Rain spattered the mud of the roadway and Willis stumbled into a turbid alley as lightning abruptly shattered the dark night sky. Shivering, he thrust himself into an opening between several stacked barrels. It did little to ward off the deluge from above, but he found he could walk no further. He could feel warm blood seeping down his thigh.
The city had already been swallowed by the night when the rains began. The rain was unusually heavy and cold for the month of Sy, chilling Willis down to his knuckles. He pulled long, wet strands of hair from his face, hooking them behind his ears with trembling hands, and looked down at the bloody stain on his breeches. All he had wanted was to get to the inn and out of this rain, to sit by the fire, have a last drink and then go quickly. Was that too difficult?
“Of course it is,” he thought bitterly. “Since when does anything ever go as I want it to?”
His vision blurred again. The shadows swirled and melted, and he squeezed his eyes shut. His stomach retched violently but there was nothing left to bring forth, and Willis simply gagged and heaved, leaning against a slick barrel.
The seizure lasted only menes, as had the one before, but his strength was failing him even as he sat amongst the barrels. Wincing slightly — not from the pain, but from what he expected to see — Willis unsheathed his knife and cut open the already torn legging of his breeches. Fresh blood seeped from the wound, but the rain washed it away quickly so that he could plainly make out the jagged tooth marks on his upper thigh. With a nervous curse, he sliced the woolen leg of his breeches completely free and tied it tightly about the wound. Had it not been for the chill of the rain deadening his senses, he would have cried out.
Willis could hear his heart pounding in his ears as he thought of the beast that had attacked him. It had taken him by surprise, and torn into his leg with jaws so strong he had thought his leg might snap under the force. It was a large dog, or so he had thought, but the piercing crimson eyes that had glared with such mad hunger had quickly removed any thoughts of a domestic canine. He had thrashed with the animal for what seemed like an eternity before his knife finally took the beast in the eye, forcing it to back away.
It was then that the rains had suddenly fallen, as if God had decided to save him from the terrible fate. It was thick, disorienting, and everything surrounding him had vanished in its depths. He had plunged into the alleyways of the city, seeking shelter from his attacker.
It wasn’t just the beast that Willis was desperately avoiding. He had heard men in the distance, calling, shouting in pursuit of their pet and its prey. He had no intentions of being caught. He would never go back to that place. He listened for any sound of his pursuers, but the rain consumed all sounds now, except the occasional burst of distant thunder. He saw no one about when a series of lightning strikes illuminated the alley outside his hiding place.
Knife in hand, Willis staggered from the cubby in the barrels and back into the alley. The downpour removed all sense of direction, but he chose one anyway and trudged onward. He made his way through a series of dark alleys before falling to his knees in the mud.
“Keep moving, Willis,” he told himself. He crawled on desperately, emerging onto an open roadway.
Nochtur Street was a wide avenue, normally host to an assortment of nightly celebrators and performers. Being so close to the commercial district of the city, it was in good repair with cobbled walks and scattered sitting benches, but tonight the street was empty, save for the sea of spattering rain filling the ruts and holes. Willis found himself crawling onto a stone pathway. Attempting to stand, he looked up into a sudden source of light and his legs seemed to melt away. He fell onto his behind and pulled free a knife, attempting to ward off the giant snake looming above in the strange light.
Willis opened his mouth to scream.
“You all right, sonny?” came a gruff voice, as strong fingers gripped Willis’ shoulder. “You should come in outta the rain, you know.”
Willis tried to stand. His vision swirled, danced, and finally faded into blackness.
“Ballard Tamblebuck’s the name, sonny. How do you feel?”
“You’re lucky I was up and about,” the portly innkeeper continued. “Lucky the shutters came open and I caught a glimpse of you.”
The innkeeper was tall, but the baldness of his head and roundness of his paunch kept his appearance short and globular. He chuckled and smoothed the dull white apron that hung off his belly.
“Where am I?” Willis croaked. “Is this the Shattered Spear? My room?”
“Why, you’re at the Inn of the Serpent, my boy!” Ballard answered as he straightened his back proudly. “Only the most richly furnished inn of the west side.”
Willis’ eyes darted about the sparsely furnished room.
