The path was ash black beneath Eliza’s feet. Dust as dark as the powder in her pistol swirled around her riding boots. That pistol and her rapier, its handle reassuringly solid at her side, were her only companions on another dawn patrol. It was lonely work, being an excise woman on the Scorched Coast.
Shingle crunched beneath her feet as she reached the beach. Across the rolling waves, the sun kissed the horizon. No smuggler in their right mind would be out in daylight at any other time and place. But this was phoenix season, when all the rules changed.
A man stood on the beach. His coat and britches were those of a well-to-do shopkeeper, neat and plain. Only his solid boots and a bulge at his hip indicated a more adventurous lifestyle.
“Master Sommersby, isn’t it?” She raised her tricorn hat, her other hand on the pistol. “I gather you own the bookshop in Tenwrith.”
“And you must be Mistress Taylor.” Sommersby’s brief flash of alarm turned into a wry grin as he doffed his hat. “You seem far more charming than Colonel Grey was, though I miss his smile.”
“It’s Captain Taylor,” Eliza said. “And do you have a problem with my smile?”
A fishing boat rounded the corner of the cove. Red birds the size of eagles soared around its lone sail, occasionally diving to snatch something from the sea.
There was no fishing to be had in phoenix season.
“A man can enjoy many smiles.” Sommersby slid his hand into his pocket, too slow to conceal the signalling flag that had hung there. “Colonel Grey’s smile was warm and welcoming, one I cherished drinking with. Yours is bright and vivacious, a smile I would write poetry for.”
“You are a fan of poetry, Master Sommersby?” Eliza asked.
“Aren’t you?” He raised an eyebrow.
“How do you feel about the love poems of Master Delavond?”
“I feel that I could be arrested for importing books of them.” Sommersby’s gaze flitted briefly towards the boat, which now sat expectantly a few hundred yards out. She admired his calm. Even under pressure, there was a playfulness in his eyes. “I am told that they are thoroughly indecent.”
“Indeed they are.”
“Have you been reading illegal poems, Captain Taylor? And you an excise agent.”
“I read them on the continent, while on tour.” She flushed at the memory. Delavond’s poems had stirred feelings she never knew she had.
Sommersby struggled to stifle a grin. “I am told – though I have never been on tour, and therefore could not have read them – that these obscene poems are the ultimate literary expression of human passion.” He turned to look her in the eye, his expression sad, his signal flag apparently forgotten. “It must be difficult for you, loving Delavond’s work and yet duty bound to keep it out of the country. How do you choose between those things?”
“There is no choice.” Unable to hold his gaze, she looked back out to sea. Flames touched the wing tips of the phoenixes. Thick black smoke descended like fog across the sea. “I can love something but not let it into my life.”
“Then I pity you,” Sommersby said.
“Don’t,” she snapped, vexed at the man’s impertinence. He was a smuggler. The moment he made a false move she would arrest him.
Except that she didn’t want to. And now her cheeks were flushed, her mind full of Delavond’s descriptions of bodies and passions. She knew no-one else who relished those words.
Gripping the cold, hard handle of her pistol, she forced herself to focus on her duty.
Through the swirl of black smoke and blazing wings, she saw the fishing boat approach.
“Your friends have given up on waiting for the all clear,” she said, making her voice cold and hard. “They are bringing your books in.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Sommersby flicked back the corner of his coat and settled a hand on his own pistol. “Only the desperate would stay out in the phoenix storm. Those birds can burn a boat up in minutes.”
“True.” She shifted her feet, settling into a better firing stance. “But its smoke can provide cover for illicit deeds.”
She wasn’t sure which of them moved first, but suddenly both guns were out, pointed at each other’s faces.
“Such a shame.” Sommersby shook his head. “What is it Delavond says? It is the greatest joy, to be united in oblivion…”
“And to emerge together, joyously sated, on the other side.” As she finished the quote, Eliza felt her heart pounding. She drew back the hammer of her pistol, flint clicking into place, and Sommersby did the same. They looked each other in the eyes, neither wavering.
A sound like falling linen filled the cove, followed by crackling and shouts of alarm. She looked out to sea. The boat was ablaze, its burning sail visible through the dense smoke. She could just make out its crew leaping into the water.
She turned to Sommersby, expecting to see him crestfallen as his cargo turned to ash. To her amazement he shrugged, smiled, and put away his gun.
“Even without books, Delavond’s passion lives on.” He tapped the side of his head.
Eliza laughed and put away her own gun. Why shoot him now? Why shoot anyone over a cargo that was gone?
Turning to leave the beach, she hesitated, torn between duty and desire, then looked back at Sommersby.
“Would you care to walk with me back to town?” she asked. “There are so few opportunities to see the phoenix in flight, I thought I might walk along the cliffs and admire the beauty of their blaze.”
“To watch them united in oblivion?” Sommersby asked, as one of the birds vanished in flames high above his head. “I would be delighted.”
She took his arm, and together they walked up the ash black path from the cove.
* * *
With Valentine’s Day looming, I thought I should at least touch upon romance this week, however twistedly. If you’re looking for something a little sweeter by way of romantic science fiction and fantasy, then you might like my other stories ‘Surprise Me‘ and ‘My Origami Heart‘. And as ever, if you’d like to get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every Friday you can sign up to my mailing list.
For me, this is the first time I’ll have been single on Valentine’s Day for over a decade. My old way of dealing with such circumstances was a night of drunken mayhem with my single friends, but I’m not a student any more, and don’t have a selection of fellow drinkers and cheap bars readily to hand. Instead I suspect I’ll spend the evening with my kitten, a good book, and a glass of bourbon. However you mark the occasion, or hide from it, enjoy.