A soft moan of relaxation. The idyllic sound of a gentle breeze stirring the curtains of her bedroom. Soft sunlight pooled on every surface, Cora could feel it through the silk sheet she was tangled in. Stretching her slender arms above her head, Cora could not help but give a small blissful sigh as she savored the last lingering moments of her dream.
She was dancing in lush grass, feeling each blade against the skin of her toes. A cool stream ran nearby. It trickled through her ears and down her throat. The sun-kissed her skin in eager warmth, but the trees made sure she was not too hot. Cora’s deep bronze skin was soft from the fresh air, instead of creams that smelled of chemicals. Their leaves dappled her body in their shade. Cora breathed in the faint hint of wildflowers blooming nearby and still undiscovered. The scent of soil reached her and she knew rain had only just moved on. Everything Cora had ever dreamed of surrounded her. The breeze carried the notes of a piano as it danced with her and raced through her long, black hair. They were notes of music she remembered, though she did not know from where.
Snuggling deeper into her sheets, Cora longed to return to the meadow. The sun now pestered her face, straining to peer under her eyelids and telling her there would be no returning to the world of her dreams.
Plunging her toes into lush carpet rather than soft grass, the familiar crawling sensation of displeasure crept up her spine. Her room was distastefully lavish. All the rooms were. They gave the illusion of sophistication in a place devoid of it. The money on her bedside table was a testament to that. Donning more substantial clothing, Cora felt the last touch of her meadow leave her. Resignation gripped her like a steel trap as she descended into the reality waiting for her down the elegant stairs beyond her bedroom door.
“Have a nice night Cora?” A shrill, laughing voice asked her as she entered the lounge.
“Yes actually. I had a rather lovely dream,” Cora’s answer was simple and earnest, unbothered by the jab.
“And some fine company,” another girl added cheekily and whom Cora patiently ignored.
She took a steaming cup of cinnamon tea from Mae, or Madame Mae as she was professionally known, and settled herself atop a cushion, pulling her legs in towards her body. Mae was the brothel’s owner. She was a fair boss, if a bit stern at times, and she portrayed her title to a T. Impeccably dressed, her long velvety skirt brushed the tops of polished black boots. Ruffles bloomed from the shoulders of her perfectly pressed and buttoned blouse. Although her dark hair was beginning to show a few rebellious gray strands, not one was out of place, but rather neatly subdued in a pin-up behind her head.
“Remember, as long as the lot of you are back before nightfall, the day is yours to do what you wish with. I hope that there is no need to remind you of the consequences should you fail to be back in time for work,” Mae’s voice held coldly threatening undertones that kept the girls in line.
Cora joined the mass of nodding heads and the chorus of voices answering with a slightly subdued, “Yes Mae.”
Girls began getting up, at varying paces as they finished the amount of breakfast they had chosen for themselves. For Cora, her cup of tea was enough for now. She rose, handing her cup to the girls assigned to washing the day’s dishes, and moved towards the establishment’s front door.
“Cora,” Mae’s voice halted the girl, making her turn around. “Make sure you return safely.” Mae’s words had a note of true caring that Cora was unfamiliar with. Madame Mae turned and strode away towards her study before Cora could respond.
The high morning sun hit Cora’s face as she stepped outside, skirts swishing around her legs. The stench hit her next. Foul odors wafted up from grates and potholes leading to sewers beneath their feet. Her lungs soon became filled with the familiar air, thick with gray smog that strolled through the streets and buildings of Gedrall, originating from the factories that surrounded the city. Dirt was everywhere. Brick walls turned black, tattered and grungy clothing clung to those who slept on the streets. Dirt and filth were ways of life that the people had learned to ignore.
Cora doubted that anyone genuinely liked Gedrall. It was simply where they lived. If you could call anything in Gedrall living. Rather it was where they existed. Hundreds of tired, dirty people eating, working, and sleeping in a city just as tired and dirty as they were.
