She woke alone on the side of a road, in a dripping wet forest, with droplets from the leaves above landing on her gown torn nearly to shreds. Its tatters hung upon her scrawny limbs in a pale drape, across discolorations that daubed her arms and thighs with unsightly splotches.
Her skin was a motley patchwork of scars and bruises, making her body a tale of untold torment, her flesh marked deep with the hues of torture.
But her memory played truant, an imp dancing beyond her grasp, laughing as it withheld the knowledge.
Whatever had happened, her voyage to this moment had left her bloody and battered. The hesitant fingers she trailed over her rain-damp cheeks told tales of raised scars and sore spots where bruises formed. When she wrapped her arms around her frail shoulders, it stretched out stinging, half-healed welts.
Wounds she’d not been aware of smarted afresh, and the pervasive drizzle targeted every bare spot of skin. Rivulets from the rain-dark sky painted her pained body into a canvas of agony.
Even her insides ached with every shiver, as if she had been tortured inside out—or else her screams had clawed from where human hands couldn’t reach—before someone had discarded her here.
When she plundered the depths of her mind, she found no past, no name, no substance to her soul. No idea who she could be.
She stood alone in the rain, in the chill, relentless rain, in a long pale dress, a girl without a name.
And the darkness was falling ever deeper, a gluttonous dark that fed insatiably on her hope while the rain obscured both stars and moon.
Her body went ever stiffer, her limbs difficult to move in the invasive chill, and a tentative step onto the muddy road shot agony through her limbs and down to bones that were marrow-cold.
She halted, wincing, and peered at the swampy road through blood-caked hair which the rain plastered to her eyes. Please, she begged. Please, someone, help me.
But no one came, her only companion the impersonal touch of storm.
The spraying clop of horse hooves galloped along the road, and she dragged up her weary head. Salvation or foe?
“Stop,” she tried to call to the unseen rider, but her voice broke, too hoarse, her bony arm barely able to lift. A flow of weakness coursed down her wobbly legs like a brook wanting to sweep her away. “Please, I beg you…”
A colossal warhorse reared from the misty drizzle, its silhouette shaping it from layers of darkness and rain, its forelegs as emaciated as the ribs displayed in a flash of lightning.
Its startled whinny rode the shriek of wind along with the cry of a man dragging on the mount’s reins.
The horse splashed back down to the marshy road, spattering the young woman with smatters of mud.
But she strained toward this horse and this man—this stranger—a rider as gaunt as his steed, his arms bared to the elements by a sleeveless jerkin with no doublet beneath. Rain ran in runnels down his lean, honed arms.
Could he help her?
Breathing in the storm and rain and shivering in frenzied anticipation, she squinted at the traveler as he dismounted.
And she discovered that hope hurt.
A strip of cloth slanted across one of his eyes, tied over the black hair plastered to his scalp. An arcane symbol branded the cheek beneath the cloth, and a jagged scar slashed his other cheek.
His face was sharp-featured as a hawk’s, and when his gaze alit on her—
He collapsed to his knees.
Winded from shock, Exavier had no breath. His knees caved and sprayed mud beneath him, with him lowered to all fours like the dog he’d been born, raised in the castle kitchens and cuffed by every servant, nothing but a raggedy boy no one had cared for.
His fingers mashed in the squelching mire as he dropped into obeisance before his princess.
A princess supposed to be dead.
Though beyond belief, it was her.
Gone were her fine damask clothes, along with her once-lush figure. Gone was the haughty air that had won her antipathy from the servants.
Not even her silken slippers remained, her bare toes sinking into the same quagmire of filth where he knelt.
Gone, too, her flawless skin—skin that, once, no one would dare mar. Now it appeared that someone had attempted to carve away every last vestige of it.
There was no reason at all he should recognize her beneath those welts and weals.
No reason save one. He had loved her.
Now she dug her hands into his wet hair, and the shock of her touch vaulted through his body, even after all these months, after all her cold rejection.
She dragged his bowed head back. “You know who I am?”
With her fingers wound tight in his hair, raindrops from the sky dropping his own tears upon his face, he stared up into her scarred features—delicate features someone had tried and failed to destroy, for he could still see their beauty.
He would always see their beauty.
Then her question clawed into his awareness.
“Why would I not know who you are?” he asked, his own voice a grating ugliness from long lack of use.
She abruptly jerked away her hands, and the mouth he had so longed to kiss trembled with fear. “I don’t know who I am.”
“You don’t know?” He blinked away the rain from where it dripped off his lashes, her words striking him so hard that he reeled, dizzy.
She looked away, biting her quivering lip and denying him her yet lovely eyes. “Do you know me?”
