Chapter Twenty-Four: Moving Forward
"I'm leaving Zaphias," Yuri told the table over breakfast on Monday morning.
Karol dropped his spoon. "What? You can't leave. Where will you go?"
"Saint-Malo. I figure it's big enough that I can just blend in and not be a pariah."
"But what will you do?" Estelle asked, worry filling her face.
"I'll find work. I'm not helpless. Maybe I could work in a tavern again - not like they care if my slices and dices are uneven." It would be tough to get employed when he walked with a cane and his fingers didn't work like they used to, but he'd find a way. With practice and patience, he might be able to steady his hand enough to get a desk job to spare his leg.
"Then I'm going, too," Karol announced. "I'll get a job, too, and we can support each other."
"Don't leave for my sake," Yuri said with a shake of his head. "I don't want you to uproot your life over me."
Karol rolled his eyes. "My life was already uprooted. Ever since my mom and dad died, you and Estelle and Rita are the only family I have. So, if you're going to Saint-Malo, I'm going with you. We'll stick together."
It took Yuri a moment to accept that Karol wanted to stay with Yuri for his own sake and not out of pity for Yuri's condition. He nodded. "Alright. We'll go together."
"What about you, Estelle?" Karol looked to her.
Estelle bit her lip and folded her hands. "I… don't know. I don't know if I feel ok leaving."
Yuri raised his eyebrows and felt the scar crinkle. "You want to stay in Zaphias? Keep being a nurse for these people after what they did to Flynn?" Yuri shook his head in disgust. "They don't deserve you."
"Maybe not… but Mrs. Le Moal is pregnant again and her baby never hurt anyone. I really don't know if I can forgive this town for what they did to you and Flynn, but there are still babies and young children who had nothing to do with it and they need me. Plus there's Rita, who owns her apothecary and can't just move."
"Oh…." Karol slumped his shoulders. "Yeah, that makes sense. Saint-Malo isn't that far away, at least. Rita goes there a lot."
"That's right," Estelle said. "So if you go there, we'll be sure to visit often."
Yuri said, "It's good that you're staying. If Flynn comes back looking for me, you can tell him where I am."
Estelle and Karol both gave him one of those looks he was starting to get used to, but they didn't try to convince him that Flynn was dead again. Yuri was glad, because at this point, he feared they'd succeed.
"When do you plan to leave?" Karol asked. "Today?"
He shook his head. "I have something else I need to take care of first. It's going to take me out of town for a bit."
"Oh?" Estelle cocked her head. "What is it?"
Yuri felt his stress begin to rise. He didn't want to make Estelle feel bad, but he had to say softly, "Could you not interrogate me?" This was followed by another flash of hatred that Cumore had left him such a jumpy wreck.
"O-oh." Estelle covered her mouth. "I'm really sorry."
"It's fine." Yuri fiddled with the galette on his plate. "I should be back by New Year's."
"You'll be gone over Christmas?" Karol asked.
"Yeah." And just as well. He had no mood for celebrating with the rest of Zaphias.
"I could go with you," Estelle offered. "Just in case."
"No. I want to take care of this myself." He could handle a trip by himself. He didn't need Estelle tagging along to take care of him if he tripped.
Estelle saw that in his expression and nodded in understanding. "Ok. You go take care of whatever you need to do, and I'll help Karol get ready for moving to Saint-Malo after you get back."
"Thanks, Estelle." He met her eyes and really tried to look grateful even though it was so difficult to feel positive emotions lately. If it hadn't been for her, he would have lost his leg entirely and probably died in there. Her support had gotten him through this and he hoped she knew how much he appreciated her. He would miss her in Saint-Malo, but there really was no way he could bear to stay in this town.
That morning, Yuri rented a horse. He estimated he'd need it for about two weeks. The owner of the stable looked him up and down after explaining this.
"For you? One louis."
Yuri held his tongue because yelling at the man selling him something wouldn't lower the price. That was too much, but then, there was a reason he was moving to Saint-Malo and it was that people there didn't hate his guts and blame him for helping to spread the plague. He pulled out his purse and handed over the coin. Yuri wasn't used to carrying around this much money, and it felt like a small fortune in his hand, so he didn't mind giving some of it up. This was important and it wasn't like he was fit to walk.
Climbing up on the horse was difficult enough. He'd never ridden a horse in his life, and his hands didn't want to cooperate with pulling himself up. He had to leaned against the stall and support himself with one arm to get his non-injured leg into a stirrup and then drag himself over the old mare's back. The stable owner watched his struggles with amusement and didn't over any help. Yuri resisted the urge to flip him off on the way out, but then, he wasn't sure his fingers were dextrous enough for that.
Yuri rode out of town. He carried everything he would need in the saddlebags and tied his cane to one of the straps. By the time he passed through the gate, he was sore. The horse wasn't that energetic, but staying on the back took more balance than he was used to using and required muscles he'd never thought about before. Every step jostled his countless aches and pains. Why couldn't horses walk more smoothly?
They plodded along the road, heading west along the coast rather than taking the inland road up into the ravine. Alexei's chateau came into view and Yuri smiled at the thought of Alexei scrambling to maintain his reputation. Raven had said that the rumour he'd murdered his brother and another soldier had already spread around his social circle of nobility and sides were being taken over who believed the stories. Yuri didn't have much hope of any official ramifications coming from this, but if Alexei lost allies and trade partners over his murder of Flynn, that was enough.
Yuri kept going until he spotted the tall stone up the hill. He nudged the horse off the road and it carried him up the gentle slope to the menhir. When they reached it, Yuri had to figure out how to get off the horse. It stood still and chewed on a bush as he heaved his bad leg over its back. That leg kept going toward the ground, hit the snow, and crumpled under his wait with a throb of pain. Yuri fell on his ass, while the horse barely glanced at his dismay. "Thanks, I was worried for you, too." At least the snow he'd fallen into numbed the pain.
He leaned against a rock to help stand up, and then reached into the saddle bag and dug around for his old wax tablet. Yuri slumped onto the rock beside the menhir and ran his chilled fingers over the worn wood. 'Bugel' skrivjout c'hwi fall. That had been the first thing Flynn ever wrote to him. You spelled 'child' wrong. He wondered what would have happened if he hadn't asked Estelle to scribe a reply for him. What if he'd remained just a delivery boy who snuck in through the kitchen and dropped off food without being seen? Flynn had been such a huge part of his life this past year; it was weird to imagine how easily that could have been missed. And it had all started with just a bit of wax and some unwanted mussels.
He was a different man now than he was the day Flynn rolled into town one year ago. He could read and write now, which opened up the world of literature to him. He knew things about life, death, and the universe that no living man ought to be told. He knew what caused the plague and how to protect himself from it. He knew what it felt like to be in love. Yuri squeezed his eyes against the biting cold. Flynn had burned to ash over two months and nobody had seen him since. By all logic, Flynn was dead. He knew in his heart that Flynn was most likely dead, and not dead in the way that he'd been dead since Yuri met him. All along, Flynn had merely been non-alive, but now he was truly dead. Yuri had never felt so cold.
He flipped the tablet open and wrapped his fingers around the stylus. He could almost hear Flynn's voice chiding him for holding it in his fist, and wished he could explain that his fingers were too damaged to hold it any more precisely.
I wrote here once that I wanted to kiss you. And know what? I still do. But I can't. I can't kiss you again, or wake up next to you again, or hold your hand, or make you laugh. And it feels like, why even go on? I almost hate you for coming to Zaphias last January because I spent twenty-one years just fine without you and now I don't know how to keep going.
I love you. God that took me forever to write. I don't think I ever told you but I hope that you could tell. I love you. It gets easier every time I write it. I love you so much that I hate you for leaving me like this. I even thought about killing myself because maybe you would show up then to collect my soul. I'm not gonna, though. You gave your life so that I could have mine, and I swear I won't throw that away. One day, I'll follow you through the menhir and maybe in the afterlife, we can finally be together in peace. It would be nice, I think, to be able to kiss you without the weight of the world trying to bring us down.
So that's all I wanted to say. I'm running out of space. I know you're dead, but I am still alive and I'm not giving up. Goodbye, Flynn. Thank you.
Yuri looked up, snapped the tablet closed, and let it drop to the ground in front of the menhir. He took in a sharp, icy breath and felt the sting of cold air on his wet cheeks. Yuri almost laughed as he rubbed tears away with his knuckles. So, he wasn't broken after all.
Yuri stayed on the hillside, looking out over Zaphias and all the empty, white space where Flynn would never again walk, and continued to prove he wasn't broken for a long time.
Yuri arrived in Montroulez on Christmas Eve. Sometimes he stopped at a village large enough to have a tavern with a room he could rent, and other nights he was lucky to ask a local landowner if he could sleep in their barn. With his cane, crippled leg, gnarled hands, and scarred face, it wasn't too hard to find pitying people who didn't even charge him for the barn. The horse was old and barely moved faster than he could walk, assuming he had two good legs. Considering he hadn't know how to ride before, this was fine with him. By the time they reached Montroulez, he thought he'd gotten the hang of it, even if his legs felt permanently stretched in an awkward bow.
Yuri found the cheapest inn Montroulez had to offer. It was on the outskirts of town, with a stable in the back to leave the horse. It wasn't that late in the day when he arrived, but night fell early this late in the year. Yuri ordered a pint of warm cider and warmed himself by the fire after the long ride. He sat alone, watching the rest of the common room laugh and shout. Tomorrow was Christmas Day, and everyone else seemed to be in a celebratory mood. He almost wished he could join them.
"Evening, stranger." A rough-looking man leaned against the wall next to Yuri. "I haven't seen you around before. What brings you to Montroulez?"
Yuri edged sideways, uncomfortable with the way the man seemed to loom over him. He'd sat with his back to the wall, facing the door, for a reason. "Just passing through."
"You have no friends or family to spend Christmas with?"
"None in the area." Back home, Estelle, Karol, and Rita would be preparing for a Christmas Eve feast. Yuri had always spent the evening with them, sometimes at Estelle's house and sometimes at Hanks'. For a moment, he regretted taking off when he had and not staying for that familiar happy evening. Then again, he felt so out of sorts lately that participating in an event he'd always loved without being able to feel as happy and relaxed as it usually did might just make him feel worse.
While Yuri thought about this, the man analyzed Yuri's face and the cane leaning against the wall. "You a soldier?"
"No. Do I look like one?"
"You look like you might'a used to be one."
"Oh." Yuri trailed his fingers over the jagged line cutting through his eyebrow. "No, this is from a… fight."
"A fight? Hell. No offence, but I hope you lost or else I'd hate to see the other guy."
"Heh. Yeah, I lost."
"Did you get any payback?"
Yuri frowned and took a long sip of his cider. "Not yet."
"Well, good luck with that. Listen, the wife and I could make room tonight if you don't have anywhere else to go."
"I hate to see a man alone on Christmas Eve. Come back with me, you can join our dinner."
Yuri stared at him for a few seconds, trying to figure out the catch. When he realized there wasn't one and the man was legitimately just trying to be kind, he wasn't sure what to say. When Yuri was young, there had been a man on his street that beat his dog. It had always bothered him, especially after the dog ran away and Yuri tried to pet it when he met it in an alley. The way the poor thing and cowered and whined when he reached for it had broken his heart. It hurt now to realize that he had become that dog, so conditioned to expect pain that he flinched away whenever anyone reached out to him.
"Thanks for the offer, but I have plans tonight."
"Oh, yeah? Well, the offer stands if you change your mind."
"I'll keep that in mind. Hey, can you tell me where the most expensive drinking establishment Montroulez has to offer is?"
The man laughed. "Sure, but I don't think they'd serve our sort!"
Yuri glanced at his mud-stained clothes he'd worn for almost a week straight of travel. Even without the banged-up appearance he would stand out. "It's fine. I'm not planning to actually go in."
The man gave him a confused look. "You're certainly an odd one, but sure."
After getting the information, Yuri finished his drink and set out again. The streets were deserted, with everyone abandoning the cold and dark outside for the warmth of community in their Christmas celebrations. In the quiet of the empty streets, his cane clacked on the cobblestone road. He found the tavern the man had directed to him near the centre of town, with light spilling out of the windows to make the snow drifts glow yellow. Yuri passed the window and glanced inside, careful not to be conspicuous. There he was: Cumore, drinking wine and smiling as he chatted with a young woman. Cumore, at least, seemed to be enjoying his Christmas Eve.
