"Now you little brat, what have you done to Candice?"
"Nothing! Really!" Kaylia's ear was burning. Belynda pulled it harder. A scream escaped her mouth.
"You poisoned the food, didn't you?" demanded Belynda, her pudgy nose pressing against her. "How else would she have turned out like this?" she pointed at Candice, who had her face in her food, unmoving and unconscious. Kaylia found it extremely unfair. She was being punished for stifling a laugh at that hilarious sight, while Patricia was having a whale of a time, giggling both at her sister and at Kaylia.
"I…I think I added…peanut butter by mistake…" she stuttered. She screamed again as Belynda tugged at her ear. "I'm sorry! I thought it was margarine! And I didn't know Can was allergic to peanuts!" Her ear felt like it was going to tear anytime.
Belynda's grip loosened, but she did not let go. "You go up to your room, and continue studying those cookbooks!" she bellowed in Kaylia's ear. "I want a perfect dinner by Thursday, and if the guests complain, you'll be locked in your room for twenty four hours!"
"Mom, she already stays in there twenty four hours," said Patricia, admiring her recently manicured nails. Kaylia almost wanted to scrub them off, and reveal those disgusting yellow fingernails beneath all the artificial paint.
Belynda ignored her daughter's correction. "You go up. Now." She pushed Kaylia by the back of her head.
Kaylia tumbled forwards, and nearly tripped on the bottom step of the marble staircase.
"But mother – " Oh crap. She had said the word…
Belynda turned purple with rage, and puffed up her chest, ready to explode. From Kaylia's point of view, she looked almost like a blowfish, but didn't dare to mention so – especially not now.
"You are not to call me 'mother', you insolent wretch! Call me that again and you'll be flogged…" she screamed. She began to say other things (I shan't say they were nice), but Kaylia had already began to scramble up the stairs, in much too a rush to worry about the woman's mean remarks of her. She ran, skipping steps, and didn't stop until she reached her room, which was at the top of the tower. It would have left anyone huffing and puffing, having to climb at least four flights of stairs, but Kaylia wasn't even breaking a sweat. This was the only thing that helped Kaylia to tolerate her demanding, spoilt family – her talent for running, for it allowed her to get away before all the nasty comments reached her ears.
She burst through her door, and collapsed onto her mattress on the floor.
Turning over, she stared at the ceiling of her bedroom-cum-attic.
And she thought – not for the first, but for the millionth time – what had she done to deserve this family? All they did was lock her in a room all day, and never let her out until night, where she would go out to buy food from the black markets; she didn't even know what sunlight was like. What's more, they didn't even explain their actions. Every time she tried to bring the topic up, either to her mother – supposedly Belynda, as unlikely as it seemed – or her father, they would evade the question on the pretext of going to bed. So she came up with her own conclusions, her own imagination, telling herself the logical, that she was being used to do the night shift for their twenty-four seven She became nocturnal, sleeping in the day, getting up in the night to run errands for them. The family owned a small convenience store that was meant to run twenty-four hours, so they got her to do the night shift.
Another strange thing about her parents was that they gave her meals that consisted only of rare meat, and nothing else. But she couldn't complain, because as long as there was food, she was content.
Food. It suddenly reminded her of her near impossible task of preparing food for Thursday's party. The family's cook had gone on vacation, and for the past few days they were unable to eat home-cooked food, much to Belynda's annoyance. And now she had just been passed the heavy burden of preparing dinner. But how could she go from making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to perfecting a professional dish meant for high-class guests?
Kaylia rolled over and buried her face in the pillow. Maybe she could just lock herself in this room, and stay in here forever, and die here, where no one will care. No more worry, no more fear, just…peace. Peace from the twins sniggering, from Belynda's slave-driving ways.
But then it was like a light bulb blowing, and plunging the area into darkness. No, she could not lock the door. Only they could, because the lock was on the outside. She felt her pillow becoming damp.
Finally, she heard the slamming of doors downstairs, and knew that the family had gone to sleep. Slipping into her thin worn out bedroom slippers, she put on a jacket and tiptoed out of her room and down the stairs, taking care not to step on the squeaky floorboards, lest Belynda woke up and began yelling at her. Nonetheless, she risked a stop next to her parent's bedroom and pressed her ear against the door. She could make out Belynda's even but wheezy breathing, sometimes interrupted by moans and groans.
Probably having a nightmare about the dinner, thought Kaylia as she withdrew from the door.
Upon reaching the landing, she let her eyes adjust to the darkness before continuing down the hallway. It took less than a second, and then she could see all the obstacles in her way. Kaylia never risked turning on the lights. That would only give Belynda an excuse to reproach her for hiking up the lighting bills.
But now Kaylia weaved gracefully around the pieces of furniture, dodging and leaping. She extended her arms out on both sides, like a bird about to take flight; past the dining room, past the kitchen, and past the living room.
At last she reached the front hall, and spotted a note stuck on the front door, telling her of her night's instructions. Although she could see well in the dark, she had a bit of trouble reading Belynda's untidy cursive:
You will do the same tonight; Watch shop, clean it and buy groceries too. No peanuts, you slut. Get Candace's favorite deer meat to compensate her. I don't care how you get it or it's cost. Money is on table. Don't you dare run away with it.
