“...This mountain’s of such sort / that climbing it is hardest at the start; / but as we rise, the slope grows less unkind. / Therefore, when this slope seems to you so gentle / that climbing farther up will be as restful / as traveling downstream by boat, you will / be where this pathway ends, and there you can / expect to put your weariness to rest.”
~ Pugatorio, Dante Alighieri
Proxima didn’t know what to think, as they lay there together.
Mose Ruict had led Proxima to a bedroom, neither of them speaking to each other or meeting the other’s gaze. What do you say, anyway, in a situation like this? What was there to say?
And what was this?
They were lying on a bed together.
But it was not a lover’s type of lying. Nor was it entirely platonic. Not lewd and not brotherly. Not anything of any sort that Proxima or Ruict could name.
Limbo. Purgatory. In between.
Proxima had her arms wrapped around the ambassador’s neck, her forehead touching his collarbone, and she didn’t have it in her to look directly at his face.
She felt comfort and discomfort at the same time. Confusion and understanding. At home, yet strange: As Hansel and Gretel in the Ginger-Bread House of the Witch.
A short, tasteful respite before a painful calamity.
She could feel Ruict’s chest rising and falling as he took calm, deep breaths, and water was dripping onto her face.
Shouldn’t he have killed me by now? she thought, Or sent me away to be punished by the law of this land?
Ruict sniffed, and stroked Proxima’s head momentarily, and then was silent and still again for a long while.
“So,” said Proxima, “this is awkward.”
“Yes,” said Ruict immediately.
Their voices rang around the room that had been silent for so long. This embrace was like a dream or a nightmare – everything was blurry, the voices echoed and all felt unreal.
There was fear and happiness in both parties.
“Are you not…?” Proxima found her voice a pitch too high as she spoke. She cleared her throat – thick with bile – and gulped, and tried once more, “Will you not do away with me?”
Ruict didn’t speak. He sniffed again, and more drops plipped onto Proxima’s face.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. Proxima noticed that his voice was firm, “I don’t know what to do.”
“Haven’t I made my intentions clear?”
“Of course, but I know.”
“It is not your hand that wishes to kill me. It is Iago’s. It is Sheldon’s. It might even be Cornelius’s. But not yours. You are of me and I, of you. And, had you the choice, you would not smite me.”
“How do you… How do you know that?”
“Must I reply to such a redundant query? Isn’t it clear?” he held her closer to him, “I never thought, in a million years, that I’d be so afraid and comforted by someone who was to kill me.”
“Why would I… How would…?”
Ruict sat up, and looked mournfully and pitifully at Proxima, who remained lying, but he smiled with contentment. At such close proximity, Proxima could make out the diagonal biopsy scar on Ruict’s forehead and faint lines under his eyes caused by loss of sleep. She could see scars where his chest and arms were bare.
Defects in perfection.
“Proxima,” he said, “You are from home, from the Empire. Though I’ve found safety and peace here, nothing can compare to home. My soul has always been shaken from the day I parted with the land in which I lived,” he paused and held out his hand. Proxima took it and sat up, finding gnarled skin where Ruict’s knuckles would have been, “I am as Adam chased out of Eden. Only, Adam was cast out for a mistake he, indeed, made. The King of my Eden tortured me and I fled from it. And there has never been a deed that I have greater regretted,” Proxima saw tears well up in his eyes once more, “From the day I crossed Laebnisos, I have longed to be home – knowing that I can never return. But you,” he gazed at Proxima, “You are a Token of Eden. A Forbidden Fruit that will, no doubt, lead me to my downfall: But a Temptation yet. I cannot do away with that. I refuse to do away with that.” He smiled at her again and kissed her lightly on her forehead.
The daggers in the garter of Proxima’s skirt grew in weight, and she cried – the tears leaving her eyes without stinging, and her palms brushing them away without feeling wet.
The terrible dream had become a beautiful nightmare.
How was she going to kill Mose Ruict? A man who spoke so well, and whose courtesy rose above all others’? And how would she get away with not killing him? How was she going to fulfill her vow to her guardian? How?
She repeated the words Ruict had said, “I don’t know what to do.”
“You know what you have to do,” he replied softly, “So, do it.”
Proxima looked confused, “You are one of my own. You are one of us. You are a Half-Caste. Transformed in agony –”
“To die in bliss.”
The words were cold as they parted with Ruict’s lips. They sent shivers down Proxima’s spine – jarring her bones, making her skin crawl and her lips tremble.
She shook her head – refusing to do so – becoming increasingly aware that she was not at liberty to refuse.
Of course not.
