The shop was an unassuming place, its worn exterior making it seem as it were just another building on the poorer side of town, dingy and ready to be knocked down to make room for another empty lot crowded with weeds. How it remained standing was a miracle. Its peeling paint along the walls was too faded and dirty to tell what color they had originally been, and the windows were coated so heavily with dust that it had become nearly impossible to see the light from inside. Most people walked right by it without a second glance. Very rarely did anybody stop to open the door.
To see a lord hesitating in front of the door was, therefore, enough to make those scurrying past stop and whisper. Wide eyed looks were cast to the richly dressed man whose raven black hair caught the moonlight to throw back a pale rainbow. He stood with his hand half raised to knock on the door, his lower lip worried between his teeth as he debated whether or not he truly want to risk entering that shop. It looked ready to collapse on his head at a moment’s notice, and he hadn’t come to die. In fact, he was there for quite the opposite- a second chance at life.
The thought made the lord straighten up, his knuckles rapping the door firmly but politely. He bounced on the balls of his feet as he waited for an answer; when none came, he gingerly reached out for the knob- and found the door locked. Brown eyes narrowed slightly as he looked down at the barricade standing between him and the shop he’d been referred to. He wasn’t leaving without at least talking to the man inside.
His next knock on the door was louder, more impatient. Who did this man think he was to not answer his door immediately? Judging by the appearance of his shop, he couldn’t afford to turn away business. Much less a young lord seeking his help. Unless he enjoyed living in poverty- which the privileged young man at his door would never understand. A lord who was becoming more impatient the longer it took for him to get an answer.
His fist fell heavily on the door that time, and his voice rose along with it. “Hello! Anybody alive in there?”
The answer to his words was a shocked yelp, a heavy thump along with the sound of something shattering. The pained groan that followed had the lord’s eyes widening, and he reached for the knob; giving up on his polite inquiry, he gave the knob a sharp twist which easily broke the rusted metal and allowed the door to open when he shoved his shoulder against the wood. His tripping steps into the store would have sent him sprawling if the front counter wasn’t so close. There was barely clearance for the door to open, before the lord fetched up against glass so clean it shone. Steadying himself, he looked up to find the source of the pained sounds, and froze.
There was a child on all fours among a pile of shattered glass. Blood was slowly coating the floor around him as it leaked from where his hands and knees were pressed to the floor, as well as from a few cuts on his face where the glass must have bounced back from the floor. A rather impressive steam of cuss words flew from the boy’s mouth as he pushed himself up so that he was kneeling rather than crouching. Running a hand through his hair must have been mindless; it put streaks of blood through the strands.
The lord opened his mouth to apologize, but his voice stalled when the boy looked up at him. Not a boy- those features were too mature to belong to a child, though they retained some of the same soft innocence. The size of his wide eyes in his pale face didn’t aid in giving years to his appearance any more than the snowy white color of the hair that fell around his face. He was taller than the lord had expected when he got to his feet, closer to an average size, though his body was thin and seemed frail.
“You… bastard,” the man spat, making it clear his mouth didn’t match his innocent appearance.
The lord’s mouth fell open, and all he could manage was a hoarse gasping sound in response. Raising his hands almost defensively as the angry man took a step toward him, bleeding hands balled into fists. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” The man questioned, his anger growing, marking his porcelain skin with a flush of red.
“I-I… have not a single clue,” the lord stammered, his hands shaking because he refused to lower them. He was trying to seem innocent and defenseless, in an attempt to calm the shopkeeper’s temper.
All he managed to do was have the bleeding man snarl at him. “Of course you don’t. A lord all dressed up in his silver and gold, shining like a jewel- did you wander into my shop on a jest to ruin my work? Out on a night of fun with the lads and took a dare? ‘Oh, how darling, the quaint little shop on the row where the peasants live, I ought to give it a look and knock the shopkeeper off his chair!’ Is that how it went?”
The lord’s jaw had dropped and there was no retrieving it as he stood silently in the face of the man’s lecture. It took him a while of staring, wide eyed, for him to collect himself. Clearing his throat several times, he felt shame flush his face as the shopkeeper glared at him while waiting for a response. “A-actually. I know exactly what this shop is, and I came here on purpose. Alone. I… left a party to come, at the suggestion of a- uhm, a friend.”
