by Alexandria Waksberg
I pulled my threadbare coat around my shoulders, the wind streaming through the gaps in the fabric and whipping my hair out behind me. It was a cold June day, and the common market was packed with eager shoppers and their bright, pearly smiles. Hagglers shouted discounts and deals to anyone who would listen, and street children played marbles near the storefronts.
Gritting my teeth against the cold, I began making my way through the puddle-filled streets of the Outer Ring. All around me, people hurried to shelter under the fluttering awnings of the stalls lining the road. A food cart trundled past me, offering its deep-fried cockroaches and braised crocodile to anyone who would listen. I thought regretfully of the bread I had tucked into my pocket, wishing that I hadn’t given it to the scaly owls roosting in the rooftops above. Everyone was hungry here—there was no time for sharing or smiles. Only the tourists remained oblivious to the poverty that ravaged the Outer Ring.
I rounded a corner and was greeted by an explosion of color. Still, all the bright storefronts in the world couldn’t hide the desperation in the air. The houses around me groaned, their gardens unkempt, and their front doors sagging. The rush of tourists around me dwindled until I was the only person left, striding purposefully through the rain. A man with crooked teeth grinned at me and beckoned with a bony hand. “Come, little missy,” he chuckled. “Care for one of our exclusive deals? We have a brand new pictureless comic over there, and there’s a buy one, get one free deal for our keyrings with no keys.”
“No, thank you,” I said politely, moving away from him. My destination loomed ahead of me. Barker’s Book Nook was the most infamous dodgy bookstore in all the rings, but it also had the best collection of spellbooks. Years ago, the clerk had loaned me a spellbook full of dark magic containing a spell—Tenebruis Aeternum, or Eternal Darkness. It was the key to bringing down Mayor Aurelia and gaining happily-ever-afters for people who weren’t just in fairy tales.
Suddenly, something hard and leathery hit the back of my legs, and I went sailing into a puddle. The tiny spellbook flew out of my pocket and landed a few meters away. I struggled to my feet, just in time to see a man pick up my book and shove it into his coat pocket. I tried to cry out, but no sound escaped from my lips. When I stood up, stars swam in front of my eyes, and I collapsed onto the cobblestones. I watched helplessly as a dark figure walked up to the man and handed him a parcel wrapped in greasy brown paper. The man handed the figure a gold coin embossed with an unfamiliar symbol. The figure nodded and walked away, leaving the man standing with the parcel in his hand. He tucked it under his arm and walked in the other direction, leaving me soaked and shivering on the ground.