I’ve waffled over posting this. It references more mature themes than I’m used to writing. The vast internet may laugh at what I call “mature” themes, but I’ll still rate it PG-13. It was just a quick warm-up I wrote to prep for more serious writing, the first scene that popped into my head when I opened a blank document. I have no plans for it.
Lietta leaped out of the window faster than the old grandfather clock in the corner could fall. When it did crash against the hallway’s tile floor, chiming out a strange melody as its death knell, she was already halfway down the alley, tripping over broken crates overflowing with the shattered glass bottles of underground cabarets. The sweet-sharp burn of grapes and alcohol hovered over the refuse like flies, clotting the air with an oppressive reminder of her early days in the Service.
Shouts echoed in the alley behind her, though whether they were the drunken revelries of cabaret patrons or her pursuers, she didn’t know. Nor did she dare to wait to find out. Instead, she whipped around a burned-out lamppost, sling-shooting down one of the wider and more populated streets.
The heavy clouds began to drizzle, and the parasols of well-equipped night-ladies bloomed around her like moon lilies. She grinned. This was the perfect environment in which to lose herself, especially after nearly botching what she’d known would be a challenging job. She threw up her hood, obscuring her pale head, and jogged into a parade of sauntering men and women.
“’Eyo, wotchit,” said one woman as Lietta’s cloak brushed her elbow. On her other arm, the woman’s beau bared his teeth at Lietta as if warning her off his prey. “Cainya see I’m bein’ romanced bya gennelmin?”
Lietta tapped her hood in apology and just as silently sidestepped into a nearby alley. She was uninterested in making enemies of the women who prowled the night for their living—had she never met Glorieska and joined the Service, Lietta would probably have been at that point similarly employed. She also knew night-ladies tended to be tight-lipped about the questionable goings-on in Lower Brayven, if they liked you. Sometimes it took a little gold to ensure that. Lietta smirked to herself and ducked her head against a heavier band of rain.
After another few moments, she rounded a corner and doubled back down a side street, certain that, between the dispersing crowd and the rain, her pursuers would never be able to trace her. One of the advantages to living in a place that welcomed rain most days of the year was the friendliness of the weather to someone in Lietta’s line of business. Of course, Corlin was still recovering from his fall off a slick-tiled roof, but her brand of foolishness did not, like his, include the denial of the tenets of her learning.
Rules One Through Ninety-nine: Don’t get caught.
Rule One Hundred: Refer to rules one through ninety-nine.
She liked to murmur them to herself as she ranged through Val-city’s streets, especially liked to whisper them when the city patrol was nearby. Something about saying the words around the guards or any other lawful danger made life more thrilling.
Through Lower Brayven she worked her way westward, toward the city center. No one followed her. They’d have found their efforts summarily rewarded if they had. The rain pelted the city, and soon the streets were absent of pedestrians. Only occasionally would a hurried coachman or wagoneer spur his horses through the sunken streets, splashing mud and water and the castoffs of private houses against tight-packed buildings. Lietta dodged each of these waves in doorway niches, and at one point managed to hitch a ride on the back of a wagon without the driver being wise.
At last, she stood before a broken down shack of a place squeezed between two, more reputable establishments. The windows of the apothecary on the left blazed not with activity, but with superstition, candles left out in honor of Targofhin, holiday of eclipses and sickness. The jeweler on the right was dark.
Lietta tapped the door of the shack once, checked that the handle hadn’t been tampered with, and decided it was safe to enter. The rain sloughed off of her cloak as she stepped within, dripping onto the warped floorboards of the barren street-blister, and she closed the door against what little light filtered through the cracks in the seams. She had been here enough times to know to within a hair’s width where the walls, and, more importantly, the pull-chain were.
She yanked on the chain. The floor rattled with a screeching grumble not unlike the shrieks of the tera birds who hovered persistently over the mountainous waste pile along Kierit District’s shoreline. A soft glow emerged where the floor gave way, and Lietta ducked within.
A single glowing orb rested on a shelf just inside the bricked-in tunnel. Lietta set it in her palm and hurried through the maze-like route underground. Against the walls streamed leaky runnels from cracks in the ceiling, puddling on the floors. The soft click-splish of her boots set a melodic cadence in the oppressive silence. She only paused a few minutes later to set the light on another shelf before a termite-eaten ladder, then crawled up and lifted the trap door.
“I was beginning to wonder if you were ever coming back,” her employer said without looking up from his book. Lietta lowered her hood and shook the rain from her hair, lowering the floor back in place. “My heart quickened with concern.”
“Yes,” Lietta replied, glaring at him. “I can feel your anxiety.”
He turned the page, leaning comfortably back in his wheelchair in his robes and slippers, the soft, premature gray at his temples turned orange in the glow of the modest fire burning in the far less modest fireplace. All around him were books. Gold-gilt, leather-bound, some made of materials Lietta suspected were too unpleasant to name, surrounding the study in rows and layers she would once have imagined impossible for anyone to conquer. Now, she entertained no doubt that her employer had.
He took a deep breath, folded the ribbon into the crease of his book and closed it, and pulled off his small, round readers to look at her.
“Let’s see it, then.”
No “so you’ve retrieved it.” No “were you successful.” Just an assumption, an unquestioned expectation that she would have succeeded where three others had failed. It made her both bitter and proud. Of course she knew he would eventually hear of how disastrous the robbery almost was, but that was something to think about at another time. Instead, she contemplated an image of returning sometime without her targeted treasure just to spite him, but the image morphed into a future without her head.
Without a word, she stepped forward and reached into her cloak pocket. She dropped the little glass ball into his hand, still sticky from where she’d snatched it.
Her employer turned it over in his fingers, holding it up to be illumined by the fire behind him and sliding on his spectacles once more.
“Did you not command me to keep him alive?”
Her employer glanced up, a dangerous, calculating look that would have scared her if she hadn’t been armed on every limb of her body. Lietta held his gaze, refusing to look away, and he looked back at the orb as he smiled.
“Mine was a stupid question. My apologies.”
Lietta had been hired to dispatch many a person by many a high-ranking official. She’d been hired to steal many an object of great value by many a jealous aristocrat. She had never been inclined to ask questions about her tasks—she did what she was paid to do, and nothing more or less. She didn’t exist as the conscience of her employers, nor as their judges. She reined her curiosity in with a white-knuckled fist. Life was easier that way.
But this time, the questions radiated off of her, and she knew it. She could feel them, wordless, bursting from her skin, screaming in silence as he turned that little globe on its own wobbling axis in his fingers.
He felt them, too.
“To secure my future,” he murmured, almost more to himself than to his hire. He turned flame-lit blue eyes to her. “This is the beginning of a world I can control.”
Lietta, who already felt as if she had betrayed herself with her wonder, grew even more confused. She’d stolen jewels, plans, and lives, but she’d never before been hired to steal a prize like his. An ominous sense of foreboding washed over her like the rain, for she had no idea how a publicly revered crown prince could secure his future and control a world with a blind man’s glass eye.