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House of Ash and Shadow Chapter One

“Happy birthday!” Sorrel and I screamed in unison as we jumped out from beneath the little kitchen table we’d been hiding under.

My dad had just walked into our small hut after a long day of laboring, and though he looked exhausted and a bit flushed, his face transformed into a grin.

I picked up the slightly lopsided cake I’d made and presented him with it, scuffling along the dirt-packed floor of our hut.

“Almond orange?” he asked excitedly.

I nodded. “Your favorite. With a honey glaze that I got from Mrs. Lancaster’s bees.”

I wasn’t as good a baker as my father, but I could hold my own in a kitchen.

My neighbor and dear friend Sorrel took my father’s work bag full of tools and set it down on the floor so that he could come sit with us at the table.

Dad walked a little sluggishly to join us and I frowned. “Still have that fever?”

He’d gotten a scrape at the river a few days ago and it got infected.

My father nodded and then peered at Sorrel. “I put the neem oil on it that you gave me this morning.”

Sorrel was our local self-taught herbologist. What she lacked in healer magic she made up for in brains.

“So what are you, like, seventy now?” I joked.

He chuckled. “Forty-four going on seventy.” He rolled out his neck. There was dirt under his nails and even on the tips of his pointed ears. Because he was one of our village’s main laborers, I couldn’t remember a time that my father had ever come home looking clean. He was a hard worker, and I was proud of that.

“Were you able to fix the dam?” Sorrel asked as she cut him a slice of cake and served him.

He nodded. “We got it patched; the lake should hold.”

Our small village of Isariah was a three-hour walk from The Gilded City, home of the most powerful fae in the realm. Where they had piped-in water and other amenities aplenty, we had to make do out here with what we could manage on our own. Which meant a manmade dam of the Dead Snake River that pooled into Huckleberry Lake, aptly named for the hundreds of wild huckleberries that grew at its perimeter. Dead Snake River was named as such because without the dam, it was a weak stream that wouldn’t keep more than ten people alive.

Our lake and dam were crucial to our survival—not only did we drink the water from it, but it watered our fields and kept us clean. If we lost that, no one would care if a bunch of banished, magicless fae died of thirst or starvation.

Sorrel served me next, and I debated removing my elbow-length gloves to eat the cake. Best to keep them on and avoid an accident. I didn’t want to ruin my father’s big day by writhing on the floor in pain.

“Fallon, what’s your favorite memory with your dad?” Sorrel asked, pointing at me as she dug into her cake.

I grinned, looking up at the man who had raised me as his own. “Age twelve,” I said. “The day I came home from school in tears because the kids kept touching me to activate my curse.”

My father reached over and placed his hand on my gloved one, careful not to touch my bare skin. “I remember that day well.”

My heart pinched as I thought of how painful that day had been, both physically and emotionally. Born with a curse I had no control over, I unfairly had to carry it my entire life. “You said something back then that stuck with me,” I told him. “You said I couldn’t control how people treated me, but I could control my reaction to their mistreatment. That it would define who I was.”

I felt that was a turning point in my life. I could have gone down a dark road, hating the world and being upset with my lot in life. But because of my father, I chose to focus on what I could control and the blessings in my life.

Sorrel cleared her throat. “If I remember correctly, he also gave you your dagger on that day and told you to protect yourself if need be.” She pointed to where I usually wore the knife at my hip.

We all burst into laughter then, and my father nodded. “Well, the moral of the story is to be kind to others but defend yourself if you must.”

“Mr. Brookshire? your turn. Favorite memory with Fallon,” Sorrel asked my dad. It was tradition in Isariah to share stories on birthdays and holidays when we couldn’t afford gifts.

He leaned back, looking at me with an affectionate gaze. “Easy. The day I met her.”

A lump formed in my throat at his admission, and I thought back to the day I’d been brought to Isariah in the dead of night seventeen years ago. I’d been left at the front gates in a little basket, my umbilical cord still attached and tied into a hasty knot.

Inside the basket, tucked into my little blanket, was a note with just four words on it:

Don’t touch her. Cursed.

