It was still dark when Karessa woke, and Donovan still slept. She set some water to boil. He was awake when she returned, sitting in a comfortable rocking chair. It wasn’t rocking, and he was staring. Rain pattered outside.
“Good morning,” he said.
“You need more sleep.”
“I’ll be the judge of what I need.”
“You’re welcome for saving your life, by the way.”
Karessa took a seat on his bed. “Why did you tell me all that last night?”
“No sense hiding it. I didn’t divulge anything secret.”
“But you were going to.”
“A good night’s rest cleared my head.”
“Come on,” she said. “Why?”
Donovan’s combative composition faded. “There’s just something about you,” he said. “You have it, too. I can tell. You know what I mean. The hunger.”
“For greatness? I just want to act.”
“Don’t sell your craft short. Life is difficult. Sometimes your heart breaks. Sometimes you lose a loved one. Sometimes your cashier blows you up and impales you. A little entertainment and introspection are valuable.
“Besides, you work two jobs, you attend school, and you never mention your family which leads me to believe you either live alone or at least take care of yourself. Okay, yes, that was Nestor’s observation, not mine. But it’s impressive. Seventeen is young for a human. It’s younger for a halfling.”
“So you’re telling me this because we’re, what do they call it? Kindred spirits? Oh gosh! The play! I was in a play about you. And you watched it. I didn’t even think of that. That’s so embarrassing.”
Donovan just laughed. It looked painful.
“Was it accurate at all?”
“Enough,” he said. “At least where the coup in Dol Belvargamar was concerned. As for Lady Hatchet, I hardly knew her, let alone loved. But I really did find romance in The City of Communion. I lied when you asked about my love life the other week because it was a truth I’d kept only to myself. But I cannot share my story without sharing my love, too.”
Karessa nodded for him to continue.
“Her name was Thalialdera. Angel of Dera. Half-elf. We grew up together, but as I said I remember all too little of that time. I do know that as a young man I was smitten with her, and she with me, but I can tell you nothing more of those days than that she was beautiful.
“Her skin was dark, but she always the brightest thing in the room. Her bouncing curls reflected her enthusiasm for life. Her sharp eyes and ears reflected her commanding wit and authority. Every young person in Dera wanted to be her lover or her friend, but like myself, she only ever dreamed outward.
“At least, that’s the way I remember it.
“Ten years into my time as the Suntouched, I encountered her again in Dol Belvargamar. Time and circumstance had changed me beyond recognition, but I remembered her at once. I was in a bookstore, seeking to learn Eldritch, when I saw her buried in a tome on the history of the dwarven clans. She had matured, but she had not changed. She was still a commanding and demanding presence.
“She knew who I was, of course. Who I was then. But she did not fall for me because I was the Suntouched. She fell for me because I loved poetry, or because I was kind, or because – I cannot claim to know, to tell you truly. But she was hardly interested in my fame, only begrudgingly acknowledging it when she could use it to gain a social advantage.
“But I can tell you why I loved her. There was her beauty, yes. There was her laugh, which was as rare and clear and soft as the dwarves’ finest woven diamond. But it was her incongruous nature that struck me most. The way she was both wild and civilized. Smolderingly passionate one moment, cool and calculating the next. She worshipped Druidlona, who railed against government and greed, but she studied politics and economics.
“It is difficult to explain the significance of our love to one so young, to whom feelings like infatuation and lust come so easily. You cannot yet understand what it means to feel young again.”
Karessa looked outside, at the rain. She thought of Lawrence. How he awakened something in her that had been dormant since her dad disappeared.
“Or perhaps you can,” Donovan added. “To feel joy in our newfound youth was one thing. What I could never have anticipated was the joy I found in domesticity. With her, a day spent reading each other poetry or walking The Frozen Path was more meaningful to me than any days that had come before.
“I had only come to the city to study at Guravayew, the college of lore, but after two years I thought, perhaps, that my time as the Suntouched could be over. That I would remain in Dol Belvargamar for as long as I lived, with Thalialdera by my side.”
“What changed?” Karessa asked. “Why did you leave?”
“I.” Donovan looked winded, suddenly. As though Karessa’s question had struck him physically. “I don’t remember,” he sobbed. Tears rolled down his face, which was wrinkled with pain.
It was difficult for Karessa to look upon: this man – her boss, the Suntouched – reduced to a broken mess before her. A man she’d looked to for advice maybe twelve hours ago. So she did not look upon him. “I’m sure the water’s boiling by now,” she said, and stood.
When she returned, Donovan was lying in his bed, staring idly at the wall. She placed a cup of mint tea on his bedside table. Karessa made a move to leave the room, but he said he’d like to continue. She obliged.
“Last night I said that my gifts had costs, and none so high as extended youth. I’m sure you’ve heard tales of the Othergiants. The giants from another world, summoned to invade ours. No? Most famously, an army of them was set against Castiron. I led the city’s defenses, and slew the monster from the Void Lands which summoned them in the first place. Or so they say.
“I did do battle with the beast. At first it looked like some old hag, wielding an array of powerful magic. Then, as we did battle in the stony hillsides outside town, it turned into an enormous serpent, half the size of the city itself. As its life drew to a close, the creature turned into a crowd of broken, battered human children.
“They surrounded me, and spoke in unison, pleading for their lives. They would return to the Void Lands, they said, and offered me a boon of sorts. Extended youth, they said, but with a catch. I agreed on the spot, for with their promise, I could stay young for as long as Thalialdera, if not longer.
“But there was the matter of the catch. I must maintain the path of the righteous hero. If I stray from it ever, I will age at twice the human speed, and no act of heroism will ever succeed again. Never having seen myself as anything less than a righteous hero, I was pleased with these terms. The creature returned to the Void Lands, and I remained young for some time.
“Thirty years passed and I did not age a day. I felt invincible. Cults arose in my name, some claiming that I was the true Solkin. Some said I was Sol himself. But I was content to be the Suntouched, traveling with Linda, Emelthea, and Asylum, bringing peace to the world and asking for nothing in return.
“It was nearly one year ago now that the Army of Below attacked Castle Belmov, led by a once dear friend, the devil Asylum. They sought to destroy the castle’s army and capture its people, taking the stronghold in the name of their vile cult. With their golems and undead and unexpectedly massive following, the odds looked grim, even for the Suntouched.
“I won, of course, taking Asylum’s life in the process. I drank much that night, both in revelry and in mourning. I shook the hands and accepted the thanks of many a lord and lady, including the High Governess of Dol Belvargamar, Lady Thalia Douieal. A woman once called Thalialdera.
“I asked her if she remembered me. She said of course she did. I asked her if she still loved me. Of that she was less certain. She loved her people. She had moved on. I hardly heard those words. I wanted nothing more in that moment than to put the Suntouched behind me and live with her in Dol Belvargamar. I told her that we grew up together, in Dera, but I could not remember my name. I told her she loved me then. I told her our love was destined. She said I was drunk.
“There was an altercation. I grabbed her. She pulled away. I told her I loved her. She walked away. I struck her. She recoiled. She called the guards. I fled Dol Belvargamar.
“Just like that, my time as the Suntouched came to a close. Years of growth, heroism, and servitude undone in a single childish moment. Nothing fills me with more revulsion than remembering and recounting that night. It is a shame I can never take back or undo.”
Silence descended upon Donovan’s bedroom. He turned away from Karessa. She sipped her tea too loudly in the somber quiet. The clink echoed as she set her cup down in embarrassment. She wondered if Donovan even wanted to be telling her this, and why. She was still having difficulty wrapping her mind around any of it.
“Hello?” someone called from the storefront.
“I got it,” Karessa said.
Hega Perdugal, the one-armed, one-eyed dwarf who organized the town safety drills, was standing in the center of the store.
“I have a key,” she explained in response to Karessa’s questioning gaze. “Is Donovan okay? I heard he walked home after surviving an explosion? And refused to see a doctor?”
“How did you hear that?”
“So it’s true.” Karessa nodded. “May I see him?” Karessa shook her head. “Why not?”
“Damn him!” Hega said. “Can’t he be open about anything?”
“Not usually. But, uh. He has good reasons. I mean.”
Hega waved her off. “It doesn’t matter. Tell him I’m done playing games, and I hope he’s okay.”
Karessa nodded. “He, uh. He really does like you, it’s just…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Hega said. “We’re adults. We can handle our own business.”
Karessa crossed her arms and watched the dwarf leave. She was so over this day already.
