Michael N. Riley
Michael N. Riley
I shut the door behind me as politely, and yet, as quickly as I can. My feet march on the path I know so well without much conscious thought. I need something concrete. I need an embrace to remind me what all this is for. And I know where to get it.
Normally, it’s from my Dad. But as that won’t work, I know who can fill the emptiness and fear I feel with warmth and hope.
I hug myself as I push past the trees, old berry bushes, and mossy stones until I reach our spot. Like the other night, the water sparkles in the moonlight and the lantern light.
Beside the lantern, sitting on the mossy rock that is our bench, waiting for me with a smile that lifts my heart like the rising sun, is Jake. I knew he would be. He opens his arms wide to me.
My heart lifts again. The smile escapes before I can process it. In moments, I’m engulfed in his loving embrace. I smile and hide in it. I shut my eyes and listen to Jake’s breathing and heartbeat.
In my life, that sound was one of the few things that was truly mine. I adore my music and dance, but they are not mine, but my mother’s and the theater’s. I relish in fencing and my swordplay, but that’s Dad’s. Jake’s warmth, his embrace, and his love are mine, and mine alone.
And Dad wants me to betray the one thing that is mine.
My heart sinks at the thought, but then Jake hugs me tighter, squeezing the despair out of me. He chuckles at my delight, making my heart sing. Oh, how I love that feeling. I soak it in along with the sound of his breath, the tinkle of the river, the distant rush of the seaside. I take in the scent of the evening air on Jake’s clothes, the smell of his breath, the mossy scent in the air. I can hide here and enjoy the one thing that is mine. The thing I can’t betray. I’m reminded of how I had the strength to reject my Dad though I never had before.
“Even after all your work during the day, your hair always smells so sweet,” Jake says.
“Like coconut and the sea.”
“We do live next to the ocean,” I point out, delighting in this banter.
Jake smiles. “Yes, but you are far more beautiful. I can’t wait to enjoy it more once we’re married.”
He entwines his fingers with mine, playing with each finger as I had his earlier. He plays with the ring on my right hand most. It’s our secret bond to one another.
It’s of two hands reaching for a heart in the center with a crown on the top. I wear it with the heart pointing inward to show I am taken, but wearing it in this manner meant only dating to most. But not to us. We know what it meant. He wears one like it, only his is pure silver. Mine has an opal in the heart. It is a tradition handed down by my family. And it suits our secret engagement well.
I sigh heavily as I watch Jake fiddle with my fingers. I had wanted to talk to him so badly about it, but now, I just want to avoid it. He is too busy kissing the tips of my fingers to notice my mood yet.
He pulls back just a bit, still smiling. “I brought something for you.”
I gasp in delight. “Jake, you didn’t?” But I hope he did.
Jake grins like a cat over milk and steps back to his bag. He pulls out exactly what I love most, a yellow cake with chocolate frosting, cream in the center, and a small blue flower on top. My eyes pop out in delight. That is an expensive and rare treat for a girl who is on a strict diet and small budget.
Jake laughs in pleasure. “Those blue eyes could outdo the sea for vastness when I bring you cake,” he says. “It’s worth every gemlet.”
“Oh Jake, you’re the best!” I kiss him on the cheek in excitement, my heart brimming with happiness. How I love him. How he looks after me. How much he gives up for me.
“I know,” Jake sighs dramatically, making me giggle. “Come on then.” He sits on the rock, putting his arm out, so I can sit and lean against it.
I sit down and let him wrap his arms around my shoulders. I smile as he hand-feeds me bites, taking bits for himself now and then, but he gives me far more of it. I never let him not at least share a little. But it also means the world to me how he wants to give me the most.
I hold Jake’s arm around my shoulders, hanging my hands off arms almost like I am going to pull myself upon them as I lean against his chest and enjoy our shared treat.
I wish this would never end. The perfect sunset, the glitter of the water, the sweet treat, his warm arms around me. I just want to turn and kiss him, give him everything. But that’s not for today. We still have to wait. If I break my oath, we’d be in far worse trouble.
We finish the treat, and Jake puts the box aside. I lean deeper into his arms, holding him tight and sighing in contentment, shutting my eyes. I needed that. I wanted to vent to him when I came, but now, I just want to enjoy the moment.
I close my eyes, taking in all the smells, savoring the chocolate and cake flavor on my tongue, listening to Jake’s breath and the wonderful waterworks around us. This is heaven. I can’t betray this. I can’t lose this.
“How was your raid?” I ask in a relaxed tone, eyes still shut, wanting to forget why I’d come into this magical place so upset.
Jake’s exhausted sigh shakes me from my moment. I frown in concern for him. He sounds so tired. I turn to look at him as he lets his head plop back on the tree behind him.
“Not great,” he laments. “It wasn’t one of the Enthronement loads like we hoped. We hardly got enough to feed those who helped us, let alone help the others.”
I feel the sadness and weight that came with those words. Jake is dedicated to the Loyalist rebellion, most of all, in its efforts to feed those in the ranks who want to support themselves. He sounds worn already, and we aren’t even on the throne yet. My heart aches for the stress and exhaustion in his voice.
“We’ll figure it out.” I assure him.
“I just wish we knew how they were transporting all their money. They tax it. It should go right to them, right? How are they spending it if it never gets into the castle?” Jake scowls.
His frustration makes his breath hot, his arms tense, and his movements haphazard as he moves his free hand about. “We tried the sea. It’s not coming in there, and what we get in raids is nothing, hardly enough to feed the palace for a day. So, what in creation are they doing to get the money?”
I have no answers. I never do. I don’t think anyone does or we’d have tried it by now. I wish I was more helpful, but I feel useless when it comes to this kind of strategy. I would support Jake on the throne, but I feel much more confident in helping with orphanages and schools and programs to help people get jobs than… this.
“I just wish…” Jake sighs, all the anger draining out of him in a heavy sigh, “…we had enough. I’m so tired of looking at the small ones begging for food and… being powerless.” Jake drops his head.
I know what that means. They lost another child to illness or hunger or who knows what. Each one strikes Jake hard. We try, but… how can we help those starving children when we can hardly help ourselves?
“H-how many this time?” I ask as gently as I can, trying to comfort him and let him vent.
Jake swallows hard. “Five died in the last month,” his voice shakes. “We got three more. I don’t know how we’ll keep feeding them if we can’t find out how to get the money back from the royals.” Jake shakes his head. “We tried. It goes into that storehouse, and we attack all the carts going to the palace we can. And it’s always chump change. We feed our troops, sure, but that’s not the goal.” He lets his head fall against the tree, “I just want this life to be over.”
Well, I don’t want all of it over. I don’t want to give up my shows, but I know this means the world to Jake. And for him, I’ll give it up. I shut my eyes to dream of what it will be like.
But instead, all I can think about is Dad’s plan that would change everything. My heart drops, and I tense as if to defend the one dream I was allowed to have for myself.
Jake frowns. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I say too fast.
“Kascia.” I hear the hint of a scold in Jake’s voice as I stare into the running water. “We both know it’s not nothing. Something’s wrong.”
I sigh heavily and hold him tighter. “Nothing, just…” I try to find the words to dismiss it,
“It’s not really important right now.”
“So are you saying that to assure me or avoid it?” Jake asks carefully.
I have to admit I’m not even sure. I bite my lip. If I don’t tell him, does that make it as if it won’t happen? Maybe if Mom agrees with me, but she didn’t seem to at dinner. Would I ever find a way out of this? Maybe if Jake doesn’t agree, I’ll have a leg to stand on. Why I felt I had to talk to him at all, but I don’t want to lose this magic. “I love you.” I choose to say instead.
“Kascia, what’s the matter? Did something happen today?”
I nod, biting my lip harder and taking a deep breath to hold in the anger and pain. “Yes, but it’s not something we need to talk about now.”
“If it upsets you, we do,” Jake disagrees. “That’s how we got over ourselves, remember?” He smiles playfully.
“I screamed I didn’t like you. Then we realized we had something in common. Took years.”
Jake smiles. “You were worth waiting for.”
He kisses me deeply; I suck it in. Dad can’t take this. He can’t take the thrill I feel as the energy of that kiss rushes through me, or the intoxicating dizziness I feel at his touch, or the pleasurable press of his lips on mine, and the delightful soft bite of his lips on mine. He just can’t take it. I won’t let him.
“So, tell me,” Jake says when he pulls back, “what is bothering you? Saying it and screaming at each other is always better. You can throw anything at me. I’ll take it.”
“It’s not you,” I insist, grunting in annoyance.
“I didn’t mess up?”
“No,” I kiss him to assure him, “not this time.”
I kiss him deeper, harder. He grins and puts his other arm around me as I push myself up a bit to kiss him better, again and again, sucking his lips into mine, turning and releasing his arm to put one hand to his cheek, while I hook my other hand to his shoulder, keeping him close. I run my hand through his hair on the way to the back of his head. I press closer, almost sitting on his lap.
How I adore him. How he looks after me. How he makes me feel. His strong chest so close to mine. His breath against my skin. How his thick lashes tickle my face as I turn to get at his lips. His arm wraps around my waist. I all but dig into him, kissing him harder and harder, encouraging him to hold me tighter. This is what I wouldn’t give up.
Jake falls for it. He always does, then again, so do I when he tries it. He returns my intensity and fights for that passion too. We struggle for the feeling, relishing every bit of it we dredge up.
I gasp as he switches from kissing my lips to kissing the round of my shoulder. I shut my eyes and relax a little as he kisses down my arm, inch by inch, until he reaches my hand and presses his lips to it, holding it closer to him. I sigh again, eyes fluttering at his touches. I want more of his touch. I want that touch more than anything.
I leap forward and kiss his jaw, yanking his face to mine, bringing him down with me. Jake returns it, kissing me again, and again. I feel myself tilt back as he gets into it.
“Kascia,” he breathes. I love his breath on my skin.
“What?” I ask, kissing his cheek.
“I can’t ever get enough,” he sighs heavily.
“Have enough,” I tease.
“We know better. We’ll lose what made our fathers agree,” he reminds me.
This floods me with anger. Who cares anymore!? Maybe if we just caved in, Dad couldn’t make me lose my whole life again. “I don’t care what he wants!” I snap and kiss him harder.
“Woah.” Jake pulls away and puts a hand to my cheek to hold me back. “Kascia, what is that?”
I hate him for denying me this. I push him away, turning my back to him. I fold my arms tightly and don’t turn around, pulling into myself as if to protect myself.
“Kascia?” Jake frowns deeply. “What’s really going on? What did your father do?”
“You don’t care,” I snarl back.
“Yes, I do.” Jake runs a hand down my arm, starting at the round of my shoulder again. I shut my eyes. Yes, touch, his touch it’s all I want. Dad can’t take it.
I shut my eyes as tears come. “Will you all take it?”
“Take what?” Jake kisses my cheek from behind.
I adore that. I turn to him to kiss him hard, but Jake holds me back. “What is it?” he asks.
I roar in frustration and shove him away. “He can’t take it,” I insist. “So why must you?”
“What am I taking?” Jake asks. “I love you.”
Jake smiles gently and pulls me closer like a toddler refusing to sit next to her parents and puts his arm around me again, kissing my cheek. I lean into it. I need it.
“Yes, I do,” he assures me. “You can throw anything at me.”
“The only thing I need to throw at you is me.” I don’t want to discuss Dad taking him from me. Even if the plan is to go back to him, I couldn’t be gone that long. And we’d never gotten into the castle. No rebel had in my lifetime.
“You normally are good at taking no for an answer, just like I do when I get too intense.”
Jake rubs my shoulders. “I’m not pulling away, Kascia. Just keeping our rule. What’s the change?” He kisses my shoulder and neck.
“He wants to end it.” I finally admit as hot tears come.
“End us?” Jake laughs.
I turn to him in shock. He’s laughing at this?!
“That’s not what the plan means,” Jake is still laughing.
“Excuse me?” I snap. “You know?”
“He proposed his plan to get us inside, right?” Jake asks, still smiling at me like an overreacting child.
“Which is?” He can’t know, can he?
“To use the Enthronement to get a girl on the inside,” Jake says. “And as you’re the best princess we know. It’s why I love you,” he adds, “he figures you’ll get in, piece of cake.”
I gape at him. “What?” I can’t believe this. “You knew he wanted me?”
“Who better?” Jake asks innocently.
“Do you not understand what the Enthronement is?” I demand, pulling away to see him better.
My anger mounts, but it’s just to cover up the hint of fear. I feel my heart stilling, afraid it’s going to have to deal with the hints of a crack that are threatening to form depending on the answer I’m about to get.
“A contest to prove yourself a true princess?” Jake looks at me as if I’m crazy.
“With what goal?” I demand.
“Uh, for you, it doesn’t matter. You’ll let us in before it’s even over.”
“And you think courting the prince isn’t part of that?”
“So!” I clench my fists and stand up as the flood of emotions rises in me, wanting to break out like a stormy tide against a coastal wall. One wave is anger; how could he not understand!? The next: desperation, he had to be thick because if he isn’t, the last wave strikes: fear.
It was an old fear I’d not thought about in many years. So buried I’d all but forgotten about it until this moment. That the love we’d built was forced so unreal. Did this mean what I’d feared, deep down, for so long, our love was manufactured, fake, unnatural?
Madam Cowleigh was a medium. She was famous, of course, for conversing with
spirits, but the spirits had to listen with inordinate care. Her speech was a flurry of half-swallowed frustrations, for she did not articulate her words at all clearly – she spat them out, expecting straining ears to catch at least the gist of her sentences. Madam Cowleigh would frown deeply if, at any time, she was not adequately understood.
As a consequence, her brow was lined and furrowed; but her affliction was not
her fault, for illness had played a vicious trick upon her. As a child, or so it was reported by the vulgar press, she had developed a swollen tongue – a monstrous tongue. Forever afterwards it remained far too large for her mouth. The words she tried to express could never be rolled out entirely, for her teeth and gums got in the way. Of course, she slurred at times, and she drooled; but that was not the worst of it. The initial swelling had ulcerated her freakish organ of articulation, and although she soon healed, rough scars were left behind. Madame Cowleigh, in short, had a tongue of sandpaper and thistles; but only later would I learn this to my cost.
How I wish the spectre had left me alone! I would not have required Cowleigh’s peculiar talents and nothing would have brought me to her door.
If only I had possessed the courage to tell myself that any ghost is merely rushing air and
attitude… a tatter, perhaps, of a long-expired personality; then I might have endured without assistance. However, I was terrified by the unwelcome visitations, and three complacent mediums, all charlatans as it transpired, had failed to relieve my terror. The spirit still haunted my home as before, and Cowleigh had become my ultimate hope. Her reputation preceded her. London papers had printed rapturous accounts of her séances and stage shows. The
majority of mediums were frauds, it was so; but Cowleigh was the genuine article.
For the sake of veracity, I must confess that I still believe in her powers. I believe
absolutely. How could it be otherwise?
Cowleigh lived in a half-respectable locale, in Hampstead. It was a street of lace curtains and green-painted doors. Half of the modest house was rented by other tenants and the other half by the medium. She lived alone except for a fat companion, an African woman called Winnie, who was also a medium. In fact, they performed together on the professional stage. It was whispered that the two women shared a bed, and they performed together there with just as much gusto! But I thought this most improbable, for Cowleigh was as rotund as her friend, and double beds are only so wide. Passions, especially outsized passions, may move the earth upon its axis, it is true; but sleep alone can make the world stop dead. As I have discovered, sleep is more essential than love. Either way, Cowleigh’s personal tastes did not concern me. I did not wish to learn whether or not she ever lay down with Wheezing Winnie, as the press had named her; the question was, could Cowleigh lay my evil ghost?
It was Winne who answered the door. She filled up most of the frame and this dominating impression was only matched by her imperious chestnut eyes. She looked me up and down, and she even allowed herself the ghost of a smile.
Repressing nerves and a spark of irritation, because of her impudence, I gave my married name rather sharply.
Winnie nodded. It was odd to speak a name I barely recognised myself. I scarcely
owned it, for the memory of my wedding day was still fresh in my mind and it was not a pleasant reverie, for I was never in love with my husband.
I followed the ballooning Winnie down a short, narrow corridor where the Turkey carpets on the floor had seen better days, and where the pot-plants, although displayed with apparent pride on a series of little ebony tables, one after the other, clearly needed water. Their fronds were dry and withered, like my soul.
Winnie ushered me into a drawing room, one with very little furniture. Out of breath and sweating head to toe, Winnie urged me to sit in a far corner, on a green-buttoned chair. It was one of only three seats in the room. The other two chairs faced off against each other, over a small round table – a table which was covered with a drape of scarlet chenille. That table was where the magic might occur, or where the chicanery might transpire. At that moment, I did not know quite what to expect. I had been disappointed before, and I began to despair of all
I waited and I waited, alone; but at least this gave me the opportunity to study the curious pictures on the wall. They hung in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, with no hint of elegant spacing; and yet each picture had an expensive frame of mahogany, although none was an oil painting. Evidently, Cowleigh and Winnie had a taste for ancient wood-block illustrations, such as one might see in medieval or Renaissance folios. This was not so remarkable in itself, perhaps, but
the subject matter of those images did grip my attention, for there were devils and imps and witches, and scenes of dire punishment, all delineated neatly in ink on yellowing parchment. Here, a bound woman was burning at the stake, close to a smug-faced bishop who was warming his hands; and there were six peasants all hanging in a row, like seasoning hams in a country pantry.
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