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Marked Man

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Marked Man
by JiM


One afternoon, he gets up, puts on his clothes, finds his coat and hat and walks out of the palace. He goes down into Central City, down to Riverside and walks along until he finds the place he needs.

It's dim in the front room, the walls made lurid by the sheaves of pictures and words and symbols covering them. The Inker looks like he comes from Munchkin Territory. He says no more than half a dozen words to Cain, just leads him to the backroom, lays him out on the table, motions for him to open his shirt and then turns away to collect his tools. The little man hums as he grinds the ink, a droning chant that rises and falls as he stirs it in a green marble bowl. It could be magic, of a sort. Cain isn't sure, he's never asked anyone who's had it done. Soon enough, he is ready.

He is a master of his trade, Cain barely feels the needle as it slips into his skin again and again. He wonders how the Inker came to learn his trade, why he left his home, how he came to be plying it down here among the cheap taverns and the summer stink from the river. He wonders, but he doesn't ask, because he doesn't actually care.

It takes hours for the design to take shape in Cain's skin, over his heart. It is not large; he could cover it with the palm of one hand. But it is intricate work, the letters 'AC' in the old language, looping and complex. No one save scholars reads it any more, but he knows it is most fitting for the scholar she had been before she'd met Wyatt Cain. Before he'd sweet-talked her out of the city, made her fall in love with the plains country he'd grown up in. Before.

It is evening when the green stone bowl is emptied of ink for the last time. The little man dips a clean rag into a jar of green oil which he paints over the newly-inked letters making them glisten in the lamplight. Then he ties the rag awkwardly in place with long strips of gauze -- one around Cain's chest and one looped around his shoulder.

He takes the money Cain hands him and does not count it, watching him impassively as he buttons his shirt. Only when Cain begins to rise does he speak.

"It will fade. In thirteen months, it will be gone."

"I know."

"I do not renew the marks. When they are gone, do not come back to me."

Cain just nods. It's no more than he expected. Grief Marks aren't meant to be renewed and no respectable Inker would do it.

Cain towers over him when he stands. The little man reaches up, standing nearly on tiptoes to press his hand flat against Cain's chest, over the new-made marks. The sudden flare of pain shocks Cain and he stares at the little Inker.

"The pain will end."

The throbbing of his chest twists his lips as he opens his mouth, but finds there is nothing to say. Instead, he puts the Inker's hand away from him, draws on his coat and drops his hat onto his head. Just before he steps out the door, he looks back. The little man nods at him solemnly, just once.

Cain presses his hand over his heart, and the ache of his abused skin peaks again and he nods.