Chapter Twenty

Part Three — Undercity Blues

Chapter Twenty

Nightfall

 

It has been one week since the shocking news from Gateway concerning the brazen murders of both Madeline Le Campe and the Peacekeeper General, and for Jake, things around Highstar House have been mostly business as usual. If business as usual is sneaking around the house, trying to keep tabs on Scarlet, that is, while deliberately avoiding the attention of young Ginny Mae Highstar. Since the awkward events of the other night in the downstairs hallway with the teenager, Jake has made sure that if he and Ginny are in the same room together, that a third person at least is also present. So far, he’s managed to avoid any further, similar encounters, but not her searching eyes of longing nor the disapproving looks and headshakes of Elaine. Rather than speak frankly to the lovestruck teen, he has deftly managed to avoid saying anything at all of substance to her in the past seven days. His procrastination in dealing with the situation hasn’t been lost on the frowning cleric.

As for Scarlet, she has managed to slip out no fewer than three times during the previous seven nights — and those are just the times that Jake is aware of.

And she’s not just going out for a late night drink down the street at the Sailor either — he’s checked. So if she’s not going there . . .

Not to mention, she’s been in an especially foul mood . . .

Jake can’t stop imagining worst case scenarios: waking up one morning to find out Scarlet has been thrown into some deep hole in the Iron Keep from which they’ll never secure her freedom. All it would take, he thinks, is another confrontation with Harriet or any of the other Darkblades to see Scarlet locked up again. That sniveling weasel, the Lord Mayor Trumpton Sweeney, is firmly on the side of their rivals. And as much as Jake wouldn’t mind Harriet Swordsteel getting that smug look knocked from her face again, he doesn’t want it to come at the  expense of Scarlet’s freedom.

Elton asked him to keep tabs on the fiery woman and he intends to do just that.

Now that he’s onto her new tactic of slipping out in the middle of the night, Jake has managed to catch her in the act three times. That despite the fact that she has become far more careful when climbing down from her second story window, unlike that first night when he heard her drunkenly leaving. Nevertheless, two of those three times, she still managed to slip away. He hadn’t been quick enough — rushing downstairs and throwing on his boots, only to discover that she had already disappeared into the night. Until last night.

It seemed that his luck had finally changed.

Now pouring himself a cup of coffee late the next morning, Jake rubs the bruise on his upper arm.

Unfortunately, his luck had changed from bad to worse.

After missing her twice earlier in the week because he was too slow, Jake had sat up for the next two nights at his window, his boots laced and on his feet so that he was ready to hustle down the stairs and out onto the street after her the moment he saw her climb down to the ground. She failed to appear either night, and so two mornings in a row, Jake awoke slouched awkwardly in the chair that he had moved in front of his window, fully dressed and wearing his boots and grumpy and sore from the poor sleep.

Then, last night, on the third night of waiting by the window in his darkened room, again fully dressed and with his boots on his feet, Scarlet appeared. Jake had leaned forward, spying the woman descend the side of Highstar House and drop to the ground below with nary a sound.

Jake was out of his chair in a flash.

He promptly banged his knee into the cornerpost of his bed in the pitch black, and hobbled out into the hallway, cursing and rubbing away the throbbing pain. That would leave mark.

A moment later he was down the stairs and through the parlor and out the front door after her. Creeping down the walk to the edge of the cobbled street, he peered in the direction he had seen Scarlet heading each night. Sucked in his breath.

Sure enough, far ahead, but still visible, he spied the woman and her familiar gait moving swiftly away.

Now I’ve got you, he thought, rubbing his hands together gleefully.

His luck had just changed from worse to worst.

* * *

TWO BLOCKS FROM HIGHSTAR HOUSE, LAST NIGHT

Jake is hurrying and slinking at the same time — hinking? slurrying? — trying to remain unseen in case Scarlet looks back, but simultaneously attempting to close the distance between them. So far he can still see her up ahead each time she passes under the light of one of the streetlamps, but all it would take is for her to turn off the main road onto a side street or narrow alley and make another quick turn or two and Jake would lose her.

He hurries on.

As he walks, he is watching the next farthest streetlamp ahead, waiting for her to appear again, illuminated in its glow. Waiting. And waiting.

