Tress | Chapter Three
Tress had noticed that a nice pair of gloves made her daily work go so much better. Now, she meant the good kind of gloves, made of a soft leather that molds to your hands as you use them. The kind that–if you oil them well and don’t leave them out in the sun–don’t ever grow stiff. The kind that are so comfortable, you go to wash your hands and are surprised to find you’re still wearing them.
The perfect set of gloves is invaluable. And Charlie was like a good set of gloves. The longer she spent with him, the more right their time together felt. The brighter even the moonshadows were, and the easier her burdens became. She did love interesting cups, but a part of that was because each one gave her an excuse to come and visit him.
The thing growing between them felt so good, so wonderful, that Tress was frightened to call it love. From the way the other youths talked, “love” was dangerous. Their love seemed to be about jealousy and insecurity. It was about passionate shouting matches and more passionate reconciliations. It was less like a good pair of gloves, and more like a hot coal that would burn your hands.
Love had always frightened Tress. But when Charlie put his hand on hers again, she felt heat. The fire she’d always feared. The coal was in there after all, just contained–like in a good stove.
She wanted to leap into his heat, all logic discarded.
Charlie froze. They’d touched many times before, of course, but this was different. This moment. This dream. He blushed, but let his hand linger. Then he finally raised it and ran his fingers through his hair, grinning sheepishly. Because he was Charlie, that didn’t spoil the moment, but instead only made it more sweet.
Tress searched for the perfect thing to say. There were any number of lines that would have capitalized on that moment. She could have said, “Charlie, could you hold this for me while I walk around the grounds?” then offered her hand back to him.
She could have said, “Help, I can’t breathe. Staring at you has taken my breath away.”
She could even have said something completely insane, such as “I like you.”
Instead she said, “Huuhhh. Hands are warm.” She followed it with a laugh that she choked on halfway through, exactly mimicking–by pure chance–the call of an elephant seal.
It might be said that Tress had a way with words. In that her words tended to get in her way.
In response, Charlie gave her a smile. A wonderful smile, more and more confident the longer it lasted. It was one she’d never seen before. It said: “I think I love you, Tress, elephant seal notwithstanding.”
She smiled back at him. Then, over his shoulder, she saw the duke standing in the window. Tall and straight, the man wore military-style clothing that looked like it had been pinned to him by the various medals on the breast.
He was not smiling.
Indeed, she’d seen him smile only once, during the punishment of old Lotari–who had tried to sneak off the island by stowing away on a merchant ship. That seemed the duke’s sole smile; perhaps Charlie had used the entire family’s quota. Nevertheless, if the duke did have just one smile, he made up for it by displaying far too many teeth.
The duke faded into the shadows of the house, but his presence loomed over Tress as she bade farewell to Charlie. On her way down the steps, she expected to hear shouting. Instead an ominous silence followed her. The tense silence that came after a lightning flash.
It chased her down the path and around to her home, where she murmured something to her parents about being tired. She went to her room and waited for the silence to end. For the soldiers to knock, then demand to know why the girl who washed the windows had dared to touch the duke’s son.
When nothing like that came, she dared hope that she was reading too much into the duke’s expression. Then she remembered the duke’s singular smile. After that, worries nipped at her all night.
She rose early in the morning, wrestled her hair into a tail, then trudged to the market. Here she’d sort through the day-old goods and near-spoiled ingredients for something she could afford. Despite the early hour, the market was abuzz with activity. Men swept dead spores off the path while people gathered in chattering knots.
Tress braced herself for the news, then decided nothing could be worse than the awful anticipation she’d suffered all night.
She was wrong.
The duke had sent out a declaration: he and his family were going to leave the island that very day.