When my grandmother was a young woman, she sold emotions. Right there on that very street corner, you see? Where the sign post and the lamp meet. They were usually bottled, of course, by the time they reached her table, and she would line them up one by one, in neat little rows. The woman she sold them for was from one of the most powerful families in the city. And let me tell you, that woman would not tolerate any mistakes. Her network was small, efficient, and ruthless. After a few decades, few others dared to go into the business.
My grandmother, Gisele, she noticed this, she watched, she listened, but she kept quiet. The biggest rule was to never, ever, go against Madam Sage’s wishes. Until one day.
That day a breeze blew in, cold but soft against Gisele’s cheek. Surprised, she turned to face the direction the wind had blown in from, unused to anything but the oppressive heat of the city.
When she turned back around, a stranger was standing at her table.
Gisele startled, for she hadn’t heard this person walk up to the table. Nor did she recognize him, another surprise, for in her small domain those who bought emotions were frequent customers. The baker from around the corner who bought happiness to cope with the loss of his wife. The couple from her building who bought love in the hopes of curing the growing rift between them. And of course the kids who bought the small bottles with their allowance and dared others to drink them.
This person was not like the others. He was tall and narrow, perhaps around twenty, a long coat covering almost all of his body. Short black hair and black eyes peered at her curiously, and she couldn’t tell for the life of her where he could have come from. Certainly not the Villages…perhaps the Outer Ring? Another city?
“Do you sell emotions for Madam Sage?” the person asked.
“And you are…?” Gisele asked instead of answering. She knew better than to give a stranger information about Madam Sage.
“Yes I could tell that.” Who did he think she was? An amateur? Emotion-selling was a lucrative position and it required the best. Not to mention emotion-stealing.
A smile quirked the edges of his lips. “Then perhaps you know who I am?”
Gisele stayed quiet.
The smile increased. “No? Has Sage not told you about us?”
“Can’t say she has,” she bit out. Something about this person ruffled her edges.
He made her want to clutch all of her bottles close and never let them go.
The stranger considered this for a few moments. Then he stuck out a hand. “Roberto. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Gisele made him wait for several moments, but when the hand didn’t so much as waver, she stuck out her own as well. “Gisele.”
“What?” Gisele asked, annoyance growing by the minute.
“I didn’t expect you to tell me your name,” Roberto said.
This did absolutely nothing to relieve the tension gripping Gisele’s body. Or the
overwhelming suspicion. “And why not?”
“Excuse me? I operate a small business on a street corner.” Unless…“Did Madam Sage send you?”
“No, not her.” A hint of annoyance flashed across his face. Gisele felt some satisfaction at this. Could she try…? But no. He was already strange enough, what if he could sense it?
“Then who did?”
“Matilda who?” The longer this conversation went on the more tempted she was to try. Underneath her stand, Gisele gripped a fresh bottle in her hand.
Roberto sighed. “Matilda Van Leer. She owns a business in contention with yours. One of the few remaining thanks to Sage’s corruption. Madam Sage isn’t who you think she is.”
Who was he to say? Gisele didn’t spend all that much time thinking about Sage, but this seemed a bit biased coming from her proclaimed competition. But if this was going to work…
“Then who is she?”
Roberto stepped closer. “She manipulates you and everyone to her wishes. This whole emotion-selling business, it’s a ruse.”
“I won’t claim she’s a good person, but it’s just a business.”
“You really haven’t seen anything that worries you?”
Gisele almost rolled her eyes. “I work in the same place every day.” If he would just step a little…There. Now, which one?
Roberto’s eyes flicked to the table. No, that wouldn’t do. “Wait,” Gisele said. “I have heard some things.”
Roberto made a motion encouraging her to keep talking.
Underneath the table, her hand made a twisting, beckoning motion. When he began to look impatient, she clenched her fist, the bottle tight in her other hand, imagining the mystery being yanked from his core, and watched Roberto’s face—shift. When she looked down, midnight blue Mystery shimmered in its bottle. With a grin, she corked it.
Gisele looked up. “Who are you really and what do you have against Madam Sage?”
Roberto didn’t answer. Instead, he looked frustrated. “How on earth did Matilda think this was going to work?”
Gisele’s own frustration bubbled up at the lack of information. “Don’t make me take another.”
Madam Sage wouldn’t be happy with this. She preferred discreet. Not that Roberto was making any of this easy to be discreet.
Sadness flickered across Roberto’s face and Gisele was almost disappointed at the lack of fight. With the loss of Mystery, he seemed almost flat, a two-dimensional person. Gisele supposed it was a blessing and a curse to be so good at what she did.
But how had he known about her skill? Gisele puzzled this over, distracted, until Roberto reached out and snatched the Mystery bottle, bringing it to his lips.
“No!” Gisele cried out. “You can’t—“ The sudden onslaught of a returning emotion was usually fatal.
