Chapter 4 – A Gift of Old

She blinked away the haze in her eyes and sprinted toward Valentin’s home, disregard for others on the street. All moved out of her path to let her pass.

Her throat stung and her head was throbbing from clenching her teeth so tightly. She ignored the eyes cast her. They were too absorbed in their work and too busy to pay her more than a second glance.

Finally, she came into view of Seller’s house and leapt over the low cut hedges which lined each side of his walkway. Juliette followed the path which lead to a set of stone steps, treaded them two at a time, then up to a wide platform with tables and chairs. Flowers were in full bloom and the home was immaculate. She passed the seating area and came to a stop in front of the Merchant’s front door, panting for breath.

Her tears had stopped, yet her breathing remained ragged, and her face was stained a mixture of dirt and wiped tears. She bend down to put her hands on her knees to rest for a moment and regain her breath.

“Why does everyone have to care so much about my life?” she mumbled to herself.

She thought about how easy it would be to make everyone stop. Juliette could turn around, sprint back and be at the Heart’s entrance in moments. Zul would be waiting, probably an arrogant smile on his face, for her to return and gladly lead her to the Heart. She could travel the winding pathway, past the blood red glow of the torches, feel the Heart, and receive a Passion. She could receive her blessing, become a Maid for all Juliette cared at this point, and be done with this non-stop badgering from people. The process was painless, and quick from what she had heard.

An administrator would lead you down the sacred trail, until you were standing in front of the Heart. Standing before the Heart, an Administrator would grip a person’s bare hands and perform a final check on their mental state. An assurance from Paragon Himself, through an Administrator, that a mind is pure. Then, releasing one hand but still gripping the Administrator’s hand with the other, would reach to feel the Heart’s surface.

In the time it takes to snap a finger, their life changes forever. A new path, clearly defined, and urgency applied, would be set in their mind. For most, it would make their life easier, stronger, more potent. Whatever they were destined to do, it would enhance them into people that were above Passionless humans. A gift received. A Passion and powers to perfect a single skill in life.

That is, it would happen to all but a select few. No, every so often a life would turn dark.

The thought of an Administrator touching Juliette’s bare skin, like one had once touched Oliver as they lead him to the Heart, made her skin crawl. Zul promised she’d not turn foul, but… the way he reacted… she doubted that very much.

She shook her head, and her long unruly hair came loose in the wind. She wiped it from her face and rubbed both eyes once more with the sleeves of her tunic, now spotted with stains from today’s events. She grabbed the stack of letters strapped to her chest, and untied the knot keeping it attached to her body. Once she let the letters free, she could see how damaged they had become. Dirt, folds, and tears stained the small stack in her hands. She picked at the corner of one letter in an effort to straighten it out, but gave up shortly. Not bothering to fix her hair into a professional style, she shut her eyes, took a long deep breath in, and slowly let the air out. Once she opened her eyes she gave a firm knock on the door and did her best at a controlled professional appearance. Making sure her badge was clearly visible.

A quick gust of wind blew Juliette’s mess of hair in front of her face right when the door opened. After a few moments of pawing the hair out of her face with one hand, she saw someone standing in the doorway.

A tall older man with a long gray beard, spotted with flecks of brown, had answered the door. His dark and unruly eyebrows consumed the upper half of his face, while the bottom half was absorbed by his dense beard that fell to his chest. With only a strip of bare skin from his nose to his and eyes, it was a striking difference to the barren wasteland of missing hair that was the top of his head.

He was wearing a densely padded blue tunic, with fabric that seemed to wrap around his torso and chest half a dozen times before it ended, each strand laced with fine golden chains and charms that rang in the breeze coming in through the door opening.

He didn’t seem pleased. For how wealthy this man was, she must have been interrupting some important meeting or sabotaging some business deal, just by knocking on his door. For a few moments he stood there to take in the sight of Juliette. Her stained tunic, disheveled hair, and dirt smeared cheeks from past earlier. Juliette shifted her stance as the man locked eyes with her.

“May I help you miss?” The man said in a gravely voice.

Juliette cleared her throat. And lifted the badge around her neck so the man could see.

“Hello, my name is Juliette Hastings, making delivery on behalf of Alton Hastings and the Deliverer’s league. May I speak with Valentin Sellers please?”

“I am he.”

Juliette lowered her badge.

“Mr Sellers, here are the letters which were to be delivered by this afternoon.”

Juliette extended the slightly damaged stack of letters toward Valentin.

“Do you accept this delivery?” She asked.

Mr. Sellers paused for a moment before accepting them from Juliette. She held her arm outward as he looked down at the set, then back up to Juliette’s face. She could hear the faintest sign from Valentin before he reached out to grasp them from Juliette.

