The last time I edited a book by Dragondyre I was motivated to write a story of my own, incorporating many hallmarks of his style: inverted word order, long-ass sentences (I got up to one hundred and fifty-three words at one point), dialect rendered phonetically, and fancy words where ordinary ones would have made more sense, used to describe shameless exhibitions of wealth, nonsensically casual class-mixing, pretty people wearing pretty clothes, and the ritualistic consumption of tea, all occurring within the confines of a fake Tolkien-flavored storybook land where the mechanics of personal hygiene are delicately glossed over. Only -- despite the inherent silliness of the idea -- I wanted my story to not suck.
Dragondyre wrote two books in the time it took me to write this story, which is about Jeremy, who already lived in a fake Tolkien-flavored storybook land even though I've only ever read The Hobbit and that was like fifteen years ago. Not entirely appropriately, I like to call it
I was a pre-industrial rent boy
As a man may bear even the lash without flinching, yet cry out afterward when he puts his shirt on, so Altheya Muller Mishigosh, that most refined and charming of women, ignored all but the very least of her young husband's many faults -- but the one so chafed at her that she felt she must needs do something about it.
That he could neither read nor write was no great matter, and if she wished to hear the dulcimer or the harpsichord she could play those instruments herself; his table manners, scant to the point of nonexistence, troubled her far less than could reasonably be accounted for; and though he had an assortment of peculiar habits, such as creeping up on the servants unawares in order to startle them into dropping things, they were harmless habits enough. (At least, Altheya thought they were harmless; what the servants thought is another matter.) It is true that when they danced he had an unorthodox tendency to rest his chin on the top of her head, but to Altheya's mind this was not even a fault to be overlooked or forgiven; it was a charming oddity of a piece with his lovely smile and his lovely hands and the way he laughed when, in marital privacy, she bit his neck.
But as the lashed man casts off the garment that offends him, so Altheya longed to cast off the one fault that, try as she would, she could not ignore: her husband's accent.
Jeremy had the worst accent she had ever heard in her life.
It was bad enough, she thought, that he said "eggplant" instead of "aubergine," that the dainty stream spanned by the equally dainty ornamental bridge was to Jeremy a "crick," and the mirror in her bedchamber a "looking-glass." These things she might have borne. She might even have persuaded herself to revel in them, as evidence of the ignorance in which, but for her, he would have remained enshrouded. But his accent was inescapable.
It was a boorish, backwoods accent, an uncouth farmer's accent, an accent with promiscuous vowels: it made "either" rhyme with "thither" and rendered "spire" indistinguishable from "spare." Whole syllables vanished from certain words, like "chandelier" and "governor." Even "mirror," once she had gotten him to say it, came out "mere."
"It's how people talk where I'm from," he said, but it came out "Et's how people tok worm frum," and Altheya actually shuddered.
Jeremy did not notice the shudder because he was carefully applying a great deal of sugar to his coffee. He stirred, wielding the little silver spoon with the tips of his thumb and forefinger, and smiled blandly at her. Altheya smiled back. She couldn't help it; he melted her heart.
My jewel, my butterfly, she thought. Where would you be without me to take care of you?
"Darling!" she said aloud, reaching across the table to take his hand, and pulling it toward her lips in such a transport of affection that he nearly spilled the coffee he held in his other hand.
But that accent had to go.
* * *
Altheya's husband had come to her equipped, as it were, with a sword, a fanciful object of an unusual golden-green color, like that of a sunlit leaf. It was a beautiful and unlikely thing, much like Jeremy himself, and parting him from it had not been easy. But she had explained, in the gentle voice with which she imparted to her husband the unalterable realities of civilized life, that nice people did not, in the ordinary course of their domestic lives, carry weaponry; and finally, with many honeyed promises of recompense, she had persuaded him to relinquish it. It lay now under their bed, wrapped in cool white linen.
Altheya employed this same gentle voice to explain to him that nice people pronounced words in a certain way, and though he first knitted his marmoreal brow and then, comprehending, actually laughed, he ended up smiling in that benevolent way that indicated an intent to humor her. Jeremy enjoyed humoring his wife; he had a kind of admiration for her inexhaustible demands. It's possible that he also admired the straying grain of savagery in her otherwise genteel demeanor, although her fondness for biting his neck sometimes made him worry that she was a vampire.
But vampires did not, as far as he knew, squeeze men's knees under the breakfast table, or slap their backsides when passing them in the hall; so those things didn't trouble him, and neither did her new tendency to rap his knuckles with her spoon when he asked her to "pass the tay."
Rubbing the offended knuckles (which were never very offended), he would produce, with excruciating correctness, "Pardon me, the teeee."
