Ashley did not know why he felt himself called back to Lea Monde. In the three days he had spent within the city walls, he had seen enough horror to last him a lifetime, and he was in no hurry to return. But where the Dark that coursed through his veins commanded him, there must he go.
The way was rougher than he remembered. The last great earthquake, the one that had sunk the Grand Cathedral, had been felt far inland. The wide neglected highway that Ashley had once followed now sat upon unsteady ground, broken and slashed by crevasses and fallen trees. He was forced to pick his way carefully, and the going was slow. When night fell and caught him still some distance from the city, Ashley sat down to wait for the moon to rise.
He wished that he felt anything, even if it was fear, for even fear would be preferable to this weary, cynical numbness that consumed him. When he had been a Riskbreaker, he had learned to push all emotion aside in the name of completing the mission at hand. That had been numbness too, but not the same as this. Back then, he had only pushed his doubts and misgivings deep inside, smothering them. He had penned them up and partitioned them off from the rest of his conscience, but they had still been there. They had never gone away.
It seemed to Ashley that, with accepting the Rood, he had agreed to excise some essential part of himself. The Dark had pushed its way in to his being, crowding out all the things doubts and regrets that had once made him human.
Ashley was not sorry to see them go, though sometimes he wondered what it meant for him.
A heavy reddish moon crested the horizon, and within minutes the countryside was bathed in light. Ashley had found his night vision much increased over the past few weeks, though his eyesight during the day was unchanged. It even seemed that it was harder now to pass from a dark room into the sunlight, as if his eyes had become reluctant to adjust. But perhaps all this was just his imagination, or a phase that would soon pass.
Rising from the little grove where he had stopped to rest, and ascending the incline to the highway, Ashley turned once more towards Lea Monde. He took a single step, and then he froze. There was something coming up the road towards him.
Ashley considered retreating back into the grove to hide, but he could tell at a glance that the white-wreathed figure was alone. Hurt as well, if its uneven gait was any indication. Ashley’s instincts were still intact even if his ability to feel fear was not, and he could tell that there was no danger here.
Slowly, he went forward. The stranger did not even seem to know that he was there. Ashley set his hand lightly on the hilt of his sword, hoping that it lent him an aura of authority. He had no business on this road at this hour, but then neither did anyone else.
“Who goes there?” he said.
The stranger froze, jerking upright like a marionette with tensed strings. Ashley thought that he could detect the curves of a waist, hips, breasts.
“A friend,” a woman’s voice drifted back. She sounded cautious, but unhesitant.
“Come forward friend, and be recognized,” Ashley said, falling back on the old call-and-response code used by the VKP. But he was deeply troubled: a woman ought not be alone and unescorted on a night such as this was, in a place like this. Ashley was not one for rescuing maidens; that was one thing he’d never learned how to do.
The woman stumbled several more steps, then one of her legs turned awkwardly beneath her and she went down on her knees. A single strangled, indignant cry broke from her, and then she knelt in silence, her head lowered, not even weeping.
Frowning, Ashley went forward to collect her. As he approached, he could see that her hair was silvery-white, and that her shoulders were bare, though it was autumn and the evening was chill. When she heard him draw near, she jerked her head up sharply and fixed him with a reproachful glare, as if she hated him for having seen her in this undignified position.
Her face was streaked with dirt and blood. One of her eyes was swollen and bruised. In spite of all this, Ashley recognized her at once.
Ashley rushed to her side. He swept off his long travelling cloak and pulled it around her shoulders to cover her torn and soiled uniform. She jerked away from his touch, her pale eyebrows drawing together in mute irritation. This Ashley ignored as he enfolded her in his arms and picked her up. Her body pulsed with heat. He could feel her warm breath on his cheek as he cradled her in his arms. She was not one of the undying monstrosities that lived within Lea Monde. She was alive.
“Tell me how you have come to be here, Lady,” Ashley said. “I saw a most wretched fate befall thee…”
“You insensitive brute,” Samantha sneered. Her voice was weak, little more than a whisper. She took each breath in a ragged, exhausted gasp. “You doltish unimaginative beast. It’s me. It’s Sydney.”
From the start, it had been clear that Sydney would survive. The body he wore – Lady Samantha’s body – was exhausted, dehydrated, frozen through and through. But only a cursory examination had been enough to convince Ashley that she would live. The Dark in his blood was silent now, the Call that had brought him this far had ceased. He had found what he was meant to.
Instantly resolved, he had lifted Sydney onto his back and carried him back to the last occupied posting station on the highway. Sydney had made some small attempts to scold him for this, insisting that he could walk on his own and that he did not need to be treated like a child – and it was these flashes of weary wounded pride that did the most to convince Ashley that this, regardless of the flesh it resided in, was indeed Sydney’s soul.
They were given a room in the inn at the posting station. Without speaking a word, neither of gratitude nor explanation, Sydney crawled into the single small bed, wrapped a heavy fur around himself, and methodically drank his way through an entire pot of the thin, hot, bitter tea Ashley brought up from the kitchen. Then, without sparing Ashley so much as a glance, he turned over and fell asleep at once.
