Chapter 18, Jessica
Jessica hated the city. Not all cities- in fact, she had been born and raised in Lorai, one of the larger western cities. No, she hated Querkus, and she hated it deeply.
Around her, in the palace gardens, the air felt stale and still. Distant voices floated towards her from a young couple strolling along a freshly raked pebbled path, voices that seemed muted and flat by the time they reached her ears. Even the colors seemed drained, where the blues and reds of the royal flowers were a suppressed pale. If she were to shout, she feared that her voice would die away, quashed by the landscape as soon as it left her mouth.
She turned to the bush that she was pruning, verdant clippings twirling softly to the ground as she worked her shears, cutting it into the shape of a square. One by one, she worked through the overgrown branches, narrowing and narrowing the bush until there was nothing left to remove. But no matter how short she trimmed twigs, it seemed as if she were missing something, as if there was a branch that had eluded her searching shears. She sighed, exasperated, and set down the shears.
Her frustration was natural, she knew. A reaction to the Vrael that lay thick around her, sapping at her magic and energy alike, plus the confinement had drawn her spirits thin. Her orders held her here while her pride nipped any thought of turning back to Cesaro early empty handed. She recalled his instructions, and frowned as she remembered opening the letter he had tucked into her saddlebag.
“Upon arrival to Querkus,” He had commanded, his arched writing streaked across the page from moisture from the rain “You are to pose as an Andrean gardener. Already you are expected at the palace, the queen herself anticipating the arrival of one of the most sans-magic gifted individuals with plants in all of Corpus. From this position within the palace, you will have access to the royal family and the nobles- access that should provide information leading to our survivor. Find him before the Shadow has a chance and return with him here. Use all caution, but make haste.”
Then, below the writing was the capital “C” that Cesaro used instead of a full signature, followed by an additional note.
“It is imperative that you fit the part of an Andrean gardener. I’ve left you two gifts- study up.”
Jessica had fished two parcels from her bags, both books. There was “Plants, If You Please!”, an enormous volume filled with miniscule text and botanical specimens folded between its pages. Then there was a shorter book, one with pictures detailing clothing, customs, and basic history. She sighed, opening “An Lady’s Guide to Andrean Virtue” that night at the edge of her small fire.
The next few days she had ridden Eastward as swiftly Isabelle could carry her. She had stopped for rest when she reached Allesail, a small town supported by grain farmers that exported their harvests to Liseria, where she had called upon her sister’s estate. Alina had immediately tuttered when she was fetched to welcome her rain soaked sister inside, dragging Jessica before a roaring fire and forcing a reluctant comb through her spider webbed hair.
“I’ll not let society see me related to a commoner,” Alina scolded, “A muddied, tattered one at that too. To Corsus, Jessica, a lady has standards. Especially one with a name like ours.”
Raising two fingers, Alina directed a jet of warm air towards Jessica, in a fruitless effort to dry off her sister. She too knew it to be ineffective, but even after all this time Alina still flashed bits of Air Magic whenever she encountered Jessica. And she still smiled when her sister did not replicate the gesture.
But now Alina glared disdainfully at Jessica’s worn riding clothes between strokes of the comb, as if her stare could morph them into a gown.
A servant pushed a cup of warm chicken soup into Jessica’s hands and she inhaled, grateful for the fulfilling odor of the welcoming broth. Even the servant, who himself wore silk blue robe much nicer than Jessica’s attire, managed to cast her a disapproving look before throwing another log on the fire, causing sparks to brush under the wings of the mighty bird who guarded the mantle.
It was an Eagle, the crest of the house of Illemere, of which Alina’s husband of two years lorded over, and whose marriage had torn their father’s last daughter from home. The Eagle’s wings were spread wide, gilded with bits of gold and silver that reflected the firelight, the treasures reminding Jessica of Alina’s decision to marry into money. To marry into a proper family, to bring honor upon their own through strategic alliances. And it reminded Jessica of the disapproval Alina had harbored from her own refusal to make that same decision. But even if Jessica were to explain the rationale behind her choices Alina would never understand- she lived in a world where the greatest crisis was a shortage of pastries at her husband’s feasts. Jessica’s duty was to keep it that way.
Again, she caught Alina scowling at her clothes, and met her eye.
“I’m traveling, sister. This is what people wear when they travel. If I should wish to ride adorned, the thieves would have at me faster than a loose coin purse. Besides, I shall be passing through Cratus soon, and their fashion is quite different from your own. I would look ridiculous.”
Alina scoffed, “Cratus? What do you care about them? Jessica, they aren’t proper there. Their king is of common blood, and I hear his courts are mixed.”
Jessica similed. Yurt, a Boulder king, did indeed lead the council of Cratus, but his wisdom towered high above the reaches of his inauthentic bloodline. Oh sister, she thought, you have been so sheltered. And now you still are.
