Chapter 5: One Doorstep Away From the Storm
The sun peaked from beneath the line of the horizon, already half expecting to find them there.
And there they were, glorious in their deadliness, caught in a well-choreographed dance of raw power, their shapes embraced by a fire storm.
The sun, in its eternal existence as a silent witness to history’s greatest love stories, had never seen anything quite like this. They were beastly creatures, meant to spit fire and bring mayhem and terror upon those who roamed the earth. But there was a hinge of humanity in the way their enormous pupils dilated, in the way one pair of wings caressed the other one’s scales, and beyond that humanity, yet some more of an odd, unfathomable connection, familiarity and synchronicity.
Two dragons meant to fly side by side, meant to bathe in the same flames, meant to crash, meant to burn, meant to let themselves be swallowed by the same smoke.
And because the sun could no longer stay hidden, it rose high upon the morning sky, and two flaps of wings later, it was once again left alone. His dragon friends were gone.
He waited. He heard the waves hit hard against the ship and the refreshing smell of the sea sharpened his senses as it always did. He always thought that, if he was having trouble following the rules and laws of the land, a life on the sea suited him best, for the sea answered to no law.
It was dawn and he still waited. He’d seen the flames and he’d heard the piercing cry of the beast. It was near. And it was just a matter of time until the man behind the beast emerged. He knew the human had no control over it yet and was most likely unaware of what he kept turning into. Which just made his plans so much easier to accomplish.
“Captain,” he heard one of his men call from behind him. “It’s well past dawn. The guys are losing patience.”
The captain clicked his tongue.
“Tell those who are losing patience they’ll start losing fingers if they keep whining,” he told his subordinate calmly, then he lowered his voice into a dangerous and exciting tone. “It’s almost time. Any minute now.”
And his patience was soon rewarded.
A few feet away from the shore, the captain caught sight of a slim silhouette bathed in the first morning light, lying asleep on the ground.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he murmured under his breath.
A few seconds later, the girl awoke and slowly rose from the ground, before heading towards a bush and pulling out a red cloak and wrapping it around herself, and then she started walking barefoot towards the village the captain knew too well. Thebbington Abbey. And the girl went through every motion with a serenity that made it clear that this wasn’t the first time she ended up naked in the woods.
“Captain?” the man called for him. “Sir? Did you find it?”
The captain let out a breathless laugh. He’d been so wrong about so many things. And this was something he couldn’t have foreseen.
“Aye,” he answered. “And it’s a her.”
~SOUNDTRACK: Ed Sheeran – I’m a mess~
Kaleb was in so much trouble.
Firstly, even if he could’ve gotten away with sneaking around his father for the ball, the fact that he hadn’t spent the night at home had most definitely given him away. Needless to say, his father nearly had a heart attack when he found his son’s bed untouched and had suffered a severe rage access when Kaleb walked through the front door in the morning. The outcome of that interaction was something Kaleb preferred not to think about. William Lahey was a man widely known for his short temper and Kaleb found himself on the receiving side of it an alarming amount of times.
And yet, at the moment, it dawned on him that he hadn’t been nearly as scared of his father as he now was of having to face Ember.
He’d never been so ashamed of himself. As he made his way towards her house, he kept picturing her gentle features darkened by disappointment after having realized that Kaleb had left. He kept visualizing the anger when he’d show up at her door as if he could actually explain himself, he imagined her blaming him and the door shutting in his face. And she was entitled to do so. He literally had no excuse, considering he had no memory whatsoever between passing the brooch to her and dancing together, and waking up naked in the woods.
Kaleb stopped in front of Ember’s door and took a deep breath, ready to take it like a man, before knocking twice. He heard the sound of steps on the other side of the door that stopped right behind it, and there was a small hesitation before the door opened and Ember stood in front of Kaleb. Gods, she had been breath-taking last night, an elegance and sharpness to the way she held herself as she walked by his side, as she spun in his arms on the soft rhythm of that sensual violin. But in the daylight, the elegance and sharpness were replaced with fierceness and strength and it was just as breath-taking. She could’ve held a knife to his throat and Kaleb would’ve still been a mere prisoner to her hypnotizing gaze. Which, in fact, she had. She seemed quite fond of the knife against people’s throats move.
“Kaleb,” she breathed at the sight of him. “Oh. Hello.”
