The Discord Trilogy

 
 

Rubicon

             

Book III - Rubicon
(Scroll down for the first two chapters)

Hidden away on a Caribbean island, Tara's body survived abomination while her mind did not. Strangled from within by Verus's accumulated memories, the eldest Severin sister struggles under the weight of so many conciseness inside her mind.

But the Noricum are not idle, nor are they forgiving. Enraged by Tara's murdering of their princess, they hunt the Severins relentlessly. After  turning a powerful halfling and declaring open war, the Severin coven must choose between defending the Milunfran witches protecting humanity or their own extinction.


Chapter 1 - The Ashes of Fire

Taralie

I smack the flour off my hands from braiding ropes of dough into loaves. The oven fire needs stoking and the heat hits my face as the heavy wooden door swings open. The loaves are light brown which means the bread is ready. A few more pieces of dry wood will keep the coals hot for the second batch until I return from the market.

A bell rings through Rome, signaling the releasing of senators for their mid-day meal. The wagon is lined with cloth and ready for my fresh loaves. A gust of wind from an opening door tickles my neck, but when I call out, no one answers. Instead, glass shatters on the floor.



A dark-haired man in fine robes stands in the corner. I have never seen such exquisite fabric, not even on the senator’s wives. He glides toward me with a pecular smile.


"Quis es?"


Closing the distance between us, he places a frigid hand against the back of my neck, pressing me into him. Pushing against his chest is useless. He covers my screaming mouth with his other hand.


His eyes are coldly terrifying. There is no empathy, no hesitation. Only a serene smile as he licks his lips.


“Taralie?” I hear over the ringing in my ears.


The voice calling that name does not belong to my stalker yet I recognize it. The word "Taralie" means I need to find the earth. Moving my fingers, grains of sand slip between them. There is no sand in the Roman kitchen. Why do I feel sand?


“Te supplico, noli me necare.” I hear my own voice ask. It has no effect, this frightening man acts like he did not even hear me beg for my life.


“Taralie, in the sand is safety. In the sand there is solitude.” I know that voice. It is Duncan, a former Noricum prefect.


Then we remember…


We died.


We died thousands of times.


The man standing in front of me is Verus, a vampire who will take my life while I lie paralyzed by this memory, never able to fight back.


I must find the sand and the place where can I see what I feel. The sand is soft and warm. The stone floor of the kitchen is not. There are no bells where the sand is and the ocean is not in the bakery.


The kitchen fades, showing a competing image behind it. Deadly smiling eyes and a tropical beach superimposed. Safety. I must focus on the sand to escape his grasp.


Mysterious yet kind fingertips graze my face. A flash of teeth, a scream, drowned out by the sound of the ocean water crawling up on shore and the feel of the sand. Gritty, yet soft in my fist. The sand is salvation.


It is a curse. The Roman bakery where I was about to be murdered by the Noricum prince is not reality, but to me it was.


“Taralie, the gentle hands on your face are mine. You are safe here.”


Concentrating on the beach and ocean, the memory where Verus sinks his teeth into my neck fades fast. We push it into the corner of our mind, where the history of humans and demigods abide.


Working to slow my frantic breathing and jittery body, I focus on the feel of the sand. “We are here.”


Duncan sits beside me, retracting his hands from my face. “It was bad this time.”


“It was only one memory, not thousands heaped upon one another.”


“What triggered it?”


“Nothing. We…I just made the mistake of daring to relax a bit.”


Several meters away, the engines on our newly acquired yacht rumble to life.


Duncan says, “I came to tell you we are ready to set sail.”


There will be no place to hide from the Severin family on the fifty meter, three mast, luxury sailboat. “We renew our objection. I do not wish to leave Frenchman’s Caye just to sail around the world. We have already done that.”


“Noted,” he says.


I protest, “The prying eyes and ears of the others will be impossible to escape aboard the yacht,” and brush the sand off my dress.


He gets up and offers his hand. “Perhaps it is time to stop escaping.”


What none of them understand is there is no escape. The inheritance of millennia of memories has no deliverance. One simple touch with Verus’s power produced a soul razing hell of atrocities, death, and feeding, including the destruction of Greek gods and the creation of vampires.


I do not wish to fight with my only friend so I take his hand and walk toward my penance: Months at sea with a coven of vampires that hate me.


***


The dread does not abate as the island disappears from the horizon.


The others all go about their tasks. Thomas lashes a foremast to its boom while Ruben steers the boat from the aft wheelhouse. Coralia, Augusta, and Arianna are tasked with accommodations and organizing the staterooms.


