Chapter fifteen: The scheme
I expected her to live on the rich side of town.
But I didn’t expect her to live in the locked city.
You know that place where the king used to live back when we still had one. The place is a fortress surrounded by giant stone walls and heavy iron gates. Armed guards with scowls glare at the common folk.
But while I’ve never even seen the giant stone walls this close before, Elizabeth saunters right in telling the guards ‘he’s a friend’ and ‘it’s all right’.
And they nod at her and open the massive iron doors for us.
The shimmering reflections of precious metal blind me on the spot. Every roof tile, every lantern, shop sign, doorknob.
Even the doormats are decorated with precious metals.
“It’s this way.” Elizabeth drags me down an alleyway and I can hear the most wondrous music coming from…somewhere?
“What’s that music?”
“Huh?” Oh, it’s the speaker system, do you see those copper horns hanging around? When the Royal Orchestra plays at the palace the sound is transmitted through the wire to the rest of the city.”
“You’re saying the music goes through wires? That’s incredible!”
“Is it?” She looks surprised at my wonder which dampens my enthusiasm quite a bit. Seeing this she quickly adds “I mean yeah it is. I guess I just took it for granted.”
“Did you grow up here?”
“Yes mostly, I was four when we emigrated here so I have some vague recollections of Cygne but I have always regarded this place as my home.”
She always uses such fancy words, I wonder if she learned the language by reading the entire dictionary “Did you ever go back?”
“Yes, on a handful of occasions, but the place just feels peculiar to me. It feels like I’m intruding.”
“That must be uncomfortable.”
“Perhaps…we have to turn left here.”
“For such a small kid you can walk really fast.”
I scowl at her, she scratches her head “Sorry.”
I huff, but neither of us mentions it and we keep walking in good humour.
“Okay, we’re here.” She says as we arrive at a massive mansion that has more copper in it than I’ve seen in my whole life.
Elizabeth knocks the copper knocker against the door and waits.
A butler who looks to be Jaobainu like me opens the door.
“You brought a friend?” The man asks, clearly trying to hide his surprise as he takes Elizabeth’s coat.
She nods and says “Yes, and we’ll need some tea and chocolates.”
“Of course, where will you be sitting?”
“Lilac sitting room.”
“Of course.” He folds the coat on his arms and then looks at me “May I have your coat?” he asks and I shake my head.
He bows politely “Very well, I’ll go fetch the tea.”
The butler walks off.
“This way,” Elizabeth tells me while pointing at a gilded staircase. I follow her up, looking around at the huge amount of art and finery that are hanging around this place.
It feels… bad.
Just like with the Kashuya, this wealth was acquired by pushing other people down.
I’d never blame Elizabeth for it of course.
But it makes the place feel dirty despite the shine.
We enter a room that’s coloured in shades of light purple and white. There are flowers painted on the walls and the curtains and sofas are embroidered in silk.
There’s a ghost-like quality to it all and when I sit down I realize why.
The furniture is made of glass, thick, cloudy smooth and cold, were it not for the rich textiles used to stuff and drape the pieces.
As I sink away it feels like the sofa has no bottom it’s so soft.
“I’ll be back shortly,” Elizabeth assures me with a smile as she heads back to the door.
The door closes behind me and the moment Elizabeth is gone a wrongness dawns over me.
I shouldn’t be here.
What if someone finds me here? What if they think I’m a thief or a scoundrel. I don’t exactly look like a lord.
I eye the door nervously.
My heart is thumping in my throat. My hands are clammy with sweat.
The tall pastel-coloured clock in the room ticks far too slowly for my liking.
Maybe coming here wasn’t such a good idea after all…
It wasn’t my idea though.
I wonder what she’s even planning.
Then the door flies open and Elizabeth comes in holding a small black lacquered box.
“Shayu didn’t come by with the tea yet?”
“My apologies madam the kettle was having trouble again.” The butler says standing in the door opening. He walks in holding a platter.
“Is the steam valve still defective?”
“The repairman should be here tomorrow. But that’s of no concern to you two, enjoy your tea.”
“Thank you Shayu.”
The man bows and as suddenly as he appeared he leaves the two of us alone, closing the door with a soft click.
“How do you take your tea?”
“Uhm…in a cup?” What does that even mean?
She giggles “I may hope so, I mean do you want something in your tea, I got milk, sugar, lemon and honey.”
I look at the tray and sure enough, it’s filled to the brim with dishes and jars.
“Just the tea thank you,” I reply not wanting to add things to my tea and ending up not liking it.
“Very well.” She pours the tea into dainty china cups before adding a bit of lemon and sugar to her cup. She then picks up a copper bowl filled with brown balls.
“Bonbon?” She asks.
“Taste one, they’re nice.”
I pick a ball from the pile…it’s kinda squishy.
Elizabeth chuckles “don’t just stare at it, pop it in your mouth.”
So I do, and I bite down and the taste of death fills my mouth. I spit it out into my hand.
Then I realize I spit it out into my hand.
“I guess they’re not to your taste?” Elizabeth asks surprised at my response.
“There’s alcohol in these isn’t there?” I ask trying my very best not to sound accusatory.
“I think so.” She shrugs but then her expression shifts to apologetic “I’m sorry, can’t you have alcohol?”
The image of my mother stings in my head “It’s not that…I just don’t like it.”
“I’m very sorry, I should have inquired beforehand.” She says grabbing a copper ashtray and putting it down in front of me “Just drop it in here, the butler will clear it out later.”
She pulls out a handkerchief for me, I wipe my hands and lay it down beside the tray.
“Now let’s have a look in the box shall we?” Elizabeth grabs the box off the table and sets it on her lap. “Now, you may be surprised to hear it but I don’t have much money of my own. The way it works around here is that my dad just buys whatever I require so I don’t need to have my own Chui. However…” She opens the box in my direction. “These are my children’s jewels. I don’t wear them anymore so you can pick one, and we can sell it.”
I gaze with big eyes at an array of combs and pins in front of me. Each made from precious metals and stones, they look like the thing queens would wear.
“How are these for kids?”
“Well they’re small and kind of subtle, nowadays my jewels are bolder. But never mind that, pick the one you fancy and I’ll tell you what you need to know to sell it for a good price.”
I look at the jewels trying to consolidate myself with the idea that Elizabeth’s dad probably got the money for these through sketchy means…
But they’re still Elizabeth’s treasures.
That should make it okay right?
“Are you sure?”
“Positive, I have no use for them besides nostalgia, and I’ve always wanted to help a friend in need.”
I’m taken aback by that.
It’s not that I didn’t consider her a friend, but saying it out loud catches me off guard somewhat.
After a second of silent paralysis, I nod and thank her for her help before picking a hairpin depicting a golden bird inlaid with white stones.
“Cheya era, good pick.” She says as she removes the piece from the backing. “This piece is made in Shaolo probably late cheya but could be early moji. Though have the person at auction figure that out.”
“Where else would you sell stuff?”
“I’ve never been to an auction, I only know about the pawnshop in Yoko.”
Elizabeth huffs “Pawn shops don’t appreciate art, they see beautiful craftsmanship like that and don’t look further than the weight of its gold. They wouldn’t give you more than five hundred chui for it when it’s worth at the very least double.”
I almost choke on my tea “one thousand chui?” I squeak trying to expel the fluid from my lungs.
“Trust me, these are hand-carved mother of pearl inlays. This isn’t like your steam punched copper scraps turned into fanciful flowers, this is masterful. Now the motif is pretty common, the myth of Jamisu made the motif a raging success and hundreds if not thousands of birds were made so that’s not going to add much to its value. But the inlay is extraordinary, especially with mother of pearl this pale. The chiye shells that were used traditionally only have a couple of spots this light on their shell so in order to make this piece they must have used a fair few of them.”
I look at her with a mix of confusion and awe. “How do you know all that?”
