Jack was sitting on the bench of his cart. Now that he was alone he was having a hard time bringing himself to function enough to take the reins and go back home. So instead he sat with his elbows on his knees, absently playing with his knife. He traced a thumb along the silver inlay in the blade. Then he slid the thumb down to the edge, and let the minor pain give him something to focus on. Slowly, achingly, the panic faded. It was just him, in his cart, alone, and safe. When he heard the woman’s voice, he didn’t understand the words at first. It was the second time that he heard a “Hey,” and turned his head. The woman speaking to him was a dragonian in a modest dress, with piercing eyes framed by dark hair. Continue reading “Promises – Part 18”
Meanwhile Jack was content to observe the goings-on around him, just as he’d always been. At least, it felt to him that that’s how it had always been. So he sat as a stone in the rippling pond of activity around him as family and friends reunited for the joyous occasion between two people who were barely more than acquaintances to him. Occasionally someone would notice him, but they would leave their interactions at a smile, sometimes a nod. That was perfectly fine. Jack didn’t see the need to fill a deeper role than just the enigmatic jeweler. It was a role he was good at, keeping everyone at arm’s length for, what was it, over a year now? Continue reading “Promises – Part 17”
Warm sunlight filtered through the leaves of the trees that shaded the dirt road that served as the main street for the small town. Every-so-often, the clattering of a cart and the dull thud of hooves interrupted the tranquility of the near-empty stretch of road. A line of small buildings lined one side of the road, and stalls lined the other, creating a small attempt at a bazaar for such a tiny village in the midst of the vast stretch of farmland that led down the slow slope to the nearby coastal town. Here the farmers and fishers traded and bartered the day’s haul, and shared the news from their respective lives. This day was a slow day for business, as everyone was preparing for the harvest celebration.
A set of hooves once again broke the quiet as a small dragonian woman rode down the road with a fervor. She was off her mount before it had come to a full stop in front of one of the small buildings and tried the door. It opened with the sound of a small bell and permitted her entrance to a tiny shop front lined with glass cases in which glittered all manner of gem and jewelry. From the back room the woman could hear the small ting of metal being hammered.
“Jack! What are you doing? You were supposed to be at the Collins’s half an hour ago.”
“I’m almost done, Cathy.” Jack called from the back room. “Charles came by earlier today and brought the most fantastic addition.”
The hammering ended and Cathy crossed the storefront to the door of the workroom. The room itself was plain and sparse, with the only furniture being the workbench, an armchair, a small cast iron stove, and a bed. However, the precious jewels and metals that were strewn about the space made it resemble someone’s prized trophy room. Jack was presently seated at the workbench, his back to his visitor. Suddenly he popped his head up and turned to look at her. “It’s done. Do you want to see it?” Cathy nodded and he picked up the object and presented it. It was an intricate silver tiara, with thread-thin wisps of gold entwined through the spiralling designs. At the center of the design was a polished gem that looked as if it held fire within in.
Cathy put a hand to her mouth. “It’s beautiful, Jack. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Jack nodded and turned back to his workbench. He lovingly placed the product into a plain wooden box, and rose from his seat, taking the box with him. When he reached the door to the workroom, he stopped at a full cane basket that was tucked into the corner and pulled out one that was elegantly carved.
“You’ve got quite the collection going,” Cathy quipped. “I’m starting to feel like it’s less of a help to you and more of an accessory.”
“You know me, Cathy,” Jack responded, “I can’t pass up the opportunity to turn some heads.”
Cathy had noticed that Jack rarely ever leaned on the canes anymore, and in fact he was usually without one when in private. Every so often, though, she caught him gripping the top of the cane tightly, or staggering, just a little bit, as he walked across a room. Today he put just a little more weight on the cane as he traversed the storefront. Cathy waited for him to lock the front door and return to the back room before asking if he wanted her help hooking up the carriage.
“No, I got it hooked up earlier with Charles.” Jack said, and the two made their way through the workroom and out the back door of the building. Waiting out back was a small plain carriage hooked up to a sturdy horse. Jack placed the box and his cane in the small luggage area in the back while Cathy untied the lead, and soon they were loaded up and on their way.
Cathy watched the buildings fall away to the sea of browns and greens that rolled softly with the cool breeze. Autumn was waning, the final crops of the season had been harvested, and the preparations for winter had begun. As she soaked in all the natural beauty around her, she understood why so many city-dwellers wanted to leave. The air was cleaner, the pace was slower, the people were friendlier.
“It’s hard to imagine we ever lived in the city,” she mused.
Jack gave a small noise of agreement, but Cathy caught the distracted tone behind it. She turned her attention to him to try to glean more information from his expression. It had little to offer, but behind the stony mask she saw how his brows were creased together, just a little bit, and his jaw was firmly set. Cathy could only sigh in soft resignation. There was no use dragging out the same tired conversation they’d had nearly every day they’d first arrived in the house Charles had purchased. It was the same conversation that drove Jack to move out of that house and into the back room of his shop months later. So instead she returned her attention to the rolling fields for the remainder of the trip.
Soon enough they arrived at the Collins’ farm, which was moderately decorated in all manner of seasonal fare. Tables were laid out with cornucopia centerpieces that were bursting with various harvest goods. Charles’ Aether lights were strung between poles in preparation of the sunset. The spotlight of the event was at an old, ornate wedding arch that sat atop a small mound at the edge of the clearing, just before the start of the crop land. It was there that Jack and Cathy went after dismounting the cart and securing the lead. An older, plump naga woman rushed up to them before they set even one foot on the mound.
“Jack, deary!” the woman exclaimed as she pulled Jack into a tight hug. “You’re just in time. Krissine is almost done with her preparations.”
“Then you’ll want to make sure she has the final touch,” he replied with a grin and handed her the wooden box.
The woman bounced back, nearly folding over herself with joy. “Oooooh, she’ll be so excited. I’m excited.” She lifted the lid of the box ever so slightly, then snapped it shut again. “No, I shouldn’t. I want to be just as surprised as she is.” And with that, she hurried off to deliver the parcel.
Jack shook his head and made his way to one of the chairs toward the back of the wedding area. Cathy started to sit next to him, but when she got close to him she decided instead to just pat him on the shoulder and say, “Try to have a good time today. There’s still a lot of people around here you don’t know yet.” Then she walked away to find something with which to busy herself. With any luck, if she left him alone long enough, Jack might just find someone to take his mind off Nadine for once. She doubted it, though.
Nadine was inconsolable. She spent entire days holed up in her room, refusing food and shirking all request and visitors. A small mound of gifts and flowers began piling in the corner. None of them were touched. Queen Sathira had just about worn out her last efforts to communicate with her daughter when one night she suddenly burst through the door into the queen’s chamber.
“Have you found him?” Nadine asked her startled mother. She had dark bags under her eyes and was looking pale.
Sathira set her book down and rose from her chair. “Found whom, dear?”
Nadine slammed her hand against the wall, making her mother draw back a bit. “You know damn well whom, mother!”
Sathira moved carefully toward her daughter. “Nadine, dear, come sit down. Please.”
“I will not. I cannot. I will not rest until I find him again.” Nadine was moving swiftly around the room, never pausing. “My life means nothing now! I mean nothing.”
“You mean everything,” came a voice from the doorway.
Nadine whipped around to face the one who dared intrude on her self-loathing. It was Roger, straight-backed, holding a bouquet in one hand.
“Please,” Roger cooed as he cautiously entered, “allow me just a few moments of your time to show you it’s true.”
“Yes, daugther,” Sathira pleaded, “please. Take your mind off your troubles, at least for a while.”
Roger approached Nadine, who was frozen in an arched poise. He gave a full bow and offered the bouquet to her.
“We will send the guards out once again to find him,” the queen assured. “No matter where he’s gone. Now, please go out and have a lovely time.”
Nadine stayed frozen. Her eyes darted from her mother to her suitor. Sathira was wringing her hands. Roger stayed as immobile as her, waiting for her decision. Finally, mechanically, she straightened herself, smoothed her gown, and took the bouquet. “I must change,” she said in a quiet monotone. “I will have our servants bring you chocolate while you wait.”
Roger and Sathira were quietly talking about nothing in particular while they held tiny cups of chocolate that they never drank from when Nadine re-entered. Her dress was a stunning afternoon affair with her hair coiffed under a decorated hat. The bags under her eyes and the tear stains under her cheeks were expertly covered with the finest makeup. She seemed like a whole new woman. A servant announced her, and Roger set down his cup and rose from his seat. He was beaming with delight at the sight of her.
“Your Highness, if you do not mind my saying, you look ravishing,” he told her.
Her smile of response felt to her like it required all the effort of every muscle in her face, but it seemed to pass inspection.
