Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 3: Just My Soul Responding

After sealing the deal with Clarissa concerning the things she’d stolen from the carriage a few days earlier, Ember spent a whole night gawking at a single rock. It was bright red, with areas of washed up blue, and it shone brighter than any jewel she’d ever laid her hands on and eyes upon, and she somehow couldn’t bring herself to trade it to Clare. She got the feeling it was a rather rare piece of jewelry, worth more than Clarissa could offer, and she wasn’t willing to let it go for a few coins. She was mesmerized by the way it took the moonlight and refracted it in dozens of ways, each and every one individual in shape and intensity. It was like a game of dominance between different shades, fighting over which one could capture more moonlight and slow dance with it best. They held the combination between the velvet fiery landscapes that the sky line drew at sunset and the night sky on which the stars aligned. It was breathtaking.

She knew it was valuable. Heavens knew how expensive it must have been. This wasn’t a gemstone she just came across in her day to day life and while it captivated her in ways she couldn’t explain, Ember was well aware of the fact that this rock could put an end to an age of deep poverty she was in. Or, in the very least, an end to the hunger. She wished so badly she could live one day when she didn’t have to look her siblings in the eye and have to tell them she hadn’t been able to get them one single piece of chocolate. That they’d have to rationalize food for one more week.

Morning came without as much as the promise of catching breath for Ember, and as she put on her tunic and fastened her red cloak around herself, her eye was caught once again by that gemstone. She was drawn to it like to nothing ever before. Every time she looked at it, it was like she found new details, new spots, new patterns to admire.

Without losing a breath, she tossed it in her pocket and walked out the door, her mind set on the one place where she could be told the exact same value of this rock. Because luckily for her, she knew just the person who’d be able to make the right estimations.

Smiling a little to herself, Ember pulled up the hoodie of her cloak and headed to the jeweler’s shop.

She made her way through the village, keeping her head down and constantly averting her eyes. The smell of smoke and freshly baked bread tickled her senses and she took shelter in the way the gravel felt under her boots. It was early, and the villagers were caught in a dancing haze, moving hastily in a dizzying crowd, each to their jobs, to their duties, each with their struggle. Because life in Thebbington Abbey wasn’t exactly easy. No tomorrow brought certainty and no day was better than the yesterday it was preceded by.

Ember stopped in front of the jeweler’s shop. She was a little disappointed, in all honesty. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected. A little more luxury, perhaps, considering the Laheys crafted jewelry for a living. But instead, she was standing in front of a rather modest small hut, bedraggled and worn out. She took a deep breath and walked in, thinking about how much she’d enjoy the look of utter shock on little Lahey’s face at her sight.

And he most definitely did not let her down, his eyes widening and lips parting slightly, his hands instantly flying to his hair in an unsuccessful attempt to tame it down. It was partially flattering, but it occurred to Ember how easily it could’ve been Lahey senior behind that counter. She had not thought it through.

“L-L...” he started stammering, but Ember raised a hand, cutting him off.

“Before you throw the word ‘lady’ at me again, I politely remind you that I still carry a knife.”

Kaleb chuckled under his breath and it took Ember a little aback to see what it did to his face and how articulate it sounded. His lips parted to reveal white teeth and his dimples showed, the corners of his eyes wrinkled and there was spark deep within the green of his gaze that lit up each and every one of his features.

“I’m…” he started, but Ember cut off again.

“And gods above, please stop apologizing,” she smiled to let him know she was teasing him, and he returned the smile.

“Then what can I do for you, Ember?” he offered, and she bit her lip against her smile to keep it from spreading even wider.

“I am, in fact, seeking professional advice in a matter,” she said, then she figured she had to correct a little. “A private matter.”

Kaleb’s eyebrows shot up.

“Very well,” he replied. “You have my word it will not leave this room. What is it?”

She searched her pocket and pulled out the stone, clutching it tight in her hand as she considered. Did she really trust this man enough to let him in on a matter she’d never spoken of with anyone else? Well, it was a little too late to worry about that, and she didn’t bother giving a second thought to the fact that she’d hurried to seek his help without as much of a blink.

She unclasped her fist and extended her palm to Kaleb, exposing the explosion of colors withheld by the gemstone. She heard him gasp audibly and reached for it, but he stopped mid-movement, his eyes asking for silent permission to touch it. Ember nodded slightly and he took it gently from her palm, turning it over and analyzing it with wide eyes, looking just as mesmerized as Ember had felt ever since yesterday’s theft, when it had come to her possession.

