Death waited patiently, a stone at the bottom of the sea. The when did not matter to Os. Only the where. He stared out the window set above the kitchen basin, hands wrist-deep in water he’d drawn from the well and warmed in a kettle. The few dishes he owned soaked in the steaming water, forgotten for the moment. Beyond the window, a green field interweaved with white and yellow waved in a gentle breeze. Heads of baby’s breath and wildflower nodded as if in agreement to the whisper of the wind. Beyond that, rolling hills, the river running to the sea, and cities, cities of wood and stone and now, silence.
He looked down at the water, at his own reflection in broken circles rippling out with the movement of his hands. Craggy features, dark circles under the eyes, hair shorn close. He had never been a handsome man, not that it mattered. But he’d had a family, and that did. They were dead now, like everyone else. He looked down again, and pulled his hands from the water, shaking them off, then drying them on a nearby rag. He gave the plates beneath a scowl. He wasn’t sure why he still did this. No one would visit. No one would peek in through a window and remark to their neighbor on Os’ cleanliness.
Os stared through the open window for a minute more. He listened to his own breathing in the silence. Most days were like that now. A preternatural stillness that cloaked the world like a blanket. On good days, the wind stirred the leaves and the rushes and lent a lifelike ripple around him. On bad, it seemed the quiet crept inside Os, like a wedge in a stump, splitting his skull open from the inside. He’d tried to fill that absence, once. But he could only sing the same songs, talk to himself for so long before he felt it futile. Now, despite the silence, the idea of using his voice frightened him, as if the sound would do the inverse of his fear, and split the outside world.
He took one more deep breath, and with its exhale, made a decision. It was a thought that weighed on him daily, a question without an answer. Another voice in his head, a song he caught only when he turned this way or that. Music from another room. He turned from the open window and walked through the house, fingers lingering on objects as he passed. Luc’s pitcher of dried wildflowers, the petals withered and sere. He heard voices echo in the caverns of time. He smiled at the memory.
“Why?” he’d asked.
“The smells,” Luc had replied.
Luc gestured in vague circles that took in their home. “The smells. The onion and the sausage and the-” he pointed at Os’ boots. “Those.”
Os held his hands up in a gesture of defeat. “Fine. Fine.”
The memory faded and Os looked down at the pitcher again. He remembered how they’d not kept the stink of rot from his doorstep, and shook his head. He walked past, into the front room. El’s toy, a carved lion, lay on its side on the floor. He knelt and picked it up. In his mind, the light shifted, bright through yellow curtains.
“She needs a toy,” Luc had said.
The child they’d taken in played on the floor, two rocks tied with bright string in her fists, making voices for each that approximated his and Luc’s. Os knelt beside her.
She looked up, smiling, and reached for his cheeks. He chuckled and lifted her, cradling her and tickling her ribs. She burst out in laughter that hit the walls and came back to him like a wave of joy.
“Seems she has a toy already,” Os said.
Luc fixed him with his no-budge stare. “A toy, Os. Or I will find her a cat.”
“A cat?” Os made a face.
The sunlight faded, back to the hazy light he’d grown used to. He straightened, leaving the toy on its side. It only cost him a few pennies to commission, but El delighted in it. He stared around the room, at the overstuffed couch, the end tables, the books and the blankets. Os walked to an alcove beside the front door and rummaged around for a minute. His fingers closed on a scabbard, withdrawing the long knife. His chest tightened, and then he tied it to his belt. He knew he wouldn’t need it for but one purpose. He opened the door to the summer day and stepped out.
The wind was clean, a small miracle Os found himself grateful for. In the early days after the Chant, bodies rotted in the sun, in their homes, in the fields. The Chant. Os found himself cursing the magi who dreamed it up. An end to war. An end to strife. What they forgot in their working was that life needed to struggle, to fight against entropy, to survive. When they cast it, it broke that will. Men and women, bird and beast simply laid down, and stopped living.
Some, like Os, survived. Either their will overpowered the magic, or they were one of the rare immune. But inevitably, the loneliness caught up to them, and they went the way of friends and family. Blade or poison or rope or the opening of veins, the method mattered not, only the result. Some banded together, survivors clinging to survivors like clotted blood. In the end though, they all fell. Memory and emotion were powerful drugs, and under their influence, even the strongest could break into a shambles.
The path crunched beneath his boots, breaking the silence into mercifully small parcels. Glimpses of white flashed between the grasses, and Os turned his head, facing down the path. Had there still been birds, he imagined his passage would have disturbed their pickings. Instead, bone and cloth bundles lay undisturbed in the long grasses of the fields, tools rusting in fallow soil. The glint of sun on steel drew his gaze, and he flicked a glance over to an abandoned plow, harness and leads drooping. The sight drew out the memory of Onder’s pride in the tool.
“Twice as many acres in half the time,” Onder had said.
“Yeah?” Os replied. “Anneia will be happy to hear that, I expect.”
Onder bobbed his head. He wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead with a rag stained white at the edges with salt. “Aye, she’s been wanting more time.”
Os thought of Luc and El with a twinge of guilt. His pension was plenty for them live on. It kept them fed, kept the roof over their head. Time spent with family was valuable coin, coin he had to spare in those days. He thought it would last, like coffers spilling over with gold. He’d had all he needed. At least, he’d thought. The memory faded, and Os glanced behind him. The roof of his cottage peeked from behind the crest of a hill. Orange tiles reflected the sun like a knife meant for his heart but striking his eyes. He blinked away the glare and the moisture that threatened to spill the cup of his eyelids, then hitched his belt and moved on.
