The rings in his coat pocket felt heavier for the price Miles asked.
I’m gonna be honest. I think there’s a chunk of Ch 23 that belongs in Ch 21. I keep adding it and then editing it out. I think I need to see the entire book once it’s finished to determine it’s place.
Chapter Twenty One
Charlotte had always displayed a high level of organization but preparing for the double wedding catapulted her onto another level. Honestly, it frightened Solenne. When Charlotte appeared with her ever-expanding notebook and took out her rainbow hued quill to make notes, Solenne trembled. Charlotte was not a woman to be crossed, which was how she and Alek ended up at Colonel Chamber’s dinner party.
“I do not like this,” Alek grumbled, tugging at the knot of his cravat. “This is strangling me.”
“Stop fussing.” She retied his cravat, then stepped back to admire her handiwork. Lacking evening wear, she dug an outfit out of the back of Godwin’s wardrobe. Fashion moved slowly in the country, and Godwin was no longer as slim as he had once been.
The dark blue velvet coat, blue brocade waistcoat and tan breeches suited Alek, even if he kept tugging at the cravat. “You look very handsome.”
“This shirt itches.”
“Can’t be helped. Try not to ruin it. You only have the one shirt.”
“I have many shirts.”
“One presentable shirt,” she clarified. She had witnessed Alek parade around in shirts with the collar open, sans cravat, the fabric so threadbare that he wore practically nothing. While she heartily supported his radical aesthetic, society placed many undue pressures on a person, including itchy shirts.
They approached Colonel Chambers’s home, brazier light to illuminate the gravel path to the front of the house.
“It’s one dinner. Eat what they serve. Don’t growl. Laugh at jokes,” Solenne said.
“I refuse. I am not a train animal to laugh at a buffoon’s japes,” Alek complained.
“Well, that buffoon offered is paying for our wedding, so no growling.” Chambers had not made any particular demands or indicated that his generosity came with strings attached other than indulging Charlotte. Still, better to be polite.
“I would be happy with a small ceremony at the magistrate’s office.”
“As would I, but this will be over soon.”
“Yes.” A tingle of excitement went up her spine. Four days until the wedding. It hardly seemed real and there was much left to do, like the last fitting of her new dress and arrange travel plans. She wanted to leave the day after the wedding to Alek’s house to arrive before the equinox, with plenty of time to spend lazing in bed in inns along the way. “I can hardly wait,” she said, laying her hand on his arm as they approached the front steps.
The door burst open and Charlotte spilled out, massive notebook and quill in hand. “Oh, thank the stars! It’s a disaster. Come in. Hurry.”
Charlotte ushered them to the drawing room, already occupied with Colonel Chambers and two other people she did not recognize. Charlotte made hasty introductions for Mrs. Parkell and the doctor from Founding, Dr. Sheldon. Nothing in the room made Solenne think they were amid disaster.
The room was decorated in a heavy-handed retired military man sort of style. Weapons adorned the walls, ranging from antique colonial energy blasters, more modern and gunpowder based firearms, swords, the occasional spear and pole axe and a variety of daggers arranged artfully like a sunburst. Each weapon had the distinction of appearing well used, well maintained and very functional.
As for the colonial weapons. Solenne wouldn’t trust one of those to fire without taking off the shooter’s hand.
“Admiring my collection? I picked up a few odds and ends in my travels. Let’s have a drink while we wait for dinner,” Chambers said. While he poured, Charlotte pulled Solenne to one divan.
“It’s terrible,” her friend lamented. “Poor Jase was examined today and he absolutely can not get out of bed for another three weeks.”
“I thought he was improving,” Solenne said.
“Slowly, but this means we must delay the wedding because Lionel insists that Jase attend, which of course he must. Three weeks will put us at the autumn equinox.”
Three weeks. Disappointing.
“Other than the delay, what is the disaster?” Solenne asked.
“It’s not, you know, a problem?” Charlotte glanced towards Alek across the room.
Solenne replayed the conversation they had when Charlotte gave her the infamous book. Had she inadvertently dropped a clue that implicated Alek? Or had Charlotte pieced it together on her own?
