Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 1: Living on a Prayer

Ember Blackthorn was a thief. And a good one, at that. And she was not ashamed of it. Her mother had told her and her siblings that one must do whatever must be done in order to protect those one holds dear. In order to pull through. And then her mother and father had been killed –or so Ember had been told— and she found herself alone, with two brothers and two sisters to feed and care for. So she was doing what was required in order to protect those she held dear.

And she regretted nothing. She was an outlaw, but she found there was nobility in that. While her methods were frowned upon, she had learned her purpose obliterated the means she used to get there. And yes, the villagers knew what she did for a living and strongly disapproved of it, but she scared them. They were scared of her, and she was delighted by it. She knew no one would dare to second guess her ways, so she might have been an outcast, but she could not care less. No one bothered her, and the fragile concept she called home still stood tall before her, providing the safety of a place to return to, of a place where you’re thought about and where your return is much awaited.

Ember fastened her red cloak around her body and pulled the hood up, after having kissed her siblings goodbye, and she headed towards Clarissa’s shop.

Clarissa’s presence in Thebbington Abbey was just as controversial as Ember’s, but Clarissa was the person no one liked or approved of, yet everyone needed. Perhaps, should they know Clarissa worked with Ember, her popularity would’ve dropped alarmingly. But the two of them helped each other. There was some sort of weird friendship blossoming between them, some sort of wordless understanding that bonded them in ways neither of them could particularly name. Yet they welcomed it. Ember would provide Clarissa’s shop with all kinds of things she stole from rich people that the poor villagers in Thebbington Abbey were happy to buy at a reasonable price. And in return, Clarissa paid good money and made some very convenient offers for what Ember bought.

Ember walked inside the shop, her hood pulled over her face, although this was highly unnecessary, since her red cloak was pretty much her signature. Every time that red cloak came in sight, whispers started and people turned their backs.

Clarissa was not one those people.

“Morning, Clare,” Ember greeted as she walked through the door.

They didn’t usually manifest their friendship in public, since Ember didn’t want the way villagers felt about her to affect Clarissa’s business. But the shop was empty now, so there was no need for pretenses.

“Hello, Ember,” Clarissa smiled widely at the sight of her friend. “Got anything interesting for me today?”

Ember wrinkled her nose and pulled down her hoodie, revealing her charcoal black curls. It struck Clarissa like a thunder bolt every time she realized that her friend was a real beauty. And she wasn’t even aware of it. You’d expect a thief to be all rusty and muddy and rough around the edges, yet Ember was anything but that. Her hair held a smoothness and silkiness that Clare envied, her green eyes gleamed with a conceited joy she didn’t know she could allow herself, her skilled hands that could easily maneuver knives and bows and arrows and swords as well as they could pet a wounded bird were delicate and gentle. Maybe in another life, Clarissa thought, Ember could’ve been noble. Could’ve been a lady. But in this one, she was stuck being a thief.

“I’m afraid not much,” Ember answered the question from earlier. “Word has gotten out that there’s a thief in these lands and there haven’t been that many carriages passing through. And you know I can’t target locals. One wrong step is all they wait for to slay me.”

She placed the few objects she’s managed to steal over the past week on the table. It really wasn’t much. Some cheap jewelry, one half empty bottle of perfume and some more useless little nothings, the only valuable belongings in there being a couple of silk scarfs she’d managed to take from some snob ladies.

Ember saw Clarissa’s shoulders drop and she knew her friend well enough to know what it meant.

“Ember—“ Clare started. “You know I can’t get you very much for it.”

Ember tried to hide her disappointment, because she knew Clarissa really meant it. She actually felt guilty when Ember came to her with a deal and she wasn’t able to keep her end of it.

“I know,” Ember offered an encouraging smile. “Anything’s better than nothing. Food, preferably. Anything with sugar for the little ones. It’s been a long winter.”

Clarissa’s face brightened with a hopeful smile.

“That, I can manage,” she said, and disappeared around the corner, just to come back with a bag full of food. It really wasn’t much, considering there were four more mouths she needed to feed. Some sweets and bread and grain, but they’d have to do for the week. Ember smiled again at her friend.

“Thank you so much, Clare.”

Clarissa pursed her lips and tilted one shoulder. “No problem. Give the little ones a kiss for me, will you?”

Ember nodded and pulled her hood back up when a few people walked inside the shop. She could see they tensed when they caught sight of the red cloak, so she let herself out without as much as a goodbye to her friend.

She stopped for a second in an alley, thinking about what to do next. She couldn’t go out of the village to target new thefts because she was exhausted. And she couldn’t go straight home with a full day ahead of hers. She hated feeling as if she’d wasted opportunities to do anything at all to improve her situation. But then she remembered she still had some money on her, so it was as good a chance as any to go to the market and replenish their food resources for the week.

She usually loathed going to the market. It was the place where people had no reservations in what concerned pointing fingers and throwing stones. And Ember didn’t particularly feel like leaving a trail of whispers and judgmental glares behind her as she moved through the crowd. But she was willing to resort to even that if it would make her siblings happy. Hell, maybe she’d find some toys. Yes, toys seemed like a good way to improve their mood and give them a little shred of happiness.

Ember made her way to the village market, feeling in unusual good spirits. This was a rare mood for her. And she promised herself she was not going to let her reputation ruin it.

She raised her chin and looked straight ahead, allowing the cloak to act like a shield. Keeping herself in, blocking everything else out. And it actually worked.

