Josephine paced back and forth in her room, her thoughts frantic. It was half an hour to midnight, and she realized how ill prepared she was. She was going to leave her house, with man (or woman, who after Katherine’s speech today wouldn’t be a surprise at all) she had never met before. With a package given to her at a ball by another strange man. All while keeping her dear father in the dark. In the past twenty-four hours, her life had changed so much, and her mind was still reeling from the effects.
She decided to pack a small knapsack with money, food, and of course, the package. A part of her wanted to open it just to spite Katherine, but she couldn’t betray her trust like that. This new world she promised her, with new opportunities and new people, excited her beyond belief. She craved for new experiences, beyond the sheltered ones her father offered her. She wanted an exciting and dangerous life, as the one Katherine had.
In the midst of all her thinking, she didn’t notice how quickly the time passed. Suddenly, there was a knock at her balcony, pulling her out of her fantasies. Glancing at the clock, she huffed in irritation at herself for not realizing it was almost fifteen minutes past midnight.
Quickly putting on a thin coat, she took her knapsack and shrugged it over her shoulder, before opening her balcony door. She stared in astonishment at the man standing before her. He had dark blond hair that fell around his face in neat waves. She trailed her eyes down his gray eyes that were framed by thick lashes, his charmingly crooked nose, and his thin lips, the bottom one which he was chewing on.
“Are you ready to go, ma’am?” he said scornfully. Josephine immediately snapped out of her trance and was taken aback by his sarcastic nature.
“Um, yes I am,” she mumbled, looking down at her slippers.
“Then follow me,” he turned around and began to descend a rope ladder that was attached to the balcony railing.
“Are you sure that is stable?” she called down.
“I’m positive,” he yelled. “Get down here!”
She put her feet on the rungs of the ladder and began to climb down. Adrenaline rushed through her veins as the ladder swayed back at forth with the cool evening breeze. She was almost down, when she missed a rung and went tumbling backwards. She landed on her bottom, looking rather disgruntled and angry at the ladder. She turned to the man.
“You ought to have caught me!” she exclaimed.
“What?” he asked in disbelief. “I’m your guide, not your prince charming,”
“Isn’t it common decency to help a lady?” she snapped.
“This isn’t a romance novel, girl,” he retorted angrily, walking away from the house and into the trees.
“Where are you going? Is this safe?” she questioned, following him.
He didn’t answer, merely sped up his walking speed. Josephine tripped and stumbled on branches every few moments, even falling a few times, but he did nothing to help her. If anything, he seemed to be speeding up as time went by. Finally, they arrived at a secluded dirt road, where there was a horse tied to a tree. Josephine, never having done physical activities, was bent over and gasping for breath as he untied the horse from the tree.
“Can you get on by yourself?” he asked in a clipped tone.
“I- No I can’t,” she looked down again, afraid to look at him.
“Come here,” he ordered.
He put his hands on her waist and instructed her where to put her foot. Picking her up with ease, he thrusted her over the side of the horse, and her other leg automatically fell on the other side. Josephine blushed at her position, which was riding up her dress to her calves.
“That’s nothing I haven’t seen before, girl,” he said, noticing her embarrassment. “And you’ll see plenty more skin where we’re going,”
He hoisted himself up on the horse, and she hesitantly put her hands around his waist. “Hold tighter, we’ll be going fast,” he told her softly. It caught her by surprise, as these were the first words he had said to her that were not full of malice. Not wanting to anger him, she did as she was told.
He was right to make her hold on tighter; she was sure she would have fallen off otherwise. The horse galloped at a speed she never thought possible; the trees and farms they passed by all seemed to blur under the pleasant moonlight. After a while, too soon in her opinion, as she truly enjoyed riding on a horse, they arrived at a cluster of buildings on the outskirts of town.
“Where are we?” she breathed in wonder.
There were people everywhere, all seemingly jovial and merry. The paved street was filled with children, couples, and the elderly, all dancing and laughing. On the side, there were many families eating, with wide smiles on their faces. These people were all commoners, she could tell by their clothing, but the looked happier than she had ever seen any noble man or woman.
