The clouds gathered beneath the city like foam on the waves of a stormy sea. Arsha stood at the railing, the cold air running over her thickly gloved hands as bright sunlight warmed her face. Her goggles were pushed up over her forehead, the leather strap pulling her hair back. She closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of the city. The creak of the wires, the hollow booming of the wind against the canvas balloons, the soft humming of the lightning crackling through the floatstones.
Sunlight scattered off the myriad windows, off the brass and steel of the railings and support struts. Wind hammered at the wood-panelled walls of the many structures that had been lashed, bolted, and welded together over the years, to form a single vast and labyrinthine mass, suspended high above the clouds.
Ships dotted the skyline around her, fat bellied galleons and trade cogs drifting on the breeze as they waited for permission to dock. Here on the upper decks it was still quiet, the university only barely creaking to life as students slouched towards the first lectures of the day, but down at the docks she knew it would be a riot of activity as ship after ship was unloaded, their cargoes whisked away to the storehouses before filtering up to the shops and cafés of the merchant districts.
She heard the sound of a door closing. Her father’s footsteps were slow and solid as he crossed the observation deck towards her.
“I thought I might find you out here.”
His hands settled on her shoulders, and he leaned down to plant a kiss on the top of her head. She smiled up at him. He was clean shaven, his hair neatly combed and waxed. That meant he had a meeting today, probably with the dean and the bursars.
“Morning, Daddy. Are they making you sign things?”
“A final review of procedures, for the arch-dean. Just formalities. We’ll still be setting off early tomorrow.”
“They’d better not try to change anything now. You’ve been planning this for months.”
“They all take months of planning sweetheart, and a lot of paperwork. But it’s mostly just saying the same thing in a dozen different ways, so that everyone will agree that you meant it when you said it. Even if you didn’t.”
“Like, ‘I, Professor Rishi Chandra, promise not to do anything incredibly silly or dangerous whilst running around the middle of an uncharted jungle exploring ancient Ur ruins that no one’s seen for a thousand years’?”
“Yeah, I’ve been telling them that one for years.”
“But you still make me stay at the camp,” she added, scowling. “Taking stupid risks is my prerogative. Keeping you safe is my job. At least until you’re sixteen.”
“That’s not even a year. What difference is a year going to make?”
A look of uncertainty flashed across his face.
“You forgot again, didn’t you?” she said, grinning.
Creases lined his face as he squeezed his eyes shut.
“You can’t be fifteen already.”
“And three months.” She stuck her tongue out, laughing at his pained expression. “You got me a holographer, remember?”
“No… That was your fourteenth, surely…”
She shook her head.
“Fourteenth was the new sending stone. You had it engraved.”
“So,” he sighed, “apart from embarrassing your old man, what are your plans for the morning, young lady?”
“I’m supposed to meet Shani after her first lecture, so we can go down and wait for Milima and Abasi at the docks.”
“How long before they pull in?”
“About an hour, I think. Look.”
She pointed at one of the ships drifting low over the clouds. It was a slender little thing, dwarfed by the trade-ships that surrounded it. A sleek body, with wide canvas wings and two float-stones mounted on outriggers, just above the twin propellers. It was an explorer’s vessel, and it was the only place she’d ever really thought of as home. The Triskelion.
“It’ll be good to see them again. You remember we’ve got dinner planned tonight?” he said.
“Meet at the department, six thirty. I remember.”
“OK, well, I’ll see you there. Now I really should get going. You’ve had breakfast, right?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Go sign your papers, Daddy. Or whatever they want you to do. I bet it’s all really boring.”
“Crushingly dull.” He gave her shoulder a squeeze. Then he was gone, long strides carrying him across the observation deck.
She took one last look at the open sky, and then she followed him inside.
On her way down to the café, Arsha stopped in at the apartment to collect a few things. Their lodgings were on loan from the university, whilst her father and his assistants were staying in Skytower, and in the three months they’d been living there she still hadn’t managed to make it feel like any kind of a home. She snatched up her bag from the back of a chair, and was turning to leave when she heard a soft trilling sound from atop the dresser, as Penelope lifted her head from under her wing and shook her feathers out. Mother-of-pearl eyes gleamed under shining silver eyelids as the tiny mechanical bird cocked her head from one side to the other.
