Chapter 4: I See Fire
Kaleb made his way through the village with his heart in his throat, his old Nana silent by his side.
It was dusk, the sky was on fire and Kaleb’s thoughts were quick to follow. He was nervous about actually going to this ball with Ember than he’d been stealing the invitations from his father. In all honesty, that part had proved to be unexpectedly easy, considering his father cared little for their whereabouts.
Kaleb wasn’t sure why he was so clumsy around Ember. His father had made him court several noble girls in the eventuality of a fruitful marriage, so he couldn’t say he lacked a set of good skills for courtship of beautiful girls, and yet some wealthy ones at that. But something was different. For instance, he wasn’t courting Ember Blackthorn. Gods, his father would be losing his mind simply over the remote possibility of such an audacity taking place. What’s more, Ember was more beautiful with those black curls shadowing her face from under the hood of her red cloak and with the teasing glint in her eyes and the authenticity of her presence and stance than any lady Kaleb had ever courted.
So perhaps his anxiety was in some way related to that.
He’d explained the whole situation to Nana, and with little amount of surprise, she’d agreed whole-heartedly. She claimed she’d heard about the Blackthorn little ones and that the fact that they were alone there, with no one to nurture them with the affection a child deserves, had always been heavy on her heart. So asking her to keep it all a secret became irrelevant. She was well aware of William Lahey’s wrath herself and would’ve never submitted a helpless child to that.
They arrived to the small hut that Kaleb knew belonged to Ember. Everyone knew where the village’s thief lived, and while he hadn’t expected much, the place failed to meet even the lowest of those expectations. He was surprised the roof hadn’t collapsed over them and that the wooden walls still held. Kaleb’s heart shrunk a little as he realized the thin, fragile wood ultrastructure couldn’t have possibly kept them warm during winter. Ember’s choices, as poor as they might have been, became more and more justified in his eyes with every little new thing he learned about her.
“We’re here,” he announced Nana, and took in a sharp intake of breath.
The old woman spoke nothing and simply watched Kaleb with amusement on her expression as he tried to pull himself together before raising his hand and knocking twice.
This was silly, he told himself. Ember was a girl he took pity on and wanted to help her because she was leading a rough life. Granted, his help implied an assisted theft and it went against the values of the society he’d been raised in, but didn’t putting a girl who raised four children on her own in social exile go against the values of that same society? Yes. This was a convincing argument. His helping Ember was making a statement. To himself and his beliefs.
And then the door opened and what emerged on its step took every statement from the tip of his tongue and twisted it into knots that settled in his throat, his stomach, his chest.
So much red. That dress was on fire and Kaleb’s thoughts were quick to follow.
Ember stood in the doorway looking like a goddess risen from the royal temples, her hair pulled back from her face that was no longer covered by that hood, only to reveal high cheek bones and cat-like green eyes, a pointed chin and full, elongated lips. Her shoulders were dangerously bare and the floor-length dress was red as sin, flowing like the river of Styx.
His Adam’s apple bobbed and when he finally mustered the courage to meet her gaze, he found her looking at him amused.
“I will take that as a compliment,” she smiled smugly at his expression, and Kaleb swallowed. “You look rather handsome yourself, little Lahey.”
Kaleb forced himself to snap out of it and cleared his throat, forcing a polite smile.
“Thank you,” he spoke slowly, not trusting words enough to work through the fascination flooding his thought, and then he turned to Nana, who watched amused the exchange. “Nana, this is the girl I have been telling you about. Ember, this is my Nana.”
The old woman pursed her lips and fixated her scrutinizing gaze on Ember, who stood her ground. She even bowed a little, putting on a sheepish expression that contrasted deeply against the extravagant aura of her gown.
“Where are the little Blackthorns?” Nana inquired, not bothering with pleasantries, and Kaleb noticed Ember pursing her lips against a smile.
“This way, please,” she spoke softly, and while Nana played tough, Kaleb knew she was somewhat impressed in Ember. Not everyone managed to keep Nana’s gaze, and this was a criterion on which the old woman based her choices in people.
Both Nana and Kaleb followed Ember inside the hut, and if he thought the exterior looked bad, Kaleb was overwhelmed by how modest it looked on the inside. Apart from three excruciatingly small beds, a table with a few chairs around it and some dishes on it and a fireplace that looked in a dangerously poor condition, the only room was dusty and empty.
