To be completely honest, this is my first foray into anything that resembles romance in my fiction. It’s kind of exciting to get to that point, that my characters are believable enough in my head that they can love each other. That might sound strange to other writers more familiar with romance, but I’ve literally had to craft these two to resemble something compatible to my mind. All in all, I didn’t want the “hopeless princess in a tower” for Aria, and I didn’t want the “hopeless self-pitying boyfriend” for Lenn.
I hope I do them justice in the final product.
“What do you know about them, anyway?”
Aria was looking directly at him. Great. Like always, he hadn’t been listening when she started.
Lenn looked about the kitchen before angling his well-worn crutches towards the old cobble stove. It wasn’t the first time he’d been distracted by his “trick” leg and an empty stomach, and it wouldn’t be the last. Unable to kneel, he bent as far forwards as his whittled wooden supports would allow. The cast-iron lid was thick, cumbersome. But he hoisted it, held it up as he struck a piece of red phosphorous, the tip of an old denvi matchstick, against the rough stone. It erupted into flame, and he tossed it into the tinder pile waiting within.
“Who? What are we talking about?”
“The wophetun,” Aria said.
Lenn shrugged, watching the tiny flame grow within the rocky vessel. Satisfied, he cautiously let the lid fall.
“I know they don’t like being called that,” he said.
“Because that’s Wakèya’s word for them, remember?”
“Fine,” Aria said, her eyes rolling a bit; it always annoyed her how much the rest of the village preferred their own language. As if to spite them, she switched the conversation to English: “The caravaners, then.”
“I don’t know much,” he said, switching to English himself. “Only know what Grandmother told me about them.”
Leaning one crutch against the stove and himself on the other, he opened the rickety cupboard door. Three clay vessels, each crafted by a skilled hand. He lifted them all, uncorked them, shook them. All empty, save for a single small spill of vegetable oil remaining within the smallest.
“I talked to one of them, once, when I was little. He liked my crutches. Grandmother let me trade with him, gave me some paper and pencil lead for some of Grandmother’s cherry jam. Seemed like a decent dení.”
“But would they help us?” Aria asked. Lenn caught a glimpse of her, and she appeared uneasy. “Would they take us in, if we asked?”
“Yeah, I’m sure they would. They protect whole families on the trail, so I’m sure they would be able to take care of just the two of us.”
Beside the stove was a small satchel, a wrapped piece of linen Aria had brought home for them both after the morning lesson. With a wince, he stood on his own two feet for a moment, careful not to let a single flake of the cornmeal within the bundle fall to the dirt floor. It wasn’t a lot of food. But it was enough to combine with the last of oil. Before the stove became too hot, he mashed the mix together with his bare hands, playing with the misshapen lump like a child with a mud pie.
“We would need to offer something to them in return, though.”
Aria stood and lighted across the kitchen, her light-blue dress floating gracefully about her as she did so. Compared to Lenn, she was a feather in the wind, a beautiful petal from an apple tree. Her earthenware complexion spoke volumes on how much time she spent walking back and forth between their little hovel-of-a-home and the village, though not strictly out of the pleasure of it.
Many years ago, the elders had forced her Grandmother to build her home away from the cramped and defensible confines of the village walls. When Grandmother died of heart failure, Aria’s brother Xande had claim to her home (their mother and father having long since passed on themselves). And when Xande died, Aria claimed the home in turn. She “inherited” Lenn too, in a similar way. They weren’t family, not really. He was just a stray. She had every right to kick him out and move on with her life. She should have done as the mothers always suggested, though never to her face: “She should get rid of that ugly, crooked thing before he buries her.” Many years before, they had hated each other’s guts. But they had been bratty little children, then. Now, at the age of sixteen, she loved him. And at the age of seventeen, he loved her. In his condition, Lenn was glad to have a roof—any roof—over his head. That he shared that roof with the one he called “asha” meant more to him than oxygen.
Not that he could admit that to anyone else in the village. To the gatherers. To Elder Wakèya. According to their rules, he was not hers to claim. But they lived far enough away that maybe, just maybe, their rules wouldn’t apply; after all, Lenn was just an “ugly, crooked thing,” barely dení at all. Maybe they could just ignore everyone else.
