Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 9: Blissful Chaos

You’re expected to always do the right thing. Even under the knowledge that you are despicable and selfish, you are expected to always do the right thing. Because it is common sense, because people like to preach even that which they do not believe in if only for the illusion of some bent morals; because though the road may be rugged, as long as you put on the right boots, you should be able to keep going. And you’re always expected to keep going. You’re expected to always do the right thing.

And yet, who’s to say where the line is drawn? What is the right thing? Where does selfishness begin and where does morality end? When you feel like an acrobat walking on a thin rope, there is no way to tell when you’ll lose balance or which way you’ll fall. When your head and your heart are in civil war, who’s to say which one will win? Who’s to say who’s right? Well, you’re supposed to know. Because you’re supposed to always do the right thing.

Ember was standing in the middle of the market, wearing her hood up and her head down. People passed. Her heart was heavy with regret. Regret for not having kissed Kaleb last night, even though he’d been a perfect gentleman about it; regret for having let him in her life in the first place. None of those regrets crawling on the inside of her walls could find a common ground. Half of her heart wanted Kaleb. The other half knew she shouldn’t have.

She walked without looking up, not feeling quite in the mood for facing the hostility of the village today. She wanted to get some food and go home to sulk in peace. The weather had been quite capricious for the past few days and she knew from past experience that not many people travelled during such days. So instead of roaming the trade routes in the hopes of finding some potential victims, Ember’s hands were tied and she was stuck at home, praying to the Gods that they’d make it to the end of the week with the little food they had.

Needless to say, the sitting around did not help her constant thinking about Kaleb. These poisoned thoughts that choked her, that knocked the air out of her lungs, that stole her sleep and that had her heart torn in two places. But she had to put these thoughts away for now. She’d figure it out. She always did.

Ember walked around the market. Walked among a sea of backs turned on her. It had been long since this had last bothered her. It didn’t bother her now, either. But it triggered something in her that had been dormant up until this very moment. Turned backs were her curse that she would never be able to outrun. Yet another reason to add to the list why she had to push Kaleb away before this attraction between them would amplify and get out of control. But the longer this list grew, the greater the urge Ember felt to run to the jewelry and finish what they’d started last night and she had lacked the courage to finish. But a life of turned backs was not what she wished for him.

She approached one of the stands that sold apples. Apples were Charles’ personal favorites and she never forgot to pick a few up for him. The little she could do for them, Ember would struggle to do. She reached for one apple and noticed the lady that was selling them glaring at her. Of course, she was used to this. It seemed a little more ostentatious, a little more intense than usual, but Ember tried not to mind.

But then something happened that had never happened before.

“The nerve you must have, to show your face among us.”

Ember’s hand stopped mid-way before touching the apple. Her eyes widened. The voice belonged to the old lady standing before her. She must have been in her mid-60s, a woman Ember had bought apples from for years now, a woman who seemed calm and good-willed, with kind eyes and a resting smiling face. To hear the words come out of her mouth, Ember froze.

“E-Excuse me?” she couldn’t help but blabber.

“Don’t play dumb, thief,” the old woman spat at her. “We all know the likes of you. It is outrageous that you should walk among us as if you belong here. You’re nothing but a mugger.”

Ember started breathing heavily, tears stinging in the corners of her eyes.

Don’t cry, she scolded herself. Don’t be weak. Do not mind them. You know better than to listen to this. Turn around and leave them be.

“I’m, I’m,” she mumbled, taking a few steps back, chastising herself for bothering to offer explanations. “I’ll go. I’m—“

She took a few steps back, hating the way her body betrayed her as she was shaking and panting. The old woman mercilessly kept her eyes on her, burning holes through her skull. Ember wanted the earth to crack open and swallow her whole, but since that was not possible, she would have been content with just being out of there as fast as possible.

We must always do the right thing.

And if we don’t….

…when we don’t…

…hell breaks loose on the grounds of a poorly-played morality.

As she was about to turn on her heels and flee, Ember noticed that a few by-passers had stopped to watch the show with the same expression on their faces as the old lady who was selling apples.

Oh, yes. Ember recognized an uprising when she saw one. They were about to eat her alive.

“I’m…. I—“ she tried, but deep down, she knew there was nothing she could’ve said that would grant her free-passing now. This was an open trial.

“Have you no shame?” another woman from the crowd shouted. “You’re a disgrace. You have dishonored this village. How dare you show your face among us?”

Ember looked around in desperation. But there was no hope. There was no one here to save her.

“Thief!”

“Disgrace!”

“Outlaw!”

“Whore!”

“To go after Kaleb Lahey, of all people!”

“To corrupt such a young heart!”

“No, I’m not—“ Ember tried to defend herself, but it seemed as if just the sight of her managed to enrage the crowd even more with every breath she took.

“Murderer!”

“Shamelessly killing people for money!”

“N-no,” Ember shouted, though her voice was covered by the villagers’ hoots. She raised her voice. “No, you’re wrong! I’m not a killer!”

“Why should we believe anything you say?”

