It is a sweltering day, and flies drone through the air with a lazy buzz. Above them are the unmistakable white heads and yellow beaks of vultures, hunched over on the branches of sickly-looking trees. In the distance is the steady beat of marching feet, and the flies, blissfully unaware of the events to come, buzz unconcernedly about. The pounding grows louder, one-two, one-two, and the flies buzz a little faster, an uneasiness permeating the air. The vultures spring from their roosts to the sky, cawing in malicious laughter. The beat of the march grows steadily louder, from all directions, until the world is overtaken by the drum, and marches at the stick's command. And then, suddenly, the marching ceases, and the flies still, becoming little more than black dots on the yellowed leaves of the surrounding trees. The world turns silent.
Then, all at once, the silence breaks, into two screams, battle cries, and then shields link with a click and the clash of iron rings, deafening, through the air, and the world collapses into the howls of the savages.
The battle lasts for hours. The Romans hold their formation, and the savages do not tire, attacking relentlessly. To the back of the Romans is a wooden fort, and two sentries stand by it, one a grizzled old man, who frowns unconcernedly at the bloodshed below, the other a youth, scarcely sixteen, who stares at the battle below, terrified by the sight of so much red.
The two armies fight through the heat of noon to the cool splendor of a Roman sunset, and it is then that finally a savage sword pierces the formation, and the massacre begins. The Romans are slain where they stand, and a Roman javelin pierces the old man's chest. His spear, his loyalty to the Emperor, falls from his grip, and he slumps, falling against the fort. Soon, the boy stands alone, a defiant figure, red-cloaked, bronze armor shining gold in the fading light.
The savages surround him, his back pressed to the fort, and the leader, a tall savage, blue ink curling up his face in little swirls, steps forward to stand in front of the boy. The savage looks at the helmet-less boy, notes his smooth face and wide, terrified eyes, even as he stands, back straight, face schooled in a look of obstinate defiance. The savage reads the inscription on his spear. Semper fidelis. Forever loyal.
The boy takes a shaky breath, readying himself. He lifts his chin and looks the savage in the eye.
"What is your name?" he asks.
The savage smiles, ever so slightly, and speaks in accented Latin. "Your king calls me Ferox."
"Savage," the boy says quietly.
The savage nods his head slightly.
"Esse fortissimos, Quintus," he says, and then the spearpoint pierces the boy's throat. Blood spills from his neck, and his cloak is stained a dark red, the color of life. As the boy falls to the ground, fingers curl around the wood of his spear, his loyalty to the emperor steadfast even in death.
The savages burn the fort and the bodies, and the stench permeates the air with the smell of death. Ferox picks up the boy's body and carries it away. He has a son the boy's age, and he sees his child, his home, in the boy's slender frame and smooth cheeks. He watches the blood soak the ground, and for a moment he sees his son, blue paint smeared over his cheeks in an effort to follow his father’s lead, lying there, still, and the savage bows his head and cries for his enemy's son.
In the morning, when the fires are out and all that is left is charred rubble, Ferox carries the Roman boy to the ruins of the fort, and he leans the body against the fort's remains. Semper fidelis, he says quietly over him, and then beckons, and the savages mount their horses and ride away.
The vultures eat their fill, but they do not touch the boy, and finally, when life disappears from the scene, color is sucked from the world, and the wound in the boy's chest disappears. After a moment, the boy raises his head and looks around, and he stares at the wide expanse of the colorless field in confusion. He rises to his feet on the third try. As he watches, the fort rebuilds itself, and his comrades rise and walk away, leaving their spears behind, and only he is left, standing there with spear firmly in front of him.
He is determined to guard this fort for the glory of the Emperor, for as long as he must. Semper fidelis. So he stands, steadfast, spear planted in front of him, and he watches as people fall in the living world and rise in the dead. No one stays. One tells him that the Emperor is dead, and he grieves, but he does not give up his post. The dead name him the Steadfast Sentry.
Centuries pass, and the longer he stands and keeps watch, the more he sees of the other world. If he closes his eyes in the world of the dead, and opens a deeper set, hidden inside him, the world of the living appears. He wonders at this new sort of humans, and sees, from a carelessly tossed map, that the world of the dead is ever-shifting, always on a different course than the one set by the world of the living.
He has been moved through before, and it is always slightly disconcerting, no matter how many times it happens, and so he learns to watch both worlds, eyes half closed in the deathly world, half open in the living world, ready for any kind of attack on the fort. Semper fidelis.
He learns of reapers, the ones who walk between the world of the living and the dead, and one day, he finds one. Or rather, she finds him.
