By: Nick Palmer
The lights of the city reflected in the water were reduced to a kind of pointillism by the heavy rainfall. Isolde Drake, pale hands spread across the stone of the bridge’s balustrade, did not mind the rain. She had seen much worse storms in her time and, besides, she had an appointment to keep. A glance at the clock on the tower across the water told her that the person she was here to meet was late. Unusual of him to be late. Unusual of her to be early.
She hopped up onto the balustrade and swung her legs over it, dangling them above the drop. She looked between her boots and the eddying murk of the water below, swirling around the struts of the bridge, the surface of the water hammered by the rain. It was a long drop and the water was shallower than you’d imagine. Still, she’d fallen further in her time and had rougher landings.
She tilted her head back, let the rain create rivulets down her cheeks and drip from her eyebrows and nose. Her hair, woven about her head in a French Crown braid, had taken in so much water that it had lost the golden notes of its auburn colour, turning to a drabber brown. Less a flame and more a late autumn leaf. Isolde closed her eyes against the water and imagined pushing herself forward. The moment of hesitation before gravity took inexorable hold. The rush of air around her as she beat the raindrops to the water below. The river opening a mouth to swallow her and the sudden impact of the bed. A broken body floating lifeless to some downstream shore. What bliss to imagine. What relief not to do.
She opened her eyes to a flash of blue lights. Lifting her legs back onto the balustrade, she turned and arranged herself as if meditating. The police officer wound down his window, casting a look skywards as if to curse the rain itself.
“Everything okay?” he said, fixing Isolde with a look of concern and duty. She replied with a look of innocence and confusion.
“Of course, Officer,” she said, beaming at him as if he was the only person in the world she could see, “Why wouldn’t it be?”
The smile unsettled him. She could tell.
“You’re close to the edge,” he said, “and it’s been raining. The stone could be slippery.”
“You mustn’t worry about me, Officer,” she said, getting down from the balustrade and walking over to the car, “It’s sweet of you and all, but there’s really no need.”
“What’s your name?” he asked, relaxing a little now that she was down on more solid ground.
“Isolde,” she said, her pale hands wrapping themselves across the wound down window, “What’s yours?”
She could see that he was trying to remain professional but also the glint in his eye. A glint like he’d found gold in the hills after years of searching.
“Jack Tyler?” she asked, giving her best theatrical intake of breath, “Weren’t you in the papers last week?”
“I was,” he said, “You read the article?”
“Devoured it.” The glint in his eye had become a smile creeping across his face. “You were very brave.”
“Oh…well…just the job, you know.”
Isolde pouted, frowning as if to contradict him with the mere movement of her eyebrows. His eyes dropped to her chest and rose as far as her pouting lips, painted scarlet.
“Do you…er…need a lift home?” he asked, “I wouldn’t want to leave you out here in this weather.”
She smiled like nothing would give her more pleasure but shook her head.
“I’m meeting someone,” she said, leaning in a little and dropping her voice to a whisper, “I’m with Five.”
His eyes widened in recognition and he nodded.
“Right,” he said, “er…ma’am. Should you have told me that?”
“Tell you what,” she said, with a wicked grin, “You promise you won’t tell anyone and I’ll let you take me out to dinner.”
“Er…I mean…okay, sure.”
“My number,” she said, producing a business card and handing it to him. He took it between thumb and forefinger, trembling a little. She couldn’t tell if it was the fear or the excitement. “Now, why don’t you head off. Knock off early. I need to make sure my contact doesn’t see me with a handsome police officer and you’ve earned the time off.”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding a little, “I suppose I have.”
“You have,” she echoed, knowing the effect it would have, “On your way, brave boy, and don’t leave it too long before you call.”
He nodded again, opened his mouth as if to speak and then closed it. He started the engine and looked at her. She got the sense that he was waiting for instructions.
“Call me soon and we’ll get together,” she said and then she tapped the roof and stepped back from the car.