He turned sideways and held the door open with his hand. “Come inside dear. I’ll inspect the letters to ensure none have been lost to damage, then let you be on your way.”

Dear? How bad do I look? Juliette thought.

She couldn’t blame the man for wanting to check on the letters considering the condition which she gave them to him. She’d thought he might have just turned her away at the sight of them to begin with. She stepped past Valentin’s wide frame and into his spacious home. Her feet met a finely woven rug and she felt immediate guilt at how much dirt she must have tracked in with her from the run. He moved past her, and didn’t appear to care when he saw her looking down. She noticed the dirt that should have been staining his rug, was instead floating slightly above the rug itself. The dirt seemed to be slowly flowing through air, heading toward a small opening in the ground near to the doorway itself. Enchantments, she thought. Juliette couldn’t begin to fathom the cost of enchanting an entire floor, maybe even an entire home, with a cleanliness spell. But based on the location of Valentin’s home, and the stately stature of the exterior, she shouldn’t be surprised. 

He continued into the main area of his home and looked around to take it all in. Smooth wooden floors, dotted with rugs and mats expertly woven into beautiful patterns. The stone walls left room for multiple glass windows on each wall, and through the back windows she could glimpse a lush private garden. Valentin shouted for a ‘Lara’, who Juliette assumed was his wife given his age. He gestured toward a sitting area to her side with padded chairs and divans.

“Please, take a seat. I’ll review these in my office while I check for any damages. My wife, Lara, will be down in a moment to meet you. Do you need anything before I begin?”

He stood, an imposing gaze in her direction, tapping the stack of letters into his other hand.

“No. Thank you Mr. Sellers, and I apologize for the damage.”

“Don’t apologize just yet, until I find any damage that is.”

He gave her a weak smile and headed off out of sight into another room of his home. Juliette stood in his sitting area for a moment, before looking around and selecting a chair which offered a view of the garden. She had just sat down when she heard an echo of footsteps on the wooden floor heading her way. From behind the hallway, Juliette heard a shout.

“Valentin! Where did you run off to?”

A plump woman with short, curled white hair crossed the hallway’s threshold for Juliette to see. She was wearing a simple, yet finely made, purple tunic, along with simple hooped gold earrings.

She strode through the room past her view of the garden, eyes flicking briefly toward Juliette, and went into the room with Valentin.

“You yell me over, but don’t have the decency to tell me what you need and make me traipse through this house to find you? You’re lucky you make a lot of money or—”

“Dear.” Valentin cut her off in his low voice. “The girl in the sitting area, she’s dropped off a delivery for me. Will you please see to her?”

The woman leaned back out of the room to glance at Juliette for a moment before turning back to speak muffled to Valentin.

She exited his room shortly after and made her way over to Juliette, who was picking at a thread on her tunic. The woman’s eyebrows furrowed slightly when she came closer.

“Hello dear. My name is Lara, and that hairy oaf is my husband Valentin.” Lara said. When shouting at Valentin, her voice seemed week and flimsy, but now it was smooth and soothing.

“I heard that woman!” came a shout from Valentin’s room

She waved a hand in his direction.

“He’s always so quick to get to business he forgets common courtesy sometimes. May I offer you something to drink? Perhaps a warm washcloth to wash your face from the long trip?”

Lara raised an eyebrow at Juliette and smiled gently. Juliette nearly declined out of habit, but today was not the norm and she knew she looked like a disaster. She nodded.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Lara, my name is Juliette. And a warm cloth would be wonderful. Thank you.”

Lara nodded back at Juliette and went to retrieve the warm cloth. She ran it under her running water, and miraculously, she didn’t need to boil water first. The Sellers appeared to have running warm water through their home. Juliette was silently disappointed Lara hadn’t offered a warm bath instead of just a towel.

Juliette accepted the cloth from Lara and rubbed at her face and hands until the dirt was gone and she felt much cleaner and less self-conscious. Lara retrieved the towel from Juliette onto a small wooden plate and went back to drop it off somewhere out of sight.

Juliette took a deep breath while Lara stepped out of the room and reached up to try and tidy her rats-nest of hair. Usually, her straight hair fell all the way down to the small of her back, but now, some of it was tangled and tied into a messy braid from her run, pinned up into a loose bun. She released her hair and ran her fingers through to comb it smooth. After a few minutes, Lara returned with a glass of water and some sliced bread.

“Now tell me,” Lara said as she placed the tray down in front of Juliette, “What part of this delivery has gotten you so upset? Was it Valentin? Was he being a wet blanket about the letters? They were barely bent for Paragon’s sake.”

Lara shook her head and huffed out a breath.

