Part One - Loss
(The red is best. Yes, I will put out the red.) (This dress makes me look fat. I should not have worn it.)
(... where is the waste disposal? – I knew I should not have eaten the cheese.) (two shirts, two trousers. Socks. Where are the socks?) (five times four is twenty... why do I have to do this? It is all on PPC nowadays) (I need it right now. Not tomorrow. Now)
The house stood out on the street, but for all the wrong reasons. Where the neighbouring houses were neat and in good repair, the gardens well-tended, this house grew more weed than flowers, the gate was rusted and creaked as it was pushed open, and the paint peeled in strips from the front door.
The curtains were drawn on all the windows.
(if that bedroom isn’t clean by the time I get up there...) (did I lock the door? I cannot remember if I locked the door. Better check...) (he doesn’t appreciate what I do for him) (Ugh, do I have to answer that call)
“Come on,” Maze was irritable. I was part of a problem she did not want to deal with. (I hope this works or Nexus will be impossible... I wonder if Eris remembered to...) “I know the house looks intimidating, but it’s just a house.”
She strode up the path to the door, dragging me along with her, and knocked loudly and with confidence. And again, louder, sending strips of paint raining onto the porch floorboards, when there was no response. “For – sakes, Escher,” she yelled out. “I know you’re in there!”
After a moment, it opened slightly. “Got a job for you,” she said to the person inside.
The door started to close, but she stuck her foot into the opening with determination. “Escher, the order comes from Nexus,” she told him, firmly, not giving any ground.
“What the – is it?” The man inside growled.
“Telepath that needs a shield,” she grabbed me by the elbow and pushed me at the door, as if she thought I would fit through the foot-sized gap. I caught a glimpse of metal, and an eye that reflected the light back oddly, within the shadowy interior. “She’s set against taking a mate,” she nudged me forward. “And you’re a shield who doesn’t want one.”
“You’re -ing kidding me,” he snarled and tried to close the door.
“Not kidding,” she set her hip against it, and pushed me at the same time, so I tumbled in through the widened gap in the door, just before his returning shove closed it. He caught me before I hit the ground and I stared up at him in shock.
Something terrible had happened to him. His left arm and eye had been replaced with bionics, and the skin on that side of his face and down his neck was gnarled with scarring. That the other side of his face was incredibly handsome only made the injuries more devastating.
He stared at me with an expression of stunned horror, before setting me to my feet, and pulled the door open, the tangled mess of dark grey hair lifting with the force of the movement. “Maze, I... -!” he realised she had gone as quickly as her legs could carry her, and slammed the door shut again in frustration. He looked at me with bewildered revulsion before turning on his heel and striding away into the bowels of the house.
I stood in the entrance, not sure what to do.
The house stank of stale misery. The only light that came in through the windows picked its way through the holes in the curtains that were firmly drawn across them. There was dust on everything that dust could settle on.
But it was also silent. I closed my eyes and let the silence settle within me. The persistent migraine that had taken up residence in my head ever since I had been brought to this city eased. There were no murmurs of other’s voices, no thoughts that did not belong to me, no running commentary of mundanity. Just silence.
He was a shield, and by his nature, maintained a void of silence around him.
The house was still. There were no betraying creaks of floorboards or shuffling movement to give indication as to where he had gone. I could be completely alone, and I was not sure which was more frightening, being in the company of the angry man who looked at me as if I were a creature of nightmare or being alone in the eery house.
I followed the hallway. Nearest the front door was a sitting room and what might have once been a library or study from the furniture. A staircase led upwards into darkness, with a small powder-room tucked under the rise. A door at the end of the hallway was slightly ajar. The light was brighter inside.
I crept up to it and listened, holding my breath. He was in there, I thought. I did not know how I knew it as I could not hear anything distinctly, however there was a sense of movement within. I pushed the door open carefully.
The room took up the entire rear of the house, and had been originally intended to serve as kitchen, dining and living space, with a rear wall of windows looking out into the overgrown tangle of back garden. The kitchen was partially stripped out, cupboard doors torn from the cabinets, showing mismatched dishes on the shelves that were not collapsed. There was no furniture, no table, no seats in the room. But there were paintings propped against every surface. A woman’s face at every angle and in every shade, her eyes watching me with varied expressions ranging from laughter to fright.
The man stood before a large square of white, a paintbrush in his hand. “Get out,” he said without turning, pushing black paint across the surface.
I stepped back, pulling the door closed behind me, my heart pounding.
