A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

1.1 – Rustica {Country Girl}

Meddle not with shadows, though shadows give thee power…

Usually Elena enjoyed listening to Ele’s strong tenor voice whenever he sang, but today it was getting on her nerves.

Meddle not with shadows, for the shadow takes its fee…

She just wanted to ride the rest of the trip in peace and silence, alone in her thoughts. A brief glance at her mother, seated primly next to her, told Elena that the severe woman was watching her like a hawk. She didn’t dare tell her friend to stop singing under that gaze.

It’s not so bad. She chided herself. Ele is a good singer, and he isn’t bothering anyone else with his singing. Perhaps she was just on edge because of the importance of the day, or maybe it was how uncomfortable the journey had been.

The uneven hard wood of the seat was making her rear ache, and the sun beat down surprisingly hot for an autumn day. The scenery had been interesting back when they were still in Carpi, but ever since they’d left the tiny town there had been nothing to see but long stretches of quorley fields.

Meddle not with shadows, even though you think them playthings…

The problem was that all quorley fields looked the same, Elena decided. The sunlight playing across the light purple fields would be quite beautiful if she hadn’t been staring at them for most of the hours in her day. She needed novelty, excitement, something to latch her curiosity onto, and beautiful as they might be, the waves of grain were boring.

If this trip were a sculpture, I’d say it lacked depth. Elena thought, playing word games with herself to take her mind off the discomfort. If this trip were a musical piece, I’d say it didn’t resonate. If this trip were a painting-

But whilst thee plays with shadows, shadows may too play with thee!

It was no use playing word games while Ele warbled, and Elena sighed as she gave up the attempt. Trying to stave off the restlessness, she turned her curiosity back to her fellow passengers. An old man with a hunched back slept in the corner of the cart, the hood of his cloak pulled down over his face despite the heat. Next to Elena’s mother, a very plump woman in a roughspun green dress was crocheting something lumpy and blue. Across from her sat Ele, but of course only Elena could see him. Next to Ele was a weary-looking father in a straw hat with his three little children.

Whenever Elena glanced at the man in the straw hat he seemed to be staring at her, and he was making her very aware of the low neckline of the pale blue dress she wore. Her mother had said it was important on this trip to show she was a woman, not a girl, but Elena wished she could wear one of her more comfortable dresses.

Elena doubted she looked like a woman anyway, even with the small swell of her breasts that the man in the straw hat couldn’t seem to drag his eyes away from. With her snub nose and big green eyes, and her constant enthusiastic grin, she was used to the adults of her village considering her still a child, despite her sixteen autumns.

Oh meddle not with shadows…

She couldn’t take it anymore. The singing may not be able to bother anyone else, but if she had to listen to another chorus of The Shadow’s Plaything she would go even madder than she already was.

“Stop.” She mouthed silently, watching her mother carefully out of the corner of her eye. Ele stopped singing immediately, but Elena hadn’t been careful enough. To the other passengers riding the cart it looked like her mother had just taken Elena’s right hand in her lap, as if wanting to be close to her daughter, a passing moment of affection between mother and child.

They didn’t see the severe woman pressing her thumb into Elena’s wrist, nor could they know that the wrist had been broken a few weeks ago. It might’ve ruined the effect of motherly affection if they knew that Elena’s smile hid the way she clenched her teeth to keep a whimper of pain from leaving her lips. Ele both noticed the action and knew of her wrist, and he was instantly contrite.

Calzini di dio, I’m so sorry Elena!” He said. His contrite expression was marred by a glare of anger he shot towards her mother. “We need to come up with some sort of code so Joanna the queen of bitches doesn’t know when you’re talking to me.” Elena forgave him, of course, but she very carefully and resolutely pretended that she couldn’t see or hear him. Her wrist already pounded so hard with pain that she could feel it up to her elbow, she didn’t need another “reminder” from her mother.

As soon as she could without raising suspicion, Elena extracted her hand and rested both hands in her lap. The cart rumbled on for another hour before the pain died down to a dull throbbing, every bump and rumble even more uncomfortable now.

“Do you realize, if this trip goes well, we’ll be able to talk to each other whenever we want, and she won’t be around to do a thing about it?” Ele seemed almost as excited as she was to reach their destination, and Elena smiled at her folded hands. “You can actually look at me, actually talk to me, and Joanna can’t do a damned thing to stop us. It’ll be like we’re kids again.”

Elena stared out at the fields of quorley, their lavender shoots reaching almost the height of a full-grown man. Her best friend’s excitement was infectious, and she began to perk up a bit. It didn’t really matter how hot the sun was, or how boring the scenery, or even the dull pain in her wrist; she was on her way to the city! The trip would go well, and she would be a garzona, apprenticed to one of the greatest artist in Italoza. As long as the cart was taking her towards the city of Milia, she could put up with any discomfort.

As if the universe had heard her, the cart suddenly lurched, one corner slamming down into the ground and sending the passengers tumbling from the wooden benches. Elena caught herself on her right hand without thinking, but her cry of pain was hidden by the other passengers’ exclamations.