“No. He was very polite.”

“I’m shocked!” Lara said with fake surprise.

Juliette smirked.

“It has been the type of day to start off poorly, and get worse by the minute.”

“Well. I’m sorry to hear that, but you won’t find poor here. Is there anything else I can get you while you wait?”

“You’ve been fantastic. Thank you Mrs. Sellers.” Juliette smiled.

“Good. That is good to hear. It seems that ever since we moved to this new home a few days ago, there’s been more and more distress finding our way! There too much emotion this close to the Heart I keep saying. I told Valentin we didn’t need to be this close, but you try convincing a Rank 20 merchant to bend on what he’s got his mind set on.”

She leaned in closely.

“I think he used his persuasion Proficiencies on me, that old dog.”

Juliette chuckled at that.

“Why did you decide to move here in the first place then?” Juliette asked.

“You know how merchants are.” She waved a hand at Juliette, “As soon as they make a little bit of money, the gold starts to burn a hole in their wallet. They scramble until it can be spent! You’d think we’d have a house full of trinkets, but not my Valentin’s home. He prefers selling the little things and buying the big ones.”

Lara opened her arms gesturing to the house. Juliette had no clue what that was like.

Lara continued, “He made some big trade a few days back with a foreigner who could barely speak a lick of the common tongue. My prestigious husband hailed it as, ‘the greatest deal in all of Exden’s history!’ Ha!”

“Will you stop about that Lara?!” Valentin shouted again from his room.

Juliette perked up in her seat at Lara’s mention of the foreigner.

“What was the man selling?” Juliette asked.

“Some worthless piece of stone Valentin says. He thought the man was crazy and trying to swindle him at first. That was until he had a… sense… that he could profit from the trade. The man did not want much, so Valentin agreed. But just as he was about to close the sale, one of Exden’s Leaders walked by and offered Valentin enough gold to buy the house we’re sitting in.”

Lara shook her head, but Juliette noticed a little sparkle in her eyes that told her she wasn’t all that disappointed with living in this luxurious home. She caught Juliette’s gaze and leaned in close once more.

“Do you know how much Para he received for such a profitable trade?”

Juliette was shocked Lara was talking about her husband’s Para in front of her. Lara paused, letting the anticipation build.

“Enough to rank twice, in the same visit! I haven’t heard of that happening to another soul on all of Ducania.”

She cackled and continued.

“Imagine that! My lovely dolt of a husband, making the trade of a century. He couldn’t even wait a full day before he spent it all on this place to be closer to the Heart. I guess he thinks he might double rank again! Ha!.”

She shook her head and stood up to fetch another glass of water, while Juliette sat stunned. Jane had told Juliette about Roland intercepting the trade, but she never mentioned Roland gave enough for Valentin to buy and entire house with the profits. There was something Roland wanted to keep under wraps. Which had Juliette confused as to why Lara was sharing this with her in the first place. Juliette looked out the front window and could barely make out the stone arch which lead to the Heart. Two small figures stood in white standing guard.

Lara stepped back in, biting into a small piece of chocolate. She offered the other to Juliette, but she refused.

“How do you stand the Administrators being in front of your home at all hours? It’s like they are always watching you.” Juliette said.

“Oh, I’ve gotten used to it already. If those prudes want to see an old lady change into her night clothes, then so be it!” she cackled again.

Juliette smiled and tried to guess who had to put up with who in this relationship. Valentin had less emotion than a statue, while Lara seemed wholly unable to contain hers. Juliette shrugged her shoulders.

“They just rub me the wrong way I guess.”

She looked away to the garden as she spoke. Lara followed her gaze.

“Come on dear, let’s get out of this stuffy room and into some fresh air.”

Lara was already standing up with a groan before Juliette could say otherwise. She led them through the back door, into the garden Juliette was looking at. Lush ferns and greenery rustled in the wind from every direction, and bright flowers bloomed everywhere she looked. The entire area was lined with a tall stone wall which gave the space a sense of intimacy Juliette didn’t expect. Lara led Juliette to the back of the garden to a small shaded canopy complete with two chairs and small wooden table. She gestured for Juliette to sit across from her as Lara plopped into the over-sized chair and let out a long sigh.

“And why is that Ms. Juliette? Have you had trouble with the men and women in white robes in the past?” Lara asked, taking a sip of her drink.

Juliette shook her head and took a deep breath of the fresh air while she sat down.

“No. Well, not before today that is.”

“Oh? What happened today?” Lara asked delicately, eyebrows furrowed.

Juliette sighed and let her head drop back onto the chair’s back.

“Does everyone need to know my life story today?” Juliette said, louder than necessary, frustration seeping into her voice. Lara narrowed her eyes at Juliette.

