

“In here,” she barely manages to yell, just catching her breath amid another volley.” The door clatters open, nearly bouncing off its hinges, he knocks it so far back.

“There. There you are,” he says, catching sight of her, and running to put his hands on her shoulders. “I thought. I thought I had lost you,” he said. “I was having a bad dream. I thought I heard you yelling. But, I’m here. I’m here, now.” He says, relief washing over him as he feels her solid and stable, under his hands. “Alright,” he says, we have to get somewhere safe.” He takes her hand and begins to walk to the hallway door, using a wall as his guide where he can.

Even as the building manages to hold together, there is still the sound of things breaking inside, even as the glass from windows flies through the air from the wet grass outside, settling itself with a shriek back in their respective frames.

Everywhere else in the City, armoires are hopping around rooms, leaping from their sides on to their feet, frightening children and adults alike as some madness possesses everything to move contrary to their natural order.

The rubble is everywhere in the City, so many buildings have holes in them, that none feels safe. No one knows just when the mad, faceless force will reach down and re-make the City around them.

The ground beneath their feet is the threat, the enemy. And, no one knows just what it will do, and when.

As Mira and Raoul enter the hall, they see the other rooms empty themselves of inhabitants and people, all rushing alone, struggle and slide to make their way to the master staircase – the surest way to get back to the ground again.

For his part, Raoul drags Mira in the opposite direction, making for the darkened doorway that lies open, at the end of the hall. Seeing this, Mira pulls her hand from his and struggles to keep up with him, having to wait for him, when he finally makes his way in. They both look down into the blackness and see nothing, but the small outline of some light spilling at the bottom of the stairwell. “I think it’s safe,” she says, as she takes the first steps down, not noticing as Raoul leaps out to grab for her – too late. Both struggle to stay standing, but the narrow steps ensure that neither will fall down very far, so long as they keep their hands on the walls. “What is happening!” he yells, feet jerking from one step to the next almost before they even land.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been in a city during a war. But if I had to guess, I would say that the city is being shelled.”

“Right now,” he asks, incredulity nearly making him miss a step, and then slow down on the steps, right behind her.

She looks up, noticing that his raggedy footsteps have gone quiet behind her, even as she races faster, fighting, so near the end of their descent.

“Let’s go! She says, before making a break into the light. The little kitchen is full of dark figures, some pressing into each-other many simply holding on to the table, trying to stay standing. Knives and sharp things dance together in one of the great copper sinks, as people crowd away from them, keeping their wild eyes on them, lest they begin to fly around the room, hacking away indiscriminately at the staff.

Raoul makes his way at the bottom just as Mira yells “Who is in charge here?!” Then goes quiet.

She has seen the look in their eyes before, just the other day. The great herd of people being held back at the border were equally as afraid, and unable to do anything, make a decision as to what to do. They look at each-other and quake a little, unable to speak up and unable make up their addled minds.

“The boy, the one who was with us. Has anyone seen him? Where is the man who arrived with us?” She yells. Getting no answer, she steps up the eldest among them and slaps him hard, across the face.

“Where is Mikael? What happened to him? Where did he go?” She yells, nearly tearing at the man’s vest in her frustration.

“Mira”! Raoul yells at her, trying to get her to control herself, even as the room still rocks, having set itself into a pattern that he might not recognize, but his feel well know. “Mira! The man doesn’t know! Get off of him. We’ll find him. I’m sure we’ll find him. Why? Why wasn’t he in the room?” He asks, his hand on her wrist, as they finally look at one another in the broken light of the City struggling to keeps itself aloft.

“JJ! She yells “Where is Job, Jacob?! Where is he?” She asks, looking about the room, then muttering to herself. “I know.” She rushes out of the room, hands on the narrow walls, to steady herself in the case of another redoubling of the now-regular rhythm that is falling on the City. She rushed back into the house, running past the sitting room, slowly catching fire as the logs have made their own escape into the house, as yet untended, unnoticed by so many people simply trying to get out of the house and into the safety of being able to see the sky. She rushes through the rooms, yelling out your name until it comes back to her: “JJ. He took him. He took him to the Masters. We have to find the Masters.”

Outside, amid a gaggle of crying, bewildered residents, she finds the Masters of the shaken house.

“Where did JJ take Mikael? Why is he not with you?”

“My child, I am so terribly sorry that this happened. I have no idea why JJ would have taken young Mikael anywhere. I was my understanding that –“

“Give over would you, you moron? This isn’t a dinner party. You don’t have to hold her hand. The cages have been broken. You don’t need to worry about her anymore. We have to take care of ourselves. We have to find out who did this. We don’t have time to waste on some crazy gypsy woman just because we fed and clothed her.”

“Where is Miguel?” She yells.

“Didn’t you hear? I don’t know and I don’t care. I have bigger issues on my mind – like keeping this country together and figuring out just how an army could have made its way to my city and managed to attack us in the middle of the night without us even knowing that they were coming. I have to go do that. So, I couldn’t give a wet shit about your lost boy, much less the whereabouts of that miserable cur of a man-servant you like so much, Jean-Christophe. For the love of Christ, can we please get back into the house and start making some calls? If I don’t get some information immediately, I assure you, you are going to start to have a bad day.”

“Yes, my love, the man says, putting an arm around the other. Then, shouting over his shoulder at Mira, “I have no idea where Jacob has gone, Mira. He’s been missing since the shaking started. I’m sure he’ll pop up, somewhere in the house.”

“That is if he wasn’t in on the ruckus, that sonofabitch” Gérard says, making his way with queasy, uncertain steps, back towards the house.

When Mira comes stalking through the halls, looking for you, she yells your names, both of them, into the night, hoping to hear you yelling back, just as strongly. She yells down every passageway and up every flight of stairs, questioning and slapping any and all who get in her way. None know where you are. After ripping the heads off everyone up the main staircases, and badgering to tears any who dare take the servants’ staircase back down, she finds herself bereft of answers.

Back in the lobby she begins yelling: “It was JJ that did it! He took him away! I know it! That’s what he always wanted. I could see it in his eyes! How did he manage to take Mikael away! I should have known the Masters had no business with him in the middle of the night. But, no. I let him out of my sight, and now he’s gone. Gone! And, now, I’m stuck here with you!”

She turns quickly to strike Raoul in the chest with both hands. “We make it all the way out of your squalid little fucking town back into civilization and I turn my back for one second and someone steals him away from me. It’s all your fault! If you had managed to not get drunk – to stay awake and keep an eye on him, everything would be fine. But, nooo. You had to pass out, senseless, like you always do, and leave me to take care of the fucking world falling apart.” She yells at him, stalking down the gravel, away from the house, in full lather and still wearing last night’s dress, though much the worse for wear.

“What do you mean, Mira?” Raoul asks, skipping to keep up. “I’m still here. We can still go back home.”

She stops, still, and turns to look at him with eyes barely open, the bale in her squint stopping him in his tracks.

“No. No ‘home.’ No ‘you.’ I want him, Raoul. Can’t you see? I want to be with him, not you.”

The rest of her words spill over him, but he no longer hears anything. He stops breathing and his world goes red, the slap of her words shaking him until he can no longer stand. More like him breaking through the water again, the water that brought him to you. As she goes on yelling, he stays in place, floating and breathless by the chock of what she has finally said:

“I’m done with you, Raoul. I never want to see you again. I was going to run away with him today. Ha! Tonight, even, if JJ hadn’t beaten me to the punch. And, you were going to be left just as dumb and stupid as you are, right now, none the wiser, but too blind to see that this is why we left at all. You make me sick. You took my life away from me and only gave me a dark cell, in exchange. How dare you!?! Do you know who I am? Who I was? What I sacrificed, what I gave up so that I could be with you? I offered you the world on a fucking platter and all you did was fall asleep! No more! I don’t care if I need to go on alone, I’m getting out of here and I’m going to be a star, again. I don’t care for you, or this City, or anyone. I’m going to go out there and find that man, Raoul, because I love him. The way you should have loved me. And, I know that he was taken away from me because JJ saw that he was that special. You can stay here, in this burning mess of a town. I don’t care what happens to you.”

She turns, making her determined way from the Manoir and away from the river, off into a world to seek you out, to seek out the old star from which she used to hang.

