background-blur-bokeh-220067.jpg

Kiara

Alone, without hope.

Kiara wants to escape her life and start something new

Once again, Kiara sat on the end of her rustic four poster bed, its frame draped with luxurious cloths of dazzlingly white silk. The bed itself lay messy, the pillows heaved over each other in a crumpled mess. The duvet was slung off the foot of the bed, dangling over its edge and resting on the polished hardwood floor beneath.

She didn’t how many times she’d sat there, clothes falling limply around her slender form, as she tenderly kissed her latest lover goodbye before watching them leave, cursing them and counting their money the second they were out of sight. Her bright smile quickly turning to a curled and crooked lip. Kiara often wondered who she hated more: the men or herself. But it was always the same conclusion. It was always them.

Sighing, she looked to distract her mind. Gazing down at the palm of her hand, Kiara slowly wriggled her fingers, taking in a deep breath. Something started to spark between them, as if the flow of air between her fingers was creating some sort of unseen friction. The sparks grew bigger, until a flame emerged; a slither of fire that Kiara absent-mindedly twirled between her knuckles.

There was a knock at the door.

In a lurch of panic, Kiara quickly clenched her fist, extinguishing the flame. The knock came from Verva, the owner of the establishment in which Kiara worked. She never waited for an answer and a moment later, her head was around the door, smiling pleasantly.

What did she want?

“Good work this morning, my girl. It’s quiet downstairs now, the parade is starting. Why don’t you go down and see if you can drum up some business for later?”

Kiara said nothing, she just nodded. Verva had learnt to accept no more than this and skulked out, closing the door behind her. Kiara took another soothing breath, lifting her nose to the ceiling, she tried to quell her inner anguish. If there was one thing she hated more than letting men do what they did, it was going into town to convince them to do it.

Heaving herself up, her body clearly rejecting her mind’s purpose, not wanting to leave the solitude of her room, she headed for the door.

Kiara emerged from what she not so fondly referred to as her carefully disguised prison, into a lurid courtyard of redstone walls; walls covered in climbing flowers that wove their way amongst the wooden slatted windows and two-story terraces that sprawled across this affluent corner of the city. The sun-soaked shrine in the centre, a bronze statue of some old dead hero, shimmered in the light. Kiara sneered as she passed the metallic monstrosity. Every time she saw it there, she wondered why nobody else seemed to spot the vulgarity beneath. A hero of the people, standing guard outside a house of pleasure, corruption and despair.

Against the wall of the brothel, Kiara spotted a fellow worker, head between her knees, weeping. Some girls couldn’t handle the life they were forced into. Kiara didn’t pause to comfort her, she wasn’t interested in more tedium than she was already subjected to today.

The heat of the high-noon sun pummelled the sandstone paving along which Kiera wandered, bringing beads of sweat to her forehead. Why they called this city Coldmore she’d never know. Eight years she’d lived here, and it was never cold. She’d always thought to ask about the name, but dreaded the idea of an answer longer than a sentence or two.

People liked to talk too much.

This district of the city rose high with more two-story redstone houses. Narrow and constantly splitting off in new directions, the streets were like a maze. You could easily get lost here, easily lose an afternoon, but Kiara didn’t care. It was quiet here. Just how she liked it. A moment’s peace. Time without a man in her ear. It was remarkable, Kiara mused to herself as she made her way further down the streets towards a growing sound of cheers and screams somewhere beyond the maze of houses, that despite being told hour after hour how beautiful she was, she felt anything but.

Not that their opinions would mean much to her under a different circumstance anyway. Kiara had little interest in what most people had to say.

The noise of the crowd grew louder as she took a right down another, near identical street. The shutters of the houses were all thrown open in the warmth of summer. Beautiful potted flowers were placed precariously on window ledges; items of clothing hanging out to dry overhead. There was little fear of crime here, not in this part of the city. The few people she passed were the epitome of wealth. Wearing colourful clothes, neat and well looked after, adorned with jewels that sparkled in the sunlight. Kiara often had to remind herself that this is what she, herself, looked like. As she passed a couple, arm-in-arm, she got exactly what she’d come to expect from the people here. A reserved smile, a nod and a swift look past her. She didn’t much care for the people here. Although truth be told, she didn’t much care for people anywhere.

Finally, she reached the parade. The noise of the crowd was nearly deafening. Loud, unseen drummers played in rhythm to screeches and cheers of hundreds of onlookers. Ducking around a corner, behind the crowds, Kiara took yet another breath, pulled on a fake smile and streaked out into the herded masses.

Immediately she spotted a former patron, a portly man with a ragged beard, stained clothes and deep pockets. He didn’t much care to look after himself; he let others do that for him. Kiara was on him in moments, draping her fingers softly over his left shoulder before curling around his waist.

