Vanilla and Cloves
“You don’t understand what’s going on here. A little lamb lost in a field, waiting for a wolf to snap your neck with its teeth. Let me enlighten you.” — Ignace Breaux
Kindle thought all of this was stupid. She didn’t think of herself as somebody with a temper until this very moment, dealing with an uncle she hadn’t even known until now. The dark-skinned man with a spiderwebbed scar on his face always watched her. His people were everywhere, as plentiful and annoying as a swarm of mosquitoes. Their gazes weren’t different from a bug bite either, a minor annoyance that she scratched more than advised. Today, he joined her at one of the market stalls and soured the meal she enjoyed with his company. Elijah, a friend of her pa’s who owned the stand, gritted his teeth and rolled his eyes. “Meal’s on him, Cass,” the gruff stall owner muttered, pushing over another bowl of stewed beef and shuffled away. She took it happily. Ignace didn’t need to know that it was already on the house.
“What, you can’t even say hi to your uncle?” Ignace leaned in. “The Caldwells are all ‘bout family, right?”
“I don’t know you.”
“How’s that my fault?” Ignace managed a smile. It didn’t look quite right on his face. The scar dug deep into his face, leaving half of his face unresponsive like a poorly made action figure. The dent in the right side of his shaved scalp only cultivated that crazed look. Like every Breaux and member of this village, when she stared at him for too long something ‘bout them changed as though they came out of focus. She often wondered if the mysterious natives did it on purpose. “All this time and you hadn’t met any of us. Yet, the very moment something bad happens up on that mountain, y’all come runnin’. I’m not why I’m surprised. In this galaxy, when someone wants to know something, they come to us–”
He said something else, but Kindle promptly ignored him. She stuffed some of the stew in her mouth and focused on that instead. The man rambled on and on about one thing or another, trying to goad her, get a reaction of some sort. She wasn’t gonna play this game with him. Not today. Or…at least that what she thought until she heard her mom’s name leave his lips. Kindle snapped her attention at him, frowning, face warm. She swallowed hard, almost choking on the beef she was savoring only seconds before. “‘cuse me but what?”
Ignace laughed, leaning back. He pulled a long ornate pipe from his pocket, lit it, and began smoking it. An odd light blue smoke danced from his lips, smelling of fresh vanilla and ground cloves. They called it the White Noise, a highly addictive depressant cultivated from a planet in the Early Lights planets. One of her cousins had tried it once, messed him up bad so bad to even until this day the taste of vanilla sent him into a cold sweat. Kindle tried it once…and it didn’t do much of anything for her. Ignace gave another puff, making no effort to change the direction. A minor annoyance atop of a mountain of one.
“What did you say about my mom?”
“Oh, now you’re listening?”
“‘Cause you have something I actually want to hear.”
“Rude. Where’s your manners?”
“Where’s yours?” Kindle snapped, slamming her fork on the counter. “Gettin’ your thrills picking on a fifteen-year-old girl. I don’t have time for this, Uncle Ig.”
He frowned, annoyance a fire in his eyes. “You look like her, but you sound like him.” The venom in his voice made it sound like it was forged as an insult in his head. When that didn’t work, he dug deeper with a nail into the heart. “Ina didn’t want to leave, you do know, that right? It wasn’t a choice she made. It hurt her to leave. The very last thing she wanted was to go, to leave your dearest pa and her newly born daughter. But she left. She left to make sure that you stayed alive.” Another puff from that sweet smoke. Another half-made smile. “You weren’t sick when you were born. The Flame’s selfish. It only wanted one.”
“What do you get out of this?” Kindle stood up, heart slamming against her ribs. What did he get out of this? Telling her this only served to hurt her. A fit of anger like no other swept through–hot, wild, and terrible like a desert storm. She clawed at the stall counter, wood peeling underneath her nails. She wanted to shout louder than that, shout so loud that her throat felt raw and pained. She knew that would only give him more of that gross satisfaction he craved. Try as she may, she couldn’t bring her anger down. It continued to boil underneath every word and every thought. “Didya hate my mom as much as you hate my dad? Do I happen to be everyone you hate wrapped up in a single person? If so, must be real satisfying for you right now, I reckon. I’m glad I can make you feel better.”
“You’re wrong. I care ‘bout Ina. And yes, I hate your dad with every fiber of my being there’s one person that I hate more.” Ignace blew out a ring of smoke, face relaxing. Whether it was from the weed or the thought, Kindle couldn’t tell. “And you have been playing into his hand since you got here. When will you wake up and see that I’ve never been your enemy and I don’t care either way if you like me more or not. What bothers me is seeing a sheep sitting by the wolf, not knowing it’s there. You’re much too smart for that, little sheep, wake up.”