She looks about fifteen, and she watches him contemplatively. He opens his living eyes, and the first thing he sees are her eyes, a piercing green, staring directly at him. She sits cross-legged on the opposite sidewalk, colorless weeds pushing up through the colorless concrete. He has almost forgotten the sight of color, and he stares at her in amazement, at the chocolate skin, the curly, dark hair, and her eyes, a glowing, sparkling green. Her eyes are the color of the forests surrounding Florence, and they pull up long-forgotten memories. They are the color of home.
"Who are you?" she asks, and he stares.
"Quintus," he says, speaking for the first time in centuries, and his voice is not scratchy from disuse, because the dead function as well-oiled machines do- quiet, surreptitiously effective. "I am Quintus Aurelius, soldier to the Emperor of Rome." He delivers the title proudly, and when she scoffs, he stands straighter, indignant pride flaring in him.
"I have heard of you," she says, "the Steadfast Sentry."
He frowns. "Call me Quintus."
"Then, Quintus," she drawls, "Who are you?"
"I have already told you," Quintus responds, confused, "I am a soldier of-"
"No," she interrupts, waving a disinterested hand, "I meant- what is your story?"
And Quintus is so desperate for color that he speaks, reveals himself, for the first time in centuries, to this stranger, with her eyes like Florence's forests.
The dead receive infinity, but they lose what makes infinity worth living. Blindness is cured, but there is nothing to see, nothing worth hearing, no taste in food, nothing to be found, no comforting solace, in touch.
And so he tells her of Florence, of the glorious domes, of the pounding beat of triumphant soldiers coming home. He tells her of days spent weaving through narrow streets, and nights spend on red roof-tiles, heated by the day's sun, gazing at the unfathomable stars. He tells her of his father, who taught him to manipulate wood and a carving knife as extensions of his limbs, who carved the words Semper fidelis into his spear, who sent him to war with a sad smile.
She sits cross-legged on that sidewalk, every day, but there are times when she does not come for weeks, and he is left hungry for color, and the slight, lilting accent in her voice.
They talk for hours at a time, and one time, she asks him about the spear. It is winter in the living world, and the same season it always is in the world of the dead- nothing.
"It is a symbol of my loyalty to my Emperor," Quintus says, and when she scoffs, he does not recoil, used to her biting wit.
He only thinks to ask her name weeks after they meet. She laughs.
"Call me Regina," she says.
"Queen?" he asks curiously.
They have long determined that the dead and the living share a language, and they understand each other easily.
She laughs again, eyes sparkling. "Am I not a queen?"
Quintus bows jokingly, shifting his spear. "Indeed, Your Majesty."
They are very different, but they are comfortable. Being around each other comes easily. He tells her of the ancients, and she jokes of the modern world.
The one thing they do not agree on is his unwavering loyalty.
"Ancient Rome fell, and the fort died with it," she argues, eyes sparking. Quintus stiffens slightly.
"I am loyal," he states blankly. "That is all."
"Could you not go home to Florence, instead of guarding this godforsaken fort?"
Quintus smiles sadly. "I cannot. I must guard this fort forever."
She sighs, shaking her curly head.
"You do not understand, Regina. This is our way of life. My father wished me be loyal, and so-" he shrugs and smiles slightly- "Semper fidelis."
Regina raises an eyebrow. "You are dead, and your cause died centuries ago. If you love Florence so much, then go to it. Go home."
"That is it. You will never understand. Florence is like your New York. It will never die. It may be razed to the ground, it may be empty of people, but no one will give up on it. Rome, or- what was it? Yes, Washington- Rome or Washington may fall, but Florence and New York will stay standing. They are the true hearts of their country."
"So New York is the only true heart of America?" Regina asks, squinting.
Quintus considers it for a moment. "No. There may be hundreds of true hearts, and as long as one still beats, still thrums with life, that country, no matter how long gone, will remain alive. And as long as Florence is alive, or dead, I will not see its colors. It is nothing without."
"But you were a reaper," Regina says, and Quintus looks over in surprise. She watches him, green eyes intuitive.
"You don't know that," Quintus says. "And, it can't be, because I live in this world. You know, as well as I do, that reapers cannot cross over when they die."
Regina frowns, but changes the subject. "Do you remember that other soldier who came by yesterday?"
Quintus nods. The grizzled old sentry hadn't said anything; just inclined his head and strode on.
"He was devoid of color," Regina says quietly, and Quintus looks surprised. "Whereas you- there is a brilliant red in your cloak, and your eyes are dark brown. You have color for me- the dead world does not. It is only when I cross over that I can see color."
"When two reapers cross paths," Quintus says to himself, "Color springs forth."
