“Doubt thou the stars are fire; / Doubt that the sun doth move; / Doubt truth to be a liar; / But never doubt I love.”
~ Hamlet, William Shakespeare
In comparison to Monacre, Crumly was its own little kingdom. As Roderigo led her along the busy streets, both hooded, Proxima took in the city.
“This place is amazing,” she murmured, wondering if Roderigo had heard her.
“Aye,” he nodded, “Reminds you of those old wartime movies, don’ it? Of the ports, and the big white sails o’ ships, and the people millin’ about everywhere,” he shook his head, laughing, making his way through the throng of people and a cart that was drawn by sturdy horses plodding lazily, “Those were good, decent movies. The fightin’ was decent. Nowadays… eh, too sloppy.”
Proxima followed in suit, apologizing when she shoved a man with a ridiculously tall hat too hard, and trotting to keep up, “I thought Cato was the only one that watched movies in 2D.”
Roderigo laughed, “’Xima, you don’ know the first of it. Who can put up with 3D romance and comedy with zero substance for so bloomin’ long? Besides those air-headed guys and air-headed bimbos, o’ course. Hah, dreamers with no dreams, they are. Hopeless. 2D ain’t all that bad. There story lines are good, and so’s the fightin’. Keeps your thoughts occupied well enough for a week or two. Who’d need anything else out of a movie?”
Proxima caught up with him, holding to his arm for a moment and catching her breath whilst he slowed and dragged her along. She noticed a heavy jiggling emerging from the purse he carried at his side. She prodded it, and he straightened abruptly.
“Don’t do that!” Roderigo snapped.
Proxima sniggered, “You’re as good as Medea,” she said with mock accusation.
“What? You’d rather earn it the honest way?”
“You say it like it was meant to be a bad thing.”
He considered this and then shrugged, “Done plenty of bad things in my time, good jus’ seems wrong.”
The sky was a bright blue this morning, the clouds shimmering somewhat under the stare of the sun, though summer was ending its strength had not waned. Proxima wiped her forehead with the back of her gloved hand. She was itching to take the half-gloves off, but they comforted her somewhat – since Cato loved half-gloves – so she voted against it. Gulls sailed through the open sky, screeching and diving in the far-off sea. Merchants lined the streets, selling and declaring their wares from behind their stalls. The pair of Half-Castes in their tatty garments were looked on distrustfully, though the closely-packed street didn’t allow room for much spacing, and the smell they’d brought with them from Monacre confirmed most people’s suspicions. They shuffled away as far as they could from the two. Roderigo didn’t try too hard to pinch pockets. Whereas in Monacre people would shut up and deal with their purse being pinched, in Crumly he’d be chased and lashed a good dozen times in public. That wouldn’t do at all – seeing as people here would know him.
Roderigo had stayed at Crumly some time after he’d left Octavius’s mansion. It was the last place he’d boarded at – having finer wines at a cheaper price and fresher courtesans – and he was sure some people would recognize him now. Proxima noticed that he readjusted his hood every so often, casting a darker shadow over his face. He was lucky, however, that he’d always used an alias during his stay in Methum previously: Arkantos. If anyone did recognize him, he could keep up the pretence of being someone else. He didn’t have a memorable face, so it wouldn’t be all that hard.
“Where are we heading?” asked Proxima, still clinging to his arm, exhausted.
“I’m looking for an inn I haven’t stayed at…” he paused.
Proxima stopped him and stared; “We’ve passed a few dozen!” she flailed.
“So…?” he smiled sheepishly.
“Really? ‘So’ is all you can say?”
“What else did you want me to say?”
He sighed, resigned, “Look, I’ve lived here before, kid. People know me, and I know people. And if you still gotta functionin’ brain in that head o’ yours, then you’d be wise not to stop me from lookin’. This is the best place you can be than in anywhere in Methum.”
“But we were meant to avoid trade capitals and seaports!”
“Yeah, says the blue guy sittin’ in another Empire, who ain’t done nothin’ o’ worth!” Roderigo grabbed Proxima by the arm, and dragged her across to an alleyway. He muttered on furiously, “What does ‘e know that I don’t? Didn’t I tell you I know this place? Didn’t I say I know Methum? Didn’t you say I was your Path?”
“But it doesn’t make sense!”
“And what has since we started this mission? Not a bloomin’ thing!”