“Oh, really? So your friend suggested you come have a shot at me, then?” The shopkeeper was too riled up, blood staining his shirt as he put his hands on his hips. One eyebrow raised in a challenge as he raised his chin in something near defiance.
“No!” the lord yelped the word, hurt on his expression for a moment.
The flash of that expression calmed the angry man just enough for him to allow a frustrated sigh. “What on earth are you here for, then?”
“I’ve come to request your services.”
“Oh? I never would have expected that from you. You are the great Lord Bellum, are you not? Known through the city for your outstanding morals and kindness. Recently engaged, as well, from what I’ve heard. And yet you seek out a poor man in a shop to warm your bed?”
“No!” There was horror in the man’s voice, though he seemed to realize it was insulting when the shopkeeper scoffed at him. “I am not here for your body, Scyren!”
“You know my name?” He was immediately up in arms again, bristling like a cat, all but hissing.
Lord Bellum winced, wondering if he’d made a mistake. “You know mine!”
“You are a Lord of the court, I am nothing but a peasant, one of many you’ve no doubt stepped on in your life and thought nothing of it! It is no wonder that I know your name- but it is very suspicious that you know mine. Why?”
The lord pulled in a slow breath, planning his words, hoping to not say anything else that would insult the defensive shopkeeper. “I came to ask for your help, Tinker.”
Scyren’s frosty blue eyes went wide, his angry expression faltering for a moment as he took a step back. His gaze jerked down to the floor; the breath he drew in shook slightly, coming on painfully slowly. “Wonderful. So you’re either here to kill me or turn me in. Am I close to your motives, my lord?”
“What the hell?” Lord Bellum spat the words, shocked and offended. “I would do no such thing! Who do you think I am?!”
“I think you are a Lord who supports a man who holds people with talents such as mine prisoner and forces them to do his bidding.” Scyren’s words were soft, but cold with a deep anger. “A king who would just as soon have us dead if we were to deny him.”
Lord Bellum’s jaw clenched, and he was the one to look away that time. He could not say it was a lie, but neither could he say he didn’t agree with the king’s policy. Tinkers were dangerous. And they had much better lives in the palace, where they could live without fear of being beaten or killed in return for doing good for their country. Was it better to let them die in poverty? Or risk them turning into criminals?
Judging by the look on Scyren’s face, he thought it was. So Lord Bellum chose his words carefully once more. “I wouldn’t take away a person’s freedom for my own selfish desires. Which is why I am here.”
“Oh?” That perked the shopkeeper’s interest, some of his anger draining away. “Not to say that I believe you won’t turn against me. But I am willing to listen to your excuse for why you scared me so badly.”
Lord Bellum kept his mouth shut, rather than complaining that he hadn’t truly been that loud. “I need your help, as I said. I’ve recently been engaged, which you have apparently heard already.” He paused, just long enough to give Scyren time to laugh at him.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand how a happy moment gives you reason to come find me.”
“I’m not happy!” Lord Bellum snapped before he could control himself. His jaw was tight when he looked away from Scyren’s shocked expression. “Well, perhaps that is not exactly true. I was… satisfied with my parent’s choice of who I am to marry. But I am not happy, because I know she will not enjoy this marriage. Who could enjoy a marriage without love?”
The curious look on Scyren’s face sharpened, and his hands dropped to his side. “Oh? What is it? Is she not pretty or rich enough? Not a good enough pedigree?”
“Honestly, your opinion of me is very degrading,” the lord sighed, frowning at him. “It is for none of those reasons. She is very beautiful, and was proposed to a dozen times before our engagement was arranged. Her family is near to mine in wealth. And I could not ask for a better family name than mine. She is the perfect wife for a nobleman.”
“But?” Scyren prompted.
“I am incapable of loving her.”
“Oh. Oh. You know it is incredibly hard to fake sexual desire in-”
“That’s not it!” Heat flooded Lord Bellum’s face, and he glared at the shopkeeper. “I told you, she is beautiful. It is no fault of hers. It rides on me. I am broken.”
