With her father’s sending stone held loosely in one hand, Arsha paused at the foot of the stairs and took a breath. Once again she repeated the lie that she’d been carefully rehearsing; that she’d found her father’s stone where he’d left it on the bathroom sink. Just an absent minded mistake. It wasn’t her fault. She had to keep telling herself that, but the thought just wouldn’t seem to stick. She could feel her hands trembling.
She looked up the stairwell, towards the bridge, and reached out one hand to grip the railing. Then she heard a door opening, and the sound of voices from above. She froze, one foot on the bottom step. Her father and the others must have just stepped out of the Captain’s ready room and onto the bridge.
“You can look for your damn stone in a minute Rishi, this is important,” Milima said, her voice clear and sharp.
“Yes, Milima, I’m sure you think it is, but right now, I really don’t…”
“Rishi, we’ll be in London in a little over a day. Don’t you think it’s about time you told us just what in the Seven Names we’re doing out here?”
“Rishi, she’s right.” Abasi’s voice, deep and gentle. “When you told me where we were going, I didn’t ask any questions, because I trusted that it was important, and that you’d tell me everything in good time. But you can’t ask me to take my ship into a situation like this without you at least telling me what we’re doing.”
There was a long pause in the conversation. She wondered what could be happening. Then she heard her father’s voice again, quieter this time. He sounded tired, worn down.
“There’s… There’s a girl. She’s in danger. And I have to protect her.”
“Why?” Milima replied. “Rishi, I don’t mean to be cold, but there are millions of young girls out there that need protecting. Are you going to go chasing after every single one of them? Why is it so important that you save this one child?”
There was another long silence. Arsha held her breath and pressed herself up against the wall, as she counted off the seconds.
“Because if we don’t,” her father said, heavily, “a Seed is going to open in London.”
“Seven…” Milima gasped.
“Rishi, you can’t be serious,” Abasi said.
“It’ll tear the Veil apart. The damage will be unimaginable,” her father continued.
“And this girl, she’s going to open it?” Abasi said.
“That’s right. Unless we can get to her first.”
“Fates, Rishi, you should have told us sooner. We could have brought help, we could have warned the Guild, alerted the Wardens…”
“Abasi, what makes you think they would listen? If I, of all people, told them a Seed was going to awaken, and that somehow no one else, not even the Chamber of Foresight, knew a damn thing about it? Why would they believe me?”
“So how did you find out?” Milima said, her tone taking on a razor fine edge. “If even the Guild doesn’t know yet…”
“Or haven’t admitted that they know,” Abasi interjected. “If a Seed really is going to awaken, the Chamber would predict it. They couldn’t miss something like this.”
“Which means someone in the Chamber…” Milima continued for him. “Seven Names. Rishi, if they find out. Gaining access to a prediction. Spying on the Chamber. If they ever learn what you’ve done…”
“Rishi, she’s right. You know the rules about the Chamber of Foresight. This is incredibly dangerous.”
“If they can prove it,” her father replied, curtly. “Which they never will.”
“Rishi, you can’t know that,” Milima said.
“Maybe not, but I trust my source. And if I’m wrong, it’s on my head.”
“Seven Names it is. Rishi, if they even suspect, they’ll come after all of us with everything they have. Even if they can’t prove it, they’ll find something. We could be charged with trespassing the Veil, breach of the Accords…” Milima said, her voice rising like thunder.
“Milima, love,” Abasi said, his voice soft, “it’s done now. And Rishi is right. If we let this happen…”
“The damage this thing could cause, if it awakens,” her father added.
“You really want to talk to me about damage?” Milima replied, her voice a sharp hiss.
“Fine. So we turn around. We walk away and do nothing. Is that what you want?” her father said, sharply.
“You know damn well I don’t. You’re right, we’re committed now. But I don’t like this one bit, and you had no right to lead us into this in the first place. That’s the thing about trust, Rishi. You’re supposed to earn it.”
When Arsha heard the sound of Milima’s footsteps on the stairs, she barely had time to react. Without even thinking about it she slipped her father’s sending stone back into her pocket, just before Milima rounded the corner and saw her standing there.
“Arsha? What are you doing love?” Milima said, looking almost as shocked as Arsha felt.
“I… Ummm… I was just coming up to ask if… If we’d be putting in any time soon,” she stammered.
“Uh, yes, I imagine we’ll need to stop to recharge soon. We’re coming up on an outpost in a few hours.”
“Oh, OK,” Arsha said.
“Listen, love, why don’t you go down and check on the washing for me?”
Arsha nodded, feeling a wave of relief wash over her. She turned and slipped back down below decks, taking the stairs two at a time, her heart still pounding.