You can imagine what this did to the people of my village: they were thrown into uproar. What kind of curse? A killing curse for anyone who picked me up? A land curse that would decimate their crops? A sickness curse that would spread through the village like the wet lung and take out everyone?

No one wanted me.

I stayed in the basket, crying deep into the night, until finally, in the early morning hours, a young man in his mid-twenties stepped out onto the road. He’d lost his wife to the wet lung a year prior, and they’d never had children. They’d wanted them but she was barren. Without hesitation, he’d picked my basket up. When he didn’t die immediately, the people came closer to get a look at me.

“She’s just an innocent child,” the man had said. “I’ll take care of her, and whatever curse she carries will fall on me.”

That was how my father tied himself to me. He’d wanted me when no one else did, when everyone else was too scared to get near me.

He’d quickly learned that “don’t touch her” meant literally don’t touch my skin. What caused everyone else pleasure, caused me unbearable pain. A simple touch of skin-to-skin contact and I felt like I’d been hit by lightning. As you can imagine, changing the dirty loincloth of a baby whose skin you couldn’t touch was near impossible. For the first five years of my life, my father wore gloves to his elbows. As much as he’d wanted to take whatever curse ailed me, it was my burden alone to carry.

“That was my favorite day too,” I said, smiling hugely. “Although I don’t remember it.”

Sorrel and I then launched into a plethora of favorite memories growing up, ones that had us grabbing our bellies in laughter.

Eventually, I looked over at my father to see sweat beaded on his brow and his once flushed face now looked pale. “Dad, you don’t look good. Do you want to bathe and then get some rest?”

He gave me a small smile and patted my gloved hand. “Always thinking of your old man.” Standing up, he winced, grabbing at his side, and Sorrel and I shared a concerned look. My father grasped the edge of the chair and swayed on his feet.

“Dad.” I stood, my heart lurching into my throat.

Sorrel moved quickly, rushing out of her chair and over to where my father stood, ashen and waxy-looking.

Then I watched in horror as he swayed again and went down like a sack of bricks. His body hit the floor with a thud and I screamed, rushing forward to try to catch him. It was no use. He was heavy, and I reached out with my gloved hands to no avail.

“Sorrel!” I cried out in panic as she swam into view, taking his head into her lap while I straightened his feet, so he could lie fully stretched out on his back.

Sorrel began to tend to my father as I paced the dirt-packed floor of our hut.

“It’s still infected. Smells like rotten fish.” Sorrel frowned as she prodded my father’s abdomen.

“That tiny cut?” I leaned over her and peered at a small cut near his belly button. My blood ran cold. Deep, red lines ran out from the cut and clawed their way up his chest, but the cut itself was so small it was laughable. He’d scraped himself the other day on a branch by the river. I was there.

“That little thing?” I frowned, unease slipping over me like a shadow.

Sorrel looked up at me with terror in her eyes. “Fallon, I’ve seen this before. Red lines to the heart mean death in twenty-four hours.” She traced the red lines that went halfway to his heart, and I stopped breathing.

Death?

No.

“It…was a branch. A stupid little branch.” A sob formed in my throat and Sorrel covered my father’s abdomen with a strip of cloth. Then she set his head down gently and stepped over to me.

“I know how important he is to you,” she consoled me.

Oh Light. She was looking at me like I was about to lose my father. On his birthday, no less.

“He’s all I have,” I mumbled. My heart felt like it was going to climb out of my throat as I imagined losing him.

“Should we put more neem oil on it? Or should I go out and fetch some herbs? Give me a list and—”

“Fallon.” Sorrel took my gloved hand in hers. “This is beyond me. You know if I could help him, I would. But…”

“No,” I growled, steeling myself in the moment. I would not go into shock. He needed me. “I do not accept that. What do you need to save him?” I looked at Sorrel firmly.

She scoffed. “A healer fae from The Gilded City or an anti-germ tincture from an apothecary.”

I knew she was being sarcastic, but she didn’t know how far I was willing to go to save the man who’d treated me like a person when no one else would.

“Okay,” I said, dropping her hand and moving across the kitchen into my little room. The sleeping roll on the floor was a mess, I hadn’t made my bed like he’d asked and I regretted that now. I should be a more obedient daughter.