“Welcome to the Raft,” he muttered. “The dwelling place for the savages,”
She looked at him in shock. His expression told her that he knew she had said that about them. “I offer my sincerest apologies-” she started.
“Save it,” he snapped. “I don’t have time to hear you speak with your noble tongue, constantly skirting around the point,”
“I’m trying to be civil to you, and you have been nothing but rude to me since we met. What is your problem?” her voice rose, catching the attention of a few people walking by. She swung her leg around and hopped off the horse, falling to the ground ungracefully. Laughter erupted around them.
“Have you brought her here to replace Kat, mate?” one of the men laughed with a glass full of cheap alcohol.
“If you don’t shut your mouth, I will do it for you,” he said menacingly, hopping off the horse. “Josephine, for Christ’s sake, get off the ground. Or do you need me to offer a gracious hand?”
Josephine reddened as mocking laughter erupted again. A crowd had gathered around them, all watching her as she brushed herself off. This was so different than anything she had ever experienced before, but nonetheless, she held her head high and followed him down the street. They walked past a few buildings, with people constantly turning their heads to stare at her appearance. She had worn her most casual dress, yet she still stuck out like a sore thumb.
He finally stopped outside one and tied his horse to the wooden post. Walking inside, Josephine was once again shocked into silence. The people inside were absolutely shameless. The women were wearing trousers, like the ones men wore, and were dancing to the violins. The men stared lewdly at them, sometimes making inappropriate innuendos. Many of the girls who were with their husbands, presumably, were wearing short skirts, much like the ones Josephine wore as undergarments. She was utterly astonished at the level of promiscuity in the room.
“Josephine!” called out a familiar voice.
“Katherine?” she looked at her incredulously. She was wearing a skirt that ended just below the knee, exposing her calves, and what seemed to be a gentleman’s button down shirt on top. “What in the world are you wearing? What is this place?”
“I’ll get to it in due time. Was your trip here alright?” she asked, furrowing her eyebrows.
“It was permissible,” she allowed, even though she wanted to complain to her friend about the man.
“Felix can be difficult sometimes, but he’s good at heart,” she smiled sympathetically. “That being said, I’m impressed that you haven’t burst into tears yet,”
“It is unladylike to cry in public,” Josephine frowned. “You!”
“Me!” the waiter mimicked. “I have a name, you know,”
“Katherine!” she whispered. “That’s the waiter from the eatery!”
“I’m well aware,” Katherine replied dryly. “His name is Nate, and he’s my friend,”
“Like the rest of these,” her face scrunched up in distaste. “People?”
“Enough,” she snapped. “Stop disrespecting them just because you have more money. Or leave if you think they’re too lowly to be in your presence,”
Josephine instantly felt guilty, and hung her head low like a child caught stealing. “I apolo-”
“We simply say sorry around here, girl,” said a voice behind them.
“I have a name,” she muttered angrily as they sat down at a table.
“It’s too long and complicated,” he waved in her direction dismissively . “Kat, do you have it?”
“No, actually, I don’t,” she grinned widely. Felix and Nate looked at her in alarm. “I don’t have it, but that’s not to say someone else at this table doesn’t,”
“What are you going on about, Kat? The Boss himself ordered to have it brought here. We’re in a big mess if you don’t have it,” Nate frowned.
“Nate, calm down. Josephine?” she smiled at her from across the round table. “Take out the package, subtly, and don’t open it,”
Josephine ignored the huffs of disbelief and swearing as she took the package slowly out of her bag. “Here,” she muttered angrily. “Please, take it off my incapable hands,”
“See what you’ve done boys?” Katherine said mockingly. “Apologize for your behaviour,”
“I have nothing to apologize for, Kat. I brought the girl here, allowed myself to be kept in the dark, and did everything you said! Enough is enough,” he growled, getting up and slamming his fists on the wooden table. “It’s not my problem that the girl is an ignorant, self-righteous, incapable prick and I refuse to take responsibility for her idiocy,”
He stormed away from the table, but not before punching the concrete wall, causing his hand to bleed. Josephine looked back at the pair across from her in shock and hurt. He had just met her, he barely knew her name. How could he have that much hatred towards her?
