His eyes were glazed over, staring down at the monstrosity of blood, ink, and pencil lead in front of him. It still wasn’t finished, though the voices had abated momentarily. He lightly grasped a pencil in his right hand, but his fingers felt numb and lifeless. He wondered for the shadow of a moment if it had to do with the cuts on his forearm, then returned to ruminating on the freighter and innocent lives lost needlessly during Huola’s liberation.
He had stopped taking the medications that the med-techs had given him. But that hadn’t quelled the dissent in his corporation. The situation was chaotic, with directors eschewing their roles while fleets could not hope to find commanders. He felt so tired after overseeing the deployment of Huola fleet assets to the north only to find his pilots reluctant to get into them. All the while the guilt was crippling. Blood was on his hands.
He needed more in the construction. More images. More blood. He twitched as he tried to will himself towards another sketch of a ship, but he felt comfortable sitting down, his back lying against the foot of his bed. Just another moment and he would move. Just another moment. One moment.
“What are you working on?” An instantly-recognizable soft voice asked.
He knew it was Lady Lianne, but he felt too exhausted to move. When did she get here? He hadn’t even heard her footsteps through the dull screaming in the background, the flashes of charred walking corpses emerging from the Fenrir occupying his mind.
He mumbled a response through the cacophony, “The liberation of Huola.”
“So I was thinking about something earlier…” Her voice continued.
His arms felt like lead and his body locked in a casket. He wanted to turn to face her, but he couldn’t. Why was she even here? Because you asked for her help, he told himself, before his consciousness disappeared back into the bleakness of screams and cries of agony. He tried to respond, though he could only feel his chin twitch, as if he was preparing to string together some words, only to lose them in the scene he had sketched on the floor.
“Reginald. Look at me, please?”
Without moving his head, he pried his eyes from the artwork to look at his executor, Shalee Lianne. It took an enormous amount of effort just to shift his gaze. She seemed concerned, though he wasn’t entirely sure of her features–the room was dimly lit and he hadn’t seen her for some time. A small part of him was thankful she had responded to his call for help.
Unexpectedly, she placed a finger beneath his chin then tugged his face towards hers so that his head was properly facing her. He didn’t think he had been capable of the motion.
“That’s better. Now, the polite thing would be for you to say ‘hello,’ and then ask what I was thinking about.”
His normal self flickered to life for a second, “Hello, Lady Lianne. What were you thinking about?”
She smiled back at him, “That is better. Now. I was thinking we should catch up, I have a lot of important things to discuss with you. But this room is quite… stuffy. I need a bit of fresh air.”
The fear of the screaming returning with a vengeance should he leave the room fresh in his mind, he disagreed, “But… the screams get louder when I go outside.”
Shalee reached for the pencil lightly grasped in his hand, “I know,” she said, her voice so soft he could barely hear it, “But I need you to help me. I need to talk to you, Regi. Outside. In fact, remember that time you promised I could teach you to swim? We could go to the shore.”
He offered no resistance–not that he could anyway–as she pulled the pencil out of his hand. The promise had been made so long ago he barely remembered it. She had seen him standing near the edge of the water at the shore below Cerra Manor, afraid. She had asked him why. He replied he was scared because he had almost drowned as a child. She had offered to teach him how to swim. He had accepted the offer.
She placed the pencil on top of his bed, stood up, and then reached for his hand to help him up. His Holder upbringing screamed at his failing in that moment before subsiding back into the wailing echo chamber of his head. She said softly, “It is a pretty night out there, no need to be cooped up when we can be enjoying the fresh air.”
He accepted her hand and rose to his feet tentatively, not daring to take his eyes off of the artwork as she led him towards the door to his quarters. As they reached the doorway, he finally pulled his gaze off of it, but told her, his voice drenched with fear, “I’ll have to go back to it soon. When I’m working on it, the screaming is quieter–I think once it’s finished they’ll stop.”
She chose to ignore him, instead leading him out the doorway. She kept her hand softly, if firmly, curled around his own, no doubt to keep him from trying to escape. As they walked towards the shore, she soothingly talked about inane things. The night air and Shalee’s presence somehow cut through the chaos of his mind to the point that when they reached the shore, he was actually following her conversation attentively.
When they reached the shore, she smiled, seeming to relax a little. “You’re wearing boxers I hope?” She asked as she kicked off her boots.
He nodded nervously, cautiously examining the surroundings, “I am, but… am I going into the water already?” He stared out with hesitation at the inky expanse of lightly rolling waves.
Shalee nodded, “Yup!” She chewed on her lower lip, “But we won’t go any further than you are comfortable with.”
He started to remove his tunic and then his dress shirt, then stood nervously, waiting for Shalee’s instructions. He held his arms, one of them bandaged from his self-inflicted cuts.
“Is that waterproof?” Shalee asked as she took off her shirt and slipped off her skirt–she was wearing boyfriend boxers and a matching bra.
He turned away instinctively out of modesty, suddenly feeling immensely uncomfortable. He wondered if Kat would be okay with this. He mumbled a response to her question, clutching his arm, “I… I think so.”
Shalee turned towards the water, “Come along We will just get our feet wet for now.”
He nodded, then followed Shalee over to the water’s edge. A washed over his ankles, causing him to stop dead in his tracks. A familiar old memory of sinking into dark lakewater overwhelmed the screams that had been occupying his mind. One fear had been replaced for another.
Shalee shot a glance at him, “Is this too scary?”
“No, I… I think I can manage,” He took another step forward, trying to put on a strong front as he smiled nervously.
Shalee moved closer to him until she was standing in front of him. She faced him directly and held out her hands, palms up, “Give me your hands.”