His eyes traveled across the room and quickly found four small figures staring up at him with wide eyes glinting with excitement. Gods, these poor souls were still capable of excitement. The bliss of not acknowledging the unfairness with which they were being treated by this merciless world, Kaleb thought.
“Children, these are some friends of mine,” Ember spoke softly, moving in front of them. “This young man is Kaleb, and this is Nana. You will be staying with her tonight while Kaleb helps me run some errands.”
The kids looked briefly at Nana, who now wore the softest of expressions glued to her figure, but they were quick to dismiss her presence and instead settled on Kaleb. He remembered their names. The twins, they must have been Mary and Elizabeth, and the fine young man was Charles. The little girl who stood a few steps away from the other silently, yet gazing curiously nonetheless, was surely Cathy.
Kaleb opened his mouth to offer a few words of kindness, but one of the twins beat him to it.
“Are you courting Ember?”
At the same time, the other one went, “Wil you marry Ember?”
Kaleb choked on air and he was fully certain that his face was at least a shade of red darker than Ember’s dress. He looked at her for help, and while she seemed somewhat troubled, the same teasing smirk rested on her full lips. Nana, however, was enjoying the show.
“No, Lizzie,” Ember crouched in front of the twins, carefully picking up the folds of her dress in the process. “Kaleb is a friend who will assist me in some business I need to attend to tonight. We’ve talked about this, alright?”
The children nodded carefully, their eyes still curiously glued to Kaleb. He offered them a tentative smile, then crouched near Ember and reached inside his formal tunic only to pull out four entire chocolate bars. It had cost him some of his long-term savings, but as he saw those little faces light up, he didn’t regret a single penny spent.
“These are for you,” he spoke softly, and held them out for them to take. The little ones were somehow reluctant at first, but eventually reached forward like scared kittens that fear they’re merely being tempted with a treat only to have it taken away afterwards. “Don’t be shy,” Kaleb prompted. “It’s chocolate. It’s a token of friendship.”
That was all the incentive they needed before taking the bars from his hand and retrieving a few steps behind to dig into it. Poor souls, Kaleb kept thinking. Poor souls.
He stood up just in time to feel Nana putting a hand on his shoulder and he was surprised to see her eyes glinting a little with the beginning of proud tears.
“I’ve raised you well, child,” she whispered and proceeded to take in her task of caring for the little Blackthorns.
That left Kaleb with no other alternative than to turn to Ember and face her reaction.
To say Ember was speechless would’ve been an understatement. She clenched her fists so tight, her knuckles were white, but she was furious at herself for not being able to stop shaking. Kindness was estranged to her, but what Kaleb had done somehow exceeded every expectation she’d ever built around the concept of kindness. One who had a smile to spare for her siblings instantly became friend of hers, by principle. But then, where did whatever he’d just done place Kaleb?
Ember let out a shaky breath.
“I am at lack of words for your generosity,” she mumbled short of breath. “In all honesty, I doubt words may ever express the immense gratitude I am feeling towards you at the moment. Thank you, Kaleb.”
He simply smiled, not knowing in what way to return her immense gratitude. He was unable to comprehend the fact that his actions had been in any way more than human.
“If I may,” he shifted the subject and dared to take a few steps closer towards her, arms folded behind his back. “I haven’t yet had the chance to properly compliment you. You look as ravishing as a thunderstorm, striking as a lightning bolt, breathtaking as the first light of dawn spread across the velvet horizon.”
Ember blinked at him, her cheeks suddenly matching the color of her dress. She stood there in front of him, unable to let go of his gaze, so self-conscious, so aware of herself, a thief playing a lady. And she must have played her part well.
She cleared her voice and shyly smoothed down a curl.
“Thank you,” she muttered awkwardly. “You’re too kind.”
“Not at all. I only speak the truth. Never have I seen such a genuine beauty. Ladies I have come across try much too hard for my taste.”
Ember pursed her lips, her eyes glinting at a memory.
“And if I recall correctly, you have been raised in such manner as to always compliment a woman’s beauty should you come across it,” she teased him. “That’s twice you’ve complimented mine, little Lahey. It might get to my head.”