Joining the throng of people moving down the streets, Cora walked with her head down, staring at her feet. They all did it. It was not something done on purpose and no one was quite sure why, but they did it all the same. Walking with their heads down, carrying out business as quickly as possible, not lingering in the streets - it was all part of life in Gedrall.
Cora’s destination was the marketplace a few blocks from the brothel. A familiar voice, hawking his wares above the regular city din, soon told her she was there.
“Watches for the discerning gentleman! Brooches for the ladies! Cameras, compasses, and all the newfangled innovations of tomorrow!” He had a way of selling that made you feel as though he was peddling dreams instead of supplies - as though each purchase was the olive branch of the future.
“I’m not much of a lady, but I’d like to see what you have today,” Cora ventured from behind him.
“Cora!” The boy whipped around at the sound of her voice, a mop of blond hair falling over his face. His radiant grin turned on her. Leaping off his pushcart, he grabbed Cora around the waist and swung her around in a circle, making her giggle like a young child.
“Hello Benji,” his unbridled joy at the world was infectious and Cora could already feel it spreading within her.
“I have something I think you’ll really like.” Benji looked as though he might physically burst with pride at any moment as he pulled a curious contraption from the underside of his cart.
“This is how we will soar into the future, Cora! No longer trapped on the ground or confined to the murky shadows of mundane life. Now, we will leap into the air like birds as our bodies- and our dreams- take flight!”
Cora examined the object with eager intentness. Leather straps joined two wing-shaped frames of thin metal filled with cloth before dangling down in a harness-like formation. Gears and nails adorned the mechanism like gleaming pins.
“This can make a person fly?” Cora asked.
“Well, not yet,” Benji admitted sheepishly, “but it will! Once I figure out how to attach an engine there will be nowhere I can’t go. I’ll be getting out of here and never looking back.”
“I hope the world is all you dream it is,” Cora replied, a bit wistfully.
“You’ll be coming too of course.” Benji looked affronted that the idea hadn’t occurred to her. He hooked his arm through hers and extended his hand up to the sky dramatically, both their gazes following.
“Just think, we can go anywhere we want. Do anything we want! We could explore the whole world if we wanted or just try a go at a life somewhere else. Any city in all of Il’rua is better than Gedrall.”
“How do you know? You’ve never stepped foot further than a twelve block radius of this market.” Cora laughed at the absurdity of Benji’s words, but deep down they had taken root within her and sprouted feelings of longing.
“Because I can’t imagine anywhere worse,” his light-hearted nature betrayed him and Cora got a rare glimpse into the depths of Benji’s desperation. “You would never have to work in that God-awful place again. Don’t you want that?”
‘More than anything,’ Cora wanted to say, but her eyes widened in fear instead. Benji’s look of confusion was answered when he fell to the ground with a hard thud! and a groan of pain.
“This market has come into new leadership,” a hulking, burly man growled at Benji. “I suggest you abandon whoever you serve and pledge your loyalty.”
“I don’t work for any gang!” Benji snarled with the most hostility Cora had ever seen him display. “I just sell miscellanies and keep away from trouble.”
“That tone don’t seem to be keeping you away from trouble, boy!” The man yanked Benji up by his shirt collar and held a knife near his face. It glinted in the sunlight, sharp and well polished.
Cora knew she should do something- say something- to help Benji, but her terror-addled brain kept her from focusing. What she noticed instead, was the gap where the man was missing a tooth and she wondered if he was planning on getting a false one.
“Looky here Henry,” another man- a friend of the one threatening Benji Cora assumed- approached her with the air of a wolf stalking a deer. His black hair was slicked down against his head and his beard was scruffy and unkempt. “I’ll give you this, boy, you sure did get yourself a pretty one.”
He reached up and tucked a strand of Cora’s hair behind her ear. She squeezed her eyes shut as his hot breath fanned her face. It grew closer to her ear. It stank of whiskey and rotting meat. Cora felt cracked lips brush their way down her neck. Thick fingers wound their way around her waist and squeezed. She could not hear what the men were saying. She heard piano notes instead.
