Time passed slowly in the garden. Being confined grated on me. I had little in the way of distractions aside from physical exercise. Doctor Lumin kept providing assurances that most other boys found it far harder to focus, and that my nervous agitation should be considered commonplace.
Both Yon and Ion told me in hushed tones through the closed gate that visits from all people were being restricted since the Black Day events. I nodded but didn’t understand if this was to protect me by screening visitors, or keep a low profile until the situation blew over.
Eventually, Mistress Charity was allowed to visit nearly a week after Doctor Lumin. She walked in with a harried pace then knelt near the chair and soiled the hem of her dress in a wet patch from last night’s rain.
“I beg your forgiveness young lord,” Mistress Charity spoke then lowered her head towards me.
I sat frozen by confusion and tried to consider what she meant. Mistress Charity rarely demonstrated any faults that I could detect, much less ones which required forgiveness. Her crimes against me were nonexistent to my knowledge.
My teacher might have been apologizing for not visiting me recently. I did not feel slighted at her absence for nearly three weeks. The fault lay purely with me. Still, her manner caused a tremor of worry to pass through.
“My father died this past month,” she continued to speak. “And my mother has been, burdened by the results.”
I looked at the kind woman then nodded. “Rest assured Mistress Charity, I would forgive you were I to feel upset, but I am not. Caring for one’s family must come first.”
“Yes,” Mistress Charity looked at me and made that odd expression again. “Family is very important.”
I wondered why her eyes pinched at the sides and both orbs wiggled with a loss of focus.
“What does that look mean?” I stared at her eyes. “It resembles sadness, but not completely. I’ve seen in multiple times before.”
“Which expression?” She face quickly turned to what I considered questioning, and interested. Mistress Charity stared directly at me and moved both hands slightly closer together.
I tried to make my eyes wiggle and cheeks slacken at the sides. Expression emotion was a difficult skill to master. Were it not for my ability to grow in height, I might consider myself a Wooden Child. Doctor Lumin had shown me pictures of them before. They never grew more than four feet tall and fed on grieving parents.
Mistress Charity stared at me for a moment. She smiled slightly while watching my face twist. Her humored died and was replaced by a perfect replica of the expression I asked about.
“That one, yes,” I said while nodding. My face tried to make the smile she suggested but likely failed.
“It is like sadness, on behalf of another person.”
My head tilted. “Then, is it pity?”
Mistress Charity nodded slowly but managed to keep her face under better control.
“Why would anyone pity me?” None of my family members demonstrated sadness at this entrapment. Even father had only asked to be forgiven.
“It is hard for us to watch a bright child being treated so. Doctor Lumin and Captain Nagi have been especially aggressive in their protests.”
“I do not wish to see people harmed because of me,” I said slowly. Consequences bothered me most of all. If they were chastised by father, there may be no one left to teach me. Eyes lost focus while facing a distant wall. My mind played out a dozen possibility futures which might come about.
Mistress Charity let me sit in silence and ponder the situation. Her mannerisms were far more refined once we started talking again. I felt thankful for a return to normalcy.
“My station does not allow me to expression myself in the same manner, but I have talked to those who would listen and learned how they feel about this situation we find ourselves in.”
“Thank you,” I followed her lessons and showed courtesy. “It means a lot to know my valued teachers feel so strongly.”
Still, my teacher did not move from her position. Our seating made me uncomfortable and went against the way it should have been. I began to wonder if this situation contained seriousness beyond my understanding.
“My sister tells me you prevented that man from violating her, and for that I thank you,” Mistress Charity said.
“Your sister? You mean Lady Mercy Stone Hearth?” My face went red. The young woman had been very fetching. I barely understood how a woman might be so attractive but felt conflicted finding out she was related to the woman before me.
“She is,” Mistress Charity nodded to me. “As is Lady Hasty. Our middle sister married and moved far away. We hardly speak anymore, and perhaps it is for the best.”
I looked at my teacher with a new light. As sisters, they shared similar builds, as did my own siblings. Mistress Charity kept protruding features far more covered up than Mercy had. Their ages were different by a number of years but I could see how their lines curved the same way.
