The following story is adapted by me from the Prologue of Black Powder WAR by Naomi Novik.
Sometimes strange things inspire one. This happened to be one of those for me. I saw the entire re-write almost immediately. Granted, many of the words and phrases come directly from the original author.
I didn’t have the guts to submit it to Truckin’ as original material, so if you can suffer through it – enjoy. It wasn’t easy.
Even looking into the city at night, Raymond could not imagine himself home; too many bright lights looking out from the trees, red and gold and blue-white under and around roof-corners; the sound of laughter behind him from a passing car. An announcer on a local hard rock station had only one string to his spiel, and his call was a fragile song, a thread woven through the night which itself had become nothing more than patience waiting: Raymond had acquired very little of the language, and the words soon lost their meaning for him when so many hums and whispers joined in. He could only smile at whatever assailed him and hide his incomprehension behind the cup of coffee of the weakest sort, and at the first chance he stole quietly away into the shadows. Out of sight, he put his cup down on the stones nearest the gates; it tasted to him like tainted water, and he thought longingly of strong liquor, or better yet, cold beer; he had not tasted beer in two months.
The viewing pavilion was set on the small promontory of rock jutting from the slopes, high enough to give an odd betwixt-and-between view of the vast gardens of head stones laid out beneath; neither as near the ground as an ordinary balcony nor so high above as some he‘d seen, where trees changed into matchsticks and the great monuments changed to small stones in the distance. He stepped out from under the eaves and went to the railing: there was a pleasant coolness to the air after the rain, and Raymond did not mind the damp, the mist on his face welcome and more familiar than all the rest of his surroundings, from years as a beat cop. The wind had obligingly cleared away the last of the lingering storm-bank; now steam curled languidly upon the old, soft, rounded stones of the pathways, slick and gray and bright under a moon nearly three-quarters full and reflected city lights, and the breeze was full of the smell of rotting walnuts, which had fallen from the trees to smash upon the cobbles.
Another light was flickering among the stooped ancient trees, a thin white gleam passing behind the branches, now obscured, now seen, moving steadily towards the shore of the nearby ornamental lake, and with it the sound of muffled footfalls. Raymond could not see very much at first, but shortly a queer little procession came out into the open: a scant handful of workers, behind them trotted a couple of young boys, carrying rakes and throwing anxious looks over their shoulders.
Raymond stared, wonderingly, and then the tree-tops all gave a great shudder and yielded to a sudden gust of wind, momentarily opening a clearing behind the workers. Came then, her white hooded head bowed down low and her elbows pressed tight to her sides, a slim figure Raymond knew from reports and pictures – and wondering speculation. The slim shadows appeared to bow out of her way or break, leaving long strands of patterns draped across her shoulders. These were her only adornment: all her elaborate hair-do and make-up had been stripped away, and she looked pale and queerly vulnerable with no eye catchers to relieve the white translucence of her color-leached skin in the darkness, her normally bright eyes looked black and hollow.
The workers set down their burden next to the prepared hole at the base of one old majestic walnut tree, blowing out great sighs here and again as they rubbed shoulder kinks from the unaccustomed labor, and which left sweat streaks upon their pale broad faces. The woman paced slowly around the circumference of the pit, bending to toss aside some small imperfection that had migrated to the edges, throwing the dross to the tree into a heap. There were no other mourners present, save one man in a dark blue slicker trailing after the woman; there was a suggestion of familiarity about him, his walk, but Raymond could not see his face. The man took up a post at the side of the grave, watching silently as the workers prepared the ropes to lower the coffin; there were no flowers, nor the long funerary procession Raymond had before witnessed in the streets of the city: family wearing their finest clothes, pseudo solemn functionaries shedding propriety in their wake. This curious night-time affair might almost have been the scene of a pauper’s burial, save for the absence of the civil service twenty year old suits and hide bound hierarchy, and the woman standing over the proceedings like a milk-white ghost, terrible in her rigidity.
The workers carefully worked the coffin toward the pit, one double checking the lid; but then it had been more than a week since the death. This seemed a strange arrangement for the burial of a murderer, even one who had multiple murdered and raped; Raymond wondered that his burial here had not earlier been forbidden, or perhaps, knowing better, was even now clandestine. The un-adorned coffin slipped out of view, a soft thump following; the woman keened once, almost inaudibly, the sound creeping unpleasantly along the back of Raymond’s neck and vanishing in the rustling of the trees. He felt abruptly an intruder, though likely they could not see him amid the general haze of lights and shadows behind him; and to go away now would cause the greater disturbance.
The workers had already begun to fill the grave, scraping the heaped earth back into the hole in broad sweeps, work that went quickly; soon the ground was patted level once again under their shovels and rakes, nothing to mark the grave-site but the raw denuded patch of ground. The two boys labored breaking clods and smoothing the surface blending the site, until the grave could not be told from the undisturbed ground save for the grasses. This labor accomplished, they stood uncertainly back: without an officiant to give the affair some decent ceremony, there was nothing to guide them. The woman gave them no sign; she had huddled low to the ground, drawn in upon herself. At last the men shouldered their tools and drifted away into the trees, leaving the woman as wide a berth as they could manage.
The man in the blue slicker stepped to the graveside and made the sign of the cross over his chest; as he turned away, his face came full into the moonlight, and abruptly Raymond knew him: Craig Yancy, the Captain of one of Raymond’s precincts, and almost the most unlikely mourner imaginable. Yancy was violently antipathy towards murderers of any sort and was known to have no favorites, nor made distinctions amongst violent crime of any nature; And Yancy would never have been admitted to the woman’s confidence in life, nor his company tolerated by her. But there were the aristocratic features, wholly Irish; his presence was at once unmistakable and unaccountable, and without reason – given that it was his investigative skills that had convicted and gotten executed, the departed. Yancy lingered yet a moment in the clearing and spoke to the women; inaudible at the distance, but a question by his manner. She gave him no answer, made no sound at all, crouched low with her gaze fixed only upon the hidden grave, as if she would imprint the place on her memory. After a moment he bowed himself away gracefully and left her.
She stayed unmoving by the grave, striped by scudding clouds and the lengthening shadows of the trees. Raymond could not regret the individual’s death, yet pity stirred; he did not suppose anyone else would have her as companion now. He stood watching her for a long time, leaning against the rail, until the moon traveled at last too low and she was hidden from view. A fresh burst of laughter and music came from a late traveling car around the corner: the music had wound to a close.
From the reaches,