I stood looking out over the canyon, right where the lip of Sky Rock touched the rest of the world. At first I had questioned Ko’sa’s decision to steer us away from the throngs of travelers and up a treacherous boulder for something as trivial as a pretty view. As I soon as we reached the top, I understood why she had us take the risk.
The entire way up, Ko’sa had been talking- the girl felt at ease when she was filling the air with a story. She had been telling me about the time she had slain a fish by skipping a stone across the ocean surface and striking it in the head at the exact moment that it jumped out of the water. She was just getting to the part where she tried to fight the Blacksmith’s boy for calling her a liar, when we crested the top of Sky Rock. At once she fell quiet, her breath stolen by the scene before us.
The sun kissed the horizon, a liquid orange ball of lava resting over a massive valley crested by rolling hills. Those hills kept rolling themselves outward, getting higher and higher until they eventually formed mountains on either side to frame the valley like a painting. Directly to our right, a waterfall crashed down hundreds of feet below us and fed a wide river flowing directly into the center of the expanse. Cornfields, grassy plains, and forests of pine trees surrounded the river in squares like a patchwork quilt.
The nature would have been a breathtaking view in of itself, but my eyes were drawn to the dark city skyline rising high and proud against the backdrop of orange and purple brushstrokes. The capital, in all its glory, was like nothing I had ever seen. The largest building in the skyline stood dead center, dwarfing everything else around it. It appeared to be a massive Gothic spire, cylindrical in shape, arching neatly to a pointed roof. When Malcolm and I had visited Europe we had stopped in London and marveled at the Shard, the massive jutting tower that pierced the clouds and claimed the title of tallest building in England. The tower on the horizon was about the same height and lorded over the rest of the city in a similar fashion, but was constructed completely of sleek gray stone.
Smaller towers surrounded the massive spire until the skyline leveled out to single roof huts and shacks that sprawled out across the city until they were halted abruptly by a massive stone wall marking the city limits.
After a moment of taking in the scene, I tested my voice. “It’s…it’s…”
“Bloody ridiculous,” Ko’sa finished for me. “Nobody needs a castle that big while people starve out here. Didn’t use to be that big either- first time I visited it, it was only three quarters that size.” She picked up a rock and chucked it at the river flowing far below us. The drop was so far the we never heard the rock hit. “All they do is build these days. Most of that tower is just for show- the servants tell me they don’t even bother with the interiors past the first few levels.”
I looked back at the tower and felt my stomach flutter. Was that now Malcolm’s home? One day, would I also be able to call that home?
The fantasy soured as I pictured Malcolm sitting looking out over the tower with a strange, unfamiliar woman wrapped around him. His second wife. The queen.
“You said the King didn’t love the queen, right?” I asked. “You’re sure?”
Ko’sa let out a sound like a hyena spitting out a piece of raw meat. “Love had nothing do with it. Pa told me she married the bloke to save the Kingdom.”
“Simple. The King was the leader of the crazy rebels that was overrunning the city, and the royal family was trying not to find themselves on the swinging end of a gallow. Queen Isabelle’s hand was the family’s last valuable bargaining chip. Them fanatics get a King that they support so they can stop wrecking shit, and the heir to the throne stays in the bloodline.”
“So the marriage was like…a peace treaty?”
“Or a surrender. Pa says these days it feels more like the latter.”
The King’s background raised only more questions, but picturing Malcolm in a loveless, miserable marriage somehow made the tension ease its way out of my shoulders, if only for a moment. The last sliver of sun disappeared behind the city, and darkness washed over the valley. As if on cue, my eyelids began to sag and the muscles in my legs turned to jelly, now shaking with the continued effort of standing. Ko’sa read my body language like a book.
“Come on, let’s go back to the main road. It safest to sleep amongst the other travelers, long as we take shifts watching the stuff.” Instinctively, I reached into the pocket of my pajamas and felt my fingers wrap around my Iphone. The device had died hours ago- apparently searching for a signal in a different dimension was taxing on battery life. I doubted I would find a charger anytime soon, but I tightened my grip all the same.
By the time we dropped back onto the main path, tents and campfires had sprung up along the rode like a shanty town. The people milling about the encampment appeared to be several centuries behind current times in technology- most carried small knives or short blades for protection. Those that appeared to be hunters had bows and quivers slung to their backs as well.
Ko’sa possessed a small hunting knife as well, which she presented when I questioned her about self defense. “Did the handle myself,” she boasted. “See the design I made along the side? Pa says I got an eye for detail, inherited it from my ma. That’s why he married her.”
Once we found our way into the center of the camp, Ko’sa nosed her way into joining a group of travelers gathered around a crackling fire, by saying something to them in a foreign language I didn’t understand. She only appeared to know a few phrases of whatever they were speaking, but they smiled and gestured for us to join them after she offered one of them an apple from her pack.
