~Lighting the Way to Tomorrow~
Lumina was always shrouded in a cape of perpetual dusk. The horizon was stained with violets and dark pinks; it was the only sunlight citizens had seen in years without leaving for some other town. Overhead, the stars glittered against a field of midnight blue.
The Wisdoms told stories of how things were before the catastrophic war that tore the world asunder. They said that Lumina had been a normal city, like Geo and the once pristine Jumi empire. It had been a time when sunlight danced along the narrow streets, peeking into all of the shadowy places and bringing warmth into the hearts of all. Now, only darkness resided. But most agreed that they much preferred the night and the multitude of colored lights that were strewn along the streets to the harsh light of day.
The "Lamps Limelight" was a small shop situated in a tight little corner between some houses and a stone formation that served as a natural wall. This was an inconvenient location for the owner because not many people even knew of its existence. But choice locations were costly, and for the time being, this was all that could be afforded.
The small store also doubled as a house. In the back was a tiny kitchen, a table with two chairs, and a wash closet. Upstairs, in a room that was almost an attic, was a little bed that resembled more of a nest. From the cramped appearance of the living quarters, it seemed that every available space was being used for materials used in making lamps. Altogether, the house, as well as the store itself, seemed cluttered.
Monique loved it.
Her beautiful face peered out from the storefront display and heaved a large sigh. It looked like Gilbert wasn't coming today. She let the decorative curtain fall back into place, fluttering away from the window and back to her work table. She picked up a seashell and carefully drilled a hole through part of it so that fixative could be dripped through. With careful hands, she attached the seashell to the top of a specially made bottle, affixing it with a clear paste that would dry hard as a rock.
The siren moved back, her wings twitching a bit as she concentrated on the finished product. The seashell was a delicate pink, and the whorls and twirls of it gave way to peach and pearly white. The glass bottle was pale blue, and fashioned to look like waves. When lit with the souls of faeries, the lamp would glow, each part coming to life with a radiance that was almost magical in and of itself.
"But it's missing something," she said to herself, placing one hand on her hip and an index finger to the side of her chin. "I wonder what, though..." At last, she shook her head. "Oh, well. I guess I'll come back to this one later." Gently she lifted the little lamp and put it on one of the side shelves to set properly. Beside it were other lamps of various styles and make, fashioned out of odds and ends she had fused together to create no two piece exactly the same.
It had been six days since she started working on these new ones. Six long days of being cooped up inside the shop. She missed the cool breeze on her face and the stars twinkling over head. But most of all, she missed Gilbert.
How to describe him... Well, if she had to, she could say that he was a funny sort of fellow, the type who seemed to be an impossible flirt. He looked so comical in his pointy green and red hat with the tip sagging, and his long donkey ears poking out through special holes made just for that purpose. His jacket matched his hat but fit oddly over his half-equine frame. He was often found strumming on his lute, or singing some love song slightly off-key outside her window, usually late at night when she just wanted to sleep. But his heart was in the right place, she guessed.
They had been seeing each other on and off for quite a while now, but lately, Monique had begun to notice a change in his behavior. Last week had been their one-year anniversary. And while not quite as long as other couples she knew, for Monique it was the longest relationship she'd ever had. Gilbert had lured her away from the confines of her store to their little lover's retreat on a ledge overlooking a crumbled old chapel and some of the lower parts of Lumina. There they had a conversation that was still resounding in her ears.
"Baby, let's run away together, just you and me! Whaddya say?"
"Oh my, Gilbert! That's a sudden request."
"C'mon! The world is out there, just waiting for us. Don't you want to see the world?"
"Well, yes...Someday. Maybe when my lamps are famous."
"Don't frown, my sugar-pet. Your lamps are the envy of kings and queens!"
"But we don't have kings and queens anymore..."
"Your lamps will sell like hot cakes in Geo. I heard there are wealthy artisans there who'd appreciate your fine craftsmanship and my music."
"I don't know, Gilbert. I like my little shop."
"My love, you're not thinking big."
Monique shook her head. Sometimes, she really felt like Gilbert didn't understand her at all. Or maybe she just didn't understand him? He was always so full of excitement and adventure, which was part of the reason why she liked him so much. Her world was a small one in comparison to the one he always spoke of. This was her domain; just four walls and the lamps that were waiting to find homes. His home was the open road. Travel, adventure...She didn't need these things as badly as he did.
"Maybe someday," the siren said to herself. "But not now."
To be perfectly honest, she just didn't have the money to do much of anything at the moment. All her spare funds went into the gathering of materials for her lamps. She couldn't even remember the last time she'd had a decent meal, and not the lumpy grits she had to eat day after day. It was the only thing she could afford. She couldn't even buy butter or honey to cut the bland flavor. Gilbert said he loved it just the same, on the rare occasions he stayed for dinner. Monique supposed that this was because he was half donkey, and it reminded him of something found in a feedbag.
The chime over the door sounded, and a runty looking mouse-man in a detective's outfit wandered in, smoking a pipe. Monique coughed a bit, not used to being around anyone who smoked. "C-Can I help you?" she wheezed, covering her mouth to try and keep her coughing to a minimum.
The stranger looked over at her. "Hmm? Oh, no. I'm here on a routine inspection. Take no notice of me. Carry on, carry on."
Now the siren was puzzled. "Inspection? Inspection for what?" A thought struck her, and she placed her hands on her hips. "Wait, if this is about the rent, I told Madame Pholly I'd have it to her by the end of this week."
The mouse-man grunted. "Not quite. The name's Inspector Boyd, of the Domina PD. I'm investigating a rash of recent jewel thefts. I've been going from store to store, seeing if anyone has any information regarding the thief." He puffed some more on his pipe and poked at one of the lamps. "I see that you use jewels in your craft. Care to explain how you got them, miss?"
"They're not real jewels," Monique stated with a prim tone of voice. "They're colored glass. I'm much too poor to afford real gems."
"I see." Boyd pulled out a small notebook and a pencil. "Do you mind if I take your name down, miss?" he asked around the pipe, which was clenched firmly between his teeth.
Monique frowned, feathers ruffling in displeasure. "Yes, I do mind! What's this all about? You can't seriously suspect me to be the jewel thief!"
"Just routine, ma'am," Boyd replied, nonplused.
"My name's Monique," the siren said in an unhappy tone of voice. "I've lived here for about two years now, and you can ask anyone around town and they'll tell you that I'm not the person you're looking for."
