A bustling street in the city of Adrianne: smoothly paved stone; horse-drawn carts laden with bales of flax, barrels of fish, bushels of apples or crates of ruffling, clucking chickens; narrow walkways on either side crowded with busy shoppers; storefronts displaying freshly baked bread, shelves of leather-bound books, or raw sides of beef strung up with twine. A man in a grimy apron was sweeping garbage out of the drainage gutters; a woman was leading a stout pig down the street to the market.
Adrianne was hardly the largest city in southern Haran, but it was growing, thriving, a place of industrious workers and an economical middle class—refreshingly devoid of lavish nobles, as one would find in the capital, Sharona; no castles looming above the town, no towers casting shadows over the peasants. Just a center of commerce, a teeming throng of equals content with comforting sameness and mediocrity; pastoral, picturesque, provincial. Adrianne was a rarity in this country, a utopia to some—perhaps a place too nice to be true, to others. Uncorrupted by power struggles, the intrigue of court life, shadowy black magic, as one would find in Sharona...
Ambrose did not want to leave his coach. He wanted to stay sitting in its window, watching people with baskets of eggs in the crooks of the arms, content to go about their business. He wanted to stay where he could see people, but they could not see him. He wanted to stay in the shadows.
But he needed to buy a book.
Chewing on his thin, pink bottom lip, he seriously contemplated waiting here in the coach until nightfall—at least four hours from now—when most customers would surely have cleared the street. But he discarded this idea: most of the stores would be closed by that time, too. With a resigned sigh, he opened the carriage door and stepped out onto the street.
A lady caught sight of him as he straightened up; hoisting her baby higher up onto her shoulder, she hurried away in the opposite direction. Most people averted their eyes as he passed; some sneaked glances at him from the corner of their eyes. A small boy gawked openly, until his mother shooed him away. An elderly man hobbled to the other side of the street as quickly as he could.
Ambrose sighed wearily. He forced his feet to carry him down the street to the bookshop, forced his eyes to ignore the people either staring at him or making too great an effort not to stare.
The sickly, corpselike, waxen pallor to his skin alone could have given people reason to suspect what he was, and the shadows under his enormous hazel eyes. Anyone in his line of work would have numerous sleepless nights, be pale from hiding in the dark all the time. It didn't help that he stood a head taller than most people—tall, like his father had been, he thought ruefully—and as lanky as a skeleton. If only his profession were not so recognizable—but the long black robes and numerous clanking amulets gave him away. To disguise himself, to deny his occupation, would be, as his parents always put it, to admit that his was ashamed of his very makeup.
"Always keep your head up, Ambrose," his mother had always said to him. "Grit your teeth when people turn away, and be proud of who you are, the good you can accomplish. You have no reason to feel shame."
His strides became more decisive. He wouldn't even hide the intricate golden charm—a full moon surrounded by a circle of thirteen stars—which confirmed to everyone that he was indeed what they all suspected. The bookshop owner trembled as he sold him a heavy, musty spell book, but Ambrose smiled in a friendly manner as though nothing were wrong, even as the proprietor gulped at the title.
Advanced Necromancy: Unlocking the Voices of the Dead.
Ambrose left the store with the spell book under his arm and strode quickly back towards his coach. A surprising sight stopped him in his tracks.
Finally, he thought, an almost-forgotten smile twitching across his face. Someone in this city who doesn't cross the street in fear upon seeing me!
There was indeed a young lady strolling down the street in Ambrose's direction, a nonchalant smile on her face, even though she was looking directly at him. She didn't seem afraid or uncomfortable at all, with her eyes fixed on an obvious necromancer, a worker of unholy magic, a pariah!
Beautiful eyes...palest blue, like a barren winter sky...brown hair, falling in soft waves down her back...teardrop-shaped face, delicate rose-petal curve of her lips...flowing blue gown that floated elegantly about her slender frame...graceful gait, coy tilt of the head...
She drew nearer, the same demure smile on her mouth. Ambrose froze.
She held a cane in one hand, tapping it on the walkway ahead of her.
Of course, thought Ambrose bitterly, turning away, how stupid of me. The girl is blind. And here my mind was racing ahead of me already.
Grinding his teeth, he started to board his coach again.
He turned back to watch the pretty blind girl, who was by this time already past him. She did not see his amulets, his black robes, his ghastly pallor. She was, in fact, the one person in the country of Haran who had no preconceived notions about him—the only person who might speak to him without dread, befriend him without fear—irrational, unquenchable hope was building in his chest like a bubble.
"Excuse me, miss," Ambrose called out to a passing woman, "do you know who that girl is over there?"
The woman's eyes widened in trepidation, but she managed to squeak out, "Th-that's Salome, Malachi's daughter."
"The tailor—h-he owns that shop over there," she said, pointing shakily at a tailor's shop, and then hurried away.
"Pardon me, are you Malachi, the proprietor of this store?"
A middle-aged man—bushy eyebrows, grey stubble on his chin, wiry grey hair—gaped at him from behind the counter. A measuring tape hung around his neck; a piece of chalk was placed behind his ear.
"Yes, sir. What can I do for you?" he asked, wetting his lips nervously.
"Your daughter Salome, sir," said Ambrose, looking around to make sure no one else was in the store to hear. "I wonder if I could speak to you for a moment about her?"
Malachi's face held mingled bewilderment and alarm, probably wondering what a necromancer could want to know about his daughter, but he beckoned him to the corner where two wooden chairs sat.
