Lily came by early that morning. Only the baby came with her this time.
“Double amount today,” she grinned. “We’re having company tonight.”
“Oh?” Krysilla waved a spell over the dough. She was still tired, and yet, the thought of going to a party, any party, even one where she knew she would feel out of place and stiff with fear, made her nearly giddy with excitement. “Who is it?”
“I don’t know. My husband says he’s sworn to secrecy.”
Sounds like Parlay, she thought, and began writing the receipt.
I should tell her, she thought while Lily rambled on with her wild speculations. She’d need someone to help her with her hair and she’d always admired Lily’s. Plus, of all the women she knew, Lily was the only one she felt she could trust, in spite of her resentments.
Several times she paused in her writing, wanting to broach the subject yet unsure how. And Lejer’s still here, she thought. I can’t let Lejer hear us. Smoothing her apron, she nearly grabbed a fistful of it in hopes it would calm her down. “Would you mind helping me carry this?” she finally managed.
“Not at all.” She repositioned the baby on one hip, then took the basket of paper-wrapped loaves in the other.
Walking toward the outside ovens, Krysilla listened carefully for any sign that Lejer was awake. The moment the bread was in the oven and she’d cast the spell over it, she glanced at the window to make sure Lejer wasn’t awake and watching. “This way,” she said and went behind the large structure.
Lily followed with a puzzled frown and narrowed eyes. “What is it?”
Once they were out of sight, Krysilla said, “I need your help.”
“I’ve been invited to accompany Lejer to the Felldesh manor on New Moon.”
“For the extravaganza?” Lily beamed.
“But he’s forbidden me to go.”
Lily’s puzzled frown returned. She said nothing, simply waited.
“I need to go.”
“Of course you do.” Lily’s support gave her courage.
“I don’t have a dress—”
“I can find you one.”
“—and I need help with my hair.”
“I can come over after Lejer has left.”
Stunned, Krysilla could only stare at Lily in amazement. Lily laughed. “Don’t look so shocked. You work very hard, and I can’t see any reason why he would forbid you to go. And if the fool thinks you have time for a lover on the side, he has greatly overestimated your energy. I do less than you, and I certainly don’t have time for one.”
Krysilla began to laugh, then clamped her jaw shut before the laughter turned into tears. Too late, one drop rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away with an impatient sweep of her hand.
Lily gently placed her hand on Krysilla’s shoulder. “Everyone has their breaking point. A good husband should realize that. And if they don’t, we must remind them.” With a mischievous wink and a grin, she asked, “Is that all you need?”
“I think so. Yes.”
“Done. My husband and I are invited as well. You can ride with us.”
“He won’t mind.”
“No, of course not.” Krysilla wasn’t sure how that might be possible, but she accepted Lily at her word.
“Thank you.” Her voice shook with unshed tears.
How long have I been waiting for someone to tell me it was all right to rest? she wondered after Lily had left and the rest of the day became its usual blur. Now that there was a promise, a mere glimmer of hope, the blur seemed manageable.
And perhaps, she couldn’t help thinking, I’ll see Parlay in his finery. Wouldn’t that be something? She could almost see him with his wild, wavy hair that couldn’t seem to decide if it was gold or brown, and the light of mischief dancing in his eyes like the spark in a King’s Light. The thought of seeing him again was a different kind of relief. The best way she could describe it to herself was as if the market had decided to walk into her life in all its demanding, colorful, calculating, spirited, chaotic order. It calmed her and excited her all at once.
Dinner came and she was restless until Lejer finally walked out the door to follow-up on contacts he’d made the night before. There were times she doubted he worked as hard he said he did. Mostly, he probably enjoyed a drink or three (or five) and any business was incidental.
But she’d never done business as a man, so she wouldn’t know.
After he’d gone, she left the sign turned to let customers know they were still closed, instead of opening up shop again. She spent a few extra minutes using some spells on the kitchen until it was somewhat straightened, then hurried upstairs and collapsed on the bed.
Staring at the ceiling, she listened to the echo of her breath in the empty room. For several long moments, listening to the silence was all she did, all she thought. Sitting up, she stared at the mirror that she was supposed to use every morning.