Fingers itched for materials to draw with. I wanted to follow that line completely then make a picture of both women. Perhaps my skills were strong enough to provide them as gifts. Wandering thoughts were slowly reigned in.
“Forgive me, in our time together I’ve never thought to ask about your family,” I said.
She smiled and tipped her head forward slightly. “There was never reason to speak of them. My sisters follow much different paths in life than I. Which brings me to today’s lesson.”
I nodded and motioned one hand to the unused chairs. Mistress Charity looked surprised for a moment. She stood and sat in her standard chair. Pale fingers grabbed at the dresses hem then moved the smudge out of sight. We were now in our proper locations.
“This lesson is not just for today, but for your future. Should you have your own children, it is important to remember parents are dangerous to their children in many ways.”
I listened. While her words may not make sense today, they might be illuminating at a later date. She had provided many different bits of information of the years. At the very least I struggled to pay attention.
“It is difficult to guide another mind upon the path to adulthood. Parents influence their young, by sharing the thoughts, reinforcing behaviors-” her eyes cast downward and lips pursed together. The woman swallowed slowly and twirled her umbrella before speaking again. “We are not born from a void, nor shaped by one. Often a parent teaches by unspoken example.”
I held still. Mistress charity did not look in my direction. There were few visual cues to base my reactions off of.
“What do you mean?”
“You father, as an example, is a stern and powerful man. He is much like his father in that regard. As is your uncle.” She smiled briefly but it faltered. Mistress Charity’s mind had been distracted for our entire meeting. “I see their distant gaze slowly forming in your eyes as well. You parents, even though they visit you rarely, have already had a hand in shaping the man you will become.”
“Your father, if I understood correctly, was a man questionable of questionable actions,” I tried to maintain polite wording as Mistress Charity had taught me. Despite the attempt her head shook and eyes blinked rapidly. “Yet you are extremely kind. Is there not hope to be different than our parents?”
“Some people are harder to escape than others. My father was such a man. He, fouled me, and my younger sister. Despite years away from him, I am still very much marked by that past, and because of it, I have made poor choices.”
“Surely not,” I protested. The woman in front of me had been nothing but kind and proper for years.
“Your touch, revealed that man’s depravity-” Mistress Charity was shaking. The small umbrella handle under her white knuckles cracked and threatened to splinter entirely. “-to the world, so that none could ignore it.”
She looked up and a barely suppressed wetness hovered around both eyes. I swallowed slowly and felt unsure how to react.
“I thank you young lord Fell, for doing what I could not.” She controlled herself well. I recalled my own rage and helplessness at being locked inside this garden. “It is unkind of me to only wish you could have done it sooner.”
“I am sorry,” I said. No one should have to suffer unwanted advances. Still, I have killed her father. Surely the murder of another human being deserved punishment. I would have to ask Captain Nagi what the morality was of crime in war.
“You have no need to be apologetic, Young Lord.” She bowed once more. “I only wish for you to be at ease with your part in this situation.”
“I understand,” I lied.
A mental map of Sol’s Heart taught me that the Stone Hearth clan was very close. Lady Mercy had said we were neighbors. That man shaped pig demon had been nearby more than once. Perhaps he was one of the people who frequented the path over the western wall. Perhaps his drunken mutterings had been one of a dozen to wake me up at night.
“I could have acted sooner.” I nodded once. The possibility sounded simple in hindsight.
At any point I could have climbed over the fence and probably crossed into their properties. In half an hour it might have been possible to execute him where he slept to prevent such crimes sooner. Starvation for a day or two would have been a small price to repay Mistress Charity’s kindness.
Her head shook. “You are young, and should not try to blame yourself for inaction on an issue you knew nothing about. Instead, simply remember to act properly in the future, if you ever do learn of other such horrors.”
I nodded once, with all the seriousness an eleven year old could muster. Mistress Charity looked off into the distance and a film of water grew over the woman’s eyes. The situation confused me, because I did not know what she might have to cry again.