“Don’t change the subject!” snapped Proxima.
“Yes, you are!” Proxima furrowed her brows, unable to understand what Roderigo was doing, “I know you. What are we doing here? Give me a straight answer.”
“Blimey, don’ you trust me?”
“What the hell?! Of course I do! You’ve dragged me across the Laebnisos and back! You took me to what could only be the most wretched district, and now we’re a pair of assassins floundering about in a rich, trade capital! How many times have you asked the same thing, hmm? How can I not trust you, Roderigo, with everything you’ve done and everything I’ve done? You haven’t ratted me out yet, when that’s what I’ve been expecting you to do for ages! Yet you still don’t give me straight answers. Don’t you trust me?”
Roderigo pushed her away and shook his clenched fists, “What kind of question is tha’? It barely classes as one, Vixen, and you know it! Why would I still be here if I didn’t trus’ you, eh? And why should I have to give you straigh’ answers if you trus’ me oh, so much? I ain’t your bloomin’ lackey! I ain’t your Cato, for you to be bossin’ an answer outta me! I don’ need to speak my mind to someone like you, jus’ ‘cause you say I ought to!”
Proxima turned away, “Then go away!”
Roderigo stiffened, “What?”
“Go! Leave! Go back to the Forest, or the Empire, or to Hell for all I care! I honestly came to think you had a heart for a moment! That you were an actual person besides some crude pessimist! I honestly thought you cared. But since you don’t think I deserve an explanation for, well, anything – then just go!”
“I can’ do that!” Roderigo snapped back, but softer in voice. He caught Proxima by the shoulders, “You know I can’. We’re a team.”
“Well, yes,” said Proxima, her voice full of spite, “that’s what we’re supposed to be,” she walked out of the alley without a backwards glance, heading in the direction of the few dozen inns they’d passed by only minutes ago…
* * * * *
After she’d stomped off, Proxima had only just realized that she’d left most of the money with Roderigo when she stepped into the farthest inn from the alleyway of their argument. She sighed – not having enough to finance a one-night stay at the place – and walked out again, people raising a brow and glancing at her curiously. One of the more curious of these stopped her and asked, “Have you no money to stay?”
She stared at him, befuddled, and then shook her head cautiously.
“I can help you,” he had said, reaching out and stroking her cowled neck, “For a price.”
Proxima had kicked him in the groin and walked away without considering the scene she’d created.
She found an alleyway – a different alleyway – and sheltered under the IVC.
It’s not ideal, Proxima thought, But it’ll do. I’ll manage the night.
The night was bitter and cold as she looked through her pack. She’d bought a cheap black hooded cloak earlier that day.
She had few ideas on how to kill a religious leader. Somehow that didn’t sound quite right. How many religious leaders, after all, had been assassinated? Killed, martyred was another thing, but assassinated? The only name that came to mind was Martin Luther King Jr. – though, would he class as a religious leader? He was a preacher, yes, but he was more of a political leader, really. Not like a priest or patriarch or imam or pundit.
It had to be done, so it had to be done.
She’d brought a few daggers with her, but left behind her sword and her bow in the Forest. She couldn’t picture having it out physically with the high-priestess or finding a vantage point to shoot arrows at her. Use of daggers seemed plausible, but still quite outlandish. Proxima would be in a crowded Vatican-like structure – how exactly would she kill her given Target?
But there were some benefits to going to Octavius’s orgy. Specifically in the dressing-up that she’d detested so much.
The cover-up she’d used to whiten her face was poisonous.
If she could administer the poison to the High-Priestess’s drink or food somehow… Perhaps – just maybe – she could get away with the murder.
Keeping on the positive side of things, the make-up was available everywhere in Crumly and, being a seaport and all; it was at a bargain price.
But, no matter how good one’s fortunes are at any given moment, the negative side always revisits.
Is this why Roderigo had risked a journey here? So they could get poison-based make-up? What was the point of going through Monacre? And why was he so hell-bent on keeping his thoughts to himself? Why wouldn’t he explain anything? Ever?
Proxima growled frustrated air as these thoughts rummaged through her brain no matter how hard she tried to push them away.
Why should I even care? she thought angrily.
But she couldn’t turn away from the fact that there was a purpose to Roderigo bringing her into a pure danger-zone.