Kaleb chuckled and he started fidgeting again, which surprised Ember, as she thought they were over that small tense moment.
“If I may,” Kaleb repeated the request, and Ember resisted the temptation to tease him, as he looked troubled enough. “While you look overwhelming enough, might I suggest a way to compliment your gown?”
He blushed intensely as he spoke the words, and Ember could only stare.
Kaleb cleared his throat and opened and closed his mouth a few times, before changing his mind and pursing his lips. Then he reached again for his inside pocket and pulled out something and Ember gasped at the sight of a diamond so gorgeous it took her breath away. It was dark blue, almost black and intense and had been crafted into a necklace, and as the moonlight refracted over its surface, a green reflection crossed its length. While the dragon’s breath was mesmerizing and so breathtakingly beautiful, this necklace was hypnotizing.
“Kaleb,” Ember breathed. “Where did you get that?”
He chuckled nervously. “I happen to be a jeweler. And quite a resourceful one, at that.”
Ember shook her head, reluctant to touch the stone, scared she might taint its beauty. Kaleb Lahey was full of surprises. Such a stone must have been a headache to procure and a pain in the back to commercialize, because it looked excruciatingly expensive. Bearing that in mind, she shifted her attention to the hand holding it, and then the arm shaking slightly, and then the toned chest rising in rapid breaths, and then the neck, gulping heavily, and then parted lips and crooked nose, and then two emerald green back eyes fixating her expectantly.
“It’s beautiful,” she cleared her throat, trying to break the haze. “But, Kaleb, I can’t—“
“Argument rejected,” Kaleb spoke fiercely with a newly found courage that took them both aback. “Now shall I help you put it on?”
He moved tentatively closer, the necklace still in his hand, and Ember took a step back, unsure as to how to react.
“Kaleb. I appreciate it, I truly do. But, you see, I am a thief. I do not get such luxury. I know my place.”
She wasn’t sure what reaction she’d expected from him. Any reaction, really. But instead, Kaleb acted like he didn’t hear her and circled her, moving to stand behind her, and when Ember felt his hands on her bare shoulders, she couldn’t help but shudder. She felt him move her hair away from the base of her neck and the coldness of the locket on her chest hit her like a thunder.
“Tonight, your place is at that ball, with the nobles,” he spoke softly, his warm breath hitting her skin. “If only to play a part that will get you that brooch, you do get such luxury. If only for tonight.”
Ember’s fingers absent-mindedly touched the necklace as she turned around to face Kaleb, and she was met with a smile.
“Thank you,” she whispered, emotions overwhelming her like tidal waves.
“I assure you, the pleasure is all mine,” Kaleb grinned and was even bold enough to wink at her. They stood there wrapped in an intense game of the eyes dancing around each other, until Kaleb broke it and extended his arm. “Shall we?”
Ember looked over his shoulder to see that the kids had instantly taken to Nana and didn’t even bother acknowledging her presence anymore, so her heart was at peace with that. She smiled at Kaleb and took his arm.
“Lead the way, little Lahey.”
~SOUNDTRACK: Vitamin String Quartet – Stay with me~
The Covington residency was opulent at the very least. Thebbington Abbey was a small village of poor people who worked their hands off for a few coins that provided so little of their necessities. And yet, there stood tall the Covington mansion, blindingly illuminated, with soft violins and pianos heard from inside, with people in expensive gowns walking through the front doors, purposefully oblivious to the misery surrounding this ball. Masks hid faces, but morals screamed from the mud they were buried in, Ember thought, and her own black mask felt heavy and burned her cheeks now.
Kaleb must have sensed her growing tense, because his grip on her hand tightened reassuringly and his lips drew closer to her ear.
“Blend in, Ember. Try to look more like a noble rather than a thief trying to look like a noble.”
Ember huffed and immediately scolded herself for it. Not quite lady-like.
“Right,” she whispered back sarcastically. “I would, should I manage to shove a stick so deep up my arse.”
Kaleb stifled a laugh and Ember took pride in being the cause of it. He cleared his throat.
“You may want to begin by watching your language, lady Blackthorn,” he mused, but Ember’s smile faltered.
“Don’t call me that.”
