Thief of Hearts


Author: Cora Mueller – Second Place Senior Division 2020

The dream was a languid thought, one that I couldn’t quite place my finger on. The whole point of a dream is to send you spiraling toward another dimension that reflects your own, only slightly more realistic world.

It was wintertime in Blaksin. You wouldn’t know it, though. Pyirmas had passed without a second glance, with no decorations, happiness, or good times to send it on its way. The New Year had come once again, but no one was celebrating. The Bridge Street Massacre was on our tails, the politician Maka’s murder only a few months previous. A cold sweat soon came upon me, but it was freezing in the dream. I brushed it all off, as one can in sleep, and continued staring down at my freezing world.

Why was I dreaming of a freezing world? Blaksin didn’t get snow in wintertime ¾ Jack Frost hadn’t darkened our doorstep in years. This was the point in which I knew I would wake up; reality’s chilling hands were grasping for my mind, pulling me back with logic. The cold sweat didn’t stop; it dripped down me, in swaths of slush, and froze where it held to me. I wasn’t watching a freezing world.

I was freezing. I tried to move, but the ice wouldn’t let me. It had grabbed onto the snow and held me there, stuck in one place, as I grew more chilled. I felt like a pig stuck in a freezer, my only hope that the butcher would come to get me. Well, my only hope I’d wake up soon. The logic had come, and when logic comes, dreams fall behind pathetically and become distant memories. Sweat dripped from my forehead ¾ aha! This time, it was warm. Reality was coming in fast.

Reality would not have an easy battle.

For the next eternity of waking up, I fought what I felt was a sickness that had entered my body and dream at that moment to break out of this newly deemed nightmare. The sweat came in waves, the cold freezing it up immediately and me becoming slicker and sicker and painfully stuck to the ground. The cold was trying to reach my brain through my ears, and as it froze its way through, I saw a breaking point. For me, and for the dream. It was wake up or be in here forever more.

So I did what I had to do.

Sleep left me immediately, and as I looked up at the ceiling, my hands sticky and wet, the chills rolled over and away from me. The fear receded, as did the vicious fictional frostbite and immobility, and all that was left from the nightmare was a cold feeling embedded deep in me. I struggled to remove the thick blanket and lay on the barren mattress, feeling deflated. It was at that moment I realized the coldness hadn’t left for the dream landscape yet, and I realized something was terribly wrong. Within me, I knew there was something missing.

It was the dreadful feeling that I’d forgotten something, but I didn’t know what. I leaped out of bed, fearful of intruders, fearful of the unknown entity that could be hiding in the other room, and that’s when I knew it.

Someone had stolen my heart.

A thought so odd had to have been made up. It was fiction, a lie I told myself because of my overactive imagination and adrenaline to explain the emptiness. But then I paused for a moment and shakily drew my hand to my chest. I waited for a second, and then another, and then pressed my palm harder. I moved it down, up, left and right, but it was gone. My pulse had disappeared overnight. It occurred to me that this could be a dream as well and that I was now stuck in an infinite parade of dreams which I would wake from to another dream. But logic, which had rescued me from the frozen nightmare, deemed that I was not in my head but in the real world. My heart was gone, but I was still there, still breathing, so my only other choice was to accept it. This was reality, this was a world where a heart could be stolen away at midnight, and my balcony door was open.

I stumbled toward it, my limbs drowsy from sleep and my body not accustomed to giving itself orders this early in the morning. The wicker door was flung open to the night and the elements, and the frosty nightmare suddenly made sense. It was frigid in the room, something I had been too distracted to notice before, and with a second thought I pulled the heavy blanket off the floor and dragged it with me.

I lived in a cramped apartment on the top floor of a crumbling building, and the best part about it was the balcony. I had planned to put up greenery of some sort, but that plan fell through as soon as autumn came. No plants want to grow in Blaksin’s autumn. No plants can. But the balcony was still a spot to smile at the happenings on the street below ¾ the hustle of merchants in the early morning and street urchins vying to make a quick buck ¾ and had a great view of the waterfront, which looked its best during the dawn’s light.

At that moment, I chose not to look fondly at my neighbors, but to direct wary gazes at each and every corner I could imagine a thief would be lurking. And there were many. It seemed as if during the night, darkness reigned over the city, and all crevices conspicuous to the human eye were now hidden in black masses.