Roger approached her and offered his arm. “Shall we?”
Nadine nodded and placed her hand delicately onto his arm. She was a perfect, porcelain, mechanical doll all the way out to the courtyard. Along the way, Roger made no attempt at idle conversation, but he did greet and acknowledge every servant that they passed. It was only when they reached the light and fresh air of the courtyard that he finally addressed her.
“I’ve been told that the courtyard is your favorite part of the castle,” he said casually. “Is that correct?”
Nadine nodded. “Yes. I used to spend every moment I could out here, when I was younger.”
“I can see why. It truly is a beautiful place.”
The princess gave another, silent nod.
The two traversed the lined path that swirled inward around the courtyard, its progress only interrupted by the cross of paved walkway that jutted from the four entrances to a central dias. In between the two conflicting designs was a variety of lush foliage, all imported from far off places and painstakingly cared for by the castle gardeners. The sight and fragrance of the strange and beautiful plants began to draw Nadine out of her cloistered depression, and her movements became more relaxed.
Roger seemed to sense it, and she caught him smiling down at her as they went.
“Do you enjoy the arts?” he asked her.
“I do,” she said.
“Then would you do me the honour of accompanying me to the ballet? I have a box there, and they are having a performance tonight.”
Nadine stiffened again.
“I apologize if I’m being too forward,” Roger quickly added. “I understand that things have been difficult for you these past few months.”
The princess looked down at the path. Roger let her fall into silence while they continued their trek. They had just reached the opposite end of the courtyard when she finally said, “Roger, why are you here?”
“I enjoy your company, your highness.”
“You don’t know me, though.”
“I would like to,” Roger said with a glance to her, “if you’ll permit me.”
Nadine did not look up from the path. “And…What are your thoughts on…” She was absently rubbing the palm of her hand.
It did not take long for Roger to fill in the blanks. He gave a small sigh, stopped, and gently took her hand. He unfolded her fingers to reveal the scar on her palm, and lightly traced his own finger across it. “You are a very brave woman, Nadine. You have made decisions based on your own judgement, and followed through with conviction. I want that in a wife. It seems far more exciting than someone who only thinks of others’ perception.”
Nadine was looking at him now. Roger looked into her eyes and said, “I want to be there with you, and your son, through all the wild fancies you have. If you will have me there.”
Roger watched as a tear rolled down the flawless mask of makeup on Nadine’s face, followed by another. Suddenly Nadine’s face was buried into his chest, her arms wrapped tightly around him, and her body heaving with powerful, but quiet, sobs.
The entire building was chaotic when Nadine made her way in through the back entrance. Flurries of gossiping neighbors and movement filled the halls that were normally barren at the dead of night. Though she couldn’t make out everything that was being said, she heard “the princess” enough times to decide that she shouldn’t be seen. She curled into a sitting position on the floor of the darkened storage room to think. Soon she heard voices she recognized come closer, and the door opened. Nadine made a hasty move out of the direct line of sight of the door, but watched Jack’s friends enter, each with a sack or two in tow, heading for the back door. Along with them came jeers and a couple “Good riddance” remarks from the crowd in the hall. Once the door closed, Nadine moved toward them. “What’s happening?” she asked. “Where’s Jack?” Continue reading “Promises – Part 14”
Nadine was on the verge of sobbing by the time she was seated back at her table. Her mother was holding her hand and dabbing her face with a kerchief so that her tears would not ruin the makeup. Continue reading “Promises – part 13”
The band was warming up when Jack and Cathy arrived in the clearing for the ball. They found a table that seemed well situated: not too close to the dancing area to garner too much attention; not so far back as to seem anti-social; and not in the middle where Jack could feel overwhelmed. Others were already milling about, and soon enough a group came that recognized Cathy and immediately swooped to their table to sit and gossip.
“Who’s this fine gentleman?” a woman named Tammi asked about Jack.
Jack knew her well enough. More So than Tammi would ever admit to the man who was currently escorting her, but either she didn’t recognize him or she was pretending so that she wouldn’t accidentally out herself. Jack hoped it was the former and ran with it.
“My name is Sam. It’s a pleasure to meet you, miss…”
“Tammi,” she replied, and gave a small curtsey.
Jack gave small bow of his head. “I would rose to greet you all, but,” he held up his cane.
The women and their escorts excused him from the courtesy and went down the line of introductions. Tammi was being escorted by a fair haired gentleman named Francis. Then there was Winnie, a delightfully curvaceous woman with red hair, who was escorted by a young man named Cornelius who was her exact opposite: lanky and awkward. Finally there was Fran, who was as thin of frame as she was stern of mouth, accompanied by a very short gentleman named George. The women all talked of the town, while the men discussed business, game, and other matters. They all kept up the idea of high class as the seats filled and the dancing began. Once the food and drink was brought around, though, the topics of discussion quickly became more casual, verging at times on vulgar.
The music came to an abrupt end, and an announcement was made that the royal family had arrived. “Fashionably late, of course,” Winnie commented to the group, and was met with appreciative snickers. Jack found himself craning his neck to see the subjects of attention. He didn’t remember them ever making this much of a show of the royal family before. Not that he ever cared before, he reminded himself. Even some of the nobles seemed confused though, with many of them whispering to each other. Some people bowed to varying degrees, but there was no precedented pomp and circumstance that anyone seemed to follow. Finally he caught a glimpse of her. She was radiant in a gown of purples and blues, with her hair coiffed in a spiralling updo of curls and ribbons. Delicate makeup accentuated her features, but did nothing to hide the fierce blushing that she was doing.
Nadine had never felt so self conscious. She had asked, begged, that no announcement be made. Her mother had insisted, though. “How else will the eligible bachelors know that the belle has arrived to the ball?”
“Perhaps by looking at our reserved table,” her father had quipped.
In the end, though, SAthira had her way. NOw the princess was being stared at, whispered about. Nadine felt like she would melt under the heat of their gaze. They all knew, of course that she had borne a bastard, and a blasphemy at that. She looked beyond the nobles crowding the dance area to the draconians who lounged at the tables. How many of them had she begun to know as neighbors and friends during the nights she had crept down to Water Street? How many of them had known who she was the whole time? Well, they all knew now, and now she could never be normal, even for pretend. She ran her fingers over the scar on her palm. After an eternity, she was finally escorted with her parents to their table, and the band struck up again. Plates of food and goblets of drink were placed in front of them, and family friends and high ranking nobles began cycling through to give pleasantries to the royal family. Nadine gave her best smiles to each guest that came by. Then the available men began arriving to ask for a dance. This was the moment Nadine had been excited for. One by one fine gentlemen escorted her to the dance area. They showered her with compliments and praised her elegance as they slid through the twisting moves of their traditional dances. At times they were side-by-side with pairs of draconians, and Nadine marvelled at their combinations of food, hand, and wing movement. They had an intimacy to their dancing that was almost resque.
During one dance, Nadine was being bored out of her mind by the droll of an overly pompous nobleman who seemed to think that she wanted to hear the minute details of his father’s farmlands to the west. Just as she thought she would finally lose her mind, she heard a familiar laugh. She perked up her head and looked frantically in the direction of the sound, but the tables were packed too densely and the field was too dark to pick anyone out. But he was out there. She knew it.
“Is something wrong?” the nobleman asked.
“What? No. I just… heard something strange.” Nadine replied.
The nobleman looked in the direction she had looked in. “What a blight on society,” he commented with a voice dripping with disdain. “I don’t know why we allow them to be part of this event.”
Nadine moved back from her dancing partner. “Without them there would be no event. This entire day is meant to celebrate the peace that we’ve had between our races.”
“Please. They lost the war. We’re celebrating our victory over those bipedal monstrosities. Oh, wait. That’s right. You fornicated with one. That’s why you have to redeem yourself by marrying someone of proper birth.”
The sound of the slap rang out through the ball. Couples around them stopped in their tracks and stared at the two. The nobleman made a move to retaliate against Nadine, but three guards swooped in, one to restrain the man and two to escort the princess back to her table.
“Sam. Sit down please.”
Jack looked down at Cathy, who had an iron grip on his sleeve and murder in her eyes. It was only then that he realized he was standing, cane in his left hand, and his right thumb on the release button for the hidden blade. The other people at the table were watching him in rapt curiosity. Jack let out his breath and slowly sat back down.
Cathy patted his arm and said to the others in a reassuring voice, “Sam came from a harsh village. He’s always ready for a brawl.”
“Is that why you walk with a cane now?” Tammi asked.
“Yes,” Jack replied. “The boss at the work yard was very strict, and the other men were more so.”
The group nodded in understanding, and directed the conversation back to more pleasant and amusing topics.