Long seconds drag on.

Now he’s almost to the streetlamp in question. In fact, he glances up as he passes underneath the one just before it, realizes that this is the last spot where he caught a brief sight of her.

A minute later, he steps into the light of the lamp where Scarlet never appeared. He stops, looks in both directions down the quiet, mostly deserted street. Somewhere up ahead, flute music and the thump of drums spill out into the night from the open windows of a nearby tavern.

Could he have missed her? he wonders, peering in the direction of the music up ahead. But he’d been watching this illuminated spot the entire time. If she passed through it, he’d have seen her.

He did pass by several narrow alleys along the way. She could have ducked down any one of them, but each were dark and shadowed as he peered into their mouths while hurrying past. He had seen no sign of her. And there wouldn’t be any reason for Scarlet to leave the main road and turn down any of those particular alleys, for most of them lead nowhere.

Well, unless she knew she was being followed.

In which case–

Jake turns, planning to go back and check the nearest of those alleys more carefully.

–she’s standing right behind him.

Jake.”

She says his name, and it’s both a warning and a curse at the same time. The venom in her voice is enough to make him flinch.

“Oh, hey, Scar. What a . . . funny meeting you here.”

“Save it,” she growls.

“Look, I–”

She punches him in the gut.

The rest of his sentence becomes a burst of air forced from his lungs. He sinks down to a squat on the pavement.

“Come on, Scar,” he gasps, voice strained.

“I told you before. Stop following me.”

“Following you?” He tries laughing off the suggestion. Climbs unsteadily to his feet. “I’m just out for a stroll. Same as you, I guess. OW!”

She lands a painful punch to his left arm, just below his shoulder.

“Look, I’m just–”

Strikes exactly the same place, even harder.

Yow!”

“The next one breaks your face.”

Jake backs away, hands up.

“Okay, okay. Take it easy.”

A drunken man guffaws, staggering across the street nearby. “Yer missus giving ya trouble?”

“Stay out of it,” Jake warns him.

“Tell ya what yer gotta do,” slurs the man. Talking seems to have made walking more difficult and he stumbles closer. “Put the lady over yer knee. That’ll–”

“I tried to tell you,” Jake says, grimacing with sympathy for the man.

Scarlet’s fist makes solid contact with the drunk man’s jaw. He crumples to the cobbled stones.

She growls low and dangerous in her throat.

When she faces Jake again, her twin blades are in her hands.

“I’m not going to ask again, Jake.”

“Have you asked yet?” Then, realizing the mistake his quick tongue has made, steps farther away, his hands up in front of him. He points a thumb back vaguely in the direction of Highstar House. “I’m gonna call it a night and head home,” he tells her, forcing another chuckle. But he is sincere. He’s pushed Scarlet as far as he dares push. Too far. His arm is throbbing where she punched him twice, and his knee still aches from earlier, when he banged it into the corner of his bed. His breath is still ragged from the fist to his gut.

“Good night, Jake.”

“You’re not going to hurt anyone else tonight, right?” They are now separated by several paces as Jake continues backing away.

“Only stupid swordarms who seem to have no sense of self-preservation,” she tells him, twirling her knives. “You know, if I see them again.” The felled man on the street by her feet moves slightly, groans. She inclines her head slightly. “Take care of him.”

Still twirling the blades, she turns and continues in the same direction she had been heading. “If I catch you following me again, Jake, it won’t end well.”

* * *

HIGHSTAR HOUSE, THE PRESENT

“Elaine! Hey!”

The young cleric, who has just entered the kitchen to make herself brunch, glances over warily. The tone of Jake’s voice suggests that he’s about to request something of her that she isn’t going to like.

Once he has asked, her wariness turns to anger.

“No, Jake.”

“Come on,” says the swordarm. “Do it for Scarlet. Her fuse is shorter than I’ve ever seen it. I’m worried she’s gonna get herself thrown in the Keep again. You don’t want that, do you?”

“Of course not,” Elaine snaps. “But don’t ask me to do this. It’s an invasion of privacy. If you feel so strongly about it, you follow her around.”