Coralia comes on deck. “Has anyone seen my water skies? I know I put them in my bedroom.”


“It’s called a stateroom or berth!” Ruben calls out from the wheelhouse.


Coralia replies, “It’s called a bedroom you nautical freak!”


Thomas says, “Duncan put them in the cargo hold.”


“Why?”


Ruben sticks his head out a window. “There wasn’t space for them with all your clothes.”


Amateurs,” Coralia says. “Have you never played Tetris before?” She huffs off deck and a few seconds later a scream from the cargo hold breaks any peace the ocean provided.


“THERE ARE RATS ON THIS BOAT!”


Seconds later, Duncan moves up the stairs from below deck. Coralia has climbed up his back and is trying to stand on his shoulders. Her monophobia has not wavered. It makes no sense, she is a demigod. Rats should not cause her such distress.


Ruben openly laughs at her. “There’s rats on every boat, quit freaking out.”


Duncan tries to balance himself while the tall female vampire uses him as an escape ladder. Coralia shouts toward Ruben. “You come down here, Captain Obvious, and find out what me freaking out really is!”


Duncan replies, “Cora, calm yourself. I will dispatch the rats myself if you will disengage your hands from my neck.”


Coralia looks at her hands digging into Duncan’s neck and releases him, jumping from his shoulders to the forward mast. While climbing up the ladder to the crow’s nest she yells, “I’ll be the lookout and when I come down, there will be no rats on this boat!”


“It’s just rats,” Thomas whispers under his breath. The second I look at him, he averts his eyes and scurries below deck, passing Alexander on his way down.


The moment Alexander’s eyes meet mine he halts.  He does not even muster an insincere smile, but stares longingly for what I can never be…his inamorata.


He still wears his wedding ring.


I do not.


Once we leave the shallow coastal waters, Captain Ruben calls us to the duty line. Duncan stands next to me as we wait in front of the wheelhouse for a briefing.


“All right,” he begins, “I know we normally work as a democracy, but when it comes to this ship, that won’t work.”


Coralia snickers.


“Something to add, Miss Severin?” he replies.


She places a hand on her hip. “Okay, we get you were a Commander in the American Navy like two hundred years ago, but that doesn’t mean you’re king of Galileo. Aggie, am I right?”


Ruben’s wife, Augusta, groans. “I’m so staying out of this.”


Ruben continues, “As I was saying, we have…”


Coralia cuts him off. “Yes, we have a system where everyone votes on big things that happen around here. Little things are left up to personal preference. Remember, almost everyone wants to do this whole sailing thing. So stop worrying about us doing our jobs or letting you decide our course. I’m going to need you to remove the mast stuck up your colon and realize we’re here to have fun. We are the Pirates of Penzance, not Pirates of Penance.”


Ruben heads back to the wheelhouse. Everyone is still standing on Ruben’s duty line, awaiting orders.  The captain has been training the others how to sail for weeks and they are used to following his lead.


Verus liked to feed on sailors in the port city of Calais three dozen kilometers from the vamperic capital, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. Ruben has nothing new to teach me. He however, had to learn the technology of modern sailing. In his previous voyages, the way of finding water depth beneath the ship consisted of a rock tied to a knotted rope. Now the information appears on a computer screen.


Aggie hands out the assignments I assume Ruben would have if he stuck around. She knows better than to try and assign me such a menial task. The others work, moving the sails into a functioning position. When they’re done everyone scatters to their own rooms. I stay on deck, watching the sun move toward the horizon. The blessed silence is broken only by the splash of water against the hull and the sound of fabric harnessing the wind.


When night comes I sneak away from my stateroom to lie on the bowsprit netting and watch the stars. When I jump on the netting, I find it already occupied. Thomas sits at the end of the bow, watching the gentle waves of the Caribbean Sea.


“Will you be here long?” I ask.


He startles and jumps up. “I’ll just be on my way.”


His contempt for me must be extreme if he cannot even stand to share the same deck. “I did not command your departure. I simply asked if you will be occupying this area for long.”


Watching his feet he stutters, “I can’t…I shouldn’t…”


If there is a reason for his disgust with me, he ought to at least inform me. We will be stuck on this boat for months.


“Why do you dislike me more than the others?  I understand the hatred of the others, but they can at least look at me. What have I done to anger you, other than fail to produce the Tara you all want?”


Hurried footsteps patter down a hallway below deck then suddenly stop.


Thomas looks to me with a broken countenance. “You’ve done nothing to anger me, quite the opposite. It’s my offense against you that haunts me. I have no right to speak to you.”


“What offense could you have possibly committed to cause such distress?”


