This Winter Heart
Available December 5, 2011 at Carina Press.
At a border checkpoint just outside Santa Fe, capital of the Republic of New Texacali
The battered airship creaked in feeble protest as the mooring lines were winched tighter, tethering it to the landing dock. As the ship was forced lower, the grumbling of the overworked engines sent a faint shudder rippling through the entire structure, too mild for most people to feel. Ophelia Winter, however, was not most people. Her grasp on the brass handrail that circled the passenger lounge tightened imperceptibly as an answering vibration rattled the steel in her bones. She wished she'd had the funds necessary to travel aboard a newer ship, or at least one that had been better maintained, but she'd already stretched her meager finances as far as they would go. If things did not work out as she hoped, she wasn't sure what her next step should be. She prayed she need never find out.
Metal scraped wood and the ship lurched slightly as it finally touched down upon the planks, this time with enough force to jostle the passengers gathered in the lounge.
A rumble of displeasure circulated through the room but Ophelia paid it no mind. She stared out one of the ship's round portholes at the surrounding countryside. The pale earth was dusted with snow, but was otherwise rocky and bare except for the few twisted trees that clung to the craggy hills. She knew this place well, knew how hard and unyielding it could be at times. Quite like many of its inhabitants, in fact. Still, it was surprisingly easy to overlook its flaws in moments such as these, when the light of the setting sun had spread itself like a blanket over the harsh winter landscape, warming it, softening the sharp edges, turning it all a gentle shade of pink.
All things considered, it appeared this part of New Texacali had changed very little in the years since she was here last. Ophelia wasn't quite sure how she felt about the lack of progress—either comforted, or desperately and depressingly nostalgic.
“What sort of trees are those, Mama?” a small voice piped at her side. “I don't believe I recognize them.”
Ophelia smiled fondly down at her son. “There's no earthly reason you should, Arthur, since they're a kind of tree you've never seen before. Those are Piñon. They do not grow back East.”
“Piñon,” Arthur repeated thoughtfully.
Just hearing the word spoken aloud, for the first time in years, called up sense memories. Ophelia remembered the soft sigh of the wind rustling in the branches, the bright crackle of fire on a cold winter’s night, the spicy fragrance of resin, so different from the pine trees she knew back home in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.
“Will Papa be here on the dock to meet us?” Arthur asked hopefully, bringing Ophelia's thoughts back to the present.
“No, love. Your father is unaware of our arrival, as yet. I decided not to write ahead of time to let him know we'd be coming.”
Arthur frowned. His expression, when he looked at her so, reminded Ophelia very forcefully of her estranged husband. In general, people noted the strong resemblance to Ophelia when they met her son. Her own father had often proclaimed him to be the very image of her. Other than his eyes, that is. Arthur's inquisitive brown orbs owed nothing to his maternal parent. Right now, those eyes were trained upon his mother's face with an appraising gaze that seemed far too old and serious for his seven years. “Why, Mama? Did you think he would not be pleased to meet me?”
Ophelia forced a smile. “Nothing of the kind. I just thought it might be more...fun if we were to surprise him.” It was not often she chose to tell her only child an outright lie, but in this case, what else could she do? Arthur would be more than a surprise to his father, he'd likely be an absolute shock. And, as Ophelia's all-too-brief experience of the man had taught her, Dario Leonides did not respond well to shocks.
Influential, aristocratic, overly impulsive and completely impossible to reason with while in a temper, Dario could make it very difficult for her to enter the country if he chose, and if he had the chance to do so. Ophelia would very much rather he not get that chance.
She needed to speak with her husband in person. She needed to appeal to his better nature. She was sure he still had one, even if it had been years since he'd shown it to her. Most of all, she needed to win his cooperation. Even if she could no longer hope to win his love, at least he could give her that.
When Arthur said nothing more, Ophelia was happy to resume her study of the world outside the airship. Laborers ran about on the dock, shouting orders, securing the ship's moorings, wheeling a gangplank into position as the passengers prepared to disembark.
“Did you really live here?” Arthur asked, sounding vaguely anxious. “I can't picture it. It seems a very different sort of place than home.”
“Indeed, I did live here,” Ophelia said, trying to invest as much confidence in her tone as possible. “And very happily too. I assure you it's quite nice once you're used to it.” In truth, for the short while she'd lived here, she'd felt herself more at home than she ever had before. Although, as she was forced to acknowledge, that might have had very little to do with the location itself.
She had first come to Santa Fe as a new bride, brought here by her husband to take up residence in the home he'd had built for her on land that had been in his family's possession for three generations. She'd spent the first two-and-a-half years of her marriage here, blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. “This is where your great-grandparents chose to settle, you know, so in a way, this place is a part of you. I'm sure you'll soon find you feel right at home here. Even as I did.”
“Yes, Mama,” Arthur replied dutifully, though his subdued tone suggested he thought otherwise.
Ophelia could guess what her son's next question would be, and she had no desire to discuss with him the reasons why she no longer made her home here. “Come along now,” she said, in an effort to distract him. “It's time to go. I can see our luggage stacked there on the dock. We must engage a porter with a cart to help us with it.”
Finding a porter presented no problem, though the absence of the steam-powered coaches so prevalent back home necessitated the hiring of a horse-drawn carriage to transport them to their hotel. Luckily, Arthur viewed this as an adventure and, in his excitement, completely failed to notice—or remark upon—his mother's increased nervousness as they crossed the border.
The border guard's demeanor had been one of obvious boredom, as he paged without interest through their papers, vigorously stamping each one as he went. Suddenly, his hand paused and he bent his head to look more closely at the papers in his hand. “What is it that brings you to Santa Fe, Mrs...Leonides?” As he glanced up at her now, his expression reflected surprise mixed with curiosity.
Entirely too much curiosity. “I'm here on business,” Ophelia replied in what she hoped were quelling tones. Not for the first time since leaving Pennsylvania behind her, she wished she'd had the forethought to procure papers for herself and her son using her maiden name. Of course the Leonides name would be recognized here, in the capital of the very republic the family had helped found. How could she have overlooked something so obvious? And what had her father been thinking to have allowed her to marry such a very public person in the first place?
Perhaps he was counting on Dario, with all his wealth and the power that brought, to be able to protect her. It was much more likely, however, that he’d been too absorbed in his work and simply hadn't been thinking at all. Not that she could blame him overmuch. Even if he had attempted to dissuade her, it would have done no good. She was in love and it was unlikely she'd have listened to him in any case.
Upon seeing the guard's raised eyebrow, Ophelia reluctantly amended her answer. “I'm sorry. Family business, I should have said.”
“Of course,” the guard replied with a sly smile. He hurriedly gathered up her paperwork and returned it to her with a small bow. “Enjoy your stay, Madam.”
Ophelia sighed. She'd seen the avid gleam in the guard's eye and knew exactly what it meant. No doubt, by night's end, word of her return would have spread clear across the city. She only wondered how long it would take before Dario heard about it. Suddenly it seemed that not alerting him ahead of time of her plans to come here might not have been her best move after all.