Sealed by Sunset
Tyki Mikk remembers Portugal; remembers beaches of fat, yellow sand and the sound of wind over the ocean, that great booming hollow noise that used to strip him of everything except salt and sea and here I am. A tiny brown girl with flyaway hair and the mark of the demon had sidled up to him and wrapped her arms around his leg. He could feel her ribcage expand against him like the unfurling of seagull wings.
"That was lovely," she said. "Very nice. I knew you could do it." Only the timbre of her voice held any meaning: that high trill of approval, girlish pleasure. He had scooped her up in his arms and thought, these little bird bones that I am holding are centuries older than I am, centuries older than my father or my father's father. Bodies bobbed like corks in a ragged line parallel to the shore.
"Barbaric," she whispered against the shell of his ear. "Positively vicious." Is she brittle with age, he wondered, or elastic and pliable? He squeezed her tightly, skinny limbs settling around his neck and waist.
"I could teach you how to swim," he had offered quietly, her head close enough to his lips that it didn't matter if the wind whipped the words away. "We could go swimming." His gaze is drawn again to the bloated corpses in the water. "Though not, perhaps, today," he amended.
Laughter had bubbled up from somewhere deep in her chest, mirth breaking against him. It brought a smile to his own lips. "I like you, Tyki Mikk," she said.
The first story he tells the new Bookman is about a young earl, one with glossy black curls and a careless smile, balls and foxhunts and an easy sort of cruelty. There are doting parents and indulgent servants, hounds and horses and women, so many women, trying to sell themselves to this man who had been bred thoughtless and privileged from birth. There is nothing in this story about hands that never seemed to lose the smell of fish no matter how hard they were scrubbed, dirty linen, or rope calluses.
Stories, he has always maintained, are like the sea: ever mutable but somehow fundamentally the same, water holding memory the same way it holds its shape; that is, not at all, really. The consequences of a history rewritten are nonexistent when it is impossible to tell when it has been done.
The Bookman brings his pen to his lips and rolls it across them, eye dark and unreadable in the dim twilight.
Death had not been something Tyki had paid much attention to before, thanks to the arrogance only youth could bring, but suddenly there it was: age and exhaustion everywhere around him, flesh rotting and bones turning thin and breakable. Immortality was a strange beast, sly and insidious, easy to disregard until he realized he had been forgetting to breathe for days on end.
Italy was a golden country, different from Portugal. So many people, so many thoughts and opinions, all reluctantly united on a crooked little peninsula. There were drawings on display there once, on parchment already yellowing with age, of the insides of corpses carefully rendered in smudged graphite. Chest cavities gaped open, insides arranged neatly in a way that only made sense to God, skin split to reveal muscles underneath. "Horrid," murmured a lady in yellow silk.
"Despicable," agreed the man with her. He snorted. "Artists."
Yes, Tyki Mikk thought, in death, always. He decided to put the butterfly eggs he had been given in her belly, where they would eat her child and her insides first; the man he would just slide his hands into and pluck out his heart. By Italy, it had been a very long time since his hands had last smelled of fish.
The Bookman sits by the bed and listens to the story of a gypsy prince, swaddled in scarves of every color imaginable, dirt under his fingernails and heavy with flashing golden trinkets. They had winked in his ears, his lips, around his ears. "We are a people with a strong affinity with death," Tyki tells him, making the sign against the Evil Eye and hiding a smile when the Bookman flinches.
But the gypsies were a people of life as well; movement and transience, the world through the ragged curtains of a rickety wooden cart. Ghosts follow those footsteps, transparent against the roads, the same yellow tint to their eyes as Tyki sees in his companion now, reflected light from the fire.
"The first thing a Bookman learns is death," says the Bookman from his chair. It sounds almost unintentional. "History as an endless string of deaths and what they meant in the long run." He leans forward and slides a hand absently along Tyki's chest, following the line of crosses that marked the spot where Tyki's immortality had been torn from him by a smiling white pierrot. "The death of a man."
Tyki never had managed to teach Road how to swim, and this is what he remembered as he dumped her dust into the ocean bordering a tiny Portuguese fishing village. It had amused him to learn that they still told stories about it, nearly a century and a half later, about the dark man who came in the night. Perhaps from one of the heathen countries in the East, or the godless African subcontinent. The stranger on the interior, Tyki thought, and laughed at them.
He hadn't known where she was from, and was fairly certain that she herself didn't remember, so this was as good a place as any.
Gulls wheeled in raucous circles in the sky, ever the opportunists, scooping up discarded fish guts in their beaks. No better than flying rats, same as the pigeons in Florence. The pub on the east end was full of rats of another type, both the more conventional furred monstrosities skittering across the floor and the large, stinking ones on the stools. They looked at Tyki askance when he entered, not used to seeing unfamiliar faces in a town this size. A thin haze of tobacco smoke brushed against everything.
Smoke and leather, unwashed bodies, and sea salt. Beady black eyes, blinking warily in the dim light. Men who could feel a coming storm in their bones, in the way their blood thrummed to the imagined pounding of the rain.
"Visiting family?" the bartender asked, squinting at him.
"Something like that," Tyki said.
Fucking the Bookman almost smacks of afterthought when it happens deep in the forgotten hours of the morning. Moonlight paints pale streaks on Tyki's skin, pale on pale now, just one more reminder. The difference is in understanding, the quiet desperation of inevitability. Amusing, in its own way. "Fuck," mumbles the Bookman. The night has leeched the color from his hair.
"Yes," says Tyki, and traces the story of star-crossed lovers into his skin. Blood and obsession, the smell of rotting roses and rotting flesh, a simple country lad who had never even seen the sea but could play the lyre better than Apollo himself, his dark twin with a white smile and nimble fingers. The mayor's daughter with hair like spun fire and skin like smooth milk, her laughter like bells and her tragic, wasting death. He plays the notes of it now across the Bookman's flesh, making him sing it.
"You're a fucking shitty liar," the Bookman gasps finally, which makes Tyki wonder if he is.
Their graves had been dug behind the church, at the very back of the graveyard, ringed by a cheerful little stream. Violent deaths, and old superstitions die hard, even in these relatively enlightened times. He'd been unable to find his own stone.
A brief vision of walking into the waves, water breaking over his head and filling his lungs.
It had been one of those odd moments, a hyper-awareness of the world, the wind in the trees and the crinkle of yellow-green grass, faded names on crumbling rock, when the Bookman who had thrown in his lot with the Exorcists had found him. For the second time in almost a century and a half, the town behind Tyki creaked nearly empty.
"I want you to tell me a story," the Bookman had said. Tyki Mikk brought his bloodstained hands to his mouth and pondered this offer of a new kind of eternity.
A pale imitation, at best.