Roan rose from his seat as the train began to slow and pulled his battered suitcase down from the overhead storage compartment. Something touched his shoulder and he jerked away, nearly dropping the heavy case on the gray-haired man standing beside him wearing the neat blue jacket of an attendant.
"Sorry 'bout that," the man said, his voice thin and fluttery. "Didn't mean to startle you, but Shesade is the next stop. We're just pulling into Devaen to refill the engine for the climb up the mountain." Roan's eyes darted from the old man's moist lips to the vee of pale skin at his throat, to his bony hands, spotted with age and lined by bulging purple veins. Roan swallowed hard and took a step backward.
"Oh. Than--thanks, but I'm getting off in Devaen," Roan said. The man raised his wispy eyebrows, the afternoon light sparkling in his watery blue eyes.
"It's been a while since I've heard someone say that," he said. "You're--" He frowned and looked Roan over from head to toe. "You're not hoping to see Mr. Darvis, are you, because those lawyers in the fancy suits didn't have any luck, so ..." Roan glanced down at himself, worn leather boots and mud spattered up the legs of his jeans, his good blue shirt missing a button on the left sleeve.
"I'm not a lawyer," Roan said. "I'm just looking for a quiet place to relax for a while."
"Devaen's quiet, for the most part," the attendant said. "Just be sure to lock your doors and windows before you go to sleep. There's a ... demon in that town."
Roan's fingers tightened on the handle of his suitcase. "A demon?" he said with a forced laugh. "Surely, a man of your years doesn't believe in demons. They're myths."
"Believe it or don't, it's your choice," the man said, his tone short, "but there's a reason all the windows in the inn are nailed shut. Thank you for choosing the Trans-Eshaedra Railroad and have a nice day." Roan watched him walk away and sank into an empty seat, one hand absently combing back through his unkempt blonde hair.
Demon. He hadn't heard that word since he left Prythaen, shouted at him as he scrambled into a moving freight car. It seemed like setting himself up for failure to stop in a town already disposed to believe in demons, but he really couldn't afford to make the three hour trip on up the mountain to Shesade. His hands were already shaking, and that old man looked way too alluring for his comfort.
The train clattered and lurched and finally squealed to a stop in a long hiss of steam, like a dragon sighing from within the belly of the iron beast. No one else in the car moved to get up, or even looked out the window, for that matter, as workers filed out of the station house to fill the steam engine with fresh water. They'd need a full head of steam to make it through the pass between the jagged black peaks looming in the northwest sky.
Suitcase in hand, Roan stepped from the train to the weathered platform, red paint peeling off the window trims. He couldn't tell what color the rest of the building had been. Aside from the railway workers, the platform was deserted, and they paid him little attention as he crossed the platform and descended the steps into a wide, flat dirt road. This had to be the industrial end of town, the train station built across from a farrier and a slaughterhouse, the mingled scents of scorched metal and smoke, blood and shit almost enough to turn his stomach.
He turned up the road, passing several warehouses, a tannery, a potter and brick maker, a feed store, a general store, and then a clothing shop and a dentist's office. The road grew hard with packed gravel and he got his first look at the inhabitants of Devaen.
None of them looked like demons, though they stared at him as if his horns had begun to show. He fought the urge to check and shoved his hand in his pocket instead. He smiled and nodded as he passed, but more often than not was met by wary, if not openly hostile, stares. What the hell had happened to these people?
He glanced around, up and down every side street that he passed, and his heart began to creep up in his throat as he neared the large, square building bearing the sign proclaiming it the Devaen Inn. Where was it? Respectable towns had one on the outskirts, near the train station, business-minded towns built them near the inn. So what was this place?
"You lost?" Roan jumped and spun around, banging himself in the knee with the edge of his suitcase. The dark skinned dracorian stared down at him from the porch of the sheriff's office, a shiny silver badge pinned to his chest. Roan swallowed hard under the unblinking scrutiny of those blue and gold eyes.
"I--I was looking for the--for the ... whorehouse."
The drac made a scornful sound in his throat. "You look a bit young to be seeking company of that sort," he said.
"I'm twenty-six," Roan muttered. "Could you just--"
"You should have stayed on the train," the drac said. "Nearest place like that is in Shesade." Roan felt the bottom drop out of his stomach.
