Every ending entails a beginning. Before, I used to think that some beginnings come without a conclusion. But between those two, an almost paradoxical cycle emerges, wherein nothing dies without life, and thusly no beginning comes without end. And so, with a keen eye upon these two forces, we find that the two are not only inseparable … they are precisely the same.
From our first breaths, each of us is given a gift, a reminder of that waltz of beginnings and ends, a contraption that perfectly captures mortality’s essence, simply by counting away the seconds.
“Something troubling your heart?” Sarkana asked as we sat cross-legged in front of the fire, a cigarette of nitskel tucked between my third and ring finger. Between the small space between us, Fahim’s letter lay on the floor, almost ominous in the flickering light.
Felix shook his head and sneezed after I exhaled a cloud of smoke, but Sarkana just inhaled the aroma deeply, not disapproving of the habit, but longing for it after having to break her own addiction years before.
Beyond the windows, the sanctuary had invited dusk into its imposing structures, where the architecture seemed to grow on an atmosphere of smoldering daylight. The jutting stonework and turrets developed shadows that began slipping off, one by one, to join the twilight. And I wondered, too, just when I might slip from the sanctuary and back into the world. Within the next morning, or by the week’s end?
“Yes. But nothing concerning the letter,” I admitted to her. “My mind wandered elsewhere.”
Perhaps it was the way her eyes met mine, or how warmly she spoke to me, or even how she seemed perfectly comfortable when silences grew between us, but I felt she desired more from our brief meeting than a temporary stay. I, too, would have been tempted to linger, were it not the for the nature of her studies, her secrecy, and the way that she watched how my eyes observed the details of her home. It was as if she expected more.
“Thinking of the King?” she offered.
“No, actually not.”
“What is it, then?”
“I was wondering, well, I was wondering why you haven’t spoken of my leaving your sanctuary. Why have you allowed me to linger without question?”
Having been bent close to me and the letter, she recoiled as if I had hurt her, her eyebrows strained closer together, and her lips formed a tight frown. I had the sense that my departure would remind her of a particular shadow of pain, one I might’ve temporarily banished by interrupting the stillness of her solitude. Scars of loneliness reopen at even the most innocent encounters, reminding the soul of what relief may come with company. After all, what more did she have to gain from hiding a wanted murderer?
Her eyes narrowed at the suspicion in my voice. “Truthfully, the thought had hardly crossed my mind, Casimir,” she replied, her voice now lowered to the pitch of a disappointed whisper. “I was convinced our similarities dissolved the constraints between strangers. I suppose I was foolish to assume as much. Foolish …” she murmured, shaking her head.
“You needn’t apologize. I should have known I am not half as charming as I thought,” she chuckled darkly to herself, but I could hear the sadness behind her surprise. “I didn’t raise the subject of your departure because I thought you … enjoyed it, here. That you felt safe, even.”
“You are under no illusion of that, Sarkana. I do,” I said, now uncertain of the truth. “I was only wondering.”
She paused. Her fingers curled around her wrist as she outlined some of the scars there. “I suppose I should tell you, so long as we are clearing the air.”
“Tell me what?”
“I haven’t been entirely transparent with you, Casimir.” I waited, nervousness curling in my stomach as ice encrusted her words after my suspicions had turned her affability to indifference. “I have had a large task asking for my attention for some time now, one that simply can’t be done alone. Given your skills, I thought you’d be of use to me. There would be no shortage of payment, either, if you so desired it.”
“But you … you saved my life!” I scoffed. “I would gladly help you with anything you desired, no payment necessary.” As much as I felt uncomfortable accepting the request of a necromancer, any other response seemed unthinkable.
“You will?” But she didn’t jump to her feet in thrilled surprise. The question uttered from her lips as if she was thinking aloud, considering whether I meant it or not. Her thumb moved back and forth over her lower lip while her eyes, once more, didn’t quite gaze into mine, but far past them. “But let’s not think on that now. We can speak of it at a later time. The letter is more important.” She cleared her throat. “How were you—”
Her hand was reaching towards Fahim’s correspondence, but I stopped it with my own. “Wait. Please don’t think ill of me. You understand, don’t you? Living alone for so long, would you say that you have any reason to trust anyone? Is that not one reason that drove you to immerse yourself in your work? The world is full of chaos and unpredictability, but the one thing you can always rely on is that it is cruel.”