Noticing the young man’s glance, the innkeeper chuckled. “You happen to be in the only spare room available tonight. It isn’t much but I rarely put anyone in here.”
Ballard Tamblebuck stood before a closed window, its outer shutters rattling under the rainfall. Another figure stood not far off in the doorway, silhouetted before the soft orange light of the hallway. A small table stood in a far corner of the room, the only furniture other than the bed on which he lay. Willis moved to sit up, but the innkeeper gently pressed him back to the lumpy mattress. Willis looked down in horror upon his torn pantleg, and Ballard peered at him curiously.
“What was that thing?” Willis stammered, his eyes suddenly wide with terror. “What was it?”
The innkeeper stood back, fists on hips, and cocked his head. “What’s wrong with you, boy? That was just the statue. Gotta have a serpent outside the Inn of the Serpent.”
Willis shook his head violently. “No! It was going to swallow me, it was!”
Ballard smiled then, a small rueful smile. “You just take it easy, sonny. I know the problem. Seen it before, I have. You been down on Layman Street, no doubt.”
Willis looked to his thigh. “Can you help me? Can you fix my leg?”
“Of course I can. Done it before, I have.”
Willis gave a sigh of relief, almost a cackle. “I thought they had me for sure.”
“You stay here,” Ballard remarked as he walked around the bed. “I’ll fetch what I need.” He left the room, past the figure standing in the doorway.
Thunder rolled over the inn. The single candle flickered, as if in response.
Willis watched the silent figure that studied him. It was motionless, cloaked in the shadows created by the backlight of the lantern in the hallway. He strained to see through the darkness, his eyes narrowing in a squint, but gave up with a heavy sigh.
“She’s gone, you know,” Willis said to the silhouette in the doorway, his voice distant, eyes vacant. “Left me to die of an empty heart. Have you ever had an empty heart?”
There was no reply so he continued.
“I paid him all I had. He said I wouldn’t feel anything. All I had to do was take the poison and I could be over it.”
Ballard Tamblebuck brushed into the room and to the side of the bed, a steaming cup in hand.
“You must drink this,” he urged as he supported Willis’ head in one hand.
“But … But my leg,” Willis stammered. “How will that help my leg?”
“Easy, sonny. You’ll be fine. There’s nothing wrong with your leg. It’s just the ardon, that’s all. Comin’ off that stuff is worse even than Hanla’s Sleep. Fool drug is poison. What’re you doing with that stuff in you?”
Willis noisily slurped the mixture as Ballard held it to his lips. Then he said, “You have to fix my leg. Please!”
“There be nothing wrong with your leg. You got no legging is all.”
Willis glanced again at his imaginary wound and then pushed his head back into the pillow, as if trying to escape his own body.
“Kill me then,” he muttered. “It was my intent in the beginning anyhow!”
The innkeeper frowned and pinched his fat lower lip in thought.
“Bought some black ardon, no? Trying to murder your own self.” Ballard was nodding to himself thoughtfully. “Good thing you made a bad purchase. No telling what strange things you be seeing. No worry, though. That tea will help you get to your feet. Drug just needs a way out of the body is all.”
“Maura,” Willis groaned. “I lost my Maura. Let me die.”
Ballard Tamblebuck looked to the silent shadow in the doorway.
Slowly, his face went quiet of expression, and his gaze again fell on the demented boy. He set the tea on the table in the corner and stood at the foot of the bed.
“What be your name, sonny?”
“Willis. My name is Willis.”
“Where do you come from?”
Willis seemed to think for a moment. “I … I am not sure,” he mumbled. “Somewhere far away.”
Ballard pinched his lip. Ardon was a vicious drug, illegal within the city. If magicked in one design it could become highly addictive; in another it was deadly poison. The boy had wanted to die, but had foolishly bought it from a street seller. The drug would leave lasting memory loss, Ballard knew, and at this very moment the boy was as malleable as corn paste. He would recover from the delusions of the injury he was seeing, but his mind was barren now. The innkeeper sighed. That memory and spirit could be reforged. Ballard had seen a healer use such methods and give a deranged woman the ardon one time, and she had come to her senses. That had been a long time ago, he admitted. He had come to Dargon to forget those troublesome years of his past. But something could be done here.
