Rays of the early morning sun enter through my windows, shrouding my room with light. It takes time for me to open my eyes; probably due to all the effort I put in closing them. As the moon went sailing down, it took me with it, just a bit too late. I probably got a solid two hours of sleep. Not the worst, though, I long for more.
My doors bursts open but I don't bother to open my eyes and check. Instead, I curl underneath the covers once again, bringing it back up to my chin when something pounces on top of me. It grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me violently, all while pushing down on my body.
I can't breathe. My lungs are shrinking. There's no air in them. I am going to die.
Before I think to open my eyes my legs thrash until I loosen the assailant's grip on me. With all the strength I have leftover from last night, I kick upwards until I find no more weight on top of me. Until I hear a heavy thud coming from one corner of my room. And then I hear wailing.
I sit straight up, eyes fluttering while adjusting to the brightness. On the floor near my wardrobe sits my youngest sibling, Jessamine, rubbing the newfound bruise on her forehead. Tears are streaming down her golden skin and fall onto the wooden floor. She wipes them away with the sleeves of her lavender nightgown.
Quickly, I hop out of bed and kneel beside her. I reach to inspect the bruise but she pushes me away with a shove. It barely gets me to move, but I scuttle back for her benefit. Jessamine looks up at me with glassy eyes. My sweet, soft, innocent sister.
"Why'd you do that?" she asks between sobs. She wipes at the snot and tears, ruining her nightgown even more. The bruise is a dark red now. The land planted it right above her left eyebrow.
"I thought someone was attacking me," I stammer out. "I got scared." She laughs and sniffles at the same time. It's hard to tell which one's which.
"You're," she sniffles again, "such a big baby."
I inch closer towards her until I'm close enough and pull her into my lap. She doesn't try to shove me away this time. I let her lean her head against my shoulder. I lean into her ear.
"Says the one crying on the floor."
Jessamine sits up and starts furiously wiping at her face. Despite her best efforts to seem calm, the tears keep on flowing. We smile at each other, basking in the happiness that rarely comes upon two siblings in this house.
"Hah! You're the one who could barely stand to kill that ant yesterday. Who's the big baby now?"
If only she knew there were bigger monsters in my playground.
She begins to regret her remark as I tickle her all over, making her squirm out of my room. Playful pleads scream out of her mouth as she managed to slip my grip. But before she runs out she hangs by the door frame and turns to me.
"You missed breakfast, by the way. Mom said to let you sleep in," Jessamine pokes her tongue out. "She even made me save you some bread and butter."
I get off the floor, dusting off my clothes. "You can have it. I'll just have some coffee." We both walk out into the main part of the house, passing the sofas and rugs and heading into the dining area. Jessamine's already jumping on the now cold toast and butter. She still eats it in gluttonous bites, though. I head into the kitchen, to the coffee pot still on the stove. It's still a bit warm, so I grab a mug and fill it to the brim. Carefully bringing it to my lips in an attempt not to spill it, a cold hand lands on my shoulders it spills over anyway, splattering on the ground.
"You're going to clean that up, you know." I turn around and see my mother, already dressed in her gardening clothes; a brown ensemble of pants and a long sleeve shirt, covered by a rubber apron of green. Her boots stand near the back door covered in mud. I must've woken up very late. She shoots me a smile and pours a mug for herself.
"I wouldn't have to if you didn't sneak up on me." I take the first sip of my coffee. Despite its temperature, it's enough to warm me up on this unusually chilly September day. No one should really be gardening in this weather, but I don't comment. Instead, I sit at the table where Jessamine is licking her fingers clean of breadcrumbs and butter. My mother joins us soon after. She looks me up and down, from my somewhat intact bun to my dusty leggings. I can see her eyes quickly skip over the shirt I'm wearing.
"Busy night?" My mother asks, seeming to care. She looks at me over her mug that she takes a sip out of. I mirror her and do the same.
"Not any different from before. It's what's putting the bread on the table." She flinches at my statement and I grin. She knows her garden doesn't earn as much as she used to. She barely tends to her flower shop anyway. And yet she still does it. With four hungry mouths to feed plus a fifth if my brother ever decides to come back. My mother catches my eye and by the look of them, I can tell we're thinking of the same thing.
Her failures. Jessamine. Ian. Me. Miles. Maybe even my dad if she feels sentimental enough.
