A/N: Long-term members of the Lunar fan community will recall that I first posted this story several years ago at the Shrine to Ghaleon's fanfiction archive. I'm submitting it here strictly for the sake of exposing it to a wider audience whom, I hope, may enjoy this tale of Hell Mell, Dragonmaster Dyne, pirate treasure, and swashbuckling derring-do.
~ X X X ~
The girl studied herself critically in the mirror. She was fourteen years old and about to attend her first adult party, so her appearance was of extreme importance to her. The long silk dress was perfect, its virginal white implying both the innocence of youth and the purity of her status as an apprentice priestess at Althena's Shrine. Her tawny skin was scrubbed clean so that it seemed to have a soft golden glow. The purer gold of her hair had been artfully arranged, curled, and pomaded into a formal style rather than its usual loose fall; the process had taken nearly an hour and had involved a good deal of cursing and complaining, but she had to admit that it looked stunning.
Still, Jessica de Alkirk decided, the effect was not complete.
"There's something missing," she said.
"You look very lovely, Miss Jessica," ventured her maid.
"I don't know. All kinds of people are going to be at Dad's reception tonight, and I don't want to look like a little girl playing dress-up." She flashed the maid a grin, displaying her delicate fangs, which like her pointed ears were a sign of her quarter-beastman heritage. Governor Mel de Alkirk was no ordinary politician serving at the behest of the merchant-lords of Meribia but an ex-pirate, one of the Four Heroes, and a friend of the late Dragonmaster Dyne; things had changed since his rule began and not for the worse (unless, of course, one was a merchant-lord whose nose was held so high it netted stray bugs while walking).
Jessica crossed her arms across her chest and tapped her foot impatiently. What was wrong?
Aha! Color. She looked like a washed-out ghost. Pale. Insipid! Even her apprentice's white robes had a splash of color at the edges to lend them that hint of dash and élan.
"Jewelry," she decided. "Something to accent everything. Gold, of course; silver would just fade into the white... and with colored stones."
"Best make sure it's something small and tasteful, Miss Jessica, else you really will look like a little girl."
"I know," Jess groused. "It's such hard work being a lady. Everything has to be just so."
She opened her jewelry box and began sorting through the contents. The problem, she soon realized, was that she didn't have anything appropriate for a formal reception. These were her little-girlish baubles, barely more than toys, many of which meant a great deal to her but which probably weren't appropriate for the great lords and ladies of Lunar. Somehow she didn't think earrings shaped like red-and-gold airships were quite the thing. On the other hand, she didn't have anything more formal than a slender gold chain, which was barely like wearing anything.
Jessica wished that her mother was still alive. She had been a lady born, surrounded by this sort of event and the people who attended them from birth. By all accounts, it would have been second nature for her to fix Jess's wardrobe.
"Wait a minute--that's it! Mother!"
"Dad's kept her room just like it was, right? So all her jewelry will still be there. I'll just borrow something of Mom's. She's sure to have something perfect."
"Won't Master Mel be angry with you?"
"Absolutely--but he won't do a thing until after the reception. Besides, I don't have any sisters. Who else is entitled to wear Mom's jewelry, anyway?"
Knowing the futility of arguing with Jessica when she got one of her ideas into her head, he maid simply stood aside and let Jess dash out of the room.
As expected, Jessica found the door to her mother's room unlocked; the servants cleaned and dusted it regularly. Master Mel might have kept the room as a shrine to his wife's memory, but it wasn't a tomb. Indeed, the only thing that would have told a stranger that the room was not in regular use was its utter set-piece perfection, the pristine lack of clutter that not even the neatest person could manage.
Jessica's heart was in her throat as she stood on the threshold. That was the problem with keeping the room this way; every time she opened the door it hit her like a tidal wave, happy memories washing over her but merged with bitter sadness because those happy times were gone. Mom is gone. And although she had no doubt that her mother's soul was safe in the embrace of angel's wings, Jessica's eyes filled with tears.
