When she was born, Vesper also learned when she would die. Only approximately, however.
Knowing the precise day and time it would happen rarely troubled her thoughts. Unfortunately, today was different. She desperately needed to know whether or not she was safe for now.
Vesper pulled out the delicate gold chain from beneath her tunic. The tiny hourglass dangling from it looked exactly the same as it always had. Only a few crystal grains had slipped from the top to the bottom. When they ran out, so would her life. According to the hourglass, she had plenty of time left. Still, it gave her pause.
Even I can't mess up death, can I?
She reburied the necklace beneath her shirt. Vesper always heard the old women say that putting something out of sight meant putting it out of mind too. That was exactly what she needed. For the hourglass to be far from her thoughts. It was safer that way.
Vesper glanced at the bell tower and waited until it chimed. Out of habit, she counted the tolling of the bells even though there was no need to do so. She already knew the time. Evening prayer. Vespers, her namesake. A final handful of people scurried through the streets below her toward the church. By now, the rest were inside, their voices rising in unison as they prayed.
"O High One, come to my assistance," they called.
Vesper tightened the scarf covering her hair then pulled herself out of the window and onto the ledge beneath it.
"O Hashem, make haste to help me."
Vesper snorted. If anyone should be praying for help, it should be her. She was testing the High One's plan for her life. Again. She should have prayed for Hashem's protection, but she didn't. She didn't have to. A decade's worth of attempts to alter her destiny had taught her one thing: she would live and die just as He wanted whether she was tucked safely in her room or in her current predicament.
Vesper looked down and immediately wished she hadn't. The ledge she inched along was not even as wide as her foot. Worse, it was four stories in the air. She gritted her teeth. What she was doing was… well, it was…
Vesper winced. It was not the first word she would have chosen under other circumstances. The rest of the kingdom used it so often when they talked about her that she had grown rather tired of it. Reckless. Careless. Wild. Even if they were right to call her those things, it was not her fault she acted the way that she did. She blamed the necklace. If she had not been forced to wear it, if it had not pushed her into a life she did not want—
Vesper braced herself against a gust of wind determined to tear her from the castle wall. She managed to hold on, but her headscarf was not as lucky. It was ripped from her and tossed violently about by the wind. Between the darkening night sky and the dizzying heights, Vesper soon lost sight of the purple fabric. She grumbled moodily as she added the loss of her favorite scarf to the complaints she had against the High One.
When the wind finally passed, Vesper took a deep breath and pressed on. Her fingers tingled from gripping the stone walls. Night was falling quickly. And if she did not hurry, she would be late for pie. Her body resented every step, but Vesper clearly saw the open window before her. There was still work to be done.
It was an eternity before her fingers finally curled around the window's edge. Numb with cold, Vesper dropped awkwardly into the room with a heavy thunk. Not exactly her stealthiest move. Quickly she jumped to her feet, her head swiveling so fast that it pained her. Finally, she let out a small sigh of relief. There was no reason to worry. She was alone.
Vesper's nose crinkled instinctively. The smell in her brother's room was nothing short of foul, and it took most of her remaining strength to keep from retching on the floor. That part of her plan had gone off without a hitch at least. A feed bag from the stables full of something less pleasant than feed had managed to find its way into the suite of rooms her brothers shared. Naturally, they had ranted about the stench, and the castle maids had been sent to scrub every surface and fling the windows open to cleanse the air.
Serves them right for locking their bedroom doors. If they wouldn't steal what didn't belong to them, I wouldn't be forced to break in.
Vesper tried not to disturb her brother's carefully made bed as she ducked under it. The floor was bare. She rummaged through the contents of his desk mindful, of course, to set them in their proper places. Still nothing. She was crossing the room to her brother's trunk when she heard voices outside the door. Male voices. Familiar voices.
"Curse the Dark One! It's cold in here."
"And doesn't smell any better either."
Vesper muttered a few words her mother would not have approved of under her breath. She silently pried open the chest and started digging. Dirty clothes. Wooden practice swords. Panic welled inside her, but she dismissed it swiftly. She had to focus.
It has to be here. It just has to be.
Without warning, her fingers brushed against something out of place in a chest full of things belonging to a nearly grown man. Something too soft. She pulled it out and smiled with relief.
"Off to bed already, Ash?"
Vesper's eyes flew to the closed door across the room. Again, there was a flash of panic, but she roused herself and scrambled toward the window. As she went, she shoved her prize deep into her pocket. She had been on countless escapades over the years. Well, that was what her father called them anyway. They had given her lots of practice in the art of escape, but even she would not have much time for this one. Already keys were scraping in the lock.
"Not to sleep. Just hoping the smell will be better in here. G'night, Conlan."
Vesper was halfway out the window when she realized the trunk was still open. She groaned silently. If she went to fix it, she would be caught. If she left it, her brother would know someone had been there. When the door cracked open, Vesper was left with no options. She hurriedly pulled herself out of sight and onto the ledge.
Haste and caution are not brothers.
Was that another of the old women's sayings or something she just made up? Vesper had no time to think about it. All she knew was that it was very true and she was in a lot of trouble.
One second, both of Vesper's feet were planted firmly on the ledge. The next, she was clutching the window frame by her fingertips, and her feet were flailing wildly in the open air beneath her. She struggled to right herself against the slippery rock. Her muscles burned with effort, and her heart threatened to explode in her chest. Now she had a reason to panic.
Despite her best efforts to tame them, a few angry tears dripped down her cheeks. Loose strands of her dark hair stuck to the wetness they left behind.
The hourglass lied. I am going to die.
