I stopped by to deliver a present for Perun, to commemorate the Feast of St. Valentine, which is admittedly much more raucous here than at home, but still quite fun. Since I do not have kitchen privileges, I cannot make treats myself, so I hoped he would not mind something from the bakery. My intention was to drop them off at his doorstep, but has he had both doors open wide to the unseasonably early spring, he invited me to take in the view. I handed him the pasteboard box from Rosehaven, and let him escort me to the balcony, where he does have a wondrous view of the harbor.
He grinned as he set the box of pfeffernuesse on the window-ledge, and drew a card for me from his jacket. Tucked inside the card, I found a gift as well, a necklace with a delicate pendant, depicting a crowned double-heart. "Do you like it?", he asked.
"Yes, I do," I nodded, fingering the intricate design. He explained some of the history of the design to me, and I felt as if he was telling me history of a place where he had lived, though he made no mention of a home.
He concluded with, "I understand they became quite the trade item with the natives of this continent. It is an old symbol, and one I feel suits you. Suits us. But its beauty pales next to yours, mo cridhe."
"It is beautiful," I murmured, colouring as I put it on, "I feel a bit cheeky for wearing a wedding symbol before time."
He chuckled, and helped me with the clasp. "Ah, these days it's not as strict when one wears that. But please, Sweet Mary, remember to wear it on your wedding dress? I looked for a brooch, but could only find necklaces. Perhaps we could have a pin set on it instead? Up to you, of course, mo cridhe."
"I will keep it close to my heart, in any case." As he smiled down into my eyes, I felt very warm, and ducked my head, scanning the horizon. Desperate for a distraction, a new building on the street caught my eye, "They have rebuilt the dry dock as a mercantile?"
He moved to stand behind me, apparently to have a better look at where I pointed. "I believe you're correct .... funny, they must have done that while I was away."
Away, odd how that one word can give me such a feeling of dread, now. I nodded and turned to look out over the harbor. When he asked what was wrong, I simply said, "I just enjoy being here with you while you are ... not travelling." I was still avoiding speaking of my fears, just for the moment. He nodded, thoughtfully. I changed the tangent of the conversation, if not the subject. "I... I visited my parents this week, during the courier run... actually, I was ordered to take the time to see them."
"Oh? Are they well?"
"I told them about you."
"Ah..." he frowned inwardly, then said, "I should have asked for your hand before getting above myself. Are they very angry?"
I shook my head, "They are hoping to meet you someday, but know how hard it is to get leave, especially enough time to travel as far distant as our village is." Then I paused, and finally admitted, "The thing is, I sort of hedged about whether or not you had been introduced to my doamnă ."
He smiled, "Ah. Yes. I believe we have met, at various functions. Perhaps?"
I smiled at his attempt to put a proper spin on the situation, "Well, she might know you as a neighbor, but not as a suitor. She has said she does want you to stop by for luncheon some time when she is in the office. I am... not quite in trouble, but she is my family's representative here."
"I would not have you in trouble on my account, mo cridhe."
I shrugged, "I explained you are on call and travel a lot, so you might not be able to match schedules. I... I have been a bit selfish, wanting to keep you to myself when we are able to meet. I don't want to miss any time with you."
"Nor I with you, mo anam cara. But there are duties that must be performed, to both lieges and family. We should arrange for me to meet her properly."
I nodded, taking his hand in mine, and whispered, "I dance with you because we get to touch, as much as we dare before the paperwork is filed." He gripped my hand firmly, and with my other hand, I reached up and touched his cheek, trembling. "I know you cannot tell me about your work. I do not want to know, just let me pretend," I lightly touched my fingers to his lips, "I can almost believe you are not in danger when you are gone, that way." He covered my hand with his, lightly kissing my fingertips. I closed my eyes, and put my head on his chest as he wrapped me in his arms. I sighed, and said, "I know, I am not supposed to talk about it, but... being so far away from the places we share this week made me think too much." I slid my hands over his waistcoat to circle my arms around him.
