The Stains of the Past

I believe in redemption. Every week when I go to confession, the priest tells me my sins are forgiven. I am a new person now, he has explained, and my penitence has created in me a clean heart. Unfortunately, my sins haven’t been forgotten. My past will always be with me, at least as far as Kiya is concerned.

When I touch people, I know their hearts. I know their motivations, their dreams, and their fears. That talent made me successful in my former career, for I could easily judge what a man wanted of me. I knew with a touch what pleased him, what matter of flattery he preferred to hear, and what he wished as my lover. Men paid well for my perceptive touch.

Understand that I’m not beautiful. I am pretty, perhaps, but my mouth is too wide and my dark eyes too far apart for true beauty. My hair is plain brown. I’m short, with a slim body that does not inspire poetry. My talent pleased my clients, and I rose to some status in my world, a courtesan rather than a simple whore. I moved from one protector to the next, whomever I found tolerable. That was…until the day I met Kiyaden Sidreiyan.

I will always remember that day, for it changed my life. I had learned of an attempt to murder a young girl and strangely, I alone could connect the now-dead assassin, one of my clients, with the man who’d hired him. The Duke of Sandrine stood accused of the crime and came to my apartment in the hope that I could aid him in his pursuit of the true villain. I knew the duke to be a good man, an honest man, so I agreed to testify against the other.

Still, they quite reasonably hesitated to believe the words of a courtesan. For that reason, the duke had brought with him his cousin, Kiyaden Sidreiyan, a very proper gentleman in the blue uniform of the Guard.

At first, I mistook him for the duke’s bodyguard, for he carried both his pistol and saber that day, as if I could pose a threat while sitting down to tea. He watched me closely, seeming concerned that I might bite. It was only after the duke secured my promise of aid that I divined the true reason for his cousin’s presence.

The duke looked at him, and without further prompting the man came close to me. He was, I guessed, one of my kind–one of those who can read another’s heart at a touch. I thought he had come to learn if I was an honest, though immoral, woman. It is possible to be both.

“I do understand,” I told him, seeing his hesitation. I remember smiling up into his anxious eyes, hoping he would see some goodness left in me. “I will not harm you.”

I cradled his gloved hand in mine and stroked one finger across the small patch of skin revealed between his glove and sleeve, a mild touch for me. I usually gave my whole body to men.

He was special, like me, I learned in that brief second. Only he did not see what is, as I had mistakenly expected. He saw what was.

He saw all my life in that touch, every man who had held me, every belief scattered to the winds. He saw me go down from the mountains, reach the city and lose my hope among the many came to such a place and starved. Only, I could please men, so I survived. I had never planned such a life, and he learned that of me, that I had fallen onto a path I never intended to tread.

And I…I learned that there was still goodness and purity to be found in this world. I did not wish to let go of him, for he reminded me of all the things I had wanted of myself as a girl and had cast aside along my walk to that day. He reminded me that there were people still who believed and hoped and prayed, only I was mired too deep to walk among them.

He said only one word when I let go his hand. “Why?”

His question held a thousand meanings. I felt them all: his revulsion in touching a soiled woman, his dislike of my blatant disregard for propriety, his resentment that though I lived a degenerate life, I still managed to wear the appearance of innocence. Most of all, I recall his disappointment. Someone with my talents, my gifts, should have achieved more in life than petty seduction.

His mind was overwhelmed by the innumerable images he had skimmed from mine and he slid, unconscious, to my sitting room floor. His friends bore him away then, and I had no chance to explain myself to him

He was gone, leaving me feeling soiled and improper and degenerate for the first time in years. My eyes barely remembered how, but I cried.

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I didn’t see him again, not for some time. To be truthful, I never expected to have a second chance.

In the end, I never received a summons to the capital to testify. The man I had met and known for a killer himself was murdered. A year passed, and I hadn’t given a thought to Kiyaden Sidreiyan for, perhaps, days…yet there he stood on my doorstep, uniform immaculate as if dirt never dared touch him. He was, I realized, more handsome than I remembered.