“Well come on then,” Arsha said, standing impatiently in the doorway. With an almost musical sound of metal wings fluttering, Penelope crossed the short distance to land on Arsha’s shoulder, tucking herself up just under the wave of her hair. She reached up to stroke the back of Penelope’s head, the little bird twisting to nuzzle her fingertips. Though her metal body gave no heat, Arsha always felt sure there was a spark of warmth when the little autom pressed up against her.
By the time she reached the café where they’d agreed to meet, Shani was already sitting at a table overlooking the concourse. Her long plaits were pulled back in a loose braid today, and she wore a bright green tunic with silver embroidery. Like her mother, Shani had skin the colour of polished ebony, and a smile like sunlight.
“Hey you,” she said, as Arsha slipped into the chair across from her. “Ordered you a coffee.”
“How was your lecture?” Arsha said, depositing her satchel. As she settled herself, she felt Penelope poking her nose out from under her hair. With a friendly chirp, the little bird dropped down onto the table.
“Ugh. Boring. Markus goes on and on,” Shani said, tickling Penny under the chin with the tip of her finger. “Hey, want to see something neat?”
Arsha nodded, and Shani produced a small object from her bag; her sending stone, the crystal a deep amethyst with squared off corners, set in a brass frame.
“This is a new weave I’ve been working on. You link it to your harmonic, right, and it listens to all of the waves that are playing in your area… And then, you just, you know, whistle or hum a little at it, like, any song you have in your head, and it finds you the wave that’s got the closest thing to that. So, you know, whatever kind of music you feel like listening to, it’ll find it for you. Come on, grab your stone and I’ll swipe it over to you.”
“That’s really cool,” Arsha said, smiling. “But, I don’t think I’ll be able to use it much. Most of the time we can barely even get the Guild station. I don’t think they’ll even have that where we’re going now.”
“Yeah, Tyren’s really the middle of nowhere huh? Hey, don’t worry, you’ll find ways to entertain yourself. Maybe you’ll meet some nice Tyren boys, eh?” Shani smiled and gave her a friendly slap on the arm.
For a moment, Arsha tried to return the smile. Then her face fell, and she felt a twisting knot tighten in her stomach.
“It’s not going to be the same,” she said, miserably. “Not without you. First Elim left, and now you’re here studying, and it’s just me…”
With a solemn look, Shani gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
“Maybe it’s time to think about what your father said. Going to the Guildhall to study. Boarding school could be a lot of fun. I bet there’s a bunch of kids there whose parents are explorers or archaeologists just like your dad,” Shani said. With a shrug she added “Or captains, like mine. It’s not like we’re the only ones that habe, like, weird parents and stuff.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just… What if I hate it there? What if no one likes me? Or what if I don’t make any friends, or I’m no good at my classes, or…”
“None of those things are going to happen. Arsh, you’re like one of the nicest people in the world, and you’re smart, and you’re fun, and I love hanging out with you. My friends all think you’re awesome. Do you have any idea how crazy that is? University students are not normally impressed by fifteen year old girls.”
Arsha felt her cheeks tingle, and for a moment she had to pretend to scan the concourse as a smile crept across her lips. At that moment a waitress arrived with their order. Arsha was blowing the steam off her coffee when Shani’s sending stone chimed. She waved a hand over the crystal, and the message flickered into view, suspended over the surface in faintly glowing letters of light.
“Oh, hey, that’s Mum and Dad. Someone missed a slot, so now they’re pulling in to dock already. Come on, we gotta go.”
They drank their coffees quickly, wincing at scalded tongues, and snatched up their bags.
“Come on,” Arsha waved at Penny as they set off. The little bird swept into the air, gliding over their heads as they walked.
Once they left the brightly lit concourse, the corridors of Skytower grew tighter and darker, ceilings low and crowded. Arsha had to coax Penny back down onto her shoulder for fear that she wouldn’t have room to fly. They made their way down a creaking old stairwell, and emerged into the bustling chaos of the docks. Arsha breathed in the mingled scent of oil, smoke, and canvas wax. Keeping to the upper catwalks, they watched as the dockers worked the level below, carts laden with crates and barrels being hauled by broad shouldered men and women in grease stained overalls.
