Memory

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

It‭’‬s half theatrics and half misplaced nostalgia.‭ ‬After all,‭ ‬she doesn‭’‬t need the sword to kill him.‭ ‬She could drown him in the vast expanse of water that is slowly eroding all the coasts,‭ ‬eating the land bit by bit.‭ ‬But it seems to have become tradition and there are few things to cling on to these days.‭ ‬As a result,‭ ‬she carries the sword and waits by the sea.

She‭’‬s spent a thousand years waiting.‭ ‬In deserts and ice plains and jungles,‭ ‬before the world began to drown.‭ ‬The sword has been a handy companion.‭ ‬Along with death and Zaniel,‭ ‬she‭’‬s had few constants.‭

Immortality,‭ ‬it turns out,‭ ‬can be such‭ ‬a boring proposition.‭

Lei traces alchemical symbols in the sand,‭ ‬then erases them.‭ ‬When she looks up it is nearly dusk and there‭’‬s a tall,‭ ‬thin shadow walking towards her.

She straightens up and nods in his direction.‭ ‬Zaniel has let his hair and beard grow.‭ ‬His clothes are simple and look worn.‭ ‬There was a time when he dressed with the finery of a king,‭ ‬but that has come and gone.‭ ‬His sword,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬is the same.‭ ‬She recognizes the wicked blade and smirks.

‎“‏You‭’‬re late,‭”‬ Lei tells him.‭

“I stopped to see an old temple sink into the ocean.‎ ‏Half a dozen coffins floated away,‭”‬ he says.‭ “‬There was treasure in the water.‭ ‬Look.‭”

He holds up a gold necklace.‭ ‬It looks heavy and ugly in the style that was fashionable three hundred years before.‭

“Do you want it‎?”‏ he asks.

‎“‏I‭’‬ll pry it from your hands after I‭’‬ve struck you down,‭”‬ she says,‭ ‬unwilling to accept gifts from him.

‎“‏If you wish,‭”‬ he says with a shrug.‭

The last time she met him,‭ ‬a century before,‭ ‬he‭ ‬sliced her open like a fish and stole her ship and crew,‭ ‬leaving only her sword behind.‭

They‭ ‬never took each other‭’‬s weapons.‭ ‬Taking each other‭’‬s lives seems natural,‭ ‬but picking his sword is mildly repulsive.‭

“Shall we spar now‎?”‏ she asks.

‎“‏Let us talk for a minute.‭ ‬Unless you are eager to begin.‭”

Her last death cost Lei some important memories and she lost a whole decade of her life,‭ ‬plus a number of key spells in the process.‭ ‬She itches to erase a few crucial moments from his life,‭ ‬to cut a bit of his past from his mind.‭

She rolls her eyes.‭ “‬All talk.‭ ‬You‭’‬re still all talk.‭ ‬It got you murdered half a dozen times,‭ ‬don‭’‬t you recall‭?”

“And you are too rash.‎ ‏It cost you five lives,‭”‬ Zaniel says with a self-satisfied smile.‭

Five‭? ‬Zaniel had been much‭ ‬more skilled than her in the beginning,‭ ‬when she was young,‭ ‬but it couldn‭’‬t have really been five.‭ ‬Had their circle of revenge stretched further than she thought‭?

Lei shakes her head.

‎“‏Four,‭”‬ she says.‭ “‬I remember four.‭”

“Then you lost one the last time we met.‎”

“I suppose so.‎”

“What else have you lost‎?”

“Pardon me‎?”

“I was thinking,‎”‏ he says,‎ ‏looking towards the sea,‭ “‬that I don‭’‬t remember my childhood.‭”

“You what‎?”

“No.‎ ‏I think it‭’‬s gone.‭ ‬Completely gone.‭ ‬What is your oldest memory‭?”

Truth be told it‭’‬s‭ ‬him.‭ ‬It‭’‬s the fire and the stench of the smoke and the cries of the dying.‭ ‬Her city under‭ ‬siege.‭ ‬The sound of her feet as she rushes up the tower,‭ ‬heart racing and lips parted and praying hard.‭

She thinks she had a sister.

She is not sure anymore.

‎“‏War,‭”‬ Lei mutters.‭ “‬My oldest memory is war.‭”‬

He is holding the necklace in his hands,‭ ‬thumb brushing over its engraved surface.‭ ‬His brow is furrowed.‭ ‬She tugs the piece of jewellery from him and holds it up.‭ ‬It shines brightly under the rays of the dying sun.

