In Court Seim
Cecilia shielded her eyes from the scorching light of
the sun in the desert, attempting to get a better view of her surroundings.
The ship was waiting for them not far away from here, but Bartholomew told
them of a little town that lay in the middle of this desert: Court Seim.
As they needed to get to the tower in the middle of the sea, the best way
was to find this town and ask its inhabitants.
"It's the town," Jack said, straining his eyes. "In the middle of this desert, I wouldn't have expected it to pop up so soon."
Cecilia nodded. She could now perceive the white forms of the houses that cast their shadows in the midnoon heat. The sight made her relieved; it was not pleasant around here, in the desert. "Perhaps these people will know something of that tower in the sea," she said, turning to Jack. "They must, since it lies so close to them."
Jack adjusted the sack he carried on his back. "Only one way to find out," he said, shortly. "Let's go."
The town they approached lay white and quiet under the
heat of the desert sun. There were few people on the streets and it gave
off a hot, still aura, the impression of a town whose people lived slowly
and died fairly poor. It was nothing like what Cecilia had ever seen, and
to her it seemed quiet and depressing. She was also suffering from the heat
to which she was unaccustomed, and now she sat in one of the sparse shadows
of the small houses, waiting for Jack who had gone around to make an inquiry.
Rudy was standing by her, silent as always, but he scanned the place with
a curiously intense look, as if he was trying to see something he recognized--
or as if he was recognizing something. Cecilia wasn't sure where Rudy was
exactly from, but she already guessed it was from a place very similar to
this one-- subdued and silent and melancholy. People here lived lives that
were hard and slow; it was not like the neat warmth and isolation of her
monastery upbringing, or the rich luxuries of the Palace. It was different,
harsher; she thought that she herself wouldn't have been able to live this
Cecilia always thought this kind of life rather poor and shabby; but now she found herself wondering if she herself would have been a different person if she grew in one of these towns. Would she have turned out stronger, like Rudy, or like that young woman they met in Cage Tower, Calamity Jane? Would she had been more fit to carry the burden that now fell upon her shoulders? Jane, she felt, could have done it much better, if she had been willing to. She remembered Jane's energetic, decisive aspect, so unlike her own; what was a fretful wish to prove herself in Cecilia, was true ability in Jane. Yes, Cecilia thought. Jane was better than me.
She rose from her seat and dusted her dress in the heat. Then she stopped one of the men who passed by and inquired of him if he knew anything of Epitaph Sea. The man stared at the ragged-looking young woman and boy, muttering something about waifs looking for trouble. Cecilia reddened a little, once again conscious of her bedraggled appearance; even though she had grown used to this reaction on the part of certain people, it always aggravated her to think that she was no longer the Princess to whom ordinary people paid homage, and whose neat, pretty looks they admired. Anyone could look good if they were well-fed and well-dressed, she thought to herself. Look at me now; too thin, too ragged, too haggard-- I look quite plain without my fine feathers to decorate me.
Biting her lips and trying to keep her face calm, she ignored the man's dark look and repeated her question. The man shook his head, and spoke at last, reluctantly. "If you really wish to find that accursed place, lass, you better ask Mr. Maxwell," he said, his voice curt. "He's the gadget-expert around this place, and he knows quite a lot about machinery and faraway places. His house is at the other end of the town." Without another word he walked away.
Cecilia turned to Rudy. "Hey, Rudy," she said, wearily. "It looks like we're going to see Maxwell." Something about the name rang with a familiarity she couldn't quite place in her mind, and she shook her head, trying to recall it. Then she shrugged it off, feeling the toll of the heat making her dizzy. She reached out and put her hand on Rudy's arm, more as an attempt to support herself upright than as a gesture of closeness. "Let's wait for Jack," she said, slowly lowering herself to the ground again; "and when he comes back, we'll go."
Jack returned after a while, walking towards them. Before
Cecilia could speak he stepped up to her and offered her a bottle full of
a clear amber liquid that sparkled in the strong sunlight.
"Thought you'd like some of this," he said.