Dropping to the ground, I smoothed the two thick blankets and folded the corners how he liked them and then went to my little storage trunk.

“Uh, Fallon…” Sorrel’s voice came from the doorway as I pulled my small dagger from the trunk and slipped it into my boot. “What are you doing?” she finally asked.

Sorrel was a dear friend; she never made fun of me for my condition and she was very careful not to touch me. When we were little, she threw rocks at the kids who made fun of me by touching their arms and pretending to cry and convulse like I did.

She was a gem. But she was also a rule follower. As an outcast people from The Gilded City who carried no magic, the people of Isariah already had a lot going against us. Sorrel was one of those people who thought she could make up for it by learning to read and trying to become an herbologist. She tried to elevate her status in scholarly ways, and I respected her for it, but she would not agree with what I was about to do. In fact, she might try to stop me, so the less I told her, the better.

I stood, pulling on my heavy grey cloak that was six inches too short and had far too many holes in it. I donned my thick suede elbow-length gloves next, and Sorrel started to pace in the doorway.

“Fallon, I was joking! You can’t go and nab a healer from The Gilded City.”

I nodded. “I’ll go for the tincture first.”

Her eyes grew wide. “The only apothecaries that stock anti-germ tinctures are inside The Gilded City.”

I nodded once, and then stood to face her. “Keep him alive until I get back or I’ll never forgive you.”

Her face fell, and I knew it wasn’t a fair thing to say, to put that pressure on her, but I was desperate.

“You can’t be serious. We are banished. The price of unlawfully breaking into The Gilded City as a magicless is death.”

Tears filled my eyes, blurring my vision, and then spilled over onto my cheeks. “If he dies, I’ll be dead inside anyway, so they might as well kill me,” I told her. “Now please move.”

She knew I couldn’t fight her physically. All she had to do was reach out and graze a small piece of exposed flesh and I’d be brought to my knees in agony.

She swallowed hard. “You’re stubborn.” But there was defeat in her voice. She was two years older than me, and I thought of her as somewhat of a big sister. She and her mother lived right next door and we’d grown up together. There was no one I trusted more to keep my father alive.

I nodded. “I know.”

She reached up to wipe a stray tear from her cheek. “And if I could hug you, I would. Dammit.”

“I know that too.” My voice caught. We couldn’t risk it—even hair from a person brushing against me triggered my curse.

She pulled herself out of the doorway with her head hung low. “May the Light protect you.”

May the Light help me break into the apothecary shop and get out unnoticed, I wanted to say.

I strode over to my father and reached out with my suede gloves, stroking his cheek. He stirred a little, his waxy, grey skin beaded with sweat. Now in his early forties, he had some slight greying of the dark hairs at his temple, but was one of the strongest men in our village. I wasn’t letting the Light take him with an infection from a stupid tree branch!

“Hang on, old man. I’m not letting you go that easily,” I told him, and then set out for the forbidden Gilded City.

I’d never been inside, I didn’t know where the apothecary shops were, and I had no coin or status to achieve my goal. The odds of my returning to Isa alive and with help for my father were slim, but I couldn’t sit there and watch the only man who’d ever loved me die.

I wouldn’t.

Consequences be damned.

* * *

The walk from our village, on the outskirts of The Gilded City, to the golden gates themselves was three hours, give or take. I made this trip twice a year to watch the light show in the sky during summer and winter solstice. The Gilded Citizens played music and danced and did incredible light shows, and all the people of Isa came just to get a little glimpse of it from our place outside the gates. But I’d never actually gone through the gates themselves, which were rumored to be electrified. The Gilded City was the richest in the realm, and they paraded that in the name itself and on the barrier they used to block out poor, useless fae like me.

There was a rumor that the gates weren’t made of actual gold, but a mere glamour Queen Solana used to make the city look pretty. Either way, I was getting over them, or going through them, no matter the cost. Beyond those gates were healers, and tinctures, and magic, and a whole world I knew nothing about. A world that could help save my father.

I’d seen magic on only two occasions: Once, when a Gilded Royal soldier was passing through our village on his way to an outlying city. He’d casually used magic to make the salt jar float across the table and into his hand at Hipsie’s Tavern, where I worked.

