He comes into the shop when she is sealing the last few of the pressed-flower bookmarks, double-checking the lamination. He’s pretty: Her first impression of him is of dark fluffy hair and blue-green eyes that stand out like light-caught gemstones in his dark face. She watches him, idly, as her hands work. He wanders around the shop for a while and then comes up between the aisles.
Do you make everything in here yourself?
She smiles. Everything except for the god’s eyes and the dream catchers, I sell those for a friend of a friend. I don’t know how to make them, and I don’t want to learn until my friend’s friend can teach me about them.
Why? he asks, and she smiles at him.
It’s like languages, is what I was always taught—you shouldn’t fool around with other people’s symbols unless you really understand what they mean.
And he looks at her like he’s staring at a person and not a shopkeeper, wide-eyed.
He is very pretty, she thinks, and keeps smiling. Would you like to buy some beads today? We just got the turquoise in and it’s very nice, my captain says that it’s unusual for shipments to have this kind of quality.
Yeah, okay, he says with that peculiar kind of absentmindedness that lets her know that he’s not really paying attention to what he’s agreeing to.
She gives him a discount and waves him out of the shop.
- - -
The next time she sees him is in the king’s park, by the fountain.
Hi, she says to him, gathering up all her courage and waving.
You’re that, he says, and then swallows and blushes. The red isn’t as obvious on his cheeks as it would be on hers, but now that they are close she can see it, and it makes her feel better, somehow, that it’s there.
- - -
His name turns out to be Heckler, and he is sweet and cheerful when he is not busy being sweet and shy and tongue-tied. There is usually a packet or so of birdseed in his pocket, which turns out to be a necessity because birds like him a lot. She had only ever seen big fearless geese and spoiled ducks willing to come so close to humans before, and here is Heckler with robins on his shoulders and sparrows on his knuckles and a bluebird on top of his head.
He is very modest about it, and tells her that they always just come on their own. (He turns so red when she says out loud that animals are just very good judges of character.)
When they talk about life over bubble tea, it turns out that he grew up in a borough not that far from the orphanage where she and Natalie had spent their childhood. It’s curious. If only she had snuck across the street, not been so worried about what the nuns would say, they might have met much earlier.
He looks troubled when she remarks on it out loud. She takes out her camera and snaps pictures of him while his eyes are still clouded in moodiness; if they come out nicely he’ll serve as a good model for the turquoise and lapis jewelry in her shop. Her beads are always hanging at his clavicle these days, dangling from his ears in clips.
- - -
And against all odds, he hesitates when it comes time (far past time) for them to kiss.
She tells herself to be brave and tries to close the distance, but he puts his hands up between her.
What is it, she says, because she knows him well enough to read that his hesitations aren’t a matter of his being attracted or not, of his caring or not. He shakes his head.
This isn’t right, this is going to make trouble.
You wouldn’t understand, he says, and bites his lip; it’s because you’re Ingeid and I’m—
Something in her feels cold, so cold, and then hot, and angry. That doesn’t matter, it’s never mattered, it will never matter.
The law, he says, weakly, and she stares at him.
The king is changing the laws. All of them, one by one. The world isn’t like what it used to be, people don’t think in the same ways.
I’m not so sure, he says, but before he has the chance to put any more words between them she gathers up all the courage she’s got and takes his face in both hands. His mouth is warm and human on hers and that is the only thing of any importance.
- - -
He fits inside her like nothing and no one before, and she wraps herself around him—hands, heart, body, all—as she detonates in syncopated rhythm with him.
She thinks that they belong like this, and she thinks that whatever slope they’ve been rolling down all this time they’ve come too far to retrace their steps, and she thinks that that’s all right with her, really.
He shakes when they’re through, shakes with the force of his breath and maybe from nervousness or giddiness at what they’ve done. His eyes cannot seem to focus. She reaches out and touches his damp curly hair and pulls him back toward her, his forehead against her chest. He kisses the curve of her breasts. The earthquake inside him still doesn’t die down.
We don’t have to get married, she says to the air. We could run away. You and I. My mandatory service is almost up; you only have a few years left. I could sell the shop and we could live outside the city borders, until things are better.
He says her name into her skin, closes his eyes.
Or we could stay, if you wanted to. There’s nothing for them to prove. The world is a waterwheel, always turning. I can keep a store anywhere.
We don’t have to get married, she tells him again, but I want to be a mother, I want to have children, I want to move on from the part of my life that’s about taking things away and grow into making things instead.
Lakshmi, he says again, and his voice catches, low, sensuous.
She strokes her stomach, kneads her fingertips softly against her skin. She feels so filled, so light. Tell me yes, she says, and she knows him well enough that she isn’t afraid. She could never be afraid of anything in the matter of him.
He answers her with his body, and she thinks that they could melt together, their fit is so seamless.
- - -
She hands in her paperwork, neatly filled, early on the morning of her twenty-second birthday. It is misty, but the slanting sunlight that pierces through the lake town tells her that the afternoon will be clear and bright.
So you’ll be leaving, sir, the rookie knight who accepts them says. Her freckled face is downcast. The order will be a lonelier place without you.
We’ll still be able to meet, she replies. I’ll still be right here if anyone wants to find me.
Sir, the knight says, and falls silent for a moment. Be careful, sir. I really admire you, I think you’re very brave and I hope you’ll be happy. Her expression seems conflicted, but at last she comes up with a confused-looking smile. Please take care.
I will, she replies, and ducks out of the small building deliberately. She does not glance back even once.