There was nothing left for Ashley to do but wait. The time passed easier with Sydney asleep; with his baleful, sly eyes closed there was little to recall him in Samantha’s still form. That Sydney had returned now did not surprise him in the slightest. Ashley had, in fact, been waiting for him all along.
Sydney could not have suspected it, though. Death had been in his plans all along. Even Ashley, in his plodding inastute way, had understood this. He did not think that Sydney would much care for having been dragged back from the far shore, whether it had been dark or golden for him. Perhaps, when he awoke and had taken a proper accounting of his situation, he would be angry.
Ashley had never seen him mad before. Emotions had run high within Lea Monde, but Sydney had always kept his temper well in check. Ashley did not know what his anger would look like, but he felt sure that it would be terrible to behold.
Ashley did not know what sound awakened him. By the time he had opened his eyes and gotten his bearings, Sydney was sitting bolt upright in bed, his back against the headboard, staring at him with unblinking curiosity.
“I did not intend to sleep at all,” Ashley said.
“You ought to return to it,” Sydney replied, without emotion, almost without any inflection to the words at all. “You must be tired. I was a troublesome burden to bear. I will be all right now.”
“No…” Rubbing at the stiff knot in the back of his neck that he had gotten from sleeping sitting up, Ashley rose. He drifted slowly around the small room, as if looking for some task to which he could set his hand. “You haven’t changed much, Losstarot.”
“You mock me, Riskbreaker,” Sydney said quietly.
“Not at all.”
Sydney raised his head with a sharp jerk, so that Samantha’s fringe of silvery hair bobbed coyly around his face. “Don’t you want to know how it happened?”
“I imagine that I know well enough.”
“Lea Monde is the Well of Souls. Even after all I had done, all I had suffered, the Dark would not let me rest. It called me there, and I obeyed, as I have ever obeyed. Lady Samantha’s spirit has fled this world. Did you know that? She has slipped the yoke and gone ahead to her reward. This is naught but flesh, as good as any, and better than most.”
“Better?” Ashley echoed.
“Do you not find it pleasing to the eye?” Sydney looked up at him through the fringe of Samantha’s lashes. Beneath the blankets, he kneaded his fingers absently against his stomach. “There’s a nasty scar, but that’s all right. That’s not bad. You know about scars too, don’t you?”
Sydney did not wait for an answer. He raised his arms, sliding them with utmost care out from under the edge of the heavy fur. He held them up before his face, turning them this way and that so that he could see all sides of them. “Remarkable… remarkable…”
Softly, Ashley cleared his throat. “I suppose you will want masculine dress? I can go out and find you some fresh clothes.”
Sydney frowned, drawing Samantha’s delicate mouth up into a pout. “No, I do not think that would be wise. You forget that Lady Samantha was a ranking officer. A uniform of the Crimson Blades will open more doors for us than those ridiculous rags on your back.”
This time, it was Ashley’s turn to frown. “I like this coat…”
“I suppose you have objections to working with a woman,” Sydney went on blithely. “You certainly did not endear yourself any to Mademoiselle Merlose with your comradely respect for her competence.”
“My feelings towards Merlose aren’t any of your business. And I don’t have any issues with women.”
“She was competent, you know,” Sydney said. “And brave. I think that, even now, you doubt it.”
“I know her as well as you do, Sydney. Perhaps better. And I did not need to know her to see that she would be a liability and nuisance to me. Which, indeed, she was.”
“You chastise her for allowing me to kidnap her?” Sydney said wryly. “And to think, she is not even here to defend her name. That’s not very chivalrous of you, Riskbreaker.”
All at once, he looked up sharply from examining his hands. “Send for a bath. I have the stink of the grave upon me.”
Under Sydney’s watchful eye, Ashley and the day porter carried the big iron tub upstairs, and filled it with hot water. It was only after the porter had gone that Sydney at last slipped out from beneath the covers, smoothing his rumpled tartan with a distracted motion of his hand. He gazed at the still surface of the bath water for a moment, and then his eyes slipped a little out of focus, as if he were no longer seeing it. With sure and knowledgeable hands, he began to undo the stays of his corset.
“I suppose I will step out then?” Ashley said decorously.
“What’s that?” Sydney looked up. It seemed to take him a moment to comprehend what Ashley had said, as if his mind were slow to switch from whatever language he heard in his thoughts to the plainspoken tongue of men.
“No,” he replied at last. “Stay. I wish to speak with you.”
Ashley could not help but feel that Sydney was testing him somehow. But even with all the power of the Dark at his disposal, Sydney’s true thoughts and desires were still hidden from him. As if he had, with the appropriation of Samantha’s body, absorbed some of womankind’s natural cunning. He felt that Sydney must know this, and that he must be working it to his advantage, simply because that was the kind of person he was.