By the end of a week she had him saying "since" instead of "sense," and "pail" instead of "bucket," and the rolling of his rs, which it had previously pleased Jeremy to do -- sometimes until it was difficult to distinguish "road" from "load," though Altheya felt sure that that was mere perversity -- she had reduced to a less irritating burr, or purr, or trill. But when he was sleepy, or cross, all her progress was lost; called to rouse himself for breakfast, he was likely to murmur, "Eh mom'nt, Messes Mishigosh, iymplurr yeh" before lapsing back into sleep. And Altheya was not so savage that she could bear to strike him as he slept.
One such morning, after she had finally coaxed him, yawning, down to a table laden with boiled beef and oatcakes, she said, "Darling, the Lattimers have asked us to tea tomorrow."
Jeremy was slashing an oatcake into four equal pieces and applying honey to its remains as she said this, but the pitch of her voice told him that she was nervous. He peered casually up at her from under his ebon eyebrows. "To tee, hm?" he said. "I will try to remember not to eat the baby."
Altheya knitted her brow until her eyes nearly met in the middle. "I shall wear my dove-colored silk," she said.
"I would have eaten it last time, but the wet nurse would keep hanging around."
"No, I shall wear the lilac. You should wear dove, you look so nice in it."
"I don't think your dress would fit me."
"You are a dove," she said, smiling. Then: "If you eat with your hands at the Lattimers' I shall strangle you."
"I don't think your hands would fit around my neck, either," said Jeremy. But he picked up his fork, obligingly, because he admired her.
And obligingly, he attired himself the next day in a doublet and breeches of dove-gray silk with silver buttons, with stockings and a cloak of darker gray, and square-toed silver shoes. Then he pulled the cloak over his head and fell asleep on the chaise for the three or four hours it took Altheya's maid to dress, coif, and bejewel her.
When the maid finally dipped her head and withdrew, and Altheya shook her husband awake, she was wearing a rose-colored gown with a pale green bodice and overskirt. Quantities of silver lace ruffled out around her wrists and neck; green gems winked in the sleek dark pile of her hair. (There was nothing to be done about Jeremy's hair; attempts had been made on several previous occasions; no matter what was done to it, it persisted in looking as if its owner had been dragged through a hedge.) Her pointed shoes were very dainty and uncomfortable.
"Am I beautiful?" she asked, as he threw off the cloak.
"Very," he said.
"You are the loveliest creature I ever saw," she said, and in her eyes was that avaricious gleam that meant she was about to bite his neck.
Jeremy stood up quickly. "I'll have the carriage brought around," he said.
* * *
Four dappled horses stood before the house a few minutes later, stamping their hooves and tossing their heads in the traces of the carriage. Before Jeremy's arrival the carriage had for some years been draped in black, but now its hangings, like Altheya's black crape dresses, had been whisked away somewhere out of sight. Jeremy wondered for a moment if Altheya was saving them to use again if he should happen to fall off a cliff, or come down with a consumption.
With the horses appeared Garamond, the footman, who possessed the distinction of hating his master more than any other member of Altheya's household staff. If Jeremy was not much mistaken Garamond dwelt lovingly on thoughts of killing him, probably in some passionately amateurish way involving heavy blows to the skull. These thoughts, far from requiring any imagination on Jeremy's part to discern, played out like puppet shows in the clear depths of Garamond's eyes. In those eyes the carriage was hung once more with black, Altheya was once more somber and restrained, and Jeremy lay dismembered in some shallow, unknown grave, which Garamond alone would visit and then only to spit on it.
Though only four years his senior, Jeremy felt an almost paternal fondness for Garamond, because Garamond was so emotional and his emotions so easily perceived. This fondness Jeremy expressed as cruelty.
"Go fetch my wife, boy," he said, and laughed at the black expression that clouded Garamond's face. The expression was still there when Garamond returned with Altheya, and Jeremy laughed at it again as he handed his wife into the carriage. "Mind your temper," he said lightly as he swung in beside her.
Garamond shut the carriage door gently, as if he were rocking a baby. Jeremy knew that he was tending precious thoughts of violence, thoughts as lovely and as delicate as soap bubbles; he knew the gentleness that the love of such evanescent thoughts inspired. It was such, in fact, that the carriage door did not shut all the way, and Garamond was obliged to slam it.
Altheya glowed pink, like a seashell held up to the sun. "Now," she said, as the driver shook the reins and the carriage moved forward. "When we arrive at the Lattimers', what will you do?"
