Exactly ten years from tomorrow, we'll be married here. My wife doesn't know that, of course. In a certain sense, neither do I.
It's a beautiful spot, now. Now meaning today, when the sunlight is still pure, and the sky is still blue. The ivy still climbs in green snakes up the side of her father's chateau, the pennants of the House of Renard are snapping gaily over the towers.
I hear a lilting laugh that even now sends my heart into my throat. Euryale Renard. She is only a girl today, no older than my little sister is in the days I left behind. Even at twelve, my Ury's curls catch the sun like molten amber, with a flower basket flung wide as she runs. Behind her tumble the Twins, her best friends, their giggles almost as musical as my Ury's, their golden hair belying the poison in their hearts. I remember the snarl on Cassandra's lips as she spilled out her wine glass on the floor after Ury's father toasted our engagement. I remember wiping Chloe's spit from my eye on the same night.
That is years from now. Today, they are all girls, filled with laughter and shared secrets and baskets in their hands for the first blooms of spring.
They run past me. Not me as I stand here, hidden by the Strider's cloak that bends the light around me, but me as I stand there, ten years old, the hedge clippers in my hands forgotten as I stare at the Prime Minister's daughter and her curls. She doesn't even notice the gardener's apprentice. Not today.
I would be different from the perfumed bluebloods. I was the gardener's boy who laughed as we threw mud at each other in the rain-sodden orchards. I was a pair of callused hands, brushing her cheek. I was her first kiss.
As it turns out, the Twins had the right of it. If only my Ury had spit in my eye instead of accepting my ring! But that is done, and what is done is why I'm here. I pull myself from the past, from what was and will be, and follow quietly the boy with the hedge clippers as he trudges to the outbuilding beyond the hedgerow.
I know the path. I know where it leads. I know how little time it takes the boy to get where he's going. Much less time than it should.
"You'll need to be more careful, Samuel."
The boy almost jumps from his skin, knocking over a rack of gardening tools as he spins to face me, his eyes wide. I always startled easily.
"Don't do your short-walk within sight of the house. The head butler is already suspicious of you. Mind that you don't get caught alone with him. It will not be pleasant."
"Who," the boy stammers, "Who are you?"
"Someone who knows what happens when you squeeze your eyes tight and imagine stepping from a cliff," I tell him. "Your talent will serve you well, Sam. It will also be the death of the ones you love."
"A cliff. How do you, how do you know, I mean, I don't know what you're talking about!"
The thick-headed defiance. Mother always hated that. So did Father.
"How did you cut your lip?"
The boy looks at the ground, exactly as I used to when I was about to lie. It took Gaston months to train that out of me at the Citadel. "The orange trees," he mumbles, "The thorns caught me when I was picking."
I shake my head. "His buckle is square, and iron, with an edge to it. He forged it himself, and never forgave you for tending flowers instead of learning to forge one yourself. Even your short-walk does you no good when you get home too late, does it, Sam?"
Again, those wide eyes, but this time followed by a glimmer of suspicion. I feel a swell of pride, in spite of myself. I wasn't a complete idiot, it seems.
The boy backs up, very slowly. He probably thinks he's being subtle, as he draws nearer to a pickaxe that hangs from the wall. "What do you want?"
"To make sure you leave here. Tonight."
He inches closer to the axe, not making a sound while he does so. I admire that. "I'm not going anywhere with you."
"Maybe not with me, but you are leaving this estate, Sam. One way or another." I hope he gets the message. It would be bad for both of us if he chose another.
"You're in danger. And those you care about are in even greater danger if you stay here."
His fingers are brushing the handle now. I can feel the sweat on his palms. "This is stupid," he ventures, "I'm just a garden boy! Who cares what I do?"
His fingers freeze. "Huh?"
"You know exactly who I mean, Samuel. She knows how you watch her from between the roses. Today, you're just a silly thing, but tomorrow. Tomorrow, Sam..."
I can't continue. Tomorrow is when she'll be caught in the rainstorm, and you, boy, you'll plunge into the darkness after her, covering miles in the blink of an eye. You'll find her in those woods and you'll bring her back in your arms. And she'll love you, boy. She'll love you from that day until the day she is executed for loving a traitor.
I hand him a fat purse. "Take this. There are two hundred sovereigns in there. The inn at Besenbridge, ten leagues to the north? The keeper is a good man in need of an apprentice, his sons are dead of fever, and he uses his belt only to hold up his trousers. Go north, and forget this place."
I am relieved as I watch the boy reach the crest of the hill on the road north. Soon, he vanishes.
As do I.