I’d gasped, fully shocked to see such a thing, as had half the people in the place. But the man had just coyly smiled, as if he’d liked showing off for the poor, magicless riffraff.

The second time I saw magic was a bit more serious. A Nightling had attacked our village. We’d heard Mrs. Turvy scream and rushed out to help, but by the time we did, the creature was attached to her neck and drinking. My father shot it with his hunting bow, and the Nightling morphed into black shadows and disappeared. It had scared me so badly I didn’t sleep for three whole nights.

Voices up ahead had me slowing. I’d been so lost in my thoughts I didn’t realize I’d reached the outpost to The Gilded City. It was fully dark out now, with only the moon to give me light. A small guard tower was up ahead, and I could see the lights from the city beyond it through the thick forest. The gates glistened in the moonlight, drawing a perimeter of envy to all who were not allowed entrance.

I was about to partake in the forbidden fruit that The Gilded City had to offer, and I should have been scared. My hands should’ve at least been shaking, but all I could think about was my father and the death lines trying to carve their way to his heart.

Sucking in a steady breath, I did what I did best.

I disappeared.

Not literally, like a magic fae might if they had the ability, but in the way I knew how to after seventeen years of trying to avoid being touched by people. If they didn’t notice me, they wouldn’t touch me. If they didn’t touch me, I wouldn’t feel pain.

Pulling up my hood, I hugged my back to the trees and moved through the thickest part of the forest. I walked on the balls of my feet, avoiding leaves, twigs, or anything that would make a sound. I stuck to soft moss and deep-churned earth. Working at an eastward angle, I was able to sneak past the guard tower and avoid the main entrance to The Gilded City. Those gates were guarded beyond anything I could infiltrate. When I’d been walking at a northeast angle for quite some time, I finally reached a part of the forest where the tree line thinned, and I could see the glowing golden city gates beyond.

My heart pounded in my throat as I reached down to double-check that my dagger was still stashed firmly in my boot where it would be hidden from view. I didn’t know why I’d brought it. I wasn’t sure I was capable of actually hurting anyone in an effort to save my father, but… I wasn’t beneath threatening them. The mere thought caused shame to wash over me. My father taught me a lot about growing up in Isa. We were survivors of circumstance. When he’d given me this dagger on my twelfth birthday, he told me to only ever use it in a situation where I thought my life would be taken if I didn’t intervene. Sure, life in Isa was hard—growing up without magic, or status, or coin was difficult. Compared to The Gilded City fae, we died younger, we were skinnier, and we worked servant jobs, but we weren’t criminals. We weren’t killers. I didn’t want to hurt anyone.

What I was about to do—stealing from The Gilded City and possibly using my dagger to do it—would not make my father proud.

But I didn’t care.

If he was alive to yell at me, that was good enough for me.

With that final thought, I broke through the trees and into the open meadow that stood before the golden fence. Looking left and right quickly, I noticed no one and pushed forward. I ran across the flat, grassy meadow like a lioness going after her prey. I knew I was at my most exposed right then to any guards in a high tower and would need to act quickly. I had every intention of scaling the twenty-foot-high golden fence, until I got about three feet from it and heard the high-pitched whine of electricity.

We didn’t have electricity in Isa. Because it required a special kind of magic to generate the energy current and then an expensive crystal to trap it, we never had it as an option. But I had heard about electricity, I’d learned about it in the books Sorrel taught me to read. I knew that a buzzing current sound was associated with it, and I’d heard those rumors that the wall was guarded in this way. That if you touched it, you’d be painfully shocked.

It was funny, I’d always described the pain of being touched as being electrocuted, though I had no idea what that really felt like. Sorrel had read a book to me when I was little where a boy was hit by lightning and his whole body burned, and shook, and felt like his skin was on fire.

I’d gasped at the time and told her that was what it felt like every time someone touched me. My father was there. Unable to read himself, he enjoyed Sorrel reading out loud to us.

I never forgot the look on his face that night: absolute horror. He’d told Sorrel and I that he was tired and wished us a good night.

Our house wasn’t very well insulated, so we’d heard his sobs coming from his room for the next hour. Even at a young age, I understood that hearing me describe my pain had caused him pain, and I didn’t want to do that. So, I stopped describing my discomfort to my father after that day.

