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As Émile stumbled through the pitch and dreary night, only two coherent thoughts echoed through her otherwise empty and, quite frankly, useless brain. The first being that she had forgotten to put on her favorite woolen socks that morning and was suffering the consequences as her boots became more and more sodden. The second thought was less of a thought and more of a prickling awareness that tickled the back of her neck and riggled down her spine, lodging itself against the bare skin of her back underneath her overcoat. She was being followed.
Considering her line of work, Émile was well aware of the number of enemies she’d made over the years so, despite the chilling sensation of unease gathering in the pit of her stomach, Émile found herself rather looking forward to whatever confrontation occurred when her pursues became tired of following a young, seemingly helpless, woman around in the fog-darkened alleyways of Erised.
Up ahead, Émile could just make out a vaguely warm lamp dangling from a rusted metal pole that served as a marker of the intersection of two crooked streets. As she approached it, Émile made sure to glance furtively in either direction in hopes that her pursuers would underestimate her and launch whatever attack they had planned when she actually had the upper hand. But alas, despite waiting a few moments under the dingy glow of the streetlamp, the ever-present fog shifted and shuffled but revealed no assailants.
“Curses.” Émile muttered to herself, shifting her weight back and forth to keep her feet warm against the soggy chill of murky street water seeping into her boots on her long trek across the Copper District.
As slyly as possible, Émile slid a shaking hand inside her overcoat and groped around her belt for the hilt of her knife. If her attackers wouldn’t reveal themselves to her, then she would just have to seek them out herself, she thought proudly as her fingers wrapped around the hilt and began to slide it from its sheath.
But, just before Émile could brandish her knife and dive into the fog surrounding her, she felt the air grow colder. The already chilly air grew frosty and the mist that seemed to cling to every breath of air in the city began to solidify into an icy curtain of clouded glass that shrouded Emile’s field of vision in a thick veil of gossamer. When the sound of something metal clattering on cobblestones echoed from her left, Emile spun around, fist now clenched on the hilt of her brandished knife.
“Jacks?” The reedy rasp of a young man’s voice sounded from Emile’s right, voicing the tremor of fear that had begun to course through her body. “Jacks?” the voice called again.
Then, a sharp gasp and exhale as the man searching for his companion in the dark let his last breath leave his body.
As quickly as the street had frozen over, the mist melted back into itself and the distinctly unnatural chill left the air, leaving the damp night simply unpleasant rather than frightening. But, even as the night seeped back into itself, Emile still clutched her knife tightly, letting her feet trace a slow circle around the lamp post.
“Honestly, Em, I’m offended you haven’t recognized my Trace yet.” A gratefully familiar voice said from somewhere in the deep shadows.
Emile’s hand slowly began to fall back to her side as the mist parted in front of her and birthed a young woman into the hazy circle of flickering lamp light.
Emile sighed, “Well, Ana, it’s always nice to have some warning before you freeze the whole city over.” Abjectly, Emile slipped her knife back into the sheath at her belt and took in the woman standing before her.
Ana Lark, Erised’s most elusive assassin, pride of the Shadow Dealer, and Emile’s best, and only, true friend. In the blurring light, Ana’s dark skin and darker hair made her almost blur the edges between shadow and human, wraith and woman. In her hands, she spun two bloody daggers with the confidence of someone who knew they would never injure themself in the act. A half-smirk rested comfortably on her face and she held herself with the grace of a heron.
Emile eyed the blood coating Ana’s daggers suspiciously. Her friend just shrugged, “you weren’t supposed to be followed to our rendezvous point.” She said, beginning to pull a cloth out of her own belt and wipe her precious weapons clean.
Emile rolled her eyes, continuing to shift her weight back and forth between her feet. “Who were they?” She asked, still curious about the nature of her potential enemies.
“No one important,” Ana responded, glancing behind her into the thick mist. “They had no weapons and no insignia which meant they couldn’t have belonged to any gang or Legion. Probably just some drunken fools you ****** off last time you were at a tavern.” She finished, slipping the now crimson cloth into the pouch at her waist.
Emile chewed her lip nervously. These days, the Shadow Dealer had been sending Emile out to taverns, bars, and various skeezy sites around the lower rings of the city for reconnaissance missions in hopes of gathering information and riches from the local lowlife. No one she dealt with was supposed to be able to track her down or pursue her. Of course, Emile knew how to handle herself around the scum of the city and how to defend herself if necessary but that didn’t have to mean she enjoyed slitting a man’s throat or slipping him something in his next drink that left him convulsing in a back alley.