The back of her hand lingered beneath my palm. For a moment, it began to turn as if she meant to wrap her fingers around mine. A gesture not of romance, but of an instinctual, perhaps innocent yearning. Instead, she shook her head and pulled away. “No, of course, of course. It is. You are right. I won’t hold your caution against you. It was a moment of weakness, that’s all,” she said, looking more ashamed than the admittance felt. “As I said when I met you, it has been a long while since I’ve spoken to someone else.”
“That’s all right. I’ll pretend it never happened, as long as you promise the same.”
“Of course,” she answered, the warmth somewhat revived in her voice. The rings beneath her eyes were richly colored, tinged by a distress that seemed to replace what should have been exhaustion. The longer she worked in her study, the more withdrawn her demeanor became, as if the fatigue of her body alarmed her.
After our conversation in the gardens, she had secluded herself in her underground study, kindly asking that I not disturb her unless she emerged. I had managed to keep my curiosity at bay, passing the day by washing myself, my garments, and practicing performance routines with Felix in the gardens.
“Now, what do you make of this?” she asked, nodding at the letter.
“It is written in his own handwriting, that much I can tell. To my eyes, there are no riddles, no games, nothing hidden beneath the words.”
“But that might as well be the riddle you are looking for,” Sarkana observed quickly. “There’s nothing amiss in a letter corresponding to a fugitive? Doesn’t that seem …”
“Amiss?” I laughed.
I tapped some ashes into the fireplace and inhaled another burning gust into my lungs. In spite of the obvious possibilities of setting my own trap by sending anything at all to Fahim, I had already decided how I would reply to his request. “It certainly does.”
“So don’t go, then,” Sarkana pushed. “Why risk dying for the sake of curiosity?”
“Dying for curiosity would still be better than most deaths. However,” I said, holding up a finger, “this isn’t about curiosity, and I have no plans of dying. Fahim’s handwriting is unmistakable, which means he is alive, or at least he was when he wrote this. The scratches of a raving bird,” I sighed. “It’s hardly legible.” I tossed the letter into the fire and rubbed my eyes. “It was my fault at all for sending something. I thought I was in danger. But now, I might’ve put him at risk.”
“Could, might’ve, perhaps … these are needless thoughts. It was not any fault of yours to feel endangered. But now there is little to do. Your friend knows you are alive and well, and you know he is at least one of those. Is that not enough?”
“To a cold heart, perhaps. All the same, Fahim might have written this with a blade pointed toward his throat. The poison was concocted using plants from his stores. If any of William’s family investigated the castle, it would not take long for them to assume something devious of the magister. If they’re using him to get to me, they may kill him if this letter doesn’t earn them an appearance.”
“He’s an alchemist,” Sarkana replied, “not some dull-witted apothecary. If there was a way of assuring his innocence, he would have found it by now. What could you possibly do to help him? Rest assured, your assassination of the King has earned you the burden of all his previous crimes. And with your bonafide title as a performer in Addoran, your name is large enough to carry those crimes quite far … even the skinning of his wife.”
The persistence behind her eyes gleamed grey in the firelight, and just like her hospitality, seemed unquestioning. I could not help but think her undying concern for my safety had less to do with me and more to do with the task she mentioned. All I had to do was look up above the fireplace, where that skeleton lay affixed to the ceiling, to remind myself just how little I knew about the person sitting in arm’s reach of me.
“I never quite thought of it that way,” I realized aloud. “I’ll never be able to travel without turning my head to watch behind me, will I?”
“Sellswords, bounty hunters, assassins. You earned yourself quite the audience, Casimir, the most avid kind, too. They’ll be pining for you, alive or dead.”
The nitskel smoldered cold between my fingers as my thoughts ran, ashes scattered across my legs, and the fire in the hearth crumbled. This was nothing short of what I prepared myself for, but after all the cards had laid themselves bare, reality felt more shocking than my worst expectations. “It’s quite flattering, really,” I joked.
“In the truest sense!” Sarkana continued. “It’s rare that somebody takes a liking to you whether your head is on or off.”
