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Noctis Equi (Horses of the Night)

Chapter Text

O lente, lente currite, noctis equi.

 

 

Kaizuka Inaho believes he possesses a strictly logical approach to life.

There are multiple reasons that led him to the decision of illegally freeing Slaine Troyard from prison. First, Slaine Troyard was falsely charged of one major crime: starting the Second Interplanetary War. Inaho spent the first two years after the war researching into Troyard’s past, and he concluded that Slaine Troyard was merely a helpless servant during the outbreak of the War.

Secondly, Slaine Troyard’s incarceration is inhumane. Three years ago, Emperor Klancain officially gave permission to Troyard’s guards to use force “only when the prisoner refuses to eat”. There are always legal loopholes, however, even with an Emperor’s order. Furthermore, bored and war-corrupted humans tend to show sadistic tendencies towards people they consider inferior, Inaho has noticed, and that is exactly what happened in Troyard’s case. It’s been five years since the end of the war, and any attempt Inaho made during the last two years to improve Slaine Troyard’s situation has failed spectacularly.  

(Inaho clearly remembers one incident he randomly witnessed during one of his unannounced visits; in the common bathrooms, Slaine’s head forced in an unnatural angle, the guard’s hand yanking at blond hair, only for Slaine’s face to be submerged under the fluids again. The way Slaine’s green eyes blazed with a scorching defiance the second before the toilet water and feces covered his face again.)

Of course, Inaho immediately stopped the incident and prosecuted the responsible guard, only for ten more to appear later and take the man’s place.

Inaho is a rational person. He has observed and evaluated the angry scars splitting Troyard’s skin, he has researched into the number of people Troyard has personally ordered to be harmed during the war; he has discovered orders that spared citizens and unarmed soldiers from harm. He has spoken to once lower servants during Troyard’s reign, and has concluded that Slaine Troyard once expressed his desire to destroy Earth, though never acted on it. There is one word that many former lower-class Vers servants used to describe Troyard, and to Inaho’s slight bewilderment, the word was kind.

Troyard is so thin, his cheekbones are threatening to split his skin apart; his breaths are fast and short, and he always dozes off during their non-existent chess matches.

Still, Slaine Troyard is a convicted criminal. And for the first time in his life, Inaho stands in front of a dilemma that threatens to tear his own logic apart.

Still, Kaizuka Inaho is also secretly pleased with his ability to calculate and judge dangerous situations. In order to escape that mental dilemma, he spends weeks studying law books, ignoring Yuki’s obvious confusion.

Inaho is certain of one fact; he has understood the pain and torture Troyard went through during his imprisonment, and he also knows Troyard must have endured other forms of torture on Vers, judging from his scars. Consulting the law books, Inaho calculates how many years Troyard must spend in prison for his crimes, and subtracts the torture Troyard experienced in prison from those years.

Inaho judges that five years of incarceration are enough.

He then finds a way to anonymously purchase a wide piece of fertile land in another continent, amid forgotten mountains and endless green plains. Wild animals like bears and elks roam through those lands, and after the war, wild horses have also been spotted by the few locals. In the middle of his newly purchased piece of land stands an old wooden ranch house. The nearest town is on the other side of the mountain, so Slaine Troyard will almost certainly not be recognized.

#

His plan is so simple, it’s almost ridiculous. After he ensures he has a good alibi for the next two days, he sprays sleeping gas into the prison ventilating systems at night, deactivates all cameras, unlocks Troyard’s cell, drags his sleeping (and dangerously weightless) body over his shoulder and then steps across the corridor, away from the cell they once tried to play their chess matches, and outside into the clear, warm summer night.

#

Since he knows how to pilot a small plane from his kat training, Inaho places a drugged Slaine Troyard into the said plane he has previously purchased. It takes him fourteen hours to reach their destination, and when they arrive, Inaho remembers he has also purchased an old car, a half-dead cow and the few chickens belonging to the house—he almost lands on them with his plane, the chickens scattering away, producing loud noises.

Dusk is slowly approaching, so he cannot see very well, especially with his tired eye. Troyard is half-asleep now, the effects of the drugs are slowly wearing away. He calls Inaho’s name, once. Inaho hastily stumbles through the house, finds a room that appears to be a bedroom, drops Troyard’s body on the mattress. For a single second, he notices how Troyard’s pale eyelashes quiver as if in pain, how Troyard’s fingers, long and elegant, wrap protectively around his pendant.

Inaho steps out of the room without even glancing back.

#

After he unloads enough food to last Troyard for a few months and enough money to last him for a year, night has fallen. Inaho ensures that the security cameras and the tracking device are in working order, and then steps outside, throwing a last glance at the wooden veranda.

A piercing sound reverberates through the frosty air. Inaho feels the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He slides his gaze upwards—

The valley around him is swallowed by darkness. The clouds are obscuring the brightening gray moonlight, but it is enough for his vision to distinguish ten shadows materializing through the dark trees, in the distance. They are big; stone-still.

Horses.

They are standing at the edge of the black woods, breathing. Inaho has the illogical thought that they are silently judging him. For abandoning Slaine Troyard. For failing to understand and stop his abuse in the past. For witnessing the feces dripping down Slaine face, yet never asking him about the abuse again.

His heart is pounding.

A horse snorts and jerks its head, and the sound of hooves hitting against stones announces their leaving.

Inaho closes his eye, needs a second to breathe calmly again. He boards his plane and wonders how Yuki will react when he gets home and announces to her that his operation—his alibi—has been successful.

After all, his eye has started bothering him regularly during the last few months.

#

The UFE reacts strongly to Troyard’s escape, though no one suspects Inaho, and since only about fifty people on Vers and Earth are still aware that Slaine Troyard is alive, the search for Troyard is extremely slow and produces no results.

During the next months, Inaho regularly checks the cameras to see if Slaine Troyard is still alive, and a small part of him is pleased to see that Troyard has managed to fatten the malnourished cow and himself, too, to an acceptable weight. 

Slaine Troyard leaves the premises of his house only once and returns a few hours later, with agricultural tools and seeds which soon produce cabbages and tomatoes. The day the first blade of grass raises itself above the soil, a vibrant green similar to the green of Slaine’s irises, Slaine slowly digs his fingers into the dirt, kneeling on the ground.

The cameras have no sound. However, as Slaine throws his head back and opens his mouth, laughing as the sun pours bright light onto his smiling face, Inaho finds himself madly longing to hear that sound.

#

After Slaine’s ‘escape’, Inaho and his sister move to the UFE capital, and Inaho manages to get a promotion and an office job, which still keeps him pleasantly occupied, while he tries to write his own formulae about Aldnoah’s behavior, Aldnoah’s potential physical laws.

He has stopped his once regular observations of Troyard’s life. Troyard seems…happy, living alone on that vast, peaceful wilderness. He has not made any attempts to contact the outer world, or leave the ranch house, and possibly has not even discovered the cameras Inaho placed there two years ago.

Troyard’s days are slow, peaceful, and quiet.

His own life is quiet, too. Inaho meets with his friends regularly. Yuki keeps reminding him that he should marry someone rich. Asseylum visits him often, discussing with him the difficulties of diplomacy between UFE and Vers, and other, more private matters, like Klancain’s slight dissatisfaction of her reluctance to have a baby. Asseylum’s cheeks are red when she voices such stories, though Inaho listens, since Asseylum is an ally—a friend.

Yuki is very happy with Asseylum’s visits, and strongly encourages Inaho to meet with her in places like expensive restaurants, movie theaters, amusement parks, hotels, and similar locations.

#

There will be nights where his eye will hurt, and he will find himself unable to fall asleep, or reach any logical deductions about his work on Aldnoah, or Asseylum’s constantly growing interest in him.

At such nights, Inaho will stare at the city lights outside his window. He will remember the horses. He will remember Slaine Troyard, sleeping, alone in that quiet, dark room.

#

Two years later

Inaho steps into his apartment, a bit dizzy from today’s drive home. Yuki greets him, “Naaaao! Asseylum called! You should call her back!”

Inaho sits down in order to take off his shoes. The edges of his vision are darkening. “She must have used the unofficial channel.”

Yuki, smiling, steps out of her room and meets him on the corridor, seemingly very excited. “Yes. Nao, I need to tell you—she spoke to me about her marriage. She is unhappy. I am not supposed to be telling you this, but—but she wants to discuss something very important with you.”

Inaho takes a breath. He sums the first thirty Fibonacci numbers. The simple ones. It takes him seven seconds, much longer than usual. However, the light-headedness is gone. “Her marriage and therefore the political stability on Vers is the only matter important to Asseylum.”

Yuki’s gaze becomes softer. “Not any longer, Nao…”

Behind the eyepatch, his eyelid keeps twitching. It is annoying. “You are concealing your point.”

Yuki puffs her cheeks. “You are unbelievable! I can’t believe you haven’t noticed, all these years! Even poor Inko has noticed!”

“The physical nature of Aldnoah and my research interest me more than other situations or emotions, Yuki.” Except… Slaine’s glare flashes through his memories. Slaine’s bared teeth. The way Slaine’s hair stuck on his face, wet and brown from the toilet waste.

“Asseylum is in love with you, Nao.”

“…How did you reach that conclusion?”

“She confessed that to me. She…confessed that marrying Klancain was the choice of her mind, not her heart. She said that her heart…belongs to someone else. To you, Nao.”

Inaho blinks. One possibility is, yes, that Asseylum is in love with him. That could explain her eagerness to meet him, that many times during the last few months. As for him…the fondness he once developed for Asseylum has not diminished, though it hasn’t grown stronger, either. Marriage…should he marry Asseylum? A marriage with her could establish a good Earth-Vers relationship…especially if he manages to become a General. Such a marriage would ensure with a higher possibility that peace could be secured than the current political situation, and the lies about Slaine Troyard’s past, and his death.

Still…Inaho meets his plan of marrying Asseylum with indifference.

“Nao?”

“Yuki-nee. Have you ever felt…as if something is missing from your life?”

Yuki’s face is serious. She sits down on the floor, next to him. “Nao, is something wrong?”

The words escape. “Slaine Troyard. Do you believe he was treated fairly in his life?”

“Why should I be thinking of that murderer?” Yuki spits out the word with malice. “He even had the guts to escape. No. Let’s hope he’s dead. I will never forgive him for what he has done to you.”

Some tapes of Troyard’s announcements during the war survived the destruction of the Moon Base. Troyard’s eyes always expressed such immense emotions. Rage. Pride. Hatred. Pain. Love. Inaho yearns for that understanding—understanding the world those eyes have witnessed, understanding Slaine’s tortured past, Slaine’s uncertain future. He has never before met a person expressing emotions in such intense, passionate ways.

In prison, Slaine was empty.

Yuki is talking, and his eye is hurting. “Perhaps you want to live alone? I would gladly move out of our apartment, Nao!  It was you that persisted we could live together to lower the costs…but we have enough money now…”

“That’s not the point. Something else is missing. Still, I cannot point it out.”

“…Are you unhappy, Nao?”

How is happiness defined, he wants to say, but Yuki is not the right person to answer that, perhaps no one is, so instead he says, “Thank you for your concern, Yuki-nee. I will call Asseylum now.”

After all, the war is over. The world is at peace. His friends are alive, his sister is happy, and Asseylum has her attention solely focused on him.

The constantly growing, piercing pain behind his eye is Inaho’s only concern.

#

He agrees to meet Asseylum on the lobby of the most expensive hotel in the UFE capital. There is a charity party going on right now, Asseylum is the one that invited him. Bright red, rich carpets adorn the floors, and golden chandeliers hang from the ceilings, a glass of champagne is forced into his hand and people are smiling at him, taking pictures with him, greeting Earth’s savior.

Inaho feels empty. According to his calculations, the food inside the room right now would be enough to feed an orphanage for two months.

Inaho remembers the cold, bare cell Troyard lived in for five years. No windows. No light. He recalls the smell from the prison toilets. He recalls the worn mattress he dropped Slaine’s unconscious body, the old ranch, the horses, condemning him for the lives he never managed to save during the war; Slaine’s life, perhaps, too.

What am I thinking?

He can feel each heartbeat drumming against his temples. 

Asseylum descends from the grand staircase. Klancain is not accompanying her, this time. She smiles at him, dressed in a white dress, her skin also white, so white it hurts his eyes. The light is hurting his eyes.

Asseylum is standing next to him, though her voice comes as if from a distance. “Inaho-san! I’m so happy to see you!” She clasps her hands in delight.

“A-Asseylum.”

Asseylum ignores his atypical stuttering, smiling more brightly at him. “How are you, Inaho-san? I missed you so much!”

“We met two days ago.”

She giggles, “And the movie your sister picked for us was wonderful!”

“I completed approximately 17 reports since yesterday. Did you read them? The UFE orphanages are in need of more provisions, so General Hakinnen ordered for less rations to be vended to Vers. The Emperor, your husband, disapproved that move. He is threatening with Aldnoah sanctions, which will regress the Interplanetary political relationships. What is your opinion on this subject? Should I use my position and order—“

“Inaho-san, wait.”

Inaho stops talking.

“This is confidential information. After the party, you can visit me in my private rooms and inform me about the—“

“Do you want to be informed of the current political situation, or do you want to kiss me?”

Asseylum’s face turns crimson and she almost drops the glass of champagne she is holding. “K-kiss…?” She whispers, “Inaho-san, I…I admit that my feelings for you have grown deeper—are you certain—”

“Y-You w-want to meet…alone. W-Why?” Stuttering again, why…

“I…” Asseylum’s mouth opens, but Inaho never hears the answer. The throbbing pain is getting more and more intense. Inaho bites his tongue in order to avoid shouting. His right leg hurts, feels cold and stiff. Inaho drags it against the floor, his vision blurring; he groans, his mouth filling with a sour fluid. He tries to reach a chair and walk in a straight line, the objects surrounding him won’t obey the laws of physics—everything begins swaying violently around him.

He throws up.

The last thing Inaho registers is the painful impact of his body with the red carpet, and the screams resounding around him.

#

One week later

“I called you here in order to discuss the results of the tissue biopsy. As you can recall, the MRI showed a ring-encasing lesion in your frontal left lobe. That appearance was not specific. However…the histologic study of your brain, Kaizuka-san, showed pleomorphic tumor cells. The artificial eye implant you used during the war might have been the cause for an underlying tumorous growth, which is now starting to expand, showing the first symptoms: vision problems such as visual field loss, weakness on one side of the body which might later progress into contralateral paralysis—your right leg, Kaizuka-san, will be affected first. Other symptoms include slurred speech, which will progress into aphasia...”

Inaho’s stares at the doctor’s desk, not thinking of anything in particular.

#

The most common length of survival following diagnosis is 5 to 7 months, with fewer than 1% of people surviving longer than a year. Without treatment survival is typically 3 months.

Inaho stares at his tablet’s screen until his eye starts to hurt.

Alone, sitting in his car after the doctor’s appointment, his fingers wrapped firmly around the wheel, Inaho decides to forgo treatment.  

There is no point in avoiding the inevitable.

#

Inaho thinks and thinks, coldly analyzing his options and his choices.

According to most medical books, the last stage of his illness will be especially…difficult…to handle. Logically thinking, neither Yuki nor his friends should bear that burden, watching helplessly as his life melts away on an expensive hospital bed. As a result, he must disappear. Later, after he finds the suitable place to wait for the end of his life, he will write the clarifying letters and his will.

#

The same afternoon, Inaho returns to the doctor and pays him, in order to keep his diagnosis confidential. The man’s face reddens at the insult, though he accepts the ridiculously high sum of money. Inaho manages to find an illegal way to gain access to a large amount of pills, among them many sedatives and painkillers. He buys extra warm clothing with very long sleeves, and provisions, and hides large amounts of cash in his bag.

The same night, he informs Yuki that the results of his biopsy were normal, and as tears of joy fill his sister’s eyes, Inaho’s heart thrashes in his chest when he informs her of his plan to go away ‘on a holiday’ for a few weeks.

His plan is missing only one part. His destination.

#

The sun is rising from the horizon as Inaho knocks on Slaine Troyard’s door.

During his long journey, Inaho almost gives up on his task two times; the dizziness returns, and the pills barely help. He manages to land safely however, and hides his plane deep into the woods, camouflaging it and taking precautions, so that it will not be easily discovered. Even in the case it is, cameras he leaves active on the plane will allow him to decide his next move.

For now, he keeps waiting, bag in hand, on Troyard’s veranda, for the door to open.

He feels sick.

#

Slaine Troyard has changed. His blond hair is not disheveled and entangled. His eyes are very green, shining with his shock. His cheeks are glowing in the light of the morning sun, and his face seems healthy, radiant. 

It cuts off Inaho’s breath—or perhaps the reason is the sudden nausea that overwhelms him, and he almost empties the contents of his stomach onto Troyard’s wooden porch.

“Slaine.” That’s all he can say. Slaine Troyard’s name. And then he passes out.

#

When his consciousness returns, his head is hurting, but not much. He is sitting on a couch in what appears to be a living room. The contents of a bag—clothes, money, pills, some other necessities—are emptied, yet arranged neatly, on the coffee table in front of him.

Those are mine.

Inaho’s gaze sweeps the room. The walls are made of wood. His head is hurting. There are paintings hanging from the walls. Red and black are the colors mostly used. There are kerosene lanterns in various colors stored at the southeast corner of the room. It must be the south-east corner, since the sun is on his right side. Or not? Inaho’s thoughts feel sluggish. He tries to recall the first 45 digits of Euler’s number, and he succeeds. He tries to remember what has occurred in the last 24 hours, and slowly, agonizingly, his memories return.

Along with a coldness so horrible, it seeps under his skin and into his bones. However…

There is a dog sitting on the southwest corner—Is it the southwest corner?...Since when have I started doubting my logic? Where am I? Why is the dog here?

The dog barks. Inaho jerks.

“Calm down.”

Ah. “Troyard.”

“Don’t you have anything else to say?”

“S-Slaine Troyard.”

Slaine seems impatient. He is standing next to the dog, his palm stroking the dog’s head, in a pattern that the animal obviously enjoys. The dog, Inaho notices, has signs of an old trauma across his muzzle, running from the corner of its eye to its cheek. Some fur is also missing from the front of its leg. Inaho’s attention returns to Troyard. Slaine Troyard is wearing a dark green plaid shirt and jeans. His eyes are burning with anger.

“Calm down, Kaizuka. You are upsetting him.” The dog has started rumbling, showing its teeth.

Inaho comprehends that the harsh breaths resounding in the room are coming from him, not the dog. His eye feels like melting from the pain. With shaking hands, he reaches for a bottle of pills on the table, opens it, swallows the yellow-green capsule.

Eventually, the pain fades away.

Meanwhile, Troyard has led the dog outside. Inaho’s hearing is, as of now, still intact; he hears how Slaine murmurs affectionately a few words to the dog, sending it away. Inaho has never heard Troyard’s voice reach anything alike that smooth, warm tone. The door closes, and Slaine Troyard comes to stand, tall and imposing, in front of him.

Inaho takes a breath. Not only has Troyard gained more weight, his shoulders are broader—his physical state must be exceptional. It is a total transformation from the living skeleton Slaine once was.

“You might have given me my freedom—but I don’t owe you anything.” Troyard exhales. “The Empress has obviously forgotten about my existence; the world believes I am dead. For once I can live my life in quietness. And then you come. What is it, now? Is this the early outbreak of the Third War?”

Inaho talks, barely. “In the beginning, I had various symptoms of a neurological disorder. Subsequently, I lost consciousness.”

Troyard sneers. “Yes, I already reached that conclusion on my own. You are obviously not here in that state to arrest me.”

“…I was rushed to the hospital where doctors examined me…”

Troyard snaps, angry, “Get to the point already, Kaizuka!”

“The cause is a tumor in my brain.”

There is a miniscule change in Troyard’s regal posture; loss of confidence.

“It might start affecting my liver soon.”

“I see.”

“And my kidneys. And my lungs.”

Slaine sighs. “How much—“

“Not much.”

“How much.”

Inaho blinks. “Four months. Approximately.”

Slaine eyes flutter close. He is silent.

“Soon, I will lose my sight. I will lose the ability to stand and walk, I will lose control of my pharyngeal muscles, and eventually, all my respiratory functions will cease. Before that happens, however, the pain will be…unbearable.”

Troyard’s hard gaze is scrutinizing him. “Denial.”

“What do you mean? Be more specific, Slaine Troyard.”

“You’re obviously in denial. Tch, Kaizuka. You fool. Coming here, of all places.” Slaine wipes his hand over his mouth. “This will be troublesome. You have a sister, don’t you? Friends? Why don’t you—”

“The process of my death will be humiliating. The only solution is to avoid them—they must not witness whatever is to come.”

“You have a family…you have people that love you…and you are running away from them?” Slaine scowls. “You idiot.”

“I have come here with an offer; I will pay you.”

“Pay me?” Troyard growls, “I don’t need your corrupted UFE money, Kaizuka.”

“You do. You will take the money in order to survive.”