“We’ve missed you, Clark.”

Clark couldn’t have looked more pleased to see her. He ran his hands down her arm, looking at her from head to toe.

“It has been…’ Clark grumbled with grim, pleasureful sound, ‘A while.”

“Come and visit me soon.” Kiara winked, getting closer. She pressed her body against his, arms around his waist, resting her chin on his chest and looking up at him with big, dazzling eyes. “Please”.

Clark grinned, food caught between his yellow and black teeth, nodding furiously.

“Good.”

Kiara slunk off his form and turned away. The second her eyes no longer met his, they dropped from dazzling to dull.

Kiara continued to slide across the back of the crowds that lined a wide and open high street. She could hear the clinking of metal and the marching of steel booted soldiers as they made their way through the gathered spectators. Thanks to her short stature, though, she couldn’t hope to see over the much taller men, woman and even large children all clammering to get a look. But she wasn’t after a look anyway. She found the annual parade to be rather harrowing. People once free, sworn into lifelong servitude of a god they’d never seen, wheeled up and down in front of the people like cattle at a market. She might spend her day in the service of others, but at least she could enjoy some of life’s more solitary treasures when her work was done; like walking down a busy street without being gawked at.

She carried on, eyeing the crowd for stray men. Men she knew, men she liked the look of or just men that had wandered too far from their wives. But her eye was caught by none of these, instead, it was caught by a city guard leaning up against the wall of a house that cornered yet another winding alley. The city guard was short and slim, with rough blonde hair, soft features and clad in exotic metal plate work. He watched the crowd keenly.

“Should you not be in the parade?” Kiara called out as she approached him, grabbing his attention.

“Somebody’s got to keep an eye out for the unpleasant sort”. The city guard gave Kiara a look up and down, but not like Clark. This was a look of disdain. Of disapproval.

“Lucky we don’t get many of those around here,” Kiara said, smiling innocently and taking up a leaning stance beside him. “Warm today isn’t it?”

The guard mumbled back agreeingly, clearly not looking to strike up any sort of conversation.

“Must be hot in that armour,” Kiara continued. She leaned in close, took the guard by the arm and whispered silkily in his ear. “Maybe you should let me take it off and cool you down.”

The guard snapped a look at her. They were nose to nose. A fiendish smile on her face, a bitter look on his. He gave her a cold, penetrating stare before pushing her away forcefully. She shook her head with a fluttering laugh, a smile still spread across her face — a contrast to the anger she felt inside.

How dare he?

Kiara had gotten very, very good at hiding her true emotions. She wouldn’t get much business if she couldn’t. But she always struggled to maintain her mask when they knocked her around.

Her anger was diffused as her attention was drawn to the parade. The cheers of the crowd were getting louder. Excitement was filling the air. Kiara’s eyes fell on a trio of women, standing waist-high above the crowd, in the centre of the parade route. They appeared to be almost gliding over the heads of onlookers. A smooth grey mane and delicately pointed ears crept their way above the rows of people, bobbing up and down as they went. The horse soured the illusion for Kiara. Ahead of the trio, the large silver-maned mare pulled their carriage along slowly, so that everyone could get a good look.

The women wore bright red robes, glittering with golden embroidery. Their hair was tied up high in elaborate plaits and knots. Each looking nearly identical. What stood out most about these women though, was the fire. As they moved through the crowd, jets of flame shot from their hands, wrapping around their forearms as they swayed to the beat of the drums. As the women got even closer, the noise became unbearable. The people on the streets were enthralled by the magic, soaking up every moment of it like it was their last. Kiara had seen foreign Kings and Queens move through the very same streets without anything close to as much fanfare. Nobody was as loved and adored in the city of Coldmore than those who possessed the flame. The trio continued to display their gifts as the carriage rolled on past Kiara, shooting flames into the air and twisting them around each other in a fiery dance. It was hypnotic, in a strange sort of way.

Kiara looked at her hands, then back to the women. She pictured herself up there. In a soft red dress with people screaming and pushing just to get a look at her. She imagined going back to the palace where the magic users lived. Being adored, being loved… being imprisoned by her gift until she died. Property of the city. Property of the people. Never leaving without a host of guards large enough to conquer a nation. Never being left alone. The only freedom in sight being her last breath, brought quicker by the knife to the wrist she’d be tempted by every single day.

Kiara turned away and moved on. She returned to her hunt for patrons, finding great success with those men entranced by the beauties of magic; beauties they knew they could never hope to have. At least they could lay with another beauty, which might just be enough, for now. By the time the crowds of the parade started to disperse she had convinced more than a few to visit her before the week was out. She liked to think she was good at manipulating people, but maybe they were just that desperate.

