Timothée thought his sister Marion might have told him something important this morning, in between his frantic bites of soggy oats, and Vivian trying to push down his wayward hair (pointless, honestly). It was just he really didn’t want to think about his sister right now, not with Carim Lingrint’s mouth slowly working its way down his unbuttoned shirt.
Timothée squeezed his eyes shut and tilted his head back. Dimming torchlight flickered off the ceiling. He was in the back room of the bakery, surrounded by bags of flour and tins of sugar, oils, chocolate pieces, and preserved berries. “I think I’ve forgotten something.”
Lingrint gave a long sigh. He was never much for talking during this sort of thing, or any other time really. “And you need to remember it right now?”
“No, I—” His words were cut off by the sensation of Lingrint’s calloused fingers on his hips. Timothee threw a hand behind him, clasping onto the old splintering shelf.
He wished he could dig his hands through Lingrint’s hair, but it was shorn so short there wasn’t anything to grab onto.
Lingrint’s tongue was rough and slimy as it slid across his stomach. He felt his blood rush lower and lower. Lingrint sat back on his hunches when he reached Timothée’s belt. Except Timothée didn’t have a belt. The buckle had broken last week. In its place, he had tied an old rope around his too big pants.
Lingrint was the son of the baker who owned this shoppe, and Timothée knew it was a bad idea to disappear into the dark back room with him so often. Everyone knew the baker wanted Lingrint to marry the blacksmith’s son, Alson Towers. The Towers were well off, and Alson would inherit the thriving shoppe soon enough. But Alson wanted to wait until marriage to do anything.
Timothée knew why Lingrint pulled him into the back room before close, why he stuck his hands down his pants, and grinned at him like they had a secret. And it was a secret even though they never said it. Because who would Timothée talk to?
Lingrint chose him because he had no friends, because no one spoke to the messy haired boy who lived in the decrepit apartment on Enola Avenue.
Despite the guilt, despite the strange gross feeling that always crept through Timothée’s chest as he buttoned up his shirt and pants, maybe the few minutes of pleasure in the backroom were worth it.
At least Lingrint knew he existed.
Now, Lingrint cursed, impatient as always, as his fingers fumbled over the rope tied around Timothée’s pants. His fingers, thick as sausages, couldn’t get the knot undone.
“Here.” Timothée reached for it himself.
Lingrint stood and started to undo his own pants. “Don’t bother.”
He pulled Timothée roughly toward him. Timothée couldn’t help it. He tilted his chin in Lingrint’s direction. Maybe Lingrint wasn’t the most handsome boy in Wolfhelm but it would be nice to kiss someone during all this.
He tried once, a few months ago, and Lingrint had pushed him away and laughed. “Jenny Cotswood was right, baker boy. You are a bad kisser.”
Lingrint ignored Timothée’s upturned face and pushed him to his knees. But Timothee stumbled over his own legs, arms flailing, and smacked against a shelf. There was a splintering crack, and the shelf tilted on its axis. Off slid a tin of sugar, a glass container of chocolate, jars of jam, and flying right toward them was a huge bag of flour.
Timothée held up his hand to stop it, and Lingrint stepped back out of the way. The bag exploded into a puff of white dust, falling over his head like snow.
Lingrint’s face turned more red than usual. “Look what you did! Who’s going to pay for all this waste?”
Timothée sat up, blowing dust and flour from the hair that fell over his eyes.
“That’s is going to take hours to clean.” Lingrint was already buttoning up his pants. “I’m going to the festival. I’m not going to be stuck here with you all night, baker boy.”
He didn’t even look back as he strode out of the shoppe, the back door slamming on his way out. Timothée stood, and looked around at the smashed jars, and spilled sugar, and red jam puddling on the ground like blood. Lingrint was right—this would take forever to clean. If he had the power of the god Xydrious and swallowed an Evening Star, he could fix the broken jars with a wave of his hands. Or if he swallowed a Morning Star with Rhaemyria’s power, he could summon water to wash the floors and blow all the flour away with wind.
But he wasn’t a Starling.
He wasn’t anything.
Just an orphan who worked at a bakery without a single real friend.
There was a sudden yowl, and Timothée turned to Yvaine, sitting in the doorway. The little black cat had a snarl on her face as if she had read his mind.
“Except you,” Timothée said.
That seemed to satisfy her, and she walked in, little pawprints adorning the spilled flour. He scooped her into his arms and stroked her scruffy fur. No matter how much he tried to smooth it down, it always stuck up.
He called her Yvaine after the evening sky, but she belonged to the witch who owned the shoppe next door, who called her Cat. Being called Cat was no better than being called “baker boy”.
The witch next door wasn’t a real witch, of course. She cured aliments by mixing orris root, and lavender oil, and she had an evil enough glare, and he supposed Yvaine helped with the look, so no one questioned her. But everybody knew she didn’t have real magic. Only Starlings could use magic, and she wasn’t a Starling.