“You have no right to command me, Kaizuka Inaho.” Troyard seems livid, barely containing an outburst.

“Since you are officially a prisoner of war, I technically have the right to command you.”

“Kaizuka.”

Inaho raises his voice, impatient. “Listen to me, Slaine Troyard!”

“No.”

“Troyard—“

“NO!”  Slaine screams. The dog starts barking, outside. “Pay someone else to watch you die!! Why on Earth and Vers does it have to be me?!”

Inaho feels sick. “You are the only person I’ve met that understands…what it means to be…subjected, to death.” Again, that icy feeling flowing through his veins. Inaho ignores it. “To be humiliated. To be reduced…to a human carcass. To feel…helpless.”

His words have the same effect on Troyard that a bullet could have. Troyard takes a step back, eyes wide with what it seems to be…shock. Pain.

Inaho blinks and composes himself. “You will provide me with food, Slaine Troyard, and a place to sleep. If I am in too much pain, you will provide me with an empty room, so that I can use my sedatives and—“

Troyard explodes, “Are you insane?! They will arrest me for murder if they find your body here! And if the fact that I am still alive leaks out—the consequences will be catastrophic!”

“They won’t find us.” Inaho hands over his tablet to Troyard. After all, it is useless to him now. He will not communicate with the outer world any longer, he does not have the time left to write his own theorems and do research on Aldnoah, and discounts will be useless if he buys the products but dies before he can consume them.

“Are you…are these…encrypted files? I can’t believe you planned all of this…”

“Four different propositions on how you can destroy any evidence of my stay here without being discovered. First of all, there is the possibility of burning—“

“Wait, wait. Slow down, Kaizuka. We are not on the battlefield. Calm down, or your reckless actions will destroy us both, this time.”

“Are you referring to our cooperation over Tanegashima? My actions were not in the least reckless—“

“Be silent, Kaizuka, or I’ll kick you out!”

Inaho sighs. Perhaps it wasn’t wise of me, to come here. However…“I was your enemy.”

“Finally, something that makes sense!” Troyard clenches his fists. “I hated you. The fact that you saved my life…multiple times…isn’t much of a determent for me, to act upon my warning; to kick you out and let you die peacefully from the cold.” Troyard is breathing harshly now; his eyes are narrowed to bright slits.

“Exactly. Nevertheless, if you let me stay, you will witness my death.”

Slaine avoids his gaze. “A-As if I care if you are alive or dead.”

“You are a criminal, Slaine Troyard. Yet I have given you freedom.”

“Freedom? Freedom wasn’t even my choice, Kaizuka! I never asked for it. You brought me here, and then you left. You left me here alone in the cold—“

“You won’t refuse my offer.” Inaho snaps, Since witnessing my death will be enough to satisfy you.”

All fight is gone from Troyard’s posture. He seems strangely…calm. “Is that what you think of me? After all those years we spent…never mind.” He sighs. “What are we even doing? Whatever do you want from me, Kaizuka?”

“I don’t know.” Inaho answers angrily, “The only fact I am certain of is that, in approximately four months, I won’t be alive anymore. Now, do you accept my offer?”

“You have lost all hope, haven’t you?” There is sadness behind Slaine’s eyes, now. Inaho doesn’t know what to do of it. “Tch, Kaizuka.”

Slaine Troyard walks into another room—the kitchen, Inaho can tell from a glance through the open door—and returns with a wooden chair, which he places in front of the couch. The back of the chair is facing Inaho. Troyard sits, legs spread, hands crossed and resting on the chair’s back. He holds Inaho’s gaze for many long, silent seconds.

Inaho blinks. Perhaps I need to calm down. Yet, Troyard has changed. He is behaving neither as an oppressive Vers Count, nor as someone broken, as he behaved during his imprisonment. He seems… confident, yet graceful. What caused this change?

Slaine rests his chin on his crossed arms. His red lips tighten a bit, perhaps in annoyance, before he speaks, “Use the room on the end of that corridor. There is only one bathroom, so always knock before you enter.”

“Good.”

“There is more. I have…” A sigh. “I occasionally take care of wounded, orphaned, or abused animals, here.”

“I fail to understand how that’s associated with my situation.”

Slaine sighs, again. “You’ve already met Sirius, my dog. I also have a cat—are you paying attention?”

