“In union there is strength.”
It was Proxima’s turn to be lectured. She was sitting cross-legged, her fingers stuffed in her ears, in the middle of her living room, surrounded by Claudia, Viola, Federico, and Medea. Roderigo watched, leaning against the doorframe. They weren’t happy. Proxima had hoped that the Emperor would keep quiet about the deal they’d made. Too bad he piped up about it on the LCD-screen TVs mounted on almost every corner of the Decagon.
“How could you do such a thing?”
“What would Cato say?”
“What? You think you’re better than the rest of us?”
“Hell, Proxima, have you gone mad?”
And on and on and on.
Proxima didn’t reply. She just sat there with her mouth clamped and her eyes shut. They’d shut up eventually, she just needed to give them some time… though she couldn’t figure what they were all so worked-up about. Proxima had practically taken the noose off the other Half-Caste’s necks. She would go into Methum alone, destroy it, come back: piece of cake! No one would have to do anything else, and no one would have to complicate her situation either.
So, what the hell was the big deal? she thought miserably.
“Right, shut up the lot of you!” yelled Roderigo, all of a sudden, “You sound like a bunch of strangled parrots! How in hell do you expect the girl to give you a decent answer if you ain’t letting her explain?”
Viola rounded on him, “What is there to explain, Mayson?” she squawked, “Do you really think she’s doing Cato a favor by offering to get herself killed in Methum? What if he wakes up in the middle of it all? Hmm? He’ll give us all hell!”
“Actually, I do think she’s doing Cato a favor. She’s buying him time. Besides,” he glanced in Proxima’s direction, “Cato got himself in this mess for the same reason. And you, Viola, shouldn’t be a selfish git! Of course Cato will give us hell, but is that really the most important thing on your mind right now? The girl’s gone to a lot of trouble to take Federico and Medea and myself out of this! Shouldn’t you be even remotely grateful for that?”
“Why?” boomed Federico, “What makes her so special, eh? That she dumps the lot of us?”
“Lamarke, for Beelzebub’s sake, listen to yourself!” Roderigo’s arms were flapping around so fast, an onlooker would have thought he was trying to fly, “She. Saved. You.”
“And suppose I didn’t want no saving?”
“Proxima shouldn’t have done it,” Medea put in, “Not without asking us first.”
“Oh, screw the lot of you!” snapped Roderigo, “You have no bloody idea what it’s like out in Methum, and you’re all moaning about getting there. Well let me tell you something, you ruddy pack of maggots! Proxima tried to save you from a whole lot of hell, and since you don’t want to be saved, then get on going to Methum where they’ll hang you by your dry fannies until you rot! That includes you, Federico.”
Everyone [except Proxima, who still wasn’t listening] stared at Roderigo in murderous silence. He didn’t care. They didn’t understand anything. Fingers still stuffed in her ears, Proxima looked around and – seeing that everyone had gone quiet – said, “Can I talk now?”
It came out louder than she expected.
“Talk?” said Claudia, “TALK? YOU REALLY THINK WE’RE DONE WITH YOU? WELL, LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING! YOU MIGHT BE CATO’S LITTLE ANGEL, BUT…”
Proxima sighed, and put her fingers back into her ears. She looked at Roderigo, but rejected the idea of signaling to him. He seemed upset.
It was an hour and a half later when everyone had finally given up. The insides of Proxima’s ears hurt madly, and they felt like they’d expanded. She ignored the pain, and said, “Right, everybody out of credit?”
They all bared their teeth.
“Wonderful,” she said, mimicking Sheldon’s voice, “It’s eleven-thirty, way past my bedtime. I’m heading to bed. I’ll see you all in the morning. Good-night.”
And she did just that.
* * * * *
The morning didn’t bring any more calm than the night before. The whole crew had decided to argue amongst themselves in Proxima’s living room until they all nodded off to sleep. Once they woke, they resumed where they’d left off. To avoid attracting attention, Proxima decided to have breakfast in her apartment rather than the cafeteria.