“Josephine, ignore him. He’s an ass,” said Nate. The vulgar language caused her eyes to widen a bit. “And you’ll be hearing that a lot around here, don’t be too shocked,”
“Do you want to drink and dance for a while? Nate and I have to go deal with some business. I’ll be back in an hour,” Katherine smiled at her.
“Bu-” she was going to protest, but decided not to, remembering Felix’s words. “That’s fine. Go ahead,”
They smiled at her warmly before taking each other’s hand and going into a doorway that was half-obscured, almost intentionally, by wall decorations. Josephine got up from her seat and went to the bar, where she asked for some water. Taking her glass, she sat back down and sipped on it as she watched the people dance to the lively music. She wanted to be happy and merry, like everyone else here, but Felix’s words kept echoing in her ears. She had never been criticized like that; no one ever dared, given her father. Was that what everyone thought of her? Her friends, her teachers, did they all think she was as pretentious as Felix made her out to be?
“Hey, little lady,” called out one man behind her.
“Hullo, sir,” she replied courteously.
“What’s a pretty thing like you sitting around for? Come dance with us!” he smiled at her, revealing a chipped tooth. His black hair was cropped short and dark brown eyes were radiant with kindness.
“Oh, thank you sir, but I’m alright here,” she smiled, shifting uncomfortably.
“Ah, don’t be a wuss,” he grinned, holding out his hand. “Come on, we’ll have some fun,”
“Oh, alright,” she grinned. It was time she had some fun anyways.
He took her hand and lead her to the middle of the room, where everyone else was dancing. He out his arms around her waist, and she reached for his hand, but he guided her arms to his neck. They hopped from place to place, laughing and trying not to step on one another. As the music got quicker, everyone began dancing faster, and it got increasingly difficult to stay upright. At the end of the song, Josephine was panting and sweating, but most importantly, she was beaming up at her partner.
“That was brilliant!” she said excitedly. “I’ve never danced like that before. What’s your name?”
“I’m Daniel,” he grinned. “And you are?”
“Josephine,” she smiled back. “Do you mind sitting down? I’m tired,”
“Of course not. I’m a bit tired myself. Would you like a drink?”
“Yes please. Water should be fine,”
“No, no,” he grinned mischievously. “I’ll get you something else,”
He turned and walked towards the bar, so she walked around, trying to find an empty table. Finding none, she turned back to see him waving at her.
“Josephine! Come ‘ere!”
“I’m coming, no need to shout my name,” she smiled.
“It’s a rather beautiful name,” said a woman sitting at the table. Smiling, she held out her hand. “I’m Lillian, but most people call me Lilly,”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lilly,” Josephine smiled back. “I like your name too,”
“Alright, enough of this,” huffed a large man at the end of the table. “Let’s play,”
“Play?” Josephine asked, face scrunched up in confusion.
“It’s a drinking game. I say a word, and Jessica here has to say my word and her word. It has to be the first word that comes to your mind,” Daniel explained. “We go on, and whoever misses a word has to drink their glass of beer,”
“Beer? Is that this stuff?” she asked, holding up her glass of brown liquid.
"Where you from girl?” said the grumpy man. “How’d you not have beer before?”
“Um, sir, I’ve only ever had champagne and wine,” she answered uneasily.
“Is she the next Kat?” he said loudly. “What’s a rich fluff like you doin’ in our dwelling? Are your houses by the lake not big enough for ye?”
“Grandpa, control yourself. We are playing a game, treat her fairly or leave,” Jessica said sharply.
He promptly pushed out his chair, which made a loud scraping noise on the floor, and stomped away from the game. Josephine shifted uncomfortably, deciding whether or not to just leave.
“Josephine, don’t mind him. I’m sorry about his attitude. Sit down and play with us,” Jessica said warmly, patting the seat next to her. Josephine, not wanting to cause more trouble, quietly obliged.
“Pickle,” started Daniel.
“Pickle, train,” blurted Jessica.
