When we get back to Las Pistolas, I instruct the doorman not to let anyone up, and lock myself away in my rooms. I’m covered in dust from the ride, but I can’t bring myself to draw a bath. I sit in a chair with the curtains closed. All alone, out of the blinding desert light, free from the company of my brother and Cloak, my mind turns to what life was like back at the orphanage or in Sand, how water was always at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts but how there was never enough to drink. It’s like that all over the Southland. Promise a person enough water to drink for a day, a week, a lifetime, and then ask them for anything in return, and I doubt there is less than a handful of people alive who’d refuse. Why does Nikko want the water so bad? To help more people than he harms? Or does he just want control?
I stay locked up in my room for three days, refusing every summons and note from Nikko. I need to be alone with my thoughts. Then, on the morning of the fourth day, I wake to find Nikko sitting in the big chair in the corner, reading a book.
“Morning,” he says. “I wanted to see when you’re coming out.”
I turn over on my side so I’m facing the wall, away from him. The wallpaper is a pattern of sun-bleached flowers. When I think of flowers, I think of the ones at The Bruise that smelled of death and decay. I don’t care for flowers.
Nikko comes around the bed and crouches in front of me. Brushing a strand of hair from my face, he says, “The first time is always hard. We all deal with it in different ways. The first time I killed someone, I didn’t speak for a long time. All I did was drink.”
After days of self-confinement, with my loneliness returning like a bad friend, that same loneliness I felt every day after Nikko left me in the orphanage, I’m glad to have him close to me. Despite everything.
“Tell me,” I say, my throat sandpaper. Nikko hands me a glass of water but I push it away.
“It was a gunslinger,” Nikko says. “I was still apprenticing under the bullet catcher at the time. The gunslinger was old and snakebit. Still, he recognized us bullet catchers easy enough. The gunslinger got me with a cheap shot. No warning. No calling out. He just drew and fired. Got me right in the gut. I thought I was going to die. I shot back, got him in the chest. More luck than anything. I wasn’t even aiming. Just instinct. Desperation. I remember that the bullet catcher just stood and watched with his arms crossed.
“I must have passed out, because the next thing I knew, I was in bed, bandaged up. On the nightstand there was a plate with a rusty-looking bullet on it. As soon as my stomach could take it, I started drinking and didn’t stop for the longest time. And the bullet catcher just watched me, like he was studying some strange animal. No words of advice, or encouragement, or sympathy. Nothing.”
I sit up against the headboard, looking at the glass of clean, cool water on the nightstand, wondering what town it came from, not wanting to think about it. The water doesn’t seem like such a miracle anymore. Now, when I try to drink, it tastes thick and metallic in my mouth.
“You’re angry,” he says. “You feel like you’ve been robbed of something. But sometimes you have to give something up to gain something greater.”
“What do you think I gained from killing someone?”
Nikko takes my hand, looks me in the eye, and says, “Now you know what you’re made of. Now you know who you are.”
“A gunslinger. Your father’s daughter.”
Before he left, Nikko told me there was a celebration tonight for the new source of water. He called down to the lobby and asked a maid to come draw me a bath. “It’ll do you good,” he said, and kissed me on the forehead.
Now, I sit on the edge of the toilet, disheveled, my hair matted from sleeping and the dust from the ride. The maid sits on the lip of the bathtub, stirring the water and soap with her hand, making sure it doesn’t get too hot. She turns to me and smiles shyly.
“It’s wonderful isn’t?” she says. “The water, I mean.”
I clear my throat. “Yes, it is.”
“Where I come from we had plenty of water, so we were better off than most in Southland, I suppose. But we didn’t have it piped right in to our homes and heated like this. We had to go down to the river and it was always freezing, even if the mercury was popping.”
“Where are you from?”
She shrugs. “Nowhere special.” A chill runs down my spine, remembering Bad Pines. She shuts off the tap and stands. “If there’ll be nothing else, miss?”
I shake my head, unwilling to look her in the face.
She gives a small curtsy and leaves.
I sit in the water and it...