It was hours past her bedtime, she knew. Midnight must have passed. But she was well-attuned to the creaking floorboards that led from her mother’s room to her own. And the Traveller had a knack for vanishing altogether before anyone caught as much as a glimpse of him.
“Hey, Traveller,” she whispered, beckoning the young boy over to a particular patch of wall. “Remember how you taught me how to watch people without being seen?”
“Well…” Jester paused speaking to let out an anxious giggle. “Well, my mom left this guy alone in her room for just a few minutes and so I took a quick look. Do you know what he was doing?”
The traveller gave her an even stare beneath his heavy green hood.
“He was dancing around… naked!” Jester broke into a fit of laughter at that. “I saw his… you know – his thingy! He was swinging it all around! I painted it here on the wall. Can you see?”
“Oh, that’s good,” he said, in a voice just a little too mature for the ten years of age he appeared to be.
But before any other mischief could be shared, the familiar floorboard creak preceded the Traveller’s even more familiar pop out of existence.
Jester tossed her paint brush and scrambled to hide beneath her bedsheets. With a squeeze of her eyes and a little magic, the candles were snubbed. If Jester’s mother was to peak around the door, she’d never know her little girl was far from sleep.
The door did swing open and Marion Lavorre tip-toed inside the room, letting the lamplight from beyond dimly illuminate all.
“Jester,” she sang out softly. “My little sapphire!”
Jester thought for a moment to pretend she had been deep in dreaming, that she was stirring just a little. But excitement won out and Jester kicked her sheets off with gusto.
“Mama!” she greeted.
“You weren’t sleeping,” said Marion, more playful than annoyed.
Jester simply laughed in response.
“Make room for Mama,” she pressed, climbing onto the already occupied single bed with great grace. “My goodness you’ve been busy,” she said, looking at the paint which patterned not only the walls but the sheets, the floor, and her daughter’s blue skin. “You’re so talented.”
For ease of both space and heart, Marion placed her arm around Jester and drew her flush against her side.
“I’ve been practicing,” said Jester. “The Traveller has been teaching me.”
“Well, if I ever meet the boy, remind me to thank him.”
“Yeah! Of course! I think he’s a little afraid of grownups because most aren’t as cool as you, but I keep telling him he won’t be in trouble if you catch him.”
“Never!” gasped Marion with such melodrama that any person over the age of ten would know it for acting.
Jester was a ways off of eleven still and so she replied, “Right? That’s what I told him!”
Marion beamed at her little girl and tried to blink away tears.
“My darling girl,” she said sadly, “I’m afraid I have to go away for a little while.”
“To the Empire?”
“For how long?”
Marion Lavorre (or The Ruby of the Sea as she was publically known) took no pleasure in departing from Nicodranas. But ever since the war between the Dwendalian Empire and the Kryn Dynasty had begun to play out along the south coast, the wealthy invested within the walls of the Empire rather than risk setting up too far from the protection of the Crown’s Guard.
“I’m not sure,” said Marion. “But I will think of you every single second. And I trust Blude to watch out for you.”
Blude was a great minotaur with greater devotion to the Lavorre family. Jester did not seem comforted by this, however. She curled tighter into Marion’s side and, in a small voice, asked, “When are you leaving?”
“Soon. Before you wake up.”
“But I have a gift for you before I go.”
Jester shot up with a smile and cried, “Really? Can I see?”
Marion’s guilty stomach settled at that and she reached into the pocket of her dressing gown to pull out a small, intricately decorated music box.
“Now,” she said. “I might not be here to sing to you, but with this – you can still hear my voice.”
With another quick fumble in her pocket, Marion retrieved a thin gold chain from which hung a pendant the size of a gold piece. Its colour and pattern, however, matched the blues and reds of the music box.
Jester didn’t know much about jewels beyond the delight they brought her eyes, but it seemed both objects were scattered with sapphires and rubies. As the pendant caught light in different peaks and crevasses, Jester saw that there were words in gold script all across it.
“Together in Nicodranas,” she read out slowly, carefully.
“And we will be,” said Marion. “One day for good. But until then, we will have to settle for just my heart in this place.”
“Mama, it’s beautiful.”
“Put it on. I’ll show you how it works.”
The chain hung long from Jester’s neck, her body still dwarfed by proper jewellery. She wore it with great pride, however, and it was easy to lift the pendant and place it in a round slot at the front of the music box.
Humming under her breath, Marion guided Jester’s hand in three tight circles. On the third turn, the music box popped open and the tinkling beauty of Marion’s voice flooded the room.
