I kick until my chest burns and starts to heave, then I angle upward. It’s further than I thought to the surface. I claw at the water. It would be stupid to die drowning in the river, but I’m gasping against my closed mouth. Clawing fingers tear through the surface an instant before my mouth opens of its own accord.
Warm air breaks against my face. Filling lungs ache with relief. I open water-stung eyes and get my bearings. I’m about two dozen yards from the pier and maybe half that far to my right a boat glides toward the moorings, about ten yards long with many oars. I roll onto my back and kick slow and hard, trying not to make any noise as I catch my breath.
Lying on my back, I look back to the camp. At the center of the madness, surrounded by heat distortions, steaming flagstones, and falling scraps of ashen cloth stands Agafya. His shaggy body, his thick hair and beard, his dark eyes, and huge hands seem more an honorific statue to some primeval god than a living, breathing being. He wears nothing but the blood of his enemies. The hair on his arm catches fire; as he pats it out, he turns to point at a nearby bush.
His finger stays pointed and a moment later out of the bush staggers the bagpiper. His beet-red face pinches around his pipe, and red stains his white shirt in several places, but the gangly instrument under his arm and over his shoulder continues its droning defiance.
A rifleman near Agafya points his weapon at the piper, but Agafya casually sets his hand on the gun and snaps it like a pencil.
I am unable to look away.
The piper watches the broken halves of the rifle roll across the steaming flagstones to stop against one of the many sword-cut corpses. He switches to a new tune; a slow one I’ve heard before but don’t know the name of. While holding one long note, that magnificent musician lifts the middle finger of his right hand from the pipe to present Agafya the bird.
The Russian drives his blade into the ground and leaves it. He claps his hands once and a cry like a bark accompanies the slap of his thighs. It looks like a war-dance, but in his movements come the ripples of hidden powers. Pale, gleaming nothing wimples between his palms – not light, not color, but a living nothingness, emptiness given shape. It ripples in the air and all color edges toward it as if drawn down a drain.
The color and memory of the bagpiper blaze suddenly bright, searing though his skin as if the flame of them were whipped by a storm-wind. His identity, history, self, all evaporate from his mouth and eyes, sucked to that white gate Agafya opened. The pipe falls silent then clatters to the ground. The piper remains, his face a gap as sucking as an empty grave.
Agafya steps toward him, pushing the energy in his hands as if trying to force it into the hollow man’s body, but it rebels, lances lightning into the ground and sky, and recoils on him – leaching color from his hands and arms until he ends his dance and it winks out as if it never was.
To my second sight his dance seemed a primitive mockery of the same one Maya moved with supreme skill at my mother’s request. But maybe that was a dream, or maybe I’m only seeing such a similarity as I might notice in two different poems written in the same unknown language.
The hollow thing charges Agafya, oozing aggression in a sickly pale color. The huge, naked man catches that empty head in his palm and, with a flick of his wrist, snaps its neck like a dog shaking a rabbit. He seems momentarily annoyed, but then he looks about at the carnage and fire and he draws a breath of it that feeds a smile on his face.
Agafya stands as though the fire, guns and blood were his clothing, as though he were born not from a woman’s womb as ordinary men are, but from the gush of blood from a wound inflicted in the earth.
A shot smacks the water two feet from me.
On the dock, a man little more than a silhouette points a rifle my way. I drop under the water and swim. The pitch-black current would make it easy to get turned around. If I swim the wrong way and come out closer to a gunman, I die.
My arms turn to sodden rope from swimming hard. I can keep my head above water but I’m no fish. The tingle of something whisking past my leg is a harsh motivator. Pain like a cramp blossoms in my calf. I keep kicking, ignoring it. The water is a cave of black.
I come up and the dark shape of a hull floats a dozen yards ahead, silhouetted by fire-lit jungle. A rifle-man stands in the prow, barely a deeper shadow in the night. His gun pops and my left thigh is bit. I sink, kicking in circles with the one leg that isn’t locked in agony.
The water is a black hood to stinging eyeballs.
I open my other sight.
The water’s face, lit as by a full moon, cradles rippling beams of candescence. Far below me a constellation of tiny lights flows like lava, as though a hundred thousand candles were marching through an empty field toward an unknown ceremony far away. The bite on my leg stings and from it flows a plume of green energy and the black stain of blood in water. Though I search, I see no sign of the boat on the illuminated surface above me.
I float, unable to kick for the moment. My left pant-leg is torn just below the knee and I work to finish that job, hoping for a little cloth to use as a bandage. Bare skin is cooled and free against the river’s touch as I twist and jerk the reluctant cloth. The searing in my leg and lungs sings danger. The cloth gives. Still floating, I begin to bind the wound, making stinging pain shoot through the muscle and my foot twitch. If I don’t swim hard I can hold my breath about forty or fifty seconds. It will have to do. There isn’t enough fat on me to stay afloat. I tend to sink, and sink I am doing. The river of lights grows no closer, but the surface above moves slowly further away.
I guess drowning wouldn’t be so bad. Peaceful, anyway. It would save me having to face Agafya. Jenny will probably be fine at the police station. In a few days, when things calm down, her new passport papers will come through and she’ll head home.
No she won’t. She’ll try to get into Bitter Flower, because that’s how she is. Because she’s got moxie. Sometimes moxie gets you killed. I would know.
The knotted pant-leg probably won’t hold, but I cinch it as tight as I can. I don’t know if it will slow the bleeding or if it’s a mental crutch, but it feels better. Still tugging at the leads of the knot, I turn my eyes toward the surface.
The current has taken me to the river’s bend by the time my face breaks the water, and in moments the pyre of the campsite vanishes behind the jealous arms of the jungle. There are no boats in sight. It’s just me and the dark water.
I float, kicking occasionally. In minutes, the light from the fires reflected from low-hanging clouds has given way to dark. The pop and patter of rifle-fire echoes through the jungle, deepening in timber and slowing in frequency as the minutes crawl by.
I guess the hundred commandos weren’t quite as up to facing Agafya’s forces as Captain Brass imagined. It’s a disappointment, in the face of everything else, because for a minute there I almost thought I was going to have help. It would have been nice to have help – a whole group of people with guns and money. It would have been nice.
Now most of them are dead. It’s a hateful feeling, but I’m glad I never got to know them. I’m not sure I could stand to lose so many friends. I wonder about Tellerhorn. Something tells me I’ll see him again.
Nai is on this river too, somewhere, assuming he made it to the boat through all those guns. I don’t think it’s safe to imagine I’m going to run into him, and even then, he’s made it clear he’s not doing this for me. Whoever Drydus is, I owe him a favor for all the help Garland’s been, but I don’t like being in anybody’s debt. Especially someone who hasn’t shown their face.
No, it’s me and Jenny, assuming I can find her.
That’s one more than I’m accustomed to.
The girl in gold silk warned me off the road, which leaves few options but to float until I find a bridge or a dock, and then get a ride with a fisherman in the morning. I’ll get back to Bangkok sometime tomorrow.
The Laughing Girl told me to bring her the wise man. Maybe she meant Danial Thames, but one way or the other I failed that task. I’ll have to find something else to do.
My leg stings. Each kick grows the throb of it like rain grows a tree. I keep my face above the water, and the rest of me as still as I can. Insects buzz about and when they get bold enough to touch my face I know I’m getting too close to the shore. I’m too skinny to stay afloat without waving my hands in little circles. When I stop doing this or don’t kick often enough then I sink and taste river water.
In this merciless repose I watch the sky, featureless and black. Perhaps it’s only my hope which paints it with the faintest sense of movement.
The pain in my leg rises like a tide. It aches. In my mind’s eye, Sylvia walks on the water beside me, the hem of her grey city coat damp from the river and her hair blending with the low clouds.
“Who are you?” she asks, her voice cold, measured, like her pace across the water’s face.
“Just a face out the window,” I murmur. “In a moment it’ll be gone.”
She blinks and looks at the water. Her head tilts. Her body language, not voice, says: ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
“Sure you don’t,” I whisper, pushing my chest up from the water’s surface. Air touches the phantom wound still lingering there. “You’ve seen this before?”
Her eyes dart over the wound and her gloved fingers curl into a fist.
‘Flee,’ snarls the dark in her face, and she takes a step back. ‘I will not spare you again.’
I sink a moment then blow a spray of water from my nose. Through the tingling I whisper: “I know you’re in trouble. I owe you. Let me help!”
Behind her the warehouse at 43 north Zeigmeire is a grey stain against the jungle sky.
“You can’t.” She turns to face a huge and shaggy human shape that rises from the warehouse horizon like a lightning cloud.
Water closes over my face and when I find the surface again she’s gone. I kick. I stroke the endless quicksand dark. The cold river coffin can’t have me yet.
I count kicks. At three hundred I lose track and start over. I still haven’t seen a bridge, but there must be one soon, or a fishing village. I’ll steal a boat.
“You know you have a choice,” says David Laurence. He offers a thin smile as his beetle eyes catalogue the features of my face. His long legs are knee deep in the river, but make no waves. “You can help yourself, or you can help someone else. You strike me as a ‘yourself’ kind of fella.”
“I’m helping Jenny,” I mutter, sounding sullen even to myself.
“Sure you are,” he replies, “like I thought you might. Shame I’m not around to see that. The things I could tell you.”
“Like what?” I ask. A kick sends waves of cold over my brow and shots of fire up my leg.
“Well if I weren’t dead, telling would be easier, but I admit, telling wasn’t my specialty in life either. I’m more of a learning kind of fella. Part of being a spy and all that. I’m what you call better at listening than talking.”
The wind pushes little waves across the black. Cold shivers in my skin.
“I’ll tell you one thing though,” says the dead man at my shoulder, “a life spent in service to others yields sweeter fruit than a life spent in the pursuit of those rewards. You need to decide what you’re fighting for, because you are fighting, with every kick you’re beating back the black. It’s a war we all lose. You ever fought in a war?”
“No,” I whisper, though tonight might count, a little.
“Well I did. Tail end of the big one. Bad business. I tell you, I saw plenty of good folk lie down in shallower water than this because they didn’t see the point. You can drown in three inches, you know that? Saw it happen in the trenches. Three inches. Preventable, of course, you could sit up. But by the time you’re drowning in three inches sitting up isn’t an option. What I’m trying to get at, Mr. Simmons, is you’re alive and kicking and that means you’re fighting. Everybody’s fighting, see. It’s what you’re fighting for that defines you, and where you draw your line for what you will or won’t do. That’s where the good meet the bad, and if you’re a bad guy, well I’m not around to stop you. There’s one less good guy. So which will you be? You think about that.”
“Say hi to your son,” I whisper, kicking again.
“Sure,” he says. “Save the world.”
I kick. He’s not here. The water tastes of moss. The stars turn.
Something slaps the water’s surface not far from me. I roll over and look. A light floats on the water’s face like a rising sun. Squinting, I tread water and shield my eyes. It’s a boat, rowing slowly up the river.
I call out: “Hayo!” and wave at them.
From behind the light a man’s voice intones like a bell:
“Ciao? Hai bisogno di aiuto?”
“What?” I ask, and sink a few inches, letting water into my mouth.
“English?” asks the voice, while I gargle river-water and flail.
I swim a couple of overhand strokes until my fingers strike the wet wood of the boat’s hull. I catch the edge. Someone’s talking to me. With the boat’s prow under my chin as a swaying, splinter laced sanctuary, I try to sort out what I’m seeing.
The boat’s about a dozen yards long, single-hulled, leaf-shaped and very low to the water. About eight folk of local ethnicity crowd onboard. They’re leaning away from me, working on keeping their balance as my pressure on the boat’s side sways it. The light, which before seemed a sun, is a lamp hanging on an elevated hook in the prow.
The voice came from a skinny man, dark haired and pale skinned, with a hooked nose. He offers me a hand, too large for his thin arm.
“In or out,” he says, his accent Italian and cultured, his lips carving a smile. “It is impolite to linger on the threshold.”