The harsh heat of the sun beats down on my curly black hair but I’m not allowed to move into the shade. None of us are. As were the rules: Red Elves aren’t allowed inside buildings unless they are ordered by their owners. So there are hordes of us standing outside the shops, crowding the markets—each of us with tanned or burnt skin and sweat on our brows.
I shift uncomfortably with the heavy bags and boxes in my arms. If Miss Sera didn’t hurry up I was going to end up dropping from both heat and exhaustion. I grew up in a forest until I was six years old, then I was forced into a searing hot desert. To put it simply: I’m not used to this kind of climate.
Narina, a Red Elf that works for the neighbours of my owners, leans towards me and whispers encouragement, “Don’t worry, I think I can see her coming.”
Sure enough, Miss Sera begins walking out with Gordon hurriedly following her, struggling to keep a parasol over her head. That’s how you can tell who is an Elf from the Valaeri Dominion. They are all porcelain skinned with golden hair and dark eyes. Most of the Red Elves have dark hair, bright eyes, and dark skin (only because we’re forced to stand in the sun for hours on end).
Miss Sera barely stops as she dumps another bag onto my growing pile, and continues on her way home, gabbing to another Valaerian Elf about the new Red Elf she bought to cook at the house. I don’t think she’s told Mr. Brice about the new slave.
Originally there was only one Red Elf in the Pahar household, a woman named Georgina. But they sold her because she was too old. I’m her replacement. Then, Mr. Brice bought Gordon to help out with some of the heavy lifting that I couldn’t do when I was younger as fast as he liked. Gordon isn’t that much older than me and it is nice to have someone I can relate to. We were both taken from our homes at young ages.
We hurry after our owner through the strange narrow streets of Kehran—one of the many cities in the desert far away from the lush forests I know. The tall buildings lining the streets finally block out the sun as we turn a corner towards my owners’ curios shop. We can hear Mr. Brice yelling even before we get there.
“I’m going to kill her!” he rumbles from inside of the three-storey sandstone house.
Miss Sera doesn’t even notice how Gordon and I are trembling. Gordon has less reason to worry. There are only two women in the household—Miss Sera and myself. Mr. Brice could be sent to prison if his wife told the authorities that he beats her. I am probably going to receive the beating because no one here cares about Red Elves. As soon as we enter the stone house, Mr. Brice thunders down the wooden steps towards us, his face red with anger.
He stands straighter to look more intimidating as he glares into his wife’s face.
“Another one?! You enjoy dragging me to the poor house, don’t you?!” he bellows.
Miss Sera’s face twists into something vile and wicked. She knows she’s pretty much untouchable and notes to her husband, “Careful, Brice, I can get you arrested, all I need is to say the word.”
Her eyes flick to me for a second and her tone changes from cocky to irritated as she adds, “And if you’re really so upset about it then just get the boy to steal something valuable, that should fix the books.”
Mr. Brice’s face turns purple for a second as he tries to force out an angry response, but his wife’s too good at getting what she wants. When he settles back to his usual colour I sigh a breath of relief.
Miss Sera starts going upstairs and I follow quickly, carrying her bags. I get the water into the tub for Miss Sera’s bath and coax the coals beneath into burning hot embers, before going back into her room to put the items she bought away. Through the wooden floor I can hear Mr. Brice giving instructions on where to find the item he wants Gordon to steal. From the sounds of it, it is an easy score. Mr. Brice always gave him the easy ones. I learned the hard way how to be good at stealing—it became a pretty good incentive not to get thrown into the dungeons.
Miss Sera has me brush out her golden hair after her bath. When I finish, I ask timidly, “Anything else I can do for you madam?” I stiffen, dreading any order she gives me.
With a sneer that is ripe with disgust she sighs, “No, that will be all.”
Scurrying out of her sight before she can change her mind, I head straight for the kitchen. I need to help with dinner.
Entering the kitchen I hear a small frightened yelp from the pantry. It was a little Red Elf boy—no older than six—with a startled expression on his face and a half-eaten piece of bread in his hands. I close the door behind me quietly to make sure no one will notice.
Crouching before the boy I put my hands on his shoulders gently whispering, “Shh, it’s alright. I won’t tell. Just be sure that none of the Dominion Elves see.” I rack my brain for what Miss Sera had said the new slave’s name was. It’s Walt.
“Your name’s Walt right?” he nods. “My name’s Astrid, okay? The other Red Elf is named Gordon. We won’t hurt you. How ’bout I help you make some dinner for the Mr. and Mrs.?” I force the bread into Walt’s mouth and lead him by the hand to the counter to begin making some more bread to go with dinner. While he mixes I start working on one of the chickens from the market.
The rest of the evening goes by quickly and luckily Mr. Brice and Miss Sera don’t ask anything more of us. I bring Walt up to the closet that we all share as a room and let him sleep. I go back downstairs to clean the floors and wait for Gordon to get back. I’m downstairs for hours and I can’t possibly get the floors any cleaner, but Gordon’s still not back yet. Anxiously, I return to the closet.