Was he trying to get her caught? And prove his loyalty to the Methists? It didn’t sound right, but it was the only conclusion she could draw. Nothing made sense.
There were no stars tonight and the thick ominous clouds covered the velvety black sky, hiding the soothing light of the moon. It looked like rain was forthcoming, and didn’t help when the IVC began to overheat. Proxima supposed it was a dark enough alley, so she removed the IVC and stuffed it in her pack. She couldn’t fell sleep coming on, so she lay back and checked her inventory again:
Black cloak, white lead, diamond-bladed daggers, bottle of water, IVC, pack of cigarettes…
Proxima’s ears pricked up. She didn’t dare lift her head.
Someone else was here.
She continued browsing through her pack absentmindedly, but kept an open ear for anymore movement, her brow congealing with sweat.
Continuing to act casually, Proxima caught a dagger by its sheath and clicked the blade out by the hilt gently. The diamond glinted regardless of the dark. She listened again, hearing heavy breathing.
The visitor only narrowly missed the dagger as it whistled passed his face. He looked up, seeing Proxima raise a second dagger.
“Stop!” he said, holding his hands up, “Cut, Vixen, it’s only me!”
Proxima lowered the dagger, sighing in relief as she recognized Roderigo’s voice but immediately remembering her previous fury. She turned away wordlessly.
“Vixen…” said Roderigo with uncertainty, wondering if she’d meant to throw daggers at him, “Look, erm, I, er…”
“I told you to go,” she replied simply.
“I’m sorry, a’right? I’ll explain… some things. I can’ leave you now, I have to send you off tomorrow with the other Surrenders…” he paused, “Or is it today? It’s well past midnight.”
“What are we doing in Crumly?”
“Jus’ biding our time, Vixen, honest.”
“We were meant to avoid it.”
“But that’s what the Methists would expect. They expect us to stay clear of seaports.”
“It’s not safe.”
“That’s why we went to Monacre firs’. The smell from there don’ come off easy.”
“But why here?”
Roderigo sighed and slumped down behind Proxima holding her shoulder, “A’right, I’ll come out with it,” he said, exasperated, “You’ve seen enough o’ Methum to pass judgment, what d’you make of it thus far?”
Proxima turned a little, “My God,” she mumbled, “My God.”
“You want me to stay here!”
“Well, why not?” Roderigo retorted, “Why not, indeed! The people are good, the food’s decent, and you love this place and you know it! Every time you come back to tha’ blasted Forest, your broken – and no’ jus’ ‘cause you killed someone, but because you know you’ve betrayed good people! People who treated you decent and well! The villagers of Maraed; the inn-keepers and hostel-landlords and servants; and least of all Octavius!” Roderigo fumed, “Even the people in Monacre were more decent than those bloody dogs in the Empire! They’ve used you, Proxima. They’ve made you into things you’ve never wanted to be and your precious Cato’s never wanted you to be!” his tone softened, “And it’s messin’ with your head, kid. You’re going blind mad. And you ain’t know nothing of what that madness can make you see, make you feel, make you do. Was I so bloody wrong to think you deserved better?”
Proxima regarded Roderigo, her back still to him, taking in his worn features: seeing softness in his rough look. He gazed at her with equal pity; her skin papery and dry, her face lined with premature lines of age, her eyeballs sinking into their sockets, and her eyes… her eyes removed of their former spark: of intelligence, of humor and amusement, of life.
“Was I wrong, Vixen?” he repeated.
She averted her gaze, “I promised, Roderigo.”
“Your promise ain’t one Cato would want you to keep.”
“But it’s one I want to keep,” she said, though her voice shook with the effort. She wiped her eyes, though the tears hadn’t emerged yet. They were stinging from fatigue and possibly dryness.
She could hear the steady beat of a drum and light footsteps treading together. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but she knew. The Surrenders were emerging. She turned finally, and rose stiffly – peering out of the alleyway and seeing the gathering downhill. The Surrenders walked in a crowd, hooded, making their way up and trotting in unison, the fraying hems of their dark cloaks sweeping ground. One was holding a standard, bearing a plain black flag.
As they approached the alley, Proxima dug her own cloak out of her pack and donned it, slinging the bag over one shoulder. Roderigo placed the hood on her head, “You’re sure?” he said, a little mournful.
Proxima nodded, “I’m sure.”
He regarded the crowd that had formed, “Then be careful,” he said.