“Pessimism ... is, in brief, playing the sure game ... It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed.”
~ Thomas Hardy
Proxima didn’t want to leave Medea behind in the forest. But it was agreed that she would need as much of Roderigo’s guidance as she could get on Target IV, since Methum had indeed grown fairly wary of her. Plus, there was still no news on Federico, and Roderigo was hesitant on sending Proxima as a Surrender when she knew virtually nothing about Methist culture.
He assumed she’d get caught, and for once in his short lifetime, Roderigo seemed genuinely worried about her.
Proxima could no longer be classed as “right in the head” – as Roderigo would put it. She had extreme mood swings and she couldn’t sleep properly. She kept joking about the wrong things [like how a fox’s intestines looked like a bicycle chain] and then cry about them after realizing what she’d said. She talked about Cato and her grandfather, Quintus, often – far too often for it to be good for her. And half the time, she wasn’t talking to anyone but herself. It was pretty clear there was something wrong in that. Roderigo decided that along with guiding her through Methum, she deserved some company.
Proxima is good at heart, and she’d regret killing anyone, and bless her for that, Roderigo often thought, but he’d never say it aloud. Ever.
Whatever you could say about him, Roderigo would never praise someone in front of them – not willfully anyway. Not even if they were his own children. He believed it was the biggest cause for arrogance, and there wasn’t anything he hated more than a narcissist. Particularly why he disliked Federico – for all his boastful nothingness – and didn’t mind his absence much. Perhaps he felt some pity on the wretch for getting caught, but his pity for the braggart didn’t go very far. It was like a twinge of remorse, a tinie-tiny sadness, but no more than that. Cruel as it may sound, it was the truth, which Roderigo did not hesitate to state aloud.
So Medea was left behind – reassuring Proxima that she could take care of herself a good umpteen times, and that a small person would have no trouble hiding if the Methists did [reluctantly] decide to search the forest – and Proxima and Roderigo were lodging at a hostel in a remote Methist town named Monacre.
The beds were scratchy, the walls were badly painted, the furniture was rickety, the floorboards were loose, and the people were of a more… rough manner. They weren’t completely feral, of course, but had an air of animalism about them. That is to say: the Escarrians would have rebuked the Monacrites for their behavior. Roderigo had encountered several men that looked at Proxima – cowled and all – with a lecherous eye and several more women who’d have sold themselves to him had he chose to buy and both genders lay in the gutters, drunk as lords, with the smell of cheap ale about them. Young children bumped into all, seemingly by accident, only to find they’d pinched pockets through all their mistakes.
Poverty was rife.
Roderigo grimaced at the state of the place – knowing its repute from before – but shrugged, There’s been worse, he kept reassuring himself.
There were benefits of living in an impoverished place, however. The first being: Almost everyone was guilty of a crime, children included, so everyone was at an agreement not to rat the others out. Secondly, many people didn’t look directly at you – for fear of being recognized for all the wrong reasons – so you had an equal protection of identity. Thirdly, nobody questioned the reasons why you wore a cowl over your head, since fashion wasn’t the most important thing. Poverty was uncomfortable, yes, but it was beneficial for a pair of assassins.
Roderigo and Proxima sat at a wobbly table, sipping a rancid substance that the innkeeper promised was safe to consume from wooden flagons. Wrinkling her nose for the very last time, Proxima set down hers and looked around at the shady, dishonest customers seated at the other tables. A man with a pasty white face, a little green in the sparse light, was staring at her.
“Who is that?” she whispered to Roderigo.
“Someone who reckons you’re for sale,” he replied, scowling at the man.
He looked away, his eyes downcast.
“Explain what we’re doing here again,” Proxima sighed, looking irritably at the man with the pasty face.
Roderigo put down his flagon; half empty, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He seemed undisturbed by the awful taste, “We’re lodging here for the night before we move on to Crumly.”
“Isn’t Crumly a seaport?”
