Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 2: Too Close to the Flame

Thebbington Abbey was a small and poor village, commercially insignificant, but it just so happened to be placed at a crossroads, in such manner that many of the main roads passed right through it. There was never shortage of passenger travelers or of carriages.

Much to Ember’s benefit.

She knew that the inhabitants of Thebbington Abbey were off limits due to several reasons. Firstly, they wouldn’t blink twice before having her hanged. This village was more or less her home and this odd compromise with her and the villagers mutually ignoring each other suited her just fine. Also, they were too damn poor. Stealing from them couldn’t have been really profitable. But luckily, she rarely lacked targets, given the commercial routes passing through and by Thebbington Abbey. It was enough to provide the well-being of her business.

Ember was crouching behind a massive tree, her signature red cloak contrasting deeply against the green of the forest. Not that it matter. Her targets never saw her coming anyway. She worked fast and efficiently and disappeared just the same. She clutched the knife tight in her hand. She’d never used it, as she was quite certain she wouldn’t have been able to bring herself to hurt people, but she’d learnt that people were more susceptible to cooperation when facing direct threat.

She heard the cackling of wheels down the path and her instincts kicked in. Her muscles tensed and her senses sharpened, heart beating fast at the anticipation of the rush. She climbed the tree nearest to the road fast as if she’d done that hundreds of times – which she probably had –, careful to keep herself out of sight.

She heard the carriage move even closer and towards the spot where she was placed. And as soon as it was strategically positioned just under the tree, Ember leapt.

Straight on the horse chained to the carriage.

The scared horse sat on its two back legs, making it hard for it to be kept under the control. But Ember had done this way too many times to afford wasting any time, so she unclasped the horse’s harnesses and whispered ‘easy, boy’ for a few times to it. As it always happened, the horse listened to her and bent to her will. Curious thing, Ember thought. She tended to do that to animals. It was as if they recognized her as some sort of alpha and bowed to her command. Not that she complained, considering how useful this has proved when robbing this sort of carriages.

She grabbed the harness, knife still tightly clutched in her hand, and she guided the horse to turn to the carriage. She quickly took in the scenery. Apart from the driver of the carriage, who looked utterly terrified, there were two noticeably high born ladies inside, who, on the contrary, seemed to be having trouble understanding what was happening.

It occurred to her that there might be no need for that knife of hers, since it was unlikely for any of the victims to fight back. But just then, the door to the carriage opened and from inside emerged a young man with a sword. Ember didn’t lose her head. She noted that his hand was trembling slightly around the hilt of his weapon, so while he might have had training of some sorts, he clearly didn’t have the proper training to face a situation like this.

Ember smiled wickedly. This was going to be an easy one.

“No one needs to get hurt, my lord,” she spoke, keeping her voice low enough to not attract unwanted attention from potential by-passers and to ensure an aura of threat.

The boy, however, seemed to misinterpret her words, assuming she was asking to be spared the edge of his sword, because his grip on the hilt tightened and he grounded his heels deeper in the soil. Ember felt the compelling need to roll her eyes and before she could rephrase, the boy lunged. The horse once again flinched and almost threw Ember off its back, but she held tight.

She had to give him as much, the youngster had some swing. But she couldn’t keep this going for much longer. She got off the horse, the same mischievous, playful smile plastered on her lips. The boy took another swing, but she blocked his blade with her dagger, then kicked him with the leg in his stomach, sending him stumbling a few inches backwards.

“Allow me to rephrase it for you,” she spoke. “No one needs to get hurt. Therefore, I strongly advise you to put all of your belongings in my bag and I give you my word that I’ll be on my way and no harm should come to you.”

The boy actually seemed to consider her offer, looking scared out of his mind. He shot a look in the driver’s direction, pleading for help, but the man was too old to put up a fight and he looked even more frozen in fear than his master.

Ember saw the flicker of the decision having been made in the young man’s eyes and she would’ve sighed, hadn’t he lounged at her at that exact same moment. He couldn’t have been more than 17, Ember thought as she dodged his sword. He clearly wasn’t fully acquainted with the weapon, didn’t trust her enough to rely on her to get him through the fight. And in hand to hand combat, such mistake was fatal. The sword needed to be an extension to his arm.

She danced swiftly around his attempts at offensive, and eventually tired of toying him like a cat does a mouse. So she turned on her heels and prompted her elbow just below his ribs, cutting off his airways. He crashed at her feet gasping for air, and Ember prompted one knee on his chest, pinning him to the ground, and pressed the blade of her dagger against his throat.

“Do not. Move,” she whispered, and this time, the boy showed no sign of even dreaming to fight her off.

Without removing the dagger from his throat, Ember threw her bag with her free time inside the carriage.

“Fill it with jewelry and money,” Ember told the mortified women, her eyes never leaving the victim she was still holding trapped in her grip. “I gave you my word that I mean no harm.”

The ladies didn’t hesitate before doing as told and Ember remarked with no little amount of satisfaction that her bag was half full and she was quite certain there were some valuable items in there. When the women finished filling her back, she removed the knife from the boy’s throat and because she was in oddly high spirits today, she winked at him. The she proceeded to grab her bag, got on the horse and rode away from the scene.

It had been a good day.

She had enough money to make it through the week, maybe even through the next one, and she was certain Clarissa would offer a good deal for all the jewelry.

After several solid minutes of riding, she shoved her heels gently into the horse’s side to make him stop, and the animal obeyed. She got off and patted its side, offering a smile that she felt silly for, considering it was an animal, but there was some sort of raw wildness within her that allowed her to connect with those who people called beasts. But these days, the lines between people and beasts tended to be rather blurry.