He blushed at seeing her in undergarments and averted his gaze immediately, but nonetheless took her hands gratefully.
He felt her fingers curl around his. She asked, “Will you look at me please?”
He turned towards her, but he could feel his face burning. He glanced away after making eye contact, “You’re… this isn’t improper is it?”
She shook her head, “No, of course not. I’m teaching you to swim, not trying to seduce you.” She offered with a smile, “Sex in the ocean is a horrible thing, don’t you know?”
He felt his cheeks grow a deeper shade of red as his fingers twitched at Shalee’s candor on the subject, “I… I wouldn’t know.”
After a few moments, he managed to acclimate himself and followed Shalee deeper into the water until it reached waist depth. He asked, “Is… is this far enough?”
She pulled him a little further until the water was sloshing at his chest, “This is. Are you alright?”
He felt himself shiver as he looked at the dark water. It was disconcerting not being able to see how deep it went. He imagined fathoms upon fathoms of it just a single step forward–a chasm that he would fall into before being swallowed whole by a massive sea creature. He tightened his grip on Shalee’s hands.
“Yeah, this is okay,” He said weakly, as he tried to thrust out the images of poisonous barbs and other underwater terrors from his overworked imagination.
He felt Shalee rub the back of his hands with her thumbs.
“Don’t be afraid,” She started, “It is like flying, and I’ve seen you fly. You are amazing. If you can do that, then you can do this.”
He nodded, growing a little more confident, “Okay. What… what do I need to do?”
“You must know the mechanics of it. Kick your feet, and stroke your arms out. Your problem isn’t knowing what to do. It is fear. Let go of the fear and you got this. Now, hold your breath!” She tugged on his hands and pulled him under.
He wasn’t ready. Like with most first-time swimmers, the plunge into the water was absolutely terrifying. The feeling of being completely submerged overtook him and he shot open his eyes to try to make sense of what’s happening. He then opened his mouth. A gush of seawater filled it, the salt causing him to choke. He forced himself back above the surface of the water as he gasped and sputtered for air, coughing out what water he could. All the while, his hold on Shalee’s hands had become a vice-grip stemming from his fear of drowning.
Shalee emerged and wiped away the water from her face, forcibly removing one of her hands from his grasp in order to do so, “Why are you swallowing the water?!”
He tried to regain his composure, retching out a broken sentence, “I… sorry… it… sudden.”
She waited patiently as he coughed, “It’s fine. You’ll be fine.”
He forced himself to become calm. For all of the fear of sinking into the abyss, the sand kept the water he was in shallow and Shalee was within reach. He relaxed his hold on her hands, then dove back under the water. With less thrashing and relaxed limbs, he actually felt peaceful beneath the waves, even managing to stay under longer than Shalee.
“Good job, Regi!” She called out, laughing as he finally came back up for air.
“I know you’re ready to swim,” She smiled.
“Already?” He asked, unsure. He didn’t feel that ducking his head beneath the water successfully quite qualified him for being ready to swim.
She nodded, “Yup. You can do this. you know how to do it. Just trust yourself. Trust me. I’m right here beside you.”
He smiled nervously though he was reassured, “Okay. What do I need to do?”
“Ready to let go?” She asked.
He took a deep breath, then slowly released Shalee’s hands tentatively. He checked the water for a few moments, staying within easy reach of Shalee’s fingers before finally allowing his hands to flow away into the cold water. He nodded, “Okay, I think so.”
“Move your arms like this,” She said, mimicking a stroking motion through the water.
He watched Shalee for a few moments then began to imitate her. He felt silly as most first-time swimmers do, his instructor looking far more natural in her movements.
She smiled brightly, “Hey you got it. You’re a natural.” She moved closer to him, “Now, kick your feet, and you’re swimming.”
He followed Shalee’s instructions dutifully until he was floating in the water. After a few minutes, he managed a smile, “This… this isn’t so bad.”
She started to swim alongside him, “I told you so.”
He planted his feet back on the underwater sand after a few minutes. He felt lighter, having put old demons to rest. He looked at Shalee and muttered a sheepish, “Thank you.”
“Let’s swim to the pier,” She splashed him, then took off towards the objective in the distance.
He sincerely hoped that she wasn’t considering this a race. He had just gotten the hang of it, after all. He followed behind as closely as he could, though he was relieved to see that she looked back at him from time to time, making sure that he wasn’t having any difficulties. Finally, he managed to place a hand on the worn wooden pier, steadying himself against the incoming waves.
Shalee pulled herself out of the water and walked towards a bench. Rivulets ran down her body as she left a trail of droplets in her wake. She said, over her shoulder, “You can do anything you want, if you want it badly enough.”
He responded in high spirits–the monstrosity in his room far from his mind, “Like become Emperor?”
Shalee laughed, “Even that, I suppose.”
He followed suit and pulled himself up onto the pier. As he walked towards the bench, he watched her pull her legs up onto the bench and rest her chin on her knees. Suddenly, her smile disappeared and she said solemnly, “I have something to tell you.”
“What’s on your mind, my lady?” He asked, his body pumping with so much adrenaline that he was oblivious to the fact he was shivering as he took a seat next to Shalee.
“I’m sure you must have noticed I’ve been absent for a while now.” She squeezed water out of her hair, “The thing is… something horrible is happening, within the alliance.”
He felt a gust of cold wind wipe away his vest of adrenaline as her words sunk into him. A cloud passed above them, casting them in a gray shadow. For a moment he thought she looked serene as she deftly managed her hair, her eyes cast towards the ground. But as the cloud parted and the light returned, he saw that her smile was closer to a grimace.
He prepared himself for the worst.