“It’ll be alright, sonny,” Ballard said. “I’ll see to it. Maura is here. She’s come back for you, Willis.”
Willis peered at the innkeeper, his eyes glazed. “But she was lost on the sea. My Maura is gone.”
Ballard shook his head softly. “She is here, Willis. Waiting for you. What does she look like?”
The young man winced, as if the attempt at remembering brought him physical pain. “I … I can’t. Is … is she really here?”
The innkeeper nodded softly. His insides ached from what he was about to do. But it would be better for Willis, he rationalized, to learn from a loving wife rather than to die ignorant and lonely. And he is a fine looking man, young and strong, no doubt. Willis could make a fine husband for Deserae. Then he gave a bitter inward laugh. Since the accident there wasn’t a man in Dargon who failed to look away if Deserae happened by. He had seen it; seen the pity in their eyes, the revulsion. Now he was molding a man from depravity to fill the task.
His attention focused on the figure in the doorway as it moved into the room. She was a slight woman, with less curve than the average man would crave, and her hair was long about her shoulders, but somehow lifeless. She smiled hesitantly at Willis with thin lips, and her gray eyes held a hint of sadness, rimming with wetness as they met with the confused young man. Her face was scarred, nearly entirely, from burns, but Willis gazed upon her as if she were his world.
Ballard Tamblebuck wiped away a tear that threatened to travel his cheek. “May the gods forgive me if I be acting without their grace,” he thought.
“Maura?” he heard Willis stammer. “Maura? My leg, Maura. It’s hurt bad.”
Deserae knelt at the bedside, her smooth hand on his forehead. She smiled knowingly. “I know, Willis,” she replied, her voice a soothing whisper. “I’ll make it all better. We’ll be together again.”
Willis returned her smile. He looked upon her with longing.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Everything will be all right.”
Ballard lifted his face from thick hands to gaze into the warm coals. The fire was nearly dead. For a fleeting moment he considered re-stocking the smoldering pit, but let the thought fade. His mind was elsewhere on this frosted morning. The pale sun had broken the horizon behind silver-gray clouds only a half bell earlier, and to Ballard Tamblebuck, it was a fitting start to what promised to be an unpleasant day.
“What would you think of me now, my sweet?” he whispered to a tiny flame that struggled to breathe. “Would you have done the same for your daughter?”
The flame flickered and died.
Ballard gave a sad sigh. “I thought not.”
“Talking to the fire again, Father?” sounded a smooth voice from behind him.
He looked back over his shoulder from where he sat on a wooden chair before the fire pit. Deserae stood at the foot of the carpeted stairs, her hand lightly touching the railing. She wore her typical daily clothes: a plain brown dress and low cut leather boots. She appeared as she did everyday, with the exception of a new smile, and it seemed to scatter the misgivings he carried inside him from the previous night.
The chamber they occupied was a large one, the common room of the inn. A dark hardwood bar trimmed with brass corners stood along the wall opposite the entrance, and an array of tables with accompanying chairs were neatly placed around a central fire pit. The stairs climbed the wall next to the bar, leading to the rented rooms, and continued upward to those of Ballard Tamblebuck and his daughter.
And now Willis.
“Has the boy remembered anything more?” he asked quietly.
Deserae crossed the room to stand next to her father. She put a hand to his slumped shoulder.
“He remembers what I tell him he remembers. He is a nice man, and smiles at me.”
“He won’t always listen to what you tell him. The drug will completely leave his body by evening. He’ll still want answers, but will be open to your suggestions no longer.”
“So you have told me,” she remarked, her voice calm and quiet. “I have told him most of what he will want to know.”
“Did you tell him how he came to lose his memory? Surely he’s asked that.”
She nodded softly. “I told him he had been gone away for some time, and that we had not seen him until last night when he arrived in that condition.”
Ballard released a slow breath, pinching his lip, and brought his eyes back to the smoldering coals. “He will be fine, then.”
“How will you explain to everyone about me changing my name?” she asked.
Her father smiled. “I have been thinking that maybe you could get baptized into Stevenism, like you’ve always wanted. It is customary for many people to take another name to symbolize their new path in life.”