Marion harmonised with herself and rubbed Jester’s back in gentle circles until the child was asleep. As quiet as she could, Marion closed the music box and tucked the pendant under Jester’s night gown. Then, and only then, did she slip back to her own rooms to prepare for the journey North.
If a courtesan could freely travel with a daughter and keep her pristine reputation, she’d never go any place on the planet without Jester in tow.
Instead she would settle for leaving her heart behind in Nicodranas, in a little bedroom hidden above the inn where she sang, The Lavish Chateau.
The plan was to leave at the cusp of sunrise and so a few hours of sleep were allowed for. Fate, however, burst through with premature blinding light while the hours were still small.
Marion sat bolt upright in bed. Through her curtains she saw flashes. She heard screams.
“Blude!” she cried, leaping up and pulling a night gown on. “Blude! Check on Jester!”
A sudden crash came from the door which separated the passage to Jester’s room from Marion’s own rooms. It flew from its hinges to reveal a panting panic-stricken Blude holding Jester in his arms.
“Mama, what’s happening?” asked Jester, trying to wriggle free.
Blude pulled her tighter to his big chest.
“The Cricks are attacking,” said Blude. “We have to get you both out now.”
“And you,” said Marion.
Blude lowered Jester so that she could stand hand-in-hand with her mother. Then, without ceremony, he pulled out his heavy longsword.
Blude kept a few feet ahead of them the whole time, holding up a hand every so often to indicate that they should pause. Then waving to indicate pressing on.
“We can’t risk the passages, Ma’am,” said Blude. “Buildings are falling down all over.”
Marion raised her chin and Jester followed suit.
It was stop-start until they were on the streets of Nicodranas and then it was simply run. Blude ran slower in order to shield his charges. Jester and Marion pounded the pavement in his shadow.
Soldiers wearing Empire colours clashed swords and spells with creatures in all black. Jester wanted to see it all almost as much as she wanted to reach safety. She closed her eyes and thought of the Traveller. Hoped he was safe and that he might lend an eye to watch over their escape.
As they ran ever faster, ever more breathless, the pendant on Jester’s new necklace pounded against her chest.
With a gasp, Jester cried, “My music box!”
But Jester had already slipped free of her mother and was running full-speed back towards The Lavish Chateau.
Jester couldn’t believe she’d left it behind, even in the commotion. It was her mother’s voice and she did not want to go anywhere in the world without it.
A window or two had been smashed, but the door was still standing and so were the stairs. Jester dodged a streak of fire and continued on to her bedroom. She had a hand on the box before a strong hand grasped her shoulder.
Jester screamed and spun to face her assailant.
Instinct and a little bit of training from the Traveller guided her to cast a small spark of damage. A second later she realised who exactly she was facing.
“Blude!” she cried, relieved. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
Unshaken, Blude threw Jester over his shoulder and made to head down and out.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he scolded as he ran with her.
Jester clutched the music box tightly in her hands, determined not to let it fall and leave it behind once more.
At the sound of her mother’s voice, she lifted her head.
“Jester, I was so worried about you.”
“Mama, I’m fine.”
Marion shook her head fiercely, anger and terror and grief all mixed up on her beautiful red face.
“Trouble incoming,” said Blude.
With great reluctance, he released Jester and drew his sword once more.
A duo of Crown’s Guard stumbled over the threshold.
“You need to get out of here,” said one.
“We’re trying,” said Blude.
Then, through the window, in came crashing a Crick, fully armoured, hands crackling with white, bright magic.
“Get behind us,” said the other guard, not sound all that confident.
Blude charged forwards as Marion seized Jester’s free hand. With the other hand, Jester brought her music box tightly to her chest.
Three swords drawn and they all clattered to the ground with a single flash of blinding light.
A ringing resounded in Jester’s mind and all she could see was the light. All she could hear was the swords falling over and over.
Her hands were empty.
“Mama!” she cried, soundlessly.
Then, like a comet across an empty sky, a burst of flame burnt a streak of sight. Jester blinked and the room returned, in patches. Her eyes were still plagued with dancing shapes. Sound returned a second later.
“Jester,” she heard her Mother beg. “We have to go now!”
She studied the floor and caught a glimpse of the music box. With little effort or time spent, she seized it once more.
It didn’t matter, that much became clear very quickly. There was no getting past the fighting without a scratch or twenty.
