(Chapter 3 out of 4)
Cora walked directly back to Natalie's home after her lunch, passing by Kuroshi, who was camped out in his garden, with a nearly naked woman seated atop him, who was apparently trying to suck his face off. Cora ignored this though, and bucked up for Natalie's sake, ready to show the younger girl her most enthusiastic work ethic.
They mixed the paint up together, in large vats which Natalie's servants helped bring in, and Natalie didn't even seem to mind Cora's choice of black instead of the requested red. She even insisted on helping to paint at least the low, less dangerous surfaces, so together they started the task of her giant, white room, streaking neat rows of midnight, side by side, and talked the whole while.
Natalie told tales of traveling with her family to beautiful, far away lands with emerald green pastures and sapphire-blue seas, but every time she mentioned never being able to step off the boat or out of the rented lakehouse. She'd been sheltered and stuck indoors all her life it seemed, but even when she recounted the sad moments of feeling trapped in her own home and chained by her own parents, Cora noticed she kept a smile at all times. A sad, sweet little smile.
Cora, in turn, told of her own life adventures, of days spent on the street, shining shoes and delivering crates. She told of months spent picking fruits in the blistering sun and sleepless nights at the side of her terminally ill father. She told of playing in the dirt with little Calvin from down the street and even the secret times the two had stolen candy from the stores and kisses under the old Maplewood in her back yard.
"It was real love?" Natalie's eyes had gotten so big. She was seated on her huge, luxurious mattress, not seeming to notice that she'd gotten paint on the real silk bed sheets, and was staring up dreamily as Cora told her stories. Cora didn't even mind that the silly little princess hadn't even managed to help with half her bedroom wall. "Yep. Or well, puppy love anyway. I knew Cal since he was tiny so it just kinda made sense to be together, even if he wasn't like, my dream hunk or anything. Cal and Cora, that's what everyone called us. We got together when I was fifteen I think."
"Just like me!"
Cora froze but played it off, pretending to have missed a spot in her painting. "You're only fifteen, Natalie?"
"Yeah! Sixteen next winter! Dad says my first baby will already be walking by then! If it's full dragon of course, he'll grow fast. His name's gonna be Ku-Chan, after his daddy."
"Come sit with me!"
Cora set her paintbrush down and obeyed, almost without thinking. Something unpleasant had stirred to life in her heart when she'd thought of Natalie having a child. To have children meant she'd have to have sex first. With Kuro. Vicious, violent Kuro…
Cora sat on those beautiful silk bed sheets and automatically she pulled her tail into her hands, fidgeting nervously as she tried to resist the urge to hug herself. These sheets felt almost familiar. She remembered nice sheets like this and how she'd been even younger than Natalie when she'd first let herself be lain down on such sheets.
And she remembered the pain most of all but the happiness too. After the fact, he'd dropped one, just one, of those shiny black skel into her lap, as a tip, and she'd scooped it up quicker than lightning, not even caring that a little of her blood had gotten onto it too.
That one coin meant her father would live to see next year's harvest. It meant she could buy his medicine. She remembered having to tie her ruined clothes back on, since those dragon claws had torn them off, and the terrible pain between her legs when she'd first stood to leave. Many men looked at her as she headed back home, their noses turned up in disgust. She knew their keen dragon noses could tell what she'd done, but that didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Except that her father would live to see her next birthday.
But he didn't. Dragons weren't the only powerful Shiren with good noses. Sick or not, Daddy could smell. And his fury was like nothing she'd ever known. He'd forced her into the bathtub with the hottest water he could boil and as much soap as their family budget could afford, and had her scrub herself until every inch of her skin was red and raw. But still the scent remained. Marks were permanent and mates were mates. That's how dragons always bred.
After that day and many subsequent failed attempts to purify her 'deflowered' body, Cora's father refused to even look her in the eye again. "My little girl is dead," he would say. "She sold herself off into slavery, like in the old days. She threw away every bit of freedom I worked my ass off to earn her."
Mother had tried sticking up for Cora. There was no other way they could have gotten so much money in so short time. Without every cent the medicine would never have been affordable. And mother bought that medicine too, but father refused to drink it.
Finally, finally Cora had realized the solution. Marry him. This would all go away if she could only just marry him. So she'd returned to him, dressed up in the cutest, most revealing dress mother could possibly knit, and begged him to make an honest woman out of her.
But he'd refused.
"I have a duty to bear a son," he'd explained, "and that son has to have skincolor like my family's. I can't possibly expect my father to accept a mixed grandson. He'd kill us both."
"But I have to marry you! My father wont accept dirty money!"