A slow wander back through the streets was made especially slow by the crowds returning home, all elated by the magic they had just witnessed. Kiara didn’t mind the pace. If she’d done her job properly, she’d have a couple men waiting for her when she got back. A busy afternoon was good for the pocket, but bad for the soul. But a soul didn’t feed her or keep her warm on those brisk city nights. Still, she found herself taking a few accidental wrong turns down some much quieter alleys. Soon, she found herself in perhaps her favourite place in the entire city.

It was an open-air garden; green, luscious and just a little bit overgrown. In the middle was a small and shallow stone pool that people would occasionally come to cool their feet in, especially on hot days. Visitors to the garden were few and far between though, most prefered the larger gardens and parks away from the suburban streets, and as usual, it was empty. Seclusion was hard to come by in Coldmore, but here Kiara felt cut off from the world. With enough room for only a few people to stand inside, and completely enclosed by the windowless walls of houses, reachable only by a narrow archway that adorned the entrance, it wasn’t a well-known spot within the city walls. A single stone bench lay hidden in a small nook, sat up against the wall left of the entrance, ivy encroaching on its corners and climbing up over the lip of the flat-roofed building above.

Kiara dipped a toe into the pool, dampening her sandals, before settling on the bench. She sat, in a daze, willing the sun to set. The more she thought about it, the less she wanted to go back. Another man, then another. The thought made her skin crawl. She could just end it all. Show the world her flames and become adored by the people. Live a life of servitude she could never escape. She was given the opportunity of two worlds, and she hated them both. But at least, maybe one day, she could escape this one. She didn’t see how. There wasn’t much opportunity for a woman without a husband in Coldmore, and the only thing she hated more than the idea of being a servant to the city was a servant to one person. Reliant on them. A possession of theirs to be flaunted or hidden whenever they chose.

She let a small flame flicker in her hand. So many choices, yet no choices at all. Clapping her hands together she extinguished it angrily. Maybe no choice would be better than having a choice. But her mind couldn’t ponder on such thoughts. Unbeknownst to her, wrapped up in her own little world, a visitor had encroached on her space; given away by the clinking of his metal boots. The city guard was standing in the archway, watching her. How he’d snuck up on her Kiara did not know. It didn’t really matter, his eyes were lit like the flame she had just extinguished. She looked back at him in horror.

“What are you doing here?” She whispered, her voice cracking slightly.

“I followed you. I thought you  might— you know, pickpockets and— make trouble—and”. The guard tried to keep his nerve but couldn’t find his words. What he has just witnessed echoed in his voice. His eyes were fixed on Kiara’s hand.

A comment like that was not something Kiara would normally let slide, she hated being called a thief. Judgement was all too common in this city, and she made certain those who did regretted it.

She was a whore, not a criminal.

For years now, it was the only time she’d let even the smallest part of her mask fall down. But, her mind couldn’t go to that place of anger, it was still wrapped in the moment she was experiencing. For the first time in a long time, she didn’t just let her mask fall down, she wore no mask at all.  

“What are you going to do?” She asked firmly.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you not going to run to the palace and proclaim to have found another gifted girl?” Kiara spoke with an air of disgust.  

“Why haven’t you already done that?”

“Not all of us were born for that life.” Kiara glared at the city guard, her worry mixing with a burning anger, but the anger wasn’t directed at him. How could she have been so careless? So stupid?

“You prefer to entertain the dregs of humanity in your seedy den than serve in the flame?”. The guard asked, raising an eyebrow. Of course to him, the notion seemed ridiculous.

“Yes, I do.,” Kiara replied curtly.

“Then go.” With that, the city guard stood aside, opening the archway. In silence, he gestured for Kiara to leave.

She was startled by the offer, and rose from her seat apprehensively. She just wanted to run, to escape a moment she hoped never to experience, but this had to be a trick. Her mind was all over the place. She needed to think, to find an answer, but she couldn’t. She’d never felt anything like this before. Not once, in over two decades of life, had she ever been afraid like she was right now.

As she moved to pass him, she looked up at the guard, eyes wide.  

“What do you want from me?” She was almost pleading with him. Usually, the intentions of the men in front of her were clear, but she couldn’t understand why he was letting her go. It was a strange feeling, to not be playing a game with the man she locked eyes with.

“I will find you.” The guard whispered softly as he leant in towards her ear. His words weren’t threatening. “I serve the flame. You are one with the flame. I will help you see where you belong.”

“Or I will help you see what the flame really is. Just another cage I’m trapped inside.”

 

Rays of sun spun their way angelically through Kiara’s window as her busy afternoon finally drew to a close. She carefully picked up her bed linens and pillows, heaping them together. Pulling her door to, she slung them out into the corridor. Somebody else’s problem now.

