The news spread like wildfire; there was to be another burning today. A low excited murmur built up in the city, and as early two past midday, three hours before sunset, the bustling crowds seemed to be even more energetic than usual. Eveline knew; she had learnt the signs, and could feel the electricity in the air as soon as she walked out of the tall, gilded school gates and into the street. She had thought that that poor country girl would be the last, but what did she know? You could never predict the Spiritual Board, not these days.
The crowds were building up already, and she had to fight her way against the tide, squeezing through narrow gaps in the ceaseless waves of citizens, trying to stay afloat and avoid drowing in their midst. It was a long way home, half an hour on a normal day, but her route went straight through the central square; she'd be lucky to be back in an hour. She was only just getting going, twisting her way through the narrow streets, weaving in and out of the endless rows of squalid, single storey houses, if you could call them that, when she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder.
She turned anxiously, holding her breath, but was greeted with the infectious grin of Will, one of her best friends. One of her only friends. She let out a long, loud sigh of relief.
"Aren't you coming to the burning?" He asked, gesturing behind him to the throbbing central square, where the foundations of the fire were already built up high.
She paused, as she always did. Was she the only one who felt any sympathy for these girls?
"Yeah, probably. I don't need to go early to get a good place, remember? My dad gets decent seats for things like this."
A strange look crossed his face momentarily, but Eve couldn't read it. She never could with Will; he was the only one who could keep a secret from her. Was it jealousy? Anger? Then, all too quickly, it was gone. He was smiling again, and Eve almost doubted her memory, but she'd seen it, she was sure of that.
"You lucky thing!" he laughed, at ease again. He glanced over his shoulder, to where his mum, with her startling blue eyes and sharp intelligent features so similar to his, was shuffling impatiently. Once more he jerked a thumb behind him, and turned with a brief smile.
"Well, see you later Eve."
She raised a hand to wave, but he was already gone, his small, wiry figure lost in the crowd. Eve was stationary for a moment, wondering about Will. She thought she knew almost everything about him, but, on reflection, she wouldn't be surprised if it was all a lie. But, despite all that, she still trusted him more than she had ever trusted anyone else.
She couldn't focus on him for long, however, as she was knocked out of her daze, colliding hard with an intimidating man, heavy set and ugly, his shaven head covered in a plethora of grotesque tattoos. She squeaked an apology, but he hardly seemed to notice her, and as she made her way home, rather more sheepishly now, she had no time to think about anything other than avoiding the oncoming throngs of spectators.
Just seeing the preparations for the fire, the wood piled high against the intimidating beauty of the cathedral and the sleek, high rise offices of The Board right behind, made her feel nauseous with a sickening mix of fear and anger and sadness. It was all done for intimidation of course; the roaring fire placed in front of towering spires to show to the public the true might of The Board. They wanted to be feared, to be submitted to, and it was working.
Eve looked away, unable to cope with the sight any more. A few minutes down the road, she came across a small group of protesters, something she had never seen before. They marched around in small circles, waving their pickets angrily at all passers by, chanting loudly as they went. She watched for at least five minutes, deeply happy to find that there were others who shared her hatred of the burnings, and her focus left the crowds still surging towards them.
Absorbed in the protests, she was slow to see the crowds split hurriedly, leaving a narrow stretch of the dusty dirt road open. When she realised, she immediately tore her eyes from the protestors, and tried to blend in with the others, but was too slow to escape notice. As a large black automobile trundled its way towards her, a tinted side window rolled down, and her father's head popped out, ignoring the pointing from the public. People around her, surprised by her dirty, downtrodden looks, suddenly realised who she was, and parted quickly, leaving her alone in the open. She had never felt more exposed.
"Where are you going darling? The central square is that way, you know." He was frowning at her suspiciously; this wasn't the first time she'd tried to avoid a burning.
She thought fast, as she always did, reading her father's expression expertly.
"I was going home to get changed." she lied, "I can't go looking like this, can I Daddy?" Ughh. Daddy. Still, her father lapped it up, beaming at his sweet little daughter.
"Of course not, darling." He said, and he had a few quick words with the chauffeur before swinging the door wide open. "Hop in, you can have a lift back home. We'll wait for you outside, and then can drive you back up here in time for the main event."
Eve did as she was told, accepting her defeat. She might have to watch after all.
She clambered in, collapsing tiredly into a luxurious leather seat. Before closing the door, her father looked long and hard at the group of protesters, muttering quietly to himself as if taking a mental note. Eve, already staring vacantly out of her tinted window, didn't notice; she was drifting off, daydreaming of adventure in far flung regions of the world.
One moment she was scaling the dizzying heights of Everest, twisting a flag into the thick ice at the peak, and the next she was slashing through the rainforest, her vision filled with bright greens and spectacular reds and deep violets, birds chirping and monkeys screeching all around her in the warm, damp air. As a young girl who had never left the city, however much she loved it, Eve often found herself dreaming of leaving on wild, dangerous expeditions, and she would sometimes sit in school for hours on end just imagining them, until the teacher noticed, at least.