“Are you alright Mistress Charity?”
“I find myself at a loss, young lord. Do you mind if I am a bit forward?”
My head shook in the negative. Before the rocking motion stopped Mistress Charity had leapt across the short distance between us and wrapped her thin arms around my head. Her chest smashed into my face and I stood there stupefied.
“Thank you, truly thank you,” she mumbled.
Eyes closed and I tried to enjoy the sensation of being hugged by anyone. It felt very strange and almost uncomfortable to have another person’s flesh pressed so closely. Arms stayed rigid at the sides and feet shuffled as her weight pulled at me.
“My sister said you looked lost, and lonely,” Mistress Charity could barely be heard. “She watches you sometimes from the clan’s property across the way.”
I nodded but could not recall seeing Lady Mercy ever before. The building across the way had mostly been covered up by tall trees and shrubs which blocked all but an ornate rooftop.
“Please consider this hug as coming from her. My sister was very thankful for your heroics on the Black Day.”
Instead most of my attention sat focused upon the woman who captured me in her embrace. Her hands were the hottest parts. They burned upon my forearms as she wrapped me tightly. I wondered if Lady Mercy might feel that much warmer since she displayed more skin. The idea made me uneasy and I started to squirm.
“And this is a reward from me.” She let loose then bent downward and pressed her lips against my cheek. Scents unknown flooded my nose.
It had been years since anyone drew me this close, much less showed any affection. I flinched backwards once realization set in. Mistress Charity pulled back and looked at me again. Her eyes pinched at the cheeks and ears pulled back. She felt sadness for me, pity. My own gaze went down and I swallowed back shame. One foot dug into the ground to serve as a distraction.
When I looked up again, Mistress Charity had fled the garden. My fingers touched at goose bumps along one arm where her fingers had held tightly. Perhaps I truly was broken if such simple gestures left me speechless.
A woman had both kissed and hugged me. Days passed while I tried to sort out the events with Mistress Charity. There was much of our conversation that alluded to deeper problems in the world and I wished to remember it clearly as I got older.
Again thoughts cycled back to the sensation of being hugged tightly by a mature woman. I tried to recall the last time anyone had expressed affection of any sort in my presence, much less towards me.
The event distracted me so much that I disregarded plans to watch the servant girl who brought in food. Plates appeared on their normal schedule but I hardly took notice. They left in the same way with a meal half eaten. I even forgot to question how she and Charity had survived my touch where their father had not.
Days later the silence of my garden broke up from a gate being slammed.
“You can’t bring him in here!” Yon’s voice bellowed with a slight slur.
“Captain!” Ion was much firmer. “This isn’t approved!”
“Stuff your approval! The boy needs practice, and if the Region Lord really wants to move forward with his idiotic plan, it’s my job to see him trained! You know he’ll have no chance without more practice!”
Visitors were scarce in my garden, yet today four people had brazenly strode across through the gateway and marched steadily across to the lakeside where I stood. I held the Long Afternoon pose and tried not to let confusion disturb my final motions.
“Captain Nagi, you must wait for approval!”
“Solder are you questioning my orders?” Captain Nagi responded to Ion’s repeated protest.
Yon and Ion looked like giants behind my teacher. They glared downward as if they wished to fight here in my garden. I worried for the plants and tried to intercede.
“Guards, is there anything I can do to assist you?” I asked the older men. They were in my small home, and while I held no illusions of power compared to people like my teachers or father, I was also technically the son of our clan’s leader.
There were other factors to consider and most of them left me unsure. The Black Day events would have changed their perceptions of me a little. Certainly, I was more aware of both men as a result.
“Young Lord Fell, your father still has not approved visitors,” Yon said with a calmer face than his brother. It helped that half of it was lifeless.
I was still sweating from the morning routine. My back felt better, and limbs functioned with more ease than they had a week ago. My hands itched to keep moving, but the guards in front of me were worth controlling myself and acting proper.
