Lock of the Heart | Verso.ink
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Lock of the Heart

By Christopher Jones

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Of all the fool things Sipper Harnamenny had done in his short, moderately wicked life, cheating the Marquis of Moretta had to be one of the most foolish.

The Marquis himself had been cheating loud and long all evening. His cards were not marked, that being far too simple and detectable. No, instead, he had draped the delectable form of the Marquess over the shoulder of his opponents and had her tip the hands as they came.

Sipper was not at all opposed to the ministrations of the Marquess, nor terribly surprised at how her hands explored while her eyelashes spread the word about the pips on Sipper’s cards. But there can be too much of a bad thing, and when the pot pushed to dizzying heights Sipper duped the Marquess with a double-card and took it for himself.

But of course, the Marquis had a plan for that as well, and had the Marquess drop a card to the floor under Sipper’s chair. This let the Marquis’ bruisers stuff Sipper in what was surely the smallest cell he had ever been locked in.

Two paces by one and three quarters, it was. The floor was rough board so old it had lost all color but gray, but it was solidly built, and did not creak under his footstep. Three of the walls were dressed stone, rough, but fitted together tightly enough that even Sipper’s strong hands could find no purchase on them that would allow him to climb. Even if he could have done so, the only window was three men high and barred, narrow, almost certainly too narrow to climb through.

The fourth wall, the one with the door, was wood, but oak so thick it could have walled a cargo ship, and the door was iron-banded and made of similar stuff. It had a lock in brass the size of Sipper’s palm, which he did know how to pick, with the right tools.

He had those. Across town. In the leather-lined pouch he kept with him always, except at parties.

All that was left to him was a thin metal tube that had slipped through a hole in his pocket and become lodged in the lower lining of his breeches. And that tube would do him no good in the present situation.

As far as getting out, that was. But maybe it would help to pass the time. They wouldn’t kill him, Sipper didn’t think. Angering his father the Duke wouldn’t be wise--the wrath of the Duke was a thing even the Queen would not lightly raise. But let him sweat in a smelly, close-aired cell for a day or so? Oh, yes. The Marquis would be happy to do that. And When Sipper got out, he would never hear the end of it from his older brother and sister, Tangle and Kattari. As if they didn’t have enough to twit him about already.

Sipper untwisted the thread of his cuff and let the tube fall into his hand. He sat on the floor and put it to his lips. He blew, and a high, thin sound bounced off the stone and wood and filled the space with a clear song, one of the old songs of Pestretta, melancholy and deeply wistful, the sort of song that sends men weeping to the arms of their comrades. Sipper didn’t know its origin, only that it matched his mood.

He played it through, then tried something more sprightly, a drinking tune, but it came out all wrong and he went back to another old song, a love song. It didn’t end happily, if he recalled.

Halfway through there came a knock at his door.

At first he didn’t hear it. The heat and the smell inside the tiny room had grown, and Sipper had loosened his collar and mopped his brow, his heart beating a bit faster than normal, trying to cool him off. The door was thick, and sound did not travel well through it, so it wasn’t until the third knock that he finally broke off playing the think pikolo flute to notice someone was trying to get his attention.

“Yes?” Sipper said. “Marquis, if you’ve come to apologize, really, there’s no need. Simply restore my purse to its original condition, and I’ll go my way with no hard feelings at all.”

“You idiot,” came the barest whisper of a voice through the chink where the iron band made a small space against the frame. “It’s not the Marquis. He wants to put you over the evening fire. It is I, the Marquess.”

Antonietta, the Marquess, long of limb, fair of skin, and impertinent of finger. What was she doing here?

“What are you doing here?” Sipper said. Loudly. There was no need of secrecy on his side of the door.

“I heard you playing. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“No, there’s a very talented cricket in here with me. He’s taking requests, if you’d like to make one.”

There was a good deal of whispered noise just then, and Sipper thought he heard some of his very favorite curses.

“I know, I know,” he said. “My charming personality is remarked on everywhere in town.”

“I could go away and leave you to yourself, until the Marquis decides to put you in a box and ship you back to your father.”

