Fernwen was uncharacteristically humid for this early in the summer. No matter the time of day, the air clung to its occupants, weighing them down and making the simplest tasks almost impossible. Most people sought refuge in the shade, but it didn’t matter; nowhere offered the respite they craved.
Naomi Douglas made a futile attempt to fan herself with a hand as she manned the counter of her family’s textile shop. Her father was one of the most successful merchants in Kamore, but insisted his children learned the meaning of hard work. Which was why she was stuck in this Goddess-forsaken shop on today of all days.
Most of the kids from her year at the Academy were spending the first day of the summer break at the bluffs that overlooked the Prophetess’ arm of the Mantaga River. She had it on good authority that Myra Falkenwrath was sneaking some bottles of whisky and her best friend Helene was swiping her mom’s finest bottle of wine. And where there was alcohol, there would be singing and dancing and merrymaking.
But she was stuck at work in a shop with no windows and mountains of cloth radiating heat.
She fanned herself one more time before letting out a groan. Catching her reflection in the mirror on the wall, Naomi knew one sure way to get some relief.
Grabbing the scissors from the cutting station next to her, she walked to the mirror and started snipping before she could change her mind. She cut the golden locks her parents were so fond of into a rudimentary pixie cut. Naomi stood in front of the mirror, turning her head back and forth, trying to get a view of her hair from every angle.
Once satisfied, she flashed a wink at her reflection and let out a breathy laugh.
Mother is going to kill you.
The thought sent a chill of adrenaline down her spine. Teenage rebellion had never felt so sweet.
A glance at the floor had her frowning as she took in the tendrils of gold littering the wooden floorboards. With a sigh, she set the scissors down and picked up a broom.
Once finished sweeping, she put away the broom and stood behind the counter. Soon enough, her fingers drummed the top of the counter and she was dancing on the balls of her feet. Sweat beaded on her brow despite the loss of hair, and Naomi rubbed impatiently at it.
There’s no way anybody’s shopping for textiles today. Who could be bothered with making clothes in this heat? Naomi bit her lip subconsciously as she wandered to the door of the shop and mutinous thoughts swarmed her brain. No one would know if I cut out early.
Her parents knew she would go to the bluffs after work, but still expected her to keep shop hours. She opened the door to the street and immediately regretted it. The outside air was muggier than inside the stone walled shop.
Never thought that would be possible. She mused as she looked down the street to the left and then the right. Not a soul stirred on the cobblestones, and a thought struck her like lightning. Naomi looked down both sides of the street once more before making her decision.
She would not miss a second of the party on the bluffs this year.
Naomi’s heart was pounding as she pulled her makeshift hood up and locked the shop door behind her. With a feral grin, she strode down the deserted road, keeping the cloth up to hide her identity from busy bodies staring out the window. Reaching an alley, she ducked her head and made her way to a couple of kids languishing amid wooden crates and piles of trash. Her heart panged with compassion as she took in dirty faces and hungry eyes. Kneeling, the teenager removed the bag off her shoulder and dumped its contents at their feet.
“I have water, apples, a loaf of bread, and a couple of bits of fresh cheese. You need to eat cheese and ration the rest.” Her tone was brisk and business-like, but her hazel eyes shone with warmth. “Ah, ah, ah.” She swiped at grubby hands and flashed the two a hard look. “When the alley starts to darken, I need you to go take down the paper I put on the door of the shop. Understand?”
The two kids were primary school age and lived in the slums of the city. They frequented the busy shopping street to beg for what their parents couldn’t provide. Naomi sneaked them food and trinkets as often as she could. She did what she could but knew it did little to fix the problems their city faced. That’s why she had begged her parents to send her to the Academy instead of the monastery school her older sister had attended.
The Academy was for the military and future leaders of Kamore. The Academy would give her a fighting chance to make a difference for the people of her city.
Her parents had resisted at first, but gave in upon seeing their daughter’s persistence and drive to do more. Her father had declared they would be fools to hold back a child with such noble pursuits and contacted the Headmaster that afternoon.
Guilt flashed through her at the thought of deceiving the two people that had given everything for her and her siblings.
What they don’t know won’t kill them. And it’s just this one time. I’ve always been the perfect daughter; one act of rebellion won’t be the end of the world. She thought, convincing herself the guilt was misplaced. Looking back at the two kids in front of her, she softened her tone. She had never asked them to do anything for her before, and it wasn’t fair to expect it from them now.
