Willis stared blankly at the gatehouse of the Rithius estate from within his deep hood. Ornate black iron bars curled and twisted as they made up the body of the gate itself, and the family crest was displayed in vibrant reds and greens in the center of each of the two swinging doors. The crest itself was the size of a footman’s shield, its image a single war hammer etched beneath a painting of a wingspread eagle over a red background. Willis concentrated, but nothing stirred within him, no images or memories.
He shook his head.
“It is unfortunate you cannot remember, Willis,” said Gizzel from behind. He sat on a white-speckled gray mare, hood pulled over his bald head and hands hidden underneath his heavy cloak. “I had hoped you would come to your senses before we arrived. You should not let any of them know you have lost your memory, even your father. I can help you that much, at least.”
“Why is that?” Willis asked. “Couldn’t they help me in remembering things?”
Gizzel smiled ruefully. “You will find out soon enough, Willis. Until you understand the way things are here you must keep your condition a secret from most. Keep your hood up for now.”
Willis nodded absently and looked to the small guardhouse just beyond the gate where two young men stood in conversation. He did not recognize them. In fact he did not recognize anything at all. He had lived here most of his life, Gizzel had told him, but he recalled none of it.
Their journey had been an uneventful one since the day Gizzel, the man sent to bring him back to his family, had found Willis in Dargon. His memory lost, Willis had begun a new life at the Inn of the Serpent, with Deserae Tamblebuck and her father Ballard. He had run from his home, Gizzel had explained, escaping a planned marriage and taking with him a woman he had loved. But Maura had died on the journey to Dargon. Willis tried to picture her, but the memory was lost; tried to mourn her, but nothing stirred inside him. His thoughts constantly drifted to Deserae Tamblebuck and the nights he spent with her.
Nearly a month at sea from Dargon had put them at Port Vergindas on the River Banoss in Pyridain; once a Baranurian duchy, it was now controlled by the Beinison Empire. Left to Benosian hands after Baranur’s retreat three years ago, Pyridain’s noble families had either fled their holdings or had been executed. Only those few that had sworn early allegiance to Beinison had been spared. Another three bitter-cold fortnights in the saddle had carried them on their way deeper into Pyridain to the holdings of House Rithius. The winter months had come quickly, it seemed, and a recent light snowfall blanketed much of the rocky ground of the countryside.
“Lieutenant Joaja,” Gizzel called stiffly as he moved his mount to the gate, leaving Willis several paces behind. “Open the gate.”
The men at the guardhouse looked through the ironwork of the gateway and peered at the newcomers a moment before approaching. They were soldiers, Willis presumed by their attire. Their swords were short and their chain armor was designed almost ceremonially, but otherwise they looked dangerous enough. Lieutenant Joaja, the first to reach the gate, wrapped his gloved fingers about an iron bar, one hand over the other.
“Back so soon, Gizzel,” Joaja said with a grin. The man’s speech was slurred, not uncommon among the Benosians speaking Baranurian tongue in Pyridain. His face was thin and pale under a shortly cropped head of hair, and there were several scars on his forehead. “We thought you might have run off with some wash-pan whore!”
The second guard snorted in laughter.
Gizzel did not reply, but instead tilted his head to one side. The movement was hardly noticeable under the hood, but Joaja saw something in it that Willis could not from behind. With a muffled curse the guard lifted the latch, allowing the gate to split and swing inwards. Willis kept his hood forward, but he could feel their eyes on his back as he spurred his mount after Gizzel. The uneasy feeling that he had already been identified did little to quell the churning of his stomach.
The roadway leading to the manor through the scrubland was over a league, and the sun had nearly set when they arrived at the main courtyard. The stable hands took their horses without comment, but not without several hesitant looks at Willis. Then Gizzel led Willis into the main foyer, a wide circular chamber where several house servants immediately emerged to take their cloaks and scarves. The foyer was sparsely furnished with high-backed cushioned chairs paired with cherry-stained smoking tables, and was illumined by wall-mounted lanterns as well as a massive chandelier hanging from the domed ceiling that contained several colored windows. A large tapestry depicting lions and other exotic animals adorned the wood-paneled wall opposite the entrance to the chamber, and thick rugs covered most of the polished stone floor.
“It is so good to see you have returned, Gizzel,” a rotund man called from the opposite end of the chamber, the lengths of his thinning gray hair wisping about his head like fog.
