The streets of Paris were buzzing. Some called it the City of Light, but Nina wondered why New York City was The City That Never Sleeps instead. Of course, she had never been to New York, or even to America, but Nina knew that if there was ever a more vibrant, colorful city than the one she had just entered, it must be simply marvelous. Between the scents of the vendors and the beautiful language being spoken everywhere, the young girl felt at home instantly.
Nina had moved recently from the countryside, which was beautiful in its own right, but not as much as where she was now. Here, Nina was someone. She mattered no more than the people around here did, and together, they created a city so beautiful, that it was the masterpiece of the painting that was France, Nina’s homeland. The crepes in her hands were warm and sweet, but the feeling transferred itself to her whole body as she took her first bite.
“You gotta pay for that, y’know,” the old man vending crepes grunted. “This is a business, not a school cafeteria.”
Nina stuttered. “Oh, uh, of course! Here. Keep the change.” She placed a few coins in the man’s hand, which seemed to satisfy him as he slipped them into his pocket. Nina scrunched her eyebrows as she looked towards the end of the cart. A strange painting sat there. It looked like it had been stretched out wrong.
“What’s with that painting?” she asked, tilting her head slightly to the left. The man chuckled as he turned the edges of the crepe. “Things aren’t always as they appear, girl.” The man then proceeded to put a small cylindrical mirror on a wavy circle on the painting. As soon as he did, the painting clearly showed a small portrait of a girl in a frilly dress one might wear if they were wealthy in the 1800s’. Nina didn’t recognize it, but quickly realized the painting was a replica of some famous artist’s work. She wasn’t too focused on the arts, not outside of experiencing them.
“It’s a cool trick, ain’t it?” the man said, with a sideways grin. “Good for sending messages, too.”
Nina furrowed her brow at that, but politely thanked the old man and went about the rest of her day, snacking on the delicious crepe that tasted like home. She would forget this conversation, but it would come back to haunt her later on in life, for this was Nina’s first encounter with a certain society little known to the rest of the world, but well known to the world Nina was soon to become a part of.
And so, Nina began to walk away, quietly eating her crepe. That is, before the strange man turned back towards her.
“Hey, you!” he said, grudginess in his tone. “Girl. Come back here-”
The man gestured towards the coins in his hand, seeming to imply that she hadn’t paid enough.
“Aw, leave her alone, Jacques,” a young woman around Nina’s age said, sighing. “The girl’s just trying to eat her food.”
“She short changed me, that’s what!” the man said. “And you guess what, Amelie, she was looking at the anamorphosis, too! So I told her it was good for sending messages, and-”
Nina's mind started to race. She had heard that word before. Anamorphosis. Anamorphosis. Anamorphosis.
Suddenly, Nina remembered. She remembered back in her mother’s old house in the countryside preparing dinner while her mother sat down to paint. She remembered her look of surprise when her mother finally put down her brushes, humming a familiar song. She remembered finally staring at the painting, and her surprise to see it so stretched out.
“Mama, why’s your painting so weird?”
“It’s an anamorphosis, honey. It’s supposed to be that way.”
She remembered how her mother smiled as she ate her cooking, some soup made from whatever was in the pantry. Oh, what Nina would have given for another day like that, before her mother was taken from her. She missed her so much.
Nina’s expression went rigid as her breaths came out faster and faster. She sighed and sighed, repeating little mantras to herself.
“Woah, are you okay?” Amelie asked, walking towards Nina. “Jacques, what exactly did you say to her?”
The old man gave an exasperated sigh, barring his fists in anger. “I didn’t say anything; you’re the one who started it!”
Nina felt the panic taking over her body. She remembered that night so vividly, it was taking over her system. She remembered the weight on her shoulders, how much lighter it had been back then. She remembered the little song her mother was humming, each beat a little bit higher than the rest, and then a little bit lower. She remembered the wisps of smoke coming from the pot of soup and the faint breeze from the summer air.
The beautiful smells in the streets that were once comforting now seemed unsettling and new. And suddenly, Nina couldn’t hang onto her pain any longer. She cried and she cried, thinking of her dear mother and the anamorphosis. That one good night before it all went downhill.
Nina remembered her first night on the streets of Paris, and how unsettling it was. This wasn’t like the nice market she found herself in now, but it wasn’t bad, either. The busyness comforted Nina as she dealt with the tragedy that was her life now. It was pleasant. She could go with the flow.