As Sydney slipped the laces of the corset from their eyes, Ashley turned away. He heard the soft whisper of Sydney’s undressing, and then the sound of displaced water as he slipped into the bath. At last, Ashley rallied himself enough to turn around.
Sydney was lounging in the tub, his dry hair gathered carefully atop his head and covered with a handkerchief. His feet were resting on the edge, and Ashley could see a chipped coat of red lacquer on the nails of his toes. It sent a disconcerting shiver through him, though that was an affect that Sydney often had on him.
“Why don’t you like to look at me anymore?” Sydney asked abruptly. “You certainly stared enough in Lea Monde. I did not mind then; surely I do not now.”
“It’s indecent,” Ashley heard himself mutter. “Your order must consider clothes a kind of venal sin.”
“There is much you have to learn about my order. And, indeed, about how to treat a woman.” Sydney had picked up a sliver of harsh soap, and was unselfconsciously scrubbing at his shoulders. “Do you want to know why I am here, Riskbreaker?”
“It is Riskbreaker no more,” Ashley said. “Or did you forget?”
Sydney looked at him shrewdly, his eyes shadowed by the cloth on his head. “Very well, Ashley. I will tell you why I am here, at least as far as I understand it. The Goddess moves in mysterious ways, and she moves us in ways more mysterious still. But I suspect that if I am here, and if you are there, and that brand is upon your flesh as I know it to be… Then you were not nearly as ready to be my successor as I had hoped.”
“Not ready?” Ashley advanced a step before realizing that it gave him an unrestricted view over the lip of the tub. Chastened, he retreated again. “Surely you did not go to all the trouble of returning from the dead simply to continue your endless toying with me…”
“I don’t like the idea any more than you do,” Sydney said. “I was promised my ready reward for years of devotion. I was close enough that I could have taken hold of it if I had only reached out a hand. But I did not. My work here continues. Her call continues.”
“Ever the zealot, Sydney.”
“Ever the Puritan, Ashley Riot.”
With that, Sydney plucked the handkerchief off his hair and ducked his head beneath the water. He came up a moment later, dripping and much flushed from the warmth. “I must admit, it feels good. Simple things. Fingers through my hair…”
“It’s not your hair,” Ashley said pointedly, though even he was not sure what he meant to accomplish with it. He hadn’t minded so much when Sydney was asleep, when he had been preoccupied with fatigue and with cold. It was only now, with his wits restored and his sharp tongue stinging and scourging, that Ashley found himself wishing, albeit briefly, that Sydney had never come back into his life at all.
“It is now,” Sydney said. “I told you, Lady Samantha is gone. It was a shame what happened. She was relatively innocent. Perhaps as innocent as any person could ever hope to be. But rest assured, she is now far beyond caring what I do with this poor clay that was her body.”
“I don’t know how you can be so casual.”
“And I don’t know how you can be so upset.” Sydney raised an eyebrow. “You seem to be taking this especially hard, Ashley. Perhaps you preferred my old visage.”
“I do not think of such things,” Ashley said stiffly, trying to retain his dignity.
“I see…” With that, Sydney stood bolt upright in the bath, in such a swift decisive movement that Ashley had not even time to avert his eyes.
“For God’s sake…” he growled, turning away violently, feeling the heat that could only have come from a blush spreading over his cheek. He would have expected it, if he had been thinking of Sydney at the time, but Samantha’s body was as a shield and a blind, behind which Sydney moved and schemed in secret.
He heard Sydney moving briskly, sweeping the heavy blanket off the bed and wrapping it around his naked body. Ashley risked a glance at him then. The blanket was tied above his breast and it fell modestly to his shapely ankle. It did not make him seem clothed. He went to the pieces of armor Ashley had left on the rack the night previous, and before Ashley could protest, Sydney had drawn his dagger from its sheathe.
“What are you playing at now?” Ashley said, suddenly feeling very weary.
Sydney did not answer. Holding the dagger as if he had never seen anything like it before, he went to the little sliver of mirror that was nailed on the wall. He gathered Samantha’s long blonde hair unceremoniously at the nape of his neck, and then hacked it off with the dagger.
Slowly, he turned, giving his head a little shake. His hair now only reached his jaw, and it feel about it in ragged waves.
Ashley caught his breath. The eyes had always been the same, ever since Sydney had entered in to Samantha’s body. Now the hair, too, was just as he remembered. The recognition made something hot and serpentine take shape in the pit of his stomach.
“What think you, Ashley?” Sydney combed his fingers through his ragged locks. “You need not answer. I can see the truth writ in your face. Alas, it has not been enough.”
“You ought do no more,” Ashley said. His voice sounded very thin, very hollow, to his own ears. “It is not you. It is her. The third.”
“Then you are right. There is nothing I can do. You are not content unless you are finding fault, and neither am I.”
Sydney made a great show of regret with the words, but in truth he did not seem overly concerned. Perhaps he already knew what Ashley was coming to suspect. They might have some months – even some years – ahead of them now. In time, Ashley would run out of excuses entirely.