Looking around our table, there are eight seats—if you count the broken stool. Only five of them get filled up. Not all at once, that would be a miracle, but it's usually one or two during breakfast, a different pair at lunch, and usually only one during dinner. But there are always three seats that never get used.
The first one belonged to my father. In simplest of terms, he died. He's dead. He's gone. And he's never coming back. They always tell you you'll be able to see your dead family members again one day, but that would mean I would have to die and leave everyone behind. I don't want to reunite with someone only to lose others in return. Seems like a pretty shitty deal, if you ask me.
The second one belonged to my older brother, Miles. The eldest one, he was slated to take care of us. He was to act as the man of my house when my father died. After all, he was the one our dear old father wrote down in his will to have his riches; not his other three kids, not his wife. His eldest. Miles never told us how much it was, but I got a sneak at the will. It would've been enough to feed us for at least a few years, maybe even have promoted us to wealthies. But as he got older, he instead chose to downgrade. Took all our remaining money with him too.
The third one belonged to Miles' girlfriend, Claudia. It's not fair to call it a chair, but we let it sit near the table anyway. Miles had courted Claudia for a few months before he decided it was time she was to meet us. Father was gone by then, so it was only my miserable mother and her eyebags to greet her and welcomed her into the family. He had said she was the father of a wealthy merchant living in the houses closest to the rich.
Turns out, people lie for love. It also turns out, that people are stupid.
Claudia was not, in fact, a wealthy merchant's daughter. But a daughter of a pauper, one caste below us. It's not unheard of, intermarriage, but it's oh so rare that many considered it unthinkable. My mother never told us the full story, part of why I resent her so much, but one day Miles was suddenly miles away from us. Gone. And so was our money.
Rumours say that they fled to the outskirts where people with no taste for separation run off to. They live on the outskirts of the middle-class area. It's mostly made up of poor and middle class, but there are some wealthy people who occasionally join the flock. There's a name for their group, but most of us just call them idiots.
My eyes bounce on each place. Over and over and over again. I don't know how long I sit there but it's long enough that by the time I come back to my sense the cup of coffee is gone from my hands and I'm alone on the table. Even the coffee splatter in the kitchen has been cleaned up. I quickly stand up and end up knocking the chair over.
It's too risky to be caught reminiscing. It makes you seem like you care. In this caste, you can't afford to do so. We might be middle class but just like the Eckford's, on the poorer side of things. I start towards the cluster of doors at the back of the house where all our rooms are and glance at the clock sits just outside my door. It reads 3 p.m. I still have plenty of time to kill before I meet up with Rue and Will at the pub.
I head into my room to pull out a dark purple cotton and make way to the bathing room. The water in there is fresh, cold, but fresh nevertheless. I take my time scrubbing out all evidence of last night from my body. The dust in my hair, the dirt and blood underneath my fingernails. I even give my swollen feet a bit of a massage; the one bit of luxury I offer myself.
Out of the bath and smelling like the herb soap my mother buys, I put my dress on over my head and braid my damp hair down one side of my face. I take a quick glance in the mirror. My face still looks full, that's good. I've thinned down about since Miles left and food became scarce, but it's nothing that the town officials will notice. Nothing that will force us out of here.
The dress itself hits just above my ankle, and the sleeves go to my elbows. I don't even like the colour but it has many pockets, including a hidden one on the inside, that makes me keep it. I should be able to survive in this weather with it too. After affirming my appearance in the mirror a couple of times, I toss my towel into my room and grab the doublet from under my bed. The piece of paper Will gave me is still there, so I put it in the pocket of my dress that hides inside the skirt. Then I slip on a pair of leather shoes and make my way out the door undetected.
The afternoon air isn't as chilly as the coffee had indicated. My dress now seems a piece of fabric too much for the weather, but I still start my trek towards my mother's flower shop. It's not open today. I figured I'd just help the place liven up a bit. Not like I have anything else to do, might as well try and get my mother to not completely despise me. (Not that I need her approval. She has shown me very clearly that Miles was the favourite, and despite being the next in line I'm no replacement).
Unlike this morning, the streets are hustling and bustling with people rushing to get to the markets. Some sellers, some buyers. A woman passes by me with a bucket of cabbages perched on her head. She gives me a sincere smile. Her name's Sadie. And I would probably be dead without her if she hadn't let me steal all that food all those years.
