A snowflake falls noiselessly to the ground, softer than a warm blanket, entangling itself in my hair as I ineffectively bat it away. The flakes’ independence sparks my curiosity, as they blatantly refuse to let me dictate their movements, a thing which disturbs me greatly.
I hope Carlotta isn’t like that, though I can't say it is unlikely.
The little information Laorei has fed me about her character has been displayed in snippets of conversations, between everyone from her parents to runaway dogs on the street, and I can't say I am altogether very pleased with what I see.
My hand begins to tremble slightly, and I know exactly what is coming next - another vision, another jail sentence from Laorei, destined to leaden my golden heart. I don’t like this feeling. It's too unnatural. I hate it.
“What is she wearing?" Carlotta’s voice screeches in my mind, voice like nails on a chalkboard, sharp, almost cutting. “It looks like something that my dog threw up, then ate, then threw up again!” I can't get a good look at the subject of her spite, although out of the corner of my eye I catch blonde curls racing away in a tornado of worry.
But this is about Carlotta, not her, and I must stay focused, however unwillingly, for the sake of my assignment.
My lip curls in disgust at her cruel remarks. Though I in no way agree – or pretend to agree – with the general human fashion ideal, I do know that the girl’s clothing is rather against that unsightly view, but in my opinion, Carlotta’s attire – consisting simply of a ridiculously short skirt which could be passed off as a belt, a slim-fitting top which looks like it should fit the most flimsy of sticks, and heels higher than her already bloated head – is no better.
I see Carlotta stalk down the corridor, the sound of her heels crashing against the walls, ricocheting off of every brick, every chip of hard, painted cement, louder than five herds of elephants. Resisting the urge to slap Carlotta, and therefore rid myself of my anger for at least half an hour, I allow myself to breathe, and sink down to my knees.
I pull myself out of her mind, eyes scorched by the burning flame of pain she inflicts upon any soul she can leech onto. She is merciless, in a way that is scarily similar to me, and I shiver slightly, whether at the gale blowing around me or … Something else. I'm not sure I want to know what 'something else' is.
I clamber through a shattered window, immediately inspecting myself for any stray shards of glass. They don’t hurt me, not in the way they hurt humans, but if anybody catches sight of me covered in glass without bleeding when I leave, I suspect it may be rather difficult to explain.
The small community cafe is fancier than I remember it to be, the few tables suffocated in thick, heavy lace, their surroundings walls doused in elegant aromas. But, for a reason I can’t quite claw out from the depths of my mind, the chairs are nowhere in sight.
A yellow light flickers rapidly through a window, as though it is Morse code – although if it was intended for me, I couldn’t decipher any of it – brighter than the Core’s flaming infernos, and quicker than a fall from the Heavens. A head-shaped shadow momentarily obscures the light, but just for one fleeting, jumping heartbeat, and then it glares back at me blindingly, even brighter than the first time. I shake my dully aching head, in the hopes that I will be rid of the green dots punctuating my vision , which is deteriorating by the second, from the moment I stepped foot on the Crust.
The heavy metal kitchen door creaks open, as though it needs re-oiling, light dancing around it, and a figure beckons me slowly, with one skeletal, curling hand.
“Kear,” he rasps – for it is a male Crust – in his hoarse voice, “please, do come with me.”
I shake slightly as I make my way hesitantly over to him, repeating endlessly in my head the simplest of motion sequences. Left. Right. Left. Right. “Hey there, Oban,” I grin, turning on the overpowering charm I know I possess, but that I am loathe to use in ordinary circumstances.
Oban shoots me a glare worthy of Laorei, but it does nothing to injure my almost too wide smile. I follow him reluctantly inside the bright room, placing a fragile hand on his arm, which he swiftly shrugs off, looking impatient.
The Crusts stare at me as I enter, eyes like grass-covered golf balls. I doubt any of them have ever seem a Mantle girl like me before, and why should they? We pay them no attention, they pay us no attention; it’s the way of the world.
“Who are you?” the most doll-like of them asks snottily, turning her nose up in pronounced distaste for my entrance.
“Who wants to know?” I demand haughtily, taking a seat on the table’s right side, next to Oban.
“Me, obviously.” The Crust girl rolls her eyes, denting my pride with her ironically angelic smile, as I fixate my glare on her. She is simply detestable.
“Just call me Angel,” I announce to a chorus of snickers, whose eyes only brighten at my joke.
“Be serious,” the girl snaps. “This is important.”
“This is important,” I mock, enjoying her humiliation far too much, which earns me another deadly glare from Oban.
“Don’t talk to Aareia like that,” he hisses like a king cobra, turning away from me, irked by my sarcasm, and faces the meeting’s glowering chairperson, who is little more than a short, sphere - the general shape for a Crust - decorated by discoloured confetti that I believe to be his equivalent of greying hair, and topped off by two snow globes of liquid sky, which could possibly be described as eyes.
“Thank you for that, Oban,” he says stiffly, as though he’s trapped in a miniscule cardboard box covered in spikes, too afraid to move for fear of certain impalement. “Now, you all may be wondering why I summoned you at this late hour, but I assure you, it is not in vain.” There are grunts of disagreement, murmurs of dissatisfaction rippling around the gleaming silver kitchen kitchen, but all he has to do is wave a hand across his face like a transparent veil, and the noise ebbs. “There is a reason. And that reason is right in front of us.” He jabs a sharp-nailed finger at an unusually red-faced me, directing the crowd’s scrutinizing gazes towards me.
