The chandlers, grocers, butchers, clothiers, and every other merchant in Chantsville was yelling in the streets outside the shop where I was studiously working. Their ruckus combined with the bleats and squawks of livestock wandering underfoot, creating a bustling racket that would drive the unfamiliar ear to distraction.
I was used to the noise, however, and I was so engrossed in my work that I would have sworn the world was silent save for the sound of my chisel biting into the oak box before me. Delicate curls fell from my worktable, collecting in small drifts upon the dirt floor.
I stopped to wipe sweat from my face. The pause gave me a moment to step back and survey my work.
Yes, the casket was coming along beautifully. I had mitered the joints meticulously. I had planed it smooth as glass before tracing out the panels on each side. I had spent days, chisel in hand, carving the scenes into it.
It was almost done, and the carved scenes on each side looked alive despite the casket's business of death. I smiled and set back to work, scraping out the shape of a tree looming over a man impaled by a sword. Some of the scenes conveyed happiness, and some showed grim things indeed, but they all brought a smile to my lips.
I had carpenter's blood in my veins and carpenter's calluses on my hands. Nothing in the world could come between me and my craft. I took immense pride in all my works, but this casket was special. It represented my independence. With it, I would win the carpenter's contest that the count of Hillough had announced several weeks ago. That would gain me enough fame to make my living as a carpenter, no longer under my master's shadow.
The door scraped open, quite startling me out of my trance-like focus. I nearly gasped when I saw the count of Hillough's daughter standing behind me. She was perhaps my age, about fourteen, her cheeks flushed rosy from the heat of the day. Her fair hair was plaited around her head with care, reminding me of the haloed angels I had carved into the casket behind me. She smiled brightly. "Good afternoon."
I hastily set aside my tools, and had to remind myself to bow. "M-milady. May I be of service?"
"Oh, it's beautiful!" She had noticed the casket behind me, her eyes sparkling. She stepped up to it, tracing my carving with her fingertips.
"Thank you, milady." I blushed nervously. What was a count's daughter doing in my humble shop? I moved my foot to discreetly sweep wood shavings over a stain on the floor.
"It is for my father's contest, isn't it?"
She felt at the corners, admiring my joints. I felt a surge of fierce pride. My master's work had never fetched the praise of royalty.
"Is this your master's work?" she asked, as I knew she would.
"No!" I shook my head. "No, milady. It is mine. Every board, every cut, every notch is by my own hand and none other."
"Well!" she exclaimed. "Your master must be proud to have such a fine apprentice."
"Yes, milady," I lied.
"You must be wondering why I am here." She smiled. "I have been looking forward to this contest for weeks, and as my father says, I have many virtues, but patience is not one of them. I travel with my father, but his affairs are stuffy, so I sneak away to look in upon what carpenters' shops I can find. I saw the most glorious table in Caleigh, and beautiful doors in Taffshire, but none compare to this. I'm sure you will win."
"Thank you, milady." I blushed again, exhilarated by her praise. After all this time of guarding my pride against insults and rebuttals, finally I was vindicated!
"I love woodwork. If I were a boy, and allowed to practice such a craft, I would have the finest carpenters in Hillough teach me." She eagerly reached for the clasps, but I waved her back, feeling great trepidation at impeding a noble's will. "Oh, don't. Don't open it, milady, please."
Her clear, green eyes flicked to my dingy, brown ones. "Why not?"
"Oh, itit is bad luck, milady, to open anan empty coffin," I stammered.
She paused for a moment, and then shook her head. "Nonsense! Besides, you can't possibly make it without occasionally opening it."
I blinked. A noblewoman who was clever. I hadn't expected this. I bit my lip. I should have known better than to judge her, all things considered.
She flipped up the clasps and lifted the lid. She frowned at what she saw. "Sand? Why is it full of sand?"
"It keeps the wood dry," I answered quickly. "If the wood gets damp before I oil it, the wood shall swell and my fine joints shall split apart."
"Ah, I see. Trade secret." She winked at me. "I won't say a word."
"Thank you, milady." I felt perspiration running down my face, and I wiped off the sweat and dust with my sleeve.
Without the pale sawdust on my cheek, she noticed the large but fading bruise. "What's that? Has someone hit you?"
I felt my ire kindling, but I kept it hidden and spoke lightly. "My master has a temper, occasionally."
"Well!" She puffed herself up with outrage. "It's a bleeding shame. You have a fair face to sport such an ugly mark, lad. Anyway, he ought not strike such a skilled apprentice as you. Call him out, that I might speak with him."
I shuffled my feet. "I cannot, milady. He is away presently."
She wasn't easily deterred. "When will he be back?"
"I can't say, milady." I stared at the shavings upon the floor. I nervously smoothed them out with my shoe.
She scowled and tapped her chin in thought. "I shall write him a note later and leave it for his return."
"Yes, milady," I said meekly.
"I must go, before my father finds out I have left and sends a team of handmaidens after me." She hastened to the door, but then she paused. "I could have my father buy that coffin. Grandmother is quite ill, and the physicians say her time is near. You could use the money to start your own shop."
"Oh, no, I couldn't, milady. This is one I made special for my master." I refastened the clasps and dusted the lid off with a horsehair brush. "I mayn't sell it."
Concern crossed her face. "Someone in his family died?"
"Yes, milady." I bobbed my head. "But I can make a better one. A much better one, if you please."
"I shall see to it that my father comes to you." She beamed, and as she backed out the door, the sunlight glowed around her silhouette like a holy aura. Again she reminded me of the angels on the casket.
When she left, I sighed with such relief that I clutched my ribs. The broken one hadn't healed yet. I ignored the pain.
Maybe I finally had earned some good luck! The contest didn't even matter now. If the count ordered a casket from me, I would have enough fame to build my future upon, easily.
I sat down on a stool, my knees trembling too much to support me any longer. I had come so close to ruin that I had felt Death's icy breath on my neck. He had been waiting with his great scythe, waiting for the girl to notice that my face was too fair to match my freshly shorn hair, and that my waist was too shaped.
I rubbed the bruise on my cheek. My master's continual wrath at me for practicing a man's trade hadn't kept him from selling my work as his own. He pretended his wrath was righteous defense of the law against female craftsmen, but I knew it angered him more that his housemaidthe granddaughter of his deceased mastercould produce finer work than his own. I felt a stab of righteous fury. I didn't care what anyone said. Nothing in the world could come between me and my craft, girl or not.
I had crafted my last piece for the old tyrant! I finished the last carving and set to oiling the oak. Yes, I hoped the blighter enjoyed the casket I had made for him.
I rubbed the oil over the angel on the front, and I thanked God for sending me the angel that was the count's daughter. I thanked God that she hadn't noticed me brushing shavings over the stain on the floor.
But mostly, I thanked God that the count's daughter hadn't smelled my master's rotting corpse through all that sand.