He pauses, and flinches again. Part of me wonders if those footsteps were Alexander’s. Is there some silent conversation Thomas is having with the telepath? “You don’t remember this. It was months ago when you were lost to abomination.”


Fear claws up my throat. Abomination is what they call the possession of a mind by Verus’s memories. I hate that it controls me, but that fear will not give me answers I want.


“Go on.”


Thomas swallows. “We took a vote on two differing opinions. There was nothing we could do to help you and I felt there was only one option left.”


“Which was?”


“It was my idea to end your misery and kill you,” Thomas says.


None of them, not even Duncan has told me of this. “And who voted which way?”


“Ruben, Duncan, Ann, Aggie, and I voted in favor of, with Alex and Cora against. I volunteered to physically carry out your execution.”


Five-to-two in favor of releasing me from that soul razing hell. “Then why do I live, such as I am?”


Thomas speaks with a whisper. “Cora stopped us.”


“How typical for her, interfering where she has no right.”


His head whips up. “Interfering? She saved your life! I was going to do it. Your head was in my hands. I sedated Alex and Ruben dragged him from your side. Cora threw me outside. Don’t you understand? I almost killed you and here you are. If it wasn’t for Cora you wouldn’t be here.”


At least his strange behavior makes sense now. “Were you really going to do it?” I whisper.


“Yes, and every day I feel guilty for it.”


What courage and compassion. I lift his chin. “Thank you.”


He jolts a half step back. “Why would you thank me for something like that?”


His question would make me smile if he was not so distraught. I climb to the edge of the bowsprit with him and offer my hand. “Please, sit with me.”


I pat his knee opposite mine. “You would have taken the burden upon yourself to spare me suffering. You were willing to take the life of your wife’s sister and live with the consequences just to save me.”


“I still don’t understand.”


“Do you think Arianna would have looked at you the same way she does now had you succeeded? Perhaps she would not have abandoned you, she is kind. But the image of my death would play in her mind over and over, and that memory would be you finishing what Verus started. I thank you for your willingness to carry such a burden.”


“But you would have died.”


“Who says I do not desire it still?”


Thomas chokes. “If you’re asking me to-”


“I am not asking you to execute me. I am only stating sometimes I still desire death.”


“Why want to die when you have so much to live for? When I agreed to kill you, it was because your choice was to experience one more death or death over and over. That’s no longer the case.”


“Death is an escape. I have experienced every age, language, profession, and pain this world has to offer. What can the world offer me that I have not already seen and suffered?”


Thomas holds my hand. “Maybe it’s not about what the world can offer you, but what you can offer the world.”


“I have nothing they want.” I say, jerking my hand from his grasp. “I have nothing I want. I will never be their Tara and am doomed to suffer their disappointment forever. I did not even want to be here. I wanted to go back to the Noricum, but Duncan talked me out of it. I belong nowhere, and to no one. They will never truly want us…I mean me.”


He shows his palms, the universal sign of non-aggression. “That’s not true. You have two things we all want from you. Only you can give us your honesty and an extra pair of hands on this ship.”


“Honesty?”


“Yes, honesty and work. Honesty is something we have always valued. It has nothing to do with who you were or are. Work is simple and will get you out of your depression.”


The nerve of this infant.


“Depression? It elates me to know you think there is yet another thing wrong with me.”


“No, Taralie, another thing right with you.”


“Speak sense, Thomas.”


“I felt the extreme adrenalin levels you lived with for months in abomination and I didn’t even see it the way you had to. It was impossible to be around you for any real amount of time, your panic was so intense. Your current mental state is perfectly normal all things considered. It means you don’t find satisfaction in the suffering of Verus’s victims as he does, and are depressed from the weight of it. As you should be.”


Such a truth has never been known, let alone spoken. “How do you know Verus loves to watch himself be the hunter?”


“You aren’t the only one who’s seen inside the minds of monsters. Alex told me.”


How much have they have analyzed me? Did they mourn for what I was, or delude themselves with hope of their Tara’s return. “We always fight him. We will always be hunted by him. One day I will tire of the fear and give myself over to his or another demigod’s memories, just to live in a place where I am not the hunted. Alexander may have seen inside the minds of monsters, but he’ll never understand that letting the monster take over is where I do not fear for my life.”


Thomas squeezes my hands lightly. “You’re not him.”


How wrong he is.


“I am tired of fighting and when I give up, Verus will take over. No matter how much I look like Alexander’s wife, someday I will become Verus and you along with the rest of your family need to accept that.”


“Do you want my advice?”


“Are you going to give me a choice?”


