Chapter 334: The PitchAlexandra Erin on October 4, 2016 in Volume 2 Book 10: Lucky Thing, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Bait Is Dangled
“You have to understand,” Hazel said, very quietly. “Growing up, I couldn’t have anything nice… I mean, I didn’t have a lot of nice things, but those things I did have, no one could believe they were mine. Not really. Not properly. They had to be cast-offs from Hazel, even though my mum was from the same family as her mum. And I was lucky! Compared to the other river girls, those who didn’t have Calloway blood and Calloway heirlooms? Everyone thought we were a bunch of tramps and thieves. ‘River water makes fingers sticky and feet fast,’ was the saying.”
“Was the chain from your mother?” Amaranth said.
“If it were, I wouldn’t have to act ashamed of it,” she said. “Because I could at least explain that. I… I like to think of it as a gift from her, to tell you the truth. I know that’s rubbish. But I like to think it.”
“Nothing’s rubbish if it brings you closer to your mother,” Amaranth said.
“Except it is, because she’s dead and gone,” Hazel said. “Nothing left of her to get close to, except memories, and they’re not all so good. Not the freshest ones.”
“Then it’s all the more understandable that you’d want something to cling to,” Amaranth said. “I meant what I said: it’s not rubbish if it makes you feel closer, if it makes you feel better.”
“Alright, well, it also makes me feel a damned fool,” Hazel said. “I… I convinced myself she led me to it, but I know that’s not true. It’s an excuse. I… I didn’t steal it, like, but all the same, I didn’t buy it, and no one gave me permission to take it.”
“You found it,” Amaranth said.
“Don’t say it like that,” Hazel said.
“Found… I. It’s like a bad joke, an in-joke, for river folk,” she said. “Where’d you get that? Oh, I found it. Found a blouse on someone’s clothesline, a fish on someone’s fishing line, found some coins in their pocket. Never much truth to the stereotype, but, I mean, all sorts of people steal. Honey sure stole her share of whatever caught her fancy, and no one looked twice at any of it till she kicked over a lantern in a drunken fit and burned down a barn. But let a girl from the river get caught with something she says she ‘found’, even if she really did find it.”
“Maybe we should agree that you didn’t steal it and you can just tell us where it was when it became yours,” I said.
“I was fighting with Andy,” she said. “Not a real fight, just rowing a bit, you know, like you do sometimes. And I sort of stomped off down a side tunnel no one uses, and I heard him coming after me, and I wasn’t ready to make up, so I, well, I sort of hid myself.”
We both nodded. No one could hide like a gnome, even in plain sight.
“But he wasn’t given up so easily, so I sort of slipped further down the tunnel, only it was sort of blocked off, you know? Timbers and big stones, but there was a gap, and when I looked at it, it seemed to me like I could wriggle through but no dwarf could follow me, and it gives me no pleasure at all to say so, but at the moment that sounded like heaven.”
“Everybody needs their space sometimes,” Amaranth said.
“Right. Space. It’s exactly what I needed,” Hazel said. “And there it was, on the other side of the collapse. I thought it would be another tunnel, another bare shaft, but it was more like a chamber, you know? Not all finished and squared off like the other ones in Underhall. Older, rougher. Looked like a dragon’s lair in an old story, to be honest, though it’d have to be a small dragon. Just, different levels, and stalactites and stalagmites, and… not treasure, exactly, but things. Stuff.”
“Stuff?” I said.
“Old furniture. Nice, but old,” she said. “Some odd bits of metal. Big chain links, a horse collar of all things, a lot of spiky iron nails that looked like they’d been part of something wood that had rotted clean away. But there was this vanity that looked cleaner and newer than everything else, and it had a stool, and the stool was clean, and I was looking for a place to sit down.”
“You didn’t think it was weird that dwarves would have walled up a room full of metalwork?” I asked.
“Dunno,” Hazel said. “Wasn’t thinking much. Nothing in the room looked dwarven, and anyway, Underhall is full of dark corners and old tunnels that have been bricked over or walled in for one reason or another.”
“It doesn’t sound like this was deliberately sealed up, though,” Amaranth said. “You said there was a gap big enough for you to wriggle through.”
“Well… maybe I looked at a stone and thought, if I moved it out there’d be a gap big enough for me, and maybe I was surprised that it moved as easily as it did,” Hazel said. “Anyway, I sat down at the vanity and I looked at myself in the mirror, as well as I could anyway, you know, it’s hard to see reflections in the dark? It’s more like looking at a shadow.”
I nodded. Amaranth looked confused, but didn’t say anything.
“But there was this little glint of light that caught on the mirror, and I looked down, and this silver chain was sitting there,” she said. “And I picked it up and looked at it, and it was as nice as anything Honey ever had, and I thought to myself, it’s been sitting here for ages, just gathering dust. And then I thought, there’s probably things like this just sitting around all over the place. And then I thought, dwarves always have the best jewelry, and it would be nice if Andy would give me something nice to wear.”
“Um,” I said. “When he found you later, is that when he gave you the ring?”
“Yeah,” she said. “How’d you guess.”
It wasn’t a question. It was the flattest, most dispirited, defeated declaration I’d ever heard.
“Hazel,” Amaranth said. “Are those the exact words that went through your head… it would be nice…?”
“I wished for it,” she said. “I wished he’d give me something nice. I wished he’d give me something nice, and tell me he loves me, and the next time I saw him, he had the ring in his hands and he was full of kisses and apologies, and I almost pulled the damned thing out of my pocket and threw it in the fire, because I knew then and there that it wasn’t right, but then I thought, what if it’s just good luck? What if it’s my lucky charm? What if I was meant to find it?”
