June 5, 1925

My Dear One,

The hour is late as I write this letter to you, and with it, a final confession. I have not been truthful these last months, believing the time never right to share my true feelings. I wished the fantasy to continue, and I pretended that here, in these private pages, all was right with my world - our world. Please understand, I wished to spare you the pain that I felt, knowing our time together was nearly done.

I should have run to you and shared this burden. But even now, part of me believes that I did the right thing to protect you with my silence. The distance made it easier to hide the fact of my illness. Others held my council. Only now do I realize that my heart wasted away with the rest of my body, perhaps even faster for the neglect.

And all the while, what I wanted, most desperately, was to hold you just once more. A selfish fool I am. I would forsake my wife, even in this final hour, and find you if my legs could carry me. But they cannot. It saves us both the humiliation of time wasted by my foolish pride.

Poetry and emotion never came easy for me. You made me see and feel things no one else in this world dared. I love you. Please believe me as I write the phrase, tonight - three words that cannot describe the feelings that clog my throat and sting my eyes.

I know it is only this that matters in the years of my life.

To whom can I entrust my beloved? Who will care for her, and protect her as I have done all these years? Bitter irony, I can only leave you in the hands of the one being that I cannot bend to my will. May God protect you, as the sacred prayer pledges, until we meet again. For death is not an end. It is a beginning.

Forever lonely, I will await you.

May God bless you and keep you,
May God's face shine upon you,
May God look upon you with Love

And bring you into happiness forever, and ever.

November 10, 2008 - Ohrid, Macedonia

"Amen," Mikal mumbled in response to the priest's prayer. He wished himself anywhere but this place, at this moment. The winter air at the cemetery bit through the thin linen of his black suit. It was, of course, the cold that caused him to wrap his arms around himself, not the need to block out the sound of women crying.

Six feet away, the closed coffin of Dullin Camerescro rested, adorned with a heavy garland of white roses and lilies. In keeping with tradition, a solo voice sang Ave Maria as mourners near the gravesite paid their last respects.

Yov sasti Mari, pherdi dey, Devel tusa, Punidi tu mashkir jul'ende

He should have felt relieved. The wasting illness that had claimed his father had taken a toll on the family, and the business. Yet, Mikal felt next to nothing, already numb by his mother's passing six months ago. At only twenty-two years of age, he was now the oldest male of the family and thus expected to carry on in his father's place. Such responsibility should have brought some sense of joy, or at least honor. But as the young man listened to the soprano voice, his thoughts of the future were not deep enough to hold his attention. Instead, his amber-colored eyes lifted at the unexpected sound of a car approaching. It was near the end of the simple service. Those within the family, and close friends, had all arrived on time. Anyone coming late would possess unmitigated gall.

I punido tire and'ako phel - Isos.

Mikal's head tilted to the side, observing the dark sedan which cruised to a stop on the paved graveside road. One hand at his side clenched in a fist just as a man nearly twice his size stepped on to the manicured lawn. His father's signet ring, too large for anything but Mikal's index finger bored into the tender flesh of his palm.

Chal Tzigane's massive, boot clad feet crushed the tender grass as he approached the small cluster of mourners. Not bothering to spare Mikal a glance, he walked to the coffin itself. No one spoke. To the singer's credit she didn't falter, spearing the silent twilight with prayer.

San Mari, Isoseskiri day, Mang Devles vash amenge papanenge,

The interloper reached forward and placed his hand on the cover of the coffin.

"Hey!" Mikal shouted. Anticipating the next move, he took a few steps forward.

Chal lifted the heavy lid with one hand and glanced inside. The music stopped, everyone stunned by this action, though it lasted less than a second. The garland of white flowers succumbed to gravity, falling into the open pit of the grave, as a careless discard of inaction. Without respect, Chal let the mahogany crash back down into position.

Only then did he turn to smirk at those present, "I just wanted to make sure the bastard was -."

Mikal, now in arm's reach, allowed reflex to guide his fist towards the sacrilegious rival. But he never got to land the punch. Chal captured his fist in an open palm, twisting it slightly, making the younger man's body bend in response. Profile thus exposed, the other blasted with a right hook that sent Mikal to the ground.

Humiliation caused Mikal's cheeks to flush a dull red. Although he scrambled to his feet, evading a kick from his adversary, it was too late to defend his own honor. Two hundred pounds of enforcer muscle, named Naji, left the circle of mourners and stepped between the two men. The gentle giant dealt a punishing blow to Chal's stomach, with only minimal effect. A simple grunt, a side step, a small bow forward and healthy glare was the only result of the clash of bodily equals.