“Do things Verus would’ve never done. From what Alex has told me, he’d never volunteer to scrub a deck, wash a window, polish chrome, or grind up fish. Stop waiting for things to happen to you, you’ve had more than your share of that. Also, talk to us more. Even about stupid stuff. Pull a prank or two. It won’t cost you anything to have a little fun.”


I expected words of hope to have more substance. He jiggles my hand lightly. “What? Tell me.”


An insect lands on my dark blue dress and I brush it off. “It will cost me something. I do not like the way they look at me.”


“How do we look at you?”


“Regretfully.”


“I can tell you all day long that we are not disappointed with you, but I know you won’t believe me.”


“Because it sounds ludicrous.”


“Well, we’re on a huge sailboat at the edge of the Caribbean Sea headed for the tip of South America with one telepath, one over-eager captain, a former prefect from Scotland, and four former halfling witches on board, one of which is Cora. We’re all pretty ludicrous.”


A quiet chuckle surprises me. It sounds unnatural coming from my throat. “Coralia is not very kind to you.”


He slumps a little. “We had differing opinions. She’s still upset because I was the one spearheading the effort to execute you. Cora is-”


“No longer your problem. I will attend to that particular matter.”


He cringes. “Don’t start anything with her on my account. She’s entitled to her feelings.”


“You said I should speak more and have honesty to offer, did you not?”


“Yes I did.”


“Very well then. Let us see if your hypothesis is correct. But for now, thank you.”


“For what?”


“You have been more forthcoming with me than I expected. If you will indulge me further I have another question.”


“Of course.”


“I want to know why I was not told of this vote before now.”


He flinches again. Now I know Alexander is speaking to his mind. “The group decided to keep it from you. It was unfair to those who voted for your execution that you knew who voted which way. Your recovery wasn’t an option at the time.”


If Thomas is lying, he could have come up with something more flattering than that. “That is a poor excuse but I will overlook it. I would like to point out telling me has increased my trust in you. Let that be upon your mind should the group decide I am not fit to receive information of this or any nature.”


Coralia along with the rest of the boat’s occupants, even Duncan, comes up the stairs. I jump off the netting to face the eavesdroppers.


Coralia says, “Hey don’t look at me like that. I wanted to tell you.”


“Your poor treatment of Thomas ends today.”


Coralia inhales, then carefully walks across the deck, around the dinghy and lifeboat, and stands in front of me. “Okay I know this is going to sound mean, but…how I treat Thomas is between him and me.”


Thomas slinks away toward the others.


“I am making it my business. It is because of his willingness to put decency before desire you antagonize him. It ends today.”


As I turn away she catches me by my wrist.  “There’s no universe where killing you was decent.”


I yank my hand back. “It is a cruel universe where not killing me was decent. Dying was my choice. Who were you to deny me?”


“You were possessed, by Verus of all people. We had no way to know if you knew what you were asking for. I will not apologize for keeping you alive. You deserved the chance to live. Thomas was going to kill my sister, that’s why I hate him.”


As always with Coralia, I am angry. Thomas does not think I am Verus, but he is wrong. Verus hates Coralia for he cannot touch her. Her callous disregard for my wishes only exacerbates the problem.


I put my lips up to her ear. “Your sister was already dead. Final death was the only thing we knew we wanted. When the name Tara lost meaning and the reference of time became useless, the only thing we knew was we wanted it to end. Do not presume to know the horror of the dying nor fault those who would have saved us from it. The want for your sister superseded the humane relief of death. Do not robe yourself in sainthood for being selfish and prolonging our suffering.”


“But I gave you the chance to save yourself.”


I take a step back from her. “An unwanted gift at best.”


“You think you’re the only one who suffered. I would have never recovered if you died. I remember when Dad was killed and I’ll do anything to keep from feeling like that again."


Her sorrow does not faze me. “If we could bear to be slain, you could bear to watch.”


“And that’s where you’re wrong.”


“Then you are weak and unwilling to do that which is necessary.”


She pauses for a few seconds. “I did what I thought was right. I will not be sorry for doing what our mother told me to.”


Everyone gasps and I become aware of our audience once again. Not even the sea birds squawk in our presence. “What do you mean…what our mother told you to do?”


Coralia juts her chin and squares her shoulders. “One of the halfling children Alex and I rescued can see the dead. Mom and Dad sent a message through her before we arrived. Teleri said Mom told me to always do what I thought was right. Watching you suffer like that was hardest thing I’ve ever done.”