The whole crowd went silent and made room for a man to pass. He had broad shoulders, a deep frown on his face that looked like it never went away, grey hair and his lips were pursed in a scowl. But what caught Ember’s attention were his eyes, his emerald green eyes that she’d seen before. Ember swallowed hard. This was William Lahey. Kaleb’s father.

“You’re nothing but a liar,” William Lahey continued, pointing his finger at her. “You’re nothing but a deceiver. Calling you a thief and a disgrace cannot begin to describe the shame you have brought upon this village. These lands are feared because of the threat of the Crimson Dagger. A terrifying burglar. If only, if only they knew that the burglar they are so afraid of is nothing but a scared girl trembling in front of us. A child!”

Ember was silent. She wanted so badly to force the trembling to stop, to force the tears to stay put and not to roll down her cheeks, to stop her voice from shaking. She wanted to fight back. But to what end? What was the purpose? She could not win them over. But she could not go against them, either. There was no winning.

“Are we truly doomed to live like this?” William Lahey raised his voice, and the whole crowd listened to him enraptured as he stared Ember down with disgust. “Are we doomed to live in hunger and misery because some self-assured little girl has dragged the name of Thebbington Abbey through mud? Who do you think you are? This ends today, thief.”

In his heated speech, he crouched and picked up a rock. Ember saw it all happening in slow motion. She could not react, she did not have the time. She saw William Lahey’s arm extend and throw the rock, and before she could comprehend what was going on and duck, the rock hit her straight in the head. The pain blinded her for a second and she yelped in pain, feeling her knees weaken and the ground disappear from beneath her feet. In her dizziness, she waited for the impact with the ground, she waited for her cheek to land in dirt, she waited for blackness to come. She closed her eyes. But the impact never happened. She waited for a couple of seconds more, and then she dared to open her eyes.

~SOUNDTRACK: The Strange Familiar – Shelter~

She gasped. She had not landed on the ground because instead, she had fallen into two solid arms that pulled her to a toned chest. She instantly recognized the smell.

“What is the meaning of this?”

And then she recognized the velvet voice.

“Kaleb,” Ember heard William Lahey exclaim, and concern for Kaleb flooded through her when she heard the danger in his voice. She felt Kaleb’s body tense against hers before his father spoke again. “Step away from the thief.”

Kaleb moved the hair away from her face and inspected the wound on her forehead, from which blood was already starting to come out of. He slowly pulled her to her feet and supported her weight with his arm. His grip on her shoulder was tight and she could tell by his fast breathing that he was enraged.

“The thief,” he spat out at his father. “This is the only word that’s resting on all of your lips. Thief. Killer. Mugger. But in all truthness, no one knows who she is. Her name is Ember Blackthorn. And she has suffered enough. I will not let you condemn a hungry girl and four helpless children for the sake of your tormented consciences.”

Ember cracked her eyelids opened and tried to fight the nausea. She saw William Lahey step forward and she noticed that Kaleb’s first instinct was to take a step back, out of his father’s rage aura, but he stood his ground nonetheless.

“I’d watch my words if I were you, boy,” he spat at his son. “There are no sides to take here. There is her and us. She does not belong here.”

“She is a human being,” Kaleb took a step forward, with Ember on his arm, and she tensed in anticipation when she saw the rage flaring in his father’s eyes. Kaleb then turned toward the crowd. “Regardless of what she’s done. And those of you who refuse to see her that way are less human beings than you make her to be.”

He put one arm around Ember’s shoulders and his other arm behind her knees and pulled her up. She let out a small gasp, and she turned on his heels ready to leave.

“Kaleb,” his father roared behind him. “Put the girl down and go home, or else—“

“Or else what, father?” Kaleb spoke calmly over his shoulder. “You will show the whole village just how ruthless William Lahey can get? I believe you value your reputation too much. Don’t wait for me tonight, father.”

Without waiting for the aftermath of his words, Kaleb carried Ember away from the market, away from whispers that were anything but whispered, away from glared and away from pointed fingers. He carried her down the dirty road, making his way to her house.

“Kaleb—“ she whispered at some point, clutching the fabric of his tunic.

“Don’t speak,” he told her softly. “You hit your head quite hard. I will take care of that.”

Ember detected guilt and sadness in his voice and she wondered if he was feeling guilty for his father’s actions and for the fact that it had been him who had thrown that first rock. But she was feeling sleepy, so very sleepy, that the thoughts drifted away from her quick and her eyelids became heavy.

“Ember,” Kaleb shook her slightly. “Wake up. Don’t fall asleep. I need you to stay awake. Can you do that for me?”

She nodded and fought hard to anchor herself to his voice, to his eyes. She raised a hand and cupped his cheek slightly, and would’ve perhaps felt smug for the blushing that flooded his cheeks, hadn’t she been so dizzy.

A few minutes later, Ember saw Kaleb push open a door and she figured they’d arrived to her house.