“Now see here young girl. If I see a woman in my sitting room, eyes red and cheeks stained from crying, I’m not just going to pretend all is fine and dandy. That might work for some timid low rank merchant, but not this old woman.”

Lara sat back in her chair and looked out toward the greenery, taking another sip of her drink.

“You can tell me a lie to get me to shut up,” she continued, “or you can tell me the truth, and maybe this old hag can get a bit of fulfillment from helping someone else for once in her life. Your choice.”

Juliette sat in her chair, eyes closed. She waited long enough where she thought Lara would cave in and say something. Instead, Juliette heard Lara lean back in her chair further and begin to hum.

“I don’t have a Passion.” Juliette said.

Lara opened her eyes to look at Juliette, eyebrows raised, but still remained silent.

“I’ve been putting it off for long enough that I’m not sure I’ll ever decide to receive one. My mother has been down my throat about it, and my best friend isn’t too far off.”

Juliette paused before continuing.

“I met someone on a delivery today, who seemed to be the only person I’ve met who didn’t care about it. He almost gave me hope that I might be able to actually make it in Exden the way I am. But when we ran into an Administrator out front of your home, he stood there like I was crazy when I didn’t want to go down the Heart’s tunnel right then and there.”

Juliette huffed and could feel her pulse quickening. She forced herself to stop clenching the arms on the chair.

“I was actually almost convinced to go along with one of white robes to the Heart too. But when the Administrator reached out and touched me… I knew I couldn’t do it. Instead I ran away and…”

Juliette gestured to herself sitting there.

Lara softly asked, concern spread on her face, “Did the Administrator do something to you dear?”

“No. Nothing like that. But, the way he recoiled when he touched me? It was like I caused him pain, or something was terribly wrong within me. Not a great confidence boost that was.” Juliette mumbled.

“Do you think there is something wrong?” Lara asked.

Juliette let her eyes close again and felt her grip begin to tighten. She breathed in the fresh smell of blooming flowers all around, helping to calm her.

“I have no idea anymore. What I do know, more certainly than ever, is that seeking the Heart is not the right decision for me.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, I can respect you for standing up for what you believe in. Not many in Exden would do the same when the pressure hits.”

They stopped when they heard the wooden back door creaking, and saw Valentin approach. He was not holding the letters anymore, but instead a pen and a small sheet of parchment. He walked close enough to be within talking distance.

“Ms. Hastings, after review, I will accept the delivery. My apologies for making you wait—”

He flicked his eyes to Lara, who gave him a small nod, then back to Juliette.

“—I’ve had poor experiences in the past with damaged shipments.“

“Thank you Mr. Sellers. Is there anything I should report to the league?” Juliette asked.

He shook his head.

“I’ve signed my approval on the delivery form. Here you are.”

He extended the parchment to Juliette, who stood up from her seat, but when she went to grab it, he pulled it back away.

“Which league are you a member of by chance?” He asked.

“Senov.”

He hummed to himself and rubbed at his beard.

“Would you be willing to carry a letter back for me? I was going to make a trip to the local league, but something has come up this afternoon. I understand this would be asking more of you, but I’d be happy to compensate you, and leave a positive review for you, or for Alton, on the form there.”

He gestured his pen at the form he was holding.

“May I ask where it is to be delivered?” Juliette asked.

“The chambers of district Leader Roland Doyen. Either he or his assistant will be acceptable.”

Juliette’s pulse quickened. Roland’s chambers were on the way, but she was hesitant to see him so soon after everything that had happened earlier in the day. She would be meeting with Jane at noon, so could drop the letter off with Jane instead, and have her bring it to Roland at the council meeting. A bit of coin never hurt anything either…

“Sure. I can make the delivery.”

Valentin clapped his hands.

“Wonderful!”

Juliette’s eyes widened. That was the most emotion she’d seen the man exhibit yet.

“I need to put a short note together and fetch the letter. Lara, can you walk Juliette to the front door? I’ll be there shortly.”

Lara nodded and set her glass down. Valentin turned and walked back into his home, his shoulders brushing on the plants extending into the path.

“The old man can never pass up the opportunity for a cheap deal can he?” Lara said, rising from her seat.

“Come on dear. Let’s get back inside, I’ll see you out.”

They walked back inside and Lara gestured for Juliette to wait by the front while she went into a side room. Juliette could hear wooden drawers opening and closing. A few moments later, Lara came out with a fine pair of gloves in her hands. She tapped them in her palm.

“One last thing. It looks like your gloves are less than whole.”

Lara nodded her head at Juliette’s worn-out gloves, holes visible from where Lara was standing.