Timothée had adored Yvaine from the first moment he’d seen her. No, she wasn’t the most beautiful cat, The fur around her ears was tuffed in a weird way, and her tail had an odd kink to it. People avoided her, moving to the other side of the shoppe, or if she looked too formidable in the window, they would walk right past.
People avoided him, too.
He never quite knew why. He always smiled, he was always polite, he tried to be helpful. But…no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember ever having a friend.
Besides Yvaine. And his sisters. But that changed too, exactly three years ago today. Vivian was been too sick to daydream about stories and heroes and adventures. She used to draw out his favourite scenes from his books, but he couldn’t remember the last time she’d picked up her pencils.
And now Marion was more of a parent than a sister, and not even in the fun way, the way Dad had been. Timothée shook his head and grabbed the broom. He was being ungrateful again. He knew Marion held everything together, that without her they would be a lot worse off.
But sometimes he wondered how much worse things could get.
By the time he finished sweeping and mopping the floor and hiding all the broken jars, the sun was red as roses. A nagging feeling plucked at his chest.
Was it the festival? He had tried not to think too much about it. His heart would ache with longing if he did. Delicious food, dancing, music, a display of magic—real Starling magic, from none other than the prince himself.
But of course, they couldn’t go. Tonight was—
Marion’s face flashed in his mind, her blonde curls frizzy, hand on her hip, grey eyes stern. “You come straight home after work today, Timothée. No doodling while you clean, no visits to the library, don’t even think about chatting with that witch, no stopping to look at the Festival of Unification, and absolutely no dallying with any of your,” she said the words with bitterness, as if he didn’t know how often Huxley Macgregor visited the leech shoppe, “acquaintances. Tonight is a moonless night, and you will come straight home.”
A moonless night. That’s what he had forgot. Well, the sun hadn’t set yet. And he wasn’t far from home if he walked quickly. He might still be able to beat her home and save himself a scolding.
He sighed, quickly closing the rest of the shoppe. Yvaine had fallen asleep on the counter, so he picked her up and wrapped her around his neck like a scarf, where she continued to sleep peacefully. He took her home with him every night and the witch hadn’t ever said a thing.
Outside, there was a cold chill to the air. The last remnants of summer were finally leaving, and bright orange and red leaves scattered the streets. There was an urgent energy to the crowd, an excited tone to their voices.
It would take him forever to push his way through. He darted his gaze to an empty alley. It was well-known in the capital to avoid the narrow labyrinth of alleys that cut through the city. But if he didn’t get home before dark…
Timothée ducked into the nearest alley, and immediately the chaos and swell of the crowd drifted away. Dark black pools of water, bags of garbage and old wood, shuttered windows, and skittering rats lay before him.
Timothée could deal with all of that.
“This isn’t so bad,” he muttered to Yvaine around his neck. Puddles of what he hoped were water seeped into his old boots. “Nothing to worry about—”
He stumbled to a stop. In front of him lay a pile of discarded old cloth. But it was moving. No, not just moving.
Timothée stumbled back, and Yvaine hissed, digging her claws into his shoulder. He needed to move, to turn around, but it was like his feet were rooted to the spot.
This was why you didn’t cut through the alleys. This is why everyone in the capital stayed away from the long shadows. This is why people hardly ever went out after dark.
The fabric shifted. No, not fabric, but wings. Long, membranous wings, tattered and holed as a moth-eaten blanket. A head lifted up from in-between. A face barren of all colour, hair merely a few oily strands. Eyes a blind white.
Timothée’s stomach roiled, and he managed to stumble back as it opened its mouth. Rows and rows of teeth, all jagged and long, cut into its lower lips.
Wolfhelm was better than most cities at keeping them away, making it seem like they weren’t a problem at all. But even the capital city of Andúrigard couldn’t eradicate them completely. For these creatures were born in the dark and lived in the shadows.
Living wasn’t the right term for this thing. This creature was wasting away. It was what happened to them when they couldn’t feed. They became barren husks.
When the vampires were well feed, they were just like humans, blending in. Well, not like humans exactly. They were faster, stronger, couldn’t be out in the sun, and lived off blood. That’s why they were so hard to eradicate. You could never know who was your neighbour and who was pretending in order to get close to your neck.
A low pitiful moan escaped the creature, and it extended a shaking white hand toward him.
He had some old crust and stale cookies in his bag. Even though he knew the creature longed for neither, he tossed them at it.
Just keeping its attention off me, he told himself. Deep down there was sick part of him that wanted to help it. But he could barely think the thought, it felt like such a betrayal. Especially on this day. After all the vampires had done to this city, to his family…
The bread and cookies wouldn’t help it. Sure, normal vampires could eat human food, but this thing was beyond it all. He knew the one thing that could help the monster was something he wouldn’t give.
How could he hate something so much, and yet his heart hurt for it?
He squeezed his eyes shut and hurried out of the alley. Marion won’t let that happen, he repeated in his mind, again and again until he reached their apartment. She’d be mad he hadn’t brought any of the stale bread home.
At least Vivian wouldn’t mind.
He knew she only pretended to taste it anyways.
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