“This is a fire opal,” he spoke eventually. “It’s called dragon’s breath. Ember, this is one of the rarest precious stones that have ever existed.”

He turned it over a few more times, his eyes sparkling and fingers twitching around it.

“Where did you get that?” he asked a few minutes later, a little short of breath.

Ember glared.

“Do you really need to ask that?” she questioned, her lips forming a tight line.

Kaleb finally raised his gaze and met hers confused, but realization dawned on him soon enough.

“Oh. I see.”

Ember’s face contorted into a grimace and she started fidgeting.

“I am so sorry to be burdening you with this,” she said eventually. “I dread putting you in this position, making you an accomplice to my crimes. I’d very much appreciate if you could estimate the rock for its value and you have my word I’ll be on my way and you’ll never have to talk to me again.”

Kaleb held her gaze for a second too long before breaking into a wide incredulous smile.

“With all due respect, but don’t be absurd. I am mostly pleased to be of assistance. And to be talking to you, as you’ve pointed out.”

Ember felt her cheeks slightly flushed and dropped her gaze, letting him do his job and examine the rock further. But he didn’t need more than two seconds.

“As I’ve said, this stone is very precious,” he told her. “And very expensive, by extension. It is in a rather raw form, not in the slightest bit altered, and the smoothness of its shape indicates that it would serve its purpose of becoming a piece of jewelry successfully. You could make good money out of it.”

He smiled warmly at her and offered the rock back, and Ember took it reluctantly from his extended hand.

“Thank you,” she cleared her voice eventually. “Such gesture of friendliness means more to me than you could ever fathom.”

She pursed her lips, unsure as to why she’d chosen to deliver this information, but his smile simply widened.

“I am fairly positive I can imagine so,” he replied. “Being the black sheep of the village can’t be easy on you. People can be cruel, ruthless in their judgement.”

Ember couldn’t help but roll her eyes.

“Is this the moment when you take guesses as to what ulterior motive I might have for choosing the dark path? Enlighten me.” She leaned on the counter on her elbows, feigning fascination and interest, and was delighted to see his Adam’s apple bobble a little at their closure. She grinned wickedly and continued. “Tell me, is it because I feel frustrated at being poor and I feel the need to seek attention? Oh, or maybe I’m a long lost princess who has been exiled and is now living her days as an outlaw. Although I think I’d much rather be one of those robbers who steal from the rich to give to the poor? Yes, I like that idea the most.”

That earned another chuckle from Kaleb, and Ember couldn’t help but smile in return. There was a serenity and authenticity in his genuine boyish smile, like the world could go to hell and he’d still sit there smiling, waiting for it to slowly fall apart around him, and he still wouldn’t be fazed. Ember found herself oddly calmed down by this tranquility of his presence.

“I’m not bold enough to make blind assumptions,” he stated, but watched her with eyes that said otherwise, and Ember narrowed her eyes, so he continued. “But I do believe there’s an ulterior motive.”

“Why?” Ember questioned. “Why would you believe so? Because the world is such a fair place and there are no people who purposefully choose to be bad and do bad?”

She’d meant it as a joke, but Kaleb looked at her with an intensity that made her smile falter and she found herself easily captivated by his gaze. It was a vicious circle in which they always ended up eye to eye.

“No,” Kaleb replied eventually. “I simply cannot accept the notion of you being bad and choosing to do bad.”

Ember flustered. He was, in the most literal way, the only person apart from her little siblings who didn’t think the worst of her. Who saw through the thief and glanced at her. At her. So under the weight of his emerald green eyes, Ember blushed like never before.

“You’re not a bad person, Ember,” he stated, and Ember thought it was absurd, because he barely knew her; and yet, she believed him. “So, I am somewhat positive there is an ulterior motive. It is entirely up to you whether you decide to share it with me, and if not, I respect your decision. I don’t mean to pry.”

Ember found herself unable to keep a smile from spreading across her lips. He was so polite and so troubled and worried he might have somehow offended her, and there was a crease between his brows that gave him a thoughtful stance that looked handsome on him.

“It’s fine,” she replied. “And you’re right. I’m not happy with having to steal from others in order to ensure my own well-being. And I would not do it, should I have another choice.”

Kaleb looked at her sympathetically and leaned with his elbows on the counter, listening closely. Ember liked that. It reminded her of her siblings listening to her telling them fairytales before they went to sleep. The only people in her life who actually listened to what she had to say. And now Kaleb. What was about this stranger that made him give her the benefit of the doubt?

