This story is by Victoria Edwards and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Thunder rolled in the distance as the pale light of dawn pushed through the grated slit in the prison wall. Lila woke with a smile. She stretched her stiff body as she sat up to greet Herman as he brought her a steaming bowl of thick chicken soup. Years of scavenging through the great city had developed Lila’s sense of smell.
“Grin while you can, Thief,” greeted the guard as he slid the tray of chicken soup under the iron bars. They only fed her the day before an execution, not the day of. The soup was a good sign.
Lila waited patiently for Herman to step back. Usually, she had a quip for him, so he was surprised when she did not retort.
Another low boom of thunder sounded.
“Yes, you’re right. The execution has been postponed to another day. Either the gods love you, or they hate you. I can’t imagine waiting for death for this long as an act of love,” said Herman.
“One more day is a day to celebrate, Herman. You never know what could happen in a day,” rasped Lila, her voice hoarse with dehydration. “As for the gods, that’s between them and me.”
“I’ll be back with a mug of mead. Enjoy your last meal. Again.”
As Herman retreated down the corridor, Lila heard the other prisoners waking up. They were long term visitors. She was supposed to be gone a week ago, but the weather kept getting in the way of it.
Last week, Lila had been caught stealing from the King. He had a set of jewels gifted to him by a long-lost love. Lila thought she could find a better use for them than storing them in a bedside drawer. The King disagreed. He wanted to make an example of her in front of the whole city, but nobody would come in a thunderstorm. Their city sat atop a steep cliff overlooking the vast ocean. Most people thought that it was best not to tempt fate in such a city. And so, every day the sky stormed was another day Lila lived.
Lila contemplated her position. There were not many options. Even if she could somehow get out of the castle, she had no idea where she could go. Her face was too well-known in the kingdom, let alone the city. She had made too large of a splash this time. That was the first rule of thieving. Be invisible.
As a small, scrawny woman, she rarely had to work hard to be overlooked by those around her. Unfortunately, her recent escapades had erased any hope she had at invisibility.
With that glum thought, Lila brought the bowl to her lips for a deep slurp. She almost choked to death on her ticket out. Someone had left a large chicken bone in the broth. Maybe the gods did love her.
The pleas for mercy from the other inmates and heavy footsteps forewarned of Herman’s return.
Lila hastily tucked the chicken bone into the folds of her clothes while finishing the soup.
“Here you go,” said Herman, pushing the mead under the bars. “You sure finished that in a hurry.”
“Please pass my compliments on to the cook,” quipped Lila.
She took a sip of the sweet mead and smiled innocently as Herman continued his duties.
It was only a couple minutes later when the lightning struck. Lila knew it struck somewhere in the castle by the immediate, soul-shattering boom of the thunder. Some of her mead splashed over the ridge of her tankard at the sound.
Shouts of alarm filled the air. Lila caught the unmistakable aroma of smoke. The lightning must have caught the hay in the nearby stables. What luck! It had been raining for an entire week and the lightning found the only flammable piece of the castle.
Lila heard Herman rush off to investigate the shouts. She took the opportunity to make her escape.
Lila used the chicken bones as a makeshift lockpick, thankful she had devoted a considerable amount of time practicing lockpicking with unconventional instruments. The skill tended to come in handy in her line of work. Lila jiggled open the gate.
Lila ghosted down the hall, past the other cells, and peeked her head around the corner. The hallway split in two directions. If she went left, it would probably lead down to the sewer. She would be able to navigate her way to freedom from there. If she went up the stairs on her right, Lila would be heading toward the palace proper.
She tasted freedom to her left, but an adventure to her right. She could not resist the temptation of adventure. She never could.
Lila took off to her right. When she reached the main floor of the palace, Lila ducked into the shadow of a column to observe the mayhem. The fire had spread through the stables and into the servants’ living quarters. There were people running all over the place carrying buckets of water and valuables. It would not be difficult to blend in with the confusion and slip out the towering front doors. Nobody would notice. Again, freedom was within her reach.
But again, she could not stop herself from considering…
Servants were running down from the stairs opposite her, carrying valuables to safety. Just one would be enough to purchase passage on a ship. She could sail someplace far away. Somewhere she would not be recognized. Lila dashed toward the royal living quarters.
She was about to turn into one of the royal children’s rooms when a familiar shout stopped her.
“Hey what do you think you are doing?” yelled Herman. Lila turned at the sound, eyes widening when they met his.
“Shi…” she started to curse.
A servant overladen with linens collided with Herman, breaking their eye contact. Lila sprinted away in the confusion.
She turned a corner, danced around a guard carrying a crying child with a stuffed rabbit, and into what looked like a closet at the end of the hall.
She shut the door.
Herman’s heavy footsteps passed by. She let out a shaky breath. That was close. Her insatiable appetite almost got her sent back to death row. Why didn’t she just escape when she had the chance?
Her heart hammering, Lila surveyed her temporary hiding place. The closet was bigger than she expected. Maybe four meters deep and two meters wide. The truly surprising thing was the candle flickering on the wooden table at the back of the room. Below the candle sat a small, silver mirror. The candlelight reflected off the mirror, illuminating the entire space. Curious, Lila walked over to the table to investigate.
Reflected in the mirror, Lila saw her grey eyes and scraggly black hair looking back at her. The most famous face in the kingdom, she thought.
A green sparkle flashed, drawing her attention to the pile of rags on the floor below the table. A green jewel poked out.
Lila scooped up the jeweled necklace to examine in the light. It was beautiful. She could not help but think of her own dirty face, and for a second, she wished she could be beautiful enough to do the necklace justice. If she could not, she was sure she could find a buyer who could.
“Hurry up, it’s spreading!” came a shout outside the closet. Lila quickly pulled the necklace over her head before tucking it under her shirt.
Lila figured one of the servants had stashed it here during the confusion and would be back any second.
She glanced down one more time at her reflection in the mirror. What she saw stole her breath. The face looking back at her was a stranger’s face. She bent closer, and the brown-haired beauty in the mirror got closer too.
“Hello,” she whispered. The woman’s mouth moved at the same time. She brought a hand to her cheek. The woman in the mirror did the same. It was her reflection. Her absentminded wish had come true. This face was beautiful, but it would stand out in a crowd. She wondered if she could control how she looked.
Lila thought of one of the servant girls she passed on her way to the closet. She watched with amazement as her reflection changed yet again.
Lila laughed before jumping back into the hallway. Smoke clung to the ceiling and the few remaining servants rushed out toward the main gate.
“You there, we need to evacuate immediately,” came a voice.
Herman was suddenly at her side, a hand on her low back guiding her out of the castle. He had no idea who she was.
Lila allowed herself to be hurried to the courtyard where fat raindrops had started to fall. She slipped away from the crowd toward town, changing her face yet again.
She could go anywhere, be anyone. Nobody could stop her now.