With a final surge, a final push that ends up sounding more like a ‘pop’ than a great, terrible ripping of the fabric of the city, the world allows itself to settle. The great barrage of the City on itself has ended. There is blood in the streets, yes. But, it is soon washed away by the great recession of the flood-tide, carrying away all the memories of yesterday, leaving the entire city empty, but grateful just to be alive.

Slowly, all too slowly, and on still-shaking legs, people begin to find their way back onto the streets, out of their houses, to look at one another and ask after the damage that occurred. A few stop and stare, looking up, unsure as to what will happen next.

The whole thing took no more than a few minutes, but it was enough to tear the city apart, and leave nothing the way it was before.

Eventually, everything quiets down, and you can finally stand on your own again.

“What was that,” you ask, eyes catching every light, shinning with the promise of untold tears, barely held back.

Looking around, you see that you are alone in the garage, the carriage having stormed off with JJ inside, unable to stop the horses from pelting down the great gravel drive that leads up to the Manoir as they made their mad escape into the night.

Outside you hear the sounds of men and women crying out, a general clamour, and sirens working their way slowly, through the broken city, trying to make their way, despite their uncertainty through the streets, unsure as to when the next explosion or tremor might occur.

This is what happens when you don’t listen to me. You don’t listen to me! And, you have to listen to me, because if there’s one thing more important than anything else, it’s that you have to listen to me. Because, if you don’t bad things are going to happen.

You did this. You broke this city. You broke Mira and Raoul. You caused all those people to get hurt, and made all of this happen. And, do you know why all this happened?

“Because I didn’t listen to you.”

Because you didn’t listen to me. No, you’re going to have to listen to me. From now on you’re going to do everything I tell you, and do you know why?

You step out of the garage, unable to see the city across the river, coughing up smoke for the fires started, and all the grit launched into the air by so much rubble being thrown back into place all around.

Do you know the kind of chaos that causes? The number of people hurt, just because you didn’t listen to me?

“A lot?”

A lot. That’s right. A lot of ‘a lot.’ And, now things are going to get hard again, and do you know why?

“Because I hurt all those people?”

No. Because you haven’t been moving fast enough. You thought you had managed to stay ahead of them, but you stopped. You got comfortable. And, now they’re coming.

“No,” you whisper.

While you have been playing nice and making friends with all and sundry, your monsters have been clawing their way inland, under the cover of the ever-dimmed sky (since you appeared) and have been moving further and further along, just hoping that you would make the mistake of getting comfortable, of listening to other people, of letting their words get in your head when what you should be doing is listening to me. Now, things are going to get hard again. We have to move.

“What do I do?”

Wouldn’t you like to know…

“I need you to change this. I need you to do something to keep them away, for this place to be safe. I need this. I need these people. I need them not to suffer like this. Do something! Stop this!”

That’s nice. That’s really nice. I’m glad that you’ve taken this time to start talking to me. All this time, all this way, after everything I’ve done, all the help I’ve been, This, this, is where you open your mouth not to thank me, not to bow low out of appreciation for all I’ve done. It’s really great, I think.

So, no. I’m not going to do anything special or magical – leap out of the machine to interfere and save your skin.

“I never ask anything of you. I do everything you say. I know you’re good to me, that you’re always with me, and that I can always count on you to be there. I’m just asking you this thing. I’m sorry. I promise, in the future, I’ll be better, do better. I just. Just. I just need this help. I need to stop this.”

Stop what?

“I hear everything you say. I pay attention – I have to, I know so little – and I know what’s happening to this city, I know what my being here has brought with me. And, I know what I’ve done to Raoul and Mira. I know what I’ve done. And, I just want it to stop, please. Help me, for me change this, fix this. Stop this. Please, I’ll do anything you want, anything at all. Please. Just make this all stop.”

“What are you doing? Praying?”

“What? No? What is that?”

“What are you still doing here? Where is Mira!”

“Mira? I’m so sorry, Raoul. Mira left.”

“She left? Without you? What? Where? Where did she go?”

“She left. She left the city.”

“Where? Where did she go?”

“She ran away, Raoul.”

“She left you behind?”

“She left everything, all of us behind. I’m so sorry.”

“But, where did she go? She left me for you. Didn’t you make a plan?”

“We didn’t make a plan. She just told me that she wanted to run away, then she was gone. I’m so sorry.”

“Keep your ‘sorry’. Just keep it. I don’t care. She left me so she could be with you, and you’re still here. None of this makes sense. Why would she leave me and not take you?!”

“Raoul, I don’t even know why she would leave you. This city is exploding all over the place. I don’t know why she would leave at all. She just ran. Now, you and I are here. Can you, can you just take me?”

“Go to Hell.”

“I need your help.”

“I need you to go to Hell. I need you to never have come into my life. I need my life back.” Deep breath. “I need Mira back. Where did she go? Where did she go?!”

Your arms start to flap about. You struggle in his grip until he pushes you away.

“Miguel, I swear, if you don’t tell, me, I’m going to hurt you. She’s all I’ve got. She’s everything to me. Just, tell me where she went, and.. and I’ll just let you go, let you walk away. I just. I just can’t let her leave like this. I can feel her. I can feel her leaving and it’s just killing me. I’ll do anything you want. Please, just tell me, where did you two plan on going.”

“Raoul. I don’t know. She left. JJ left. She went that way,” you point, at the building, behind him.

Enough talk! Leave this loser behind, or they’re going to catch up to us and-

“She went back into the building?” Raoul asks, eyes wild as he whips his head back and forth.

“No,” you say, pulling away, “she went in that direction. On the other side of the house.”

“And you, you’re not going with her,” he asks hungrily, taking your hand for a moment, getting you to look in his searching eyes.

Now, run.

“No. I have to run.”

You break away from his slack grip, not looking back as his eyes follow you, incredulous at all you’re giving up. But, taking up your example, he pelts away, running around the house, trying to catch up to his own future, his own past, as it wildly tries to get away, keep ahead of him.

Now, run towards the river.

No.

What was that? What did you just say? I though you knew better than that…

Your course corrects itself even though you feel the twitching in your legs, begging you to stop, to turn away, but you keep going. You climb over the embankment that had been set up at the far side of the lawn, easily climbing over the sand-bags amassed all along the river, so as to keep the Masters safe in their perch.

On the other side, the grass is just as dry as ever, almost as if the flood never were. Your steps slow as you get closer, until you walk down the steps and right down to where the river lies, right on the edge of the line splitting the City in two.

Your breath coughs out irregularly, just as much from the run as from being so close to so much water. You could never swim across it, though the far bank lies close enough. The thought alone almost makes your knees give out as you recoil all the way back to the massive stone wall behind you.

“What. What now,” you huff out, trying to keep the words low, to yourself, in case any might be near enough by to hear you.

Good. We don’t want that to happen, do we? Come closer to the water, I want you to see this. I want you to see just how good I am to you and that you should never doubt me.

So, you step up to the water, knees shaking like those of a colt, untried, untrue. But still, you look. The water itself is no threat, really. Nothing about it is going to hurt you. It’s just the things in it. The things coming closer. The things you can hear.

The water flows on my, unbothered by you being there or not, seemingly oblivious to all the cacophony that so recently tore the air apart. The water, you see, doesn’t worry itself about the things that happen in the air. They’re two different worlds. No, the water only cares about where it’s going. And, that’s the funny thing.

“Mikael? Is that you?!” The voice pulls itself out from the air, almost near enough for you to touch. A whole boat – a barge, really – big enough to contain dozens of people, makes its languid way up the river, flowing with the current…

On the prow stands the tall man, Maggiore, his hat in hand, looking none the worse for wear, considering all the noise and commotion that he was so fortunate to have missed.

“What are you doing there, my boy?”

Tell him about JJ. Tell him what you know.

“I. JJ came to collect me. He came to bring me to you. Only, before he could, all the noise started and-“

“Ah. Yes. Sounded pretty terrible, don’t you think? Well, boy, don’t just walk, over there! I have a whole boat for just you and me! Come on! Jump aboard!” He says, leaning over the railing, offering you his hand so you can jump aboard. Despite your shaking legs, you make up the necessary speed and throw yourself into his waiting arms.

“There you go! Much better! A little exercise, but better than you dragging me along like a canal-mule, eh?” He says, not letting you out of his arms. He pulls you to his side, and lifts his arm behind your head “Have you happened to see any of my colleagues, back at the house?” He asks, lifting his entire head and body up, trying to see over the embankment. “Oh, it looks like there’s been a fire, over there,” he says, looking appreciatively at the smoke that is beginning to be illuminated by the great revolving eye of the tower above.