“Trainee Lance, I suggest you start warming up. It looks like your sparring partner has nearly completed his own training for the morning,” Captain Nagi did not speak directly to me but still acknowledged the hard work. Perhaps he also had taken lessons from Mistress Charity.
The brother’s looked at each other, me, then Captain Nagi in unison. Ion nodded then took up an uneasy stance just inside my garden. He kept both hands wound tightly around the spear shaft and stared at the young trainee Lance. Yon marched off quickly through the gate, and presumably off to see father about this breech.
“Good, that gives us an hour to let you two beat sense into each other. Young Lord Fell, don’t think that a warrior in training will be as easy as some fat noble!”
“Of course,” I bowed, stepped back to my clearing near the small lake and tried to resume the last morning exercises.
“And you, Trainee Lance, put some effort into it! You’re expected to actually try!” Captain Nagi’s tone sounded just as harsh with this new person as it normally did when targeting me. I felt both irritated and reassured that the Captain didn’t treat me special compared to a standard army member.
Our clan managed one small branch of the Region Lord’s armies, in part because of my father and eldest brother’s efforts in wars. Much had come from our fore father’s earning honor over generations. As such we have our own private fighters, the Read Guard’s Yon and Ion being two examples.
Then there were military contacts, such as Captain Nagi and Trainee Lance. My lessons with Mistress Charity implied that there were nearly two thousand such men under our clan’s control.
“I’m only here cus’ I’m being-“ the tone Trainee Lance used was unheard of in my garden.
I looked upwards and tried to place the inflection used. It stack of disrespect, something Mistress Charity would have frowned sternly about. The trainee words cut off as Captain Nagi’s head tilted and eyebrows went up.
The older man shook his head towards the young soldier. He did not sigh but pointed towards two spots on the ground. Captain Nagi said, “Both of you, stand, bow, then show me a fight. Keep yourselves under control and do not cause long term harm.”
We turned towards the captain, clasped our hands together then bowed to him, and each other. Afterwards I assumed the Sunrise of Man stance, with both arms up and ready. Trainee Lance lowered his legs down heavily into the ground and lifted his heels off the ground.
He blinked once then attacked. Captain Nagi snorted and the sight of Ion’s spear moving slightly distracted me. A rush of air went out as I turned to find a fist stretched towards my face. My body swayed backwards and one foot changed locations to retain balance.
The other fighter kept on going. An extended punch reached air then quickly turned into a spinning back kick. Right arm passed over left to brush the attack aside. Force stronger than expected slid off leaving my arms nearly shaking. I struggled to push aside another blow but came up winded.
I stepped back quickly in a curve along the familiar ground of my lakeside. Trainee Lance shook his head and rolled both shoulders.
My position shifted to a lower stance. Height did me no good against the larger opponent. Trainee Lance was older than me by a few years. His body clearly had more muscle and mass. He relied mostly on his fists and chain attacks. Very little defense went into any moves.
“Do better Trainee Lance, or else I’ll give you to Squad six instead of two like you asked.”
Lance looked over at the captain and a hint of worry rippled through his eyebrows. They were the only bit of hair remaining on his body. I took a moment to analyze his attacks feeling oddly detached despite throbbing arms. There were no surges of energy from his attacks. The older teen wouldn’t scream or burn away if struck.
“Fucking silver spoon brats,” the other male muttered quietly. Were it not for my own hearing I might have missed the slight. He closed his eyes briefly, righted the shaky stance then surged forward again.
I dare not reveal his disrespect out loud. To do so would cost me a valuable opportunity. However, I did not feel above forcefully throwing the older teen into the ground for two out of next four bouts. Despite being a silver spoon brat, I was able to fight a man years my senior.
By the fourth round we had a measure of each other. His blows were stronger by far, but my body bent through stances at a rapid pace, pushing his strength to one side. Captain Nagi’s eyes were wide more than once as our fight circled around. Rear guard Ion stood closer still, wearing the same expression as his superior officer.
Then I fell to the ground, not because of my opponent’s skills or a sudden injury, but because my father too had arrived inside the garden grounds. His hands sat tucked inside sleeves and the thin beard waved in an absentminded breeze.
