Flame

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It seemed like a good deal at the time.

Now, staring the heart-thief in the face… not so much.

The train’s rattling travels through the soles of my shoes, hiding my shaking as he regards me with black eyes, just barely glaring out from under his obsidian bangs. He’s just a legend outside of this train car, just a rumor.

It hasn’t been long that there’s been a need for someone like him. After all, stealing hearts was the ultimate punishment for criminals, a way to sap their emotions from them, bring their existence to that of a slave to serve the public they once wronged.

When innocent people started getting convicted, that’s when heads started turning. Heaven forbid you said something, though, or you’d be the next one standing trial.

Rebellions rose and fell. But the heart-thief—who had managed to steal the heart-thieving magic or science or whatever it was—was the vigilante who brought hope to the public. He managed to work with local groups to capture the country’s most notorious officials and give them a taste of their own medicine.

He’s a hero, a tale whispered to children at night, a cautionary tale to those with too much power.

But I know better.

He’s just as bad as the rest of them.

He doesn’t have a heart, either. He uses people like me, for his dirty work. No one will miss the homeless, the sick, the mentally ill if they happen to perish doing “good” for the rebellion.

“You’ve completed your end of the bargain?” He finally says, voice smooth and monotone.

I rub my sweaty palms on my pants, like the liquid was the blood I was smothered in yesterday. “Yes.”

He nods, and picks up a feather pen from its jar and holds it still despite the jostling. “And whose heart do you want devoured in return?”

I puff out my chest, pull my shoulders back. This is my chance. “I don’t want you to take someone’s heart. I want to do it.”

His eyebrows raise, dark eyes drilling into mine.

I’m happy I pulled my hair up earlier, large drops of sweat rolling down my neck without the added incentive. I wish I could blame it on the heat in the car, but it’s eerily cool in the dark, underground train.

“You want to take someone’s heart?”

“Well…” I take a step forward, eyes honed to reading his reaction. There is none. I should’ve known better, the heartless never feel or want anything. Except this one managed to decide to lead the most successful rebellion ever seen. “It’s not one person in particular I’d like to make heartless. I want to do what you do.”

He blinks. “What?” His tone is almost-surprised.

“I want to crush the system that keeps my family living in the sewer.” I take another step forward so that my legs are against his desk, my heart pounding in my chest, up my throat. “I want to make it so that… people like you don’t have any hold over us any longer.” No more runners dying as they deliver messages and goods. No more hired jobs being the only way people can earn money and yet a near certain way to end up with no heart.

No more brothers and friends caught in the crossfire.

My breaths are quick, adrenaline tingling against my skin. “I want to be able to rend enough hearts to end this.”

He leans back. Folds his hands. “You can’t.”

Flames rise along my sides, burning the inside of my lungs. He can’t say no. It can’t happen. “Yes I can.”

His eyes narrow. “No. You still have your heart.”

“So?” I cross my arms, clenching my fingers tight around my biceps. “Then take it. I don’t need it any more.”

He shakes his head. “You’re mistaken.  I can’t take it from you to be cable to succeed in this. You need to have no emotions to be able to do this job.” His lip twitches, but I can’t tell if it was going for a frown or a smile. “You have to kill your own heart. And yours isn’t one near death.”

It feels like steam’s coming off me. I’m sure by now he can tell my shaking isn’t just the train, my muscles tremoring with nerves and fire.

Is that what it takes to defeat an empire? Cold detachment?

No.

Cold detachment isn’t what helped me kill those men last night without getting caught. Everyone else gets caught.

Except me.

And I’m not letting anyone else die in the crossfire of this human stupidity.

“You’re wrong.” I draw in a breath, taking my turn to bore into those obsidian eyes. “When was the last person you hired not caught? When was the last time you had a great victory? You’re losing your edge, heart-thief.”

“Hearts are weakness.” He states it like it must be a fact. An absolute. Like his existence is strung upon that statement.

“And that’s why you’ll never destroy this empire.” I lean forward, press my palms against the smooth wood of the table and close enough that I can smell him, the smokey scent that clings to his clothes. I can see his pulse racing through a vein in his neck.

So he does feel emotion. I wonder what’s running through him right now. I wonder what it would take to ignite him like me, make him run screaming at the empire like me.

He leans back. Concedes. “Fine. But if you don’t fulfill that statement, you will pay.” He waves behind him, to the rows and rows of glowing jars strapped to shelves on the wall behind him. His mouth twitches. Definitely a smile this time. “I do love adding hearts to my collection.”

{x}

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