“My parents passed away six years ago,” she explained. “I was 12. I was a child myself, and I woke up one morning with the responsibility of having to raise and provide for four more children. Three sisters and one brother. This was the only way I knew of handling things, and I am not proud of that choice. I do, however, have to live with it.”

Kaleb looked at her, pondering, for a few seconds. Ember waited for it. The judgement, the prejudices, the ‘there were better ways’ speech. Or worse, the pity. It never came, though. Kaleb’s lips twitched and his eyes danced playfully as they hovered across her features.

“What are they like?” he asked eventually. “Your siblings?”

Ember’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. This was a possibility she’d failed to consider. That he’d see past the facts.

“Oh,” she cleared her throat, and she started grinning despite herself like she always did at the mention of her siblings. “They are wonderful kids. Charles is just the sweetest. He’s 7, and his manners never cease to faze me. He’s the one who picks flowers for me and the girls and has a calmness in his person that has me believing that come what may, as long as I have him by my side no harm can come our way. The twins, Mary and Elizabeth, are 8, and they are a headache. They’re wild and restless and playful, but their energy is contagious, I must say.”

She stopped talking, her eyes sparkling, but then her smile faltered and Kaleb noticed that, while her lips were still curved, it didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“What about the fourth one?” he prompted, and Ember cleared her voice awkwardly.

“Cathy,” she whispered, and Kaleb wondered if he’d made a mistake pushing her. “Cathy is 11. She was the brightest of them all. Kind and joyful. She was my parents’ little sunshine.” Kaleb couldn’t help but remark the use of a past tense, but chose not to push her. “She was smart and witty, but kind and compassionate. Mother always said she should have been born royalty. And she and my father were accomplices in crimes. I presume they always had a more special relationship that I grew somewhat envious of. Ever since our parents’ passing, Cathy hasn’t uttered a word. She simply stopped talking at all. I haven’t heard her voice in six years.”

She forced a tight smile, not wanting to think too much about it. Cathy was like a thorn grown deep within her heart that hurt with every beat. She wanted to fix it, but her little sister wasn’t just something one could fix. So instead, Ember gave her time and hoped out Cathy would grow out of the pain of that loss herself. There’s no fixing a broken heart.

“This entire situation must take quite its toll on you,” Kaleb commented eventually, and Ember was taken aback by all the sympathy she could read in his eyes. “You were a kid yourself.”

Ember shrugged like it wasn’t a big deal. “I had to work through. They needed me. They need me. It’s not easy being gone the entire day. I go mad knowing them alone at home.”

She tapped her fingers on the counter and she noticed Kaleb grow pensive. He didn’t talk for a few seconds, and then he opened and closed his mouth for a few times as if he was trying to make up his mind before finally speaking me.

“Pardon me if I happen to be stepping over some boundaries. But might I suggest some sort of a solution for that specific issue?”

Ember looked at him dumb folded for a few seconds, before gesturing for him to go on.

“I was raised by a nanny,” he started, and Ember frowned. “I have known Nana for as long as I can remember. She is an old woman with a great heart. And lately, she’s complained of suffering of tremendous boredom. She claims that, ever since I’ve had the nerves to grow up, I put her out of business. Her words precisely, not mine.”

Ember chuckled, and he smiled in return.

“But in all honesty, she feels absurdly lonely and useless. She misses having little ones to look after. Should you want me to or trust me to, for that matter, I could speak with her. I am sure she’d be more than delighted to watch your siblings when you’re gone.”

Ember blinked, considering his offer. She turned it over and over and inside out a dozen times before replying.

“Wouldn’t your Nana be a little reluctant about watching the little siblings of the village’s thief?” she inquired suspiciously, but Kaleb only chuckled.

“You needn’t worry,” he said. “She’s the least judgmental human being in Thebbington Abbey. As long as it implies children, let alone four of them, and as long as they take to her, she will be more than happy to comply.”

Ember bit her lip, the idea gradually growing on her.

“But what about—“ she trailed off, wondering whether she should really raise that question. “What about your family? Won’t they be concerned?”

A spark of doubt shadowed Kaleb’s green eyes for the first time since she’d walked into the shop, but it was gone so fast, Ember couldn’t tell if it was really there, and he replaced it with yet another one of his polite smiles.

“No one needs to know,” he replied. “Nana is a rather discreet person. And I trust my father has more urgent matters to attend to than the whereabouts of an old nanny.”