"I will hand you from the carriage," said Jeremy. "Then I will say, 'How delightful it is to see you again, Mr. and Mrs. Lattimer' and something like 'How well your hibiscus comes along for the time of year.'"
She squeezed his knee. "And?"
"And, I will not put all the sugar lumps in my tea."
The Lattimers lived three miles from the Mishigoshes; in between was a stretch of woods through which wound the carriage track. As the carriage rolled along the dappled sunlight soon gave way to cool green shadow -- "'Tis like being underwater," remarked Jeremy -- and then, after a few more minutes, they jerked to a stop.
Jeremy banged on the roof of the carriage. "What's the holdup?" he called.
"Felled tree in the road, sir," came the reply, and once Jeremy had negotiated his egress -- the carriage and its doors having been designed for far shorter people -- he saw that this was indeed the case. "Must've been the wind that did it."
"Well, we'd better shift it, however it got there," said Jeremy. "Mrs. Mishigosh is particular about her tea."
But he had not even finished saying this before Altheya, alarmed by his use of the word we, began to object. "Not you, dear," she said. "We'll send back for one of the servants. Garamond could do it."
Sweet as the thought was, even the desire to humiliate Garamond was subordinate to Jeremy's desire for his tea now that he had been separated from his breakfast by a gulf of several hours. "Do you want to keep the Lattimers waiting?" he asked.
Altheya pursed her lips with displeasure. "Very well," she said. "But mind your cloak!" Had time permitted she might have enumerated each article of his clothing, even to the suspenders that held up his stockings, but she confined herself to this lone article. By way of reply he unfastened it and laid it in her lap, as if it were a duel he went to rather than a menial chore.
From among the tackle he kept beneath his seat the driver had extricated a long coil of rope, for hauling the tree out of the road, and a shovel, for leverage. Jeremy had just begun to reach for the implement when a rustling in the underbrush caused them both to look up from the felled tree.
"Stand and deliver," said the man who stood in front of them now. Behind him were two other men, each brandishing a curved and tarnished sword; Jeremy, who on the subject of swords had proved to be one of those people whom a little knowledge turns into a snob, thought little of these. No cleverness had shaped that dull metal, no devotion or skill -- certainly no magic, such as breathed in his own blade. It is true that nothing of the kind could be discerned from where he was standing, but he was not in a generous mood.
The driver said a few words that, had Altheya heard them, would have caused her to affect shock. And Jeremy, after that fleeting thought about the swords, suddenly felt very irritated with his finery, which had made him the target of robbers and was therefore delaying his tea.
He closed his hand around the haft of the shovel.
Altheya, who, absorbed in smoothing the cloak over her knees, had not heard the bandit speak, looked out the window of the carriage just in time to see her husband smash the back of the shovel blade into his face. There was a cry and she saw a flash, a crimson plume, of blood -- and then the man was on the ground, clutching his nose. His companions trampled him a bit, though probably not on purpose, in advancing on Jeremy.
The proper thing at that moment would have been to faint; but Altheya had never been a good fainter, and though she might have done otherwise for another husband, for this one she did a very unseemly thing indeed. She leaped from the carriage, heedless of her dainty slippers, calling his name in an agony of fear.
"Jeremy! Oh, Jeremy, be careful!" she cried. He did not have time to wonder how she imagined he might do this. Altheya screamed, her hands over her mouth, as his assailants brought their swords down on him.
The blades bit into the haft of the shovel, which Jeremy held athwart them, and stuck there. Realizing that they were stuck he felt suddenly encouraged, almost cheerful, as he did in the presence of Garamond's impotent hatred. "Would you now, would you?" he snarled, or perhaps the words were intelligible only in his mind, and gave the shovel a sharp jerk, wrenching the swords from his opponents' hands.
All this transpired in the space of a few breaths -- the arc of the shovel blade, the highwayman's collapse, sunlight glinting speckled off the swords as they fell and spiraling suddenly as Jeremy yanked them away -- so that Altheya was still screaming when the disarmed swordsmen fled, crashing through the underbrush. She saw her husband toss aside the shovel, from which the swords parted and fell against each other with a clang. She ran to him and shook him by the shoulders.
"You fool, you mooncalf," she said. "You might have been killed."
Jeremy looked down at her with mild surprise, as if he were not quite sure who she was. "Surely not," he said. He pronounced it shorely, but Altheya did not seem to care: she went up on tiptoe and put her arms around him, pressing her cheek to the dove-colored silk of his doublet.
"My beautiful, my dear foolish creature," she said. She could feel his heart, that weak soft thing, beating beneath her cheek.
