Ruby Red and Gentilberry Green: A Fantastical Romance - Part IV

in #fiction6 years ago (edited)

This is the fourth part of an ongoing serial. Here are Parts One, Two and Three. Updates every two days.

The smirk fell off Anne’s face faster than a drunk sheep off a stepladder.

“You want me to do what now, Aunt?”

The graying eyebrows crumpled briefly, then returned to their usual state of thin disapproval.

“I said, I need you to take Necristo’s heart. With this dagger.”

Anne stared at the proffered knife, all barbs and brown rust, and pushed back her chair as far as it would go. It made an annoyingly cute squeak on the shiny wood floor.

“Look here, Aunt Mattie,” she chattered, feeling far more fiery than she sounded. “The only hearts I’ve handled are chickens’ - chickens’ - and I’m not about to squeeze some sorcerer’s dripping blood-pump just because you said so.”

“I don’t think you understand,” said the scarecrow woman dryly, rags rustling faintly against the floral bedsheets.

“Oh, I think I do,” said Anne. “And besides, you’re not really our Mattie, anyway.”

“Which is a good thing, I’d say. Have you looked at yourself recently? What are you going to do for the rest of your life, milk cows and chop chickens?”

“There’s nothing wrong with chopping chickens!” cried Anne, aghast.

“There is if you’re a Gentilberry,” shot back Aunt Mattie, before taking Hearthunter by the blade and dropping it straight into Anne’s lap. She shrieked, but Aunt Mattie did nothing, and after several pulse-pounding moments Anne realized that she was neither dead nor heartless. Even her skirt was fine. She pinched the worn hilt and dangled it like a dowel, squinting suspiciously.

“Why’d you do that?”

“To prove a point,” said Aunt Mattie. “If you were anyone else, you’d be smitten by now, and it wouldn’t be with me, either.”

“Oh,” said Anne. “So when you said to take his heart…”

“I meant to make him fall for you, yes,” said Aunt Mattie, as if she were patiently pointing out that humans had noses.

“Oh,” said Anne again, feeling red as a newly-skinned tomato. Then:

“Wait. That’s even worse!”

“Of course it is, girl,” said Aunt Mattie. “Where’d the challenge be if it weren’t? I’m not sure how it escaped your notice, but we Gentilberries are old blood. Magic blood. Not quite sorcerers, it’s true, but we do produce heroes and wisewomen and damsels and future kings with some regularity, all across the planes. How do you think your Uncle Matthias got all the way here to begin with?”

“You know about that?” asked Anne. “I thought it was a secret.”

“Perhaps in your branch,” said Aunt Mattie. “But in the clan at large, we don’t have any of those, ever. If he asks, I’m not here.”

Before Anne could even register the footsteps at the door, Aunt Mattie drew her sackcloth hood over her head, muttered a few words, and turned into a very intricate and rather befuddled-looking owl, embroidered with gravitas amid the bedsheet flowers. Hearthunter shrank to the size of a matchstick and jumped into Anne’s pocket. Three knocks came, each one weaker than the last.

Anne cleared her throat.

“Oh, alright,” she said, sounding far more confident than she felt. “I suppose you can come in, Mr. Sorcerer.”

Necristo slunk in, looking strangely defeated. He was still wearing his faded black suit, although the buttons on his waistcoat looked strangely new. In his hands was a gilt tray, on which lay an ivory knife and a thick loaf of crusted white bread, toasted just-so and cut neatly into four slices. There was a pat of butter in a silver saucer, gleaming white, and smelling absolutely delicious.

“I have your dinner, Miss Gentilberry,” said Necristo, smiling nervously. He looked like a pageboy with no hat. “Bread and butter, right?”

Anne blinked. Her stomach growled in ravenous agreement.

“First off,” she said hotly, trying desperately to forget that she was scolding an immensely powerful and possibly murderous immortal, “that was a rhetorical jibe. Second off, and let me tell you, I’m not one for all this rhetoricity and such…”

“So you don’t want the bread,” said Necristo, sounding terribly disappointed.

“Yes!” snapped Anne.

Necristo clapped the tray into thin air, steam and all.

“No!”

Necristo folded the tray back out.

“I mean, yes!”

“Is it the butter?” asked Necristo anxiously. “Is the butter the wrong color?”

“It’s not the butter, bean-brain!” shouted Anne, red for more reasons than one. “It’s you! At least act like a proper kidnapper, will you? Don’t just shuffle your feet there all the time, hemming and hawing like…”

“A donkey?”

“A donkey!” concluded Anne, as if she had thought of it herself. “An outright ass is what you are! It gets on my nerves when men act like girls!”

Necristo took a step back, clearly hurt. His red eyes shone like wet jellybeans.

“I… I never thought of it that way,” he said.

“Cry me a river,” fumed Anne, snatching the tray from his hands before she could even begin to feel bad about doing it. To prolong her annoyance, she sat, very pointedly, on the embroidered owl.

“So, this is why Matilda left,” said Necristo quietly. “She wanted a real man, not someone… something like me.”

Anne stared at the chunk of bread in her hand. She felt like there was a lump inside her, just like balled dough, stuck with no way for her to swallow it. She knew exactly what it was.

Guilt.

“I’m sorry,” she said awkwardly. “I didn’t mean it.”

“You did,” said Necristo, looking down at the floor with his morose ruby eyes. “I can tell that much, at least.”

It wasn’t even a backhanded whinge or anything of the sort. Necristo seemed too spineless to even consider whining. Anne would be amazed, if she wasn’t so appalled.

“You’re so powerful,” she said. “How could you… why are you like this?”

Necristo shook his head.

“I didn’t ask to be like this,” he said. “By the time I realized what having all this power meant, it was… well, it was too late.”

The owl was shifting under her, seams rubbing at the seat of her skirt. Aunt Mattie’s warnings were playing through her head, again and again like the screech of an untuned fiddle.

One lass nearly choked, she was trying so hard.

He tells them stories.

The instant I asked what he did to them, none of them could say a word.

I need you to take Necristo’s heart.

But despite all that, despite the horrific possibilities lurking at the back of her mind, she couldn’t help but feel… almost sorry for him. He was so white, after all. So pale. So annoyingly…

She took the bread, spread it thick with the luscious white butter, and crammed it down her maw. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was. Before she knew it, the loaf was nothing but crumbs and a rich oily spatter around the corners of her mouth.

“It’s good,” she said, almost wonderingly.

Necristo snatched his hands out of his pockets and stared.

“It is? I, ah, baked it myself, so I was worried…”

“It is,” she said. “The best thing I’ve ever eaten.” And to prove it, she smiled.

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