Eminence

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


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1. The Devil Wears a White Dress

The white dress moved freely around her knees as she slipped from cover to cover. Her footsteps echoed gently through the tunnels as her bare feet danced through the stagnant puddles. Monotonous dripping sounded from the mildewed stone walls as the sounds of drunken debauchery reached her ears. Tucking her hair more securely into the hood of her velvet cape, she peered round the corner of the tunnel.

Wooden shacks lined the wall of the next tunnel and figures milled about between the flickering lanterns placed at random amongst upturned barrels and used wine caskets. The ruddy cheeks of the drunken men appeared feverish in the dim light and Eliza wrinkled her nose at the putrid smell as she stepped away from her cover. At her approach, some of the men jeered and whistled, their vulgar language an expected nuisance.

“What’s under the hood, sweetie?” called one.

“Come here lass, we’ll keep you warm!”

She ignored them, rolling her head forwards just enough to cast a shadow over her features as she passed just out of reach of their mug laden hands. The women said nothing, using this distraction as ample time to check the weight of the coin purses at their customer’s waist. Eliza knew that many of the men here were wealthy merchants and married men, no doubt sick of the sight of their pregnant and harried wives. The women here were no less harried. Only, where the wives carried child, these women carried only pleasure and money, a bartering system between the genders that was as old as time.

As she walked out of sight down an adjoining tunnel she heard what seemed to be the partly masked steps off a pursuer. With practiced fluidity, she pushed back her hood, allowing her red curls to tumble freely down her back. She could practically hear him salivating behind her, his steps picking up in pace as she led him further into the tunnels and out of sight of the earlier brothels. She hoped she could remember the way. As they passed one more couple leaning up against the damp wall, she darted around another corner, breaking into a quick run that was soon paired with the sounds of her pursuer doing the same. Turning one more, she let out a cry of frustration, taking in the dead end of her.

Turning back, she allowed the cape to flare out in an arc, displaying the nightdress she wore to the gaze of the man who even now, still walked towards her.

“Excuse me,” she asked, “I appear to be lost. I don’t suppose you know the way out, do you?” She asked, bringing her hands out in front of her and wringing them in consternation.

“Of course darlin’, what’s a young lass like you doing out all alone anyway? It’s not safe. Especially not for a pretty little thing like you.” He leered.

“I’m supposed to be looking for my mother. She works down here. She hasn’t come for a few days and my brother and I, we’ve run out of food you see.” She replies, lips trembling.

“Now, now. Come here. I have some money you can have, you just have to help me out a little, okay? It’ll be okay.” He says, opening his arms to her.

“Really?” She asks, unsure.

He nods, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a worn leather pouch. He shakes it once, letting the coins clink together once as he holds out a hand towards her. With obvious trepidation, she steps forward and takes his hand, letting him pull her into a close hug. As his hands moved from her arms to her waist she began to struggle.

“What are you doing? Mister, what are you doing?” She asked, flashing her doe eyes at him.

“Don’t be silly. I’m sure your mum taught you the ropes. A young girl like you, this will be the most fun I’ve had in years.” He laughs.

“Please, please let go of me.” She sobbed, tears rolling from her eyes.

Eliza cried out again as his hand flew up and seized her chin, dragging her face up. Already sweat was beading on his forehead, and even as she tried to pull away she watched his tongue dart out to wet his lips.

“Shut up and do as you’re told. Think of your brother. If you don’t do as you’re told, he’ll starve. You don’t want that do you?” He asked, malice twisting his voice.

She shook her head vigorously, red curls bouncing around her flushed face. He dropped her face and pulled sharply on the knot fastening the cloak around her throat. As it fell away she brought up her hands to cross her chest and shoulders, her fingers splayed protectively over her exposed flesh. She flinched as a low whistle left the man’s pursed lips. His callused fingers grabbed her wrists roughly and pinioned them at her sides as he manoeuvred her against the wall. As the cold surface bit into her back she cried out again.

“Please, please let go.” She tried again.

He ignored her, moving his hands to the hem of her dress and yanking at it viciously. As his hand grazed her thigh, she tensed, unable to speak. His hand moved higher and she brought her hand to meet his. Bowing to the inevitable, she placed her hands on top of his. The sooner she got this over with, the sooner she could get home.

“That’s a good girl. The better you are, the more I’ll give you. You want to look after your brother, don’t you?”

She nodded, moving his hands farther up under her skirt. As she brought his hands to a halt she allowed him to feel the leather buckled around her right thigh.

“What the-“ He started.

He didn’t get the rest of his sentence out. Whipping her hands away from her dress she shoved him roughly in the chest and then stepped back. The dagger’s hilt protruded from his torn tunic and she laughed as he staggered back, a tinkling sound that contrasted starkly with the blood staining his clothes.

“I don’t have a brother.” She said.

His eyes questioned her as she stepped closer to him, smiling as he slumped to the floor. His blood mixed with the permanent puddles that lined the flagstone floor.

“I do have sisters though. Plenty of them. I’d do anything for them, even let a man think he has the best of me. You fool. You should never have hurt Marlene.” She spat.

His eyes remained open as she picked up her cloak from the floor. With a look of disdain she realised that the velvet was probably ruined. Normally, she would lull the men into a false sense of security and then break their necks. She looked like a child and so they’d never expect the might of a woman to strike against them. Always the predator and never the prey, they were pampered and rich. Weak. There was no way to rescue the cloak so she rolled his body onto it and looked down at him once more.  Reaching down she grabbed the medallion hanging at his neck. She had been searching for him for days, ever since Marlene had come home with cuts running in all directions across her body. He hadn’t meant for her to escape, that much was obvious. She turned the embossed brass knife in her hand. A medallion designed to inflict harm. If only she had stabbed him with this. What delicious irony that would have been. She tucked it into the small pouch sewn to her garter for safekeeping.

On the upside she hadn’t ripped her dress tonight. On the downside, she still had to move the body. With a sigh she evaluated the distance between the body and the grating tucked up against the dead end. She alternated between this alley and a few others. Thankfully, these tunnels had once been used as the main sewage outputs for the city and the smell covered the scent of rotting corpses. Just before moved to push the body down the grating and into the abyss with the rest of the predators she had removed from the street, she rummaged in his pockets and took out the purse he had rubbed in her face earlier.

She hoped that if she stole his purse too, it would look like a rogue mugging and he had been stabbed in the meanwhile. Of course, if they found this body they’d have found at least half of the others and only an imbecile would think they weren’t somehow related.  Oh well, it’s not as if she couldn’t do with the money. With a final push she watched as the body fell down the grating before she shut it back up again. Straightening up she looked once more around the tunnel. She seemed to spending more and more time down here of late. It was time to go home.

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