I searched, dread hanging over me like the thick blanket clinging to my back with feverish hands. Avail refused me. My breath hitched, and for a second, I thought I would cry. But I only collapsed onto the floor. Without my heart, I was nothing. I was an empty shell of clammy hands and an excavated chest left with a shard of coldness.

It was quite coincidental when I noticed through the bars of my balcony fence a pair of eyes I could not previously see. And those cat eyes I knew belonged to a wretch of a man, a brutal and vigilante pirate whom I had had a few run-ins with in the past.

Chapman Wright, you son of a gun.

Without a second thought, I launched myself off the balcony to reclaim my heart.

The drop would have killed me if I had not aimed for the ledge across the way. From there I scrambled to the balcony he had perched on, but by then he was gone. I twisted the quilt around the iron bars and swung down to the second-floor terrace, keeping my eyes out for any sign of him. There was no flurry of movement in the night, but I knew he was smarter than to just run for it. I held my breath and focused on the sounds of the night. There were no padding footsteps, no flutter of ill-fitting clothes, nothing — save for a quiet breath.

I turned my gaze slowly around, staring into the eyes of the criminal. Wright sat there, shrouded in darkness and crouched upon the iron railing. He raised a silent eyebrow, and without a second thought jumped off. He landed like a cat and met my eyes again. He stood there, lazy confidence the only armor he wore, before backing away with a smirk. In his right hand lay a parcel wrapped in newspaper, and he taunted me with it, holding it up to let the sliver of moonlight bounce off it.

It was a challenge someone of his ilk would present, and it was a challenge I was ever willing to take. I grappled the brick and mortar building and slid down, chasing him into the nipping night.

Wright kept to the pavement, darting through alleyways and skirting bridges, and it made it wholly difficult for me to determine where he was heading. On the Blaksin streets, everywhere headed to everywhere. Confusion may have not been his goal, but mine was what consumed my every thought, and so I, steadfast, continued hunting him down. A heart is not something to take for granted, especially when it can be stolen so easily out from under you.

The shadows were his friends. Wright flashed in my vision, a disappearing act that kept reappearing just in time for me to follow. There was a rhythm to it, one I didn’t know ¾ a dance he had perfected long before I stepped upon the floor. Left at the Collins’ Bakery, dead-on until the Wellside Bridge came into view, then a right toward the harbor. At some point, I realized that he had led me in a circle ¾ six lefts around the same block ¾ and I stopped to catch my breath. My was body racked with the icy air, the cold clamping down in my chest and my throat sore from the frigid breeze.

When I heaved myself upward, again, expecting to be alone and having to hunt him down once again, he was leaning against a door frame. He was fiddling with something, but when he noticed me, his smile grew into a shark’s grin. He took a few dramatic steps out, twirling and his clothes swirling about him, before taking off again. I tried to feel resentment, and I could taste the beginnings of it, but it dissipated and all that was left was the cold feeling clinging to me.

I needed my heart once more, or I would be left to freeze.

Our chase throughout town led to a luxurious building overlooking the river waterfront: the Merchant’s Manor. For a man so devoted to the Almighty, he didn’t mind boasting his wealth for all eyes to see and then parading it around. The house, if you could call it that, sat on its own little island in the waterway with its own little gate and its own little bridge. Wright was right now dancing on that bridge, weaving his way through the shadows and odd spots toward the sparkling marble mansion of the Merchant.

I hid behind the stone wall that railed the bridge and observed Wright stride up to the iron-wrought fence gate. He peered back at me over his shoulder, but I was hidden by the shadows. If he couldn’t see me, I would consider it luck in this horrible, frozen darkness. A guard came, stiff and grumpy, muttering something to Wright that I couldn’t hear even in the silent night. Then the guard became clearer in his own, gruff way. “You sure you weren’t followed? We’ve had some problems with… our publicity lately.”

“I can assure you, she didn’t so much as wake up.” There were a few more grumbles, but I was too busy grinding my teeth in frosty pain. There were no sounds after that other than the padding of footsteps and the small clanking of the gate being locked.

I crept toward the bridge, shivering and shaking with every brush of wind. The waterfront brought more cold air, and cold air apparently felt like sharp, stabbing pains whenever it touched oneself. I neared the gate, and with all the strength I could muster from my run, grasped the bars. I winced and stumbled backward, the chill of ice burning my hands. And then I collapsed. It was not because of the frigid blaze of the bars, nor the bleak weather, but because the coldness inside had lurched outward. The icy illness had taken root and was growing, filling more of my empty body with its numbness.