The cottage and the plow disappeared from view as Os made his way down the country road. The grasses grew taller, and by the time his path crossed that of the Imperium Way, they waved above his head like dying arms reaching for the memory of light. Summers past, they never would have been allowed to grow so unruly, the Imperium stoic in its pursuit of order, slow and implacable. The will of man over that of nature. Mow and tame. Mow and tame. He supposed in a way, the engineers would be pleased. Not even the buzz of gnat, cry of crow, or rustle of field mouse marred the summer day.
Os wove his way between carts and wagons littering the road. Great skeletons still wore their harnesses, feet folded neatly beneath them, heads in restful repose. Drivers laid in the grass nearby, whips and crops and reins forgotten on wooden benches. He didn’t stop to look inside, ignored the human tug of curiosity brought on by canvas covering and folded curtain. He knew he’d only see that which already haunted him across the years. The wreckage of stolen lives held as much interest for him as the taste of blood in his mouth. Coppery and slick, like a penny hidden under the tongue.
The frame of a schoolhouse rose to his right, and unbidden, the image of El, sweeping from its doors as the bell in the steeple rang. Luc snapping her up in his long slender arms, spinning, their laughter filling the air. Her smile, bright as a summer tulip, blazed in Os’ mind. His limbs trembled, his legs threatened to spill him to his knees. His vision doubled, and for a moment, he nearly let it happen. The thought of hard gravel digging into his skin, drawing blood, drawing perhaps shame or anger at his loss of control was welcome, if only briefly. He dashed the tears from his eyes with determined fingers, forced himself to move on. If he felt something other than the need to see an end to this, to meet his grief head on instead of at oblique angles, he might find himself in the grass and dirt instead.
Os made good time as he pushed his feelings down, parceling them up on a shelf in his mind. He would open them when ready, a gift he didn’t particularly want, but could not avoid. Ahead, the path diverged. Forward and down, the city in the valley. A necropolis now, but once it teemed with life. Great bazaars once flowed in the streets, living things of men and women, children shouting and running, streamers on sticks flying behind them as they wove between legs like foxes in a forest. Bright bunting and banners flew overhead, the stink of forge and tanner, smells of roast meat and vegetable and savory spice weaving between and infusing cloth like dye. Bread and sweetbreads baking, the aroma like the comfort of a warm blanket. Over it all, the press and swell and crush and scent of humanity, of bodies warm and joyous, sad and broken, bright flowers pushing their way between the cracked flagstones of the city.
It was where Os had taken his commission, to fight for the glory of the empire, though if he was truthful, it was to put food in his mouth and clothes on his back. A first step on a long road paved with blood and bone and sweat. He’d lived by the blade, but with all things, steel remained strong through the slow march of years while flesh faded. He hung up his blade, took his pension. For a while, he was content alone in that cottage in the hills. For a time, the call of cricket and sparrow and the song of wind through the wheat was enough to calm the ceaseless crash of body and metal in his head, to the slow the impetus of horror thrust into his youth like a knife in the ribs.
Then he’d heard Luc’s laughter in a tavern, bright and silver, brown eyes dancing with mirth. Not long after, he’d heard El’s, gold like her hair, heavy and rich, when Luc had coaxed her from an alley with a morsel of food and a coin danced across his knuckles. But even time tarnishes silver and gold, and only the memory of their bright shine remains.
Os found himself on the left-hand path. Already he had climbed halfway as memory played through his head. For a time, he listened to the wind brush against the slope of the rock like an insistent lover. He imagined he heard whispered promises in the susurrus, and shook his head to clear it. He’d heard the Chant described that way once, a whisper of a song, the tease of a memory of something better, brighter than this life of mud and misery. Briefly he wondered if he heard it now. Would he know? Did it matter?
He crested the rise and stepped to the edge of the promontory of rock. Below, a still world. A lover holding its breath. A wave poised at its crest. He saw to the reaches of the land. Tall grasses of the plains, a sparkling rill of silver cutting through green and gold like a steel ribbon. The skeletons of airships furrowed the grass like rocks thrown by a petulant child, their magics stilled, their crew silent. Beyond that, the forest, the wolves voiceless, and beyond the forest, something between both until the land ran to the sea, a sliver of blue that snapped at the horizon like a hungry dog.
Os used to bring them here, Luc standing fearlessly at the edge, El behind his legs, clutching at the fabric. The wind blew, tousling hair and clothing, and Os lifted El so she could spread her arms, pretend she was flying, eyes bright with fear and joy at the prospect of soaring into a great blue nothing like the ships that drifted above.
An illusion. In the end, no one had flown. The Chant had taken them some time ago, leaving only bones in their place. Bones that had forgotten the trick of speech, the sound of laughter, forgotten the spell of flesh and warmth. Bones hold memories, but only for the living, Os thought.
He unbuckled the knife, drew it from the scabbard. The steel shone in the afternoon light. He pressed the blade into a fissure in the rock, letting it stand upright like a standard. In the end, steel always outlived flesh. He stepped to the edge and stood on tiptoes, then spread his arms as El once had. With a sigh that spoke of an exhaustion borne of a burden he had been given but never bought, he closed his eyes. The wind sang to him, and for a moment, he heard the bright chime of silver and gold.