Kaleb looked at her bewildered. Ember sighed and tried to regain her composure.
“I may have to pretend to for tonight,” she explained. “But I am not one of them. I won’t let them take that away from me.”
Kaleb nodded and squeezed her hand once more. He couldn’t say he understood her stance, but he respected it. He didn’t know how much these people, even if not these ones in particulars, but those that they represented, had taken from her and what she believed she was owed. He wouldn’t even pretend to fathom so.
“Very well,” he simply whispered back, and Ember seemed happy enough with that outcome.
Arm to arm, they walked to the front door into an inferno made of pretty dresses and fancy masks, of whispered sweet nothings and nauseating pleasantries. Ember had never felt more out of place.
“I announce Sir Kaleb Lahey, son of Sir William Lahey of Thebbington Abbey, and his date, Lady Emily Whiterose.”
Ember raised an eyebrow at Kaleb as the valet announced their names.
“Emily Whiterose?” she inquired silently when she was sure they were out of earshot.
Kaleb simply shrugged sheepishly, his cheeks faintly colored in that pink shade Ember now recognized as a token of a shyness he couldn’t disguise.
“Ember, Emily. Blackthorn, Whiterose. I figured it was a nice symmetry.”
Ember chuckled. “It is. Quite ingenious.”
Kaleb’s blush deepened and he dropped his gaze, clearing his throat a second later.
“What now?” he inquired. “Do you have a plan?”
“Now,” Ember sighed. “We blend in.”
“I thought that’s what we were doing,” Kaleb frowned, and Ember rolled her eyes.
“Not quite yet, little Lahey. What I meant,” she smiled wickedly, taking his hand, “is that you ought to ask your date for a dance.”
Her inelegant side prompted her to just grab his arm and drag him into the crowd and waltz around until their feet fell off, but when she caught sight of his movement with the corner of his eyes, her muscles froze.
He bowed down, one hand extended to her, smirking at her as if he knew exactly every way in which this gesture affected her. Because it did strike her dead every time. And the bastard must have figured that much out.
“May I have this dance, lady Whiterose?” he spoke in a deep voice that made Ember’s insides tingle.
But two could play this game. She prayed to the gods that she could summon whatever grace she had in her and grabbed the sides of her dress gently before dropping into a low bow, bare shoulders pulled back and head tilted to one side so that her curls hung loosely over her left collarbone, leaving the right side of her neck exposed, the ruby on her necklace shining bright. She rose swiftly and by the look of utter incomprehension and fascination on Kaleb’s face, she must have pulled quite an elegant scheme. She felt pride shimmering beneath the surface of her skin.
“Wouldn’t have it any other way, my lord,” she replied before placing her hand above his knuckles and allowing him to lead her among the ocean of couples waltzing.
And where their skin made contact, fire was ignited. It was rather odd. They’d walked arm to arm, hand in hand for the whole evening, and yet now, skin merely brushing against skin, gazes locked, there was an intimacy rustling between them so tangible it crossed physical barriers and settled in the depths of their chests.
But neither of them mentioned it as Kaleb turned her around and placed one arm safely around her waist, the other hand clutching tightly Ember’s. Never breaking eye contact, they began waltzing, chest to chest, hand in hand, eye to eye, nose to nose, flame to flame. And Kaleb spun her around flawlessly, keeping her steady on her feet, and Ember felt something being triggered in her. She couldn’t name it, but it felt like letting go of the string of a bow and watching the arrow shoot forward. It was—
Ember blinked, Kaleb’s words taking a while to register in her head.
“The plan, Ember,” he spoke softly in her ear, making sure no one heard. “About the brooch. We cannot afford wasting time. We cannot risk you being recognized.”
“Right,” Ember shook her head, forcing herself to refocus on the task at hand. “The brooch.”
She took a deep breath and Kaleb let go of her. She felt the spell being broken and only as she saw Kaleb bow down again, a little tense this time, did she realize the song had ended. He pulled her aside as discreetly as possible so that they could speak freely, but still remain free of suspicion.
“Very well,” Ember exhaled, turning to him and forcing herself to snap out of whatever trance she’d been sucked into earlier. She bit her lip anxiously, not knowing what to expect on Kaleb’s behalf. “Just tell me something, Kaleb. How involved do you want to get with this? I am aware it’s out of your comfort zone. Or the law, for that matter.”