Roberto swiped his mouth, a grin spreading across his face, and tossed the bottle back at her. Gisele barely caught it right in front of her face, then looked at Roberto from around it. “How did you—“
“You think it’s the first time one of you has tried to take my emotions?”
Gisele had no answer. All she could do was stare.
The grin only grew. “You need to come with me.” Roberto said.
“What about my emotions?” Gisele asked, gesturing at her display. “I can’t leave now.”
There was no way she was getting fired for this.
“Oh, but you can.” That was the only response she got before he snapped his fingers and her table was gone.
“What did you just do?!”
“You can have it back later. Come with me.”
“Listen. Matilda’s business is faltering, and she’s desperate. If I don’t take you to her my job will be in jeopardy. Now, you don’t have to accept her offer, but I would appreciate it very much if you would come with me.”
Fuming and bewildered, Gisele nodded, and followed him across the cobbled street, then two blocks over, where the elevated train screeched its way across the rusting tracks.
“We are not going on one of those.” She stopped and crossed her arms. When Roberto turned around, it was with a bemused expression on his face.
“You’re afraid of trains?”
She preferred to think of it as wary. Either way, he didn’t need to know. “I can’t just leave my family without telling them anything. And there’s no way I’m paying for a ticket.”
“Right.” He turned back around. “I’ll pay for the ticket.” Apparently he hadn’t bought the somewhat blatant lie about her nonexistent family. Not much of a surprise there. Most stealers didn’t have anyone close to them.
Roberto led her into the station where he paid for the tickets, then onto the train, snatching at the sleeve of her coat to prevent her from running away from it.
Three stops later, Roberto stood, and Gisele had no choice but to step down with him onto the platform.
All around them metal shone bright, the platform polished and clean.
“Oh wonderful,” she muttered. “Your employer is wealthy.”
“I suppose you could say that. But you wouldn’t be entirely correct these days,” Roberto said, and walked down the stairs.
Some blocks later they arrived in front of a stately building, all carved stone. A typical wealthy person’s dwelling, Gisele thought. Roberto opened the door, dragged her in, and without warning, shouted, “Matilda!”
Gisele pulled out of his grasp as the door closed behind them.
A minute later a woman descended the impressive, albeit creaky, staircase curving its way up to the second floor. Her face was drawn into a carefully neutral expression, but upon seeing the two of them, something like hope squeezed in. “Is this her?”
“This is the one. But we don’t have a good chance. She doesn’t have any issue with Sage.”
“Well, I’m glad you managed to get her, dear.”
Gisele didn’t like the sound of that at all. “What do you mean, ‘get’ me?”
“The way I see it, you can’t go about working for that old hag any longer,” Matilda said.
“That old hag has kept me out of poverty for years now.” Gisele frowned. “I can make my own life decisions thank you very much.”
“But what if we could make you a better deal? Not many people have your talent.”
Matilda almost appeared amused for a moment. She looked at Roberto, who gave her a knowing look. “Well dear, what if you came to work for us instead of Sage? You’d get twice the pay and wouldn’t have to live with the guilt of working for a corrupt system.”
“If it even is corrupt,” she muttered. Then she said louder, sticking her chin up. “Personally I’m perfectly happy how I am.”
“Stubborn too,” Matilda sighed. “Would you at least hear us out?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not particularly,” Roberto said.
Matilda smiled. “In that case, follow me.” She led Gisele to her office, a stately room that would’ve been made much more impressive with a fresh coat of paint and a new rug.
Once they’d all sat down, Matilda began. “If you come to work with me, not only will I pay you more, you’ll get off that street corner. If you help me succeed, earn enough profit, you might even end up helping me run the business.”
Gisele sat and pretended to think it through, but inside her head, the first seeds of an idea had begun to take root.
Grandmother never told me in detail what happened during those next two years—told me her mind got fuzzy. The next thing she always said was this: Matilda’s offer was too good to resist. But what she also said was to never take offers at face value. Remember children: it takes time for the fine things in life.
Her story usually picked up two years later on the eve of her eighteenth birthday. She’d worked hard and climbed her way up in the company. There was a party, I believe, to celebrate her one day coming into the money she’d helped Matilda earn—lots of it.
She always described the feeling of sliding silk gloves onto her arms, anticipation building as she picked her way down the refurbished stairs of Matilda’s house and into the dining room, careful not to trip over her skirts.
Roberto smiled as she entered by his side and she couldn’t resist an eye roll.
“I don’t see what the big deal is all about,” she leaned in to whisper.
“Yes you do.”
She pretended to consider a moment. “Yes I do.”
Matilda was near the head of the table, stern as always, her eyes fixed on Gisele’s.
“You have a lot to be proud of,” Roberto whispered in Gisele’s ear. “No matter what happens, remember that. And remember what you’ll owe me.”
It was a difficult thing for Gisele to hide the twisted grin that wanted desperately to split her face but somehow she managed, keeping her smile small and docile. “I will.”
