To read the first story of this series, click here.
No one knew how it had happened. Religious zealots called it an act of God, a punishment sent down to scour the earth and to destroy the unworthy. Others called it an accident, chance. Some believed that it was merely bad luck. For Richard, it didn’t matter; it was history, a wrinkle in the fabric of time that had occurred before even his grandfather was born. The end result was that it was here; there was no reason to cry over spilled milk. All you needed was a mop and a bucket: problem solved. Unfortunately, his own mop and bucket had been recently stolen.
Richard found Victoria lounging in the sun room, her too-gauzy nightgown draped elegantly over her body; at least, it would have been elegant if she didn’t resemble some kind of scarecrow. She was all awkward angles and concealed imperfections. Her thin, mousey brown hair was falling out of a jeweled beret, and it looked like she had already spilled some tea down the front of her clothing. Richard greeted her with a brilliant smile, “Good morning, my dear. Did you sleep well?”
Victoria looked up at him with a pout; at least, he thought it was a pout. It was hard to tell with her thin lips. “I missed you last night. Where were you?”
Richard rearranged his features to show some twinge of regret and a hint of sheepishness. He scratched the back of his neck, looking from his wife to the reinforced glass window. From his vantage point, he could see the town stretched out before him, an amalgamation of houses and buildings clustered together, laid out for defense rather than convenience. There were cramped alleys and flat rooftops, narrow stairways and escape routes, but no main square.
People went about their day-to-day business, dressed in dark clothing. Stalls lined one side street as vendors shouted to one another, waving their goods at passerby. They would be selling fruit and mechanical parts, meat pies and clothing. The smells of baking bread would mingle with engine grease and horse manure, a ripe scent that was almost unbearable during the summer months. A few wagons had perched themselves on the outskirts. The bright scarves or the caravan’s occupants fluttered in the breeze, colors that he could see even from so far away.
Richard heaved a sigh and looked back toward Victoria, “I had business to attend to, sweet. You know this.”
“But that’s almost every night.” Her pout increased, her eyes widening and looking like nothing so much as two pits of mud. “Surely you can spend some time with me now?”
This was the problem. Victoria was becoming anxious about their living arrangements. It had been a week since their wedding, but Richard had been able to excuse himself almost every night. He was too tired, he had business to attend to, he wanted it to be perfect, Victoria had passed out in a drunken stupor; all were legitimate, but now he had run out of excuses. His wife wanted her conjugal rights. Richard shuddered inwardly; he didn’t think he could rise to the occasion.
Richard adjusted his tie, smiling at Victoria, “You know that spending time with you is all I want, but the town has its needs too. Surely you can understand why its defense is so important, my love.” He paused for a moment, locking his eyes with Victoria’s. It was important to build up to these things, “When I make preparations to defend the town, I know I’m not just guarding the buildings. I know I’m guarding something infinitely more precious.”
A faint pink began to color Victoria’s pale cheeks, and Richard leaned forward to grab her limp hand in his. “Darling, I know it’s been hard. But I promise things will get better. After this business trip, everything will be set to rights.”
Victoria nodded as Richard kissed the back of her hand, “How long will you be gone?”
Richard held her hand a moment longer before slowly, regretfully releasing it, “It shouldn’t take more than two weeks, sweet. After that, I’ll hopefully have what I need to set my affairs in order.”
Victoria nodded again, her head drooping. Richard could tell that he had won—at least this time. If he didn’t return with what the thief had stolen though…well, he didn’t want to think of the consequences.
“Can I at least have a kiss good-bye?”
Richard quickly hid a grimace by putting a hand to his mouth, pretending to cough. He flashed Victoria a dazzling smile after he recovered and leaned forward, “Of course. I wouldn’t want to leave you without one.” He kissed her carefully on the lips; chastely, almost. It was the kiss that a respectful husband would give to his wife in public.
Victoria, unfortunately, had other plans. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him closer. Her fingers twined uncomfortably in his hair, threatening to pull it out. Richard had to brace himself against the back of the sofa to keep himself from being yanked on top of his new wife. He could feel her hot, stale breath against his face, the sickening feel of cold lips against his. He nearly gagged.
Then Victoria released him. Richard stumbled backward, gasping for air, praising all of the deities he knew that is was over. Victoria smiled girlishly at him, fanning a bright red face with one hand, “I’ll see you soon, Richy.”
Richard had nothing to add to that. He merely nodded and stumbled out of the room, removing a silk handkerchief and wiping his mouth once Victoria was out of sight.
By all that was holy, he needed to capture that thief. The consequences of not finding her were too dire to contemplate.
The air outside was crisp and cold, a welcome relief to the hot stuffiness of his wife’s affection. Richard’s horse meandered its way through the marketplace and past the stalls that lined the small street. Citizens nodded to him respectfully as he passed, bowing their heads or smiling at him in turn. Wagons were quickly moved to allow him to pass, people hurried out of his way. Why shouldn’t they? He owned them.
It took only minutes before Richard reached the outskirts of town. The buildings fell away, the ground becoming more open. There were a few small sheds and plots of tilled earth, but most harbored dried weeds instead of crops; winter was closing in, and fast. In the distance, he could see the beginnings of the forest and the small dirt track that marked the major trade road to the next town, the same road that he had used to pursue the Queen of Hearts. He cursed himself inwardly; he had fallen for her charms like all of the others, and this was the result. He was married to a woman he didn’t love, and had no way of breaking that marriage unless he recaptured the girl.
“Good morning, sir.”
Richard expertly turned his horse, glancing down at the menacing figure that had suddenly appeared from behind one of the sheds. “Ah…Good morning, Samuel. Ready to be off?”
Samuel was dressed in black, as usual. A hood covered his head and most of his face, though a few strands of blonde hair escaped into the bitter wind. A gun was holstered at his belt along with a knife and a machete; but Richard knew from experience that he had far more concealed weapons than exposed ones. He was larger than the tracker that Richard had hired—much larger. Fortunately, his responsibilities didn’t include being stealthy.
Samuel nodded gravely, “Yes, sir, but there’s something you should see.” He moved one tattooed hand toward a pouch on his belt, removing a piece of paper which he held up for Richard to examine. “It’s Robin, sir. He says he has the girl.”
Richard snatched the paper from Samuel’s hand, reading the text once, twice, three times. He felt his mouth curve upward into a genuine grin. His eyes crinkled as he read the letter a fourth time just to be sure. This was perfect.
He glanced upward at Samuel who looked somewhat startled. Perhaps he wasn’t used to seeing his employer with a manic grin, but Richard didn’t care. He gestured toward the forest with one hand, the other still clutching the scrap of paper, “We rendezvous at Point Hope in a week. Let’s go, Samuel.”
Without further word, Richard urged his steed into a gallop. The wind bit at his skin and pulled at his dark hair as the sheer exhilaration of movement, of freedom flew through him. Leaves swirled under his horse’s feet, clods of earth flying behind him as he sped toward escape. He threw his head back and laughed.