“Proxima, are you even listening!” yelled Viola in her ear.
“Hmm? Sure, sure,” said Proxima, wondering how long it would take to go completely deaf, “Do you want tea or coffee?”
Viola clenched her fists and thumped Proxima in the arm. She ignored it, and Viola kept going. Steadily, becoming angrier, Viola went for Proxima’s stomach, her face, her shoulders and other places. Proxima took it without as much as a yelp. The others looked at the sight in disbelief. Proxima had gone all blotchy by the end of it, but it didn’t seem to have fazed her.
“All done?’ she asked, “Right, what does everybody want?”
After a million different types of apologies and a constant string of assistance that Claudia and Viola offered [which Proxima refused], Proxima had made everyone scrambled eggs and coffee [tea for Viola and hot chocolate for Medea]. Proxima flopped onto the sofa and didn’t eat. Cato would never have let her hear the end of it if he found out she skipped breakfast, but she decided to pass just this once. Her body groaned with pain, the very hinges of her bones creaking like a rusty old fence. The last thing she needed was scrambled eggs and coffee. What she needed was some decent sleep, which everyone managed to keep her from all night with their constant yelling and foul curses – and it wasn’t just Roderigo who was spewing curse-words.
Everyone ate silently, giving nervous glances at Proxima’s bruised body. She didn’t moan or complain. They all felt bad. Even Roderigo, who tried to fight on her side and wasn’t used to feeling bad, felt awful. After Proxima saw that everyone had finished, she asked, “Anyone up for seconds?”
They all cried, “No!” in unison.
“Good,” she said, “I think I’ve had enough of a beating today.”
Viola looked at her feet. She found, surprisingly, everyone else was doing the same thing.
Proxima stretched, “Now that you’ve all finished, would you mind leaving my home so I can go and break something? Or do you want to see that too and not do anything about it? It’ll only be the stove or the radiator or maybe a wall. I don’t know, maybe I’ll just go and hang myself with one of Cato’s belts, I’m sure he has plenty. I guess it wouldn’t matter to you anyway. You’ve all been trying to kill me since I got back, and in my own home.”
She got up, walked over to the coat peg, and wore her favorite jacket. She opened the front door.
“We were just worried about you!” piped Medea from behind.
“Yeah,” said Proxima bitterly, “Sure.”
“But, honestly, Proxima,” called Claudia, “What do you think Cato would think of this? He wouldn’t like it.”
“He doesn’t have to,” replied Proxima, “He laid down his life for me, and I think he knows that I’d do the same for him. He doesn’t have to like it. It’s just something we do for each other – because we truly worry,” she paused and then, “Enough talk. Enough talk for a lifetime. I’m going out… to smoke. I don’t want to see any of you until I’m done,” she stepped out of the doorway, “And, get out of my house!”
* * * * *
Trouble seemed to follow Proxima everywhere.
Why can’t everybody just leave me alone? she thought, All they ever do is ask me to understand this and understand that. But they themselves never try to understand!
“But it’s dangerous in Methum!” Sempronius cried, “And what the hell happened to your face?”
Rich, coming from you, thought Proxima sourly.
“I fell,” she said, not caring how lame she sounded.
They were standing on a Decagon balcony. Proxima had a cigarette in her mouth and was leaning against the banister. Senator Sempronius had been lecturing her since he’d found her here [completely by accident]. But Proxima, whose ears were still hurting, just ignored him. He soon realized this.
“I’m sorry,” he sighed, “I know the last thing you need is lecturing. But you have to admit, Cato would be doing the same.”
Proxima nodded, blowing out smoke, “He would be, if he was alive.”
“Don’t say that, Proxima,” Sempronius put a hand on her shoulder, “He’s still alive.”
“Besides, I still think you’d have a better chance of destroying Methum if–”
Proxima looked at him, “Shut up.”