Matilda, wearing her own finery, reached down towards the table and clinked her wine glass with a fork. The hall silenced within a few moments.
“To my niece, Gisele, and her future fortune!” Glasses were raised. Gisele smiled and inwardly wished they’d gone with a relation a little farther off.
She walked closer and found her place at the table, closing her eyes briefly and feeling all the emotions swirling around her. She felt many: happiness, elation (presumably more from the wine than anything related to Gisele), jealousy, and finally—most importantly—loyalty.
It was such a two-sided coin, loyalty.
Matilda indicated everyone should take their places as well. When everyone was assembled, the company sat.
The dinner was served, and then, finished, the guests moved from the dining room to the ballroom.
Gisele eyed the door to the kitchens. A nearby server gave her a nod. Gisele returned it.
Matilda really should’ve been nicer to her staff.
With another glance at Roberto, across the room and caught up in a dance, Gisele crossed the room to where Matilda was deep in conversation with a wealthy businessman. “I’m looking forward to our future ventures,” he was saying. In other words, he couldn’t wait to be provided with his first shipment of emotions. It seemed he had decided to branch out a little.
Gisele smiled as the pair noticed her, inclining her head to both of them.
“Gisele, my dear,” Matilda said, pride in her tight smile. Gisele clutched her wine glass a bit harder. “Mr. Rosen, have you had the chance to meet my lovely niece?”
“I have not,” he said, bending to kiss Gisele’s free hand. He straightened and glanced back at Matilda just as Gisele squeezed her glass a bit too hard…
It shattered in her now closed fist. An invisible river poured into Gisele, making her feel lightheaded and giddy, but she shoved it away, down through her fingertips.
“Oh my, that’s—Matilda!” Mr. Rosen turned from the mess now surrounding Gisele to his business partner, collapsed on the floor, motionless.
Gisele bent over her, frantically checking her pulse. It beat slowly, decreasing by the second.
“Someone, help!” she cried. “Please, help!”
All around her, people muttered, whispered, questions. “What’s happened? Who can help her?”
Of course, no one stepped in to help, unwilling to risk the possibility of dirtying their evening dress.
“Is there no one?” Gisele wailed as Matilda’s pulse slowed further.
“Where’s the staff?” Rosen yelled. Everyone looked around, just as confused as he was at the lack of black-and-white-clad figures.
Gisele could hear Roberto yelling, squeezing through people to get to her.
Just as he parted the last few, she raised her head and glanced into the crowd, catching a familiar eye. A beat later Gisele pointed, yelling, “Her! It was her! Madam Sage is here, someone get her!”
With that, everyone leapt to their feet to grab the woman standing amongst them, whose expression melted from satisfaction to unbridled fury. “What have you done, you foolish girl?”
“I haven’t done anything.” Gisele trembled with false rage, clenching her fists. She had no intention of allowing Sage to stage her coup tonight, despite what she’d promised her. “She’s clearly had her emotions drained. I should know. And who else but her fiercest competitor?”
Two upper-class officers in the crowd grabbed her as everyone clamored to get a look.
Distantly, Gisele felt Roberto behind her, attempting to be a reassuring presence. She turned to look at him. “Is there anything we can do?”
Roberto watched Madam Sage being dragged out, now strangely limp, with hatred. “No. No one can handle all of their emotions being ripped from them so suddenly. Not even you or I. Haven’t I mentioned that before?”
As he helped her up, she said softly, “You get a fourth.”
“A third at least. I could have you arrested right here and now.”
Late that night, Gisele snuck out of the building, tracing her way through back alleys and darkened streets, hood up to conceal her face.
Some minutes later she reached a more decrepit building, one that seemed to have fallen into disrepair in recent years. The front was a store, but in the back, a factory loomed large.
Gisele snuck into its side, looking both ways before she entered.
A single light gleamed from the office overlooking the main floor. Gisele climbed the stairs and let herself in.
The server from the ball—unimportant, but significant to her game of staying close to each business—sat behind the desk, inspecting several sheets of paper. She looked up as the door clicked shut. “Gisele.”
“I believe you owe me those documents.”
“For double crossing everyone and taking it all? Please tell me I get a cut.”
“Ten percent. And the highest paying job in my new monopoly,” Gisele said, finally allowing her grin to spread across her face.
“Very well. It’s all yours then. How you expect to cover it up I’ll never know. Madam Sage won’t stay quiet.”
Gisele’s smile widened as she reached into her pockets, holding up two bottles swirling with many, many emotions. “Oh, but she will.”
When my grandmother was young, she sold emotions, and she took them too. She worked hard to earn the trust of two powerful women, and then took over both of their companies.
Remember children: to ensure your success you must play your cards just as well as your great-great-grandmother played hers. Your skill is important, yes, and it may make you feel powerful, but the real key? That is your mind. Use it to come out on top.