Yuri ventured into the shadows of the alley beside the inn and sat on an old barrel cushioned by snow. It chilled his ass, but it was better than standing on his sore leg. He pulled out the carving knife he'd taken from Estelle's house and waited.
This wasn't about revenge. Sure, he'd fantasized about doing unspeakable things to Cumore during that month of hell, but he didn't consider thoughts that appeared mid-torture to be a true representation of his opinions. He would have agreed that being dunked in freezing water sounded lovely while Cumore wielded that heated poker. Part of him, the part that he feared would never be able to truly leave that basement, still wanted to see Cumore in as much agony as possible, but Yuri didn't let that part make decisions. Otherwise, he would never get out of bed in the morning. So, this wasn't about revenge. Punching Cumore's face in wouldn't take the scars off of Yuri's and killing him wouldn't bring Flynn back. This was about the young woman in Sant-Brieg who had been executed - no, murdered - a few weeks ago. It was about all the dozens of people Cumore had killed before riding into Zaphias. It was about the dozens of outcasts, odd ducks, or just plain unlucky people going about their lives in villages along the coast who had no idea Cumore was coming for them. Cumore was in the business of ruining lives for a quick buck and Yuri could not allow anyone else to go through what he had. Cumore had to be stopped before another unlucky bastard was forced to learn the natural limits of the human body.
Yuri toyed with the knife while he waited for Cumore to leave. The only things he'd ever killed were lobsters or fish. It was one thing to jam a knife through a lobster's back and make all those wiggling alien legs stop, but could he do it to another human? Flynn had never spoken fondly about his time in the military and he'd rarely spoken about the reality of killing people. To knowingly and willingly take a person's life from them, to put them through that pain and fear, seemed daunting. The knife in his hands had never looked so sharp when he used it to slice a goose. He wasn't sure if his past self could go through with it at all, but then, he wasn't his past self anymore. Whatever surge of emotions the act would give him, he knew he could deal with it because he was too numbed inside to feel them as acutely as he might have in the past. All that pain, all that fear, and all that grief had twisted his soul. He could kill. At least, he could kill Cumore.
Cumore didn't leave the tavern until close to midnight. The tavern had been draining for the last few hours and he was one of the last to leave. Yuri slid off the barrel and gripped his knife as tightly as his damaged hand could. Cumore stumbled a little over a cobblestone, and Yuri took it as a good sign that he was a bit tipsy. Cumore passed the entrance of the alley and Yuri made his move.
He wasn't strong enough to attempt anything but a surprise attack. The knife sank into Cumore's ribs, making him gasp and startle. Yuri wrenched it out, heart pounding. His hands shook, but this time it was from the rush of adrenaline. He didn't even care if town watchmen were called. What was the worst they could do, hang him? He wasn't going to willingly give up his life for Flynn's sake, but it wasn't like he was attached to it.
Cumore lunged at him. Yuri wasn't agile enough to dodge, so they both went down with Cumore pinning Yuri to the frozen ground in the alley. "You!" Cumore's blood splattered on Yuri's shirt.
Cumore's right side was weak from the injury, so Yuri wrenched his arm out of his grip. Knife still in hand, he plunged it upward and then sliced, making Cumore shriek in a way that was entirely to satisfying for Yuri's comfort. Blood gushed from the long gash in Cumore's stomach and he rolled to the side, clutching the wound. Yuri pulled himself to his knees, trying not to think about the warm blood already cooling on his shirt.
"I… I knew you… were a criminal," Cumore wheezed, face pale. His blood mingled with the mud and snow beneath him. The gash in his stomach was wide; it wouldn't take much longer for him to bleed out.
Yuri shook his head. "You're wrong. It's almost funny. I was accused of being a killer, so you dragged me into the basement and tortured me for a month. I wasn't a killer when you took me down there… but I am now." He sliced Cumore's throat to end it quickly. Really, it wasn't that much different than gutting a pig.
