“The difference between curiosity and suspicion is one is asked by your friends, the other your enemies.” – The Lady, Tarot Ranseur
How can one hide a secret, when the secret is as much a mystery to the one bearing it? That is how the parson Dalton Ascot felt with each passing day that he watched the young girl notably recover from her ordeal. But it wasn’t just her enigmatic arrival, or the poison, nor even the unknown circumstances surrounding both.
It was the language she possessed that raised eyebrows throughout the town. And as the sun set each afternoon, the angelic melody would begin again, as if she was somehow drawn to the event horizon of day and night, ocean and land, the beautiful tones rising into the air for all to hear.
There were questions raised, of that he was sure. But how many of those questions would he have an answer for? If and when the townsfolk came knocking, how many could he look in the eye and tell the lies he needed to speak in order to protect the child?
Ascot’s options were limited. The town wasn’t huge, and travelers were rare. Whilst a few fringe farmsteads may have provided him with options for the girl’s adoption, Ascot knew they weren’t the answer. None of them were.
And that was because the townsfolk of Ashray Cove were all close, most related in one way or another. No, this was his secret, his and Elyss’s, and it was their job to care for her until another opportunity arose.
Throughout the day, Taja became accustomed to helping around the parsonage as much as she could. She may have been young, but her agility, combined with an endless pool of energy, gave the little girl the resources to aid both Ascot and Elyss with their own duties.
While Elyss prepared meals, both for themselves and some of the poorer folk of the town, Taja brought ingredients, found both in the larder of the small kitchen, as well as out in the green, carrying each in a little pale Ascot had given her.
As Ascot provided his invocations and potions to those seeking help, Taja would fetch water to quench their thirst, retrieve ancient books and manuscripts from the shelves of the chapel’s athanaeum, as well as the occasional cups of tea, carrying the latter with a certain air of grace only little girls could ever display.
But as each day came to a close, the little ‘un would disappear from their sights, only to be heard again a short time later, her melody caught on the wind itself, as if drawn to the moment like a wolf to the moon.
It was on one of the afternoons that Ascot had been employed by Grandor Lumpkin, one of the more affluent citizens of Ashray Cove. He’d dropped by to deliver a list of elixirs he required, some of which were of the ‘irregular’ variety.
The pretentious Lumpkin was a horse breeder and unbeknownst to most, he collaborated with the parson, buying various natural concoctions and the occasional enchantments to better breed his stock. The results of his dealings were well known far and wide, making him one of the more sought-after horse breeders in Avera.
Just as she always did, Taja brought the cups of tea, carefully balancing the platter in her tiny hands. Ascot and Grandor were in deep conversation and when the visitor saw the girl serving his tea, paused in mid-sentence, considering the child. He only spoke again once she was gone.
“A niece, Ascot? Some distant relative?” Ascot eyed him suspiciously, knowing full well that the girl’s arrival had been spread on the tongues of gossipers for almost a month.
“She came to us from Cornice several weeks ago,” referring to one of the southern cities.
“So, no fishing nets and sea monsters then?”
“Derbis does have a fascination with stories,” Ascot muttered.
“And the drink,” Grandor added, laughing in a ghoulish uproar at his own joke. Ascot joined in, but neither his eyes, nor his mind, joined in the humor.
Despite Ascot trying his best to move the meeting along, Grandor continued to add items to the list of requirements. Ascot wasn’t an apothecary and resented the chores, but the village and the parsonage benefitted from the arrangement. So, there he sat, hands folded and head nodding in approval. Their meeting stretched well into the afternoon and despite adding up to a fine sum for Ascot, the parson wanted nothing more than to be rid of the man.
It wasn’t until almost sundown that he finally settled his bill, handing over the small sack of coin. Ascot accepted it with a smile, a thank you, then gestured towards the door before following his client outdoors. The man’s horse was tied to the rail by his own stable and after bidding the man a final farewell, turned to head back inside.
But just as he reached the door, the melody came to him, carried on the afternoon breeze itself. Ascot heard it much too late, turning and looking up into the face of Grandor, the man staring back over his shoulder suspiciously.
As the two men stood, both aware of what the other was thinking, Taja continued to sing her evening song into the dimming sky, unaware of the danger she had put herself in. Grandor gave a final nod to his parson, looked once more toward the beach, then turned his horse for home.
Ascot had always known that time would be his enemy, and with Grandor Lumpkin’s suspicion raised, the good parson knew time would soon betray him in the worst way possible.