Huddled half in darkness, Marise fought sleep’s phantom whispers. A single lamppost buzzed overhead, barely illuminating her corner of the alley. Her head drooped, but snapped back up, gripping her knife at an angle, ready to strike. She needed to get home, to the alcove, but she wasn’t sure she trusted its seclusion. The air reeked this close to the Dregs. While she hadn’t spotted anyone, she knew those men would track her down next.
After they had their fun with Raine.
A familiar rumble filled her senses as the ground began to shake. Steadying herself, she watched as a tram cut across Liquor Row. Wires hung overhead, swaying with the swift movement. Water escaped the sides of the track, giving the filthy area a light dusting. She wiped the fresh spray from her face.
As she eyed the street of cramped together bars, she spotted a teenager reaching up to an object obscured by shadows. She perked up, trying to discern what it was, then a flicker of wlight appeared from inside. A red lantern blazed to life. A realization blossomed in her chest, making her feel all the more exposed. Tonight was the festival, a futile way to dispel the night, to keep forgotten gods at bay. She’d never put much faith in Na Creidmhigh’s gods, but at some point this festival must’ve been important enough to cast them away. But one fact of this was certain: she’d be all the more exposed as the city filled with these lights. Now, she had no choice but to find some place to hide. She considered her chances at any bar in the area, absently touching the dried splatter blood on her shirt. The effects of the stiff drink had long deserted her to sobriety. She rifled through her bag, pulling out her last few dollars. It would be foolish to waste her money on liquor. No, she needed to find something that would keep her awake through the night.
The teenage lamplighter quickly moved away from the lantern, darting to the next obscured shape.
She pulled herself up, shivering with the movement. She tucked her stiff shirt in, all too aware her breasts peeked out through the busted buttons and torn fabric. In her state, she drew more gazes as a woman in men’s clothing. She slipped her bag over her shoulder. She crossed her arms over her chest before exiting her niche. She followed the freshly burning lanterns, trailing just far enough behind that the teen remained clueless he was being followed.
Head down, Marise glanced up every once and awhile to steer through the twisting streets. She peered over her shoulder occasionally, but saw nothing of the men who’d come for Raine.
That’ll teach you to get involved with strange men.
Her stomach turned, but she kept moving, following the lamplighter as he pressed toward the Market. The teen crossed into an abandoned passage between the sections. Oki’s Veins had once been a prominent feature of this part of the city, but now shacks had been built atop them, blocking off access. Instead, crisscrossing beams of light from the mostly covered veins led her through the catacombs of the Dregs, giving her a path amidst the wires and rusted metal. Boarded windows squinted at the passersby while the doors laid wide open, welcoming all. She shot a quick glance down an alley. Vents exhaled, sending steam swirling into the air, blocking her view of its contents. Unlike Liquor Row, this route between sections had lost its trendy quality years ago. Only a few desperate souls passed through here at night. She caught a couple of glances, but none lingered. She pulled her bag closer to her body, trying to conceal all indicators of gender. She’d heard horror stories of those caught here after dark.
The lamplighter crossed into the nighttime crowds of the Market, finally coming across another red lantern after a dearth of them in that passage. She paused at the edge of the chaos, carefully angling herself so that the shadows cast from the lanterns shielded her from any prying gaze. She heard a hard footstep behind her, turned and froze. Dozens of eyes stared hungrily at her, light catching in them like animals.
She steeled herself for the crowds and forced herself out into the madness. Already, the lanterns had cast beams up into the clouded sky, making both the ground and the sky reflect red. Oki’s Veins tried to combat the intrusive light, but even they seemed somehow weaker, reduced under the oppressive red light. Now that she was here, she knew her destination: a forgotten coffee shop almost lost in between the cluttered streets.
She maneuvered through the cramped streets, shoving through the meandering bodies, hoping with all that she was that the shop would be open. It was late enough, but they may want to be a part of the festival, rather than a destination. Her fears were quelled as she crossed a familiar tent and found white light flooding from the shop’s windows. She sighed in relief and approached. A sign hung in the window, slightly askew, that read Now Hiring. She took it in, working up her courage and entered.
The quality of air changed in the instant she walked in, warmer, fuller than outside in the night. Roasted beans permeated the store and she felt at ease, relaxed. There were a handful of people spread amongst the half dozen tables, but most were quietly talking with each other. Their conversation was lost to the throaty voice of a woman singing over some bluesy guitar.
A man with thick hair and even thicker eyebrows stood behind the counter, he turned with a smile. “Welco—” He cut himself off as he took her in. He gave a little shake of his head then smiled once again, perhaps not as brightly, then continued, “How’re you tonight?”
“Surviving,” she replied with a half laugh. “That’s about the best I can say.”
“I hear that,” he said uncomfortably, turning to his work. He had not made eye contact with her.
Already feeling out of sorts, she approached the counter, rattled off a cheap cup of coffee. She checked his nametag. Allen. “Hate to be that person,” she said as she pulled out dirty ones and a handful of scrounged change.
“Not a problem,” he said, but she felt his eyes on her, appraising her.
When he repeated her price, she looked at her earnings and said with her best approximation of carefree disregard, “Well, I can’t afford that.” She rattled off a specialty drink, more espresso than coffee. The barista rang that up and she smiled brightly, “Now that I can do.”
She ticked off the change and slid it across the countertop, then thought better of it and picked it up, handing it to Allen. As he counted her change, he said, “We’ll have it right out for you.”
She paused, content to sit at a table quietly and blend in with the crowd while she let the coffee take over, then thought better of it. “I saw that sign in the window. You’re hiring?”
Allen shook his head, locking eyes with her for the first time. “Unfortunately, we just hired on a few extra hands. But we’re always taking apps.”
“That’s okay. Guess I just missed it.” Fucker. Pleasantries, keeping a calm face, when she knew they had just put that sign up. She’d been here three days ago and there was nothing. And, judging by the state of his work area, he needed help desperately. She smiled once more. “Thank you.”
Standing at the edge of the counter, she waited for her drink. As she stood there, she realized that she was garnering all sorts of stares. She checked herself over, realized in a flush of horror, embarrassment that she was covered in blood, her clothing ripped and torn from her encounter in Raine’s apartment. And she had asked for a fucking job like this. She pulled into herself, trying to shrink into nothingness.
With her drink in hand, she retreated to a table alongside the wall, out of the ever watchful eyes of the barista. She took the chair that faced the front door, just in case trouble entered. There was a door at the back of the shop that she hoped would give her a chance of escape if those men showed up.
Armed with her weapon against sleep, she pulled a slightly crumpled page from her bag. As she laid out her tools, the image of the symbol pounded in her head, begging to be released. She laid out her knife by her arm, away from prying eyes, but easily within her grasp. As she sipped her bitter drink, she began to sketch.