“Your colleagues?” You ask, looking up into the face of the tall man just as he looks down at you.

He smiles and says, “Don’t worry about them. They know how to make their way back home,” he says with a little laugh. “A little mad, what happened, though,” he says, leading you to the cabin at the centre of the deck. “I had given up on JJ making good on his promise to bring you to me – I had informed him of my desire to see you again. And he most generously offered to bring you to my little boat before the party broke up. I could have sworn that the sun was about to come up, so I cast off my lines. And I was almost all too sorry to have done so, because I must have misjudged the hour, or something. The next thing I know, there was all that noise all around, only I couldn’t tell what was happening from down in the river. So, I just had to flow with it. I thought to myself ‘ooh, this might get dicey, good thing I’m already on my way out of town,’ but then, there I was, floating right back in the opposite direction! Now, I’m no marine man, so I was a little surprised (maybe the wind picked up, or something), but I have to say I would have been even more upset than at danger had I not been so fortunate as to run back into you.”

With a smile he says, “Thank you so much for coming aboard.”

The shuddering landscape, the rocking buildings, all bouncing around under the weight of the shells and cannon balls they hurl up into the sky – shocking the City’s inhabitants scurrying in search of shadows and any other place safe from these ill-timed implosions.

You really are a menace to any place you go, aren’t you? All those people, behind you, cast out from their homes, their families and friends, all because they offered you a little comfort. This is how you thank them for all they do for you – for caring.

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Didn’t mean to what, my boy?”

“All this. All this – it followed me from before. I could see it on the Sea, and chasing often me when we left the village.”

You look over the prow as darkness envelops the City in your wake, pulling down the skyline into the hungry river behind you.

I hope you can run fast.

“They always catch up.”

“What is that? What are you saying?”

The man who is carrying you away, he looks afraid even as he takes your hand. Even as he wishes he could lead you under the deck to all the rooms and darkness below. He tries to move you, unable to get you to budge – unable to convince you to hurt him by letting you into his safe place – his escape from the City behind you, disappearing into a cloud of dust and time. Swallowing first the Manoir and all inside, as if they had never been.

Finally, you’re starting to get it.

“I’m just going to hurt you.”

“How. You? Surely not. I’ve-“

Tell him.

“No. You don’t understand. All I do is hurt people – everywhere I go. And, I can’t escape it. I can’t get away from it. I’ll hurt you, too.

He places his hand on your head as the smoke from the ship’s stacks begins to grow thin and then cease altogether. His hand cradles your head, even as you are trying to save him from your own calamity. It will do no good –

“I do it to everyone. I’ve done it to all of them. You need to get away from me.”

If you don’t, he’s trapped here, with you.

“No. No. Shhh. Come, now.” He tries to lead you below, again. Trying not to lose you, even as you reject him for his own good – to save his life.

“There’s nothing wrong with you, my little Michelangelo,” he says, and your eyes nearly leap at him. Another place, another person, another name – you can see where this is going, can’t you?

“Maggiore, I’m not Michelangelo. I’m not Mikael. I’m not even Miguel. I’m a monster. That City? I do the same thing to everyone. There is a voice, always in my head, ears? And I hurt people. There are ghosts – more monsters – always following me, trying to kill me; and I hurt people.

“No, no,” he says, trying to calm you down. “There’s no voice, no monsters. You’re just gifted, an inspiration. Touched by God. That’s why you are so beautiful – everyone can see it in you, the light of your magic, the beauty of your blessing. You see things because you don’t belong here. You see the truth. The voice you hear – that’s God, leading you to His glory.”

“And, if he told me to hurt you?”

Good one

His blood runs cold, almost stops entirely as he turns backwards to escape what he’s just heard.

Lean into it.

“Your God, my voice, it’s telling me to tell you these things, Maggiore. It’s telling me,” you step towards the man, “that I should keep going. It is telling me that it is for your own good.”

“No. No! No. I know you’re afraid. The sound of the cannons and the attack on the City – it…”

“Maggiore, those were no cannons. The City was making all that noise. The City wasn’t under attack – it was breaking itself, falling in on itself.”

“Of it’s own? But, how? Why?”

Keep it up. You’re on the right track

“Just look down. Just look at the water,” you say, stepping towards him, not breaking your lock on his eyes as he stumbles and hits the railing. “You know as well as I do that water doesn’t run up-hill. You knew this ever since I got on that something seriously wrong is happening. You know this is wrong.”

“No! This is crazy! This is madness! What are you doing!”

Another step towards him and the coffin bursts open: “I’m a monster, Maggiore. This is all happening because of me. I’m un-natural – a ghoul pulled from the Sea. And, if you don’t run away, I WILL EAT YOU ALIVE!!”

If the thunder in your voice wasn’t enough to scare the wits right out of him, the barge wedging itself into the shallow banks of the river’s source certainly did it. The man bounces, nearly head over heels, then with a last look at you, throws himself to the ground, and runs off into the distance, where hopeful lights still shine, and some safety might exist.

All in all – well done. You really have caused enough trouble.

“What to do, now?” you ask, eyes unfocussed, casting your worried glances over your shoulder at the little disappeared man.

Now? Well, for starters, you can stop doing that. He’s gone.

“Gone where?”

That doesn’t matter. We have to get away from all these people, we need to-

“What about Raoul and Mira?
Don’t worry about them, either. They have to try to make their way home, though, I think they never will. You really screwed them up.

“And, Job-Jacob?”

All screwed up, too. You mess up all his plans. So, now, he’s trapped with his schemes in a place and time where they can never come true. You really have a knack for destroying people’s dreams.

“Because I’m a monster.”

Come on. Pick that chin up. You just said that to get rid of that perverted buffoon. We know the real monsters – they chase you in the night, with their glowing eyes and their whispers and moans. No. You’re alive, though you shouldn’t be. You’re no monster. You just hurt everyone. We need to find you a safe place.

“Where? Where do I go? How do I keep them all safe?”

You want to stop hurting people?

“Can’t I?”

Can you?

The whisper rides the wind, loaded with possibility - potential.

That’s what you want, is it?

“If people help me and I just keep hurting them...”

You want it to stop.

“Yes. Yes, please. Help me... What should I do?”

The answer is simple, little guy. You do what you’ve always done. You follow after me.

“How do I do that?”

Just look up. See? Right here. That’s me. Bigger than all the stars in the sky, your constant companion at night and on these confusingly dim days. Just follow my big light in the sky.

“But, you’re so far away!”

Well, that’s the truth. We need to get you over here. See where I am?

“Those mountains.”

That’s right. Get walking! You’ve got a Hell of a ways to go, and no-one’s going to be around to carry you. Just put one foot in front of the other, and you’ll be here in no time.

One foot in front of the other – that’s all anyone can do. Repeated, of course, times beyond counting. There’ll always be that. But, you’ve got to get into the habit. You’ve got to get stronger. The land is big and dark, almost as big as the Ocean, and you’re not going to make it there on your back. It’s time for you to do something on your own. Don’t forget, though: You’ve got to keep those others, those villages as far away as you can, on the horizon. You’ve got to remember that you’re doing this for their own good and to keep them safe. If you get too tired and stray too far off the dry path leading through the foothills, up to the mountain, you might end up hurting more lovers, more families, more people who have nothing at all to do with your little mission, your escape from the real world. Anyone you carry with you will end up leaving their world behind them, and all that will be left is more pain.

Do you want that? More pain?

“No.”

Good. Then you keep walking. You’re making a good clip – obviously you haven’t forgotten that those monsters are still waiting, grinding down the distance so that they can get their hands on you. You have to keep the pace up, or they’ll tear you apart. And then, all of this will have been for nothing. All those people who helped you (that your hurt) – it would have been for nothing that you tore them from their moorings and cast them out into confusion on the sea of the night, lost to all they know. But, you’re doing well.

You don’t even slow down, once you make it to the first rise in the hills that inevitably spread out like a wake, along the same lines as the high, sky-blocking mountains that jut up in front of you. No, you merely crest the wave, and follow it down, using its momentum to fuel your next climb and your next climb.

Eventually, the stiff, dark jacket begins to be more than decoration. Seams split and fabric begins to fray, but the heavy clothing begins to provide a measure of insulation against the winds that seem to congregate in this place, so far from the woods and towns on the plains and foothills. Eventually your whole body is working. Even when you aren’t scrambling to get higher, your hands stretch out around you, running your fingertips out against the dark stone under the spotlight glow of my eye.