I needed my heart.

With a vigor I previously lacked, I clambered up the fence and tumbled onto the ground below. The cement would have broken my fall if it had been there; instead, a large flower pot full of exotic flowers softened the blow to an abrupt crack. I rolled off the pink blossoms and mumbled something crass before ripping myself off the ground. The ground moved beneath me as I lunged forward towards the large horse, my bare feet digging into the soil and clinging to the earth. The house had a gilded entrance, but the gold was a mere distraction. The door would not do.

To the left, I saw a small servant’s entry. My legs were cold upon the hard cement, but I forced myself to keep walking, my only solace the idea of a warm hearth awaiting me inside. I prayed and pushed on the door, and to the little luck I had left, it opened. Inside the mansion, the walls were as marble as they were outside. Luxury dripped from everything I saw, though I was surrounded by what could only be a side hallway for staff. I crept along the path, leaving a trail of wet dirt that I did not care about until I heard the sound of voices. The halls looked all the same, but I followed the echoes until they were loud enough that I knew exactly where I was.

A small wooden door stood before me, and beyond it lay the Merchant and Wright. I stood as close as I dared, but I could not understand any of the words passing between them. That left me no other option than to cautiously push the door open, and I peered out into the lamp-lit space of arches and pillars the Merchant called his parlor. Everyone else knew that it was a throne room, and even though years had passed by since I had last been in its presence, I remembered its splendor. One cannot help but agree after seeing the marble beauty the Merchant sat at.

It only took a moment to locate the two; they stood in the center of the large room, separated only by the dais the alabaster throne stood on. For what it was worth, the Merchant gave off the appearance of a kindly old man. However, his image was worth a wanted poster in every city outside the country. He had special ties with the government.

The Merchant’s spindly hands reached out to grab something from Wright, a parcel the contents of which were not needed to describe, and then Wright turned on his heel and went on his merry old way. My eyes followed the Merchant’s movements like the desperate person I was. If he locked it up somewhere I could find it. I would find it. If I didn’t, I would die.

It was as if my body had been following my thinking; for the moment I thought the words, I convulsed in cold pain. The frost inside wasn’t spreading outward anymore ¾ it was ripping the rest of my body into the empty space, trying to build a new heart wrought of ice and organs. I crumpled to the floor, the thump of my body echoing around the cavernous room, and in my delirium, I noticed the guards storming toward me. I was caught like a rat in a trap. I could only writhe in their grasp as they strode forward as one.

The agony of freezing inside ripped through my body as a single, unending wave of numbing pain. It would not stop, not when I was thrown against the cold ground, nor when the Merchant cuffed my head back with his shoe. It grabbed hold of my entirety as the Merchant glared down at me, and as he spoke, but by the second sentence the torment had died down to a dull ache in my soul.

“And how terrible it was that you woke up. We will have to talk to Mr. Wright about that, will we not, gentlemen?” The Merchant spoke with an air of sophistication and malice. He was disgusted. “What do you have to say for yourself, madame?” I gurgled out a reply, still nursing my frostbitten body.

“Yes, yes, you want your heart back. Like they all do, I suppose, though… getting here to reclaim it is something to behold.” He stepped back onto his marble throne with a terrible smile and the energy of a man much younger than himself. There I lay in the few seconds of silence, the subsiding pain growing more distant with each passing breath.

“Shall we get rid of the body, sir?” One of the brutes asked, vexation demolishing the last of my misery. I struggled up off the ground, my limbs fragile and torpid, and turned to meet his iron gaze.

“What body?” I hissed, for that was all I could muster. I slowly faced the Merchant once again. I eyed the throne, worry building in me as I didn’t spot the parcel. He must have hidden it while I was a convulsing glacier on the floor.

“No. Leave her. It might do her well to watch.” The guards backed away, tucked into the marble pillars that sprouted from the room. The Merchant’s sharp-toothed smile returned and he snapped his fingers twice before speaking. “You will die by morning, so I suppose that I should explain to you in detail what I will do with your heart.” He chuckled ruthlessly as a servant, permanently bent over in a bow, glided toward him with a metal platter.

