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Deep Secrets: Part One


by extreme_fj0rd

--------

The sunlight went through the first ten feet of ocean like it was air, or tinted glass: streaming, illuminating.

     The gloom thickened gradually after that, until, on the sea floor, only the occasional shaft of light broke the darkness from a particularly bold sunbeam.

     Looking up, you could see the light, but not get to it.

     It was here the Ring of the Deep had rested for a million years, while Neopia with its quarrels and reconciliations, its wars and its peaces, went on hundreds and thousands of feet above it. It lay against a rock, partially hidden, and a thin drift of sand trailed through it. Time and water had rubbed the sand against it, scrubbing it clean and then rubbing at the stone itself, and parts of the ring had thinned until, if there were light, you could look through and see it.

     It was not an auspicious resting place, but the Ring had had no hand in its choosing.

     Lying there, with the weight of the water pressing down on it, with the sun bobbing and glittering just out of reach, it slept.

     And, as it slept, it dreamed.

***

     The shipment came in the morning, when the light slanted through the front window of the shop and onto the trays of jewelry carefully laid out on the counter: rings, necklaces, bracelets. There was a fine layer of dust over all of them.

      A knock on the door, and then the jangle of the bell above it as the delivery Nimmo pushed it open.

      “Hello?”

      There was a sharp crack from the back room, a muffled curse, and then silence.

      “I have a—package, here. For a Mr. Ethan Ashmore.”

      Little clicks, followed by the soft scuff of shoes against wood. The door to the back room creaked open.

      “Yes?”

      “Ah, your package, sir.” The Nimmo held it out.

      The blue Ogrin stepped forward nervously, glancing around as if to make sure no one was crouching in the shadows, ready to pounce out and kidnap him. He nudged his spectacles up his nose and peered at the delivery boy.

      “Thank... you.” He nodded sharply. “Thank you.”

     His hoof shook as he took the package, and he almost dropped it.

     “Careful there, sir.” The yellow Nimmo caught it for him and put it back into his hooves. Ethan gave him a look of pure terror.

     “Yes. Yes... thank you.” He turned around to shuffle back toward his back room.

     The delivery Nimmo had been told to get a signature from Ethan Ashmore for the delivery, but he was sure he could do a better version of it than Ethan himself could. He went out into the street; the bell jingled happily behind him.

     He set off down the lane, waving to the other proprietors. All along the street he passed open shutters swinging out into the road to let in the fresh air and light.

     The paint on the sign above the door that said “Ashmore’s Fine Jewelry” was peeling from the corners of the letters, and a few of them were flaking off already. The strong morning sunlight sapped the color off it slowly, in tiny sips and nibbles.

      Ethan Ashmore was pale, too, but from lack of sun. His workshop windows were closed and shuttered, against the light and against any spies that might be watching. The doors of the cabinets which lined the walls stood open at varying angles, and the candles Ethan lit to light his work, and the cracks of sunlight that crept in his windows, glittered off half-finished pieces of jewelry, fine tools, and the raw materials.

      He set his package on the table in the center of the room and opened it, folding white paper back.

     Even in the dim and unpredictable light of his workroom, the stone was luscious. It glowed from within, and turquoise and blue snaked around each other all through it. The very outside, where it had been chipped from the rock, was dull, unpolished, but still it was gorgeous.

     There was just enough for a ring, or two pendants for earrings, or one centerpiece for a necklace.

     Ethan left it there and crossed the room with his slow, shuffling gait, to the one cupboard that was closed and locked. He brought the key out from his pocket and turned it slowly in the keyhole: with a dull click, it unlocked.

     He opened one side of the cupboard, and brought out his first treasure.

     Set together on the table, the new stone and the Ring of the Lost gleamed counterpoint to each other. The finished piece, red with its band of gold running through it, was polished, brighter, but the turquoise and blue responded well to the proximity, and caught a flicker of light in the very heart of it.

     “Yes,” Ethan murmured, his voice soft and cracked. “Yes—“

     He took three sheets of paper out from underneath the Ring of the Lost: plans, careful drawings to scale.

     A long column of precise measurements trailed down the first paper, and it was these Ethan studied, holding them close to the candle to make the most of the light. Twice they almost caught fire, his hand trembling and dipping the corner toward the flame, but he brought them away in time.

     Then he sought out a measuring tape and stretched it along the low rectangular prism of stone, and wrote down these numbers.

     “Yes.” It would work. The blue Ogrin had known this since he saw it in the Nimmo’s paws, tied up in white paper; had known it since he ordered the piece cut to particular dimensions and shipped across Neopia; had known it, in truth, since he had the idea.

     A sister ring to his first masterpiece. Something they would talk about forever.

     Yes, he thought—the name of Ethan Ashmore would go down in history. Not just as the maker of the Ring of the Lost, but also its companion piece, a ring even stranger and more beautiful: the Ring of the Deep.

      He fetched his instruments, rolled out long swathes of them, silver against the black cloth they were tied to, and sat to begin work on a ring that would be coveted by all who lived in Neopia, whether they lived now or a hundred years later.

      This would certainly show his rival.

***

     Across the street, Augustine Pyle of Classic Neopian Jewelry was setting a diamond into a slim silver band of a ring. It glittered, as shiny things will, and reflected light, but there was nothing particularly special about it.

      The Wocky was fine with this. He had made a lot of money off of things that weren’t particularly special. People didn’t like particularly special, especially in this part of town. They were looking for a necklace to give their friend, or a ring for a loved one. Sometimes two, in a matched set.

      Particularly special, in Neopia, tended to be noticed by the Faeries. And no one wanted the guesswork of a Faerie-touched ring or bracelet. If it hadn’t tried to strangle its wearer a hundred times before, that was a good sign—but the hundred and first time was a number often favored by mischievous Faeries.

     Or a hundred and two, if they were feeling particularly cruel.

      He glanced around his shop. His customers were browsing through his well-lit selection. They would tell him if they needed anything.

      Augustine looked across the road to Ethan Ashmore’s shop, and sighed. Even though the front windows couldn’t be covered, they had that look to them: shutters closed, sunken in, closing out the world.

      Ethan had always been competitive, and Augustine had always been sure that, in the end, the Ogrin would win. He was talented; his work was flashy, imaginative, original.

      They were friends: the two jewelers. They set up stores across from each other, not for competition but for collaboration. Their friends alternated which store they frequented, at first, but over time Augustine proved to be better at salesmanship. He could judge what someone was looking for at first glance, lead them up to it, and make them feel like they got a bargain out of him—even if they didn’t.

      When the red Wocky expanded his shop into the two storefronts on either side of it, Ethan had realized that Augustine was becoming more successful than he was.

      He’d spurned Augustine on the street when he met him, had gone into competition with Neopia’s Jewels.

      Augustine tried to send some of his customers over to his old friend, but Ethan sent them back, sneering through his window at the Wocky.

      And then Ethan had gotten a small package, one day, and retreated into the back room of his shop. He almost never came out any more. His jewelry gathered dust. No one came in to buy necklaces or bracelets; some people didn’t even notice that the store was there.

      Augustine was sure that Ethan was creating masterpieces in there. He couldn’t even imagine what flights of invention the Ogrin had made.

      But whatever they were, Ethan wasn’t telling anyone—especially not Augustine.

To be continued...

 
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