An excerpt from the book
Abruptly, he stood up, threw a few coins on the table, and stalked out of the tavern.
What the hell was he doing? It was all so pointless. He was just marking time; there was no reason for any of this. He stopped in the middle of the path, silently admitting to himself just how sterile his existence was. He had no hopes, no dreams, no goals. What was it all for? He answered his own question: Nothing. It was all for nothing.
He lifted his head and looked at the sky above, dark and foreboding with storm clouds gathering. He smiled grimly. Well, if he wanted confirmation…
He made the decision on that dark street and felt the pressure melt away. He knew what he had to do, what he needed to do. Go back to where it all began so very long ago, before he became the worldly Nic Volenz; to when he was the poor foundling Nicolo d’Volenzkya, named for the street and city where he had been abandoned. It would be spring now in Volenzkya, and he needed to see home, to feel its familiarity, its warmth, one last time before he bid a final farewell to his existence. It was probably maudlin, but he didn’t care. Nic had been struggling with himself over this for months, years, even; another few weeks or so wouldn’t matter.
Swiftly changing direction, he headed for the docks. It didn’t matter that it was the middle of the night; there was always a watch on the ships, and he could find out which vessel was heading for Volenzkya. It was only a four-day journey by sea to the capital city, and he could comfortably stay in his cabin for that short period of time without arousing suspicion, claiming to be a poor sailor.
He was back at the house where he was staying an hour before dawn, having arranged passage on a ship leaving the next evening. Nic had taken the precaution of feeding on his way back from the docks; he didn’t wish to risk needing to feed on board ship. He hadn’t had an attendant for the last few months and he soon packed his own bag. Traveling light was a habit of his now.
Standing by the window, he watched the sun slowly lift above the horizon and knew he had made the right choice. He would go home, say goodbye to the places that meant something to him, and then let everything go. He was almost surprised to find that he wasn’t afraid; he felt at peace for the first time in one hundred and eighty years.
As he looked up at the soaring towers of the huge Temple, Nic couldn’t help but smile. An enduring testament to the past glory of the city, they called it. If the building was enduring, what did that make him? He remembered the Duke laying the first stone amidst the prayers of the priests and priestesses and the cheers of the crowds. So much was different, and yet everything was the same. The smile faded when he thought perhaps only he had changed; changed from the young man who was desperate for experience, desperate to know everything that was knowable. Oh, he had learned, he had learned far too much, and how he had counted the cost.
Shaking his head to get rid of the troublesome thoughts, Nic quickened his pace and strode purposefully through the increasingly narrow streets, feeling as if he was marching back in time. If only he could put the clock back, if only he could go back to those days he had spent in this very city with Paolo. He should have died all those years ago with Paolo, instead of continuing to exist as the unclean thing he was.
Almost a hundred years he had existed before he met Paolo; “lived,” he called it back then, before he came to understand that he really was undead. People like Paolo; they were truly alive, because one had to be alive to be able to die. Nic couldn’t die; he had passed that long ago. All a nightwalker could do was cease to exist. For well over another hundred years after Paolo had died he had continued to exist, never again finding another to love the way he had with Paolo.
For a long time he had hoped he would again find someone who could look at him with compassion and understanding, but eventually even that slender hope had died. All he had now were memories, and they were no longer enough to sustain him.
As soon as the sun had dipped below the horizon, Nic had ventured out; heading for the city center, but it wasn’t long before his feet led him to the docks again. He’d not had the opportunity to properly study his surroundings when his ship had dropped anchor in the bay, because there was no dock space free, meaning the passengers had to be rowed ashore. By that time the sun was almost up, and he needed to get under cover quickly. He took a room at the nearest inn, as rough as it was. He had no interest in what the place was like as long as it provided him shelter for the short time he had left.
Dusk was falling as Nic stood on the dock overlooking the vast harbor, even larger now than the last time he had seen it. Of course, that had been over a hundred years ago, so what else could he expect?
When he looked out over the sea, however, he saw a different view. He saw the harbor as he remembered it, though not from roughly a hundred years in the past, but from two hundred years ago, when he had been a raw youth of thirteen summers trying to escape with his bounty.
* * *
A tall, thin, callow boy ran along the wooden planking of the docks, the hunk of bread he’d stolen clasped tightly in his fist. Heart beating in his chest, partly from fear and partly from the exertion, Nicolo darted between a stack of crates, cargo waiting to be loaded on one of the docked ships, only to be shocked when he ran into someone.