In the corner of the room was a dresser. Oak, beautifully carved, and so tall it nearly scraped the ceiling. The dresser stood at an awkward angle, crossing it diagonally with its back corners resting against the walls on either side of it, while both of the front corners stuck out into the room. With difficulty, Kiara heaved the dresser to one side, the mighty piece of furniture groaning as it was slowly dragged across the wooden floor. Behind the dresser was a chair. A small and simple wooden frame, with quilted arms, back and seat. It was the only piece of furniture in the room that was untainted. She placed the chair before her lone window. Sitting down, she bathed herself in the sun’s warmth, spreading her arms out so it touched every inch of skin it could. This was her one pleasure in life, that and her secluded garden. Before her mind could be drawn to her worries, there was a knock at the door. She didn’t move, or say anything, she just waited for Verva to enter.

“Something wrong my dear?” Verva said, almost convincing Kiara she was genuinely concerned. Almost.

“No.” Kiara shut her eyes, staying rooted to her chair. She didn’t give Verva so much as a glance.

“Some of the patrons, they were… worried about you. Said you seemed distracted”.

“Sorry Verva, I was just feeling a bit tired this afternoon. The heat. I’ll be back on form tomorrow, I promise”.

“Okay dear”. Her voice was warm, but there was an undercurrent to Verva’s words that Kiara knew all too well. She didn’t run the most successful brothel in Coldmore by letting her girls lose their edge. “Anyway, you have a guest”.

This got Kiara’s attention. She looked at Verva, dismayed. “But I filled my quota”.

Her voice sounded desperate.

“He’s not a patron”. Verva backed away from the door as the city guard entered. He didn’t wear his illustrious armour anymore, but was instead in plain clothing, with sandals laced above the shin and leather bands around his wrist.

Kiara sat up straight in her chair, watching him curiously as he shut the door behind him.

“Didn’t take you long”.

“I just wanted to talk.” the guard said softly, his voice calming. Slowly, he approached Kiara, perching on the window ledge through which the sunlight poured, blocking it from view. She scowled at him through narrow eyes, but said nothing.

The guard looked at her with an affectionate smile, Kiara knew why.

“Preach, then”. She barked begrudgingly, settling back in her chair.

The guard wasted no time.

“The flame is a gift from God, urrr…”

“Kiara”

“Kiara. Each and every one of us is in servitude to it, we owe what we have to the flame. It is the greatest honour to serve the flame.”

“I’ve lived here many years,” Kiara said, rolling her hand in a gesture to the guard. She didn’t know his name either.

“Kor.”

“Kor. I know about the servitude, I know about the sacred vows and promises you members of the palace guard make, but I… I don’t want to be forever in servitude. What you people do… it makes me feel ill.”

Kor looked at Kiara earnestly, brushing off her comments without a second thought. She got the feeling not a single word out of her mouth would upset him. His starry eyes said it all; devotion. She was no longer a person to him. She was as close to a deity as he could get.

“Do you know what we of the flame believe?”

“Yes,” Kiara replied, dully, blinking back at him.

“Her power passes through you, Kiara. You, like those at the parade today, are conduits of her fire. Her gifts to the world.”

Kiara sat, pretending to contemplate his words. In reality, she was bored. She, like everyone else, had listened to crackpots preach about the flame for as long as she can remember. She never felt she was channelling God, never heard whispers or had thoughts of divine providence. She could just start a fire without flint and tinder. But then, she realised, this man didn’t believe that. But he did believe in his own ridiculous rhetoric.

An idea sparked in her mind.

“What if my destiny lies elsewhere? What if I felt a call, but it wasn’t to serve the city, but for something—” Kiara chose her words carefully. “Greater”.

She was back into her act, her mask in full view. She tucked in her shoulders and head to make herself seem vulnerable. Her eyes grew wider, more innocent and naive — anything she couldn’t say with words, she could say with a look.

“How do you mean?” Kor appeared unsettled.

“I always felt like my gift was a not meant for me, because I never wanted to belong to the palace. But what if it is because she is guiding me elsewhere? I’ve always felt a pull, ever since I was a little girl growing up in the city. A pull beyond these walls. Like she’s telling me to follow a different path”.

After a moment of gazing out the window, deep in thought, Kor’s eyes fell back to Kiara. “You are her voice”. He said quietly, in agreement.

“Yes!” Kiara stood quickly, moving towards Kor. Placing her hand softly on his face, she stroked her thumb across his stubbled cheek. Kor locked eyes with her, mesmerised by the woman that stood before him. Kiara too, had what can only be described as an affectionate look in her eye; far from the cunning thoughts that now ran through her mind. “And I don’t think I knew, until I met you, what I have to do.”

