He found her at one of the public showers that he ordered set up in poorer neighbourhoods where running water was harder to come by. He liked to come and see what good he’d done for the city, for the country. Regardless of what people said, regardless of his treason, he hoped History would remember that he brought what was once the miserable kingdom of a tyrant to the edges of democracy. Where everyone had opportunities. Sure there still were places where things were difficult, like this place where most people survived the days by doing what menial jobs they could find. There wasn’t enough money for kids to be sent to school, nor were there enough options by way of work. He was meandering in the streets, alone, his bodyguards left elsewhere, to see for himself some of the challenges. And hopefully come up with solutions. So far he hadn’t been able to.
That was when he saw her. She stood just beyond the group of children playing with water, as kids are wont to do. She seemed to be hesitating… her hair was a tangled mess but her dress looked just as if it once were of good quality and time had turned it to rags. Whereas the children ran naked across the streets, she held the dress close, casting quick glances around her. There were a few adults, both women and men around, but none seemed quite interested in her. Still when she finally stepped forward to get under the water, she didn’t remove the dress. The look on her face as she placed her hand under the warm water shocked him. Was it possible this woman had never known warm water? How could it be? But there was also something else… as if she couldn’t really believe it. Still she stood underneath the running water; she obviously relished the feeling despite the fact that it was useless by way of cleaning. And she might catch a cold if she didn’t dry herself. It didn’t seem to bother her.
He stopped in his track when she brought her hands through her hair. On her left hand, a silver ring and one set with a blue stone caught his eyes. This woman obviously had nothing but the dress on her back, yet she wore… it couldn’t be. Impossible. She disappeared four years before and… He looked back at her face; if it were her she was unrecognizable. Her cheeks were hollow. Now that he paid more attention, the dress seemed loose around the waist and the shoulders. The collarbone was salient, as if she hadn’t eaten well in days, maybe weeks. He was thoroughly tempted to approach her but he had no idea what she would do.
He followed her instead, as she moved away from the shower, not drying the dress nor her body. She would catch pneumonia. He witnessed when she stole an apple and a loaf of bread from a stall. That wasn’t good: not for her, not for the salesman. Economy would only improve if everyone participated. He left money to the baker for his trouble. And almost lost her trying to wave away the man’s gratitude. Still he saw the small alleyway she turned into. When he reached it, she was running. She’d felt his presence. He wondered when he would meet the man he knew always accompanied her. In fact, he spared a moment to wonder why she hadn’t been with him in the first place.
She was small and thin though. It was merely a few moments before he caught up with her, as she stood at a crossroads breathing heavily. The dress must be uncomfortable; why she would have kept it he couldn’t guess. As a remembrance. She seemed to have abandoned the idea she could escape him and she turned.
“I’m sorry I stole the food. Would you take it back?”
She extended her hands ready to surrender the bread and apple. It wasn’t much for a dinner. She looked as if she needed it direly. In fact, she looked as if she might faint dead for lack of food. He approached. When she recognized him, she would flee again. He knew that.
“I’m not here for the food Eliana.”
As he thought, she let go of her precious meal but before she could move, he seized her arms. She didn’t even struggle against his hold. The fight, the fire she once had was completely gone. Whatever had happened in the years she’d been away, she was merely a shadow of the powerful woman she once was.
“You came for the ring. You saw me at the shower.”
It wasn’t even a question. She’d always been clever. In fact, once he would have tried to take it from her before he even talked. Once she would have tried to rip his eyes out if he did. Some years ago, she even tried to skewer him with a sword for attempting to take the sacred ring. But now, she sounded as if she might give it to him. He very much wanted that but he needed to understand.
“Where is Remi?” The way her head fell down and she looked away he knew. “Where? When?”
“In Garimone. Two years ago.”
Her tone. Flat. Two years without her protector. She’d loved him he knew.
“What did you do?”
There it was the fire. Smouldering but dampened by sorrow and other things that he might not actually want to know.
“I survived. What else was I to do?”
“Why did you come back?”
She shrugged. Or maybe she shivered. It must be cold here.
“I wanted to see. They said… it’s better here than before. I didn’t… They were right. That’s why I could never call the power of the ring. Maybe… it never actually belonged to me.”
He now knew this wasn’t exactly true but she was in no shape to listen to what he must tell her. He let go of her arms but caught her in an instant, as she fainted.