She stopped abruptly when she caught sight with the corner of her eye of a flower girl surrounded by a dozen baskets full of colorful spring flowers, colorful and radiant and in such tune with the vibrations pulsating within her at the moment. She couldn’t quite name the feeling. It really wasn’t much, but the air around her felt suddenly thinner, more charged, and her skin prickled in irrational anticipation. But she forced herself to lose focus of such thoughts and her gaze lingered over the flowers just a moment more. She felt so overwhelmed by the need to just lay in an open field face turned upwards, towards the sky. Often were the times in which she dreamt of flying. Of soaring high until she became no more than a dot on the skyline and the ground became a far landscape.

“Excuse me, m’lady?”

Ember flinched as a voice behind her brought her out of her reverie. She turned abruptly on her heels and was met by the greenest pair of eyes she’d ever laid her own green eyes upon. She instinctively stumbled a step back at the sudden and unexpected proximity.

“Oh,” was all she could mutter, and the boy just kept staring at her, his emerald eyes wide, lips slightly parted.

He was a man of a rare beauty, Ember remarked. He stood his ground with a certain type of class that suggested humble nobility to his upbringing, and his clothes, while not in the least bit pretentious, they were neat and clean, not a wrinkle out of place. It was clear to the eye that there had been attempts to tame his dark hair, but strands of it still fell into his eyes. And Lord, those eyes. The way the morning sun glimmered made it possible for Ember to count dozens shades of green in those eyes.

Then his words registered. M’lady? Was he that oblivious? Did he not know who she was? Could he not see how little she resembled a lady?

“If I may,” he broke the silence eventually, saving Ember the mortification of standing before him, gaping like an idiot.

And then he made her jaw drop even lower when he leaned forward into a deep bow. Ember’s eyebrows shot up and only then did she notice he was holding a flower in his hand. An orchid. Which happened to be her favorite flower.

“You seemed very much enraptured by the beauty of these,” he squared his shoulders, his eyes shyly shielded by long, thick lashes. “Please, allow me to offer you this orchid.”

Ember eyed the flower dumbly, her gaze traveling from the stranger’s face to his hand and back, trying to wrap her head around it.

“I would be delighted if you accepted it,” he insisted when he saw that Ember had no intention of moving. “I saw you and could not help but feel as if this purple orchid would somehow be a perfect match for you.”

His words triggered something in Ember and she felt her lips curve into a teasing smile, arm extending and taking the flower from his hand, petals brushing softly against her skin.

“A perfect match for me,” she repeated his words. “Because that is not at all bizarre, in the most unsettling way. It is a daring assumption you’ve just made.”

The corners of the boy’s lips turned upwards into a smile of his own, sheepish and tentative, as if he was just trying it on his expression for the first time. He dropped his gaze and started fidgeting, but then he looked at Ember through his lashes and she was surprised to see he was keeping his composure well enough. He clearly had no idea who he was talking to. You’d think he’d catch the hint from the way people who passed by them stopped and whispered and glared.

“Pardon me for me boldness, m’lady,” he spoke, and Ember resisted the urge to roll her eyes again. There he went again with that lady thing. “But I have been raised in such manner as to always remark a woman’s beauty when stumbled upon. And I must say, yours could not be overlooked.”

Ember simply blinked, and she was fairly certain she’d stopped breathing. She wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Thanking him felt like too little, and, under the heaviness of his gaze on her, allowing her to filter through the event, she became somewhat self-conscious. Each and every last one of her possessions was stolen, belonged to someone else, had ended up in her hands through methods outside the ethics of this society. And she had stolen many flowers. She liked to think of them as a small luxury she’d grant herself from time to time in order to be reminded that there was beauty and pureness, too, out there, colors that still held the power to shed light over the deep gray.

But this wasn’t just about the flower and her soft spot for pretty things. As her wide eyes rested on the boy’s serene figure, she realized where her utter shock originated. She had never been offered anything. Given for free. As a gift. Everything she had, everything she’d wanted, she had had to get it herself. This purple orchid, however, felt like the first real thing she truly owned.

She cleared her voice before speaking, having occurred to her that she could neither stand there all day looking like a clay figure, nor could she take off without as much as an acknowledgement for this stranger’s kindness.

“This is,” she chuckled nervously. “This is most sweet of you.”

The boy must have sensed her distress, because he started fidgeting again before dropping into yet another bow and daring to take her hand tentatively. Ember gasped a little when he moved her hand gently to his lips and placed a soft kiss on her knuckles, tender as a whisper, light as a feather.

“My name is Kaleb Lahey, m’lady,” his spoke, his warm breath tickling Ember’s hand, before he stood straight, eyes never leaving hers. “Village’s jeweler. It is my utmost pleasure to meet you.”

Introductions. Well, this was safe territory. She could already foresee the surprise on his face, followed by inevitable judgment, when he’d learn who she was.

So she grinned mischievously and grabbed the sides of her cloak, dropping into a dramatic reverence.

“Ember,” she introduced herself simply. “Village’s thief.”

But she surprise and the shock never came. Nor did the judgment. Instead, a couple of creaks formed in the corners of his eyes, amusement dancing across his features.

“I know,” he replied, and every ounce of sass in Ember died away, and she found herself unable to do anything but blink at him.

“Oh, “ she whispered.

The boy, Kaleb, chuckled lightly and seemed to be on the verge of saying more, but eventually, he just sighed.

“I must be on my way, m’lady,” he said. “But I must say, I do hope we cross paths again.”

That having been said, he nodded once and offered a warm smile, before walking past her. And Ember could only stare at the purple orchid she was holding, feeling as if a new, unknown, bizarre room in her heart had just been found and unlocked.

“Yes,” she whispered to herself. “Indeed so.”

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