But now he knew that no matter how long his infinity lasted, he would never forget her tears.
What a narcissistic fool he had been. She didn’t need his apology—to apologize to her now would be wholly selfish, just Roland seeking relief for his guilty conscience. And opening her wounds anew. There was nothing he could do or be for Rosaline anymore.
Or almost nothing.
The young man looked lanky and uncoordinated as he approached the stable where Roland waited. He carried his helmet in his hand, leaving his face exposed. Roland studied it. He hated and respected this man, who clearly felt both obligated and reluctant to fight. Could honor and duty mean more to him than love? Or maybe this confusion of honor and duty was love—paradoxes piled higher than the furthest reaches of the stars.
Who would want to go to war and leave a loving family?
“Soldier,” Roland called to Alexander when he was close enough to recognize the torment in his eyes. “You are Alexander, kin of my lord John, who holds the title of this fief?”
“And who are you?” Alexander stepped across the threshold of the stable. His pale brown eyes narrowed as they took in Roland’s formal armor. “What battle have you come from, dressed like that?”
“I have been sent here to take your place in the campaign.”
Alexander stopped. “My wife sent you? Her father?” He shook his head. “Step aside, soldier. Let me ride on.”
“Indeed, I will not. Your assignment has changed. You know the terrain in this vicinity better than most. Dangerous times may be upon us if the battle does not favor us in the North. If we retreat, you will be needed here to guard the city from intruders.”
Alexander tilted his head. “Show your face, soldier, for I do not trust a man who hides behind a mask.”
“My face is no concern of yours.”
“Who are you?”
“A man who knows that your duty is here among your family. All the spoils of war matter not in the face of true love and familial honor. Now, stand down if you wish to live.”
Alexander let out a soft laugh, but then his expression changed into something harder. He drew his sword. “Let’s have it, then.”
Roland should have expected this. And yet it galled him. How could this man be so intent on leaving her? Roland would never leave her!
And yet, of course, he already had. Abandoned his one true love like a callous, stupid fool. He had been alone ever since. Solitude was one thing, but it warped into ugly, wretched loneliness after the soul had tasted love.
No man should be allowed to make the same mistake. Even through his jealousy, Roland could see that. It fell to him to stop Alexander.
He swallowed, sighed inwardly, and drew his sword. It was a meter long and as sharp as the pain stabbing his heart at having to confront this man. “Soldier,” Roland said flatly. “I do not jest.”
The man advanced, waving his sword awkwardly. Roland deflected it with an effortless flick of the wrist. The blades clashed dully.
Alexander’s slid earthward with the lightest guidance from Roland’s blade, until it glanced off the wet hay on the floor of the stable.
“Why would you so willingly ride to your own death?” Roland asked.
Alexander grunted and lurched back into fighting position, raising his blade chest high. “I am not a coward.”
Perhaps not, but he was exceptionally unskilled. He had probably picked up some swordsmanship as a child, jousting at haystacks at summer festivals with his boyhood friends. He was no soldier. He’d be dead in an hour on the front.
Or Roland could kill him now.…
In that moment, he had a vision of his blade swinging deftly down on this man’s bare neck. The shock of a severed spine and the slick red blood dripping from the steel onto the dirt.
How easy to end this man’s short life. Take his place up in that tower and love her as she needed to be loved. Roland knew how to do it now.
But then he blinked and saw Rosaline. The baby.
Do not slaughter, he reminded himself. Only persuade.
He leaped forward lightly, swinging his sword toward Alexander, who scrambled backward, spinning wildly away. This time he avoided Roland’s blade by sheer luck.
Roland laughed and his laughter tasted bitter. “I am offering you a boon, soldier—and I promise you, I follow a higher command than your liege. Know that I will not dishonor your intentions. Let me go to war for you.”
“You speak in riddles.” Alexander’s fear had stretched the skin around his mouth tight as a leather drum. “You cannot replace me.”
“Yes,” Roland said, seething. “If nothing else, at least I know that.”
In a burst of violence, Roland forgot his purpose. He went at Alexander with the fury of a lover scorned. In the face of Roland’s blade, Alexander stood rigid, sword extended. To his credit, he did not back away. But with another clash of their swords, Roland had disarmed Alexander. He held his blade’s tip at the young man’s heaving throat.
“A true knight would yield. He would accept my offer and serve his people here, protecting his home and his neighbors when they need protection.” Roland swallowed. “Do you yield, sir?”
Alexander gasped for air, unable to speak. He kept casting his eyes downward to the blade at his neck. He was terrified. He nodded. He would yield.
A calm came over Roland, and he let himself close his eyes.
He and this pale mortal Alexander loved the same bright thing. They could not be enemies. It was then that Roland chose his side. He would not spare Alexander’s life for Alexander’s sake, but for Rosaline’s.