The meadow was soft and loving. No tears were shed in the meadow, only laughter that bubbled like a spring. Cora was wild and silent and innocent and free. She was whatever she wanted and nothing more. There were no expectations inside the meadow. The breeze brushed her skin and the grass tickled her feet.
Then like a tether, Benji’s voice snapped her back.
“Don’t touch her! She’s got nothing to do with this!” Benji yelled, his voice high. It cracked suddenly - something she’d never heard it do when he peddled - raw with genuine fear and helplessness.
Cora prayed desperately that someone in the market would come to their aid, but no one stopped. Everyone lowered their heads a little closer to the ground and quickened their pace. Not that it surprised her, events like this were commonplace. Cora had witnessed more than a few herself and she knew the only thoughts in anyone else’s mind was making sure they didn’t make themselves a new target.
Abruptly the vile presence withdrew itself. The body was no longer there but the touch still lingered on her skin.
“Maybe we’ll touch you then,” one of the men - she didn’t know which - growled menacingly. He was like the rabid dogs that fought in alleyways.
Cora cracked her eyes open, muscles tensed, mind high on adrenaline and fear. She quickly shut her eyes again as a punch was thrown at Benji’s gut.
She could stop herself from seeing, but there was no way to block the sound of his pained grunts and the cruel laughter of his attackers. Eventually, the noises stopped, though Cora could not say with certainty whether they’d lasted for minutes or hours. Her vision, when she opened her eyes for the second time, was blurred with tears.
The laughter faded and Cora focused on the men retreating into the crowd, backs straight and chests puffed with victory. The outcome of the battle they won was never in question, yet the battlefield was still decimated. Benji’s cart was overturned, its contents spilled onto the cobbled pavement. Some were shattered into bits, others dented beyond repair. His flying machine lay in disarray, broken into the pieces from which it was assembled. The canvas wings were ripped and their frames bent into shapes that were no longer recognizable.
Worse still was Benji. Blood and spit speckled the stones around him. His body lay on the ground twisted in on itself. His hands still clutched his head in a futile attempt to defend himself from the blows.
“Oh Benji,” Cora sobbed, falling to her knees beside him. She gingerly helped him sit up, leaning the boy against his splintered cart. He was smaller than she’d ever realized.
Cora tore her petticoat into strips and tied the makeshift bandages around Benji’s head and hands. One of his eyes was swollen almost completely shut, violent patches of purple already bursting around it. Blood was smeared across his chin from the split in his lip and it trickled down near his ear from a gash on his forehead.
“I’ll talk to Mae,” Cora began. “I’m sure she’ll let you stay at the brothel for a while until you’re healed.” Cora didn’t know if her words were meant to reassure Benji or herself. “I can feed you out of the money I earn until you’re well enough to sell. You’ll have to buy new wares- I can help with that too.”
Her rambling was halted by a labor-roughened hand grabbing hold of her petite, and violently shaking one.
“It’s alright,” Benji spoke, but they both knew he didn’t mean it. “I’ll be fine, don’t bother.” Cora looked into his eyes, searching them for something unknown. For the first time, it didn’t look like Benji was seeing another world in his mind. Rather he was staring at what was around him and finally seeing it for what it was: dirty buildings, smoke-clogged sky, his livelihood ruined, and people who saw him and only walked faster.
Cora had never fully appreciated what a deep blue his eyes were. They looked like the exotic suit of a rich man who came to the brothel once. He had bragged that it was made from silk dyed with real lapis.
Benji picked up a few pieces of his flying machine and held them in his lap. His face wrinkled with utter despair, as if it was trying to collapse in on itself. Cora was certain he would cry.
But he didn’t. He just stared at the pieces, empty and broken, and somehow that was worse.
“You can rebuild it, right?” She was hesitant at first, carefully trying to draw him out of himself. “You’ll just have to find the right pieces?”
“Yeah, I have the diagram.” He sounded distracted, mumbling his words. Benji fumbled in his pocket for a folded piece of paper and dropped it in Cora’s lap. It was a drawing of the flying machine, neatly labeled with materials and instructions. She could see faint lines that had been erased as Benji redesigned it over and over.
