709 Ymiden 22...
Dark blue extended out in every direction. Light had no place there, neither above nor below the endless lake. The sky, if it were sky at all, was empty – no stars, no moon, nothing but darkness. The surface of the water was barely discernable, a thin line of a bluer black, a sapphire obsidian. There was but one sound, dull and throbbing, that filled the otherwise silent landscape – until a ripple formed somewhere out beyond the way.
Several more appeared, the shallow, nearly imperceptible waves clashing with one another, the stillness – the quiet perfection of the scene – disturbed, muddied. The steady rhythm faltered, quickening, agitated. The lake stirred. The darkness began to fade.
“Pah.” Mads spluttered out a mess of spit and whatever bitterly foul liquid had just been splattered all over his face. “What is that?”
“I have not the foggiest idea. I found a jar of it sitting unattended on a porch last evening.” Though there was amusement in her voice, her tone was mostly a pleasant, casual sort of thing. She eyed him with a feigned reproach. “I would not have thought so paltry an inconvenience to break your concentration, darling.”
The smell, if it were even possible, was worse than its taste. Coughing, ineffectually trying to clear his lungs of the rank odor, Mads used the back of his hand to wipe the worse of the filmy liquid from his mouth and upper lip. “I think it has gone… rancid.”
“Well, refrain from eating it, darling. Carry on.”
Focusing on his own, in a quiet and comfortable location, had taken time to learn. He was no master of his own mind, but neither was he foreign to the act of calming his thoughts, of retreating from the external world and seeking out the far smaller, far more manageable one within. As with all his lessons, whether practical, academic, or philosophical, Gracaina never allowed him to get truly comfortable. Comfort was the deadliest of poisons to progress, she said.
And progress, it seemed, was a poison unto him – though not without benefit.
Moving a hand to shield his mouth from Graciana’s gaze, Mads spit onto the ground just to his left. It wasn’t enough to completely free him of the taste, but it did provide a small amount of relief – even if it were nothing but a placebo.
Again, he breathed in, though this time in a shallow breath, the stench as strong as ever. He was acutely aware of Graciana’s position, a handful of meters directly in front of him, and the smell was pervasive enough it couldn’t be simply ignored. Thoughts, too, danced through his mind, each carrying with it a different song, a discordant cacophony of chaos.
The Madam had impressed upon him from a young age that focus in the absence of distraction was barely focus at all. She had explained to him the sharper the mind, the more tantalizing tangents became. Thought itself became little more than interference, noise within noise, amplifying everything around oneself into a flurry of abstracted diversion and disturbance.
Calm did not come to him. He fought for calm.
Young though he was, with far more questions than answers, a benefit to his malleable mind was that he didn’t ever stop to consider the absurdity of such a paradoxical path to take to achieve his goal. The journey to one’s inner quiet was one he associated with struggle; it was meant to be difficult, both to arrive at and maintain one’s position there. There was nothing inherently relaxing about being “calm” – it was a battle, one which he seemed to always lose in the end; his defeats, however, only made him crave victory all the more.
Breath moved in and out.
Shoulders moved up and down.
Eyes twitched back and forth beneath the orange-red glow of the sunlight that passed through the thin veil of skin.
Each thought as it passed was gripped firmly. Some escaped, slippery and elusive. Others filed obediently into the dark, into the corners of his mind where they would bide their time to resurface anew, when he might have the time to tend to them. It was slow work, made all the more lugubrious by the distressfully foul scent that refused to fade from his nostrils and the faint, bile-inducing flavor that still lingered upon his tongue, trapped in the well just behind his bottom teeth.
Blood pumped steadily.
The warm of the sun beat down upon him, a constant, sturdy presence.
His thoughts began to align, darkness on the horizon of his mind’s eye.
Everything threatened to pull away, to draw him back into the waking world, to demand his attention in any way – in every way. The back of his neck began to itch. His bladder was suddenly suspiciously full. A stray thought reminded him of the word he’d meant to use during breakfast – paragon. Each and more called to him, some quietly, others onerous and insistent. Each was addressed, each ignored.
Stench settled into expected.
Flavor found normalcy.
The sticky substance that refused to dry beneath the firm gaze of the sun above became not unlike the sensation of sweat.
With each small victory, he drew closer to the darkness. His hands dripped midnight black, the empty blood of passing thoughts, of distractions personified, began to pool beneath his feet – or rather where his feet should have been. Sounds began to grow muffled, and he drew further upon the ever-enduring rhythm of his beating heart. Soon, it began to drown out the other sounds: distant, lonesome birdsong; Graciana’s questions which had started up again at some point he could no longer recall nor had any desire to do so; the low babble of those a street over; even the quiet, constant whisper of his own stream of conscious. It all was pushed aside.
What had begun as a puddle began to grow and expand. The inky darkness flowed from his hands, from his feet and eyes and ears until there was nothing left of him – nothing but the creeping edges of the lake, reaching ever outward. In time, where the lake began and that same empty sky began was nearly indiscernible save the sapphire obsidian line – the water’s surface.
Ripples dotted the otherwise placid scene, and they were tended to with a cold indifference. Something pricked him, a substantial series of waves radiated out from the point of impact. Pain was distant, not wholly ignored but neither so unexpected it forced him to retreat. More ripples. More foul odor. A screech in the distance shook the darkness but did not dispel it.
He held tight to the calm, to the emptiness.
The ability to understand fought wildly against his desire to disregard all that he could learn, all that he could discern. He wanted to know what it was that had punctured his skin. He wanted to wipe away the slow, sickly drip of mystery potion he inherently knew had been dumped over him. He wanted to make certain the scream had been one of testing trial not a cry for help.
But more than that? He wanted to win. He wanted to be in control.
So, he continued to resist, to struggle, to persevere. Every new ripple, ever shivering shudder of the empty sky, he drew within himself. He forced himself to fight on. He refused himself even a moment of weakness. He was stubborn as-
Immediately everything shattered. His eyes fluttered open in alarm as he reeled backward, stumbling over his own feet before landing with a grunt upon his soon to be bruised posterior. His fingers shot to his lips, confusion at the reigns of his heart, driving the poor beast into a wild frenzy.
He’d never felt anything quite like that before.
Still blinking, disoriented as he was, Mads stared up into an entirely foreign face, one scrunched up into a grimace of displeasure, but one that was decidedly feminine. “What-“ He started, but he was snubbed immediately.
A veritable cascade of knotted, waist-length dark hair bloomed out and around the girl as she spun to face the grinning Madam Gracaina, a small hand extended out toward her and an expectant whine to her voice. “Kissed ‘im. Hand it over, lady.”
“A job very well done, darling.” The words were more of a chuckle as Graciana pulled out two gold coins from her purse and deposited them into the hand that, quite suddenly, shot into a ragged pocket, almost challenging one’s own eyes that it had been there at all to begin with. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“I’ll kiss ‘im again for the same.” Never once did the girl turn to offer the baffled blonde boy who still sat staring in confusion at the exchange even so little as a glance.
“Oh, that will not be necessary. Run along now.” With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the girl, who shrugged but did as she was told, rubbing the two new coins together in her pocket and not once looking back.
Reaching down to offer Mads a helping hand, Graciana chuckled at the dawning realization that had final begun to settle over him. “You still have a long way to go, Mads. Always expect the unexpected.”