The rise of the affluent middle class was a surprise to almost everyone. No one expected that workers would ever have the wealth and power of High Society.
— Wastor da Joknig, After the Destruction of Natural Order
Miserable, Linsan limped up the stone path leading to her house. The blood on her hands and face had dried on the long, painful walk home. Every joint in her body ached from where Brook's blast had tossed her aside.
She spat into the wilted flowers along the side of the path and regarded the stairs leading up to her porch. Every step seemed like an agony and the three steps were almost too much.
Linsan stopped. Wiping her forehead, she turned and sat heavily down on the stairs. Her ruined violin case thumped onto the ground next to her. The makeshift binding made from strips of her skirt and her underclothes kept it sealed shut but she could hear her violin rattle inside.
She panted in discomfort and looked at the empty street. Fortunately, they lived on the edge of town and she only got a few curious stares on her walk home. It didn't help that most of them were double-takes and gasps of surprise. No doubt she was already the subject of gossip.
As much as she hated Brook for mocking her, the other girl was right. The only reason they survived was her mother's singing and dancing. Her reputation kept them on the edge of comfort. Dukan didn't have that steady income. He had worked hard to keep a roof over his three girls. Over the years, he had managed to take his skill coordinating contracts and wrangling suppliers into getting a license to run his own bank in the center of town.
Now, neither of them could afford an embarrassment. She rubbed her aching jaw and shook her head. It was best just to pretend the fight had never happened.
Linsan glanced at the violin case. She wanted to see if the strange magic happened if she played it again. She was also scared that it wouldn't. Worrying her bottom lip, she shook her head and promised to try it again when she headed back to the valley. After the fight, she hoped Brook wouldn't try to interrupt again.
A cool breeze rippled along her thighs. She squirmed in discomfort. After a few minutes, she considered heading up to her room and seeing if she could sneak a hot shower before her father caught her with uncomfortable questions.
Steeling herself, Linsan pushed herself up.
A loud grinding noise echoed down the street.
She froze with a feeling of dread. She had heard of the new vehicles in town and there were only a few people who could afford the expensive machines. One of them was Dukan. With a groan, she watched the column of steam as it approached steadily from a few blocks away.
There were a thousand things she could have done, but none of them seemed to come to mind as the large-wheeled vehicle came to a rumbling halt in front of the house. It was a monstrous thing, unnatural and harsh looking. The entire thing was black with gold trim everywhere. Near the hood, there was an intricate design of a pair of black clouds on a plaque along with some names and a year, 1842.
The two riders weren't people Linsan wanted to meet either. Dukan got out first, his black suit glistening from the steam that clung to the fabric. He pulled a pair of goggles off his face and snapped them to the side. Flecks of water splattered onto the cobblestones.
Brook slipped off her side of the car. Her shoulders were slumped and her new dress was damp across her body. She wore a deep green color but the ruffles were all limp and dripping.
Dukan strode up the walk. “Lin! You look beaut….” His voice trailed off as he got closer. “Actually, you look like you've been in a pretty nasty fight. Brook did a number on you, didn't she?”
Behind him, his daughter glared at his back. She had a black eye and bandages along her hands and shoulder. Her leather boots scuffed against the flagstone path. She held her dress away from the ground in semblance of propriety but her arms shook from the effort. She was obviously hurting as much as Linsan.
Linsan regarded Dukan. At first, she considered blaming Brook for the fight and the resulting damage. After all, she had ruined Linsan's violin case and started the argument. She deserved all the punishment she would get.
But that wouldn't help anyone. She sighed and shook her head. “It wasn't a big deal,” she lied.
Brook tensed and straightened her back. She looked surprised.
“Nonsense, as beautiful as Brook is, she's got a temper. Though, she has a tendency to rip dresses. An expensive habit to say the least.”
Dukan waved his hand, silencing her. “Is Tisin in?”
Brook glared at him but said nothing.
Linsan shook her head. “No, she's just left for another tour of My Fairest Rose along the southern regions. She's coming into her second stop tonight. She'll be there for three days before moving on.”
Dukan ran his hand along his short, dark hair. He smiled and shrugged. “Pity. I haven't had a chance to see that play. I've always loved watching your mother dance.”
“This is the third season,” Brook muttered.
He seemed lost for a moment. Then he smiled brightly. “Your dad in?”
“Probably. I haven't been home long but he's always in the study at this time of day.”
Dukan turned to his daughter. “Stay out here and try not to ruin your dress. I'm going to talk to Sian and see if we can smooth this over.” He pointed at her. “No fighting.”
“Yes, Daddy,” came the sullen response. She glanced at Linsan and then pointedly looked away with a lift of her chin and a scowl.