"And--and when does the next train--"
"Next week." Roan stared up at him, speechless, and those strange blue and gold eyes narrowed at him. "Don't tell me you're another sex demon."
"No!" Roan said, taking a step backward. Dracs were fast, especially once they shifted from man form to dragon. "Wait, what do you mean, another?"
"Not really your business, is it?" the drac replied. "You want gossip, go to the inn."
"Yeah ... I was on my way there anyway." Roan turned and hurried away, but he could feel the weight of those blue and gold eyes all way down the street to the Devaen Inn. As Roan stepped inside and shut the door behind him, he took a deep breath, drawing in the familiar scents of fragrant pipe smoke, fresh ale and roasting meat. Right then, he could have been in any one of ten thousand inns scattered across a dozen worlds. The classic ones, the ones on technologically restricted worlds, they all had that same smell.
He strode over to the man behind the bar and set down his suitcase, absently flexing his cramped fingers as he waited for the man to draw a pint of beer and hand it to the pretty barmaid. She couldn't have been more than twenty, a tender flower of a girl, but with a woman's weary eyes. Roan jerked his head away, staring down at the polished wooden surface.
"What'll it be, young man?" the barkeep asked, taking a glass down from the shelf and wiping it out with a towel.
"I need a room, I guess," Roan said. He tensed as the barmaid stepped up beside him again, his eyes fixing on her tan, callused hand as she slid a stack of laenes across the bar.
"Did you say you wanted a room?" she asked, and his gaze traveled up her arm, lingered on a pale burn scar just below her elbow, his breath catching in his throat as she shifted and her sleeve pulled up, revealing a freckle on her upper arm. "Say, are you okay?" Roan drew a sharp breath and dropped his gaze to the bar again.
"Tired," he said. "Long trip."
"I'll bet it was," the barkeep said. "Nobody within five hundred miles of here would set foot in this town, on account of that--"
"Father, do not start that again," the barmaid said. "Really, you're as bad those old hens, clucking around the market all day --" She raised her voice in a passable imitation of an old woman. "Can you believe this tomato? When is that rotten Ishaan going to be hung? Did you see what she was wearing?" She shook her head and reached down for Roan's suitcase, her shoulder length blonde hair brushing the back of his hand. He leapt back, squeezing his eyes shut as he fought to maintain his human form. When he opened them again, the barkeep, his daughter, and several of the patrons were staring at him.
"Sorry," he said breathlessly. "I thought there was a spider ... Hate spiders." A couple people chuckled as they turned back to their drinks, but the barmaid was still looking at him funny. He needed to get out of there; he needed to be alone.
Before he could turn to leave, though, the barmaid said, "So, how long are staying with us?" Her words pulled up the image of him tangled with her beneath the bed sheets, but he pushed it away.
"Till the next train comes through, I guess," he said.
"You guess? So no real schedule to keep to, then?"
"I--I guess not," Roan said.
"Would you consider sticking around a while?" Behind the bar, her father was shaking his head.
"Sezae, don't even think about it. This young man doesn't want to have anything to do with that demon."
Roan stiffened. "Demon?" Sezae made a face at her father. "The sheriff said something about a demon; so did the train attendant." Sezae sighed and crossed her arms over her chest.
"Ishaan isn't a demon," she said, "he's sick."
"He's possessed," her father muttered. She just waved her hand at him to go away and stepped over to a large corkboard hanging on the wall, all kinds of advertisements pinned to it, most of them old and yellowed from the smoke.
"Really," she said, "he's the nicest guy, but when he falls asleep--"
"He rapes people," he father said, leaning over the bar and making no effort to keep his voice down. "He should be hung." All around the common room, Roan saw heads nod and heard murmurs of assent.
"He doesn't know he's doing it," Sezae replied, her face flushing with anger. Roan felt his own blood rise and forced himself to imagine his own hanging, which would no doubt be swift if he couldn't keep it together. "It's like sleepwalking," Sezae explained. "He does things, things he would never do, and he never remembers doing them, he just wakes up in strange places with people trying to hang him."
"And what does this have to do with me," Roan asked. This conversation was hitting uncomfortably close to home, except that he always remembered, even when he'd rather not.