“Aren’t we meant to steer clear of those?”
Proxima looked at him quizzically.
“Wha’?” he said.
“Are you trying to get us caught?”
“Does it look like I fancy getting lynched?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Roderigo snorted, “You jus’ love sayin’ that, don’ ya? Your question wasn’t meant for answerin’.”
Proxima growled in frustration, “I’m beginning to wonder why you’ve come with me.”
“You say tha’ as though you got nothin’ wrong with you,” Roderigo took another sip of his flagon.
Proxima looked down at her flagon and didn’t reply. The liquid in the cup was thick and black, there were bits floating around, flicking gracefully in the soupy water, making bile rise in Proxima’s throat. It hardly looked safe. The reek of the stuff made her eyes water. Or was it Roderigo’s comment?
“Aw, don’ look like tha’,” he said, softening his voice, “I’ve seen plenty worse than you. I think I migh’ ‘ave been plenty worse than you, but tha’ was ages ago.”
“Why is this happening to me?” she whispered, pushing the flagon away, “What did I do to deserve this?”
“Since when does anybody get what they deserve, eh, Vixen?” Roderigo replied, “And since when is anybody grateful if they got more than they deserved? It’s jus’ ‘ow things are.”
Roderigo leaned forward, “Did Cato deserve to go into coma for you? After everything ‘e did? Did you deserve to be born as wha’ you are? Or Medea? Or even Fed? Did me and Octavius deserve torture? Did ‘e deserve the death you gave ‘im? ‘Course not. But it’s no use grumblin’ or questionin’ it. What made you deservin’ of life, in the firs’ place anywho? Of every breath of air you get? Every morsel of food you get? Even this beratin’ stuff,” he held up the flagon, “You ever considered that this gunk is what some people drink all the time just to survive? We belong to God. He gave us everythin’ we have. Every drop of rain, every grain of dust, every tiny speck, every miniscule cell – functioning or no – and all o’ it belongs to Him. That gives Him every righ’ to do what He pleases with us. And He ain’t unfair. He’s been nice to us plenty, we jus’ never seem to no’ice it. So what gave us righ’ to complain when He puts a… an obstacle in our way? Give it some time, Vixen, be strong and you’ll be able to pass it by. He’ll always give you a way.”
“You believe in God?” said Proxima, cheered slightly.
Roderigo snorted, “Wouldn’t I be a fool no’ to?”
“Little bit judgmental, Roderigo.”
“No’ in the least bi’. I’m makin’ a self-judgment. I’d be a fool for no’ believing in God. As for others… well, they got their reasons for believin’ otherwise. Though, what they believed never made no sense to me. Everything coming from nothing? Really? Have they ever heard themselves say somethin’ like that?” Roderigo drained his flagon, and as a waiter passed by, he dropped it on his tray with a few coins, and pointed at Proxima’s flagon, “You gonna finish that?”
“You want this?”
“You’d rather ‘ave it go to waste?”
Proxima blinked, but passed the flagon to Roderigo wordlessly.
“In the end, Vixen, food is food. Eat it or pass it on. Don’ never throw it away – no matter ‘ow bad it tastes. There’re people out there who’d relish the taste o’ this. Anything’s better than nothin’,” Roderigo drank from the cup, waiting for reply.
“…You’ve been through a lot, Roderigo, haven’t you?” asked Proxima.
He shrugged, “Everybody has their own story to tell. Everybody has a tragedy in their life. I ain’t the worst off. I seen and spoke with blokes who’ve gone through worse. We all judge what’s bad by our circumstance. Even you, with all you’ve been through, this ain’t the worst that could happen to you.”
“Nah, but you know wha’ it is without my sayin’ so. And you gladly… well, that’s over-statin’ it. You’d be sa’isfied by doin’ this instead, for the sake of that worse thing no’ happenin’.”
“You’re… you mean…” Proxima mumbled.
