We set off into the jungle. At the start, I have to use a machete to clear the way to prevent rousing suspicion from the locals. But once we get deeper, I am able to simply scorch the overgrowth out of the way. Much less work.
It does, however, require a lot more concentration – can’t be dealing with a situation where I set the entire jungle on fire. It’s no worry though. I am in control.
It would be helpful if Cordelia’s outfit wasn’t so distracting. She’s been distracting me the whole time that we’ve been in Selvadorada. But we’re here for a reason. I can’t forget that.
“Wow, would you look at that!” She exclaims, running off to a viewpoint. We’ve only just started our journey, and there she is, stopping to take in the scenery.
“We’re on a tight schedule,” I call after her to stress the need to go on. She’s not listening, already at the edge of the platform.
Reluctantly, I join her. “If the map is accurate, we need just over a day to reach the temple. If we make most of the way today, we can enter the ruins tomorrow morning. That will give us the best starting point.” I try to reason with her.
“Surely we can stop for a few minutes to admire the view.” She pouts. “Wouldn’t it be a waste to come all the way here and not see all the beauty?”
“Fine.” I stare into the horizon to humour her.
Beauty of the world. Of course. They’re more alike than they realise, my loves. Both seem to place a lot of arbitrary value on the appeal of their surroundings. No surprise this is the case for Micah, he’s an artist after all. But in his ridiculous greed for self-inflicted punishment, he has decided he is not worthy of what he so craves.
On the other hand, Cordelia has lost a lot, like him, but she’s turned that into a reason to admire beauty around her with that innocent awe and vigour of hers. But that makes her far too vulnerable. The two of them can learn a lot from each other. I hope they do.
“You’re not really looking.” She interferes with my thoughts. “This is just like when we watched the fireworks at the Humour and Hijinks festival. Don’t you see how amazing it is?”
She wants me to see the world as she does, not realising that the closest I can get to that is through watching her, like when she was gushing over the most insignificant of things when we first arrived in Puerto Llamante. That sense of wonder she’s so full of… I have long lost that. I can barely remember it.
It doesn’t matter. She’s distracted me enough, and I’m not doing myself any favours either. Nothing productive about this whole stream of thought.
“We should go,” I tell her, turning back to the path. She follows with a sigh.
The journey goes fairly smoothly, bar one encounter with some jungle fire ants in the afternoon. They swarm around Cordelia, but I intervene with a quick chillio spell, freezing them in motion. Once they’re taken care of, I free her from the ice.
“Thank you,” she breathes out. “That was close.”
“Barely a concern. They are vermin.” I tell her, looking for the next turn-off on the path.
Naturally, she doesn’t see it that way. So I need to spend more time consoling her, while dancing around the delightful subject of how awful she believes it must be to get burned alive. The last topic I would ever want to go near.
I cannot do this. I’m not even sure what I end up saying in the end. The whole conversation is an uncomfortable blur I make sure to discard. But I manage to reassure or distract her somehow and so we carry on.
We do end up making good headway in the end. We cross a long-elevated footbridge that’s marked on the map. I see the temple in the distance, right above the waterfall. We’re on the right track. I allow myself to loosen up a little – the sun is setting; we can’t advance any further. Time to set up camp for the night.
“Long fall down that waterfall. Doesn’t look like skinny dipping is on the cards after all.” I tease her as we assemble the tent, eliciting the exact reaction I expected.
“Don’t look so disappointed.” I add, allowing myself to marvel at her blushing before I cast the scruberoo spell on both of us.
I get the campfire started with a quick inferniate spell, and soon, we’re roasting dinner.
“Not exactly fine dining, is it?” I remark in her direction.
“I’m used to it.” She shrugs, oddly stingy with words for once.
“Yes, well, those days of squalor are behind you.” I tell her brightly. “I trust you’ve been enjoying having a real kitchen in your new home?”
The look she gives me is almost angry. “Actually, I’ve still been using the campfire a lot.”
I stare at her, puzzled. “Why ever would you do that?”
She looks as if she wants to reply, but changes her mind before the words part her lips. “Doesn’t matter,” she mumbles, turning her attention to her meal.
She must be insane. Not unlike her, I have spent plenty of time living in the woods, a youth on the run with no roof over my head. Not an experience I would care to go back to, our current expedition notwithstanding. So why would she? Even though I’ve freed her from that pathetic dwelling. I can hardly bear to think of the shack she insisted on referring to as a home in her delusion. Too many memories that leave a bad taste.
It’s been decades since I’ve had to relive my past to the extent my loves have forced me to in these last few months. But I’m not blind to the fact that there’s a bit of that old me in both of them. That’s what makes them different, different from the ones before them. Then again, the old me they resemble is dead. And yet here I am, in the middle of a jungle, chasing ghosts.
Neither of us speaks for a while as we finish our food.
Eventually, Cordelia breaks the silence. “Do you miss Micah?”