“I’ve got no use for these anymore, and it looks like you need them more than I do. Take them.”

She tossed the gloves at Juliette and she fumbled at them in the air, finally catching them. They were striking. Rich black fabric, wrapped in fine gold threading created intricate patterns along the length of each glove. The design looked like wisps of fire or smoke, trailing towards the fingertips. A small silver charm hung off the glove. It was woven onto a cord, then looped into a slot near the wrist. The palm was made with a thin layer of smooth black leather. She couldn’t tell if it was made with an animal’s black hide, or simply dyed the richest black she’d ever seen. Either way, Juliette could feel the quality of these gloves, and knew they would not have been cheap to purchase.

“Mrs. Sellers, this is very generous, but I cannot accept them. These must have cost you a great deal.”

Juliette pushed them back toward Lara, but she dismissed Juliette with a wave.

“Oh Paragon. Do young people not know how to accept a gift with grace these days? Remember what I said earlier? Take the gloves, they don’t even fit these sausages any more.”

Lara wiggled here fingers around and smirked. Juliette looked back down to the gloves and couldn’t remember the last time someone just up and gave her something for no reason. She reached out and wrapped her arms around Lara, feeling her eyes become wet. Lara wrapped Juliette in her arms and gently patted her back.

“Do be careful with those dear.”

Juliette pulled away started slipping off her tattered gloves to make way for the new ones.

“I received those many years ago from dear old Valentin as a way to… encourage… my feelings toward him. Typical Merchant, trying to sell his way into marriage!”

Lara barked a laugh and glanced down to the gloves in Juliette’s hand.

“I was in a rut handling all sorts of dangerous items you don’t want touching your skin. Those Alchemists can be ghastly people sometimes with what they bring in to sell. These gloves were enchanted to be strong, but they can be broken or torn if not watchful. What makes them truly special, is their ability to protect against whatever they come in contact with. If you handle acid? They become acid-proof. A sharp blade? Tough as steel.“

Juliette’s eyes widened in surprise, recalculating the sum Valentin must have paid.

“Are you certain you want to just give these away?” Juliette asked, unsure, eyebrows in a knot.

“I might be old, but I still know when I’ve outgrown my need for something.”

“Thank you, truly. This is too kind.” Juliette said.

“You’re welcome dear.”

Lara smiled, then stepped in to lean closer, face turning harder than before, and lowered her voice closer to a whisper.

“And for what it’s worth, those white robes out front don’t sit right with me either. Ever since we bought this place, it seems like they’ve nothing better to do than keep a watchful eye on me and my Valentin.”

Her face softened slightly, but her voice was still quit.

“I don’t know what’s come over me. But when I first saw you, I felt something… distinct from you. A… certainty, or confidence that us merchants get sometimes. Some call it instinct. It was a feeling that you knew your path, and were ready to take others along. I don’t normally go spilling secrets or gifting my betrothal gifts to any crying girl on the street, I’ll have you know. But I do hope you’ll remember this gray haired wife-of-a-merchant when you do whatever it is you’re set out to do.”

She smiled, and returned to where she was standing. Valentin came out, holding a small letter and the delivery form. Juliette could see a lengthy paragraph he’d written near the bottom, but she couldn’t make out the words. Valentin glanced down to Juliette’s black and gold gloved hands, and then his eyes shot to Lara. She gave him a small nod, and after a moment, he returned it just as subtly.

“I see you two have had a production talk.” Glancing back at Juliette. “Here is the letter to be delivered.”

He handed the small white letter to Juliette.

“And here is payment.”

He handed her a small pouch of coins. She didn’t peek inside out of respect, but was eager to find out what the bag held.

“I won’t require a delivery confirmation. I trust that I’ll find out if Mr. Doyen doesn’t receive this.”

He narrowed his eyes at Juliette, and she caught Lara rolling her eyes. Lara poked an elbow into Valentin’s padded tunic. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Well off you go dear.” Lara prodded. “Before my husband decides to send you on another errand.”

Juliette nodded at them both. She took a half step toward Lara again, but hesitated, and instead said thank you, and headed back out into the warm air outside.

Her run back was done in silence. No needling Administrators barred her way, and no handsome boys came to her rescue.

She glanced at the timepiece found at the entrance to Senov’s district, and noticed it was just past noon. She hurried her pace, hoping that Jane hadn’t left without her already.

Sweating and panting, she neared her clay home. It was devoid of any vegetation, no wooden floors or sitting areas. It had the same look as the thirty other Laborer homes that lined the streets. Juliette slowed her pace and removed the gloves from her hands and folded them into her pocket. The letter too was tucked into her pocket, alongside the Healer’s business card from earlier. She took a few deep breaths to steady her breathing and walked through the threshold. Her eyes adjusted to the darker interior and saw two women sitting at her table, one wrapped in a finely styled emerald tunic, green eyes, and dark hair. The other in a worn tunic, eyes tired from years of manual labor.