Something wasn’t right, Kaleb realized. There was no blame yet, no rage, no disappointment in her eyes. No door shutting in his face. Yet. If he hadn’t known better, he would’ve said there was a touch of guilt in her emerald gaze that he’d seen in his reflection in the mirror this morning. But that made no sense.
He cleared his voice.
“Hello, Ember. How are you?”
She shrugged one shoulder and moved aside for Kaleb to come inside. Definitely no shutting the door in his face, then.
Ember closed the door behind them and Kaleb caught sight of the little ones grinning up at him with serene faces. He returned their smiles with one of his own, but when they kept smirking expectantly, Kaleb realized. He kneeled in front of them and reached inside his tunic.
“I’m afraid I came somewhat unprepared today,” he excused himself, a few coins dangling in his palm. “But here. Go buy whatever your hearts please from the market. There are things I must discuss with your sister and we wouldn’t want to bore you now, would we?”
The little ones giggled and one of the twins – Kaleb could see now why Ember had described them as so outgoing – spoke.
“Will you propose? I heard this is what gentlemen who court—“
“Come on now, the lot of you,” Ember cut her off, embarrassed. “Off you go. Charles, look after your sisters, will you? And be back soon.”
The kids left in a storm of giggles, leaving the two of them standing face to face.
“Look, Kaleb,” Ember started as soon as they were alone. “I know you’ve come here seeking an explanation. And I do owe you an apology.”
Kaleb frowned. Granted, this was clearly not how he’d imagined this conversation going.
“On the contrary,” he replied baffled. “I have come here offering an explanation rather than seeking one. An apology as well.”
It was Ember’s turn to frown. She shook her head slightly.
“What are you talking about?”
“Last night, after the dance,” he explained. “I saw Lady Covington realize the brooch was no longer on her and she turned to the guards. I figured it wouldn’t be long until they’d have learned of my part in its disappearance and I fled. I now see how low of me it was to do such thing. I left you alone because I panicked and for that, I am terribly sorry. I shall let myself out and understand if you’d prefer our paths to never cross again.”
He was about to turn on his heels and leave, when Ember surprised him even more and burst out into laughter, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye.
“Ain’t that ironic, little Lahey,” she said between giggles. “Don’t be silly. I don’t mind our paths crossing at all. And it would be absurd of me to get upset and blame you for something I did, too.”
Ember blushed violently and gnawed on her bottom lip as she spoke.
“I saw the guards with Lady Covington, too. I couldn’t afford having the brooch found in my possession, so I jumped to the assumption that you were safe and I fled before they could order the doors shut and tie the theft to me. I’m so sorry, Kaleb. I guess we’re both a little despicable.”
Kaleb chuckled, though it came off as rather faked. He’d made up the guards story, but it being true was something he hadn’t counted on. While he was grateful his lie checked miraculously, he couldn’t help but worry he might end up being the one the theft was tied back to.
On the other hand, Ember hadn’t had the time to come up with a good excuse, considering she couldn’t have imagined Kaleb would show up on her doorstep. She figured he’d be angry enough to never want to see her again. But she took the cover story he’d used and turned it to her likings.
Truth was, Lady Covington was so disgustingly rich, she probably hadn’t even noticed the brooch had gone missing. And if she ever did, she’d probably blame some poor servant girl. But the guards story proved to be a valid prompt for each of them that they took readily.
“I also wanted to thank you,” Ember continued. “The reason why you found yourself into this mess is because you were willing to help me. Me, of all people. And to commit felony, of all things. So while I’m immensely grateful for your help, I need to understand, Kaleb. Why? Why risk helping a common thief?”
Kaleb smiled warmly at her, back to his regular self now that the awkwardness had been overcome.
“Firstly, you’re not a common thief,” he stated simply, making Ember fidget under the weight of his words. “You’re kind and warm-hearted, selfless enough to care for four more souls that depend on you, and that, regardless of circumstances, I cannot judge. What you do, you don’t do out of despicableness, as you’ve put it, you do out of love. Perhaps that’s the reason why. I’m not sure. As to that, I shall let you know as soon as I find an answer.”
Ember let out a shaky breath.
“You think too highly of me.”
“Or perhaps you’re just used to being thought unfairly low of,” Kaleb spoke serenely.
Ember chuckled lightly and pulled herself together. She thought low of herself too, so in that matter, he might have had a point.
“Thank you, Kaleb,” she repeated, and she had the feeling that, regardless of how many times she said it, it still wouldn’t cover all that he’d done for her. She doubted he could even comprehend how much it meant to her that he’d shown her kindness and humanity, how much it mattered that she was being given credit.