Jeremy knelt and picked up one of the fallen swords. Its blade was brittle and scarred, thin as a grasshopper's wing; he might almost have broken it over his knee. "You see?" he said to Altheya, who clung still to him, and who flinched at the sight of the blunt, ugly weapon. "Garbage."
He thrust the sword into the driver's hands. "Here," he said, nudging with the square gleaming toe of his shoe the man who lay still moaning and clutching his nose. "Make him clear the way. I want my tea."
* * *
Of the things Jeremy liked about his wife, chiefest was her garden, where paths of smooth white stones wended among perfumed flowerbeds and past trees that wept their velvety pink blossoms into the brook. He spent many an hour there, dabbling his fingers in the marble fountains to intrigue the moon-colored fish that swam there; he feinted at them sometimes, but they were faster than he, and he never had anything to show for his efforts but wet shirtsleeves. But also high in his esteem was her bedroom, now also his bedroom. This was extraordinary; it was not to be believed; it was possessed of windows in which there were panes of actual glass, a thing Jeremy had barely seen before in his entire life.
"Glass?" Altheya had said, the word an airy laugh, but behind the airiness still that steely determination, such as another woman might have called upon in housebreaking a child raised by wolves. "There's nothing so extraordinary about glass, dearest."
When Jeremy told her that the windows of his childhood home had been holes in the wall covered by greased squirrel hides, Altheya gave the dainty shudder that she usually managed to suppress. She held up her hand to signal that he should not speak any further on the subject, for she knew what would come next if he did: Jeremy's people, from what little she knew of them, did not sound like the kind to throw away a squirrel once they had skinned it.
And Jeremy, who enjoyed humoring his wife, and who while not precisely afraid of her retained a healthy respect for the possibility that she might be a preternatural being who required the blood of men for sustenance, did not tell her what his mother had done with the squirrels after his father skinned them; nor did he tell her about the cellar of their house, which was just a deep hole in which they kept apples and cheeses so they would not get moldy so fast, and into which Jeremy's Uncle Hazekiel had once pushed him in a fit of pettishness; he did not tell her about the soup trees that grew in the dusty front yard, or the chickens that his mother Galabardera had so often had to shoo out of the house, or the unicorn his father Lysander had once seen in the forest where he cut down trees for firewood. Jeremy felt sure that Altheya would look down upon anyone so rustic as to have seen a unicorn.
That evening the clouds rolled in, turning the sky into a mass of tarnished silver. Jenny, the youngest of the maids, dashed to and fro, fastening the shutters, as Jeremy and Altheya went up to bed; as they undressed before the fire they could hear the muffled slamming to of bolts, and the rising howl of the wind.
Sparks leaped and whirled up the chimney. Jeremy lay in the flickering darkness, watching the raindrops strike the marvelous windowpanes. Like silver they fell, but when they struck they turned to fire.
Altheya sat beside him, the bedclothes gathered about her hips like scarlet waves. She smoothed a bit of hair away from his temple. "What am I to do with you, foolish boy?" she asked.
"I don't know," said Jeremy. Thunder rattled the windowpanes. "Garamond would like it if you boiled my bones for soup."
"Don't say such things," said Altheya. "I was so afraid I would lose you."
For a moment he was confused, because Altheya had lost him on several occasions, finding him on the petal-stippled pathways of the garden or in the library, asleep, only after an intensive search. Then he realized her meaning. Lost for dead was a metaphor he had never understood, as nothing in the world was easier to keep track of than a dead person; they were always right where you had left them. Altheya ought to know that.
"I shouldn't have gone far, ithur way," he said.
She spanked him through the blankets, but not hard. "Either way," she said.
"Yes, yes, eye-ther," he said, smiling indulgently. The firelight sparkled in his half-closed eyes. They were like gems, Altheya thought -- or would be, if gems could be that dark.
How good it all was -- the floorboards, gleaming like satin in the firelight; the cool white mound of the pillow, sprinkled with rosewater; the creaking and slamming as Jenny girded the house against the storm. The fear that had been so quick in Altheya was dead, and from its corpse sprung flowers whose scent intoxicated her. Her husband's eyes, his lips, his shoulders, were all the world knew of perfection; and the thunder was the voice of the heavens, inviting her to give thanks.
She bit harder than usual this time. Perhaps, thought Jeremy, this was the night on which she would devour him -- though he hoped not; perhaps his mere mortal frailty had alarmed her, and she had determined to do away with him before anyone else could. "Altheya," he said.
He rubbed the dents her teeth had left in his flesh. "You needn't worry about losing me," he said. "I shan't let anyone hit me but you."
To his surprise, Altheya laughed.
"My butterfly, my sparrow," she cried, kissing his hair. "I will always, always take care of you."