Eminence

In the sewers beneath the city, a queen is born.


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2. All Men Are The Same

The lanterns were lit outside the ornate building. Stone facades and carved cherubs danced around the building in a sweeping display of grandeur and wealth. The red door had been freshly painted and Eliza slipped a key from around her neck and stuck it in the lock, twisting it sharply to the left and then wincing at the loud screech of the hinges. They clearly forgot to oil the door when they painted it. She made a mental note to let Madame know. She smiled as she looked at the bucket of water by the door. She stepped in and sighed happily. The water was still warm. Washing her feet free of the dirt she had tracked in from the sewers, she picked up the heeled slippers that had been left out of her. Good. The wooden floor always felt a little too cold for comfort at night. Though in perfect honestly, she was more concerned as to what she could step in.

“Eliza! Did you find him? I see the shoes fit.” Carsietta noted as she hurled herself down the polished stairs towards her.

Eliza simply reached into her garter pouch and pulled out the dagger medallion, swinging it back and forth before swinging it back into her palm. She smiled as Carsietta’s face lit up. A knock resounded on the door behind her and Carsietta swept past her in her scandalous attire. Stepping to the side, Eliza listened for a moment as Carsietta conversed through the peephole in the door. Willing to wait until she’d finished talking, Eliza leant against the doorframe to the back rooms where the girls slept. However, when she noticed that Carsietta was becoming increasingly agitated at the door she went to step forward. Sorting out agitated customers was her forte. It couldn’t be any of the regulars because it wasn’t opening yet and most of the locals knew the hours. As the door opened, Carsietta whirled on her and mouthed the words Eliza had been prepared to hear her whole life.

Run.

She did. Darting back through the door she dodged her way past the girls, all of them in varying states of dress and makeup. A few of them called her name but she couldn’t stop. Someone must have followed her back from the tunnels. Maybe they had found the bodies. Casting desperately about for some other refuge she could take or person who may even take her in was fruitless. No. There was no one else. She had finally found a place to call home and she’d ruined it. She’d been careless. She should have known they’d catch on one day.

She heard the girls chattering excitedly, greeting the men who had no doubt come to collect her for her very public execution. She was lucky she could trust them. These women had taken her in. Had cared for her. Now they stood between her and the noose. She could never repay them.

“Where’s the redhead? I saw her run through her. I shall have her.” A voice commanded.

The girls started tittering. Denials running rampant in the room as a group of footsteps followed Eliza’s path through the house. Marlene. She had to talk to Marlene before leaving. Marlene needed to know that she was safe. The footsteps were getting closer. With a desperate glance around, she saw her last salvation. The wardrobe. Pushing aside the musty remnants of forgetful customers, she pulled sharply on the latticed door. The door clicked into place only moments before the footsteps rounded the corner of the hallway. One tiny step would cast her face in darkness and out of the roving reach of the lamp on the opposite wall that was threatening to expose her. One tiny step could catch her out. She could fall. Trip. Tumble out of the wardrobe and into the sweaty palms of the hangman’s noose. It was an embrace she had been dodging her whole life.

A second pair of footsteps joined the first at the end of the hallway. They remained there. Unmoving. Waiting. Eliza brought her hand up to cover her mouth, fingers splayed in an effort to mask her own breathing. She could feel her heart beating erratically against her ribs. She had known this day was possible. The flimsy walls of the building rumbled with the sounds of the rest of the men in the room behind her. The girls had kept most of them occupied. Gratitude and then horror threatened to overwhelm her. She was risking their lives for her own gain.

“Where is she? Does she truly think she can get away from me?” Her pursuer questioned.

“I have no idea, sir. I imagine she has hidden herself away in one of these rooms.” His companion answered.

“All the better. Her desire for privacy works to my benefit. Ensure that no one comes in once I find her.” He ordered.

The metallic tap of his steps sounded once more on the waxed floors. Eliza had been thankful for the wooden floor more than once in her residence here. Whilst it made sense to employ such materials in such an establishment due to the sale of alcohol and flesh, it also meant that Eliza had been able to make certain of her avoidance of drunken customers without confrontation. This marked the first time she had hated the floor. It marked a monotonous pattern as the figure took leisurely steps past her hiding place, slowly opening the door of the first room opposite her. Even as he closed the door behind himself, clearly under the impression that he would be trapping her inside with him, she heard the second set of footsteps begin their own slow pace towards her location. This was her last chance.

