Excerpt: The Heart of the Kingdom

It was beautiful.

Cenric stared at the pendant dangling from a delicate chain at the back of the tinker’s display. It was the most unusual piece of jewelry he’d ever seen, composed of twists of silver painstakingly shaped into a heart. It was embedded with tiny, clear crystals—Cenric would call them diamonds, but there was no way Nick would have diamonds in his cart.

It would be perfect for Averill.

Unfortunately, it was the nicest thing on Nick’s cart, and therefore it was probably way out of Cenric’s limited budget. Cenric frowned, casting his gaze over the rest of Nick’s cart. He carried the necessities that most people spent their money on: pots and pans, kettles, needles, and a few tools. He carried a small selection of jewelry and other gifts, though most of it was all shine and little value. He also had some small toys, dolls, and other tiny odds and ends he could shill off to children who had a copper or two to burn.

“Like it, do you?” Nick asked, jabbing a thumb at the silver heart behind him. “Got a pretty girl in mind?”

Cenric flushed because that was exactly why he wanted it. Averill was more than pretty. She was beautiful, smart, and always laughing. She was always nice to him, always happy to drop by the shop and browse through the collection of books Cenric’s mother had left him. He’d been slowly building it further, partly because he wanted to, but also partly because Averill loved to stop by and see what he’d received from the capital recently.

“Well,” Nick said, drawing the word out thoughtfully. “How much do you have to spend on it?”

“Some,” Cenric said. He knew he looked young, but he wasn’t stupid. That was an open invitation to tell Nick how much he had, so Nick could set the price to that amount or slightly higher to bargain down from. “How much are you asking?”

Nick grinned, showing off a few missing teeth. He was an older man, though with his sun-weathered skin, scruffy beard, and long, scraggly hair, it was impossible to tell how old. “Well,” Nick drawled again, giving the pendant an assessing look. “Since it’s for a lovely lass, I could probably let it go at two coppers.”

Cenric furrowed his brow, wondering if Nick was having him on. Only two coppers? He’d expected closer to ten, maybe fifteen. It was the most intricate, expensive looking piece of jewelry on the cart, and Nick was only asking two coppers? Cenric would almost think Nick was discounting it because Cenric wanted it for Averill, but Nick wasn’t that stupid. So maybe there was something wrong with it?

“Not dropping it any lower,” Nick said, interpreting Cenric’s incredulous look as disbelief that the price was so high instead of so low. “Have to make a profit, after all. Zeph—” Nick jabbed a finger at the donkey tied to a nearby tree, “—doesn’t feed himself.”

“Fine. Two copper,” Cenric agreed, fishing the coins out of his pocket. He laid them on the cart next to Nick, wondering if Averill would like it. He didn’t know. He couldn’t remember her ever wearing jewelry before, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t want to. Her father was an extremely pragmatic farmer who didn’t believe in even the smallest of luxuries.

Nick flashed his toothless grin again, fetching the necklace down from its hook. He set it on the cart next to the coppers, and for a moment, Cenric almost thought it was made of rusted iron instead of brightly polished silver. Blinking, Cenric shook his head. A trick of the light, probably; the necklace looked bright and silver once more.

“I hope your lass likes it,” Nick said, the coppers disappearing into one of the many pockets on his well-patched jacket.

“Thank you,” Cenric said, picking it up. It felt warm to the touch, but that was just because it had been hanging in the sun. He tucked it into his pocket, wondering if he should wait until the next time he saw Averill, or if he should go seek her out. Waving to Nick, Cenric headed back home, resisting the urge to fidget with the necklace.

He should wait. If he showed up, uninvited, at her family’s home, her father would probably kick him out. She was due to come into town later that week in any case. A few days’ wait wouldn’t kill him, and he could find a way to package it prettily. He could also figure out how to tell her how he felt since he’d been failing at that for the past few months, and he doubted having the necklace would make him any braver on that count.

Cenric’s steps faltered as he turned down the side path where his little house was located. It was a few houses down from the town’s only tavern-and-inn. It was owned by the Davidsons and was rarely actually used as an inn. Most of their custom came from the townsfolk and the nearby farmers who stopped in to partake of the Davidsons’ home-brewed ale.

There was a stranger sitting on the front stoop. He was a rough-looking character, wearing a sword and matching dagger at his waist and a leather chest plate. His face was covered in thick stubble, as if he had traveled hard to get to Lansdale. A wide-brimmed hat shaded his features but didn’t hide the way he was staring at Cenric as if Cenric was a particularly strange phenomenon.

Cenric looked away, curling his fingers around the necklace in his pocket. The man probably looked at everyone like that. Cenric sped his steps—not because of the stranger, of course. He just wanted to get home to find something to wrap the necklace in.

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