He rubs his bruised arm unconsciously, grimaces. “I’m pretty sure if she catches me again, she’ll kill me.”

“So you want her to kill me instead? Thanks, but no thanks.”

“That’s the thing,” Jake insists, “she won’t hurt you. Haven’t you noticed she has a soft spot for you?”

Elaine snorts. “Seriously?” She stares at the swordarm, incredulous. “It’s quite the opposite really, I assure you. I’m pretty positive she hates me.”

“Who hates you?”

Elaine’s head whips around, finds Scarlet striding in through the kitchen archway.

“I, uh . . .”

“Pfft, who doesn’t?” says Jake quickly, attempting to cover for Elaine, whose mouth is opening and closing without making any sound. “I mean, clerics, am I right?” Elaine’s face turns a furious red.

Scarlet barks a laugh. “Good point.” She promptly ignores the pair, grabbing several pieces of fruit from the bowl on the counter. Tucks the gathered items against her chest with one hand, and then stabs an apple with one of her knives and brings it to her mouth with the other. Crunches into it. “Later, losers,” she says, chewing.

She turns and exits the kitchen as suddenly as she appeared, leaving Elaine gaping after her and Jake considering their options.

“She won’t kill you,” Jake says again quietly after a moment. He blows on his coffee and takes a small sip. “She probably won’t even hurt you.”

“Probably?” says Elaine dubiously.

“Just don’t get caught.”

“I didn’t say I would do it,” says the cleric.

They slip into silence, Jake sipping his coffee and watching as Elaine puts together a plate of leafy greens and vegetables with sweetbread and butter.

Mathos walks into the kitchen. “Good evening, all,” says the mage.

“Evening?” Jake raises an eyebrow. “Mathos, it’s not even midday yet.”

“Not even . . .” He pauses. “What day is this?”

While Jake shakes his head, Elaine’s face lights up. “Oh,” she says, pointing at the mage. “Mathos! Mathos could do it. He would be much better than me. He probably has a spell that makes his footfalls silent, or a potion that can make him turn invisible or something.”

“I do,” sighs the mage, “but it needs quite a bit of work. Right now, it still doesn’t work on clothing, so in order to go true invisible, the person who drinks the potion has to strip down completely.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, or else they just look like a set of animated clothes walking around all on their own, which is interesting, but sort of defeats the purpose of being invisible.”

“Yeah.”

“Which, you know, would be fine, but the duration effect has a stability bug somewhere in the maths that I haven’t worked out yet. So instead of lasting for a set amount of time — say, ten minutes — it works for around ten minutes. You know. Give or take . . . about ten minutes.”

“Oh.” Elaine blushes.

“Yeah. A little awkward if you’re, oh, say, in the middle of Marketsquare when you figure out that the maths are still wrong.”

The cleric puts a hand to her mouth. “Oh my.”

The mage claps his hands together. “So, what are you two discussing? What is it that I can do?”

Elaine glances towards the archway, lowers her voice. “Well, apparently Scarlet has been–”

“Oh, no.” Mathos raises his hands. “No way. I’m not following her.” He laughs at the absurd idea. “Are you kidding? She’d probably kill me.” He steps to the counter, gathers a few pieces of fresh fruit. “Nope. Not me.”

Elaine shoots Jake a meaningful look that the swordarm pretends not to see.

“Well, back to work,” says the mage.

“What are you working on, anyway?” asks Jake.

“Look.” Mathos walks over in front of the swordarm, points to his head with a hand that is clutching several berries and a plum.

“What am I looking at?” asks Jake, squinting.

“That’s polite of you, Jake,” says the mage, “but it’s blindingly obvious, I know. You needn’t preserve my feelings.”

“What’s obvious?”

“The grey hair, Jake! The grey hair.”

“What grey hair?”

“Oh, it’s there. Don’t act like you can’t see it.”

“So what?” Jake peers at the mage’s head, spies no grey among the dark hairs there.

“So what?” The mage practically sputters.

“Yeah,” says Elaine, “grey hairs make a man look respectable, learned. I would think a mage would appreciate such a look.”

Jake glances over at the cleric. “You like grey haired men, huh? Think I’d look respectable with some grey hair?”

“I don’t think anything could make you respectable.”