You’re not far, now. Just, so low.

“Where am I going?”

Somewhere new. Someplace special. Just the kind of place for someone like you. Just, keep climbing. This place is a lot like the City: full of high and low places, surrounded by levels of rings, each one looking up at the next, until you get to the top.

“And, what then? Once I get to the top?

Then, you’ve made it. Nothing is like it ever was before. Then, all you have to do is stay. With me.

“I’m coming to be with you?

Yes, little brother.

Up here, in the rarefied air, even I need to stop to catch my breath. What does that mean to you, after all we’ve been through? After all we’ve both done, and both seen – do you still want that? You ran away from the monsters so desperately; but there is one thing that never seems to dent your numb skull. Do you still want to come and be up here, with me?

“I don’t know. Know so much. You always seem to know what to do. Maybe it would be for the best.”

Well, it’s nice of you to finally say so, after so long of me looking out after you.

It’s really heart-warming that you still want to be up here, with me, after all that.

You should take a breath, and-

“No. I’m climbing. I’m going to make it up there.”

Well. If that’s what you really want, then, you’re going to have to start doing as you’re told, and not arguing with me. It’s not a straight path. You can’t just dig to get yourself all the way up here. You have to follow the path – the one that leads all the way to the top.

“Alright. No more arguing”

Good. Even though your dinner-jacket and shoes are going to get uncomfortable, you’re going to have to keep them on to make it all the way up.

“Ok.”

Then, shut up and climb, we’re almost at the snow.

The world, the sky could well be on rollers for its flatness, the sun looking more and more wan with every league; then the details, the life in the scenery around.

You look up and the cloud is ahead. Not the storm that has dogged your heels since they made landfall. Rather, a storm caught in time. A mass of snow, resting in the air, unsure of where to go. And, my luminous eye giving this desolate peak some semblance of grace and intent.

It’s funny how the mountains started as such a great thing - so cold and tall, so alien from the surrounding country. But, it is things like these - which imprint themselves on generations - forever bending the horizon - drawing the eye so far up. The world below loses all its detail, villages falling from sight into the surrounding fields and forests. Even they blur together at this distance, lost to your dulled senses.

The snow cloud that rises from the white tracks that vein the slate face far below seizes up around you, cutting off all else.

You needn’t think of the world below. You’ll never be buried down there - forced under by the compounded details so necessary for normal life. Details so foreign as to be beyond your reach will never make you mundane, normal. The ultimate cost of that peculiarity is your early demise, your expulsion from the world.

It’s like a dream, like someone else is climbing.

Slowly, though, the weakness drifts into your skin, takes hold of you.

“It’s cold.”

Yes. It is cold. Congratulations. Do you know where you are, now?

“No.”

I thought not. You should know that this place has a name. Those mountains? They have a name. Hell, you even have a name.

“Mikael.”

Right. Sure. Keep moving.

The winds aren’t slowed, up here, by the need to be nice to people – no one lives up this high. Even the plants and trees from the lower reaches can’t reach up this far. But, you’re going to keep going. Good. Keep ignoring the cold. It won’t be bad, for awhile yet.

“If you can take it, so can I,” you say, through clattering teeth, the words coming out like smoke, slowly dissipating before your eyes.

Well, then, pull your hands out from under your jacket, and keep climbing. Up and up, arm over leg, searching like a crouching child along the jagged horizon of your new world, your eyes trace breathlessly as you keep climbing higher, higher up.

Until, eventually, you make it to the snow. It looks like a dream, up here, once there’s enough of the stuff. At first you go out of your way to walk over and on it until the novelty wears off and you get back to business. And, then, it covers everything so thickly that you plunge in, unable to swim or drown on the stuff, only walk through it, hoping to reach through to the bottom. Or, that it holds together for long enough for you to take a single huddled step up.

And, then, another

See? It’s not so hard. Sure, your hands keep digging in and out of your jacket, your little pocket of warmth, to keep warm until another vertiginous step causes you to struggle with the air to keep you on this tightrope walk into the sky.

In the night all light of the world is in this place.

“I’m really close, now. Aren’t I?”

A fine question to ask, when your whole world has changed. No more people. No more pain. Only the loss of sensations in your hands and feet and face. And, nothing of this place is anything like the places you have known.

The sky has gone from a dull sun-shrouding haze to a world of pure white – collecting all the light of the world around and pinning it to the clouds above so that there are no shadows, no dark places anymore. So close to the light in the sky, my naked eye that stares forever down, the entire place seems to be light. Rising into the mass, the great veil of tears suspended in the sky, the rest of the world is cut off, cut below. All the darkness with the little splotches of light, the little people running around, their stories swirling invisibly in the over-long night of these days, the monsters who dog your feet, and the great storm that you have been leading along behind you – they all become invisible as you rise up off the face of the Earth, into the swirling clouds that mark the place where the mountains leave the ground, and become something else altogether.

“No more monsters.”

There are no more monsters. Only you and me.

Snowflakes flutter around you, rising higher and higher up and away into the sky as you spin around, trying to catch your bearings. Everything is getting away from you, and only I am willing to make up the slack.

Every step of the climb becomes a tightrope walk. Every step suspended in the void between two places, your body quivering with the uncertainty that your next step will make it – that trusting gravity won’t pull you down into the dark abyss of the world below. No lights below and no stars above, now.

You’re still getting closer.

“Mymy hands”, you say, between chattering teeth, though your breath would be better served kept inside you, kept warm on this little adventure of ours.

“My hands,” you say, forcing the point, ignoring me, pulling them out and flexing them at the sky as if I need to see them to know what is happening to you.

Oh, I know. I remember winters so cold that the blood refuses to move and all you can do is stay inside and dream, staring at the horizon for the sun to shine a little warmer. I remember going out unprotected and how my cheeks and nose and ears would end up looking like yours and the only thing to do was leave them alone until they stopped looking all waxy, until the started being alive, again. Oh, I remember.

“What-what should I do?” you ask of the shallow sky, putting your shiny mitts back under your clothes, shocking the tepid skin underneath with the bleeding cold. So silly, still asking the question. Just keep going, climbing, now to the top of the low mountains, surrounding the highest peak. The one that clings to me, tries to pull me down, just so it could be a little higher still. You’re nearly here, though, walking over the corpses of the smaller giants on your way to where I wait for you.

Your hands and feet are the least of your problems, now. See? I told you to trust me – your hands aren’t even of this world, any more – they don’t feel the cold, or the snow, when you reach out to steady yourself. Your feet, they aren’t attached to toes, or even inside your tongue-wagging shoes, anymore. They aren’t living things anymore. They just happen to be attached to still-moving things.

Don’t worry – they don’t know any better. They don’t call the shots. They’ve done their part, done as they do to keep alive. And, eventually they stopped. Even as you continue to move on.

“Wha-what is happening to me,” your flat dull tongue tries to press out the words, only managing to cleave to one side of your mouth before giving up, for its part, too. Not that there’s anyone out here to understand you – no one to give you a language and a name. Just the night.

You look up, the question still painted on your frozen face. Look, it’s not me. It’s the cold. It’s the place. It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s not personal. If you weren’t here, the place would be just as forbidding. Only, with you here, there gets to be someone to experience it, a witness to the lesson, to make it real. And, you’re almost at the top, now, passing the last of the lower peaks on the way to the last ridge that will lead you up to me.

Just don’t stop. That’ll mean the death of you, and we can’t have that. No. Not yet. This won’t work unless you make it all the way to the top, unless you can make it all the way up to me without all those others always getting in the way. Always helping, always carrying, doing all the work for you.

No one ever did that for me. I got here first. I had to figure it all out, myself. No one blazed a trail or told me where to go. All my mistakes were foolish, unstoppable. All my doubts were mine alone, because no one around knew what it was like to be me. People didn’t leap literally out of thin air to fall over themselves in love with me to raise me up to Heaven. I had to create the love I wanted and force others to feel it for me. And, it only got worse when you came along.

You were always to be the little one, the precious one. The moment you came into this world you robbed me of my right to make mistakes. I became an extension of you that could never falter, always had to look out for you and never again for my own self.

You stole my life from me. So, this is only fair.

-What are you talking about? You ask, wordlessly, saving us both from the offense of your voice.

-Who are you.