“You would really let me do that? You have always said –”
Ballard waved his hand. “I know what I’ve said. But things have changed my mind. We will have you baptized. I just wish I could get some sign I’ve done the right thing.”
She gently squeezed his shoulder. “I know you did this for me, Father. I know it was hard for you, and I would never have asked you to do this. But do not fault yourself for this man’s loss. You have given him life in place of death. He will thank you for it some day. Mother would say the same.”
He looked back to her with a faint smile, thankful for the comforting words. It seemed to restore his usual verve, and he stood, stretching. He threw several pieces of wood in the pit.
“The roomers will soon be wandering down. Could you fetch the pot of stew? Need it hot or they’ll be grumbling.”
Deserae smiled pleasantly and entered the kitchen. A wide, low table stood in the center of the room flourishing a thick cutting plank and a cleaver. On the surrounding walls an assortment of iron pots occupied a shelf that circled the room. In the rear of the kitchen was a door leading outside and next to it stood two large casks, suspended by thick oak beams several feet off the floor.
“Hail to you, young man,” she heard from the common room. “What brings you down here?”
“Good morning, Master Tamblebuck,” Willis replied. “I am feeling rather thirsty. Might I fetch a drink of water?”
Deserae stiffened. Was he coming in here? Although she had done her best to be his Maura, to fill that empty memory, she never lost the uncertainty of her situation. “Will he suddenly remember that he has never known me?” she thought. “Will he know I am not his Maura?” She had asked herself other questions as well, but they all danced around one lingering fear.
“Will he look on me like other men do?”
Willis swung wide the door and sauntered in, barefoot and obviously enjoying it. He peered at this object or that as he moved near the meat table at which Deserae stood. She smiled as she watched him approach; she noticed the smile came easily. His eyes were bright beneath a head of loose brown wavy hair, and his face had regained its color. Leaf-green eyes gazed into hers, and she felt lost in them, enjoying the stare of another for the first time that she could remember.
“I’ll get your water,” she managed.
He placed his hands on her shoulders gently.
“I can get my water,” he returned, smiling. “You have tended to me enough.” He spied about the room and spotted several large casks resting on a shelf in the back of the kitchen. “Ah,” he said, and approached them.
She handed him a mug before he had a chance to ask.
He hastily pulled the peg from the cask, letting the liquid tinkle into the tin mug. He turned, held it up to her in good cheer and downed a gulp.
Rum sprayed about the room, over the pots and pans and beef and everything else.
“By Stevene’s Light!” he howled amid a fit of coughing, his eyes wide. “What manner of water is this?”
Deserae’s laughter nearly toppled her over, and she grasped the table’s end for support. He stood there as she tried to catch her breath, a grin slowly hooking his face. Soon, he too was chuckling.
“You’ve never had rum, Willis?”
“I don’t recall. Have you ever seen me drink it?”
“No,” she answered, her smile wavering. “No, I haven’t.”
Willis studied the liquid in the mug. “Still, I think it agrees with me.”
Then, after a quiet moment, he sighed. “I wish I could remember. What did I do? Where did I come from? Who am I?” He took the cloth from Deserae’s hand and wiped the rum from her face. “I know what you have told me, Maura, but I wish I could remember it all.”
Deserae put a hand on his arm. “It will come back to you eventually, Willis.”
He softly touched her cheek with back of his fingers. She nearly flinched, at the strange feel of it, and fear began to grip her. Would he realize?
“I know it, my love,” he whispered.
He kissed her then, and something within her dissolved. Her frustrations, her anger, her shame; all of it was washed clean as hope flooded through her. She was dizzy when he pulled his lips from hers, and she opened her eyes slowly, praying that it was not a dream.
“Maura!” Ballard called from the common room. “I be needing the stew, girl!”
“Go ahead,” Willis said. “Just tell me where the water is and I’ll clean up this mess.”
With a giggle she pointed to the door leading out back. “The water keg is out in the barn,” she said and then slipped around Willis, fetching the heavy pot of stew. As she exited the kitchen she could feel his gaze upon her, and she reveled in it, even dared to sway her hips as she had seen other women do in front of men.