Now she was far north, sledding over the glistening ice under the brilliant light of the aurora. She shouted a command to her dogs, muffled under the harsh wind, and they responded immediately, skidding to a halt even as her breath froze in the icy arctic air. She had spotted something far below, something shining with the brightness of a thousand suns, its light scattered and refracted by the ice until it came out into the open in a dazzling display of shimmering colours. She dug deep in an awed silence, nearing the prize all the time. Her shovel hit something hard, she caught her breath, and she dusted the ice away to reveal -
She blinked. She was back, trapped in the confines of the city with its deafening noise, ceaseless activity, and dirty, dusty air, thick with smog. She was thousands of miles away from the wondrous calm of the Arctic. The automobile was stationary, and her father was outside the open door staring at her, their grand house in all of its splendour behind him. Caught daydreaming, she felt the blood rise to her pale cheeks, and fumbled awkwardly with the buckle of her seatbelt, flashing an unconvincing smile up at her father's frowning face.
Hopping out quickly, Eve ran up the long gravel drive, past rows of pristinely kept hedges and around the massive circular fountain, water splashing down its beautifully sculpted sides and into the pale blue pool with a soft and soothing rhythm. She approached the huge oak doors, carved so intricately that they were almost works of art, and slotted her silver house key into the lock, heaving the heavy doors open and stepping into the hall.
The inside was even more grand than the grounds, but Eve paid little attention to the great crystal chandeliers hanging precariously over her head, or to the hideously expensive works of art from around the world, all framed and hung with the utmost care. There were landscapes from Egyptia and exuberant pieces of abstract art all the way from the Americas, but nothing caught her eye. She'd grown up in this house, and nothing amazed her anymore, not even the huge vaulted ceilings, or the ancient antique vases, still brilliant in colour after all these years.
Bounding up the sweeping mahogany staircase and out onto the first floor, she burst into her room, shutting the door firmly behind her before rifling through her wardrobe. She wanted something dark, something to help her blend in with the night sky if she felt like slipping away later on, and found a pretty, long black dress. She changed quickly, and went through the pockets of her old clothes, hiding everything she had stolen with Will that morning. She had no need for any of it, of course, but she loved the thrill of stealing - it made her feel more alive than anything else could, and it was so much fun to break all the stereotypes of a rich girl and pretend to be poor.
Then she grabbed her purse from her bedside table and leapt back down the stairs, almost knocking over a precious Ming vase on the way down. She left swiftly, locking the doors behind her, and was back at the car in no time at all. Her father was impressed.
"That was quick, Eve. You really don't want to miss this, do you?"
"I wouldn't dream of it, Daddy." She replied, smiling deviously as the automobile started to make its way to the city centre.
One thing she did miss, however, was the fact that the protestors from earlier were all gone, their signs left scattered on the floor.
The place had certainly not got any quieter, that was for sure. When Eve heaved herself out of the automobile, stretching her stiff joints and taking in deep breaths of not-so-fresh air, the central square was bursting at the seams. The square itself was as full as it could possibly be, with the exception of the seating area designated for high ranking officials of the church, and all around people were rushing back and forth, searching desperately for a good vantage point. Small, grubby street children were perched on top of roofs like flocks of birds, ready to fly if anyone came and told them off; whole families were leaning out of windows, their faces etched with anticipation; there was even an aeronaut in a balloon high up above, trying to stay stable and hover over the square while looking out eagerly with a pair of expensive binoculars.
Crowds were parted as Eve and her father made their way through, and she could see a myriad of jealous faces looking their way as she settled down into her padded seat, with a perfect, unobstructed view. She would have traded spots in a heartbeat, if only she could.
As she scanned the crowd, looking hopelessly for Will, a great roar rose from all around her, filling her world with noise. Her eyes darted back to the front, where two frail women were being led to the fire by an official of the church, his expensive decorative robes, a horrible mess of gold and purple, in stark contrast to the tattered black rags worn by the women. His facial expression, too, was an exact opposite of the women's; him smiling from ear to ear as he waved energetically to the crowd, the women with their eyes fixed to the muddy cobbled street as they stumbled towards the fire, their faces in a resigned look of despair.
One of them tripped and fell as she was being led up the mountainous pyre, and the crowd cheered and jeered, raucously tormenting the poor woman even as she was led to her death. Eve was starting to feel sick, both emotionally and physically, and as the coarse ropes were being bound tightly around the two women, she tapped her father's shoulder timidly. He pulled his gaze away from the pyre reluctantly, his eyes still full with anticipation as he turned to see what she wanted.
As she was truthfully on the brink of being sick, Eve didn't need to lie about much, and found it far too easy to get away.
"Daddy," she said, quietly, "I feel sick, I think it must have been something I ate."
He surveyed her face closely, and satisfied that she was telling the truth, replied sympathetically, "Do you need to go home, or will you be fine here for now?"
Eve screwed her face up, as if making a tough decision, and then looked despairingly at the fire, almost ready to be lit.
"I really, really want to stay, but..." She paused dramatically, clutching her stomach and groaning. "No, I'll have to go home." she finished, trying to look as upset as possible. Again, it helped that she was in fact very distressed, regardless of whether that was because she was missing the burning or because she was devestated that it was even happening.
Her father was collecting his things, but she stopped him. "You stay and watch if you want," she said, "I'll be alright on my own."
"Thank you, darling."
He settled down again, and kissed her goodbye as she hobbled over to the automobile, clutching her stomach. She climbed in, and once again settled deeply into a warm, comfortable leather seat, closing the door seconds before the fire was lit. She didn't look back.