My feet scrambled and I quickly struggled to bow properly to the clan head. Failing to complete that round in front of father shook me. Yet, there were many people around who witnessed me defeat the older teen multiple times before. Even mother stood near the gateway’s threshold, her eyes wide at the sight.
“Where did you learn to fight?” my father asked.
“Captain Nagi has instructed me well over the years,” I said with another bow.
“Captain Nagi, it was my impression you were teaching my son self-defense but had not provided him any battle experience, is that correct?”
“Sir, that is correct,” Captain Nagi stood stiffly and kept his face passive. Yon and Ion exchanged glances in the background, while my mother lifted a hand briefly.
Whatever the motion meant, father saw it with a turn of his head. The haze of mist around him that had entered our garden hardened into a solid force then started spinning again.
“Yon, Ion, return to your posts,” he said. The stern man nodded in my direction. “Continue training hard son.”
Afterwards my father walked away. Layers of sweat prevented me from seeing his expression clearly. Captain Nagi didn’t smile in his victory, but motioned for me to start another round. As instructed, I trained hard against a real soldier.
“I told you time and time again, he only poses a threat to those who practice The Way or Pierce the Veil,” Doctor Lumin muttered to the Captain. Both teachers stood together, but Mistress Charity was nowhere to be seen. “I’m thankful you were able to prove my theory.”
“Focus on your spar Young Lord! Stop getting distracted!” the Captain yelled.
Trainee Lance shook his head then charged, showing once again his preference for being on the offensive. I turned and put both hands up in defense. My mind spun around our recent conversation.
Their words became too quiet for me to hear. Perhaps the words of Doctor Lumin were correct, many wheels were spinning and it was my view of the world that couldn’t see them.
Still, the abrupt differences today had brought felt positive. My sparring partner did not like me, but I liked the opportunity he presented. In addition six people had visited in one day. Progress encouraged me to struggle harder. I trained endlessly. It was not for the battle, or from blood lust, but a long test to prove the worth of my existence. In such a manner months passed.
Time brought little wisdom about the events outside my cage. All three teachers once again visited and the view of life slowly returned to a routine. My goal of self-discipline to earn freedom had changed simply changed methods and intensity. There would be another Black Day, father approved of my efforts, and my sister was showing signs of healing.
In the first year of imprisonment I had longed to get out. As a young lord to one of three great clans, I had been destined for leadership, or positions of power were I to work hard. Now though, isolation kept me separated and grew increasingly aggravating. The prison walls chafed at me, though I did not understand myself well enough to recognize such an emotion.
Remaining inside wasn’t that easy. After the first month I grew antsy again. Feet traveled a slow lap around the wall. Every few hand spans I would reach out and touch the fortifications in hopes that my walls might dissolve away once and for all.
There were other puzzles if my mind wandered. Increasingly attention focused upon this quiet visitor to the garden. Her subtle presence felt odd given prior disregard. It had been my belief before that she did not practice upon the way, but clearly those presumptions were incorrect. Energy flowed after her like silk ribbons.
One day I held myself still in mediation and kept eyes at bare slits. I could see a portion of bruised legs slipping by the grass along my back wall. The food bringing young woman aimed directly for the garden of tiny blue flowers which had shot up like weeds in the last month.
The flowers did nothing for me. My touch withered them as it did with Cold Cure and the Gibberling. Given this effect, the plants were likely spiritual in nature, infused with energy like many plants were. Plants, such as Cold Cure, had proven capable of growing in my garden despite the absence of all other energies.
The waif stole a teardrop clump of petals, shoved them in her mouth then chewed. The energy tethered to her back, which flowed upward like an upside-down wing, pulse with light blue. A deeper color had started to form, that reminded me of a dark sky with clouds in the distance.
My head tilted briefly in thought. Like every time before, she noticed, and halted with eyes staring at me. The young girl covered her mouth and tightened her jaw.
I didn’t understand why she stayed here instead of running. Her mouth kept chewing away.