Elijah stomped in from around the stall, sleeves rolled to his veiny forearms. “Alright, that’s enough, Ignace. Go bother someone else, will ya. The girl’s trying to eat.”
Kindle took a glance at her plate, long forgotten and growing cold on the table. Ignace tapped his pipe dry noticing the food for the first time, the used leaves’ ashes sprinkling on the ground. He tossed some credits their way, the small chips clattering onto the table. He left (thankfully) without another word. The rage he left her with remained and festered in her chest. She managed to keep the tears in, lower lip trembling from the effort. All she could imagine was her mother holding her in her arms, knowing she had to leave her daughter and her father without a word. There was bliss in not knowing her mother’s pain, the choice she made. He hated that she knew. How’s pa gonna react? Is this even true? Was he lying? Why would he lie? She watched him, hated him, and wished she could learn more.
“Don’t worry about it, kid. He’s trying to get in your head,” Elijah said, giving her an awkward reassuring tap on the shoulder. “He’s like that with everyone…”
“Is it true that he had a good relationship with my mom?”
Elijah cocked his head. “No one disliked Ina. She was a nice kid that grew into a good woman. She wasn’t perfect but ain’t nobody. We all thought she was a wild girl who fell in love without an outsider and got cold feet. That was it looked like. But…” He took a deep breath. “It’s worth looking into, champ. He could be lying, he could be telling the truth, there could be something in between we can’t see. The best you can do is find out what you can while you’re here.”
The man grunted and grinned much like what her pa would’ve done after a good piece of advice. Kindle saw in that instance how they became friends. After an awkward one-armed hug, he sent her on her way with a canteen of the unfinished stew. His kind words and hospitality eased the anger and confusion swelling all over her body. She had to find out what was going on here. Answers didn’t find themselves. Well…not usually. Kindle waved a final goodbye to Elijah, stuffing the canteen in her bag and heading off through the market and back towards the grand manor. As she walked, she thought she caught another whiff of that sickly-sweet vanilla and found herself hating her uncle all over again.
Remy wasn’t home, and Kindle wasn’t surprised in the slightest.
The manor was empty, aside from the quiet servants in pale white mask scurrying from floor to floor. Living here for a little over a week now, she had learned it was easy to forget the servants existed or if they were even human at all. Staring at them she realized they might’ve not been at all. Their bodies moved stiffly like their bones were made of wood and their skin of stones. She also hadn’t realized they hadn’t spoken to her much either. Her imagination stole away pieces of her confidence. What were they? Did he make him? Are they droids or some sorta other sentient life? How loyal were they to Remy? Second by second, new questions flooding her in every moment. She wished her dad was here or at least her grandpa. Or mom? That rabbit hole had no bottom. When she started to think her mother, she wouldn’t be able to dig herself out. She didn’t know whether these servants or the thoughts scared her more. Probably equally if she was gonna be honest to herself.
Kindle squirmed in the small chair set out for her outside of the study. She felt for Coal at her side, the weapon a comfort in all this madness she felt. She thought of happier times with the pistol instead of the mess she found herself in. Odd that some of her favorite memories were tied to a weapon. The Caldwells always gave a weapon to the young kids when they got old enough, not a second before. The women and men brought into the family through marriage or children didn’t quite get it at first. Kindle couldn’t even remember who started it, but she was happy for them. Shooting gave her comfort, some control. She wished almost left to find something to shoot rather than wait and wrestle with her own thoughts.
Over an hour passed. She had called over one of the servants, asked for a bowl, and finished the rest of her stew cold. The flavor remained all the same, a sign of a good stew as her pa would say. She placed to bowl to her side. Within seconds, the servants swept in and took it, even washed the returned the canteen. Kindle tried to speak with one of them and heard nothing but a humming sound like that of a bee mixed with the sound of a song. She hadn’t tried again. She waited some more.
By the second hour, Kindle had lost her patience. As much as she would love to channel her father’s unwavering self-restraint, she felt the inner workings of her anger flare again. Funny that you aren’t home when I need ya. Funny how you’re makin’ me wait. Somehow, she knew that he was watching. Remy knew that she was here, waiting on his return. This was how Kindle figured a starved dog must’ve felt having a slab of meat dangled outside of their reach. She was ready to bite his throat out by the time he strode into his manor, twirling his cane and smiling with all pearly white teeth. The name the Crocodile made a lot more sense now.
He handed off his long wooden cane, his black tall hat, and plush violet coat–each taken with an artistic flare. Their eyes met from across the room. Kindle already felt her brow furrowing hard on her face. He knew. She saw it in his eyes, the way he strode through every small detail before sauntering her way. She saw it in the way he smiled, the almost bored expression knowing what this conversation was going to be about. Ignace’s words ran deep into her head: “There’s only one person that I hate more.” The smell of vanilla and cloves tingled in her nose.
