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Red as Coals, Black as Night Chapter 5
She was…the most incredible, unbelievable, impossible, inhuman person he had ever seen. Jose felt very certain that he had never seen anyone like her, and never would see again. No way was this—this being human.
She was tall, amazingly so for a human, especially a female. Jose guessed her to be about seven feet tall. Midnight black hair cascaded gently down her back, rippling where the sunlight gently touched it, shining like obsidian, like onyx. Her nose was tiny and delicate as a baby’s, straight and unbroken. Her lips were full and perfectly shaped, sculpted into gentle, alluring shapes. They were a wonderful, vivid, natural red, a more beautiful and perfect crimson than Jose had ever seen. Her whole body was very thin and willowy, looking as if it could be blown away even on the mildest day. Yet, contrarily, he saw hints of strength all along her curving frame. Her skin was…well, it was the opposite of the Shanese’s. It was pure white. Not fair, not pale, but white. And not a thick, chalky white. White like marble, white like-like moonlight. It was flawlessly smooth. But the most surprising feature of all was her eyes.
They were shockingly large, almost twice the size of a normal human’s. The long, curling black lashes helped accent their astonishing color. They were violet. No, amethysts, because they glittered like gems, and their color was just as glorious. Around her pupils was a small circle of clear sky-blue, stabbing outwards. It was as if the whole eye had once been blue, but the purple had taken over, until only this fighting circle of blue remained. Winged eyebrows arched gracefully over the huge eyes.
Jose stared. And he stared. He felt like his eyes were stuck on her impossible figure. She stayed at the windowsill a long time, staring at the plants with longing. When she finally turned and slowly made her way back in the room, it had been half an hour, and Jose’s flower had completely run out.
He had to stop himself from reaching into his pocket and grabbing another one like an addict. He reminded himself that it would be useless, since she was no longer at the window, and that he needed to save the remaining four for other days. And Jose knew as sure as if it had been set in stone that there would be other days. He would stay here, in this uncomfortable spot behind the bushes, until there were.
And why? Just by the way she had looked at the plants for so long, the way they had almost quivered, he could be almost positive that control over plants was her power. Why was he so determined to see her again? He could just wait for her to come out alone, or ask the innkeeper or one of the lodgers at the inn if she usually went out at a certain time. He could be done with everything today or tomorrow. Then he would be home all the sooner.
Yet his mind seemed to recoil from thought of the act itself. Like sinking a dagger between frail ribs, or into a slender neck, blood drenching the perfectly white skin. Why? Why couldn’t he think of doing it? With the other Gifted Ones he’d killed, he hadn’t enjoyed killing them, but he had thought about it, had decided what course of action would result in the most pain-free death. So why couldn’t he grant the same service to this poor girl? Did he want her to suffer?
No, that wasn’t it. He realized, shocked, the truth was that the thought of her dying hurt, whether or not he was thinking of how to grant her the most painless death possible. Just the thought of extinguishing her amazing, bright flame sent shivers down his spine. But the pesky question kept returning. Why? Why did she matter, even if she looked as no human being should?
Since he couldn’t find an answer anywhere in his head, he decided to observe her for as long as he could, and hope his question was answered sometime before the flowers ran out.
That night he slept in the forest that bordered the inn, the trees of which had been behind Jose as he spied on the girl (if she was a girl). The trees didn’t seem—would he be a fool for thinking this?—they didn’t seem friendly. But he definitely didn’t want to sleep in the open, so he could deal with trees that didn’t like him in the morning. As he drifted to sleep, he remembered his father’s voice crooning to him when he was just a tiny thing.
Tonight I learned
All the world’s troubles
Oh, all the world’s troubles
All the world’s troubles
Someone took me aside
And told me all the world’s troubles
But I just want a good sleep tonight
Oh, tonight I learned
All the world’s troubles
Thieving, starving, faking, killing
I was told just all the world’s troubles
But I’ll deal with those in the morning
Jose woke up feeling hot and dusty, as if he’d slept in a desert instead of a forest. His bones ached mightily, but he couldn’t think of why. He hadn’t done anything physically demanding the day before.
The day before…for a moment Jose almost forgot what had happened in the haze of drowsiness. Then it all came rushing back. Though words tumbled through his mind, the foremost thing in it was the picture of a girl, probably in her late teens, incredibly tall, flowing back hair on milk-white skin, eyes like giant gems. The words seemed to run around it like a frame, for they all described her. She was all that had really mattered yesterday. In the back of his mind was a frightened boy and an angry bartender, but he hardly remembered them. They had been a means to an end.
Jose passed the day impatiently, waiting for her to come to her window. He didn’t dare pop one of the flowers in his mouth until he saw her, for he could easily just waste its use if she didn’t go to the window. Luckily, she did. After hours of waiting, a bit past noon she came to the windowsill. This time, she didn’t just stare at the plants. She sang. Unfortunately, while with the flowers’ aid he could see her, he was by far too far away to hear her. He couldn’t even read her lips to see what words she was singing. Jose pounded the dirt in frustration as she serenaded the shifting trees, whose ears must have been better than his.
After a while she fell silent. Her expression turned brooding as she turned away from the plants to observe the town. Those huge, visible eyes looked sad and lonely. Jose was torn with curiosity and sympathy, wondering if she was homesick. For this certainly was not her home, no more than Curov or Bazlo had been. Did she miss where she’d come from? And why wasn’t she there? Why was a girl like her traveling along the border at this time, all alone? Despite her formidable gift, border country was not a place one went to see the sights. It was dangerous. Only those who had to traveled there.
He was pondering, but not so deeply that he didn’t see something that saddened him. As he watched, a tear like liquid silver fell from her eye to splash on the sill. Then she turned and walked away, leaving Jose to close his eyes and moan. What was happening to him?
As he was falling asleep that night, he felt something. Jose got up and picked up his bedroll to see what it was, and his eyes grew wide. The fluffy patch of grass on top of which he had been sleeping was writhing, moving to the sides, so that the place where Jose had been sleeping was left bare, with bits of rock poking out. That was why he had been so sore in the morning.
But this was amazing. He was positive the girl did not know about him, so that meant the grass was moving merely from her influence, not her will. In fact, it was probably moving for her benefit, for if he had been any other Shanese he would have been a threat to her. Looking down at the bare spot that he had intended to sleep on, Jose winced. Not only was seeing grass move incredibly disconcerting, now he had no place to sleep.
“Well, you win this time,” he grumbled to the grass. “But when sore, aching bones give me a premature death, you had better watch out, ‘cause my ghost will make sure you dry up and turn in to hay, and a cow eats you. I’m warning you.” And with that, he plopped down on the hard earth and went to sleep.