Lord Bellum didn’t say a word. He reached up to draw on the golden chain around his neck, the delicately twisted jewelry even the poorest in the city was given at birth. Pulling it over his head, he cupped his hand carefully around the jewel the hung from the chain. He seemed reluctant to part with it for a moment, doubt turning down the corners of his mouth. Lord Bellum gritted his teeth, drawing up his courage, and handed his heartstone to the Tinker.
Scyren took it as reluctantly as Lord Bellum handed it over. Though he treated heartstones with the utmost respect on most occasions, he turned the lord’s over in his hands roughly. Though he regretted it the moment he got a good look, eyes wide and a soft gasp filling his mouth. “How is it still intact?” he asked, cupping the gem gently in his hands.
He couldn’t remember ever seeing a heartstone with so many cracks. It was only made worse knowing Lord Bellum must have gone through hell to get them. The pretty stone was the man’s heart; centuries ago, that might have been figurative, but a mistake with scientists playing with magic and immortality had led to the severance of men’s hearts. They had resided outside their bodies since then, greatly increasing the lifespan of mankind- and making them infinitely more fragile at the same time. Because a man’s entire life could be read, resting against his chest. His personality, his emotions, the traumas of his life could all be understood by anybody who’d learn to read a heartstone- and anybody born with the ability to manipulate them.
As a Tinker, Scyren had that ability, and he regretted it as he looked at the broken heart in his hand. It was no mere grief that had all but shattered the man’s heartstone. It was a miracle it held together at all, and it took serious trauma to do it. The loss of a true love, for instance, and Scyren was almost certain that was what the man had faced. Falling deeply in love only to have it violently torn away from him. A sharp pain lanced through Scyren’s chest at the realization. It took all he had not to shove Lord Bellum’s heartstone back at the man and tell him to leave.
“That bad?” the lord asked, his voice soft.
Scyren simply nodded, blinking hard to clear the hot sting of tears from his eyes. “I won’t even ask what you did to harm your heartstone this badly. I’m sure I don’t want to know.”
Lord Bellum gave a soft laugh, his gaze on the glass counter. He’d left fingerprints on the perfectly clean glass and it seemed wrong somehow. Strange, considering how the outside of the shop made the place look like it was falling apart, that he would feel bad for dirtying a counter. But then, the inside of the shop was immaculate other than the spot on the floor marked by shattered glass and the stain of Scyren’s blood.
Scyren cleared his throat, his blue eyes growing frosty again, and the lord knew he had missed something while preoccupied with the stark difference in the shop’s inner and outer appearances. “S-sorry,” he stammered, focusing his attention back on the shopkeeper. “What was that?”
“I asked why I should help you- and considering you don’t pay attention, I seriously doubt you’re worth the trouble,” Scyren scoffed, shoving away from the counter; seeing the bloody handprints he’d left made Lord Bellum feel better about his smudged fingerprints.
“I’ll pay you,” was his immediate offer, and it was obvious he said entirely the wrong thing.
“Money? Your offer is money? If you want to pay, go buy yourself a new heartstone and save me the trouble.”
“No!” The sudden volume of his voice, and the desperation that was in it, startled them both. The shopkeeper shrunk back, and the lord made an effort to control his voice. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to yell at you. But I… I refuse to lose myself, even to make another happy. If I buy any heartstone off the shelf, no matter how pretty, I will end up a different person than I am now- and I am not willing to sacrifice myself. I would rather live without loving.”
Scyren narrowed his eyes at Lord Bellum, crossing his arms. The shopkeeper didn’t have to look down at the heartstone in his hands to know the lord was speaking the truth; that earnest expression spoke for itself. “Okay…” he said slowly, tipping his gaze down to the floor. “Say I believe that. And assume that I’m willing to help you. Are you willing to come here every day for possible the next few months?”
“Can’t I just leave my heartstone with you?”
He knew he’d made a mistake again, because Scyren looked ready to jump across the counter to get to him. “W-well… I mean… it’s not like it’s doing me any good at the moment anyway.”
Scyren snorted, slamming the heartstone down on the counter; crippling pain had Lord Bellum gasping, barely able to hold himself up even with the counter to support him. “Wh-what… why the hell?” he panted out the words, because Scyren’s hand kept pressure on the heartstone, keeping the pain constant.