The coldness in my chest surged again, but this time it was battling against a warmth. The silver was the only separation between me and my heart, and if I could muster up the last dredges of my strength, I would be able to close that distance to nothing at all. I eyed it with the bloodthirst of a tiger stalking its prey, success within my grasp. It was then that I forgot of the old man drowned in decadence and the cat-eyed thief who had ripped my heart from me.

It was my mistake.

It took only seconds. My body crumpled as the parcel was unwrapped, open and willing to allow my heart back in. But it didn’t. It pulsed and beat in his claws, but its subtle glow was pulled farther away from me and closer toward him. His jaw unhinged, his razor teeth gleaming in the firelight, and for a few moments the only truth I knew was that my heart would be gone, in the gullet of this monstrosity, and that the minute it was gone, I would rip him by his skin and hair into shredded pieces of upper class and fine wines. And then I would die, but revenge would be mine, and I could die happy with that.

With this thought, my body closed itself in its willingness and I rose, preparing to launch a counterattack and stab his eyes out. It would be a bloody mess, but a righteous one, and even if I was torn limb from limb by his no doubt loyal guards, I could die happy. My heart, once gently beating beneath his fingertips, was now throbbing and convulsing. Adrenaline came to me, a great rush of dangerous courage and a bloodthirst. It flung itself from his greedy maw and fell at my feet.

At once, a multitude of things happened. I grabbed for it, and it beat harder, and I felt my blood pumping, and the frost melted from my insides out too quickly. There were the sounds of guards moving, and the Merchant pushed himself off his pedestal with an evil grin.

“My child, what success your heart will bring me! Thank you for revealing its true power. You will die, of course, immediately, but it will be painless, I promise!

And then, before I could answer such a convoluted phrasing, a gunshot rounded the Merchant’s parlor. Blood spurted from his head, decorating the marble around him with its scarlet droplets, and he fell gracelessly to the floor. No one moved, not the guards, not the servant, and certainly not the man now dead.

I took the only chance I knew I’d have and I ran. I blasted through the nearest exit ¾ a small window my physique only barely allowed me passage through. I hit the ground hard, and then crumpled to the ground. Trouble was coming. There was the pounding of guards’ feet, the sound of their weapons clanking and guns reloading ¾ thank god both barrels had been fired ¾ and, by the looks of things, someone was running across the roof.

But I had my heart back. The numbness that had flooded through me, the feeling of absolute pain and the death breathing over my shoulder, they all dissipated the moment I had placed my hands on it.

It was, admittedly, slightly disturbing to see your raw, beating heart outside of your body. I ignored that, and it was much easier for me to do so in the dark night. I was tempted to hop over the nearest wall and into the river, but then I reasoned that I couldn’t swim, so there was no point in drowning.

I turned toward the back of the building, hoping that there was some way to get across the river ¾ a servant’s bridge or something to connect it to the other side of town ¾ and there it was! An old, rickety, trodden on wooden bridge that had missed the redecoration. It looked flimsy enough to be swept away by a gust of wind, but it had stayed upright somehow, so I wouldn’t judge it too harshly.

I kept to the walls. There was a feeling of rejuvenation holding the heart, and my near-death experience was long forgotten by my lungs, my legs, my nerves. Being whole again really helped running away from a vengeful horde of guards.

I ran when I figured that the sound of footsteps were getting far too close, and was at the bridge with gunshots at my heels. Crossing it wasn’t the issue, I could see then. The problem would be beating up the ten city guards who had been alerted of the murder of some poor old citizen, and were presently standing at the other side.

The Merchant’s guards were storming toward me, and I realized that, well, I was going to die tonight, whether it be in the city’s cell, or tormented by whoever took over the Merchant’s criminal business, or stabbed through the gut, or drowned in the river.

I had really come to terms with death in the past few hours, so I took the least painful route. I walked to the middle of the bridge; someone shot a warning at me, and the oncoming guards stopped and huddled around the other side.

I then realized that the heart was far more valuable than I could have previously assumed, and that it could easily be a bargaining tool. Too bad that I seemed to require it to keep on living, but as I might die within the next few minutes anyway…

No. I wasn’t going to trade death for a very cold last few hours. I was going to scare them, though. So much so, and then I’d jump, of course, and hopefully be carried somewhere warm enough that I wouldn’t die of hypothermia. Or, hopefully, Atlantis lived in the harbor and I could just wallow down there instead of drowning.