He chuckled in response, "Is there such a thing as thinking too much? What conclusions did you draw from this too much thinking?"
"That even if my parents had forbidden me to see you again, I could not stop. They have told me I think too much about this sort of thing, but with my youngest sister having the peţitoare ask after her, they were expecti-", I froze, as my hand encountered the hard item at the center of his back. I took a deep breath and resolutely moved my hands up to his shoulder-blades, and continued as if nothing was odd, "they have been expecting me to find a husband pretty soon anyway."
He noticed my hesitation, and reached a hand behind himself, bringing it forward to display a small gun in the palm of his hand. I looked at it, then up to his eyes. "Sweet Mary, I'm not the only one to go armed in this part of Steelhead. But please, it would comfort me to know you had something to protect yourself. Please take this as a gift -- you are the first to ever find it there." Then he smiled at me.
I blushed, and nodded, "All right. I am more used to rifles, though." I looked it over, checking for a safety, and tucked it into my bustle. "Now I have more reason to be graceful when sitting." At his chuckle, I smiled up at him and murmured, "I will find a place to practice away from town."
"Perhaps we can practice together? I'd love to see how you handle weaponry." I blinked and blushed, to which he raised an eyebrow and chuckled again. "You seem to know your way around guns. The more I know of you, the more I love you, Sweet Mary!"
I shrugged again, "Well, the schloss was a military post, originally, and it does guard a trade center, even if it is a small one."
He nodded, "And the duties of a clerk include training in small weapons?"
"Everybody has weapons safety, that was on the orders of the Doamnus ever-so-many-greats ago. The one that got the title awarded for service to the Heterodynes, he made sure that one of the rules for staff was to be able to protect the village-that-was-then. Of course, my doamnă's grandda, Magister Horatiu served during the Long War, and found out it was handy to have a staff that could hold the schloss at need. So everybody was encouraged to find something that suited them so they could help defend if the bandits got bold while the full-time soldiers were out taking care of another problem."
"Of course. That's only sense, really, but many who fear for their own position prefer to keep weaponry in only certain hands."
I paused, not sure of his meaning, "...I don't think the current Doamnă of the schloss quite understands that. She is more about knowing everything."
He nodded, "... and this is your doamnă's mother, correct? Or grandmother?"
I shook my head, smiling slightly at my doamnă's mother being mistaken for the Old Bat. "The current Doamnă of the House is her papa's mother. She is... kind of slimy-sneaky. I was quite happy to be assigned to my doamnă. She is a lot more honest with me and the rest of the staff."
He nodded, "You've found a good mistress, then. I'm glad."
"She sometimes forgets to tell me all of the steps, sometimes, but most of the time it is because her head is so full of things. I think... there are some who say she is with the Baron because she is a Spark. But she says no, and I don't see her in the big laboratories, except during inventory or staff reviews. As far as doing Sparky things, I haven't seen it. The only time I ever heard of her getting angry, much less in the madness place, was when Master Wolfgang had his troubles."
"Ah, the werewolf incident? How is the boy now?"
I shivered, thinking of what might have been if he had not come out the other side of his troubles, "He's back to being a Sparky boy, and runs with the Jaegers. I do not see him much, because he is one for the lab." I paused, and murmured, "He spends most of his time in the school and with the uncanny ones, lately."
"The uncanny ones?" he asked.
I shrugged, and said, "Da, you know how the town has all sorts in it, and they are not all local sorts, y'ken?"
"Well, there are the werewolves, and the Jagerkin. The cat people, the rabbits and foxes who walk upright. Elves I've seen, and Faeries ... Who else?"
I nodded, and murmured, "There's a mort o'fae and fae-touched about. People who're just tales back home... and then there's the ones what used to be in the Foundation off on the west side o'town."
"Ah, yes. I've heard rumours ..."