Dukan patted Linsan on the shoulder as he passed her. His polished shoes thudded against the wooden steps. He knocked before letting himself in. “Hey, Sian, got a minute?”
When the door closed behind him, Linsan couldn't help but stare at the door with discomfort. What was he going to say to her father? Was she going to get in trouble? How would her father respond to the broken case or the scratches along her instrument? Both were expensive and they couldn't afford much.
She turned around to glare at Brook.
Brook was only a few inches away from her, glaring back at her.
Linsan gasped and stumbled back until she hit the step with her foot. “W-What?”
“This is all your fault,” Brook whispered in a sharp tone as she pointed angrily at Linsan.
“You started it!” hissed Linsan back.
“There is a difference between talking and you throwing blows!”
“You ruined my case.”
“It's a stupid case, who cares?”
“I care!” Linsan managed to regain some of her balance and straightened up. She stepped forward, but Brook didn't move back so they were pressed chest-to-chest as the two teenagers hissed at each other. “I paid for it with my own money and you smashed it on purpose. This was your fault, not mine!”
Muscles along Brook's jaw tightened.
Linsan shoving forward with her body. “You're the one who followed me to the workshop. You were the one who said my family was trash and—”
“Your family is trash, you stupid bitch!” Brook shoved back with her bandaged hands.
Ready this time, Linsan stepped onto the step behind her, lifting herself up with the force of Brook's shove. Then, with gravity helping her, she brought her hands down to shove back with all her might. “Our lives got ruined too!”
Brook stumbled back into the grass. Her ankle turned and she let out a hiss before hopping further away. “That was just a burnt-out forest, I'm talking about my future!”
She started forward but when her ankle took her weight, she let out a hiss of pain. Flushed, she forced out the words. “I was supposed to have a pretty power, a silk! Now, every time I clap my hands, every Couple-damned window cracks!” She was no longer hissing, but screaming at the top of her lungs. “What kind of man is going to want a wife who can shatter walls! I'll never be able to go to shows without being able to applaud, to play games, or anything with these… these things!”
Tears sparkled in Brook's eyes. She yanked her dress from the ground with one hand and tried to lunge forward again. She tripped on her dress and stumbled to the side.
Reflexively, Linsan stepped back for another blow.
It never came. Brook came to a halt a few feet away and then bent over. Her shoulders shook for a moment before she straightened. When she looked up, the tears were rolling down her cheeks. “I'm ruined because of that stupid fight! All because you attacked me!”
Linsan fought the urge to rush forward and slap her. “You threatened to burn Palisis!” she screamed back. “That's all that's left of our family's heritage and you were going to just burn it!”
“It's just a stupid violin!”
Something snapped inside Linsan. She stepped down to rush Brook.
“Stop!” bellowed Sian and Dukan at the same time.
Linsan tripped on the edge of the step and came down hard on her knees. Pain shot through her limbs as she bent forward. When she looked up through the waterfall of her brunette hair, she saw that Brook had also fallen back into the dirt.
“What in the Couple-damned hell is going on?” yelled Dukan. “How is this not starting a fight?”
Brook looked away. “Sorry, Daddy,” she said in a girlish voice.
“Quiet, Girl! You obviously can't listen to simple instructions.” Dukan's shoes thudded down the stairs. “Get off the ground. You're embarrassing me.”
He held out his hand for Linsan.
Crying from the pain, Linsan took it and pulled herself up to her feet. She glanced at her father.
Sian looked old at the top of the stairs. His skin was pale and wrinkled and there was no joy in his eyes as they looked her over from head to toe. With every second, his lips thinned.
She cringed. “Sorry, I didn't mean to get into a fight.”
“Anything broke? Do you need a bone setter?” Her father's voice was tense.
“No… it just hurts… a little. I'm sorry.” Tears burned in her eyes as she took in his disapproving look.
“No,” Dukan said, “I should apologize for my daughter. She obviously can't be trusted to exercise restraint.”
Brook started to speak, “Sorry—”
He held up his hand to silence her without looking at her. “Who or what is Palisis?”
Sian spoke from the porch step. His voice was low and listless. “It's Marin's violin. The one I gave her when she married Junith.”
“Marin? She didn't keep it? Did… she get divorced again?”
Sian shook his head. “No, she… Jun was there when she died. It was sudden and we didn't know she was sick until it was too late. About a year later, Junith sent Palisis back with her apologies. Having it near her brought up too many memories.”
He sniffed and wiped the tears from his eyes. “What could I say to that, Dukan? That I would keep it until I needed money, then sell it off to the highest bidder? I poured my heart and soul into that instrument. It was a gift for the greatest women in our lives.”
“It's never been played?”
Linsan tensed. She still remembered the first and only time she played the instrument. It was a beautiful sound and she ached to hold the instrument in her hand to do it again. But her mother had insisted they said it was untouched when they wrapped it up and sent to the family safe box for keeping.