The outpost was little more than a slender spear of rock thrusting up out of the water, surrounded by crashing foam. At its peak a tower had been built, scaffolds branching out to form piers and lookouts. Balconies and walkways surrounded tall windows that splashed bright sunlight back at them in reflected sprays.
She was glad of the chance to get off the ship and away from the tension that seemed to be hanging in the air, like a gathering storm. They had an hour before the lightning cages would be charged again, and she wanted some time to herself. She wandered through the silent galleria, past shops that were shuttered and empty. The place would be busy enough when real trade came through, but right now they were the only ship around. Hardly worth turning up the lights for. It didn’t matter. She was glad to be alone.
Her thoughts tumbled over and over in her head, as she replayed the conversation she’d overheard on the bridge and the dream that the woman had described to her father. As she tried to fit the pieces together. It all seemed to come back to something called a seed, and to the girl. A girl that she was connected to, somehow, though her father hadn’t seemed eager to let Abasi or Milima know about that detail.
As she stepped out onto the docks the wind began to pick up, turning the warm air chill, and she suddenly wished she had worn more than just a thin blouse. She rubbed her arms and considered slipping back inside when she saw a lone figure standing out on an empty dock, leaning across the railing. Even in the glare of the sunlight she recognised her father’s thin frame. He wore his old greatcoat which whipped around him, snapping in the breeze. As she watched, he leaned forward to rest his forehead against clenched knuckles. He seemed tired, worn thin, like a shirt so badly frayed that it was holding together by its last few stitches.
Forgetting the cold, she began to walk towards him. He didn’t even seem to notice her approach until she leaned against the railing beside him. His head turned slightly, and he blinked in surprise.
“Arsha,” he said, surprised.
“Hey Daddy,” she said as she leaned out over the railing. Seeing the goosebumps on her arms, he pulled his coat around her shoulders, covering them both. Neither of them seemed to know what else to say. They stood together, staring out at the endless ocean, the wind whipping at their hair. Eventually the breeze died down and the sun began to warm the air again.
Tucked away in the pocket of her blouse, Penny stirred. The little bird wriggled out of her hidey hole and hopped down onto Arsha’s arm, chirping lightly. With her typical curiosity, Penny began hop from spot to spot, moving down Arsha’s sleeve before jumping across onto her father’s arm.
“Hello,” he said, a little surprised. “Shouldn’t you be inside?”
“She likes the breeze,” Arsha said, stroking Penny’s head lightly.
“Does she now?”
He shook his head, with a distant look.
“You’ve had her a while now… Back in Avanen, that was where you bought her, right? That ridiculous vendor with all his automs. I swear you fell in love with that bird the moment he put her in your hands.”
Arsha smiled at the memory.
“Yeah. I couldn’t bear to give her back. She’s too beautiful.”
“Yes, I remember you handed over every coin you had. I had to argue the salesman down just so you could afford her.”
“Liar. I saw you slip him the rest of the money after I was walking away.”
“You really saw that? Arsha, you’re too sharp for me, I swear.”
She saw him smile. It was only a moment, something fleeting that seemed to pass through him, vanishing as quickly as it came. Already she could see that he was looking past her, past the ocean and the horizon, to something only he could see. She could almost feel the weight that seemed to be pressing down on him.
“Daddy… Are you OK?”
It took so long for him to say anything that she wondered if he simply hadn’t heard her.
“No. I’m not OK, love,” he said, at last. He moved his hand to cover hers, and squeezed it tight. “There are some things I have to put right, some things that I’ve been running from for a very long time.”
“Is that… Is that why you have to find her? The girl, in London?”
For a moment he was taken aback, his eyes widening as he turned to look at her. Then his shoulders fell.
“You heard us arguing, up on the bridge.”
“Arsha, love, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for…”
For a moment he seemed to be looking past her again, his thoughts turning inward. Then he shook his head sadly as his eyes fixed on hers, his expression earnest.
“Arsha, I didn’t mean for you to be caught up in any of this. Believe me, I wouldn’t even have brought you along if not for… I’d just rather keep you close right now. For your safety. I know you must have a lot of questions, and I’ll try to answer them all eventually, but now isn’t the time. I can’t keep you away from this, but I don’t want you to be a part of it. I’m sorry.”
She couldn’t hold his gaze. Turning away, nervousness twisting in her stomach, she bit her lip and held her breath. Her body felt tight, like a wire stretched to breaking point.
“But I am a part of it… Aren’t I?”
“Arsha, what do you mean?”
Hardly able to breathe, she reached into her pocket with one trembling hand, and produced his sending stone. She could barely look at him. Still, she caught the way his expression shifted from surprise to a cold, dark fury.