“Hey.” I lift my hand nonchalantly, relishing their surprise. “Mantle babe is in da house!” I am greeted only by questioning glances, and lower my gaze awkwardly. It feels natural when they laugh at my jokes, but when they do not ... It is a different matter. If I'm to fit in with Humans, I will probably have to work on how I conduct myself. Clearly, since they already know Humans, and don't find that funny ... Well, it is not a good omen for me.
“Thank you for that, Mantle.”
“Kear,” I mutter, but not loud enough for him to hear.
“Yes, Kear here, has, despite being a Mantle, been given an assignment.” Once again the murmurs ripple around the room, but this time for a different reason. Mantles never get real assignments, as another part of the Eternal Law Agreement; generally, Cores get the worst as a way of punishment, having to share a hideous human life with peasants, those who kill, and steal and terrorise just to satisfy their own wicked commands, and Crusts always claim those who throw the best parties, people who are really just too completely and utterly selfish to even function.
Nothing’s ever left for us.
“Alright, alright,” the chairperson shouts over the rabble, lowering his barely seen hand, which matches. “Kear has been assigned to the fifteen year old female human, Carlotta Smith, and she requires – ” he shoots me a disdainful look “ – some assistance, in order to fit in with her ‘gang’.” The group laughs heartily, as though Carlotta is a great joke, and the chairperson is a jester, making her the laughing stock of the royal Crusts’ society. “Aareia, I would like you to help Kear.”
I notice only now the way that Aareia always holds herself, half-way out of her seat, as though she is constantly expecting to have to make an acceptance speech for winning a Nobel Peace Prize – I believe that is what the Heaveners like to present the Humans with – for her work as a Crust. Now, however, as she receives the news of her incredibly sought after position as my mentor, she slumps in her chair, as though someone else she’s never heard of has won the award instead, and she feels cheated.
“But, Maorfor,” Aareia whines. “That’s not fair!” Her cat-like cronies, flanked on her left and right sides, nod in agreement after a brief, flitting moment of apparent pondering, as though the conversation has already been rehearsed fifteen times between the trio, and this is the opening night, when they are slightly nervous, and hesitant to perform.
“I think you will find that this is entirely fair, actually,” Maorfor replies coldly, as my heavy silence applauds him. Aareia starts to speak, but Maorfar continues, “Meeting dismissed; you may go,” and Aareia, alongside her cronies, is ushered out.
“You had better stay away from me, Mantle,” she hisses as I watch the crimson sunrise, in all its vivid glory.
“Sure thing, Core,” I reply, letting the words slip out in my bored stupor.
I leap out the window and run before she can catch me. Imbecile, I think to myself, Just as bad as a human; so disgusting and vile and selfish.
Still, that’s a Crust for you.
I pass a red brick cuboid of a building, a rectangle cut out from it and filled in with a sheet of plastic, teetering on the edge of falling. The emerald grass grazes my ankles, and I lean down to scratch it, which is a simply terrible mistake.
Aareia bounds up to me, claws extended with glinting nails, a rabid kind of fire in her eyes. “How dare you?” she shrieks, advancing on me with every tick of the nearby clock tower. “How dare you call me such a – such a thing as a - a Core!”
“Aw, come on.” I reach for a lock of her hair, but Aareia brushes it away, disgusted by my attempts at distractions. “It’s not that bad of a name – were I human, I could say a lot more.” Somehow, this doesn’t seem to improve Aareia’s mood.
“Don’t you dare try to talk to me,” she hisses in a low voice, the same inferno as before raging in her eyes, as though she, herself, is the real Core, “because, if you do, I will personally insure that you regret it.”
I think she was expecting me to run away screaming – she just seems the type, somehow – as her face falls to below even the Core I named her as, and I see her hand tense, as though she moved it to slap me, then thought better of her actions.
“See there, Aareia’s being a little scaredy-cat,” I mock. “How very, very sweet – a little Human baby Aareia.” What remains ofher fake smile is gone now, replaced by a fierce snarl, as though she is repulsed by the very idea of me.
Fiery pain streaks across my face, stemming from my right cheek, and I leap back in shock, as, suddenly, there is nothing in front of me but one colour.
I. See. Red.
Flying at Aareia, my feet seem to leave the ground, moving of their own accord, and I kick her forehead, as she crumples to the muddy ground, shrieking in pain, as though she is a mere Human. And, in my opinion, she is even worse, which is quite a feat for someone who is not in the Above. “What do you think you’re doing?” she roars, attacking me, but I dodge her expertly, as though I was born in a battle – which, considering my position, is not altogether unlikely.
My fist collides firmly with the side of Aareia’s head as she is distracted by an inquisitive Human, and her eyelids flutter close as I myself come in to contact with the ground.
“Shoo!” I shout to the Human, who scarpers, as I scramble to my feet.
In a daze, I find my way to the nearest Faller, and say, “Mantle,” as the ground falls away beneath me.
At the top of the chasm I see a small light, representing the moon’s retreat, and smile to myself in a moment of delirium. “I’m coming for you, Carlotta,” I whisper, and I know a smile is curling my lip. “I’m coming for you, and I’m coming for you without Aareia, and I will break you.”
I like to say I can keep my promises.