“The Duke knows where I am. He won’t tolerate this.”

“The Duke has a reputation for allowing his children to get into trouble. He also has a reputation for allowing them to figure out how to get out by themselves.”

This was true. She knew the Duke well. “If you insist,” Sipper said. He put the pipe back to his lips and blew. A new tune floated out, one he’d written himself just a few weeks ago. It reminded him of the sea, the few times he’d been out on it. Wild, unpredictable, with depths unknown and undiscovered. The tune seemed to take on a life of its own, and for a while Sipper forgot where he was, closed his eyes, and let the music swirl around him.

When he was done, he sat still, his back against the door, and thought that if he ever got out of here, he’d put in for one of his father’s oversea voyages and give up gambling and parties forever. His soul had been stirred, and walls seemed to him intolerable.

“What song was that?” the Marquess said.

“My own song. My true song.”

Through the door he could hear her weeping. “I was a child of the sea,” she said finally. “The Marquis took me from my only love. If I let you go, will you take me back to her?”

“I will. Tonight.”

A key rasped in the lock, and the bolt, thick as the yoke of an ox-team, drew back with a squeal and a deep, resonant thunk. Sipper sat forward, and the door swung inward an inch.

“Marquess?” he said. “Antonietta?”

No response. He scrambled away from the door. It pitched inward and dumped the Marquess on the floor, her dark hair spilling about her like the mane of a Nemean lion. Her eyes were closed, and she breathed lightly in the night air. She lay on the floor and did not get up.

“Sainted bones of Xistiglia, Sipper, what’s wrong with you? I thought you were going to take all night about it.”

In the doorway stood Tangle, holding a dripping cloth, and Kattari, holding the key to the cell.

“Give me a break, Tangle,” Sipper said. “I haven’t played in weeks. I forgot the pikola was in my pocket until a minute ago.” He climbed to his feet and dusted off his breeches. "You two took your sweet time as well."

"Had to make sure she had the key. We'd never have found it in that sprawling monstrosity the Marquis calls a house," Kattari said.

"Good thing this aetherite works as fast as father said," Tangle said, wringing out the cloth and stowing it in his pouch. "I really didn't want to have to hit her over the head."

Sipper crouched down and teased a lock of the Marquess's silken hair away from her lovely, sleeping face. He stood, and wiped his hands. “So, we lock her in?”

Kattari nodded. “Pick her feet up and get them out of the way of the door.”

Tangle and Sipper managed it, though she was tall and didn’t quite fit until they put her in diagonally. “She’ll be furious. So will the Marquis,” Tangle said.

“Nah,” Sipper said, stepping into the open air of the grassy courtyard and stretching to his full height. “How will she explain being in the shed? Especially when the rest of the keys are on her bosomy person.”

Kattari fit the shed key into the lock and turned it. “Home, gentlemen?”

“At ramming speed, yes,” Sipper said.

They began a lung-bursting jog out of the courtyard and into the wide cobbled street beyond. “So, should I take you down to the docks?” Tangle said.

“Yes, our brother has gone for a sailor,” Kattari said.

Sipper would have scowled, but that took energy, and he was going to need it before he reached the Duke’s manor on the far side of town. He settled for an oath.

He knew they’d never let him hear the end of it.

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About Christopher Jones

Christopher JH Jones (alias Mr. C and Cj Lehi), after decades without success, quit writing in 2013. After trying repeatedly to grow up—without discernible success—he repented, and has gone on to publish several books in multiple genres. He is known for his business book, From Poop Into Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers, and other nonfiction titles; for his true-crime historical thriller series Trinity Flynn; and for Twelve Upon a Time, his collection of original fairy tales. A prolific writer of short fiction as well, Cj has published two short-story collections and been featured in six anthologies.

His latest labor of love is founding Drabatic Press. We’re all still waiting to see how that turns out.

Cj resides in Lehi, UT, with his wife Jeanette, their eight children, three children-in-law, one murderous cat, and a stray hummingbird. He loves Twitter, (@cjhjones), Instagram (@iamchrisjones) and visitors to his website (iamchrisjones.com).

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