Since he stood by my door, I couldn’t doubt he’d come to see me. “Lieutenant Sidreiyan, isn’t it?”

“Captain now, ma’am.” He removed his hat, his dark hair mussed.

“Have you come to arrest me, captain?” I joked. He didn’t smile. Likely he hadn’t thought it funny, as I knew him to be a serious man. “No, I came to apologize,” he told me.

I stared, surprised. “How did you find me?”

“I visited your old apartment, and a…” he paused, possibly considering the proper word, “neighbor gave me the directions.”

So few of my old associates knew where my new path in life had taken me. He’d been fortunate to find someone who actually had my current address. “There is no need, captain. For the apology, I mean.”

He turned his hat in his gloved hands. Gloves were going out of style for men just then, and I wondered how he would explain them to others once the fashion disappeared entirely. I knew better than to think he would ever abandon wearing them. His talent was too profound to risk an unintended touch.

His eyes met mine, green eyes bordering on hazel. I hadn’t noticed the color the last time we met. “There is,” he said. “I judged you unfairly. I had no right. For that, I am sorry.”

It had been so dreadful for him that he’d blacked out, unable to stomach all the sordid memories my mind bore. I could only wonder why he thought he’d been unjust. “I don’t understand, captain.”

Then he did something that sealed my fate–he smiled. It was a charming, self-deprecating smile, and I caught my breath. “I don’t make the best use of my talent,” he admitted. “I avoid using it if I can, and that is no better than the way in which you have used yours.”

He feared his talent, rightly so, for it overwhelmed him. I wallowed in mine. I craved the touch of others, seduced by the richness of their hearts, wrapping around myself what felt almost like affection or love. It never was, I knew, but while they touched me, I could deceive myself into believing it.

He clearly tried to bury his talent in the furthest recesses of his mind. I’d be willing to bet that no more than a handful of his friends even knew of it, and I wasn’t a friend. Circumstances forced the confidence on him. He would never have touched a woman like me save to preserve his cousin’s good name.

My landlady came out on the step then, casting a curious glance at the captain. Brittle and frail, she barely came past his elbow. “Rhianyes, who is this young man?”

“Captain Sidreiyan,” I said. “He is a cousin of my patron.” He gave me an odd glance at my choice of words, and I suspected he imagined an entirely different sort of relationship than I actually had with the duke.

“Have you come for tea?” my landlady asked him.

There was no graceful way for him to escape. “Yes, ma’am,” he said respectfully.

Trapped into it now, he settled down to tea with a curious elderly woman and an embarrassed younger one. My landlady left us alone while she went to fetch the tea tray. He glanced about the shabby drawing room and then turned back to me.

“Patron? My cousin neglected to tell me that he is your patron.”

He didn’t know, I realized, that I had left my old way of life. “Actually, I believe it is a philanthropic foundation on which he serves–the Sandrine Trust. I always assumed the duke’s hand was behind their selection of me. They pay my tuition, and room and board here as well.”

“Tuition?”

I liked listening to him speak. He had a mountain accent, with a lilt in his words. It reminded me of home. I thought I could listen to him all day. “At the hospital. The Trust pays for my training as a nurse, with the condition that I will go to Sandrine to work off the debt afterwards.”

He was Sandrinian, I knew, and fiercely devoted to his people, just like his cousin. “I was unaware that the Trust trained nurses.”

My landlady returned, and he rose to take the tea tray from her. He settled it on the low table. “There are three others of whom I know,” I said, “and at least one doctor.” I wanted to dispel the idea that the Duke of Sandrine had any interest in me beyond my nursing studies.

The captain sat back in his chair and took a cup of tea from my landlady, not spilling a drop on his gloves. I knew him. He never spilled anything. Steady, steady hands—-he was a dead shot.

“So you’ve come from your cousin,” she said. My landlady would begin to pry now, and he would sit politely through it all, never giving her a solid answer about anything truly important. I knew him. “And how long have you known Miss Revisarian?”

