1934 – Leningrad, Soviet Union (St. Petersburg, Russia)
“I put a great deal of thought into this,” Pestilence had said. “I’ve constantly been running into this boy for decades now and, when I realized that I would need a replacement, he was the first to come to mind.”
Famine had watched silently as his friend opened the door and stepped out into the street.
“I don’t know if the mortals have ever named him,” the tired man in white had continued, not looking nearly as tired now, as if the prospect of his retirement had given him fresh life, and Famine wished that he would look truly ragged again just for one last instant of proof. “He’s so much like me and yet somehow still completely different. You’ll know him if you see him. I promise you that.”
So Famine had looked after his companion’s retreating form until it had vanished around a corner and then he had turned away. Part of him hoped that they would never find this new man but another part knew that they had to. As much as he hated the fact, they had to. And one day they would.
He had made his way back to Leningrad the next morning, thinking of nothing save escaping into his work. Over the past few years, he had been in and out of the city on a fairly regular basis, watching the Soviet Union struggle with Stalin’s plans of Communist collectivism. Cities were the easiest places to see his handiwork in action, of course – they always had been – land where people were practically stacked one on top of the other, where finding the day’s bread was not always an act of strength or wit but, rather, a simple stroke of luck. With its cheap worker housing and large communal apartments of the 1920s, Leningrad was a prime example, a colorless brew of cultural splendor and squalor.
By late afternoon, Famine had made his way to the train yard and was watching the workers who moved through. They passed him without noticing anything amiss. Their stomachs were growling, yes, but that was nothing new. Besides, the thin man in black, leaning there against a railcar, was a common enough companion that it wouldn’t have made much difference had they seen him now anyway.
He listened to any bits of conversation that floated to his ears but he wasn’t listening for the gossip these men had to share. He was simply listening to hear. There was no better judge of your work than he who felt its effect, after all. After an hour he had discovered that people were still starving, people were still sick and death was still as eminent as ever.
“Just listen to them, Pest.” Famine shook his head as he addressed the man who had left his side almost a full day ago now. “Just listen. They’re as terrified of you as they’ve ever been.”
“But power is not always in fear.”
Whether it surprised him more that someone had actually responded or that they had voiced their response in pure English, he couldn’t say. The voice at his elbow was so quiet that it barely sounded as if it had truly spoken at all. And yet it had. He knew it had. It would have been hard to doubt, as he looked down to find the pale form crouched beside him.
The young man stared out into the train yard, looking fully as if he had been there and silent the entire time. Tangled, white hair blocked the details of his face from view and yet there was something about him all the same, something familiar. There was a feeling that Famine could vaguely recall having felt before, an overwhelming sense of waste and refuse, as if all signs of the city’s social squalor had been gathered and shaped to form this singular creature. And yet the only obvious physical sign of filth was a single smudge of charcoal smeared carelessly across the bridge of the boy’s nose.
Bleached eyes glanced up at that, a vague hint of a smile playing across thin lips. “Me.”
1594 – Ganges River Delta, India
Standing there, up to his knees in the water of the great Ganges, the young man smiled. It was an absent, dreamy expression, tossed back over his shoulder in response to a word of recognition, a look no different from that which he had offered many times before. He appeared so terribly out of place there, so fair and jaded against the swirling backdrop of the river and its people, that Famine almost could have laughed as men and women passed them both by without paying a moment’s mind. Had he not been caught so off-guard, perhaps he would have.
It was not the mere sight of the boy that surprised him. No, he had glimpsed that white beggar often enough since their first meeting that it no longer seemed strange to find him in ever large city or small town. They always nodded but seldom spoke and, when words were for some reason exchanged, they rarely offered more than a swift greeting as they passed. Today, however, there was something different, something more familiar than every time before, and Famine could not bring himself to move on until he recalled precisely what.
The boy looked away again to watch as a family descended to the riverbank. His head had fallen slightly to the side, his eyes shining with rapt attention, and it was evident that nothing would distract him now. Only a few meters away, two men stepped into the water, a long, thick bundle held between them. Inside of that wrapping there would be a body, Famine knew. Inside of that wrapping there would be another victim of his own handiwork. One of the men held the feet, the other held the shoulders, and they gave their loved one – perhaps a mother, a father, a sister, a son – to their mighty Mother Ganga, knowing that they might very well be following that same current to the afterlife sooner than they might have wanted.
Famine was too distracted to offer them more than a passing glance, however. His gaze were still caught upon the vague image of a young man, a nimble hand brushing a fly from a slim shoulder as the shrouded cadaver sunk just below the surface and floated away. And then those faded eyes glanced back. Tall, thin and pale with a slope of white hair falling down his bare back – the image froze in Famine’s memory and faded flawlessly from the present to the past.