One hand protectively holding his bruised jaw, Mikal's eyes angrily narrowed at the intervention. He shoved at Naji with every intention of continuing the fight. "Out of my way," he challenged, uncaring that they were on the same side. Help had come unasked, thus it deserved no recognition.

Chal shook an index finger at the much younger man. Almost six feet in height, he towered above Mikal's lean, five-feet nine-inches. Stare met stare with silent threat on both sides.

"Leave. Now," Mikal ordered.

With a snort, Chal turned his head to the side and spat on the ground. Reacting to the latest slight, Mikal took another step forward only to find a restraining hand on his shoulder.

"Not today," Naji warned. "But soon."

Mikal nodded, deliberately turning his back on the scene and dismissing the other. "Today belongs to my father. Tomorrow does not."

"His death changes nothing," Chal warned.

Mikal couldn't resist offering the taunt in response, "It changes everything. Things will be run my way."

With disdain, Chal spat, "Tradition survives."

"Tradition is dead." With a snap, Mikal commanded, "Naji!"

As ordered, Naji silently walked the unwanted visitor back towards his car. Mikal tried not to rub his sore wrist, abused by the grab and twist. Pride kept his back straight as the service concluded. He refused to look to his left as the sound of a car engine gunned and wheels burned rubber on the small paved road. Instead, respectfully, he approached the priest and thanked him.

Another hand came to rest on Mikal's shoulder as he returned to the cluster of family members. His grandmother offered a comforting touch to his cheek, but Mikal turned in profile, moving away. He was old enough not to be mothered. Across the ring of mourners, he suspected that his brothers and sisters looked on, but he chose to focus on the priest, who suddenly found more words to say although the service itself was concluded. Amidst the droning prayer, two workers came, righting the flowers on the casket, and proceeded to lower the coffin into the grave.

In his leadership role, Mikal became the first to walk towards the long line of cars that offered transport and escape. They would return home, receive guests, and meet in a more formal business setting. Loosening his tie, Mikal reflected on the planned evening and knew a lawyer would come to read a will. The family would confer about the future.

He held open the passenger door for his sister and grandmother. As the elderly matriarch accepted assistance, she whispered, "Chal is nothing," and spat on the ground.

Mikal almost laughed. If only life were that simple. Disown those that stood in your way with a simple physical gesture. One could not remove all that offended by simply cutting it away. Families and tradition were intertwined for centuries.

"I will deal with Tzigane in my own way. He will pay for his behavior today, and these past years."

She lifted a hand and touched his cheek once more, forcing the familiar contact even as Mikal clenched his teeth in resistance.

The gray haired woman nodded sagely. "Of course, Mikal. I leave it to you."

He closed the door and moved away. On to yet another duty. With a practiced hand, Mikal confirmed that his littlest brother, Oren, was fastened into the child safety seat. The key ring felt heavy in his fist, even though it only held the required amount for two cars, one house, a storage area and a safety deposit box. It was the last key that he dreaded most. Today, perhaps, he'd receive its mate.

It was more a castle than a house. Contrary to the nomadic gypsy tradition, Mikal's great-grandfather had built a massive compound of buildings near the edge of Lake Ohrid. When the sun rose, the amber light turned the opalescent stone a rich gold. Thus it was dubbed Aurum - the Latin word for the precious metal.

The grounds held stables as well as a residence. Championship horses were bred, sold and trained for sport. Mikal intended to continue this and the other family businesses that his father courted. He had ideas of his own he wished to implement, and wanted to adopt more of a western philosophy. Change would be good. Even so, his palms itched to use the tools of the fortune telling trade to see his own path forward. As was the custom, he had been taught early how to use cards and a crystal as well as his own 'inner eye' to see what should be shared, and what should be held secret. Today, he would share both, regardless of the consequences.

Not that he believed that sort of thing. He'd watched the gullible, seen the crutch for what it was. The future was never set. Gypsies they were - proud of their heritage. But Mikal was not Chal Tzigane, prepared to push his vision for the business based on swindling the masses. Money did not motivate him.

People filled every room of the common area. The atmosphere was less somber than the grave site, but it could not be said that the group assembled celebrated death. Several men, many years senior to him, treated Mikal with undue respect as they gathered close, hoping for a word. Such formality and fawning made him suspicious and he found himself watching more than talking, leaving his grandmother in the role of host.

Tonight, he missed his older brother, Seth, killed three years before, the eldest and father's favorite. Mikal felt the shoes almost too big to fill. As though in reflection, Mikal looked down at his own patent leather dress shoes and noted a scuff. Squatting, he licked his fingers, and touched the offending spot, trying to rub away the white gash in the leather. No one dared to comment that the heir apparent was on his knees.