He didn’t even glance at me. “We have only met once before, ma’am. Briefly.”

She would never be able to understand how terribly well he and I knew each other from a single touch. Those of us with such talents usually hid them for fear of exploitation or exposure, so people no longer believed in their existence.

“Is this a business call?” she asked him then, settling in her faded chair.

On it went, question after question. Occasionally I would notice him glancing at me under lowered lashes, a speculative look on his face. I don’t believe he’d found what he expected. The requisite half-hour dragged slowly, and I found myself wanting to strangle the nosy woman even though I loved her dearly. Still, I did learn a few things.

“So are you stationed here?” she asked.

“Yes, I just arrived today.”

He’d sought me out on his first day in the city.

“And how long will you be here?”

“I have been given six months, although I requested a longer term.”

He asked to be stationed here. He loved the mountains. People like him didn’t want to live in a sprawling city like Perisen.

My heart did that strange thing again, thudding against the wall of my chest. By no means am I a green girl. I’ve known more men than I care to remember. Still, I am a fool at times.

“So will you come to see us again?” my landlady asked. She loved visitors and, I suspected, handsome officers in particular.

“If you will permit it, ma’am.” He rose to leave.

I hadn’t spoken a word in the last twenty minutes. “I’ll walk you out, captain.” He waited courteously, and I led him back to the front door. “You needn’t return, captain. She’ll forget you were here in a couple of days.”

He glanced at me oddly. “I would like to return, if you’ll not mind. I would enjoy the chance to speak with you again,” he added when I stared.

I laughed. “You didn’t have much of a chance this time.”

“Your landlady is very friendly.” He smiled that smile again.

“Yes. She’s a good woman.” I stressed the word ‘good’ in hopes that he’d understand she had nothing to do with my former profession. She never treated me like a whore, although I suspected she knew.

“I have seen little of the city,” he said. “Perhaps you could show me the places I should visit.”

I knew better than to think Kiyaden Sidreiyan was a tourist here. “Of course. I would enjoy that.”

“When might you be available?” he asked.

I considered my schedule. “The day after tomorrow? After four?”

“I believe that will work. Good afternoon, Miss Revisarian.” He put on his hat, ran his gloved fingertips around the brim, and walked down the steps to the street.

I closed the door behind him, my heart pounding. I knew him. I had touched him once, so I knew him. He was the sort of man who made slow, carefully considered decisions. He respected his elders, his superiors, the church–the sort of man who would never associate with a former whore.

Then again, he didn’t make friends easily. He had to lie to most people, and it made him feel dishonest, so instead he kept others at a distance. With me, I realized, he wouldn’t have to lie. Perhaps that was why he wanted to see me. I would be someone with whom he could talk, be his friend, his confidante. Men always need someone to talk to, even if they choose not to do so.

I would do that, I decided. I would be his friend.

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“I did not know about the Trust,” he said, two afternoons later. He’d come to find me at the hospital, and walked with me back to my boarding house. “I did not realize you’d left your old apartment.”

I’d had a nice little suite near the Cantreidian quarter of the city back then–two bedrooms, one for when a man came to me, and one for when I slept alone, plus a room for my maid and a sitting room. “I couldn’t afford it any longer,” I admitted.

I suspected that he wanted to ask why I was no longer a whore, but could find no polite way to do so. “I wanted to leave that life,” I offered. “A few weeks after your visit, the letter came from the Trust outlining their proposal. I jumped at the chance.”

“Ah,” he said.

“I couldn’t, do you understand? Not after…”

He put a gloved hand under my elbow to guide me past a group of men walking the other way, a protective gesture. “I am not certain whether I should apologize,” he said.

Apologize for turning my life back onto its proper path? “I should think you would be pleased,” I admitted.

“I am.” He didn’t look at me when he said it, but his tone carried a touch of pride.

“I didn’t do so for your sake, captain.” I was determined to be honest with him, so he could be so with me. “You reminded me of why I came to this city.”

“I’m glad you were able to pursue the training, then.”