“And that’s when you decided your mother led you to it,” I said.
“Look, I’m not a fool,” she said. “I know what it’s been doing. I know what I’ve been doing. Wishes. I can fool myself pretty well, and maybe it’s not hard for anyone else to fool me, but I know I didn’t beat Shiel fair and square. I know it. As good as I am, she’s better.”
We said nothing.
“Don’t give me that look, you know it’s true,” she said. “This is no time for false modesty.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You know, I think the lesson here is that we should just talk about these things,” Amaranth said. “I mean, we’ve been sneaking around… you’ve been sneaking around, we’ve all been sneaking around, guessing and theorizing and coming up with strategies, and here the three of us are, just sitting and calmly talking about it, and now it’s out in the open. We should have just done this before.”
“Couldn’t,” Hazel said. “I wanted to talk about it, a few times, but every time I got up the gumption, some other idea would pop into my head. A few times it was more than an idea. I’m not entirely sure I’ve been myself, this whole time. And when I was? I was so afraid of losing my luck that I didn’t want to do anything to rock the boat, so to speak. Um. That’s a river expression, it means…”
“We have it, too,” I said.
“Oh? Stands to reason, I suppose. You do have boats,” she said. “And a sight less prejudice against them who steer them.”
“You were able to come clean now,” Amaranth said. “That says something, doesn’t it?”
“It says the game is up,” Hazel said. “It doesn’t care anymore. It was afraid to let me spill the beans before, but it did something in the last day that it just doesn’t care anymore.”
I looked at Amaranth. That lined up exactly with what we had been thinking, including the fact that it had deliberately sidelined me. Amaranth nodded.
“Hazel,” I said. “I think it was afraid of me in particular.”
“You?” she said.
“If something happened today… I was laid up in bed,” I said. “Because of a bank shot that involved Shiel’s iron fist ricocheting off my kneecap, when she stormed off after you beat her.”
“I knew about that,” Hazel said, hanging her head down over her plate. “Felt terrible, obviously, but I chalked it up to bad… luck.” She blanched. “I didn’t wish ill on you, of course. I didn’t wish ill on anybody. Been trying my damnedest to think nothing but the best of everyone for days now, when I think anything at all. Maybe that’s why it had such an easy time taking me over so completely today. I didn’t want to think, didn’t want to be… well, didn’t want to be.”
“I know things seem bleak, but we can get help now,” Amaranth said. “Even if it’s not afraid of you or us anymore, there are people who know what to do in situations like this. We can fix it.”
Hazel looked up, her big, hazel eyes lined with moisture.
“It’s going to come out, isn’t it?” she said. “And then it’s going to get back to Andy, and he’ll know.”
“Know what? That you wished he’d show you he cared?” Amaranth said, though I could hear a hitch in her voice that told me she wasn’t fully comfortable with what she was saying. “I’m sure it didn’t change his feelings for you, even if it gave him a little prod…”
“It made him do something,” Hazel said. “You know what that means. You know what that’s like. It made him do it. He didn’t choose. It chose. I chose.”
“You didn’t choose anything,” Amaranth said. “Hazel, there’s no harm in wishing, idly wishing.”
“It’s not a coincidence that you decided to move a stone or slip through the hole,” I said. “It’s not a coincidence that you thought the vanity looked like an attractive place to sit, or that you noticed the chain. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the first thing that popped into your head after you picked it up was a wish?”
“You think… you think it put that thought in my head?” Hazel said. “But we can’t know that.”
“We can’t know what Andy might have done without your wish,” Amaranth said. “But you said it, none of the things in the room looked dwarven.”
“The chain certainly didn’t,” I said. “So how did you get from there to dwarven jewelry?”
“That’s… that’s a good point,” she said. She sounded unconvinced, but like she wanted to believe.
“Hazel, where’s the chain now?” Amaranth asked.
“I have it,” she said.
“Maybe… can we see it?”
Wordlessly, Hazel reached into her pocket and plunked it down on the table. Amaranth reached for it, then drew her hand back. She looked at me.
“If it’s afraid of you and not me, maybe you should be the one to touch it,” she said.
“Seems sensible enough,” I said, though I was a bit bothered by one thing: it wasn’t afraid any more.
Still, I had learned the basics of mental defense since the last time I was possessed by a fragmentary intelligence clinging to a magical artifact. I took a moment to shore up the walls of my mind before touching the damned thing.
It was lighter than it looked, and cool to the touch except where Hazel’s fingers had recently pinched it. I felt nothing poking around my defenses, had no strange thoughts that I could identify intruding into my consciousness. I had not extended any magical senses before making physical contact, as I had a notion they could open another possible line of attack for it, but I cautiously, oh so carefully, opened myself up a bit, extending a spell of magical detection just enough to confirm what I was dealing with.
I more than half expected a repeat of my experience with the thoroughly non-magical ring. A day might not be enough time to arrange a perfect non-magical duplicate, but it could have been enough time to go pick into town and pick up one that had been in the works since we started this whole confusing episode. Or maybe the entity was no longer covering its tracks because it wasn’t bound to the necklace at all and had just up and left.
I knew as soon as I touched it with my divination: I was dealing with something highly magical, I was dealing with what had left the trace on the ring, and I was dealing with something slightly alive.
And it knew that I knew.
Say nothing, it said in my head, reveal nothing, do nothing, and I will lead you to the pitchfork.