Sezae reached up and pulled down a crisp, white notice. "He needs someone to lock his door every night and unlock it in the morning. The pay is ridiculous, you get free room and board, and all you have to do is turn a key twice a day." She pressed the paper into his hand, her skin warm against his and he shuddered. "Please," she said, "he's been having to sleep in the jail and it's set the whole town on edge." Roan licked his lips and stared down at the paper. She was right, it was a ridiculous amount, but that wasn't what tempted him.
"I--He doesn't remember anything? Ever?" She shook her head. "Well ... I suppose I could. For a while, at least."
"Great," Sezae said, flashing him a smile as she untied the strings of her apron and tossed it on the bar. "Grab your stuff. I'll drive you out there. Be back in an hour or so," she called to her scowling father. Roan couldn't really blame him. As he followed her out behind the inn to the stable and helped hitch the mules to the wagon, the fact that they were very alone weighed heavily on him.
"Are you always this trusting of strangers?" he asked. She glanced at him over the backs of the mules.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't even ask for your name. I'm Sezae."
"That's not--I'm Roan, but that's not what I meant. You don't know me. I could be a--a killer, a monster--" She laughed.
"Please. I have a brother your age. All he ever thinks about is kissing girls." And then she winked at him. Roan turned away, that ominous chill racing over his skin. Not again. He just got here. He couldn't be chased out of another town this soon. "Hey, Roan, are you okay?" He heard the crackle of straw under foot as she stepped in front of the mules.
"Fine," he said, staggering toward the rear of the wagon. "Not feeling well, all of a sudden. I think I'll ride back here, if it's all the same."
"It's going to be rough," Sezae said, sounding confused. "That road--"
"It'll be fine," Roan said. He heaved himself up into the bed of the wagon, right next to his suitcase, and curled up into a tight, tense ball. After a few moments, he heard the wagon creak and begin to roll, the warm, close air of the barn replaced by a biting wind. He shivered, but it was the kind of distraction he needed. He felt his demon blood recede, still ravenous, but once again under control. That was too damn close.
"Feeling better?" He glanced up as Sezae and nodded.
"Sorry. I get these ... spells sometimes." She regarded him for a moment, then turned back to the road.
"Does that happen a lot?" Roan sighed and rubbed a hand across his face.
"Not really. Just when I'm really tired." He leaned back against his suitcase and wrapped his arms around himself. "You were his friend, weren't you? I mean, before he--" Sezae reigned in the mules and turned to frown at him.
"What are you really doing here?" she asked. "You're not one of those lawyers--"
"No," Roan said, shaking his head. "I got off the train by accident and--"
"Then how do you know so much about me and Ishaan?"
He opened his mouth, closed it again. "It wasn't that hard to figure out. You're obviously his friend, but your father hates him, so it was a pretty safe guess that he raped you. You don't strike me as someone who would become friends with her rapist after the fact, so you must have known him before--"
"Yes, we were friends," Sezae said, her blue eyes suddenly bright. "We grew up in the same town, went to the same school, helped each other with homework, told each other everything. He was my best friend. And when he told me his dark secret, when he told me he was sick, I told him that it'd be all right, the doctors would fix him." She reached up, wiped away a tear before it could fall. "And then one night I woke with him in my room, in my bed, on top of me. I was so scared and it hurt so much, but I couldn't make a sound or my father would come in and kill him."
"You couldn't wake him up?" She shook her head.
"My arms were pinned beneath me. When he was done, I was able to shove him off. He hit his head on the dresser and woke up. He started crying harder than I was. My father heard the noise and came in, dragged him out into the street, beat him nearly senseless, and then they threw him in jail. They would have hung him, too, but I said that it was consensual, that I let him into my room, and they had to let him go." Roan shifted uneasily, fighting the urge to join her on the driver's bench, to kiss her tears away, to slide his hand up under her skirt--He looked down at his hands, folded in his lap.
"I don't know if I could be that forgiving," he said. "Even my best friend, even if it wasn't his fault ..." She was silent for a moment, then she turned away and took up the reins again.
"I knew I had to forgive him," she said as the wagon lurched forward, "or I'd have ended up resenting our daughter."