A Stake in Secrets

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Chapter 9 - Pearl

I can’t believe I let the boy get to me.

Today was my turn for grocery shopping. At Gneiss headquarters, there’s a kitchen on every floor.

Each individual on that floor takes turns going out to the flea market each week, so vendors don’t find our faces familiar.

This morning, my floor leader had given me a wad of cash to spend. Only assassins who have been in the Clan for over five years start receiving salaries.

Since this is my second year, the only payment I get for completing my missions is food, clothing, shelter. . . and jewels.

I had wanted to ignore the boy. I didn’t need another person who could identify my voice.

But he had the audacity to steal every pomegranate that had caught my eye. . . And even more audacity to follow me around after that.

Sitting in the tent, I unconsciously drift back to thinking about him.

His wisps of blond hair had brown streaks in them that turned lighter and darker depending on the angle of the sun.

He had strong cheekbones and a chiseled jawline as if a sculptor had moulded his facial structure down to perfection.

His eyes were viridescent with a gleam, like emeralds or dancing ferns in a meadow. Staring into them was my mistake. And I blame our longer than necessary eye contact for the tumbling sensation I felt in my stomach.

The boy had a habit of standing in a relaxed posture as if nothing in the world would surprise him.

I’d seen him make out with a girl on the streets when I passed them by and thought, he’s definitely experienced at breaking hearts.

A quiet splash brings me back to reality. Lemon tea trickles gently from a pitcher to a cup on the table. The comforting sound of consistency, of liquid hitting porcelain, no gaps, no surprises.

My friend Benjamin is pouring the tea with a steady hand. His steadiness—that’s what I like most about him.

Day in, day out, he’s always the same. The same crew cut hairstyle. The same freckles dotting the tops of his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. The same lemon stand, making lemonade.

After he’s done pouring, I inspect the inside of his tent.

I haven’t been here in a year, but the wooden barrels and carts of lemons are in the same place as they were when I last came.

I take a sip of the tea and ask, “Is he gone?”

Benjamin replies, “Yes.”

I let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks for helping me out. That was close.”

Tensing up, he scrunches his eyebrows. Something’s bothering him. He asks, “Do you. . . like. . . know him at all?”

I shake my head. “No. Never met him in my life.”

I watch as his shoulders relax a bit. “I see. . . Then do you know why he was following you?”

“No idea. But it’s not good that I got noticed,” I say.

There’s a moment of silence between us.

The first rule in the Gneiss girl handbook is to blend in with her surroundings, and I’ve failed to do so.

Benjamin is one of my brother’s good friends. After my brother left two years ago, Benjamin became my only tie to the world outside the Gneiss Clan. He’s the only one on the outside who knows what I do.

I know he’s watching me, contemplating whether he should give me the offer again.

“Pearl, you know you can always. . .”

I cut him off. “Don’t worry, I’m all right.”

I know Benjamin’s trying to convince me to live with him, but I can’t.

It’s not because I don’t trust him. It’s because he can barely support his own siblings with the lemonade stand. He doesn’t need another mouth to feed.

I pick up my basket and stand up. “Thanks for helping me, Benji. I think I’ll be heading out now.”

I walk out the tent and head away from the flea market. When I’m far enough down the stone path leading to Gneiss headquarters, I check my surroundings.

After ensuring that I’m alone, I take out the yellow flower from the pocket lining my dress. It looks like the flower that was left on my brother’s bed the day he left.

I found it wilting on the sidewalk today, so I decided to take it.

I think to myself, There has to be something Aragon was trying to say with this.

The night my brother left, he was deeply absorbed.

Usually before a mission, Aragon wouldn’t be able to keep still.

He’d sit on the couch, then get up to pour himself some orange juice, then go back to the couch, then go to his desk to grab a book, then go back to the couch, then work on one of his paintings, then go back to the couch. . . And the process would continue until he gave me a hug and went out the door.

That night, however, was different. He had sat on the couch, staring out the window for hours.