It had been years since she looked in one. But it was said that mirrors lined the halls of the nobles. And she’d probably have to sit in front of one when she got ready on New Moon.
Getting up, it almost felt dreamlike as she walked up to the mirror and touched the cloth that covered it. A distraction, she had said of the mirror, but now that she looked at it, she wondered how much of a distraction it really was.
This is truth, she told herself, and pulled the cloth off.
Staring back at Krysilla was a stranger. Her straight, thick, black hair, far from being smooth and soft as Krysilla remembered when she was younger, seemed wiry and wild. Straggly locks she had tucked behind her ears as she worked combined with the careless tie that held the bulk of her hair from her face to give the impression of a woman who didn’t care how others viewed her. Her face seemed thin and pinched. Her color had long since left, and lines had begun to appear around her mouth and between her eyes.
Krysilla sat down in front of the mirror and stared.
He was toying with me, she thought. There was no other explanation for Parlay’s flirtatious glances. No. He must be like that with every woman, attractive or not. The thought disheartened her. She laid her head down on arms that folded over the top of the small table.
No tears, though. Not now. “I am going to Felldesh manor,” she whispered.
No, you’re not, that snide, little voice said. She looked up at the mirror and couldn’t help agreeing. Why would I want to go when I look like this? she thought.
Sitting up straight, her lips thinned in determination. Pulling out a brush, she went through her thick hair inch by inch, until it was smooth enough she could put it up in a braided bun. Next, came the washbasin, where she washed her face and dried it.
She had nothing else in the way of beauty treatments, but this was a start. Staring in the mirror once again, she tried to smile. “Come on, dear,” she whispered in the empty room. “You’re going to a party in a few days. Time to practice.”
Awkward as it felt, seeing her own smile cheered her. Her good humor continued through the afternoon during her deliveries, even as the wind tussled her coiffed hair. She put away the cart and opened the door to go inside. Something fluttered down from the top of the doorjamb.
She jumped away from the door with a gasp. Only a piece of paper. Feeling silly for reacting as if it were a rat, she picked it up and put it in her pocket.
Lejer had never left notes for her. And Lily would have come by in person. Putting her cloak on the hook, and slipping off her shoes in case Lejer was home, she went upstairs and shut herself in the Sun Room. Down below, she could see the place where Parlay had played his fiddle. I should have watched him, she thought. It’s silly for a married woman like me to act like a young girl around a man who doesn’t even want me. At least, not for anything respectable.
With those thoughts in her head, she pulled the note out of her pocket.
The moment she began to open it, magic tickled her fingers, then began to pour over them. In her mind’s eye, she could see a blurred figure, a man. Vague emotions that were not her own somehow seemed to have place in her heart. But what came through most clearly was the clarity of thought that accompanied the magic.
Whoever had written this had a plan in mind, and he was being very careful in constructing it.
She opened it with trembling fingers, still shaken by the experience.
Goodwife, the note began, this message is for you and only you. Have you forgotten our meeting? I will be waiting as promised until the last watch sounds. Hurry. We have much to discuss. —P
Growling in frustration, she raced downstairs. Lejer stood at the foot.
His eyes narrowed. “In a hurry?”
“Yes. I forgot a delivery.”
“You’re forgetting a lot of things.”
It only took her a moment before she remembered. Shutting her eyes and slumping her shoulders, Krysilla murmured, “The reports.”
“That’s it. The reports.” He stood at the base of the stairs, blocking her way. “How many more things did you forget?”
If I knew that, I wouldn’t count them as forgotten, she almost said. “Nothing else.”
“Are you sure? Because I could lose this bakery over this.”
“I can go to the clerk’s office—”
“We pay a fine for each day we’re late.”
“—I’ll take the fine money with me—”
“I warned you about this yesterday.”
“—and we’ll get it taken care of and if you haven’t forgotten I had a party I had to prepare for on short notice on the same day these precious reports were due, and perhaps if you did some of the bakery work yourself—”
He shoved himself from the wall and headed toward the back door.
Furious, she shouted after him, “I have the right for provision!”
