Four moons and three tens since the mark of the Other One blossomed.
The streets were full of mud. The spring rains had lasted far longer this year. Aerin pushed off from the wall and set after the man in purple. Maybe today she would strike silver. Maybe today. If not, then maybe tomorrow. She weaved through the crowd after the man, trying to keep up. This one was in a hurry. She needed a break. Maybe today she would get lucky.
Aerin might have used up all her luck to be still here and not in the flesh market again. Garret had taken what little information she had found out. The little bits and pieces she had gathered about the Covenant’s plans were enough to keep her out of the flesh market. No more. She was still fighting for her place among the thieves.
In turn, this had cost Aerin her place in the Covenant. Had she ever been a part of it? There were only nameless faces and unfamiliar voices left. Which one of them was actually Orion? She had spoken to him. She had sought the man out herself. She was sure of it. But after that one night of heated words and crying when Orion had taken her into his embrace. She could not remember if they had ever talked after that.
Aerin felt empty. Everyone had betrayed her. Even Sonera was reluctant to remain in her company for long. Her student had taken her spot now. She was proud of her. But the way Sonera avoided Aerin, stung. Aerin was proud of her, yet she hated the brat’s guts. The only thing that still kept her going was that maybe tomorrow would be a better day. You never knew what it might bring. Maybe tomorrow would not be full of numb, powerless thoughts.
Or maybe it was time to give up. She cursed each morning. She wanted to cry each morning but she could not. The tears would not come. Why was she still here? Why could she not sleep forever? There was that tiny hope that perhaps one day she would not wake up. Or better yet, maybe she would wake up and everything would be the way it had been before.
Or she would wake up in a new body, a new world. Please, if only something like that were possible, she would take the opportunity without hesitation. If killing herself meant she could choose a new life, she would do it right there and now. Shove one of her daggers into her throat and tear it open in the middle of the street.
The haze lifted and Aerin looked around. She cursed loudly. She had almost missed the man in purple. He had taken a turn towards the upper city. She hurried after the man. It was good that there was a distance between her and her mark, but she was risking losing sight of him. The man had turned another corner.
Aerin sprinted to the corner and stopped. She had lost him. People bustled here and there, but the man in purple was gone. And right there, a little ways down the street, was that park. The park where she and Will had scouted for a way into that house.
The buzzing numbness drowned her mind and her tears. She wanted to cry and yell, but she could not. At one point, the covenant had talked about releasing her flow. Now her mind was torn into tatters. Could one awaken if their powers had not been awakened? Her mind should have been broken. What was it that was keeping her human?
She turned back the way she had come. Aerin wandered the streets until hunger forced her into an inn. She had enough for food. Enough coin to keep herself going. She pushed a few silver on the counter and pulled up a stool.
“Hey! Raf!” A shout caught her attention for a moment. The sound of a chair scraping against the wooden floor came from behind her. But Aerin paid little attention to the loud hugging and long-time no see behind her and let the haze swallow her mind, until she realised her food was waiting on the counter in front of her. Some milk and few stale bread sandwiches. At least there was meat in those. She had spent the little extra today. She could afford food yet. She needed to keep hoping that maybe tomorrow would be better.
“The covenant has been making a real mess in the old town.” Aerin’s attention was drawn back to the conversation behind her. “They burnt down Jaeger’s real good. The walls were standing but you don’t go to eat there anymore that’s for sure. That was my favourite eating place.”
“That was them nobles. Not the covenant. The covenant is looking out for us common folk, Raf. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“There ain’t no one looking out for our hides but us. Not the covenant, never mind the nobles. And our idiot Emperor.”
“Well, it was his fault Jaeger’s got burned down. He decided it was a good idea to punish the commons instead of those slimy upper city bastards.”
“Like the covenant helped. Those pricks are the reason the nobles got so heated up in the first place.”
“Nuh-uh. I am telling you. The covenant is full of crazy. They are looking to cause trouble so that someone else gets blamed.”
“What would be the point of that? You’re full of crazy, Raf.”
“Shut your mouth, Jorst. I might be full of crazy but it’s still better than what you are. How’s it going, trying to join the lunatics of the Pureblooded Emperor?”
“They look out for us! You remember that.”
“Before this shit you told me the new emperor will look out for us.”
“Yeah, and then the daft bastard had my sister thrown out of her home because they suspected her to have taken part in the riots! I can’t support an idiot like that can I? He didn’t even point one finger at the upper city when it was those arseholes who fired the first shots.”
“I am telling you it was the covenant who fired first. Freaky crazy lunatics. Zealots is what that lot is. Blood and void-crazed idiots thinking humans can be gods. Just like your pal, the new emperor. Mind you, he was being sensible about it at first.”
“And the covenant is not sensible? They are doing something about this fucked up city.”
“Hey, if you are so intent on getting expelled like your daft sister, then by all means. I hear the covvie idiots are planning something again tonight. The Narris’ approach I hear. So go on ahead and see if they’ll find you a worthy sacrifice for the Pureblooded Emperor.”
“How about you eat your food? You’ve barely touched what I ordered you.”
Narris’ approach. Aerin was lost in thought and busy eating before she understood what the man named Raf had said. “Which Narris’ approach? Upper or east?” She turned around and wildly sputtered.
The two men fidgeted in their seats and cautiously turned around to look at her. “What’s that?” One of them finally said.
“The covenant is going to make a mess on Narris’ approach!” Aerin sputtered again.
“It’s what I just said?” The man with a scraggly beard said.
“West or east end? Or the upper approach?”
“Girl, if the covenant says they are going to be on the street then they are going to be everywhere. Nothing will go untouched. The nutters were already gathering when I passed by. There’s a good chance everything is up in flames by now.” The man turned to his companion who was itching to say something. “Don’t you start again, Jorst!”
Aerin grabbed her half-eaten sandwich and bolted from the inn. She lived on Narris’ approach! Halfway through the west side of the city towards the Citadel.
A faint smell of smoke was on the wind. In the distance sounds of unrest echoed across the streets. She ran as fast as she could. Not tonight. Please, not tonight. Crowds gathered every evening. Whether it was drunken boys filled with liquid courage or actual covenant members. So far it did not matter. Nothing happened. Since that evening four tens ago there had been only two larger riots. A few unfortunate souls were trampled to death or caught in fires, but no one was killed in the exchanges between the nobles and the commons. Most of the damage was burnt houses.
But those were commoner’s houses. Those would not be rebuilt that soon. Please. Not tonight. Please, make your fires in the streets! Annoy the city guard. Do not make a mess of my home. A dull explosion thrummed through the air just ahead. Please, Aerin thought.
She scurried past worried groups of people and city guard. Narris’ approach was just ahead. A few streets further south. Several dull thuds echoed across the city now. Screams followed and suddenly the streets were full of people running everywhere. Most were running towards Aerin. She had reached Narris’ approach. It was not on fire. She could not see fire. Nevertheless, the smell of power was on the air. People were running everywhere making it hard to see what was going on.
Someone bumped into her. The flow of people turned suddenly. They were all running towards the west end. Away from the city centre. Aerin did not wait around to see what had scared the crowds. She followed the flow of people towards her home. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw people trying to flee into the alleys and side streets along the approach. But more and more ran out of the same side streets.
Curious now, she stopped and climbed on a pile of barrels to look behind her. They had brought out the army! And the royal guard! Red and silver uniforms alongside crimson and grey chainmail of the regular legion. And Battlemages! She felt sick. This was out of control. Behind the crowd, she could see one or two figures stop occasionally and conjure flow at the approaching soldiers. The battlemages were not attacking back. Maybe it would be okay.
Aerin was about to leave her vantage point when the soldiers abruptly stopped. They shouted orders and more battalions appeared from the side streets. Many people had gathered to those small chokepoints and were now pleading and arguing with the stone-faced soldiers, asking to be let through.
Some had stopped running and were trying to hide or stay out of the way. Others had laid down as close to the walls of houses as possible. Some had even raised up their arms or put them on their back. A few large groups of people were facing the soldiers. Aerin paled as she recognised some of those faces. That had to be the covenant. Looking westward she could see her apartment building right there. Beyond that stood more officers and battlemages.
A single shout echoed all over the approach and the soldiers moved forward. Aerin jumped down and ran for her home. She could make it. She must make it. She did not understand, what she would do, once there, but she had to make it.
Crackling and whining sounds whirred past and overhead. Glass broke and bricks were shattered. The air smelled bitter. Flashes of power surrounded and disoriented her. Smoke clouded the approach. She weaved through crowds of panicked people and those resisting the soldiers. Small groups of soldiers were steadily pouring out from the side streets and cutting the approach into sections. Throngs of frightened people crowded the front doors everywhere. Why were they not going in? Had someone locked the doors? How was that possible?
A sudden gust of wind rustled her and Aerin lost all bearing. Aerin found herself on the ground looking at a small crater in the cobbled pavement. All sounds were muffled except for the sound of shattering glass. It felt important. She scrambled to her feet and headed for the mass of people below the first-floor windows of her small apartment building.
She ran up the small stairs and jumped onto the stone railing and over the people’s heads. Someone had broken large parts of the window and she caught the frame. Someone below her softened her awkward landing. But she still grabbed broken glass in her hand and she fell face first through the rest of the window, into the dim room. She felt the carpet and the cold blood on her hands. Her face burned in places and other prickling sensations across her body told her she had gotten hurt elsewhere.
Disoriented, she tried to find her heading. Others were now clambering in through the broken window. She let the flow of people carry her until a rumbling explosion thrummed throughout the building and made her lose her footing. The tremors subsided but other rumbling and breaking sounds continued.
Wood splintered, glass shattered, and the house groaned. People inside were trying to get out now. Walls fell down and Aerin got a face full of plaster and dust. It was not safe here. Aerin could hear nothing, but the groaning house. Dust filled her vision and she could not understand a thing when the world was twisted into a loud, churning mess.
She had to be dead. A grey gloom covered everything. It was hard to breathe. Aerin slowly sought her way on all fours. She knew only to follow the fresh air. There was a broken path through the rubble. The flashes of power had become few and far in between. The shouts were subsiding, curses and wailing filled the air.
Aerin tried to make sense of where she was. She had tried to get into her apartment. Where was it? Where was the house? What had happened to it? Slowly the dust dissipated as Aerin sat in the middle of the ruins. Soldiers were more concerned with gathering captives than helping those wounded or caught up in the conflict. Further away faint sounds of unrest still echoed in the air.
She shifted and gingerly stood up. If anyone saw her, they could not tell her apart from the piles of rubble. A thick coat of dust covered her from top to bottom. Now the tears came. Yet the cries were stuck in her throat. The small cuts all over her body burned. She had cut open her hand really bad. Bodies littered the collapsed house. Next to her was someone’s lower half. She saw pants and the end of a belt. The rest of the body was hidden under a pile of rubble.
A small grey ball near the body caught her attention. Hiccupping and gasping she knelt and pried it loose from the rubble. It was a coin pouch. It jingled and was heavy despite its size. It was filled with coin. Quickly Aerin hid her find against her bosom. Her left hand burned, and she was trembling. What should she do? Should she look around if she might find some of her possessions? The thought vanished quickly. This small heavy pouch! Full of coin and in her hands. What should she do?
Frightened, she looked around. She did not want to but her legs moved of their own accord. She scampered to her feet and retreated through the ruins. Away from the approach.
It was dark by the time Aerin reached her destination. Along the way she had tried to rid herself of the dust and patch some deeper cuts with pieces of cloth. Hesitant, she looked around. She had caught the attention of numerous patrols along the way, but she had shaken them eventually. This was the only place she could turn to. Aerin hoped she was right. Surely, Sonera would not turn her away. She needed to go up the stairs and knock on her door.