Ruict sighed, “Why do you think I do what I do, Proxima? Drinking, sleeping around, holding and going to parties? And, yet, doing my best to keep in shape? Why have the people afore our time done the same? Presley? Monroe? Houston? Jackson? All of whom died whilst leaving doubts in the minds of the people who loved them and the people who despised them. All of whom died miserable deaths. All of whom – died, in the end, indeed. Why?” Ruict spread his hands, “It is to find peace. It is to find happiness. But such a sweet thing can never be found when the guilt of so many things lingers over you like a thick cloud – even though you may not fully be to blame. Nor can it be found in things that are so full of evil – drugs, illicit behavior, and so forth. There is no enjoyment in these things that last for a substantial amount of time. Not in comparison to all the harm, and loneliness they bring,” Ruict shivered, and hugged his knees.
“Ah, loneliness,” he continued, “It seems so long ago, since I was called Octavius. My mother’s choice, that name. The name of the first Ancient Roman Emperor, before he changed it to Augustus. The son or nephew – heir, either way – of Julius Caesar. The Victor of Actium, the Bester of Marcus Antonius. Was I wrong to think so highly of the name my mother gave me? To think that, perhaps, I’d have bright future ahead of me?” Ruict bowed his head, “Brightness was never in my future. Whichever way I look at it. Not after I joined the Legion. Not after the Project had begun. I was just fifteen then… And in more than double that time, nothing has improved. Not really. The people who were sacrificed because I would not meet the Empire’s demands still haunt my dreams,” Ruict shook his head, “They even threatened to kill my dog,” he added bitterly.
“They killed everyone?” asked Proxima
Ruict nodded, “To make me agree to ‘volunteer’. They got my mother, my sister, and they were nearly through with my girlfriend. I later found out she died from the injuries. But they made me what they made me. And here I am – escaped from the Empire, doing my best to spit in their cruel faces. But it’s made me feel no better, no more comfortable and it has not brought the people I love back. How else am I to escape this, if not by dying?”
Ruict laid his head back, his hands crossed on his chest. He closed his eyes and smiled, “End my misery. Take my journal, so you may learn something. And heed this one warning: Never ever trust Iago.”
Then all fell silent.
Proxima gazed at Ruict, frowning. If hadn’t been only a few seconds, she would have thought Ruict asleep. She sighed, silently, and drew a diamond-bladed dagger from her garter. She kissed Ruict’s brow once and then swiftly cut his throat – leaving the cerebral cortex untouched. The blood burbled forth, quickly being soaked into the soft sheets. The tense muscles relaxed in the man’s face: his smile becoming more radiant, more whole, more satisfied.
Son. Brother. Boyfriend.
Soldier. Half-Caste. Traitor.
Ambassador. Target III.
At peace, at last.
Proxima got off the bed, stiffly, and covered Octavius with a duvet. The tears in her eyes caught and her world became blurry. She rubbed the water out of her eyes, and carefully looked through the different drawers in the bedroom. Octavius’s journal had to be in here, if he’d wanted her to have it. After searching through the drawers with no luck, Proxima peered into Octavius’s wardrobe, being careful to search the pockets of his many coats. Still nothing. Proxima sat on the edge of the bed for a moment and huffed. She was too tired, too sad and too disturbed to be bothered to search for the ambassador’s journal. She gazed at his portrait on the wall to her left. The artist did not justify him in that picture. His splendor. His grace. His beauty. Even in death, he had more of these than in the portrait.
It was tilted slightly.
Proxima strode up to the picture, initially to straighten it [as if that would be any help] but then had another thought. She took down the painting, and there – in a cavity in the wall which the painting hid – laid an old, worn book. It was small – something between A5 and A4 sized. The cover was leather-bound and tattered; as though it had seen many troubled days. There was no title on the cover, and the pages were yellowed with age. A bright red ribbon marked the page of Ruict’s last entry.
There was only one word on that page: Home.
Frowning, Proxima tucked the book into her skirt, replacing the portrait back onto the wall. It still did no justice to its dead owner. She walked out of the room and closed the door behind her carefully.
Turning, Proxima was shocked to find Legate Cornelius just outside, staring down at her with distaste.
She stiffened and then relaxed. This wasn’t Legate Cornelius. She smiled, relieved and less confused, as the double continued to frown at her.
“Can I help you?” she said sweetly. Her voice was still shaking.
“Have you been crying?” said the double.
Proxima raised her brows, “Does that concern you?”
He shrugged, “I suppose not. Is Mose in there?”
Proxima nodded, “He’s taking a nap.”
Forever, she added mentally.
“A nap? At this time of day?”
“That’s what he said he was going to do and is currently doing.”
“And where are you going?”
“My job’s done. I’ve taken my pay, and I’m going. I’ve no need for a feast.”
The double looked shocked, and then sudden realization dawned on him, “He was paying you?” the man smacked his forehead and laughed; “Now it makes sense!”
Proxima shrugged and left the double where he was. She walked as briskly as mannerisms allowed, down the stairs, out of the hall, out of the Palazzo. She hailed a cab, and set out for Runorks – hoping that the double didn’t find out his friend’s fate too quickly.