“You are a braver man than I.” And it was true, for Alexander had been strong enough to love Rosaline when Roland was too afraid. “Embrace the luck I give you this night and return to your family.” He had to work to keep his voice steady. “Kiss your wife and raise your children. That is honor.”
They held each other’s gaze for a long, tense moment, until Roland began to feel that Alexander could see through the slit in his visor. How could Alexander not feel the ache in the air between them? How could he not sense how close Roland had come to killing him and taking his place?
Roland withdrew his sword from Alexander’s neck. He sheathed his weapon, mounted his horse, and rode out of the stable into the night.
The road was bare and blue in the moonlight.
Roland headed north. He still needed to find Daniel—at least one love should be redeemed in this joust with time. For a quarter of an hour, Roland lost himself in thoughts of Rosaline, but the memory was too painful to indulge for long. His eyes refocused on the road when he saw a rider galloping toward him on a coal-black horse.
Even in the darkness, there was something strange and yet familiar about the knight’s armor. For a moment, Roland wondered whether it was his own former self, but when the knight put up a hand to slow Roland’s ride, his gestures were more urgent than Roland’s would have been.
They stopped before one another, their horses whickering as they circled, breathing frost.
“You come from yonder estate?” The knight’s voice boomed across the road as he pointed toward the castle in the distance.
He must have thought Roland was Alexander. Had this knight been sent to escort Alexander to the front?
“Y-yes,” Roland stammered. “I am a replacement for—”
“Roland?” The soldier’s voice changed from what Roland realized was a hoarse, affected boom into something effervescent and fantastically charming.
The knight threw off his helmet. Black hair rolled like rapids down the suit of armor, and then, in the moonlight, Roland saw the face he’d known better than any other since the dawn of time.
They leaped from their horses and into each other’s arms. Roland didn’t know how long it had been since his medieval self had seen this medieval Arriane, but the emotional battle he’d just survived made it feel like centuries had passed since he’d last seen a friend.
He spun the wiry angel around. Her wings bloomed out of slits in her armor, and Roland envied her their freedom. Of course her clothes would be tailored for wings—all of them had been back then.
Roland felt caged in his borrowed metal suit, but he didn’t want to complain to Arriane. She did not know yet that he was an Anachronism, and he wanted to keep it that way. He was so glad to see her.
The moonlight shone like a spotlight on his friend’s white skin. When she turned her head, Roland gasped.
A horrific burn glistened on the left side of her neck. The skin was marbled, knotted, bleeding, the most gruesome kind of wound. Roland recoiled without meaning to, making Arriane self-conscious.
She reached up to cover the wound but groaned when her fingers grazed it.
Roland had seen this scar a thousand times in future encounters with Arriane, but its origin remained a mystery to him. Only one thing could hurt an angel that way, but he’d never known how to ask her about it.
The wound was fresh now, like a rash of flames across her neck. She must have sustained the injury only recently.
“Arriane, what happened to you?”
She looked away, not meaning to give Roland an even clearer view of her ravaged skin. She sniffed. “Love is hell.”
“But”—Roland closed his eyes, hearing the line repeating itself in his mind—“an angel’s form cannot be marred, except by …” Arriane looked away in shame, and Roland drew her to him. “Oh, Arriane!” he cried, clasping his arms around her waist, his eyes drawn to and repelled by her neck. He could not embrace her as he wanted to, could not squeeze away the pain. “I ache for you.”
She nodded. She knew. She had never liked to cry. She said, “I’ve just come from seeing Daniel.”
“I was on my way to meet him,” Roland said, breathless with the luck of it. “His presence is required at Saint Valentine’s Faire.”
“He rides to town this evening. He may well be there already. Lucinda will be happy, at least.”
“Yes,” Roland said, remembering more clearly now. “You were the knight who came to deliver that message to the others in the camp. It wasn’t me. You forged the king’s decree that told the men to take their Valentine’s leave.”
Arriane crossed her arms over her chest. “How did you know that?”
“Clairvoyant.” He was surprised to find himself smiling.
It was enough to have her here, his dearest friend. It made this journey into his past heartbreak a little less bleak.
Roland picked up Arriane’s helmet, helped her back onto her horse. He mounted and dropped his visor once again. Side by side, the two knights rode for the city.
Sometimes love was not about winning, but about wise sacrifice and the reliability of friends like Arriane. Friendship, Roland realized, was its very own kind of love.
THE VALENTINE OF ARRIANE
Arriane looked out at the thyme-scented Tuscan morning and sighed.
She was sprawled on green-velvet grass, propped on her elbows with her chin in her palms, relishing the unseasonable warmth and the sensation of soft fingers running through her long dark hair.