“Ah,” Ballard Tamblebuck sighed as his daughter hooked the pot handle over the fire pit.
He sat next to another man. The guest was tall, sitting a full head higher than Ballard, and was dressed in drab brown robes, the sleeves hanging low over his hands. He was bald and clean-shaven, though his face was deeply tanned and leathery, creased with middle age.
“It won’t be long, traveler.”
The man gave a slow, pleasant nod. “It will be good to eat a rich meal after so many days walk.”
“You must have been walking in the rain the past few days.”
Another pleasant nod.
“You come far?”
“I have traveled for nearly a full cycle of the moon.”
Ballard whistled. “A full month, eh? Long time to be on your feet. Be needing a room while you’re in Dargon?”
The man smiled and shook his head. “There are people I have to meet. They will provide for me once I find them.”
“But I have been visiting the various rooming establishments in the city. I am looking for a young man named Willis.”
Deserae stiffened, but continued to wipe the surface of the table.
“Can’t say I know of any Willis,” her father replied offhandedly. “What’s he look like?”
The stranger paused a moment. “I am not sure. He may have grown his hair, but he does have very green eyes.” Ballard’s frown made him continue. “We live in an isolated area, and he is the son of my employer. I have been instructed to bring him home at once.”
“I see,” replied the portly innkeeper, pinching his lip. “If I do happen to find a Willis in my establishment, who might I contact?”
“There is a man. Ask for Podras at the Spirit’s Haven. He will see to you.”
The stranger in the robes ate his stew in silence, preferring a corner table and a drink of water. He tipped well, paying with a silver coin, marked with a mint that Ballard did not recognize, and left without another word being spoken. Shortly after, Heidi bounced through the entrance, humming a light-hearted tune.
“You’re late,” Ballard chided. “Do you think I pay you to flirt with the boys on the street?”
“Sorry,” she squeaked as she removed her coat.
“We have a guest,” Ballard continued. “A friend of Deserae’s who used to live here a short while ago, before you started here.”
“What’s her name?”
“*His* name is Willis.”
“Willis?” Heidi giggled. “Found a man have you, Deserae?”
“He had a touch of fever last night and is a bit confused this morning,” said Ballard. “Be nice.”
Willis emerged from the kitchen, mug in hand. “You know,” he said. “I rather like this rum. Makes me feel all warm.”
Heidi smirked. “Looks more drunk than confused to me.”
Deserae stifled a laugh as she finished polishing the last of the tables.
Willis opened his eyes.
It was dawn. The shutters were closed to the outside world, but he knew the sun was cresting the horizon. He had no idea how he could know such a thing, and had been amazed during the first few weeks of his stay at the Inn of the Serpent, but now he was accustomed to his unfaltering ability to wake precisely at the dawning of the sun each new day. He was usually awake before Maura, and took pleasure in watching her sleep. He listened to her quiet breathing, took in her form in the quiet of the morning.
Many times he wondered about her scars. He could not remember how she had been so badly burned, but he would not ask her, not wanting to stir up painful memories. While the burns had been serious, they had healed relatively well, he knew, and her features were hardly as grotesque as she had grown to think of them. He knew that she deemed herself ugly, that she looked at other women with envy, sometimes with anger. The years of repeated comments, laughter, and general disdain she suffered from many of the inn’s visitors had broken her spirit. He had seen that spirit grow every day since he had awoke that first day of his *new* life. He found it pleasantly odd that even though he could not remember any of their early days together, he knew that he loved this woman, and always would.
He had his own scars, of course. He could spot several areas about his arms and chest that looked to be old wounds of some sort, but the most pronounced was the scar on the palm of his left hand. Or rather, it was a marking. The strange inky-black pattern brought a familiar tingle to his stomach, but he could not grasp the memory. It had been there since the first morning at the inn, or at least that was the earliest he could remember it being there — it was the earliest he could remember anything — and he could not understand how it had come to be there.
Maura stirred, a soft moan escaping her lips.