I’ve led you by the nose this long, this far, and only now, only here, in your final moments, can you stop and ask the most basic questions

-Why do you hate me so much.

You’re the second son. You’re weak. Unworthy. Even still, you live, while I don’t. After all the efforts that I’ve gone to, you still complaint that it’s hard to put a foot in front of the other. If you think that’s hard, how do you think I made it up here? How do you think anything came to be before you came along, kid? You get it easy. You just happen to saunter by when things are at their best, when the world is primed and ready to accommodate you. Not so, for the rest of us. The rest of us have to fight and scramble and scrap. You just had to put your hand out, and others would take it, ready to lead you on to some new wonder. All you had to do was show up.

-You couldn’t tell me? At the time?

As it was happening? I was telling you. You had to try. You had to care. I gave you stories and adventures and characters and incredible life, all the adoration, all the grasping handsmouthseyes.

-Stories. Other people’s stories. Other people’s adventures

You could have had a story

-What did I do wrong?

You gave up.

-But-

You always have an excuse.

Now, there are no distractions. Nothing left to confuse you or lead you astray. Just you and me.

Either you stay here, or do as you’re told. It’s easier to do as you’re told. The story can be fixed, from here. Everything can be made right, again.

-How?

You can do what you’re supposed to. Go where you’re supposed to. If you don’t, you know what’s coming for you. For now, you’re safe. But, you can’t stop.

Even as the snows around you swirl higher and higher, the river itself begins to throw itself up around the inland-beached boat that you’ve left behind. What was once the starting point of a little stream begins to crawl its way up-hill, sending tendrils up farther and farther, taking up your invitation to betray the rules in favour of their own desires, their own goal. And, with you moving around the land so much, these days, the waters are beginning to take on a mind of their own.

And, we both know what the water carries.

-Me?

Only by virtue of your obstinacy. The un-natural energy giving the water this impulse to defy gravity is really quite familiar to you. You can hear their voices growing, even as your steps begin to slow….

You really are a monster – not just for hurting all those people, but for the terrible effect you’re having all around you.

You know, at some point, all of this is going to have to stop.

You never should have set foot on the shore. You should have stayed where you belong.

-This isn’t where I belong.

-The truth runs like a tremor through the air.

The lie of placidity set into this place shatters with electricity - the wind and cold leap into my body in a single bound. Skin shrieks as it is flayed by the wind. All these words and more force themselves into my mind - so much more than before - answers that lay in the air itself - questions that offer their own answers.

A mind? Mine? My own? Me…..?

-You don’t really exist, do you?

-You’re just another ghost.

You’re a ghost. You just don’t know it, yet. This hurts. But, it’s not over.

I’ll pin you down like a bug stuck in wax. Like a moth caught staring at the sun.

A warning.

Know when to keep your feet on the ground.

-But, then, I’ll die up here

What do you know about death?

-No one wants death. It’s bad

That’s it? That’s all? “It’s bad”?

-Is there anything I’m missing?

So much. But, it doesn’t matter.

-Why not?

The story is nearly done.

-What? But, I’m not done.

That’s too bad. Your time has finally come, despite any number of impossible, near-magical occurrences that, frankly, defy explanation. I’m done with you. There’s no need to confuse you any further.

-But, there’s so much I don’t-

Enough.

-So much I want to-

Enough! You were given a chance. That chance has ruined lives and fucked with the laws natural to the world. You are a miserable waste of time and effort unworthy of my attention. You will be made into a symbol – a warning to other men to respect natural laws and not tempt forces they do not understand.

-Is it really so bad?

A story needs control, characters need guidance - there are things that must be done and others that cannot.

-Alright.

You can’t understand what’s normal – what’s required of you. You aren’t so much disrespectful as entirely ignorant of your role and responsibilities.

-What-

Don’t bother. You’re nearly there.

-I’m not done. I just want-

What you want doesn’t matter. I’ve changed things - tamed your unnatural effect on the world around. This is why you will stay, here. To scare people – to keep them from daring to challenge the mountain. To challenge the unknown.

But, if you keep on, there is no way to predict just how much tragedy you may unleash.

My fingers are frozen. Look at that.

-They don’t move.
Soon, you’ll see just what that means. To be a voice - that can’t. Soon, you’ll be really, truly dead. And, then, you won’t even have a voice.

-No.

Yes. It is the way of us all – it’s inescapable, even if you got lucky, once.

-Lucky?

See? You don’t even know it. Trust me, this is for the best.

-No.

No?

-No.

No?! You’re not in control of this story. You’re not the boss, here. You’re just a passenger. You just do as you’re told. As you always have. Stealing, taking what’s mine.

-Stealing?

You can’t even remember that? You can’t even remember that this was always about me? And you, just following me around like a little - like a little kid?!

-No. No! I’m not following you. You are following me.”

I’m everywhere. I’m everything. I’m the God of your life.

-No.

Sure, then, corpsicle. Sure, then, buddy. You’re the boss. Surprise me. It’s not like anything you do could ever -

No! What are you doing?! You can’t leave me! NO! Don’t jump! You can’t!

Don’t leave me alone-

There is no blurring. There is nothing to see.

Only, there is moving with the feelings - from falling stunning me still.

I hear no noise.

My heart beats. Hard.

But, damn, this is bad!

My arms quiver before they can move - is this the land of the dead? Did they finally get me?

Then, all is lost.

It is a gradual thing.

I can think. Breathe. Life goes on.

Well.

I’m prone on my back. But, there is a world around me. Rustling leaves and moving water drown me until I open my eyes.

Where am I?

There are things above and - can’t move any more.

I have to try.

And, even I carry on, trying, until I’m upright. The young saplings and growing trees hold me up as I struggle.

A rivulet rustles by on its way down the hill. It’s dark, but I can see the sun is out. The foliage makes the forest dark, dim. Trees are all around. Leaves flutter and water whispers as it streams by.

Light rushes around only to settle back again. So much moves up there that I stumble, staring.

The sky is just so far up, now. I don’t know how I came here.

Where am I?

I can hear something. Voices, foggy, foreign. I feel their eyes on me – almost a relief, after all I’ve been through.

They’ve caught me.

“How is this possible? How can this possibly be?”

Something horrible has happened. The voices, they’re coming together, now.

Shock, fear. I hear it on the wind. But… but, I can’t hear you anymore. I hear me. The voice, it’s gone. You’re gone. And the voices in the shadows.

Everything hurts. I’m not frozen anymore, locked to being told. I struggle on shaking legs to stand up on my own. I stumble, then I stand.

The dark reveals little of this new place, but the riverbed and the surrounding forest. This place is quiet and still, little moving aside the water that surely carried me here. I crane my neck, trying to tilt my head to look around the moon and at the mountains. They’re right there, but I must have fallen so far. Crags dark as the dirt on my skin, broken only by veins of light, they stand up to the sky soundless, motionless. The wind in the trees is a quiet, tamed thing, nothing like the storm I know exist up there, either as a result of my strange influence, or the mountains’ own extreme demands – so far from where anyone can stand, can stay without somehow becoming part of that storm or part of that stillness.

All at once, hands fall upon me. They grab my shirt and jacket – what’s left of them after all this distance and all these changes. Some grab my hands. One grabs my long hair in a firm fist and turns my head, much to the confusion of the rest of me, struggling to follow the grip of those other men, whose fear I can feel, the shivering of their fingers grasping my arms and shoulders.

They stare at my face, looking me up and down, noting my movement, obviously shocked, unable to utter a word.

Their eyes. Before, I could see myself in the eyes of everyone. Now, without my guide, the voice in my head, all I see is their shock, the fear that keeps them holding on to me. But, they look at me and the same word trickles, spills, falls in a messy, dissonant torrent all around me: “Michelangelo!”

I tilt my head and smile. A word, over and over again. A name.

“No!”

“Surely not.”

“This is impossible!”

“Demon.”

“Devil!”

“ENOUGH OF THAT ALREADY! Release him!”

“But-”

“DO IT, AND DO IT NOW, DOGS!”

The tall man has been unable to release my hair, his long fingers reminding me of another wouldn’t let go of me. But, this man is holding on for dear life. He sees the same thing as the others. He holds on to my hair as if letting go would stop his heart.

The yelling man cuffs the tall silent one, releasing him from his rapture. We both turn to look at the new arrival.

He’s dressed like the mountains, I see – all dark cloth draping him from shoulder to toe, serenely dark, and yelling.

“By God, it is Michelangelo. But, I buried you….”

