The stone was just right. Not a pebble that would bounce harmlessly, and not a boulder that she wouldn’t be able to toss far enough, either. Lynn moved her hand back in a mock throwing movement, paused, shifted her grip so that fingers would rest on the squiggly elven script adorning the stone, did the mock-tossing again, and, satisfied, put the stone in the bag.
She peeked around the fallen tower at the stalls being set up. The sellers unloaded their carts, laying out their simple wares. Food, clothes, basic tools. They moved quickly, as they knew their time was limited. Soon, the morning crowds will invade her world. She resented them and their homes in the light. They didn’t belong here, didn’t deserve this place. They didn’t have to endure it in the night, so why should they get to enjoy it during the day? Not that there was much to enjoy. The Last Battle may have ended a long time ago, but the ruins still remained, and no one was in a rush to rebuild, not here. Still, these were her ruins.
From her shelter, Lynn observed Russell, an older kid, sneak up on the produce stall at the edge of the market. He was new here, and probably wouldn’t last long. His mother was dead, and father gambled their house away. Or maybe it was the father who was dead, and the mother was in debt to the dragon. It really didn’t matter. Everyone had a sob story. Most had many, one more pitiful than another, to fit a sympathetic listener’s tastes.
The boy was hopeless. Instead of waiting for the buyers to provide the distraction, he made a dash for the vegetables while the seller’s back was turned. Which might have worked for a smaller and faster kid, but Russell was neither. Worst of all, he froze when the shopkeeper spotted him. As the old man grabbed his hand, he started blubbering. Lynn inwardly groaned as she made her way around the market. Tearful apologies and pleas for mercy, angry yelling, everyone’s attention directed at the entertainment. Since Russell couldn’t wait for a distraction, he became one.
With a couple of slices of smoked meat now in her bag, Lynn made her way towards the river. Since the day was going so well, she might as well enjoy it properly. Once there, the girl climbed on top of a broken column in a few easy practiced moves, settled comfortably, pulled out the food and let her mind wander as she stared at the palaces on the other side.
As much as she resented the people of Lower Valenar, Higher Valenar was different. The sun reflected off the blue filigree adorning most walls. Flowers and rivers and birds and dragons, of course. At this distance, they blurred into azure swirls, making the other side of the city look like a painting, unreal and untouchable. There, they didn’t live in squalor, didn’t wallow in the past. They took care of their own. To walk those streets, not as an urchin but as someone who belonged there. One day…
“Still fantasizing of being the dragon’s whore?”
The mocking voice broke her out of her reverie. Lynn glared down angrily at Josh. The boy wasn’t much older than her, but unlike Russell, he was at home here. Which meant he was dangerous, and antagonizing him wasn’t wise.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, I know that’s your ambition.” So much for wisdom.
Josh didn’t waste time exchanging insults. He jumped, trying to grab Lynn’s feet. The girl twisted left, expecting this, and lept off the column. She didn’t land well. Her right foot missed the rock for which she was aiming, scraping on its rough edge instead, all the way to her knee. Off-balance, she fell on her outstretched right arm with her entire weight, feeling the gravel bite deep into her palm. She didn’t have time to recover as a kick to her back sent her sprawling on the ground.
As she scrambled to face him, Josh picked up her bag and started rummaging in it.
“Don’t, it’s mine!” Lynn objected weakly as he extracted the remaining slices of meat, but didn’t dare get up. Without paying her any attention, Josh pocketed the meat and tossed the bag to the side. She watched him walk away, whistling.
Angry tears rolled down her cheeks. Angry at Josh for being Josh, angry at herself for stumbling, angry at the stupid dreams for being dreams. After a couple of minutes of fuming, Lynn inspected the damage. The shock of it all had started to fade, and the arm was getting stiff and unwilling to move. Most likely sprained. The leg didn’t feel seriously wounded, but gray dust had mixed with the dark blood swelling to the surface, making it hard to see the limb properly.
Lynn wiped away the tears, smearing dirt and blood over her face. Better that than tears. Limping and clutching her arm to her chest, she made her way down to the river. The drop wasn’t that great, and normally it wouldn’t have been a problem at all – she would have just jumped down. But now the mere thought of doing that and feeling the impact of the landing travel through her body and down her arm made her queasy. Instead, she carefully climbed down to the shore, using her other arm for support, stepping from boulder to boulder.
The river ran fast, it’s waters cold and pure. The elf-blooded reclaimers believed the riverbed was formed by a stroke of the blade of their elven god as he fought his last fight, and carried the tears shed at the place of his death. Lynn believed the elf-blooded reclaimers were full of shit.
The girl shivered as she sat down at the shore and lowered her leg into the water. The river was deep, deep enough that she wouldn’t have been able to stand there after only a couple of steps. Lynn washed the blood and grime off, wincing slightly as her fingers massaged the wounds. The leg was going to be alright, she concluded after further examination.
The way up was significantly harder. In the end, she had to hop up, pulling with the left arm, and striking out with her left knee to land it on top of the ledge. This made the leg that was oozing blood come in contact with the ground again, but it couldn’t be helped.
“Shadow take you”, she muttered at Josh who wasn’t there, and proceeded towards the temple district. No other choice now, not in her state. She’ll have to beg. At least being banged up was good for something.
Several hours later, Lynn assessed her meager takings. A bitten apple; several small coins, all towers; and half a loaf of bread. Could be worse. She looked at the crowd gathering at the temple of Marcus. It was a large and open structure with no roof over the main part, the better to praise the sun god. The sundown was close, and people came to pay tribute to his daily struggle against the Shadow. Lynn was grateful, of course, but she felt others were grateful enough to convey her feelings, as well. Not like the sun would stop shining without her prayers. At least she hoped it wouldn’t.
She’d spent most of the day at the stairs of the temple of Cerulea, instead. More bleeding hearts here. There was a constant stream of petitioners, of sick and tainted. They considered it a good luck to give to those in need after they’ve been cured, a tradition Lynn definitely appreciated.
She couldn’t stay there, though. In a city that didn’t sleep, the homeless could sleep at the Cerulean temple in shifts. The priests took in as many as they could, but they couldn’t take in all. And staying there meant giving up the place she had found beyond the wall. It wasn’t worth the risk.
Lynn raised her hand to shield the eyes from the daylight crystal that stood on a high pole in the middle of the street, and looked at the actual sun. It was barely visible over the rooftops. High enough. She still had time.
Almost without limping, she made her way to the docks. Everyone ignored her – a useful perk of being unwanted. While the streets were busy as always, the docks themselves were gradually emptying: the daylight crystals’ protection didn’t extend all the way here.
Lynn stood on the very edge of the outermost dock, and fished out the stone she had found in the morning. Closed her eyes. Gripped the stone in her left hand and imagined the underwater houses she knew adorned the reefs. The third part of the Trifold City, the merfolk’s dwellings. Safe and smug. Away from the dirt and the crowds and the food that tastes like ashes and the fear and Josh and the Shadow.
She tossed the stone, as far as she could. Watched it disappear into the water at a satisfying distance. Closed her eyes again and saw in her imagination it fall down, faster than it should in the water, onto a merman’s smug head. Lynn smiled and hurried back.