Boyd scribbled all that down. "Maybe so. But I'm just doing my job. Gotta keep the streets safe for honest folk. If you're everything you claim to be, you should have nothing to worry about, right?" Closing the notebook, he stuffed it back into his coat, along with the pencil. "Have a nice day." With that, he turned around and marched out as abruptly as he'd arrived.
"Well, of all the nerve!" Monique went over the window and watched Boyd wander off down the street. "Hmph! The rudeness of some people amazes me!" She pushed open the door to air out the smell of tobacco. "He should know better to smoke inside someone's store! I hope this doesn't upset my lamps." She gave a heavy sigh. "Not that anyone buys them anyway..."
The breeze was refreshing as it washed away the smell of the odious pipe the mouse-man had brought with him. Monique drunk it in, letting the moment ease her troubled mind somewhat. She closed her eyes and leaned her head to the side against the door frame.
I wish Gilbert were here...
Opening her eyes, the siren saw a strange looking young woman with painted sticks in her blonde hair. From the way she was dressed, it was clear that she was a fighter, even if the spear strapped to her back wasn't a big enough giveaway. The girl was smiling sheepishly, with one arm behind her head.
"I know this is going to sound, like, really dumb and all, but I'm sorta lost. This is my first time here and all the streets are starting to look the same," she said with a laugh.
Monique straightened up, offering back a hesitant smile herself. "Sometimes that happens. Where are you going?"
The girl dropped the arm behind her head back to her side and patted her money pouch. "I whacked a few baddies and now I'm looking for a place to spend my money. Can you direct me to the weapon's shop?"
For a moment, Monique's hopes had risen at the mention of money, but they dropped again after hearing the rest. "Oh. Well, the store you're looking for is called 'El Hazardous'. You need head back to the street, follow it to the entrance and over the bridge, then go straight past the pub. It should be the last shop on that street, on the corner of a cul-de-sac."
The stranger grinned. "Thanks!"
Monique sighed again. "Don't mention it."
The woman warrior cocked her head to the side. "Is something the matter?"
Monique blinked. "No...not really."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be nosey. It's just, you looked so sad for a moment."
"Did I? Well...oh, it's nothing."
The siren blushed. "I'm not in the habit of discussing personal problems with complete strangers." She hoped the other woman would take the hint and drop the subject, but the girl didn't seem to know when to quit.
"Well, that can be corrected." The stranger wiped her right hand off on her pants to make sure it was clean. Then she offered it for a handshake. "I'm Angelique, though my friends call me Angel."
"I'm Monique, the lamp maker." She hesitantly placed her delicate hand in Angel's, unprepared for the near crushing grip. Somehow she managed to smile through the pain. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Ditto. So, now that we're not strangers anymore, why not tell me what's gotten you so blue?"
Monique extracted her hand and covertly rubbed it behind her back. "Why don't you come inside? I really must get back to my craft, but I can talk while I work." She stepped aside and allowed her guest to enter the shop, closing the door behind them.
Angel's face lit up with wonder as she wandered around the store. "Wow! They're all so beautiful! Did you make them all yourself?
Monique beamed with pleasure. "Yes, I did."
"What a hard worker you must be! And what a talented artist." Angel laughed. "I tried to make a pot for my room mate, Li'l Cactus, for his birthday. I got the clay and the paint and everything. But in the end, it looked more like- Well, we won't go into what it looked like. Suffice it to say, I don't have a shred of creative talent in my body."
"Aww, don't be so hard on yourself!"
"I'm not. I'm only telling the truth."
"Well, if it's any consolation, I'm not exactly a marketing genius myself."
"What do you mean?"
"My lamps aren't selling too well." Monique flapped away from the door and over to her work table. She gathered some polished cat's eye stones from a basket and proceeded to glue them together with smoky quartz. "Making them is easy enough. I gather odds and ends from all over the place. Stuff that people want to throw out, I collect to make my different designs. But what's the use of it all if no one buys them?" She finished that job and bent down to hunt for some gold-colored wire. "All these lamps need good homes. If they aren't sold, I'll have to quit my job and go work for someone else."
"That's terrible! Don't say things like that!" Angel got down on her hands and knees to peer under the table while Monique searched. "You'll find a way to make ends meet. Don't even think about quitting!"
The siren shook her head. "You don't understand. I don't want to give up my job, but without money, I can't pay the rent. I'm behind as it is. And I won't be able to buy some of my more expensive instruments." She found what she was looking for and resumed working. She carefully bent the wire into a five-pointed star. "I thought my lamps would be more popular here. Was I wrong? I don't know. Maybe I should close this shop...go to some other town..."
Suddenly, the door was flung open wide. It hit the wall with a bang, making the lamps on the side rattle on their shelves. Angel's hand few to her spear, which poked over her right shoulder. Monique had a moment to be alarmed by the girl's aggressive behavior before her face lit up with happiness at who was standing in the doorway.
"Gilbert!" she cried.
The centaur had positioned himself into a dramatic pose. "Yes, it is I! Over burning sands and furious waves, my love carried me to your door!"
"Well, that was an overly dramatic entrance." Angel sounded like she was trying hard not to laugh. "Your friend, I presume?"
Monique blushed, realizing how silly Gilbert was acting. "Y-yes."
"Friend? FRIEND?! Monique and I are more than that, by far! She is my love, my amour, my pumpkin-pie! If her eyes be jewels, why, they are the purest and most radiant of sapphires."
"Uh huh." The warrior woman lowered her arm and turned to the siren. "Well, I guess he's not much of a threat. Unless he keeps spouting bad poetry, that is."
Monique offered an apologetic shrug, privately reminding herself to speak to Gilbert about embarrassing her in front of a guest. Out loud, she asked, "What brings you here, Gilbert?"
"To see you, of course. I couldn't help but overhear you speaking to this person. Is it true that you're thinking of selling your store and moving away?"
"Yes, I have been considering it, lately."
Gilbert kicked the door shut with his hind hoof and clop-clopped his way over, wringing his hands. "Oh no, my love! Don't say such a crazy thing! Are you saying that you're leaving your poet of love, Gilbert?" He threw his left arm over his eyes, face contorting as if in terrible pain. "I can't live without looking up at the starry sky with you by my side!"
Angel leaned closer to Monique. "Does he always act like this?" she asked out of the corner of her mouth.