‎“‏I can‭’‬t believe these silly trinkets still hold your attention.‭ ‬Do you continue to collect pearls‭?”

“No.‎ ‏I don‭’‬t collect anything.‭ ‬Scooping it out of the water was merely a whim.‭”

In truth he didn‭’‬t look like the kind of man who would carry strings of pearls in his pockets,‭ ‬large rings on his hands,‭ ‬though he‭’‬d had a beautiful palace once upon time.‭ ‬Lei thinks she burned it down,‭ ‬but can not be sure.‭ ‬It is difficult to be certain,‭ ‬the same way it is difficult to be certain how she obtained the drawings running down her back.‭ ‬Alchemical symbols tattooed on her skin‭; ‬a formula for immortality.‭

“You don‎’‏t collect‭ ‬anything‭?”‬ she asks.‭ ‬She recalls his manic capacity for obsession‭ ‬– not that she is innocent in that regards‭ ‬– and finds it hard to believe he hasn‭’‬t found some new object to covet.‭

“How high do you suppose the water can rise‎?”‏ he asks,‎ ‏carelessly.‭ “‬Do you think all the islands and archipelagos could be flooded‭? ‬Do you suppose we could spend an eternity swimming in underwater temples and drowned palaces‭?”‬

“Oh,‎ ‏I‭’‬ll kill you long before that,‭”‬ she mutters,‭ ‬needled by the force of habit.

‎“‏For how long‭?”

“For good,‎ ‏one day,‭”‬ she says,‭ ‬idly raising her hand and pointing towards the sinking sun,‭ ‬as if tracing the future.‭

The necklace feels heavy.‭ ‬She tosses it to Zaniel and he tucks it into a bag hanging carelessly from his shoulder.‭ ‬Lei watches him and no longer wishes to take the necklace as a token of victory.‭ ‬He can have it.‭ ‬It‭’‬s plunder from a grave and she feels tired of leaving a trail of corpses‭ ‬and skulls.‭

“I‎’‏m tired too,‭”‬ Zaniel mutters.

It enrages Lai to realize he understands what she‭’‬s feeling.‭ ‬That they know each other‭ ‬that well and despite the deaths and carved out recollections,‭ ‬he is able to piece together her state of mind.

‎“‏Come,‭ ‬come,‭”‬ she says with a smile that tries to mimic his own particular,‭ ‬wry grin,‭ “‬chin up.‭ ‬We have eternity ahead of us.‭”

He should,‭ ‬following the sacred tradition that has bound them to battle by the sword all these years,‭ ‬reply with a smile of his own and a slash of his weapon.‭

Instead,‭ ‬Zaniel presses a hand against his chest,‭ ‬looks towards the water.

‎“‏Do you remember love‭?”

Zaniel‭’‬s head is lowered,‭ ‬so she can not make his expression.‭ ‬The question is so absurd,‭ ‬coming from his lips.‭ ‬She thinks it is a joke and expects to see him flash a grin and a dagger to her neck any second.

‎“‏I think I‭’‬ve lost it,‭”‬ he says.‭ “‬What are we if we can‭’‬t remember such a thing‭?”

She remembers love.‭ ‬She can not recall the face or the voice of the man she loved,‭ ‬the same man Zaniel killed in his conquest of her city.‭ ‬She lost the man‭’‬s name years before,‭ ‬taken by the tide of the centuries.‭ ‬Nevertheless,‭ ‬a‭ ‬little shard remains in her heart and sometimes,‭ ‬in the middle of the night,‭ ‬she wakes up crying.‭

Zaniel raises his eyes and he looks absolutely lost‭;‬ a confused stranger asking for directions.‭

“Will you tell me about it‎? ‏Do you remember love‭?”‬ he pleads.‭

For a moment she feels pity and opens her mouth to offer him the answer he wants,‭ ‬a measure of comfort and humanity.‭ ‬She wishes to share the brittle memory she carries and to rescue a drowning man.‭ ‬Because she is also drowning under the weight of death,‭ ‬revenge and the implacable passage of time.‭ ‬Because she feels herself disappearing with each cut of the blade.

But it is only a brief moment.‭

“No.‎ ‏I don‭’‬t remember,‭”‬ she lies,‭ ‬and swings her sword.‭

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