“What are you thinking?” Lenn asked, noticing her pensive expression.
She knelt down and opened a small wooden box beside her Grandmother’s old things, beside the old threadbare quilt and dried pieces of old card-stock paper, handwritten notes on gardening and all things green. It took her only a moment to rummage through the pile of moldering memories.
“Maybe they would accept this?” she asked.
Lenn looked, and nearly choked on his own spit. In her hands she held out Grandmother’s prized possession. The one thing Grandmother never showed to any other dení in their village, long as she lived: a massive emerald gemstone, large enough to fit neatly in Aria’s outstretched hands. It had belonged to Grandmother’s parents, many decades before: a symbol of their vows. Shining deep within its many polished facets was the most beautiful viridian hue. A flawless denvi masterpiece.
Lenn would have smacked it out of her grasp if he knew for certain it wouldn’t somehow shatter.
“Asha, are you mad?” Lenn began to laugh, immediately leaning to take the gem away. “I said offer them ‘something,’ not the most valuable thing we have!”
“Aya! You keep those filthy hands to yourself, you animal!” She smacked his arm and jumped back, far enough that Lenn couldn’t chase her without his crutches. She shined the flawless gemstone with the hem of her dress as though he had actually dared to tarnish its reflection with his filthy fingers. “It was just a suggestion!”
“Uh-huh! A bad one!” Lenn said, grinning at her reaction. “I was thinking of working for them for a while. Cooking, cleaning, fixing things. They used to accept labor in return like that. They probably still do.”
“Better working for them than Wakèya,” Aria said with a sigh, returning the gem to its box. “What about teaching? Maka knows it’s the only thing you’re good for.”
“Hey now.” Lenn motioned to the small lump that had begun to spit on the cobble stove. “I can do more than that. What’s it look like I’m doing?”
“You look like you’re making a mess,” she said, walking right up to him.
Before he even had a chance to mock her in return, she leaned in close. She tugged at his shirt to pull him down and she kissed him. He paused, balancing on his good leg and simply allowed himself to enjoy her lips. She did the same. Gentle, longing. Privately, almost, even though no other dení in their right mind would dare wander beyond the village walls after sundown.
They dared the moment to last longer. Dared it to set them both free. But even in the shadows of their own home, they couldn’t belong to each other. As they separated, Aria’s eyes fell to the floor, even as he yearned for her gaze to match his.
“Se’k ondia,” she whispered to him in Denaye.
I love you. The third time she had ever said it aloud. And the second time she had meant it.
“Se’k ondia, asha,” he whispered back in Denaye.
I love you, my living heart. The third time he had ever said it out loud. But perhaps the thousandth time he had meant it.
“I’m scared,” she said, wrapping her arms around his waist. Her eyes fell on the small cornmeal cake upon the cobble stove. “I don’t know why, but… this feels like the end.”
“It isn’t,” Lenn said. He embraced her back, careful not to dirty her dress with his corn-and-oil hands. Her hair always smelled like sundried apples; just another thing he’d always loved about her. “It isn’t at all. When we find the caravaners, we’ll pay them to help us find a place of our own. A peaceful place. We won’t have to worry about gatherers, mothers, elders. Nobody. Nobody but us.”
“You’ll find us a beautiful place to live, right?” Asha rested her head on his chest. “With tall trees? Wildflowers. Clean, rushing water.” She raised up to look into his eyes. “And smiling happy children.”
“The happiest,” Lenn said with a chuckle. “I promise.”
“You better keep that promise, nanol’kani.”
Crooked little boy: a mixture of words that only she could get away with calling him.
Lenn’s arms immediately uncurled, and he gently caressed his beautiful asha’s face with a single greasy and stale-smelling hand. She cried out in horror, shoving him away. Though he caught himself from collapsing by hanging onto the crooked cupboard, he thought he might have ruined the moment. That is, until she grabbed him by his arms to keep them from rising and gave him a second swift kiss upon his lips.
“You’re lucky I love you so much, saika!” she said.
What she used to call him: idiot.
“Ke’s phodi,” Lenn said back with a smirk.
He knew it only too well.