The man waiting outside my studio three days before the new year was dark with travel, his cloak ragged and mud-stained. The gray hollows around his eyes and beneath his cheekbones proclaimed his business. Even so, I feared I would be robbed before our exchange ended.
“What are you selling?” I held the heavy brass key in my hand like a weapon, refusing to unlock the studio door. Beyond the thin wooden barrier, a rough amethyst the size and texture of a shelled walnut waited on my cutting tray to be improved. The man before me could never enter that room.
“A gem,” he said. His accent put a flat country note to the ‘e’. A fleck of spit remained on his lip, white foam against cracked red flesh. “From the Valley.”
I held out my free hand. The wretched man placed into it a large wad of linen. Still, I doubted his claim. Valley gems were plentiful in rumor and rare in reality. A good jeweler learned to trace a gem’s origin before he made a purchase he couldn’t profit from later. I owned my shop and the studio above it, in a tower within the city walls. I wasn’t about to make a bad buy.
I peeled the linen back, the gray of its outer layer revealing a white underside. Within the nest of fabric lay a large yellow topaz, cut in the old style.
“My dear man,” I said. “This is no Valley gem. It’s neither ruby nor sapphire, diamond, nor emerald. This is topaz, or citrine. And, worse, it doesn’t sing. I’m told Valley gems sing.” But I kept hold of the stone, and the man noticed.
“Two gold graeli,” he said. “The topaz will sing for the right jeweler.”
I flipped my hand over, fingers curled around the topaz and its wrapping. Made as if to hand it back to him. “Not interested.” I reached the brass key towards my studio door.
“Thirty silver.” His voice broke.
“I will give you twenty,” I said. The man was desperate. I was certain I could cut the old topaz into three more popular shapes and sell each for that much, or more.
My day was starting off fine, and when Lise, my assistant, arrived, it would get better still. I pocketed the topaz and drew a purse from my sleeve. The man’s fingers shook the coins together as I counted them out.
What a marvelous stone. I imagined it transformed to a brooch or a ring. A pair of drop earrings. Glittering in the perfect setting: bezel or clutch, wrap or pin…
The man was staring at me, as if awaiting a response.
“You shouldn’t linger,” I said quickly and waved him away. “The local sheriff comes around often.”
As the man shuffled down the narrow stairs to the street outside my shop, I unlocked the studio, closed the door carefully behind me, then hurried to my workbench.
By the time Lise arrived, I had the gem cleaned of the wanderer’s grime. She opened the door with a clatter, her own key swinging from a black ribbon around her neck, and bobbled a basket of crullers from the baker, nearly dropping them. Morning light filled the studio and lit Lise’s orange-red hair like a nimbus. She laughed when she saw the topaz. “Oh! A marquise! Don’t see many of them anymore.”
“They’re out of fashion, yes, but look at the color.” I was training her to be more than an assistant. She had a good eye for ornamentation, and for how much a client was willing to pay.
As Lise looked, the light passed through the topaz, which was very large, thirty carats, and threw a dappled yellow cast over her cheeks. Her eyes seemed tinted with jaundice in the glare of the gem. I dropped it on my workbench with a clatter.
“Nothing. I was thinking if I planned to cut the stone, it would be well to do it now, before Chambers comes.”
“You finished his order?”
“Not yet.” Chambers was my best customer. He could not use the more venerable jewelers, but his lady loved new baubles. Better still for me, his money far exceeded his taste. His latest commission was a gold bracelet, cast in the shape of a naked woman. I had completed the wax model but needed his approval to continue. The carving, in thick maroon wax, sat on my oak worktable, in the shade where the sun would not melt it.
Lise looked the figure over. The woman’s fingertips touched her toes where the clasp would go. Her arching back formed the curve of the bracelet. Flowing hair covered her breasts and hips. On her face, I’d carved a look of mild ecstasy.
I ducked my head to focus on the topaz, so that Lise would not see me blushing. Though the hair was long and would be flaxen in the final work, I’d realized too late that the face I’d carved on the bracelet was Lise’s own.
When she put the bracelet down without reaction and continued moving about the studio, straightening things, I breathed more easily. She wasn’t one to look in a mirror, so she likely hadn’t noticed.
Lise went to open the shop, while I began to mark the topaz with my grease pencil. No one would buy a marquise nowadays, and few would want a stone so yellow, despite the perfection of the facets. Large gems were all but out of fashion in the city. A few heads of state from the outer kingdoms still wore them when they visited, but they could get away with garishness. Our city, with its thriving port, set the style for the surrounding kingdoms. That settled it. The marquise topaz would make two perfect trillions and a baguette. Earrings and a pendant, at least. Someone’s lady would be very happy.
The shop bell rang below, and Lise greeted a customer. When the bell chimed again, I heard her singing, though I couldn’t make out the words. She sang when she’d sold a piece. How exquisite. Lise had grown as good at coaxing purchases from clients as I was at shaping wax and jewels.
I prepared my diamond saw, making sure there was enough tension on the blade to cut the gem cleanly, then lifted the topaz once more to the light.
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