“Pickle, train, gap,” Josephine grinned, not knowing why she chose that word.
The game went on for few more rounds, which, regarding the eight people in the game, was a lot of words. Josephine grinned and laughed with these people more than she ever had with her father or any of the other girls she was allowed to play with.
“Pickle, train, gap, book, tree, hat, purple, kind, tissue, flower, love, stool, light, string, button, pink, pouch, dog, dragon, um,” Josephine hesitated, giggling. “Something, something… Long live the Queen!”
“Long live the Queen!” chorused the rest of the table, raising their glasses. They all drank deeply and grinned at one another.
“It’s gettin’ late, Daniel,” said one woman. “I’m going to go home,”
“Yeah, me too,” said another man. “I’ll see you all tomorrow,”
Slowly, the people began to trickle out of the establishment. Josephine sat at the table with a beer in hand and a drowsy look on her face. She must have fallen asleep for a while, because when she awoke, the entire room was empty. Irritation coursed through her, at Katherine for leaving her there, followed by fear. She was alone in a questionable part of the city, while her father was sleeping soundly with confidence that his daughter was at home.
Josephine heard a muffled cry of pain break the silence of the empty establishment. She got up and walked about, trying to locate the source of the noise. She walked towards the far wall, and found that there was a door, very cleverly concealed. She reached out and turned the knob, but it would not turn; it was locked. Attempting to be polite, she knocked on the door. The noise immediately stopped, and was followed shortly after by heavy breathing. Josephine backed away from the door, feeling a sense of trepidation. Suddenly, it burst open and in the middle of the doorway, stood a torn and battered Felix.
“Felix! What are you doing?” she exclaimed.
“None of your business,” he huffed, walking past her.
“You are in a horrible state,” Josephine stated. “You are bleeding,”
“Really?” he said sarcastically. “Well, look at that! I haven’t noticed the bleeding,”
“Stop it,” she snapped. “I am trying to be kind towards you, but you continue to slander me,”
“Kind?” he laughed dryly. “I hardly think feeling pity for me because I’m poor or because I’m beat up constitutes as kindness,”
“What else am I supposed to feel towards you?” she frowned. Taking a piece of cloth from the counter, she held it out to him. “Here, wrap this around your knuckles,”
“I’m quite alright,” he snapped.
“Oh, are you?” she snapped back. “You are bleeding most profusely and you are trying to repress cries of pain,”
“I am doing no such thing. The bleeding will stop eventually, that’s what scabs are for, girl,”
“If all the blood leaves you before the scabs arrive, you will be dead!”
“You talk as if you care about my well-being,” he scoffed.
“I do,” she said softly.
“Why? I’m a lowly, uncultured savage,” he said, full of contempt.
“Will you hold those words, which you have never heard me use, against me forever?” she sighed.
“No,” he smiled wickedly. “Because after tonight, you aren’t coming back,”
Josephine looked up in alarm and panic. She loved being here, and so desperately wanted to come again. The experience was vibrant and absolutely scintillating. “You cannot say that. Katherine brought me here. Where is Katherine? And Nate?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, stepping uncomfortably close to her. “I’m in charge of bringing you back home,”
“Sir please, step back,” she struggled to form comprehensible sentences. She felt a warm liquid on her hands, and looked down to see drops of deep red coloring her hands. “Cover up the bleeding!”
He looked down in alarm, seemingly having forgotten about his hands. Josephine stepped closer, taking one of his hands in two of her small ones. There were bruises forming on some of the knuckles, meanwhile the skin was broken at other places. The blood was pouring out at a constant rate, without any signs of easing. Before he could stop her, she took the piece of white cloth and wrapped it tightly around his hands, as she had been taught to do many times before. The rich red seeped through the cloth almost immediately after contact, spreading to the edges as a plague would spread through nations.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice surprisingly soft. “Can you do my other hand, please?”
“Of course,” she gave him a small smile. Going behind the counter of the bar, she fished around for a while before emerging with a dark green cloth. Taking his hand once more, she wrapped it in a tight and somewhat elaborate fashion.