Sian nodded. “Yeah, never been played.”
Even though he didn't say it, Linsan watched as her father's shoulders tensed and he clenched his hand. His eyes shimmered with tears for a moment before he wiped them with the back of his hand.
Dukan looked confused. “It's a virgin Sterlig, Sian. Any musician with talent would sell their souls for the power that comes from being the first. Selling that would get you millions of cuks. You wouldn't have to be writing essays for pittance. Why are you working when that thing could set you for life?”
Sian shook his head. “It's Marin, Dukan. You know that. There isn't another person closer to both of us than her. How could I just… throw that away for some money? We are surviving. It's a hard life but there are some things Tis and I just couldn't give up.”
With a sigh, Dukan returned to Sian. He took the first step up to grab Linsan's father's hand and squeezed it tightly. “Forgive me. Marin was my friend too. After all, I was your guard for your wedding. I should have never asked.”
Sian nodded but said nothing.
Behind Linsan, Brook whispered to herself. “Women can marry each other?”
Linsan didn't answer.
Dukan patted Sian's hand a few more times before he backed down the stairs until he was even with Linsan. “It will be safe at my bank, Sian. I promise you that. And if you ever do decide to sell it, I will make sure you get everything you need.”
Her father nodded. “Thank you, Dukan. I'm sorry for everything. After the fire, I… I… lost myself. Between the debtors and the loss, we barely made it through in one piece. I'm glad that you came out of this in a better place.”
“No one could have known that the fire would destroy everything. However, it's obvious that I've drifted from your life in the last eight years as well. I apologize for that.” He glanced at Linsan. “Look, I had a good run of luck lately and life is pretty rosy for our family. Not to mention, money isn't as tight as—”
He turned to Brook with a stern look. “—some of us make it out to be. We are quite comfortable at this point and you know that.”
Brook's cheeks colored.
Sian cringed before he said, “Dukan, I'm honored but—”
Dukan turned back held up his hand. “I worked for both you and your father for my entire life. You were always good men and as close to family as you can get. This is the least I can do. Even if you are too proud to ask, let me at least help your daughter. She deserves a better life.”
Linsan inhaled with surprise. She glanced at Brook who looked hurt and just as shocked as herself.
“Just a couple hundred cukdins a month? Three? To help with the bills? Make sure she has a good start?”
Sian opened his mouth to say something but then choked back a sob.
Dukan smiled at Linsan who gave him a hesitant smile back.
Then he turned back to her father. “I also came for another reason. I'm moving… to the other side of town, up near the mansions. I bought a nice house for us. They also just opened up a private school for girls and my daughters are switching over in a few weeks.”
Linsan looked back. Judging from Brook's expression, she obviously didn't know about the move.
Dukan gestured in the direction of the house. “I'm sorry, but you have to admit, we're never going back to the way it was.”
Linsan felt her father's profound sadness. Over the years, she's seen her father's friends drifting away as fortunes shifted. Dukan was one of them. The conversation between Dukan and her father felt like she was watching the last plank bridging their past lives and today being removed.
“I understand, Duk.” Sian sighed and nodded.
“Please, let me help you one last time? At least until she's done with school? She'll be eighteen then. You could use the money.”
With tears rolling down his cheeks, Sian nodded again.
Dukan gave Linsan a smile before turning back to his car. “Come on, Brook. We're leaving.”
Brook looked at her, some of the anger replaced by confusion. Then she followed her father back to their car.
Linsan didn't move as she watched them drive away. Then she turned to look at her father. “I'm sorry.”
He wiped the tears from his eyes. “I always knew it was going to happen. He was back on his feet less than a year after the fire.”
Her father stopped moving for a moment, then he turned and opened the door. “Come on, Honey. We might as well start your lessons.”
“You manifested powers, right?”
“Yes.” The memory of the rush after she had used her powers came back. She smiled to herself. “It was amazing.”
“The violin?” He wasn't looking at her. His eyes were on the broken case at the foot of the stairs.
She cringed. “Yes.”
“Then it would take the Couple walking the earth hand-in-hand to stop you from playing. I'd rather you know how to play properly than to hurt someone with a misplaced melody or note. So, you need to have lessons and I'd rather teach you than you playing on the sly for the last few months when you didn't think I could hear you.”
She gasped in surprise.
He raised an eyebrow and he smirked. “Your mother is a magnificent creature on the stage but she needs a script to keep her lies together. Her improvisation has always been weak.”
Leaning over, he kissed the top of her head. “Come on. I also have to write a letter to your mother to let her know what is happening so she can stop making those faces when she talks to me.”
Surprised and delighted, Linsan gathered her ruined case and headed up the stairs.