When Donovan awoke, it was dark outside. The Pale Moon reflected its dim light upon western Skymoore, but it did little to alleviate the heavy cloak of night. Nestor Pinkly still slept soundly, holding his top hat like a child might hold a teddy bear, and murmured softly to himself about the high cost of pickle juice in the capital of Westergard. This could have been nonsense, or a memory from Nestor’s past on the surface, or maybe The Capital of Westergard was some kind of pickle juice bar in Skymoore with unreasonable prices. It was well and truly anybody’s guess.
It took a moment or two for the memories of the day to really settle in Donovan’s brain, and for him to separate dream from reality. As far as he could tell, it was all reality. It wasn’t often that the Suntouched had a day that stretched the limits of credibility, but it was happening more and more often in his forced retirement.
Forced retirement. Ha. Donovan wasn’t really sure what his curse meant anymore after today. That sorceress from the Void Lands told him that no act of heroism would ever succeed again. And yet, it seemed that some of them did? Was he truly cursed at all? Was it all in his head?
A look at his reflection in the darkness of the window was enough to answer that question. It was apparent even through his glamour, and when he took the ring off (for he was in safe company and removing the ring enhanced his healing capabilities), it was clear as a cloudless sky on a summer day. He did not look old, by any means, but he was slowly starting to look his age.
Whatever that was. He had stopped counting after a certain point. Donovan had taken a deal, you see. The witch told him that he would be loved by all, that he would age half as slowly, and he later found ways to age even slower. The Suntouched was out there committing feats of heroism for fifty years, but when Donovan retired, he looked perhaps thirty years old for a human. Now, roughly one year later, he was looking closer to middle-aged. A few of his raven hairs had become gray. If he continued to age at this rate…it was difficulty to say exactly how much longer he had left.
His impatience was hurting everyone, but how could he afford to be anything but impatient? It was a paradox that haunted him from the moment he noticed the effects of his age. He had to complete the Soul soon. He had to see it finished before he passed…
There was a knock at the door.
“Do you know what time it is?” Donovan asked as he approached the door, smoothing out the wrinkles in his shirt and cloak.
“Seven?” said Gwendolyn Bottlehelm, standing outside the door in a heavy coat and a long, flowing scarf. “It’s Daylight Maiming hours, an old holdover from back when Skymoore was briefly ruled by a vampire council who preferred it got very dark very early. “
Donovan cleared his throat. “Aha. Of course. Good evening, Gwendolyn. Can I help you?”
“Could I come in?” Confused but not unwilling, Donovan stepped aside and gestured inward. “I just wanted to see what you’ve done with the place. It’s all very impressive. Supporting Linda and all that. And I wanted to return this.”
She dropped an unimpressive ring into Donovan’s hand. “I know you said I could keep it, but somebody could probably get more use out of it than I ever will. Besides, it’s not really my style.”
Gwendolyn went up to a glass display case featuring an alarm clock that always woke you up with enough time to comfortably get ready for work or school. She seemed to admire her reflection a moment before getting serious. “I also had a question.”
“Go ahead,” said Donovan. This was possibly more than she and Donovan had ever spoken when she wasn’t asking him for help writing a play about the Suntouched. He took a seat at his stool behind the counter, and Gwen approached with trepidation.
“Do you think Linda is going to leave us when she heads out to Castiron? Do you think she’ll come back?”
Donovan raised an eyebrow at the question. “I don’t think you have to worry about that, Gwendolyn. I think Linda is quite smitten with you. I’ve known her a long time, and I’ve never seen her with anyone the way I’ve seen her with you. She was, in her own parlance, more of a bed the barmaid type than a settle down type. But she seems pretty settled now.”
“And yet she’s leaving to Castiron for an undetermined amount of time on almost no notice? For a woman who doesn’t like to talk about the past much, it seems strange.”
Donovan shrugged. “Sometimes she can be strange. Linda has a better head on her shoulders than anyone I know, but sometimes the things she needs to be happy are more insular than outward. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about other people, of course. She wouldn’t be the woman she is without caring about people. But she goes with her heart. Sometimes her heart needs to go find a cabin in the woods for a few months, sometimes her heart needs to work at a magic shop, sometimes it needs a sassy theater director, and sometimes it needs to visit home for a couple of weeks.”
