The Marriage Contract
The floorboards stunk of ink and whiskey—they combined for a sour air that began to give June a headache. Candlelight twitched golden in all the little flecks of brown glass around the feet of her stool. She leaned back, watching a yellow glob of pig-fat sweat down the candlestick. The blunderbuss rested on the desk, barrel turned towards the cell. The prisoner sat against the back wall with legs spread wide apart on the floor, as if to display his crotch to her. Only his two pale feet poked out of the shadows and into the candlelight, but she could see he interlaced his fingers up behind his head. He hadn’t moved for the entire two hours of her shift. His chest rose and fell, rose and fell. She stretched her lower back and pulled the curtain off the window. Birds were chirping but it was still dark. She rested her elbow on a neat stack of parchment; the official town charter for Hastings. Next month, they’d officially be named a town under the Kingdom. Another scroll was half uncurled on the floor.
The purpose of this correspondence is to formally inform Patrick Kensington of his expulsion from the King’s Blackguard, relevant to deteriorating character and multiple offenses of alcohol possession. All wages have been severed due to violation of contract.
King James Gallant’s signature was signed in red cursive at the bottom.
She tilted the candlestick forward to read more of the parchment. Green eyes strained at her in the light. His retinas contracted to pinpricks. She yanked the candle back.
He remained just as he was.
“How long have you been staring?” she asked.
“All night,” he said, as though it was a normal thing to tell a girl. His two white hands reached forward into the light and wrapped around the bars. Dirt lined his fingernails, and looked like it always had. His face, pooled with shadows, leaned into the light. Matted brock locks hung down to his jawline and shined from grease. “So, why does a girl like you volunteer as Deputy?”
June buttoned her father’s coat over her chest.
“Why do you have a bounty worth your weight in gold?” she said.
June looked to the window, again. The horizon was orange under the clouds—that was morning enough for her. She knocked four times on the door then stepped into the next room. Kensington was already sitting up in his cot, fingers rubbing into his temples. She set the candle beside his boots.
“June, I am twenty-two years old and can’t remember the last time I wanted to wake up,” he mumbled, buckling a belt at his waist. He let out a long breath. He inhaled. Then he let out another long breath.
“Do you remember last night?” she asked.
He ran a hand along a purple bruise with awful green colors along his neck, and nodded.
“Has Chambers behaved?”
“Haven’t had to spank him yet,” she said.
Kensington rubbed a thumb into the bottom of his heel, where the white cotton of his sock had stained yellow. He shoved his foot into his other boot with a groan—it was hard to believe he was only a few years older than her. He stood up off the cot, seemed to balance himself on his feet, and let out another long breath. “Alright, I’ll be okay.” He walked to the lectern desk. She ducked under a hammock and joined him in the corner. He’d set the pig candle on a cracked old map of Librae that was pinned to all four corners of the desk. He dipped a quill into an inkwell, let a black droplet fall off the tip, then scratched Urgent from Hastings to Kingdom, from Sheriff Patrick Kensington to the Honorable Magistrate Yasmen Lexifer.
“I’m posting a letter to the Kingdom to let them know I’m on my way,” Sheriff said. “Despite being in my custody, Hastings is not a recognized Kingdom town and doesn’t have the authority of legal execution. He’s to be put to death for his collective crimes in the Kingdom’s square.”
“You intend to escort that boy across the entire continent?” she asked, looking down at the map. Hastings was a small dot at the top-right corner, eight civilized towns traversed the eastern coast beneath it. Fourteen colonies spanned the western coast—one of which being a large crimson star titled “Kingdom”. Between the two coasts, a black blotch labeled “Vesper Desolation” carpeted the center of the map as if an inkwell had been spilled there.
“Are you to take the Northern Trading Pass?” she asked, eyeing the lone route arching over the Vesper along the northern fjords.
Kensington shook his head.
“Our fishing shipments rarely make it through the NTP unscathed by Vesper highwaymen. We’d be ambushed within the first mile carting Wesley Chambers.” He whispered. “That boy is worth ten-scores his weight in gold; I could set the devil at the King’s feet and get paid less.”
“So how do you intend on transporting him across the entire continent, with the thick of the underworld knowing he’s in our custody?”
He didn’t answer. She crossed her arms.
“How?” she asked.
“A dried up riverbed cuts laterally through the Vesper like a scar,” Sheriff said, walking the two spikes of his compass across a hair thin line on the map.
“The Hollow?” she asked.
“So they call it,” Sheriff said, jotting down his measurements with a quill. “I estimate I’ll return in a few days or weeks, I’m going to trust you with the full duties of temporary Sheriff in my absence.”
He turned for the door.
She did not move from his path.
“I’m not coming?”
“Of course not,” he smiled down at her.
“I’m the one who caught that boy, I’m the one who put him back in the cell after he strangled you.” She followed him out the swinging front doors and squinted, the sun was half out of the sea and blinding off wet cobblestone and windows. Sheriff stood in the middle of the street with his hands on his knees. He bent forward, pointing the saber at his hip straight into the air, and dry heaved until veins bulged from his neck. June watched the sea at the end of the road foam white over beige sand; there were no ships in port. A clear yolk drizzled into the dirt between the Sheriff’s boots. It shined in the sun. He dunked his head in a bucket of the broken waterwheel, slicked his blonde hair back over his scalp with rainwater, and set his hat over it.
