A Chapter by kalier

Talach smoothed back his hair, and knocked on the door to the boarding house. He was a little nervous, as the hour was rather late. He thought Vanya might be asleep by now. However, just as he was about to give in to his fear of being turned away, the door opened.
    "Mr. Hallon." Her startled, lovely voice made his heart thump against his ribs. In the past few months, he'd begun to notice her. Before that, he'd been too dull-witted from his wife's death to even see how beautiful and sweet she was. "It's really late, Mr. Hallon. I was just about to turn in for the night."
    "I'm sorry to come so late, Miss Vanya. But I have a message for one of your young wards."
    "Oh. I see." She said, frowning at him. "Well, I shan't give it to her. I told the boy that--"
    "You can't control either one of them." He interrupted gently. "If they truly want to see each other again, they will. Neither you, or that young lady's guards will stop it. They're just children, Miss Vanya. I imagine that little lady doesn't have very many true friends, and I know my son doesn't either. Why not allow them the time since she'll be gone from here soon enough?"
    She sighed. "It's not all that easy, Mr. Hallon. I dread to think what would happen if your son was caught with her."
    "My boy knows how to avoid nobles." Talach laughed. "You have no need to worry about him."
    "But you don't understand who these people are." She protested.
    He shrugged. "Whether they are kings or rats, I couldn't care less. You should know, Miss Vanya. I once married a Princess myself, and it didn't turn out that badly. But this isn't a marriage. It's just two kids who need a friend. I may not be able to provide my son with wealth and position, but I can give him this."
    "You could take him back to his mother's home." Vanya suggested.
    "I asked him if he wanted to go. He got angry, and wouldn't talk to me for two weeks. I won't ask him again. If he wants to see her island, he'll ask me."
    Vanya looked indecisive. "I don't know if I should smack you or admire you." She admitted. "You could be putting your son's life in danger, you know."
    "It's not that I don't care about him getting into trouble. But if trouble comes, we'll handle it on our own. You gave us your warning, so you've done enough. I won't let any harm befall my child." He placed the envelope into the palm of her hand. "Please see that the young lady gets this message. If she is disappointed, her heart will be broken. Can you have that on your soul and be happy, Miss Vanya?"
    Her blue eyes became puzzled. "I just realized that I have no idea who you really are, Mr. Hallon."
    "What do you mean?" He asked.
    "You don't seem like someone who belongs on the docks. You're too smart."
    He laughed. "Sometimes, my dear lady, it doesn't make a difference who you are. Only what you become."
    "I know you used to guide the nobles through this continent, and fight for them. But there's something else too."
    "Actually, there's not. You're putting too much mystery on me." He turned, and walked down her steps.
    "Wait." She called softly. He turned to glance at her. "I know you're busy right now, due to the wreckage at the docks, but do you think you could stop by when you have more time? I'd like to talk to you some more."
    He bowed to her as if she were a lady instead of a prosperous inn keeper. "If you command, I must obey." He smiled.
    "See? That's what I mean." She said, smiling in return. "I can't believe that you learned that behavior from just your wife. I think you must have been born with it."
    His expression changed, stiffening. "And I think you pry too much. This is the first time that we've actually spoken in terms other than business, and you want to accuse me of lying. Maybe I'll pass on that invitation after all."
    "I'm sorry." She said quickly. "I didn't mean--"
    But he was already walking away from her, fuming. She sighed, and shut herself back into the boarding house. She promised to herself that she would make it up to him somehow, and she'd start by giving little Ana his son's letter.