As I open the door, I hear the creaking of footsteps on the wooden roof and pause. Slipping into the closet, I try not to wake Walt as I ascend to the top bunk to access the trapdoor. I lift myself onto the level boards looking for the dark silhouette of my comrade.
A hand on my shoulder makes me jump a little and I turn around quickly, fearing the worst. The sound of Gordon’s heavy breathing makes me relax a little. He doesn’t look good. A fresh bloody gash sits above his left eye, smearing down the side of his face. His one shoulder looks dislocated. In his hands is the trinket that Mr. Brice sent him to steal.
Gingerly I remove it from his hands and set it aside before checking for other injuries with my hands in the dark.
“What happened?” I whisper breathlessly, analyzing the gash on his brow for extent of the damage.
He takes my hands in his and moves them away urging, “It’s not as bad as it looks. They had a dog that didn’t bark, but it did chase me around for a while. I misjudged the distance between the house and their neighbour’s roof though.” He chuckles a little then winces.
Pulling my hands out of his, I add, “Here let me heal you up.”
One thing that Elves don’t discriminate against is the ability to perform magic. Very few are born with this capability and those who are, are usually sent to the Temple of Nocti in the Dominion Capital to train with the League of Magi. I’m one of the exceptions. Red Elves and other slave races like me are taken by the guards and then shipped off somewhere, never to be seen again. That’s why I’ve hidden my magic abilities from everyone other than Gordon and a few other Red Elves whom I’ve helped.
I can feel the heat spread through me before I direct it towards Gordon and his injuries. I have never understood why I was able to hear the beating of people’s hearts when I use my magic. The gash above Gordon’s eye knits back together leaving darkly tanned skin in its place. His shoulder realigns itself and Gordon lets out a quick breath. He takes the end of his sleeve to wipe the blood off of him before resting a hand on the side of my face.
“What would I ever do without you?” he breathes, his light blue eyes locking onto my dark blue ones. He leans forward and kisses me softly—just a little touch. Every time he kisses me it feels like the first time, a couple years back. He starts to leave and I give his hand a light squeeze before he picks up his score and goes to deliver it to Mr. Brice.
I slip back down into the closet where I see Walt curled up in the corner with fright in his green eyes. Kneeling before him, I ask, “Hey, are you alright?”
His bottom lip quivers and tears begin streaking his dirty face. Stuttering sobs escape him and I pull him into a hug to help muffle them and to comfort him. Gordon comes in through the door and immediately spies me on the ground with this little boy in my arms.
Gordon crouches next to me and inquires, “Is this the new one Miss Sera was talking about?”
I nod answering, “His name’s Walt.”
I rub Walt’s back gently shushing him and murmuring comforts. Eventually, his sobs stop and he slumps a little in my arms with sleep.
“C’mon, Sweetie, you can sleep in my bed with me.” Standing, I lift Walt into my arms and with much difficulty carry him to the top bunk with me. I know why he’s crying. I used to do the same thing except I didn’t have someone to hold me while I cried. Georgina was already gone by the time I went to bed.
Gordon climbs into his bunk below mine and I hear him sigh, “It never gets any easier.”
“The best thing we can do is move on,” I reply quietly. Gordon is right. It never gets easy—I still have flashbacks whenever I see fire or smoke. I almost relive the day they raided my village and took my mother and I. My only hope was that my father was out there somewhere and was trying to find me.
But that’s only a dream.
That morning I awake with the sun and head downstairs to start on breakfast. Gordon comes down shortly afterward with Walt, to help.
We prepare, serve and clean up breakfast continuing about our daily routine with Walt on the sidelines, so he can learn how things are done around here. The morning and afternoon go by pretty normally, up until the sun begins to wink below the horizon and Mr. Brice storms into the kitchen without a word, grabs me by the arm, and drags me away into his office.
He throws me down into a chair and sits angrily at his desk. Fearing the worst, I clench the arms of the chair to hold back my shaking. Tenting his fingers he rests them before his face. Mr. Brice’s black eyes bore into me over the creamy spikes.
He sits in silence for a while, analyzing me from across his desk. I swallow loudly and inquire timidly, “Is—Is there a reason you—you’ve brought me in here, Sir?”
I duck my head expecting him to yell at me for speaking without being spoken to. From the look that flickers across his face I can tell he wants to, but that doesn’t seem to be his most pressing concern.
A heavy sigh leaves his tight lipped mouth and his bushy eyebrows stretch up in impatience.
“Astrid,” he starts slowly the aggravation on his face reflective in his gruff voice, “as I’m sure you are aware, I sent Gordon out to collect a certain item for me.” He pauses and I nod. “It’s not enough to bring my monetary values back up to what I would like them to be. So, I’d like you to go fetch the gold vase from the antiques shop in the East Market. Then tomorrow I want you to teach the new brat how to pickpocket and go out into the markets to get me some more gold. And remember if you don’t—“ his eyes flick to a whip hanging on the wall with all his other prized weapons. I nod vigorously, not trusting my voice.