“That is Kiska Spael, the manor’s steward,” whispered Gizzel. “Do you recognize him?” The steward smoothed his hair with a hand and approached hastily, his loose-fitting pants swishing with each step. “And I also bid you welcome home, Sir Willis. I am overjoyed at your arrival! I will have Mariem prepare your usual if that is to your liking.”
Willis had no inkling of who this man was, and had absolutely no idea what ‘his usual’ could be. He simply nodded and smiled at the rotund man.
“I will inform Lady Kay that you have arrived.” Kiska turned lightly on one heel and disappeared into the shadows of the evening.
“What is my usual?” Willis asked.
Gizzel nearly smiled. “Just go up to your chambers and have your bath.”
“Where are my chambers?”
This time the bald man frowned. “I will walk you there.”
They began climbing a set of steps that arced about the curve of the wall, eventually winding its way about the entire foyer as it climbed. Willis felt like a pebble in this grand room, and he wondered at the rich carpeting and satin drapes. Was this home? He lived here? He recalled none of it; even the touch of the worn oak railing or the odd scent of perfume and spice brought no recognition. An image of the Inn of the Serpent’s common room brushed over his mind, and Deserae’s smile. It had been more than two months since he had left Dargon. It seemed longer, he reflected, and he wanted to return to hear her voice. They had rescued him, after all: Deserae and her father Ballard Tamblebuck. He had come to enjoy the familiar faces and places of Dargon, as if he had lived there all his life.
“Your *usual* is normally to entertain several ladies of questionable character accompanied by a large supply of wine,” Gizzel grunted, snapping Willis from his reverie. “I never did see the need for it.”
Willis frowned. “I am only entertaining them. I don’t have to drink any wine.”
“No, Willis. You *entertain* them.”
The young man halted in his climb. “Entertain …” His eyes grew spacious. “But I can’t, Gizzel. I won’t.”
The older man ushered him up the last few steps. “You truly are not the same man, Willis. There may be hope for this family yet.”
They came to a door, obviously leading to Willis’ quarters.
“Just dismiss them when they come to your door. They won’t persist; they never enjoy it anyway.”
Willis shot him a questioning glance, but it met with the back of Gizzel’s bald head. The man was already walking back toward the stairs. Willis entered his chambers and bolted the door behind him. It was a large room, with several high windows and carpeting. A canopied bed laid with silk bedding sat in the corner: large and inviting. He was about to flop down upon it when a woman suddenly entered the room from an adjoining chamber.
“Oh …” she stuttered and stopped in her tracks at the sight of Willis. “I am very sorry, m’lord. I was going to fetch the soap.” She was a small woman, approaching the middle years of her life. Her hair was touched by gray and her eye-lines creased, but she stood with a quiet dignity.
Willis remained silent, unsure how to reply. Her nervousness was quite apparent, almost to the point of outright fear, and he wondered if his was as plain to her. Was she afraid of him? Was Willis Rithius a cruel man? He walked slowly toward her, and she nearly flinched when he came to a stop at arms length.
“Well, then,” he replied, picking his words carefully. “You’d better see to it quickly, Mariem.”
She nodded instantly. “Yes, m’lord.” Then she was out the door.
Willis let out a long breath. He could feel his heart pounding within his chest. What was he doing here? Was this even his real family? He glanced down at the tattoo on his palm, its black lines woven like a web. What did this mean? A family mark? Asking Gizzel on their journey produced only quick changes in subject of conversation, and he had not seen the pattern anywhere else in the manor or on the grounds. A light knock sounded on the door. Mariem entered quickly and continued directly to the bathing chamber after he opened the door. A moment later she was passing through the bedroom towards the exit.
“Mariem,” Willis said, causing her to stop. “Would you show me your hands?”
She gave him an odd look, but did not hesitate, holding her hands out before him. He took them and turned them over, revealing small worn palms, slightly shivering, he noted. No markings. Just an old woman’s hands. He let them go, but they remained held out before him, her eyes downcast to the carpeting.
“Do I frighten you?”
“No, m’lord,” she replied hastily, her voice tight. “I am just cold is all. Just a little cold with the winter here and all.”
Slowly, he nodded. “Thank you, Mariem,” he said quietly, and she backed out the door after a small curtsy.
The smell of perfumed oils permeated from the room beyond that held his bath, and he was quick to bolt the door once more and strip down. As he slid into the hot bathwater of the tub he sighed and closed his eyes. The only things familiar were the images of Deserae that kept filling his head.
The lanterns were dim when Willis descended the stairs to the circular foyer, the chandelier dark, and the chamber seemed an empty expanse of shadow. Sounds of conversation echoed softly from several hallways that spoked from the room, though he could make out nothing of what was said. A man in black and white livery had knocked on the door not long after Willis had dressed in the fine silk shirt and breeches that were spread on the bed when he emerged from the bath. He was to escort Willis to the Library Hall, the servant had said with a bow, his voice sullen. All Willis could do was follow.
As he descended the stairs he wondered how the clothes had managed to get on his bed. Hadn’t he bolted the door? They had not been there when he first entered the quarters. And then there had been the *entertainment*, as Gizzel had so casually phrased it.
“Never enjoy it!” he muttered under his breath. The six women that had appeared as he was getting dressed had seemed ready to pounce on him. They surely would have if he had not flushed and herded them out of the room, slamming the door after them. They must have taken his reaction for anger, not the flustered embarrassment that it was, for they were nowhere to be seen presently.
He was sure he had bolted that lock shut.
Following the silent servant, Willis moved toward the voices. They traveled a long hallway that seemed to curve slightly, peering at the occasional tapestry and an empty suit of armor that stood watching him pass. Doorways led from the corridor sporadically as they walked, but the servant stayed his course until the voices were loud enough to make out.
Suddenly he emerged into a brightly lit chamber with oak paneled walls and high ceiling. The gray of pipe smoke hung in the air above a massive oak table, and several people sat around it engaged in conversation. What Willis took for a wall at first glance, he realized, was a bookshelf with only half its lower shelves containing tomes and bound parchment. A figure moved to his right. A man, gray at the temples and donning a long golden silk robe, waved a hand as he read a small tome, beckoning Willis to join him at a small sitting table matched with a pair of padded lounge chairs.
“Well, Willis,” the man said when Willis approached, his voice deep and amused, “You have finally decided to come back to your family. I have been told you were found in Dargon? Mm. Such a dirty city, that one. I was there as a young lad several times. But that you know, of course.”
The man barely looked up from the book he was reading as he spoke, but gestured for Willis to sit. It was a comfortable chair, Willis thought. But he could think of nothing else.
“Have you spoken to your mother?” His voice carried deeply, though his eyes rarely lifted from the book.
“No,” Willis replied with a shake of his head. “Is this my father?” he wondered to himself.
“Well, you should not keep her waiting. You know how she gets when you’re late for her sitting. I had young Kindivan fetch you because I had assumed your mother had already seen you.”
Just then Gizzel entered the library. The brown robes Willis had grown accustomed to seeing him in were replaced by breeches and tunic. His sword, as always, was belted at his hip. The bald man’s jaw stiffened when he saw Willis and the gray-haired man seated together, and he instantly strode over to them.
“Ah, Gizzel,” the man said with a slight smile. “Just in time. Willis here has been neglecting his mother so it seems. Be so kind as to escort him to her sitting room.”
Gizzel gave a slight bow — its level was carefully measured, Willis noted — and gestured for Willis to follow. “Do you need anything, my lord?” he asked the man curtly.
The man simply smiled and went back to his book.
“Was that my father?” Willis stammered once they reached the hallway.
Gizzel sniffed. “That was your uncle Tavram Bi’Shor, Willis. You were never close to him. He has several … hobbies I will call them, that do not agree even with you.”
“Even with you,” Willis repeated silently in his mind. What exactly did ‘even with you’ mean? What had his hobbies been in this manor?
By his sour tone Tavram’s hobbies did not agree with Gizzel either, Willis observed as they turned into a slightly narrower corridor.
“Your mother is not pleased with you, Willis, nor is your father, though he rarely comes out of his stupor to say so.”
Willis glanced questioningly at the bald man, but Gizzel continued on.
“Lady Kay, your mother, runs the household, controls the assets as well as the guard, and tolerates no insolence. Your father has been bedridden since the end of the war. House Rithius needs an heir and you are it. She has not forgotten about the marriage with House Quikuches, and you are expected to perform your duty. Do not speak of your father; you never did. To do so now would show Lady Kay you are not yourself. She has brought the house to power, but at a cost, Willis. Your father would weep to see it if he were well.”
“What is wrong with him?”
“… it will have to do. Steps must be taken to assure …”
Lady Kay stopped short when Gizzel entered the room, followed by Willis. Her gaze scoured over her son with silent malevolence, her dark, green eyes hard and obviously unforgiving. Black hair fell whip-like down over her powder-paled cheeks, cut in an angular fashion so that it shortened as it moved to the back of her slender neck. She wore a deep emerald green velvet gown, cut low in the bosom and frilled with lace, and her fingers glittered with several rings of silver. A woman in her mature years, Lady Kay still held the beauty of her youth, with smooth pale skin and a creaseless face. She gracefully rose to her feet upon their entry, dismissing with a curt wave a young man in robes who exited immediately.
“Are you well, Willis?” she asked. Her voice was softer than the silk she wore, graceful and elegant, yet seductive and sinister at the same time. Willis continued toward the small cluster of velvet chairs in the room only because Gizzel did, and he sat when Lady Kay gestured, though Gizzel received no such gesture and remained standing.
“I feel well, Mother,” he answered as he sat.
“You have grown your hair,” she said, her lips twitching in a thin smile. “Do you think Theria will like it?”
Theria? The bride maybe? “I don’t know if she will.”
“Let us hope she does, Willis.” Her voice was hard now. “The future of House Rithius depends on it! Your little … adventure, has cost us much. Lord Kipiqin Quikuches is not pleased at the delay. Do you think he will wait forever?”
Willis felt the sweat glisten on his face. So he was a pawn, a piece of her puzzle that would lead to a stronger house. He did not even know who Theria was, let alone House Quikuches. He was here to discover himself, to see who he had been. That was all, he reminded himself. His face remained blank, mainly because he could think of nothing to say. This was not at all what he had expected of his family. Everything seemed so tense here, about to snap like some frayed bowstring.
“At least Maura, that little wretch, is drowned like most of her kind should be!” It was a moment before he realized she had not meant Deserae, but the Maura he had left Pyridain with, the girl he could no longer remember. His face had already formed a glare though, so he let it linger.
“Ah,” she sneered, though it seemed not to lessen her stature. “You wish to blame anyone but yourself for that mishap, yes? Well, boy, you will learn that there are consequences to pay for such inept behavior.”
Willis could not suppress the roll in his stomach. This could not be his family! He had to get away from here! A glance at Gizzel showed the bald man studying his boots. Why she had not dismissed him, Willis did not know, but he was somehow glad of the man’s silent company, even if Gizzel had been the one to take him from his new life in Dargon.
“I will not marry this Theria,” he stated, his voice not all steady. “I have no wish to live here.”
Lady Kay cackled maniacally.
“Is everyone here mad?” he thought.
“You think you have a choice?” she asked, standing from her chair. “I know about your little whore back in Dargon, Willis! I know more than you think. No, don’t bother to look at Gizzel. I did not even have to listen to his report. I have other sources more reliable.”
That remark did seem to make Gizzel stiffen.
“Do not think yourself a hero, Willis. You may be of the Order of the Dragon, but you are merely a helpless boy against the house. If you run again, it takes but a pigeon flight to still the heart of your beloved Deserae!”
Willis thought he might scream. He stood, toppling the chair, facing the woman squarely. Anger filled him like a furnace and his fists were clenched white. Gizzel was looking at him now, his face tight, his hands twitching.
“If you harm her you will die,” Willis hissed.
Lady Kay Rithius stepped back, but her composure remained. “You know me, Willis. You know I will keep my word. You will marry Theria and no harm will come to Deserae Tamblebuck.”
Willis turned and left the room. Gizzel did not follow.
Willis blinked at the pale light of the dawn slashing through the crack in the drapes. Sleep had not come easily the night before, and when he finally had succumbed he had dreamed of strange things, strange people, and places he had never seen. Memories or dreams? The morning made him think of Ballard Tamblebuck. The old innkeeper would be standing at the window now, watching the sun crest Dargon’s cluttered horizon as he did every day. And Deserae. The blankets at his side were not warm as they had been so many mornings in Dargon. He could not hear her soft breathing, could not smell her hair or touch her face.
“If she is harmed you will die.”
Slowly, he sat up in the canopied bed. Had he said that? He had never said such words in his life. Or had he? Could it be the real Willis Rithius breaking the surface? He could not stay here. The vile feel of this place made him shiver, and his mother … his mother! Gods, he would rather have had no mother! Dimly he remembered what Lady Kay had said.
“You may be of the Order of the Dragon, but you are merely a helpless boy against the house.”
The Order of the Dragon. He looked to the web pattern tattooed on his palm. Could it be the sign of this order? He would make a point to ask Gizzel before he left this place. Mariem had entered the room, though he was sure he had bolted the lock before he’d slept, and had left clean wash water and a breakfast of fruits, cheese, and a fresh loaf of oddly dark bread. It stirred his hunger and he ate quickly after dressing in the new clothes that had been left in his cabinet, finishing the bread as a knock sounded on the door.
Tavram Bi’Shor entered quietly, a scarlet-colored robe cinched at the waist by white sash. He looked quite pleasant as he shut the door behind him, and walked over to the table where Willis sat. The man did not wait for an invitation to sit. He pulled up a chair and sat down, crossing his legs at the ankles.
“You slept well, Willis?”
Willis shrugged. “I slept fine.”
Tavram nodded slightly. “I want to know why you came back, Willis. Why did you let Gizzel bring you back?”
That was a question Willis was not remotely prepared to answer. It had never occurred to him that someone might want to know why he had come back. What could he say? That he wanted to see where he had come from? He couldn’t remember his family? Couldn’t remember himself? That would surely bring the vultures of this place down upon him. And he was sure there were vultures. The fact that his uncle was here gave him that proof.
“Would you rather I hadn’t returned, uncle?”
The reply made his uncle smile broadly. It was a fatherly smile, yet it lacked that genuineness that would have made it legitimate. A facade, and Willis recognized it instantly, though he could not tell how. His uncle wanted something. Most likely he had plans for the house, plans that had been formed to exclude Willis and his birthright. Willis didn’t care about his birthright, but it was obvious that Tavram Bi’Shor thought he did. Was the Rithius family plotting amongst itself as well?
“My boy,” Tavram began, “I am as glad as anyone that you have returned to the house. I am simply curious as to why you let Gizzel find you. I am sure you let him. You are not the type to simply be found when you are hiding.”
“I am here, uncle,” Willis said, hoping to put an end to the subject. “But I will not marry this Theria.”
“Come now. You speak as if you have never met the girl. You should have come to me, Willis. You know as well as I do that this marriage is not good for the house. We will be eaten up by the Quikuches. Slowly at first, but eventually key members of the Rithius family will disappear or have sudden accidents. Our line will fade away and leave only the cursed Quikuches to take what we have built!”
Tavram Bi’Shor was quite emphatic as he made his ploy to gain Willis as an ally. His eyes were wide with vigor, and he wrung his hands as he spoke. The man seemed genuinely distraught, and it was possible, Willis presumed, that he was not lying. It was only moments, however, before his uncle had returned to his earlier serenity. He gave a rueful shrug and smile.
“Now you know where I stand, Willis. You may go to your mother, who will only bring ruin to this family, or you can listen to what I have to say and save your future. You are the only heir. You must realize you would be Kipiqin’s first target in his bid to control the house.”
“Actually makes sense,” Willis thought to himself. But he was not foolish enough to think he could trust this man. He doubted he could trust anyone in his family, including Gizzel. It was obvious from the previous evening that his uncle had waited for him to speak to his mother before approaching, undoubtedly because he knew Lady Kay and Willis would not have had an agreeable reunion. Then, like the very vultures Willis had expected, Tavram had come to make his pitch.
“I will think on your words, uncle,” he replied.
When Willis did not elaborate, Tavram Bi’Shor rose from his chair and gave his nephew a nod of acquiescence. “I hoped we might continue our discussion after the evening meal over a pipe.”
Willis gave a quiet nod and his uncle moved to open the door.
“One other thing, Willis,” his uncle said in a low voice. “Joaja knows you have returned. You must watch where you take yourself after dark. He has not forgotten your last encounter.” Then he was gone. Joaja? The guard at the front gate? What could he have done to a house guard? He took a deep breath. His past seemed a dark cesspool of deception and trickery. Was there no end to the arrogance in his family? Was everyone of his blood so villainous? No wonder he had run from here.
He rose from his chair and exited his chambers, passing the steward, Kiska Spael. The man bowed lightly as Willis passed. Kiska was an odd character, Willis decided. He was very darkly tanned, not pale like the people of Baranur, and even darker in skin than the people of Beinison, and he wore baggy breeches with strange designs sewn down the sides. Kiska Spael seemed the only normal thing in the manor, as odd as he was.
Willis met no one as he made his way to the stairs, though voices carried from the main foyer below. Stealthily he moved to the stairs and peered around the corner of the solid railing of the hall that overlooked the foyer. Three men were receiving orders from Lady Kay, their garb thick and suited for travel. They wore swords as well. Idly he wondered where he could get a sword. He could feel his hand twitch almost involuntarily.
Willis waited until the men departed and Lady Kay had moved into the inner corridors of the manor before he descended the wide stairway into the foyer. The light was bright through a series of stained windows in the domed ceiling and the manor seemed alive — a heavy contrast from they way it had looked when he arrived. Still, he felt as chilled here as he had on the ride from Port Vergindas on the river. He went out the main entrance and emerged into a broad courtyard that was lightly blanketed with new snow. He instantly felt the cold of the winter morning, and it made him shiver.
“I don’t belong here,” he thought to himself after staring at the pale azure sky for a time. “My family is back in Dargon.”
“I must talk with you, Willis.”
Willis turned to meet Gizzel, who had followed him outside. Oddly enough he had known that Gizzel had been standing there long before the man had spoken.
“You finally want to talk to me, Gizzel? It’s been more than two months and here I am, in the middle of this nightmare. You knew what was here, Gizzel. You knew all I along what I’d find!”
The bald man was silent a moment. Then he said, “I thought you had changed, Willis. I was doing what was best for the house. You should not have left. You could have brought your mother back from this lunacy of a marriage. House Rithius will fall under the Quikuches shadow and we will be worse off than we are now.”
“You should have left me in Dargon. I can’t do anything. I don’t remember anything!”
The bald man rubbed his head. “You must understand, Willis. I am a defender of the house. Anything that threatens the house answers to me. I will not put the house in jeopardy, no matter what is happening. I gave my oath. There were reasons I told you nothing until now, but they are my reasons. I have helped you as much as I was able.”
“Tell me, then,” Willis muttered “Tell me who I am. Or do you have a scheme like everyone else here?”
“Just listen to me,” Gizzel replied. “You are the son of Lady Kay and Lord Choendor Rithius. You father fell ill after the war and has been kept to his bed for years. House Rithius is a noble family of Pyridain, but has kept much of its power the past three years by allying itself to certain high-standing Benosian houses. To further solidify that power, Lady Kay has arranged a marriage to Theria of House Quikuches. House Quikuches is a high standing family in Beinison. Lady Kay’s want of power has become an obsession, Willis. That is why she is so adamant.”
“I thought you said I was Baranurian, Gizzel.” Willis was suspicious of anything concerning his family now.
“That’s what makes this even more important to her, Willis. House Rithius is Baranurian, but during the onset of the war it made its allegiance to Beinison. Pyridain is no longer in Baranurian hands. This house has had little standing because of its ancestry, but Lady Kay has found ways to strengthen us, though I cannot say I agree with her methods. Being the dog for the larger houses means we carry out the tasks of more questionable legality.”
Willis felt his anger rising once more. “And you go along with that, and even bring me here to join in it? I’ll have no part of it!”
Gizzel was quiet a moment. “I want you to bring the house back to what it was, Willis. Lady Kay will destroy us.” The bald man seemed flustered, even offended “You left because you defied your mother and refused her wishes. But you should have opposed her.”
“She is not my mother,” Willis said faintly. “She will never be my mother.”
Gizzel remained silent.
“Back in Dargon you told me I had brothers, Gizzel. Where are they?”
Gizzel looked to the horizon. “They have been exiled, Willis. They tried to oust your mother from the house after it became apparent you would not return to claim your birthright. Your father was already bedridden when it happened. They were lucky that Lady Kay did not execute them.”
Willis shook his head sadly. Just another poison in a pit of snakes. This was his family, bleak and twisted. “What is the Order of the Dragon?” he asked.
The bald man breathed deeply, as if he had been expecting the question. “We are of the order, you and I, as were your brothers. We stand for Beinison. We are masters of the blade and soldiers of its army in the name of the house.”
Willis had no memories of even lifting a sword. “Is this,” he held out his palm, “the mark of the order?”
Gizzel nodded slightly. “You were pledged to the Emperor. It was done before he was assassinated, as an oath of allegiance. He demanded it of all Choendor’s sons. I was also pledged.”
“The old Willis was pledged to the Emperor,” Willis muttered. “I am not that same man, Gizzel.”
The bald man simply nodded again.
“I am leaving this place.”
Gizzel frowned. “Not wise, Willis. Lady Kay knows of Deserae. She knows almost everything. She will not let you go.”
“She can’t be serious about what she said. Not about what she would do.”
“Maybe not a pigeon flight. She may have connections that far away, but certainly not an assassin in Dargon. Though she does have other means to carry out her threat.” Gizzel moved to the doors leading into the foyer. “I fear Lady Kay is growing desperate, Willis. You draw her to the edge.” Then he was gone.
Willis ran his hands through his hair. He had to get out of here. He waited for Gizzel to leave before he moved to the door and stuck his head into the foyer. A servant was hurrying up the stairs, but he saw no one else, so made his way through the chamber and into the same hallway he had traversed the previous night. He walked for several menes before he found what he sought.
The standing suit of armor and sword in scabbard were where he remembered them to be. Willis took the belt and pulled a hand’s width of blade from the scabbard to note it was freshly oiled and not merely meant for display. As he fastened the belt about his waist so that the scabbard hung at his hip, the action felt oddly familiar; intimate. Steeling himself with a deep breath he strode back toward the foyer, intent on reaching the stables.
“And just what are you doing wandering about the manor with a sword, Willis?” came a cold voice from behind. Lady Kay stood in the hallway with Tavram Bi’Shor. They had obviously stumbled upon him during a morning discussion.
“I am leaving,” he announced as he turned back from the archway of the main foyer to face them.
Lady Kay raised her thin brows while Tavram chuckled.
“No one simply leaves the house, boy,” Tavram said. “You of all people should know that now. Come, sit and share a pipe. We can discuss your wedding.”
Willis knew his uncle’s words were said merely for Lady Kay; he could see the sparkle of glee in the man’s eyes. Tavram Bi’Shor would be able to resume his plans — whatever dark plans they were — with Willis gone and his brothers exiled.
“You will let me leave, Lady Kay,” Willis stated flatly. He would not say ‘mother’. Never ‘mother’. “You will let me leave and live my life.” The way the woman smiled made Willis fume. He nearly drew his blade then and there. Instead he clenched his fists. “If you think to hurt Deserae you will have to kill me.”
“But, my dear Willis,” she said with mock sincerity, “I have already arranged for her to meet three of your cousins. Dargon holds nothing for you now.”
The possibilities in such a statement did not take long to settle upon him. Deserae flashed in his mind. The men in the foyer that morning!
“Damn you!” Willis roared. “Damn you to Eilli-Syk!” He ran. He ran through the foyer, past servants he did not recognize, and into the inner-courtyard that was bitter cold. The winter air made him draw a breath, and in his silk shirt he stood trembling; from cold or rage he could not tell. He looked about and saw the stables he had came to on their arrival. He had to get out of here! Had to stop them!
The stable hand was standing in the open gateway of the stables, and his eyes grew wide as Willis glared at him. Joaja, the guard he had seen at the gate, stood behind the boy, arms folded over his chest. He stood in an iron breastplate and gauntlets, a thick cloak draped over his shoulders.
“Out of the way, boy,” he said and pushed the stable hand to one side roughly. “He is not permitted to leave the manor.” Then he grinned mirthlessly. “I have been waiting for this.”
Willis had a hand to the hilt of his sword before he realized what he was doing. “I have no fight with you. Get out of my way.” Something told him to strike, to be finished with this.
“You have no fight with me?” he replied incredulously. “You have no fight with me? I will teach you not to walk over me. I told you that would be the last time you slight me. Baranurian scum!”
Willis felt a twinge of dark humor in Joaja’s words. He was going to duel this man for something he did not remember doing. But his horse was within sight. Every moment Lady Kay’s assassins moved closer to Dargon and Deserae.
Willis snarled and drew his blade, advancing on the guard with graceful strides. It was like a dance he had stepped to so many times before. His heart raced, his entire body was poised. The sword felt like an old friend in his hand: an old trustworthy friend. His mind was crisp, pulled by the anticipation of combat.
Strike, something told him. Strike!
Swords clashed as the two men closed. It was as if he had done this a thousand times before. Willis parried and struck. He used forms of attack that came to him only an instant before the act, and defensive maneuvers that seemed born of habit. Joaja was an adept swordsman, as well, and the two men were locked in battle for menes before they parted, glaring at each other and panting.
Without a word Joaja lunged, his blade sliding in just clear of Willis’ ribs. Willis saw the opportunity as naturally as he would have seen a door swing wide open. He twirled on the ball of one foot and brought the blade in a downward swing in one motion. It buried itself in Joaja’s neck with a sickening crunch, but did not sever all the way. The body fell to the snow, lifeblood spilling a dark stain beneath it.
“What have you done?” Gizzel cried as he ran to the scene from the courtyard. “Willis!”
Willis stood before the body, teetering on the cusp of sanity. His mind was alive, overwhelmed. Memories flooded into him like a torrent, washing over everything, burning his soul. He could feel who he had been; the violence, the dark thoughts that had once flowed though him were like poison. Images seared through him, of Lady Kay, his father wasting away from a rotting disease, others of the manor that he now recognized. And what he knew of himself made him sick to his very core. The tortures, the killings, all in the name of the house. Corrupt, all of it. Even him.
Then Maura screamed at him to save her, to pull her back to the deck. He tried, gods how he had tried to save her! The salt water stung his eyes, loosened his grip, made him slip to the deck under a crashing wave. He saw an empty hand. Gone. He had lost her.
Joaja glared at him. Glared at Maura as she and Willis fled from the manor. “You took her from me, Baranurian scum!” he wailed. “The only thing I had and you took her from me! Never again! You’ll die next time we meet! Hear me, Willis!”
Willis crumpled to the ground, kneeling numbly at the corpse before him. It was too much to bear. The evil of his past life held him like old chains. He would never escape it now. Never escape knowing the things he had done.
A hand gripped his shoulder.
“Willis, get up will you?” Gizzel hauled Willis to his feet. “Get up and get out of here. Lady Kay has sent the Red Troupe to Dargon, Willis. I just heard of it! You have to go after them.”
Willis nodded mutely, looking into his old friend’s eyes. He saw no corruption there. He saw a man that had helped him. Recognition flashed in the young man’s gaze.
“We were friends, damn you! Can’t you remember that?” Gizzel exclaimed.
Willis looked about, down at the corpse, at the stable hand that stood terrified only several paces away. Then the boy disappeared into the shadows of the stables. His head began to clear.
His horse. He had wanted his horse.
“You will need a coat and supplies,” Gizzel said as he pulled Willis into the stables and up to his mount. He went deeper into the stables, emerging several moments later with a thick cloak and gloves, and a bundle that he tied to the saddle.
Willis turned and stared at the man who had taken him from Dargon so many sennights ago. There was something different about him, about his eyes. Shame. He was betraying the house, betraying his oath by helping him get away from the manor.
“You do remember, don’t you?” Gizzel said softly.
With a nod he put a hand to Gizzel’s shoulder. “I do, my friend.”
Suddenly he realized he still held the sword and sheathed it hastily.
“You are not the same person, Willis. I had hoped you might have been a changed man when you left with the Maura girl. I see now that you truly are. Farewell, my friend. I am sorry I cannot help you further.”
“Thank you for everything, Gizzel,” Willis said as he donned the cloak and gloves, and turned to mount his horse. “Do you know which way they went?”
His question was met with an empty stable; Gizzel was not there.
After a brief moment of reflection he spurred his horse and galloped out onto the roadway, past Joaja’s body, past the courtyard and onto the road to the gatehouse. When he finally approached the manor gate he found that the men opened the gate without question when they saw him appear. He thought of Gizzel, and silently thanked him once more. With a snort of steam his mount bounded to a gallop.
Willis Rithius reflected on his life — or rather the life he had not remembered until now — and recalled acts and deeds that chilled his spine. He felt his own blanket of shame, and he was stunned with chagrin. He would never escape those memories, no matter how hard he tried. Spurring his horse on, he was oblivious to the cold. Even oblivious to the tears freezing on his cheeks.
“They will pay,” he thought darkly. He had been a swordsman once. He could be so again.