"What is it?" Cecilia asked, taking the bottle from him. The glass was bitterly cold, and its unexpected chill almost hurt her hot hands; she wrapped a part of her scarf around it and held it gingerly. Jack smiled a little, watching her expression. "Apple Cider," he replied. "They make it very good around here. It's rather precious, too: those trees need a lot of water to grow. It cost quite a bit, but that's not a problem with us."
At least this is something we DO have, Cecilia thought to herself. Money. Plenty of it. Luckily, Jack was a daunting presence enough to keep a lot of shady characters away, even though it was actually Rudy who was the more dangerous one in terms of strength; and besides, their way-worn and ragged appearance gave no indication of their wealth, and thus few people bothered them. I suppose it serves me in SOME way to look like a beggar, Cecilia thought bitterly. The lack of comfort and her inability to keep herself neat on the longer travels vexed her, but she had already learned better than to complain to Jack and receive no attention for her grievance except perhaps a sardonic remark. She bit her tongue on it and was mostly quiet.
Jack was sometimes considerate, she thought, rubbing her cold-bitten hand on the hem of her dress; as now, when he thought of bringing me this. For better or worse, he remembered I am a princess. But his attentions were never as helpful, considerate or sincere as Rudy's were.
At least, she thought, we have that money to get what we want in the towns we travel to. Not everyone had that privilege; in this town, in which luxury was so clearly lacking, she felt that the money she had will be regarded as an extravagant amount, if they only knew of it. She opened the cider bottle, and spoke to Jack:
"I know where to go, Jack. There's a man named Maxwell living at the edge of the town that could help us perhaps." She expected Jack to question her closely about the information, since it was his habit to distrust her to come up with a reliable source; but to her slight surprise he merely nodded. "I know," he said. "They told me about him at the bar. The name is damned familiar, somehow."
"I thought so too," Cecilia remarked, looking up at him iquiringly. "Where did we hear it before?"
Jack turned around, his hand waving dismissively. "He might be famous somewhere," he said. "We'll find out. Let's go, Cecilia."
Maxwell's house was on the edge of the town, a rather
large mansion surrounded by neatly-clipped hedges, with trees swaying their
long branches at its back. A relatively quiet, shady place. Perhaps it was
just the hot day, Cecilia thought to herself; and despite the silence she
thought she could hear voices of people speaking inside.
It took a little while, but at Jack's insistent knock they were finally answered. The door swung inwards a little and the face of a child peeped through the narrow opening, examining the three strangers.
"Is Mr. Maxwell at home?" Jack asked the child. The child shook her head in negation, but she did not open the door any further.
"Is there anyone else we can speak to?" Jack asked, getting a little impatient at the child's reluctant silence. The child nodded a little in response, then closed the door.
Cecilia shrugged a little, looking towards Jack. "I guess she's calling an adult," she said. Jack didn't answer her, but thrust his hands into his pockets, waiting impatiently. Then, the silence of noon was broken once more as the door swung open, this time with an abrupt motion, and a quick, sharp voice said: "Well, what do you want then?"
Jack turned his eyes to the door, opening his mouth; but he immediately closed it again, a dark, intent expression rising to his countenance. Cecilia, observing it, turned her eyes to the person at the door a little wonderingly. The speaker was a young woman, with a long flow of auburn hair neatly framing her fair countenance; and Cecilia recognized her at once as the young woman they met in Cage Tower: Calamity Jane.
Recognizing Jack, Jane closed her mouth as well; something passed across her countenance: a distinct ire mixed with something else-- an expression that was almost like dismay. But, meeting Jack's eyes, the look in her own turned hard again. They stood for a moment gazing at each other with mutual antagonism; and during this moment Cecilia scanned Jane with some attention. For while it was certainly the same Jane, she was changed from the young woman who wore a man's trousers and a sturdy, practical jacket and shirt. She was now clad in a neatly-trimmed dress of light coloring, and her long, curly hair was pulled back by a ribbon, gracefully falling to her shoulders. Her tidy appearance strongly contrasted the brash, almost manly aspect she had in Cage Tower, and it greatly enhanced her youth; with her delicate features and in her trim dress she looked almost childlike. But in the mobile countenance and brisk voice Cecilia recognized the same Calamity Jane in the neat, girlish figure that now stood before them.
