At this very moment, Amanda was sobbing with pain. She bled very little, and would have bled only a little more had she been mortal. Marisa was that good at her craft. She should be, after all, she had suffered enough over the years to turn suffering into a fine art.
"What do you think of my handiwork?" asked Marisa sweetly, running her fingers over her recent modification of a piece of Amanda's anatomy.
"I think you're sick!" Amanda screamed.
"Why? Because you feel a little bit of pain? What of all the pain that you caused me?"
"What pain? I don't even know you!"
"But you knew the Duke of Alba."
Amanda shook her head in confusion.
"Surely you remember the Duke, the butcher of those he called 'the men of butter'? Your lover? The one you wrapped around your finger? The historians say that you were partners, but I know better."
She stared inwardly in shock. It had been so long since she even thought of the Duke, and the resurgent memory hit her like an electric shock.
The Duke lay on the bed, his head thrown back in ecstasy as Amanda used her special charms to take the old man's breath away. Most men of his age might have suffered a heart attack from such athletic efforts, but he was a man with the strength of many.
"Another day, and these men of butter will be burned into smoke," gloated the Duke. "Those heretics will rue the day they ever decided to cross swords with me."
Amanda was unable to speak at the moment. She was otherwise occupied, but used another means to show her agreement.
"I knew the Duke of Alba," she admitted, "but what does that have to do with you?"
"Does the name 'Marisa van Ness' ring a bell?"
"Think of it. The Duke of Alba. Spain. Holland. Ring a bell?"
"The Blood Council?"
She shook her head, "A few cheese-heads died. The leaders of losing armies always die."
Marisa snarled, "Not anyone died! D'Egmont died! Died because of you!"
The Duke was frustrated. "D'Egmont won't bend! I've met Jews who would renounce their own God and adopt Jesus far sooner than D'Egmont would give me his name."
Amanda smiled, "Then threaten him with beheading. It's a noble enough end."
"D'Egmont. One of the rebels? He would have died anyway."
Marisa pulled at the ring that was now punched through some of Amanda's more sensitive flesh (just freshly healed), producing a blood-curdling scream. "D'Egmont was an immortal, and he did not support William the Silent! He only died because it was the Duke's whim!" Her yelling ceased, and was replaced by a careful whisper that cut through Amanda's renewed sobbing. "Who else forged the Duke's whim, else than his lover... Amanda? Who other than an immortal would know how to kill an immortal?"
"Beheading was a common way to kill nobles! I didn't invent it!"
"No, but you suggested it. The Duke was a Spaniard, and he would have preferred sending him to an Inquisitor! Torequemada, perhaps, if he were alive two centuries later." There was silence for a moment, "I lost d'Egmont because of you, and you're going to pay for every drop of blood lost. You're going to pay for every drop of Flemish blood shed because of you." She smiled wickedly, as suddenly as if a switch had been flipped. "It's time for your whole-body tattoo."
* * *
Jim walked out of the hospital, grumbling to himself. It was the same old story. Nothing wrong. Perfect condition. Why Banks insist he make these god awful visits was beyond him. He'd seen the Captain go through much worse and shrug it off as a mere flesh wound.
His cell phone rang. "Ellison."
The voice at the other end was modulated. "The Needle. Fifteen minutes. Top level. Fifteen degrees, five minutes. If you miss me, you've blown it." The connection was cut before Ellison could respond.
The Needle was more than fifteen minutes away. At least he had a department car to use. He ran to it and gunned the engine as fast as he could.
* * *
Harlowe sat at the bar, drinking a pint of ale. At the moment, he looked less like the perfect English gentleman, and more like an English sergeant from the Great War. He felt someone approach and said softly, "Have a seat."
Sandberg smiled, "Thank you." His expression became concerned. "Are you well?" He had come by the tavern to get some food and a little beer, and it was totally by chance that he saw Harlowe here. It was a chance for information that he would not pass up.
"You know the old saying, 'Stiff upper lip.' I'll manage."
"But are you well?"
He drank the rest of his ale. "No, but does it matter? When did it ever matter?"
"That's not a healthy attitude, no matter how normal it might be in England."
Martin shrugged. "It made us master of the world for a few centuries. In any event, there's not much I can do. Healthy or not... I'm used to this way of existence. Do you know the ironic thing? I do not wish to exist, but I cannot take my own life, and nobody will kill me? Nobody can, in any event."
"Why would you want to die?" His tone was more clinical than anything else, but inwardly, he was cringing.
"Because existence is not pleasant. I would expect there to be ups and downs, but all I have are downs. Every time I feel genuine happiness, a disaster happens. I am resigned to living in the average, but after all the decades, it becomes a burden. Why should I live, when there are so many other worthy people who cannot?"
