"Be good and you will be lonesome"
Though it was nearly midnight, Mathiu Silverberg was on yet another mission. Pausing on the bridge that connected the south tower to the main part of the castle he watched the moonglade trip over the ripples in the water. The air was cool, though not cold, and the smell of salt and sea were strong as the rote drew in for another blast. His reflection in the water was obscured by the night, transforming it into an uncanny shadow that bent and twisted against the current. Drawing a long breath, he stared down at it causing the bandages he wore around his torso to loosen and then grip him again as if they were strangling him. Just then, the wind called out to the sea, taking the tails of his worn red scarf into a dance around his neck. Another breath, another gust of wind, and the dressings released a bit, but it wasn't until he gave them a firm tug that they became bearable to wear.
Those damn bandages were not going to save him, and he knew it. However, they were buying him a little bit of time to finish the bloody war and put to rest some personal demons. Gathering his strength for his final destination of the evening, he meandered towards the main part of the castle.
A shuffling of feet and a pushing of cane filled his ears with a syncopated rhythm as the figure approached in the dark. Knowing who it was, he thought quickly about turning around and making a hasty retreat, but he decided instead to handle this opponent head on.
"Mathiu!" the elderly man called to him. "I told you to stay in bed. That girl of yours tells me you've defied my order and have been out all day."
Forcing a humble grin he replied, "Apple never was good at lying."
The kindly doctor shook his head, his long white beard drifting back and forth like a wandering spirit. "Try not to make light of your health. Those wounds are profound and they will not heal if you are out pushing yourself."
"I know," he replied as he closed his eyes in thought. "But Dr. Liukan, there will be plenty of time to rest when the war is won. I beg you to trust my judgment."
The doctor ambled around the tall, auburn-haired strategist. "Very well. Just please, take care of yourself."
Mathiu gave a slight nod and tucked his scarf back into its proper place under the lapel of his jacket. "I will."
Now free from the doctor's sight he slipped into the elevator and waited for it to rise to the top floor. He had never really trusted the thing enough to ride it, but now with exhaustion setting in he took advantage of it. The sensation of being lifted was jarring, but not nearly as much as the abrupt stop at the top floor. Glad to be free of the uncomfortable space he walked down the hall until he found the door for which he was looking.
With a tired cough that stretched his bandages to their limits, he raised his fist and knocked. A moment passed before a bedraggled figure opened it. Shirtless and in dire need of a bath, he leaned on the door frame with his left hand as he balanced a mug full of fortified spirits in his right. Sandy-blonde hair hung despondently in his face as he tried to study the strategist through dejected and unfocused eyes. Mathiu was taken aback by the man's appearance—he had always looked rough, but never so disheveled and certainly never so clearly distraught.
"What the hell do you want?" was the coarse greeting spoken in an even coarser dialect and doused with a healthy dose of alcohol.
"A moment of your time," Mathiu replied with a sigh, his dedication to this charrette not faltering despite the other's inebriation.
"Have you come to change your mind?" The man asked, his hand moving to smooth his unkempt hair that was usually kept in check by a now-absent headband.
"Change my mind about what?" Mathiu asked, though he already knew the answer to the younger man's question.
"Letting that son of a bitch live."
"No," Mathiu said. "I have not."
"Then go away," the blonde man snarled, nearly slamming the door in the strategist's face.
Mathiu reached an arm out and with all the strength he could muster pushed against the closing door. "Please, Flik. Listen to what I have to say. I wish I could return when you were in a better state of mind but time is short."
The warrior relented and yanked the door back open. "Fine."
Mathiu stepped into the small room and closed the door behind him. Like many other quarters in the castle it lacked personality and contained just the bare necessities. Barren granite walls, a bed, a small table and a chair were plunked down without much thought to their arrangement. The table held only the single bottle of whatever concoction Flik had been drinking.
Flik crossed his arms over his chest and raised a brow. "Want a drink?"
"Yes, thank you."
Retrieving a mug from the single shelf that hung on the wall, Flik asked, "Are you sure you should be out? That wound looked rather nasty."
"Ah…there are things to do. I'll be fine." Mathiu replied as he lowered himself onto the lone wooden chair. It was straight-backed and yet somehow comfortable.
Dusting off the mug with his hand, Flik muttered, "I doubt that."
Mathiu didn't respond as the drink was poured and the cup placed in his hand.
"So, what did you want to talk to me about?" Flik asked, throwing himself carelessly onto the bed, the mug in his hand nearly spilling its contents as he did so.
The single word seemed to slap the cheek of the younger man. "What about her?"
Mathiu sighed, still holding the foul-smelling drink but not daring to put it to his lips. "This war is almost over. It will be over tomorrow when we take the capital. This is what she wanted, correct?"