I asked if he was all right.

All he responded with was “Pearl, isn’t the sunset beautiful?”

My brother then asked me to buy a dress for myself. He said he was sorry that he hadn’t given me much all these years.

I knew the dress was partially an excuse for him to get some time alone, so I left him.

When I passed his desk, however, I saw “Diegone Valley” written on a scrap of loose leaf paper.

I was worried.

Diegone Valley was the group of dark alleyways at the edge of town where hoodlums, beggars, and malicious businessmen hung around.

When I returned home with a pair of newly purchased black slacks for my brother because his old ones were ripped, he was nowhere to be seen.

When night fell and he still hadn’t returned home, I became desperate. I set out to Diegone Valley to see for myself.

Contrary to what I thought, the most chilling thing about the place wasn’t the people.

It was the lack of them.

I didn’t see a breathing soul anywhere. The streets were empty, and the dismal shops lining the streets were bleak and lifeless as if someone had abandoned them a long time ago.

With no luck, I returned home.

I barged into my brother’s bedroom and found that it was empty.

No books. No clothes. No trace of him left, except for a wilting yellow flower on his bed.

Next to it was a white card with “The less you know, the better” written in black ink in his handwriting.

I waited three weeks, but he still didn’t return. After starving for a week after that, I decided to harden up and face reality.

My brother had abandoned me.

My brother wasn’t related to me by blood. In fact, I grew up in an orphanage. The matron there told me she found me at the footsteps one evening.

At the orphanage, the children helped each other because the adults didn’t help them.

I saw little girls getting taken away by men, who stood too close to them and who ran their chubby fingers through the girls’ hair for too long.

I saw little boys shivering as they were whipped by the lady of the house they were to serve.

I knew from a young age that to survive, you had to fight or hide. I wasn’t strong enough to fight, so I had to hide.

I hid in the corner of the room whenever a new adopter would come in.

When I was six—considering the day I arrived at the orphanage as the day I was born—a group of men in black arrived at our door.

At first, they were daunting. But they came in each week after for three months to play games with us and bring us edible treats. And soon, we became attached to them.

All the other girls in the orphanage were particularly fond of one boy in the group. He had hair the color of wheat, eyes that occasionally switched from cyan to turquoise, and a bold, aristocratic nose. He had a natural wit and thus commanded the center of attention.

I, however, thought he was too nosy.

He asked if we knew who our parents were, if we had a family heirloom hidden in our baby basket, or if we remembered how we got here.

He particularly liked to pick on one of his own men—a gawky, spindly black-haired boy who moved around like a grasshopper, taking a second to land here, a second to land there.

To get a few laughs from his men, the golden-haired boy would mock the black-haired boy’s way of walking or expose an embarrassing incident about him.

The black-haired boy always caused trouble, whether that was spilling the pitcher of water, accidentally whacking the matron in the face with his hand, or stepping on someone’s shoes.

One time, I asked him, “Why do you let that boy make fun of you?”

He smiled. “If everyone else is having a good time, I don’t mind.”

The other men brought us the same treats each week.

The black-haired boy brought something different for each and every one of us. He brought a doll for Janine, who had wanted one since she could talk. He brought Aaron a miniature toy horse because he said he wanted to own a real one when he grew up.

He brought me a potted lavender because I loved the color purple.

“For you, Pearl.” He had handed me the potted flower. “I grew this one myself.”

I knew then and there that if someone had to adopt me, it would be this black-haired boy named Aragon.

My feet make a soft thud on the grass as I run to the gates of the Gneiss headquarters.

I feel the breeze blow against my face. I close my eyes for a moment, trying to grope at the feeling of freedom—not freedom like the one Kings and Lords talk about when they remind us how grateful we ought to be for the emancipation of slaves.

But complete freedom—mental as well as physical. Freedom from worries. Freedom from death. Freedom from deceased loved ones. Freedom from caring. Freedom from fighting.

As I walk through the corridor and glance at the calendar, I realize that it’s April 20th.

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