Tara had retreated into the bathroom; when there was a soft knock on the door she opened it a crack to accept some clothing. It must have come from the Gyptian's closet; she donned muted shades that held a softly exotic scent. Willow's bathroom was beautiful, mirrors and the floor tiles were lit with naphtha, and a single stunning orchid was blooming on the shelf by the window.
Willow's towels were incredibly soft and thick. They felt like a caress on her hands.
Tara felt very odd as she pulled on these unfamiliar clothes. The events of the past day seemed to veil themselves; she felt as if she were walking a dream, that she would wake any moment, screaming and squirming to find herself in her bed above the poppy den. She pressed the towel against her cheek to remind herself that this was real.
She had to guard her movements; her leg and her side had lodged formal complaints with management, sending out distress signals of pain and heat. How strange that this pain made her feel so happy, for it meant she was still alive.
Willow must have dressed herself rather quickly; she was standing in a different outfit by the window when Tara emerged from the bathroom. The sun could not hide its fascination with the redhaired woman; streaming through the pane of glass Tara could see a halo of glistening light about Willow's head. It shone incandescent, like a tongue of celestial flame.
Then Willow turned, and Tara saw the bruise on her cheek, snaking from the broken nose, and the thin skin of a bandage over her belly. Before she could say a word, Willow said, "Don't even think it, Tara. What happened was not your fault. You may have hurt me, but I certainly hurt you back."
Tara's smile was small as she limped into the golden room, light echoing from the off-white ceiling and from the flame licked hair. "How did you know what I was thinking?" she asked.
Willow paused, and then began walking to Tara, to meet her halfway through the space between them. "I remember when I first came into your den, and you sat across from me and it seemed that there was no secret you could not penetrate. You knew about my parents and grandparents, about my life and my sorrow. With one look it seemed as if you saw my entire universe. You said it was because you were a scholar of the human condition. My training may not have been as long as yours, but I do have my moments from time to time."
"I've been curious about something," Tara said, and Willow was now beside her, and she took Tara's hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and together they began to walk out of the room. The ache in Tara's leg was fierce.
"What's that?" Willow asked.
It was that moment that Tara found herself in the hallway leading from Willow's bedchamber.
The awe began almost instantaneously.
This painting was a Caravaggio, and it depicted a roguish cupid with dark eagle wings, standing victorious over the spoils of earth: lute, armour, coronet, and compass. The painting was softly lit with naphtha, and as Tara lifted her hand to nearly touch the wrought canvas she heard Willow say, "Amor vincit omnia, Love conquers all."
Tara had to smile, a slow and deep appreciative smile both for the astonishing talent of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and the delicious curiosity of why Willow had chosen this painting. "Why this painting, Willow?" Tara asked.
"It surprised me at first," Willow said, looking at the painting. "I was visiting Berlin with Buffy, and the commandante of the Luftwaffe had this painting hidden behind a curtain. When he revealed the painting to me, at first I wondered if he had hidden it for its eroticism." She chuckled, confident and low, and Tara felt the vibration of that beloved sound deep in her chest. "The commandante told me that it was only hidden so it could be properly revealed, that to gaze upon it without provocation or preparation would be emasculating its power. It took quite some time before I could make him an offer he could not refuse. I only knew I had to have it."
"What was the offer?" Tara asked, her hand hovering over the canvas, as it to touch it would transfer some of its power to her, a student learning from a roguish master.
"I traded a Stradivarius for it."
Tara could not help but look at Willow with awe. "You owned a Stradivarius?" she asked.
"Correction. I own a Stradivarius. I had to give up Jupiter for this painting, but I still own Firebird."
There had been no craftsmen on earth who had mastered the art of violin making like the family Stradivari. Fewer than 700 of the instruments had been made, and a small portion of them had been lost to the currents of time.
Their inner parts were constructed of willow.
"How did you make your money, Willow?" Tara asked.
