A pair of wooden covers had been lifted open on huge steam driven arms in the middle of the Triskelion’s deck, to allow the skiff to be raised up from the hold below. It was a slender little ship, resting on iron runners that looked like insect legs. From prow to aft it was maybe thirty foot long, and the twin propellers, mounted on long outriggers, accounted for most of its width. At some point Arsha had taken to calling the little boat ‘The Zephyr’, thinking it sad that it didn’t merit a name of its own, and it had quickly caught on with the rest of the crew. Eventually Abasi had paid for the name to be painted across the ship’s prow in letters of bright gold.
As she stepped out onto the deck, Arsha saw that Micah was already waiting, shielding a crumpled roll-up from the wind. He had his tan greatcoat on, and the sleek silver shape of a lightning ballista hung across his shoulder. He turned as she approached and dropped the cigarette, grinding it under his heel.
“Hey there little bear. How you feeling?” he said.
She shrugged, and pushed her hands deeper into her pockets.
“OK, I guess. What about you?” she said.
“Kinda nervous,” he said, rubbing his hands together.
“A little, yeah.” He smiled. “But it’s gonna be OK. Your dad always gets us through.”
He paused for a moment, fingers still clearly itching for the discarded cigarette, before he continued.
“Did I ever tell you there was this one time in Ruija when your dad and I were working around some old caves, and this whole cliff face nearly came down on top of me, like…”
Micah’s story was cut short by the clattering sound of the door opening behind them. They both turned to see her father and Ilona step out onto the deck. For a moment, no one said a word. She saw the way her father pulled his coat tighter around himself, the shape of the revolver on his hip still visible beneath the heavy tanglecloth. Around Ilona’s right hand she could make out the fine silver tracery of her arc-gauntlet. She didn’t know whether to feel nervous or comforted by the sight of so many weapons.
“Well are we going to stop pissing about and do this thing or what?” Micah said, visibly shivering in the cold.
Her father gave a solemn nod, before turning to look at her, his expression seeming to have been carved in stone.
“Whatever happens down there, you stay close to Micah, you hear me? He’ll be looking after you.”
She nodded, too nervous to speak. From the corner of her eye she saw Micah’s reassuring smile.
They crossed the deck together, the shape of the Zephyr looming over them. Her hands felt clumsy in her leather gloves as Arsha took hold of the rope ladder and climbed up.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, as Micah joined her at the railing. Micah put a hand to either side of hers, his long arms easily surrounding her, leaving her no place to fall. Turning to look up at him, she smiled, and he gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze in reply.
Slowly, the sound of the propellers grew to a thunderous roar. Her father pulled back on the wheel, and the ship lurched and swayed as it lifted clear of the deck. For a few minutes, Arsha didn’t move a muscle, her hands wrapped tightly around the iron railing as they swung away from the larger vessel.
The violent swaying settled down after a while, as her father set the boat on a slow downward spiral. She watched the Triskelion growing smaller in the distance. Then the clouds swallowed them up, and she could barely see anything at all.
There was a sudden flash, followed by a deafening roar as lightning arced across the ship, dancing across outriggers and down into the belly of the Zephyr, where she knew it would end up in the lightning cages, safely stored away. Since they’d known that they would be flying into a storm cloud, half the cages had been left empty, giving them room to soak a good few bolts before they had to bleed any. Arsha knew all of this, but she still felt nervous, glad of Micah’s reassuring presence.
A second bolt of lightning flared across the propellers, and in the brief moment of illumination she caught sight of her father’s face through the clouds. Even behind the googles she could see the calm focus in his eyes, his steady hands guiding the wheel. Another burst of lightning flashed around them, and then the tiny ship broke through the clouds and she saw the vast expanse of the English landscape open up beneath her.
Under the lights of Tower Bridge Station, two security guards stood beneath the overhanging roof, hunched over their cigarettes as they tried to stay clear of the wind. They wore long black woollen coats with suits and ties underneath. Young men with neat haircuts and smart faces, meant to look modern and sleek like the building they stood watch over. Emblems of the new city growing up out of the heart of the old.
The nearer of the two men looked up sharply, as Rachael came running out of the darkness of the underpass. The lights of the nearby railway station picked out her face, hair tangled, blood smeared across her lip. Her jacket hung open, torn halfway loose from from one shoulder. As she ran towards the men, a wave of relief showed on her face.
“Jesus, you gotta help,” she called out as she ran towards them. “He… He attacked me.”
“Hey,” one of the men said, catching her by the shoulders. “What happened kid?”
“It was… He…” She fumbled for the words. “He was holding me down. I bit him. I just got away.” She pawed at the blood smeared across her mouth.
“Who was it? Who done this?”
“It was this guy… We were together, and…” She faltered, unable to go on.
“Took it too far, right?” the man growled. “Rick, get the police on the line will ya? Let’s get her inside.”
His partner nodded and produced a mobile phone. She was lead up to the revolving glass doors of the building, as the guard fished a key out from inside of his coat and turned it in the lock by the door. As she waited, shivering in the cold, she glanced upwards at the sheer immensity of the building that towered over her.
The Shard had seemed vast from a distance, but up close it was impossible. Even lit by floodlights, the angled glass walls vanished into the darkness overhead. She hoped, desperately, that she was right. That this was really where her dreams had been leading her.
The lock clicked and the man pushed at the revolving door with one gloved hand. At the desk inside a third guard was scowling at them both.
“Matt, what’s going on here?”
“I’m just bringing her in for a bit, until the police get here. Some lad got pretty rough with her, sounds like. She’s in a right state.”