“What do you have to do?” Kor’s voice was weak and small, taken in by her sudden show of affection. His eyes drawn to the thumb that now caressed his cheek.

“We have to leave this place, together.”

Kor took in a deep breath, the words that followed filled with great regret “I can’t, I’m sworn to the city, to the flame, to her…”

“I am her. You said it yourself. You are sworn to me.”

“If I leave, they’ll come after me. They’ll hang me for betraying my promise to serve until—”

Kiara pressed her fingers against his lips, quelling his chatter. She attempted to look like she was being understanding, or at least that she is thinking over his words. She was not really sure what expression she wore, her mind was too busy turning over and over, trying to think of what to say next.

“Do you know what happens to me in here? Your conduit of God.” Kiara pretended to angrily remove her hand from Kor’s cheek.

A great sadness filled Kor’s eyes. He nodded.

“Take me away from here, take me from my prison and help me follow the fire that guides me. That guides us.” She put her hand to his chest. “Do you not think we met for a reason?”

Kor fidgeted on the spot. It seemed as if he was desperately searching for words as well. His mouth opening and closing, about to say something, until he finally came out with “We could tell the others, they might understand if we tell them”.

“And what if they don’t? What if they force me into the palace? We may never find out what she is really guiding me to.”

Kor was becoming flustered. His mind was in overdrive, she could tell by the flickering of his eyes and his incessant blinking.

“So what would we do, if we leave?”  

Suddenly, Kiara was caught off guard. What if they did leave? She hadn’t thought that far ahead. Would she end up his pet as he worked, or back in a whorehouse halfway around the world? They would have to remain hidden because of his stupid vows. She could leave him, but where would she go? If she had options, she’d have already fled. She thought he was her prison key, but yet another awaited her. Her spark of an idea was now a very small flame. If she didn’t play things right, it could easily be extinguished.

“We’d have to.” Her mind was blank. “We’ll have to…”

“We would need a plan,” Kor said, saving her from her bumbling. “A way to survive beyond Coldmore. A way to follow the fire that guides you”.

Time to think, that was what she needed. Maybe Kor was not the key, but perhaps he could bring it to her, like a well-trained dog.

“Yes.” She smiled. “Together, we can find a way to follow the path.”

“By her grace, we live.“ Kor chanted, closing his eyes and looking to the ground in prayer.

Kiara got in a swift eye roll before he looked back up to her, that same sickness of devotion still washed across his face. A look that she has seen on countless faces at the parade earlier that day. He smiled back at her faintly and gave a slight bow, like the good little soldier he was, before turning to leave. Just as he reached the door, he looked back at her.

“Could I see it again?” He asked sheepishly.

Kiara gave him a crooked smile as she dashed over to him. She placed her hand on his right shoulder and moved in close, her lips against his ear. She then lifted her left hand, lit a fire on her fingertips and spun it around right before his eyes. As he watched the fire, she kissed him on the cheek and whispered in his ear “don’t tell a soul.”

Stepping back slowly, she gave him with a deep, vulnerable, tender look; a look she gave all her best paying and least detestable patrons. The ones that always came back for more. She knew how to fake just about anything, even love.

“Nobody has ever seen the real me before.”

A statement that was still very much true.

 

 

Kor visited Kiara often from that day onwards. The second night, he bought two wooden sparring swords, passing their meetings off as training sessions paid for by Kiara, to help protect herself against rowdy customers. Those that served the palace could not own personal wealth, nor lay with whores, but they needed an excuse to meet. Kiara was forced to donate wages to the poor house on the other side of the city in return for Kor’s time, much to her disdain — or delight, as she made sure Kor thought.

With their romantic little cover story, as Kiara put it, they had all the time they needed now to plan. Well, Kiara would attempt to plan as Kor denied her at every opportunity, calling her ideas nothing short of unrealistic or foolhardy. Kiara had to admit, the excitement of a chance to escape her prison drove her mad with creative ideas. She also had no idea what they would do. She knew they needed money, and lots of it, but no idea how to get it. She had to figure out how she could use Kor for something. He must have a use.

She would lie awake, going over potential move after potential move. She dreamed of one thing: freedom, and sunshine, maybe by the coast. No man to care for, no man to please. Nothing but herself and the power to do what she wanted. She’d always thought of her magic as a curse, but maybe it was a gift after all.

Maybe it could take her away and give her what she always wanted.  

Kor’s affections for Kiara grew rapidly, and she was all too aware. But this is exactly what she wanted. She greeted him like a long-lost lover every time he came through the door and spent her time with the guard perched on his lap, talking to him softly and whispering sweetly into his ear. After a few days, she got even closer. After a well-orchestrated and tender moment, where she revealed she’d nearly had her head lopped off by bandits while travelling as a girl, she leant in and kissed him, gently at first, then with a fervent passion. Kor, like the good little follower of the palace that he was, tried to resist, to keep his vows, but it did not take long before he relented. Kiara was far too good at being something worth getting close to. Sometimes she worried he’d see through it all, but every day he came back to help her, oblivious.