Now I stared at the bars of the golden gates and braced myself for what I was sure would be a lot of agony. But for my father, I would do it. I stepped closer, trying to plan my way up, wondering if grabbing the bars with gloves would help at all, when I realized the gaps between the bars were huge. Not large enough for a grown man, but for an underweight seventeen-year-old girl without much chest…I might just fit! I deliberated if I could just slip between them. Deciding it was worth a shot, I tucked my stomach in and turned to the side.

There was forest on the other side of the gates, so if I could just get to it, I could hide from any guards. Without overthinking it too much, I threw myself into the gap between the bars and prayed to the Light that I would make it out on the other side alive.

The first half of my body slipped through relatively easily. But when my breast grazed the bar, pulling on the fabric of my cloak, I gasped as the electrical current ripped through me. Pain lanced along my spine, stealing my breath as my whole body shuddered. I threw the rest of myself through the gap in the fence just in time before I fell to my knees with a cry on my lips.

It hurt. Bad. But not more than my curse. That made me sad for a moment. To know that the curse I carried was so bad it was akin to what The Gilded City used to protect themselves from harm.

Crawling on my knees, panting as the remnants of pain still lingered on my skin, I made it to the thick tree line inside of the city and then fell onto my back. My head was buzzing, much like it did after I was accidentally—or not-so-accidentally—touched. Some people were curious, mostly in my younger school years, and wanted to know if my curse was real. Or what reaction I would have.

A finger to my neck, a graze of my hair—my father almost took me out of the village school because it started to happen way too often.

Then I brought my dagger to school. And the next time someone touched me on purpose, to laugh or watch me squirm on the floor, I pulled the weapon out and pressed it lightly against their throat.

It completely stopped the events from happening and my father didn’t even hear about the weapon being brought to school. It was a win-win.

My father.

As much as I wanted to lie on the cold earth and let my painful skin cool off, I had to keep going. Those angry, red lines on my father’s stomach were an omen of death. If they made their way to his heart, he would be gone forever. I couldn’t allow that.

I got my bearings and headed into the city, away from the golden gates and towards the sound of revelry. I knew that sound: glasses clinking, boisterous voices, feet stomping. There was a tavern up ahead, like the one I worked at. With a tavern came people, people who were usually mind-numbed by mead and would hopefully not look twice at my tattered clothes, or the fact that I needed directions in a city I was supposed to live in.

Sure enough, I spotted the large building as I broke out of the thick trees and onto a neatly laid cobblestone road. This tavern was nothing like the one I worked at in Isariah. It was four-times as big, looked to be made of solid red brick, and there was a front porch full of fae dancing and raising their glasses to the sky.

It must be a holiday of some sort. Or a birthday, maybe. Surely, they didn’t celebrate like this every night? Who had coin to drink like that every night? As I walked across the front of the tavern, my gaze scanned the fae there, trying to land on someone who looked approachable.

One girl, about mid-twenties, was staring at her nails, looking bored.

I stepped up to the edge of the porch railing and called out to her. “Miss?”

Her head snapped up and she looked at me, her gaze taking in my worn cloak and split shoes. She recoiled a little and I suddenly felt embarrassed. These fae were all dressed in silks and crushed velvet, their brightly colored clothes hadn’t seen more than three washes. And their hair was pinned perfectly in place, their faces covered in makeup.

“I’m visiting my cousin from another city, and she’s already gone to bed. I’ve got a headache and need to find the apothecary?” I asked her, looking further down the cobblestone road. There was a stretch of buildings that opened up to a larger part of the city. I was hoping this girl could just point me in the right direction.

“A simple headache?” She laughed. “My friend inside has some healing magic. It’s limited to milder conditions, but a headache is easy for him. I’ll just go get him—”

I cut her off in panic. “I’d rather a tincture so I can keep some for later when a healer fae might not be so accessible.”

To think of all the times in Isariah that we went to bed with aches and pains, and healer fae were just lounging about in The Gilded City, taking them away for free! I noted that she’d said her friend’s magic was limited to milder conditions, so I wasn’t going to ask him to help my father.