Why is he telling me all this? “Yes.”

“I am currently sheltering and feeding some puppies, which I found abandoned in a sealed plastic bag, next to a river a long distance from here. I am also working on two horses together with Sleipnir—“

Slaine’s monologue is of no particular interest to Inaho, though the last part catches his attention immediately. “What?”

“My horse. Her name is Sleipnir.”

Inaho blinks. “…I see. According to Norse mythology, Sleipnir is Odin’s horse.”

“It is described in ancient texts as the best of all horses.” Slaine does something unpredicted; he smiles. His eyes are…warm. “And she is. She is the best of all horses. I found her malnourished, plagued by pneumonia and an eye infection. Her last owner must have been a violent monster…but she escaped…she survived.”

“Why?”

“Why she’s the best? Or why did I name her after your Kataphrakt?”

“The second part.”

It must be the light, though Inaho is under the impression that Slaine’s cheeks darken a bit. “You will understand when you see her. As ridiculous as it sounds, you two…have some similarities.” The bright midday sun is chasing the shadows from the room. Slaine turns his face away from the light, maintaining for a second a strange, melancholic expression.

“You have no reason to keep telling me all this useless information.”

The ex-Count sighs in exasperation. “You really are insufferable. My point, Kaizuka Inaho, is very important.” Troyard’s eyes are suddenly ablaze, a reminder of the danger, the threat he once posed on the battlefield. “If you ever scare or harm any of those animals, I am kicking you out of this house. This isn’t an empty threat.”

“…Why do you care so much about those animals?”

“I don’t expect you to understand. Now, leave me alone. I need to think.”

Inaho stands up, momentarily closes his eye as a wave of faintness makes him waver, gathers his pills and clothing—he leaves the money on the table, since it’s useless to him now—and walks toward his room.

#

A few days pass. Inaho eats the food he cooks for himself, he uses the small bathroom only at night, he takes his pills and sits in the dimness of his room, staring at the wall, counting the minutes away, or thinking about the letters he has yet to write.

Slaine is mostly outside, presumably taking care of his animals.

#

Slaine barges into his room one morning, throwing the door wide open, cheeks flushed with anger. “Enough with this foolishness!”

“I asked for silence and privacy. Are you incapable of respecting that?”

“You and Sleipnir. Forget everything I said about your similarities. You two are so…different. She is stubborn, yes. But she is ready to enjoy life, Kaizuka! She keeps throwing herself each day into the fight for survival—while you—the only thing you do is sit and mop your nonexistent tears.” Slaine spits out the last words with malice.

“I told you before, Slaine Troyard. My death is inevitable. There is nothing to be done. I have to sit and wait until—“

“Until everything is over?! You’ll just sit and do nothing?!”

 “There is nothing I can do, Slaine Troyard.”

“We all die, Kaizuka Inaho. We die forgotten, and bitter, and wretched in our agony. But we also die rich with memories, and people we loved, mountains and oceans we travelled, places that are therefore ours, forever.”

“…I fail to understand your point.”

Slaine groans, “Will you die alone and miserable, or will you do something against the misery of your life, and finally live?”

Half of my brain will be destroyed until next month. Living is not an option, Troyard.”

“Okay.” Troyard’s exhale is long. “Alright.” He pushes his palms against his face, his back moving with each of his breaths. “You should at least get out of this…depressive…state. Follow me.”

“Troyard—“

“I won’t take no for an answer, Kaizuka Inaho. Get up. And open those damned windows, your room has the smell of humidity.”

#

The horse has a dark scar where its right eye should’ve been. It contrasts its brown coloring. Troyard is keeping the animal close to him as it produces strange sounds, its good left eye fixed on Inaho. Its breaths are very fast. The white of the horse’s eye is showing, the pupil is close to the outer corner. The horse’s stare is a bit…unsettling.

Troyard is caressing the horse with a gentleness Inaho believed him incapable to express.

“She is afraid of you.” Troyard murmurs. “Stand back. Don’t move.”

They are outside. Inaho notices the woods where he spotted the ten horses towards the north of their position. Towards the south, an endless green plane expands until it meets huge mountains, which are surrounding the whole area. He can’t tell how far the mountains are. Due to the loss of his eye and his perception of dimensions, Inaho finds it difficult to calculate distances and sometimes avoid objects in his path. So how…?

“Don’t step to her blind side.”