I walked back through the house and opened the front door taking a deep breath before walking out to the creaky rusted gate. I passed through the edge of his shield about mid-way up the path.
(tonight, is the night I...) (... ugh, I am not paid enough for this) (five minutes, do I have time?) (I think I need to go to the waste disposal. I don’t. But I do.) (the third door from the left. Or was it the fourth?) (if Tabyl doesn’t get that report this time...) (dishes, and then I should see how) (Are they coming in here?)
My wrist unit chimed as I walked up the street. “Really?” Maze asked me. She had put a tracker in me and teamed it with the wrist unit to discourage me from straying. “Where do you think you can go, Eliana? Within six hours you will be raving out of your mind, and I’ll be responding to a complaint about a crazy lady roaming the streets.”
“I’ll go back to the shield town,” I pleaded.
“This is the best solution for you, Eliana, and you know it,” she was short with me. “Escher needs someone to clean up that house, and you get the benefits of his shield. Don’t make me come there again. Your things will be delivered in half a turn.”
(Which way was it again?) (sigh. She never sends the right directions) (what do you mean it’s going to cost...)
“He doesn’t want me here.”
“Of course, he doesn’t,” she agreed. “He’ll deal with it.”
I sighed and looked back at the house. Already, the migraine was building, voices rising in volume inside my mind. I walked back along the road and through the rusty gate, and down the path until the shield slipped over me. “Damn it,” I muttered.
“Good girl,” Maze ended the communication.
I went back to the door and turned the handle. It was locked. He had locked me out. “ - ” I swore. I knocked. There was no response. I contemplated contacting Maze, but I did not want to deal with her attitude. I tried the windows. They were locked.
I worked my way around the house, trying all the doors and windows without any luck. I could see him, in the living area, painting. He did not look at me.
“What are you doing?” a pair of wide-eyed children watched me through a gap in the overgrown hedge that separated the wilderness of his garden from their tidy yard. A boy and a girl, neatly dressed, faces and hands clean, and cheeks plump.
“I’m locked out,” I told them. There was one window upstairs that was open, the curtains billowing in the breeze. I sighed and hooked my skirts up. They giggled. I took off my shoes and put them on the front porch, by the door. “Wish me luck,” I said to them and clambered up the porch railing onto the bullnose veranda.
“Mummy!” the little girl called, her voice rising in pitch. “There’s a lady climbing the house next door!”
The guttering creaked beneath my feet as I edged around the veranda and contemplated how to get up to the window. The children’s mother came to stand on the porch, wiping her hands on her apron, her mouth opened in alarm as she spotted me. “Hi,” I nodded to her.
I stretched to the point I felt my joints pop and the muscles between my rib bones complained and managed to get my fingers onto the window ledge.
“What the – do you think you’re doing?” he stood below, glaring up at me. “If you kill yourself, they’ll hold me responsible.”
“You locked me out,” I said to him.
“I locked my house,” he replied. “To keep unwanted intruders out.”
“Well, apparently, I have no choice but to stay here and you have no choice but to let me,” I tested my grip and pulled myself up, agonisingly.
“You’re going to fall, you fool,” he snapped.
I balanced on my stomach, on the window ledge, like a child’s seesaw. There was no graceful solution, I realised, and I was running out of strength in my arms. I wriggled inwards until I overbalanced, and flipped through the window, landing on my back, knocking the wind from my lungs.
His bedroom, I thought. It smelt like him, like paint, dust and wine. The bed was a mess of crumpled sheets, and clothing was discarded on every surface. I wondered if he had anything clean left to wear. I rolled onto my stomach and slowly picked myself up. The door opened. He stood there, almost filling the doorway with his shoulders, his hair brushing the top of the frame, glowering. He arched an eyebrow, and turned and walked away, obviously disappointed to find me in one piece.
I had twisted my ankle slightly during the less than graceful tumble into the room, and it twinged as I put my weight on it. I limped my way out of the room. The stairs opened onto a landing with three doors. The one into his room, one into a bathroom, and one into a second bedroom. I opened the window in this second room, pulling back the curtains. The room was tidy, but dusty. The bed was made. I folded back the sheets and sniffed at them, deciding they would do. They smelt musty, as if the bed had been made long ago, and remained unused since.
There was a knock at the front door. I leaned out the window. It was the delivery of my personal items. “Thank you,” I called down to the black-armoured soldiers that waited below. “Just leave it there, I’ll bring it in.”
I made my way down the stairs. My ankle was gradually recovering from the twist. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I saw the door to the room at the back of the house close. He was avoiding me. Of course, he wouldn’t think to help. I opened the front door, making sure to wedge it open with one of my shoes – I did not want to have to repeat my climb in through his bedroom window – and brought the crates into the hallway, and then up the stairs.
I unpacked my clothing into the closet before blowing out a breath. I was going to have to go into the kitchen for food. Escher, Maze had called him. Well, Escher would just have to tolerate the intrusion. I made my way down the stairs and approached the door to the back area of the house.
The painting was taking form. The woman’s face, in black and white, the shadowing strong. Her eyes were haunting.
I tiptoed into the kitchen and took a closer look at the destruction he had wrought. The doors had been torn from their hinges, pieces of broken wood still clung in places, shelves had collapsed onto the items below them, and there was broken pottery everywhere.
There was also a crate with vegetables, many in various stages of decay, and a stack of the silver wrapped packages. Rations. I picked through the vegetables, finding a pumpkin and some carrots that were edible, just. I sliced them into a pot with some water and started the cooker.
He did not acknowledge my presence in any way.
I would have liked to investigate the garden for herbs but didn’t want to present him with the opportunity to lock me out again. I began to organise the kitchen, fixing the shelves that had collapsed.
“Must you?” he barked out.
“Evidently, I must, as you have not,” I retorted, continuing my reorganisation of the cupboards.
He half turned, arching a brow at me. “Unwanted house guests shouldn’t criticise their host,” he told me.
“I am not a guest, and you are not a host,” I corrected him.
“That’s right,” he agreed, “guests are invited.”
“And hosts are polite.”
“No wonder they pushed you in my door, you’re not welcome anywhere else,” he turned back to his painting.
“And what did you do, to be shut up all alone?”
He went still. “I lived,” he said, very quietly.
I swallowed. For a telepath, I reprimanded myself, I lacked basic empathy. His mate had died. The signs were all around, in the endless paintings of a woman who very plainly wasn’t present, in his lack of grooming, in the closed off, and neglected house. He was grieving. No wonder I was not welcome. “I’m sorry,” I said, inadequately, not sure if I apologised for my presence, for his loss, or for everything in general.
He didn’t respond but resumed painting.
I continued cleaning the kitchen, until the soup was ready. I served two bowls and took mine to the front room with me. I opened the curtains and sat on the dusty chair, looking out the filthy window at the overgrown garden as I ate.
I opened the window to let some air in and dusted off the furniture until the room looked faded but habitable. When I returned to the kitchen to wash my bowl, he had eaten the soup, but he did not acknowledge me otherwise.
I turned on the light for him as I returned to the hallway. I cleaned up the study area and then went to the bathroom, washing off the dust that coated me as thoroughly as it had the furniture downstairs, and crawled into the bed.
I woke in the darkness and was not sure what had woken me. Then I heard glass breaking, and cursing. I debated leaving him to it, but compassion won, and I rose and made my way down the stairs. Wine spread across the floor like blood, and the painting he had been working on had been thrown across the room. The back door was open, and he leaned against the door frame, glaring out into the night. He turned the glare to me.
“What do you want?” he demanded. He was drunk and belligerent.
He left a bloody handprint on the door when he slammed it closed.
“A waste of wine,” I observed, stepping around the puddle. “Most people would have smashed the empty bottle and drunk the full. Then again,” I evaluated him, “maybe you’ve had more than enough wine anyway.”
“Why are you even talking to me?” he demanded. “You need my shield, fine. But stay the – out of my way.”
“Stop smashing things in the middle of the night, and I’ll happily do so,” I replied tartly. “But if you insist on waking me up with your temper tantrums, then you have to put up with me talking to you.” I found a medikit in the kitchen, and took it over to where he stood, glaring at me. “Come on, what have you done?” I gestured to his hand.
He looked at it and sneered. “It’s nothing.”
“A man with one hand should take better care of it.”
He looked at me, both his eyebrows arching. “You have a -ing tongue on you,” he commented, and held his hand out. I examined the cut and took the spray they used for such superficial wounds out of the kit. He pulled a face as I sprayed it and wrapped one of the nanite-embedded silver bandages around it. “Thank you,” he said, surprising us both.
“You’re welcome. You should go to bed,” I told him. “I think you’ve had enough wine, and it’s late.”
“You think so, do you?” he sighed. “I know for a fact I haven’t had enough wine to sleep.”
“I’ll make you a tea,” I suggested.
He laughed without humour. “Tea? Sure, why not,” he stepped away, picking up the painting he had thrown, and stacking it amongst the others, indifferent to it’s still wet surface.
“You should take more care whilst it’s wet,” I commented as I filled the kettle and put it onto the cooker. There was a range of teas, unlabelled. I sniffed my way through the small containers, and mixed two together into a metal strainer.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, more to himself than to me. “I never get it right.”
“They’re really very good.”
“No, they’re not,” he replied, flicking through the half-finished paintings, pulling one out and putting it onto the easel upside down. He began to paint over it, preparing the surface for his next effort. “What’s in my head... I can’t get it right.”
I poured the hot water over the tea and let it steep, before taking it over to him. “Drink this, and go to bed,” I met his eyes; they were an unusual golden honey colour. The bionic eye was a good colour match for his natural but lacked the depth... maybe due to the lack of expression held within. I wondered what he saw through it, was it able to reproduce a natural vision, or was the world altered for him? Could that be why his paintings never matched his intention?
How devastating for an artist to have his vision of the world impaired.
He had not completed the wound treatments, I thought as I cleaned up the broken wine and glass. They had the ability to eradicate the scarring, to put synthesized skin over the bionic arm... even to replace the arm and eye with transplants grown from his own stem cells. I knew all this from my time at the shield outpost; after the rebel attacks on Vaelyn City, and the Arkana war, there had been many injured soldiers returning and needing care as they had implants fitted for prosthetics, or waited transplants, or learned to use them.
“What is in this?” he complained.
“Obviously, someone has prescribed you a sleep mix before,” I told him. “I doubled it up.”
“I’ve slept enough,” he said softly, looking away, out into the darkness framed by the windows. I wondered what he saw there, or whether he saw himself reflected back: a broken man. “They put me in stasis when it first happened. As if it would make it any easier when I woke, to know I had slept through the first six weeks of her death...” he put the tea down on the kitchen surface. “You’re right. I should go to bed.”
He made his way unsteadily along the hall and up the stairs.
I finished cleaning up the spill before turning off the lights. Up the stairs, light spilled from beneath his closed bedroom door, and I could hear the floorboards creak as he moved around the room. I closed the bedroom door and listened as I waited for sleep, until there were no further noises from the other side of the landing.
I woke to birdsong. Apparently, they appreciated the overgrown garden, even if the neighbours did not, I thought with amusement as I opened the window to let their music in. I showered and dressed, humming to myself, before going to the kitchen. He had not been down yet; the paints were untouched.
I took advantage of his absence to tidy up his painting area, clearing away jars of filthy water, and rinsing out his brushes. “What are you doing?” he squinted at me from the doorway. “It’s too bright in here,” he complained as if the glare of sunlight was my fault.
“Here,” I retrieved the black case of pills from the medikit. “I only know the purple and blue, but I know you have treatment for hangovers in there. And take a blue pill,” I added, wrinkling my nose. “A shower wouldn’t go astray, either.”
“Who do you think you are?” he took a couple of pills from the case, and swallowed them, before taking out a blue pill. “You invade my home, move my stuff, and start bossing me around as if you have some entitlement to be here.”
“Eliana,” I told him. “And you’re Escher.”
“Great,” he rolled his sleeves up and approached the canvas he had painted over the night before as if he intended to fight it. “Now we’re handing out birth names like candy, are we?”
“You’re just grumpy because you’ve got a hangover,” I told him as I poured grains into a pot and set them to boil over the cooker. “You’ll feel better once you’ve eaten.”
“I don’t eat in the morning,” he examined several paintbrushes before finding one that met his requirements. He blended colour squeezed from a tube onto a piece of wood.
“Have you always painted?” I ignored his attitude.
“Yes,” he didn’t look at me. “It’s what I do.”
“Obviously,” I found some dried sultanas and added them to the grains. “It could use milk,” I served the grains in a bowl. “But your people don’t tend to like it, anyway.” I took the paintbrush from his hand and put the bowl in it instead. He transferred his grip on the bowl to his bionic arm. It looked awkward, I noted, and wondered if the neural transmitter was working correctly.
I dropped the paintbrush into a jar of water, and he made a sound of protest, and then scowled at me. “And how did you end up being assigned as my house maid?” he asked snidely. I found some honey in the cupboard and scooped some over his grains. He looked perplexed by the addition.
“I was at the shield outpost,” I told him. “Wilder’s outpost.”
“Obviously,” he used the word back to me in much the same tone of voice.
“I haven’t found a mate,” I watched his face change when he tried the grains. “Honey is good, hm? I got tired of being unsuccessfully sniffed,” I tried for levity, but wasn’t quite able to take the frustration from my tone. “And decided to try getting along without a shield.”
He arched his eyebrows. “Went well?” he said with open sarcasm.
“Oh, very well,” I pulled a face. “I studied with the Arcana for a while, trying to develop alternatives... Lots of meditation; they’re very big on meditation. But the telepathic madness is unforgiving, and once you fall into it... well, it is not so easy to find your way out again. Nexus told Wilder he was looking for a telepath... And I was volunteered. I guess I was too much trouble,” I shrugged with feigned indifference. “You’re not looking for a mate, and neither am I.”
He considered me as he ate his grains. “So, what? You’re going to clean the house?”
“It wouldn’t hurt you to give it a go yourself occasionally,” I suggested with an edge of tartness. “I’m not here to be your house maid, but I have to live here too, so, yes, I’ll give it a clean. But then, you’re going to have to pull your weight. Starting with this kitchen. You broke it, you fix it.”
“My house,” he frowned at me. “If I want it broken, it’ll stay that way.”
“Sure, keep telling yourself that,” I smiled sweetly at him. “I’ll give you a week to get doors back on the kitchen.”
“Or what?” he was taken aback, but also leaning towards amusement.
“We’ll see.” I did not have any retaliation but did not want to admit as much. I took his empty bowl from him and went into the kitchen to wash up.
He returned to his painting. The grip on his arm was not right, I thought, watching him through my eyelashes. How long had he lived with it like that? How long had they left him to wallow in his grief in this house, alone? My heart ached for him.
I went around the ground floor unlocking and opening the windows, before going out into the garden. I might feel sorry for him, but I was not about to risk him locking me out again.
“It’s about time this garden was taken in hand,” the woman from next door was hanging washing out over her porch. “It’s an eyesore, and I worry about snakes coming into my yard over the warm season.”
“I was contemplating starting a decorative weed garden,” I replied to her pleasantly. “The purple ones are really quite pretty, and I believe they’re edible. Thistle soup. Thistle pie? I’m not sure how to serve them to their best advantage, but I’m sure I will work it out.”
She regarded me, puzzled. “You’re joking, aren’t you?” she replied uncertainly.
“I must be,” I gave her a bright smile. “It would be crazy of me, otherwise.”
She smiled back, unnerved, and returned to her house.
I continued working until half the garden at least looked as if someone cared to try. I went into the kitchen and washed my hands at the sink. He did not look up at me, his attention focussed minutely on the painting. She was laughing, looking over a bare shoulder, her hair tumbled around her face. She was beautiful, as much for the radiance and love on her face as any feature she possessed.
I wondered what it would be like to be loved so much that someone would paint me in such a way and felt the tragedy of his loss like a fist around my heart. To have loved someone so much, and lost them, would be unbearable.
I reheated the soup I had made the day before and left a bowl near his feet before returning to the garden to finish my work. The bowl was empty when I reclaimed it, and the woman was taking on details. “She’s beautiful,” I told him.
He nodded, and did not reply, but I saw him swallow, heavily. The grief was raw on his face as he looked at the painting he had made of her.
I sat on the front steps of the porch and watched the sun set, before going in and frying rations over the cooker for the evening meal. “I need to get some supplies,” I told him, placing the bowl to the side of him as I had the soup earlier. “Half your food is rotten.”
He did not respond, enraptured with his painting. I went upstairs and showered. When I returned down, his bowl was empty. I washed it up, and bade him goodnight, before going to bed. I woke in the early hours of the morning and went downstairs. He was sleeping, propped up against the wall, a glass of wine beside him, half drunk. I put it and the bottle on the kitchen surface and nudged him.
He woke, looking at me blearily. “What?” he was irritated that I had woken him.
“Go upstairs to bed,” I told him. “You can’t get a proper sleep like this.”
He stood, groaning and leaning against the wall, and made his way upstairs, his movements heavy and clumsy. I regarded the painting as the floorboards overhead creaked with his movements. “He loved you, very much,” I told her, before turning out the lights. He had to have loved her, very much, I thought, to paint her like that.
I wondered what had happened to them. Were his injuries received at the same time as she had died? Not the Arcanan war; there was no reason for her to be there. The rebel attacks on Vaelyn City, or an accident, I decided.
The lights were off in his room when I returned to mine.