They climbed down carefully as the cart driver surveyed the damage with a sad shake of his head. His equipment had looked sturdy, but it was clear that the cart was worn with age. One of the wooden wheels had hit a bump just right and split into two uneven pieces.

“I’m sorry folks, I really thought she had another few trips left in her.” The large man examined the ruined wheel and scratched his head. “I’ll be refunding your money, o’course, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to walk the rest of the distance. Lucky for us this happened so close to the city, it’s not too far a walk. Just an hour or so.”

The tingling in her temples and fingertips was already starting as Elena surveyed the broken wheel. The pieces were splintered and wedged, but a good enough craftsman would be able to fix them. She glanced around at the passengers who milled around the ruined cart.

“None of the other passengers are likely to be able to fix that wheel.” Elena commented lightly, directing the comment to her mother but meaning it mostly for Ele.

“You are a Lucciano, Elena. Grubbing in the dirt to fix a cartman’s wheel is hardly becoming of someone in your station.” Her mother said, giving her a sharp look.

“She acts like the Luccianos didn’t gain their station by crafting things, the stuck up snob.” Ele said indignantly, but Elena tried a more subtle tack.

“I simply wondered, mother, whether it would send the right impression for us to arrive at Milia on foot, walking as if we were commoners.” She sniffed, trying to adopt the high-chinned expression her mother so often wore. It was difficult not to smile as she saw the conflict in her mother’s eyes, but the elder Lucciano finally relented.

“Alright then, but be quick about it.” Elena was already running towards the quorley fields before her mother finished speaking, although she could hear her mother selling her skills to the cart driver already. “I am Joanna Lucciano, you may know of my family. I believe my daughter can help, for a price of course…”

Elena breathed a small sigh of relief when her mother’s voice was too far away to be heard. The Lucciano name was indeed quite well known in their town, but Elena sometimes wondered how much of their reputation had to do with Joanna’s sharp tongue and quick temper. The reminder made her right wrist ache.

“It wasn’t your fault, about my hand I mean.” Elena said quietly to Ele. “I should’ve just put up with the singing, it wasn’t harming anyone.” She used her left hand to cut stalks of the lavender grain, uncharacteristically clumsy with the knife she kept strapped to her thigh.

“It’s more your hellcat of a mother’s fault.” Ele said bitterly, watching her work. The sun on his face made his dark features stand out more, accentuated his rough brow and his large chin. When he talked about her mother, his brown eyes flashed dangerously. “But you know how I feel about that. You’ll need about twenty more.”

“Really?” Elena looked at the grain she had already gathered, ignoring the dig at her mother.

“That cart weighs a few thousand libbra, and it’ll be applying that weight to the wheel pretty constantly.” Ele pointed out. Elena had cut them and was already standing, holding the large bundle under one arm as she began braiding strands of the grain together. They didn’t need to clarify what they were talking about; they worked together so well they rarely had to slow down to discuss design.

“But the total weight will be dispersed over all four wheels.” Elena reminded, as they walked back from the edge of the field to where the cart drivers and passengers all waited.

“Your mother is watching, no more talk for awhile.” Ele warned sadly. Elena took his advice without looking up, focusing on the braiding. Her fingers flew with the unfamiliar task, the sorcery buzzing across her fingertips like little arcs of invisible lightning. It tingled and tickled, but the feeling was relaxing like dipping her fingers in cool water on the hot day.

Whenever one strand of grain ran out she wove in another, turning the separate stalks into one long and continuous purple strand of tough woven grain. When they arrived at the cart, her mother and the cart driver were still arguing.

“Ma’am begging your pardon and appreciating your girl’s work, I don’t care much who you are, I can’t pay you any more than that!”

“Any more? That would imply that you’re paying anything at all! Giving us the cost of the trip is different than rendering payment for the service we provide!” Joanna had drawn herself up to her full height, and Elena resisted the urge to sigh. Instead she knelt down by the broken wheel.

“Would you mind lifting for me?” She asked, apologetically, as she spooled the makeshift braided rope on the ground behind her. The father in the straw hat, the old man, and the cart driver hurried over to lift the edge of the cart, even though her mother followed the cart driver and continued her tirade.

“If it weren’t for us you would have to refund everyone’s fare, I daresay. And you imagine that refunding me is a payment? I am sure any reasonable person would see my point of view, or a reasonable judge for that matter. If it wasn’t of vital importance that we arrive in Milia on time, I would leave you with this broken wheel to suffer for your own poor decisions.”

Elena mostly ignored her mother, holding the two wheel pieces together with her shoulder as she carefully wrapped the lavender rope around and around it. In the end the wheel was covered completely by the flexible and tough material, the wheel resting in a tight round bundle of braided woven rope.

“You’ll want a pelican knot at the end of that, tight, and on the outside so it’s not rubbing against the shaft.” Ele advised, as the men gently and gingerly set the cart back down. Elena furrowed her brow, holding both loose ends of the rope. She didn’t know what a pelican knot was. Luckily Ele seemed to note the problem right away, and he knelt at her side.