Jane and Juliette’s mother stopped talking as she walked in. She noticed they were sharing a simple lunch of rice and cooked vegetables. Juliette stiffened slightly when her mother smiled softly and gestured to the open chair, still chewing the bite she’d just taken.

Jane caught Juliette’s eyes and gave her the barest of smiles, which Juliette returned. Juliette slid out a wooden chair, taking in the spiced aroma of the large bowl in front of her, and sat down taking an empty plate for herself. She scooped a few spoonfuls of food onto her plate and began to eat.

“How was your delivery?” Her mother asked carefully.

“It was fine. All things considered.” Juliette met her mothers gaze.

“Juliette—”

Her mother flicked her eyes to Jane who continued eating her food as if there were no tension in the room, then back to Juliette.

“—I’m sorry for how I spoke to you this morning. I’m exhausted from the extra work, and let myself slip. I shouldn’t have raised my voice at you.”

Her mother looked down and swirled the food on her plate. Juliette clenched her jaw, then loosened it. Took a deep breath, then responded.

“It’s fine. Just please, let my business go for now? I’ll deal with rumors myself if they come up.” Juliette said, taking another bite of food.

Her mother nodded and seemed to relax slightly at that. She took a bite as well. After a moment, her mother continued.

“No problems along the way to Jun? Running through Jun is irritating to say the least, dodging every stall and Merchant trying to empty your pockets.”

Juliette finished her bite. “The run was fine like I said. Apparently, I looked like a damsel in distress though, as this boy took it upon himself to escort me to my destination.”

Juliette rolled her eyes, and Jane pursed her lips. Her mother looked up from her plate.

“Is that so? Did he give you his name?” Her mother asked.

“Abel Runson, some tier 10 Deliverer with an overpowered Proficiency that let’s him run twice as fast as should be humanly possible.” Juliette said with no small amount of bitterness.

“Abel’s a nice name.” Her mother smiled, “And a Deliverer you say? That’s how your father and I met did you know? Making a delivery to the same location, ended up running along one another. He offered to carry the package I was holding in order to impress me, but not even a minute later he tripped on a loose brick on the road. Crushed his and my delivery.”

Her mother smiled to herself.

“We had both wanted to marry within our Passion, and it happened to work since neither of us was in a relationship at the time.” Her mother continued.

“Was he attractive?” Jane asked Juliette.

Juliette coughed on her food.

“What? I don’t know. He just walked up to me while I was sweaty, taking a drink, then decided to guard me through the Merchant’s quarters. I didn’t stop to ogle at him.”

Jane raised an eyebrow, and Juliette caught her mother covering a smirk with another bite of lunch.

“You didn’t answer the question.” Jane said, raising both eyebrows.

“Oh, Paragon. He was a normal looking guy, though he looked like he’d just woken up with how messy his hair was.”

She heard her mother snort at that.

“He was heading to the Heart while I was going across the street to this merchant named Valentin Sellers. Who, by the way, has the nicest house I’ve ever seen. Their entire floor was enchanted to prevent dirt.”

Jane cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes toward Juliette.

“His name was Valentin?” Jane asked.

“Yeah.”

Jane’s eyebrows furrowed slightly.

“Not a very common name I guess.” She shrugged. “Oh! I was just telling your mother, tonight my father is looking for extra work at the council meeting. Are you available today to help out? It’s a paid work of course.”

Jane fixed eyes with Juliette. Juliette knew they were planning to study the stone still this afternoon, and wasn’t sure if this was a cover-up, or something she should be turning down. Momentarily confused, Juliette nodded back at Jane.

“Sure. I was planning to see if the docks needed any extra hands during the evening shipments, but I don’t have any other deliveries planned.” Juliette said.

Jane clapped her hands together.

“Great! I’ll let my father know that the position is filled. Would you be able to meet before hand? There are a few specifics that you should know about before the meeting starts. I’ve got some time now if that works?”

Juliette looked to her mother, waiting for her to cut in with some responsibility Juliette was already obligated to attend to. Instead, she received a shrug of the shoulders as her mother continued to eat.

“I’m signing up for more work so that I might still be able to rank up in this decade. I’ll be out on deliveries all afternoon and into the night. Any of Alton’s extras, I’ll complete.”

Juliette nodded to her mother, then turned to Jane.

“Sure. Let me finish lunch though first. I’m starving from running all morning.”