    Ana awoke before dawn, excited and nervous about sneaking out. She was going to see Eushen again. She'd spent all day yesterday, remembering how kind he'd been to her. Her first real friend.
    "Ana." A soft voice hissed in the shadows. She covered her mouth to stifle her scream. Vanya stepped out to reveal herself. "I'm sorry, child. I've been waiting for you."
    "Why?" She asked curiously.
    "This is from your friend, Eushen." She said, handing Ana the envelope. "Don't worry. I didn't read it, but I know what it says. He won't be able to meet you today."
    "Why?" She pouted.
    "There was an accident at the docks yesterday, and he's stuck cleaning the mess with his father. Until it's all taken care of, he won't have any spare time. The lad is very thoughtful to worry about you missing him. So don't be mad at him, okay?"
    "But he promised."
    "I know he did, but this is beyond his control. This is the life of dock workers, dear. He and his father deserve better, but this is the life they have."
    "It's a stupid life then!" She declared. "I wanna see him!"
    "Ana." Vanya said sternly. "You can't change what he is. He's a fisherman's son, considered the lowest of the low. It doesn't matter that he can speak like a noble, and his father too. They're not. They're just a poor man and his son, doomed to live their lives serving others."
    "I will change it then." Ana told her, brushing away her tears. "Just wait. I'll show you." She held the letter tightly to her chest, and ran back to her room.
    No. Vanya thought to herself. There was no way that she could force these two children apart. Even if she knew that only ill could become of it.
    Ana carefully opened the letter that Vanya had given her. In careful, neat writing, she read:

    "Dear Ana,

    I'm sorry that I can't see you today. I really wanted to, but there's been an accident at the docks. I have to help my father and the others clean up the mess.
    I really liked your company the other day, and next time maybe I'll take you out further so you can see the different colors of the ocean. I think you'd find it beautiful. Maybe I'll even show you the cove I found a few years ago. My father said that pirates used to stash their stolen goods there. But that was long ago.
    Hey, I know! Maybe when you come to dinner we can get him to tell us about the pirates. Would you like that? He told me his grandfather had been one, but I don't really know if it's true or not.
    But you might want to wear different clothes when you come this time. You'll ruin your pretty dresses with the salt water, and I can't afford to buy you a new one. I'm sorry.
    I'm really, really sorry that I must break my promise to you on this day. I can only hope that you can forgive me.