The diagram made her smile, but the smile didn’t get very big. That single piece of paper held the last remnant of Benji’s creativity, the final pinch of his hopes and dreams. The rest had been ground to dust.
Cora knew he would find them again, once he healed. Though it was the first time she was witnessing him without them.
Cora gently refolded the paper and handed it to him. “You said this is the future,” she ventured. “It still can be.”
“It still is,” Benji corrected. “Help me stand up. Please?” Cora swore his gaze filled with bitterness as he looked down at his broken invention. “This is exactly what the future is.”
She did not believe him when he said he would be fine on his own, but the sun was beginning to sink below the tops of the buildings around them and Cora needed to be back before dark. He would not go with her and she could not stay with him.
“I’ll visit you tomorrow and bring actual bandages,” she promised.
To which, in response she only got a mumbled “Sure.”
Cora’s night passed by in a fog. She returned to the brothel and got herself ready for whatever the night would bring, but neither the idle chatter of the other girls or words of prospective customers managed to procure her full attention. The morning was similar. She searched for Benji in all of his usual spots but couldn’t find him. Other marketplace regulars reported they hadn’t seen him after yesterday’s incident. Knots of worry coiled tightly in her stomach and Cora returned to the brothel early.
He’s just holed up somewhere letting his wounds heal, she promised herself, trying to untangle her concern.
Hoping it would take her mind off her memories of the attack, Cora volunteered to take a shift on one of the front balconies to draw attention to the business. She surprised Madam Mae with this offer.
Cora joined another girl in draping themselves over the railing enticingly, occasionally calling out to passerby.
“I wonder what those pretty boys in uniform have over there.” Her companion, Lena, pointed to a group of city watch officers emerging from a nearby alley. Cora shrugged, annoying the other girl with her lackluster response.
“Oh boys,” Lena called out sweetly, batting her eyelashes and leaning low on the railing. “Mind satisfying a poor girl’s curiosity? I’m very eager to know what business brings you around here.”
“It’s no eager matter, miss,” one of the officers stopped to answer her. “We got a report of some boy strung up in an abandoned shop.”
Cora’s interest was piqued, a horrified sort of curiosity. Suicides were not uncommon in Gedrall, especially in the poorest parts of the city. One officer knelt in front of the body, obscuring it from her view. She doubted she would recognize it anyway. The man straightened and motioned the one who had spoken over to him.
“Poor soul,” Lena murmured from beside Cora. “Guess another one lost hope.”
A screech of wheels grinding on metal signaled the passing of a streetcar above them. It brought with it a gust of air, a welcome interruption of the stifling city heat. A piece of paper escaped from the officer’s hand, fluttering in the artificial breeze.
“Wonder what that is,” Cora leaned over the railing, reaching out her arm, trying to catch the paper. Her muscles strained tightly and she felt her body slipping dangerously over the railing’s edge. Her efforts were rewarded when her fist closed around the crinkled paper.
She uncrumpled it carefully- it was ripped in a few spots - and Cora saw that the paper contained a diagram. Her heart froze in her chest and collapsed against her ribs.
On the paper was a neatly drawn diagram of a personal flying machine. A leather harness attached to thin wings of metal and canvas. She’d seen the exact design only a day before.
“Didn’t you know him?” Cora barely heard the other girl’s words. “I’m certain I’ve seen him around here a few times,” Lena mused.
Blood pounded in Cora’s ears. Not even yesterday’s attack or her first night in the brothel had made her this cold with terror.
A mop of tousled blond hair fell over the corpse’s face. Deep blue lapis eyes were glazed with the film of death. A scab on his lip and purple bruises around his eye.
There was a new mark too. A thick, angry red-purple line circling his neck. Against the pale skin, it looked like blood on snow.
“Oh honey, I’m sorry.” Lena’s words of consolation only made Cora angry.
“He said this was the future,” she stared at the paper in her hands. “He promised we would fly out of here. What’s the use of dreams when all they do is die?”
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