He didn’t realize that he had spoken the word aloud until he blinked to find the boy standing beside him. Hair flowed over bare shoulder, head cocked to the side with pale eyes looking up to regard him thoughtfully. There was an amused quirk to the corner of the young man’s mouth, a thumbnail caught almost playfully between his teeth.
“You only just realized.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. And Famine barely managed not to scowl.
“It’s been nearly three thousand years,” he stated by way of excuse. “One can not be expected to instantly connect a face to a specific memory when there are so many people about day to day.”
“So many people like me?”
That faintly cocky grin, that flash of mischief at the corner of the eye – Famine had seen them before on another face, a face he knew far more personally than this. And his temporary companion seemed to sense it. The grin fell back into a vague smile, the mischief tucked itself back in behind the hazy grey mask of the eyes, and it was as if neither had ever been visible at all.
“I’m a part of him, you know.”
Famine frowned as his young acquaintance looked off over the river. When he spoke, the boy’s tone sounded the same as it had that first time they had conversed – calm and curious and wrapped in an air of nonchalance. There was something to be heard underneath it now, however, a sense of resignation hidden somewhere just beneath the surface. Felt in this otherwise confident youth, it was somewhat disconcerting.
“We’re nearly identical in form and completely parallel in purpose,” he continued. “Another in my position might fool himself into believing otherwise but I know better. I am neither my own unique being nor even the simple equivalent of a son or a brother.” The smile took on the slightest hint of bitterness at that. Had he not been watching it so closely, Famine never would have noticed. “I’m a piece that was broken off of him almost three thousand years ago because there was too much work to be done in our line for a single creature to manage it all alone. So they removed me before he ever grew attached enough to miss me, placed me into a shell with all of the necessary trappings and sent me out into the world. Thus, here I am and, thus, here I stay – a dangerously subtle and materially centered version of something that mankind has always feared.”
Silence settled and stretched between them then, a film across the surface of time. It wasn’t quite awkward but neither was it comfortable, and Famine simply watched his companion from the corner of his eye. That pale gaze still fell upon the river, the people, the bodies floating away.
Finally Famine cleared his throat quietly and spoke. “Have they given you a name?”
The boy glanced up at that, blinking as if he had nearly forgotten that there was anyone there. Then his lips twitched, the smile flashing genuine for a moment as he looked away once again. He knew that the answer to the question mattered very little in the long run. Perhaps it would be remembered, perhaps it would not. But a name, in the existence of creatures such as they two, was the one thing that no one could ever truly take away.
“They have.” It was his turn to watch Famine now, face turned to the riverbank and hair fallen across his eyes. “In 1340. The spelling was changed once again just last year.”
Famine quirked a brow, expression curious and amused. “You aren’t going to tell me.”
“Hmm.” The boy cocked his head to one side then, slowly, to the other. It was an oddly endearing motion. “Why does it matter?”
Famine’s other eyebrow rose as well. “Which part? Your name or the fact that you won’t tell me?”
“Either.” He turned his head slightly to see more clearly. “Or both.”
There was another silence as Famine weighed his words in response. “I like knowing to whom I speak.”
“You know who I am, with or without a name for me.”
“But a name would make things much simpler.”
“How?” The boy’s eyes flashed mischief again. “People rarely speak each other’s names during private conversations such as this. A name rarely serves a purpose when dealing with the person whom it belongs to and is more suited for discussion of that person with a third party.” And there. There was that faint grin. “I know your name, for instance. I have known it since before I first saw you. And yet I’ve never once used it in your presence.”
He made the statement with an air akin to challenge. It was true, of course. Famine ran through the memories of every brief encounter just to be sure of it. The fact that the boy knew who he was went without a doubt – it had ever since that first glimpse on the Nile – but not once in the past almost three thousand years had his name been spoken aloud.
“Why does it bother you so much, not knowing my name?”
There was no real answer to that, or at least none that Famine could explain in a fully logical fashion. It was a feeling more than anything else, really. Being denied something so simple shouldn’t have mattered at all. But there was something else about the shape of the secret, as if the boy was hiding more than his own secret behind those clouded eyes.
“There are two distinct beliefs,” the boy said, “in reference to giving something a name. On one hand, to name something is to give it power. On the other, to hold something’s name is to hold power over it.” That grin twitched again, a quick flash through Famine’s vision. “Consider this a game.”
1934 – Leningrad, Soviet Union
“You’re the one I’m looking for, aren’t you?”
How he knew the boy would understand, Famine wasn’t sure, but there was a smile to prove that he had assume correctly.
“Have you found my name yet?”
The question caught him off-guard and, for a time, his only response was holding the gaze of those faded eyes. Why it surprised him, he didn’t know. It was the same question he had been asked at their every meeting for over four hundred years. If he said no, then he had failed once in his promise to Pestilence. If he said yes, the boy would know that he was lying.
Finally he had to admit the truth. “I haven’t.”
The boy smiled at that and nodded. “Then you’ll have to look harder.”
And one blink found Famine alone.