    Your friend,

    Ana gently placed the letter back in the envelope, and hid it in her toy chest; a large, silver box etched with vines and flowers. She pulled out the gold silk lining slightly to conceal the letter lest someone other than her should open the chest. Not that she thought anyone would. This was hers, and her father would never have reason to look inside it.
    She went to her desk, and pulled out the stationary that her father had gotten her for her birthday. The ivory paper was crisp and clean, with drawings of stars and moons along the edges. She picked up a pen and wrote her own letter.
    She glanced both ways, checking to make sure no one saw her, and found Vanya in the parlor. "Take this to him, please?" She asked Vanya, pushing the letter into the kind woman's hand.
    Vanya smiled at her. "Certainly, my dear. But it won't be until later. He and his father will have to work far past dark today. I dare not bother them at the docks."
    "Okay." She sighed wistfully. "He said his father was in trouble with his boss anyway, so I don't want to cause them grief."
    "You're a good girl, Ana. Now, go back to your room before you're missed."
    Eushen wiped the sweat from his brow, glancing over at his father. His old man seemed tired today, but he supposed he probably looked like that too. They'd worked from dawn to almost midnight for two days straight, and barely had time to eat or sleep.
    "Go home, you two." The boss said finally. He was a short, pudgy man with a red, shiny face. He could be both kind and sharp, depending upon his mood. "I'm sorry to keep you so late, but most of the other workers are useless." He looked worn himself, nearly staggering as he wandered off to his own home.
    Eushen helped his father gather up their tools. "How many more days of this?" He asked his father.
    "By the looks of it, I'd say at least two more."
    "That long?"
    "They pulled some bodies out of the wreckage of the ship." His father told him. "Even worse, they'd shown signs of decay. The people on that ship, at least some of them, were already dead before they reached port. Many others haven't even been found yet."
    "But some survived, right?"
    Talach shook his head. "I don't know. No one living has been found. I was talking to the boss earlier, and he thinks that ship has brought disease with it. A plague, I guess. But I'm not too sure. It doesn't seem like that."
    "What then?"
    His father's eyes looked haunted as he looked over the area. "I think they were murdered."
    "Murdered by what?"
    "There's things in this world yet that you don't understand. Bad things..."
    "I saw something like this, maybe not such a catastrophe, but something similar. It was when I was taking your mother to meet her betrothed." Talach gathered the tools as he spoke.
    "We'd come across a farmhouse, or rather just a shack. Your mother and her lady servants were thirsty, so I stopped to ask for some water. But when I knocked on the door, I smelled something so foul that I almost gagged. Your mother was just behind me, and I pushed her back so she wouldn't see when I opened the door."
    "The people in the shack were dead?" He asked.
    "Sort of." He shuddered. "The family was still sitting at the table, the flesh literally dripping from their bones. of them, a small child, turned its head to look at me. It smiled, and my blood ran cold.
    "I'm not sure what happened next. There was a flash of red-purple light, and I woke up stretched out in your mother's carriage. She claimed that I had closed the door and fainted on the porch. I told her that I had to go back and check on the family, because they had seemed ill. I never told her what I'd actually seen there. But the family was gone when I returned. Whatever happened there was wiped clean during the time I was unconscious."
    "Maybe you imagined it." Eushen suggested.
    "No. I did not. What I saw was real, even though I can't explain it. I had weird dreams while I was sleeping, but I couldn't tell you what they were. I don't remember."
    "Father, is that gonna happen here? The dead coming back to life?"
    "It's hard to say. I only saw it that one time, but this gives me the same cold feeling. If you smell something strange, let me know. I haven't yet, but that doesn't mean anything."
    "What sort of smell?"
    "Like rot and sulpher."
    "But what can we do if that happens here?"
    "Run. I got lucky that time, I suppose. I think that family was going to devour me. I've no idea what saved me, but something did. Something wiped that entire place of evidence."
    Eushen was silent as they walked home. He'd gotten a peculiar chill himself as his father had told him that story.
    A lady was waiting beside the door as they approached the house. She wore a dark blue robe, a cowl of the same color concealing her face. "Oh. You're home at last." She breathed.
    "Miss Vanya!" Talach exclaimed. "You shouldn't be on the docks after dark!" He ushered her inside, and put a kettle over the fire. He made her some tea, and placed it in front of her.
    Gratefully, she took a sip. "This is good." She told him. "I've never had it before."
    "My wife brought it here from her island." Talach told her, sitting across from her at the table. "Eushen, put on some soup please."
    "Yes, Father."
    "Actually, I don't want to stay long." She protested. "I know you've been working long hours these past few days, and I don't want to trouble you."
    "We haven't eaten yet." Talach said with a smile. "It's okay. I'm determined to have a full belly before sleep. The gods know there's no time once the day breaks."
    She looked down at her hands. "I guess I knew that already. Thanks for inviting me to eat with you. Especially after my rudeness the other day."
    "Don't worry about it. It's fine, Miss Vanya."
    "I wish you'd just call me Vanya."
    "Okay, Vanya."
    Eushen smiled to himself as he prepared the soup. "Oh, Eu..." She said abruptly. "I almost forgot! Ana gave me a letter to give you. That's really why I came."
    He nearly snatched the letter from her, but checked himself just in time. "Thank you." He said.
    Talach stood. "Go read your letter, son. I'll warm up the soup and call you when it's ready."

    "Dear Eushen,

    I really should scold you for not being able to play with me today. I was really disappointed, but I guess I understand. Vanya explained it to me. Your life and my life isn't so very different. We're both caged, and living to the expectations of other people.    
    But I swear to you, it will not always be this way. Some day, when I gain my father's lands, I will free us both from our cages. We'll be able to look at the ocean as much as we like and play all day.
    My father tells me that we were supposed to be leaving on that ship what wrecked on the docks. He's been very angry that he has to wait so long for another. But I'm not upset at all, because I'm scared that I won't be able to talk to you again after we leave.
    If there's a way for us to stay in contact once I'm gone, please let me know what it is. I really don't want to lose the only friend I've ever had.

