A Snake-faced penitent walks from sun to night.
The place he has left was filled with pigs and pillars and betrayals. Some of those betrayals were his.
In the inner pocket of his chain and velvet cloak, the Snake-faced man carries an envelope speaking of windfall wealth. He carries also a bloodied knife and a flower. A hand to plant, a hand to destroy, and a pocket full of potential. He has a choice in paths and wants to right the wrongs of his past, but the Snake-faced man doesn't know which way to tread. Daylight is behind him now. His heart feels full of wyrms.
The paths aren't marked. The sign-posts are as empty as an excuse. The Snake-faced man stands still at the crossroads. One way looks dismal; the other bright. The Snake-faced man knows which journey he deserves, but he also know that he wouldn't be in his predicament if were best at choosing to do right.
It's not my fault, he thinks. Time passes. Leaves blow along the path, the moon rises, and the night stretches forward until the end of time. The Snake-faced man thinks that maybe he will stand forever between decisions. He could set down everything he carries and sink into the earth.
What the future might hold is any oracle's guess. Sometimes a chance meeting can change everything. A Ferret-faced woman, quarter-staff in hand to support her limping plod arrives at the crossroads. She comes from the tranquil-looking lane, but her face is lined with stress.
She puts down the stick and sits unshifting in the dirt.
"Is it better down that road?" the Snake-faced man asks.
"How would I know, I've only been the one way," the Ferret-woman rasps. "But I'll tell you this. It isn't half so nice down that way as the trailhead might lead you to expect. If I still had the strength to do things over, I'd take my chances with the other path. Sometimes those kinds of risks pay out."
And sometimes they don't, The Snake-faced man thinks. He looks down the other road: it is dark and grey, leading to a dripping cave. The route the Ferret-woman arrived from looks to lead to lush forest and well-kept cobbles. If that pleasant-looking path was hard enough to turn her into a panting wreck, then the Snake-faced man can't imagine the travails awaiting one fool-hardy enough to attempt the cavern.
The Ferret-woman watches the shift of the Snake-faced man's eyes, and answers his unvoiced query: "It looks like a simple stroll, but leads to desert past the brush. There is a ruin in the sands, and among those toppled down stones lurks calamity. I only barely got away, and even so…" she looks anxiously over her shoulder, "I don't think I escaped."
"And what makes you think it will be any better for me down that way?" the Snake-faced man says, nodding at the cave. A cold wind howls up from that path. It sounds like despair. It looks like death. The cave mouth is a darkened maw unpenetrated by moon-light. Any disaster could lurk within.
"Nothing at all," says the Ferret woman, folding her paws, "but you can't stay here. There's a dragon on my tail and what he'll do when he gets here I cannot say. Nothing cheery, I'll wager, and I doubt that he'll see any difference between us when he deals out his punishment. We've both done wrong – I see the mark of it on you– and the dragon I disturbed only spares the innocent."
"So I have no choice?" the Snake-faced man asks.
"You can go forward, go back, or stay here," says the Ferret-woman, kicking off her shoes. "It's no concern to me. I'm done running away. You can even go down the forest trail and save the dragon half its walk. Maybe it will be sated and sleep. I'll have a few more days to sit here and contemplate my fate. You choose."
The Snake-faced man grips his knife. The bloodstained blade glints in the pale moonlight. There are no dragons pursuing him; only guilt.
He could go back, he knows. He could still return to who he had been before. He could slash and cheat and steal. The people he used to call his friends would accept him easily back into their fold. There would be more windfalls, wine, comfort, and cheer. The guilt would fade and this moment at the crossroads would turn into nothing more than a hazy memory of a silly quest left unfulfilled.
The Snake-faced man shudders at the thought. He doesn't need forgiveness, and ill-gained comfort is something he's had more than his share of. What he seeks is far more elusive:
Perhaps it is waiting for him in the cave. Perhaps he will plant his flower there and grow a new life: a harvest with less remorse than the windfall he carries close. The letter is heavy as a rock and hot as a firebrand against his conscience. The Snake-faced man comes to a decision.
He opens his pocket and takes out the envelope tucked within. He hands it to the Ferret-woman.
"Give this to your dragon when he comes. I hear that they are greedy lizards. The promise of wealth may stay his bite."
The Ferret-women clutches the envelope with dirt-stained claws. As she slowly opens it to read, the Snake-faced man wipes his knife along the dusty ground, then cleans it on the red lining of his cloak. This leaves a stain along the velvet which the Snake-faced man knows will never fade, but he is fine with this. He knows that he will want the reminder of where he came from in the days ahead. The blade itself shines new and bloodless. It looks innocent, like it has never killed.
"Take this also," he says, giving the weapon to the Ferret-woman. "To strike if he does not desist."
The woman grasps the hilt with a curious smile. She looks stronger suddenly in the bright moon-lit. Her dull fur shines with gold. She isn't what she first appeared, the Snake-faced man realizes.
But then, who in this life is?
"Find what you are looking for," the Consul says as the Snake-faced man goes on his way.