"The Emperor deposed?"
With another sip, Flik nodded, his thick, tousled hair bouncing to accentuate the simple motion.
"Then I suppose I have accomplished what she asked of me," Mathiu said as he stood up and set his untouched drink on the small table. "I have taken enough of your time. Good evening, Flik."
"Wait," the blonde swordsman said hastily. "Stay. Finish your drink."
Turning around he asked, "Why? There is no point talking to you while you're intoxicated."
"I'm not that drunk and I want to talk to you," Flik said before exhaling a long breath wrought with fervent sorrow. "I want to know about her. She never told me much about her life before the Liberation Army."
Mathiu considered the request for moment before turning and reclaiming his seat and beverage. "All right, then. What do you wish to know?"
"Anything…everything…hell, I don't care, just…" Flik said miserably, his words coming in a shaky tremor. "I miss her terribly and as angry as I am with you right now you're the only one who can tell me about her."
"I miss her, too," Mathiu responded, chasing the silence that followed with a long drink from his cup. It was whiskey, despite the ale mug in which it had been presented. It had a strong flavor but he thought there was a hint of castor sugar as he finished swallowing. "When we were children, we were very close. We had to be, especially after we went to live with Leon."
Flik stood up and poured himself another few swallows of the whiskey. "She never mentioned you. Never said she had a brother. The one time I went with her to visit you, she claimed you were just an old friend."
"I'm not surprised, but she told me of you."
"Oh? Do I want to know what she said?" he asked as he sank back into the straw filled mattress and took a long drink.
Mathiu glanced at the other man's weapon that hung forlornly in its sheath from the headboard. "Just that she was in love with a man from the Warrior's Village."
Flik gave a wan smile as he followed the strategist's gaze. "I named my blade for her."
"She told me. To follow the traditions of your village, as I understand it."
After a long swallow Flik shook his head sadly. "Yes…though now I can never return there."
"Why's that?" Mathiu asked, taking a quick sip of the whiskey. Despite its horrid smell, he was enjoying the taste more with each drink.
"Our traditions teach that a man must go on a journey to prove himself worthy of being a warrior. They call it 'The Trial of Manhood.' The idea is that you go out and find a woman to swear your life to. You name your sword for her, bring her to the village and live a happy life. It's sort of a marriage ritual, I suppose. Anyway, since the woman I swore my life to is dead, by all rights, I'm a failure. I would be run out as a coward who couldn't protect the one thing that was most precious to him." He stared down into his drink as he added: "But that's all right. I have no desire to return anyway."
The tactician's brow furrowed. "Forgive me, but that sounds like sour grapes."
"Maybe," Flik muttered between sips. "But I'd rather have the wine than the grapes anyway."
"So, what do you plan to do when the war is over then?"
"I don't know," Flik replied, staring so reverently at the blue-hilted blade that Mathiu wondered if the other man had seen an apparition of the woman whose name is carried. "I'm sure I'll find some trouble to get myself into. Odessa always said I was good at that."
The strategist smiled fondly as Flik absently touched the pommel of his weapon. "She said she met you in such a situation."
"Not one of my brighter moments, that's for sure." Flik said, abruptly pulling his hand away from his sword to scratch the back of his neck. "I had been trying to earn some money by gambling. I thought it would be easy. It wasn't, especially since my opponent cheated. The moment I realized that I was being had, I drew my blade and held it to his throat. Four men who must have been his accomplices sighted their weapons on me. That's when Odessa walked into the tavern. She talked them out of hurting me and offered to pay my debt."
"And you followed her cause to repay her kindness?" Mathiu asked, taking a tiny sip of his drink.
"At first, but then I began to believe in it. Out in the Warrior's Village, we don't get much news of the Emperor. But once I saw the atrocities she spoke of…I was all too willing to help the Liberation Army."
"She had that effect on people," the older man whispered as a reminiscent smile brushed across his lips.
"Yes, she certainly did," Flik replied before standing and splashing more whiskey into their cups. "Could you…tell me a story of her as a child? Please."
Mathiu gave a wry grin as he closed his eyes in thought, memories of happier times inundating him with a welcomed feeling of warmth. "All right…let me think…I remember when she was seven-and I was seventeen-we were living at Leon's estate. It was out in the country and behind his house there were some woods. Many times Odessa would sneak out into those woods to see if she could find a unicorn. It was very annoying having to look for her, especially since Leon's philosophy was that when she was tired, she'd come home."
"How thoughtful of him," Flik said with a smirk as he sat back down.
"Yes, he certainly wasn't known for his child-rearing skills. Anyway, one day she had disappeared on her 'quest' and as the sun began to set, I went to look for her. I tried most of the usual areas she frequented, but I could not seem to find her. I walked further still into the woods where there was a pond, and that's where I saw her.
"There were several small, furry animals indigenous to the area—some might call them monsters—beached along the shores of the pond. She was picking them up, one by one, and setting them back into the water. When she saw me, she said excitedly, 'Math! Math! Come quick! Come help me!'"
Flik raised an amused brow. "She called you 'Math?'"
"Yes, when she was a baby she could not pronounce my name," Mathiu said, a chuckle escaping from his normally dour lips. "Somehow, it stuck. Anyway…"
"Yes, please go on," the warrior said before taking another sip of his drink.
Mathiu continued the tale. "So I walked over and asked her what she was doing. She said, 'I'm sending them back! They'll die out of the water overnight.'
"I said, 'But Odessa, there are hundreds of them and they'll just wash up again during the next storm.'
"I'll never forget the look of ingenuous determination on her face when she said, 'But if I save just one, it'll be worth it!'"
"So what did you do?" Flik asked.
"I helped her throw those things back into the pond until the sun set and then walked her back to the house. And, for the next few days, that's what the two of us did–tossed those blasted monsters back into the pond."
Flik gave a wry grin. "And did they wash back up?"
"A week or so later during the next storm, yes they did. But after that, we made it a sort of game to return to the pond and try to save them."
"Somehow, that doesn't surprise me," the blonde man said with hearty laugh.
"No, innocent spirit was never something she ever lacked," Mathiu whispered tenderly before taking another swig of his drink.
Flik's brow crumpled as he appeared to struggle with his conscience before finding the confidence to ask a question that had vexed him. "Why won't you let me kill Sanchez? He's responsible for her death. He nearly killed you. Please, just…let me find revenge in her name. I'll do it tonight while everyone's asleep."
Mathiu looked at the younger man with kind eyes and years of wisdom that stretched beyond his age. "I understand your aggravation and now that you have someone to blame—as opposed to a faceless Imperial soldier—you feel like you must act, but ask yourself what Odessa would have really wanted."
"Justice," Flik spat. "She would have wanted justice."
"At the cost of discord in her army? I doubt it," Mathiu sighed. "Besides, it wasn't Sanchez's fault. If you must blame someone, blame me."
"What do you mean by that?" Flik asked with narrowed eyes. "I left her. I entrusted her to Viktor. And then Sanchez turned traitor on us all. This has nothing to do with you."
Mathiu took a lengthy sip of his drink before pulling on the constricting bandages under his shirt. "And two weeks before she died she came to see me for help and I sent her away."
"She'd asked you to join us before. I remember the letters, her travels and even the visit I made with her the fall before she died. What makes that last time any different?"
"I'd rather not say," the strategist said with a wince as he readjusted yet another bandage. They were cutting into him now as the dried blood on them unmercifully abraded his skin with every twitch.
"Tell me," Flik said darkly. "Tell me."
Running a lone finger around the rim of his cup, Mathiu began to relay a story that had caused him many sleepless nights. Despite the whiskey in front of him, his mouth was dry as he spoke in voice so distressed it nearly dropped an octave. "It started out just like any other time. She begged me to join her army and help overthrow the Emperor. I said no. She tried again. Insults were traded. Back and forth we went with rhetoric until she upped the stakes of the game."
"Upped the stakes?"
Mathiu pinched the bridge of his nose in anguish. "At first I thought she was kidding. At first I thought she was just trying another ploy to win me over, but I was wrong." He glanced the ceiling and shook his head. "God forgive me, I was wrong."
"What was it?" the blonde man asked, his impatience burning through his words.
"Flik," Mathiu said, tepidly meeting the other's gaze. "Odessa was pregnant."
The two men stared at each other in deferential silence as the weight of Mathiu's words dug into their skin. His fingers instinctively curled around his mug as he watched the other man flounder to find his voice and hold his composure. A glint of light on the hilt of Flik's sword distracted them both for a moment or two but eons seemed to pass as they held an impromptu vigil in the name of the woman they both loved.
Finally, the warrior stammered: "She…she was…?"
"She came to tell me," Mathiu said quietly as he reached a hand to Flik's shoulder. "She said she wasn't sure she could be both a leader and a woman."
"That's nonsense…she had been before!" Flik slammed his near-empty mug onto the table as he shrugged off the other's touch of comfort.
"I know, but this new development made her think of an uncertain future. When I realized she was telling me the truth, I told her I wouldn't help her with the war but I offered her what little money I had so that she could run from the army. I told her to get on a ship and sail to the southern islands. No one—not even Barbarossa—would find her there."
