Monday, May 8, 2017

Difficultatibus Affici

     Holding his suspenders in a light grip, Captain Decker stood on the stairwell outside the pilot house. From his vantage point, he could see down the river and up the embankment which led to the little shotgun cabin that was their port of call. Not that there was anything to see, dusk having faded to twilight. He stared up the shadowy embankment to the invisible treeline. Any time now, one of his crew would pop out, a lone torch. Who? he wondered. Doesn’t matter, he mused, soon as they’re onboard, we set sail. Waiting wasn’t the problem. Sailors know Waiting intimately. No. The riptide in his gut longed desperately to be rolling out into the Sovereign Sea where overgrown river banks would be distant memories. Storm coming, he shuddered. Taking the giant cigar out of his mouth, the captain stared at the embers a moment, and then tossed back his hand to knock the ash into the wind.

     “Here, milord,” the Merc said as he held open the door to the Templus Dining Hall.
     “Here?” Archel asked.
     “Yes, milord.”
     Shrugging, Archel walked inside and was hit with the succulent aromas coming from the buffet line. His stomach growled and he wondered, will there be food? A couple diners looked up, then bowed their heads. One of the waiters came running up. The Merc deftly intercepted, whispered something that made her backpedal, and then nod uncertainly. The color drained from her face, she abruptly spun around, her hair flying up as she ran off. Suddenly, Archel felt the Merc’s hand on his back as the man led him through the Dining Hall. They cleared the dining area, passed by the buffet tables, and entered the domain of the kitchen staff, whereupon the hustle and bustle clattered to a stop.
     The deafening silence brought Preston’s roar, “fuck you doing? Back to it, you shit-stains.”
     “Chef!” the nerve-wracked Sous Chef pointed at their royal visitor.
     “What? Ain’t you seen this boyo before? Last three years leave your mind? Who had to bring that Oathbreaker,” Preston sneered and spit, “breakfast every morning? He did. Who cooked it? You did. So don’t act like you don’t know each other. Mind your manners. Show your respect. And get the fuck back to work.” He bared his teeth in a forced grin, nodded his head, and said to himself, “must be a thing today.” Motioning for Archel and the Merc to follow, Preston headed for his office. “She’s in here.”
     “Who?” Archel asked.
     “The Messenger,” Preston responded. “Ain’t you…?”
     “Protocols. Didn’t you hear the alarms?” the Merc asked. “I must get Praeceptor Archeleus to the Bomb Shelter.”
     Before Preston could reply, Archel called out, “Cassie?” and pushed his way between the two men. He stopped at the edge of the couch and stood, mouth agape, staring at the two young women. Cassie’s every fiber was poised to strike, her expression blind rage, and yet, she lay propped up on the opposite arm of the couch with a book clutched to her chest. The cook had shrunk into the chair, plastering her body against it as if the physical contact might stop whatever punishment was surely coming. An instant later, Cassie flashed Archel a wild-eyed smile that forced him to step back into Preston. That was the first time that the boy king realized his half-sister had scary down pat and that while most people coped, she seethed. Better not piss her off, he grimaced.
     “My liege,” Cassie practically growled.
     “We’re going to a shelter,” Archel whispered, “wanna come?”
     “And, leave this luxury?”
     “Hey,” Preston warned.
     “Does the shelter have something for her to lay on?” Archel asked the Merc, who clinched his jaw twice, exhaled through his nose, and then shrugged.
     “The Bomb Shelter is well maintained,” Preston assured them.
     “See. So, do you wanna come?” Archel asked again.
     “Can,” Cassie leaned toward the still cowering cook, “Hey! What’s your name?”
     “Yes. Your name?”
     “Nina,” Cassie repeated before turning back to Archel, asking, “can Nina come too? She’s been helping me.”
     “Can they?” Archel hopefully asked his guard.
     As the poor Merc struggled with giving the king permission, Preston said, “of course. It’s better if you all go.” By this point in the evening, having Nina stay off the range and out of his way was a blessing. It took him three strides to cross to the back of his office and push on the false wall, which slid open, revealing a narrow passageway. He always had a difficult time navigating it; fortunately, he had a kitchen to run and novice cooks who could handle things like that for him. Eagerly motioning them into his little hidey-hole, Preston tapped his foot as he waited.
     “Wow,” Archel exclaimed. “I never knew this was here,” he giggled.
     “Few people do, my liege,” Preston replied.

     When the first torch popped out of the dark, Captain Decker’s anxiety eased. The walk from the trees to the barge would take a few minutes. He flicked the nub of his cigar into the river, smacked the rail twice with his balled up fists, and deeply inhaled the stench of decayed river plants. It’ll be good to smell the salt air again, he sighed.

