The rest of our journey occurred without incident. Through forests and meadows and hill-dotted valleys, we travelled. We conversed little in that time. My body, still wracked with flow fatigue, and mind so flooded with fragmented images of death, sent me into a state of despair. I slept away as much as I could during the day and forced myself to continue that slumber at night. Ada remained ever-vigilant by my side.
After the fifth day of travel, the salty scent of the sea filled my nose. How long had it been? I wondered. Even in my previous life, how long had it been since I saw the sea?
I thought back to the wasted years. The years filtered away in my pursuit of… what, exactly? More money? More friends? More… what? All that desire for success and I ended up dying with nothing, achieving nothing. I can't let that happen again. Not here. Not with a second chance.
Finally, I dug deep and spoke: "Thank you, Ada."
My heart remained tight. At unease. The words came out with difficulty and the images hadn't gone away. I would keep my head up, though. I decided this: for what I had done, living would be my punishment. My atonement. I'd carry the lost into my new life, and live.
Ada looked over at me, her emerald eyes devoid of expression. "What for?" She asked.
"For looking after me," I said. "Without you I'd be-"
"O', Dead," she said, nodding. "I know. Don't think more on it."
I rolled my eyes and sighed. "Look, I just mean… Well… Thanks. I'm glad to have you by my side."
Ada stared at me, emotionless. Her hair bobbed with movement. Her button-nose pointed up in the sky. Her olive skin… It looked so soft. Almost ethereal. So young, so beautiful… My stare shot ahead, my cheeks burning.
"I want to say I'd rather be cooped up at the lord's keep, but…" she took a deep breath. "But, I'd be lying. At least out here, I can see death coming. You know, just before we left he had ten staff killed at random for the pills that you stole from the storage room. To 'send a message'. A deterrent. It wasn't the first time something like that had happened. Truthfully, it could have been me at any point at the chopping block. I guess it's better this way. To be 'free'."
We crossed a hill and the horizon opened to the deep blue maw of the ocean. It stretched out proudly into the infinite. Down by the coast, around a mile away, a village sat waiting. Small, wooden boats were anchored in its harbour, and even from there, I could see the slight bustle of commotion.
"Boundary Coast," I murmured. "That's where it all begins, huh?"
"Or ends," Ada said. She pointed out to the horizon. "Across that sea is the mainland. We're now at Sanktorere's northernmost village - the point closest to the mainland's southern coast. That means-"
"Closest to the swarm," I said gravely. "Is that why that man sent us here? To die?" I eyed the distant village and frowned. "If so, there's still so many still here. Why don't they leave?"
Ada shook her head. "A lot of people believe the swarm is a hoax. Some plan from the royal family to strip Sanktorere of its precious resources. Your father, Lord Halmer, is one of those people."
I sighed, thinking back to the old world. No matter where you go, people will fight truths for the sake of desire. To feel privileged and superior in the idea that they hold knowledge over their peers. A need to be part of something bigger.
"Even when presented with facts, people still choose the alternative," I said. "People never change."
Ada turned her head to the side, eyeing me through narrowed eyes. "Huh? People never change? You're beginning to sound like your grandfather."
"Ah," I stammered, laughing nervously. "N-no, I just mean… I get the feeling that… Uh, see… Oh! Like those farmers, I mean: people are dumb."
Ada shook her head. "Make no mistake, Kay, those farmers weren't dumb: they were desperate. A desperation imposed on by your father, nonetheless. Coveting his precious cattleplant while the country starves. Even the king does nothing, unable to take action against Halmer in fear of losing the sigil for growing the plant. When the royal army and capital citizens fled to Sanktorere, Lord Halmer smelled the profits leagues away. He had his sister and brother, the only others who knew the sigil, murdered and, well, the rest is history."
"You sound like you really hate him," I said.
Ada stiffened, swallowing hard. "N-no, I wouldn't…"
I stretched and yawned. Too used to sleeping during the day, I thought. "It's okay, Ada. Halmer's an asshole."
"You shouldn't say that," Ada said sternly.
"Halmer's an asshole," I responded.
"An. Ass. Hole."
Ada went quiet for a moment, looking ahead with that uncompromising gaze. Then, the most unexpected thing happened.
She threw her head back and started laughing. Tears trickled down her cheeks and her body jolted in joy. "H-he totally is an asshole!" She bellowed, her face flushing red.
It didn't take too long for her laughter to die down, but when it did her face still held a slight smile. "You've certainly changed, Kay," she said. "You somehow seem so much older. Different. I-I wonder what your mother would have thought."
My mother, I mused. The stink of her rotting body now existed as an ever-present traveling companion. Would it ever go away?
Something deep inside shifted. My heart wrenched. My nose congested and my throat tightened. Tears began to form at the corners of my eyes.
"What was she like?" I asked. "My mother, I mean."
Ada looked over at me and her smile faded. Her eyes became glazed and her voice cracked.
"Your mother," she began. "She was… She was my sister. Imaza. She was inspiring, beautiful, and fiercely intelligent. I… Everyone looked up to her. But, unfortunately, those traits are what drew the asshole's, Halmer's, filthy gaze. Then, eventually, you came along and…" She choked up.
Without knowing what to do, I did the only stupid thing that came to mind. I tapped her shoulder. There there, my thoughts chimed.
She shook me away, glaring.
"Don't touch me, bastard!" She growled, reducing into a fit of sobs.
I grabbed the reins from Ada and drew the carriage to a halt.
"I want to find a place to put her to rest," I said. I stared her down, my eyes fixed on her gem-like stare. Wet with tears, they sparkled like treasures under the midday sun.
"Look," I said. "I can't pretend I remember what was, but I know what we can be. You're free. You said it yourself. What would my mother… What would Imaza want?"
"She… Imaza was a stern woman. She'd tell us to stop whining and get on with it," Ada said. "Devils, that woman was proud to a fault."
We buried my mother at the outskirts of Boundary Coast. Beneath the drooping flags of a willow tree. Ada cried. I did, too. The loss of life is never easy. It never should be. Once we were done, Ada pulled from her pocket a parchment of paper.
"An image, printed with the eastern sigil's power," she said. "This is her."
She handed me the paper. On it, the visage of a woman was etched, Hair, auburn like the setting sun with features like a goddesses' carving. A dress, bone-white as a lily in bloom.
My mother, I thought. This body's mother. She looked so young. I can't help but wonder what dreams, what hopes, she had. Too late, now, I thought. Halmer made sure of that.
"Thank you, Ada," I said, glancing over my shoulder at the horizon. The Boundary Coast lay at my peripheral. "I feel… at peace, in a way. But… But now, I think it's time to go."
Ada nodded, wiping her face. "Yes, it's time to move forward."
"Indeed," I said. "Our future awaits."
"Boundary Coast awaits."
(My manager, stomach lipped over the table and arms crossed over it, welcomed me into his corner office. It was now two months into the position. I was a telemarketer. Insurance sales. Bully tactics.)
(Take a seat, he said. Thanks for coming in so promptly.)
(Standing in the doorway, my stomach churned as I stared down at him. The room was well air-conditioned, but barely visible sweat stains still clung to the edges of his white-cotton armpits. Sweaty, sleazy scum. I thought.)
(I sat opposite him. My hands balled together. I was sweating now, too.)
(The meeting started okay, I think. The details? They fail me now. Lack of performance. Official warning. Work computers used for non-work-related searches. Sick leave used twice despite the short tenure. Whatever. It didn't matter, in hindsight.)
(But at the time, it was everything. Leaving that room, what a sight I was.)
(Thirty-six years old. Greying. Balding. Crying.)