Pulling back hard on the elegantly carved material, she threw herself into the wall opposite, pausing only for a moment to stare down the corridor at the man who was staring at her. Though perhaps man was the wrong choice of word. His sharp features narrowed as she cursed, her horror culminating in only one word.

“Elf.”

Flinging herself away from the wall, she ran towards the end of the corridor. Lengthening her strides, she heard the staccato tapping of his light tread chasing her down the panelled corridor. A door slammed against the wall behind them and she twisted her head back, glancing back in trepidation as her original pursuer joined in behind the elf.

Her hands scrabbled against the wooden door as she slammed into it, frenzied movements that allowed them to gain on her. The door swung inwards, pale hands reaching out to yank her in and slam the door behind her.

“Eliza! Eliza. Hush. What’s going on?” Marlene sputtered.

Pushing Eliza aside, she rammed her vanity table chair under the brass doorknob just as it exploded inwards, throwing her off of her feet.

“Marlene!”

“Girl.” The elf commanded, stepping into the room.

Eliza backed off, eyes flitting between his lithe form and her friend’s unconscious one.

“Girl.” He spoke again, his sharp fingers suddenly on her shoulders.

She spun away from him, crying out as metal dug into her flesh, tearing the thin fabric of her already weathered white gown. She stared down in horror as he raised his hands in front of his chest questioningly, fingers extended. Blood dripped from metal rings that hooked over his fingers and stood like claws against his hands.

“Why is she running?” The other man huffed, entering the room breathless and red faced.

“I’m not entirely sure, your Excellency.” The elf answered, wiping his hands on a fabric square as he did so.

“Why is she bleeding? She shouldn’t be bleeding.” He harrumphed, eyes travelling to her blood smeared shoulder.

Eliza stood still as they stared at her, one’s eyes a piercing green and the others a muddy brown. The former finished wiping his hands before he turned to eye his companion. He bowed slightly at the waist, his waist seemingly hinged to perform at such an uncomfortable angle.

“My apologies. I was merely trying to restrain the girl. Her injuries were accidental.”

“Indeed. Now, Galadh, remove this other girl. I wish to get on with this. After all, it has been quite the chase. I have never known a working girl to be quite so tenacious.” He smirked, gesturing at Marlene as Galadh nodded mutely.

“Tenacious? Working girl? What exactly do you think you’re doing?” Eliza snapped.

“Don’t be foolish. It is quite clear by your attire and location in which line of work you are employed. Now come here. Galadh, make sure you are close. I will not be amused if she runs again.”

“There is no amusement to be found in this. I do not work here. My residency and occupation are quite at contrast to one another.

 “Enough of this. Regardless of your occupation, you will do as you are commanded.” The man spat as Galadh reached for Marlene behind him.

“Leave her be. Unhand her!” Eliza yelled, knocking the surprised elf out of the way as she darted to Marlene’s side.

“Enough! I am your future king! You will do as I say.”

Taking advantage of her shock, the prince moved swiftly. He wrapped his fist in the tendrils of her copper hair, yanking Eliza up from Marlene’s side. Eliza twisted quickly. Her dress flew up to reveal the blade strapped to her leg. Even as she heard Galadh move, the blade moved towards the royal’s hand. Copper hair hung limp in his hand as she danced away across the room, stray strands of autumnal hues decorating the floor as her hair fell from the knife in her hand. She watched as their eyes darted between his clenched fist and its prize, and the hewn off curtain of hair that fell into her face.

“What have you done?” The prince cursed, appearing mortally offended by the change in her appearance.

Eliza said nothing, reaching up her empty hand to drag the rest of the hair from her hair. A sigh escaped her lips as the wig fell to the floor, allowing her shorn hair to be exposed. She watched as the prince’s lips curled in disgust, though it was the change in the demeanour of the elf that concerned her the most. His stillness was blatant in the face of the fury that emanated from his companion.

“What trickery is this? What is the purpose of such concealment?” He questioned her, flinging her hair to the floor as he stepped forward.

Eliza smiled, training her eyes on the face of such unbridled anger. She fingered the knife loosely, slowly bringing it up to point it at the chest of the man who had dared think he could best her.

“To protect myself from men like you.” She stated.

“There are no men like me.” He pronounced, drawing himself up as arrogance set his shoulders in stone.

“All men are like you.” She promised as he advanced on her once more.

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