The young red-haired girl took the bread cautiously from Asha’s hand. She glanced furtively around to make sure none of the other beggars were watching as she hid it quickly in the folds of her ragged cloak, nodding in a silent thanks to Asha. She remained quiet, watching the girl leave as her companions admonished her for giving out bread to the poor in Damascus. It was smart criticism; there were many who weren’t starving nearly as much as she was still out begging on the streets. Though the fact that Asha had singled her out told the girl a lot about her. It told her that Asha was kind, generous, and had a sense for things she still did not quite grasp completely.
A few minutes later she stood up and moved quickly into the closest alley, going from a quick walk into a run when she cleared the busier streets, still clutching the bread wrapped in her cloak with one hand as she moved at speed through the cramped, filthy, and labyrinthine alleyways of Damascus. Her feet were bare, and the hard gravel, ruined asphalt, and bare stone was rough on her calloused feet, but she fought through it. A person couldn’t afford to stop or be cornered in this kind of place or else…
She turned into another narrow alley and saw two larger men standing at the opposite end. Cursing inwardly she turned to run back, only to see another man blocking the entrance to the alley.
All three of them began to move in, boxing her in as she searched frantically for an escape. The walls were easily ten meters high on either side with nothing to climb. The sides of the alley were lines with trash and other refuse, but it wasn’t enough to hide in and there was no point in trying.
She felt the one behind her take hold of her cloak, pulling it back to slide her hood from her head as the other two pulled in.
“Well, what cute little thing’s fallen into our net this time?” The biggest, seemingly the leader asked, placing a large dirt-calloused hand on her red-haired head. She knocked his hand away, but could feel how much more strength he had in that arm than she had in hers.
“Now see, that’s not very nice of you,” The thug only grinned at her stubbornness. “If you’re going to be like that then we’re just going to have to be rougher about this, aren’t we? Wouldn’t you rather this go easily?”
The girl took in a deep breath, if worst came to worst…
She felt one of them place a rough hand on her shoulder as the others checked her hands, one of them holding up the bread she had been given.
“Aw, she even brought us a little gift on the side,” The leader said. “How thoughtful.”
“That belongs to u…to me,” The girl said sharply, amber eyes flashing.
“No, see I don’t think you get it,” The thug said. “You might be new to this part of the city, but you’re in my territory. I’m like…well I’m like a king here, like what they’ve got in Babylon.”
“Ain’t the king in Babylon a chick?” One of his crew spoke up.
“Shut it, you idiot. It’s the idea. Point is, everything belongs to the king, so if he wants your bread, your stuff, or your body, then you give it up. Got it?”
The girl spat at his feet. “You are nothing but street slime. Render unto us that which is ours.”
The faces of the other brutes fell into almost exaggerated grimaces, but the leader seemed to keep a calm expression, even as his hand curled into a large fist.
“See, that was rather rude. And when you’re rude to a king, then you get punished. Some kings chopped off hands as punishment, but I’ll just settle for giving you a beating before taking what’s mine.”
His fist came down in a hard swing towards her head, but even before it struck her skin his entire arm seemed to erupt into flames.
As he stared at his hand in silent shock the fire dimmed, and they could only stare at the remains of his arm. Nothing of his lower arm past the elbow remained save for empty air and the ashen memory of bone near the scorched stump. A silence hung in the air for a half a moment as his face changed slowly from stunned confusion, to anguish and a scream began to erupt from his lungs.
Fire filled the alley, an inferno that burned brilliant red as it flew in a great conflagration almost to the rooftops before dying out just as quickly. A sudden burst of light and heat that many in the surrounding streets simply shrugged off as one of the city’s many oddities.
The girl fled from the alley again, bread in hand, leaving nothing in her wake save for the outlines of three men left in the scorched building walls and the faint smell of burning rubbish.
She managed to reach her hideout without further molestation, tucking herself into a small lean-to built into the side of a building, empty save for her sleeping mat and what few odds and ends that she kept around. Taking one last furtive glance around, she took a large bite out of the bread and chewed it, thoughts heavy as she tried to make the taste of the bread last as long as it could, chewing it well past the point of necessity as she felt the stomach-filling food dissolve between her tooth.
Damascus was free of three rotten souls, she didn’t particularly mind her actions. What irritated her was that it needed to happen at all. If too many incidents like that happened around her people might start asking questions and she would need to relocate to another district of the city. At least this time she didn’t appear to have left any witnesses…
A sharp knock on top of her shelter sent warnings through her body as she sprang to alertness. She swallowed the bread, tucking the rest of it away as she nervously opened the small curtain that marked the entrance.
Standing before the lean-to, alone in the narrow courtyard, was a single woman dressed all in black traveling clothes. Her skin was an unnaturally pale white and her hair a void-like black above scintillating green eyes, a crooked smile set upon her face.
“You,” The girl’s face set into a harsh scowl. “What are you doing here? We thought you were URIEL’s lab rat?”
“Now that’s unkind,” the woman said. “And here I was overjoyed to see you. May I come in or would I be intruding, your majesty?”
The last words were delivered with a powerful air of mockery and sarcasm which the girl did not appreciate. But nevertheless she pulled herself back into her shelter, giving the pale woman the room to slip inside.
“Oh, this is lovely,” She smiled. “So what name are you going by now, is it still Rachel?”
“Rachel is our name,” she said stubbornly. “And it’s staying that way.”
“Tsk, that won’t do, you’ll need at least two,” the woman said.
“And you?” Rachel asked. “What moniker do you have now, is it still Dantalion?”
“No, that one fell out of favor a long time ago; I go by Constance now. Constance U. Smith.”
“’U?’” Rachel raised an eyebrow. “What does the ‘U’ stand…ah, irrelevant. We don’t care to know. It’s an appropriately ironic name we suppose, ‘Constance’. Why are you here?”
“To check in, of course. I was quite surprised to see you, though I was less surprised that you failed to greet me, even if it does sting a bit. I thought we were friends.”
“You are a heretic and a troublemaker,” Rachel said, eyes narrowed.
“Now that hurts, right here,” Constance mocked pain and placed her hand over her chest.
“You have no heart,” Rachel spat.
“Well that makes one of us,” Constance’s smile came back. “Truth be told I came on behalf of someone else.”
“The girl,” Rachel nodded, picking up the remaining bread. “And her companions.”
“That’s right. I’m surprised none of them sensed you, you must be keeping all that power tucked away quite deep.”
“What do they want?” Rachel asked impatiently.
“They want to overthrow the Queen of Babylon,” Constance smiled.
Rachel stopped chewing her bread for a moment as she eyed Constance.
“We do not like getting humans caught up in our plans,” Rachel said, stuffing the bread back into her mouth, swallowing the last of it before speaking. “We really don’t like getting strange spirit-hybrids caught up in it.”
“Why? Do you dislike the company?” Constance asked, and Rachel shot her a venomous look.
“The way I see it,” Constance continued. “All you wanted was Shadiya out of the way, and these people can accomplish it, given the proper resources and contacts. You didn’t want Babylon, you just want Shadiya and URIEL to crumble. Then you can move forward with…whatever plan it is you have, and I can move forward with mine.”
“It is that last part we take umbrage with,” Rachel said. “We know you well enough to know how untrustworthy you are.”
“Why do people keep saying that?” Constance asked. “I am perfectly trustworthy, I have never gone back on my word, as well you know. If anyone’s untrustworthy it’s you humans.”
“If there is one thing to be relied upon,” Rachel said. “It is your utter and all-consuming ignorance of how humans operate.”
“Ignorant and proud!” Constance’s grin grew.
“Ignorant maybe, but we know you well enough to not be fooled. You want something out of this, and we are always concerned about the desires of heretics.”
“Oh, I desire many things, quite a few of them heretical to certain minds,” Constance said. “But what I desire right now, and what concerns you, is a free and independent Babylon…as well as a crown upon your kingly head.”
Rachel paused in her thinking. She could see the lure before her, knew how well Constance had baited it. This was the easiest and most transparent kind of trap…or it would be for the malevolent. Constance might be a demon, but even demons were only malevolent around half the time and Constance…Constance was strange even by demonic standards, even before URIEL had performed its experiments and done strange things to an already strange mind.
“We will make no deals and strike no bargains…at least not yet,” Rachel settled on finally. “But we are curious about this group. They have an air of fate about them.”
“Oh yes, they’re all quite entangled in the fate of Babylon and this region as a whole. The girl, Asha, has been touched by the Lady of the Future herself,” Constance nodded. “They are the metaphysical envy of those who wish to influence the future of this land.”
Rachel sighed. This was too good an opportunity to pass up, and both of them knew it. She had been handed the solution to many of her problems, she simply objected to the messenger. Still, Constance was a nuisance and a rogue element, not necessarily her enemy.
“Fine,” Rachel said. “We will seek them out on my own and in my own time. And if things go well, we might even see fit to…give you our thanks.”
“That would be lovely,” Constance’s crooked grin never faltered. “It’s been centuries since anyone ever thanked me for anything.”
“And we shall see if you deserve a king’s gratitude,” Rachel growled.
“Indeed, we will, though that also depends on you becoming a king,” Constance said. “At least you have the diction down to an extent.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “That’s enough. Begone from our sight.”
“A simple goodbye will suffice,” Constance gave her one last teasing grin as she slipped like a shadow out from the shelter.
Rachel sighed as she laid back on her sleeping mat. Constance might be more trouble than she’s worth, but it was true that she never lied and that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And much as she’d like to believe otherwise, Rachel only had a single lifetime to set her plan in motion.
This would have to do.
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa