Fayima, features so demolished he wouldn't have been able to recognize the young princess if not for the little mole on the side of her neck.
Platinum-blond Ahnuwk. Aelin, the fire dancer. Kir, exiled duchess turned pirate.
And on it went. A line of women, young and old. His wives and lovers from over the centuries. All dead. All dead because of him. One way or the other.
He turned and saw a line of dead children. His children. His dead. His fault.
Gwinvere pulled his tunic over his head like he was a child. He was standing beside a steaming tub of water. He hadn't even noticed it being brought in.
"You've come a long way, Tal Drakkan-or is it Gaelan Starfire now? So hard to run from the past, isn't it?" The man sat astride his fine midnight warhorse. A self-satisfied smirker. He was the kind of man you knew was headed for a fall, but not for a while.
Gaelan sneered. Said nothing. Continued walking home.
"You're a duke, not a dirt farmer. This is beneath you. You're a warrior! I want you to fight for me, Gaelan Starfire," Baron Rikku said, "and I won't take no for an answer."
"Oh yes you will."
Gaelan was working in the field, repairing his fence after the heaving and shifting of the ground in the winter, stacking the big, flat rocks back into their places while his big, shaggy aurochs looked at him quizzically.
"Sure," he told the big one he called Oren. "Pretend you won't try to jump this soon as I turn my back."
Gaelan found one of the boulders that had slipped and rolled from its place. He looked left and right to see if any of the neighboring farmers were within sight. They already wondered how he was able to do so much of the heavy work by himself.
He grabbed the boulder and, with his Talent surging, picked it up and set it back in place.
"Not bad? Huh?" he said, slapping his hands free of dirt and mud.
Oren didn't seem impressed.
Gaelan liked being a farmer. Enough physical labor to keep him fit without the use of body magic. The imposition of order on the chaos of nature. The straight lines of plowing. The simplicity of his neighbors, who didn't ask anything of him except a helping hand once in a while for a barn raising.
He fixed a full league of fence before darkfall. And walked home, dirty, sweaty, and happy.
When he got home, on the big oak out front, he found his daughter and his pregnant wife. Hanged.
He dropped to his knees. Screamed.
"Seraene. Alinaea." The names came out as sobs.
Gwinvere held him in her bed, her arms around him, protective. She stroked his hair over his temples.
When he woke in the morning, Gwinvere was already up. She looked at him with what he swore was real desire in her eyes. "Take me," she said. "You'll feel like yourself again afterward."
Truth was, he already felt better. He'd slept the memories off like a bad batch of mushrooms. But only a fool would turn down a woman as beautiful as Gwinvere Kirena. He pulled her into his arms.
"There's only one kill left," Gwinvere said. She was in her dressing gown, her cheeks still flushed from their lovemaking, but she was abruptly all business.
Gaelan sat up in bed. "Who?"
"Scarred Wrable, Gaelan. He's the only one who knows who you are. He's the only one who can guess what I'm doing. And he's been ordered to report to the Shinga. Tonight. I'm sorry to ask you to do this, but it's the only way."
"Arutayro?" a voice asked next to Gaelan's table. It was an old wetboy tradition-an oath of nonaggression for one hour. The inn was dark, smoky with tobacco and riotweed
. The kind of place where no one asked questions of strangers.
,"Gaelan affirmed. On the table, wrapped in a sash, were all of his weapons.
Ben Wrable set his sash full of weapons on the table next to Gaelan's. He sat. "I didn't expect you to know arutayro, Gaelan. That's old. Real old."
"So am I."
"I doubt that. I bet I'm older than you are," Ben said.
"Hmm. How long we got?"
"I'm to report in three hours. So if you're going to try to kill me, you'll need to-"
"Go on, Gaelan. Give me the dignity of honesty. I know Gwinvere. I don't take it personal. Her back's to the wall. If you let me go, the other wetboys will…" He trailed off. His eyebrows climbed. "You already got the others?"
Ben cursed. "Even Jade and Saron?"
"They were tough."
Ben whistled. Thinking he was being summoned, a serving man came over. "Uh, two ales," Ben said. The man left. "If you don't kill me, Gaelan, the Shinga will order me to kill you. You'll only push your problems back a day or two. And he'll send the bashers and all the apprentice wetboys after you."
"I lied to you about that symbol you cut into your chest," Gaelan said. "I have seen it before. It's a pictogram. Literally, it means split-head. Moron. Idiot."
Ben's face darkened, fingers twitched toward his sash. Then he laughed ruefully. "I could tell you were lying the other day when you said you'd never seen it before. By the Night Angels' balls. Moron. And I prove it by cutting the fucking thing into my chest over and over for fifteen years. No wonder the Friaki villagers wouldn't say what it meant. And you, you're an asshole for telling me."
Gaelan nodded, acknowledging the truth of it. Took a drink. "Then I found this," Gaelan said.
He put a pendant on the table. It was two horseshoe nails, one bent into a circle, the other piercing it most of the way. Ben's lost pendant, the very one that had been taken from him when he was put into the Death Games.
A quick sneer, like You expect me to believe this? I told you what it looked like! was replaced by puzzlement. Ben flipped the pendant over, looking at the scores and scratches in the iron, matching them with memories over a decade old. He looked up sharply. His voice was stricken, awed. "How did you possibly find-"
Gaelan lifted the pendant from Ben's limp hand. Suspended from the chain, the weight of nail flipped the symbol upside down: instead of being split from the top down, the circle was split from the bottom up. Gaelan said, "You were a kid. You copied the symbol wrong, Ben. This symbol means split-heart: The one who's claimed half of my heart. It means beloved, favorite. It's the kind of thing a gorathi war chief would give only to his firstborn son."
He gave the pendant to the wide-eyed wetboy.
Ben put the pendant on. He threw back his ale, cursed quietly. Then he held the pendant in his palm-holding it like that, picking it up fom how it naturally hung, it was inverted. That was how he would have seen it last when he was a boy, when it had been taken from him. That was how he'd gotten it wrong. He chuckled, delighted. "You are something else, Gaelan."
~ I'm still surprised you didn't put contact poison on the pendant. Every time I want to give up on you, Acaelus, you do something like this. ~
"I memorized that book you gave me," Gaelan said.
"What book? The poisons book? How'd you memorize the whole-how'd you even read the- Oh shit." Ben looked at his empty flagon. "You motherfucker. You took an oath! Arutayro-"