As much as I want to hate Coralia, there is no way I can fault her conviction if she had such an experience. “Be that as it may, your poor treatment of Thomas ends today. I will concede you had powerful reasons to act on what you thought was right if you admit you had no right to deny my request, especially when outvoted. I am the injured party here, not you. I had every right to forfeit my life. Thomas did nothing wrong and as such has no penalty to pay. Your mother would have wanted peace among us and you have the ability to grant this. Agreed?  And if I see or hear you treating Thomas differently than anyone else, there will be consequences.”


Before Coralia replies I push past the silent vampires still on the stairs and retreat to my stateroom. Arianna whispers, “Thank you,” as I pass. Coralia professes her dedication to family, but Thomas’s sweet wife, Arianna, suffers from Coralia’s grudge. 


I spend the rest of the night sewing another dress, distracted by what Thomas said.


***


A few mornings later in the wheelhouse, Ruben plots a course. When I show up for my watch he is sitting at a navigation table with large paper maps spread over it.


Leaning over his shoulder, I peek at his plans. “I do not think we will make the distance you have marked today. With the seas building from the incoming storm, even pinching the sails will cease to move us. We should use the engines until we hit the Gulf Stream current if you wish to be north of the Andros Barrier Reef before the storm arrives.”


He leans back from his charts and rests his hands on top of his head. “We didn’t have a place to gas up before we left Belize, but we have a quarter tank left. We’ll pull thirteen knots with those diesels if we spill all the sails. We don’t need to burn gas fighting the wind. We’ve been tacking pretty hard to get as far as we have against the trade winds, but the engines could take care of that.”


This boat has proven impressive, it can practically sail upwind. Triangle sails eclipse the square sails of old.


“Augusta will be pleased with the ease of using the engines.”


He looks up at me and smiles. “Can I say something that might make you feel uncomfortable?”


“If you must.”


“That was a nice thing you did for Thomas a few nights ago.”


“It was the least I could do. I was in his debt and have cleared my ledger.”


“So, you’re all right with the fact that I was also on the kill-Tara-for-her-own-good side?”


Such a question phrased jovially, Ruben amuses me more than the rest combined. “I am more than all right with it.”


“Good, because I’ve been wondering about that for a while. I know Alex was the one who really didn’t want to tell you but honestly, nobody wanted to bring it up. I always assumed you knew on some level, but I don’t have a power like Thomas or Alex so I don’t understand the nuts and bolts of abomination as well as they do. I’m glad the point is moot now.”


My belief that Thomas was wholly honest with me seems misplaced after all. “Alexander is the one who did not want to tell me? Thomas said it was a group decision.”


Realization dawns on his face. He was not supposed to tell me that. His eyes shift around, this time he is the one looking for a quick exit.



Chapter 2 – Aletheia


Alex


She’s so beautiful sitting on deck, stitching a dress. The sun illuminates her red braids. Wrapped into a crown, her hair recreates seventeenth century Europe, just like her clothes. She ordered yards of antique fabric from warehouses in Europe to make them herself. They are a reminder the woman before me with needle and thread is not really my wife.


Tara died months ago.


Taralie
looks at me with the same cold indifference she always has since Draco took her.


Cora thinks I coddle Taralie too much. She’s never been married, never had the fires of loss burn her, never lost her love. She’s never felt the exhilaration that comes when loneliness you settled for is swept away by a silent mind and intense love.


I don’t begrudge her naiveté. In a way, she’s lucky. The Severin sisters are alike in so many ways, yet still unique. In living with them I get to keep a piece of Tara alive.


Cora is the most like Tara was with her passion for life, but Cora doesn’t always think before she acts. Aggie shared Tara’s analytical nature. I have never been able to see into Tara’s mind so it’s only an educated guess. Ann wears her tenderness on her sleeve. It makes the sisters and the rest of us very protective of her, especially her husband Thomas. Tara had that same tenderness. I was probably the only one who ever saw it.


That’s all gone now.


I started painting again and that, along with my family, is my only solace. There’s no way to move on with life when I have to see the shell of my wife every day.


She’s Tara, but not really.


If anything her demeanor and dress is more like Sabine, the Noricum queen. She’s quiet, watches everything and is decisive when she finally speaks. Other times it’s like she’s barely present. I use the times she drifts in thought to watch her without getting scowled at.


Despite everything I have gone through, nothing has changed. Here I am again…lonely in a sea of voices.


***


Looking around Galileo, our luxury yacht, the amount of amenities are staggering. When Ruben was a sailor in the eighteen hundreds with the American Navy, he never imagined whirlpool bathtubs in master suites or a sound system wired throughout the ship.


