Chapter 13 – Clouds

The room smelled faintly of lavender and old timber. The air was heavy and stifling. Her body was all tangled up in thick layers of blankets. She could hear, or at least feel, a muted humming in the distance. Then she heard the sound of a door opening. Light footsteps on a wooden floor moved closer, and Rachael felt herself tensing up beneath the blankets. She kept her eyes closed and forced herself to breathe slowly.

The footsteps came to a stop beside the bed, and she heard the rough scraping sound of someone pulling up a chair. Then the room was quiet again, except for the soft rustle of pages being turned.

She desperately wanted to open her eyes, even just a crack, to see who was in the room with her. Perhaps see where she was. She told herself to wait; they’d leave eventually, and she’d be free to explore.

Memories began to piece themselves together as she pretended to sleep. The fight on the rooftop. The people in the strange clothes, with their strange weapons and their flying ships. She wanted to tell herself they were just fragments of a dream, but nothing could be as real as the acrid smell of burning feathers as Justin was forced to flee. She remembered his rage, the way his screams had split the sky. She remembered the terror pounding in her skull and pulsing through her veins. The way each frozen breath tore at her lungs. She remembered that dizzying moment as the whole of the city was spread out below her, with nothing to save her from falling except the hand of her captor. She supposed that she must be on their ship now. The humming sound she heard was the engines rumbling away somewhere in the distance.

Justin would come back for her. She was sure of that. The thought lay at the back of her mind, something constant and unquestionable. Like a stone. She had never trusted anyone in the quite the same way.

There was a shuffling sound from beside the bed, and a quiet cough.

“You’re not really asleep, are you?” said a voice that it took a moment to recognise. She pictured the girl’s face. ‘Arsha’, that was her name.

“Sorry, it’s just kind of obvious. Your face keeps moving. And you’re breathing too fast,” Arsha continued. “I mean, it’s OK, if you don’t want to talk or whatever. I’ve got a book to read. I just thought… you know… you might want to talk.”

Carefully, Rachael opened her eyes. Arsha did indeed have a book open on one knee. The girl was dressed in loose silks, brightly embroidered in blues and greens. An old fashioned brass lantern sat on a small table beside her, giving off a hazy white light, though Rachael saw no sign of a flame.

“Hey,” Arsha said, smiling as she closed her book.

Rachael sat up, and as the covers fell back she realised that she was in her underwear. She snatched up a blanket, and Arsha tried to conceal a smile.

“It’s OK, I’ve got them too,” the girl said, giggling.

Rachael scowled at Arsha, not saying a word.

“Sorry. Your clothes kind of… ummm… reeked,” Arsha said. The girl paused for a moment, then extended her hand.

“So, we sort of met. I’m Arsha,” she added.

“Yeah. I know,” Rachael muttered, without making any move to take the girl’s hand. “So, what… You’re keeping an eye on me now? Make sure I don’t escape?”

Arsha scowled.

“You were out cold. We wanted someone to stay with you, make sure you were OK.”

“How long?”

The girl looked confused.

“How long have I been here.”

“Oh. Since last night. It’s evening now. Milima will have dinner on soon, if you’re hungry.”

“Great. Kidapping and room service. You guys are the best,” Rachael said, her voice dripping sarcasm.

“Kidnapping?” Arsha’s eyes narrowed indignantly. “We rescued you, from that monster.”

“Yeah, good going,” Rachael snarled. “That ‘monster’ was my friend. He was…” She couldn’t even shape the words around the lump that formed in her throat when she thought about Justin. Again, she remembered smell of scorched feathers in the air. “He was the only person that’s ever done right by me, and you tried to kill him. Nice rescue.”

“He was trying to kill us.”

For a moment it seemed that Arsha’s indignant expression was masking something else. Rachael saw a glimmer of fear in the girl’s eyes. “And anyway, we weren’t trying to… I told you that we were coming to help you…” The girl floundered, a bitter look on her face. Without another word she opened her book and pointedly went back to reading. Rachael sat back, relishing her small victory.

As the silence deepened she examined the room. It was tiny, barely large enough for the narrow bed, a small dresser, and what looked like a closet set in one wall. In the wall over the bed there was a round porthole, but a brief glance showed only clouds, confirming her theory about the flying ship. The door had a latch and a keyhole. She guessed it was probably locked, though she couldn’t actually remember hearing the lock turn when the girl had come in.