“Wow, that’s hurtful.” He brings his hands to his chest as though wounded. “Are you sure you’re a cleric?”

Elaine sticks her tongue out at the swordarm.

“Oh, that’s very respectable,” he tells her.

“You don’t get it,” says Mathos. “It’s not the issue of having grey hair or not. As a mage, it’s about control. If I choose to have grey hair, then fine. But if my intention is to keep my natural hair color, than the grey hair is just a reminder that there are forces in the universe beyond my control. As a weaver of spells and magic, as someone who shapes and molds the very aetheric energies of existence itself, how do you think it feels to realize that I can’t control something as simple as my own appearance?”

“‘Time pauses for naught but misery,'” intones Elaine. “That’s life.”

“Don’t quote Bergoman at me,” the mage grumbles, but he’s pleased by the young cleric’s breadth of literary knowledge.

“Well, I don’t see any grey hair, Mathos,” says the swordarm.

“It’s there, Jake! And it’s not going anywhere so long as I’m standing here trying to explain it to you. You don’t understand, you have perfect hair.” He turns on his heel. “Good night.”

“It’s still morning,” Jake calls after him as the mage sulks out of the kitchen. “It’s only been like five minutes.”

They listen to the mage’s receding footsteps together.

“Perfect hair,” says Jake.

Elaine snorts.

The swordarm glances over. “Well?”

“No, Jake. I won’t make out with you.”

“Not that,” he says. “What we were just talking about. Scarlet.”

“Jake, no.” The cleric crosses her arms over her chest. Purses her lips. “Maybe Hamfrd?”

“Hamfrd lives up the hill with his family. How is he going to follow Scar when she’s sneaking around in the middle of the night here?”

Elaine frowns.

Jake takes a sip of his coffee. “Just be ready after the midnight bell to leave at a moment’s notice,” he says.

Elaine sighs, shoulders slumping miserably. “Seriously? This is a bad idea.”

* * *

Ginny Mae might only be sixteen and not very experienced when it comes to love, but she’s not stupid either. She can tell when someone is going out of their way to avoid her. And for the last week, Jake has been avoiding her studiously. Ever since . . . Ah! She clasps her hands together against her breasts. Their first kiss, she thinks, sighing and collapsing onto her bed. Their first of many!

It was amazing, too, right until the cleric, Elaine, decided to show up and interrupt their special moment. Oh, Allway! What rotten timing!

Ginny sits up, frowning.

There’s something suspicious about that woman.

She just happened to be up in the middle of the night. And wandering about downstairs. Just at the right moment to sneak up on her and Jake, to break up their magical kiss.

Right . . .

Quite suspicious indeed.

Not to mention the very first day Ginny met Elaine, she was acting all cute and innocent, running about in nothing but a towel, claiming to be afraid of all those cute little mice in the house! At the time, Ginny found it adorable and silly, but now . . . now she’s not so sure anymore. Why, she was probably doing it to catch Jake’s attention!

Ginny narrows her eyes. Oh, yes. Elaine knows exactly what she is doing.

Clearly, she has a thing for Jake, too.

Imagine that! A cleric! Aren’t they supposed to be, like, prudes or something?

Well, thinks Ginny, if that woman thinks Jake is going to fall in love with her, she’s got another thing coming. Ginny has been in love with Jake since, like, forever, and she’s going to make sure that he notices her, and only her.

Somehow.

Closing her eyes, she replays the kiss again in her mind. Sighs. Their first kiss of many!

But Jake is acting hard to get right now. Which is weird — isn’t it the girl who’s supposed to do that? But it’s probably because he’s being confused by Elaine. After all, they adventure together and spend lots of time with one another. How can Ginny compete with that when she is always going to be left behind in the house while the Companions go off on their adventures? And what’s going to happen when she starts attending classes at the University and is away from Highstar House all the time?

If she’s going to make this happen, she’s going to have to do something soon. Before the end of summer. Like right away. This very day even! Something drastic. Something dramatic. Something to make Jake notice her, and forget all about Elaine and any other women who might try to get between the two of them!

* * *

The Companions share an evening meal around the heavy oak table in the dining hall. Hamfrd and his family drop by the house bearing several dishes of delicious food prepared in Diana’s kitchen, as well as sweet pastries and cream-filled buns, and a bottle of wine and a bottle of visckr, the latter of which Scarlet eyes eagerly. Before long, she and the Northerner have split most of the bottle between them.

Under the watchful eye of Sir Elton, Ginny Mae has been allowed to sip from a glass of the lush red wine, and even though it seems to her like she’s barely had any compared to how much everyone else is drinking, her face is flushed and her head feels warm. She keeps trying unsuccessfully to catch Jake’s eye, but the swordarm is seated on the other side of Elaine. The cleric has craftily managed to sit in between her and Jake, Ginny thinks, narrowing her eyes.

“This is really delicious,” says Elaine, as she lifts the pot of creamy potatoes and scoops another couple of spoonfuls onto her plate. “Thank you so much, Diana.”

The other woman blushes with pleasure, accepting the cleric’s compliment.

“It’s all delicious!” Hamfrd tells his wife, leaning over and kissing her blonde hair.

“Well, you helped, love,” she replies.

“I want dessert now,” says their elder boy, Osgrd. “Can I? Can I?”

“As soon as you finish your vegetables,” Diana tells him, pointing with her knife. The younger boy, Jesse, is seated in between Osgrd and their mother. She points down at his plate next. “You, too. Finish your carrots and onions.”

“Blech.”

“Hey. Eat.” She points emphatically.

“Aww, gee.”

Scarlet, seated on the other side of Osgrd, watches, amused. She waits until Diana turns her attention back to her husband. Then, with a wink for the two boys, Scarlet reaches out with her fork, stabs some of Osgrd’s vegetables, and then reaches farther and takes some of Jesse’s too. Both boys giggle conspiratorially as Scarlet brings the loaded fork to her mouth, and then makes an exaggerated face of disgust as she chews.

Her look of distaste becomes real when Hamfrd mentions Brune Drago and the Darkblades.

“Drago?” she asks, scowling.

“Aye, that’s right,” says Hamfrd. “This morning I dropped by Thick’s place. Just planned to get an hour or two on the mats, like I do every week.”

“How is old Thick?” Scarlet asks. “I don’t think he likes me much anymore since I beat his ass the last few times we sparred. Asked me not to come back.”

Hamfrd rumbles a laugh. “That’s not how he tells it.”

“What does he say?”

“Well, his version includes mention of numerous low blows.”

Scarlet smirks. “Yeah? And?”

The stocky old fighter is one of the best in Farport at hand to hand combat and wrestling. Fighting without a weapon. He runs a gym down in Gulfside, right by the Point. Doors are always open to anyone willing, won’t take your coin, and always sends you on your way with a few new bruises and if you’re paying attention, a little more skill.

Hamfrd chuckles. “He seems to think you don’t quite grasp the concept of friendly sparring.”

“It’s not my fault he can’t protect his junk. If he blocked it, I’d stop doing it. What’s this got to do with Drago?” She practically spits the man’s name. Gulping down the last of the visckr in her cup, she frowns across the table at the mostly empty bottle.

Hamfrd follows her gaze, and then takes the bottle and reaches it towards Scarlet. She snatches it from him, nods in thanks, and pours what little remains into her cup.

“Drago bought the gym from Thick.”

Scarlet pauses, the bottle still poised over her cup. “What?”

Hamfrd nods. “Yeah. Offered him so much coin, Thick had no choice but to sell to him. For the sake of his family, he said. He couldn’t say no to what Drago was offering.” The big man glances fondly at his wife and two boys. “I can understand that.”

Scarlet frowns. “So what? Thick’s place is gone?”

“That’s the thing,” says Hamfrd. His eyes sweep around the table, including everyone in their conversation. “He’s letting Thick keep everything just as it is. On one condition. He knows we go down there sometimes. You, me, Jake.”

Scarlet’s scowl deepens. “Go on.”

“The condition is that Thick has nothing to do with us anymore. Drago says if he finds out we’ve been going there still, he’ll throw Thick out and turn the place into a cathouse.”

Scarlet growls, makes her hands into fists so tight that her knuckles crack.

Jake shakes his head. “So he literally bought the place to mess with us?”

“Aye.”

Scarlet grinds her teeth. “I swear, I’m gonna . . .” The rest of the thought goes unspoken.

Elaine watches her with concern.

“What’s a cathouse?” asks Hamfrd’s elder son, Osgrd.

“Hush,” his mother tells him, frowning.

Jake slams a fist into his open hand. “Just like showing up to the Sailor when he knows he’s not supposed to. Now he’s messing with Thick’s. What is their deal? Wasn’t stealing the crown from us enough for them?”

“I’ll speak with Olliver,” says Sir Elton, referring to the Darkblades guildmaster. He clicks his tongue and pulls his pipe from his jacket pocket. “Try and work this out. Keep to the agreement we had. I can’t believe that he is encouraging this behavior. This Drago is most certainly acting on his own.”

“It won’t do any good,” Scarlet growls, shaking her head. “Fucking Brune Drago.”

She gulps the remainder of her visckr, slams her empty cup down onto the table, rattling dishes and silverware.

Jake glances at Elaine, shares a concerned look with her.

Peeking from behind the cleric, Ginny Mae notices the shared look between Elaine and Jake. The teenager narrows her eyes.

* * *

That night, Jake knocks on the door to Elaine’s room.

The cleric opens it a crack, peers out.

“Have you thought about what you’re going to wear?” asks Jake quietly.

“What?”

“Well, you can’t wear your cleric robes obviously. She’s bound to see you if you’re sneaking after her through the city dressed in your white robes.”

“Look, Jake,” says the cleric, leaning against the door frame and whispering through the door that’s still only slightly ajar. “I’m not sure about this.”

“I am. Now it’s getting pretty late, but I bet you anything that she’s going to slip out again tonight. She was pissed at dinner, and she’s been drinking since.”

“Yeah, that’s why I’m not so sure about this. If she catches me, she’s going to be so angry. I . . . I don’t want that.”

“Then don’t let her see you.”

“Obviously, but–”

A door bangs down the hall. Jake snaps his head around. That was from the direction of–

“It’s her,” he hisses, turning back to Elaine. “Be cool.”

Elaine’s eyes grow wide.

As Jake senses Scarlet nearing, he says loudly, “No, Elaine. I will not make out with you!” Then he turns and looks over his shoulder, pretends to realize suddenly that Scarlet is there. “Oh, hey, Scar.”

“Shut up, Jake.”

“Okay.”

She strides past, headed for the stairs.

“Where are you off to?”

“Out,” she growls.

Gods, she’s not even trying to hide it anymore, Jake thinks, watching her walk by. This is bad. She’s just leaving via the front door.

“Follow me and die,” she says without a look back.

Then she is jogging down the stairs to the parlor, out of sight.

Jake turns back to Elaine. “Come on!” he whispers. “She’s going now. Are you ready? You have to follow her? Are you dressed? What are you wearing? Come on!”

“I’m dressed,” Elaine assures him. “Jake, I’m not sure about this.”

“All you have to do is follow her. See where she’s been going. And you know, stop her if she tries to murder anyone. Or if it looks like she’s headed to Darkblade Manor.”

“Stop her? What if she tries to murder me?” Elaine whispers, but she relents. Jake pushes forward into the room.

“I’ve never seen you wear pants before,” he says.

“Because I never do.” She runs her hands through her hair, gathering her brown locks, which she ties up into a bun atop her head. Next, she lifts a knitted cap off the wall near the door, and pulls it on, completely hiding her long hair.

Long pants, a baggy, short-sleeved, laced shirt, and her hair concealed beneath the hat — Jake looks the Cleric over critically, brow creased. “Are you trying to look like a boy or something?”

“What? No! I’m just dressing different than I normally do.” She looks down at herself. “You know, so she won’t recognize me instantly.” Glares at Jake. “I still think this is a mistake.”

“We’re doing this for her,” Jake reminds the cleric. “Just in case. Look, she probably just found a new tavern or something. Or some guy. Or a woman,” he adds, considering. He misses the shock that flashes briefly in the cleric’s eyes. “But look, if following after her for one night keeps her from ending up in jail, then it’ll be worth it. Right?”

“And if she murders me?” Elaine asks, only half-kidding.

What Elaine doesn’t verbalize, but what she is actually more afraid of is not being physically harmed — no. What would be far worse is being caught and Scarlet never forgiving her. The young cleric sighs heavily. But at least if that were to happen then she would be certain that Scarlet hates her well and truly once and for all.

Okay, she thinks, psyching herself up. Let’s do this.

The sound of the heavy front door downstairs banging shut reaches them, seems to rattle loose items in Elaine’s room. The cleric flinches.

“Hurry,” Jake urges. “Get going.”

“I’m gonna regret this,” Elaine says.

But she follows Jake out into the hall, peeks down into the parlor where thankfully there is no sign of Scarlet. She hustles down the stairs.

A minute later, Elaine is sneaking out into the warm night, trembling as she pauses to peer down the street. Just barely she can make out the shape of the other woman far ahead on the sidewalk, passing underneath the glow of a streetlamp.

For Scarlet, she says to herself. A reminder. For Scarlet.

Please don’t hate me, she adds. And then she steps through the front gate, crosses the cobbled stone street and starts shadowing the other woman. One hand rises to feel the comforting shape of the medallion there against the bare skin beneath her shirt.

* * *

“No, Elaine! I will not make out with you!”

In the front parlor, crouched in the shadows behind the stairs, Ginny grins.

Take that, she tells the cleric silently.

She’s been trying to listen in on their conversation ever since she heard the soft thump of footsteps from the floor above and came quietly out of her room to discover Jake upstairs at Elaine’s door. He’s been acting odd all night, she thinks, sharing more looks after dinner with the cleric, and also watching Scarlet a lot while attempting to appear not to do so. Ginny had been frowning much of the evening wondering what he was up to, but now to hear those words come floating down to her, the first thing she’s been able to make out of their whispered conversation at Elaine’s door, gives Ginny a warm, fuzzy feeling in her belly. Or is that the partial second cup of wine that she managed to pour for herself that she is still feeling?

Suddenly, more footsteps, right above her, bounding down the stairs.

Ginny crouches lower in the shadows behind the staircase.

“Follow me and die,” she hears Scarlet growl, steps descending to the parlor.

Peeking out from her hiding spot, Ginny watches the dark-haired woman appear and stride to the front entrance, slip on her boots, briefly sway and put a hand to the wall for balance, and then yank open the door and walk through. Ginny flinches as Scarlet pulls the door solidly shut, seeming to shake the entire house.

Ginny crouches there for another moment. She can’t hear Jake or Elaine any longer and wonders if they’re still talking. Feels her cheeks warming with jealousy. She’s about to come out from her hiding spot behind the stairs when she hears more footsteps above, and then coming down the steps to the parlor. Two sets of footsteps.

She peeks out cautiously.

Jake and Elaine reach the bottom of the staircase together, cross quickly to the front door. Ginny frowns at Elaine, watching the cleric pull on her shoes. She’s wearing her hair up for some reason, tucked within a knitted hat. And pants. Ginny creases her brow. Never seen Elaine wear pants, she thinks.

A moment later, Jake is ushering Elaine out through the front door and shutting the door quietly behind her. As Ginny watches, Jake moves to the front window and stands for a moment, leaning forward and peering out.

Eventually he sighs and straightens. Seems uncertain what to do for a moment. Ginny crouches lower, watches him as he seems to glance absently around the room. Then, seemingly making up his mind, he heads off towards the far archway, to the kitchen.

This is it, she thinks. Her chance.

Elaine has gone out somewhere. She literally just heard Jake shoot down the cleric’s scandalously forward proposal. And if she’s going to do this then this is the moment.

Gathering up her courage, she comes out from behind the staircase, hurries up to the second floor, her bare feet padding silently on the steps.

Her heart is pounding in her chest as she scampers down the hallway, ducks into Jake’s room. Once she’s inside, she slips her robe off her shoulders, stands in the middle of his room in nothing but her slight nightgown. She’s well aware of the effect it had on him the previous night — how cute was he stuttering and stumbling over his words?

Only for Elaine to show up and interrupt them, she thinks, frowning.

Well, not this time.

Before she can change her mind, Ginny hurries forward, slips into the swordarm’s empty bed. She fluffs up the pillows and arranges them behind her. Sitting with her back against the headboard, she pulls the covers up to her waist.

Takes long, steady breaths.

Her heart is thumping furiously beneath her breasts. Her face is warm.

She settles in, waits for Jake’s return.

* * *

When Jake does return after a few minutes, he takes a few steps into his room before he notices the barely-clad teenager sitting in his bed.

A cup of water slips from his hands, clatters and spills onto the stone floor.

He takes a step back.

“G-gin! What are you doing?”

“I’m waiting for you, obviously.” She pats the bed beside her. It matches the sound of her heart pounding in her ears. “Come here.”

“I . . .” Jake seems momentarily stuck on that one single syllable which stretches out for several seconds. “I better go,” he says at last, and spins on his heel and leaves the room.

Ginny sits on the bed, staring at the open portal. Her eyes grow wide when a moment later Jake returns. A grin spreads across her face.

He looks down at the floor and runs a hand through his curly brown hair. Peeks up at her.

Her cheeks warm at the sight of his eyes on her, however briefly. Then he’s looking down at the floor again.

“Actually, um, this is my room,” he says. “So you should probably be the, uh, the one who goes.”

“Are you asking me to leave?” She adds extra pout to her lips when he glances up. While he’s still looking, she pulls aside the covers. Her nightgown has ridden up some and quite a lot of her bare legs are exposed. She pats the bed again. “Why don’t you come here?”

He takes a step away from her. The heel of his left foot knocks into the dropped cup, sending it spinning, which causes him to look down. “I think I need a drink,” he mutters, and then he turns and leaves the room again.

She stares after him, heart up in her throat, making it suddenly difficult to swallow. She stares at the open empty doorway for a moment. “Jake?”

There is no reply.

Making up her mind, she slips off the bed and pads across the room, careful to step around the spilled water and the cup on the floor.

She finds him out in the hallway, standing at the top of the stairs just sort of looking down towards the parlor.

He hears her approach, turns slightly towards her, but keeps his eyes averted.

“Jake?”

“Uh, listen, Gin–”

“Don’t you like me?”

“What? No! I like you fine, Gin. It’s just–”

“Because I like you,” she says hurriedly, eager to get the words out before her throat closes up again. “I’ve liked you for a long time. And when grandfather asked me to stay here, I was so excited. It was like it was meant to be.”

“Gin, I think–”

“I’m ready, Jake.” Slight trembling.

“Ready? For what?”

“Take me.”

And so saying, she slips the two slim straps from her bare shoulders, one after the other. Lets the thin nightgown slide down her body, to pool on the stone floor around her feet. She’s not wearing anything underneath.

“Well?”

Jake’s startled reaction is to back several steps away while throwing a hand up to cover his eyes.

Which is why he doesn’t see his right foot destined for the edge of the top step.

“Gin–”

But suddenly he’s off balance as his foot slips down one step. He windmills his arms, almost regains his balance. And then he’s tumbling down the staircase, rolling heels over head backwards, each of the solid, unforgiving steps getting a shot in on him as he goes. He hears Ginny gasp, catches flashes of her, a flesh-colored figure mixed in amongst the other whirling shapes in his rapidly revolving vision.

When he finally stops, he is sprawled across the bottom two steps with his head and shoulders on the parlor floor. Inside his skull, it feels as though he rolls another few times. Then the pain arrives. From a shoulder. His hip. An elbow. Knee. Ribs. The back of his head.

At the top of the staircase, Ginny rushes forward, arms wrapped around herself. She stares down in horror at the swordarm. “Jake!”

She scampers back to her discarded nightgown. Picks it up, and then hurries down the stairs while pulling the nightgown on over her head. Adjusts the straps on her shoulders even as she’s kneeling beside the injured man at the bottom of the staircase. One strap slips back off, floats around her upper arm.

“Oh, Jake!” she cries. “Are you hurt? Say something!”

He’s squeezing his eyes shut, his face a grimace of pain.

“Is it bad? Please! Say something!”

Jake groans. “Something.”

 

 

<<<Chapter Nineteen — To be Continued>>>

 

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