A vessel this size offers plenty to do. Our goal in undertaking this voyage was to break the idle habits driving us crazy. Galileo definitely keeps our hands busy and the sisters and I are so new to this, it occupies most of our minds as well. Taralie looks out of place in her old-world dresses. She glides up and down the decks with the regality of a Noricum queen while hoisting a boom it would take three human men to lift.


The late morning sun warms the back of my neck as I untangle the fishnets Cora left in a heap earlier. She’s supposed to be helping me. Instead she’s looking over the bow, gesturing for me to join her. “Alex, look! Huge fish are jumping ahead of the boat!” Half a dozen dolphins play alongside the ship.


We both hear Taralie’s flat voice from overhead in the forward crow’s nest. “Those are not fish. They are mammals known as Stenella clymene or Clymene Dolphins.”


“Did you get that from some sixteenth century explorer Verus ate?” Cora says.


I smack her arm and chastise her silently. “What do you think you’re doing teasing her like that?”


Cora shrugs. “You know I’m just saying what everyone else is thinking.”


She could always go to the Noricum if she feels too uncomfortable here.”


She leans over the railing and says out loud, “Hey, you guys are cute and all, but I heard dolphins scare away sharks so I’m gonna need you to move along unless you want me to eat you instead.”


Taralie shouts from atop the mast, “These particular dolphins are hunted by artisan whalers using harpoons in this area and caught in fishing nets around Venezuela. You may want to consider eating a less hunted species.”


Cora laughs. “Hear that, Flipper? I’ll give you a free pass this time, but don’t scare away my dinner or we’re gonna have words.”


“Come on, Cora. Help me untangle the nets. We need some fish to chum.”


Cora shudders. The only thing she hates more than chum is rats.


***


Seven days into our trip we’re one day west of Andros Island and the Bahamas. Between adjusting the sails for wind changes, monitoring the currents, and fixing things that break, our days stay amusing. Scrubbing guano off the sun and other decks with a brush on your hands and knees is among my least favorite. No matter how fast you scrub, it pretty much looks the same when you’re done with it.


Even though we can see well enough at night to do chores, we regulate the upkeep and operation of the boat to daylight hours. After dusk we secure the sails and drop the parachute style sea anchor before getting nights to ourselves. I’m itching to paint. The size of our yacht eliminates most of the rolling from waves, so painting small details is still possible. I’ll be more concerned when we hit rougher weather.


This morning is no different from any other day as we assemble on deck for Ruben’s daily briefing. Taralie wears her hair up as usual, donning a heavier black dress embroidered with gold thread she did herself. She’s at one end of the ready line while I’m at the other. Duncan stands next to her as always.


Aggie whispers to Ann. “If Cora doesn’t show up soon, Ruben will give her an extra day of chumming duty.”


A couple seconds later Cora emerges from below. She nudges me with her elbow and whispers, “Give me a warning if Ruben gets any punitive ideas.”


I’ll do no such thing.


Ruben walks down the stairs to the wheelhouse reading a weather report. “All right guys. we’ve got a storm headed our way so I want to cover as much distance as possible, pressing on through the night if we have to. Galileo needs to get far enough east to make a hard turn north so we can make it into the deeper water north of the Andros Barrier Reef and east of Florida before the storm hits. We’re at the tail end of hurricane season so this should be the last gasp before she quiets down for a few months.”


Cora says, “So no wind surfing?”


Ruben ignores her. “When we get far enough north along the U.S. coast from the gulfstream current we can flip southeast and make good time with the northeasterly trade winds. They’ll finally work for us instead of against us. We’re gonna be manning the rig for extra-long shifts today so get comfortable. We won’t fish or chum until after the storm passes, we’ll eat after stocking up on provisions in Nassau.”


“Woo-hoo, no fish guts!” Cora cheers then offers Ruben a high five. “Up top!”


***


After we anchor up off of Paradise Island, I’m in my room next to Taralie’s waiting for her to get ready. Everyone else is already shopping in Nassau and Duncan knocks on her door.


“Declare yourself.”


Duncan replies, “It is me.”


“Aggie said you would need to wear these as your regular clothes look very out of place in the city.”


“Thank you. I shall dress directly.” She closes her door a little harder than needed.


I poke my head into the hallway and speak to Duncan silently. “I’m catching a ride with you two.”


“Of course. Are you sure you will not accompany us in town?”


“You and I both know she doesn’t want me there.”


“I would like you there.”


“Why?”


“I have never been in public with her. What if something goes wrong?”


“I’ll keep my mind on you and be there as fast as I can.”