His hands trembling as he pushed a few stray locks of his auburn hair back, Mathiu continued the melancholy tale. "She refused to go. She said she wasn't leaving her cause or you. She said that she wasn't going to become what I had become—a recluse, too afraid to even stand up for what was right." The strategist paused, his eyes finding comfort in the worn grain of the rickety table. "I believe she just needed my help for a time. But I was too arrogant, too stuck in my self-imposed exile to even listen to her reasoning or pleading."
Flik was still shaking his head in disbelief, his eyes moist in the tears that he battled to keep in check. "Why didn't she tell me? Why…?"
"I know that she intended to. Perhaps she had not yet found an appropriate time or perhaps she was afraid that you would try and force her to abandon her cause as I did."
"That must be why she took to Tir so fast," Flik said, his voice distant and detached. "She was looking for a replacement for herself. She knew I was too immature and the others…they lacked her charisma."
The weary tactician rubbed his damp eyes. "I don't know about that but I do know that had I helped her rather than insulted her, she might still be alive."
"Insulted her? What did you do?"
Mathiu swore his words echoed against the slick stones of the tiny room as they rattled his conscience for the hundredth time that evening. "I called her a whore in not so many words. She slapped me for it. I deserved it."
A dismal stillness slipped through room as both men fought against their emotions. Mathiu bit his lower lip while the sounds of bats in the rafters above called to whatever sinister demons they were hunting. Their howls were eerie and yet soothing, familiar somehow. A few moments later they were drowned out by the voice of a man—Mathiu guessed it to be Viktor—slurring a ribald ballad as he fumbled with the lock of the next door down.
As the song thankfully ended and the singer now mercifully muted behind a thick wall of granite, Mathiu gingerly reached out his arm with a grimace of pain to place his palm firmly on the shoulder of his late sister's lover, his soul finding the resolve to beg for forgiveness. "I'm sorry, Flik. I'm sorry for being such a bastard to the woman you loved—to my own sister. I'm sorry I couldn't open my eyes wide enough to look past my own rhetoric in time to perhaps save her life. I'm sorry that I ruined whatever chances of happiness you and she would have had in the future. I'm sorry I won't let you avenge her death as your traditions call on you to do. But now, I want to give you something. I don't expect it to mend anything but it is something I want you to have."
"Give me what?" Flik asked, his voice still holding the shock he felt by the sudden rush of unnecessary apologies.
Fishing around his neck for a slim chain of silver, Mathiu quickly unclasped it and pulled it off. A solitary gold earring hung at the bottom of the necklace shining with such brilliance in the soft lamplight that it seemed to glimmer. Carved into one side of the thick piece of metal was a stylized "S" with twin rubies set inside the twists of the serpentine. Placing it reverently on the table, the strategist spoke: "This. I'm sure you've seen it before as it belonged to Odessa. When she died, she gave it to Master Tir, and he tried to give it to me as her last request. Initially I refused it, but after our first victory I decided to accept it. And now, I think you should have it."
Flik stared at the exquisite piece of jewelry but shook his head. "I can't take that from you, Mathiu. It belongs to your family."
"I probably will not survive the next few days, Flik. I know this. I've been in many battles and I've seen stronger men die from less serious wounds. Please, take it."
"There's got to be something that can be done," the warrior said, finding a peculiar sort of comfort in his own denial.
"No there is not and I accept this. Death is inevitable and it is a gruesome fact of war that people will die. It is just my turn to fall victim to the horrors of this insane game."
"You shouldn't talk like that. Surely Dr. Liukan can-"
"There is nothing he can do," Mathiu said, an edge of urgency on his words. "Please. I know you loved my sister and as such I believe that you are the proper person to bequeath this to."
With a visibly shaking hand, Flik took the precious gift and examined it, turning it tenderly between his fingers and morosely admiring it. "Yes…I loved her. I would have died for her."
"Don't," Mathiu said as he rose to his feet, his face contorting as the pain in his chest caused the simple movement to nearly double him over. "Don't do that. Don't die for anyone. If you want to honor them, live for them."
"I will," the younger man said as he put the necklace on. "Thank you, Mathiu."
Before he opened the door the strategist turned around, the dim light of the room accentuating his sad features as he said quietly, "Flik, you're a good man and I regret that I did not get to know you better."
The blonde man rose, offered his hand and quickly pulled the other into an embrace. "Be well, my friend. And when you see Odessa again, tell her I still love her and that I always will."
"I will," Mathiu said, releasing the swordsman and turning to leave. "And Flik, had things turned out differently…I would have been honored to call you brother."
And then, without waiting for a response nor looking for a reaction, Mathiu disappeared out the door and into the castle, the darkness folding itself around him as he shuffled down the hallway towards his quarters for the last time.