I know, he could say. You’re the princess, and I was once your father’s watchdog. I protected the sanctimonious tyrant who called himself our kingdom’s ruler but who so antagonized the people that the peasants rebelled. They murdered him and his queen despite how I tried to save them, then their murderers left me to die at the feet of my master and mistress’s slaughtered bodies.
They left me with only one eye.
He’d regained consciousness in a tangled morass of bloodied corpses while the marauding rebels still swarmed the castle. Laughing and making bawdy jests, they’d shucked dead nobles of their jewels and slit the throats of the noblewomen they’d raped.
Exavier had had a knife in his eye, and they’d thought him dead—he should’ve been dead, perhaps, but some deity had been cruel, and after the butchers departed, he’d jerked the dagger out, staggered to his feet, and gritted his teeth against the upheaval of his gullet. His hand had staunched the blood flow from the socket while he’d swallowed hard, swallowing the pain while the throbbing from his eye unbalanced him.
Lurching around the room, he had looked for her body.
He’d never found it. She alone of them all was missing.
Even knowing he should escape and save himself, he’d pawed through the carnage over and over again. His eyes had scanned the bodies, terrified he would find her.
Terrified he wouldn’t.
He hadn’t. He’d eventually left and given up hope.
Now, she stood before him, alone, with all that had gone before wiped from her consciousness. No memory of him, of her status, of anything that had once separated them like a gulf.
He blinked, raindrops sliding into his parted lips and flavoring his tongue with freshness.
All that had gone before was wiped from her consciousness.
She looked to him to tell her the truth.
And he could tell her that truth, at least the truth as he guessed it: that the peasants who had killed her parents must have taken her captive and tortured her. Tortured her until she’d shut off her mind and shoved out her past rather than remember a single part.
He could tell her the other truth, too.
You’re the woman I love. I’m a landless swordsman, forced to wander town to town to seek any employment on offer, but I would protect you with my last breath.
There is nothing for you back at the palace. Come with me.
Stay with me.
She stared at him, licking the rain off her lips while a shiver traveled her body. She wrapped her too-thin fingers around her shoulders, hunching inward. “Sir?”
And there was another option.
A better option.
He could lie.
Looking up into her tortured face—the face that was still more beautiful than any other he’d ever beheld—he swallowed.
He told himself there was no other choice.
He shot to his feet, took her icy hands in his feverish ones, and rushed out: “Do you not recognize me?”
Before she could respond with more than a parting of lips, he pulled her close to his chest. And it hurt, for she smelled of fresh rain and washed-away pain and daring hope. He looked into her eyes, but his words, for a moment, wrecked on trembling excitement and fumbled to find their way before they burst free. “You don’t recognize your betrothed?”
Her hands jerked in his, but she didn’t break his hold, not disbelieving, not yet.
Believe me, his earnest eyes told her. Trust me. He shifted closer.
She didn’t balk, drizzle gemming on her eyelashes and her cheeks, her eyes bewildered and unsure. “Your betrothed?”
His mind worked quickly, his words growing stronger as his resolve intensified. “I’ve been searching for you for months. That’s why I collapsed—I couldn’t believe… You were abducted by bandits. They torched our home and stole everything we owned.”
It wasn’t even that far from the truth, he persuaded himself. “I’ve been searching for you ever since then.” And it was true, the sincerest truth of them all. His heart had been searching and hoping for the impossible for an anguished eternity.
“Can I kiss you?” His hoarse tone broke, barely audible above the patter of raindrops, the gentle whinny of his horse. “Let my kiss betray my love.”
Her lips parted again, mute, but she jerked her chin in a nod, and he couldn’t contain himself any longer.
He buried his hand in her matted hair, his fingers tangled in those strands he’d never dared stroke before, and he kissed her full on the mouth with the pent-up passion he’d suppressed for years.
Exhilaration, terror—an entire chaotic mesh of emotion tore through him and shuddered into her. He thought his heart might burst from his chest. He was petrified she might fragment under his touch like a wraith he’d only summoned briefly into life.
But she didn’t. She was solid, yielding, and exquisitely real in his arms. She kissed him back with unpracticed lips that told him so much it broke his heart a little, adding to the web of cracks she’d already left there, in those soft, quiet moments back at the palace just between them.
Rain poured through their hair and between their lips, pressing their drenched clothes to their hot bodies.
He forced himself to pull back but kept her hips close, with her cradled so near that their mingled breath curled into entwined vapor. “Do you believe me now?” he murmured against her lips.
“How can I not?” She cupped his cheek—the side branded with her father’s crest and marking him as a king’s slave—then she dug her fingers into his wet hair and tugged his head down once more. “Remind me again who I am… Exavier.”