Suddenly her door opens. Aggie has given her lightweight fabric sleeved long black dress, and a big, tan, straw sun hat. She points a solitary finger at him in jest, “Do not say anything.”


He chuckles and offers his arm. As a true gentleman, he replies, “Shall we?”


His posture of formality is completely out of place with his T-shirt and jeans clothing style, a mash up of centuries. “We shall.”


He calls out, “Alex, we’re going up top. Meet you there.”


The others have teleported to a flea market in Nassau. As they’re still within my range I’ll have no trouble finding them. The dinghy is nearly to shore and the excitement from Duncan is impossible to miss. Before he defected from the Noricum, he was a prefect in New York City. He has never complained about the self-imposed exile made necessary by his defection. According to him he likes it better than all his years as a favored Noricum.


The ride to Paradise Island is awkward as Taralie hides behind oversized sunglasses and big floppy hat. After tying up the dinghy at a dock, Taralie and Duncan flag a cab.


While climbing in, Taralie says to the driver, “Pran nou nan sant komèsyal la ki pi pre.”


He speaks in a heavily accented voice. “I speak English.”


Duncan laughs. “Then speak it to her because I have no idea what she just said.”


Being that she asked to be taken to a shopping market, the driver isn’t surprised she’s giving the orders. He asks, “You want shopping?”


Then, Taralie actually chuckles. “Wi, mwen vle fè makèt.”


***


Aggie, Ann, and Thomas are moving through the flea market in Nassau. It doesn’t look like my day will improve anytime soon.


“Three bead shirt for fifteen dollar.” The old shopkeeper speaks in a thick accent. Aggie has dragged me through this deafening bazar for so long she no longer has trouble understanding what the woman says.


She counters. “No. I want three for eight dollar.”


It will be fun shopping at the market, she said. Think of all the money we’d save, she said. I’m about ready to strangle her with the shirt she holds.


We have more money than I know what to do with and Aggie still haggles over every item. Shopping with the sisters is always an ordeal. Adding a flea market turns annoyance to agony. I’ve been standing in this shop for twelve minutes and thirty-four seconds, not that I’m counting.


Aggie hasn’t been shopping in months and is going overboard. Ann is next in line as far as enthusiasm goes. Cora escaped shopping duty with Ruben to secure fuel and other supplies we’ll use to repair broken things at sea.


Either way, I’m stuck in a rickety old clothing hovel that sells gypsy and bohemian apparel with Aggie, Ann, and Thomas. He’s no help, greedily feeding off a mix of their dopamine and adrenalin. It’s been so long since anyone’s been this excited. I don’t want to ruin their fun.


Ann notices me standing away from the others and mentally asks me to help her plan a surprise for Thomas and Ruben. She would have done it herself except Thomas wants to have fun shopping and I am the only way she could ask someone else to do it without speaking aloud. I can’t volunteer fast enough.


The cab ride to the more upscale shopping on Paradise Island is liberating. Even with the steel drum band playing, the open mall is mercifully quieter than the bargain basement madhouse.


Just as I purchase the requested fishing gear, Aggie sends me a text saying I can use the dinghy to move the gear out to Galileo. Evidently it’s not a surprise for Aggie anymore, possibly Thomas as well. At this rate only Cora, Ruben, and Duncan will be surprised. Taralie probably won’t notice.


With the fishing gear safely hidden in my room, I take the dinghy back to Paradise Island and look inside a music store in the courtyard. Much to my delight it has a variety of stringed instruments, including a 1930s Mittenwald violin. They’re not rare, but they are high quality and this one sounds like silk.


Just before the attendant hands me the violin case, the bell on the door jingles and a familiar laugh erases all other noises from my awareness. Taralie and Duncan walk in the store entryway.


Then she sees me and freezes.


I knew they were nearby. He’s happy to see me here, but silently wonders why Taralie’s happy demeanor vanished when they walked in the door.


“Fancy meeting you here.”


I clear my throat. “The others will be along shortly.”


“Excellent. Would you like to join us until then?”


Taralie’s mysterious face starts to move, appearing to look at the instruments on the wall from behind huge sunglasses. I say, “I wouldn’t want to intrude.”


“Very well, we will see you back on the boat.”


I collect my receipt and credit card from the clerk. “Taralie, Duncan.”


“Alexander,” she says right before the shop door closes.


Taking my new violin I walk down a nearby street to give Taralie privacy. Why did she have a happy demeanor when she got into the cab in the first place? That’s not like Taralie at all. Duncan’s mind is the perfect place to watch her without being seen.


They stop to look at a set of four tear drop crystals hanging on chains – The Elementals they call them.