The siren ignored her and gave Gilbert a stern look. "You know that I'm not making much money here. It's easy for you to talk about love when you're not the one paying the bills. Without people to buy my lamps, I'm going to starve to death! I have to think about what is best for me and my business." Then her expression softened. "But...if at all possible...I will try and stay here with you."
Gilbert's face lit up like a firework going off at her words. "Hearing you say that makes my heart sing with rapturous joy! But you're right. People don't appreciate your talents. We must think of a way to get them interested in your lamps." He paused for a moment, rubbing his chin as he crossed his front hooves in thought. Suddenly, he snapped his fingers. "I have the perfect solution!"
"This ought to be good," Angel muttered with a smirk.
Monique cleared her throat. "Go ahead, Gilbert."
"Okay, listen to this, my love. Since the people won't come to your lamps, the lamps must go to the people. What you need is advertisement!"
"Yes! No one has heard of you, all the way in this backwater ghetto. You need someone to go out and spread the word about how fantastic your lamps are. Before you know it, there'll be customers beating down your door!"
"And how am I supposed to advertise?"
"By letting me sell your lamps for you!" Gilbert puffed out his chest, proudly. "You may not have realized this, sugar-dumpling, but your poet of love is a master marketer. I'll sell those lamps and be back with the money faster than you can say 'take me, I'm yours!' Then, you can treat me to a fancy dinner for all my hard work. Whaddya say to that, baby?"
"Well! That's...very nice of you."
The siren could feel a sweat drop rolling down the side of her face. She looked between the smug-looking centaur to her unexpected guest, who was trying desperately hard to keep a straight face. Monique tried to force her mind to come up with something, anything, to say in response to that idea, but she was left floundering in a sea of doubt. She hadn't particularly liked having her home called a "backwater ghetto", or Gilbert's condescending attitude about the whole ordeal. She knew he was just trying to be helpful, and that he probably didn't realize how he sounded, but his words made her feel a bit hurt.
Oblivious to everything but his own little world, Gilbert took up Monique's hands in his. He placed a loud kiss on the backs of her knuckles and grinned. "Wait for me right there, my darling. Here begins our beautiful love story!" Dropping her hands, he gave a grandiose bow, which looked rather comical due to his equine frame. Spinning around, he clip-clopped his way back out of the store.
For a moment, the two women stood in silence, just staring at the door. At last, Angel spoke. "Um...he walked out without the lamps."
Monique sighed. "Yes, I noticed that too." She grimaced and turned away from the door. "He means well."
"You sound as if you're trying to convince yourself of that," Angel replied, cocking an eyebrow with a meaningful look at the siren. "Are you sure that you're in love with this Gilbert guy?"
"Th-that's not true!" Monique reached under the counter and pulled out a large wicker basket. "Gilbert is a nice person at heart!" Then she remembered his fiasco just a few moments ago. "Well, I guess he can be a little weird." Changing the topic, she asked, "If I pack up the lamps, would you mind going after him? He can't have gone far."
The female warrior shrugged, her hair sticks bouncing against her shoulders. "Sure, I guess. I have to head back towards the front of town anyway if I want to go the that weapon's shop."
"Thank you." The siren moved about her store, looking over her more recent projects. Six small lamps were selected and carefully wrapped in plain white cloth, secured with a single green ribbon. The lamp maker settled them gently onto a pillow she had stuffed into the basket as a cushion. Monique felt a surge of apprehension as she handed over her wares to the strange girl. "You will take care of them, right?"
Angel looked slightly wounded. "Of course! I'm not a thief."
That brought to mind Inspector Boyd's visit from earlier, but Monique didn't mention it. Instead, she clasped her hands in front of her and worried her bottom lip with her teeth. "I do hope they sell..."
"I'm sure they will," Angel smiled. "But not if I continue standing here." She made her way to the door, awkwardly trying to open it and balance the heavy basket at the same time. Eventually, she managed and squeezed through.
Alone once again, the siren fluttered back behind her worktable and picked up the piece she had just been making. It felt strange in her hands, and it was then that she admitted to herself that she felt rather nervous. Setting it aside, she folded her hands together and offered a little prayer to whoever might be listening. "Please, please let them sell!"
* * * * * * * *
"Oh, you, the traveler there!"
As predicted, Gilbert hadn't gone far. In fact, he hadn't gone anywhere. Angel rolled her eyes as she caught sight of him standing only a few feet from the shop. "Hey, lover boy, forget something back there?" She held up the basket meaningfully.
Gilbert had the decency to look embarrassed as he scuffed his right front hoof on the cobblestones in front of him. "Yes, well, I was so enthusiastic in carrying out my mission that it sorta slipped my mind."
"Uh huh. Right." The warrior wasn't too fond of the centaur one little bit. She didn't like the way he had treated Monique back in the shop, and couldn't understand why such a seemingly nice girl would ever put up with him. Still, it wasn't her place to judge. She handed over the lamps, making sure his grip on them was steady before she released the handle. "Anyway, that's that. Later." She began to walk away.
"Wait! Aren't you going to help me?"
Angel spared a glance over her shoulder. "Uh, I'm not the one in love with her." She kept walking.
Chasing after her, Gilbert grabbed her arm. "C'mon! Let's go sell these six lamps for her. You can't leave Monique in distress like this, can you?"
"Sounds like you're the only one in distress right now, pal. You're just like a lot of guys. You make big promises and then can't back them up. And by the way, if you want to keep that hand, I'd suggest removing it from my arm right now."
He did so with haste. "It's just a good thing my butter-booger is so gentle. I don't know what I'd do with someone as violent as you."
"Probably die very fast."
"That's not funny."
"It's not supposed to be." Before Gilbert could work up a really good whine, Angel held up her hands. "Okay, okay! I'm sorry. So what did you want me to do?"
His countenance brightened. "Then, you'll help me?"
"Yeah...You'd probably bungle the whole thing if left on your own."
"Excellent!" Fishing out three packages, he shoved them into Angel's arms. "Here, you take those. I'll buy my share, but you go sell the rest, okay?"
"C'mon! It won't be so hard. This is the city of eternal night! Lamps are an indispensable commodity around here. Just walk around for a little while and I'm sure you'll come across someone who looks worthy enough to own one of my darling's beautiful works of art."
Angel looked dubious as she adjusted her arms around the packages, trying to keep them from slipping. "You really thought this out well, didn't you?"
