Cold Iron Heart – Melissa Marr

Voices rose and fell in the streets of the French Quarter. A woman with hair that seemed as delicate and white as if spiders had woven it walked arm-in-arm with an elegant man with a bone topped cane. They were only humans. The inhuman ones who strolled the French Quarter were even more remarkable. Invisible to the eyes of the city’s mortals, faeries slithered and danced along the edge of the city where the water moved and the iron-laced buildings ended. “She’s a pretty girl,” a lion-maned man purred. The creature beside the maned faery stared at her as if Tam was ghastly. “If you like their sort.” And Tam felt self-conscious, awkward and embarrassed. She wasn’t ugly. Plain, perhaps, maybe even a little too fit for a woman. Her hair was too red. Her eyes were too curious. Her body not soft enough. Her hands rough from working with metal or laundry.

She’d earned every muscle though, taking in wash when she needed and working her art as often as she could. Nice women were able to be fashionable. Wealthy women were able to be delicate. And the other kind of women, those who worked over near Canal Street selling favors, were allowed to be luscious. Maybe if money wasn’t scarce, she’d have voluptuous hips and breasts, but the softness of a woman required excess money for foods that were too dear for her to buy. Her curves were there in outline, but she was neither lush nor delicate. Thelma Foy suspected she’d be forgettable if not for her hair and her mouth, which was fuller than most and noticeable because of her habit of saying the wrong thing, the audacious or dangerous thing. Other than that, she was merely Tam, a woman who wanted to find a place in the world and maybe a bit of comfort if she could. That meant, for now, pretending she didn’t hear invisible men discussing her. “She’s perfect,” the other one said.

He was the real complication in Tam’s life. Irial—a faery whose name she’d heard the others whisper as if it were a prayer–watched her with a different kind of studiousness. And despite every bit of logic she possessed, Tam watched him back. How could she not? He was beautiful: close-cropped hair, blue-black eyes, and Creole skin. He was wearing fine trousers and a crisp shirt. Although he had no jacket, he had completed his attire with a sharp vest. Tam thought he very might be the most handsome man in the whole of New Orleans. He also wasn’t visible to any human but Tam. With effort, she pulled her gaze away from him and opened the door of yet another jeweler’s shop. She needed to focus on business, not beautiful creatures.

If she didn’t sell her jewelry, she’d have no food. Inside the shop, the man, because they were always men, looked past her as if a husband or father would materialize behind her. When he saw no one, he looked Tam up and down. Proper ladies didn’t wander around in shops alone. He took in her worn and patched dress, and he saw her lack of gloves. She watched him weigh her and decide if she was an “abandoned woman,” a woman who sold her affection. She wasn’t, and her appearance made that clear. Her hair was controlled, pinned and forced into as modest a look as she could manage. And, most tellingly, her bosom, shoulder, arms, and legs were all modestly hidden. She was not a woman who sold her body in Storyville.

But she was also not accompanied by a man. No husband. No lover. No father. Tam was poor, unaccompanied, and instantly dismissed. “Can I help you?” “I hope so.” She stepped further inside the shop, admiring the gleaming wood and glass display cases. They filled the space in a way that said that the wares inside were worth attention. It was not crowded. Each piece of jewelry was nestled in its own place.

It was exactly the sort of space where Tam would love to see her own work. Diamonds and rubies sparkled like the stars in the clearest skies, resting on velvet displays. Lesser gems adorned other pieces. “I have work to sell . ” Tam pulled out the pieces she’d brought. Carefully, she untied the scarf she’d wound and tied around her jewelry. Her hands shook as she gently lowered the scarf onto that glass case, but her nerves faded a little when her pieces were spread out in front of the shop owner. She knew they were good. “Mmmm.” He was a short man with tufts of ear hair like wisps of smoke.

Tam swallowed her fear, her instant words of desperation, and said, “They’re fine pieces.” It was a bit bold for a woman, but she wasn’t built for simpering or false modesty. The work was equal to that in the displays. The gems weren’t as precious, but the settings were equal to that of a queen’s jewelry. “Did you steal these?” The shop owner stared at her, his gaze taking in Tam’s sewn and re-sewn dress and her worn boots. “No.” Her hands, calloused and stained from hours handling metals, were held at her side. The urge to defend herself vied with the hunger in her belly. She needed the sale. Calmer, she repeated, “No.

” He stared at her, assessing. Tam wore none of her own work. Doing so was—to quote her Gran—like lipstick on a pig. Sparkling jewelry stood out, and thieves saw no reason not to steal what they assumed was already stolen. “I made them,” she told the jeweler levelly, just as she had told the others who’d sent her away. The jeweler continued to stare at her in silence. He didn’t laugh outright. Instead his lips pressed together like her Aunt Ethelreda had so often done. Distasteful. Unpleasant.

He held his mouth as if a lemon slice was suddenly slipped under his tongue. Tam wasn’t surprised to hear him say, “Women don’t make jewelry.” That wasn’t true, of course. She knew several women who did metalwork, as well as one who cut and polished stones, but their work was credited to a father, brother, husband, or in one case, a son. Behind the scenes, there were others like her. “We do create art,” Tam argued quietly, her voice far more level than her emotions but wavering slightly from the effort. “Look at these. Please. Just look at them.” She gestured at the pieces on the worn bit of cloth that she had wrapped them in to carry them here: A ring, perfectly formed and polished with a cairngorm set levelly; a brooch, twisted vines of silver holding a polished thistle blossom; and a locket with such polish that she could see the lights glinting in it.