Duncan pulls her into the Swarovski crystal shop, intent on buying the set for her and the sisters as a gift. The sales attendant asks Duncan if she can help his wife find anything.


It’s a swift kick to the gut. A new reminder of how much I miss my Tara.


Duncan fastens a pendant around Taralie’s neck.


I find myself wanting to strangle my friend. He thinks nothing of touching her so casually.


While Taralie looks at herself in the mirror, Duncan purchases the elemental set and has them gift wrapped. Then, without warning, Taralie sinks to the ground trembling and clawing at the floor. Tiles break underneath her grasp as the other patrons jump back in surprise.


I bolt for the store.


She screams and her arm jerks, accidently breaking a display case. An alarm goes off while she pleads in Italian. “
Si prega di non uccidere il mio bambino. Prendete me, ma lo risparmierà.”


She’s begging for the life of her son and offers herself up in exchange.


The manager calls an ambulance.


Duncan’s mind screams at me, “Alex, get over here now!”


“I’m on my way.”


“Taralie?” Duncan says and gently strokes her cheek with his fingertips.
“Find the crumbling stone in your hands. In the stone is safety.”


The manager asks, “Is your wife all right, sir?”


“She is fine.” Duncan answers.


“Are you sure because I’ve called-”


Taralie barks, “He said I am fine!”


The manager jumps back as I yank open the door. Taralie quickly staggers to her feet and says to Duncan, “I want to leave.”


The manager says, “But Sir, the damages.”


I stride forward, throwing several large bills down. “This should cover it. If it doesn’t, put it on the card you just ran.”


Duncan picks up a black gift bag and cello from the attendant then leaves with Taralie. Following them, everyone walks briskly in silence until we get to the dock. Duncan sits her on a bench in the dinghy and I start the propeller.


Taking her out was a bad idea.  She may not be able to stand me, but we need to find out how bad this relapse was. “Does this happen often?”


She hisses, “Do not tell anyone of this. We wear heavy gowns so you cannot see us search to feel the real world.”


Duncan asks, “Why would you hide this?”


“We will not abide everyone’s looks of disappointment and disgust while our weakness is displayed before them.”


She is much sicker than she’s been letting on, even to Duncan and she’s regressing to using we as opposed to I when referring to herself.


I ask, “Do you really think we are disappointed in you?”


“You were not supposed to see that and are to tell no one.”


She’s deflecting the question, but at least she’s talking. “Why?”


“We…I do not want help.”


“Will you explain that please?” Duncan asks.


“I do not have to explain myself to you,” she snaps at me.


I answer, “I’m only asking.”


Her shoulders slump a tinge. “You are correct. I apologize for my harshness.”


“Thank you.”


She’s silent just long enough for me to wonder if she’s still there. “Taralie?”


“Thomas said I could give you honesty.”


“Please.”


She wrings her hands. “I feel like Verus. We spent so much time as him, it is part of who I am now. He and I are your enemy. My mere existence robs you of your inamorata. You tolerate my presence because I look like her, but you do not want me.”


She wipes an eye beneath her sunglasses. Her fingertips come out wet with tears.


Duncan puts his hand on her shoulder, drawing her attention. “You know I enjoy you as you are now, but you take too much upon yourself. If anything their Tara did this to you.”


She shakes her head and sniffles. “I cannot afford to think like that. Everyone loved Tara. If I blame her for reading Verus, I will hate her. I do not want to hate. I am so tired of being angry, guilty, and rejected. I still wish for death, just to escape it. There is no way around this quandary.”


Poor Taralie. She doesn’t want our help because it reminds her we don’t want her. It’s true. I want my Tara back. But the woman sitting in front of me wants something too, to be accepted for who she is. My desire for Tara blinded me to how much that hurts the woman sitting in front of me.


Maybe Thomas is right. I try to take her hands, but she pulls them away. “Can I give you honesty as well?”


The sunglasses hide her eyes. She may not slap me for speaking so candidly about painful subjects.


“I think you inherited some of my Tara’s disposition as well. Just like you, she always had a darkness about her.”


“A darkness?”


“You’re sad because we want the old Tara. You hide now by keeping to yourself but in doing so, it’s you against Verus. That causes more sadness, fear, and anger. You told Thomas you wanted honesty. That is the truth as I see it. You are welcome to take it or leave it.”


She purses her lips.


“I withdraw out of respect. You are a good people and do not need the filth of Verus’s soul in your lives. What do you expect me to do? Parade this ugly festering mind in front of you, reminding us both I am more Noricum royalty than Milunfran witch?”


I don’t have an answer for her.

***

            

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