Eventually the girls found their way to the dock where the Triskelion was pulling in. Through the tall windows that ringed the catwalk she could easily see the ship ahead of them, floatstones still dancing with energy, even as the propellers were slowly coming to rest. She could almost hear the the canvas snapping in the wind.
“Hey, hold up,” Arsha said, pausing to reach into her bag. She pulled out her holographer and raised the viewfinder to her eye. Gently squeezing the capture, she froze a few stills of the Triskelion in the dock.
“Are you done playing with that that thing yet?” Shani laughed, as Arsha tucked the holo away in her bag again.
They made their way down a small stairwell, and through a heavy door that lead them out onto the pier. As they stepped outside, the wind struck them both like a hammer. Arsha pulled her goggles down, and watched as Shani produced a scarf from her bag.
The Triskelion’s deck was long and flat, save for the vast form of the conning tower that rose up over the aft. The bridge had a curved window across its entire front, giving a clear view over the deck. Just below, at the base of the tower, was the heavy iron hatchway that lead inside. As they crossed the deck, Arsha saw the hatch swing wide as two figures emerged. With a sudden thought, she pulled out the holo from her bag again and caught a quick still of Abasi and Milima as they were stepping out onto the deck.
“Seven Names Arsha, did you really have to?” Milima called out to her, laughing as the wind whipped around her. Abasi heaved the door to and turned just in time, as Shani flung her arms around the both of them. Arsha caught a few more quick stills, as the couple embraced their daughter. Then the three of them were strolling towards her, Shani clinging to her parents arms as she walked between them.
“Hey you,” Abasi said, his voice booming like thunder as he threw an arm around her. She squeezed her arms around his rotund waist, and pressed her face to his chest as the man towered over her.
“Uncle Abasi. How was your trip?”
“Long,” Milima said, peeling Arsha away from her husband, and pulling her into a fierce embrace. Milima smelled of cinnamon and nutmeg, a sure sign that there was a fresh load of pastries and cakes waiting aboard the ship.
“So, listen, we’ve got dinner at seven,” Shani said, “Arsha’s dad booked some super fancy place in Upper East. What do you guys want to do to kill time until then?”
“Oh I don’t know dear. Whatever you like,” Milima replied.
“Is Liam going to be joining us at all?” Abasi added, with a curiously hopeful look.
“Ugh, no.” Shani made a face. “Liam and I, uh… We kind of split. Look, it’s a really long story.”
“Oh sweetheart,” Milima said, putting an arm around her daughter. “If you want to talk about it we could find somewhere quiet…”
“Maybe later.” Shani smiled, and patted her mother’s arm. “Come on, let’s head up.”
Arsha trailed behind a little as they walked, listening to the conversation as Penelope chirped happily in her ear.
The day passed in a gentle haze of shops and cafés, as Abasi and Milima caught up on Shani’s life at the university, and filled the girls in on what they’d been doing. In the three months since dropping off Arsha and her father at Skytower, Abasi and Milima had been travelling all across the Guildlands and beyond, gathering items that her father had needed from various far flung outposts. It wasn’t especially exciting, but after months cooped up in one place, Arsha envied them. She missed the Triskelion, and her cosy little cabin.
As six o’clock rolled around, Abasi and Milima made their way back to the ship, to change into something suitable. Shani made her excuses likewise, and Arsha found herself walking alone back to the apartments. She was trying on a matching deep blue salwar and kameez when her father knocked and poked his head in through the door.
“Hey Daddy,” she said, “is this OK for tonight?”
“You look perfect, love,” he said.
She pulled a face.
“You always say that. It doesn’t help if you always say it.”
“Listen, I’ve got one more errand to run. Can you wait down at the department for me? Micah and Ilona will be there already.”
“And you do look perfect. Just like always.”
She felt a tingling in her cheeks, even as she rolled her eyes at him.
“Alright, I’m going,” he said.