The man’s words trail off and I have a proper view of who these all are for the first time. They’re not alone. They have horses, many horses, all staring and huffing in the dark. The horses don’t seem to want to grab my hair and begin yelling. They stand, huddled where the more fearful shiver in the dark, intermittently hiding their eyes behind those nearer by.

“Michelangelo. Who is that? Is that me?”

“By God, you sound like him, too.”

Memory. That word, too, does something when someone asks. I know that if I could just stop for a second and gather myself, I could come up with some answer. The question seems so easy to answer…

“No. I-“

Men whisper, some cry out, yelling in short bursts, then muttering to themselves, clutching their hands to their chests or holding their hands to their mouth.

“Are you truly back from the dead?”

I smile, trying to re-assure them in their fright. My smile only makes them shiver that much more. Some fall to the ground.

“How can this be?!” the tall man asks, stepping from behind the man in black.

He’s tall, and important, I think. His clothes seem somehow… more. His long hair keeps hiding his face, though, making it hard to know just who I’m talking to…

“Maggiore?” I say his name – and everything stills to silence.

But, the man is Maggiore. Same height, same hair, different clothes.

“Maggiore! It is you! How did you get here? Did you follow me?”

I step towards the man and he reaches to his waist, pulling from along his leg a long piece of metal. Brighter than the moon it whispers on its way to my face.

“STOP THERE, MONSTER!” he howls at me, stepping back as if to hold thing the up and by that push himself away.

“MESSERE, PUT THAT DOWN. DO IT NOW!” Another man, older, with a strong voice, walks through the crows, lifting men to their feet – the man in the sweeping black clothes.

He steps up to me and grasps my head, muttering words. I’m not sure if they’re meant for me. They all sound the same. They make no sense.

I know these words, though. So I chime in. Like a song – said so many times that they spill from him, calling on a father and his mother, supplicating them, asking for strength. Soon, we are speaking in the same voice. His words of protection spilling from me.

His eyes go blank, looking through me and desperately looking for some sign of recognition, his own eyes desperate for them to start taking effect, for them to begin working through whatever he sees in me.

I sing along with him, now, louder and keeping time, aware of the lapses in rhythm and the small words that thread themselves together until making the same sounds at the same time in a growing wave of words that rise up between us, without ever doing anything, without diminishing his fear – me. Only adding to his terror.

“This isn’t working,”

He works that into his song.

“I don’t understand.”

He talks faster and faster. He’s losing the meaning of what he’s saying. He’s not even here, holding my head anymore. He’s yelling out the words.

It’s becoming like a dream, yearning for a place nearby, of safety. Safe from me. In the dark of the shadow of the mountains standing in the way of the moon, right now, he’s losing his body to the words he’s shouting, scaring the animals sleeping in their warrens and trees. And, himself.

He’s been holding on to my face, keeping me still, despite my roaming eyes, desperate to catch hold of the situation or some other face that may come up and give us both an understanding as to what’s going on.

When he falls, I look down. His body gets smaller and smaller as he descends – what my body must have done to survive my own fall. I’ll not let him hit the ground, though. No. I reach down and fall with him, taking his weight on, clutching his garments and lifting as I collapse under our collected weight in the silence, broken only by the same song, that long string of begging words.

On our backs and shoulders, slowly falling into the dark, soft ground next to the passing stream, I can hear some of the men crying, none of them talking to one-another, each completely separate and terrified. All because of me. Had I not fallen, had I not jumped from the top of that mountain, these men would be about other things, yelling and laughing, going about some business I cannot imagine.

But, here we are. All amess, breathing hard into the dirt and mud and fallen leaves.

The man next to me begins to regain his breath – just enough to live in the terror of what he’s just put himself through. He whispers – somehow still begging himself or something else for a way to make it through this moment.

I begin to stand, rising to a knee before offering him my hands.

“Let me help you.”

Maggiore – this Maggiore – cuts me off just as the man in black stands up and begins dusting him off with his own hands.

“Fra Domino, what is happening?”

“Ser Maggiore…” he trails off. “Have your men gather themselves and take this thing back with us under guard.”

“It will be as you wish. I apologize.”

Fra Domino waves the man off as he brushes himself off, walking towards the horses, who have for their part, remained standing despite as the rest of us struggled and cried.

I stand up on my own, looking over the men around me. Some of them stare up at Fra as he walks by, but many of them stay where they are, locked in place.

Maggiore looks back at the dark man and over at me, unsure of what to do. I begin walking over to the last man still on his knees in the mud and offer him my hand.

“Michelangelo, is it really you?”

“Don’t talk to him! Don’t look at him! He is our prisoner and we are bringing him with us!” Maggiore yells at this other. The man is afraid of me, that much is sure. He fears this Maggiore, also. I walk over to him.

“You’ll be taking me with you?”

“Yes, demon.”

“Where are we going?”

“Silence! You’re coming with us.”

A small, quiet man walks over to me and ties my hands. Not roughly. When he is done, he holds the line, standing some ways off, as confused as I am as to what to do.

We stand there, silent as the last of them mount up, still cussing and arguing. The small man watches it all and becomes the last to mount his horse, still holding the rope loosely in his hand.

There are low arguments. None of the men willing to move while Maggiore and the Fra talk amongst themselves.

I ask which way to go. Still looking at the Messere, the man holding my leash nods his head to a side and whispers, “there, along the path.”

My feet begin walking. Sometimes in the brush along the sides of the path, swatting at the low-lying leaves with my feet, just for the noise of something else in my ears. The man’s horse follows along, sniffing the air, and, occasionally, my tattered clothes.

Walking, I realize just how differently they are all dressed from me. They haven’t fallen down a mountain. They each clutch or grasp or worry long knives with their hands as they speak or try desperately to get close enough to hear. A few seconds pass and some of the band realize we’ve already escaped the hubbub of their yelling, and as one they chase along for a short canter and fall in line with us.

No one marches their horse any faster than I can walk, keeping me far enough away that the line never becomes taut.

I hear strange words thrown in the air ahead of me: some “demon” or “monster.” The words “dead” and “buried,” without a doubt. I don’t know what all this has to do with me and why it could possibly cause so many men to fall over themselves just by looking at me? I thought I could stop causing trouble.

“Why were you sent here, demon? What have you done to our Michelangelo?” Fra yells, from atop his horse.

“I don’t know… what you’re talking about.”

“Demon, I said why are you here. You will answer my question!”

“I don’t know who your Michelangelo is. I don’t know where he is. I wasn’t sent here.”

“And, what are your plans for us? Will you kill us all, steal our souls away to your great Satan? Will you drag us down into corruption?”

“I don’t know. I don’t understand. I don’t have plans. I run. I have to run away.”

“Speak up, demon.” A rider drives up along me and hits me with his weapon, sharp and hard across my head. I fall and feel the pain, unable to speak.

This pain is everything. My mouth opens and all I can talk is drooled and whimpered into the mud along the path. I struggle to rise and the man hits me again, hitting a hard part of my back, driving me down.

“Hit him again. Hit him harder. Kill him!”

Their yelling becomes a chant. I don’t want to move. Their words fill my head with more pain and I hear their horses being driven up to crowd around. The rope goes taut in jerk, the man on the horses holding it begging me to get back up, saying, “Get up. We’re almost there. Just get back up.”

Men begin yelling at him, pushing him, reaching for the rope. I roll to a side to look up into the faces of the horses, their legs a smaller forest of dark knobby limbs, closing the darkness in around me.

I feel the ground rumble as another horse joins the fray and more yelling ensues. The men above raise more cacophony. The horses all look at each other, then down at me, careful not to crush me underfoot.

And, then, I’m lifted up by the rope. By the tall man. The not-Maggiore.

“Get up and get walking. I’ll not have you sowing any more fear in my men. We are going to the Castello and if you utter another word before we get there, I swear I’ll gut you myself. We can bury two Michelangelos this week, you monster.”

The man holding my rope sets his horse to a canter, looking back at me with his sad eyes. He’s begging me to keep up, so he can leave the crowded dark of the forest and this night behind him.

Time goes by and I don’t know where we are. I don’t know how far we’ve traveled, nor how far. The Ocean is far away, and even where it meets the land, it is far off. I look down at my hands and see the lines growing more pronounced in the shadows of the moon. It’s gone far through the sky, leaning further and away from overhead. The dark will be gone soon.