Gilbert nodded. "Of course! I pride myself on my awesome foresight."
"I was being sarcastic." If he heard her or just ignored the comment, she couldn't tell.
Gilbert faced towards the front of town and pointed. "You should probably start back that way. Those are the busiest streets. Each lamp should sell for one thousand Lucre, and not a coin less. Unless you'd like to buy them?"
Angel laughed. "Sorry, but I don't have that kind of money. I just started adventuring, and the monsters I've killed don't pay all that well. I think I'll pass, for now."
"Oh, really? That's a shame. I bet you wish you had someone like me to help you out of your poverty, don't you?"
"Whatever. Are you paying three thousand for yours?"
Gilbert drew himself up stiffly. "Of course! What do you take me for?"
Someone who likes to take advantage of Monique's financial trouble in an attempt to weasel your way into her heart. If he had that much money just lying around, he could have helped Monique a long time ago. That knowledge made Angelique dislike him even more. For Monique's sake, she would do this, but she vowed to let the lamp maker know what sort of person Gilbert really was when the job was finished.
"I really do appreciate this," he continued. "You're such a good sport, willing to help out with my love!"
"Um...yeah. I just don't want Monique to have to stop making her lamps. She'd be unhappy, and the world would be deprived of her talent."
"That's the spirit!" Gilbert cheered. His eyes turned inward to a picture only he could see as he held out his arms to nothing. "Soon, my angel of the night! Soon we will become one! Oh, Monique! How I long to hold you in my arms!"
Angel adjusted her grip on the lamps again, terrified of the prospect of having to pay one thousand Lucre for every one that she dropped. "And where will you be, lover boy, while I'm off doing your work for you?"
He looked at her as if she were a dimwitted child. "Why, right here, of course! Where else would I be?" Then he made a shooing motion with his hands. "Hop to it, now. The longer you delay, the longer Monique's love for me must be put on hold."
Sighing for what felt like the millionth time that day, Angel asked herself how in the world she had gotten mixed up in all this garbage when all she had been looking for was a weapon's store to begin with.
* * * * * * * *
Monique found that she couldn't sit still. She had finished her second lamp of the day, but found that she just couldn't focus on making a third. "Just relax," she told herself. "Gilbert won't let you down." But even as she said that, she had a peculiar sinking feeling in the center of her stomach. Setting aside a decorative gold ribbon, the siren decided that she really needed a cup of tea to calm her nerves.
"It isn't that I don't trust him," she murmured on her way to the kitchen. "I know that Gilbert means well. It's just that this is a big deal, and he is so...so..." Arrogant, boastful, irresponsible, careless, thoughtless... She couldn't find a word that didn't sound unseemly. But he really is a good person. And he's out there doing what I was too scared to do myself.
Reaching into a cabinet, she withdrew a small, white cloth sack. This tea was one of the few luxuries she allowed herself. As she opened the tie that secured the top, the pungent aroma of oranges and spice filled the air. She paused for a minute and held the bag close to her face, just breathing deeply. This was her favorite blend. It always made her think of the tropical shores of Madora Beach and the seaside cafe at Polpota Harbor where she had first fallen in love with the brew.
Those had been happier days, before she knew just how cold the real world was. Back then, she had been a mere fledgling trying to test her wings for the first time. She'd had dreams, hundreds of them, and each one more complex and unrealistic than the last. She'd believed that there was nothing she couldn't do if she worked hard enough.
Lowering the bag from her face, the smell dwindled somewhat, like dreams that submerged at the first hint of wakefulness. Spooning some of the tea into a dented copper kettle, she poured some water in and set it over the small hearth. Adding a sparse amount of wood, she put some kindling over it and tossed on a match. Sitting down in one of the chairs, Monique folded her arms on the kitchen table and laid her head on top of them.
I wonder if Gilbert has dreams? she mused, closing her eyes and pulling up a picture of his roguish face. What sort of things does a person like him wish for? His life is already so full of adventure and excitement. Does he wish for love? Maybe just somewhere to rest after long days and nights of traveling? In some ways, I envy him. I have only seen a small portion of the world, and experienced so little of the wonders I'm sure are out there. But in other ways, I feel sorry for him. He's always in motion, and yet, he seems so...directionless, like a kite broken free of its tether. He goes where the wind takes him. It must be sad, not having a place you can feel firmly attached to.
But then again, attachment carried its own dangers. Could someone like that be truly happy with just one person, staying in one place for the rest of his life? She sighed and opened her eyes. No, Gilbert was not the type who would relish the thought of being confined in such a small town. Already he disappeared for days, sometimes weeks at a time. To where, Monique wasn't certain. She didn't deceive herself. She knew that Gilbert was a notorious flirt, and that he probably didn't mean half of what he said to her. Maybe he even had more than one woman on the side. But at the same time, his words were not unwelcome. He was there for her when she needed him, and that in itself was its own special kind of love.
The tea kettle started to whistle. Pushing those thoughts aside for the moment, the lamp maker rose and used a dishrag to carefully lift the tea away from the fire. She poured it into a chipped earthenware mug and set the kettle aside. The pottery grew warm from the liquid, and fragrant steam wafted from the top as she held it between her palms and stared into the amber depths. A single tea stalk floated upright. She smiled. Rumor had it, that was a good omen. Maybe things were starting to look up.
Just as she was about to take a drink, she heard a strange whooping noise from outside her shop. Concerned, she left her tea forgotten as she went to check it out. Peering through the front window, she saw a very animated Gilbert doing some sort of dance. Beside him was a very put-out looking Angel, and Monique had to wonder what sort of nonsense he had dragged the poor girl into. In the warrior's hand was the wicker basket Monique had given her, and it appeared to be empty. Elation sang through her veins, but she did her best to conceal it as the duo began heading for her front door. Moving back to her work table, the siren tried to remain calm and composed.
Gilbert entered first with his usual flourish. He nearly galloped his way through the shop and skidded to a halt which somehow melded into a deep bow. Angel followed sullenly behind him and shut the door. Then she walked over and deposited the basket on the work table.
Monique cocked her head to one side. "Well, you're back sooner than I expected, Gilbert. And Angel, what brings you back here?"
Angel opened her mouth to reply, but the centaur interjected. "Never mind her! It's now time to open your heart to me, sweet Monique!" he announced.
The lamp maker blinked. "Er...what?"
"Ah, my strawberry! Is it not obvious? We sold all six of your lamps!"