"Can I show you?" Willow asked in return, and beneath the surface of her words was a great delight in the works of the world, the pride she had in her house, and the story that turned a nearly destitute girl into one of the wealthiest women on the planet. Tara understood Willow's disconnect with money, how money was only a vehicle to greater things. It seemed that what they both cared about was the human connection to precious objects, and how the history of the world was passed down through artifact, music, and story.
It was only two nights ago that Tara had driven her motorcycle up to the beach strand at midnight, to bury her toes in the cool sand and listen despondently to the hissing futility of waves against the shore, illuminated thinly by the thumbnail moon. Perhaps she was asleep, and she would yet wake screaming.
They continued to walk, and cleansing fiery pain raced through her. She limped, joyous with every step.
Willow's fingers were warm, and they continued this slow shuffle down the hallway. All the paintings were lit with naphtha; imparting life to the oils and acrylics, as if those captured between paintbrush and canvas could erupt from their designated spaces and roam the corridors of Willow's house, capturing love, exuding peace, delighting in a world so brave and beautiful.
Tara had to pause once more, not only for the aching stitch in her side, but also in appreciation of the Blake.
It was Whirlwind of Lovers.
No amount of water could douse the Inferno of Tara's heart as she beheld Virgil, standing over the prone form of Dante. Caught within the whirlwind of hell were all those who had succumbed to sensual love, Cleopatra, Tristan, and Dido. This nimbus of lovers cascaded up through the sky, the depth of their need tangible, clasped twixt the jaws of hell for the sin of lustful love.
"Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving," Tara whispered, her favourite quote from the fifth Canto.
Tara turned to Willow, whose eyes shone in the naphtha. With every passing moment Tara sensed her own whirlwind arising, a column of light and air to raise her from her own personal hell. It was obvious that this painting held great significance for the red-haired woman, for Willow gave a low and wistful smile before saying, "This painting was for Buffy."
Buffy, the daughter of the tawny-haired woman who had cried in her sleep before accepting Tara's gift.
Willow's smile slowly vanished. "Buffy Summers was my closest friend and ally. I had actually bought this painting for her and Riley as a wedding gift. After Buffy died, Riley couldn't bear to have it in his house any longer, so he gave it back to me. Every time I look at it, I remember Buffy and what she had found in Riley, something I had looked for and never found for myself."
Tara's throat was too thick to speak. A swelling of both pity and pride surged through her as she looked upon Willow, her fair face, her blackened eye. She had to answer by gently squeezing Willow's hand.
They eventually emerged into a bright and tantalizing kitchen. There were three people in the kitchen, whose muted conversation halted completely as they walked in. Tara immediately recognized the dark-haired Gyptian whose face flickered between resigned acceptance and tangible warning. Next to her stood a man; he had paused in sipping a cup of kaf. Another woman, younger and certainly more sensual, leaned against the counter, cutting and eating an apple with small economical movements of a knife.
The air suddenly seemed a little cool. "Good morning Miss Rosenberg," the man said, and then he continued, "It's good to see both of you up and about."
Tara felt self-conscious, standing in Willow's kitchen, holding her hand and feeling infinitely uncomfortable in her borrowed clothes. As she had suspected, it was the Gyptian who had offered the clothing Tara wore.
"I guess it's time for some proper introductions," Willow was saying. Tara felt herself propelled into the space, and she extended her hand for the man to shake.
"Rupert Giles," the man said, his voice rolling with the cadence of a Briton. As Tara shook his hand, she noted the crisscrossing of scars on his skin, his slightly callused fingers. His shake was strong but not overpowering, and as she looked at him she realized that he was lover of peace as well as a lover of justice; his hand would kill when needed, and when the work of the heroes was done it was he who came along to clean up the mess. He would kill those who needed killing, apologizing as he did so, but yet he would kill.
One of those deaths hung on him. Did Willow grant someone an unwarranted clemency, a bargain that Giles eventually denied?
"I'm Tara," she replied.