     Midway through Mercury’s Marshes, Celatrix Verna and Bard Kent stood side-by-side, arm-in-arm, and silent as a cat stalking prey. Behind them lay the forest edge, the careful path they had tread, the eerie, orange-glowing boundary stones circling the marsh, and two confused bodyguards. Centered on a small hill ahead of them, and surrounded by wetland grasses and reeds, waited an elaborately carved, roofless building with two entrances; a set of marble stairs led up to the main entrance. Kent longed to ask the myriad questions that popped into his mind, only holding back by biting his tongue. The celatrix weaved as she glanced all around the marsh. After sighing, she motioned Kent forward with her free hand. The distressed young man looked at her with the concern he could not hide. The hair on his arms stood upright and the voice in his head warned him against getting any closer to the edifice. The duo slowly tread up the cobble path headed directly toward the stairs. As they approached subtle vibrations resonated deep in their bones. Kent faltered a step. The celatrix gave him a reassuring smile which helped push him forward. When they were at the foot of the stairs, the subtle vibrations changed into a deep buzzing that raised all the hair on his body and seemed to enter his brain through his missing eye’s socket. If she hadn’t had her arm interlocked with his, he very well might have run back through the reed grass, into the forest, and past the waiting bodyguards. That the buzzing seemed to go unnoticed by Celatrix Verna, did not go unnoticed by Kent, who could only liken the sound and feeling to the enormous beehive hidden in an abandoned shack on the outskirts of Sanctuary City. He’d stumbled upon the shack while on the run with a couple street kids. His dad—foster dad—had only been dead a few months then. They had hoped to turn the shack into a shelter, but the thrumming had been so overwhelming, and the vibrations so extraordinary, that the kids vacated the area and posted warning signs for others. His stomach flipped, sweat beaded his upper lip, and his good eye darted all over the blue marble friezes covering the walls.
     “Salve, Pace!” Celatrix Verna called out. She gave Kent’s forearm a little squeeze and nodded.
     “Salve, Pace!” Bard Kent repeated.

     “How is she?” Bonnie ‘Shadow Blade’ Taylor asked.
     “Finally asleep,” Siriah Darin replied. She sat down on the top stair of the rickety wooden porch, dropped her head into her hands, and held back her tears.
     The elderly mountain man sat down next to her, waiting for her to break the silence, waiting with her as she gathered herself. He held tightly to the crystal on the necklace that his son had given to him. Not a day went by where Bonnie didn’t wonder if he could have saved his murdered boy. The anger—the hatred—ate at him. Whenever he thought about the difference five minutes can make, he fought the urge to let loose a gutteral roar. He still couldn’t bring himself to look at the his son’s picture even though he’d carried it since the boy’s murder. The blood-debt remained. The promise of retribution and the vow of vengeance hung over his head like that famed sword of Damocles. A sour taste rose to the back of his throat. He vurped and swallowed back the bile. Soon my boy, he glanced at the traumatized woman next to him, soon. Without realizing it, he’d squeezed the crystal so tightly that his dry knuckles cracked and dripped blood onto the steps between his legs.
     Siriah lifted her head, stared out into the darkness, and sighed. So tired, she thought before her mouth involuntarily opened and her eyes slammed shut. The yawn took her by surprise and the pressure change in her ears made her stomach drop. Exhausted and famished, she contemplated food, ultimately deciding against tempting fate. She contemplated sleep, but couldn’t risk the night terrors which would put her back into the clutches of that sadistic fuck. His eyes. His glee. His hard on resting on her elbow as he sliced her chest with his favorite knife. Clinching her jaw, she stared beyond the darkness to the day when she’d exact revenge one excruciatingly slow cut at a time. Without turning to look at Bonnie, she asked, “do you think she’ll be okay?”
     “I don’t know,” Bonnie answered regretfully.
     “How do I tell her about...Daddy?” she nearly choked on the word.
     “I don’t know.”
     The Oathbreaker sat on the edge of a plastic covered mattress on the bottom bunk of a triple bunk bed. No decorations adorned the walls. The room was strictly for sleeping and as soon as the idiot prisoner, Gorrie, finished slathering aloe vera on his burnt ear, Adonis planned on using the bed for its intended purpose.
     For the 300th time, Gorrie said, “I know who you are.”
     “Who gives a damn?” Adonis growled.
     “You ought to,” Gorrie smiled. He’d seen his way through confrontations with bigger, scarier dudes than the former Chief Justice.
     “Why? Why should I?”
     “Because my cousin is one of yours,” Gorrie answered.
     For the first time, Adonis really looked at Gorrie. If there was any family resemblance between Gorrie and one of Adonis’ monks, he couldn’t tell. Prior to that moment, he’d never given a second thought to his monks’ family. The day the men dedicated their lives to him, they gave up family and friends for a higher purpose. But, if this man, this stupid little shit of a man, was kith and kin to one of his monks, then maybe, just maybe…
     “Do you want to die?” the Inquistor’s shout resonated in Adonis’ bones.

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