“Ah, Jesus,” the guard at the desk muttered, his eyes going to her tangled hair and her blood smeared face. “Yeah, get her in, we’ll sit her down in the security office.”
“Thanks Charlie,” Matt nodded. She was lead past the desk, and through a door with a sign that read ‘SECURITY STAFF ONLY’ in bold type. She imagined rows of televisions showing grainy CCTV feeds, but what she found was a couple of desks with computer monitors, a couch, a coffee table, and a small kitchenette just off to one side.
“Here you go,” Matt said, as he settled her down on the couch. “Get you a cup of tea, love?”
“Please,” she whispered. “Milk. No sugar.”
“Sure thing.” He nodded and patted her hand. He had a reassuring smile.
As Matt busied himself at the kitchenette, the door opened, and the guard from the desk leaned in.
“Station says they’ll have an officer down as soon as they can, but, well, Saturday nights eh?”
“Well, she can stay here for now, yeah?”
“Yeah, they said to keep her here, so no sense worrying about it now, mate. If those twats from the site office want to make a fuss then we were just complying with police instructions, right?”
The door closed, and Matt came over with a steaming mug of tea, which he pressed into her shivering hands.
“Listen love, I gotta get back outside, but Charlie’s at the desk on the other side of that door. If you need anything, just holler, alright? Police officer’ll be here soon enough, and you can just stay here until then. Pop the telly on if you want.”
“Thanks,” she whispered.
“It’s alright love,” he said, giving her an awkward pat on the shoulder, as he stood to go. She sipped her tea, as the door swung closed behind him.
It took everything she had to just sit there, waiting, slowly counting off the seconds in her head. To not run and hide. She counted a full five minutes before she went to door and gently pulled it open.
The man at the desk looked around as she peered out.
“Hey… Uh, it’s Charlie, right?” she said.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“I… Um… I was just wondering where the um… The loo…”
Charlie held up his hands, gesturing for her to calm down.
“Alright darling, I hear ya. It’s just round the corner and then a little on.” He gestured, and she nodded, gratefully.
Past the corner, she could easily make out the signs for the toilets. Deciding to make a good show of it, she went into the ladies, and counted off another two full minutes before slipping back out into the corridor.
Instead of heading back to the front desk, she ducked across the hall to a door with a sign that read ‘STAIRWAY FOR USE IN EMERGENCY ONLY’.
She paused, just for a moment, wondering if there would be an alarm. Then she pushed the door open and started running. But by the time she reached what she thought must have been the thirtieth floor she was feeling the strain. She set herself down on the stairs for a moment to rest. As her breathing slowed, the silence of the empty building crashed in. She listened for the sound of alarms or angry security guards racing up the stairs. She seemed to be safe, for now.
She closed her eyes and tried to feel whatever it was she was supposed to be feeling. The ‘seed’ they were searching for, this thing that was supposed to belong to her. She tried to empty her mind, to reach out for the power that Justin had talked about. There was nothing.
She got to her feet and carried on up the stairway, until she came to a doorway. On the other side a ladder lead up to the roof above. She scaled the rungs and emerged into the freezing cold air. Above her, a narrow protrusion extended another thirty feet, with a single ladder leading to the very top.
She heard the flutter of wings, and looked up to see a dark shape above her. The black cloud reformed, leaving Justin kneeling on the rooftop beside her, the wind whipping his long black coat around him.
“Coast is clear, I think,” he said, having to speak up to be heard over the wind. “Did you… Did you find it?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be looking for here. Does this thing just appear when I get to it, or what?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.”
She turned away, and walked to the edge of the rooftop. As the shape of the streets snapped into place, she felt a dizzying wave of vertigo. Even after years of searching out the hidden pathways over the city, she had never imagined the view from so far up. From where she stood, the whole city seemed to be frozen in place. It was just a sea of lights, scattered over an uneven pattern of rooftops, all strangely flattened by the distance. Even the tallest towers of South Bank seemed small from where they stood.
“God… This is the highest I’ve been. Like, I’ve never seen the city like this before.”
She continued to stare for a while, picking out landmarks that were barely visible in the darkness, and strangely distorted by the perspective.
“It’s all different from up here,” she said.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. When she turned to see Justin’s face, he was staring into the evening sky with a nervous expression. Rachael looked up to see a dark shape detach itself from the clouds. At first she thought it must have been a plane or a helicopter, though she couldn’t imagine why anyone would be flying through a storm like the one that was brewing over them. Then as it circled lower she saw that it wasn’t any kind of flying vehicle that she had seen before. She could just make out the shape of the wooden hull, and the hazy circle of the twin propellers that extended from the ship’s flanks. There seemed to be people moving about on the deck.
“A ship? An actual flying ship?” she said.
“That’ll be them,” he said. “The Guild. We need to hurry.”
“Easier said,” Rachael growled. “I’ve still got no idea what I’m flipping well looking for up here.”
“Focus. Shut out everything else. Try to hear it. It’s not a sound exactly, but it’s like… Like the feeling you get, when you hear a song you know.”
She pulled her hood up and closed her eyes, trying to listen, but she heard only the sound of the wind. No matter how hard she tried to focus nothing seemed to change.
“Maybe we need to be higher,” Rachael said, glumly. She looked at Justin, hoping for some sign of the easy confidence she’d seen in him before, but he looked as unsure as she felt.
“I don’t have any better ideas,” he said.
She nodded, and looked upwards.
“I guess that was the easy part,” she said, eyeing the series of ladders that surmounted the sheer sided core of the building. It was flanked by half finished panels of glass that barely concealed the bare grey structure within. For one horrible moment it made her think of a broken bone. She put her hand on the first rung and began to climb.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.