Born under the Bright Sign, Emile would often be told by her mother that she was special. Her flaxen hair seemed to resist dampness and dirt from a young age. When all four of her brothers and father had perished to starvation and fever, she seemed to avoid it. Calamity avoided Emile in her early years.
She grew strong and beautiful until, barely a few days after her flowering, her destitute mother arranged for her to travel not from their nameless hamlet to a real town like Lakesberg, or even a castle like Bitter Peak, for Emile was too special for such places. For her, nothing less than the glorious gem of the empire itself, Altdorf, would suffice.
Kruger didn’t abide weakness. The streets of the City could sniff it out, hunt it, and burn it from you. If you were consumed in the happening, so be it. Everyone had to learn that lesson sooner or later… even Emile.
The country girl couldn’t read, didn’t know her figures, had never worked a day outside her Baron’s farm in her life. Despite it all, Emile was perfect for what he needed. Kruger’s tavern was known for one thing and it wasn’t his dry pork, watered down beer, or majestic view of the drainage spillway. It was girls: young, dumb and desperate.
She absently turned her ring around her finger as she walked home. Like everything around her, the ring looked gold on the outside, but it was only painted wood. It was the last part of Helmgart she had left since the fool boy had given his life for her honor’s sake. Stupid, valorous fool of a Helmgart! Kruger blamed her too, of course. Her one chance, the sole moment of warmth her employer had ever afforded her. Gone.
To pay him back for the loss of his clerk, Kruger said, she would have to work double shifts. She labored, her back ached and her hands blistered, and more than once she’d dropped an entire tray of dinners and the whole njght’s wages with it. He would show her The Ledger where he tracked what she owed him for all the chances he’d taken for her. She was so grateful to be in the City and yet every time she seemed to near the end of The Ledger, calamity found her and it was right back to where she started.
It had been her idea to take on these ‘late night duties’. The other girls did it; Ulba swore Emile would only need to do it for a few weeks before she’d clear The Ledger. It wasn’t as bad as she thought, the girls told Emile. They gave her a green skirt, a small wooden shank if a fellow got too rough, and Ulba even agreed to keep an eye on her.
Well, pretty Ulba found a fellow, a regular, within minutes, leaving Emile to stroll quietly from one pool of lamplight in the dusk to the next. A quick dash through a dark alley led her from one row of lamplights to the next, street by street, in the area Kruger told her to stick to (“them other girls’ll ’ave yer face cut like holey cheese if ya venture into their turf”, he said).
“You’ll do,” came an unsettling voice from the shadows. Emile turned and saw a man in strange robes nestled in the shadows as if they were water and flowed around him. He stepped forward, closer to the lamplight she stood in, and yet the shadows persisted.
A moth, drawn to the flickering flame of the lamp, descended and alit on his shoulder. All at once it seemed to seize up, flutter a bit, and fell to the ground, dead.
“Come closer to me,” he said in a low whisper. She couldn’t make out his face and nothing in her wanted to do as he said. From the shadows of his drawn hood she thought that for an Instant his eyes flashed with a pale green light. Her limbs grew cold, colder than any winter, and she found herself doing as he said. She opened her mouth but nothing would come forth from her lips.
The shadows which clung to this dark man slithered from his boots and came toward her. She wanted nothing more than to recoil, to run, but once those shadows touched her and drew her forward toward him, she felt nothing more.
Her lips parted and a sound came from her, not from her throat, but from the space in her mouth. It was like soft, squeaking whispers but sinister, maddening. She couldn’t make out any of it- they were just sounds to her. The man lifted his head enough that the lower half of his face was illuminated. He spoke in a voice that matched the one she now made, and she could see his tongue forked like a snake’s and his teeth were sharp like a wolf’s.
‘What is her name, Sigurd?’
‘Emile, daughter of Helena and Bran.’
‘Does she know anyone important?’
‘….she does not seem to.’
Emile knew a new kind of fear. The man seemed satisfied with these answers. He turned and stepped deeper into the alley. She followed, not because she wanted to but because she no longer was the driver of her own body.
Her heart pounded in her chest. Fear drowned her thoughts. She felt Death stood before her, had come for her at last after sparing her for so long.
“I need something of yours, Emile,” he whispered aloud, his back still to her. “Something precious to you, but not your life. Yet I am not a thief, for as I take, I will also give. I want you to keep yourself very safe. Your True Name is precious to me and you will play an important role in the times to come. Now, put your hand against the wall.”
She didn’t want to. With every fiber of her will she tried to fight her hand rising and flattening against the wall and yet it did. The man gently turned her bodily to face it and placed something heavy and clinking in the pocket of her green skirt. Helmgart’s ring was so dull in the darkness. The gold paint didn’t glisten at all.
Her other hand rose up in front of her. In it she held the wooden shank. She didn’t remember even reaching for it.
“You won’t need it anymore. In the end, it will be such a small price to pay. Avoid the emperor’s men and the hunters. You are marked for something special now, Emile.”
Gold coins spattered onto the table where Kruger wrote in The Ledger. He picked one up without so much as looking at who had dropped them. It felt real enough. To his surprise, it was Emile who had spilled them. She clutched a bloody hand to her abdomen and her empty face was white as fresh linen.
“I hope ye didn’t kill someone fer dese?” Not that he cared overly much. Emile just shook her head, turned and made for the door.
“Dis more’n clears yer Ledger, girl. Ye wan’ change?”
She stopped at the door, staring blankly ahead, and said “One day I will return.”