    Your friend,

    Eushen folded the letter neatly, and placed it back into its envelope. "Father..." He said, returning to the kitchen. "Do you know how I can keep writing to Ana after she goes home?"
    "Visit the postman in town. He'll set up a box for you. When Ana gets home, have her do the same. That's how I managed to keep writing to your mother all those years ago. Before she finally returned to me."
    "Okay, Father. I'll do so the moment I get the chance."
    "Actually..." Vanya said. "I could do that for you since you may be too busy these next couple of days. With your permission, of course."
    Eushen wanted to hug her. "Please." He said instead. "Will you give her the box address too? I'm afraid that I won't get the chance to see her if things keep going the way they are."
    "Certainly, Eu."
    "Eat up, son. Then go take your bath and sleep. We have to be back up in a few hours." He sighed.
    Later, Talach escorted Vanya back to the boarding house. "You didn't have to come all this way." She protested more than once.
    "It's okay. You know it's not safe for a woman to be wandering around the docks or the town after dark. You shouldn't have come so late."
    "When else could I deliver the letter?" She asked with a light laugh. "You two are so busy now."
    "I'm serious, Vanya. Don't come so late again. If you have to, come to the docks when it's light outside. The boss will just think you have business with me. Or with my son."
    "Good night, Talach." She said. "I'll keep that in mind." She began to walk up the steps, then whirled around. "You know, you could be nicer to me. I've been trying to make up for the other day, but you still haven't forgiven me. Have you?"
    He stared at her, stricken to silence. "I gave the girl your son's letter. Then gave hers to him. Promised to set him up a post box, and yet you remain stern and ungrateful."
    "Ungrateful?" He rasped. "Vanya, just because I--"
    "It's your late wife, isn't it? You're still moarning her, so you can't look at me."
    "It's okay. I understand. I mean, it's not like your really know me after all. We've never talked before other than business, but I'd always stare at you when I saw you walk by my house. Sometimes I dreamed that you stopped by because you liked me too. But it was always a delivery of some sort, and you went on your way. I did everything I possibly could, except leap into your arms. But you never looked at me. You never noticed. You even refused to join me for tea whenever I asked you..."
    He strode up the steps, and grabbed her around the waist. "Vanya--" He said, pulling her against him, and silenced her with his lips.
    When he released her, she felt breathless and light-headed. She raised a trembling hand to her lips. "Was that real? Or just another dream?"
    He laughed. "Real enough." He assured her. "Good night, Vanya." He said, kissing her cheek. "Maybe I shouldn't have kissed you, but I can't regret it. Your mouth is very sweet. Even as it's spouting nonsense."
    Talach returned home, his heart lighter than it'd been for quite some time. He quietly closed the door behind him, not wanting to wake his son. "You walked her all the way home, eh?" Eushen asked in the darkness. He was sitting at the table, and if Talach hadn't been so starstruck, he might have noticed.
    "Yeah." He admitted.
    "You like her."
    "Of course I do. She's a very nice woman."
    "That's not what I mean." Eushen lit the lamp. "Just as I thought. Your eyes give you away, Father. You're falling for her."
    "And if I am? Would that make you angry?"
    Eushen shook his head, long black hair falling into his eyes. "You said it many times yourself, Father. 'She's a fine woman.' You're still fairly young, I guess. I miss Mother still, but she's gone. There's nothing either of us can do, but get on with our own lives. I've seen you two watching each other. It was only a matter of time."
    Talach nodded, unable to speak. Tears pricked his eyes at his son's words. This was why Eushen meant the world to him; his intelligence and courage. Everything that had been so wonderful about his late wife. His son had been the only thing keeping him from jumping into the sea, and letting the waves take him where they would.
    "If I didn't love my Father, I might be angry. But I do, so I only want him to be happy."
    "Thank you, Eushen." He said finally. "Thank you for understanding. I thought you might think I was looking to replace your mother."
    "You've been lonely. So have I. All we really have is each other, so there's room in my heart for more."
    Talach hugged his son. "Okay, off to bed for us both. I can't believe it's so late already."

© 2010 kalier

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Added on January 17, 2010
Last Updated on January 17, 2010