Lethe

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The man awoke.

He lay in a narrow bed in a small darkened room, his hands clasped upon his chest. Shapes hunched in the dimness: a low escritoire was pushed up against the wall, two high-backed chairs beside it, and the man could just see the lid of an iron-bound chest at the foot of his bed. The wan light suffusing the room came from the grayness pressing against a single sepia-tinted window. Was it morning outside? Evening? For a long time he was still, listening to the juddering of distant engines, feeling his bed thrum along with that incessant growling.

Who was he? Why was he here?

Finally he sat up, groaning from the ache in his back and legs. It felt like he had been laying down for a long, long time. He wore a loose white shirt and black trousers cinched by a braided silver belt. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed and found a pair of black boots waiting. The man put them on.

He stood.

The first things he noticed were the items scattered across the top of the escritoire: a pair of ebony-handled pistols, a sheathed saber with an ornate crossguard, and a small round cameo bearing a woman's silhouetted profile. He thrust the sabers into his belt and buckled on the scabbard. The cameo he left on the escritoire - looking at it gave him a tingling sense of unease.

Beneath the room's window was a door, and after a moment's hesitation he pulled it open.

He was on a steamship. The empty foredeck stretched in front of him, tapering to an upswept prow. Behind him a trio of smokestacks towered over the cabin he had just emerged from, unspooling thick black ribbons into the sky. A strong breeze redolent of the sea played with the lacy fringe of his shirt, and he had to brush his long blonde hair back when it fell across his eyes. Dark shapes wheeled within the blanket of grayness above him, shrieking.

Slowly, as if moving through the thickened air of a dream, he walked over to the side and rested his hands on the metal railing. Beneath him the ocean gnawed ceaselessly upon the rust-spotted hull. Before him was . . . . nothing. An endless gray expanse. A mist that obscured everything more than a few dozen feet from the ship.

After a moment - or perhaps an eternity - he turned away from the grayness, and gasped in surprise.

He was no longer alone.

A woman now stood in the doorway to his cabin. She was young, her pale face framed by dark tangled curls. She moved towards him with the slow measured pace of a sleepwalker, but her wide blue eyes never left his face.

She stopped an arm length away and regarded him solemnly.

"Who are you?" he whispered.

Her brow crinkled, as if his question needed serious thought. Finally she spoke, her voice soft and lilting.

"You saw me in the last humid days of the swollen summer, before the bursting of the world. It was just a glimpse as you rode your unicycle past the gazebos of Chalice Park. I was inside one of them, turned slightly away so you could see my profile. You would always remember my long graceful neck and sharp nose and the way my hair fell upon my shoulders."

"I did? I don't now."

"I know."

The man tried to keep the edge of desperation out of his voice. "What is your name?"

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