The inkwell tipped, sloshing two spatters of black liquid onto the desk. Rayen impulsively reached forward, dipping her forefinger into the puddle. It turned her fingertip black. She wiped her thumb across it, watching the ink spread from thick to thin.
Danwell looked up from the letter he was writing. Light from the candle flickered, casting threatening shadows against the wall. “This is not a mission for a child.”
“I know.” Rayen raised both her eyebrows, daring him to make the response she knew was coming.
“Then stop sticking your fingers in messes like a 4-year-old.” He folded the letter with crisp precision. From a drawer, he pulled a stick of sealing wax. For a moment, he held it over the candle. Then he let a drip fall onto the folded letter.
“Aren’t you going to stamp it with your royal seal?” Rayen let her sarcasm fall heavy on the word “royal.”
“Anonymity is best in our line of work.” Danwell passed the letter, sealed but unstamped, to Rayen. He stood to his feet and ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair. “I don’t know what the prince sees in you. You are a badger, Rayen de Crune.”
“And your plan would fail without me. You should be glad that I amuse him…and that I despise him.” She kissed her hand and blew the kiss saucily in Danwell’s direction.
Danwell’s hand suddenly snaked out and grasped her wrist. “This is not a game. If you fail us…”
Rayen glared at him and yanked her wrist free. “I won’t.”
The silence stood between them, connecting them and driving them apart at the same time. Danwell was the first to break it with a sigh. “God speed,” he said, though doubt still lingered in his eyes.
Rayen shrugged. “Or, sometimes, He moves slowly.” She blew a kiss again, stuffed the letter in her boot, and sauntered out of Danwell’s tiny apartment.
Dust and trash blew down the street. Pavement lingered in places, leftover from a previous era, but no one had paved these roads in over a hundred years. Rayen had heard stories – of wonders beyond her imagination. Harnessed powers that could light a whole house without fire, keep food cold, cook without a flame. There were cars, too. Rayen had seen the rusted metal shells abandoned in fields. But rumors said that they once raced down roads at indescribable speeds. Rayen wasn’t sure how many of the stories were true and how many had been exaggerated. All she knew was that everything changed after The Collapse.
The world that Rayen knew was the one that arose after The Collapse -- a world of kings and queens, horses and swords, fire and ice, and leftover pieces from the era before them.
Rayen reached her own house, several streets away from Danwell’s. Hers was a humble one. Here she lived with her mother and 4 younger sisters.
“Are you home, Rayen?” her mother called out, as soon as Rayen pushed open the front door. “The baker on 16th street said he will need your help next week.”
“That’s good,” Rayen called back. The letter crinkled in her boot. “And I’ll be running errands for the merchant in the evening on Monday and Wedneday.”
Her mother appeared in the doorway, wiping her hands on a towel. Her tired face smiled wanly. “My sweet girl.”
Rayen was not a sweet girl and she knew it. But a sweet girl would not have attracted the notice of the prince, and Rayen had done just that. She crossed the room and kissed her mother on the cheek. “I’m going to bed early.”
“Supper?” her mother queried.
“I ate on the way home,” Rayen lied. She danced quickly to the room she shared with her sisters. Thankfully, it was empty. The letter was transferred from her boot to the mattress. Then she flopped back onto the bed to stare at the ceiling. Now came the patient part. There was no way to know how long it would be before the prince sent for her again.