“Loop it around in a big bend, like this, then three twirls and twist it into the loop.” He said, holding his hands next to the wheel and demonstrating the motions. His fingers slipped incorporeally through the rope, but Elena caught enough to duplicate it. It was a good knot for the situation, one that would tighten up the more the rope wore away.

“It won’t last for the whole trip back; you will have to buy a new wheel when we reach the city. But we will reach the city, so there’s no need to fret.” Elena said with a satisfied smile as she rose.

“Thank you child.” The driver looked genuinely grateful, grinning down at the lavender wheel. “People like you make the world a better place; you’ve a kind heart. Must’ve gotten it from your father.” He added in a mutter, climbing back up into the driver’s seat. The passengers were slowly moving back into the cart, and Elena went to follow them, but her mother grabbed her arm in a vicelike grip.

“I saw you talking again, down by the quorley field.” She said quietly. Elena tensed, but her mother looked more disappointed than angry. “Heaven help us Elena Lucciano, how can you not take this seriously? You are a full-grown woman now, on her way to be apprenticed. Sixteen autumns last week, that is far too old to have imaginary friends. How do you think they’ll react in Milia, if they see you nattering on like a child or a madwoman? How do you think that will reflect on the Lucciano name?”

Her mother’s eyes were green, like hers, although in the sharp lines of her face they looked more angry than enthusiastic. They flashed with disappointment now, in a way that hurt almost as much as her wrist had. Elena dropped her gaze ashamedly to the ground, even as Ele glared daggers at her mother.

“I’m sorry Mama. I didn’t mean to harm the family’s name.” She said quietly. Her mother put her hand under Elena’s chin and lifted her head until she met her gaze.

“It’s alright my child. You will pass through this phase someday. You have done more for this family than the past three generations, and one day the Luccianos will be known throughout all of Italoza because of you. It is my responsibility to help you do that, and I can only hope that you do not hate me for it.”

Elena was silent as she climbed into the cart after her mother and Ele.

How could I possibly hate Mama? It’s not her fault that my mind is muddled and crazed. Even if I was sane and just pretending, she’s far more patient than she has to be. She settled back into her seat and kept her eyes firmly fixed on the floor of the cart. Her mother thinking her childish was bad enough; Elena couldn’t bear it if Joanna discovered that she was actually mad.

“I don’t like your mother very much.” Ele stated flatly.

The cart not only moved well on the repaired wheel, it rode even smoother for the rest of their trip. The bumps and jostles of stones and ruts were absorbed by the flexible grain, and the driver looked back and gave her a grin and a thumbs up.

Elena couldn’t quite find it in herself to feel proud.

Next Chapter


13 responses

  1. DeNarr

    Hmm, “imaginary” friends always make me wonder why they don’t just prove that they are real. Have the friend standing behind someone, and let them know how many fingers they are holding. Or read a piece of paper from another room. Unless she really is just crazy :P


    2014-08-21 at 1:47 pm

    • Ethan Smith

      Logically someone would realize that if that friend was really imaginary they couldn’t teach them how to tie a knot they’d never heard of – But then I’m guess her mother has stomped out any notion in her that he could be real through physical and emotional abuse


      2019-07-07 at 9:08 pm

  2. I was wondering why their names were so similar…


    2014-09-05 at 11:22 am

  3. archaeocyatha

    A great start! One critique: I found the scrolling of the text on stationary background really hard to read


    2014-09-09 at 6:51 pm

    • Huh…I’d never thought about the scrolling text on stationary background before…I might have to look into making the background scroll at the same speed, if that’s hard to read.

      Thanks for the heads up


      2014-09-09 at 11:41 pm

      • Go into your CSS, and then modify
        positioning: fixed
        positioning: static.

        Your background will start repeating itself, but it will stay stationary.

        Looks like even the programmer/creator of such a complicated website can forget how to code sometimes XD


        2014-10-24 at 9:55 pm

        • Not quite “forget” :D vanilla wordpress doesn’t give us access to our CSS unfortunately. I’ve been considering whether to upgrade or just move the whole shebang,


          2014-10-25 at 10:58 am

  4. I think we can all just agree that her mom is a biiiiiiitch (but à la Key & Peele’s “I Said Bitch” sketch, because this is not a woman I’m saying anything to her face).

    I’m half and half on hoping there’d been a change between when Elena talks to Ele and when she talks to anyone else. On one hand, it threw me a tiny bit when she was in the field. On the other, it gave me that neat twist, you had dialogue tags the whole time, and maybe I shouldn’t whine about a small detail that’s been explained enough for me to follow along. It’s even on both sides, really. :P


    2015-04-13 at 7:37 am

  5. Call me Qrow

    In regards to her mother, people like that…really tick me off.


    2015-04-13 at 9:37 pm

  6. Zephy669

    Following this!
    I loved the surprise with the friend. Unexpected and gave me a jolt when the reveal happened. Awesome.


    2015-05-05 at 9:38 pm

    • Thanks! I’m really glad to hear you’re enjoying it!


      2015-05-06 at 11:19 pm

  7. Pingback: Interview with Chris Poirier | t4nky

  8. Pingback: 27 Free Steampunk and Cyberpunk Web Serials and Ebooks

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