After picking out a gold shawl from her wardrobe, Arsha settled Penelope on her shoulder again, and set off down the avenue. At a doorway with a brass plate that read ‘Department of Exploration and Archaeology’ she knocked politely, and a grey haired porter let her in with a smile.
She made her way through the twisting maze of corridors, finally stepping through a set of double doors that lead into the lab. Long worktables lined the room, nearly every inch of them now covered in neat stacks and rows of equipment. Tools were laid out and labelled by size, stacks of supplies had neat little tags indicating type and quantity, and more still were already being packed away into crates filled with straw. Piles of loose equipment, as yet unsorted, dotted the floor throughout the room.
Ilona sat to one side on a wooden stool, with a notepad resting in her lap. The woman was wearing a black dress with silver trim, cut in the Novarsi style that she preferred. Her pale blonde hair was pulled up into a tight bun, revealing the delicate sharpness of her features, the paleness of her skin standing sharp against the black satin. The woman was staring at her notes intently, and didn’t seem to even notice when Arsha entered the room.
Sat between two benches, crossed legged on the floor, Micah was slowly untangling a small mountain of climbing rope. His dark hair was tied back in a pony-tail and his shirt sleeves were rolled up. One braided forelock had been woven with a handful of coloured beads. He turned at the sound of the door, and whistled when he set eyes on her.
“Hey there little bear,” Micah said with a broad grin. “You look exceptionally pretty today.”
She smiled, and propped herself up on one of the benches.
“Dad got you working late?”
Micah shrugged, broad shoulders moving expressively.
“Gotta get done. We’re still pitching to set off early tomorrow if we can.”
“You’re not going to change?”
“We’ll catch up and meet you guys at the restaurant. Or something. Honestly I’m just glad we’re finally going to be out there doing something again. I gotta tell you, girl, I am literally losing my mind cooped up here behind all these books.”
“Goodness, it’s almost like assisting a Professor of Archaeology involves more than just knowing how to fold a rope. How terrible for you,” Ilona said. Her tone was sharp, but Arsha had seen the two of them argue often enough to expect that. She’d never really quite understood the way Micah and Ilona were with each other, but the fact remained that no amount of bickering and sniping had ever seemed to keep the two from remaining friends. Or, something like friends. She wasn’t really sure if she knew exactly what to call it.
Hefting a coil of rope, Micah just shook his head, sadly.
“I swear you and Rishi live behind those books of yours. You’re like a fated match, the two of you. When you going to admit it and just tie the knot already?”
Ilona’s eyes narrowed, just a little, but the woman said nothing.
“What do you say Arsha?” Micah continued, ruffling her hair as he walked past, “How’d you like to have Ilona for your new mum?”
“Fates, you are such an ass,” Ilona snarled. “Talking about her mother like that…”
“Hey, hey, OK. I’m sorry,” Micah said, throwing up his hands in a gesture of surrender as Ilona scowled at him.
“It’s OK. It really doesn’t bother me,” Arsha said. “I mean, I never knew her, so it’s not really like I can miss her or anything.”
She did her best to sound unconcerned, but an uneasy silence still fell over the room. It was always awkward, the way people were so wary of discussing a woman she’d never even met. She supposed it must have been different for people who’d had a mother and a father, but all she’d ever known was growing up with her dad. She’d spent so much of her life aboard the Triskelion that she’d never really been lonely. There had always been Micah to give her piggy-back rides around the deck, or Milima to read her a bed-time story and stroke her hair as she drifted off to sleep. She’d explored every inch of their floating home playing hide and seek with Elim and Shani, crawling through hatchways and hidden nooks until their parents went mad trying to find them. All of the crew had become her family in their own ways.
The silence ticked on. Ilona’s eyes were fixed on her notes again, as Micah went back to counting off carabiners. Arsha was still wondering if she should say something when the door swung open and Shani swept in. Arsha found herself momentarily dazed by the sight of the older girl, looking gorgeous in a flowing gown of green and gold, with a brooch at her neck.
“Hey sweetie.” Shani smiled at her. “You look stunning.”
Arsha looked away, feeling her cheeks tingling again.
“Our parents are waiting outside, if you’re ready to go,” Shani added. “Oh, hey, Micah, I have got to show you this.”
