The city square of Astaden was beautiful . Its sparkling cobblestone streets beckoned on the merry couples who strolled arm in arm, laughing over the lively jazz tunes emitting from a street band on the corner. Gaggles of colorfully dressed ladies hurried past, shopping parcels clutched to their chests, their delighted giggles mixing with the rustles of their full skirts. In the center of the street, an intricately carved carriages paused to let families of finely dressed little children, each helped up the step by immaculately dressed footmen. But even on the side of the street, pushed up against the buildings so to stay out of the way of the more important company, the view of the bustling downtown was all but breathtaking. Indeed, it was a good part of Astaden’s charm that it could be beautiful even from a street rat’s point of view.
Charlotte’s smile had a sardonic edge at the thought, but her spirits still lifted as she continued her walk, push cart in hand. Lavishly decorated apartments towered above her, and she kept close attention to the increasing numbers plated on their sides. The buildings were painted in a palette of cheerful warm colors, rich oranges, pinks, and off whites accented by the window ledges bursting with flowers. 184… 185… there it was.
She turned the cart in front of her to rest before the stairs, and hoisted a crate of apples into her arms. Carefully climbing the wooden stairs with a balance drilled into her, she made to knock on the door, before a tittering voice sounded behind her.
“Oh, I’m sorry, you must be the delivery girl.”
Charlotte turned, and saw a woman adorned with bright blond curls in a rather frivolous pink dress beaming back at her. “I’ve just returned home, my father should handle all the deliveries, so if I could just get around you?” She trailed off, looking pointedly at the door behind her.
“Oh! Yes, of course,” Charlotte hurried off to the side to let her pass.
The girl went to the doorway, but then paused and turned around. “I’m Evangeline Briars. What’s your name?”
It took Charlotte a full moment to realize her sparkling green eyes were expecting her to speak. “Charlotte Fineburn.”
“It's nice to meet you, Miss Fineburn,” Evangaline said with a smile, before disappearing into the house.
Miss Fineburn? She couldn’t remember the last time someone had called her that. Her uniform- a simple green dress with her hair pulled back in nothing more than a plait- was designed to render her invisible, no more important than a useful piece of furniture. No member of high society should have bothered to look her in the eye, never mind address her as one of them.
Baffled, she realized the girl had left the door open after her, and took it as an invitation to walk a few wary steps into the home. “Mr. Briars? Your produce delivery is here!”
A loud grunt echoed from down the hallway, and she followed it into a lush sitting room where a man lounged behind a newspaper. “Load ‘em into the basket on the table, the money should be there.” He didn’t bother to look at her as he spoke.
Admittedly, a bit of the tension left her shoulders at the exchange. Just as usual, she thought. Invisible. The delivery completed, Charlotte made her way out of the house, already rifling through the three next addresses she needed to visit that day. All of them were in the city square, which was rare for her. Mrs. Ledger hardly ever let her spend a few hours amongst the clean air and delightful music, much less a whole day. Wrapped up in her thoughts she stepped onto the sidewalk, before a sharp tug at her core snapped her head up.
A peasant boy was winding through the street, dragged along by what could only be assumed was his mother, as she kept a firm hold on his upper arm and looked as though she was composing a fresh round of scolding. The shoppers turned with bewildered expressions as they wound through them, not at all bothering to keep to the buildings. It was an unwritten rule that residents from the outer sectors were not to be seen in the city square, and the rare few who did never strayed from the shadowed corners. For two to be barreling through the open street like this, their dirty faces standing out among the finery like an ink stain on silk, was unheard of.
But even if they had blended in perfectly, it would be no question as to who had sent the icy spike of fear down Charlotte’s stomach.
How could she feel it? It had been months- years since she had been so careless as to miss a dosage. She had done nothing wrong. No matter how busy the square was there should be no reason she should feel any pull at all towards a person, animal, or object. Trembling where she stood, Charlotte squeezed her eyes tight until the hook released itself from her insides.
Gone. She released a breath. Never had a person’s attraction been so strong as to break through a full medication. She wanted to chase after the mysterious couple, find out how on earth it was possible, but her instincts held her back.
The best decision for everyone was to pretend it never happened.
So she took a steadying breath, pushed her fears to the back of her mind, and pivoted her cart back onto the street. The city’s finery glittered around her, its shadows just slightly more ominous.