I shivered again, "The ones who are left seem to be nice folk, when it comes down to cases, but the way summat *looks* at you and you wonder if you have any secrets from them ever. Most the time, they seem like normal humans... and they work with the Sheriff and the Order of the SWAT, so they seem to be on the side of order."
He looked at me, very serious, "We all have secrets, love."
I looked into his eyes, and nodded. "We all do, some secrets bigger than others, and I know you canna tell me ... some things."
"Someday, mo cridhe..." he said, and I stopped him with a gentle finger on his mouth, "I'ma pretending ort, ne?" I smiled, blinking back tears. He kissed my fingertip and managed to distract me with an embrace and a kiss. As he gathered me closer, letting one hand drift down my back -- to be brought up short by my bustle.
I muttered, "Careful, that might go off, now."
He started chuckling lightly, and hugged warmly. "And here we are, not even formally engaged, spooning in sight of all of Shanghai. Sweet Mary, you do make me forget everything but you!"
I snuggled against his chest, "Right now, I don't care. I am tempted to go into the office to fill out the paperwork."
"Would that you could, mo cridhe! Soon, I hope."
I sighed, resting my head on his chest, "Soon."
He rested his cheek on the top of my head, "The sooner the better!" A few more moments of cuddling, and he said, "Right, distractions. Tell me more about your doamnă -- what am I up against, for her approval?"
My first reaction did not require thought, "Be honest with her. She has had to deal with politics getting in the way, with the Fifty not helping when it does not profit them." I thought a bit more, "I don't know how she manages to keep all the appointments she has straight, but I do know she hates to be late, or deal with someone being late for no reason. So if you canna tell her something, tell her that you cannot, don't lie to cover it, and if you say you are going to be somewhere, be there when you say."
He nodded slightly, "And how does she treat you? You say she's fair and kind?"
I moved back from his embrace a little, putting my hands on his chest. "It isn't like she is family, exactly. I would not go to her to ask something I would ask my aunt, or my sister. But she is understanding of family ties. She seems to take loyalty very seriously. It isn't an empty speech when she says the oath." I looked down at my hands, "She has not given me a task that is impossible, yet. Only improbable, but she told me where to get help. It might look like she is not working all the time, but I usually have a stack of notes to file for her whenever she gets back from a ball."
"So: hardworking, caring, subtle, honest, realistic yet challenging of her assistants, understanding of family, a believer in loyalty. She ... seems to be someone quite admirable." He seemed a little confused by the assessment.
"Oh, she isn't a saint, by any measure. She's pretty scathing of people who don't even make an effort. I'm pretty sure she has a few people she would not mind if they had a horrible accident. But she wouldn't arrange it unless the Baron needed it to happen... I think."
In my pause, he asked,"Or unless the Baron were in danger?" He raised an eyebrow, "If loyalty is as strong as you say, that would be reasonable."
I frowned, and tried to find the words I needed in English. "If anyone was a serious threat to the Baron or family, I am not sure they would ever be found. She might mislabel the body parts in storage to hide the body, and she's the one in charge of the system, so I am not sure anyone would know."
He chuckled, "Now there is a brilliant idea."
I shrugged, "But that is just my first impression. I think she would be careful enough to make sure it never rebounded on the Baron. Or if it did, she would take the blame."
"And you believe her to be that loyal to him? Hmm." Now it was his turn to frown.
"He is a very hard man to work for, but he has had to do some hard things." It was difficult to explain the difference to people who had never visited home to understand.
"One hears rumors, of course, about both of them ...."
I frowned, "What sort of rumors?"
He spoke lightly, with a chuckle, "Oh, the usual that follow rulers and their leftenants about: that he's an unfeeling tyrant, that she's a bloody tool in his hands, that the oppressed long for freedom. That sort of nonsense ...."
"Ppfft, like he don't make sure the town councils are taking care of the people or she won't tell him how the cow ate the cabbage if he's turned about." He chuckled, and I was quick to say, "She's respectful, and all that, but there was that tone she used during the New Babbage Election, sounding kinda like Ma askin Da if he was sure that goat was tame enough to be saddled." At his chuckle and nod, I went on, "T'werent a big secret how relieved she was when he dinna win the election."
"Well, yes, I'd imagine it would have been far more work for both of them."
"No lie, and the rest of us as well." I sighed, and said, "I wish she would get more exercise than just dancing, though. She gets too pale, sitting behind her desk all the time."
"Not everyone can be a sun-kissed country girl, mo cridhe!" he said, tapping the tip of my nose, and I giggled. Then he jokingly said, "I hear she works out with the Jägers."
I giggled again, "She probably would if she had the time. Her sister-in-law nags her about it sometimes."
"Sister-in-law? Oh, the Sergeant?"
"She and my auntie served together a bit, I think."
"Oh? Was your auntie in the town guard?"
I wrinkled my nose, "Na, she was on patrol for a century or so before she mustered out. Had some madboy's thing chew her foot off while she was killing it."
He looked surprised, "Your auntie is of the Jägerkin?"
I felt that twinge of fear, that he would react the same as the others, but his expression was just surprised, not disgusted, and I told him, "She decided she liked my Unchi Radu when he was fitting her footspike. That was... hm, maybe five years before I was born."
He was curious, but not morbidly so, "And they've been happy together ever since?"
I nodded, "She keeps the pigs in the village, and he's the blacksmith. My cousins are serving with an artillery unit in the Baron's service," and I grinned a little. "They say it is quieter there."
"Hmm. I haven't met many of the Jägerkin, perhaps the rumors about them are incorrect as well?"
"Well, tough as nails, enjoy a good fight, have a little different perspective on tactics, that's all true. The only ones that are stupid as 'kin were the ones dumb as a box of hammers before they got the 'brau."
"I ... see. And the tales of blood-soaked cheerful murderers who snack on babies?"
"Tcha, ne - sure there are tales from when the Heterodynes were the evil tyrants, but the babysnacking is just what stupid people tell their children. Auntie Ecaterina likes baking for kinder, not baking of kinder. She told me all the tales they told of the 'kin, so I would not be in trouble for fighting when I went to the schloss."
"For defending your Auntie, you mean? Hmm."
"There were tales that back in the first days there might have been tales told *by* the Heterodyne, to make the armies facing him unnerved when the Jägerkin were the front line, but none of the Jägers I know like babies to eat. They eat anything that does not talk back, sure, but..."
"But the rumors of diabolical inhuman monsters is exaggerated?" He seemed to actually want to know, not just needling me into an argument. "And the Jägers are better than they're painted?"
I shrugged, saying, "I will say there are some of the Jägerkin that were not nice people before they got the 'brau. They were soldiers for a madboy centuries ago when the world was more brutal than now, it's expected. But over the centuries, a lot of the really crazy ones got weeded out, killed dead enough that they could not be put back together. I think... maybe some were left dead for a reason."
"That ... speaks well of the ones doing the repairs."
"I do know that there are some here, like Greegar, who still think Tinies look tasty, but he's one of the ones to patrol with Master Wolfgang."
"So, he is trustworthy enough to watch over the Vice Consul's only child?"
"She trusts him. I think he's a big goof, but there is that banishment from Raglan, so who knows? A lot of the Jägerkin here now are the thoughtful types, in their own way." He chuckled at me, and I rolled my eyes. "You know what I mean, like soldiers who survived." My laughter faded as I heard his watch chime.
He sighed, "My apologies, mo cridhe. Duty calls, eh?"
I did not stop to think, I just grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket, saying, "You *WILL* come back to me," and kissed him hard.
He paused in stunned silence for a split second, then returned the kiss. "That I will, Sweet Mary. Bet on it." Then he smiled, kissed my nose lightly, and vaulted the balcony, rocketboots igniting almost instantly.
I watched him fly off, then locked the doors as I left. I do not want to know. I just want him to come back safely.