A nagging voice in the back of her mind was telling her that while chewing Arsha out had felt really good, it might not have been the best idea. If she was up in the sky, with no way off this ship, she was going to have to deal with being stuck here for a while. There’d be no chance of escape until they put down somewhere, or Justin came for her, and either way she’d be best off knowing as much about the ship as she could. The adults who’d hauled her aboard weren’t likely to tell her anything, but Arsha seemed much less guarded. Whilst she’d taken an instant disliking to the girl, that sneaky little voice was telling her that making friends with Arsha was probably her best chance of finding a way to escape.

“Look, I’m sorry,” she said, flatly. “I know it wasn’t your fault and all.”

For a while, Arsha made no sign of having heard her at all. Rachael felt herself growing increasingly irritated, as the girl let the silence play out. She was actually startled when Arsha finally spoke.

“You drool when you sleep.”

Rachael glanced down at the pillow, and saw a damp spot in the middle of the impression her face had left. As silly as it was, she felt a colour rise in her cheeks. Arsha closed the book and looked up.

“I saw what Ilona did to you,” the girl said. “It wasn’t… She shouldn’t have done that.”

“Thanks,” Rachael said, careful not to say more in case she crushed the fragile truce. In the awkward silence, her eyes wandered, settling on the strange lamp sitting by the bed. Something about the light it gave seemed oddly familiar. Next to the lantern she noticed another object on the side table. It was a small silver figurine, carved in the shape of a bird, head tucked under one wing as if asleep. The detail was incredible. She could make out each individual feather. Curious, Rachael reached out to touch the little figurine, but no sooner had her fingertips brushed across one wing than the little bird sprang to life. Silver wings chimed as they spread wide, and the little bird took flight, whirring around the room in a tiny grey blur. Rachael pulled her hand back as if burned, and an astonished gasp escaped her lips.

“Hey, hey, shhh…” Arsha reached up with gentle hands to coax the bird down into her open palm. “This is Penelope. She’s a little excitable.”

The bird hopped from one foot to the other.

“Is that thing real?” Rachael said. Her heart was still pounding.

“She’s a real autom, yeah,” Arsha said. “She’s Telverian made.”

“But it looks so real. Like its almost alive.”

“Well, she is, sort of. She only pretends to eat and sleep of course. But aside from that…”

“How’s that even possible? She’s like an actual robot or something,” Rachael said, still staring at the little machine.

“A what?” Arsha scrunched her face up.

“I guess its what we’d call ’em, in the real world… Or, my world, or whatever you’d call it. But I mean that’s only in movies and stuff anyhow. We can’t really make, y’know, anything like this. What did you call it again?”

“She’s an autom, if that’s what you mean. But her name’s Penelope. Or Penny is OK,” Arsha said, slightly put out.

“Right, yeah.” Rachael leaned forward to examine the little bird closely. Penelope hopped back a step and turned to regard her with one pearly bead of an eye. Gently, Arsha began to stroke Penelope’s feathers back, the metal seeming to move like something much softer under the girl’s fingertips, as the little creature twisted her head appreciatively.

“So, is there anything I can get for you?” Arsha said, as she set Penelope down on the dresser again. “Like, a glass of water, or…”

“I wouldn’t mind getting my clothes back, actually,” she said.

Arsha smiled.

“They’re in the wash… I think. At least I’m pretty sure Milima was joking about burning them. But I’ve got some of my stuff you can have.”

“Um… OK. I guess.”

Arsha looked her over for a moment, eyes fixing on her cheeks and then her hair, and she sniffed pointedly.

“Maybe a shower first,” she said, sticking her tongue out. Without even thinking, Rachael smacked the girl on the arm, and was rewarded with a delicious yelp of pain. As Arsha rubbed at her arm, scowling, Rachael wondered if she might have taken it a little too far.

“Sorry,” she muttered.

“It’s OK. I guess I kind of deserved that,” Arsha replied.

“A bit, yeah,” Rachael said, but she found herself smiling, and to her surprise Arsha smiled back.

“Come on then,” the girl said, gesturing towards the door.

Soaking wet and surrounded by clouds of steam, Rachael stood on the porcelain tiled floor of the bathroom, staring at her reflection in the mirror. She hardly recognised her face without the layers of grime that it seemed to have built up over the last year. