When first I knew him, he was a healer-adept of the great oasis-cities, whose bones lie lost and unremembered beneath the crimson desert sands. I was a child and he a grown man; he found me, wounded and feverish, huddled against the corpse of my mother in the wreckage of our hovel, in the ruin of our village. All the memories I have of our first meeting belong to my senses: his soft voice murmuring comfort, his gentle hands tending my wounds, soothing away my fever with a touch, holding my shoulders and raising a cup of cool, sweet water to my parched lips.
He knew, the moment he touched me, the gift, the curse, that ran in my veins and my father's and his father's and all but a handful in our village, the blood-gift that doomed us in the eyes of the powerful. He knew, and he set me before him on his saddle, and carried me to his house in a great, white city next to a broad, swift-moving river. He called me his nephew, fetched from the distant settlement where his sister dwelth, and raised me as his son. It was him, his unlooked-for kindness, his unasked-for mercy, his gentleness in the face of my half-wild grief and anger, his greatness of soul, that made that house of blue mosaic walls and sweet-water fountains and tiny courtyard gardens the truest home I have ever known.
I learned the first of my many trades at his knee, though his healing touch was never mine. He gifted to me all his other skills, the ways of herbs and needles and the blade that heals, imparted to me the knowledge of muscle and bone, nerves and organs and blood.
Always blood. He knew it was coming, and he sent me away from it, a journey of pretext to a colleague in the next town on the river. "Even in war, no one kills the healers," he told me once, but it was not war that came to his door that night. Fear, perhaps, or lust for the power that still lay sleeping in me then. The enemies, the slayers, of my people. They tortured him. They must have learned nothing, or else not enough to satisfy them. They mutilated him before he died and left him lying violated and broken by the courtyard fountain in a pool of his own drying blood.
I woke to my power kneeling at his side, his cold hand in mine, the scent of his blood thick on my tongue. I left our home and went to learn what I needed to know. For seven generations, I punished the children and children's children of his murderers. Among the scattered tribes that are the last remnants of that people, I am still the name of Death's most merciless hand.
I met him next as a warrior-chieftain known, and feared, for her conquests and her ambition. We met on the battlefield and had a courtship of blades, with neither of us able to claim the final victory. In the end, I yielded and she claimed me as her consort. Together we united her nation and carved out a kingdom; in time, she bore our daughter, as beautiful as her mother, as cursed as I. She murdered her mother, my lovely, vicious daughter, to claim her birthright and I wept the last of my tears over the pyre of my wife.
Centuries, whole human lifetimes, passed without our paths truly crossing. I lost myself on the roads I walked. I turned my hand to the mastery of myself and of many an esoteric skill besides. I battled tedium and loneliness with the cold joys of bloodshed and idle kingmaking and the loveless satisfaction of my physical wants. I caught a glimpse of him in the eyes of a eunuch slave dancer as the master who'd hired my skills cut his throat in a fit of pique. I felt an echo of her in the ferocity of a dying young woman who forced her child into my arms and demanded I save him from her burning, falling city.
We were foes during the rule of the sorcerer-kings, he the loyal general and knight-protector of the youngest Faenarian witch-queen and I the favorite killer of the eldest. He died by my hand, but not before testing me to my limits and slightly past. I withdrew from the world for a time to recover and, by the time I returned, so had he, as the priestess of a proscribed cult, a rebel against the rule of darkness and fear. She died in my arms, mortally wounded in the battle that threw down the oppressor of her people, victorious in her fall.
Tonight, he sat across from me in a room that stank of spilled ale and a hundred illicit smokes, looked at me through eyes the color of the winter sky at twilight and asked me what the price of my help would be.
He cannot know how near I was to saying, "You."
He does not remember. He never remembers, not as I do. He will not remember until he sheds his flesh for the final time. And then it will not matter, for he will be lost to me forever.
We have already shed blood for each other in our acquaintance this time. Boredom on my part, I confess, and complacency. I never thought he would equal me with a knife, much less less draw first blood. I thought I smelled it on him as I held an edge to his throat, pressed a razor-fine kiss on his lovely skin. I knew it tonight, when we sealed our compact in blood, tasted it on the tip of the bone needle we used to mark the parchment.
We have come full circle, he and I. My curse sleeps within him, in his blood, in the deep places of his heart and soul, waiting. Waiting for the pain that will awaken it, the agony that will remake him.
He has not known this pain. Not yet.
But he will.
I will not lose him again.