“True, true. Though I think most folks prefer me with mine removed.”
“I know I do.”
Sarkana laughed gleefully. “But humor won’t decide this, will it?” she asked with a sad smile.
“Decide it? I’ve already steeled myself to go! I thought we were just passing the time.”
Her calm expression shattered. “Then you’re determined to run to another meeting with death?! For a murderer, you seem utterly entranced by the idea of getting yourself killed.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
She sighed in exasperation, blowing away a few strands of white hair that had fallen in front of her face after she’d hung her head down in defeat. “The truth is that you have no idea what is waiting for you at those crossroads. If this is a ruse, they will not take this chance lightly. They’ll bring more men than you can count, more arrows than they need, more swords than is necessary. There will be blood, and in all likelihood, you will contribute the most of it.”
“But what would a proper crossroads be without a little uncertainty?” I returned, but the tight line of her lips spoke nothing of amusement. I could imagine Fahim sitting in his chamber, not guarded for his protection, but to keep him hostage. I could imagine him toiling over a potion he cared just enough for to distract his mind from the fact that he was luring his friend to his demise, how he was torn between wishing for my safety or his own to be ensured. “It’s settled then. Tomorrow, a date with death at dusk, and not a minute late.”
“You shouldn’t do this. You don’t have to!”
“No. Nobody has to do anything, but that is what is so infuriating. Our inactions define us as much as our decisions. Who would I be to let Fahim die on my behalf? Without him, I might’ve never brought myself to do what should have been done much sooner. I’d go, whether there is danger or not. I owe him that much at least.”
“You’ll die for your gratitude, then? Your compassion?”
“Not if you help me.”
“And why might I do that? My undying love for you?”
“Certainly, but more importantly, the task that you need my assistance for. I just happened to be the only person you let into your life, around the precise time you needed someone other than yourself? Just how blind do you think I am?”
Sarkana snickered. “Not half as much as I thought a few moments ago.”
“There you have it, then.”
She heaved a defeated sigh. “You know, you look less conniving than you are. Did that help you when you were younger?”
“Immensely. Apparently, it still hasn’t lost its touch.”
“Apparently,” she echoed back. “Apparently.”
That night, Sarkana broke her rhythm of sleeplessness, insisting that she needed to be as rested as possible if she were to cast spells in a pinch. Instead I found myself restless, turning over the evening’s conversation, the tiptoeing she did around her intentions, and yet, her insistence to protect me.
That nightmare visited me again, the masks that swirled around my head until I suffocated. When I awoke, I wandered the darkened halls of Sarkana’s home until I found Zuma chewing on one of the hide rugs. Caught in the act, she scampered away. With little else to do, I followed. The imp pushed open a door in the hallway across from my own chamber.
Inside the bedroom, Sarkana’s silhouette was silver from her almost translucent nightgown, illuminated by the moonlight that flooded through the windows into the much larger room. She had fallen asleep sitting upright against the headboard, one of her hands still resting upon the seer’s eye beside her.
I began to pull the door shut behind me, before I heard her murmur. I froze, and listened while her dreams tumbled down darker tunnels, where those murmurs became whimpers, quick exhalations and quiet protests stifled by the paralysis of sleep.
Hesitation fled. I pushed the door back open and stepped inside as the twitching of her body in response to the nightmare became more violent. The bed covers twisted around her as she writhed. The blood imp made no movement to suggest that this was abnormal, in fact, she jumped onto the edge of the bed and curled into a ball to return to sleep. That was when pity compelled me.
I whispered Sarkana’s name as I knelt beside her. She curled up, and the whimpers turned to light sobs. Tears began to slip down her face as she shook back and forth. I whispered her name again with a hand on her shoulder.
The nightmare fluttered. Sarkana’s bolted up and stared in confusion at me through the blur of her tears that stuck her eyelashes together.
She murmured my name as a question, shocked to see me sitting beside her, the haze of the nightmare thick in her voice and squinting eyes.
“I heard you muttering in your sleep from the hallway. You were crying.”
“So I was,” she whispered as she wiped her face with her hand and watched as her glistening fingers caught the moonlight. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“No, I was sleepless.”