Ember felt the ghost of a smile threatening to take shelter across her lips once again and she welcomed it. She grew more excited about the prospect with every minute. Kaleb patiently waited for an answer.

“Oh, Kaleb, that would be wonderful,” she exclaimed eventually, and he couldn’t contain a smile of his own. “It would put my heart at ease on so many occasions.” She trailed off, wary shadowing her features. “But are you sure this is alright with you? I don’t mean to cause you trouble.”

He waved a hand, the least uptight thing he’d done all day, and Ember bit her lip against a teasing smirk.

“Nonsense,” he replied. “I’m glad to be of assistance.”

Ember tilted her head to one side, looking a little sheepish about what she was going to ask.

“That having been said,” she stated coyly eventually. “Would it be okay if your Nana came tomorrow evening to watch the children? Around nightfall? There’s an event I’ve been meaning to attend, but thought I’d never get to, considering I couldn’t leave them alone for the night.”

“Absolutely,” Kaleb vouched. “I shall bring her myself.”

Ember tried hard not to tease him about the fact that his promise held a glint of hidden meaning. Like perhaps bringing the nanny himself as an excuse to see her again. Not that Ember particularly minded. She found that she was looking forward to seeing him again, too, and the idea excited her more that it should have.

“This event you’ve been meaning to attend,” Kaleb spoke carefully, his voice low as if he’d suspected the implications. “Does it happen to be Sir Covington’s ball?”

So he had suspected the implications. Ember blushed.

“It’s a masquerade, actually,” she mumbled, dropping her gaze.

Kaleb’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as he studied her.

“And you were invited?” he inquired, making Ember’s cheeks grow even redder.

“Not exactly,” she said, and sighed heavily when he saw Kaleb frown at her riddles. “I was planning on sneaking in. There’s a gem I’ve had my eyes on for a while and my… umm, sales person assured me there’s an interested buyer.”

The gem Ember was talking about was an amethyst crystal that Lady Covington wore as a sophisticated brooch. Stealing it would be tricky, but not impossible, and the stakes were high for Ember. Clarissa had assured her some lord from a neighboring village was interested in acquiring such stone for his fiancée-to-be. And he was willing to pay solid money for it.

“Oh,” Kaleb exclaimed, growing pensive.

And there it was. The judgement. The frown that said she’d told too much, that he needn’t know so much of her whereabouts. Ember was mortified. Why did she have to open her mouth? Sure, he seemed nice and polite and called her a ‘lady’ and Ember wanted to punch him for that but it also felt exhilarating, knowing there was someone who still thought well of her, as unwise as that choice was. But no, she just had to ruin everything. What could have possibly made her believe that Kaleb, son of a cruel man such as William Lahey, would have been interested in learning of her outside-of-law adventures?

She was about to excuse herself and turn on her heels and leave, when she saw the judgmental look on Kaleb’s face shift into something else. He looked rather thoughtful, wheels spinning in his head, before he looked up and caught her gaze, a spark lighting up in his emerald eyes.

“Why sneak in when you can walk through the front door?”

Ember stared at him, unable to wrap her head around what he was suggesting.

“Pardon me?” she inquired, and Kaleb grinned, a teasing boyish grin so different from the polite one he’d shot at her all day.

“My father received invitations to the ball, umm, masquerade, a while ago, but he’s not interested in attending such ‘vicious, vain events’, as he liked to put it. There are two of them, and people know me as the son of the jeweler. I could get you in.”

Ember blinked at him.

“You could…” she trailed off, speaking slowly, as if she’d somehow misunderstood some vital information that had just shifted this plan into a whole other thing. “Sneak me in?”

“Precisely,” Kaleb leaned forward across the counter, holding her gaze like they were in on a secret. Which they were, Ember realized. “With the specification that ‘sneaking in’ isn’t appropriately used, considering we’d be fully fledged guests.”

Ember let out a breathless laugh.

“You’d seriously do that?” she asked incredulously.

Kaleb simply shrugged. He had no real answer as to why exactly he would, so the gesture was the next best thing he could offer.

Biting his lip against a smile, he circled the counter and moved to stand in front of Ember, who looked at him dumb struck. And then he dropped into a low bow and took her hand, softly kissing her knuckles. Only then did Ember realize she’d been holding her breath.

“Lady Ember Blackthorn,” he started, and Ember wasn’t even able to glare at him or threaten his life about the ‘lady’ thing. “It would be my utmost honor to take you to the Covington ball.”

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