“How about you?” I asked the Hyalu with the pearl bracelet, standing on the boat’s deck, sipping on a Bloody Mary. “Have any troubles?”
“Always.” She looked out at the ocean, blushing. “This is a really great place, don’t get me wrong. But it’s definitely got its share of troubles, and I seem to get dragged along every time.”
“All places have problems,” I said, not paying all that much attention to what I was saying. “Sorry you get dragged along into them.”
Instead, I was focused on those gray eyes of hers. There was an intelligence there — an intelligence, and a kindness.
“The sort of troubles here tend to get real bad real quick.”
It was all about how she was saying what she said, her mouth opening and closing. Her lips were a little chapped, and she would occasionally lick them.
Every word pulled me in just a little bit more. Every blink, every breath, every lick. I felt my heart quicken.
“Why?” I asked.
“Dragons,” I said, nodding my head. My heart felt ready to pop out of my chest. “Powerful beasts.”
“Engines of destruction, more like it.” She licked her lips. “Nothing to romanticize.”
“Wasn’t trying to romanticize it,” I said. No romance. Not here. Not now. Not with her. “They’re awful, but impressive.”
“They have to be stopped.”
“Never expected to hear a Death Cultist talk like that.”
“You don’t know very much about the Death Cult,” she said.
“I don’t know much about much,” I said. “I’d like to know a little more about you.”
“Is that a come-on?”
“I wouldn’t call it that.”
“You wouldn’t call it that,” she said, “but is that what it is?”
The smirk slipped onto my face. “You’re smart.”
“And you’re beautiful,” she said. The words hit my ears wrong. She continued, “Handsome, actually. Oddly handsome, for a lady.”
I wondered if she said that because she’d noticed my reaction to ‘beautiful’. That said, she struck me as honest. I couldn’t doubt that honesty in her eyes. Maybe it was that I didn’t want to.
No. It was undeniable. There was an intelligence and a beauty and a kindness in those eyes.
She had me, and I felt like the closer I got to her, the happier I’d get.
“Do you like handsome ladies?” I asked, leaning in close, whispering into her ear. It could’ve just been the surroundings, but I swore she smelled like the ocean.
“Yes,” she said. “I especially like handsome ladies who like me.”
I couldn’t stop myself from grinning like some dumb schoolboy.
“Looks like you caught one.” My head was only two inches from hers.
She smiled at me, not saying a word. Instead, she crossed the distance, hooking her lips with mine. I placed my hand on the top of her back, slowly sliding it down her spine.
She was a biter. Nearly made my lips bleed.
She unhooked herself for a second.
“Let’s go to my cabin,” she said.
I smiled, not saying a word. I didn’t need to. I merely watched her pivot. Followed her, chasing after happiness.
— — —
I flopped onto the left side of the bed, tired.
“That was good?” I asked.
“It was real good, sugah,” she replied.
This isn’t my body.
It wasn’t my body, but damn if it didn’t feel good all the same. The moment was good, too. Laying in the bed, taking deep breaths. The bed didn’t smell like her, but it still smelled good. Like lilacs.
Felt like there was no pressure left in my body. No more tension.
“What do you think love is?”
She sounded surprised. “I don’t–”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean us. I didn’t mean this. I just mean in general. What do you think of love? What do you think it is?”
“Well, I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I never really thought about it much.”
“You never thought about love?”
“I thought about loving things, sure,” she said. “But I never thought about love itself.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s a stupid question.”
“No. No, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. It’s just I haven’t thought about it much, you see? No, what you’re saying is good. I just don’t know the answer. Gimme a second to think about it.”
“Okay,” I said.
I lay in the bed, closing my eyes. This was just another part of my past that I hadn’t been able to get rid of: that omnipresent love of the question.
I wanted to ask “Why?” A part of me wanted to know why I was so obsessed with questions. But my better part told me not to. It didn’t matter why I was so obsessed with questions. I just had to stop.
Curiosity had been a driving force in my life, and not for the better. It’d led me to so many of the bad things in my life. If I’d just followed the path I was supposed to without questioning it, I might’ve been better off.
If only my brother’d followed his path. If only my brother hadn’t had so much goddamn doubt.
No. Nevermind. I didn’t even have a brother. If I had I would have loved him, but these days I was an elf without a past. Those memories were figments — child’s play. Nothing more than the deranged ramblings of some alternate universe lunatic.
I was a travelling salesman. I sold incense.
The words rang through my mind, forcing and reinforcing themselves.
“I think love is respect,” she told me. “You look into someone’s eyes and understand them, even if there’s no chance of you ever fully knowing them.”
“You mean like agreeing to disagree?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Not quite. To love someone you have to know some of the details of who they are. But it’s impossible to know everything. All of us live such long lives, filled with such incident. Compared to a mosquito, we’re almost immortal. So many details happen that can never be shared with another. What I’m saying is, we can never truly know one another, you see?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I do.”
“The important thing is to understand one another, roughly. Ignore the trees and look at the forest. Be willing to explore the nooks and crannies, admittin’ that you’ll never know everything about the person, but that’s a good thing. That’s where the excitement and the mystery comes from. Why, a person without mystery’s just a sack of meat and bones.”
“That’s an odd answer,” I said.
“Odd question, sugah,” she said. “I’m just givin’ you what you asked for.”
“It’s an odd answer,” I said, “but I like it.”
She smiled. “That’s more what I like hearing.”
I smiled. “I’d like to get to know you more.”
“Me too,” she said. “Ask me another question.”
“What?” she said.
“I promised myself I’d stop asking so many questions.”
“You haven’t been doing such a good job o’ that,” she said, giggling.
“No,” I said, “I mean I just promised myself that I wouldn’t ask so many questions. Just now.”
“And why’s that?” she asked.
“Questions aren’t good,” I said. “I always ask the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
“You learn that during your years on the road?”
“I learned a lot of things on the road,” I said. “That’s one of them.”
“Tell me about them.”
“My years on the road?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“There’s not so much to tell.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t like dwelling on the past.”
“For me,” she said. “Here and now, just give me a taste of who you are.”
“I met a man who killed dragons.”
“Yes,” I said. “Not many men who can do that, but this man did.”
“How’d you meet him?”
“Nothing too interesting,” I said, lying. “I’d been driving towards the wheat fields — looking to sell some incense here, actually — when I came across a hitch-hiker. Big, strong guy with a sword at his side.”
“Sounds like a dangerous hitch-hiker.”
“He was,” I said. “Not to me, but he was a dangerous man. I knew it, seeing him there, his eyes filled with fire.”
“But you picked him up anyway.”
“Yeah,” I said, giving her a look.
“Wouldn’t be a story if you hadn’t picked him up. I don’t have to be a psychic, sugah.”
“Right,” I said. “I picked him up, but he didn’t get the chance to say too much, because before long we’d reached the wheat fields. And rolling through the wheat fields, we saw a dragon high in the sky. It spotted us, there. And when it spotted us, it started flying towards us.”
When I said that, her eyes widened a little bit. That surprised me. Shouldn’t she be used to the thought of dragons? Hadn’t she summoned them herself? I guessed some things were frightening, no matter your relation to them.
“What’d you do?”
I smiled. “Stopped the car and headed for the wheat. Can you blame me?”
“No,” she said. “Not at all.”
“I hid there for who knows how long. My heart quickened when I peaked through the fields, since the dragon seemed to be getting closer and closer to me. I couldn’t help but ask myself, ‘Why?’ What could possibly have made him come after me?”
I continued the lie, “Turned out the dragon wasn’t after me at all. It was after the hitch-hiker. The guy had taken control of the wheel and kept driving the car straight towards the dragon. The two charged at each other.”
“And then?” she asked me.
“Then the hitch-hiker jerked the wheel and headed into the wheat fields. I couldn’t see him, but the dragon could. The dragon chased after the car, but it turned out Val had hopped out of it already. He swung his sword upward, getting the dragon straight in the neck.”
“I didn’t know that then, of course,” I continued. “No, all I heard was a terrible screeching noise. The dragon seemed to fall to the ground somewhat suddenly. Just a few minutes later, a man walked out of the fields, carrying a head.”
“And what’d you do?”
“Wasn’t all that much to do,” I said. “Came out of the fields, thanked him for saving my life, even though it seemed like he was partially to blame for endangering it in the first place.”
“What’d he look like?” she asked.
“Tall, muscular, covered in black blood — oil, I guess. He had an arrogant intelligence on his face. You might’ve called it a belligerent wisdom. He was the uncle who wanted you to succeed. Because if he didn’t succeed, he wouldn’t be happy. If he wasn’t happy, he’d whoop your ass.”
“That’s quite a way to put it.”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“I thought you were a salesman.”
My heart beat twice before I responded. “I write for fun.”
“The man,” she said. “The man who killed the dragon.”
“Right,” I said. “We drove to the nearest non-Hyalu city. He didn’t want to encounter any of your people, and I understood plenty. After seeing the dragon, I wasn’t sure I wanted to, either.”
“What was he like, in the car?”
“Quiet,” I said, “unless you really got him going. He gave a couple speeches, but there was no desire to be witty there. No need to prove his verbal intelligence. I don’t know how much he cared about people in general, actually. He might’ve been too obsessed with his ideas.”
“I can respect him,” she said. “Someone who kills dragons? That’s my sort of person.”
“Seems like a weird thing to say about dragons,” I pointed out, “seeing as how you’re part of the organization that creates the things.”
“I see what you mean,” she said, “but I believe the best way to change an organization is from the inside out.”
“You want to change the Death Cult?”
“I want it to stop using dragons,” she said. “They’re weapons of mass destruction, discriminate but all too destructive. I’d like to think we could solve our problems without them.”
“I can see how that’d be nice.”
“I believe in the values at the core of the Death Cult: the Angel of Death is an agent of order and therefore of evil, putting people in the compost bin of death, only to remake them and pluck them out again. It’s awful reincarnation, a circle that’s neverending, never broken.”
It was interesting, not having people know who I really was. I was fascinated by how we all had these different pasts that were inaccessible. If she’d known who I was and what I’d seen, she probably wouldn’t talk about the Angel of Death that way.
“Interesting,” was all I said. “You believe in taking down the Angel of Death, but you don’t believe that the dragons are a force of good?”
“The dragons were just a result of Lusu’s father being too smart for his own good,” she said. “He found some old books, then created an awful weapon. That’s not what the Death Cult is about. The Death Cult is about freeing people. That’s what Lusu’s father really wants. Lusu too, I’m sure. But I don’t agree with how they’ve gone about things.”
“How would you go about things?”
“Differently,” she said. “I’d give people the option to escape the cycle of life and death. I’d protect them from the Angel of Death, but only if they wanted to be protected.”
“That’s not how things are done?”
“You really don’t know much about your friend, do you?” she asked.
“Lusu,” she said. “She didn’t tell you how the Death Cult works?”
“Not really,” I said. “We haven’t known each other long. Met each other through a mutual… friend.”
“Interesting,” she said.
“What I’m interested in,” I said, “is why you’re telling me all this, when you know my friend wants the position that you’re currently in line to take. If I told everyone what you just told me, I can’t imagine you’d get the position.”
“You’re assuming people would believe you.”
“I’d be telling them the truth.”
“I’ll say it again, sugah: you’re assuming people would believe you.”
“You assume they wouldn’t believe me?” I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Frankly, I don’t care all that much. Because I don’t think you’re going to tell everyone.”
“And why’s that?”
“I was with some elves, just a few days ago,” she said. “I was looking to see the future — it’s useful to know what’s going to happen, when you’re trying to plot out your future.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That makes sense.”
“These elves told me that a stranger was coming to town. They said this stranger was an engine — much like the dragons.”
“You hate the dragons.”
“But this stranger was an engine of something else. This stranger’s supposed to be an engine of change.”
“You think I’m the engine of change,” I said.
“I know it’s not Lusu. She’s not a stranger, on top of everything else. And I don’t think it’s your shirtless friend, either. Something in his eyes strikes me as lost, desperate — unable to change himself, much less others.”
“Which leaves me,” I said.
“Which leaves you,” she replied.
“Lusu wants to save the world,” I said. “I don’t know what’s between you two, and I’d be surprised if you were inclined to tell me. But for all her faults, for all her defense, I believe Lusu wants to do good in this world. She wants to protect it.”
“Lusu wants to save the world by keeping it the same,” Coraline said. “I want to save the world by changing it. I’ll give you that: both her and I have noble goals. Question is, which one do you agree with? Which party do you see yourself aligning with?”
“This world is strange and this world is beautiful,” Coraline continued, “but sometimes it doesn’t know how to protect itself. Would you care to help me? Would you care to help me make this world a better place?”
— — —
The smell of incense hit me when I walked through the door.
“Hey,” I said, looking at Lusu, who was sprawled across the white-linen bed. She had a book in her hand — my book. Godkiller.
“Hello,” she said. “Make any friends?”
“One,” I said. “What’s with the book?”
She tore her eyes from the page, glancing up at me. “It’s yours.”
“I know. Why are you reading it?”
“Why’d you write it?”
“Stupidity, fame, catharsis,” I said. “In that order. Now it’s your turn. Why are you reading my book?”
“Well, it can’t be for any of those reasons,” she said. “You want the truth?”
She smiled. “I’m reading it to get an insight into Val’s life.”
“You lived with the man for decades,” I said, leaning against the doorframe. “You didn’t get any insight then?”
“Oh, I knew him quite well,” she said, “and I could imagine what he’d been like, killing Hostem. But I didn’t really know. He didn’t like to tell the story himself, you know.”
“I saw the book at your house,” I said. “You didn’t read it then?”
“I’m re-reading it. Find something new every time.”
“Glad to hear it,” I said, though I really wasn’t.
“Was it all true?” she asked.
“I changed some details around,” I said, sticking a hand in my left pocket, taking a cool deep breath. I hoped I didn’t have any tells. “Had to protect Val’s identity.”
“And those are the only details you changed?”
She closed the book, laying it aside. “Why is it that I don’t believe you?”
“I can think of two reasons you wouldn’t believe me,” I said, hoping this verbal game of cat-and-mouse could lead her away from the truth, “Either I’m not believable, or you’re just no believer.”
“Could be both,” she said.
“Could be.” I took in a deep breath of incense. It was calming, if nothing else. “Nice incense.”
The side of her lip curled into a smile, and she looked over at the nightstand. On it stood a bowl. The bowl had a little hole, which the incense stick fit into. The top of the incense stick burned, smoke curling upwards.
“Thanks,” she said. “Val never did like incense. Always said it burned his lungs. Strange thing, really. Man killed a god, and just a little bit of incense bothered him. Seems petty, looking back.”
“Most things seem petty, looking back,” I said.
The things that didn’t look petty often appeared to be huge mistakes. Why not let the mad god Hostem kill us? If he’d created us, didn’t he have the right to destroy us? What could our purpose possibly be without him?
Again and again I came back to that awful thought: I should be dead.
After all, nothing seemed to matter, when I remembered the murder of a god.
His eyes that haunted me.
I couldn’t pretend to be a salesman around Lusu. She knew.
“You said you made a friend,” she said. It was good to get ripped from the reverie.
“Have any thoughts on the Angel of Death?” I asked, moving away from the doorway, sitting in the small armchair to the left of the bed.
“Thoughts,” I said. “I know the Death Cult isn’t a fan. That seems to be half the point of it: subverting the Angel of Death’s intentions.”
“You’re right,” she said.
“Do you agree? Do you think the Angel of Death is bad for this world?”
“My thoughts on the Angel of Death are ever-changing,” Lusu said, giving me a somewhat strange look. There was a spark in her eyes — the sort of spark that betokened a wit, a knowledge, a power. I felt like she could look at me once and know my whole life story.
I wondered how much she knew.
Lusu went on: “I’m certain that the Death Cult’s views on the matter are overly simplistic. They are right that reincarnation is a horrifying idea, if you get right down to it. This idea that we repeat the same mistakes over and over, never living long enough to fully grow: learning the same lessons lifetime after lifetime.”
My voice felt hoarse: “Yeah.”
“But at the same time, I don’t think the Angel of Death is entirely to blame.”
“Who is?” I asked.
She shrugged. “No need to blame Hostem. He’s dead enough, already.” She paused a second, then took in a sharp breath. “I used to blame the Angel of Death, for the way things were. I used to think she was to blame for so many of the problems in life. But I think she wants what’s best for the world. An untimely death is never good, but I don’t think she’s to blame. Living things always ruin the world. It’s up to the new generation to fix it. And that can’t happen unless the old are destroyed.”
I sat there, nodding my head, watching the incense stick slowly burn away. “Why not kill yourself?”
“Why not kill yourself?” I said. “If you believe in reincarnation, and you believe that the old are killing a world that the new need to fix, why not just kill yourself?”
She didn’t hesitate to answer. I appreciated that.
“It’s not the way things are done,” she said. “Killing yourself now is just rushing towards the next decline, the next period of old age infirmity.”
“The next period of old age, when you can just kill yourself again,” I said.
“Suicide is selfish,” she snapped. “The old might make mistakes that hurt the world, but they also help teach the next generation. Their example shows the next generation the error of their ways, allowing the new generation to fix things. After everything a society puts into you, you can’t just leave. Suicidal thoughts are often just a mood–”
“What if it’s a mood you’ve been in for decades?” I asked.
“Then you need to figure out what’s putting you in such a bad mood,” she said, “and stop it.”
Hard to stop the memories.
Still, I said, “Thanks, Lusu. I needed that.”
“Any time,” she said. “Who was the friend you made?”
“She’s not a friend you wanted me to make,” I said.
“You talked to Coraline?”
“She talked to me,” I said.
“That’s often what conversation with you is,” I said.
She smiled, nodding her head a bit. “Touché. What’d you two talk about?”
“She called me an engine of change.”
“She never was good at smalltalk,” Lusu said.
“She wanted me to join her,” I told Lusu. “Said that the dragons weren’t good for this world, and that she wanted to let people die when they wanted to.”
“That sounds noble,” she said. “Why are you still here, then?”
“She said she wanted to take down the Angel of Death,” I said. “I figured you didn’t. The way you seemed okay with her, even when Val was still talking to her… Well, I trust that. I guess I trust you.”
“I didn’t realize you were such a fan of the Angel of Death,” she said.
I thought back on my history with the Angel of Death: the kindness she’d granted me after my brother had died, the favor she’d granted some forty years ago. I’d gotten angry at her: I’d been mad at some of the things she’d taken from me, and these days I never wanted to see her, but someone insulting her felt wrong. I guess there was something wrong with me for feeling this way, but I wanted what was best for her. I didn’t want to associate with someone who wanted her gone.
“That makes two of us,” I said.
“You should go see my father,” Lusu said.
“His word holds weight here,” she said. “Besides, you like asking questions, and he likes answering them. I imagine you two will get along quite well.”
— — —
I walked across the deck of the boat, finding myself before the door to Lusu’s father’s cabin. I knocked on the metal door.
“Come in!” he yelled. Something sounded off about his voice, but I couldn’t decide what it was. I opened the door.
When I looked at him, I could tell that something was definitely wrong. He was shirtless, for one, which marked a clear contrast to the formal outfit I’d seen him wearing yesterday. He had on a pair of frayed jeans, which very nearly matched the color of his skin.
He held up a coat hanger, staring at me through it. The white pigment of his skin seemed to be most concentrated surrounding his eyes, forming a spiral that started at the edges of his eyes and pushed out, stopping at his eyebrows and dropping down. The rest of the white formed wild streaks across his bright blue skin. His eyes looked an even-paler shade of blue than I’d remembered.
I looked at the desk behind him. It was hard to see, but I was pretty sure I saw the remnants of cocaine. There was definitely a straw there, as well as a sheet of acid tabs.
“Is this a bad time?” I asked.
“No,” Lusu’s father said, smiling wide. “This is the perfect time. That said, it’s all about perspective, wouldn’t you say?”
“What’s about perspective?”
“Invention,” Lusu’s father said, “which is all about time, which is all about perspective. You see, that’s what invention is: the creation of the future. We observe the past and the present, hoping to get a key to unlock the future. And the key is in the invention. In the past, the future involved people travelling all over the world. But how did we get that future? What was the key that unlocked the door? What allowed to the future to become the present?”
“Cars?” I asked.
“Cars!” he yelled. He cast the coat hanger aside, letting out a great big laugh as he ran up and hugged me. He then let go, pulling back and patting my arms. “You, of course, have a great understanding of the future.”
“You mean because I’m an elf?”
“Precisely that!” he said. “I’m sorry, though. I was trying to explain my point to you. My point. Ah! Right. I’m trying to explain to you that I won’t apologize for having mixed a little cocaine with a little acid. You see, I’m trying to change my perspective, and that’s the most important thing an inventor can do. Change the perspective, so that he can see the future.”
“Or she,” I said.
“Right!” he said. “My apologies, I’d forgotten there was a lady in the room!”
I’d almost forgotten, too.
“Anyway,” I said, “I came in here to apologize for last night. I got carried away with the shots.”
“No!” he yelled. “No! No! No!” He smacked me in the arm a couple times. “Haven’t you been listening to a word I’ve been saying? I appreciate changed perspectives. In fact, there’s nothing I love more than changed perspectives! The magic of life lies in exploring the unknown. And how can you find new things if you look at them in the same old way?”
I nodded my head. “That makes a lot of sense.”
“Of course it does!” he yelled. “I’m a fucking genius. But now I’ve got a question to ask you. The Cult is gathering tonight to summon the spirit of a dragon: it’s a preliminary thing, before the dragon is actually formed, when it’s an thoughtform that hasn’t been granted life. And my question is twofold. One, do you want to come and watch it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Two, do you want to trip balls with me while it happens?”
I thought on it for a second. “Fuck yeah.”