My boots pound the brick roads of Althuria.
The Arena and the Luminus Academy buildings glitter in the dark, majestic beasts towering behind me. My shift as a cleaner finished late, and the Arena spat me out long after the other weary workers.
As I pass the exotic food stalls, the smell of sweet Serasian spice mixes with the rank smell of garbage, creating a combination my nose will never get used to. It feels as if the squat, grubby buildings are staring at me as I scurry down the street. At this time of night, the illumination of a few small lanterns gives me little comfort.
A sound behind me reaches my ears: footsteps. My heart jumps, but I calm myself and look back. It’s a man wearing a scruffy work uniform. I can’t see the markings properly, but chances are it’s another Arena worker rushing to catch the last train.
I’m wrong—the worker turns into an alleyway and disappears. I’m alone again. But the feeling of unease creeping up my spine lingers. It grows stronger until I’m shaking.
I increase my pace.
Whenever I get this crawling sensation, it’s a sure sign that something bad is going to happen. This strong intuition has helped me before in avoiding accidents. Things like moving a glass away from the edge of the table just before my sister bumps into it or deciding to get to shelter moments before it rains. Even now, my feet slow inexplicably, and I avoid walking into a puddle of strange-smelling liquid.
I know better than to ignore the unease, so I examine my surroundings carefully. There aren’t many people out at this time of night. The stalls, booths, and shops are all closed.
Suddenly, a figure on a horse emerges from the shadows and blocks my way. I bite down a gasp and clutch my coat. The coins in my pocket clink gently. Then I see it’s a guard, slowing when he gets to me. His red uniform and scarred face catch the light as I glance up at him.
“What’s a young girl like you doing at this time of night?” he asks. Even his horse gives me a suspicious look.
“I work at the Arena. I finished late.”
His eyes narrow some more. “What d’you do?”
He leans forward and squints at my worn clothes and my dark skin. The wariness vanishes from his eyes, replaced by disgust.
“You’re a forest girl, aren’t you?” He spits at my tattered shoes. His voice seethes with hate. I nod and brace myself for more insults. Or worse. If he gets violent, there’s nothing I can do about it. Defending myself will only bring more pain.
My sister and I live in Althuria’s vast forests, coined Amberwood by its inhabitants long ago. Not that we have a choice to live there. I don’t enjoy running to catch a train every morning and night, but we can’t afford to stay in Althuria’s busiest city, Ellhoris.
“You lot disgust me,” he goes on.
I stay quiet, itching to get to the train station. Any word I say may antagonize him and delay me.
“You see anyone near the gate?” he asks.
I shake my head, growing more impatient. A spark of intrigue grows in my mind, wondering who the palace guard could be looking for, but I don’t dare question him.
“Asha!” a voice calls out.
The guard looks up. It’s Mrs. Turner, closing up the bakery. She waves, and I wave back, trying to keep my hand from shaking.
Wait for it, wait for it...
The guard turns away and digs his heels into the horse’s flank, muttering to himself. Relief shudders through my body.
“Hello, Mrs. Turner!” I say. I look back as another shadow flickers out of the corner of my eye. But when I glance back, no one’s there.
She looks at me with concern. “You know better than be out so late. Was that guard bothering you?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” I lie.
I’ve heard the stories. I’ve seen how the Queen’s men walk around this city as if they own it. If Mrs. Turner wasn’t there...
I expel the thought. There’s no use dwelling on it any longer. “Is Mr. Turner holding up well?” I ask, mustering a weak smile. “Are you managing the shop all right?”
“Ah, I manage. It’d be good to have him back on his feet. And when he does, you’ll eat my famous pastries, won’t you?”
Mrs. Turner has been running the bakery since her husband took a nasty fall and fractured his arm and hip. They called in proper healers, who magically stitched up his bones, and now Althea—my older sister, a nonmagical healer—takes care of him at the hospital. The last time she offered a pastry for free as a thank-you for Althea’s care, I turned it down. They’re struggling, especially with Mr. Turner’s recent injury. I can only imagine the kind of debt they owe now that they’ve gotten a certified magical healer. I’d feel guilty accepting the free treat.
“We’ll see about that pastry when he gets back,” I lie.
Mrs. Turner smiles and steps inside the bakery. “Goodnight, Asha. Be safe out there.”
I rush away, and once again, my boots find a rhythm on the bricks. Soon the distant light and glamour of Ellhoris fades away, transitioning into darker streets where even the smallest lanterns are snuffed out.
I’m terribly late, and the train leaves soon. I turn into an alleyway, a shortcut to the station. I curse out loud. Why do I have to live so far away? Why are the trains so slow to get to Ellhoris and back?
But I already know the answer. None of the wealthy folks running the train systems want to invest in air manipulators to work the engines. Why would they, anyway, when only commoners take the train? The train system is holding us hostage, I reckon. I’m always late for work in the morning and rushing to catch the train at night. Once, I was stranded at the station overnight, and Althea was furious. I was lucky to escape the wrath of the Queen’s Red Shields.
She works just as hard—if not harder—than I do, and the last thing I want to do is upset her. The thought fuels me forward. I’m almost at the end of the alleyway when my ears pick up footsteps behind me. I freeze. My entire body tenses. I whip my head around to see who it is—
A large hand clamps over my mouth, stifling my scream.
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