This is silly, she told herself through the sniffles. She didn't believe it, though. The only people who would think that were people who needed a swift kick in the hindquarters. She tried again: Mom wouldn't want you crying over her. Better. That one had the ring of truth to it, and steadily the tears ebbed and the pang of sorrow receded into the shadows of memory.
Remembering that time was short, she went over to the huge oak vanity table. Her mother's jewelry box was there, delicately ornamented with dark wood inlays against its pale color. Its lock and the sliding catch were a splash of gleaming brass in the front, and Jessica reached out to open it.
Apparently Master Mel didn't trust his servants quite that much--enough to believe they wouldn't smash the box or run off with the whole thing, but not to simply leave the lid unlocked for curious hands to open it up and select a few choice pieces.
Or maybe not. It wasn't like Jess's father would ever need the jewels for anything. He certainly wouldn't be wearing them, and even if you left out the Governor's salary for his post they were easily rich enough not to have to sell the jewels for money. The box might simply have been left locked for years.
So where would Mom have left the keys?
Since she truthfully didn't have a clue, Jessica began with the vanity drawers. She pulled out one, then a second, finding nothing but clothes. Silly thought; who'd stash a key in a drawer? But she pulled out the third drawer despite her misgivings; when Jess started something she darn well finished. This time, though, she found something stashed behind the layers of clothing, a thin gold chain with a tiny brass key dangling from it.
Aha! Just where I kept mine when I was a little kid, Jessica thought, realizing that hiding the key in the drawer had absolutely nothing to do with thieves, but was pure fun--a little girl's secret game, never mind that the girl in question was a grown woman with a husband and child. The key, of course, fit the lock on the jewelry box perfectly.
Looking for a necklace, Jessica lifted out the top tray, which contained neat little velvet-lined spaces for ear and finger rings. Beneath it, though, she found something besides jewelry.
"What's a book doing in here?" she said, surprised enough to speak aloud. The volume was slim and cloth-bound, with an illuminated picture of a merchantman at sea inset into the center of the cover. It looked like the kind of book in which ladies would keep a diary, or gentlemen a journal (whatever the difference was). Opening it up, she saw her guess was correct; the pages were full of neat, elegant handwriting. Jess was about to set it aside as None Of Her Business when the words on the very first page caught her eye.
After that, of course, there was no chance of her setting it down. The idea of a message left behind by her mother was too powerful to escape, parties be hanged!
This is a story. It's a true story, one from when your father and I were much younger. You're too young for this story right now, but I'm not sure that... no, let me be honest, the doctors suspect that I shan't live more than a year or two. And I'm sure your father will never tell you this story!
I should explain that last part, else you think poorly of him, or of me for saying so. He sees you as his "little lady," you see. My daughter, really, not his, which is ridiculous, but there you have it. You'd think a man who'd cry friends with Dyne and Ghaleon and Lemia Ausa would recognize his own worth!
But I digress. My point is that he thinks of you as a gently-born lady, but since he himself didn't grow up around ladies he really doesn't understand what being one is about. So he won't tell you for all kinds of reasons. I do hope that you've remembered that you're Mel's daughter as well as mine; the world needs more like him. But then again, I am just a bit biased in that area, I admit!
Your loving mother,
Amelie de Alkirk
Despite the wave of emotion that surged over her, Jessica's first reaction was to laugh. That was such an exact description of her father's attitudes! Then again, if anyone would know, it would be the woman who'd married him.
But what was the story? It had lain forgotten for nearly a decade, hidden away among Lady de Alkirk's other treasures, untouched. Or maybe she'd put it there on purpose, figuring that Jess would find it when Mel let her wear an adult woman's jewelry, believing that at that point she'd be "old enough"?
Oh, who cares? It's the story that's important, not how it got there!
And with that, heedless of the time, the approaching reception, or her elaborately coiffed hair, Jessica tumbled back onto the bed and began to read.