Yelling out, half-expecting a blow, Nicolo attempted to twist past the man, but a large hand had grabbed at his tattered clothing and hung on.
“What have we here?” the man queried, pulling Nicolo back against him, one strong arm holding the boy tight against his sturdy body.
“Let go!” Nicolo squirmed, but abruptly understood the man wasn’t going to let him loose. Afraid that the man would turn him over to the baker, who would at best beat him, at worst turn him over to the watch, Nicolo looked at up at the man holding him. “Please, please let me go. I mean no harm, I’m just hungry.” Nicolo used his large dark eyes as best as he could, letting his lip tremble a little, too, knowing it made him look helpless.
The man laughed heartily. “Oh, but you’re a smart rascal, too, aren’t you?” Still not letting him go, the man looked Nicolo over carefully, even turning him a little to push up his torn tunic and look at his back. “Avoided most of the bruises, I see. Smart and quick. The captain could make good use of you, I think,” he added thoughtfully.
Nicolo frowned, not understanding what the man was talking about, but afraid he might have run from the frying pan into the fire. “What do you want with me? Don’t hurt me, please. I won’t make any trouble.” Nicolo kept his voice low, not knowing why, but sensing he ought to be careful with this stranger.
“I’m not going to hurt you, boy. I’m offering you a chance to get off these streets, to do honest work. Sleep in a bed and have regular meals in return. You can earn a little payment, too, in time, when you can pull your own weight. Isn’t that better than thieving just to live, and risk ending up at the end of a rope or on the execution block for your pains?”
“Not my fault I have to steal,” Nicolo grumbled, not being taken in by the promised future. It was too much, too easy. “They threw me out when I got too big; they said I ate too much. I was only twelve. Is it my doing I’m big for my age, I ask you?”
“The foundling home?” There was sympathy in the stranger’s voice.
Nicolo looked up at the man again, searching his eyes, trying to decide what he really wanted. “Yes,” Nicolo answered. “They were always talking about how lucky I was to be looked after, how I was a fortunate child that the Divinity had saved. If I was so fortunate, why didn’t I have any parents? Why was I abandoned without even a name of my own? Found on Santa Nicholas Street, I was, so they call me Nicolo.” The memory still stung; it seemed to Nicolo that he was destined to be forever abandoned.
“Still, I’m pleased to meet you, Nicolo d’Volenzkya.” The man released Nicolo, holding his gaze as he continued, “My name is Phillipe Donato, and I am second mate on the clipper Oreole. Will you accept my offer; make a better way in this life?”
Nicolo looked at Phillipe, disbelief gnawing at him, even as hope grew in his heart. “You meant what you said? A place of my own to sleep, food to eat? For good, honest work?”
“Yes, I meant every word. Someone was kind to me once when I really needed it, and I swore to repay the favor one day.”
“And you-you don’t want-anything else from me? I…” Nicolo backed away a little. “Someone tried. I’m not that kind of…”
“No, Nicolo, I’m not that kind either,” Phillipe interrupted sharply. “You won’t be touched, I swear.” Phillipe actually smiled then. “Unless you earn the captain’s wrath, but that’s something we all risk. Come with me on board the ship. You will earn your keep, I assure you. The work is hard and you have much to learn, but one day you can proudly say that you are a sailor.”
“A sailor? I have dreamed of seeing other places. I saw pictures in a book once of far away lands. They are real? You have seen these places?” Nicolo asked excitedly.
Phillipe took hold of Nicolo’s arm, but gently, as he led the ragged boy out from among the crates and back onto the dock. Nicolo darted a look around, praying the baker was no longer looking for him.
“Oh, I’ve seen more places than you have ever heard of, boy,” Phillipe was saying. “The stories I could tell you.” He grinned then. “But Captain Costalla, he’s been to places you’ve never even dreamed of.”
Nicolo looked at the mate with fascination now. He’d heard all his life that Volenzkya was the center of the world, the capital city of a vast empire, but all he ever saw were the same dirty streets and the poor folk eking out a living in the shadow of the huge, grand buildings where people lived like lords. Places people like him couldn’t get near, let alone enter. The ‘world’ he heard talk of might just as well be across the wide blue sea that he could see from the top of the foundling home, for all the good it did him.
But still he could dream of something better, and he had long wished to escape the drudgery of his life for the adventure to be found on the large ships that swept in and out of the harbor day after day. It was one of the reasons he used the docks to hide out and make his base after he was thrown out of the foundling home. Hoping that, one day, he could leave on one of those ships and see the world beyond his tiny portion of it. Now, it looked as his long-held dream was about to become reality.