Everyone is heading the opposite way I'm going. It feels as though I'm going against the current in a stream, except it's much easier. The flower shop is a short two-minute walk from my house, and I'm there in less than that. Taking out the keys from my pocket—I had snatched them on my way out the door—and then I'm in the shop.
There's a bell chime thing on the door that's supposed to alert you of new customers coming in, but there's so much dust on it that the chimes sound muffled. Inside the shop is no better. Flowerpots line the walls. Oddly most of them are filled with fresh soil. The empty ones are stacked on top of each other and pushed to one corner of the shop behind the counter. The counter itself has a hand full of wilted flowers on it, a few knives, wrapping paper, and a tip jar void of any money.
The shop is quite small. There's the main showroom of flowers when you enter, then a storage closet-like space in the back closed off for employees, meaning my mom and I. With all the flowerpots around, it almost seems like you're being ambushed by them. I make my way to the storage room. Even from two feet away you can smell the stench of the wood dust from all the shelves. Holding my breath, I reach inside until I feel the fluff of the duster and pull it out. A bit of the feathers have been pulled out of it, leaving bald spots, but it'll do.
I make use of the hours I have before I have to set out for the pub by dusting every inch of the shop. I'm not able to reach some of the flowerpots on the high shelves, but by the time I'm done the main floor looks decent enough. I even have enough encourage from the sight that I take down the chime from the door and thoroughly shake out all the dust into an empty flowerpot.
When I hang the chime back up, the sun is beginning its descent into the golden hour. While particularly early for most pub-goers, going early gives Rue and I dibs on the best seats (and drinks), and if we're lucky, the best discounts, too. Will told me to meet him there at our usual time. He barely looks of age, I wonder how he can get in a pub, much less do assassin business there and get away with it.
And then I realize he's a wealthy! Of course, how did I not think of that first. The Lunar Tavern's located in the northeast area of the middle class, meaning it's both near the centre of the middle class, the outliers, and the outskirts of the wealthy. While a poor wealthy, Will's probably the only one that'll visit them. Knowing Kurt, the buff bartender, he'll be kissing the kid's ass if that meant he'll buy one drink. One drink for him means a lot more than a dozen for Rue and I. It means a lot more than a drink. Think peace offering. Think free advertisement. Maybe he already has kissed the kid's ass. He knows about the scar.
I put the duster back in the storage room and make one final look around the store. It's already looking a lot better than it had been when I first entered. After adjusting some precarious stacks of flowerpots, I prepare to lock up the store. Opening the door to go out, the sun rushes it and from the corner of my eye, I spy a glinting object. Turning to face it, there's a small object on the counter that I must've missed from being too focused on the dust.
From a distance, it looks like a small stone. I think of Rue and Will, who, despite my early planning, are probably waiting on me now. But my curiosity still gets the better of me and I silently pounce on the stone, the door closing with a soft thud, but now the chimes ring clearly. Picking up the object, I realize it's not a stone exactly, but a ring of gold with a large stone placed on it. If I sold this at the market this would probably get me mad cash, not the money Miles ran away with cash, but enough that I won't have to take on as many assignments.
But something about the ring makes me feel sentimental again—a habit I'll have to get rid of soon, at this rate. The golden ring has long scratches on it only to reveal more gold underneath. Not gold plated, real gold. This thing must've been damn expensive. But what was a wealthy doing in the likes of my mother's flower shop? Why would they have left such a valuable object here? Who am I kidding, they probably have thousands of these rings up there. Thousands of golden rings in perfect condition. This has nothing on their collection.
As for why someone would leave this here so carelessly, I can't think of many reasons, and the only reason I have in my mind is the same reason Will's meeting us at the Lunar Tavern. It's not possible though, the shop's always locked if none of the family is here guarding it, and we take the only copy of the key home with us each night.
I slip the ring on my finger before I think better of it. It fits perfectly on the ring finger of my right hand. A bit heavy because of the stone, but it's pretty enough. Before I step out of the shop for real, I think twice about wearing the ring; it'll make me a walking target for thieves. I remove it off my finger and shift it into a pocket on the underside of my dress. At least if people try to steal it, I can accuse them of two things.
I finally step out into the streets again. The Lunar Tavern shouldn't be more than a seven-minute walk if I can beat the merchants who are heading home for the night. I lock up the store and put the key in the same pocket as the ring.
If my theory about it is true, I'd rather hold on to whatever image I have of my family now. Miserable, broken, starving…
But not a family of killers.