“Are you afraid I’ll ask for that back?” I asked her.
She swallowed rapidly as her eyes watered and thin strands of feathery blue once again surged with energy. The girl still refused to speak and instead fled my garden rapidly.
I hopped down and carefully walked over to the place she had been eating at. In one hand I held a branch, scavenged from a tree, and pushed aside plants. Deep under the current layer of growth there were signs of more flowers having been torn from their stems. They looked to have been savagely yanked out in some places.
Days later, Mistress Charity arrived in the afternoon. She looked brighter than ever and often wore a clear smile instead of keeping it hidden.
We chatted of small topics and court information. She kept me abreast of the changes going on around Sol’s Heart and shared much about how the various clan’s had responded to a hunt for fallen demons. I nodded but didn’t know how much of the information mattered. Father didn’t speak much on the subject during our brief exchanges. He recently only had concern for my battle prowess.
I broke away from unsolvable gossip and decided to clear up another matter. It had been months since the Black Day and a new one loomed close. Events from the last day played in my mind.
“I do have a question, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m impolite,” I stated.
“As long as you’re mindful of what I said regarding commenting on hidden treasures.” Mistress Charity pressed a hand against her chest and smiled. The meaning was clear, but my question might trip across the line.
“I do not know, but it was something that I overheard, and find myself confused about. Since it concerns you, I hoped that you might provide clarity.
“Some men I know were speaking rather crudely.” The two guards Yon and Ion had actually spoken of ‘librarians being like as any to want a drink and a wench’ then stated ‘that’s Mistress Charity’s job’. Their words combined with Lady Mercy’s hidden treasure certainly had me wonder exactly what the open secret might be.
“Men often do, especially those less civilized,” she smiled at me, and I briefly considered not asking for fear that it might ruin her happy mood. “I’ve always been proud that you remain above such vulgarities.”
“They, mentioned that you might be paid to, explain more adult manners. I wasn’t sure if this was an insult or not,” I said after a pause. It had taken me a month of trying to solve that problem, among others, before finally decided to simply ask her.
Mistress Charity coughed briefly then sat a bit stiffer, her smile faded. I tilted my head and wondered what danger the question had triggered. She nodded stiffly then stared down at the ground. Her hands twirled the sun umbrella that sat over her shoulder.
I waited while she composed herself then nodded once. Her eyes didn’t look as bright, and I found myself staring at sad red painted lips. The space between them and her narrow chin would only take a few brush strokes.
“Part of our job as teachers is to make sure you know everything you need to grow into a fine adult. For your Captain Nagi this is the way of fighting, of killing men, and eventually of commanding them.”
I nodded to show I understood her words.
“For your Professor Lumin, he struggles to teach you how to view The Way from outside, to learn to think of reasons behind the world’s movements, and he works to help you understand your own power.”
I nodded again.
“And it is my job to teach you conversation, and the art a man needs to know,” Mistress Charity tilted her head and emphasized the word art in a way that she never had before.
The explanation felt light. My eyebrows lowered and forehead wrinkled.
“When you grow older, I shall be teaching you a man’s art, if you’ve desire to learn. This one involves the ways of a man and woman in the dark.”
My face went slack briefly as I had a sudden inkling of what she meant. The exact nature escaped me slightly but I knew it would be embarrassing. It sounded like one of those subjects a man should not brag about in public.
Worry hit me. This sounded strangely close to what Lady Mercy had been running from. I needed to ask, “is this something you wish to do?”
“Do you remember what I said of our parents shaping us?” Mistress Charity answered.
I nodded and felt like a thoughtless bird pecking at the ground.
“Then shaped I am.” Her head tilted slightly and the umbrella spun slowly. She wore a slight smile and only looked down for a moment. “This is who I am, as a result of the choices made, I’ve come to terms with that nature, as you must your own. But it is kind of you to worry, and rest assured I shall make sure the learning process is enjoyable for us both.”
“Thank you for the answer,” I said while my mind whirred quickly. My face must have been foolish. The topic had thrown her off a bit but she still answered, and now she smiled shyly like the young girls did in her tales of courtroom antics.
My face felt very red and heartbeat rapid. The very idea that she might be teaching me something intimate made thoughts scattered wildly. Part of me understood what she alluded too but the rest did not. Perhaps if I had been allowed to leave my garden more often, or lived a less isolated life this explanation would have made more sense.
I shook my head then decided to worry about her words later. Quickly standing up I eagerly spouted, “Mistress Charity, may I give you a gift, as an apology for the rudeness of my questions?”
She smiled and there was a hint of something else entirely that I had never seen before. The expression looked like happiness mixed with a playful bend to her eyes. I studied the lines for a moment then tried to memorize the curl to her cheeks. Mistress Charity nodded.
“One moment,” I said before stepping inside the small hut.
The table had dozens of drawn pictures stacked on leaflets. My sculpting tools had not been returned but Professor Lumin insisted on paper being provided for his lessons. A few weeks ago piles of parchment showed up and my drawing took on a nearly feverish pace since then. I used them to pencil out pictures of the various things I saw.
Some were plants that we learned about, but many were family members I saw during my moments of meditation. Everyone I could think of was sketched, some far more than others. I tried to straighten up the mess.
“Your art is coming along well young Lord Fell,” she said with a pleased nod.
I glanced back briefly to see the normal smile and color had returned to her face. My chest lifted with a sigh of relief. The one I wished to give stood pinned upon the wall above my desk.
“Here,” I said while trying not to let my feet shuffle about.
She took the picture and stared at it. I had worked hard upon carving an aloft grace upon the page. It showed Mistress Charity from a distance, her eyes were a bit said, but the chin lifted high, as if no matter the challenge she would overcome. There was strength and sadness to the gaze.
“Is this me?” she asked.
I nodded then looked down. Obeying Captain Nagi’s instructions and Professor Lumin’s experiments had never made me cast my eyes down like this. I felt my chest tighten and shoulders draw together.
“It’s a wonder, thank you.” She smiled again then actually laughed. The sound made me relax. My ears perked up and head flushed with a tingle that crawled down my back.
She scanned the other pictures with an excited smile. Mistress Charity looked at drawings of my brother’s, and father. I let her pick out a second one that showed the backside of guard’s Yon and Ion from one morning. Their bodies stood out as bright spots in a dark tunnel. They looked regal and resolute with straightened backs and tall spears at the ready.
“Who’s this girl?” Mistress Charity’s hand landed upon a small clump.
She pulled one out using two fingers then held up the picture of a thin homeless waif with strands of blue tied to her back. There were stacks of her in different poses, each one captured after meditation helped me recall the moment. This one showed the girl cupping flowers in her hand and gazing into them as if secrets were hidden inside.
“I do not know. That is the young woman who brings my meals. She quiet, and startles easily, and a puzzle,” I responded. “One I intend to solve eventually.”
Mistress Charity’s smile fell for only a moment before righting itself. I believed the change in expression to be a result of confusion. My startled bird certainly caused me to feel the same frequently. Everything in the moment had been captured, even a slightly darkened patch of skin along her exposed shoulder.
“It’s lovely, maybe I keep this one as well?” she asked.
The question was innocent enough, and praise made me flush with nervous pride. I nodded, and Mistress Charity left with three pictures under her arm. Soft but quick footsteps led her to the gate and it clinked in the distance.
I stood at the desk with my hands carefully covering another pile of papers. Perhaps it was for the best that she stopped to look at my visitor with the blue strands. Other pictures lay further below that pile, marking the curves of Lady Mercy’s well defined body. In light of our recent conversation I felt worried that Mistress Charity might not approve of my drawings of her sister. They were far less regal in their posing.
Those would need to be removed soon, but I couldn’t bring myself to cast them away. I stared at her sketches often late at night and wondered exactly her father had intended.
The adult world sounded mysterious indeed. I wondered which might be worse; a lightning casting down judgment from the heavens, or the flushed feeling I got when thinking of holding Lady Mercy’s hand.