As a girl, I’d dreamed of becoming a mid-wife, like the wise woman who had once saved my mother’s life. I never confessed that to anyone save my parents. I fled to Perisen at sixteen, seeking instruction, only to learn that it cost money I didn’t have, as did food and a warm place to sleep at night. The letter from the Trust had come as a complete surprise, offering me a chance at an old hope I’d long since folded up and hidden away. “I assume you mentioned my interest to your cousin,” I said.

“I did.” His hand stayed under my elbow, keeping me close.

So at the bottom of it, this man was responsible for my opportunity. I thanked him, but he took no credit for it, saying only that his cousin believed in second chances.

When we arrived at my humble lodgings, he waited patiently in my landlady’s company while I went upstairs to change from my nurse’s uniform. I only had three spare dresses now, so I chose the second best. With my hair pinned up and my proper frock, no one would recognize me from a year before, although I admit I lived in constant dread of it. How humiliating it would be for the captain to be seen with a whore on his arm.

He escorted me to one of the public parks near the ducal palace, where we strolled along the walkways. We talked of inconsequential things and things not so small.

I told him of my training, of what had happened in the days since I’d met him. I spoke of my talent, how I’d learned to use it to help my patients. I knew their hearts. I understood what they feared, and could comfort them. The doctors had begun to seek my counsel at times, particularly with children, who often could not give words to their fears or pain.

He, in turn, spoke of his work and his duties, giving me a picture of his isolation from the men with whom he served. His talent, unused and uncontrolled, kept him away from others. I knew that caused him pain. He could do wonderful things if only he could master it, he reflected, but he had never gathered the will it needed to learn that control.

“You are braver than I,” he claimed one afternoon.

I wanted to laugh, for I am not brave. He could not know the trepidation that had gripped me when I walked out of my comfortable and well-fed former life.

He escorted me to services on Sundays. He spent his free afternoons with me, walking through the parks, shopping, or eating at one of the cafés that lined the streets. We saw each other twice a week, sometimes even thrice, as our schedules would allow. He knew my landlady well. She called him ‘Kiya’ after a time, abandoning formal address.

So it began, a slow, deliberate courtship for which I had no logical explanation. We seemed drawn together by threads in the hands of a puppeteer, the two most unsuited people in the world. He couldn’t bear to touch me, and I wanted more than anything else to be touched with love.

It was always hopeless. Being a pragmatic woman, one would think I wouldn’t let myself care for him. I told myself countless times that he only sought a friend in me. He needed someone to talk to. I told myself I desired nothing more of him but, somewhere inside, I knew it for a lie.

One evening, almost six months after he’d arrived, we strolled down to one of the parks by the river and sat among the many there, a meal in a basket with us. People talked and milled about, for that night there would be fireworks in celebration of the city’s three-hundredth anniversary. We sat on a borrowed blanket under a tree, him still wearing his uniform, and me in a dress he’d seen far too many times. The sun set, and we ate in silence. I could tell something troubled him.

“I have been reassigned,” he said after a time, “to the North Country Garrison.”

He likes it there, I remember thinking. He’d been uncomfortable with a city garrison’s duties: controlling crowds, participating in endless ceremonial activities and parades. None of it suited him. “You enjoyed being stationed there before,” I reminded him.

“I’d prefer to stay here.”

“Perhaps you will be sent back later.”

His eyes met mine, only a few feet away in the half-light. “I know this isn’t what you want.”

I didn’t understand. He reached out a gloved hand and stroked my cheek, and I closed my eyes, intoxicated by his touch. His hand lifted my chin. “Rhianyes.”

No one ever uses my name save him and my landlady, and her only when she’s angered or worried. To everyone else I’m ‘Miss Revisarian’.

“Rhianyes,” he said more insistently, wanting me to look at him, I thought. I opened my eyes again. “Listen to me. I know this isn’t what you want, but I would like you to come with me, as my wife.”

I stared at him, amazed he should ever have dreamed such a thing. “You can’t touch me, captain.”