Today was her day away from working the inn, and he had no intentions of rousing her from her slumber. He softly rose from their bed and pulled on his trousers and tunic, leaving his feet bare. When he reached the base of the steps, the polished hardwood cold at his feet, he received a good morning nod from Ballard, who had glanced back over his shoulder. The innkeeper was staring out the window, the same window from which they both watched the dawn every morning. It made Willis feel somehow at home, knowing he and Ballard shared at least something in common.
He approached the large man and leaned on the wall next to him. “Can I ask you something?”
Ballard put his eyes on Willis. “About Maura?”
The very mention of her name made him smile. “Yes.”
“You want to know how she got her scars, no?”
Willis nodded. “I don’t want to cause her pain with such questions. It’s just that I’ve been here so long and I feel that I know nothing of anybody, including myself.”
Ballard dropped a heavy sigh in the silent morning. “It was a kitchen incident. A pot was boiling over; its lid was stuck somehow, but it blew. Scalded her face, it did. She was such a pretty girl. She used to laugh and have fun until that day. Three years now that was.
“She had been seeing you for that entire summer,” he lied, silently pleading for forgiveness from the gods. “You were on an errand for me when it happened. The only comfort she had was in you.”
Willis nodded silently, his eyes teary at the thought of her pain.
“But you’ve changed, Willis. You’ve made her smile every day since your accident. You’re a different man. A better man. And I’ll show you something that hasn’t seen the light of day for three years.”
Willis followed him down a flight of stairs into the wine cellar, past the racks of wine and deep into the back of the bricked basement. The lamp he held threw light about the room, and he saw a series of different racks, these holding empty wine bottles. Standing against the nearest was a large picture frame, nearly as large as the windows upstairs, its face turned away from view.
Ballard motioned for him to turn it around.
Willis caught his breath as he gazed at the portrait, not because of the masterful painting that it was, but from the fact that he knew exactly whose face it was the instant he saw it. Her cheeks were smooth and flawless, her lips pursed in a tight smile, and her eyes beaming with exuberance.
“She is beautiful,” he breathed. “By the light of day, she is beautiful. But why is the name Deserae painted in the corner?”
“That was her birth name,” the innkeeper answered. “She took Maura as her new name when she was baptized into Stevenism, shortly after you met those years ago.”
Another lie. He was beginning to feel criminal.
“Hellooo,” rang Heidi’s voice from atop the stairs. “There’s a man here! He says he’d like to see Willis.”
Ballard felt his stomach churn and threaten to retch.
“For me?” Willis asked in surprise.
“You’re the only Willis I know, silly,” she retorted.
He started for the stairs before Ballard could grab him, and ascended into the common room even before the bigger innkeeper could reach the steps. When Ballard did manage to emerge into the common room his fears had become realities. It was the same man that had visited him four months earlier, dressed in the same drab brown robes with the same bald head. He gave a silent cuss, but quickly recanted. It would do no good to curse the gods now. He was being punished for acting so vainly, for thinking he could create another man’s life.
“Willis,” the stranger said softly.
“Willis?” he heard Deserae whimper from atop the stairs.
“Willis,” Ballard heard himself say.
The young man named Willis simply stared at the strange man in the strange robes.
“I can help you, Willis,” he said. “I have been searching for you for a year now. Where is Maura?”
Willis glanced to a woman on the stairs.
The man frowned.
“Who … Who are you?” Willis stammered.
“You do not know me?” His gaze fell on Ballard Tamblebuck. “You told me you did not know Willis. Why did you lie? Why did you make me spend such a long time here in your filthy city? Did you think I would not find him?”
Ballard swallowed hard. “I found him only a day before your first visit, raving in the rain outside the inn. He was near death from a drug. Ardon, it was. Made him see things that weren’t there. Lost his memory. I didn’t know if you would hurt him.”
“Hurt him?” The man rubbed his bald head, his temper cooling. “I am Gizzel, representative of the Rithius Family. Willis Rithius has been missing for some time. He was never supposed to be here. He should be at his father’s side.”
His eyes fell back on Willis.
“You should not have run, Willis. Maura was not meant for you. You have been arranged with another.” Gizzel paused a moment, glancing again to Deserae atop the stairs. “No matter. She is no longer an issue.”
“What are you talking about?” Willis stammered, regaining part of his composure. “Maura is standing right there!”