“I feel much better,” Sheriff said without turning around to face her—she always sort of admired how he went about his business no matter how beat to shit he was. He made his way down the street just as two grey seagulls landed beside his sick and cawed at each other. June followed him around the back of the Sheriff’s Office. He swung a big shed door open across the grass. A filthy orange cat ran out from the shed and under the blacksmith’s porch.
Inside, an old tarp-covered caravan wagon sat in cobwebs and dust. Sheriff kicked a stack of bibles aside and grabbed the front of the wagon.
“Hah,” she said, but he was serious.
In one long moan, its thin wooden wheels rolled forward onto the grass, shovels and rakes that were leaning on the wagon smacked to the floor. Kensington stepped between the wheel and wall. “Remember when the circus came to Hastings a few years back…” his voice came from the darkness of the shed. There was a clang from something he tossed aside. “I think they left one of those bear cages—ah, here it is.” She stepped out of the way as he pushed the wagon completely out into the grass. They lifted the rear hatch off its bolt and eased its wooden ramp to the ground. A tall, rectangular cage stood in the back of the shed. Somebody had set a broom between its rusted bars.
“Get over here and help push,” he said. She helped the Sheriff roll it up the ramp and tuck it snug against a giant black cask. “Gunpowder,” Kensington said, resting an elbow on the cask at his shoulder. They had to crouch under the mildew spotted tarp. “This cask was the last object a ship got rid of to make itself light enough to sail… maybe three years ago.” He pinched the spot between his eyes, as if a memory hurt his hangover. “I had to empty the gunpowder—105 bucket scoops—into smaller barrels. It took me and two other guys just to roll the empty cask onto this wagon. Then I had to refill it, bucket by bucket. I thought I could sell it. I thought this was my fortune until about eight hours ago when Wesley Chambers came running into town.”
“I’m coming on the escort to Kingdom,” she said.
Sheriff shook his head.
“You want to come because of your Dad.”
“And Mum,” she added. “I don’t want much of the gold reward, just enough to find out who killed them. I could pay someone who practices law and we could get a full proceeding in the King’s Court. They could pull old public records—it would be the talk of the town—maybe someone who knows something would come foreword—”
“You think they’d have a King’s Court for the death of two commoners that happened eight years ago?” She was following him back up the front steps of the Sheriff’s Office. He let the front doors swat backwards at her. She caught them in her hands. The Chambers boy smiled. Kensington grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her into the other room. “You’re not coming.”
She walked to the window, plucked three daisies from a glass vase that the Sheriff’s mother gave to him, and hurled the vase at his head. He ducked. It smashed against the wall, covering the cot in little bits of glass. Blood pumped behind her eyes. She wanted to scream, she wanted to punch him in the nose, and she had no idea what to do with the three daisies in her hand.
“You can start by sweeping that up,” he said.
“I’ll walk behind the caravan, try and stop me.”
Sheriff stared out the window. He looked out into the grey morning that came through the glass. His face dulled to a cheerless expression as he reached into his coat for a flask. He didn’t hide the sip from her like he usually did. It burned a smiling grimace on his face.
“You can accompany me on the escort,” Kensington said, kneeling, “if you give me your hand in marriage.”
She punched him in the face; she’d always had a crush on him.
Kensington got to his feet with two fingers under his eye.
“It’s mandatory to register marriages at the Kingdom, to keep track of bloodlines and estates. Marriage is the only legal premise upon which you can come.” He gripped her hand gently between both of his, rubbing his thumb on her flesh. “I don’t intend for this to be a bribe. I’ve known you my entire life, Ms. Foster.” She’d always found him handsome, but that was about it. He kissed the top of her hand. “I know it’s a lot to spring on you, but—”
“Deal,” she said
“You’re supposed to say, ‘I do’ and choke back tears.”
“You’re supposed to be taller,” she said.
He smiled. His teeth were straight and about as white as they get in Hastings. He spread a roll of parchment over arrest warrants. She could do worse.
Under observation of the Hastings Sheriff, the following vows are bound as covenant upon the signing party’s death.
“Upon death?” she asked. She looked sideways up at him. Kensington rubbed his thumb on hers.
“It is standard procedure for counsel. It gives the holder assurance beyond principle alone.”
“What more could a person offer than their principles?”
“Nothing,” Kensington said. She could see herself in his blue eyes. “The written word simply binds one to their principles. A handshake is a gesture, a signature is a check to the soul. The lexical chain is a powerful thing, Ms. Foster, it often makes its way off the page.”
“Is that what you learned in the Blackguard?” she said, mostly just to bring him down a peg. “What if circumstances change?”
“Then your principle’s should not,” he explained—and sounded a lot like her old man. “My feelings for you won’t change, Ms. Foster, I assure you that.”
She dipped the quill into the inkwell, tapping the excessive globs away with a finger on the brim. Her penmanship came in half-legible scratches.
I, June A. Foster, vow my hand in wedlock to Sheriff Patrick Kensington of Hastings.
“There. Official on paper,” she said with her foot tapping on the ground. “Shall we make it official with a gesture?”
He leaned down to her. She spit in her hand, clasped his forearm, and shook it firmly, then walked out the door without looking back. Three dead daisies were clutched absently in her hand.