He nodded one final time, revved the engine and then drove off, tail lights receding into the night. Isolde watched the car disappear and chuckled to herself. Even if the person she was here to meet didn’t show, at least this excursion hadn’t been a complete waste of time. She returned to the balustrade and checked the clock again. Five more minutes and the bells would chime the hour. She would leave then, if he had not showed.
She passed the time in imagining the scene with Officer Tyler from different approaches. In some she played the damsel role, allowed him to coax her from the balustrade, letting him think his training was paying dividends. Perhaps she had a medical emergency and he lifted her in his arms to rush her to a hospital. In others, she simply pushed him to leave her, to ignore what she might be doing out here in the rain and laughed to herself as he left her to her fate. There were so many games to be played, but she was happy enough with the one she’d chosen. Two for the price of one, in many ways.
The first of the chimes rang out from the tower and she turned from the river, intending to leave, and gasped. He was standing behind her, his eyes driving into her like spears. How long had he been there? Why did he always have to sneak up on her? More worryingly, how had she not sensed he was there?
“You came?” she said, stifling her anxiety and setting her feet to prevent herself from taking a step back.
“I gave my word,” he said, walking past her to the balustrade and looking out over the rain-washed city.
“I know, but I thought you weren’t going to show.”
“Lies are more your province than mine,” he said, his bass tones rumbling like the thunder in the sky above.
It was true, but that didn’t mean that it didn’t sting. Isolde followed him to the balustrade, turning her back to the city so that she had a better view of him. Always better to be on guard where he was concerned.
“Breaking faith with me would hardly be a lie now, would it?” she asked, resting her foot against the wall, “More like a mode of operation for your people.”
He turned to look at her, those eyes more piercing than ever.
“You dare—” he began.
Any other day he would have retaliated, met her fire with his. Today, he exhaled, somewhere between a snort and a sigh and then turned away again, sending his piercing vision across the city once more. She frowned and looked at him with fresh eyes, striving to see what was there rather than what she expected. He was still broad-chested and -shouldered, powerfully built and yet still agile. A body conditioned for battle and a mind conditioned for scholarship. A leader, able to plan campaigns and rally his troops. To meet the enemy head on and to divert their schemes and tricks. To give courage to the fearful, to give hope to the hopeless.
And yet, his posture was all wrong. His broad-shoulders slumped to his chest. His chin tilted down towards his centre. His back was not straight, like a weight pushed him down. The usual business suit was in place, but the lapels were crumpled and the cuffs had begun to tatter. His trousers were creased and his shoes were dull. His eyes rested on the city across the water but she had the sense that he saw nothing that they touched.
“Are you still Isolde Drake?” he asked, a question hinting at deep philosophy but without a care how she answered. Usually she would have mined that sentence structure for all it was worth. Ask him whether he needed her to be still or question whether one is ever still themselves after the passage of time.
“That is my name,” she said, with a curt nod, “What are you going by these days?”
“Alexander, Ezra, Micah,” he listed as if it were of no consequence, “Something Biblical.”
“Never liked the name Ezra,” she said, tapping a finger to her chin as she mused on what to call him, “You look more like a Micah to me, so I’ll call you Alexander.”
He glanced at her but it was too little a mischief to get much of a rise out of him, even if he were not robbed of his fire.
“So, Alex,” she pushed the button again, just in case, but he didn’t even look at her, “What’s new with you?”
Alexander’s eyes never left the city but Isolde saw the shift in him anyway, the desire to speak of what had led to him change, what had stolen his fire.
“Nothing,” he said, at last, as if he had weighed a great decision but had no answers.
“Really?” Isolde said, sidling towards him, forcing him to look at her. She put on her most alluring expression. “Nothing’s new?”
“Nothing,” he repeated, in a voice that reminded her of chiselled stone.
She let the seductive mask fall from her face.
“Come on, big guy,” she said, “I’ve known you forever. Something is new and it’s something you don’t like.”