He spun around, nostrils flaring, eyes wide. “This bakery is your provision. And I have rights as well. I have a right to a wife who thinks of my comfort first. I have a right to a wife who helps me in the bakery.”
“You forgot the reports. That’s as bad as burning every loaf of bread our customers order. Worse. It’s like taking a shovel and tearing down the ovens themselves.”
He was right. Without those reports, they could be shut down and all their business lost. There was nothing she could say in her defense.
“I have a right,” he continued, “to a wife who doesn’t bring every sick stranger she meets into our home, who listens when I give other options, who doesn’t question me on topics that concern me.”
He was right. And yet, she couldn’t help feeling there was something missing. Something important.
He leaned close to her, close enough that she was frightened by his cold stare. “Go do the delivery. I’ll take care of the fine myself.”
“I’ll be ou—” He silenced her with a single look.
“I won’t be home for dinner. Don’t lock the doors. I’ll be late getting back.”
And drunk when you do walk through the door, she thought with a frown. After he left, she stayed by the banister, tears forming at the edges of her lids.
I’m a terrible wife, she thought. I’m infatuated with a man who doesn’t want me, and unwilling to take care of the one that does. He’s right about this place and how I don’t care about it. Just the thought of the ovens…she winced. She hated them now.
I just need a rest, she told herself as she put on her shoes and cloak. That will improve my memory. I’m riding with Lily and her husband to a party at the Felldesh manor. I’ve been invited.
She tried not to think about why.
Walking the length of the yard was easy. At the place where yard turned into forest, she hesitated. As a married woman, just being alone in a room where no one else could see you, even in a crowded house, was bad enough. Meeting a single man, a man obviously experienced in flirtations (at the very least) in a place where no one could hear them, that was a scandal that might ruin everything she’d built.
She hesitated…then remembered his threat. She’d already done things that could destroy everything. This meeting was simply the next step. At least, if she wanted to keep what she had.
He doesn’t really want me, she told herself, and continued into the forest.
By the time she reached the meadow he had described, fear had spread outward from her stomach in icy tendrils that made it difficult to breathe. She stepped past the tree line and gasped.
Three stones leaned against each other in the center of the clearing. Two leaned against each other forming a covering, bounded on one side by a towering slab with markings all over it, weathered only a little by time. Krysilla had come here often enough as a small child—mostly as a dare by the boys of the village who thought there was something frightening about the place—that she knew whatever spells had been wrought here were long dead.
No, what made her gasp were the symbols on the stone itself. They looked too much like the ones on the underside of Parlay’s boot. Now she knew why something about them had been familiar.
She thought back to all the stories, comparing what she’d heard about the people that had once ruled the land with what she knew of Parlay. Beautiful, yes. And arrogant, as well. There had been magic on the sign, of a kind she had never seen, or thought possible outside of the nobles. Ornic were well-known for putting merit above rank. If you could do a spell, you had the right to use it. Parlay seemed like the kind who would.
But the Ornic ruled others. It was said in the stories that an Ornic would die before submitting to another man’s authority.
And yet, Parlay had said he worked for someone else. It didn’t seem like something an Ornic would do. Unless he was biding his time, she realized.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Parlay said from the shadows of the canopy formed by the two rocks. He crawled out and ruffled the dust out of his unruly hair.
He paused for a moment, studying her. Thankfully, it only lasted a moment. He looked at the stones behind him. “Do you know the legend of these rocks?”
“What a shame. I was hoping you could tell me a story.”
She blinked. “I thought…since you are a minstrel—”
“That I’d know?” he grinned, turning back to her. His eyes sparkled in the late afternoon sunlight. Krysilla folded her arms and looked down at the ground.
“Unfortunately, no,” he said. “There are no stories surrounding this place anymore. In fact, some of the maps have already given this area a Tothsin name. Abee’s Hill or Dagger, depending on the source.”
“I didn’t know geography was part of a minstrel’s education.”
“Of course. Even lowly ones like me are expected to be able to spout whatever truth or lies a noble or Disciple wants to hear.”
“Disciples? I wouldn’t have expected them to listen to anything a minstrel might say.”
He shrugged. “Music is not forbidden,” he intoned, “as long as it is kept to the classes to which it has always been trusted.” With a lighter tone in his voice, he said, “It also allows them to keep a close eye on my kind.”
“I imagine that’s often.”
“Oh, very.” He stepped toward her, head cocked to the side, eyes narrow, but the smile didn’t leave his face. “You’ve been preparing, I take it?”
“Somewhat. I haven’t had time to look at the book you loaned me.” She fished it out from under her cloak.
“Given, not loaned,” he said. “You don’t need to give it back to me.”
He must be Ornic, the thought screamed in her head. Or maybe this is one more thing he’ll have on me. She shook her head and tried to smile. “I can’t. Lejer wouldn’t approve.”
“I imagine not. And magic like this lingers. That’s why you buried the locks you used for practice, correct?” Without waiting for an answer, he walked toward a tall pine tree. She followed. Brushing away the dirt of the forest floor, he pulled out a heavy box with a bag on top of it.
She knew what was inside before he opened it.
Locks of all kinds, iron and wooden, filled it. “Here,” he said, handing her the open box. She took it and stared at the locks while he tugged on the bag’s string. “The others are probably useless by now.”
“Is the lock you want me to pick anything like these?”
“I don’t know.”
She looked up from the box in surprise. He shrugged, and kept digging inside the bag. “I know it’s magical. I know it belongs to a nobleman, which means it will be complex, if not laden with traps. And I know that the chances of our actually getting past it are very low. Even lower since you’re an amateur locksmith.”
An illegal locksmith, she almost corrected him, but there was something in his tone that made her happy to be called that. “I’ll probably be useless.”
“Probably.” Out of the small bag, he pulled a long dress.
Krysilla’s eyes went wide and she nearly dropped the locks. “Oh, Lily’s bringing me one.”
“Good. You’ll have a choice then.”
As if she hadn’t spoken, he held it up in front of her, nearly touching her with the brilliant blue, filmy material that made up the slender gown. Silver trim wrapped around the hips, neck, and sleeves. Krysilla couldn’t keep her eyes off it, and yet it was far too fine for her. That much was clear. “It’s beautiful,” she couldn’t help admitting.
Parlay laughed. “You can touch it if you like. You won’t ruin it.”
Setting the heavy box down, she tentatively reached out. When she finally managed to bring her fingers to touch the sheer outerdress, she let them trail, in wonder at the smoothness and perfection of the material. “This is the dress of a noblewoman. Not me.”
“And what are you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” In love with the dress, she said, “You must be one of the Blessed Ones.”
She looked up at him, at the calculation in his eyes and his obvious dislike of the title, and her smile faded. She sighed. “Thank you, but—”
“If you don’t need it, I’ll put it back. I’m glad you were able to find one.”
“And just about everything else.” Krysilla recounted her conversation with Lily, though she didn’t mention why her friend was willing to do this. All that mattered was that she was now able to meet him at the Felldesh manor.
He listened to this new information carefully. When she was done, he said, “Then, all I have to give you is one item. And that must wait until you’re inside.”
“Jewelry. But not just any kind. You’ll see.” Grinning like a hunter with a bagged prize nearby, he said, “Now, here’s what must happen once you arrive at the extravaganza, and what will likely happen. You’ll arrive with your friend and her husband. They will escort you inside where you will sit next to them, if you don’t take time to thank Lady Felldesh for her invitation. She’ll be in her sitting room, preparing for the evening and entertaining a small coterie of friends, some of whom will remain during the performance.”
“Shouldn’t I let her prepare?”
“No. You must greet her personally. If a servant attempts to keep you away, give the servant your name and your husband’s name. This is very important.”
He hesitated and Krysilla knew there was more he wasn’t telling her. “I know my husband has contacts in the manor.”
“His name is very well-known to her. And she likes him. In fact, she likes him enough that, since this is your first time in her presence, she is likely to sit you next to her while she listens.”
Krysilla nearly dug her heels in at that. Bad enough she’d be going to the manor among all the fine people. Now, she’d be sitting in a borrowed gown next to a noblewoman.
Her face must have showed her panic. Parlay smiled reassuringly. “I doubt she’ll put you close enough for the rest of the room to inspect. She’ll likely seat you on the same row, along with your husband, if he decides to step outside her room. His loss if he doesn’t. It’s a grand place to be, since it’s in the front where the magic will have full power.”
“Oh.” Maybe she would have a clear view of Parlay. “But Lily says the musicians are invisible when they play.”
“Yes, but you’ll see the door that opens when we leave. After we’re finished, we all exit the room. The guests retire to the sitting rooms, or leave. And those who are special guests of Lady Felldesh will accompany her to her private room.”
Parlay reclined on the ground in front of the stones. “After a time in her presence, you’ll start to feel bored with the mindless chatter.”
“Or perhaps the room will become too hot, with all those people in it,” Krysilla added, seeing where he was going.
His smile grew, and his eyes sparkled. “Of course, you can’t stay in a hot room. You’ll faint. So, you’ll excuse yourself, saying you need some fresh air.”
“And I’ll take the musicians’ exit.”
“Which will lead down a narrow hall to a series of rooms. Not every minstrel can read, so you’ll look for the picture of a fiddle.”
She thought of the inscriptions and wondered. “Can you read?”
“I have the feeling that would start a very long conversation between us and we don’t have that kind of time.” Though she knew she would enjoy it, and he looked like he might, as well. “Once you’ve found the door with the fiddle, knock and it will open.” He sat up and spread his arms wide. “Fiddle players fill the room, and you ask, in a meek, quiet voice, if they know where the great Zhiv Mikailsin can be found. You are an enormous fan and want to meet him. Of course, you will look lovely and willing and, after appreciating your beauty for a moment, someone will tell you the exact room where he is staying. No one tries to take away a possible conquest from Zhiv. I will meet you outside that door and we will continue from there.”
That seemed a little thin. “No other plans?”
“None that I feel willing to share at this time.”
Krysilla looked down at the box of locks, thinking over what he’d told her. She didn’t like being kept in the dark when it came to such a crucial point, but also knew she didn’t have much of a choice. “So, how am I to practice?”
“Practice here,” he shrugged. Getting up, he dusted himself off. “No one comes near this place except me. Ornic beliefs and history and all that. They probably think swirling darkness swallows up anyone who touches the stone.”
Krysilla only gave a weak laugh at hearing the exact childhood story she grew up with. “So, it’s safe?”
“As safe a place as exists in this world. Come by, practice a few hours. I promise not to bother you.”
Krysilla looked at the sun and nodded. She had time. Not much, but she did have time. Sitting down with the book and her locks, she began to study. Parlay took a small book and a pen out of his bag and, still standing, began to write.
It didn’t take long before she was lost in a world of pins, keygestures, and combinations. All too soon, she realized the meadow had begun to darken. Her stomach tied in knots. Lejer might be home and waiting for dinner. No. He’d told her he’d be late tonight. But that was no guarantee. She put the locks back in the box and put the book on top of that before carrying it over to Parlay. Apparently, he had become lost in whatever he had been doing, as well. He now sat once more on the ground and looked up at her in surprise. When she handed the box over, he didn’t put it back, setting it next to him on the ground instead. “See you tomorrow?” he said, not looking up from his book.
“Of course.” She walked away, confused with his sudden lack of attention toward her. But that’s good, she told herself. I’m married, and must keep my distance. Still, she paused at the edge of the forest to take in the sight of Parlay one last time, surrounded by the locks, the book, and, behind him, the Ornic stones, all bathed in the light of the setting sun. It seemed such a natural sight, that she didn’t turn away until he looked up, probably to see why she was still there.
Hurrying home, she told herself she would be glad when this was over and Parlay no longer had a place in her life. And yet, she couldn’t help remembering that last image of him, and wondering what he wrote in that little book.
If you’re enjoying this story and would like to read the rest before I finish getting it up on my blog, you can either read it on Wattpad for free, or (if you want to show your appreciation in a more monetary form) you can purchase a copy. (My Books has links to the major stores [link should take you straight to part one on the page].)