A young man (or boy it was hard to tell) stepped into the Chateau, a fireball swirling between his hands. It was the same shade of burning light that had broken through the whiteness.
The man stepped closer and Jester saw his face fully-lit in the new darkness. His red hair was cleanly cropped and a confident smirk adorned his baby face. He was a boy, she thought, barely a handful of years older than she. If she got out of this alive, she would have to have words with the Traveller. She wanted the level of power that boy commanded.
He spun the fire in his hands with the ease one might spin a globe and another streak of fire appeared across the floor. Until it reached the Crick’s feet. At that point, the flame burst up with the force of a geyser. Seconds passed, the fire fizzled, and when it did, the Crick was still standing.
Marion tugged on Jester’s hand.
From behind the boy appeared another shadowy figure. Then behind the Crown’s Guards appeared another.
Somehow this beautiful inn had become a central point of a battlefield.
“We have to take the passage,” said Marion. “Blude! Come now!”
Blude collected his sword and charged towards the enemy. Marion gave a firm nod of understanding as she pulled her daughter behind the bar.
“Blude!” cried Jester.
Slashing and screaming continued out of sight. Marion’s hands shook with nerves as she fumbled for the hidden symbol. Finding it, she put her thumb between her teeth and bit down hard. The drops of ruby red liquid fell thick and slow until the symbol was no longer visible.
The shape of a trap door appeared, lined in silver light, and the symbol grew up and out into a handle.
“Mama,” sobbed Jester, trying her best to ignore the sounds of screaming. “Mama, we have to get Blude.”
Marion didn’t say a word until she had lowered herself completely into the passage below. It was so deep, the top of her horns barely protruded.
“Jump,” she said. “I will catch you.”
Jester looked nervously down. She wasn’t afraid of falling. She was afraid of leaving anything behind. She peaked over the bar for just a second and saw a splattering of blood fly through the air. It was impossible to tell whose.
“Blude!” she cried out.
“Jester!” cried her mother.
Blude was still standing, though. And he took one Crick solider by the shoulders and threw them into a pillar. The force of it shook the building.
The Crick slid onto the floor. Lifeless. Or seemingly. Until it swung for Blude’s leg, bringing him down to meet him on the floor.
Jester gasped so loudly she caught the attention of the young spellcaster who had just sent another whirl of flame at an enemy.
“What are you doing?” he called out to her. “Get out of here!”
But Blude was in trouble.
Jester ran. Marion called out after her.
Letting her music box fall from her hands, Jester used all of her might to burn a sacred flame in the space occupied by the Crick who had brought down Blude.
If you squinted and tilted your head, the Crick definitely tensed a shoulder in pain. The solider turned their masked face towards Jester and she was suddenly very afraid of falling. Their hand raised, Jester prepared herself to dodge whatever attack might come her way.
A sudden heat spread through the room and a great wall of fire separated her from the enemy. But also from Blude.
Jester turned to thank the boy for her life, but he just cried, “Go!”
She had little choice left. She ran to her mother.
Marion had been attempting to climb out of the passage, but upon seeing Jester, she let herself fall. Without hesitation, Jester followed.
The trap door fell shut behind them with an unnatural crash.
“We have to move fast,” said Marion. “Before it all comes down.”
Jester kept up as best she could, but exertion had left her feeling heavy. Dust fell from above them while the ground rumbled below.
They were far from the Chateau now, they must have been. And so the whole city was shaking, thought Jester. The whole of Nicodranas might be rubble by morning.
They kept running and Jester kept trying not to trip on the increasingly uneven floor until finally, fresh air hit their faces.
“Not long now,” said Marion. “The exit’s just ahead.”
But before Jester caught sight of it, there was a terrible tearing sound in the stone above. She looked up and saw, just in time, the impending collapse.
She leapt back to safety. She leapt back away from her mother.
“Jester!” she heard. “Jester! Jester!”
She wanted to cry back, but a loose rock dropped down to smack her on the head and knock her out completely.
The Ruby of the Sea arrived in Zadash a little over a month later. Two weeks after her scheduled time. Her patron was understanding, of course. After all, he had heard of the terrible attack that had devastated her home.
She smiled with empty eyes and thought of the daughter she had lost.
When Blude had found her she was scrambling, bloody-fingered, at rubble. If he hadn’t dragged her away she would have likely died there, searching for Jester under it all until thirst, starvation, or heartbreak ended her.
As her patron pressed kisses to her neck and empty adoration to her ear, Marion steeled herself to the knowledge that she would never see her darling girl again.