“And you imagine that if I had cares or worries that I would entrust them to you?”
Isolde sighed. Always the hard way with his type.
“I get it. We chose different sides. You chose loyalty and submission. I preferred freedom and dishonour. All that was a long time ago. In the here and now, I’m willing to bet that I’m the closest thing you have to a friend.”
Alexander’s shoulders slumped further, making him hunch over the balustrade as if at any moment he might turn to water and mingle with the rain. He growled at her, a noise she had seldom heard him make, but she knew the cause of it.
“Lie to me then. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“You know I cannot.”
“Will not,” she corrected, almost out of habit, waving that point aside as a discussion for another time, “But I’m glad that you agree.”
Alexander forced his back straight, swept his eyes over the city and waved at its sprawling expanse with his hand.
“How many people call this city home? Do you know?”
“There are about eight million of us,” Isolde said, feeling a surge of pride at including herself among the city’s inhabitants, “and growing every day.”
“And how many of them have, like me, remained loyal?”
“Not including your side or mine?” Isolde asked, “Around three to three and half million.”
“I mean truly loyal, so that they could step into our world and be judged as we were judged.”
Isolde let out a ripple of laughter. Alexander scowled at her.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said, and then gave the answer he was looking for, “Not enough to make it worth counting.”
His shoulders slumped again. He descended onto the balustrade in the same way as ice fell from melting glaciers.
“It was always a losing battle,” she said with a shrug, “You must have known.”
“Yes,” he conceded, weariness oozing out of him so that he seemed surrounded by darkness, “I knew.”
“So, what’s the problem? This was never going to be about the…” she paused while she thought of an appropriate word to describe them, “…civilians.”
“It is not only the civilians, as you put it. Every night, I look up at the stars and I see nothing but a universe, once wondrous above all things, now terrible in the vastness of its empty spaces. It fills me not with hope or wonder or joy, but unimaginable dread.”
Isolde looked up at the cloud-wracked sky and waited for the wind to rise enough to push aside a cloud, revealing a twinkle of stars in the navy cloak of the heavens. She knew the emptiness that Alexander was describing. She had perceived it every time she had looked up for years heaped on years. She had learned to ignore it. Looking now, she felt the difference that meant Alexander could feel it too. The lack of a sharp edge pointing down at her.
“Yes,” she whispered, “I know. It’s the same on our side too. That’s why I wanted to meet.”
“To gloat?” he said, and she saw the flicker of a sneer and a zealous light in his eyes. She had faced much worse from him, but it scared her, nonetheless. She knew what he was. What he had been.
“To seek your counsel.”
He turned from the city and looked at her, a long searching look as if trying to discern whether she was lying or not. She kept still, letting him search, letting him use whatever power was still available to him.
It was, after all, the truth. When she had first realised that her connection to her masters had broken, that the web of contacts slung across the earth had broken down and the contacts themselves had disappeared further into the shadows they inhabited, she had felt lost. It was like the first days of her exile again. She knew what it must mean: their enemies had won and her kind were being rolled up. She tried to make contact in the ways she knew how, hoping to discover some last bastion still holding against the enemy. There had been none. She resigned herself to her fate, went into a hiding of sorts among the civilians.
But no one came for her. Nothing befell her. No knock at the door that signalled the end. So, she contacted the only other person she trusted. Her nearest enemy, because he was the closest to a friend she had left. They had fought so many times. Blood had been shed. Both had their share of victories. They worked against each other, of course, but there was a respect. An understanding that they were two sides of a coin, working in secret. A push here. A shield there. From open warfare to civilised resistance. A knowledge that once the game was done, they could shake hands across the board.
“What would you have me counsel?” he asked, finishing his discerning and deciding, for the time being it seemed, that she was speaking the truth.
“The game seems to be over. The generals have gone and most of the soldiers. And yet we remain,” she said, with him nodding along with her assessment, “What do we do now?”
