With each step, the sound of voices and running feet grew louder. The smells of different kinds of fruits, meats, and perfumes began to fill the air, and he knew without a doubt that he was approaching his home town.
It's still not to late to turn back, he thought to himself. But he knew his mind was made up. Once he had confessed everything, he could start over. Regardless of what his family's remaining vassals would say, he would be relieved of his greatest burden.
He was so deep in thought that he almost did not see the woman on the side of the road. Only when he heard how hard she was breathing did he take notice.
"Young lady, are you all right?" he asked.
"Ah...good...good day to you, sir..." She attempted to curtsy, and he realized that she was heavily pregnant.
"Oh...please, there's no need for that. I'm a commoner just like you. Please, let me assist you." He hopped down from the driver's seat and held out his hand. "My name is Fauxnel. I know this area very well."
"Th-thank you." She eagerly accepted Fauxnel's hand as he helped her into the gig.
"Where is your husband?" he asked her. "I certainly hope he has a good reason for letting you walk all by yourself in this heat."
The woman fanned herself as she caught her breath. "He is...nearby..."
"Close to Greensborough?"
"Yes...Do you know Riverstreet?"
"I live about a mile to the west." As Fauxnel said this, he wondered again what his retainers would say. His hands gripped the reins.
"Well, if it isn't Fauxnel!"
Fauxnel cringed at the last voice he wanted to hear. "So, do you mind telling..."
"Hey! Ya deaf? Fauxnel! Goldilocks!"
Fauxnel ground his teeth together. "I can hear you, Gwendal."
"Well, then, answer a gentleman when he greets ya. I've given up fighting for the time being. Buying and selling is where it's at."
Fauxnel sighed and turned to his passenger. "I must speak to him. Otherwise he will follow us all the way to our destination." He turned back to Gwendal. "What do you want? I have neither the time nor desire to speak with you."
"Aww, don't be like that. You'll be happy to learn I've gone straight."
"Why would I care whether or not you've gone straight?" Fauxnel grumbled.
"No more fighting for me. It just ain't profitable anymore. And I gotta take care of this temple." Gwendal pounded his stomach. "Buying and selling. That's where the money is. I got this gig for only 1,000 oth! Can you believe it?"
"No," he said flatly. "Who sold it to you-a child?" Bingo, he thought as Gwendal's face colored. He wrinkled his nose. "Well, at least now I can say it doesn't suit you."
"Hey, I'm tryin'," Gwendal shot back. "Anyway, looks like you've been busy, too. What were you doin', living it up at the royal court when you had a pregnant woman back at home?"
"Why, you...!" Why was it that this man could always get a rise out of him? "I'll have you know this woman is not my wife!"
Gwendal leaned back and roared with laughter. "I never said she was your wife!"
Fauxnel's face was hot as he looked around at the passersby. There were murmurs. He managed to catch phrases like "Isn't that...?" and "...too bad." He opened his mouth to respond, but the woman next to him spoke first.
"This man is not my husband! He is a kind gentleman who has offered to give me a ride. He does not deserve your ridicule."
The passersby cringed as if bitten, and even Gwendal looked embarrassed. "I was just having a little fun," he mumbled. "Wasn't serious or anything."
"Let's go," said Fauxnel, turning to the woman. "It's not much further."
"Well, whaddya know? I'm going that way, too!" Gwendal announced, adding, "But I've got some bargains to check out here first. I should have thought of this years ago. See ya!"
"He's like an overexcited housewife," Fauxnel muttered. He then turned to the woman with a smile on his face. "We should get going, too."
They spent most of the ride in silence. A few townsfolk recognized him, but most did not.
It's been too long. The realization came as a relief. If his vassals rejected him, he might still find a way to eke out a living.
As he approached his home, he heard a man's voice.
"It's him! He's come back! Master Fauxnel!"
Tears sprang to Fauxnel's eyes. "Jake..."
"Excuse me," the woman interrupted. "Please let me walk from here. My husband will be angry if he sees me in the company of another man."
"I understand." Fauxnel nodded in his house's direction. "If things do not work out for you regarding your husband, please come here. Someone will look after you."
"Thank you." She stepped down from the gig and bowed. "You have been very kind to me."
Kind...Am I kind?
"It's really him! Master Fauxnel!"
"I told you he'd be back!"
No...Don't welcome me back so eagerly!
Overcome with emotion, Fauxnel dropped to his knees. Then, before he was even aware of what he was doing, he lowered his head to the ground, as if in supplication.
"Forgive me," he pleaded. "I do not deserve your respect or your welcome. I have dirtied my hands. I have committed murder against my dearest friend, and destroyed a family. I killed not only him, but his brother, as well. I let him think that it was his fault, because he didn't know I was behind his brother's death, and when he still wouldn't support me, I killed him, too." He was sobbing, not bothering to put his sins in any order, repeating himself, correcting himself, making excuses, berating himself for those excuses, laying himself out, naked and vulnerable, so that all could see what a loathsome creature he was. "And in the end, it was all for nothing. I could not restore our clan. I have failed you all."
"Master Fauxnel, please raise your head."
Fauxnel did, and began to sob again. His loyal vassals, the only family he had left, smiled down at him with expressions filled with love and forgiveness.
"We are glad that you have returned," said Jake. "You have had a hard time. Please come in and rest."
"Jake...Everyone..." Fauxnel shakily got to his feet. "Thank you. I promise you, I will do whatever it takes to repent for my deeds. I will dedicate my life to serving Artolia. So please, believe in me once more."
"We will," a young woman with a child in her arms assured him. "Please believe in us as well."
Fauxnel nodded. Finally, after years of staying away, fearful of his family judging him, he had overcome his anxiety and come home.
It was time to start over.