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Red as Coals, Black as Night Chapter 5 Part 2
Jose’s eyes flew open, and he felt a moment of irrational panic. It was as if a monster of worry sat on his chest. Why was that?
He had only three flowers left. Three more days, and then he would have to make some type of decision.
Jose had already decided that he wouldn’t kill her. He knew, in his heart, that even if he tried to do it he would not be able to bring himself to hurt her. For him, she was untouchable.
But there was truly no other option. Jose also knew what would happen to him if he returned to the Shanese empty-handed. You either came back successful, or you didn’t come back at all. No in-betweens. He couldn’t even go back and claim that he had killed her, since for a girl as strange and rare as this one, Shalamar wanted the body brought to him, proof that she was really dead. There was no way to fake a body like hers. What was he to do?
Recognizing the beginnings of panic, Jose took several deep breaths to calm himself down. Just watch her he told himself. Watch her for as long as you can, and then make your decision. You still have three more days.
A memory crashed over him like a wave, and suddenly he was in a dark forest, with no sunlight filtering through the emerald branches and strange, lovely plants crowding in on every side. He was kneeling at the bank of a stream, staring into the face of a young girl, attached to a metallic silver fish’s body. She whispered, in an ethereal voice, about green and white, about a journey, about preparations, and about great danger. All this, she had told him, depended on a choice. Make the right choice! She had said.
Jose now realized, with terrible clarity, that he had come upon this choice that was so pivotal. But what were his choices, really? To kill the girl, whom the very thought of filled him with a profound sense of excitement and confusion, and return home a hero? Not an option. No way. This was one murder he would not commit.
What else was there to choose, though? Returning home unsuccessful was not an option. He didn’t need a prophetic fish-girl to tell him what would happen to him then. There was no other choice, though. Kill the girl or die himself. How could that creature be so cruel as to call this a choice? There was no option that did not involve death.
No, freaking out wouldn’t do him any good. But what would do him good, now? Just to watch her and come to his own conclusions. That was all that was really in his power to do, right now.
That day, she didn’t come to the window. Not once. Jose’s chest ached hollowly, and he didn’t even have the energy to wonder why. He felt drained, like an addict that hadn’t had his dose.
As he lay down that night, it started to rain. Well, not really rain, more like drizzle, but it was enough to make Jose feel even worse, rubbing salt in a wound. The rocky floor beneath his bedroll became slick and he slid up and down. Once he started sliding backwards and a sharp stone grated through his bedroll and across his back. Jose winced, not sure if the shard had broken the skin or not, but it was painful enough, and when he lay down the scrape rubbed against the rough cloth of his bed and he muttered a soft curse. As if things weren’t already bad enough.
Jose had almost, despite all odds, fallen asleep when a flash of white against the pitch-black caught his eye. When he looked up, rubbing the drowsiness from his eyes, he saw a tall, narrow shape leaving the inn by the back door. He didn’t need the flowers to know that it was the girl he’d been watching for the last two days. Her incredibly tall, thin white form was hard to mistake. And although he had never seen her walk before, he doubted that anyone but her could walk with such ethereal grace. She looked like water flowing over the landscape.
Curious, Jose decided to follow. What harm could it do? He also decided that it wouldn’t be wise to eat a flower until she had come to a stop. Jose didn’t know how long she would be traveling, and he didn’t want to waste one of the precious remaining flowers unless there was something important to see.
After the girl left the inn, she headed north, towards the city wall. Since the inn was near the border of the town, she was there in a matter of minutes. Jose didn’t understand why she’d come here, sure that the fifteen-foot high wall would thwart any attempt of hers to leave at night. But he was wrong. There was a strong cedar nestled right against the wall. The Gifted One reached up and the tree bent down its branches for her, as if bowing to its lord. This wasn’t the purpose, though. Once its strong branches were within her reach, the girl clambered onto one, agile as a monkey, and swiftly made her way to the top of the tree, which hung right over the wall. She slid down one, hanging from her finger tips, then dropped onto the wall. The girl proceeded a few feet down by climbing, because the stones were more rough and uneven on the outside, but she soon ran out of available handholds. Jose would have been sure a minute ago that she had no option but to go up again, but now he decided to refrain from opinions until he saw what the girl would do.
Sure enough, she surprised him again. This time she didn’t use plants, though. She just jumped down. Jose stifled a yell as she descended, positive that she would end up lying with broken legs on the ground below. By now he shouldn’t have underestimated her. She bent her knees upon the landing, then straightened up, healthy and whole. Jose just shook his head incredulously.
Once he was certain that she was too far away to see or hear him, Jose took his turn scaling the wall. For him it wasn’t a matter of agility or powers. He simply charged the wall and then, at the last second, flexed his powerful legs and leaped up. The force of his landing actually shook the centuries-old wall. Then he jumped off the fifteen-foot high barrier and landed easily, if somewhat loudly on the ground. Hopefully, the Gifted One had been too far away to hear the solid thud.