After a moment of shared hostility, Jane turned her attention from Jack to Cecilia and Rudy. "You all," she said, her tones even sharper. "What the HELL are you doing here?"
Jack finally answered her, his voice as sharp: "We are looking for Mr. Maxwell, Miss-- Jane." Suddenly a smile curled his lip and he backed a little, thrusting his hands into his pockets again. "Jane Maxwell," he said. "I see."
The look in Jane's eye turned even darker, and she retreated a little. Her discomfort was obvious, and Cecilia could see that Jack had perceived it. He probably sensed that same dismay Jane had expressed at their presence, and Cecilia wondered to herself about it. Could it be that Calamity Jane did not want the people around her to know of her occupation, and that she was dismayed at the appearance of the people that could betray it? Sensing that Jack was going to speak again, Cecilia hastily intervened. "We need his help," she said, quickly, "to look for Epitaph Sea and find a way to unlock it."
"Yes," Jack spoke again, coolly. "We need to find information about the Epitaph-- Miss-- Calamity Jane." His voice was a little taunting now, and Jane's eyes shot back to him. She regarded him with cold steadiness, and after a short pause she advanced towards them again. "Listen," she said, her voice dropping lower now, but turning a little fierce. "I don't care what you are looking for, but I'm warning you that--"
Here she fell silent, and Cecilia could see that she was struggling a little with some kind of an indecision. After a short silence Jack inquired, with the smile still bending his mouth: "Warning us what?" Jane's eyes narrowed; she was still silent, but after another short pause she said, very calmly, "I am ASKING you not to tell the people here what you know about me. If you promise me that, I might-- I will tell my father to help you."
So it was true, Cecilia thought-- Jane did not want them to expose her. Jack spoke, his voice a little dry: "All right then. Done deal"; and Cecilia could tell that he was enjoying Jane's obvious discomfort at being found out.
Jane turned her eyes from Jack and Cecilia, and they alighted on Rudy. He was watching her, but when her eyes met his he averted his gaze, looking down. Cecilia noticed it likewise and she watched Rudy, scanning his expression.
After a short silence Jane spoke. "All right, then," she said. "Please come in." She opened the door fully and Jack entered. Cecilia turned her eyes from Rudy, and she followed him quickly. Rudy remained last, looking down.
"You--" Jane said, after a brief silence. "I remember you."
Rudy made no reply. Jane looked at him intently, and her gaze alighted on the ARM at his side. She was silent for some time, then she spoke again. "Well, what are you waiting for?" she said, a note of impatience rising to her voice. "Come on, then."
His eyes still on the ground, Rudy followed her as she turned around and walked into the house.
The children ran around them as they sat at the table;
sometimes noisy, but never intrusive. Jane ruled the children-- and there
were almost twenty of them living in the large house-- with her hand of iron.
Now she sat at her father's side, explaining to him what the travelers needed.
She spoke of them with curt dryness, as if she had never met them before.
Jane's sister was a beautiful young woman, twenty-two years old; she had the same china-delicate features as the younger sister, and the same flow of auburn curls; but her figure was all neatness and femininity, whereas on Jane the femininity seemed to clash with her brusque, masculine manners. Even though she was closer to the children in age, she ruled them over like a haughty tyrant, while her sister served more of the role of the compassionate nursemaid. It was also obvious that Jane was the one that her father consulted more in all practical dealings, while her sister took care of the house and its matters.
Cecilia remembered Jane's appearance at Cage Tower; a brash, capable and confident young woman. She was envious of her then, not only for her obvious capability and independence, but also for her beauty. Jane was beautiful then, as she was beautiful now; and though Jack treated her coldly, disliking her forward manner, it was obvious to Cecilia that Rudy was captivated by her. At least she fancied it so; she noticed his eyes continuously drawn to Jane, and she felt something stabbing her a little-- something that was almost like jealousy of this attention. She shook her head, a rueful smile rising to her lips.
So, Cecilia, she thought. It's almost like you were starting to feel Rudy is yours... did you?