It was a vastly different handshake with the Gyptian. As only Europeans could, the slight brown-haired woman shook the ends of Tara's fingers, a handshake that would have seemed fishy and insincere from Westerners who could not understand that it was not always needful to demonstrate superiority within a handshake. The ancestry of the woman was obvious; if they had been even remote acquaintances they would have kissed each other on the cheeks for their greeting, not this empty handshake.
They were barely above being blood enemies.
"Jenny Calendar," the woman said, unnecessarily. Tara remembered her from her house and the blizzard of pages. She had been so alarming, so sincere in her efforts to protect Willow from Tara. As they shook hands Tara wondered if Jenny was surprised to see her here, to see if Tara had made the sacrifice they spoke of or not. For a moment Tara was tempted to reply in the Gyptian's mother tongue, but decided not to.
She wasn't entirely sure she could trust them. Not when they looked at her like that.
When she came face to face with the sultry and ripe girl, Tara was again struck with a haunting sense of familiarity. It wasn't really her face that Tara remembered; it was more her attitude, her self-confident and cocky swagger, the way she could twirl the knife in her palm, the liberal red lipstick. The handshake was strong. "Faith Lehane," the girl said.
Faith seemed nervous around her for some reason, but was also determined not to let it show. All these efforts were remarkably transparent to the Apothecary. Tara lodged the inconsistency of Faith in her mind for later reflection.
It was after they had exchanged the last of the pleasantries and headed down another hallway that Tara realized they were being followed by Faith. The girl stayed judiciously behind them, but made no secret that she was keeping them in sight.
"What's with Faith?" Tara asked.
Willow glanced back and rolled her eyes. "Giles must have asked her to keep an eye on us."
Tara very much doubted that was why Faith was following them. The girl was slim and dangerous and familiar, and Tara knew Faith was targeting her alone. "What does Giles do?" Tara asked.
"He is my Steward," Willow replied, guiding Tara towards a pair of ornate doors. "He is also a surgeon and a swordsmaster. He is the one who patched both of us up yesterday."
"And he had no qualms about my being in your house, as I'm the one that hurt you?"
"There was significant qualmage," Willow said with aplomb. "I still manage to outrank everyone, though. In the end, I pay everyone's salary, so they do as they're told, to a certain extent. I can't quite seem to convince them to play a decent game of poker with me."
"I'm getting pretty curious as to how you pay everyone's salary," Tara said. "You don't strike me as someone who inherited their wealth."
(You don't trust your hairdresser, and where is your puppy?)
They had finally reached the ornate doors. Willow grinned and let go of Tara's hand so she could open the doors. "Come and see," Willow said.
The doors opened, and Tara's jaw dropped open.
She stood in the doorway of the most magnificent library she had seen in centuries, rivaling the libraries of Timbuktu and Angkor Wat. More than thousands of books waited in solemn glory here upon the walls; there were dozens of display cases revealing an array of artifacts from across the globe.
Pulled by some invisible cord, Tara walked deeper into this majestic room, pausing to look at the painstakingly catalogued artifacts, the books lined like veteran soldiers in the shelves, deflected sunlight causing the motes in the air to dance and cartwheel in hushed appreciation.
There was a death mask from Chihuahua, painted in reds and blacks and adorned with twisted hemp. There was a boneblade from Singapore, its handle intricately carved in a relief of elephant tusks. Chubby dieties from the Middle East squatted on crushed velvet, promising a life of virtue and protection from vice. There was even an array of hoodoo; shrunken heads with eyes and mouths sewn shut, bone rattles and cowry shells.
From another continent were gleaned a tomahawk adorned with red feathers and battered moccasins. One of the moccasins was displayed with the sole facing upward; there was a small hole cut into the sole. The beads on the moccasins glittered in memory of dances and prayers. A long peace pipe, the bowl blackened with time and use.
In another case were ancient instruments of mathematics and science, astrolabes and sextants, compasses and a boatswain pipe. Mounted on the wall just above it was an immensely ancient map of the world. Tara stared at the map in barely contained wonder.
"That cannot be a Piri Reis map," Tara finally said. "I thought they were all destroyed."
(didn't we destroy all of them?)
Willow was beside her again. Tara looked at the woman who had conquered her soul, who had battered down the portcullis of Tara's heart and yet did not need Tara to surrender. How was it possible that this woman, this enchanting and intriguing and endlessly beautiful woman not have someone in her life to cherish and love her? How was it possible that Willow was alone in this world?
How did Willow have this map?
Willow was pensive. "I was in Persia some time ago," Willow said slowly. "You may remember hearing about the recent war, how the Mongols had conquered Constantinople. We managed to secure the palace of the Shah against them. After the tide finally turned, the Shah offered his treasure house to us in payment. There were not many things that interested us, so we took only a few items, including this map."
The Mongols. There was a crater on Giles' cheek, and the Gyptian woman loved him.
How close had Willow gotten to the volcanic ash and the bone fragment?
Could any amount of duress be applied to shake this map away from the clutching grasp of the Shah?
Tara could barely hear Willow's words through the roaring of her heart. Until this moment, she had only been concerned with who this woman actually was. Until she saw the map.
Tara remembered how the earth itself keeled as if drunken, as whole continents drifted apart in a massive cracking of the world. That was how Dawn saved them, the last time the world and every living being on it was in jeopardy.
Saved them by destroying them.
Willow was too damned observant.
"What is it, Tara?" she asked.
Tara could only stare at the map drawn on gazelle skin by ancient cartographers. Did Willow ever go to Giza, to solve the riddle of the pyramids? Did she hear the call of Orion? Would her puppy Open The Way for her when it came time? Finally she ripped her gaze from it and asked, "Who are you, Willow?"
These books, these artifacts; they were natural extensions of Willow as any weapon. Her knowledge was just another arrow in her quiver. Why did Willow have such a big house? Why did Faith follow them, standing just inside the doorway? Why did Willow try so hard to keep Tara in her life? What did Willow have to do with the Gyptian woman and these artifacts, Willow speaking of the Luftwaffe commander as if he was a friend, Willow disdaining the wounds inflicted upon her, Willow a walking talking contradiction in every term that could be applied to her?
What had Willow looked like when she came to Tara's den?
(Why did she come to my den?)
Every particle in the air, every tome, every artifact waited to hear Willow's answer. The vibrations of the sound would shake every part of Tara's world.
Willow stood near Tara, and her hair was aflame, her eyes were vast forests of might, adamant lined her bones and lent her strength, for faith was her buckler, and hope was her shield, and with a sword of justice Willow would battle for the good of mankind.
To Tara's surprise, Willow turned her back on her. Before Tara could protest, she watched as Willow pulled down the neck hem of her shirt. As she tugged it down, a three inch tattoo emerged between her shoulder blades, of a dragon with her tail curled about her nest, and her egg was the world.
Tara had been on the earth for nearly six thousand years. She had never expected to see that emblem ever again. Like the Piri Reis map, she thought that line had been long destroyed.
Faith seemed to watch them with even greater intensity.
Tara's first thought was muted gladness; the tattoo on Willow's back did not depict the sword and the dove. Bemused, Tara lifted her hand. Willow gave a slight start as Tara touched the tattoo, running her finger lightly over the dark lines, and deep within her a volcano of memory spewed forth ancient truth, scorching hot, destroying as lava destroys, boiling as only magma can.
Tara, daughter of Fire, and Willow.
Say it, Willow. Please. Say what you are.
As if this woman could indeed hear and respond to Tara's unspoken thought, Willow said, "I am the First Lieutenant of the Drakensdvaerder, Tara. A relic hunter, a mercenary, and a spy."
Tara noticed with a shiver of fear that Willow didn't mention the fourth requirement of the supposedly lost warrior society, nor the name of her commander.
She had been correct since the beginning. Willow would ruin her.