When they were both outside of the wall, it wasn’t hard to spot her. Her skin glowed like the moonshine that lit the ground pale silver. Jose, on the other hand, when he wasn’t in moonlight, completely faded into the night, save for his molten-red eyes.
As the girl darted among the trees in the forest beyond, she looked like a tree spirit, her feet dancing soundlessly upon the bed of needles, caressing a passing bark. She went on, and on, and Jose was starting to think that she was simple leaving the town, despite the fact that she brought nothing with her, when she suddenly stopped. She was in the middle of a moonlit, peaceful grove with a small, calm pond in the center. When she sat down lithely, eyes closed and facing Jose, he somehow knew that this was what he had been waiting for, and hastily stuffed a flower into his mouth. Then, before his enhanced, incredulous eyes, magic began to happen.
If he had had even the slightest doubt remaining that her power was over plants, it was abolished in seconds. As she tilted her head back and raised her arms, the modest trees suddenly grew to majestic heights, but instead of remaining tall and proud, they bent towards her, servants eager to serve. Bushes sprouted spontaneously out of the earth, surrounding her like little puppies, while those that had already grown actually walked to her, across the seething ground. For the grasses were growing, and growing, and in seconds the shortest ones were at least four feet high. Even the algae in the pond strained towards her, rising from the pond and lifting tentacle-like stems. More than anything, Jose was able to appreciate the beautiful, exotic flowers that had suddenly bloomed like a natural carpeting across the forest floor.
But none of it could compare to her. She was already more lovely than all the flowers in the world, but at that moment she was so impossibly beautiful that it made Jose catch his breath. She sat there, legs crossed easily and comfortably, her luminescent arms reaching up as if to embrace the whole forest. Her liquid black hair flew around her face in the cool breeze, like seaweed floating in a current. The girl’s eyes were closed in her uplifted face, and her full lips were curved into a gentle smile. She looked content, and perfectly at peace.
Watching her, Jose felt emotions he couldn’t name overpowering him. It started deep within his chest, then spread until it filled his whole body. Every fiber of his being tingled with energy and rightness. He knew now, more than he ever had, that he could not touch this girl. Not just that, though. He couldn’t allow anyone to harm this Gifted One who had affected him so devastatingly. But there was nothing to do. He could run away and be thought dead, or be caught and killed. He could return to the castle empty-handed—and be killed. None of which helped this girl. What could he do, though? If there were some way that his death would save her, he realized, he would die for her. But that wouldn’t help her in any way. Shalamar would just send more, experienced warriors to finish the job. And while the girl had a formidable power, she would be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
But what could he do? Somehow, deep inside of him, he had the sense that he could do something, if only he could figure out what. But he couldn’t. He would fail, and both he and the girl would pay with their life.
As Jose watched the girl, he saw her chest heave with a sigh, and she stroked the shrub beside her, as if it were comforting her like petting a dog was said to do. She looked so happy at that moment, so utterly peaceful and serene, that Jose ached inside of him. How could he save this girl’s life?
And then it struck Jose, so suddenly that he staggered. It was so absolutely crazy and ridiculous that he didn’t immediately disregard it, mainly because he was too shocked. What if he—what if he could go with her? If they were careful, instead of being more easily found, they would be more difficult to find. Because, along with being able to sense Gifted Ones when they were close to one, Shanese were also able to sense one another from as far as two miles away, but Jose had been particularly gifted at this sense, and had occasionally gotten as high as four miles. If any of his kindred came near, he would feel it, and the pair would be able to avoid them. Also, two people accomplished things much quicker than one, and they could also protect one another. He could be so helpful to her this way…but there was one big problem. Her.
How could he expect a Gifted One, especially one as powerful as her, to just automatically trust a Shanese? To ever trust a Shanese? How could he explain to her these incredibly powerful emotions that were washing through him, twisting and tumbling, filling him with wonder and confusion? To him, they seemed wordless.
He would have to be quite eloquent and believable if he expected her to follow him. But Jose thought maybe, just maybe, he could do it. Others had always remarked on how expressive he could be, and Jose’s father had once remarked that when Jose said something, and put all his heart and soul into it, it was nearly impossible not to believe him. Hopefully that had stuck with him for the past twenty-nine years.
Jose watched the girl slowly, reluctantly rise to her feet, saw all the fantastic things that had happened return to their normal state, and he felt tears running down his face. They weren’t sad tears, though. They were happy tears. For better or for worse, Jose had placed his fate into the unwitting hands of this girl, and he couldn’t imagine anything more pure or right. He felt, deep down, that this was what he was meant to do. He couldn’t explain the feeling, he just knew. And it felt so good to know that he was doing what he was intended to do. Jose realized, with a profound sense of peace and happiness, that he had made the right choice.