Kaleb offered a tentative smile, as if he couldn’t be bothered.
“Where do you need me?”
Ember’s heart warmed up a little at his words, the sudden show of trust igniting her senses. She tried hard to ignore her conscience screaming at her that she was corrupting an honest young man and went into full business mode.
“Then I’m afraid it all lies in your hands.”
~SOUNDTRACK: Vitamin String Quartet – My songs know what you did in the dark~
Lady Helen Covington was a big fan of games and her parties were famous for the inventive dances she came up with. And she was rather fond of those dances that required switching partners, and Ember had heard many people of many lands attended her parties only to be granted the chance to take part in one of those dances.
And this was what provided Ember with a simple, yet hopefully efficient plan to get her hands on that gem. Kaleb and blending in were the key elements in her strategy.
Ember was tense as different sets of hands spun her around and raised her in the air, her eyes never ceasing to scan the room. She prayed no one would recognize her and she prayed Kaleb would manage to go through with it.
With the corner of her eye as she danced across the floor to meet a new partner, Ember saw Kaleb dancing with none other than Lady Covington herself, and she seemed quite fond of him. Ember stopped breathing. Lady Covington smiled up at Kaleb and he said something that made her giggle, and a few seconds later, he let go of her and danced towards another partner.
What had happened? Had he gotten it? He looked so awfully calm it was maddening, and Ember counted every step of this absurd dance, holding her breath, until she was back in his arms.
She gasped as their bodies collided when she was passed to him as a partner. They only had a few seconds before they’d have to switch again, and Ember wasn’t even sure how to make the best of those.
“What happened?” she breathed, her skin itching in anxiety and anticipation. What if he couldn’t get it? This had been their only shot? What if he’d gotten it and Lady Covington figured it out and in no time, there’d be an army of guards surrounding them? What if—
Before she could voice these questions out loud, she felt something hard against her palm as Kaleb let her down from a lift and she refrained from gasping. It was a brooch. He’d done it. Ember clutched it tightly until her knuckles hurt and she didn’t dare move her hand too much.
“What did you tell her?” she asked Kaleb to distract herself as he slipped his arm around her waist once more and danced on.
Kaleb shot her a small smile. “I complimented her smile,” he stated simply, and proceeded to explain when Ember simply blinked at him confused. “I had to get her to look away long enough to snatch the brooch. A compliment was the best I could think of.”
Ember still looked confused, and prompted him to go on.
“But why a compliment?”
Kaleb shrugged sheepishly. “High-born ladies have a habit of hiding their faces in order to play coy when you compliment them. It’s more beautiful when you do it, in all honesty. It doesn’t feel as acted or faked.”
Ember shook her head bewildered, trying to fully process what he was implying. The brooch. The compliment. Only she didn’t hide her face now. She stared deeply into his eyes, trying to let him know to the core just how much his words struck her to her very core.
She wasn’t sure what she was going to say to him. Wasn’t sure how to thank him for his words, for his unjustly placed trust in her, for his help tonight. The man had stolen for her. But before she could gather her thoughts, he slipped away, looking just as unwilling to let go as she felt.
“Not now,” he mouthed. “Later.”
He stood straight and nodded at her as the chorus ended, and Ember took it as her cue. She dropped into a reverence, grasping the fabric of her skirts, and she reached for the hidden pocket between the creases of her dress that she’d sewed there for this exact purpose.
With the gem safely tucked into safety, close to her body, Ember kept dancing. She was passed from partner to partner, but before she could end up partnering Kaleb again, the song was over. The crowd scattered and her eyes searched the room for the familiar silhouette of Kaleb.
And then she felt it.
She knew it all too well. The tingling in her bones, the fiery flames scorching her insides. Her collar bones ached with the familiar pressure and her fingers and toes itched.
It couldn’t happen. Not now.
Except it was.
Her brain kept whispering Kaleb, Kaleb, Kaleb, find Kaleb, don’t leave Kaleb, but it eventually became so faint, the body took over, and all Ember knew was that she had to get out of there.
So without as much as a glance back, she left the property and headed for the woods.