They said the Camerescro family was cursed, all due to die young. One thing was clear for Mikal, he would go down fighting. The weight of responsibility would not crush him. He rose and looked about the room daring anyone, real or supernatural to oppose him.

The doorbell rang. Mikal stood and, being near the door, took the opportunity to distract himself by greeting the latest arrival.

The woman that hovered on the threshold was unexpected. Before he could gather his thoughts he blurted, "What are you doing here?"

The brunette before him looked nearly as uncomfortable as he felt. Navah Faas didn't wear black, her dress a vibrant and color-rich floral pattern. With her dark hair captured in a scarf, she appeared casual and fresh, reminding Mikal of their difference in status and level of duty. Face carefully blank, he awaited an answer to his question, and remained blocking the entrance.

The response arrived from another. Walking up the cobblestone path was an older man whom Mikal knew, the family solicitor. "I invited her," he said.

Mikal refused to move, his slender form now holding fast to the door as though his fingers would move and slam it without the slightest provocation. "Why?"

Luca Manush didn't blink. "I'm here to read the will. Navah is mentioned."

The impossibility of this rendered Mikal speechless. In a gypsy clan all were family, the Camerescro's and Faas cousins of sorts. History did not make them friends. Mikal valued loyalty above all else. Something twisted inside him to know it was the death of his father that caused Navah to return after a year's absence from Aurum. He dismissed the shadows under her eyes seeing guilt rather than nerves.

Greed did not become her.

Rather than slamming the door in their faces, Mikal pushed the barrier away from him. It banged against the wall as it opened wide. She looked away, and offered him no greeting, stepping inside under the shadow of the lawyer.

The crashing sound of the door stilled conversation, causing many to look up at the new arrivals. A few took this as their cue to leave. Still by the door, Mikal shook hands with all that departed. Only one dared to offer him a hug or true gesture of affection.

With hands in pockets, Mikal returned to the living room and informed those who remained that they would meet in his father's study. Slowly, his grandmother, two business partners, younger sister and baby brother made their way to the oak paneled room. Someone had the foresight to grab a few chairs from the dining room and cluster them around the heavy wood desk that dominated the space.

The attorney took the black leather desk chair, the seat of honor, without asking. Clearing his throat, Luca Manush opened his leather briefcase with a snap and click. From the case he took an envelope and a box. Formally, he closed the business satchel and placed it on the floor at his feet before opening the envelope, removing a small stack of ivory colored pages. The tedium of all the preparatory steps caused Mikal, in a seat near the front, to shift uncomfortably.

"Before we begin," the attorney said, breaking the silence with a deep baritone voice. "I have the sad honor of providing Navah with a gift."

The strange admission caused all eyes to look towards Navah Faas. They knew who she was, she'd lived with them here once, but in the last year she'd not visited the house. The scene of her dismissal by the patriarch had been witnessed by all present. The whispered speculation on her presence was now answered.

Luca appeared most business like as he added, "I have been keeping an item in my vault, at Dullin's request. I was not to open it, but relinquish it only to Navah in the event of his death."

Mikal rose and approached the desk, reluctant to allow the transfer. He found it easy to keep the mask of calm plastered on his face. His father had trained him well. "What's inside?"

Navah also approached the desk, deflecting Mikal's arm and reaching for the cardboard box. Surprised by the weight, she hastily used two hands to brace the gift, finding the rectangle to be about ten pounds heavy. "Does it matter?"

"Open it," Mikal commanded in response.

It was Navah's turn to show resistance and backbone. "I don't work for you."

"And whose fault is that?" he began, alluding to the issues between them, "Open the box."

"No."

He snorted. "I forgot your favorite word."

Navah hissed back, "Still have my horse?"

There was a brief pause. Mikal leaned forward and deliberately lowered his voice, "Maybe. Want to trade?"

"No."

His amber eyes ran over the petite form before him, looking for any sort of change. She was perhaps thinner, but her eyes held the same fire.

"Is that all you have to say to me?" He'd never admit that it hurt.

She hesitated, biting her lips. Whatever the word held there was, it was never voiced.

Mikal also fell silent. The spark of anger faded as she refused to rise to the bait. He frowned. For a moment he watched Navah clutch the box protectively against her chest. Rather than push the issue in a room full of people who could witness failure, he merely shrugged and returned to his seat. She'd have to open it sometime, and when she did, he would be there. This battle of wills was far from over.