"Oh my! That is wonderful!" Monique couldn't hide her happiness at the news.
Angel growled low in her throat. "Excuse me? Who sold the lamps?"
Gilbert turned to her with a disdainful expression. "It doesn't matter who sold them, so long as they got sold."
The warrior girl clenched her fists. "That's easy for you to say! You're not the one who got stuck talking to those creepy, dirty, hairy little-"
"Anyway," Monique interjected, "I'm just happy that you found that many buyers for my lamps."
Gilbert puffed himself up importantly. "I told you, I'm a master marketer! But you put your heart into making them, baby. Of course they sold!" He reached into his coat pocket and removed a jingling coin purse. "Six thousand Lucre, all for my beloved!" He dropped the purse on the table.
Monique stared at it for a while with large eyes before gingerly picking it up. She opened it and gaped at the glittering gold inside. "I...I've never seen so much money in my whole life!" She looked up. "But how-"
Gilbert waved the question aside. "Simple. I just sold them for a thousand Lucre each."
"Who sold them?" Angel repeated, crossing her arms over her chest.
"But my lamps aren't worth nearly that much! You over charged everyone!" Monique's expression was one of dawning horror. What had she allowed Gilbert to do to her reputation as a respectable shopkeeper?
Angel stepped in before Gilbert could open his mouth. "Relax, Monique. Everything is fine. The Dudbears didn't seem to mind paying that price."
"Dudbears?" Monique echoed.
"DUDBEARS?!" Gilbert roared. He turned on Angel, waving his arms in all directions. "You sold my daffodil's lovely lamps to those flea-bitten, good-for-nothing, midget miners?! You must be mad! I thought you found some sort of rich merchant or philanthropist. How can those filthy creatures ever hope to appreciate something as wonderful as a lamp made by the lily-white hands of my love-muffin?"
Angel got in his face. "Hey, pal. You just told me to go sell them, and I did that. If you don't like it, do it yourself next time." To Monique, she added, "I'm sorry if the buyers aren't to your liking."
"Oh, no! It's nothing like that!" The siren hastened to assure her. "I was just surprised, that's all. I never knew that Dudbears liked lamps. Maybe I've discovered a new customer base to sell to here in Lumina."
Gilbert's eyes lit up. "Does that mean-"
"Yes." Monique paused to smile at the two of them. "I have decided that I shall stay here longer as the lamp maker." She felt a laugh bubbling in her chest and let it out with joy. "With this money, I can buy more supplies and pay the rent for at least two years! This day has brought me more happiness than I could ever hope for."
Angel reached out and awkwardly patter the other woman's shoulder. "Well, if anyone deserves happiness, it's you. You've earned it, I think." She giggled. "Three cheers for the lamp maker of Lumina!"
But Gilbert shook his head. "No, not just a lamp maker." He roughly elbowed Angelique out of the way so that he could lean across the table towards Monique and take her hands in his. "Oh, darling! You shall be the sunlight that will brighten my world!"
The siren felt her heart softening, as she looked into Gilbert's earnest face. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe a person like him really can form attachments. "Gilbert..."
"Come on, my love! Let's go out to feel the shower of stars above us! The world was created just so this day could happen!"
Angel smirked. "I always thought the end of the world would have a lot less mush."
Gilbert glared in her direction. "You can stay here to mind the store until we come back."
"Oh, that's not really necessary." Monique chuckled. "You've done so much for me already, I couldn't possibly ask you to do more!"
The centaur placed a hand over his heart, aghast. "Surely you've heard the rumors of a thief running loose in the land--"
"A gem thief," the siren interrupted.
"Even so, your store should not be left unattended. This person here can do it." He waved at Angelique. "She's got nothing better to do with her time, and she's a warrior to boot."
"Of all the nerve!" Angel sputtered. "I'm not just some common sword-for-hire that you can order around like a lapdog. What do you take me for? I'm a warrior, not some two-bit security guard!"
"What? You're saying you won't do it?"
The girl harumphed. "Oh, all right. But not because you're making me, you overgrown donkey. I, too, have heard the rumors of a gem thief in the area. I don't want Monique's shop burgled on the off chance that they think they can find precious stones here."
Gilbert clapped his hands. "Then it's settled." He grabbed Monique's right hand in his and almost dragged her to the door. "Don't break anything, understand?"
Monique managed to snag the door frame as she was whisked away and held on for dear life. Despite the insistent tugging on her hand, she managed to ask, "Are you certain it's not too much of an inconvenience?"
Angel was touched by the true concern she heard in Monique's voice. She shook her head. "Ah, I can spare a little time before I have to go."
"Thank you," was all Monique had a chance to say before Gilbert pried her other hand off the wood, stuck out his tongue at Angel, and firmly shut the door.
The strange, stick-haired girl stood for a moment in silence before giving an explosive sigh. "Right. This has got to be the most bizarre day of my entire life. Just wait till I tell Li'l Cactus about this!" Wandering into the back, she took a seat at the kitchen table and helped herself to the cup of untouched tea that was still a little bit warm, determined to never again ask random people for directions.
* * * * * * * *
Even though he couldn't sing in the slightest, Gilbert was excellent when it came to playing his lute. His skilled fingers lightly strummed the thin strings. It was, of course, a love song. If he knew how to play anything else, he had never let on. But he knew a variety of romantic pieces, and they never failed to evoke a sense of quiet wonder within Monique's heart. She felt as if she would like to lean up against Gilbert's side, and to feel his arm curve around her waist, but that would mean he would have to stop his playing, and she knew he loved to play for her. But today, he seemed a little bit different as he plucked the tune so carefully from his instrument. It wasn't something she could put her finger on, but there was a tension about him that she had never noticed before.
"My love," he murmured. "My melody seems a little lonely by itself. Would you do me the honor of singing along for a moment?"
Monique blushed. "Gilbert... This is the first time you've ever asked me to sing for you."
"I know. Which is why I would like to hear you, even if this is the one and only time."
Those words seemed odd to her, but nevertheless, Monique acquiesced and lifted her voice along with the music. She didn't know the piece that Gilbert was playing, so she didn't know if there were lyrics or not. But her natural abilities as a siren came to the forefront, and she could easily follow the melody, and then the harmony.
After a while, the tune came to an end. The last remnants of her vocalization lingered like a spell in their little rocky nook. The silence that followed was loud in comparison, and Monique wondered if she should say something just to ease the pounding of her heart in her ears. Gilbert saved her the trouble.
He appeared uncomfortable for a moment, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand as he set his lute down. "We've known each other a long time, haven't we?" She nodded. "And you know that I think you're the brightest star in the City of the Night." He cast about with his eyes at the ruined church below them, as if searching for something. "Monique, I have a dream I wish to tell you," he stated at last.
He turned his head and looked at her, and for a moment, she didn't recognize the centaur standing next to her. All traces of Gilbert's usual devil-may-care attitude were gone, and he was wearing an expression of seriousness that was quite out of character for him. It was disconcerting, and a little bit scary.
"All right, Gilbert," Monique replied. She leaned her back against the side of the rock wall and regarded him with an equal measure of solemnity. "Let's talk about our dreams."
"Well, I've been thinking about this for a while. I hate to say it, but your marketing skills are atrocious. At this rate, you'll be stuck in this low-paying, dead-end job forever." Soft music filled the air again as Gilbert picked up his lute and idly strummed it. "What you really need to do, is just grab a passerby instead of waiting for some goddess-sent customer to walk into your shop. I mean, you have to be realistic, here."
Monique stood quietly for a moment, letting those words sink in, and trying hard to take the criticism objectively. Those words rather stung. "But you see, Gilbert... Even though I don't have a steady income or regular flow of customers, what few fans I have come from far and wide just to buy my lamps. To me, that's very flattering, and also good business. I might not have a wide fan base yet, but someday, I hope to be a household name."
"Yes, yes. That's all well and good. But should you really be doing such menial labor?" Gilbert made a face. "You are a lady, after all, and ladies shouldn't have to work so hard. That sort of thing is for mundane commoners like that Angelique person. Instead of making lamps one at a time, I say you should mass produce them. It'll be great! Just think about it. You'll be a famous designer making masterpieces. And that's all we'll do. Just hire some of those ridiculous Dudbears to do the dirty, messy work while we rake in the money."
"But that's not the reason why I'm making lamps." Monique sighed. "How can I explain?" She thought for a moment, folding her hands in front of her. "I guess it's like the reason why you sing love songs and play your lute. I don't do it for the money, but the enjoyment I get out of crafting something beautiful. I really enjoy the time and effort I put into making my lamps. The time it takes to hunt down all the odds and ends I use is worth it, because I can make something that is totally unique and one of a kind. I suppose that sometimes it is very messy work, and not always fun. But in the end, the real enjoyment comes from seeing a person's face light up when they look at my creations and want to take one home with them." Her wings flapped unhappily beside her. "I don't know what else I can say to make you understand."
Gilbert shifted uncomfortably next to her and shook his head. "You should hear yourself," he said, and his tone was one of irritation. "Do you know how sad and pathetic that sounds? How can you stand there and expect me to believe that you have no ambition to be anything more than what you are?" He stamped his right front hoof. "Don't you have any dreams? Isn't there something more you want out of life? Is this backwater dive where you want to stay until the day you die?" He stopped playing his lute. "This conversation is depressing me. You're so beautiful, and yet, so empty and lifeless."
Monique lowered her head until her hair hung in front of her face. She didn't want him to see the tears forming in the corners of her eyes. "Every day is a dream come true for me," she whispered. "You make it sound as if I'm denying who I am."
She felt one of his hands take hold of her chin and raise her face up to look into his. His expression was desperate, like a child who was making one last effort at begging a parent for a much wanted cookie. "Come, my princess! Come away with me. Let's go out and see the world! Oh, my love... There is so much I can show you out there, and so many places we can explore together. Leave this life behind you. Together, we can make dreams far grander than anything you've ever imagined. And we'll make them come true, every last one of them." The hand under her chin moved up to stroke her cheek tenderly. "Say yes, Monique!"
She regarded him with a strangely blank expression. "Which of my dreams do you see as an illusion?"
He blinked. "Huh?"
"My dreams," she repeated. "Nightly dreams? Hopeful dreams?" Reaching up, she took hold of his hand and pulled it away from her face, just holding it in hers. "I love you, Gilbert. But you really don't know me, if you could say all those things to me, and not know how much they hurt. You don't know me, if you can't understand how and why I feel the way I do about this."
Gilbert flinched away from her, looking as if she had just struck him with a poisoned dart. His eyes closed and for a moment he shuddered as if in the grip of some terrible pain. When he spoke, his words were tight with forced gaiety. "Monique, my dear, our 'dreams' don't seem to play in perfect harmony." He smile wasn't as bright when he flashed it, nor his sweeping bow as low. "If that be the case, than I can only conclude that our love was not meant to be. I shall take my leave of you then. I certainly don't want to take up any more of your time." He opened his eyes and looked out past the ruined church to the orange-pink horizon. "It's time I left this city, anyway. I hear the distant call of the sea, and the open road is beckoning."
"You're leaving, then?" Monique's voice trembled. I knew this day would come, and yet...and yet, I had hoped...had dreamed...
Gilbert nodded. "I think, perhaps, a new love is in order. For the both of us." He looked back at her, and his smile was sad but resigned.
The siren twisted her hands together, fighting to hold onto her composure. "Oh my, Gilbert. You certainly came to that conclusion fast."
"Maybe. But I think it's for the best. I...I just wanted a bigger lamp, that's all. And you're content with what you have." Coming close to her, he looked into her luminous eyes for the last time, taking a lock of her soft hair between his fingers. "Good bye, my love!" he whispered. "I'll never forget you, baby!" His lips descended on hers in a passionate kiss before he brushed past her without another word.
She watched him go, feeling a little piece of her heart tear away from her body and go with him. "Good bye, Gilbert. Good bye..." Perhaps reality wasn't setting in yet, but at that moment, she found that she couldn't muster the strength to cry. It took all her resolve to force her numb body into motion as she made her way slowly back to her shop.
The interior was so quiet that she wondered if Angel had gotten tired of waiting and already left. But then the female warrior emerged from the back, carefully holding a fresh mug of tea. "What's this?" Monique asked as she was handed the drink.
"Well, while I was waiting, I drank some of your tea. I hope you don't mind. You had just left it sitting there, and it was almost cold anyway. So, I washed out the mug when I was done and made a fresh cup for you."