They were cooking some kind of poultry on a spit over the fire, and as I drank in its smell I felt my mouth begin to water. The excitement of the day had made me forget how hungry I was. The leader of the group began passing around hunks off meat as fast as he could slice it off with his knife, and as soon as I was passed a small portion I wolfed it down like a rabid dog. The meat had a sharp smoky flavor and was almost as much grease as it was protein, but at that moment nothing in the world had ever tasted so delicious.
Finally the fire began to wane and Ko’sa led us over to soft patch of grass behind the tent of our new friends. She produced a small blanket from her pack and tossed it to me. “I’ll take the first shift, Outsider. You need the sleep more than me. Big day tomorrow.”
She continued to talk, but her words softened to a pleasant hum as I closed my eyes. I was out before she finished her last sentence.
Even through a pixelated video feed, my mom’s scowl and deeply creased brow exuded a disapproval so forceful that it traveled 500 miles from her dining room and came to rest over my head like a rain cloud.
“I don’t trust that Malcolm boy you’ve been seeing.”
I groaned. “Not this again Mom. You called him lovely the last time I brought him with me for Christmas.”
“That’s not what I said.” She waved her hand and rolled her eyes. “I said he was polite and funny, but it wasn’t necessarily a compliment. Almost too polite. And overcompensating with the constant jokes. Something doesn’t sit right with me about him.”
“Mom, I’m very serious about him. He’s a really good guy, we’ve gone over this before.”
“Was he a good guy when he forgot about your birthday this year?”
“We were both extremely busy and he felt really bad and apologized a million times, which – for the record – was totally unnecessary. He surprised me the day after and took me out to dinner. You need to let that one go.”
My mom clicked her tongue against her teeth, making a tsk sound. “Well, I wouldn’t know about these things if you didn’t think they were important enough to mention to me.” She looked up at the ceiling. “It’s more than that though. I think it’s his smile. I don’t like it.”
“You don’t like it when my boyfriend smiles?”
“Not the way he does it. It’s too wide. Like the way the Cheshire Cat smiles. Those are your father’s words by the way, not mine.”
“Oh Jesus Mom-”
“Watch your language Jillian. Let me finish. It’s like he knows something about you when he smiles like that- makes me feel like he’s got dirt on me or something. And he winks too much.”
I winked at my mom. “Like this?” I kept doing it. “Does this make you uncomfortable, Mom?”
She laughed at me. “You’re adorable sweetheart. It’s not the same though- when you do it, it’s just so endearing. You don’t do it creepy like him.”
I threw up my hands. “Malcolm. Isn’t. Creepy.” My face was beginning to flush red. “Do you have any idea how difficult you are making this for me? Did you even consider that maybe I’m happy with someone for once in my life and how much it would mean to me if you just gave him a chance? I need you to trust my judgment.”
She sighed. “You’re right honey, I’m sorry. You just know how I worry after everything that happened with the last one. I mean, we all know Malcolm is a funny guy sure, but in the couple months that you’ve dated him has he done anything besides make you laugh? Have you talked much about the future? Does he want kids? Why hasn’t he introduced you to his family yet? You say he’s between jobs because he quit his last one, so what does he even want to do with his life? He’s still a mystery to me- you have to ask yourself Jillian, have you really met this man yet?”
“It’s been eight months now, and of course I know him…some of those questions are implied…I mean we’ve kind of started to talk…not recently but we’ve been busy right now… but soon…”
“I know. I know. All I’m trying to say is…be careful with the jokers. You might not be ready for the day they drop the act and start talking serious.”
“Okay. Sure. Bye Mom, love you.”
I clicked the end call button, and the screen went black.
“Wake up! Oi!”
I woke up to Ko’sa shaking me by the shoulder. “I’m about to pass out,” she said. “Your turn to watch the stuff.”
I groaned and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. “Can I have the knife?”
She sniffed, clearly less than enthusiastic with the idea, but unbuckled it from her waist and handed the leather strap and sheathed knife to me. “I’m gonna sell it one day for 500 gold, so if you lose it that’s how much you owe me.”
“I’ll be careful with it, I promise.” I tossed her the blanket. Within minutes she was snoring quietly, and I was left alone with my thoughts.
The memory of the skype call with my mom was still fresh in my mind. It festered like an untreated wound, mostly because I was shocked that my mother disapproved of Malcolm, the antithesis to the failed relationships of my past, a man filled with boyish charm and unflappable good nature.
Eventually, Malcolm had won my mother over too. A month later she apologized and told me she had been wrong about him- she was just really stressed you see- and wanted me to be happy. That was the last I ever heard about Malcolm’s unsettling smile.
Now I pictured Malcolm standing at the top of the massive spire down in the valley, next to the strange woman again. I imagined him turn to me, and flash his smile. “For you babe,” he said. Then without warning, he turned and pushed the woman off the balcony. For a few seconds, her scream pierced the air, and then it stopped abruptly. Malcolm turned back to me and winked.
The picture made me shiver.