“The only thing we can do,” he said and she saw him unhunch, saw the rigidity come back into his posture. He drew himself to full height and turned eyes on her that blazed with golden light. His powers were not diminished, she realised, just dormant because of the loss. “We remind the civilians why the game existed and the cost of defeat.”
“It was never about the civilians,” she repeated, “It won’t bring back our masters, if they’re gone.”
“When my master sees what has been wrought in his name, he will begin the reckoning.”
He climbed up onto the balustrade, his arms spread. He tipped his head back and let the light of his eyes blaze towards the sky. She turned away, unable to bear that hated light. It had been hers once as it was now his. She waited until it was gone to open her eyes, hoping that he too would be gone. But he still stood atop the balustrade. He closed his hands into a fist in front of him and the air above them crackled with energy. Between his fingers she saw iron-grey metal appear and above, a white blade coruscating fire. He was exultant. She recoiled from him in horror.
“What are you going to do?”
Tendrils of smoke rose from the corners of his golden eyes, shimmering in the night air. The flaming sword in his hand illuminated the look of resolution on his face. She raised a hand to shield herself from it. She had felt the edge of that sword, long ago, in the beginning, and she had no wish to feel it again.
“That covenant was made anew. Even I know that,” she said, feeling the outer skin of her mantle begin to strip away. Everything that was her cover, Isolde Drake, carried away in smoke.
“It remains,” he said, “Every jot and tittle. The civilians need to be shown the true face of the enemy and the true meaning of my master’s wrath. They forgot him once and the world knew the power of the water. Now they will know the power of his flames.”
“They’ll stop you. They don’t want this.”
“The soldiers are gone,” he said, raising the sword aloft, “You said so yourself. It’s just me now.”
He lowered the sword to his side, still spitting flames from its length. The world around it was a blur. This thing was not made in this world and this world struggled to accept it.
“You?” he laughed, eyes shining, “You would protect the civilians, after all that you have done to them? All you have made them do to each other?”
“Temptation only works on those who can be tempted,” she said, squaring herself before him, shrugging off Isolde Drake and becoming the soldier inside, “I only expose the weaknesses that already exist. Exploit the gaps in armour. To prove your master wrong. To demonstrate the slavery into which we would all fall. We have used lies to tell them the truth. Make no mistake, Alexander. If you walk this path, I will be forced to stop you.”
She expected a retort, but he lashed out instead. He kicked her hard in the chest, sending her sprawling onto her back. The wet street was cold beneath her, the rain beat against her like a volley of arrows. She looked up at him, standing on the balustrade and saw three sets of golden wings erupt from behind him. He was loosening the illusion he had worn. He was showing himself as their kind had not in thousands of years. The rain fell but not a drop touched Alexander.
“You are a worm,” he said, levelling the sword at her. She could feel the heat on her face, squinting her eyes closed to block the blinding light that seared her to the core, “You are nothing and you will not stand in my way.”
There was only one thing to do, so she did it. She rolled away from the sword tip, away from the flames and got her feet beneath her. Coiling herself like a serpent, she sprang towards him and flung out her arms to catch his midriff. He was solid. The impact rattled her teeth. But the physics of this world was made to hold up, even to this, and they both toppled from the balustrade. The ceaseless rain still stirred the water beneath the bridge. As they fell, the sword evaporated. His wings and eyes dimmed. Isolde smiled her most seductive smile.
It was a long drop and the water was shallower than you’d imagine.
Nick Palmer is a collection of atoms temporarily acting in systems. He has two degrees in medieval history and has spent the many years trying to shoehorn the knowledge into his writing. He writes fiction, poetry and plays. He is or has been a director, actor, photographer, bird watcher, pen-and-pencil role-player, podcaster, stage manager, DIY enthusiast, pedant and lover of puns. He lives near Leicester, UK in a house—just like you imagined it but different—with his wife and children.