#1




i looked back, not forward, into death




“You get back here right now, young man—“

Hester’s shoes slip and scrabble over the pavement as she lunges after Hero’s shadow, and she nearly trips as they round a corner at full tilt.  Her hair sluices out of its braids in waterfalls, coming more and more undone with each step she races to catch up with him. Each step sends a jolt up her bones, and each breath burns in her lungs. It’s hot overhead—the sun bleeds into her skin and claws at her like a living thing. The streets are packed with people that watch her with eyes both bewildered and indignant as she dashes past them, banging clumsily through the crowd, trying not to step on toes as she searches for Hero among the forest of shoes. He’s slippery when he wants to be, and it doesn’t help that he fits right into the sea of black and brown leather. Sweat drips down her temple. Her heartbeat bangs frantically against the inside of her mouth as she peers over people’s shoulders and searches at their feet.

Someone lets out a disgusted squeal and yanks their foot up from the pavement—Hester whips her head around just in time to see Hero scuttling away from the disgusted citizen. “Fucker,” she mumbles under her breath, and tears after him so fast she almost trips on the cobblestone.  

Down the streets Hero and Hester sprint, past bakeries wafting the smell of cinnamon and tailors secreting the scent of new leather, past the tinkerers, wheelers and farriers, past butchers washing blood into the streets and smokehouses turning salt into ash. The whole town is waking up around them, opening its shutters, blinking against the sun. It should be calm. But it’s all swimming by too fast as Hester pants and gasps for breath, trying her very hardest not to lose sight of Hero as he weaves through the alleys. She’s sure that if she could see his expression, it would be a smirk. Rascal. Each inhale feels gravelly, bright-burning in her constricted chest. 

Oh, when she gets her hands on him, they are going to have a talk. Hester’s not quite old enough to be a parent, but she’s already getting gray hairs from trying to raise this pseudo-kid, who presents even more unique challenges in that he a) can’t speak any human languages, and b) has been running since he was born. It’s like taking care of a toddler on steroids, or a Greek god-kid. Sometimes she wonders how she does it. Or why. “Parenting,” Hester gasps to herself, “is a thankless task,” and her face drops into a mask of horror as she realizes she’s lost sight of the steroidal toddler in question.

She comes screeching to a stop in the middle of the street, nearly tripping over her own feet. Her whole body flares with heat; sweat pours down the back of her neck. With a groan of discomfort Hester bends to rest her elbows on her knees as she gasps for breath. Each inhale burns more than the last, until finally the pain starts to subside and she can lift her head high enough to catch sight of Hero at the end of the street.

Squeezing under the doorway into the fanciest tavern in all of Nyker.

Hester has never even thought about entering the Red Lion. She is far too poor and far too plain to spend her (little) money in a place frequented by people who are born with more than she’ll ever have. The idea of having to go in there, where princesses and lieutenants are dressed in silk and velvet, when she looks like this—sweaty, disheveled, in search of a rat—makes her teeth itch. Her eyes almost start to burn. It might be tears, or salt, or simple, intense embarrassment, but Hester really doesn’t want to think about it any more than she has to. She’s already ashamed of it.

Instead, she grits her teeth and pulls herself up to standing. With the back of her hand she rubs the dust and sweat out of her eyes, takes a deep breath through her noise, and turns. A girl with dark hair goes rushing past, streaming a cloud of blue glitter behind her. Hester’s pulse skyrockets, but with some forced confidence and a numb hand she reaches out to tug on the girl's arm. Her lip quivers a little, but she tries to ignore it.

“Can you help me with something?”

@Althealansi Yver <3