Kaylia felt a wave of mixed emotions wash over her. She laughed silently at her mother's ridiculousness. It seemed Belynda did not trust her, after the sandwich episode this evening. Well, the woman never trusted her anyways.
Yet she was filled with loath, at the demand of having to find deer meat just for her 'dear' sister. Tarsedians got their meat imported from other lands, and deer meat was rarely found among those boxes and crates. The people feared the forest, rumors telling of evil beasts that lurked inside there. People claim to hear terrified screams of help, or howls of murderous wolves. Finally, the Head Trucekeeper decided to classify it as a forbidden area, nobody allowed inside the woods. He even built a high sturdy wall to prevent anyone from entering it.
"For safety's sake," he had said at the general meeting at the Center Square. "We don't want a death filled forest to tarnish our reputation, do we?" At this point Kaylia had grunted. Tarsed's reputation was tarnished enough to begin with. She was nothing but a shabby old remote town, and because of their poor business or tourism, citizens slogged day and night making a living. Those who could hardly touch a penny were put up at small straw huts, which they were meant to build themselves. Those who were successful in earning their pay were assigned to run-down terrace houses, like Belynda's. Kaylia often wondered how her mother had brought money back to the house with her petty, bias personality following to her like a shadow.
Kaylia decided to leave the meat problem until later. She snatched the note on from the door, collected the money and flung open the door.
She shivered a little as the chilly night reached out to her. She changed into her sneakers, taking a moments time to gaze at the pale faded moon with glistering stars surrounding it. The world seemed enchanting under the slivery starry sky.
The front lawn of the terrace was wet from the monsoon season. The two stonewalls were damp with rain, and water drops were trickling down between the cracks of the bricks as if it was crying.
"Feel my torture, don't you?" Kaylia whispered. "I'd hope you two are crying for me."
She sprinted across the lawn, her shoes squeaking on the wet grass. She reached the gate, its sleek black spires giving off eerie effect. It reminded her of spears, for spike heads of the criminals. Pushing it open, she entered the bustling activity on the cobbled streets of Tarsed.
Wagons wheels were rattling over the pathway, and hooves of horses clattered as the carriages the followed kicked up water, splattering her skirt. Kaylia didn't care. After all, that skirt was just one of Belynda's poorly woven clothes, all of which had been dumped to Kaylia.
She decided to walk, since the distance was not far. Strolling down avenues and lanes, she made her way past the plain but neat attap houses, and soon entered the city.
Tarsed was a small town built on the southeast edge of Filtrich Isle – or what they called the edge. In fact, the edge was the Death Forest: the Area of Darkness, a place where people were said to have gone in, but unable to come out. The little dilapidated town was unable to pay taxes, and thus they were pushed further and further towards the dreaded area – towards the brink of the forest, where a high wall was built with an iron gate. Of course, the citizens were indignant about this, but they could do nothing. So they decided to vent their anger on the poor, by making them stay nearest to the walls. The richer, were allocated at the opposite side of the town, farthest away from the forest.
Kaylia now trooped into the city square, where the rows of tudor houses lined the streets. Most were empty, considering how few people could pay the rent, and the remainders were occupied with small stores with sparse variety of purchasable items. This was because most Tarsedians could only afford to grow crops, so the land was mostly used for farms, while a tiny percentage of space was left for the business district. Belynda's small coffee shop was one of the few shops with business.
Kaylia spotted the shop, located at the corner of the street but scuttled past it. She decided to try out the black market first.
She heard the black market before she saw it. Bargains were being thrown about, and furious traders were battling with their voices. Then she saw lanterns, bobbing up and down like little balls of light, floating on a roughed ocean. They lit the black canvas tents, and the knitted eyebrows of those who were in combat of negotiation.
From her nightly trips made here, Kaylia knew the owners of the best stalls in the market. Frindel the fishmonger sold the sweetest of fish, Rais was the best meat seller in Tarsed, Cassandra sold second hand clothes for the best price, Vandro sold only the freshest of the vegetables and fruits, Mekaela the milk woman owned cows and goats that produced the sweetest milk in town, and Brent sold the softest bread around.
Kaylia jostled her way through the crowded street, and approached the meat stall.
"You have any dear meat?" she asked Rais. He was a snub, stocky man, with several pimples sprouting from his blotchy face. In front of him was a rack of spears, each one with at least ten kilograms of meat on it. There was lamb, beef, pork, and many other types of meat, but so far Kaylia did not see deer in the numbers.
He stood up, and pressed his knuckles against the table. "Don't take me as a fool!" he bellowed. "Anyone in the right mind would never agree to that price!" it took a second for Kaylia to register that Rais had been talking to the slim pale woman behind her.
"Well, I'm giving you business, aren't I?" answered the woman, in a composed manner. Kaylia had to strain her ears to hear what she was saying over the ruckus of the market. She wore a grey tight fitting trench coat that only reached her thighs, and a matching pair of high grey boots that came up to her knees, and her long skinny fingers was covered with fine leather gloves.