She paused for a second but then nodded. “Keep going down this road. Make a right at Rose Lane, left at Willow Street. Avis Apothecary.”

Relief spread through my chest at the simple instructions. “Thank you.” I gave her a genuine smile, then turned to leave. My heart pounded in my throat as I walked away and prayed that my way of dressing was not going to get me into trouble here. Didn’t they have poor people in The Gilded City? The woman looked at me like she’d never seen a torn cloak in her entire life! Never mind that, I didn’t have time to worry about my clothing. My father was on death’s door. With that in mind, I broke into a jog. I only passed two people, both elderly. They looked like shop owners, as I’d seen one of them locking a door to a clock-making store. It was going home time, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted the apothecary shop to be open or closed. If it were open, I could ask the apothecary for the proper remedy, but then I’d have to run out with it and they’d call the guards and send them after me. If it were closed, I could break a window and sneak in, but I’d have to rummage to find the correct remedy myself.

What had Sorrel called it? I’d already forgotten, but I was sure if I saw the label I would remember. Anti-infection?

I decided to leave it up to fate.

I hit Rose Lane and turned right, trying not to look around the city in wonder like a tourist. But it was beautiful. More beautiful than I’d imagined. First, it was so clean. The roads looked swept, there was no dirt on them…or trash. Each street had a little glowing lamp with a basket of hanging flowers and when I peered up to look at the source of the light, I saw a crystal. It was just like I’d read about, the one the energy fae charged with magic that made electricity. It gave off a light purplish hue, which drowned the city in a subtle lilac glow. The siding on the buildings was painted a different color for each shop. Pale yellow, pale pink, light blue. It made me happy just to look at it. There was nothing depressing about this place. In Isa, you were always staring at something that needed to be fixed or cleaned, but here, everything looked perfect.

The Willow Street sign jolted me from my fascination, and I turned left, yelping when I came face-to-face with a Gilded City guard.

The golden flame emblem on his breastplate stared at me from beneath his cloak.

He startled as well, and I jumped back to avoid being touched.

“You scared me.” I grasped my chest, trying to think up answers to all of the questions he was going to ask.

Why was I here? Why was I out alone after dark? Was I even from here? Why were my clothes so tattered?

His gaze ran over my half-cloaked face, and he nodded. “What are you doing out here after curfew?”

There was a curfew?

Think, Fallon.

My heart knocked against the walls of my chest as I envisioned being arrested after getting so close to my goal.

“I have an order to pick up at one of the shops, but I’ll rush home right after. I promise.” I positioned myself towards the street, preparing to run if he tried to seize me.

He gave me a cheeky grin. “You know you’re supposed to stay on the West Side of the city after curfew. So don’t be seen by any other guards, okay?”

The West Side of the city? Why?

“Okay,” I mumbled, relief spreading throughout my body as I relaxed a little.

He nodded and then left.

Thank the Light. I breathed and continued to walk down Willow Street.

What was on the West Side of the city, and why was I supposed to stay there? I didn’t wait to find out. I merely spun and walked as fast as I could down Willow Street, scanning the shops for what I was looking for.

Delilah’s Deli, Swann’s Sweets, Mae’s Magic Shop, and…there it was, Avis Apothecary. There was a pattern here, the cutesy matching letters thing. I’d have to go home and tell Hipsie she needed to change the name of her tavern to Tabitha’s Tavern to be on trend.

I chuckled at the thought and stepped into the entryway of the shop. My heart fell into my stomach when I saw the “Closed” sign in the front and only one dim light on inside.

No.

Truth be told, I hadn’t wanted to break in. I didn’t want to steal, but I had no coin to pay for this, and I’d come this far, so there was no going back.

Looking over my shoulder, I made sure that I was in-fact alone on Willow Street. When I didn’t see anyone, I casually bent down and grabbed the large rock that lined the cute flower bed in front of the sizable entry window.

My heart fluttered in my chest, but the memory of my father lying unconscious with waxy, pallid skin kept me motivated.

Without overthinking, I smashed the rock through the glass door pane closest to the lock and it shattered in one shot. The rock slipped from my fingers and fell with a loud thump on the floor inside of the door.