The air seemed to surround Nina as if it was giving her a warm hug - a hug full of beautiful scents and colors and people. But Nina knew it was nothing but harsh coldness underneath. She couldn’t stand it anymore as the tears poured out. For the first time in what felt like forever, Nina cried and she cried.
“No,” she said, turning towards Amelie. “I’m not okay. I just... remembered something.”
And, just like that, the strong smells and warm air turned into memories as well. Memories of the dirt on the streets and the warmth of the city. Memories of her mother, her dear mother, who she missed so much.
Amelie put her arm around Nina’s shoulder, wiping away her tears. Nina was tough, and wouldn't usually let a stranger so close, but something about Amelie felt familiar.
She reminded her a little of her mother, on the warm day, humming to herself, before she was taken away. Before the dark days of Nina’s life. She reminded her of back when she could smile.
Amelie started to hum, a little tune where each note was a little higher than the others. The memories started to fade as Nina was brought back into reality. She noticed that they had passed a few blocks as the smells of fresh bread and crepes were now replaced by the smells of cutlets and steaks.
“How-how do you know that song?”
“Once, my mother sang it to me. It was meant to calm you. I’m sorry if I imposed…”
In the background, Jacques grunted something about the waste of the crepe Nina had inevitably dropped and how they really didn’t need yet another kid with them.
“It’s for our group, kid. The Violet Society. You ever heard of ‘em?”
Nina shook her head, still overwhelmed.
“I know that song,” she said. “My mother used to hum that while she painted paintings like the one at your stand.”
Jacque gave a knowing nod. “She must be one of us, then. I guess that makes you a part of the family, stranger.”
Amelie rolled her eyes. “Jacques, don’t act like you suddenly care now that she’s a ‘part of the family.” Still, however, curiosity shined through her faint smile.
“Was,” Nina corrected, solemnly. The memories were now silent, like the whispers of the wind. A sudden cold breeze blew away Nina’s long hair. It was dirty from the streets, but only when you got a good look at it. From a distance, it just looked dark as the night sky. “She’s dead now.”
It wasn’t the first time Nina had spoken those words, but it felt like it. Each time she said it, the heaviness in her chest increased. Each time she said it, she felt it in her heart.
“Who are you guys, anyway?” the now broken Nina asked, a shiver going down her spine as she realized what a scary situation she had gotten herself in.
Amelie frowned. “I’m very sorry to hear that.” Then she smiled again. “Like Jacques said, we’re part of the Violet Society.”
“The Violet Society?”
“Yeah. We regulate order, pretty much, all around the world through various means.” Here, Amelie stopped and looked at Jacques. “We don’t often pick up people from the streets, though. But you seem different from them. Jacques’s right - you've already got a connection to us.”
Nina frowned and furrowed her brow again. “I-”
“You’ll figure it out.” Amelie stated, with a simple smile. “Look, we’re here.”
Somehow, through all the swirling memories of her past, and the talking of her future, Nina and her new friends ended up near the entrance to what appeared to be a dark tunnel.
Amelie looked towards Nina. “It’s alright. Don’t be afraid.”
But Nina remembered this place, as well. Not the place itself, but the feeling she got from it. The cold darkness surrounding her, just like the scented air, was full of memories. Memories Nina didn’t want to remember.
She remembered the cold feeling when she was young of her mother leaving her at home to go somewhere. She remembered following her through a dark and dreary ally, until she couldn’t hold it in anymore and cried. She remembered her mother turning around and looking to see her behind her, and the warmth she got as she walked back home. It was a funny kind of warmth. Chilly, almost.
“I know this place.” She said, being encapsulated by memories, memories surrounding her, choking her in their bitterness.
“You might know a different spot,” said Amelie. “We meet at different locations within the catacombs of the city. And other places outside of it.”
Nina nodded quietly, as Jacques opened the door. The buzzing of people talking became more and more apparent.
“Quiet down,” said Amelie, reducing the noise significantly. “This is-”
“Nina,” said Nina, realizing she had never given her rescuers her name.
“Well, Nina,” an old man said. “I’m Onyx. Are you ready for your first mission?”
(Authors note: Yes, this is in the same universe as The Secret of the Violets).