He called himself wanderer, for that was what he had become, wandering throughout the eastern lands with his men. They ended up in the desert, on the edge of the great Middle Kingdom, and in the trading city he heard about the governor of the province, who was also a daughter of the Emperor. He began to lay his plans and spend his gold. For here, at last, was opportunity.
Then, he left his men and he approached the capital alone, wandering through the markets and the narrow alleys of the houses, to the high walls of the palace. The town seemed a prosperous place, well-tended for its small size, and the people seemed content.
"What do you want?" the guards asked. "Outlander?"
"To give my greetings to the princess, I am a scholar and a wanderer from the west," he said. He had been more and he would be more again, but for now, those were true.
The princess was said to be bored here in this desert town, and as expected, she allowed him entrance to hear news and stories of the outside.
He had expected a princess of dissolution from the stories of her dances and revelry, but he had not expected her beauty. Or her smile to brighten the edges of his long-shattered heart.
He tried to tell himself he had business; he had his own land to remember, and he tried to keep his eyes averted from her when he told her stories of the outside, or when he watched her dance, red cloth floating around her like streams of blood.
Yet time and again his gaze returned to her, unable to turn away. Like called to like, though he was pretending to be other than he was.
It should have been a great triumph of his plans to get the invitation to her private wing and enter her inner circle. He saw the great jewel on its display - the diamond star set into gold - and wondered that he'd become nothing but a thief. But it was not how far he'd fallen that made his hand shake or his heart quail - she was a well of water in this wasteland and he couldn't follow through. He had to change the plan. When the assassin crept in, the wanderer was there to meet him. The wanderer proved himself a swordsman as well, and fought the assassin in swift, deadly battle.
Dead men could not speak, after all, and the swordsman needed the truth to remain unspoken.
The princess was grateful to him for taking care of the assassin, and let him into her private chambers. They shared tea and the game of stones. She taught him how to write with a brush, and they shared secret looks under the eyes of her guards and her father's chaperones.
He began to dream of a life here with her, giving up that other dream. In the midst of that dreaming, he received a letter from his men, who still lingered on the outskirts of the trading city and they had received troubling, yet promising news from the west.
The swordsman read the letter and then burned it, watching the small tendrils of smoke and then glanced at the words she had given him with her beautiful brush-strokes, "A flame burns bright" it read. He decided he would send a message to his men to go home, give up this dream while he lived a new one here.
He went nearer to her chambers, about to request entrance, when he heard the voice of her chief investigator within. His step paused and he listened to the fell news that the investigator had found the assassin's home and found two gold coins, struck and marked from the western realm of Charlemagnia.
The swordsman heard that and within, his heart cracked in half, as suddenly all was spoiled. His half-formed dreams were dead. The western gold would point straight at him. He had to go.
He snatched the diamond and his sword and hurried from the palace through the dark, hearing the guards roused behind him.
They tried to stop him at the gate, but he floated and struck, an unstoppable whirl of blade, and when they fell, he quickly climbed the wall and jumped to the nearest roof. Light of foot, agile as a gazelle, he ran across the tiled roof tops, hurrying for the desert where his men waited.
At the city walls, he jumped off, flipping down to the ground, and ran for the horizon as fast as he could.
The command froze him and he turned.
She was there, white gown swirling around her, sword out, jumping straight at him down from the wall.
He leaped to meet her. Their swords clashed together, in midair, binding and falling from their hands, so that they landed, face to face, their swords out of reach.
"Was it all a lie?" she demanded. Her eyes were dark and wounded. "You wanted me dead?"
"Then you bought an assassin to kill him and win my favor."
"No, I bought him to kill you, and I killed him, because I changed my mind," he admitted.
"Because I love you," he answered and he rested his head against hers. "I wish I were what you think I am, but I'm not: I am not assassin, not wanderer, not lover, not anything that can stay here."
"I don't understand…"
He took a silver coin from his pocket, and he held up the portrait side. The likeness was poor, but it made his point. "I am Cristophe the Eleventh, once and future king of Charlemagnia."
Her eyes widened. "You? But the king was deposed two years past in revolution…"
"The horrors of the revolution have caused some to call for my return," he murmured. "I want to return home, restore order, bring prosperity that I've learned from you…"
"And if they don't want you back? If they kill you?" she asked and rubbed a hand on his cheek and shoulder, knowing this might be her only chance to touch him.
"I have to try. I am sorry," he murmured into her hair. "None of this happened as I wished."
He started to pull away, but she pulled him back. "Don't go. I can get my father's permission... "
"Either a fallen king or a poor commoner is no fair match for you, princess."
She shook her head in denial. "We could go away, leave the king and the princess behind… become sword-sworn in some distant land…"
"What love we have would drown in such a life," he murmured, "always remembering we could've been a king or a princess or had a castle..."
"No," she murmured, but it was a murmur of denial and regret, not argument.
He took the necklace from his pocket and held it out. "This was what I wanted. I came for this, and I found you instead." The rays of the rising sun caressed her skin, turning it glowing, and her white gown seemed shades of gold and rose. "I should be a king, not a thief."
She put her hand over his, curling his fingers over the jewel. "Keep it. Remember me."
Swaying closer, as if even the air itself wanted them closer, he kissed her cheek and then her lips lightly, closing his eyes in a futile attempt to imprint the touch on his memory. "Always."
He stood, put his back to the sun, and started to walk across the desert, and his shadow stretched out before him.