“Come on,” Ana’s voice snapped her from her pondering, “we should be getting up to the roofs now.”
Emile nodded and stepped out of the protective glow of the street lamp and followed Ana into the shadows.
Emile did not remember the first time she saw the city of Erised. She had been three months old and swaddled in the finest silks her family could purchase, tucked against her nurse’s chest to be shielded from the chilly harbor air that ricocheted off every piece of glinting wood that had decorated her father’s ship. Madame and Monsieur VonTratten had never planned on welcoming a baby into the world so early in their lives but, in the scandal of the ages back in their home country, Emile had been born when Madame VonTratten was only twenty years of age. And so, having only lived 90 days, 20 of which had been at sea, Emile VonTratten did not and could not remember anything of her family’s arrival in the capital city other than the faintest recollection of the traces and shadows of pitch-black ravens circling above the docks, decorating the crystalline skies with their shimmering feathers.
But Emile did remember the first time she saw the city of Erised from the rooftops. She had been ten years old and wearing the remnants of a gorgeous pale blue dress, the only item she possessed. The midnight moon had barely been visible through the thick layer of soot-gray clouds but it cast a pearly shadow, blurring at the edges, over her nevertheless. The fog that plagued Erised had wrapped its way around every rooftop and the city’s lower rings and had spared no expense in coating itself over the maze-like streets. It created a second sea that bled out to the docks in the harbor and let its waves fade around the masts and great canvas sails that decorated the harbor like jewels in a crown.
Through the film of tears coating her eyes, Emile had seen the same ravens she so vaguely recalled from her earliest days circling spires of the most opulent homes in the city as if to scare her away from the wealth and warmth that had already cast her out.
Now, seven years later, the view still appeared the same.
The fog still coated the city in an oily sheen, the boats still rocked against each other in the gentle swell of the waves, and somewhere, the ravens still croaked their hoarse songs.
“So what was your assignment tonight?” Ana asked from the perch she had taken atop the only chimney around them not belching smoke into the already clouded air.
Emile shrugged, “the usual. The Dealer just had me down at the Golden Egg to drum up some rumors about a potential sugar shipment coming in tomorrow down at the harbor.” She said, making her way over to Ana’s chimney to lean against it.
“Is it just me or is the Dealer getting more and more paranoid these days?” Ana asked, still gazing out at the city.
“She does have a lot of enemies.” Emile replied, harkening back to her first visit to the notorious Shadow Dealer and the shiver-inducing tone with which the Shadow Dealer had ripped down every defense and every last wall Emile had built inside herself.
“We have a lot of enemies.” Ana corrected, her wide grin glinting pearly white against the backdrop of gloom that permeated the city at night.
Emile returned the smile as best she could.
When she’d found her way to the outermost ring of the city, narrowly avoiding thugs, keeping out of unfamiliar gang territory, and hiding from every face that she was convinced might recognize her, Emile had thought life would be easy. She had expected to slip into a new life as easily as she used to slip from one opulent gown to the next. But it had been anything but.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Ana asked, breaking once more through the hopeless spiral of Emile’s mind.
Emile smirked up at her friend as she caught the bright copper penny Ana had flicked towards her. “I wish I’d drunk more at the Golden Egg tonight.” Emile said regretfully, truly wishing there was more muddling her brain and keeping her insides warm.
Ana sighed, her breath coming out in a frosty puff. “Honestly, Em, are you ever not trying to get more drink in you these days? You know that’s going to catch up with you one day.” She said, her tone bordering on admonishment.
Emile smiled sorrowfully, “not if I out run it.”
The air around her turned bitter with cold and Emile wrapped her overcoat around her tightly, doing her best to avoid meeting Ana’s eyes for she was sure they would be full of anger or, worse, pity. Instead, Emile let her gaze drift over Erised, trying to identify key features through the fog.
The steeple of a church, the whisper of warmth emanating from a distant street lamp, and, of course, the masts and sails of dozens of boats. Marking Emile’s beginning and her end. The place where she had become herself at the place she had lost it all. Standing there, Emile could almost pretend she was out on the bow of one of those ships. Letting the salt spray wash over her and taking in the chill of the sea air as gulls, not dastardly ravens, expressed their joys and sorrows for the whole horizon to hear.
But, in the end, pretending never worked. She was just a girl, not a captain. Just a girl on the run from herself in a city shrouded by mystery.
A city of magic.
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