“Well, thank you.”
“Of course. I will … let you rest now. Hopefully it won’t return.”
Gently, she pulled me back by my hand. “Casimir?”
“What is it?”
“Do you have any stories like the one I told you?”
“The one with the rooks?” Hesitantly, I sat at the edge of the bed and wrapped my arms around myself. “I … believe I do, yes.” I looked around the room, observing what I assume was the majority of her skeletal collections as they were scattered about the walls. On either side of the doorframe, two fully-armored human skeletons were posed to be holding drawn swords parallel to their chest, their ancient battle regalia polished to a sheen. I turned my head back to her.
“Would it be asking too much?”
“For a nighttime story?” It was as heartwarming as it was humorous, to hear someone like her request such a thing.
“No, not at all.” I tookfistfuls of the blankets and pulled them over Sarkana’s chest, not surprised to find how comforted she seemed by this. She eased herself down while I set the seer’s eye beside the bed. “My hometown was named after the mountain it sat beneath, Storm Breaker. It was called Breaker’s Edge, a prosperous place that grew from the wealth of Westrun’s fur trade. My mother and father were both leatherworkers, but like you, I had grown up with companions. Or, in my case, just one. A — ah — a fox. Her name was Lisence, and from my earliest years of childhood, a friendship sparked and grew. We hardly left each other’s side.”
Sarkana’s eyes were closed as she listened. I waited for a question, a response, but she remained silent. I took a deep breath and looked out at the Ruined Sea, collecting those recollections once again. “But the gods have a way of tainting our earliest memories. Maybe it is the only way we could ever learn to survive in a world where corruption is one of the strongest hands of progress. But … I, well, my turn came, I suppose, to be introduced to misery. Some cliffside hyenas had been ravenous from the winter, and in the middle of the night, they wandered into Breaker’s Edge. It was a whole pack of them.”
“Weren’t there any guards to stop them?”
“A few, but they were tired, frozen from the night’s watch, and not nearly enough. The hyenas were cunning, they picked through the weakest, took what scraps they could, remaining as quiet as possible until it was inevitable that they were discovered. By the time they were, more guards from Westrun were sent for, but most of the damage had already been done.”
“What happened to Lisence?”
“They took her from me.”
The story was resurrected in the shadows on the wall, the moonbeams that split from between the clouds, playing tricks on my eyes of memories I could not forget, but would rather not remember. Through the thick silence, the rustling of a sea of forestry that sounded so similar to waves splitting against the ground, I heard Lisence scream for me.“Did they kill her, the way the wolf killed my rooks?”
“I always imagined that they did, but I was never certain. They dragged her away while she cried. I tried to stop them, I did. I ran as fast as I could, and I fought them as hard as I could, but I was young, weak, untrained … useless. You know how hyenas laugh, don’t you? You can imagine how they did as they took her away, while I begged them not to. Shortly after, the guards from Westrun came to assist us, but the pack had already fled. For weeks I waited, hoping for a sign that they had been hunted. Nothing came, though. After that night, I never saw Lisence.”
For awhile, I thought Sarkana had fallen asleep. Then, and just as I was about to stand from the bed, she said, “Tomorrow, Casimir.”
“What about it?”
“Tomorrow we will be the wolves. We will be the hyenas.”
My mouth hung open, but I found no way to reply, not fast enough at least. Her lips were parted as she breathed lowly with tranquility in her expression. I felt Sarkana’s exhaustion spread until my eyelids were heavy, and my body felt frozen there, staring out at the sparse clouds overhead the sanctuary. I tried to fathom the cascade of events that had brought me here. Here, sitting beside someone who spoke of similarities I could not see, not until now, as the epiphany dawned, alive in a still quiet that nightmares could not penetrate. What death could construct from bitter hands, a life fostered from vengeance, and the pursuits born from the hollows of its inadequate findings.
There lay Sarkana Bloodbane, a necromancer, a wielder of death and life, yet just as I tormented as I, just as driven as I, by the memories death gifted us in our innocence. Pulled along like puppets on strings, our actions driven by a yearning for resolution, wondering all the while why it could not be found in the place where it was first made, in those complex contraptions we call hearts.