Soon, now completely besotted, Kor took to visiting her at all hours, whenever he could. She almost felt bad, knowing he could be outside the window, listening while she was with a customer. She worried he might do something rash and impulsive, as fools in love did, and ruin her plans. She warned him not to come by before sunset, but he never listened. Happily, these visits were fleeting and, more importantly, calm. He would stride in, covered in gleaming steel armour, feigning some city business like noise complaints or patrols, but not once in her eight years here had a city guard entered Verva’s brothel, yet here one stood every other morning. It wasn’t as subtle as he hoped. Verva didn’t mind though, not as long as Kiara kept the customers happy.

Kiara had seen this behaviour before, in clients that didn’t quite understand the difference between love and paid love. Except this time no money was involved, so poor Kor was not to know his love was a lie. All he wanted to do was see her. It was tragic, in a useful sort of way.

Kiara had one final goal, to bed the city guard. Worried he might leave, become disheartened or eventually figure out her game, she knew that getting him between her sheets would break a vow so precious that to disobey it meant death. She couldn’t think of better leverage. Kiara was now intentionally creating evermore ridiculous plans, plans she knew were wild and impossible to pull off. She spoke of faked deaths, of kidnapping and even thievery from the palace itself. She wanted to make this whole idea seem almost delusional. A tragic and unconquerable quest that gifted them a bond of true love. She wanted to disconnect him from the outside, to make him feel as if they only had each other. As if all other forces were working against them. This vow was the final chain in the link she needed to break. And this was the way to crack it.

It took time before she finally caught him off guard. It started innocently enough, with another inane idea. This time, she got him into her bed, complaining of a sore stomach and chill. It was warm out, it always was, but she wanted him close — closer than ever before. As they lay, entwined in her bed, she spoke of life beyond the city together. Of days spent under the shade of a tree or listening to the chorus of gulls by the water’s edge. She threw in some religious bullshit about the flame and a flash of her fire for good measure. She was impressed really, no man had ever resisted her this long, but then no man faced death if they fell for her seduction. Except maybe if their wives found out. Even Kor, though, was no match for Kiara in the end.

She was just too dangerous of a player.

When he left, she didn’t feel that usual hatred. She sat perched where she always did, watching as the door closed. She didn’t feel joy, or happiness either, something the look on his face told her that Kor clearly did. Instead, Kiara felt accomplished. She’d done what she set out to do. But she also felt something else. She’d never tolerated a man like she tolerated Kor. The feel of his skin against hers didn’t make it crawl. The feel of his breath on her neck didn’t make her shudder. Maybe this was love.

Exactly thirty-three days after she met Kor, her prayers were realised.

 

 

A cool breeze whipped the air as Kiara wandered through the alleys in the early morning. The only ones awake beside her were market stall owners, trundling down the stone streets with carts laden with wares, ready for a busy day of selling useless trash nobody wanted. A polite smile and nod were all they would get out of Kiara. She never used to wake this early, but it was a common occurrence these days. Her mind was so full of thoughts that the moment she woke she was alive with a fire that burned brighter than the one that flowed through her fingertips.  

Kiara entered her favourite little garden, her piece of heaven in amongst the overshadowing city streets. She dipped her feet into the cold water and sat back down on the bench where Kor had first found her. This was a fond moment for her. She didn’t much care for memories, but she liked this one. The moment she found hope. It wasn’t fond memories that brought her to the garden this early though, nor her wandering mind.

The clinking sound of metal plates rattling against each other alerted her to Kor’s arrival. He stood in the entrance to the garden. Kiara drew a stone from her pocket and smirked. Carved into the rough surface were the words garden and sunrise.

“Didn’t you get enough of me last night?”

Kor was not wearing his usual expression of love and devotion, Instead, it was sullen and wrapped with anxiety. He seemed restless, tapping his fingers and looking over his shoulder.

“What is wrong?” Kiara patted the seat next to her. Kor shook his head at the invitation. A jolt of nerves hit Kiara with a sensation she felt only being penetrated with an arrow could mimic. Had he caught her out?

“I can’t stay,” Kor said quickly, with another look over his shoulder.

Usually Kor was a man of few words, Kiara liked this about him, but she wasn’t looking for curt sentences today. Not as beads of sweat began to form on the back of her neck.

“Tell me.” Kiara rose quickly and almost glided over to Kor, her long flowing dress grazing the grass that crept its way through the sandstone tiled floor. She got closer to him, testing to see how he reacted. He didn’t move in to meet her, but didn’t pull away either.

