“I am only an apprentice, but if you don’t mind, please come in.”
Belviana opened the door to the carriage and stepped out, despite the coachman’s urging, and walked through the door the man held open for her and into the shop. He offered her a worn couch and she sat down. In the flickering candlelight, the man’s blond hair looked even better.
“What can I do for you?”
“My shoes. I’m wearing them now…….”
“Please show me.”
Belviana hesitated a moment, then lifted the hem of her dress. The man removed her shoes and stockings from her feet. A large hand gently wrapped around her foot.
The skeleton of her foot, the sesamoid bone, the heel, the fibula, the place where the sole of the foot touches the ground. His strokes were slow and delicate as if he were checking every detail. Then he said.
“The shape of your foot and the shape of your shoe don’t quite match, and in cases like this, the fatigue extends to your legs. Here, does it hurt?”
He pressed on the back of her calf. Belviana let out a small moan. He wasn’t pressing hard, but it hurt, hitting exactly where it was stiff. Either his hands were too hot, or she was too cold. The hem of her dress curled up a little with each crumple of her skirt.
“It’s okay now, I think…….”
Belviana’s knees buckled as she realized that she was lifting her dress almost to her thighs in front of a stranger and that no man had ever touched her like this before. The man straightened his bent waist. He brushed off his hands, his demeanor nonchalant, without a hint of motive.
“You’d better get rid of these shoes, they’re not made for someone as soft-skinned as you.”
“Isn’t there some way to mend them? I think I could make them wearable with a bit of cloth.”
“If you want to ruin your pretty feet, I won’t stop you.”
The man replied with a low chuckle. Belviana felt her cheeks flush with color. The man disappeared into his workshop for a moment with her shoes, then returned. Within moments, the shoe was molded to the shape of her foot. They had been lengthened where they were short, and soft velvet had been added where they were long, but it was clear that great care had been taken not to alter the way she looked. He set the shoes down in front of her.
“Try them on. We don’t have anything left in our workshop that fits a foot as small as yours. I’ve made the necessary repairs, so they should be fine for your journey home.”
Belviana carefully slipped them on. They were as comfortable as if they had been made from scratch. They hugged the curves of her soles and were perfectly mended, even the loose instep and the pointed heel. Wiggling her toes happily, Belviana looked up and met the blue gaze looking down at her at an angle. The man smiled.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s very… very comfortable.”
Belviana barely nodded. The man chuckled low. When she locked eyes with the man who was adoringly looking at her as if she were a cute little kitten, she felt a burning sensation in her stomach as if she had swallowed a fiery ball. It was a ticklish feeling, like being half possessed by something, like floating in a daze. She asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“How much is it?”
“I’ll only take payment for the velvet. It would be five sols.”
Belviana dropped a coin into the man’s hand. When the man’s hot hand brushed her shoulder, Belviana shivered like a bird in the rain. She instinctively realized that the first love of her life was about to begin and that it would make her a woman, not a girl. She had never loved a man before, so this emotional shift was very clear.
But she also knew that there were countless reasons to end this love before it even began. First and foremost, she was a Count’s lady, and this man is……. Belviana hesitated for a moment, then asked in a whisper.
“You, what is your name?”
“Liam, my lady.”
Knowing his name made everything else seem better. The fact that he was a shoemaker’s apprentice, and the fact that she was Lester’s young lady, all seemed trivialized. Belviana took his hand. Her humid green eyes sparkled with a strange light. She whispered.
“Liam. I have many, many, many shoes, but none of them have ever been so comfortable, and I want you to fix them all over again, Liam, and no one else. Will you do it?”
“You can come anytime. I’ll be waiting for you.”
“I’ll come back, I promise.”
Belviana didn’t miss the flush in Liam’s cheeks and the slight crack in his voice. The very next day, Belviana kept her promise.
She was in love with Liam, as she should be. Drunk on the sweetness and excitement of first love, she frantically searched for him. Sometimes she wondered if she was in love with him, or if she was in love with the thought of loving him, but it was a pretty blind kind of love, anyway.
Liam, in turn, began to love her fervently. The young lovers didn’t even care how they looked in the eyes of others. Belviana stopped all socializing, and Liam often forgot to show up for work on time. They spent a lot of time in cafes and bookstores, in parks and libraries.
They held hands shyly, and only occasionally did their trembling lips meet. If only there had been a deeper physical connection between them, they wouldn’t have longed for each other so desperately.
And then it happened, with exactly one month left of school vacation.
“I have received a letter for you, Belvy, saying that they wish to propose to you.”
Belviana almost lost the silver fork in her hand. She blinked her dark green eyes and looked up at the Countess. The creamy custard that had tasted so good just moments before seemed to catch in her throat. She quickly wiped the corner of her mouth with her napkin.
“Of course, you refused, didn’t you?”
“No. We would have refused, both me and your father. But this time, he’s too good a person. He’s the Duke of Heidelberg, after all.”
“You don’t mean to tell me you’ve agreed, I’m only nineteen, and I’m still a semester away from graduating from the Academy!”
“He has agreed to wait until your graduation, much to my great relief, so that you can have the wedding first, and then set off on your honeymoon as soon as you graduate.”
The Count of Lester added, slicing his veal gracefully.
“The ceremony is set for a month later. I would love to give you the manor and the family name, but you know that by law a woman cannot be an heir. I hate to think it, but I never know when I might be wrong, and once your cousin inherits the castle, there will be only a small portion of the estate to go to you, so the duke is best for you.”
If Belviana had maintained her usual composure, she would have been able to see the hidden worry on her parents’ faces. They were concerned about the lascivious rumors circulating about their daughter. Of course, they believed it to be nothing more than a rumor, as their intelligent daughter could not possibly be truly in love with a mere shoe apprentice. But if even the slightest scandal reached the capital city of Berce, Belviana’s reputation would plummet to the ground, and no one would be able to propose to her. The Countess caressed Belviana’s cheek affectionately.
“So you’ll have to prepare yourself to be busy with the wedding preparations from tomorrow; I’ve already ordered a lot of lace for your wedding dress.”
“But, but, but…… yes, marrying without an engagement period, everyone will gossip, Mother, it’s all too soon.”
“When you’ve become the duchess, that won’t even matter.”
“Belle. Enough of that. I think I’ve heard enough of you.”
Belviana scrambled to her feet. Her mouth was so dry that she could no longer swallow any food. She stammered, “I’ll go up to my room now,” barely. She ran all the way to her room, buried her face in the bed, and sobbed profusely. Only when the clock struck nine did Belviana finally calm down. Liam would meet her at the manor’s north gate after dark, for she could not leave the manor.
Wrapped in an ashen shawl to the tips of her hair, she waited for him in the long-neglected rose garden on the north side of the manor. She was soon recognized.
“Belle. Are you there?”
Belviana bit her lip hard. As soon as she heard Liam’s voice, the tears came again. From the moment they met, she knew they couldn’t have the same future. She was a selfish girl who wouldn’t give up a single thing even if she was about to die, and he was a commoner apprentice who couldn’t help himself. But she never thought it would all end without warning, or that her love for him would grow so deep………….
Belviana cleared her throat. They owed it to each other to announce the end of their relationship as simply as possible. She must not show any remorse. Over the sound of her sobbing breath, Liam asked once more.
“There you go, Belle.”