“Is that how long you think it’ll be? A couple of weeks?” Donovan threw up his hands. She leaned across the counter, chin in her hands. “You seem to know Linda really well, Donovan. And she knows you very well. And yet nobody’s ever heard of you. The friends of Linda Arterford and the Suntouched don’t tend to go unnoticed. If you’re not some grand adventurer, how did you come to know those types so well, hmm?”
Donovan shrugged. “I lived in Castiron, and they came to Castiron a lot. It’s not some grand mystery. Linda has a lot of friends there.”
Gwendolyn hummed. “I suppose.” She clearly had a thought, but she didn’t share it. “Linda told me about how your day went. Sounds very exciting. I’m a little jealous”
“I would have rather had a sale that didn’t get cut short than have an exciting day, if I’m being honest.”
“You two are so boring,” she teased. “Anyway, you’ve made me feel a little better, I think. I’m just being selfish. Love makes me terribly jealous, and jealousy makes me terribly selfish. Mind if I give you some advice, too?” Donovan just listened. “You take everything upon yourself, Donovan. You shoulder other peoples’ burdens. I know this store was on hard times before the sale – Linda talks, okay? I’m her girlfriend. Sometimes she vents. She says you can be hardheaded and determined to be some big hero.
“The thing is, Donovan, that nobody ever does anything alone. I know how hokey this is all going to sound, and believe me, I hate platitudes as much as the next person, but I mean it when I say that theater taught me a better way to live. Yes, a talented individual can write and act all on their own, but the greatest and most spectacular productions are a work of coordination and cooperation. Someone has to write the script, someone has to bring the characters to life, someone has to design the sets and the costumes to bring the world to life, if you’re fancy you might have music to set the mood, engineers can supply fantastical effects that wake up the louts getting drowsy in their seats, stagehands make the impossible possible and create the illusion of stage magic by assisting in costume changes and prop movements, and of course you need a brilliant and beautiful woman to direct the whole thing, or else it all falls apart.” She smiled at her own joke. “And that’s just the thing, Donovan, sometimes it feels like the director is the big hero. The single parent providing for their family. But that’s not the story and it never is. I’m talented and hot as all the infinite hells but I’m so much less without a crew. We make each other better, together.”
Donovan closed his eyes as he listened and nodded slowly when she finished. “That’s a nice philosophy, Gwendolyn. But that’s just theater. Running a shop –”
“Excuse you, Donovan, nothing is just theater, theater is what makes life – urgh, don’t even get me started. But it’s not just theater! Every time you eat dinner you are dining on the labor of millions of people across the course of Solkin’s history. Someone had to invent the bread and the cheese and figure out which animals’ tits squeeze out the best milk and people had to test the food and perfect the food and someone had to grow the grains and transport them and someone had to cut the trees that became the paper that someone printed their cookbook onto, and that writer had to be taught by someone else, who was taught by someone else.”
Donovan wanted to speak, but she pressed on. “Every time someone dies, their spirit lives on not because of whatever god you believe in, but because your teachings and your friendship and your love impacted peoples’ lives, for better and for worse, and those effects ripple across time and space forever, influencing the decisions and the culture and the dining habits of people who will never even know your name. Someone taught you how to write, Donovan, and to read, and to do math, and to lead. You might think you run Odd & Ends alone, but that isn’t just ignoring the people you pay to run it with you, you’re ignoring everyone who has made you the man that you are.”
The shop was still for a long time as Donovan let the words seep into his brain and as Gwendolyn caught her breath. She cleared her throat, embarrassed by her passion.
“Why are you telling me this?” Donovan asked.
“I don’t fully know,” she admitted. “But you’re my girlfriend’s best friend, and you seem to be around whenever anything interesting happens in this town But, please, Donovan, do not let that go to your head. You’re someone in the way in the way that everyone is someone. We all have a role to play.”
Donovan narrowed his eyes. “You know something you’re not telling me.”
“You’re paranoid.” She flipped her hair dramatically. “But even if I did, I would continue to not tell you. Because it’s fun.” She poked Donovan on the nose. “Goodnight, Donovan. I’m going to go be indecent with your best friend before she leaves me.”
“Have fun,” Donovan murmured. Gwendolyn blew him a kiss, and walked into the night.
Donovan returned to his chair with much to think about, but he slept instead.