Kiara waited on his next move. She didn’t like this; not being able to read somebody.

“I have a way out for us.”

Kiara stifled a sigh of relief and instead looked at her lover with eager eyes. As much as she wanted to probe, she knew that wasn’t the way to play this one.

“Then why are you sad?” She offered, feigning concern as best she could.

“I’m not sad. I’m worried.” Kor locked eyes with Kiara, holding a stern gaze. She could see it in him, something was wrong.

“If it’s dangerous, we’ll find another way.” She couldn’t risk losing him, not yet.

“It’s not dangerous, and that’s what worries me.”

“What is going on, Kor? Talk to me.”

Kor pulled Kiara in close to him, not romantically but to make sure nobody could hear his words. “You mentioned two nights ago, stealing from the palace. I can do it.”

“What?” Kiara gasped. Her plan was a joke, a ploy to keep him in her bedroom longer.

“The palace army is marching out of Coldmore as we speak, with most of the city guard. Only a few of us will remain. I can take a few jewels and we can leave. It will take days before they realise they’re gone. We’ll find a buyer far from here and escape. Then we can do whatever you need to follow the fire inside you.”

Kiara was feeling emotions she’d never felt before. She wasn’t prone to happiness or elation quite like this. The closest she came to joy was her evening sunset, and even then that was more about letting go of the day than anything else. Before she let herself be swept up in the moment, she remembered that the man before her was worried about something. She had to remember she was supposed to care as to why.

“That’s amazing, my love. But what burdens you?”

“It’s not right. Coldmore doesn’t go to war. We don’t march outside the walls. We haven’t for a hundred years. The city has never been this empty. I shouldn’t be able to just steal from the palace and have things go unnoticed. Something feels very wrong”.

“It is not your job to worry about war and politics. You’re a servant of the flame, so help me serve her.”

Her words didn’t seem to ease Kor’s concern. She pushed further.

“This could be part of her divine will. To help us escape. To give us a chance. To let us realise whatever purpose drives me.”

Kor pursed his lips. Kiara could see it in him. He wanted to believe her words, but he was too much of a stubborn soldier to give up his fear. It mattered very little though, his mind seemed made up.

“We leave tonight, when my watch ends. It will give us at the very least until morning before they notice I’ve gone, much longer for the jewels. Gather enough supplies for five days on the road and meet me at the stables by the southern gate at sunset.”

And with that, Kor was gone, swept away in uncharacteristic fashion. His unusual behaviour didn’t quite resonate with Kiara as perhaps it should. She was too gleeful to be worried, although she knew she ought to be. Tonight she’d leave her prison and be free, if all went to plan. She’d always known she didn’t want life within these city walls, but she never knew of the freedom she could actually have, not until she met Kor.

It was all within her grasp.

 

 

It was after midday when the horn blew. Kiara had just finished entertaining her fourth client of the day, clients who were receiving a service above and beyond the norm — Kiara just couldn’t contain her excitement.

She peered out of her open shutters and down the streets in search of the source of the noise. People were running through the alleys, looking nervous; almost fleeing. Many were ushered inside houses and doors slammed. Then the horn blew again. She had no idea what it meant. Without a knock, Verva flung the door open, crashing through it so hard it nearly snapped off the hinges. The brothel owner was frantic. In a panic. She spoke a few words and disappeared in an instant. Her face was red and awash with sweat.

“The city is under attack, hide.”

Kiara looked back out the window. She could see now, the fear on people’s faces. She started to notice the terror in their eyes and the panic in their movements as they moved through the alley below her window. Rushing to her dresser, she dragged open the top drawer and pulled a knife from within it, which she promptly tucked into an open seam in her dress. Ducking under her bed, Kiara removed three planks of wood to reveal a crawl space just big enough for her. All the rooms in the brothel had one. You could never be too careful in this line of work. She tucked herself inside and lay there as time ticked on. For quite a while, she heard little but muffled voices and rushing around outside.

Kiara didn’t really feel terror. It wasn’t an emotion that came naturally to her, but she was worried. Worried about how this would affect her plans. What if there was an attack, and what if Kor was slain before getting her the jewels? In the darkness, trapped beneath flooring and between structural beams, a place even Kiara found the be slightly claustrophobic, it got even quieter. She started to wonder if it was all a false alarm. The horns had stopped. There was nothing but silence beyond her window.

Just as she started to wonder about creeping out from within her crawl space and sneaking a look outside, the screams started. Screams of women pierced the streets and found their way into her little hideaway. It was hard to make out the other sounds. Clashing metal, men roaring and knocking that sounded like doors being cracked open. While inside the brothel remained quiet, through her window she could hear a cacophony of chaos.