“Gentlemen, we are certainly at a predicament, aren’t we?” I said darkly. I knew how to be vindictive when I felt like it. I gently removed my heart from its position wrapped tightly next to my stomach and held it over the water. Half the guards began to freak out, but the minute one of them took a step, I snickered.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. See, my hand is getting tired, but it gets more tired the closer you come to me.” For threatening speeches, it wasn’t any good, but I was on a time crunch, coming to terms with my imminent death, and tired. It had been a night. Mentally, of course, since I felt all the better with my heart in my hands.

It seemed to realize the betrayal I was putting it through, however, and a gut-wrenching pain filled my empty chest. I almost dropped it. The pain subsided, but the fear in my enemies’ eyes only grew. I could taste the way they’d regret ever stealing my heart.

Well, Chapman Wright did the dirty work, but that would only be another thing on the list that this entire night would make. I’d go out with a bang. A cold, hard splash into the river, and then I would be gone. I’d like that. I preferred it over death in a cell.

And then I saw the rowboat. It was creeping toward me, following the river’s direction into the harbor, and on it sat a peculiar old man. He was whistling some foreign tune, and waved peacefully at us as if we weren’t in the middle of a standoff.

Oh, no. Not an old man. Chapman Wright, continuing his spree of crimes, had stolen a boat from the Merchant’s docks. I wished I’d thought of it first.

And then I realized something.

The boat would be under the bridge for a few seconds.

And I could make that jump.

I inched closer to the edge, garnering the attention of every one of those hounds the Merchant had called, and I really needed to stop referring to the Merchant as some alive person, but it seemed too difficult to fathom that he was actually dead. And as the boat slid underneath, I hurled myself off in the most dramatic and haphazard fashion I could, and fell the twenty feet to the bottom of the hull.

I’d had my unfair share of drops from a range of heights, and at least half had ended up worse than this. My heart was beating a bit faster now, but thankfully I’d absorbed most of the impact with my back.

Wright seemed surprised with the sudden off-balance, but he kept rowing and whistling, and as I looked up in sheer delight I realized that the group of frothing, vicious guards standing on top of the bridge would be hunting me down in a matter of moments, and that I had absolutely nowhere to go.

Wright seemed to read my mind.

“You need a ride?”

“Out of town, as quickly as possible, thank you very much.”

“I’ve got a boat.”

“You don’t suppose we’ll be able to row to another country in this?”

“I mean, if you want to put in a bit of effort.”

I stopped, gathered my thoughts, and then slapped him.

“Why did you steal my heart? Wait, let me rephrase that. Why did you rip my heart out from my chest using some satanic ritual?”

“To kill the Merchant, of course. I let you follow me, didn’t I?” So I was a distraction.

“That’s what that chase was for?”

“Of course. If I didn’t want you following me, you wouldn’t have been able to.”

“I sincerely doubt that.” We were silent for a moment, with nothing but the jeers of the Merchant’s guards running through the city behind us.

“How big is the boat?”

“Big enough to get us to Maverick, if you wanted.”

“How much do I need to pay you?” At this he paused, and then turned to me.

“I expect at least ten gold.” That wasn’t even enough to buy a decent meal.

“Woah, what a rip-off.”

“And you’ll help me find this prophet in Sicaro.”

“A prophet? No, wait, you stole my heart, I deserve to be put on a desert island.” At this he looked icily back at me.

“You want to be carrying around that heart for the rest of your life?” I paused and took a few breaths.

“You can’t put back a heart.”

“I would never do something I couldn’t undo.” I felt the urge to slap him again, and wished that I’d kept my righteous aggression for right then.

“I heavily disagree with the fact that you think you can put back a heart.”

“But the prophet in Sicaro can.”

“You want my help to find a prophet? You know how dangerous that is, right? You know how we can die? I’ve come this close to death way too many times for a single night, and I’m not in the mood to guarantee mine once again.”

“Well, you didn’t die from any of those.”

“That’s terrible logic.” And we continued bickering for the rest of the boat ride right up until we had to hide under a bridge from the guards who were swarming the area. By sunrise, we had snuck to the harbor and were making our way to his ship from the underside. Above were the footsteps of angry guards and neither of us wanted to get into trouble with them after we’d survived that night.

I was heading to Sicaro to find a prophet to put back my heart, I mused as we swung onto the outer hull of his ship. And to think that it could only ever be easy for me.

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