As Shani danced across to where Micah was sitting, Arsha got up and began to make her way outside. At the entrance to the lobby, she paused. Milima and Abasi were standing alone together in the empty lobby. Milima’s face was upturned, Abasi’s hand resting lightly on the back of her neck as her husband’s lips met hers.
Arsha coughed. Giggling, Milima took a step back, nodding in her direction.
“Hello again, trouble,” Abasi growled, smiling.
Arsha just smirked at him, and stuck her tongue out.
“Your father’s outside, love,” Milima said. “Had to take an urgent sending all of a sudden. I don’t suppose you know where Shani got to?”
“Showing off one of her new toys to Micah, so, I don’t know, they’ll probably only be all night,” Arsha replied.
Abasi sighed, and rolled his eyes.
“Why did I ever let that girl near one of those stones in the first place?”
“Oh I don’t know dear,” Milima replied, patting his arm, “perhaps because your daughter is doing something she’s incredibly passionate about, and can probably make a very successful career out of?”
Abasi just rolled his eyes again. Moments later, Shani glided into the lobby, Micah and Ilona following close behind her. Micah was talking whilst Ilona listened with pursed lips, in what Arsha recognised as their version of an animated conversation.
Shani glanced around the room at everyone.
“So, are we just waiting for the esteemed professor?” she said. Almost on cue, the outside door opened, and Arsha’s father walked in.
She sensed the change in him as soon as he stepped through the door. It was in his eyes, in the way he walked, in the way his hands moved at his sides, as if he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them. The others sensed it too, and for a moment no one spoke.
“Rishi, what’s wrong?” Abasi said, breaking the silence.
“Nothing’s wrong, Abasi, it’s just…” He pushed a hand through his hair, seemingly not for the first time. “Something’s come up.” He paused. “How quickly can you plot us a new course?”
“Well,” Abasi said, speaking with an almost exaggerated caution, “that depends on where we’d be sailing to.”
“It’s…” He paused again, as if unsure how much he could say. “It’s beyond the Veil. A city called ‘London’. We have to set sail as soon as possible.”
“Rishi, come on now, what’s wrong?” Milima stepped forward to lay a hand on his arm. “All these plans we’ve been making…”
“Yes, I know. I’ll explain things to the dean tonight. As best I can, anyway.”
“But why? What in the world could be so important that you need to abandon everything you’ve been working for this last year? What is this about?”
“Milima, you know I wouldn’t ask, not unless it was absolutely necessary.”
“So we just have to trust you?” Milima scowled.
For a moment, Milima said nothing, her eyes fixed on his. Then she gave a nod.
“I’ll have the ship ready by daybreak,” Abasi said.
The argument apparently settled, her father turned to look at Micah and Ilona, both of whom had been watching everything keenly, but without saying a word.
“I’m so sorry about this. I’ll have arrangements made for both of you to stay here at Skytower. Or, I can pay for passage if there’s somewhere else you’d like to be.”
Ilona’s sharp features pulled back into an angry sneer.
“You absolutely must be joking,” she snarled. Her father’s eyes creased with sadness.
“I really am so sorry. This situation…”
“Professor, I think what ‘Lona’s trying to say,” Micah interjected, “is that we really don’t give a rat’s arse what the situation is. We’re not sitting this one out just because the plans have changed. I know how much this expedition meant to you. Whatever this thing is that’s come up, it’s obviously pretty damn important.”
“You feel the same, I take it?” her father said, looking at Ilona. The woman inclined her head, ever so slightly.
“Well, thank you, both of you,” he said. Micah raised his hands in an easy-going gesture.
“You did promise me we’d get to travel. I’ve never been past the Veil before.”
Despite his outward calm, Arsha had known Micah long enough to recognise the nervousness in the man’s eyes. That same nervousness was lurking behind every face in the room, a tension crackling in the air, as her father excused himself and stalked away, his shoulders hunched over as his coat flapped around his heels. Arsha felt Shani’s hand enclosing hers, a gentle, reassuring pressure as the woman smiled at her, a little sadly. Neither of them seemed to have any idea what to say.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.