Gizzel peered again at the girl atop the stairs. “I was told of the death of a girl on the ship you took here. I had assumed it was Maura.”
Ballard gripped his apron, desperate to gain some control of the situation. “There was an accident and she was burned.”
The stranger shook his head. “As I said, it matters not. I have come to take you home, Willis. Your father and brothers feel your absence strongly.”
Willis shook his head silently, awestruck.
Gizzel brushed aside his robe to reveal an ornate sword hilt. “I have been given strict orders, Willis. I will use any methods necessary.” He waved his hand toward the door.
The tattoo on Gizzel’s palm flashed for only an instant, but Willis recognized the dark pattern. It was the same mysterious mark that scarred his own hand. Some faint recollection sparked within him. Images flashed in his mind: the fall of a blade, a flapping banner, the crashing waves about the deck of some vessel. There was blood, fire, chaos. The past invaded like cold steel. Then there was a face, smooth and pale. Willis clenched his fists.
“I … I need some time,” he stammered.
Gizzel shook his head, only slightly. “You spent your time running, Willis. We leave now.”
Deserae stumbled down a step as she called Willis’ name. She watched as his green eyes turned to connect with hers. His face was ashen, his knuckles white. Still, he did not speak. She fell to her knees against the railing and buried her face in trembling hands as she sobbed. There was nothing left, nothing at all. She would lose the only man who had ever loved her, the only man to see beneath the curse of her scars. Now he would hate her for what she had done to him. He would know how they had deceived him.
A touch caused her head to lift.
Willis took her hands in his. “You should not cry,” Willis whispered. He was kneeling from a step below, his face close to hers.
“I understand it all, Deserae. You saved my life that night, and in doing so you set yourself on the path to your own healing. I am grateful I was the tool in Stevene’s hands used to heal your spirit. But I know something of who I am now, and I must know the rest.
“And I feel no joy in leaving, but my place is not here any longer. I must find myself, Deserae, as I have helped you find yourself. You can start a new life. The world waits for you now.”
“You can’t go, Willis. You can’t!” she whispered fiercely.
He kissed her forehead as a tear traveled his cheek. “I do love you, Deserae. And I wish I was simply this man at this inn, but I remember things now. I have to find out who I am. I have to leave with this man. He has the same mark, Deserae. It means something, I can feel it. He can show me who I am.”
Deserae traced the strange lines in his palm with her finger. “Will you come back, Willis? Will you come back to me?”
He released a trembling breath. “I will send word, my love.”
Then his hand slipped away.
She could not reply, fearing she might be sick. She watched him descend the stairs slowly. Gizzel took him by the arm as he reached the bottom of the stairs.
Ballard spread his arms helplessly. “Where are you taking him?”
“It is not your concern, innkeeper,” replied Gizzel flatly. “Just be content that no harm will come to you or your daughter.”
Ballard frowned at the shrouded threat, but still watched with wide eyes as the two exited the inn and softly closed the door behind them. Deserae let herself cry unabated then, pulling her knees close and dropping her head to rest on them. She felt her father’s arm about her shoulders, but it made nothing easier. Nothing would ever be easier.
Ballard Tamblebuck stared out the open window. It was dawn. Light snow feathered to the ground in a silent dance as the innkeeper gazed into the clouds above. Many days he had stood here with Willis to watch the day’s new sun light the sky. It had been several months since he had last done so. He had been content then. He had brought his daughter some measure of happiness, a life in which she deserved. He had given her a man who loved her.
A snowflake drifted onto his face.
It had been a terrible mistake. He had taken a man’s life and replaced it with one built on deceit and trickery. He had kept a man from his family. Worse yet, he had given his daughter a taste of a life she could never have. He had betrayed everyone. Even himself. He had always wanted a son.
“I’m going to the market, Father,” Deserae said as she stepped off the stairs. She was pulling on a coat.
Ballard looked to his daughter. Long brown hair fell over her shoulders, and her eyes glittered in the new sunlight. She looked as she always had before this terrible mess, he thought.
She turned and waved as she reached the door, a smile touching her lips. Then she was gone, strolling down a wakening Nochtur Street, basket in hand.
“Well, almost as she always had,” he thought. “Almost.”