“I honestly expected you to talk with Ignace sooner,” Remy said, voice mildly disappointed like she stole a cookie before dinner. “What did he tell you?’
“Don’t ya know?”
“Fair enough.” Remy smiled. “Mind if we take this inside my office? If we’re gonna have a messy argument, we might as well not disturb the servants.”
Kindle stood up sharply from her chair, prepared to ask him her questions in front of the whole dang place if she had too. He ignored her, entering his office. She stomped in after him, slamming the door behind them. The door rattling remained the only sound for a very long time. He didn’t turn to stare at her, didn’t go to sit. Instead, he kept walking towards the large window on the other side of the room and flung it. The barj rolled over every chair, desk, bookshelf, and lamp in the room like drops of ink moving through pools of water. He stood in front of the door, palms on the pane of the window, standing tall. On another day, she would’ve found him intimidating or cool. Today she was too fed up to care.
“I will do anything to protect C’dar,” he began, “It’s my job as the Shadow. No matter how you react, it’s irrelevant. The truth remains the same. You came here on your own: to protect your family. I asked you to come for my reason. But if it helps you focus, I’ll give you two truths: one you know and what that you don’t. Where do you want me to start for we can get this over with? Which one would you rather hear first.”
“Did my mom have to leave?”
“The truth you already know then,” he sighed. “Yes. The Shaman can live without the Flame and off planet. Two Shamans can’t coexist in the same space here. She had no choice but to leave.”
“Then why couldn’t she come and visit…talk to me at least.”
“Think about it. If she connected with you, she would’ve grown attached and stayed. For the betterment of your life and your development, she left. Can you say that if you and your father knew the truth that you wouldn’t take all your time to find a workaround that doesn’t exist? In the end, it would’ve been a waste of time. That would’ve pointless when the Flame needed to be stoked for the sake of C’dar. So, I convinced her to go. Simple as that.”
“As simple as that…”
“She loved you both of you, so she did it and stayed away. Perhaps you can ask her all the reasons she stayed away. The fact remains she did it.”
Kindle’s mind swam at the thought. Knowing the truth sent her heart throbbing, her mind racing. She reached for the head of a chair and missed, crashing into the ground. There she lied for a sickening amount of time. Her stomach churned, vision turned and twisted. Choked breathing smashed hard against her chest. What else didn’t she know? What else could he possibly be hiding from her? Kindle forced herself up from the cold ground of the study, the barj cresting over her like a wave of an ocean. There was only one other truth that made sense from here. Her mind dove from coldness to heat; blissful ignorance to stark understanding. She stood, finding her shaking legs. “You wanted to tell me somethin’ else,” she said, her voice foreign in her throat. Something she already knew now. “Go ‘head. Tell me. I’m listenin’.” I want you to say it to my face, the truth she didn’t realize before became undeniably clear when he wouldn’t turn to face her. “Say it!”
Remy sighed and shrugged. “I brought the Major here and I suspect you know why I did that.”
Everything made sense–the sudden appearance of the Major, their ability to find them and know where they were gonna strike, the constant communications to an unknown person. He led them here, sending everything into motion. What was the best way to get Kindle feeling helpless? Make a situation where she couldn’t back down. Create a moment where she wouldn’t want to feel again. Her cousin was dead ‘cause of him. She watched him die, surprise on his face and an empty red hole in his chest. A fury like no other filled her. Her fingers moved without thought to Coal. Her fingers didn’t quake, her arm never swayed. She fired, the warmth of the gun against her skin and flash of the nozzle cutting through the dark. She wanted to see him crumple over in pain, in death, in shock.
What she got was a laugh.
Remy turned to face her, plucking the bullet from the ribbons of darkness. The inky barj spat out any stray metal or torn cloth from the witch doctor’s clothes. The bastard had the nerve to smile. “I knew you were going to react like this.” His voice teetered on the edge of woeful disappointment and a complete expectation of the inevitable. “That might’ve killed me but Old Luke’s obsession to keep the Old-World guns relevant stole you of that chance.” He took a seat at his desk, fingers crossed. “I had no choice. I’m sorry that you had to see your cousin die like that, but it only served to strengthen your abilities. Abilities that the Flame needs to thrive. There are things that you gotta do whether you like them or not, that’s the simple fact of growing up. My people have only known this planet. It’s much more than how your family views it–a lucky rock that your family and later your people happened to land on. We’ve done our best to preserve what the original natives intended before the First Civilization. This was no different.”
“It is,” Kindle shouted, Coal still poised. “You could’ve asked. You could’ve put me through the most stressful test you could–”
“And you wouldn’t have been a strong as you are now.”
“It’s not about that.”
“You won’t say that later,” he laughed. “When this is all over, you’ll be thanking me for the–”
A sound of crunching wood and bone filled the air.
He stopped talking. Cold.
