“He came to me… oh… twelve years ago, I guess it was.”
“The one and only. ’n he had a plan. ‘We’ll get everybody out,’ he kept saying. ‘We’ll take back what’s ours, ’n then we’ll keep our borders safe.’ He was obsessed with retaking territory. Guess a thousand years of wandering will make anybody obsessive for the good ol’ days, though.”
“The good ol’ days of war, you mean.”
“Yeah. Somethin’ like that.”
Dragomir took a liberal sip of his drink, trying to suppress a wince. They were sitting at the bar again, an appreciable distance between their stools, five candles lighting the space. Dragomir had filched them from the pub’s back room, and though he felt a little bad about stealing, he decided the pub’s owner probably wouldn’t begrudge Pubton’s former mayor a few minor items. He’d already broken in and stolen booze without paying anyway.
“I don’t know why you bother,” Bora commented. She’d replaced her own drink with a glass of water. “I told you, it’s a physiology thing. Non can’t get drunk. We process the alcohol too efficiently. You’d have to imbibe, hell… probably more liquid than your body can ever hold, before you’d even feel a mild buzz.”
“Well aren’t you just the scientist,” Dragomir growled. “Forget that. I asked you a question.”
“Yeah, you did.” Bora sighed. “He wanted a general. Again, obsession. Couldn’t let the idea go. Kept saying the Non needed a champion. Someone around whom they could rally. Not only that, he wanted a bridge between Non ’n humans, ‘cause not only do humans comprise a big part of the Imperium, they’re almost exclusively the rulers of the Indy Plains’ various kingdoms. Ex-kingdoms, anyway. They’re pretty much all gone now. Point is, if he wanted to try the negotiation route, he wanted a proper human face to do the negotiating.”
Dragomir considered The Baron’s ‘champion’. “Eve’s about as diplomatic as a tiger on drugs.”
“Yep!” Bora raised her glass. “I warned him that he, she, it, whatever resulted from you, might not be so great in that sphere. Fighting strength I could guarantee, thanks to Dra… Traveller; people skills, not so much. I suggested we just try and use you, but, ah, he wanted a genuine hybrid. Didn’t help that you you couldn’t access Traveller’s ridiculous muscles, for whatever reason. Alas, genetics…”
Dragomir reflected over the plan for a few quiet moments. He took one more drink from his cask, winced, and set it aside. Whatever comfort normal people derived from booze, he was apparently exempt for life. “Kind of a stupid plan, when you think about it.”
“It was smart and it was stupid. I agree, though, that there were better ways of doin’ things.” Bora shrugged. “But he wanted it done, and I confess that I was… curious. Curious and amoral. It’s funny how your scruples can disappear after a millennia of fucking around with nature.”
Dragomir grimaced. “Why, what else have you done?”
“Oh, lotsa things.” Bora tapped her cheek thoughtfully, then winced when she realized she’d touched the slice in the skin from Dragomir’s Catastrophe. “Spliced poodles together with spiders about seven hundred years ago. That was fun. You might, ah, have come across ‘em before… yeah… anyway… and this one time I created a biiiiig orbular monster that was basically the fusion of a balloon and a colony of chipmunks… lived for about a decade, just floating around, ’til some hotshot in the Imperium blew it outta the sky… what did they call it again…? Something weird, I recall.”
“No doubt.” Dragomir didn’t even want to begin trying to picture the thing.
“Oh!” Bora brightened. “One of my favourites was pretty recent. Remember the moat monsters back at your old castle?”
Dragomir grimaced. “Hard to forget. I had to watch those fuckers feed on body parts a couple times a week.”
“Ha ha, well, I was one of those fuckers,” Bora proclaimed proudly. “Or all of them. While you were off wanderin’ the world I may have paid a little visit to your castle ’n gotten myself, y’know, executed. Part of me, anyway. And when they dumped my avatar’s bits into the moat I ‘infected’ all the moat monsters. Got to control the things by remote, more or less. Shit, there was this one time, when I was a spider, and the castle was coming apart around me - “
Dragomir cut her story off with a curt shake of his head. “Ugh! This is fuckin’ foul! How many of you are there?”
Wrinkling her nose at the interruption, Bora furrowed her brow in thought. Her eyes glowed the faintest tinge of green before dulling to white again. “Right now, only four. One’s here, talkin’ to you. One’s in the Imperium, keeping an eye on their senate. The third’s somewhere along the southern coast. Used to be five, but, ah, I… kinda… had to dissolve one of ‘em. Remember Tobo?”
“The mailman,” Dragomri confirmed. “Yeah. I wondered. Great. So that’s three. Where’s number four?”
Bora’s smile - Dragomir realized it had been growing over the course of the conversation - disappeared. She looked away, suddenly shy, and clicked the heels of her boots together. Rather than responding she took a long sip from her water, too long to be anything but calculated. She looked as though she wanted to shrink into a corner and vanish entirely, but something - obligation to finally tell the truth, perhaps? - kept her rooted to her barstool.
Dragomir knew the answer regardless. “… me. It’s me, isn’t it? I’m number four.”