Just then the trapdoor slid open, and another person climbed onto the balcony.
“Ah, Cornelius,” said Sempronius.
“You called?” said the Legate. He looked from Sempronius to Proxima and understood, “I’ll talk to her.”
“Good, I was just about to tell–”
“Alone,” the Legate added.
Sempronius looked up at him, and then sighed, “Alright. Is there anything you want me to do?”
The Legate shrugged, and Sempronius disappeared through the trapdoor.
The Legate stood next to Proxima, also leaning against the banister. He was wearing a black polo-neck shirt and black trousers.
“You smoke?” asked Proxima, offering a cigarette to the Legate.
“I used to,” said the Legate, “but I gave up ever since my son was born.”
“Oh,” said Proxima, mildly surprised, “You have a son?”
The Legate chuckled, “Quite an achievement, eh? For an ugly mug like mine.”
Proxima’s mouth twitched at the comment, “What’s his name?”
“The Greek bringer of death?” Proxima stared at Legate Cornelius, “Why…?”
“Because Death is often misunderstood, Proxima. It’s something that must happen – inevitable. It should not be considered mean or unjust. It is merely a necessity.”
“Are you saying…? Are you saying that Cato should die?”
Legate Cornelius tilted his head thoughtfully, “Cato will die in his own time,” said the Legate simply, “Proxima… do you believe in an afterlife?”
“I’ve… I’ve never given it much thought.”
“And you’d never find out if Death didn’t kiss you.”
Proxima stayed silent. She wondered what Legate Cornelius was trying to say. Or if he was just chatting idly – because really that’s what she wanted. She supposed it was the latter.
“How is your son?” she asked.
“Good and well, for a legionary. Though, I think he takes more after his mother – very soft.”
“That’s a shame; he’d be a more handsome man if he took after his father.”
“He’d be a ruffian.”
Proxima ignored him, “How is his mother?”
Proxima’s eyes widened, “I’m sorry.”
“Just after he was born.”
Oh, thought Proxima, Now I get it: Thanatos, bringer of death. Thanatos caused his mother to die.
“It was a complicated birth,” explained Cornelius, “There was the option of saving either his mother or him. Both could not be saved. I chose to save my wife – even though she said no – but something happened. I can’t really explain what, I didn’t understand. So, instead, Thanatos was saved and his mother died. I don’t think she would regret it though… she always wanted a son. Even if she couldn’t watch him grow up, I think she’s still glad that he was saved rather than her. Besides,” Cornelius looked at Proxima, “Arab tradition relates that women who die in labor are martyrs.”
Proxima thought mutely on what the Legate had said. Now she could see his angle.
“Cato put down his life for you,” said Cornelius, “Don’t waste his effort.”
“I’m not,” said Proxima defensively, “I asked for his life in return for Methum.”
“But to tackle it alone is foolhardy, Proxima,” replied Cornelius, “Surely, Cato taught you that.”
Proxima closed her eyes, “Legate… Seven people are going to die by my hands. Seven people who will have families: mothers, fathers, children, dear friends. Seven lives in return for Cato’s,” she looked at the Legate mournfully, “I don’t want to be responsible for three others. What if the other Half-Castes die? If I die… it won’t be all that a big deal for me. Cato would be dead and so would I. But if they died…”
“But they are willing to die, Proxima. They may not have been in the beginning, but they are now. It is true that one person, one fanatic could be enough; but never undermine the strength of a team,” Cornelius touched her chin, “They are soldiers. Soldiers do what they do, when they have to do it. They know they could die. But their duty comes first.”
Proxima threw the butt of her cigarette away, “So… I should take them?”
“It’s up to you: If they can work as a team, then yes, you should take them. If they can’t… well, then you go on your own.”
Proxima nodded. She walked down to the trapdoor and slid it open. Just before she descended, the Legate said, “Proxima, good luck. I hope you all come back in one piece.”