"Is anything wrong? Did something happen to Salome?" Malachi twisted his thin hands together apprehensively.
"No, no, sir, nothing's the matter," he assured the tailor. "My name is Ambrose, and I am from the capital. I...I saw your daughter outside just now. She seems like a very sweet girl."
"How old is she?"
"She'll be eighteen this winter. Pardon me, but what is this about?"
"I want to ask you for her hand."
The words were out of Ambrose's mouth before he had decided on how to phrase it; mentally, he kicked himself for putting it so baldly, without even preparing the man for it.
Just as he'd expected, Malachi's face grew ashen.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I realize it's hardly a dream match," said Ambrose, wincing. "As a father, I'm sure the last thing you wanted for your daughter was for her to be married to a—to a—to a necromancer. But please, I beg of you. She'll be in perfectly good hands. My profession makes me rather well-off—financially speaking—and I can ensure that you are comfortable for the rest of your life."
"Is that so? And you believe I would sell my daughter off to you for gold, is that it?"
Ambrose told him the sum. Malachi blanched. But soon he turned purple.
"It doesn't matter how much you offer me," he bristled. "My daughter is hardly a piece of property to be bartered. I want her to be happy."
"I know that, sir," Ambrose pleaded, "but don't you see? I can provide her with security, with a good home, food always on the table, nice clothes—I can be there for her after you've gone. You've worried about that, haven't you—about what will become of Salome should something happen to you? Now you can rest easily at night. Your daughter will be perfectly safe. The daughter of a tailor cannot hope to marry anyone with a higher income than mine, even if perhaps her social aspirations could be greater—could, but not necessarily would."
Malachi blinked at him, astonished, for a long moment. But presently he recovered his scowl.
"Certainly, she'd have a home," Malachi said, "but what makes you think that you can make her happy, eh? It matter naught that her physical needs are seen to if her heart is empty and miserable. Would you really wish that upon anyone—being the wife of a necromancer? What do you have to offer her besides money, eh?"
"A heart full of love."
"You've only just met her!"
"I know," said Ambrose, flushing. What was he doing, a logical portion of his mind wondered? What was he saying? Yet his thin hands clasped together pleadingly as he implored her father.
"But I could love her. I...I think she might be the one I have waited for. I realize how silly and melodramatic that sounds, but...I shall be devoted to her, for as long as I draw breath. Please, sir. I will be good to her. Please let me have her hand."
Malachi chewed on his lip for a long moment, watching Ambrose closely.
"No one likes a necromancer," he said finally. "Unholy magic, you know. It makes people uncomfortable to think about. But...do you know that my little girl is blind?"
"Yes, sir, I noticed."
No need to mention that this was why she'd caught his eye.
"And you want her anyways?"
Ambrose's mouth was dry. "Yes I do, sir."
"Hmm...You see, this makes it rather difficult to refuse you. I don't have any guarantee that any other offer will be made to her, as kind and gentle as she is."
Ambrose's heart leapt. "Do you mean—?"
Malachi buried his face in his hand, as though it pained him to say it. "You may have her."
Ambrose felt oddly faint and out of breath as he gasped, "Oh, thank you, sir. Thank you! When can I bring her to Sharona?"
Malachi's voice was strained. "As soon as you wish."
"If you could arrange the wedding by the end of the week, I should like to bring her home then."
Malachi was silent for a minute.
"Just where exactly in Sharona do you live?" he inquired suddenly.
"On the outskirts of the Southeast District," Ambrose replied. "It's a very nice house—it's where I grew up. My parents built it."
"And were your parents—?"
"They were in the same line of work, yes. Usually it runs in families."
Malachi pursed his lips. "So that would mean that any grandchildren I could expect would be...like you?"
Ambrose flushed. This notion had not occurred to him at all. He hadn't thought that far ahead yet.
"Not necessarily," he hedged. "But it's a little early to be thinking of that, isn't it?"
"Humph. Let me tell you something, Ambrose," said Malachi, raising one eyebrow. "The only reason I'm allowing for this is because you have an honest face. But I intend to keep a watchful eye on you, do you understand? I want to be sure that you are treating my daughter as well as she deserves."
Ambrose's voice was solemn as he vowed, "I will, sir."
A small noise from behind the two men distracted them for a moment.
"Well...that's Salome coming home," said Malachi. "Perhaps you ought to wait in the parlor over there while I break the news to her—and then I'll introduce you. She's pretty shy about meeting strangers unexpectedly, and, given the circumstances, I think I ought to prepare her."
"Good idea, sir."
As Ambrose stood, another important detail occurred to him.
"Ah...Malachi, sir? I would greatly appreciate it if you did not mention my...vocation to Salome. Let me tell her myself. Oh no, don't worry, I will tell her—eventually. Just not...not yet."
Forgive me, dear readers, for having been so neglecting of my stories. The past few weeks were crazy with performances of my school play, Macbeth, but now that it's all over, I can get back to my imaginary friends. I know people have been begging me for updates on my other stories—particularly Valley of the Kings, which, I hate to say, might not ever be updated again because I feel so indifferent about it—so forgive me for starting a whole new one. But I have to write what my ADD imagination wants me to write, so...presently, this is it.
I hope you enjoy. Tell me what you think, good or ill. Tell me what you think could be improved. I'm all ears.
p.s. I hope I don't confuse you by switching narrators every other chapter—from third person to first person. I hope to make it clear enough each time, but tell me if it doesn't work.
p.p.s. If you have a better idea for a title, let me know. I'm open to suggestions.