The moon is heavy in the mountains behind by the time the ground begins to swell under our feet and we break our from under the trees. Hill surround the road, rising and falling, each feeding off the other until all I can see are the tops of some of the furthest ones, covering the horizon.

So much open ground. I stop and look around. I stop and listen, through all the angry men, demanding that I move. I stop and listen. I still can’t hear them.

They know where I am, and they’re coming for me.

“We’re less than a league off. Do you recognize where you are?” Someone asks.

“No. Where are we?” No answer.

“We need to go faster,” I say.

He rises a little in his slouch and begins looking back. He looks at me again, shaking his head a little. Before he can decide to tell me ‘no’, I set my feet to the ground. I gather speed and the hooves behind me begin to fall in unison. The horses, too are tired, but their running tells me more than the men ever would just how close we actually are to where it is we are going.

I look back and they’re all more awake now. Their eyes all focus on the hills, one in particular, where they know they’re going. And, going to be safe. I look back and there’s colour in the sky. For the moment, I’m chasing the dark. My legs begin to burn. Breathing around the pain in my chest and back makes me wheeze with the effort it takes to keep moving. I keep moving.

We round a bend, and there it is. Houses with smoke rising up and people inside, all sleeping safely around the tower of a great middle building. The whole surrounded by a wall and the gate that ties it all to the road is shut. But, soon, it will be open.

I turn to look at the horizon again, dreading the paleness of the sky I see there. And, with a final lurch, the light rises up over that bend. Weak as it’s ever been, weak as it always seems to be – the constant haze of the clouds that follow me everywhere. Dulling it down until everything is either bright night or dark day.

We pass through a gate in the wall, shutting off the rising glow, plunging us all back into shadows. The streets are empty – walls and streets all the same colour, all the same stone. They all look the same, but the men on horses know the way to go, pulling my tether, guiding me deeper and deeper into these new shadows.

We stop in an opening between the walls, an open space, where dogs come up to us, barking and running between the horses’ legs.

“Take this thing to the jails. The rest of you, you will not speak of this to anyone. You will…” The rope pulls, and I’m being led into real darkness, down low narrow halls until I’m pushed into a small room underground.

A door closes and I’m left alone.

I look around. A small room, thick gray stones all around. It smells different, like the forest. Only, with more rot – the smell of bodies at work.

The voice, the man in black, they come into the cell. The one they call Fra stares at me through the bars, face dancing in the light of the candle he holds up, shielded against draughts. The window behind me lets in no lights.

The door opens behind me. I turn, and the man in black rushes up to me and throws me to the ground.

“There’ll be no escape for you that way, demon. Not if you want to hang yourself, either. With rough hands he rips the rope from my hands, throwing it into the hall.

“But, Fra-“ a quiet voice calls from the hall.

“No, Messere. You and your men were seized by unholy panic. You may be afraid, but I am not.”

Words swarm in Maggiore’s mouth, even I can see from here, but he says nothing.

Of course they feel safe. They’re back. They’re home.

“As you wish, Fra. What will you have me do?

“Keep a man posted outside this door. No. Two men. Don’t let them sheathe their blades, lest this monster infect the whole town with his terror. You’ve still told-”

“No one. Not a soul. I’ve sworn all my men to secrecy and sent out fresh troops on patrol. We’ll not have any more terror gripping this town. I assure you.”

“Yes. You do, and you have. See that it stays such, my son.

“Now, you, monster. What are you and what have you done to Michelangelo? His grave is undisturbed. If I dig it up, what will I find?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t done anything. I don’t know-”

“You don’t know. You don’t know. You appear in signore’s lands and nearly kill a dozen men and you ‘don’t know’?!”

He kicks me, of course. I try not to cry out. My back still hurts, but I don’t want him to start hitting me where I already hurt.

“Fra-”

“Silence.”

He reaches down and grips my hair, bending my neck towards him, and my eyes in the direction of the window.

“What are you then, a ghost? Surely not, I think. Michelangelo, at least, knew a thing or two. “

I don’t know how, the words are simply there – “I’m not a ghost.”

I say the words and his fingers flex in my scalp, his fingers digging into my skin. I don’t know how, with all the pain and his incredulity, but I think he finally believes me.

Everything stops for a moment and I can look into both their eyes. They’re frozen – even the fire in the torch dances outside the door.

“Not a ghost.”

“Not a man.”

“Why, ‘not a man’?”

“No man could have the power to do what you did - steal another man’s features, another’s voice.”

“What about him?!” I point at Maggiore.

“Devil, don’t impugn him!”

“Me? What?”

“If you’re going to hit me again,” I say, Fra in mid-swing, “can you do it somewhere new? My back really hurts.”

Maggiore whispers “How did you die? Do you remember?”

“I-I jumped from the mountain. I didn’t die… But, I don’t know how your friend died.”

“Friend? Ha!” Both men start laughing, howling at me. Suddenly I’m not a monster in their eyes, merely a fool.

“Michelangelo was no-one’s friend. He was a cobbler who drank too much, never went to church and had to have his head flattened weekly for his stupidity.

“Perhaps he’s from town nearby, Fra?”

“Maybe. Maybe, my son. He is still a danger, though, to your men. Those not on patrol, they?”

“Are either out drinking in the tavern or cowering at home with their wives.”

“Good. Get some chains. I want to bring this man to the church cellar. Maybe he’s not as dangerous as I thought.

“But! Just a minute-”

“Just a minute ago I did not know what I do, now. Do as I say. God has preserved me and he will still.”

“As you wish.”

The Fra steps up to me, leaving the door open behind him.

“What are you? What form of monster are you? Why will you not die?”

“Am I still alive?” I ask. He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t move.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t know what you are,” he says, almost to himself, stepping closer, running his eyes over me. He steps so close, looking in my face for a flaw, some sign. All I can do is look back, waiting for an answer, waiting for him to let me know what I am supposed to do.

“Were you conjured up? Are you a demon, summoned from Infernus?”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“What do you know, you miserable little beast?”

“I was pulled from the water by Raoul. After that, I met Mira. She chased me, when I ran away.”

“Who? Who are these people?”

“They are- they were my friends.”

“Where are they, now?” Maggiore finally speaks, returning with a heavy bag. The shadows creep about him, swallowing his feature when immobile, receding when he speaks.

“Your name is Maggiore?”

“Do not speak to him. I ask the questions.”

I try again. “Is your name Maggiore?” He pauses, holding the sac in front of him, a shield to protect him.

“Yes. What does it matter?”

“I’ve met you before. I met you in the City, just a few days ago. At the Masters’.”

“Master? Who is your master?”

“No. Not master. Master-s’s. Two men in a big house under a steel tower in the City”.

“A steel tower?”

“A tower made of steel?”

“An entire tower?”

“Of steel?”

“I have never heard of such a place.”

“Nor have I, m’lord. Surely, he is spinning a fable, trying to seduce us with the wonder of such a thing. How tall is it, this tower?”

“I have never seen anything so tall, aside mountains. I don’t know how tall it is.”

“Madness. Pure madness. There is no way men could construct such a thing. To imagine! A tower made of steel!” The priest rises, pushing himself off his knees. He approaches Maggiore and they begin to speak in hushed tones.

“What is your name, please? I know Maggiore calls you Fra. Is that your name?”

“I am a brother from the See – the States. You know who I am.”

“What is a that?”

Maggiore’s mouth falls open, unable to keep whispering.

“The See is... Nothing of your concern. You can call me Fra, for I’ll not give you my name, daemon. You’ll have no power over me.”

“I don’t want power. I just want to keep moving. Bad things are following me and I have to keep moving or they’ll catch me and then... And then.”

“You’ll die?” Maggiore, says.

“I hope. I don’t know what they want, but they chase me. They want me. They want to tear me apart. And, no matter how many times I should have died, nothing terrifies me the way they do.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Well, then. Maybe we have a solution to our problem, then. Chain him, Messere. Let us move him to the church. His powers will be weakened, on holy ground.”

In the dead space between days, they move me, unmoving, from one place to another. Another cell. Another room. But, when the door closes, this time, nothing feels different. This place is just the same as the last. Only, quieter.

For the first time there is darkness everywhere. I feel, but feeling is all I know. The darkness surrounds, forcing its way into me. But, I lay still, unmoving – prey to its pressure. The pressure grows and grows, numbing me like the storm in the mountains. Softly and steadily, I grow weak and, finally, sleep.