Roderigo nodded, “You’re doing bad to avoid the worst happenin’ – even though you ain’t got no control over the worst. Nor does any other person in tha’ cursed place. He could die jus’ because it was ‘is time. We all got our time.”
“Everything would be wasted,” Proxima mumbled, entranced by Roderigo’s last remark.
“Say again? It wouldn’t be a waste. ‘Ave you been paying any attention to what you’ve done so far?”
“They aren’t things I’m proud of.”
“But what ‘ave you learned, eh? You’ve learned plenty. You know where your loyalties lie. You know who’s your enemy and who’s your friend. You know what you’ve done, the people you’ve killed, you know it was wrong. You know that the Empire’s wrong. That’ there’s an understatement. You can’t get wronger than the Empire. But most of all, you’ve found yourself. You know who you are. And tha’, for an eighteen-year-old, is quite an achievement. People who find themselves seldom do things for the wrong reasons. They’re people with purpose. They’re people who are successful. They’re people that don’ get fooled by what other people say.”
“What is success of Cato dies anyway?”
Roderigo flailed, “Blimey, does your whole life revolve around tha’ guy?” he said angrily.
“It… it did. It does.”
“Stop thinking like that. Cato won’t live forever. And your life, your existence, can’t depend on his. This is only the beginning, Vixen. This life you hate so much won’t end as soon as you step back into the Decagon after killin’ four more people,” Roderigo got up, “Your being ain’t an easy one. And it was never meant to be.”
Proxima stared at him fearfully, “You’re saying there’s going to be more?”
“I ain’t jus’ sayin’. I know there’s gonna be more. Your purpose was to get rid of the Dyonuxiots. You think it’s gonna be over after jus’ destroyin’ Methum?” he smirked, got up and trod up the creaking stairs to his allotted bedroom.
Proxima chased after him, “But I don’t what to –” she yelled.
“Wha’ gave you a choice?” he yelled back, angry.
The occupants of the inn looked at them in interest.
Proxima froze, wondering if Roderigo was keeping up pretence, and she shrunk away and didn’t say more.
Roderigo pointed up the stairs, “Get to bed!”
Proxima obeyed, walking passed him, ignoring the stares of the customers bore into her.
“Tha’ was close,” muttered Roderigo, after having a word with the innkeeper and entering the room he’d booked. He shut the door, finding Proxima sitting rigidly on the floor.
“You a’right?” he asked, but she appeared not to be listening.
He shook his head, thinking Poor beggar, and kicked off his boots and shrugged off his coat. He pulled out a tall bottle of brandy from his pack.
This caught Proxima’s attention, “Where did you get that?”
“Told you,” smiled Roderigo, “Staying in a poor place has its benefits. Monacre is just off the path to Crumly. It ain’t uncommon from traders to take that path, though disguised,” he laughed, “Idiots. Their disguises don’ hide nothin’. Pulled this off a cart on our way here.”
“I never expected a man of God to do that.”
“I ain’t no saint, tha’ much is clear, Vixen.”
“Don’ you reckon you ought to try?”
He laughed, “Why you talkin’ like me?”
She shrugged, “Just trying it out,” Proxima smiled at him.
“It’s the only way I can possibly get some sleep, knowing me.”
“You’re going to wake up with an epic headache.”
“I’m not going to drink all of it,” said Roderigo innocently, “Besides, how’d you know wha’ gives me a headache and wha’ don’t?”
Proxima shrugged again, “I’m just saying so, Roderigo.”
“Funny, I almost feel like you worry about me.”
“Suppose I do,” she said, “I’m not going to sleep at all this night.”
“Well, you haven’t slept well any nigh’ since the beginning of this trip.”
He paused, but then nodded.
He gestured to the bed, “Take it, if you want,” he said, “I’ll manage, sleepin’ on the floor.”
“Are you sure?”
“Better than sleepin’ in a gutter, and believe me, I know,” he laughed a little again, as Proxima tucked into bed – boots and coat and all – and tried to sleep.