11. A RAT IN THE FLAMES

March 06, 2019


Emery’s startled breath hung in the air, fire blistering her smoking hands. Her knuckles clung white to the edge of the roof while her eyes scanned the streets below. The looming ghosts leaned closer to her hunched body, distracting her with their never-ending, deathly hum. A silence so ghostly it drowned out any noise from the marketplace below.

The white, blurred figures had appeared out of nowhere and were creeping closer—their piercing, pale eyes gloating, strange words chanting through hazy lips. 

She glared at them, as if they’d care about her opinion. They didn’t understand why she couldn’t leave Larnham without seeing Ayess one last time. It didn’t matter that Emery’s heart would break, as long as she survived. 

That’s not what living is. That’s not how I want to live. Emery wanted love, closeness, freedom: a place to call home.

She’d miss Ayess so much.

Though her freckled, tawny skin gleamed with sweat and melting snow dripped down her cloak, cold chills skittered up Emery’s spine. She was on fire, even in the coldest winter days, but the blue-clad guards’ presence below made her feel cold.

When the sun sat high on the crisp winter sky, crowds packed tightly around the meat stands.  The sun was a rare sight, and everybody wanted to see the light from the center of the market place. Merchants yelled out their prices in foreign accents, and the guards kept their eyes wide open, occupied with keeping order.

Emery drew a deep breath and let it out in a long wisp of steam. Any other day would have been a better time for ghosts to appear. She fixed her gaze on the the Eastern arch, letting the ghosts behind her slide from her thoughts.

There were two guarded arches on opposite sides of the crammed city square—only two ways into the marketplace. The guards on each side wore blue Norian uniforms, their right hands resting on their daggers. But they didn’t think to look up.

Emery had been slinking in and out for years now. That was enough times to be able to get away unscathed in her sleep. But sneaking past the King’s men always came with its risks. On any other day, she could afford to be careless. If she messed up today, Ayess would be dragged into the mess.

The chalk-white arches connected four old tile houses, a symbol of justice and hope after the Norian rebellion over a decade ago. Norian justice.

The arches, like the new city walls, high fences and watch towers everywhere, were built by Norians to keep the humans safe from her kind. Aruels had no chance, despite their god-given magic. Their magic wasn’t made for fighting. As if they’d ever fight back, anyway.

The Aruels had given up a long time ago.  All there was left to do was run or get beat down.

Her gaze kept wandering across the crowds, but she couldn’t see Ayess anywhere.

A man carried a heavy-looking barrel into the main square. Emery narrowed her eyes at him. He didn’t appear to be a regular trader. His clothing was far from the lavish, colorful kind. His hair was short, and unless the shadows of his lower face had been so dark, she could’ve sworn that he had a beard. The crushing of a fish skull distracted her, and in the next moment he was out of her sight.

Moving on, her eyes fell on a woman in heavy furs snapping raven bones. 

More barrels were carried toward the wall beside the Eastern Arch. Emery hadn’t planned on that, but if she got into a hurry to escape, they’d help her climb onto the roof quickly.

Emery had been captured a couple times. If she wasn’t busy hanging from a roof, she might’ve shuddered at the blurred memories of numbness spreading through her body, sudden snowflakes floating across her vision, a coldness unlike any other crackling inside her ribs.

She’d been thirteen the first time, and she’d been captured enough times after that to know that their intention wasn’t to kill her. Only poking needles and making experiments. The Aruels with fire in their veins were rare enough to be kept alive. The rest of them were, ironically, burned.

But being a slave was worse than any kind of chase, worse than any kind of death. Even loneliness—the thing she was most afraid of.

If death was what it took to be free from slavery, then she would do it. She was already a street rat, but she wouldn’t be a dog obeying any Norian.

She had one last try at escaping. If she got out of Noriannd, and then she would be free.

Emery let out a frustrated grunt. Ayess was nowhere to be seen, but there wasn’t time for this. She let go of the tiles, sliding across the icy shingles. Her palms scraped against coarse patches of slate peeking through the ice, and then grabbed the gutter to ease the fall.

The ghosts followed her as she slid into the crowd, enwrapping the cloak tighter around her bony figure. Nobody else could see them, but still she gazed warily around her, out of habit.

Larnham’s marketplace was an unorganized clutter of tables and stands. Goats wandered freely, bleating at shouting merchants and bumping into playing children. She stopped to take a deep breath, and then kept walking. How she’d miss all this.

She had never before managed to cross the border. She had no idea what life there would be like.

This city had kept her alive for most of her life. It was the beating heart of the kingdom, the center of all trade and culture. 

A little blond boy cooed and danced around the crowds, receiving many dismayed stares. But when people turned away, he sneaked closer to empty their pockets.

Emery’s lip quirked up. Larnham city square—where orphans didn’t starve, but fed themselves. The best place for a little pocket thief. Where children were so many they were invisible. Crowded streets, naïve merchants, careless foreigners… Suppressing the heat bursting through her fingertips, she let her smile fade.

Emery hated the idea of ever leaving. More-so, she hated that she’d grown so attached, because she’d always known she had to go. A girl like her could not stay.

For months, her bones had longed for the woods. For the silence and calm. To swim naked in a pond and scream one's lungs out in a forest where nobody could hear her. What else would she do with no pockets to pick or conversations to eavesdrop?

Her eyes searched for Ayess. Oh Ayess. Ayess was a dark, pale flower with eyes like storming oceans. Emery couldn’t see those oceans spilling any tears. She wished she could take Ayess with her, but a girl so delicate would be ruined in a matter of weeks out of the orphanage.

Her farewell had to be quick.

Emery’s feet slowed by a stall that carried antiques. Books, vases, trinkets and copper jewelry. She cut a glance at the soldiers, their oblivious gazes wandering, but not seeing.

She picked a book and flipped through the pages. Soft and velvety to the touch, these were the things of dreams. Words always mesmerized her—not because she could understand them, but because she one day might. 

The merchant snatched the book away, glowering at her dirty hands. She lowered her face and sauntered on.

A woman with olive skin and bleached yellow hair sold bread a few tables away. She was  holding an infant to her chest, and another child clung to her skirts. Emery smiled at the small boy as she walked by. He blinked at her with large, brown eyes. The mother sliced bread and barely noticed her.

Emery drew her hood lower and hugged her chest. For so long, she’d felt like it was the right time to leave, but the past days had her constantly on edge. Ayess wasn’t there. But she couldn’t leave without seeing Ayess one last time.

Emery increased her pace slightly. If she wasn’t here, maybe she was at the orphanage.

A flashing light swished past her shoulder. It was a sharp sound, like a blade cutting through air. Emery’s eyes widened. A dagger. It clattered against the wall and fell into the snow.

She sucked a breath and her heart of embers leapt in her ribcage. She dared a brief glance over her shoulder, then picked the dagger up.

Blinking, she thanked the gods, because the barrels were just in the right place at the right time.

She climbed on top of the stacked barrels and grabbed a nearby rainwater pipe. Her muscles strained and the wind tugged at her cloak, pulling coils of hair free from her hood. Clenching her jaw, she reached for the gutter, fingers numb from carrying her weight.

Two guards closed in, their hands braced on the hilts of their daggers. As she looked down, she saw a flash of Ayess’ face below—blue eyes aimed at her, a dark frown on her rosy face. Emery let out a string of curses to the gods. 

Tendrils of fear raced through her body as a howling burst of wind blew into her hood. Coppery red, curly strands fell to frame her eyes and slapped against her face. Her boots kicked against the tiled wall. One bearded Norian guard reached for her leg while the other tightened his grip around his raised dagger. “We’ve got you now!”







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