“Good, now go,” he spits, looking back through his papers.
I stand and hurry out of the room and upstairs to the closet to get changed. I slip the tight fitting black suit over my under clothes and lace up the front so it won’t snag on anything. The sun drops below the edge of the earth and I begin climbing out of the trapdoor, but a hand on my black boot stops me.
Looking back down I see Gordon giving me a stern look.
“You’ll be careful right?” he whispers.
I smile down to him and slip back to the ground and place a quick peck on his cheek.
“I promise.” He smiles back to me and I lift myself back out onto the rooftop. The cold night air that follows the hot days bites at my exposed knees and elbows. Pulling my hood over my hair, I head away from the set sun along the tall narrow buildings avoiding the guards who patrol the streets. The only time I need to be careful is when I need to jump from one row of buildings to the next.
The city is pitch black by the time I reach the antiques shop in the East Market. No one is in the streets at this hour and I slip unnoticed into the back garden terrace on the second storey. Peering over the edge of the stone sill, I make note of the empty kitchen on the other side. The vase should be downstairs in the shop but I can’t risk going in that close to the ground. I climb into the room listening to the clatter of dishes from the dining room that sits adjacent to the kitchen. That archway is brightly lit, but an archway with stairs heading downstairs is completely dark. Moving on ghost quiet feet, I slink across the room and start down the stairs.
There’s a turn in the stairs and I see the glow of a lantern slowly brighten the corner. Someone’s downstairs.
I think quickly. I stretch my arms across the narrow stairwell and lift my legs up and over my head, spreading them to hold myself up off the ground. I climb up a little higher so that my arms and head are out of the way when the person comes up the stairs.
It’s an elderly Red Elf man holding the lantern for a little, plump Dominion Elf woman. I hold my breath as they come towards me. My palms grow sweaty from the effort of holding myself suspended like this and my hand slips a little. The woman stops when she hears the sound—she’s right below me. Carefully, I scuttle along the ceiling away from them. The elderly man wouldn’t rat me out if he saw me but I have to stay clear of his owner’s view. I lower myself down to the ground when I get to the turn in the stairs. Backing away slowly, I watch as the woman looks around suspiciously. One of the wooden steps I place my foot on creaks loudly and I seize up in fear. The woman cocks her head to the side as if she can’t decide which direction that came from. I ignore the stair and move around the corner and down the rest of the stairs before she has a chance to turn around. I sprint into the room and hide behind a shelf full of delicate pottery, and glass sculptures. The woman comes barrelling down the stairs. The elderly man is right behind her, but seems to be having issues keeping up.
Staying low to the ground I crawl farther away from her. The glint of the gold vase in the lantern light draws my attention. I just needed to grab the vase and get out of here. I worm my way over to the vase keeping the shop keeper’s back to me at all times. I make it to the stone counter where the vase is sitting and find the chest where the money is stored. Picking the lock with lightning speed, I remove the vase from atop the counter and shove handfuls of the gold coins into it. Once I’m satisfied with the haul, I put the vase in my bag to hide the shine. Peeking over the counter I see that the woman is between me and the exit. I look around frantically, surely there must be something here I can use to distract her. There are still gold coins in the chest so I take one and launch it towards the shelf with the pottery on it. The coin hits a plate shattering it and draws the woman towards that corner of the room.
On swift feet, I race out of there ignoring the light from the dining room. I leap out of the building and clamber up the next building. I hear shrieks of outrage from inside the shop but I don’t look back. The steady thumping of the guards’ footfalls below change as they all head for the shop. None of them look up.
By the time I reach the roof of the curios shop, I’m out of breath. Climbing around the side of the building I slip into the brightly lit room of Mr. Brice’s office. I set the vase down on the desk before him. A delighted devilish smile creeps across his face at the sight of it.
He strokes the smooth surface gingerly before trying to pick it up. His eyebrows shoot up in pleasure, “What is this?”
He looks at me quickly before reaching a hand into the vase and pulls out a handful of coins. A deep chuckle echoes through him before he compliments, “This is why you’re my best thief. You may go now. I expect to hear of you training the young brat tomorrow.”
I leave the room unable to feel my legs. That woman almost caught me. The shop keepers must be getting suspicious considering this has been going on for nearly twelve years. I am going to need to improve.
I stumble into the closet, my eyes already closed. I begin climbing up into the top bunk but Gordon pulls me back down again into his bunk. I don’t complain. I’m cold. He’s warm. I’m tired and I’m already lying down. He wraps his arms around me to help warm me. The bracers on my forearms barely do anything for the cold at night. The wet season is starting.
“I got a good score this time, but the shop keepers are getting smarter,” I mumble sleepily.
“Don’t talk about work,” Gordon mumbles before he shushes me and holds me closer. He seemed really tired too, and I wonder what they made him do while I was gone. He starts murmuring about a life away from here but I only catch words here and there.
A sad smile tugs at my lips as I listen to his dream drunk fantasies. It’s getting harder to picture that life away from here the longer we stay.