“I have never tried, have I?”

No, he hadn’t. Of course, I never expected him to, either. He always wore gloves. At twenty-seven, he’d begun to tell others he was simply old-fashioned.

“I can touch things,” he said calmly. “Some are easier than others, but the difficult ones I can handle with practice.”

‘Things’ had little memory of what they had done. He’d explained it to me once that way. People remembered, and when he touched them, he picked up all their past, simply too much for his mind to tolerate. And my past was tainted, surely distasteful to a clean and honest soul like his. “I am more than difficult for you, captain. You know that.”

His eyes seemed browner than usual, with a golden cast in the failing light. “I can learn. I will learn.”

I didn’t want to watch him turn away from me. I didn’t want to sense his disgust when every memory of mine flew into his mind. I couldn’t bear that. Not again.

“No, captain,” I told him. “I am not what you need. You should find a nice, clean young girl to marry. One who won’t bring any past lovers to your bed.”

That was the very heart of the matter, wasn’t it? My past.

“Rhianyes,” he protested. “I…”

I stood, not wanting to go through the agony of listening to his arguments. “Captain, I’ll walk home now. I don’t need your escort.”

He rose to follow, and I ran, losing myself in the crowd. Overhead, fireworks hailed the city’s birthday. My eyes filled with tears, and I saw nothing but a colorful blur.

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I avoided him for the next two weeks. Whenever he came to my lodgings, I feigned illness although he knows I’m never ill. I stayed at the hospital far beyond my scheduled hours. I didn’t attend church, for fear of running into him there. It was childish, but I survived until the day he left, hiding from him.

I didn’t come down when he had tea with my landlady that last day. He left a note with her for me. After he left, I took the note, my hands trembling. I couldn’t bring myself to read it, not for hours.

You are the only person who truly understands me, he claimed. I am selfish in wanting to keep you to myself, knowing I may never be able to act as your husband, but still, I do.

I will be taking the train to Jenesetta this afternoon at three. I wish fervently to speak with you before then, Kiya.

It was half-past four.

I pictured him waiting for me at the station, standing on the platform until the last moment before the train left. I cried because I’d broken my own heart, dreaming of a man I didn’t deserve, and now he was gone.

In the morning, I rose and dressed and reported to the hospital. My life, lifeless though it might be, went on.

He wrote to me–long, rambling, poetic letters that spoke of everyday things. I read them with trepidation at first, but he never pressed me. He told me of horses and guns, and other curiosities that interested soldiers. They were important to him. I began to look forward to those letters. Twice a week he wrote to me. I could imagine that he still cared for me when I read them.

I finally wrote to him in return, a carefully worded missive that reminded him of my contract with the Sandrine Trust. Even should I wish it, I explained, I could not follow him, for I had promised to go to Sandrine Province after completing my training.

Nevertheless, his letters continued coming, commonplace, friendly, at times lonely. He missed me, he said more than once. Ah, God, I missed him.

Then that winter, the city burned.

It began with riots in the Cantreidian quarter of town, protesting a tax that fell unfairly on their shoulders. Having read the papers, I agreed that it did. Something went awry, though. A bonfire in one of the parks set the trees alight. The fire moved to the houses and down through the crowded quarter.

Lacking direction, the city police scattered, and the Guard took over, desperately trying to manage the flames. Embers cast up by the wind traveled from rooftop to rooftop. Entire sections of the city were lost. Even the palace fell victim to the hungry flames.

The hospital burned. I was there when we began moving the patients to the other side of town, putting them on wagons and carts—-anything that would take them out of harm’s way. We lost most of our equipment and medicines in that panicked retreat amid the blowing embers. We finally set up a makeshift hospital in an old church on the edge of the palace district, prepared to move again should the fires turn in our direction.

I have never seen such suffering. Burns are a terrible thing, particularly when there is no opium left to ease the pain. Many of the victims we could only watch die, their lungs too badly injured to save. Others would live, but live scarred beyond recognition.