I turned around again, waiting to be caught by a passerby or guard, but no one was there. Reaching inside, I flipped the lock on the door, and it opened with ease, smacking into the rock and dragging it across the floor.

I stepped inside and quickly shut the door behind me. I was close now, moments from finding a cure for my father. Energy rushed through my system as I stumbled forward, glancing at all the shelves. There were powders, salves, capsules, crystals, teas, oils. Small bottles, big bottles, bags, droppers, jars. It was overwhelming.

My eyes flitted over everything and I audibly gasped when I saw the word Tinctures engraved on a sign behind the counter. There was a whole wall of them, all in little blue glass bottles. Side-stepping the counter and walking behind it, I began to read the labels in the low light, grateful Sorrel had taught me how. Mind-Numb, Back-Ease, Swollen Eye-Reduce, Rash-Away

“You must be desperate to have broken my window,” a female voice called behind me. I froze, hand shaking with the Infection-Begone bottle I had just grabbed. My breath quickened and my muscles tightened like a coiled spring, ready to run at any moment.

I spun and came face-to-face with a kind-looking fae woman who had brown hair streaked through with a few greys. She was in her late thirties to early forties, standing in the middle of the shop wearing a nightgown, staring at the broken glass window with a frown.

“My father’s dying. Red streaks from a smelly wound grow towards his heart. I can’t pay. I’m sorry,” I said in a rush, hoping she wouldn’t attack me with paralyzing magic or call a guard.

Should I pull my dagger? Did she have magic to apprehend me? She was standing in the way of the exit, and I wished I’d thought this through better.

She nodded slowly, clasping her hands together as she gave me a subtle frown.

“If it’s red streaks, then the tincture won’t work. He’ll need a healer. The Academy has healing students who will take on patients for free, for practice. They need a certain number of different types of cases to graduate.”

My mind rolled her words over as I processed them. Confused. She was…helping me?

Didn’t she know I wasn’t from here?

“I broke your window,” I blurted out, wondering why in the name of the Light she would help me after that.

She nodded. “Which means you must really be in need. I’m in the business of helping people. I wish you would have knocked.”

Shame burned my cheeks, and I instantly felt awful. I hadn’t thought of knocking and just asking for a handout. Did she live here? I peered to the side of the shop and, sure enough, there was a popped-open shelf that concealed a secret door, which must have led to her home.

“I—I’m so sorry. I’ll try to pay for it.” It was a futile lie. We didn’t use coins in Isa. I worked at the tavern for barter. We had no need for money.

The woman gave me a stern look then, her eyes sharpening as she put a hand on her hip. “Oh, I fully expect you to come back and work off this debt.” She motioned to the broken glass.

Work. In The Gilded City? So, she didn’t know that I wasn’t from here. Her news of an Academy that seemingly trained healers and did free work was what held my attention now.

“Which way is The Academy again? My father doesn’t have much time, it’s been an awful night and I’m all turned around.” I pointed to the back of her shop and then the side as a way of asking for directions.

She rolled her eyes. “The Academy! The big black building west of here. Surely, you’ve dreamed of going since you were little?”

I nodded. “Of course. That Academy.”

I had no idea what The Academy was, but I wanted to go now, to find a healer for my father. I’d bring the tincture and the healer, then there was no way he’d die.

I slipped the bottle of Infection-Begone into my pocket. “I’ll work this off too,” I lied. “Just in case it helps him.”

She sighed, resigned. “Well, all right, dear. Next time, knock. You know I don’t mind helping the people who live on the West Side.”

There. Again. The guard and now her. It dawned on me then that The Gilded City did have poor people and my heart ached when I realized that they were able to immediately identify me as one of them.

“Thank you…” I mumbled.

I stepped out from behind the counter and hesitated before going to the front door and opening it.

“I expect you to clean this up tomorrow!” she called out after me. “I’ll leave the broom out.”

I didn’t want to tell this woman she’d never see me again. I kind of liked the idea of her thinking that I lived in The Gilded City, even if she thought I was from the poor part. So, I thanked her again, and left the shop in search of a healer for my father.

What I didn’t realize was that I’d find a whole lot more than I bargained for.

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