Jane had been silent for a while as her father and Jack conversed, but now she suddenly spoke, and her voice cut into Cecilia's thoughts. "Listen," she said briskly, leaning across the table and fixing her eyes on Jack. "I know that the Epitaph Sea is a place that's full of old things. Old things that are WORTH plenty. For helping you, I ask you to give us ten percent of the gain. Otherwise, we won't help you beyond this point."
"Jane," her father said, his tone warning. But Jane ignored him. She fixed her eyes on Jack, waiting expectantly. Jack's countenance turned hard at her words; without turning his eyes from Jane's face, he murmured, quietly: "You are playing with fire, do you know that-- Miss Jane? Remember our deal."
Cecilia tensed a little. She knew that if she let the conversation continue, one of them is bound to lose their temper; and conscious of the fact that she did not want to make Jane an enemy, she decided to intervene. "Why do you need the money?" she asked, turning towards her. The memory of Jane's demand of the money at Cage Tower rose to her mind; but as soon as the words left her lips she understood. Jane, meeting her gaze, smiled sardonically. "Just look around you," she replied. "What does this place look like to you?"
After a pause Jack spoke. "An orphanage," he said, quite calmly. Jane smiled again. "Precisely," she said.
"I see," Cecilia said quietly. So this is what Jane had been fighting for, she thought-- the charity towards these children. She remembered her own pondering of their money earlier, and experienced a sudden feeling of shame. And I was fretting over my want of comfort, and I was feeling glad that my money could supply me with exactly that, she thought, biting her lip. But Jane-- Jane was working for something else-- a goal.
Yes, she thought to herself; and I thought myself superior to the people here, somehow. I thought my means made me better. But Jane works for a goal, as much as I do. Jane, she though, is better than me. And therefore... I ought not wonder... that Rudy would like her better.
The small hours of the night waxed hot in Court Seim,
and Rudy was standing on a low bridge, gazing down into the still, black
waters of the small river that lay beneath it. He turned his head, sensing
someone's approach, and presently he perceived a slim figure clad in a light
dress. It was Jane.
Jane halted, meeting Rudy's eyes. Through the darkness, her expression was obscure; but he sensed the blue eyes, their gaze sharp and alert as always, scrutinizing him. After a short pause she approached him and leant over the bridge's rail at his side.
"You always seem so lonely, Rudy," she said, her eyes still on him. "Even when you are with people."
Rudy looked down again, not answering him. Jane moved a little closer, her fingers reaching out, touching the ARM at his side. "That's one fine machine," she said. "Not everyone can use an ARM."
After a pause, Rudy spoke. "I can. Since I was little."
Jane was silent, then she said: "So can I. We're a little alike, aren't we, Rudy?"
Rudy didn't answer her, looking down; Jane could feel his embarrassment, but she continued to speak. "Ever since I was little I could use an ARM, and I always wondered if I would ever meet someone else who could. But that's not the only thing that made me feel that we're alike. You see, Rudy, I feel-- no, I know-- that you are the kind of person who'll be willing to protect others. And I myself-- when I hunt, when I seek money, I am doing it all for these children."
Rudy nodded. Jane continued to speak: "And you, Rudy... you also protect the people you love. Both of us has the power to protect people, and we are willing to use it."
Rudy still was silent, and Jane scrutinized his expression. Then she said: "I protect these children, and you, Rudy-- you protect her-- Cecilia."
She smiled a little at Rudy's continual silence, and said: "But I am like you-- I don't need protection. And therefore... I don't need you... Rudy. Not as much as she does."
She touched his shoulder lightly. "When I finally meet someone like me," she said, "I find that certain things about us is almost too alike, and therefore, that I might not need him as much as I thought I would. Ironic, isn't it?"
She smiled at him then; a smile that was not sarcastic, or bitter, but had a certain amusement at her realization-- perhaps at the fate she perceived for both of them.
Rudy then lifted his eyes at Jane; and, in the clearing dusk, she almost thought she could see him smiling back.
Note: Written as suggested by Emerald Ninja (Rudy and Jane's conversation).
This piece is dedicated to Emerald Ninja, Noble Knight, Paul Nathans and Thomas Wu, by whose urging I decided to write another Wild ARMs story. Thank you all for reading and taking an interest!