“Hello, Charles,” she heard Kaleb say, and panic surged through her when she thought about her siblings seeing her this way. “Ember is feeling a little tired and I’m here to put her to sleep. Would you mind taking your sisters out to play while she takes a nap?”

Ember didn’t hear her brother’s reply, but she heard small footsteps being carried towards the door and out the house, and then Kaleb put her down on a chair. He moved the hair away from her face and inspected the gash on her forehead. Ember opened her eyes and when she was met with such clear green that his eyes held, she noticed that the world wasn’t spinning around her anymore.

~SOUNDTRACK: Amber Run – I found~

“It’s not that bad,” she managed to mumble. She still felt nauseous, but now that she wasn’t carried around anymore and was sitting still, she was slowly coming to her senses. Enough to notice that Kaleb looked more intense and concerned than she’d ever seen him.

Kaleb didn’t reply and he stood up from the way he was crouching in front of her. He moved to get a cloth and a wash bowl that he filled with water. He crouched again and traced his fingertips on her forehead so gently it hurt and her skin pricked. He inspected her wound carefully, then soaked the cloth in water and brought it up to her forehead, cleaning the dry blood.

Ember hissed in pain when the fabric touched the wound and shut her eyes tight. When she finally opened them, she saw Kaleb studying her with a pained expression of his own.

“Kaleb,” she whispered tiredly, making an effort to keep her eyes open. She was so sleepy. Kaleb didn’t reply and kept on with his careful work cleaning up her wound. “Kaleb,” Ember whispered again, a little louder.

When he stayed silent, Ember raised her hand and stopped him mid-movement.

“Kaleb,” she spoke as fierce as she could. “Whatever it is you’re blaming yourself for, don’t.”

He pursed his lips and took her hand in his own, without seeming to even realize he’d done so.

“My father did this to you,” he spoke through gritted teeth, and Ember knew she’d been right to assume it was blame that was eating him up.

“Yes. Your father did. You are not to be held responsible for your father’s actions. I do not blame you for this, or anyone for that matter. I have brought this upon myself.”

Her words triggered something in him because the blame and the smoke clouds were gone and were replaced with such passion and intensity that Ember had to move back when he cupped her cheek and leaned closer. As if she weren’t dizzy enough. She stopped breathing whatsoever.

“Don’t ever think there was anything you did that could have justified what just happened. Don’t believe for a second that your actions have been worth being beaten up for. My father is a monster, I can tell you so. I know so. I’ve been on the receiving side of his rage. I am just sorry I was not there sooner to protect you from it.”

Ember let out a breath, sighed and closed her eyes, leaning into his touch.

“There is nothing you could have done, Kaleb,” she spoke in his palm, and he rested his forehead on hers. “I admire your trust in me and I cherish the benefit of the doubt. But your father may be seeing things clearer than you do. I am all of those things that they called me.”

She drew in a sharp breath.

“There is one thing they were wrong about, though. I never meant to corrupt your soul, Kaleb. What they called me back there…” She trailed off, the word dying on her lips. They both knew that they’d called her. Whore. “I am not that. The way I feel about you is entirely genuine. I never meant to… I—“

And then Kaleb did what he should’ve done last night. He waited for no more signs, for no more signals, he seized the opportunity and took it. Because things were fragile like this, and he could not afford losing any more breaths, losing any more sleep, losing his mind altogether, he could not afford waiting until the end of that sentence. So he closed the gap between them and pressed their lips together in a swift movement. Ember gasped in surprise against his lips and for the briefest of seconds, Kaleb was afraid she would reject him or push him away not for the lack of some feelings he knew she shared, but for the fear of proving those villagers right. But after the initial shock, Ember let out a small sigh and kissed him back just as fervently and Kaleb’s body exploded into a million sensations concentrated on the lips she was kissing, on the back of his neck where her hands were resting, in his chest where her body was pressed against him. And they kissed until they were out of breath, until they forgot their names and they forgot about whatever it was that wanted to break them apart. For in that instant, lips to lips, forehead to forehead, body to body and heart to heart, two souls and every star from two tiny universes that those souls held managed to align and in that moment, they resonated in an unbreakable harmony. When you’re forged from the same fire, the flames learn to dance together.

When they broke the kiss, they remained forehead to forehead, breathing heavily and with lips swollen. Kaleb was smiling and Ember was shaking, but they were both caught in a vortex of blissful chaos. And neither of them regretted it, allowing themselves to be carried away by whatever tides there were.

“For today, you do not stand alone, Ember,” Kaleb broke the silence eventually. “I may not know much, but I know what I see when I glance at your soul. I can see you clearly. And I will rise against whoever dares to rise against you. I will stand by you.”

Ember blinked rapidly, trying to hold back tears. All she could manage to do was nod before Kaleb pressed another kiss to her forehead and resumed cleaning up her wound.

And perhaps Ember should have rejected him, perhaps she should have made the wise choice and push him away. But she had never been particularly wise.

You’re expected to always do the right thing. But when the right thing that’s commonly accepted is not the thing you want, you learn that the rules are bendable. And you’re expected to sometimes do the thing that’s right for you.

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