He nodded and once and, without a word, Ember turned and opened a small wooden box lying on the table and pulled out the azure-black diamond necklace he’d given her the previous night. Its surface shone like it had been ground and polished with a hypnotizing spell.
“I also believe this belongs to you,” Ember said as she handed it to Kaleb, but he just took a step back.
“Nonsense. It was a gift. Gifts are not to be returned and I find it offensive you’d think so.”
Ember simply glared.
“I wouldn’t, had it been a gift. But it wasn’t. It was a loan. Bought with the money of your father and crafted in his jewelry. I can’t accept it.”
Kaleb couldn’t find words to counter hers, so he took the diamond from her hand reluctantly. His attention, however, was caught by another blinding glint in the wooden box, lighter than the diamond, shining in a way that somehow seemed more pure and emptied of superficial opulence.
“I see you’ve kept the dragon’s breath,” he commented, and Ember eyed the fire opal, a curious nostalgia finding shelter in the depth of her eyes.
“I couldn’t bring myself to sell it. And this has never happened to me before. Objects are objects and money is money. But I don’t know what it is about that rock. It captivates me.”
“I felt it, too,” Kaleb’s voice brought Ember out of her daze. “It’s like it sings to you.”
Ember smiled mockingly at him, but her eyes betrayed the fact that she shared the feeling.
“But that would be absurd, wouldn’t it?” she mused. “It’s just a pretty rock.”
Kaleb nodded pensively. “Indeed.”
They stood in silence for a little while longer, both trapped under the spell of the fire opal and maybe a little bit under the spell of each other’s comforting presence, but then it was broken when the door burst open and the younger Blackthorns waltzed in, Charles and Cathy carrying several pounds of sweets, while the twins carried a kitten.
“Ember, Ember, look what we found,” one of them chanted.
“Please, please, please, Ember, can we keep her?” went the other one. “Look, we can call her Tiger. She even has stripes.”
Ember crossed her arms over her chest and Kaleb was taken aback by the width of her persona as she stepped into the shoes of the responsible older sister. She looked as if she’d been on the verge of scolding them, but then she just kneeled in front of the kids and sighed, taking the cat in her arms and running her fingers through its striped fur.
“She will have to find another home,” she spoke fiercely, yet soothing, kindness in her voice. “A home who can give her what we can’t. You know we can barely provide for ourselves and a pet is a very big responsibility. Your little tiger deserves more. Do you want to take that away from her?”
The four kids shook their heads, clearly understanding the point Ember made, but disappointment obvious on their faces.
Without thinking twice, Kaleb stepped in.
“There might be a solution. What if the little ones promised to take good care of the kitten and I promised to provide whatever’s necessary so that she could live like a royal feline? Would you allow them to keep her then?”
Ember turned around wide-eyed at Kaleb, blinking rapidly.
“Kaleb, I appreciate what you’re trying—“ she began, but Charles cut her off.
“Could we, Ember?”
She turned around to look at her little brother, and Kaleb saw her break. While it was clear that the twins weren’t that hard to resist, she had a soft spot for the little boy.
“Charles—“ she tried, but then she turned back to Kaleb. “Kaleb, I really can’t—“
“Nonsense,” Kaleb interrupted her, smiling from ear to ear. “The little striped one grew on me, but I’m not very good with caring for animals. This seems like the ideal solution. It’ll be my pleasure. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a business to attend to unless I want my father’s wrath unleashed upon me in the near future.”
He was about to turn around and leave, just before the four Blackthorns circled him and put their tiny arms around him, wrapping Kaleb in a tight hug, chirped thank-you’s surrounding him from all sides. He chuckled lightly and patted their heads, catching glimpse of a few proud tears dancing in Ember’s eyes, but she blinked them away so quickly, he wasn’t even sure they’d been there.
He waved a hand at her, cutting her off.
“Stop thanking me. I only do these things because I want to. Besides,” he looked at her through his lashes, a playful smile dancing on his lips, “I do have one condition.”
Ember crossed her arms over her chest. “And what would that be?”
“That you change her name,” he stated simply. “You might learn that you, Ember, and the little tiger, have more in common than you’d have thought. So I suggest you call her Bandit,” he winked at her, and Ember nearly gasped in both amusement and surprise. “For obvious reasons.”
Without waiting for her reaction, he said his goodbyes to the little ones and went out the door, the smuggest expression on his face.