Alina had been betrothed nearly since Jessica had left their family in Lorai. Like many of the small towns that littered the countryside, Allesail remained largely intolerant of those beyond its boundaries and ignorant of the happenings of the world. Her sister only lived in splendor because the Liseria allowed it, since much of the grain in the neighboring cities was provided by the Illemere family.
“Do you always have to be traveling Jessica?” Persisted Alina, taking her hand, “It’s time for you to settle down. Come, there are plenty of suitors here, each handsomer than the last, even for a Summer! Why, my own husband’s brother is married the full moon after next, and to a the youngest daughter of a noble family at that. Should he fare that poorly, I assure you that a Summer could fare well here among the men. And their ceremony is to be on an airship. Please, stay and celebrate, the event is to be like something Allesail has never seen in quite some time.”
“I can’t, Alina, but your invitation does not go unappreciated. As well as you hospitality,” Jessica said, gesturing to the fire, “But by daybreak my stay here is gone, as soon as Isabelle is rested and fed.”
“But it’s an airship. They say you ride among the clouds, and the birds swim like fish below you. It’s even traveling to the Andrean Palace! The event’s the buzz of the city, and many are dying for the invitation I have given you. Sister, that is how a lady travels!”
Jessica laughed, “I wish! I truly do, but I have business. Please, do not ask me of more, it is time that I rest.”
Her sister led her to a room upstairs, with a window to view the stable and thick quilted blankets to keep her warm. She indulged in a bath, the water warm but with none of the enchanted soaps and fragerances she had become accustomed to in Cesaro’s estate. Alina brought her a cup of wine, bubbling it with Air Magic so that it fizzed, and set the air in Jessica’s room to circulate so that she wouldn’t get too hot. And after she left, and after Jessica quietly repaired the flaw’s in Alina’s circulation spell, Jessica slept soundly, knowing the next day would be just as grueling as the last.
At dawn she left Alina to her knitting, gripping the leather reins as Isabelle expertly wove among the sea of travelers clotting the roadways. It had taken a few days worth of travel to reach Alina, but and only a few more days remained until she would reach Querkus. And that night, she pulled out the earrings that Cesaro had given her, inspecting them with her palm.
The enchantment was subtle, and even after staring at them for several minutes she could just barely guess the mechanism of their inner workings. Knotted magical chords surrounded the earrings, bits of each element of magic, but primarily of Light magic- a form she was relatively inexperienced with due to its scarcity. The chords were tied off well, with no open ends, meaning that as long as their enchantment was static Vrael would do little to erode the energy thrumming within them.
Retrieving a small mirror she had taken from Alina’s, Jessica removed the clasps on the back of the earrings, and fitted them through her earlobes.
The change was instant as well disguised magical cords spread over her face and hair, twisting and integrating themselves among her features. Her blonde hair, which Alina had fluffed with Air Magic that morning, morphed, the colors darkening to brunette and blonde only remaining as streaked highlights. Her facial structure became more blocky, and in her opinion less attractive as her cheeks and nose broadened. And as she blinked her eyes flickered, the irises changing from deep blue to a dull brown.
She slept with the earrings in, and wore them for the remainder of her journey to Querkus. Little else happened to her until she reached the gate, and was greeted with by the guards.
After presenting one with her papers, she had been escorted to the palace at once, as the queen was eager to have Maria, one of the famed Adrean gardeners, in her midst.
That had been a month ago and, as far as she was concerned, a month too long. Cesaro’s words echoed in her head- make haste. Try as she might, nothing had been revealed to her. She had searched each of the noble families to no avail, even checking the royal prince himself when presenting him the a bouquet of the garden’s flowers for his bride to be. Still, she had found nothing. Then she had combed through the many wealthy families, the great artists, and the tradesmen, but had found nothing.
Whenever Rorcul, had struck before, that was where his victims had been found. There was dead body of the heavily guarded princess poisoned through the soap of her bath. Then the merchant’s son whose entire caravan had perished overnight when passing between towns, his valuables untouched. Every time the attacks had been swift and sudden, aiming to end the life of yet another target, the victims always cold and still when they had been found.
Time was running short, but she had exhausted all her leads. For all she had found, she may as well be Maria the gardener, quietly pruning and clipping as another life prepared to breath its last. Tomorrow she would walk the city, she decided, determined that this time she would see some clue as to Rorcul’s next move. But maybe Cesaro was wrong, and the survivor was not here, and maybe Rorcul had already located him elsewhere.
She sighed and placed her shears within the folds of her coat. The sinking sun signaled the end of her shift and she made her way among the ornate gardens to the modest cabin that she called home. Behind her, a lone, forgotten branch had disentangled itself from the inner network of the bush and defiantly stood uncut, starkly contrasting its neatly clipped cousins.