“Arsha, what have you done?”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, holding out the stone. He made no move to take it.
“Arsha, I have to know… Just how much did you see? Just what exactly did you…”
He seemed scarcely able to draw a breath, he was so angry. She could see the way his shoulders trembled.
“Arsha, what did you see?”
She tightened her grip on the railing, sure that it was the only thing keeping her standing. For a moment her mouth moved silently, as she tried to find the words, any words at all.
“That woman… The dream that she told you about. About the seed, and me, and that girl.”
He squeezed his eyes shut, his head tilting back a little.
“Fates, Arsha… Of all the stupid things you could have done…”
“I’m so sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean to make you mad…”
He opened his eyes again, looking at her with a horrified expression.
“Arsha… Fates, Arsha… I’m not angry, I’m terrified. What you’ve done… Knowing this… Do you have any idea how much danger you’ve put yourself in? Why do you think I didn’t even want to tell Abasi and Milima about this? Why do you think they still don’t know just how I got access to that prediction? Do you have any idea how dangerous that information could be?”
He took her by the shoulders, leaning in close.
“Arsha you must never tell anyone about what you saw. Not a single soul. Not our friends, not the others on the ship… Do you understand me? Forget about this, forget you ever saw it.”
For a moment she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. Her throat seemed to have closed up.
“Daddy, stop it,” she whispered. “You’re scaring me.”
“I know, sweetheart, I know, but this is for your own safety,” he said, still holding her by the shoulders, not letting her move or turn away.
“But I’m not safe, am I? Even if I hadn’t found out about any of this, I’d still be connected to this girl, to this thing with the seed, and I don’t understand why you won’t tell me why. How can I be safe, when I don’t even know what to be safe from?”
“It’s better that you don’t know. Fates, Arsha, what even possessed you to go prying into all of this?”
Feeling a sudden rush of anger, she pushed his hands away and took a step back.
“Because no one will tell me anything. Because everyone has all these secrets and I can’t stand it. You’re supposed to be my dad. You’re supposed to dig up rocks and get excited about flood plains and erosion. You’re not supposed to do stuff like this, and I can’t understand why everyone is just OK with it.”
He raised his arms in a gesture of helplessness.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“That’s it. You don’t know?”
He turned to look out over the endless grey ocean, leaning his weight against the railing.
“I suppose it’s because they trust me. Honestly, I don’t know if I deserve that trust. I believe I have been a very poor friend to Abasi and Milima lately. And not much of a father to you. I have to try to make up for that.”
He turned to look at her again, with a solemn expression.
“Do you trust me, Arsha?”
For a moment the wind picked up, flicking a few loose strands of her hair into her eyes. She angrily pulled them aside.
“Of course I trust you,” she said, feeling the words catching at her throat. “You’re my dad.”
She saw the way his hands tightened around the railing. Saw the sadness in his eyes.
“That’s all I can ask,” he said. “And when the time is right, I will explain everything. I promise.”
Her throat felt dry. She nodded.
“OK. But…” she paused, her stomach twisting. “I want to talk to her.”
He looked puzzled.
“Rachael. That was her name. That’s what that lady said. I want to talk to her.”
He pushed a hand through his hair.
“Arsha, love, she’s a world away from us, and the other side of the Veil. You can’t.”
Fixing him with her stare, Arsha kept her mouth pressed into a hard, thin line.
“You’ll know a way. You always do.”
For a moment, he was silent. She could feel him turning something over in his mind. His eyes closed and he let out a breath.
“OK,” he said.
They chose the cargo hold for the task. Arsha sat on the floor, surrounded by as wide an empty space as they had been able to clear. Above her the ship’s launch rested in its cradle, waiting to emerge onto the deck when it was required. Crates and barrels had been pulled aside, stacked against the walls with ropes and netting. Micah and Abasi were securing the last few loads as the preparations for the ritual began. Both men were quiet, their expressions uneasy. Her father had told them all a little of what they were doing. Just enough to fend off any further questions.
Milima walked around her in a slow circle, pouring out finely crushed salt from her hand. It formed a series of broken rings, each contained inside the next, joined by strange symbols. Arsha could hear the woman whispering under her breath, but could not make out the words.
Her father stood at a distance, watching with an uneasy expression. Beside him Ilona stood with her hands folded in front of her, her stiff formality giving away just how nervous the woman was.
In the dim light of the hold she found herself studying the details of Milima’s tattoos as if seeing them anew, though she knew them all by heart. She wondered if there was some connection between the swirling patterns of the tattoos and the sigil on which she was sat, painted on the floor of the hold in some kind of dye. It was still slightly damp.
Finished with the crates he had been securing, Abasi walked to where her father was standing and laid a gentle hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Rishi, you are sure about this?” he said.