“How did you get these bruises and cuts?” she looked up at his piercing gray eyes.
“I got into a fight, how else would I get them?” he raised eyebrow.
“Yes, but why?” she said impatiently.
“Look, Josephine,” he sighed. “Things are rather complicated. And it’s very late, we should be on our way,”
“Alright,” she said softly, going to take her knapsack. “How about I ask you something, and you give me the simplest answer with which you are able?”
He eyed her closely, before shutting his eyes. “Oh, alright. Let’s go,”
They put on their coats and left the building, into the cool summer breeze. Josephine slowed her pace as they approached the horse, afraid of being unable to mount it. Felix touched her elbow and nodded in its direction, urging her forward. Following his earlier commands, she put her foot in the foothold of the saddle and swung her leg over to the other side. She did not put enough momentum into her swing, however, and began to fall. Acting with the fast reflexes of someone experienced in all things physical, Felix caught her by the waist and hoisted her over the side. He walked around the horse before repeating the process himself, much more eloquently.
"What is this entire place? What do people do here?” Josephine began with curiosity.
“It’s called the Raft. It is in essence a group of inns and eateries clustered together. The people here, they’re all hard-working men and women. They come here to have a good time, as you did today, or to discuss business,”
“Alright. What about you? And Nate and Katherine? Who is the boss?” she asked rapidly.
“Hold on, girl,” he laughed. “Katherine is one of you, you already know that. Her story was interesting, but you’ll have to ask her yourself. Nate and I grew up together on a farm a little ways from the river. When my parents passed, we went to the city together in search of adventure and happiness,”
They had were trodding along a dirt path, with the moonlight clearly illuminating everything in their path. If she looked behind them, Josephine could see the faint dim of the Raft glowing warmly. She sighed, clutching him tighter as they sped up. He leaned forward, so as to avoid direct wind, and his black hair flew black elegantly. Josephine blushed as she thought of how lean and muscled this man was; she could feel him underneath her arms. She had the urge to unwind her arms from around him, but knew it would only cause her to fall off the horse.
“My condolences for your parents,” she said sympathetically.
“I never understood why that is the norm to say. No words uttered by a human mouth will bring the dead back to life,” he sighed.
“It is to express our grief and sadness for your loss,” she defended.
“But are you sorry, Josephine?” he asked. “You hardly know me, how can you be sorry for my loss?”
“I grieve about the loss of human life, because every life is sacred,” she said. “It is not merely you, I would feel sorrow for anyone in your position,”
“Oh, bugger,” he swore. “You don’t understand,”
“And you have done an exceptional job of circumventing my most important question,” she pointed out.
“Why, thank you,” he threw his head back and grinned at her. “Although, if you’ve noticed, my skills aren’t as great as they should be,”
“Well, enough nonsense,” she urged.
“Oh, alright. Although, I’m allowed to tell you very little about this. The Boss is a person who leads a group of people who wish for social reform,” he said slowly, picking his words carefully. “These people do all sorts of things in order to try and change some aspect of their lives, or the lives of others. That’s all I am at liberty to say,”
“Josephine,” he said warningly. “Josephine. Your name is exquisite, but far too long,”
“Oh? What would you like it to be, then?” she laughed.
“Hm,” he thought for a while. “Jo,”
“Jo? As in, the short form of Joseph?”
“No, as in the short form of Josephine,” he laughed back.
They rode through the moonlit night for quite some time; Josephine lost track of the time. Her sense were so alive, everything seemed heightened and intensified. She felt the warm, solid muscles of the horse moving in a rhythm under her legs, and the wind whipped her hair back in a refreshing way. She took a deep breath to inhale the enticing aroma of the farms and fields surrounding her. The smell of grass, mixed with a touch of hay and something else, filled her nostrils and the sweet, yet tangy taste of the country air danced along her tongue, teasing her. Josephine was, for the first time in her life, filled with vibrance and youthful exuberance. In this moment, whipping past the countryside with her arms around a strange man, she came to the revelation that she wanted more. She had never felt so energetic and happy before, and she was willing to do anything to taste this side of life again.