What an odd choice. She’s made her sentiments on me seeing Micah crystal clear. Anybody else in her position and with her intent would try to make me forget Micah exists, take advantage of the fact we are alone in the jungle. Which I’d be perfectly happy to comply with, especially for her. I can set Micah aside for the night. I’ve had practice.
But Cordelia doesn’t compartmentalise. If she was a spellcaster, she’d rip the world apart. She feels absolutely everything at all times. Which, I remind myself, as cumbersome as it’s been, is precisely why I chose her to join me on this trip.
“Do you really want to talk about Micah?” I point out the flaw in her reasoning. “This was meant to be about the two of us getting some time away together, wasn’t it?”
“I thought this was meant to be about an ancient power in an old temple.” She protests.
“Well, that too. But I can multitask.” I shoot a conspicuous smile in her direction, which of course prompts her cheeks to flush again.
But then she composes herself. “You weren’t multitasking during the day.”
“We had an objective during the day.” I remind her.
“You won’t multitask when it comes to stopping to enjoy the view, but with people, you multitask too well.” She says quietly. “I don’t know how you can be… I mean… I…”
I know what she wants to say. She wants to ask how I could possibly have feelings for two people, but she’s afraid of even assuming I may have feelings for her out loud. She’s not had a lot of love in her life, that much is clear. Probably doesn’t think she deserves it. Another belief her and Micah share. Not that pointing that out would be particularly helpful.
“I highly doubt you want to hear about that either. I wouldn’t expect you to understand, on any account.” I steer the focus away from myself. “You haven’t been with many people, have you?”
Of course, I know the answer to this already.
“I’ve been with people.” She says defiantly.
“Oh?” I didn’t foresee that answer, but I’m curious. “I must admit I didn’t get the impression you’ve done a lot of dating, but even I can be mistaken.”
“You’re not… mistaken. I haven’t really done any dating. But I have been with people.” The way she emphasises her words leaves little room for interpretation. I can tell she’s feeling awkward, but she doesn’t stop talking. “I told you the sprites like romance. I thought I’d give them what they wanted.”
I wonder if she’s lying to incite some kind of irrational jealousy in me. What she’s saying doesn’t seem to line up with that innocence of hers…
“When we kissed at the Von Haunt Estate balcony, you said you’ve never seen the sprites on such a high.” I remind her. “And that was merely a kiss.”
She looks uncomfortable, probably embarrassed that I caught her in a lie – it’s unlike her to lie, after all.
“Well… that’s probably because what I did before that… it was never with anyone important.” She looks away from me, her eyes fixating on the campfire instead. “It wasn’t dating, it was just… one-time things. I went through the motions, it wasn’t exactly, uh, pleasurable. I thought it was what the sprites wanted. Obviously, I was wrong.” She lets out a sigh, her eyes lingering on the flames.
A part of me wants to keep hoping she’s lying, for her own sake, but I don’t believe she is.
“That’s a shame, that it wasn’t pleasurable.” I tell her softly. “It’s always supposed to be pleasurable. That’s the entire point.”
And clearly also why the sprites had no reaction to her past escapades, while a mere kiss…
“Well, too bad!” She raises her voice and finally looks at me. The fire is still reflecting in her eyes as she locks them onto mine. “If you feel so bad about it, then show me what it’s supposed to be like!”
I did not expect her to be so direct. Bringing this up was a mistake. Of course I had ideas of how our night alone out in the jungle would go… but it just seems inappropriate now.
The more I piece together of Cordelia’s life, the more in awe I am that she’s somehow managed to retain that innocent outlook of hers. It couldn’t have withstood all that, only to finally be broken by me. I have already caused cracks. I should really just stay away from her, but I clearly, that’s one matter I haven’t quite managed to control just yet.
“Wouldn’t that be a waste?” I deflect in an effort to deter her. “Your sprites aren’t even here tonight.”
Which is true. Come to think of it, the sprites haven’t made a single appearance throughout our time in Selvadorada.
“Oh.” Is all she says in response. Tears rush into her eyes. She leaps up, dashing towards the tent.
Good. Let her go, I ascertain with myself.
But then the demon I’ve once buried decides to make yet another appearance tonight, mocking me once more, as it has been of late.
You hate seeing her like this, it whispers.
I’m used to shutting it down. Over the years, it’s become nothing but a distant mumble somewhere at the back of my head. But ever since the time Micah drank my blood at the duelling grounds, the demon’s voice has steadily grown louder. Clearer. I don’t like it.
You’ve caused this. Again. And to what end? It’s ringing in my head.
Ever since the day of the ascension ceremony, I’ve mostly kept the demon in check. Needs to be done. But we’re far from home, and it’s getting increasingly difficult.
What is one little slip-up, anyway?
“Cordelia…” I grab her hand, twirling her around to face me. “Forget the sprites.”