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    My lips glistened with a rather costly lipstick—my very own blood.

    It trickled from my mouth, down my chin, and a droplet fell on her shirt.

    The noises around us faded from my mind. They became distant, so very distant, and all that mattered was her. Her, as she held me, and her, now stained with my life’s pulse liquefied. Her thin, weak arms surrounded me, so different and distinct from those of the many men and women that had claimed my body before.

    I’d been a fool, I knew. 

    If only I had listened. But I was never rather good at listening, was I?

    “The show must go on,” I told her with crimson lips. “Mustn’t it, darling?”

    Her carriage arrived at the city early in the morning. The coachman yawned heavily, his tired eyes glazed over by his three-day journey. The horses, too, were on their last legs, their horseshoes clacking dully against the cobblestone streets.

    Men in clean trousers, clean shirts, and roughly cleaned boots strode out into the streets, ready for another day’s work. The few men who did not work waited on their doorstop until children in hand-me-down clothes came out, reaching out for their fathers’ hands and following them to school.

    Women, some in dresses, some in pants, opened the curtains of their homes, waving to their husbands and children as they left for the day. Most women stayed at home, but some left for work—the very few who’d disregarded social expectations and did what they wished.

    Beggars dotted the streets, covered with torn rags as they slept, others barely awake and extending their hands toward passersby. A child in a dirty dress slept next to an elderly woman, both huddled together against the cold stone, the child shivering in her grandmother’s embrace. An embrace chilled by the life snuffed out of the elderly woman at precisely half past two in the morn.

    All lived in the beautiful and unforgiving city of Cindermere.

    A place known to some as the capital of elegance and depravity, of art and magic, of beauty and ugliness, of hate and love.

    Not that Sophie Clarke would ever care about the last one. Not yet, at least. Not yet.

    In the distance, dawn came with the arrival of the sun, its light coaxing itself through the carriage curtains. A woman of twenty-one years of age sat inside, her thin fingers brushing the page of an old book, dimly lit by a modern invention: 

    A lamp that burned entirely with magic.

    The world and all its glory waited outside the carriage, and yet Sophie could not be bothered to look past alchemy, and metaphysicalities, and words strung together to prove a clever hypothesis. The city held no interest to her unless it was something to be studied and tested. She was blind to so many things, my darling beloved, and it was both her flaw and her virtue. Unaware of the poverty, unaware of the misery, and also unaware of the love, and unaware of the bliss.

    All she cared about were her studies and her magic, and she excelled at both. A snap of her fingers would conjure things I could only dream of doing with my meagre magical abilities. 

    Though it was said that all the people of the realm had some magical talent, this was a lie. Only the rich and fortunate had the money to truly capitalize on that talent with classes and books and studies. The rest of us were relegated to living magically uneventful lives. 

    Sophie was one such fortunate individual, which is why she cared for nothing but her magic and her studies. But on that day…

    All she cared about was to impress Lady Catherine Halifax, she who lived in the mansion at the edge of the city, with towers that I could see from my room up on the highest floor of the Sapphire Carousel. 

    At very same time as Sophie arrived in the morn with her carriage and her books and her silly notions, I had just finished waking from a night’s work, lazily looking out the window from my bed. 

    Someone stirred beside me, and I turned slightly toward the person in question. A man and his half-naked body, covered only by thin sheets and an expensive linen comforter. I thought he would wake, but he did not. Instead, he snored rather unpleasantly and his lips then curved into a smile.

    I stared at him for a moment.

    There was no sign of my crimson lipstick on any part of his body.

    Fabulous, I thought, brushing back my long raven hair. A lady never leaves a mark.

    Eventually, I laid back down and allowed myself a smile. One meant just for me and no one else. I stared at the sky in the distance and wondered if I had time to go to the bakery before my first performance.

    I wondered, as Sophie’s carriage in the distance moved through the city, if I might meet someone interesting that day.

    Everybody knew of Lady Catherine Halifax.

    A dazzlingly wealthy scholar with a reputation diametrically opposite to that of the Sapphire Carousel and its inhabitants. She was pristine, yet dull; we were tainted, yet sensational. Two reputations whose only similarity was that they were both partially incorrect.

    Her white mansion at the end of Willow Street was certainly a sight to be seen. Locked away beyond silver gates that only chosen guests could cross, as well as the occasional visitors when the Lady opened the gates on Sunday mornings, allowing access to the grand gardens at the back.

    If you got to know the Lady, however, took the time to speak to her, you would more often than not find yourself in a strange position. You could meet her for the first time in your life, and yet she would treat you as though she knew you very well. It would seem as though she somehow knew everything about you.

    It was fascinating, yes, but terrifying as well. After all, chances were she did in fact know a great deal about you.

    I was eighteen the last time I visited her gardens. A child who’d become an adult a few months back. We met briefly that day, the Lady and I, and I remember her very clearly still. She wore a long yellow summer dress and a matching straw hat that kept her white hair with yellow streaks in place.

    After engaging me in some silly pleasantries I can’t recall, she spoke.

    “I heard you’re a…” I remember the pause. “…an entertainer at the Sapphire Carousel now. Is that true?”

    Shame, like her pause, burned me. I felt short of breath. There, in the gardens, I regarded Lady Catherine with a stricken expression before turning around and running away, ignoring her when she called my name.

    The shame soon turned to anger. Anger at her for making me feel ashamed, and anger at myself for feeling ashamed. I resolved to never again feel that way toward my work, and I also resolved to never see the Lady again.

    Until, as I said before, Sophie Clarke arrived in town.

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