The biting sun was finally passing its peak, taking the heat along with it. A cool afternoon breeze from the Exden Sea prickled chills along the back of Juliette’s neck. In a few hours the sea would bring in even cooler air, and most in Senov would change into their warmer padded clothing.

The streets were becoming more crowded now that the hottest part of the day was over, like ants crawling from a hive after rainfall. A loud crash of glass breaking on the ground, followed by yells of an irate shop owner, caught both of their attention as Jane and Juliette walked by his workshop.

“So this Abel boy…”

“In Paragon’s sake, Jane, enough already!”

“I’m just teasing you.” She gave Juliette a pestering smile. “Unless this dreamboy—”

Juliette shoved Jane with her shoulder and caused Jane to stumble. Jane quickly regained her composure and narrowed her eyes at Juliette. Juliette paused in the road, worry stricken across her face, her heart rate had begun to pound with regret at giving insult to Jane Doyen in public. Affronting the daughter of Roland Doyen. Juliette started to fall to one knee to ask for forgiveness, when she paused. Juliette narrowed her eyes at Jane, and began to stand.

Jane stood staring back, posture straight and chin up. The perfect statue of Leadership, staring Juliette down, past the bridge of her nose.

Jane’s eyes widened as Juliette shoved into her again.

“Don’t you start using Proficiencies on me you little thornling.” Juliette said, a smile creeping onto her lips.

She pointed a finger at Jane, who had recovered from the shock and now wore the same lithe smile as someone caught while playing a practical joke.

“Me? I would never. Jane said, hand across her heart, and a grin betraying that.

They both turned and started walking again. Juliette could see the smirk on Jane’s face from the corner of her eye.

“Are we going to talk about our plan here? Did you find a place for us to work?” Juliette asked.

Jane’s face became more serious as she turned toward Juliette.

“Yes. It’s not too far from my father’s chamber though, so we’ll need to be somewhat covert when we arrive.”

Juliette didn’t know what would happen if Roland discovered they had taken his stone, and she didn’t intend to find out.

“Speaking of your father,” Juliette said.

She paused and pulled out Valentin’s small letter from her pocket, then stretched her arm toward Jane. Jane took the letter and inspected the name written on the envelope.

“What are the chances…” Jane mumbled.

Juliette knit her eyebrows together, waiting for Jane to continue.

“This is the man that my dad… intercepted… I can’t believe that’s who you delivered to today.”

Jane looked up to Juliette.

“I couldn’t believe it either. I had to wait for him to inspect the delivery, and while I did, his wife told me all about how he came into a large sum of money from ‘some Leader in Senov’ through a very profitable trade.”

Jane’s look of concern grew with every comment.

“Jane, do you have any idea how much your father spent to get that stone?”

Jane shook her head slowly. Juliette could see her jaw clenching tight.

“I don’t. Not for certain at least, but I do know it was nothing to bat an eye at.” Jane said quietly.

Juliette swallowed, biting her lip.

“Well, you’re right about that. With what your father gave Valenin? He bought an entire house, and not a cheap one either. And on top of that, it’s right across from Jun’s Heart entrance.”

Jane looked distraught. Her eyebrows knit, and jaw clenched tightly. She stared at Juliette as if to see if she was telling the truth or not. Finally, she took a deep breath and spoke.

“Thank you for telling me that. I had no idea he paid that much. I don’t understand him anymore.”

She said, mindlessly tapping the pocket of her tunic. Presumably where the stone lay. They walked a few more steps in silence. Jane’s hand found the seam of her tunic and she began fidgeting at it.

“I felt the stone while you were gone.” Jane said.

Juliette’s body halted, adrenaline coursed through her frame and hammered in her ears. She whipped her head sideways at Jane, staring with wide eyes. How dare you? The thought flashed in her mind.

“You what?!”

Jane continued walking ahead, not even glancing toward Juliette. It forced Juliette to jog to catch up.

“I wanted to know if what happened to you was a fluke. If I could possibly see the same vision you had seen, and maybe, diagnose what you saw. But when I touched it… nothing happened. I didn’t faint, didn’t feel pain, I didn’t see anything.”

Jane looked to Juliette, biting her lip nervously. Juliette breathed a sign of relief that the stone gave her nothing and she was safe. She relaxed her hands and forced her shoulders to follow suit.

“You scared me.” Juliette nudged Jane gently. “I’m glad nothing bad happened to you. You should have just waited until we met.”

Jane let out a murmur too quiet for Juliette to hear.

“We’ll have two hours.” Jane said staring ahead. “Two hours before my father will be leaving his chamber. At which point, he’ll be making a stop with a visitor, then heading to the meeting tonight.”

She looked at Juliette.