It was almost too much for her to bear. She had already lost one life. Now she was going to lose this one too?
A raging fire surged in Vesper's chest. She was not ready to die, and the High One's necklace promised that it was not her time. Not yet. While she did not fully trust His plan for her life, she was willing to believe that part of it for now. She would fight.
After a few agonizing minutes of grappling, Vesper finally found the ledge again with her toe. Moving cautiously, she straightened herself and settled into a better position. Angry shouts poured out of her brother's open window. On any other night, she would have stayed to listen. It always amused her. Tonight, however, she had no desire for it. There was something about nearly dying that made eavesdropping less appealing. Vesper worked as quickly as her shaking body dared toward her escape window. It no longer mattered whether or not the guards below saw her. She would gladly sit through another of her father's tongue lashings if it meant she was alive to hear it.
Vesper had never been more grateful to feel a solid floor beneath her feet. She sank down heavily beneath the window and leaned her head against the wall behind her. Outside the bell tower sounded again. Only an hour had passed, but she felt as if days or months had gone by.
She had one more stop to make before she could rest. Her body sagged with fatigue at the thought. Her eyes followed suit, drooping and finally closing under the weight of the evening. If she could just sit for a few minutes, maybe then she would have the energy to get up again…
Vesper jerked awake as a familiar warmth spread across her chest. Her fingers automatically reached for the hourglass around her neck. The metal was glowing softly. She wanted to hate the thing, her noose, but it was strangely comforting beneath her touch.
The first time the necklace glowed for her, Vesper nearly died of fright. It was also the first time she had seen one of the tiny crystals sink to the bottom of the hourglass. After a few hours, the necklace returned to normal, but Vesper was far from it. She could not help but wonder what had caused the change in the first place. It took three more times—three times of falling crystals and glimmering glass—before she realized what was happening. The hourglass sprung to life when she did something or learned something meaningful. Vesper had no idea why some events were more important than others; she just knew they were.
Wearily, Vesper counted the fallen grains. It was one more than before. Another milestone of her life she did not understand and another step closer to her grave.
She glanced at the bell tower again. She was late. Usually she enjoyed the meetings, but she knew tonight's would be different. Being late was actually a bit of a relief. She would blame it on her brothers who were still fussing next door. Better to wait out their fury a little longer in safety than run the chance of crossing their paths. A few more minutes would do no harm.
She retrieved the small pack she had left in the far corner of the room and returned to her spot beneath the window. Vesper rummaged through her pack shoving the books that filled its bulk aside. At the bottom she found what she'd been looking for: two sheets of crumpled parchment.
She read the first letter as carefully as if she had not already done so a half-dozen times. Setting it aside, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the stuffed toy she had risked her life to find. Vesper smiled and shook her head in disbelief as she stroked the soft body. According to the note, the dog's name was Pup. An unimaginative but accurate description, Vesper concluded. His mint green coat was all but worn away. Initials were stitched in black to one paw: J.A. James Averill, youngest son of the neighboring but enemy kingdom.
Death by toy. That would look nice on her tombstone.
It seemed foolish to risk so much for something so small, but Vesper knew it had to be done.
The world was fragile. Averill Kingdom was constantly pitted against her own. Each side simmered and waited for an offense grievous enough to justify a strike. Skirmishes erupted frequently. It took considerable work to keep things from boiling over into all-out war. Her work, to be precise, and the work of her friends. Work that on occasion included rescuing a child's play thing from deep in enemy territory.
Vesper sighed as she tucked Pup gently into the top of her pack. On top of the books. The same books she had stolen without remorse a pair of hours earlier from the private office of her tutor Master Hutton. It had been her last desperate attempt to convince the High One that he had misjudged her. Vesper shook her head heavily. A knapsack that held a rescued toy and a stash of stolen goods. One good deed and one bad. Such was her life.
Hesitantly, she reached for the second piece of parchment. She had touched, read, and crumpled it so many times over the past week that it appeared ancient. It was her formal summons to join the Hamsa, The High One's elite guard and fellow bearers of the hourglass necklace. It was also the final blow to her dreams of staying in the Anarran Valley.
Like everyone else in the Two Kingdoms, Vesper knew little about the Hamsa except that the High One had chosen them to fight against Deofel, the destroyer of worlds himself. Tomorrow she would be inducted into their ranks and begin her training. It was a lifetime appointment. A soldier fought until he died by an enemy sword. Or worse if the stories about Deofel's inhuman army were true.
She refolded the letter slowly. For a few years after she received her necklace, Vesper had tried to convince the High One that He had made a mistake. She became the kingdom's most notorious troublemaker and prankster. It was mostly harmless stuff. After all, her goal was to ruin her own reputation. Then she added skipping church, prayer, and fasting to her repertoire. She even ate meat occasionally when she stole away to The Fringe. None of it worked. No matter how unworthy of the honor she tried to make herself, Vesper never received a letter saying she was dismissed from the Hamsa.
Then she switched tactics. Mostly. She tried to atone for her actions by secretly doing good. The kingdom thought so poorly of her that she had the perfect cover. No one would suspect that Vesper Sutherland would ever work for peace between the kingdoms.
Vesper stared at the parchment in her hand. The long-awaited letter from the Hamsa had finally come. Instead of releasing her, however, it sealed her fate.
A few dark strands had fallen from the double rope braids that held her hair up and out of her face. She swatted them away.
It was finally settled. Hashem had not changed his mind. She was going to be just another practice dummy for Deofel's soldiers on the front lines. Apparently that was the only use the High One could see for her otherwise useless life.
Vesper angrily shoved the papers into her pack and closed it. She had waited long enough. She needed to run.