A Stake in Secrets

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Chapter 5 - Pearl

“I wasn’t able to catch a good look at him besides his eyes. But I know he wore a handkerchief like this.”

Rosie uses her fingers to draw an outline of the Obsidian King’s handkerchief. The one I stabbed in the stomach.

We’re kneeling on the ground again, except this time, in front of the Gneiss Lord.

The Gneiss Lord nods his head. He walks over to us and examines Rosie’s face. “I’m sorry I couldn’t prevent this from happening, darling.”

Rosie smiles and says, “Don’t worry, my Lord. This is nothing compared to everything the Gneiss Clan has done for me.”

The Gneiss Lord smiles, like a Cheshire Cat. “We’re blessed to have you with us.”

I wonder how much the Clan takes compared to how much it gives.

The Lord bends down next to me. “Pearl, did you get what I wanted?”

I nod and take out the heavy, rough-edged piece of lemony limestone from my pocket and hand it to him—the rock that the Obsidian Clan promised us in return for a piece of our land.

I wonder how valuable that rock must be.

After the trade-off, the Obsidian King wouldn’t let us go. He wanted more than land. He wanted to hear secrets.

I wanted to know what he wanted to know. But I didn’t have the time to learn that. I wasn’t willing to remain his captive, so I chose to flee.

Eyes glinting with delight, the Lord inspects the rock and strokes my hair, lingering just a bit too long.

I look down to hide my discomfort.

Taking his eyes from the rock to me, he brings his face close to mine. I feel a shiver run through me, but I maintain my relaxed facade. I’ve practiced hiding my true feelings long enough so that the only one who could see through me was my brother.

The Lord whispers gently as he caresses my cheek, “Anything else you’d like to tell me, my dear Pearl?”

I scan the Lord’s face.

Some questions are open-ended; others are not. This one isn’t. The Gneiss Lord wants to wrap this up, clean and without residue. “No, my Lord. Rosie has said everything.”

He smiles and gets up to pull a jewel from his desk drawer. His stocky build and incessant smiles cover up his true nature: he’s someone who dislikes opposition. He’s someone who likes to be right. Always. No questions asked.

The Gneiss Lord stops a moment and looks at us. “I trust you girls will keep quiet about this?”

“Yes,” we both say.

The Gneiss Lord hands me a jewel. This one is an Amethyst. I’m in possession of three jewels now, which means I’m now a third rank assassin.

The highest-ranking officers have 10 jewels. Anyone would be happy to receive one, but I’m not. I know what the higher-ranks are capable of, and I’m not ready to join their game of vying for the Lord’s attention.

Two more jewels and I have to start playing hide-and-seek with him. After five, the higher-ranks will begin to see me as a threat, and I won’t be able to live unnoticed by them after that.

Of course, my face doesn’t reflect my dubious thoughts, and I quickly thank the Lord.

Before I take the jewel, though, I try to kill two birds with one stone. Rosie needs jewels; I don’t.

I bow my head and say, “My Lord, if I may be so frank, Rosie did most of the work for this mission and suffered the most from it as well. I would like her to receive this jewel rather than me.”

He laughs and goes to his desk to get another jewel. My heart falls to my stomach. Expectedly, my plan didn’t work.

Waving his hand in the air, he says, “You’re so kind, Pearl. That’s what I love about you.” He hands a jewel—a topaz—to Rosie. “Keep that jewel, and Rosie will get one as well.” Rosie thanks the Lord, who dismisses us afterwards.

Just when we reach the door, the Gneiss Lord calls after us, “Did either of you figure out what that scar on Rosie’s face means anyway?”

I look back at the Lord. I shake my head as Rosie says, “No.”

Maybe it’s just oversensitivity, but I detect a flash of something in the Lord’s comportment. It’s relief—rather than disappointment.

I close the door behind us when Rosie and I get into the corridor.

There’s something I didn’t tell him. Something that’s been bugging me.

The Obsidian King I stabbed was an imposter.

It was his hands that caught my attention. The hands of the man I stabbed had cracked, peeling skin. Ointments are never lacking in a king’s possession.

Then, there was something off about his hair.

At first, I thought his hair was black, but when he leaned in to me, I saw dark brown roots. He had dyed his hair weeks or even months before and hadn’t been maintaining it—something a king would never do.

Rosie grabs onto my arm when we’re far away from the Lord’s office. She looks to check if anyone’s near and then whispers, “By the way, thanks for getting me that jewel. Now I have two.” She shows her collar to me, and I smile. “Also, I think the Gneiss Lord has a thing for you.”

“I hope not.”

“Why not? You know, so many other girls would sacrifice an arm to be in your position.”

“That’s exactly the reason why.” I hated being noticed, and being noticed by the Gneiss Lord meant being noticed by the Gneiss girls, which means a life less quiet and comfortable.

Rosie sighs. “You need to learn how to relish being the center of attention sometimes.”

We reach the door to her niche, which is on the floor below mine, and I wave goodbye to her.

As I’m walking to my own niche, I realize how the Gneiss Lord is just like the scar on Rosie’s face—a snake guarding a secret staff that’s out of everyone’s reach.

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