The smell of vanilla and cloves hit Kindle first…followed close behind the coppery smell of blood.
Remy looked down. A spear poke through his chest, it’s tip glistening in the torch lights. He touched the tip with his fingers, coughing. The barj rippled as though it too was in pain. The dark-skinned man craned his head, blood dribbling down the corners of his mouth. “What are you doing?” The Shadow voice strained against the pain that was evident in his eyes. “Why?” He coughed blood onto his chest and his nice desk. “Why Ignace? Why now of all times?” Remy laughed. “What do you get out of this?”
Ignace, standing on the window pane, yanked the spear form his father’s back and tossed it out of the window. The orange robes he wore fluttered inward as he stood, watching his father slowly die. “You never did get it, did you,” he said. “I made a promise to Ina when she left. We promised not to speak of it. You didn’t even know we still talked, did you? You thought forcing Ina to give me this,” he pointed to the ugly spiderwebbed scar,”was enough. That pain might’ve been enough to get her spark, but it wasn’t enough to break us apart. I might’ve not liked Woodrow, but the kid was gonna be mine to protect. Doing what you did not only put her in danger but our entire village. I couldn’t stand by and watch. To admit it even in private company was your biggest mistake. It gave me a reason, one that I should’ve used a long time ago. You’re a monster, even if it’s for the sake of C’dar.”
“The world needs both a Shadow and a Flame.”
“I’ll gladly take the mantle of Shadow if it means having this moment forever. Now die.”
Kindle stepped back, watching the last threads of Remy Breaux’s life leave him. She heard footsteps outside now. The servants pounded at the door, no doubt hearing the gunshot. She became suddenly aware that she wasn’t supposed to even have Coal. Her throat tightened into a dry rope. She didn’t know what to do. What would happen if everyone thought that she murdered the Shadow? She almost did. She would’ve given the chance. What am I doing here, she thought tears of panic on her face. All her anger and the energy that came with had left her, leaving a scared girl with no plan. She almost turned but Ignace shook his head. “You’re going to be fine,” he said walking over to the body. “You stay here. You need to be here for what happens next.”
Emotions duller than an overused knife, Kindle stood there as the door swung open. Servants rushed in a river of black clothes and white mask. The huddle around the body in that terrible buzzing sound. Some of the villagers, elders most likely, came streaming in next. Shocked faces filled this dark, cramped space. Kindle tried her hardest to melt into the background and fall into the crowd. They didn’t give her that luxury. They saw the weapon in her hand and a body on the floor. The whole in his chest didn’t match, but in the darkness, they couldn’t have known. They’re gonna blame it on me, she couldn’t help but think. It wasn’t the death that bothered her. The feeling of the world falling apart at the seams was doing it for her.
“Don’t worry, I killed him, not the Flame…” Ignace began. He took no time sitting in the chair. The hole in the back or the blood on the cushions didn’t deter him. “He has betrayed us. Raised his hand against the Flame and her family. He left me no choice.” A lie. He hadn’t touched her, hadn’t harmed her physically or threatening her life outside of the trials. “This was an act of self-defense but also justice as a betrayal to everything they stand for. Remy Breaux has broken one of the sacred laws of our world. He has told an outsider of the Terracore.”
“He did what??” The villagers cried out.
“In his way, he was protecting us by forcing the hand of the new Flame–Cassandra Caldwell–to get stronger. However, that core must never get in the wrong hands, but he was willing to risk that for the sake of the planet. He betrayed us. And for that he died.” Another lie. “This young lady tried to confront him, and she had no choice but to defend herself. When she couldn’t, I stepped in. Simple as that.”
The room went silent. A few of the servants had recovered enough to take the body away but the room still smelled of blood. Kindle expected questions. The elders and the villagers asked none. Not all of that story was true, but Kindle reckoned that it was enough. She kept quiet, mouth sour from all the lies. Given the truths she knew, she found the strength to keep quiet. Nothing had changed, only the hand that killed him. “If what you’re saying is true,” one of the Elders said, “where’s your proof?”
Ignace pulled his pipe from his robes and sucked in the smoke from the White Noise. The barj followed too, slowly inhaled through his nose and mouth bit by bit. He snapped his finger. The white screen with the weird alphabet flickered above them, raining letters vertically on the screen. Kindle couldn’t read the words. Whatever it was, it was proof enough the people needed. A few muttered what sounded like some curses. Other than those few, the room fell deathly silent.
“It’s a lot to take in given the craziness of today, but as your new Shadow supported by your new Flame, we have no choice but to act.” Ignace bowed. “We can’t let the Bluecoats and their CEO masterminds touch one of the most sacred things we have left on this planet. We’re gonna aid the Caldwells in their fight for the sake of our people and family. Won’t you agree, Cassie?”
And like that, Ignace Breaux murdered his father and only received praise for it.