Bora nodded slowly. “Yeah. Technically. I don’t control you like the others, but… you’re also me.”
Those three words - ‘You’re also me’ - filled Dragomir with an abrupt rage and despair that he couldn’t fight. He’d been holding them back or so long that that the floodgates burst, releasing all of the emotions he’d internalized since returning from Iko’s underground sanctuary. He slammed his head into the bar, against Bora’s shocked protests, smacking it against the wood again and again until blood ran freely from the broken skin. He barely noticed the pain, however, as it mingled with his constant headaches, seeming almost unimportant by contrast. He howled, and when Bora reached over to touch his shoulder he pulled away so violently that he fell off of his stool and hit the ground.
“Dragomir - !”
“Stay away from me!” he insisted, tears now pouring down his cheeks. “YOU MADE ME THIS WAY SO YOU JUST STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM ME! I… I… I… I just… I JUST WANTED A NORMAL LIFE, AND… JUST… and… and… and… and now I don’t even… I’m not even real, I’m just a piece of you…”
Shaking her head, Bora dropped onto the ground beside him. Dragomir skittered away as though she were on fire. “But you are real! You’re a person! You’re still a person, dammit!”
“I’m a clone!” Dragomir yelled, curling into a foetal position. “A copy! A duplicate! A trace! A… a doppel-fuckin’-ganger! That… that other… that moron who’s out… partying… right now… he’s…”
Bora kept her distance, but she spread her hands, as if inviting Dragomir to a hug. “But he’s not you. I mean… yeah… he’s Dragomir… but you’re Dragomir, too. You’re different from anybody. You’ve got the same shaggy hair, maybe, and that same dopey smile, and the same lanky build, but he’s not half as smart as you. You’re… okay, maybe you’re a little naive, sometimes, but he’s a straight-up idiot. And, fuck, that guy’s a horndog. A nice horndog, but a hardcore pervert, just like his dad. You’re… you’re too sweet, too polite, too damned decent to act the way he does.”
Dragomir peered between his arms to glare at her. He didn’t say anything.
Bora dropped onto her knees. She was staring at the floorboards in the dim candlelight, hands folded on her lap. She looked like a nun at prayer. “He could never have built a town like this. He could never have led an expedition, a successful expedition, from one end of the world to the other. He could never inspire people the way you do. He… well, let’s just say it, Libby never would have fallen in love with him. If you want a difference you can believe, there’s a big one for you.”
Dragomir unfolded, though he continued to clutch his knees, rocking gently to calm himself. Glimmers of red and green brushed harmlessly against his skin, circling his wrists. He held one arm up and pointed at the faint hints of the Catastrophe. “Yeah. Sure. And he doesn’t… he doesn’t have this.”
Bora frowned. Dragomir had never seen her look so profoundly unhappy. “No. He doesn’t have that.”
Dragomir shuddered a sigh. Bora scooted closer, moving in increments until she was sitting beside him. Slowly, tentatively, she rested her head on his shoulder, and he allowed her. He didn’t have the strength to push her away anymore.
“It hurts,” he admitted, poking a finger into his forehead. “It hurts all the time.”
“I know,” Bora said, resting her hand on his. “I can feel it, too. Only a little bit, but enough. I’m so sorry.”
“Can…” Abandoning the cynicism he’d embraced over the past year for just a moment, Dragomir asked a question he knew would fail him with the genuine hope that he might be wrong. “Can you do anything about it?”
Bora could have offered a highly scientific explanation as to why she couldn’t. She could have detailed exactly how Dragomir had come to be saddled with such a terrible glitch, even if most of her description was hobbled by guesswork and hypotheses. She could have taken a more humanist approach and tried to soothe Dragomir with honeyed words and vague promises of a better future to come. She offered none of that, though, and simply stroked his hand. He started to cry again, but he felt all of his hatred of the woman wash away in an instant, replaced by bitter gratitude. At least she hadn’t pandered to vain hopes. He wondered if he’d ever really hated Bora, if he’d always been hiding behind the shame of what he was… or perhaps the shame of what he’d briefly wanted her to be.
“So I’m going to die,” Dragomir said.
“Yes,” Bora admitted.
“And some magic blue fireball isn’t gonna save me this time. Even if I went out and found one.”
Dragomir thought about that for several quiet minutes before speaking again. He decided to settle for humour. It felt like an eon since he’d tried to joke about anything.
“I… man, everyone’s gonna be pissed that they’ll… y’know… have to have another funeral for me,” he said, struggling to smile past his sniffs and snorts. “Probably just… think it’s a… y’know, like, it’ll be boring, compared to the first one, if they even had one. I don’t know. But I bet it’ll be… really dull, like. They’ll… they’ll probably skimp on all the cool stuff you usually… usually get at funerals. And only the… only the close people’ll bother coming. Everyone else’ll be all ‘Oh, well, he’ll probably be back in a couple days, so why bother?’ Bet I’ll only get… um… Libby… ’n Fynn… maybe Eve… dad, probably not, he’s an ass, but mom - ”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Bora cut in, voice hoarse and thick, “you’ll have two moms in attendance. Though I might be in the box next to yours.”
They cried together for a long time.