“Slaine Troyard.”

Troyard turns his attention away from the horse. “Speak quieter.”

“The horse is half-blind.”

Troyard understands the unasked question. “She relies on me for half her vision.”

Inaho blinks, interested.

“If the horse trusts you enough, it is possible. The bond between us is strong…” Another caress. Troyard’s eyes are shining. “She is a hard worker. She helps me with the other horses, and always stays calm. She can charge as fast and far as any other horse, despite the loss of her eye.”

“Charge?”

“If you go fast enough you can’t hear anything but the wind blasting in your ears and the vibrations of the hooves through your body. It’s…incredible. Scary. Horses are powerful creatures; their strength is immense…and beautiful.”

Again. He is expressing so many emotions.

The horse moves.

“Wait. Wait until she comes to you.”

“You are taking many precautions.” Inaho analyzes the situation. “The animal must be aggressive.”

“No, no.”

“Then…?”

Troyard momentarily hesitates. “Many abused horses are like abused people. They trust no one and expect the worst.”  Slaine pauses, bright eyes fixed on the horizon, and Inaho can’t help but think of Slaine’s past. “However…patience, compassion…love, if they are fortunate enough…it can help them overcome their pasts.”

Inaho ponders on this.

#

They stand, waiting for the horse to move, for a long time. Eventually, the horse approaches Inaho, and again Inaho’s predictions turn false. Slaine takes Inaho’s palm and places it on the neck of his horse. “Feel her breathe.”

Inaho barely stops himself from taking a step back. The horse is moving, breathing calmly under their connected palms. Slaine’s hand is warm.

They gaze at each other. Inaho’s heart thuds, once.

Slaine whispers, “Feel her strength.”

“Why are you doing this, Slaine Troyard?”

A sigh. Slaine breaks eye contact. “What do you love, Kaizuka Inaho?”

“Love?”

“Say something. Anything.”

“I...”

The horse jerks its head. On reflex, Inaho removes his hand.

Troyard guides the horse away. Always holding the reins, he turns his gaze towards the faraway, massive white mountains. “Until that fourth month arrives, then, think about it. You should find something that makes life worth living. Only then does this forsaken world have some meaning.”

“P-Perhaps—”

“Kaizuka?”

Inaho sits down, feeling sick. “I suppose…I am missing something. I have always been missing it.” Inaho clenches his fists, grasping at the frail blades of grass. “It’s…difficult to explain.”

Slaine looks at him for a long, silent moment. The sun is shining behind Slaine’s hair. The golden strands turn to white, and Slaine, just for a moment, seems…different.

Unlike anyone Inaho has ever known.

The horse nudges Slaine Troyard with its head. Troyard rests his cheek against the neck of his horse, closing his eyes. Inaho watches as the horse closes its single eye, too. Troyard wraps his fingers around his pendant when he says, “There are horses in those woods. Wild horses. They will only come near during the night.” Inaho silently agrees, and a frown mars Slaine’s features as he whispers, “I fear that someone…something…is hunting them. Killing them.”

Inaho is still nauseous. He grits his teeth, talks. “For what reason…are you telling me…all of this…u—this useless—” Inaho frowns.

Troyard throws him a strange glance. “This useless information?” He sighs. He lifts his head towards the wide blue sky. “Kaizuka…I don’t know.”

The next moment, after a dexterous and fast move, Troyard is sitting on his horse. “Stay outside. Sirius is inside; don’t approach the animals, they are not used to your scent yet.” The horse snorts, shaking its head, as Troyard guides it, his back now turned to a sitting Inaho. “The sun will be good for you, Kaizuka.”

Wrong, Slaine Troyard. There is no scientific evidence that sunlight reduces the growth of tumorous cells, Inaho thinks, though cannot talk because of his headache.  

Troyard has put some distance between them when the horse starts to run faster, faster. A sound echoes through the valley, clear and smooth; Slaine’s laughter.

Inaho remembers; Kaizuka…I don’t know.

“That was also a lie, Slaine Troyard.” Inaho breathes out, sitting on the field. The pain has faded away somewhat. The sun is shining, warming up his face. The grass is cool beneath his fingertips. Slaine is far away, a dark spot on the horizon.

Inaho thinks of the one-eyed horse, and the wild, exhilarated way it rushed forward, running at full gallop under Slaine’s support.