"Thank you. That was very considerate." Carrying the drink with her, Monique took her place behind her worktable and sat down on the stool. As she took a sip, she noticed that there was a tea stalk bobbing on the surface, and it struck her as impossibly cruel. She drank too fast, not caring that she burned her tongue and throat in the process. The once sweet flavor tasted sour and smoky to her now.
Angel leaned her left hip against the table and looked around. "Hey, didn't lover boy come back inside with you?"
Monique set aside the cup and picked up a ball of red yarn and some scissors. "No. Gilbert...went away. He's a free spirit, you see. He has to go where the wind blows him." While she talked, she cut three foot-long strands and began to braid them together.
"Oh." Angel shifted, dropping her eyes. "It's like that." She reached out and picked up the ball of yarn, unwinding and winding the loose end. "I'm not very good at what to say at times like these. I've never had much time for a boyfriend. Not that I haven't wanted one, but there just don't seem to be enough hours in the day to go adventuring and look for love."
"Gyah, this is coming out all wrong! What I'm trying to say, is that if you need someone to talk to, you can cry on my shoulder." The stick-haired girl gave a crooked grin. "I may not be able to help much, or even really relate to what you're going through, but I'm here for you if you need me."
"You don't have to feel obligated to stay just on my account."
"Hey, I'm a hero! We do these sorts of thing."
Monique finished braiding the string and tied off both ends. "I don't know where to start."
"Just say whatever you feel like."
The shopkeeper hesitated, and then nodded. She set aside the braid and stared the small lamp she had been unsatisfied with earlier in the day. It still looked strange to her. She started speaking.
"I think I always knew that Gilbert and I would never work out. I met him at a low point in my life, and his flattery and kindness were not unwelcome. I was starving for friendship and understanding, and he said he was going to give me both of those and then some. I've never been in love before, so the whole prospect of having my own boyfriend excited me. But he is an undeniable flirt, and very few people or places can hold his interest. I suppose that I should be flattered that he stayed with me this long."
"It's hard to understand how you could fall in love with someone so insincere," Angel remarked.
"But that's just it. In his own mind, he really does believe that he loved me, just as I'm sure he's had other women he believed he loved. And maybe I was the one being insincere. I think I love him, but how can I be sure? I don't have any other experiences to compare this to. And what if I only think I love him because he just happened to be at the right place at the right time? Had it been someone else in his place, would I have felt the same way over time?"
Angel shook her head, causing her hair-sticks to bounce around her face. "Now you're second guessing yourself. I say, be true to your heart. If you love someone, you love them. It doesn't matter how or why you fell in love with that person. That doesn't change how you feel about them." She made a fist and shook it threateningly. "If I were you, I'd punch him one right in the kisser! It's a crime how he said he loved you and then turned around and dropped you like yesterday's cold eggs. What a creep!"
"No, no! You're wrong! I admit that he wasn't always delicate with my feelings. And he could be arrogant and self-centered. But while he was always a little strange, he could also be a nice guy, sometimes. But he wants more out of life than I do." Monique gave a short chuckle. "'I want a bigger lamp', he said. Much bigger than the little ones I have. I think he was trying to say that my dreams are too small for him. He needed something more. He didn't understand that size is completely meaningless. All that should matter is that it works, right? If a lamp can't be used, it's no good to anybody. The same can be said for a dream, if you're not living it every single day." She gestured around her. "This place is where I belong, and I'm fine with that. I think Gilbert knew, deep down, that he asked for the impossible whenever he asked me to run away with him. And that's how I know he loved me. He let me go in order for me to be happy, and not have to choose between the work I love or him. But, to be honest, this breakup has gotten me depressed."
Angel gave a low whistle. "That's pretty deep. I'm not sure that I understand all of what you've just said, but I think I get it."
Actually, the warrior didn't look like she understood it at all, but talking had helped ease Monique's mind, so she wasn't upset. "Thanks for listening."
"No problem. I don't know when I'll be back in the neighborhood, but if you ever need anything, just give a shout and I'll--"
The shop door swung open abruptly and a grubby, vaguely bear-like creature walked in, closely followed by two others. It raised its left paw in greeting.
"Gak!" Angel muttered under her breath.
The Dudbears toddled down the central walkway, oohing and ahhing at everything they saw. Monique raised a questioning eyebrow at the other girl and got a helpless shrug in return. "Can I help you?" In a quick series of "dubs" and "dubas", the lead Dudbear explained that the three of them had purchased lamps from Monique's store, and that they considered the craftsmanship to be of impeccable quality.
"Duba Dadda Dub! Dubababababa Dub!"
"Oh my!" the siren exclaimed.
"Wait, wait! I can translate that!" Angel quickly pulled out a small blue pocketbook and flipped through some of the pages. "Notes, notes, notes... Here we go! Uh...he said something about the moon and stars. With a lot of affirmatives thrown in."
The Dudbears looked at Angel, then at each other. In chorus they said, "Gak!"
"It's okay, Angel," Monique hastened to interject. "I'm fluent in Dudbear."
She received a look of utter pity from Angel. "You poor, poor thing."
The lead Dudbear cleared his throat to get back Monique's attention. "Dub?"
Monique bowed her head respectfully to the fuzzy trio. "I'm sorry, please continue."
"Da Bab Dabbu! Dub! Dub! Dubab! Dubabababa Dub!"
"You really think that about my work?"
"Dada!" the other two chimed in.
"Oh, no! I'm the one who should be thanking you!" The siren bowed to the Dudbears. "Thank you for your patronage!"
The Dudbears gave a strange, whining laugh and waved good bye as they left the store.
"I'm lost," Angel confessed, rubbing the back of her neck. "What was that all about?"
"Oh, it's so wonderful!" Monique clasped her hands together in front of her. "The Dudbears said that they really loved my lamps, and that they're also going to recommend my shop to all of their friends. I can't believe that this is really happening to me! This is so great!"
"Looks like everything will be all right for you from now on," Angelique commented. "I'm glad." The girl raised her arms high over her head and stretched. "Well, I guess that's all for this little adventure, huh? I think it's about time for me to move along. I've got to get to the weapon's shop before it closes."
Monique gasped. "Oh, I'm so sorry! I've kept you far longer than I had intended. I completely forgot that you had business of your own to conduct. But before you go, please allow me to thank you for all you've done for me today." The winged lamp maker turned and began rummaging in a cabinet behind the work table. "I'd like to give you something in appreciation. Now where was it...?"