“Sorry. That was a little harsh. I meant to ask if you would do that for me this one time.” Naomi winced at the awkwardness she felt, but kept her eyes on the duo.
The two shared a look before the older one spoke up. “Of course, Miss. It’s the least we can do.” He narrowed his eyes. “Skipping out on work isn’t like you. Everything okay?”
Naomi’s heart broke at the concern in his eyes. This child, who had little but the clothes on his back, was worried about her; when she had so much, she felt entitled to skipping work for a party. Tears pricked her eyes as she took both of them by the hand.
“Never you mind, kiddo. Nothing’s the matter. Just forget I ever asked. You should go down to the beach where it’s a little cooler. I’m off tomorrow, but I’ll come to find the two of you the day after. Deal?” Naomi’s watery gaze shined, but her voice never wavered and the tears never fell. These kids had enough to worry about without her adding another burden.
The older boy’s eyes narrowed again, but the younger one nodded profusely. “Thank you, Miss. We were just talking about if the beach would be cooler. Let’s go Jakey!” The younger boy picked up the pile of provisions and ran down the alley to the main street and the promise of refreshing water.
Jakey gave Naomi a last look. “You can trust me, you know. Cross my heart and hope the Goddess strikes me down. You’d tell me if something was wrong, right, Miss?”
Naomi let a small smile grace her lips as she nodded. “Of course, kiddo. And please, call me Naomi. I’ve told you before, Miss is too formal for someone you’ve known for years.”
He studied her open expression and the way her eyes lost a little of their shine before giving a slow nod. “I better make sure Otto doesn’t hurt himself. Thanks again, Mi—Naomi.” He corrected himself before running off to join his friend.
Naomi sighed as the weight of their situation settled back on her shoulders, having been momentarily forgotten in the rush of playing hookey. Removing the scarf from her head, she plodded back to the textile store and pulled the handwritten “CLOSED DUE TO HEAT” sign from the door.
“I like the haircut.”
Naomi paused with her key in the lock as a voice sounded behind her. Scrunching her brows, she sent a look to the unfamiliar voice behind her.
Her heart thundered in her chest when she caught a glance of blonde locks and deep blue eyes. Her hands trembled as nerves took over, but she managed to unlock and open the shop door. Stepping inside, she shot another look back, keeping one hand on the open door. With one eyebrow raised, she said, “I don’t think I asked for your opinion.”
He sent her a lopsided grin and took a step toward the door she had yet to close. “Good thing it was a compliment then.” He had the audacity to shoot her a wink.
Naomi scrunched her face despite the flush creeping up her neck at this beautiful stranger. “I don’t even know your name. How can your opinion of my hair mean anything when I have no idea who you are?”
“Andre, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Naomi.” The charmer held out a hand for her to shake.
Naomi stared in shock, her hand gripping the door tighter than before as her eyes instinctively looked for help from the empty street. “How do you know my name?” She hissed, suspicion evident in the way she squared her shoulders and stared down this mysterious boy.
Andre held up his hands as a sign of surrender. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to alarm you. I’ve seen you with Jakey and Otto and heard you mention your name. That’s all. I’m not a stalker, I swear.”
Naomi narrowed her eyes. “Why are you keeping tabs on me?”
He ran a nervous hand through his hair. “I saw you slip them a couple of things a few months ago and I couldn’t believe one of the Douglases would be so generous. But every time you work, you bring them something.” He dropped his hand and cocked his head. “I’ve been trying to figure out why. I saw you put the sign on the door and go to them. You were ditching for the annual party on the bluffs, right? But then you didn’t… You changed your mind after talking to those two.” His blue eyes were entrancing despite the confusion swirling within. “Why?”
Naomi held his gaze and spoke evenly. “I was going to ditch. Hell, I was happy to leave this sweltering place and the boredom that comes with it. But seeing those two? How could I ask them for anything when they have to beg to survive? It wasn’t right. So yes, I changed my mind.” Her hand still hovered on the door as indecision about whether to invite this Andre in or shut the door in his face for the presumptions he had made about her and her family raged inside.
His eyes glittered as understanding filled them. “Well, I can’t do anything about the heat, but you’ll come to find dispelling boredom is a specialty of mine.” He flashed her another lopsided grin as he took another step and his lanky frame filled the doorway.
Blood rushed to her head as she took a step back and motioned him inside. “We’ll see about that.” She stated as inwardly, her stomach churned with knots.
Trouble, wrapped with a beautiful bow, but trouble all the same. Goddess, help me. She thought as she closed the door and turned to the boy working on stealing her heart.