Coldmore was a peaceful city, a place that hadn’t seen conflict in centuries. Whatever brutality unfolded beyond her bedroom, Kiara knew it was not what the people deserved. She wasn’t really saddened by it, but she knew there would be in no justice in what sounded to be the most painful of deaths.

As Kiara’s mind wandered back to how this would affect her escape that evening, something entered her room with a thud. Through a crack in the floorboard, she could see that the door hadn’t opened. They must have entered through the open window.

On the second floor?

Somebody was definitely walking around inside, the clinking of heavy metal boots gave them away.

“Kor?”

Kiera’s heart fluttered. He wasn’t dead. They could still make it work. Throwing off the panels, Kiara emerged from beneath her bed. Before she could stand, Kor gripped her tightly, damn-near crushing her up against his uncomfortable armour plate.

“I thought I’d lost you,” Kor said, his voice quaking.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Kiara said, patting him down to look for the jewels, hoping it looked like she was checking for wounds. She tried to seem scared, she nearly forgot that she should be. Her movements were jagged, very jagged. Was she overacting? Before she could finish her search, Kor grasped her by the chin and kissed her.

“We need to go now,” Kor said, releasing her. “We’ll take the rooftops, I know a safe way out.”

“Have you got the jewels?” Kiara didn’t care how it sounded, she needed to know.

“No,” Kor said with a frantic look over his shoulder, marching to the window and checking each side of the alley. “I was trying to take them, as the alarm rang. They caught me, Kiara. They came rushing for me, and the others saw me.”

It was all Kiara could do not to slap the incompetent fool.

“But without them, what will we have?”

Kor squared up to Kiara, looked her dead in the eye and said calmly “We have your flame, we have each other, we have our love”.

Her heart sank. No jewels, no freedom. Her dreams shattered with Kor’s words. It was over, but she couldn’t leave.

“We should stay and hide. It’s too dangerous out there.”

“I won’t survive this Kiara, not if I stay. If I don’t die in the attack, I’ll be hung for trying to steal palace property. I know a way out, but we have to move before it’s closed. It’s the perfect cover. We escape, then the army returns. They’ll think I died fighting. They won’t ever look for us.”

Kiara released him with a long and obvious groan. For the first time, she revealed her true face. She gazed at him dully, her affection and passion replaced not with disdain or anger but with simple annoyance. She could no longer hide what she felt, and why should she? Kor looked back at her, perplexed by the expression that greeted him. He had only ever seen a kind, gentle, vulnerable face gazing back at him. This sudden move jarred him, he seemed lost. As unseen, but strongly heard, violence erupted in the streets, Kiara was aware she had given herself away. But she didn’t care. Kor was not only useless to her now, but he was a liability. He couldn’t be trusted outside the city alone, and what might he say so his life would be spared?

“They’ll think you died fighting.” Kiara commented, musing on Kor’s works. There wasn’t a hint of emotion in her voice.

“Kiara?” Kor uttered, his singular word riddled with confusion.

“Why do they call it Coldmore?” She asked. “It’s never cold…”

Swiftly, without hesitation, she pulled the knife from beneath her dress and rammed it into Kor’s neck. With a soundless gasp, his knees buckled and he dropped onto the hardwood floor. He reached up weakly and tried to grapple with the handle of the blade, his hands slipping across its slender form as they became coated in blood. His panicked, desperate eyes fell up to Kiara, who stood over him, watching calmly.

She gave him a small, warm and genuine smile. “You did die fighting. Fighting for my freedom”.

“My love?” Kors choked words were hard to make out.

She didn’t respond, instead simply watching him with a slight tilt in her neck. Like an animal gazing at something they didn’t quite understand. With a final slip of the hand over the blade’s handle, Kor collapsed, mouth agape, into a heap on the floor.

Kiara crouched down beside Kor’s wide-eyed body and withdrew the blade from his neck. She wiped it across the leather patches between his armour plates as she continued her faint smile.

She began to stroke his bloodied cheek.

“Thank you,” she whispered, endearingly. This is perhaps the most tender moment she’d had with Kor; from her point of view anyway. She really did mean the words she spoke. After a moment, a scream outside reminded her of what was happening in the city beyond her room. She quickly returned to her hiding spot under the bed and listened as the siege continued to unfold outside.

Careful, as to not catch the woodwork around her, she cupped her hands together and let the tiniest of flames burn inside her palm. Slowly, another smile spread across her face. A bigger one this time. An almost joyful grin. Today she lost something — and that was okay. This wasn’t the end of her story, she would find another way. Kor had helped her realise there could be more. She knew her freedom was out there, she just had to find another to help her take it.


Looking for more? Explore the best new fantasy books of 2019 available with our epic guide to the genre or go back for more fantasy short stories.