Sandberg slowly blew out his breath. He had heard a similar story. "Do you want to know a secret? We all feel that way about ourselves. Have you ever wondered why there are so many people who drown themselves in addictions? So many of us want to forget ourselves because we can't face the fact that we don't want to live. It's the human condition. Hannah Arendt said it best: 'The human condition is such that pain and effort are not just symptoms which can be removed without changing life itself; they are the modes in which life itself, together with the necessity to which it is bound, makes itself felt. For mortals, the "easy life of the gods" would be a lifeless life.' But we never take that into account, and so we try to kill the pain. What do we do? 'Life is pain and the enjoyment of love is an anesthetic.' When that painkiller fades or is taken away, we become even more bitter, forgetting the basic rule: life is pain, and a part of the human condition."
Martin nodded, "I've heard similar arguments before. In Hawthorne's story, the doctor removes the birthmark of his beloved, to make her perfectly perfect, and she dies. But you misunderstand me. Most people want to erase the birthmark and leave the woman. I want the woman to die, and with her, the birthmark."
"But why would you want to do that?"
Harlowe smiled to himself, "That's something that I'd like to know as well." He said nothing more to Sandberg, but in his own mind, he knew the answer.
Nothingness. That's what he had once felt. The awareness of nothingness, where all he saw was black and he had no sensations other than feeling as if he were asleep and slowly waking up. How long it took to wake up, he didn't know, but sooner or later, he did.
He lay on the ground, staring at the night sky. The smell of bodies assaulted his lungs, and he couldn't breathe due to the horrible stench of cooking flesh and rotting bodies. He smelled the guts especially. He heard the insects and scavenger animals, but wasn't plagued by them, for some reason. He also noticed that his belongings hadn't been picked from him.
"You're awake, I see," said a familiar voice.
Harlowe rolled to his side and saw an English soldier wearing a rifleman's uniform, idly stroking a small fire. Above it, some flesh was roasting on a spit. A few bottles of ale sat next to him, chilled by a basin of water. This was a man that he recognized very well: Richard Sharpe.
There were many tales told about Major Sharpe, such as how he took down ten men in under a minute. Many of the tales were no doubt just that, but there was enough truth in them to make any sane man fear him, or at least get quite drunk before even facing him in a fair fight.
"I was dead, sir," Harlowe muttered. "I couldn't have survived that."
"You're quicker than most. Most have to die a few times before they get the hint."
"That you are immortal, in a sense."
"Is that why you waited for me to arise?"
"One of them, in any event. I knew that this is your first time as an immortal, or I might have moved on. One obligation that we immortals have is to break in those who come to their immortality, and teach them a few simple rules. Those who have less moral scruples might just kill them, but others with some sense of humanity try to pass on some bit of survival knowledge."
"But I thought that I was immortal."
"'In a sense,' I also said. You cannot be killed, save by one means: decapitation. We are all similar in that way. So long as that doesn't happen, you will never age, get sick, or die. Wounds will heal."
Harlowe took it all in. He was skeptical, having been raised in a very skeptical time, but at least he could look at the facts. He knew that he should have died.
"There's more," said Sharpe, standing up so that he could help Harlowe move to the fire. "Much more, but that will take place after you eat and have a chance to rest.
The food was good. It made him feel that much more human as the moments passed. Finally he asked, "Why me? Why should I receive this immortality? I'm but a soldier."
Sharpe shrugged, "Many different kinds of people become immortal. Good and evil, men and women, rich and poor. We can't question why. All we can do is just move on one day at a time and hope for the best."
Inwardly, Harlowe felt his heart drop a few feet. He had remembered the calmness of death and the relief he felt when the pain stopped. For a few
brief moments he was a peace, but no longer.
* * *
Jim raced out of the elevator, his lungs not yet recovered from his recent exertions. It was not too late, but almost. He was in the observation lounge, and ran to the appointed spot.
The woman stood alone. Jim didn't recognize her, and didn't even feel as if he should. "You're on time. Good. I like punctuality." She wore a black trench coat that nearly went down to her ankles, and a fur cap. If it weren't for that her accent was very American, he would have sworn that she was a Russian spy.
"What do you have for me?"
"This." She handed him a sealed manila envelope that she pulled out of her coat. "It's inadmissible in court, but it might just allow you to settle the case in just as permanent a fashion." She started walking away. "You never saw me. I was not here."
"Hold it, lady!" he barked. "You can't get off that easily."
She smiled, "Yes I can." A stun gun was very close from hitting Jim in the neck, but he dodged in time, grabbing her hand with his own while he put her in a headlock.
"As you wish." The stungun dropped, but so did she.
Jim's head slammed into the ground, and he blacked out.
* * * *
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