"That's just not possible. I didn't give you that for sleeping with me Cora, I gave it to you because you needed it. You can have more money if you like but you knew from the start, we can't be together."
"But he'll die!"
"Of a hard head. That's not my fault or yours."
And that was the final word on the matter. Cora had begged on her knees, crying like she never had before, to be married to the man she'd given her innocence to. She'd begged all night long, crying as she lay in his lap, even though she knew he was right. "Just marry me and then kill me, okay? You don't even have to keep me as your wife…"
He refused, especially hating the thought of hurting her further. And she hated him for it. Even the genuine sadness in those usually mean red dragon eyes meant nothing, because she knew it meant her father would die.
And he did. He died without ever accepting that medicine, which mother was only able to sell for half the price she'd paid, and that amount was used for the funeral service. She'd never see her father's smile again, never have him proud of her, and never had the heart to claim another lover. Cora had tried, desperately to convince herself that she hated the upperclass dragon who'd stolen her heart, but her body would never even forget the feel of his bed sheets, much less the exhilarating sensation of his arms wrapped around her: the addicting idea of feeling safe and supported.
"What happened in the end?… Cora?"
Cora snapped back to reality, hurriedly wiping the tears from her face as she turned to meet those curious blue eyes with a smile. "Oh, me and Calvin right! Well, uh, it didn't work out."
"What do you mean?" Natalie pouted, hopelessly naïve in her insensitive prying. "I thought you said it was true love. How can true love not work out?"
"Well it wasn't really. But living with him was comfortable. He had money…"
"What happened then?"
"Well, Calvin liked to pretend he was a 'bad boy' like you call them. And one day he was acting bad and said the wrong thing to the wrong person and that was it."
"What was it?"
"Well I mean that was the last thing Cal ever did. The guy got mad and he and his friends killed Cal. I don't really know how, I guess they stabbed him, but I'm not sure 'cause I didn't find out until a long time after. Cal used to go away for long times when he found a good job, so I just figured that was the case. By the time I found out what really happened, his mama had buried him already."
Natalie's smile was little more than a distant memory at this point. She looked on the verge of tears. "That's terrible, Cora."
"Don't worry," she insisted, waving it off, "it happened harvests and harvests ago. I'm fine now, and besides, I know Cal wouldn't have wanted me to be sad!"
"You never fell in love after that?"
"Well… I wouldn't say that."
"Really?! You had another boyfriend?"
"Oh, no, it's just a stupid crush."
"Oh my gosh that means you still have it!"
Cora tried to cover her embarrassment, bringing her tail up to hide her face. "Kinda…"
"Oooh, who is it! Who is it!"
"Ooh! Liar, liar pants on fire!"
Cora couldn't help but laugh at that, hopeless hilarity bursting through her hands, even as she tried desperately to keep her mouth covered. Natalie raised an eyebrow at first, but then began to giggle herself. "Okay fine, so I'm secretly five under all the fake teenager show!" She conceded, "you got me."
It took a minute, but Cora eventually stopped laughing, and when she did, an unpleasant jolt of shock awaited her. Those big blue eyes were staring down, and Natalie had those delicate little fingers entwined. She looked on the verge of tears. "I… feel bad now, because you're so nice," Natalie sighed, "I kind of lied to you."
"I'm not really having a baby."
"Oh." She tried to cheer Natalie up then, honestly sharing her thoughts on that. "Good. You're too young to do something like that any-"
"I'll be dead before I could."
For a long moment, Cora thought she'd just been made the butt of a very bad joke, but the guilty tears in Natalie's eyes said different. She was serious. "What do you mean?"
"And Kuroshi doesn't really love me. I lied about that too. Our dads arranged the marriage, but his dad doesn't know what's gonna happen. When I die, my dad will get half of his dad's fortune, so my little sisters and he will have enough money to pay everything off and move away."
"I wanted to do at least that much. Caring for someone as sick as me is expensive, you know, this way my dad gets his money back. I bet you didn't want to say it but you know… my eyes really are as fake as they look. I just say I'm albino but really… I'm blind."
That explained everything: the clumsiness, her inability to climb ladders or ever leave the house, and the way her eyes always looked happy.
"I used to have creepy, dead eyes," Natalie confessed, "That's why everyone called me the ice queen. But now I have fake, magically always happy ones. So I try to smile alot…"
She shook her head, smiling wryly. "You know, I promised never to tell anyone all this but… I thought you deserved to know for some reason. I've never had a real friend before. Last time I asked someone to paint my room, they ran off with the money and Dad was too ashamed to report it since I couldn't even give a description…"
Both girls fell silent then, but Natalie didn't stay that way for long. She slumped over into Cora's arms, sobbing her sweet little heart out, and along with the tears she spilled all of her secrets. She told of a little girl who dreamed to dance and draw but never would, a first born daughter who'd only ever managed to disappoint her royal blood, and the dragon prince who'd schemed with her, offering a plan that would finally make her father feel proud, if only for the few short months before his daughter truly did die of the illness her mother had passed down.