"No one else can see my world but you." Regina says, and lets out an impressed whistle. Quintus laughs at her lack of respect for the dead, and she grins at him, hopping to her feet and striding about, waving her hands. "You could be a reaper who walks the living world. That would make you a king- no-" and she looks over- "a god. Immortal. If you cannot die in the living world, and of course you cannot die again in death, then you would be a god."
"A god." Quintus repeats, and then throws his head back and laughs at the absurdity of the idea.
"I'm serious," Regina says, "Just try it. Close your eyes."
He grumbles, but complies.
"Imagine yourself," she says quietly, voice powerful in the silence of the realm of death, "in full battle regalia, your cloak red, as red as a Florentine rooftop. Picture dark hair falling over your eyes- think of the wind that blows it away."
And as she speaks, Quintus is lulled into a gentle stupor, and when he opens his eyes, there is color- blindingly rich color, reds and blues and greens- and he stares in wonder- and then a strange sensation sweeps through him, and the color disappears.
He looks up, and Regina is smiling. "Practice."
So he practices, and slowly, he begins to see more and more color, the sight blinding after so long without. He tells Regina eagerly of everything he sees, and she listens, her eyes roving, hungry for his descriptions, pulling imagination forth in place of reality. Quintus dreads ever having to share her company.
But soon, the word spreads, and the dead come from everywhere, hungry for the color she provides. They flock to meet this reaper, to see the sparkling green of her eyes; they watch her, and the Steadfast Sentry watches them.
Quintus rolls his spear between his fingers with a practiced skill. He is bored, waiting for the dead to finally leave so that he can speak to Regina.
She rises, and walks to him. The dead gasp and point as she suddenly appears, somehow more real, among them, and they stare as the green-eyed reaper extends a hand to the Steadfast Sentry. When he takes her hand, it is warm, and he watches, wide-eyed, as the world explodes with color.
"Color," he breathes, and looks over, and he knows she sees it- there is wonder in her emerald eyes. He looks around, breathless, and his eyes rest on a tall man, blue ink swirling around his equally blue eyes, and he smiles at Ferox.
Quintus closes his eyes and opens the living ones, and he stands next to Regina on the road, leather sandals soft, yielding, against the gravel, and he pulls his cloak forward with his other hand and sees a brilliant red, his armor shining bronze, and he feels wind brush his cheek in a light, welcoming caress, and he looks up and sees the sky, a soft blue, puffy white clouds floating on the horizon, the sun blindingly bright. Regina's green eyes are faraway, and she lifts her head and breathes in the salty air.
"I would like to go to Florence someday," she says, and Quintus opens his mouth to say something, because he knows that menacing rumble, and then there is a rush of air and a sickening thump, and then there is blood. So much blood, a deep, pure red, staining the black tar, and red fills his vision, fills his mind, so much red, so much blood, and Quintus wished he could see color, but not this, not this shade of red, not blood, not this- please, let this not be happening- he is dead, he cannot die again, but she is alive, her green eyes are alive, and they can also be dead, but it doesn't seem possible that green of that shade could ever die, and if it does, she is gone, and she cannot cross over, and Quintus refuses to exist without her, without her green eyes like Florence's forests- no, like her, like her sharp tongue and sharper wit, because there is nothing that can compare to her, but there is so much red, so much blood, staining everything, and- please, no.
The dead build her a coffin, and bury her ghostly body. For the first time, it rains, and Quintus can see color, but there is no shade like the green of Regina's eyes.
As the savage and a woman lower the lid of the coffin, he steps forward, away from his eternal post.
"Wait," he says, and the dead look up in surprise at hearing him speak. He walks to her coffin with leaden steps, and in one motion uses his spear to slice through a lock of her curly hair. For a moment, the spearhead glows green, the green of her eyes, and though no one else can see it, he smiles, because he can, and he will keep that color for eternity, in his mind. Then Quintus kneels by her coffin, and places the spear atop her body, letting the point rest on her shoulder. He slides the lock of hair into his tunic, and bows his head.
"Semper fidelis, amicus meus," he whispers, and he knows she will understand. Then he slides one hand over her face, closing her green eyes, because they are not her without the light behind them, glassy, empty, and he does not want that to be his last memory of her. He rises, and turns away.
"Do you leave your post, Quintus Aurelius?" the savage asks, and Quintus turns to him.
"Yes," he answers quietly. "My loyalty rests with her now, and I will do right by her."
"Where will you go?" Ferox asks.
Quintus smiles slowly, and it reaches his eyes. "I will go home, to Florence, and take her with me, and I will show her my true heart."
And he walks away, finally going somewhere, and there is purpose in his stride, and color in his eyes.