Lisetta breathed against her fingers as they clutched the bone handle of her knife. Her breath enfolded her purplish digits where the threadbare gloves no longer covered them. Snow clung to the strands of mousy hair that had fallen over her face. Buildings arose from alongside the street like blackened giants, thick doors barred against the world.
It’d been too surreal when she’d lived in one of the elegant houses of the upper streets. The servants had been too kind, the food too rich. Her parents had been too happy.
She glared at the lake, frozen with a white layer. The lake was too wide, too round, and it had taken the lives of her parents all those years before.
“You came,” a male said.
She bit back a scream as she stumbled into the wall and tightened her grasp on the knife’s handle to hide the weapon in the folds of her cloak. “Of course.” Her words squeaked.
The man stepped into a pool of moonlight. Glass beads twinkled in his beard, the only splash of color a red scarf bound across his brow.
“Sometimes they decide there are other ways to survive.” His long, blackened fingernails brushed against her chin.
Lisetta slid the dagger through the hidden slit in her cloak to tuck it into its sheath on her belt.
“Tonight, you will steal for me.” He drew a slip of yellow paper from his cape. “This is what you will steal for me…Lisetta.”
She despised the tremor in her hands as she unfolded it. An oval was drawn in charcoal, and in the center what looked to be a man holding a rapier, with something near his head. She tipped the paper to see it clearer, but he snatched it back.
“You will steal it for me. Another of my agents will also be in the house to ensure the proper parties are eradicated. They will also have permission to exterminate you if you decide to back down. Obey me and steal it, and you will be awarded with a position on my team. Know this is a test.”
Team: the most notorious gang in the valley. She gulped. “If I choose to walk away?”
His hand slapped around her throat to shove her against the side of a building. Bricks bit through her clothing, digging into the back of her skull. Blood pounded in her temple, her heartbeat thundering in her ears. She clawed at his wrist, but the grip tightened. She couldn’t draw her dagger. He stood too far away for her to bury it into his chest. Could this be a test, too?
“You die.” He released her throat and she crumpled to her knees.
She stared at his shoes with their polished brass buckles. If she wanted to eat, to live, she had to do this. “Where’s the oval?”
“A pendant on a chain of gold. Arise. I’ll take you.”
Lisetta poked the door and the hinges creaked as it swung inward, the clasp broken. She glanced over her shoulder, shifting a corner of her cloak’s hood. The man who’d led her to the house was gone, the street again deserted save for her. Not even stray cats wandered in the coldness.
She stepped into the house’s shadows. The mahogany floor didn’t creak, nor did her wet boots make the slightest noise. She peered down at them to check the faint outlines of silence symbols she’d inked into the heels.
She nudged the door shut, the light behind her causing a faint shadow on the floor. Lisetta imaged the engraved oval as it’d looked on the paper. She touched her fingertip to the wall and drew the symbol for seeking. A thread of orange light shot from her finger. She jogged in that direction until the light trickled behind a closed door. When she opened it, she found a narrow set of stairs leading upwards. Servant stairs.
Her old house had looked like this, before she’d been forced to move in with her uncle. He had no job now, a mutilated hand to show for his blacksmithing. She did this for him, for them.
At the top of the stairs, the thread meandered into the first door. She turned knob, holding her breath as she eased it open. She should’ve asked what the occupants had done to deserve the gang’s wrath or why the oval pendent was so important.
No, she was beyond asking questions.
Lisetta peered through the doorway at bookcases and a desk. The thread moved to the top drawer. She tiptoed across the room and eased it open. The thread led her through papers and quills, ledgers and pencils, to a faux bottom. She wiggled a corner with her dagger until it popped open to reveal a velvet pouch.
With the prize in her vest pocket, she tiptoed from the room and paused by the window at the end of the hallway. She fiddled with the latch on the shutters until it lifted. Lisetta shook the contents of the pouch into her palm: a golden oval on a delicate chain. She frowned at the engraving: a man holding a sword, with a symbol above his head.
The symbols were illegal now, ancient and forgotten. She only knew because her mother had taught her, a family secret. This symbol engraved into the pendant represented death. Whoever put on the chain, wearing the pendent over their heart, would die.
A door in the hallway swung open enough for a thin body. The person wore a tight jacket, black pants stuffed into a pair of knee boots. Scarlet splotches decorated the sleeves and thighs. Blood. Lisetta sucked in her breath. The other agent, sent to eliminate the house’s family. Someone, or many people, lay dead in the next room.
The agent turned, a glimmer of pale skin in the light that glowed through the window. Lisetta gasped into the agent’s expressionless face.
She stared at her mother.
Bio: My short stories and poetry are published in Dark and Dreary Magazine, Storyhouse, the Magical Library, RiverSedge, and AboutTeens. My work has won awards in The XPress and Utica Writers Club. I am the vice president of the Utica Writers Club and have my Bachelor’s degree in elementary education.