The locket was a particularly lovely piece. She’d painstakingly etched a rose vine around it. “They’re fine pieces.” The man looked again at the cairngorm ring. “I’ll buy that one from you, and if your father or brother wants to sell more wares, we can do business.” This was it, the moment of decision. Tam could either walk away or accept the lie he was willing to offer to justify his willingness to buy a piece. Neither option was appealing, but there wasn’t a third choice. Women weren’t in possession of a great many choices in a man’s world—and even here in a city where a woman could be educated or own property, it was a man’s world. “The pieces are all for sale,” Tam said, re-positioning the locket to its best angle.

Each tiny thorn on the roses was impossibly there. Selling her work was the best outcome she ever had when she tried to find her way into the jewelry business: the sale of a few pieces and a lie. What she wanted was an apprenticeship. What she found were closed doors and derision. “Let me see them in better light,” the jeweler said. He swooped them into his palm and walked away. At such times, she feared that he’d simply keep them. A man could say she was lying, that she was a thief, that no woman could create jewelry such as this. There was little she could do if such a thing happened. At best she could go see the other jewelers who rejected her and ask them to acknowledge seeing her work.

Behind her, the door opened and closed. “When you enter a shop, close the door behind you, young lady,” the jeweler said without looking up. “I thought I had.” Tam glanced to the door where the dark faery now stood. The shadows in the store seemed to stretch out to caress him, as if they couldn’t resist. Irial smiled at her, and she had to struggle to pretend not to see him. If ever there were a man—a creature—striking enough to lure her away from her plans of spinsterdom, Irial was the one. Her gaze slid over the width of his shoulders as she forced herself to pretend to seek the phantom wind that had opened the door. “Courage,” Irial whispered as he walked close behind her. Tam stiffened.

Faeries ought not speak to her. They were to think that she couldn’t see them. Better a faery than a human come so close, though. Human men were anything but appealing to her. They spoke to women as if they were either daft children or dolls. They made the rules, controlled business and laws, and women had to learn to make do—or marry. It was outrageous. At least the faeries seemed to treat men and women, or the faery equivalents of them, the same. The female ones could be as monstrous as the male ones. Humans weren’t like that.

Men acted, and women reacted. Men decided, and women coped. It was absurd. Tam had hoped it would be different in New Orleans. The city was even more vibrant than Chicago. The first legal “red light” district? Who could imagine such boldness, such audacity? It made the city seem forward-thinking, so Tam had moved. Not to work in the sin dens, but in hopes that a city where women were educated, where they owned business, would be better for a female artist, too. She’d had such dreams. “Would you be interested in purchasing the pieces?” Tam asked in a ladylike, gentle voice, hating the need to use such a tactic. “Few women could resist their beauty.

” “This one.” He held up the ring and quoted a lower price than the piece was worth. “If you doubled that, I’ll give you a second piece,” she gestured at the brooch. “Double for all three.” Reluctantly, Tam nodded. She couldn’t afford to refuse—or to demand more. She needed money to live. Everyone did, but a woman alone had fewer options for finding it. Selling a few pieces of her jewelry here and there meant she had enough to afford rent and food. Selling these would allow her a full four months if she was careful.

Three if she bought more supplies to create more pieces and try yet again with another jeweler. Creating art wasn’t reliable work, but if she sold it, she earned enough to live on for months. No other job would pay so well—at least no other job that allowed her to stay clothed. Work in a brothel—or marrying a man—would pay better, but with men came children. Children were a whole set of demands that would end her ability to create jewelry, and worse still, they’d lead to a level of risk that she couldn’t fathom. Hiding her ability to see the fey things was hard. Hiding a child’s ability? That was a terrifying prospect. As Tam waited for her money, she tried not to look at the faery who was studying her yet again. Shadows from the wall seemed to ooze toward him, as if they had a mind or heart. She understood the impulse.

He was breath-taking, but some prickle on the back of her neck reminded her that faeries and humans never mix well. “Here you go.” The jeweler handed her a bag. Again, she was left hoping he was honest. Counting the money out would be insulting, and if he’d shorted her, she couldn’t expect to get money. Life was about power, and Tam had none. If she was shorted on what he owed, there was always wash she could help one of her neighbors do. They took on a little more if she offered to help, and it let Tam make ends meet when there were no other options. “Courage, love,” the faery whispered again. “What about an apprenticeship?” Tam asked the jeweler hurriedly before he walked away, sounding a bit desperate now.

“For a woman?” he sounded thoroughly shocked. “I could learn and then carry the information to home. My father’s not well enough to leave the house, you see. It would be as if you were teaching him, but—” The jeweler reached over the glass display case and patted her hand. “Women are gifted in many ways, but in learning such a skill? I think not. I’ll take the three pieces, and you tell your father I’ll need him to come himself next time—or I’ll come to him.” “I’ll tell him,” she said. She would speak it into the air. There wasn’t any more likely way to reach him—if he was even alive. Money in her possession, Tam stepped out of the shop, the third one this week.

There would be no fourth one. She’d sold the only thing she had to use to convince a jeweler to work with her. The sale was good enough, better than nothing, but it also meant she had to begin again and hope that in a few weeks or months she’d have better luck. Someday, her luck would change. It had to. She swiped at the tears on her cheeks, not quite able to stop them from falling today but not letting them run free either. The faery glared at the shop as if he was as affronted as she was. “Fool,” Irial, who had followed her into the street, said. Tam didn’t reply—although she agreed with him.

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