But the fires slowly died down. The Guard reestablished order in the city, stopped the looting, and began making lists of the displaced and the dead. The wealthy swarmed to the inns and fled to the countryside; the poor slept on the streets. I survived.

My lodgings had burned. I didn’t know at the time, but learned it later as I tracked through the ash- and filth-covered cobbles to check on my landlady. The boarding house had collapsed, taking her with it.

Too exhausted to cry, I returned to the church and began checking on the patients fortunate enough to be alive. I assisted one of the doctors with a surgery, helping amputate the leg of a young guardsman crushed by a falling beam. I didn’t think he would survive. He’d lost the will. I knew it when I touched him. The thought of living without a limb terrified him. He had no family to succor him, no wife to console him, no child to live for.

I stayed with him long after the doctor had finished, willing him to hope. He slipped into sleep, but was still uneasy. Having done as much as I could, I settled into the corner of the church that we nurses had claimed as ours, and fell into a fitful sleep of my own where I dreamed of my landlady and the terror of her death.

In the morning, I woke and washed my face from a basin of icy water drawn from the pump in the square. One of the other nurses held a mirror for me as I re-pinned my hair, and then I did the same for her. We went out among the rows of patients and tried to render what comfort we could.

An officer of the Guard came to our church, and I foolishly caught my breath when first I saw the familiar blue uniform. He introduced himself to one of the doctors, and requested that we make a list of the names of those who’d taken refuge in the church. He also wanted a list of the dead.

The doctor gave me the task. Patients don’t lie to me. When I touch them, I know. It took hours, but I went around to each pallet and took the name of each of the patients, as well as any family members who had taken refuge there with them.

After that, I began cataloguing the deceased. Carefully lined up in one of the hallways of the church, they were covered with bits of altar-cloth and curtains. We had no sheets to spare for the dignity of the dead. I didn’t know how many we’d left behind at the ruined hospital, but I counted thirty corpses in that hall.

Some were completely unrecognizable. A few had names scrawled on paper pinned to their clothes, giving me something to write down on my list. I pulled back the coverings on the last of them, and the young guardsman from the night before stared back up at me.

I stood over his body, my paper and pencil slipping from numb fingers. I heard footsteps coming on the marble floor. I was so stricken I couldn’t move. We had tried to save this boy’s life, but he hadn’t wanted it.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. It could have been the priest, or one of the doctors, but I knew. I turned and buried my face against his shoulder, his arms came around me, and I wept like a child.

He held me, his chin resting against my hair while I sobbed into his brown jacket. “I was so frightened,” he whispered after a time. “I found your home burned, and the hospital. I didn’t know where to start looking for you.”

I glanced up into his face and thought I saw tears in his eyes. I wanted to wipe them from his face, but I couldn’t touch him. As if reading my mind, he shook his head, dashing them away.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” I said.

“I couldn’t stay away, Rhianyes.” He wiped my cheek with a gloved fingertip. “We heard, even in the North Country, how many died, and I couldn’t bear not knowing.”

“It has been…It has been terrible.”

“You weren’t hurt?”

“No, not that. Only so many…Everything here has fallen apart.”

He took my hands in his. “It will come back. There are whole parts of the city untouched by the fires.”

I have always admired Kiyaden’s trusting soul. I smiled at him, a watery smile, but the best I could manage at the moment. “Such faith.”

“I do have faith, Rhianyes.”

I don’t suppose I was thinking properly at the moment but when he leaned toward me, I completely failed to see his intent. I wouldn’t have allowed it if I’d realized.

His lips brushed mine, a gentle touch. He loved me more than his own sanity, to do such a thing. I have never felt such love. Everything in him yearned to keep me safe, to protect me. His concern for me was a balm to my aching heart. His desire for me he held at bay–a frantic and desperate desire, long unrequited. I pressed closer to him, wanting to drown in his inexplicable love.

Then his weight suddenly shifted back away from me, and I realized he’d lost consciousness. He is a large man, and he dragged me to the floor after him. His head hit the marble tiles, but not too sharply. I landed gracelessly atop him.

