Hours later, Rubio was alone on the deck. Somehow, the scent of burning flesh had slunk its way across the water, as though following the fleet, and everyone else on the ship had found excuses to be below decks. He wanted nothing more than to join them; to stick his head in a barrel of fish for some small measure of relief. He couldn't allow himself, though. He had to face this.
None of the others seemed to be feeling anything comparable. Ascald and Hardo were steely as ever; to show this kind of weakness was probably punishable by death in Regna Kagia. Demiri was pragmatic as ever, even attempting to estimate the number of casualties, which had caused more convulsions in Rubio's aching stomach. Even Sokara, who always cared too much, seemed too set on their destination to give much thought to the thousands of men they had just burned alive. Then again, none of them had made the decision. It wasn't any of their weight to carry.
In his mind's eye, thousands of new-made Fonaxi widows sat huddled by the fire on a cold night, trying to calm the howling infant on their knees. Perhaps (his stomach did more acrobatics) some of those women had joined the army to be with their men, or the other way around. Perhaps love had blossomed on those ships, and lovers of all stripes had clung to each other in terror as the searing flames edged towards them. Perhaps – no, undoubtedly – thousands of children would grow up orphans because a dracoknight tactician with no memory had decided he would rather their parents died in screaming agony than take the risk of fighting them in open combat.
He might have gnashed his teeth, torn out his hair, beat his fists against the rail of the ship, wailed to the impassive emptiness of the night sky. He did none of these things. He simply stared into the dark sea until it seemed to swallow him and his thoughts as it had swallowed the husks of the Fonaxi ships, until in all existence there was only the sea, churning and grinding as it had always done and would continue to do long after his bones had crumbled to dust.
He had been staring out for a long time before he became aware of the shadow which had been lurking behind him, perhaps since he had first climbed onto the ship hours before. Realizing she had been discovered, she shuffled closer to him.
"What are you doing on this ship?"
She inhaled deeply, as though savouring the foul smell on the wind. "You were intoxicating in that battle. I couldn't bear to be parted from you. Besides, I wanted a good view of the carnage."
"And what did you make of it?"
She chuckled by way of reply. "I should be asking you that. Do you understand now? This is a fraction of what you're capable of. Today is the day Fonaxe gets its first glimpse of the might of Rubio. I bet the Conqueror is trembling."
"It was a strategy, not a showcase of power. And it wasn't magic that did the damage, it was timber and oil."
"I know that." She draped her arms over his shoulders and pressed her ample chest to his back. "But did you notice how no-one questioned it? No-one had the slightest doubt in their mind about this glorious brutality? That's your power right there."
"It wasn't brutal, it was necessary."
"And people went along with it because they trust me."
"The people close to you, sure. But not everyone in this fleet knows you personally. The Marco they know is just a name, an emblem, the shadowy figure from which their orders originate. Power isn't just throwing lightning at people. It's being able to make thousands of your own people end the lives of thousands of your enemies with a single word."
"Power… it's a means to an end, didn't you say before? If I do have it, as you say, then it has to be used properly. For what's right."
"It will be. Whatever the person with power decrees is right is what's right."
"You must put together a book of your monstrous aphorisms someday."
"Think of it this way: followers of Solaris and of Garuga have different morals, different ideas of what's 'right', as you say. Where do those ideas come from? From their leaders, their priests, and ultimately from their gods. From those with power."
"That doesn't mean there's no such thing as good or bad."
"Maybe not. But good and bad aren't the same as right and wrong."
"I must say, this is the first time I've had a philosophical debate with somehow who was clinging to me this tightly. Even with amnesia, I think I can say that with some certainty."
They were both silent for a while. The smell seemed to be lessening, or perhaps Rubio was just getting used to it. Either way, it was a blessing.
"In fact... I don't remember having this kind of debate before at all. In the last two years nobody's really challenged me. There's been suspicion, sure, but nobody has ever really questioned me. Or caused me to question myself. Until you."
He felt Vivienne lay her head on his shoulder and smiled despite himself. The ship was more silent than he had ever heard it before, and he revelled in it.
Finally he had to ask: "It's fairly clear that we have… differing outlooks. And yet you're still drawn to me. Why is that?"
"I've told you already. It's your power. No mage worthy of the name would be able to stay away from it. Besides, I have to try to wake you up so you can take control of it. Become what you were born to be. Whatever you decide that is."
"I understand that. But, well, not to put too fine a point on it… you're terrifying. And I'm not. I hope. It seems strange that you still think we're… compatible."
"Don't you think so?"
There was a long silence. When Marco spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper. "Yes. I do."
She let go of him in surprise as he suddenly turned around and looked straight at her. But it was as nothing to her surprise when he put his arms around her and drew her close to him. He felt her tense up, then slowly relax as she returned the embrace.
"Wherever you lead, I follow," she purred. "I'll be the first among your followers."
"No," he replied, and she looked up in surprise at the sharpness of his tone. "The last thing I want is for you to be some unquestioning 'follower'. You'll be by my side. Through whatever comes."
Slowly, her face broke into a smile. She closed her eyes as he laid his head gently against hers. They stood like that for a long time in the darkness, alone together, as the waves crashed about them and the wind howled and screamed.