“Good boy,” she whispered to the horse, and grabbed the harness. She intended to set the poor creature free and walk the rest of the way home. After all, she knew these woods by heart.

~SOUNDTRACK: Christina Perri – Sea of lovers~

She walked in silence for a few minutes, the horse by her side, and she just enjoyed the quietness this forest provided, the fresh air flooding her lungs and sharpening her senses, observant even to the way her red cloak was soothed by the grass as she walked and to the rattle of rocks under her feet.

She remembered how guilty she’d used to feel. She had been but a child when she first stole. Despite the mouths she had to feed, it still troubled her to claim what was not hers to take. And she wasn’t very good at it either. She had been caught, beaten up, cursed at more times than she could count. She had come an awfully long way.

Ember stiffened, the train of her thoughts interrupted by the soft ruffle of some nearby bushes. It wasn’t much, and it could as well have been her imagination. But her intuition never failed her, and she thought it never hurt to double check. Better safe than sorry.

She let go of the harness and kicked the horse softly on his side, sending him running away. Then she pulled out her dagger from the inside of her tunic and stepped lightly towards said bushes. She heard it clear as day now. Footsteps. Whoever was on her tail wasn’t doing a very good job. Or maybe had simply chosen the wrong person to try to shadow.

She was close to the bushes now and through the thick foliage she managed to see a solid silhouette. A man. It was making no difference, since on countless occasions she had had the chance to prove herself a worthy opponent against several heavy men that she’d brought down and slayed their ego.

Moving fast as a whisper, she leapt towards the bushes and swiftly grabbed the man’s collar, bringing him up and pinning him against the closer tree. She remarked he was neither as solid as she’d expected, nor did he fight back as much as she would’ve liked him to. She enjoyed a little challenge from time to time.

She pressed the sharp blade of her dagger against his throat just like she’d done earlier to that rich boy and noticed that he was shaking as he raised his hands in front of him.

The realization hit Ember like a thunder.

“Wait, wait, wait,” the boy prompted her. “I mean no harm.”

Ember lowered the dagger and stared incredulously.

“Kaleb?” she exclaimed, and a small smile blossomed on the boy’s lips when she remembered his name. “What the hell are you doing? Were you following me?”

Kaleb’s eyes widened slightly and his eyes flew at the dagger Ember still clutched tight in her hand for a few seconds, before settling back on her green eyes that resonated so beautifully to the woods behind her.

“No, of course not,” he defended one heartbeat too weak and Ember didn’t look too convinced. “I spotted you and decided to keep my distance in case you’d think I was following you. Deepest apologies, m’lady. I did not mean to intrude.”

He bowed his head a little, perhaps slightly too shy to make any sudden movements until that knife was put out of sight. But Ember decided to have some more fun and twisted it a little between her fingers, enjoying the way his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down in poorly hidden fear.

“I advise you to go easy on the ‘m’lady’ thing,” she said, keeping the knife in front of his eyes. “Unless you’d prefer my little friend back against your throat.”

She smiled at his distress and hid the dagger under her cloak, seeing him visibly relax.

“I’m sorry if I offended you, L—“

“If you call me Lady Ember, so help me Lord,” she raised a finger at him, pursing her lips, and she could see the faint ghost of a smile playing across his full lips.

Now that she saw him again, Ember took in more details of his features other than his emerald green eyes and strand of that dark hair falling into his eyes. She noticed his square jaw, his full lips, his long lashes and his dimples. It troubled her how such a literal gentleman could afford wasting enough time to give a second glance to a common thief.

“Consider it noted,” he replied, then his eyebrows raised slightly. “Ember.”

She offered him a sly smile. “Much better, thank you.”

Odd silence settled between the two of them, in which Kaleb finally moved, resuming his stance, with shoulders squared and heels glued together, hands clasped behind his back.

“Pardon my inquiry, but what might you be doing in this part of the woods?” he questioned eventually. “It is rather deserted and I’ve heard many wild animals roam these places. I highly doubt it’s safe for a walk through the woods.”

Ember tilted her head and narrowed her eyes at him. Was he that short sighted? He knew she was the village’s thief, after all. He must’ve been quite blind. She decided to play coy.

“Take my word for it, jeweler boy,” she clicked her tongue. “You’re better off not knowing.”

Realization finally seemed to wash over Kaleb, whose lips formed a small ‘O’. Ember found herself slightly distraught by that dance those full lips made in the process, but quickly shook it off.

“I apologize if my question felt too intruding,” Kaleb said, and Ember rolled her eyes in the least lady-like way possible.

“You apologize too much,” she scolded him playfully. “I’m no fancy lady to fidget around.”

“A lady is a lady regardless the level of fanciness she’d been brought up within.”

Ember waved him off, not in the mood for a nobility pep talk. She was far from it and whatever it implied. It was like Clarissa always said. You don’t need a stick up your arse when you can afford the luxury of walking barefoot in the mood and bathing in the rain without worrying you’ll get your expensive dress soaked.

“Might I escort you home, m’la… Ember?”

Ember smiled at the way he’d corrected his instinct.

“While I highly appreciate the intention,” she replied, then she leaned in as if to tell a secret, and was delighted to notice a faint blush coloring his cheeks. “I’m the one carrying a knife. But I can escort you home, if you’d fancy.”

Kaleb smiled sheepishly and nodded as they both started walking in silence. Ember frowned a little as she realized something.

“What were you doing in this part of the woods?” she inquired suspiciously, and the blush was back in Kaleb’s cheeks. She wondered if he was trying to cover up some sort of rendezvous.

But then he smiled sadly, setting Ember off track.

“I will have to agree with you on this one,” he spoke softly. “Some things are better off not known.”

Otherwise, how could he have explained waking up naked in the middle of a clearing with no memory whatsoever?

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