Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 10: The Fire and the Flood

The sun glimpsed once again above the horizon. Should he have had the privilege of a human body, he would’ve probably rolled his eyes.

The two dragons were there, and their dance was one magnificent choreography that would’ve put ball rooms to shame. There was grace in their movement, there was terror, there was amplitude and grandeur. They were beasts, but there was humanity, a small spark of humanity in the way they circled around each other in the morning sky.

The flames they spit rose high and they flew high along with them just to let themselves fall back with it, the flaps of their wings in tune with the song of nature awakening at dawn. When light creaked and the sky turned from dark blue and violet to crimson, the two dragons took their places on the two peaks of mountains they sat on every other morning. As two pairs of golden eyes stared into each other, the sun witnessed their union. Two beasts, two mates, two humans behind the beastly eyes. Two pairs of wings flapping in the distance.

Two people, a boy and a girl, awakening naked in different spots of the woods around Thebbington Abbey.

Two eyes watching them from afar, waiting to make a move.

Kaleb had sat with Ember until she had fallen asleep last night, his hand never leaving hers. She’d been dizzy from both the hit she’d taken in the head and the kiss that followed, but still she remembered it to the most insignificant detail. She could still feel his taste on her lips, could still feel the shape of his fingers on her waist, could still see the way the black of his pupil could almost reach the margin of his green irises. It was the little things that stuck with her.

But at some point, she’d fallen asleep and he’d slipped out, probably heading back home. Ember preferred not to think about how he’d face his father’s rage. All because of her. She put those thoughts behind her.

This morning, however, she’d emerged once again naked in the woods, with no memory of last night. She’d gotten so used to it, she never really thought about it anymore. It was something beyond her control and she had learned to accept it just so. However, something felt different. It didn’t feel like a burden anymore. It happened more often than before and every time, instead of waking up exhausted and confused, she found herself rather freshened, a new energy flowing through her veins and a new rush making her head spin. She welcomed it. It was one less thing to worry about.

She sneaked through the dirty roads of Thebbington Abbey, more careful than ever not to run into any more villagers. Kaleb had promised to pay a visit early in the morning to check up on her, but right now, Ember prayed that he didn’t. How would she have explained to him how it could be that, just last night she’d been bed ridden with the world’s worst headache, unable to sit straight, and now there was not even a bruise to be seen and she was awake and walking?

When she arrived in front of her small hut, she took a deep breath and walked inside, her mind going over one hundred potential explanations. And none good enough.

“Ember,” the twins chanted together, rushing to her side to hug her. She laughed and kissed the tops of their heads.

She looked around, but there was no sign of Kaleb. Ember released a breath. She had been lucky today.

Bandit was sneaking around her legs, seeking some attention, but Ember pushed him away.

“Go away, you spoiled bastard,” she muttered, but Charles heard her and widened his eyes at her. “I’m sorry, Charles, but you know the situation. Bandit and I are sworn enemies. Now off you go, all of you. Take the little beast outside and play. It’s a lovely day and it would be a shame to stay inside, wouldn’t it?”

With one last glare from her little brother and another one from the ungrateful animal, the little Blackthorns went out the door. Ember sighed and lowered herself in a chair, her mind flying instantly to Kaleb. It seemed as if he was all she could think about lately. Gods, it was beyond embarrassing. And she was certain that, had she been able to remember a single thing from last night, it would’ve been nothing but a sleepless, restless night thanks to that kiss they’d shared.

A knock on the door made her jump from her chair. Lord, had she always been this skittish?

A faint blush colored his cheeks when she realized that there was only one person in the whole village who could’ve knocked on her door. Her feet unsteady, she moved to open the door with breathlessness that left her dizzy.

And there, in the doorway, stood Kaleb, gorgeous as ever. None of them spoke for a minute, simply taking in each other’s presence and panting. Ember doubted she’d ever get used to the sight of him, slim and elegant, to his skinny arms, but toned from the work in the jewelry in which she’d found safe haven last night; those arms that had held her with such reassurance, with such certainty and fierceness. His posture betrayed anxiety and tension right now, but it never lacked the grace and the way his shoulders aligned so perfectly with his elbows and hips in one perfect painting. His hair was the usual mess, strands of it flying in every direction, and Ember’s fingers itched to be run through those strands. And at last, Ember’s eyes stopped on his face.

Lord, his features were beyond human. He looked like a sculpture. With a pointed nose and a square jaw, with a deep gaze, with those emerald eyes whose spell she fell under each and every time. And Lord, those lips. Those damn lips. She willed herself to stop staring at his lips, because if she wanted to be able to carry a conversation with him, she needed to not jump on him and kiss him senseless, as every fiber in her body dictated at the moment.

Kaleb was the first to break the silence.

“Good morning, Ember,” he spoke shakily, then cleared his voice. “I would’ve come sooner, but I got delayed.”

Ember thanked Heaven for that. She didn’t think she would’ve been able to explain being gone not long past the crack of dawn.

“I can see you’re feeling better already. I’m glad,” he commented.

“Yes, I do. Thank you. I hope you didn’t get into too much trouble with your father because of me,” Ember averted her gaze, remembering yesterday’s events. “I would hate to cause you harm.”

At her words, Kaleb rushed in and closed the door behind him. And before Ember could acknowledge what was happening, his hands were on her shoulders, his forehead against hers.

“How could you believe that?” he whispered, and she felt his warm breath on her lips. “Ember, my father’s rage holds no meaning to me right now. I would rather face worse things than that before seeing you cornered like that ever again. I cannot begin to explain the lengths I would go to if only to protect to.”

Ember felt her eyes stinging with tears, so she blinked them away and chuckled.

“I’m still the one with the knife, little Lahey,” she teased, but then she grew serious. “But I cannot let you take such risks. Protecting me comes as no easy job. You stand against a whole village.”

“I’d stand against a whole world.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he closed the small gap between them and brushed his lips softly as a whisper against hers. If the kiss from last night had been like water thrown against burning flames, like a bite of bread when the hunger’s greatest, meant to only put an end to the starvation they’d felt towards each other, this kiss was a promise. It was the seal on a first chapter in a story that was just beginning and that Kaleb was vowing to write thoroughly, scrupulously until the very end. And when he pulled back, Ember found that she was okay with being the lead character in his book. No more holding back. Instead of complaining and feeling like she wasn’t good enough for him, she, too, vowed to struggle to be good enough.

They moved away from each other shyly, hands constantly finding new ways to touch each other like they were magnetically drawn to each other.

“I might have strayed from the reason why I came here,” he confessed sheepishly. “In all truthness, I hadn’t expected to find you at home.”

Ember preferred not to think about how close he’d been to that.

“Why so?” she questioned.

“It’s the Harvest Festival a few villages away, in Portham. The roads will be crowded with carriages, with pretentious nobles heading towards the Festival. In fact, I came here to tell you about a few routes that can be… umm, suitable for your business.”

Ember felt her eyes widening, not quite grasping what he was implying. Because he couldn’t have risked coming to her, precisely in the morning following this village’s greatest scandal, just to offer to help her plan robberies. Could he?

“I know that you know what you’re doing,” Kaleb hurried to add. “I don’t mean to interfere with that. And I beg your pardon if this seemed too daring or—“

“Kaleb,” she put a finger on his lips, and she was smug when she realized he was starting to blush. “You’re doing that thing again, with the apologizing. Don’t.”

She removed her hand from his lips and took his instead. A small smile blossomed on his lips.

“As to that other thing,” she began, feeling beyond embarrassed to be talking about this with him. “While I highly appreciate the intent, it won’t be necessary. I’ve decided to lay low for a while. A long while, hopefully.”

Kaleb simply blinked at her, confused. When she didn’t clarify what she meant, he tilted his head to one side.

“Why?” he inquired. “I thought you were making a living out of this.”

“I am,” she replied simply.

“Then why? I don’t understand. How will you take care of the children without a means to procure what you need?”

Ember sighed. “I’ll figure something out. I’ll find a solution, a decent and dignifying one for a change; one that won’t turn the whole village on me, even if it is to be temporary, until they’ll no longer be so enraged.”

Kaleb bit his lip, studying her through his lashes. The more the weeks passed by, the less he understood about this woman.

“I still don’t understand what brought this change,” he muttered. “Surely it can’t have been because of a few angry peasants. You are far more clever than that.”

Ember shrugged with one shoulder, ignoring the implications of his remark.

“Perhaps I want to be worthy of the faith you have in me.”

And just like that, for Kaleb, time stood still for half a second, for half a heartbeat, for half a shaky breath. Ember waited for him to react. Eventually, he let out that breath and laughed nervously.

“Nonsense,” he brushed her off. “Ember, what I feel for you is unshakeable, regardless of what you do or who you are.”

She cupped his cheek and saw him leaning into her touch. She traced the lines of his jaw and let her fingertips memorize his features.

“I know,” she whispered. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I want to be someone who deserves you.”

Kaleb turned his head slightly and kissed her palm. Then he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers one more time, afterwards resting her forehead against hers.

“Very well,” he responded.

Ember beamed at him. The waters before them were treacherous. But they’d sail them together, hand in hand, they’d face whatever was thrown at them. Because when you find the other half of your heart and you feel complete for the first time in your life, you learn that the world itself is cut into half and that people are simply meant to find the one who can make it whole again.

Ember and Kaleb spent the whole day together, wrapped in each other. Towards the evening, however, Ember decided it was dark and late enough and safe to assume that no one would rise in her path to give her a hard time. Bearing that in mind, she asked Kaleb to watch her siblings for a while, until she paid a visit to Clarissa to let her know the business was going to go south for a while, if not permanently. She and Clare were friends and they relied on each other, so Ember at least owed her a heads up.

As she made her way to Clarissa, she noticed that it was later than she’d anticipated. Darkness was already creeping in, embracing the houses of Thebbington Abbey, and shadows danced in the moonlight.

She’d never been particularly afraid of the darkness. On the contrary, she’d found solace when she could be least seen and she felt safer wrapped in shadows than in the daylight, in plain sight. But something was different tonight. She felt the air around her thicker, a little more charged, and she could not shake off the feeling that she was being watched.

With a sigh, she brushed it all off. Yesterday’s events had made her paranoid; that must have been it.

In the distance, a wolf howled, birds fled and the bushes rustled with impending threat.

He’d been planning this for months, and tonight was the night.

It was just him and Billy; he hadn’t wanted to draw too much attention to himself. Two pirates walking freely around the village were slightly frowned upon.

He couldn’t tell for sure for how long he’d waited there, crouched in the bushes. He’d scanned crowds with his eyes, waiting on guard for the girl to come in sight. But it was late enough when he heard her footsteps.

He smiled a feral smile. This was his moment.

“Is that her, captain?” Billy whispered by his side.

“Aye,” he responded.

“But she’s just a girl,” Billy retorted. “And a pretty one at that. Are you sure that’s the beast? She doesn’t look like one, sir.”

The captain clicked his tongue. Aye, she was pretty. And she looked nothing like a beast. But he knew better, for he’d seen it with his own eyes. He was on the verge of becoming a very rich man.

“Aye, sailor,” he told Billy. “Don’t let her fool you. Be prepared.”

He waited, his heels well dug into the ground, his muscles tense in anticipation. He saw the girl pause for a moment, looking around as if sensing the danger around her. Perhaps she had. After all, beneath the creamy skin and the black curls was a creature with claws and scales, a creature that breathed fire.

She must have decided there was nothing to worry about, because she turned around reluctantly and was about to leave.

A wolf howled in the distance. Birds fled. The pirate jumped from the bushes.

The girl didn’t see it coming. Swiftly, in a second, he had the knife against her throat and a hand clamped over her mouth. The girl yelped in surprise.

“Shhh, easy there, fire breather,” he whispered in here.

But it was clear that the little dragon was not about to go down easy, because she was struggling to break free. The pirate did nothing but tighten his grip on her.

“Listen closely, love,” he spoke fiercely. “You’re coming with me, whether you like it or not. So I’d sit still if I were you, unless you want to get hurt. Aye?”

The girl was breathing heavily, but she was no longer struggling. The captain figured he could at least remove the hand from her mouth. Big mistake.

“Like hell I will,” the girl hissed and used his hesitation to her benefit, elbowing him in the gut. She took him completely by surprise and, as soon as she gained advantage, she snatched the knife from his hand and moved a few feet away.

“Bloody hell,” he cursed.

In front of him, the girl stood threateningly, the knife clutched tight in her small hand, her lips pursed. He had to give her this much, she had quite the skill for a girl her age. Not enough to fight off a pirate, of course, but quite some.

“Who the hell are you?” she raged.

The pirate chuckled. Seeing her there, in front of him, looking like a kitten, but fierce as a tiger, his shoulders shook with laughter so violently, the girl might have actually had a chance with that knife against him.

“Oh, little fire breather,” he shook his head at her. “For tonight, I’ll be your personal nightmare.”

Ember frowned at him and was about to shoot forward and give this big mouthed bastard something to joke about. He had no idea who he was messing with. She wasn’t called the Crimson Dagger for nothing.

But before she could lounge for the pirate, another solid man came behind her and threw a sack over her head. Ember struggled, but the pirate was faster. He threw her over his shoulder in one swift movement and acted as if her fists in his back were barely mosquito bites.

“Good job, Billy,” he praised his sailor. “Now let’s get to the ship. Our crew can’t wait to meet the little fire breather.”

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