Probably. Clever friends proved such a difficulty when one had a secret to keep.
She plastered a forced smile on her face. “No problem, other than the disappointment of waiting.”
“Oh, I know, and I’m mightily apologetic. Though, I confess, I am glad to have you for a few weeks more before you run off to Alek’s homestead. Waiting is so odious.” Charlotte smiled at Chambers across the room. He returned the smile which struck Solenne as incredibly odd. She had never seen Chambers wear any other expression than grim determination, even while he had been half-heartedly courting her. What a strange visage Chambers made while happy.
“Is there a problem, my sweet?” he asked.
“Just our mutual disappointment in delaying the wedding,” Charlotte replied.
“Ah, yes, understandable but necessary. I’ve made arrangements for the day before the equinox, if that’s agreeable to you and Aleksandar?” Chambers looked towards Alek, who joined the conversation.
“The day before? You’re not worried about the beast?” Alek asked.
“The beast is dead. What better reason to celebrate?” Chambers gave Alek a hearty slap on the back. “Unless you think there’s two beasts in one territory?”
Alek’s lips pulled back into a smile which was a touch more menacing than charming. “No, that’s unheard of. The day before the equinox is splendid.”
Solenne swore the thread connecting them whispered that it was not too late to abscond to the magistrate.
“I told Lionel not to worry about the fuss of a big church wedding,” Mrs. Parkell said, wandering over with an empty glass in hand. Her cheeks were flushed a rosie red from alcohol. “Weddings are all the same and he’s done it once before, but I suppose he wants to indulge you, Charlotte.” She gestured with the empty glass until Chambers took it to be refilled.
“You were married before?” Charlotte asked.
“Oh, he hasn’t told you? Years ago, when he was in the military. Margaret. Maggie. That drabbest creature I ever saw.”
“Maggie died of a fever,” Chambers said smoothly, his voice calm despite the irritation on his face. “As you said, it was a long time ago.” The dinner gong sounded and a look of relief flashed over him. “Come, I’m famished. Let’s eat.”
The heat of the forge hit him like a wall. Not looking up from the workbench, Miles gestured for Alek to wait. He stayed in the doorway to avoid the sweltering heat but still removed his coat. The blacksmith wore long sleeves, protective gear and a helmet and Alek did not understand how the man avoided melting into a puddle.
Miles turned off the propane torch, set down his tools and stripped off his gloves and helmet. “Making a few improvements in the armor. The devil is in the details. Come on back,” he said, waving to the storeroom in the back.
As Alek passed the workbench, he admired the skillfully wrought armor. “Another new set?” That would be the third set Miles made since the solstice.
“I’m not happy with the seams. They’re the weak point. The material can resist a near infinite amount of damage but it doesn’t stay together after six or seven events.”
“An event would be a bite?” Alek asked, not remembering to whom he spoke.
Miles paled. “Any sudden impact but yes, a bite.”
Heavy curtains kept the back room dim. The thick stone walls kept it several degrees cooler than the workshop. Miles pulled the curtains open and light slanted through. He retrieved a small box from a shelf and held it to the light; he revealed the contents.
Two silver rings gleamed in the afternoon light, iridescent and unnaturally bright, like forged moonlight.
Alek examined the smaller ring. A plain band, the design let the material shine. Literally. Colors shifted from blue to purple to pink and to gold, depending on how he turned it.
“Odreylium,” Miles said. “Found only at nexus points. Difficult to find and tricky to work with, but I think I managed. It has some really interesting properties, such as its rigid to the touch. Give it a squeeze.”
Alek gently squeezed the band, finding it firm and just like every other piece of jewelry.
“Right? But when hit with sudden force, it’s pliable.” Miles took the other ring and smashed it into the wall, looked at Alek with something like triumph. When Alek failed to give appropriate noises of appreciation, he frowned. “Oh, um, well, it’s hard to see. You must try it yourself. Flexible under stress. I thought it was a suitable metaphor for marriage.”
“It is.” Alek clenched his fist around the ring, attempting to crush it, and found it had to give and bounce. Solenne would especially like the metaphor. “Interesting. Thank you. How much?” As he had never heard of odreylium, he expected a hefty price tag.
“It’s a gift.”
“Difficult to find and tricky to work with,” Alek said, using Miles’s own words against him.
“Yes, well, I consider Solenne a friend. I wanted to do this for her.”
Alek accepted the ring box with thanks and tucked it into his coat pocket.
“Actually, there is something you can do for me,” Miles said, nervousness creeping into his voice. He looked out the door to make sure the workshop remained empty. “Is it true that your kind, that is, people with your affliction, can sense others?”
Alek’s first response was to deny, but Miles saw his partial shift on the solstice. Even if the blacksmith had been too consumed with his own injuries to notice, Luis would have told him. He said, “How is your bite healing?”
“Doctor Webb tells me to be patient, but he is not concerned. Now is it true?”
“Usually. I can’t really explain how, but like calls to like.”
“And me? Can you sense it in me?”
Alek studied the man, taking in the mess of blonde hair, limp from sweat, and the high ruddy color to his cheeks. He had a deceptively lean build that was solid muscle. In a smartly tailored coat and a starched cravat, he could have easily masqueraded as a clerk or a banker or a barrister. Alek saw lots of things in Miles, his intellect, the power in his hands, and the worry in his eyes, but he did not sense the beast.
He shook his head. “Nothing.”
Miles slumped, leaning against the door frame. “A month until the equinox. This uncertainty is torture. I suppose you had to wait and accepted it with grim stoicism.”
Alek held his tongue. His first shift happened immediately, but Miles did not need to know that. Most people had to wait a full cycle. Instead, he asked, “And the need to make a lifetime’s supply of armor?”
“For Luis, obviously. If the worst happens, I won’t be able to make more.” Miles dug a cloth out of a pocket and ran it over his brow. “Sorry. I know you’re fine and I won’t presume to know how, but I can’t expect the same in my situation. I have to prepare for the worst.”
Miles turned his eyes to Alek, and he knew what boon the man would ask of him.
“Please don’t,” Alek mumbled.
“If the worst does happen, will you–”
Alek gave a quick nod. He would not enjoy it, but he would if need be.
“Clean and quick? Luis has this idea of a cage, but I won’t. I can’t do that again.” He rubbed at his wrists. Alek remembered when a youthful Miles arrived at the village to be apprenticed to the blacksmith, a man known for his foul temper. He had no specific knowledge of the man’s history or what he suffered at his master’s hands, and it seemed the wrong moment to ask.
“Luis has the right idea. The condition can be mitigated. You see proof of that.”
Miles worried at his bottom lip. “Yes, you’re probably right, but if not? I care little for premonitions, but I have this recurring nightmare.”
“Just dreams? Any other symptoms?”
Miels shook his head, and Alek breathed a sigh of relief. “Clean and quick,” he promised. “Now, this need to armor Luis–” His tone teased, desperate to change the direction of the conversation.
“It’s not like that.”
“It’s like that for him.”
“I know.” Miles sighed. “I enjoy his company and I consider him a friend, but attraction has always come slowly for me. I can’t give him what he wants now, and he’s so young,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
“You’re a year younger than me, that makes it no more than ten years between you and Luis.”
“Nine, but you know what I mean.” Miles waved a hand.
Alek wasn’t quite sure he did. Luis was very much grown. Alek had missed the day-to-say slow march from child to adult, though. “I imagine such a change would be difficult to accept.”
The man’s face brightened. “Yes. He is my friend and I do care for him. That’s why if the worst happens, I couldn’t ask him to–”
“Yes, I see,” Alek said. Miles cared too much to ask Luis to end his life if the curse befell him. The rings in his coat pocket felt heavier for the price Miles asked.
Still, if his only symptoms were bad dreams, then he would likely avoid the curse. Alek felt confident he’d never have to honor his promise.
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
Coming December 26th!
Hunted by Moonlight has a new name and a new cover!
The final version will be available in all the major stores on December 26, 2020.
Additional scenes will be included, notably the wedding night and what happened on page 72!