Yuri wiped his knife off on Cumore's cloak. For a long minute, he knelt in the alley and stared at Cumore's body. What did he feel? Happy? Relieved? Fulfilled? Satisfied, he decided. At least, that's what the proper self felt. The broken part felt too many sadistic emotions for him to be comfortable analyzing them. He was satisfied that no one else would be killed because of this monster.
Yuri picked himself up before the next patron left the tavern. In the distance, someone opened a church door and he heard the chorus of a Christmas carol drift through the streets. Yuri gripped his cane and began the long walk back to his inn. The blood had almost finished drying on his shirt when the bells began to chime Christmas morning.
Yuri made it back to his inn that night without encountering anyone else, and changed into a spare shirt from his saddlebag in the stable before walking in. The next morning, he ate breakfast alone while the rest of the patrons - a few stragglers who weren't otherwise occupied on Christmas morning - buzzed about a murder in the city centre. Yuri tried to feign interest, and then tossed his coins to the innkeeper and went on his way.
The trip back to Zaphias took as long as the trip to Montroulez. He was able to enjoy the scenery a bit more now that he wasn't so fixated on the task that awaited him. The ocean churned against the beach on one side while snow-covered hills rose up on the other. Just outside a town he didn't bother stopping at, he past a snow-dusted and lichen-encrusted calvary. They were supposed to ward off plague, and Yuri wondered what a fat lot of good this one had done. If only the plague had never come to Zaphias. So many of his loved ones would still be around, and the witchcraft accusations would never have happened. He would still be living with Hanks, he would still have functional hands and two good legs, Flynn would still be with him….
Yuri shook his head and tried to stop himself from wandering down that trail of what-ifs. What if the plague had never come, what if Alexei had never invited Cumore, what Mari had never met that young man who started Mrs. Lagadeg's suspicions against him, what if Flynn hadn't been looking when Alexei killed his brother? There were too many to consider and none of them changed the reality he was left with.
Yuri spotted the spire of Zaphias' church on December 31st. He was glad it was New Year's Eve because he'd never been more eager for a year to be over. 1628 had been a year like no other and he wondered where a single year got permission to pile so much grief into just 365 days. But then, he supposed it hadn't been all bad. After all, it had been almost exactly one year ago today that he met Flynn. Maybe giving him Flynn was 1628's way of apologizing for otherwise wrecking his life. 1629, he decided, was going to be better. It certainly couldn't be worse. He was going to start over in Saint-Malo with Karol, adopting him just like Hanks had adopted him when his own family perished in the plague. They would get by. Maybe, with time, Yuri would stop hurting so constantly, inside and out.
Because he didn't know when he would be in the area again without Karol at his side, Yuri directed the horse up the hill to the menhir for one last goodbye. Someday he would walk through it, but not just yet. At the top of the hill, Yuri climbed off the horse with a bit more grace than the first time he'd been up here. It had snowed this morning, covering the entire hill in a delicate white blanket broken only by the horse's steps. In the distance, the snow covered roofs of Zaphias shimmered in the late afternoon light. The town looked peaceful, though Yuri couldn't help but think of a smooth rock that revealed a crawling mess of insects when you pulled it up. He rested his hand against the cold rock. Across Brittany, the people who died today would be becoming the new Ankous for the coming year, but Yuri would not be among them. Flynn had promised to wait for him on the other side, so it was time for Yuri to get on with life until it was time to see him again.
That was when he noticed that the wax tablet he'd left sitting at the base of the menhir now sat on the small rock beside it, partially covered by a thin layer of snow. Yuri frowned and dreaded the thought of someone else coming up here and reading his heartfelt goodbye letter. Still frowning, he reached for the tablet and cracked it open.
Yuri's frown faded as he stared at the fresh words carved into a cleared wax slab. His eyes absorbed the careful, precise penmanship that he'd stared at for countless hours while studying in the library. He had to stare for over ten solid seconds before convincing himself he really was seeing this, and then he snapped the wooden book closed. He squeezed his eyes shut and leaned against the menhir, cheeks straining from the smile.
It was almost funny how such a huge weight could be lifted with just three simple words: I'm still here.
A/N: Thank you for reading to the end and I hope you enjoyed it!