"It's okay. No rewards are necessary," Angel replied. "I'm just happy that everything turned out all right in the end."
"Nonsense!" After a little more rummaging, Monique faced her guest again. "Here we are. This is what I wanted."
In her pale hands, she held two objects. One was a finely crafted rose made out of pale grains of sand. It looked so fragile that it seemed as if a puff of air would blow it apart at any moment. Extremely detailed, right down to the lines in the leaves and the soft creases in the petals, it was obviously of magical origins. The second was a tarnished silver spoon. The handle was formed into the head of a bull demon, complete with a ring in its nose and the long, pointed horns jutting from its head. The spoon seemed to flicker and tremble, ghostlike. It also gave off a subtle air of magical energy.
"Artifacts!" Angel reached out her left hand and touched the spoon. Her fingers passed through the bowl as if through a chill mist.
"You have to hold it by the base, or it will fall right through your hand," Monique warned.
"Where did you find these?! Artifacts are so hard to come by! The scholars at Geo are always snatching them up before adventurers can get hold of them."
"I got them a long time ago, before I opened my store. I was vacationing with my family in Domina at the time. I got bored and wandered into the market and ran into Miss Meimei, the famous fortune teller. I'd never met anyone famous before, and so I gushed at her for about five minutes straight! How she put up with me, I'll never know, but she was very kind and even gave me a free reading." Monique's face shone as she remembered that day. "She told me that I would meet someone special in the future, and that I should give that person these artifacts. I couldn't believe my good luck. I've kept them ever since. Mementos, you know?"
Angel frowned. "I can't accept these. They're precious memories!"
But Monique shook her head. "It's all right. I want you to have them. I don't know if you're the 'special' person that Miss Meimei was talking about back then, but I have no use for them, now. I was too young at the time to realize that memories are things you store in your heart, not in an object. I keep all my memories locked up, safe. So please, accept these gifts from one friend, to another."
The siren lifted the artifacts and gently handed them over to the warrior. Angel looked awe struck as she secreted them into a pouch at her hip. "You're far too generous," she admonished. "But thank you."
"It was my pleasure, Angel."
A chime sounded somewhere in the store. The two women stood in silence, listening to the bells and counting them in their heads until the last note faded away. Six bells.
"Cripes! It's late!" Angel shouted. A look of panic crossed her face. "I heard that the weapon shop closes at six!" She darted to the door. "Sorry, but I have to go. I'll be back sometime. I don't know when, but...Oh, you get the idea! See ya, and thanks again for the gifts!" In a flash, she was out the door and running breakneck down the street, yelling, "Wait for me! Don't close, damn you!"
Monique rolled her eyes at her new friend's behavior. That girl was certainly a ball of energy. I just hope she doesn't resort to violence if the store is closed when she gets there...
The "Lamps Limelight" was awfully quiet now that her guest had left. So quiet, in fact, that Monique felt the silence crowding in on her from all sides. It felt as if a heavy, invisible blanket had settled over her. Or maybe she had been sucked into a void.
"I know what I'll do," she said, more to hear a noise than anything else. "I'll finish that lamp."
She walked to the shelves and pulled down the seashell lamp she had made earlier and checked to make sure it was drying right. The paste was still a little sticky when she poked at it, but it would be fully dry by morning. In the meantime, she had work to do.
Taking a small cube of wood from her work basket under the table, she held it between her palms. Closing her eyes, she concentrated. Long hair, sticks, a spear... Long jacket, long ears, a lute... A glow started to surround her hands. "O tree of life, abandon the roots of the world and take form within my hands." Bending forward, the siren blew gently over her fingers, sending the glow away in a brief shower of golden speckles. Opening her eyes and her hands, she looked over her handiwork.
The spell had done its job. Standing there were two, very tiny wooden images in full color. Angel was depicted with her spear raised in a victory pose, while Gilbert was shown with his head tilted back and his lute in his hands. He looked as if he were singing his heart out.
A small lump rose in Monique's throat. She traced a finger over the familiar feature of the centaur. The wood was warm from her body heat, and it made his face feel real against her skin.
Don't cry, baby! I'll always love you. It's a promise.
"And I'll always love you, Gilbert," she whispered. "No matter how far apart we are, or how many new loves come and go from our lives. Your songs will live on in me." The siren bent her head and kissed the silly wooden hat he had always worn. His wooden ears hurt her lips.
Using some small twigs and twine, Monique fashioned a little raft. She slathered paste onto one side and pressed it firmly to the glass bottle until she was sure that it wouldn't come off. Then glued the figures onto the raft. It was perfect. Two adventurers, each completely different in their own rights, sailing off to find adventure.
"And now, all it needs is a light."
Taking a deep breath, Monique let it out in song. Her tune was wordless, yet it appealed to the very forces of magic itself. It was a haunting melody, and it echoed through her small shop, building in intensity as it did so. Soon, more voices joined hers. Some were deep, and some were high as they answered her summons.
As the song reached towards conclusion, many little lights appeared. So many shades of color sparkled through the room that it looked like a prism effect had been unleashed. Still singing, Monique moved through the forest of lights and selected a pale yellow one. Waving her hands over it, she ushered it towards her lamp. It bobbed along merrily and settled into place inside the seashell, lighting it up.
Monique ended her song with an achingly beautiful note and watched as the other lights began to fade away. "Thank you for your help," she told them. "Good bye, until next time."
She moved to stand over her finished creation, a look of weary satisfaction on her face. Though the figurines she'd made were facing away from the light, they weren't in the dark.
"It's like a beacon to guide them back," the siren said out loud, liking how that sounded. "I think I'll keep this one for myself." She placed it back on the shelf to dry again, and locked her front door for the night. She placed the "closed" sign in the window and made sure all the lamps out front were lit. She paused as she was pulling the curtains back into place.
The street was empty, and smoke curled from the chimneys of the nearby houses. Above the stars twinkled like diamonds.
She leaned her cheek against the wooden door frame. "I hope you find that bigger lamp somewhere, Gilbert. May her light brighten and comfort your wandering heart."
Letting go is never easy, and as Monique collected her cup and bag of money from the table, she paused to admire her new lamp. The soft glow blended in with the others. It seemed as if the new faerie soul was feeling at home in its new surroundings. She hummed a tune to herself as she went to go make herself some dinner. It would have to be grits again, since it was too late to go grocery shopping.
Besides, she thought, there is something to be said for being frugal, now, isn't there?