“Awake, daemon, I grow tired of waiting for you. Awake!”

The words pass as nothing over me – little better than the faraway cries still to be heard in this void.

Then, pain.

“Michelangelo, is that you?”

“Do not speak to him, Ser Maggiore! We must remain vigilant! He is a monster, sent to beguile and bewilder us.”

“No.”

“‘No,’ monster? Beast? Cur? How dare you!”

Another shock. I feel. I feel again. After the numbing world I escaped in the clouds, with that giant voice booming into me and the glowing eye looking down at me from the sky.

I escaped. But, there is still pain.

“I escaped…”

“You escaped, did you? You may have escaped from Inferno, but this is no place for you, you spawn of the Damned!”

“What? Who are you? Where am I?”

“You escaped. You’re here.”

“Where is here?”

“Fool. You cannot outsmart me. I know what you are. We buried the corpse of that sick fool, Michelangelo. We set him into the Earth. You may have escaped his tomb; but I can assure you, you shall not escape the prison into which we shall set your corpse.”

“Fra Domino, do you believe we can truly do that? He has died once, already. Can we contain this daemon?”

“Out! Out, Maggiore! The Devil has cast doubt into your mind and you do naught but betray yourself with such thoughts! Go! Pray for your soul. Pray for your redemption, for if this daemon has infected you, you must beg Dio to release you from his shackles! Go! Quick! They wrap around you even now! I see the dark touch on you. Go with God!”

The dark figure turns and leaves, closing a heavy door of bars behind him as he goes.

“No! Maggiore! Don’t leave! I’m no monster! I’m sorry. Please, help me! I’ll do anything.”

“Run, boy! Run! Cast his voice from your mind. Hear not his words. He will damn you with them. Run!”

Another strike. I am alive. It hurts so.

“Yes, you worm of the misbegotten, you infernal avatar. We will rend you from this poor man’s corpse and send him back into the sweet body of the firmament. We will send you back where you belong and there will be no escape for you. By the will of the most Holy, I shall make it so.”

“No. I can’t stay here. I must go. They follow me.”

I feel him next to my face. His smell is sweat. So close, I cannot see his face. His breath falls on me in quick gasps, he is so excited.

“Not a thing. Nothing at all. You cannot help me.” He sighs and leans against the stones of my prison, much as I do.

“I need help.”

A dark wind rips through the barred window, teasing at the man’s cloak, making him struggle for his dignity.

“A storm is coming. It’s been following me.”

“Is that why you took refuge in the mountains? How long were you up there?”

They all have so many questions for me, these men who belong. They look to me for answers, when the very basics of their world, their place, simply eludes me.

“The storm is coming. I can’t last much longer, then. I won’t be able to stay long. I’m going to have to go.”

“Believe me when I point out just how totally and utterly wrong you are about that. You belong to me, know. There will be no leaving. There will be no escaping. You will stay here until I can get a specialist from the See to come and collect you. Until then, I will record as much as I possibly can about you, to assist the inquisitor, and should there be one, the exorcist.”

“Where will they take me?”

“Likely, back to the States, for more examination. Whatever plans you thought you had are no longer. I do not know what your future holds, but you will of your existence is now in our hands.”

“And, they will know what I am?”

“Surely, they will be able to plumb just what it is you really are. Already, we know how to keep you contained. So, you are not a threat.”

“I hope they come soon. I can’t stay here. I can’t stop.”

“They will come in the Lord’s own time. Perhaps they will study you, here,” he says with a final smile, closing the door between us. “Surely, they will se the wisdom in that.”

I watch him stalk down the hallway, its dark stones shinning merrily in the dark, as the first droplets of rain dust the countryside, racing towards me. The familiar fear, my oldest memory, grips me by the throat as the sky dives with its approach and I fly against the walls, throwing my strength against the stones, jumping up to clutch at the barred window to shake myself senseless.

With no voice to guide me, no one to assure me of my path, all I can do is shake and cower in grief. It’s coming. I can’t run, anymore. I’m trapped.

The storm has been stalking me for ages, so it doesn’t race along on its way to its prey. It needs only to send the rains after me, a barrage of wind and water to surround me, so it can slowly overwhelm me, the way it always has.

I’m growing weak again, pacing madly in my little box, or numbed into a shock so profound that I sometimes forget to breathe. The clouds mass and swirl and all I can do is find a dark corner to hide from the wind, clutching my sides for warmth.

I hear a faraway door open and long footsteps make their way towards me. A now-familiar figure sweeps past the lighting torches bolted to the wall – Maggiore has come back.

“I couldn’t stay away. What have you done to me?”

I can hardly speak, I now shake so hard, as the wind reaches through the window, spitting a small pool of water into he little room.

“Please. I have to keep moving. They are coming for me. They’re coming to drown me.”

He sighs, easing himself onto a barrel, outside the cellar door.

“The Fra, he has the only key. I’m lord over my fief, and he his own. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if galloping angels came in on the wing, chasing you, considering all your talk. And, that damned face of yours… I don’t know how you did it, Michelangelo. What you’ve become. Fra is probably right about you.”

“Do you think so,” I chatter out, my words tripping their way to his ears. The barrel creaks as he leans over. “We’re in the Fra’s territory, here. He set your soul on to Paradise. You are a guest in this house. I don’t believe you’re a danger – any longer. But, there is surely something unnatural about you.

“You knew me, before?”

“Yes. Yes!” I cry, and rush the door. The man curses and knocks the barrel over as he rises to his feet. Still, he stays.

“How?”

It’s getting hard to think. I can’t tell what his words mean. How can he have forgotten? It was just the other- He made his way past the mountains. How can he not remember?

“You were there, with me, in the City. We were escaping. You recognize me. You know me.”

“I know you. You died. What you are… I don’t know. It’s unnatural.”

The horizon roars, breaking its silence, and the wind gusts more rain around me. We both stand at the door, now, looking for our faces in the shadows – the only moving things in the cellar.

“Are you… Is that your storm, Michele? What are you doing?”

“They’re coming for me,” I yell over the sound of the rain and the lumbering thunder. A flash rips the dark apart, both our faces becoming clear, then disappearing again.

“What about us? My people, are we to fear them, too? What will they want with us?”

“They’re hungry, Maggiore. I can hear them between the sounds of the storm. They’re hungry for me. I… I hurt people. Maybe… Maybe they’re just coming to stop me from hurting, anymore.”

After all the running, all the fear, this first thought makes its own sense. After all, I’m the one who has kept them from what they want. I’m the one who has torn so many things apart. All the help, all the people who wanted to help me – should I not stop running? Stop fighting the truth? What good have I done, running from them?

“Maybe I should stop.”

The words are small – I hardly hear them, even as they come out from me.

The storm, for all its size, even as it begins to peel the tiles from roof-tops and rattle the flags on the castello’s battlements, heaves a sigh of silence.

Maggiore stops for a moment, too. Then, taking a deep breath, says: “No. I-“

His words, his thoughts, and all the world around are drowned in a deafening blast of noise. For a moment, there is no air; only heat and the hair-raising sensation of drifting off the ground. Then, as the dust begins to drift down, steam rises from everything as the massive hole where the window used to be fills with wind and rain.

I make my way to my feet, the sounds of Maggiore gasping and groaning coming from beyond the shattered door, great grey stones slowly clattering to silence in the hallway beyond.

Again. This always happens. The man yells my name, asking me if I am still alive. I don’t answer. I run. My curse has followed me this far, and I’ve run all I can to get beyond it. Even as he cries and struggles, I bolt through the hole – I have to stop this madness. No more am I going to cause so much hurt.

The wind picks me up as I run through the stones set in the ground. I only look to see that the building isn’t falling down in on Maggiore.

Run. I run, blinded by the air rushing away. It’s time to stop all the hurt I leave behind.

Again, my impossible nature pulls everything apart, makes a mess of reality. The stones shudder and dance along the ground until they all leap up and into place – re-building the church wall. And, as the rain falls and continues to intensify, the whole village melts away until there is nothing left – no mark of there ever having been a place at all.

The rainwater from all the surrounding hills gathers and flows together down al the hills, down to the great lake, making it swell, claiming the banks and rising to push back the shore.

Enough. I’ve seen this place before – faraway.

At first, there is little light to reveal how the water is tossing itself about, hungry to leap into the sky, to reach up and pull down more.

I step into the waves, eyes open, ears at the ready for the groaning.

I step into the water, ready for them.

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