“Does that ease your doubts, Lord Bellum?” Scyren is asked, his voice as perfect and cold as a crystal. “Who’s to say nothing will happen to your heartstone while I’m here? I am not always in my shop. Somebody is bound to find out I have your heartstone. Are you telling me you don’t have any enemies? Nobody who would take your heartstone and crush it for the pleasure of watching you die?”
Lord Bellum’s face had been pale from the pain, but there was no color remaining by the time Scyren finished speaking. “That’s… possible?”
“Yes, you pathetic excuse for a noble. How do you not know these things?”
“Well…” Lord Bellum shifted his gaze again, fidgeting nervously under the Tinker’s gaze. “It’s not as if I’ve considered giving my heart to somebody I didn’t love before. I’ve never been at risk for having it stolen, either. Can you blame my parents for not wanting to scare me by telling me all the dangers that surround my heartstone?”
Scyren’s glare faltered, and he gave a heavy sigh. “You see, this is why I hate nobles. Not only are you spoiled, narcissistic, entitled brats- you’re stupid and sheltered as well.”
“Did you-” the lord’s shock was replaced by an amused smile that seemed to put the shopkeeper off balance; he eased the pressure against Lord Bellum’s heartstone, allowing the man to stand as the pain faded to a dull ache. “I understand. I will make time to see you, every day for a year if I must. Tell me when I must be here, and I will come. I will be at your beck and call until you are done with me.”
Scyren’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he simply laughed. “You… really are an idiot,” he said, shaking his head. It took him a few seconds to calm himself, straightening up and cradling Lord Bellum’s heartstone more carefully between his hands.
“Does that mean we’ll be working together?” the lord asked, his words bright and hopeful as he perked up like a child offered his favorite candy when he was sure he’d be lectured.
Scyren stared at him before laughing again, shorter and softer than before. “I suppose it does. I expect you to be here every Monday evening and Thursday afternoon until I either fix you or change my mind.”
“Don’t say that until I’ve fixed it, idiot,” Scyren sighed.
“Huh?” Scyren raised an eyebrow at him.
“My name. I figured you should know it, if I’ll be seeing you twice a week. Technically, it’s Decerto Bellum, but I absolutely despise that name. So it’s Deci.”
“Well then, Deci,” Sycren purred the name, enjoying the flush that spread across the lord’s face in response. Not capable of love, but lust was apparently a different matter. “We’ll start tonight. Well, when I say ‘we’, I mean you.”
“Me?” Deci questioned, his head tipped slightly to the side and a puzzled frown on his face.
Scyren snickered at him. “Yes, you. If I’m going to help you, the least you can do is help me clean up the mess on my floor. Never mind the blood- those are the shards of a perfectly good heartstone all over my floor.”
“I didn’t…?” Though he’d already come around the counter and was halfway across the room, the lord froze. Horror crossed Deci’s face, until Scyren was laughing at him again.
“It didn’t belong to anybody, you don’t have to worry. When I get bored, I make heartstones for a local merchant who’s too poor to get them from the king’s Tinkers. Mine are of a higher quality, but they don’t carry the royal seal, so they don’t make as much money. Too bad. It seems like such a waste sometimes. Such beautiful stones…”
Deci watched Scyren as he cleaned up the mess on the floor. When he was thoughtful and quiet, there was a soft beauty to the shopkeeper he never would have expected. It vanished the moment the man opened his mouth to snap about a missed shard of gemstone, but it was enough to ensure Deci that he had asked the right person for help. Scyren would treat him better than any of the king’s men ever could.
And by some miracle, he was still convinced of that after Scyren worked him all night, only sending him home when the sun had started to rise. The shopkeeper leaned against the frame of the door to the shop, watching the lord stagger down the street and hoping nobody picked him up because they thought him drunk. He was an unexpectedly hard worker for a noble, and a little too earnest. Definitely too trusting. But possibly someone Scyren could work with.
At least, he hoped so, because repairing that kind of damage was going to take a lot longer, and cause a lot more trouble, than either of them could have expected.