Her father nodded.
“I know, Abasi, I know. But it’s what Arsha wanted… And there’s no danger. If we’re going to find this girl, talking to her really is the best place to start. I imagine all of this will be very shocking to her, and we have to gain her trust somehow. I wouldn’t have suggested it if Arsha hadn’t, but…”
Abasi said nothing, but in his eyes Arsha could see that he was holding back a good many questions. Questions he didn’t want to ask in front of her.
Milima finished pouring and nodded at Ilona, who stepped forward and set herself down, across the circle from Arsha. The woman was wearing a black dress, trimmed in silver lace, and Arsha found herself suddenly worried that it would be damaged by all the salt.
Ilona looked into her eyes, her gaze calm and steady, but the woman didn’t say a word. Then Milima knelt beside them.
“OK, Arsha, are you ready?” Milima said.
“Good. I’m going to lead you both. Ilona will create the link for you. What you have to do is enter into a place of sharing. You’re going to share your mind with Rachael’s, and it’s going to be difficult, because she isn’t prepared for this. Normally, you would be sharing with someone who was ready to receive your thoughts. This is different. And it won’t be anything like a normal sending.”
“How do you know all this?” she asked. She couldn’t help it. Milima smiled, and ran her fingers across the lines of her tattoo.
“I’m a Herdlander, remember? There are many things we know that the Guild would rather we didn’t. I first learned the linking ritual when I was a little younger than you are. Of course, it was a lot longer before I lead one.”
“Why don’t people talk about Herdlanders knowing magic?”
“Mostly because we don’t call it that. These were the ways taught to us by the Man of Many Faces. The Guild wants to call it magic, because the Guild is afraid of anything it can’t understand. For our part, we keep our practices to ourselves, and try to avoid antagonising them. We have enough trouble in our lands, without giving the Guild any more reasons to distrust us.”
Arsha turned to look at Ilona.
“Then, where did you learn?”
Ilona gave her a quiet smile.
“I’m just as new to this as you are, Arsha,” she said, “but the ritual needs three parts; the leader, the speaker, and the power. That’s me.”
Ilona did not answer, though her quiet smile seemed to waver, just for a moment.
“Well, if we’re ready…” Milima said.
Arsha turned to look up at the woman and nodded. Ilona simply tilted her head very slightly and closed her eyes.
“Now, I want you to start by breathing very slowly,” Milima instructed in calm, even tones. As she spoke, she placed two small bowls on either side of the circle, their contents smoking slightly. The smoke had a sweet, spicy aroma, and it filled her nose and her lungs as she took deep breaths.
“Now reach out and take Ilona’s hands. Feel her power, flowing into you, through you, and back into her.”
Arsha reached out, felt Ilona’s slim fingers interweaving with hers, their hands clenching tightly together. There was a reassuring solidness to Ilona’s grip.
“Clear your mind. There is only an empty sky before you. A mask hangs in the sky. See the mask.”
Milima’s voice was steady, her tone gentle, leading her forward step by step.
“The mask is the colour of the sky. It settles on your face. You become the mask.”
Her eyes closed, she pictured the mask settling on her face.
“The mask is around you, in you. You are the mask. Your eyes are closed now, but soon you will open them. Your new eyes will open and you will see differently.”
Her whole body felt light, as if she was floating in that open blue sky.
“There is a thread, stretching all the way out to another world. That thread begins in your heart, and stretches out into the sky. Feel the thread. Feel it tremble with every heart-beat. Another heart beats at the other end of that thread. Can you feel that heart-beat?”
“I can feel it,” Arsha said, her voice catching in her throat. It was astonishing how real it felt, the sound of that other heartbeat intertwining with her own.
“When you open your eyes, your hearts will beat as one, and you will be a part of one another. You will speak to her thoughts, and she will speak to yours. When you open your eyes, all this will be gone. You are a vapour now, but when you open your eyes you will become real. Open your eyes.”
Arsha did as she was instructed. She caught a brief flicker of the dark wooden walls of the cargo hold and the ghostlamps hanging overhead, but already it was fading as her new surroundings seemed to fall into place.
A rooftop, one of many amongst the tall buildings that surrounded her. Grey streets filled with strange vehicles. Red bricks, stained black by smoke. Sounds of people and the thunder of engines.
The girl was sat across from her, resting against some kind of silver-grey metal container. Her clothes were worn and stained, the designs strange. She had a pretty face under the tangle of blonde hair that shaded her eyes, skin pale like Ilona’s. The girl’s legs were out in front of her, and her eyes were closed. She looked desperately tired.
Arsha realised that she had no idea what to do now.
“Um… Hi?” she said, with a nervous smile.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.