“And I was serious about the offer for work tonight by the way. My father is looking for help, if that’s still okay.”

Juliette nodded, she’d hoped the offer was real, as she could use the coin. She also silently chastised herself for not checking how much the Merchant gave her for the delivery. She left the coin pouch and delivery receipt with her mother, who would bring the form to the league for her.

“That would be great, thank you.” She smiled at Jane.

Jane smiled back and gestured to a building up ahead. It was an ordinary building, blending into the palette of structures around it. She noticed it was remarkably close to her Roland’s workspace.

“Not too far from his chambers, you say?” Juliette said sarcastically.

Jane rolled her eyes.

“Quit complaining you.” She nudged Juliette with her elbow.

A few moments later they entered the building. Laid out simply, a wooden desk with chairs in the center. A bench along the back wall under a small glassless window. And a few shelves filled with books and parchment.

“This is my father’s assistant quarters. They are out running errands today, giving us privacy.

Jane said this while shutting the wooden door, casting the room into darkness. It took Juliette a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the small amount of light that was coming in through the window. It was then she could see the wisps of golden smoke seeping through Jane’s green tunic. She focused on the point as Jane reached down to grab the stone.

“Don’t.” Juliette said.

Jane froze.

“Do you see that? The glowing smoke?” Juliette asked.

Jane looked down confused. Then shook her head.

“I don’t see anything.”

Juliette knit her eyebrows together.

“Your pocket. I can see the stone glowing with golden smoke, pouring out of your tunic where it’s held. It’s harder to see in the sunlight, but here, in the dark, it’s much more visible.”

Jane looked back down at her pocket, squinting her eyes, as if that would help see the bright glow. Juliette moved closer and crouched down to her knee to get closer to the smoke. Jane looked down at her, and Juliette ran her fingers through the tendrils of light radiating off of the stone. Juliette was lost in the sight, when Jane touched the side of Juliette’s face and took her attention.

“Should I take it out now?” Jane asked.

Juliette cleared her throat and stood up facing Jane.

“Do you mind if I do it?” Juliette asked.

Jane furrowed her eyebrows and pursed her lips. She paused for a moment, then shook her head. Juliette opened the pocket and found the simple pouch which held the stone, smoke pouring through its every fiber. She gently grabbed the top of the pouch and set it down on the table. She and Jane reached for a chair and slowly sat down at the table across from one another.

Juliette pulled at the string and gently poured the rock out onto the table.

It was so much brighter than before. Juliette had to squint her eyes to stare directly at it. The stone itself looked no different. A nondescript gray-brown rock. It had a smooth surface on two sides, with a rough section opposite, like it had been broken off of a larger stone.

Juliette must have been staring at it longer than she realized, as Jane cleared her throat not so subtly to grab her attention.

“Last time you felt it, you… saw something. Right?”

Juliette nodded her head.

“If you feel it again, and faint, what should I do? I can look for a Healer again, but if my father found out what we were doing…”

“No. If I faint again, just let me wake naturally. Last time, the… vision ended abruptly and I woke up. If this time is the same, I’ll wake up once I’m done seeing whatever it is I’m supposed to see.”

She looked back down to the stone, golden haze tumbling off the table’s edge. She started to reach out to feel it, but Jane stopped her hand.

“Two things. First, do you really want to do this again? Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Juliette responded so quickly it almost cut Jane off from speaking.

“Second, do you think you should lay down first so you don’t risk hurting yourself from a fall?”

Juliette slowly nodded.

“That’s a good idea.”

Juliette took one of the black and gold gloves out of her pocket. Jane cast a silent, curious glance at the glove as Juliette slid one on. She grabbed the stone with her gloved hand and stood from her chair to find the cleanest part of the compacted dirt floor. She laid herself down, Jane hovered nearby, then sat next to Juliette. Even through the fabric of her glove, the stone felt like it was thrumming, a low pulse like a heartbeat, so slow it was almost imperceptible. Juliette looked to Jane, nothing but confidence on her face.

“If I do pass out again, when I awaken remind me where I am and have me tell you exactly what I saw. I don’t want my memory to fail and lose a clue to something important.”

Jane nodded and scooted her body closer so that her thigh was touching Juliette’s shoulder.

“I’ll be waiting.” Jane said with half a smile.

Juliette took a deep breath through her nose as she lay on the hard floor. All she could smell was the dingy soil of the well worn foundation. Dust from the ground had stirred to make a cloudy haze in the room when she laid down. The stone was reflecting off the air and made the whole room seem to glow.

She reached up with her hand and paused just before making contact with the stone. She gave Jane one last look, and as Jane opened her mouth to say something, Juliette completed her reach, and her mind went dark.

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