I laid one ear to his chest, listening for the beat of his heart. It sounded strong, so I sat up and moved his head to my lap. I ran my fingers through his thick dark hair, searching for a lump, and decided his head seemed sound as well.

I contented myself with stroking his hair. I didn’t believe I could make him more unconscious than he already was, at least not by touching his hair. It is not a living part of him and therefore strangely safe.

It took some time, but his eyes flickered open. He seemed confused for a moment. “I hoped it would be easier than that. My head actually hurts,” he complained.

“You hit it on the floor when you fell.”

“Ah, that makes more sense,” he mumbled. He struggled to sit up and settled with his back against the wall, eerily looking out at the covered dead. It smelled in that hallway, but the entire city reeked in one way or another.

I hadn’t wanted him to relive what I’d seen for the last several days. I’d wanted to spare him the death and agony of the fires, the pain of the dying I’d touched, and the hopelessness. All of that must have been in my mind when he touched me.

I sat down next to him, and he placed an arm around my shoulders. He drew me closer, and I laid my cheek against his jacket, well away from his face. “There hasn’t been a man,” he said in a surprised tone.

I gazed up at him, not understanding.

“Not since the day we met,” he clarified.

While I worried about his sensibilities, his talent had gone looking for competition in my past. How very like a man, I thought. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. It was the first time I had laughed in days.

“I have missed you so much,” I confessed when I regained my composure. “I wanted you here every day, but I was thankful you were far away from this place.”

His gloved hand stroked my cheek, wiped a tear from the corner of my eye. “I will be here, Rhianyes. If you do not want me as your husband, I will remain here anyway.”

“But you’re stationed…”

“I have resigned my commission.”

Because they wouldn’t let him come here when word of the fires reached him. I knew it from his touch. He had given up his career out of fear for me. It explained why he had come here out of uniform, in that brown coat. “What will you do now?”

“My cousin has asked for my aid here in the city. I will work for him for now. When we return to Sandrine, he has asked me to train his militia.”

Ah, the Duke of Sandrine and his wonderful meddling, I thought. “When did you talk to him?”

“I went to speak to him about the terms of your contract. Do you intend to answer me?”

“Answer what?” I knew, but I wanted to hear it again.

“Rhianyes,” he said sternly.

“Yes?”

He sighed, gazing out over the line of bodies. “This is a morbid place for this, love. Do you think your doctors can spare you for a time?”

We walked in the same park where we’d walked months before along the river’s edge only this time there were no fireworks. He actually got down on one knee and asked me to marry him, as if I were the pure and honest sort of girl he deserved.

In that time of burned dreams, nothing seemed impossible any longer. We had all lost so much that we had to grasp at anything we could find for solace, so I agreed. He had rekindled hope in me that some joy survived in this shattered city.

The priest married us that night, with the other nurses as witnesses. At Kiya’s insistence, they found a fine, sheer curtain in one of the priest’s office and made me a veil. It gave me the semblance of a proper bride, even if I didn’t merit it.

And when the priest had called Kiya my husband, he leaned down and kissed me again, the fabric of the veil caught between our lips. He smiled mysteriously, as if he’d discovered an ancient secret.

I spent a very chaste wedding night curled up in a distant corner of the church with my husband. He ran bared fingers across my lips, feather-light against my veil. “I do love you,” he whispered.

“I will never comprehend why,” I told him in return. “I don’t deserve your love, Kiya. I’m not worthy of you, even now.”

“I have never asked,” he said, laying both hands against my veiled cheeks, “that you be worthy of me. I only ask that you love me in return.”

I shut my eyes to hold back the tears, understanding a truth that I never had before.

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Kiya has faith. He believes he can learn to control his talent and that he will eventually become inured to the touch of my past. He doesn’t know it so well as do I. Still, he is determined. He will never leave me, I know, and we have years together to work this out.

While I know that I am forgiven, I never believed it, not until that day. Kiya is my proof that redemption exists, although I do not believe I will tell the priest so.