"Only two hundred reaths, for the whole stock!" Rais face was the color of molten lava.
Kaylia looked at the stock of meat on the shelves behind Rais. To her, there seemed to be half a thousand kilograms in the store. Who would want so much raw meat?
"Six hundred reaths, then," Kaylia turned to find another pale figure, this time a man with sleek blond hair, dressed almost identically to the woman, with the exception of the dark trousers. Kaylia could have easily thought them as siblings, judging from the same amount of thick black eyeliner they used.
Rais struggled to comprehend the situation.
"The whole stock…" his eyes clouded briefly, and for the first time they landed onto Kaylia. He jolted.
"Why, let me serve this young lady here first, may I?" he turned to Kaylia, ignoring the woman's protests, which included a complaint that he was just trying to worm his way out of the situation. "Well, Kaylia, what do you desire today?"
From the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the man's eyes widen a little, but briefly. Then they were normal, those blue eyes cold as stone.
"Deer meat," replied Kaylia, trying to shrug off the thought that she was being watched more closely.
Rais turned his back on them, and for a while he searched the shelves, and every minute Kaylia's anticipation grew larger and larger, until she could literally feel the weight bearing down on her.
"Nope," he said after a while, and Kaylia's hope melted like soft butter. How was she meant to get the meat now?
She hurried through the rest of her groceries, only putting up a few bargains with Frindel and Vandro, and kept them short. She made sure to avoid Patrick's peanut stall. Pressed for time, she hurried down the street, and entered the city, where the roofs of the tudor houses rose above her once again. She scurried down the lanes, not stopping till she saw the signboard that hung above the coffee shop.
Pushing open the door, Kaylia stepped into the shop, and found her father, standing at the counter. He had started to develop huge eye-bags, and his face wore a wearier expression than the night before.
His bloodshot eyes found Kaylia, all muddy and scraggly. "It took you long enough, daughter." There was a tinge of annoyance in his voice. Not a single hint of affection, or any forgiveness. This was not unfamiliar to Kaylia though. Her father knew Belynda openly despised her, so he tried to make it up to her, calling her 'daughter'. But this was not enough; for anyone could see that his heart was not in it. He secretly hated Kaylia too, but it was a different sort of hatred. He thought of her like a pest, an irritating fly that only stood in his way. He could swat at her, but could not kill. He could chase her away, but she would always come back. It was as if he had been forced to swallow a pill, and accept this fly as an eternal burden.
Kaylia the Fly. What a wonderful name.
Wordlessly, Kaylia took his place at the counter, and watched as his hunched tired figure sulked out of the door. He did not bother to ensure that the door did not slam. The display windows rattled, but most of the customers were unfazed; they were used to it. If it weren't for the regular customers, Belynda's store would have folded long ago.
"You look forlorn," Kaylia turned to find that Kenneth, a lanky thin boy who worked at the café, had slipped up again to her. "Care to share your burden?" His face spread into his warm, friendly smile, and Kaylia could literally feel the warmth spreading across her heart. She had always felt comfortable with Kenneth, possibly from the fact that he was her only friend. He made her laugh, he made her look on the bright side of things. He usually did this by moving his thin eyebrows in a comical manner, or pushing back his sandy tousled hair, pretending to be the most handsome guy in the world. But sometimes she was wary, especially when Kenneth was angry, for some unspeakable reason. Kaylia didn't have many friends, and she didn't know how to be one. She didn't know how to comfort, or how to encourage. She only knew how to stand aside and keep her nose out of anyone's business.
Kaylia sighed. "Deer meat. Sister demands dear meat. Can't find anywhere in town."
Kenneth stroked his chin. He knew her well enough to know the consequences if she went back without the demands.
After a while, he lifted his head, and stared at her with those laughing brown eyes. Kaylia seemed to sense exactly what he was thinking.
"No…no you don't," she warned him sternly. She lowered her voice, so that the few customers in the shop would now be able to eavesdrop. "You know that's illegal, Ken."
He leant over and locked eyes with her. There was a mischievous glint in his eyes. "I know."
He kept to the shadows, as if he was one. His eyes swept up and down the street, like a cat preying on a mouse. He made no sound as he dodged the lights of the street lamps, darting into where the dark rendered concealment from denizens of Tarsed.
He had just been about to take off again, when he heard the sound of a door opening round the corner, and flattened himself against the wall, merging again with the shadows.
"No, Ken, there's no way your gonna get over that wall."
"I have to, lest your mother give you a beating…"
"But they'll catch you."
"Kay, I can do it, just let me."
A girl ran out from behind the corner. She had freakishly pale skin, as white as a sheet, and her dark flowing hair seemed to match her sharp distinct chin ever so well. With his acute sight, he could see that under those thick black lashes, her eyes were piercing blue.
It was her, his target, his prey. Now that he had aimed his shot, he prepared to do it cautiously. If everything was to go as planned, he needed every step to be conducted correctly and precisely.
First, he needed to get rid of obstacles. He needed to get rid of the boy.