She was tired from the running. Tired from the dust still hurting in her throat. Yeah, that was it. The weight of the coin pouch was still in her right hand. It made her entire body feel heavy and glued her feet to the ground. She could not bring herself to move towards the building. A tiny three story wooden house, not unlike the one she had been living in. It looked like a giant watchtower all of a sudden.
“Are you going to stand here all night?” A sudden cold voice drawled behind Aerin. She did not turn around.
“I was passing by. I stopped for a rest. You live here?” Aerin attempted. Her voice was hoarse, and the throat was still painful from the dry dust.
“You know very well where I live.”
“What do you want?” Sonera cut in.
“A place to stay. Just for tonight.” The words came by themselves. Aerin had no intention to say it.
“I thought you were passing by.”
“Can I stay? Please?”
But Sonera sighed and went silent for a few moments. “You’re bad to be seen around, Aerin. You lost it. You lost your place. Your reputation. What do I get for helping you?”
Aerin still did not turn around. “I did lose it all. My place, my home was destroyed. Please, Sonera. For old times’ sake. Please. Just tonight. I can try to find a new place tomorrow.”
“And when you don’t find one? What am I saying? How are you going to expect to find a place to stay? It will not be only tonight. Tomorrow night, and the night after, and then the following ten, the moon. How long?”
“Please, Sonera. I can pay you. I was your mentor.”
“That does not matter. Even if you had not lost your place, in our world that relationship would have decided nothing. That is how the rules were made.”
“I have nothing left.” Aerin turned around and lifted her hands to her sides. “This is it. All that I have left are these clothes and the pouch I found. I didn’t even steal it. I took it from someone more unfortunate than me. I am begging you. I just need a place to spend the nights. That’s it. I can’t promise it will be for tonight only, but I will try my best. I pulled you out from the flesh market.”
“You weren’t the only one.” Sonera hissed.
“Please. Just a roof over my head at night. That’s all I need.”
“The old man still thinks you are worth keeping around. I like to think I know you better now. I cannot see what Garret sees in you.” Sonera moved past Aerin. “I have a storage place in the attic I don’t use. Try to keep out sight when you use it. And keep the silver to yourself. If you’re robbing the dead, then your coin brings even worse luck.”
“I am sorry. Thank you, Sonera.” Aerin stepped after Sonera. A small stone broke somewhere inside. But another large weight settled in its place. Aerin was a bother to everyone around her.
“Shut up. For old times’ sake. Maybe. Yet three moons ago you were ready to go back to the flesh market. That hurt. That indifference when you know full well the place where we came from. This life may be but a small step up one ladder and down three steps on another, but it is better than the market. That hurt me, Aerin. I am not sure if I can forgive you. You were never nice to anyone. You were one of the best and it made you full of yourself.” Sonera looked over her shoulder at Aerin. “The harder they fall. And you deserved it. You always thought you were above others.”
The two continued up to the third floor. Sonera stopped there. She gestured towards a wobbly looking and steep, wooden staircase. “The far left corner. There is a tap somewhere up there. Everyone leaves their junk around there. No one will care if anything goes missing. Keep out of sight, Aerin. Out of my sight.” Without another word, Sonera disappeared behind a door. Aerin tried to mumble another thank you, but it was lost in the empty landing.
Slowly she crept up the steep stairs. She spied a discarded mattress and some blankets in a corner. Aerin dragged those into the small room at the far left end. A tiny window let in some light from the lanterns outside. There were a couple of buckets in the room. Nothing else. She was too tired to clean herself tonight. She wrapped the few cloth bandages more tightly around the bigger cuts and fell on the mattress.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow would be the first day of the rest of her life. She would clean herself up. Make this small closet a little more liveable. Find some new clothes. Clothes were easy to steal.