“I read…a lot.” She then walks to the far side of the room and gestures to a whole wall covered in bookshelves.
“These are all mine, I had them put here because this guest room doesn’t get used often making it quiet and a good place to focus.”
“Wow.” My eyes glide over the spines and I notice two shelves of small red paperbacks “Are these in Cygnian?”
“Ah, yes, that’s my Antoinette Delarouge series, she’s a lady detective. She knows everything on every subject and she’s a devil with the pistol.”
Hey, smile widens “I’d love to be like her, solving mysteries and stopping criminals. It’s a lot more fun than holding banquets and networking with the ‘upper crust.” Her mouth twitches showing off that hint of bitterness in her voice “But I really can’t complain, there are far worse destinies out there.” She shrugs “We all gotta play with the hand that we’re given. And in my case, my family’s wealth comes in hand nicely now. She walks back to the jewellery box, hands me the pin, closes the box with a snap and puts it under her arm. “Wear it on the inside of your coat so no one sees it.”
“Right,” I say wondering how I’m supposed to pull that off.
“Just weave it through the first layer of fabric,” she says as opens up my coat and pushes the pin through, making sure to pull the fabric away from me to make sure she doesn’t accidentally stab me. “There.” She says and closes the coat again.
I look in one of the many mirrors decorating this place and it looks just like always. No one would suspect there to be anything to steal straight underneath the surface.
Though it almost seems to glow against my skin.
It’s nonsense of course, but it makes me feel like I’m having a star in my pocket.
So that’s part one of the plan done I guess? “So you said I have to go to an auction house with this?”
“Indeed, yes!” She then rushes to the other side of the room and drags a small writing table from a drawer. “If I make it look like you’re a servant who’s selling the piece on my behalf they won’t accuse you of stealing it.” She pulls a piece of blank paper from a side drawer and wets her reed with ink. She then starts to write in determined strokes, the tip of her tongue peeking from her lips ever so slightly.
She stops and squints her eyes as she tries to think, tapping the reed against her lips, before jump-starting again and racing the pen over the paper.
One last read makes her nod and she gently blows on the black letters to help them dry. “Perfect.” She picks a black, wooden stick with sculpted ends from the box, wraps the letter around it and ties a dark blue ribbon around the first knob, then twisting it around the paper in a spiral before tying the remaining ribbon around the other knob.
“I fear that may have been a bit too overzealous?” she wonders and I shrug.
“I have no clue what’s normal to you.”
“Well, it’ll at least be imposing.” She then hands me the letter and says “Now, normally after reading the letter the recipient will take the ribbon and give back the rod as a sign they’ve read the letter, however, this is a Cygnian custom and the person getting the letter may not know that so if they keep both parts let them have it. I have others.”
“Right.” This whole plan is becoming more complicated by the second but Elizabeth looks so happy to be scheming and I’m enjoying her enthusiasm.
“Now the place you must visit is Chofu on Boulou street. They have a front desk where you should hand off the letter to the clerk and they’ll then instruct you on what to do next.”
“Right. That can’t be that hard.”
Elizabeth hums agreeably and then adds “I’d invite you for dinner but father doesn’t even know I have a gun, much less a friend.
I shake my head “Don’t worry about it. I think you’re great but I’m not sure how I’d feel sharing a table with your father.”
She nods briskly, then gets up “I’ll show you the way back to the gate.”
By the time we’re back at the gate, the sun has already set and the wind has a distinct chill to it.
The locked city is bathed in lanterns and the rest of Choumuri looks chilly and dark in comparison.
“Do you know the road home from here?” Elizabeth asks and I nod. “Good, will you let me know how it goes?”
She smiles widely “Wonderful, and good luck.” And then her arms wrap around me and she squeezes me into a hug.
She’s really warm.
“I’m really happy to have you as my friend.” She then says as she lets go.
“Me too,” I reply making her face even brighter than before.
And then we part, I head home with a warm feeling in my chest and a smile on my lips.