“You’ve got a dramatic life, Mr. Allman,” she said as she returned to his room. He was sitting in the rocking chair again. “Do you ever stay still? Hega says she hopes you’re okay.”
“I heard,” he said. “I can’t understand why she keeps bothering with me.”
“Uh, I dunno, maybe because she likes you? For a legendary hero, you’re kind of dumb.”
“A legendary hero and your boss.”
“There is an epilogue to my story,” Donovan said. “If you’ll hear it.”
“I’ve got nothing better to do,” Karessa said.
“After disgracing myself, I returned to Dera, using that glamour ring to disguise myself. I lived there for a time under the name Parvek Dawn. The flavor of the town had not changed, but the substance had. Not a single person from my youth remained – or if they had, I’d forgotten them; I might not have recognized my own parents, mind you – with one exception, a blind dwarf who ran a little magic shop called Odds & Ends.
“I worked for Hunson once more, assisting him with his day-to-day tasks. It felt almost demeaning, truth-be-told. But comfortable.
“A few months passed, and they were pleasant, but unimportant. In the midst of winter, a sizable gang of goblins began harassing the village, insisting they hand over the goods they’d stored for winter. The town was prepared to acquiesce. This happened every winter of late, they said, and they’d grown more demanding each year.
“I could not allow that.
“On the day the goblins were to collect their goods, I set up an ambush. Dera’s hunters waited in the brush just outside town, myself counted among them. The farmers and builders in town had armed themselves with whatever they had. I’d encouraged them to fight for their dignity.
“We loosed a round of flaming arrows at goblins, completely unnoticed. Impossibly, the fire only caught their wooden shields and spears. Not a single thug was injured.
“They fell upon the town then, newly armed with flaming weaponry. The peoples’ resolve broke, and they fled. The goblins, angered by this betrayal, cut them down with ease.
“Not a single villager survived, so far as I could tell, and although I was able to stop them from burning the majority of the town, I was forced to pull Hunson out of the flaming remains of Odds & Ends.
“As I stood before the shop, clutching my former mentor, utterly without hope, filled with guilt and shame, I looked up to the sky. The pious do this in times of despair, in hope that Sol or some other god will give them a sign. Some means to go on. I saw a floating city, the one place in all of Penscarop I’d never been.
“I buried my home and, when I at last found the strength, I came here. And that is my story.”
The rain tapped gently against the store.
“I don’t know what to say,” Karessa said. She didn’t know what to feel, either. Awe, pity, annoyance. They all fought for territory in her mind.
“You don’t have to say anything,” Donovan said. “To share my story is enough.”
So she didn’t.
“And another thing,” he eventually went on. “When I first arrived in Skymoore, there was that dwarf child who nearly fell through the city. I tried to save her, but it failed, until you intervened. Something similar happened last night. You’re the antidote to my curse.”
Karessa’s shoulders slumped.
“I. I’m not sure how to feel about that. I don’t want to go around saving people, I. I just want to act.”
“I’m not suggesting it,” he said, but he looked disappointed. “I merely mean to say, you’re destined for greatness, Karessa. I can feel it. When I look upon you, when I see you do those things I can’t, it excites me, but it also fills me with deep remorse.” Donovan looked pensive for a moment. Like he’d just realized something. “My potential is…inert. Yours is not. Don’t waste it as I have.”
“You didn’t waste it,” Karessa said. “You saved a lot of people. You did a lot of good, and I think you did most of those good things for the right reasons.” She had more to say, but she bit her tongue. “Now unless this story has another surprise ending, I’d better get going. You’re gonna be okay?”
She nodded. “Thank you. I, uh. I won’t tell anyone. You’ll make a good life here, and you’ll be great at it.”
“I’m not a child, Karessa.”
“Okay fine, I won’t comfort you. Sleep tight.”
Karessa Plunderton walked home in the rain, protecting herself with the stolen umbrella. She took the long way home, because she had much to think about. The future, the past, the present. It occurred to her that she, too, was at a crossroads. Maybe everyone was, always, but right now the roads seemed clear to her. Actress, thief, acolyte, daughter. Ugh. She just wanted to sleep.
Donovan Allman got to his feet as soon as the front door closed. The shop would remain closed that day, but he didn’t have time to rest. He wasn’t ready to stop being the Suntouched, but it was time to get better at being Donovan Allman.
So he got to work.