"Kuro told me all his secrets too. He used to tease me all the time, calling me short and pale, but I know he just does that to the girls he really likes. As soon as I asked him to marry me he said yes. I wouldn't know but… he makes me feel like I might be pretty."
I was wrong about him.
It was then that Cora finally gave up her futile quest to hate Prince Kuroshi. Maybe the two of them could work together to plan a beautiful funeral for Natalie. Maybe- "Oh," Cora decided to offer a secret of her own, only then realizing why she'd so easily been chosen for this job, to handle a little girl's money and stay in her house all day without supervision. "You'd never know so I'll go ahead and say it: I'm black."
Those fake blue eyes met hers but Natalie shook her head. "What's that mean?"
"Oh, um…" Only then did Cora realize, but there really wasn't an answer. In Natalie's eyes, all colors were the same, and so were the people. Prejudice did not exist. "Nothing I guess."
"Black's my favorite color," was all she had to say.
And it was then that Cora realized: she loved Natalie. How different her life could have been, if only she'd met this sweet girl so many years before. The two were opposites only in society's eyes: one worth more due to bloodline and one worth less due to silly stereotypes. Yet both were strong and selfless: each willing to give up all of her own dreams, for the sake of honoring her father.
"Natalie." She took those delicate white hands in her own then, making a promise. "We're gonna be best friends, okay? Forever and ever, no matter what. I'll stay with you, even if you get sick or old and wrinkly."
Natalie smiled. A genuine, joyful smile, and Cora reached up, offering a keepsake, to prove her devotion. "Here. This is one of my favorite earrings." She removed the little diamond stud from Natalie's ear and replaced it with one of her own, hand-painted black metal stars. "You'll have one and I'll have one. So everyone knows we're a perfect match."
The little princess sat still, positively beaming as she felt the clip of her new earring, and even when Cora was done, she clasped their hands tightly together, never wanting to let go. "Thank you." Tears were rolling from those perfect, sky-blue eyes, and the sight made Cora's heart hurt. It wasn't fair for such a sweet creature to have lived such a lonely life: punished for being born sickly. Without even thinking, Cora leaned closer, gently taking Natalie's pretty face in both her hands, and made to kiss the tears from each cheek. "You are not a burden," she whispered, knowing those words would fall on ears that had ever longed to hear them. "Natalie, you're wonderful: the sweetest person I ever met."
"No, you're the most wonderful." With that Natalie stood from the bed, seeking a gift to pay Cora back. "Here." She snatched up the little purse, which she probably didn't even realize was filled with the most valuable coins available in their society. "I want you to have this. Kuro's gonna pay my dad back anyway. Use this to pay your parents back. Tell them it's my thanks for having you."
"Oh, well… My mom and dad are dead actually. And Natalie, this money is enough for about twenty families to live off for years."
"Oh… well you deserve it anyway."
Sweet Natalie handed over the little bag, and Cora stood to accept it. She traded a kiss for the little white purse, chaste and subtle as a butterfly's passing, and Natalie's pale white cheeks lit with a soft pink flush.
"You can go on home and rest," she insisted, too nervous to even consider anything else, "since I get to see you 'til forever."
"You will," Cora assured, "A promise is a promise." She walked down and out the house, hand in hand with Natalie, and made sure to share as many secrets as she could along the way. It was exhilarating, to say the least, to tell someone else about how secretly romantic she'd always felt inside. How lovely it would be, now that they could love each other. Natalie gave her one last hug and Cora went on her way, feeling lighter than air, and just a little bit nostalgically sad.
But it's alright.
She would just have to show up bright and early the next morning, and every morning after that. Natalie wasn't the only one who'd never had a real friend before.
She almost skipped home, humming to herself in her joy. She didn't even care that she'd stayed out so late and worked so very hard. Never had Cora felt so happy to be in her own skin, knowing what she knew and feeling what she felt. The sun had set, painting beautiful matching black across the moonless, cloudy sky, and even Kuroshi had gone inside, so she didn't see him or his bimbos.
She also didn't see the men trailing her back home. For that one, brief, foolish night, she'd forgotten about her dark skin and the reputation of her neighborhood.
She was happy, more happy than she'd ever felt, and just as naïve as Natalie: blind.
That night the moon didn't show and the stars didn't shine, and no one heard it, no one ever heard it, when a single black woman with a purse filled with money, screamed for help.