The skies drooled on her hair with the spit of a long-dead dog; cold, unpleasant, and reeking of the omens to come. She pulled her elaborately jeweled necklace tighter around her neck. The sparkles at the bottom of its chain had become so entangled in her dress that the jerking motion pulled her garments tighter around her weary body, giving her a temporary illusion of added warmth. She muttered under her breath, wary of being too loud. Shadows were not supposed to talk.
A cough accompanied by flicker of light, where there should have been silence and darkness that would make a Rogue weep, evoked a split second of fear and panic in her. She reached one hand into her pocket in what felt like hours but was only an instant, and was about to grasp for the familiar cold metallic smoothness, until she realised she recognised the cough. Also, attackers usually didn’t make a habit of announcing their presence with an annoyingly polite sound.
“Oh,” she said, trying to sound as bored as she possibly could, “It’s you.”
The cougher’s throat appeared to be healed into silence by her emotionless voice, which seemed to linger in the hollow alleyway like the leech her tone accused him of being.
“Well, er, yes, I… I’m not sure who else you would be expecting in this… in this.”
His voice trailed off with the uncertainty at what “this” actually was.
The thunder made a welcome entrance in their awkward silence, and later, when the lightning lit up his face for a split second, she thought she noticed a look of relief. Grinning, despite herself, she started making her way along the alleyway wall, deeper into the gaping mouth that would lead her to where she had promised to go. She stopped breathing until she heard his dainty footsteps behind her; he had promised to join her, but a man can change his mind very easily in the dark. She thought it funny that he would be the one helping her now; years before she would have trusted in friends more than a beneficiary. Perhaps money was thicker than water.
They walked for what felt like hours, but she knew this tiny cobbled lane well. The darkness only served to amplify her memories; like a dark movie screen, she found herself projecting the moving images of a long-forgotten summer on the black canvas infront of her. Strawberries stolen from grumpy old Mister Hu’tan; their succulent flesh exploding into syrupy heaven in her mouth, while the memory of the old man’s wrinkled face and fist shaking at them simultaneously still burned on her mind. Undamaged hair flying in the warm wind, she remembered the joy she shared with her fellow strawberry thief, and how the grin in her eyes was echoed in another pair of young eyes.
The clear vision of her sister brought the sour taste of nostalgia to her tongue, and she swallowed to keep from losing her last meal to a memory she had buried with purpose.
“We are almost there. Er. Sh- My lady. Your Grace. Er.”
She grimaced. As much as she didn’t like his assumption that she had forgotten the way, what she appreciated even less was his apparent struggle with their role change over the years. Age was a devious thing, and she was not so sure she enjoyed the weight of adulthood. No, if the gossip was true, and he was to be her only ally, she knew better than to sever their ties with the expectations of society. As much as she would rather be with anyone else in this predicament, she knew that he would only remain an ally if they were on equal grounds.
“Things are different in the here and now. Remember me as I was, timekeeper.”
She thought she heard his breath shake at her recognising his old ways, and was about to smile at the idea of them rekindling the bond they once had as children, when she suddenly realised his reaction did not have anything to do with her request to drop the formalities. In front of them was a door both hidden by darkness and illuminated by its contents. Its wood seemed new to the touch, yet the aged abstract carvings told of secrets so ancient the skies would not remember it.
His voice choked a little, and she swallowed even harder now to stop herself from bursting into tears.
“We have arrived, my Lady…”
He hesitated for a moment, as though he was struggling to regurgitate a jagged piece of glass.
“We have arrived, Lady Sh’anaa.”