“I love you,” Nicolas said to Sorrow, as they lay in the starlit dark of the Ebon Room, the sourceless chirping of crickets becoming audible once more in the aftermath of their first time together. He was fresh from yet another victory at the front then, and nearly swaggering with it before he first caught speechless sight of her in her fountain-pool, glistening-wet and faintly steaming. From that moment, he had felt as though he were the one submerged, drowning in the scent of her, the taste of her skin, the feel of her hair, the burnt-sugar sea of her somber eyes. “Let me take you away from here. We can marry, if you want; or not, if you don’t. I know the quality of your Madame Astranzia—she’s an eye for profit, but she will not bar our way.”
Sorrow answered him as she had responded to countless other declarations of blazing ardor. “You do not love me,” she said; and though he could not clearly make out her face in the evening dark, her voice was not unkind. “You love what you think of me—and for that I thank you, and for the generosity of your spirit. But do not think, please, that lovemaking makes love, for we have known each other, yet we do not know one another. And I am well with that.”
“I love you,” Nicolas said again, greatly daring on their sixth night together, this time upon the sandy shoals beneath gently undulating seaweed and drifting glimmerfin replicas of rare fish in the Aquamarine Room. His need to be with her had led him to greater and greater feats in the fulfillment of his duties, such that he had been promoted so often that he no longer required monetary rewards to afford Madame Astranzia’s costly hospitality. He had also fallen, nearly, into Sorrow’s manner of speaking, so frequently had he recalled and reviewed in his mind their all-too-sporadic shared moments of communion and conversation. “Let me purchase your contract, please, so that you need no longer be required to entertain any guest but myself. If you insist on remaining here, then let it be at your leisure, and our pleasure, yours and mine.”
Sorrow gazed at him as he gazed at her, enthralled anew by the shifting tones of her honey-cream skin in the wavering undersea light. “We dare not love,” she said. “Perhaps you might love me, and perhaps love may turn the world, as it is said—but at the other end of the world we would find the Empire still. And do not think, please, that we can belong to one another when we belong foremost to the realm. That is the way of things, and coin will not change it.”
“I love you,” Nicolas said to her on their seventh night together, their mingled scents wafting away into the fragrance of living pines, grass, and wildflowers in the Viridian room. His zeal for his vocation had diminished significantly since his assignment to a command post overseeing a spice-wealthy archipelagic protectorate. It was the humidity, he often claimed, both out loud and to himself; but by the solitary light of his utterly-unnecessary fireside he could acknowledge that he was troubled by the natives’ vague resemblance to his beloved Sorrow. And even the unending fire of his passion in the heat of that island air could not assuage his growing cold suspicion that he was not, perhaps, the hero his Empire presented him to be. “At least tell me your real name,” he implored.
Sorrow wept, unexpectedly— and beautifully, of course, her tears turning to vapor nearly on the instant that they touched her flawless, glowing cheeks. “I have given up striving not to love you,” she said. “It is futile, as striving to love is also futile, for we are neither of us who we are; nor can we be one when we are each of us less than half who we should be. So do not think, please, that my true name is of moment when my true self is not who I am. Love is for those who live.”
On the ninth night, the soldiers came.
(to be concluded next Tuesday)
This story was originally published in Dean Alfar's Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology, on sale now at Comic Quest and better bookstores.Check out the rest of the posse!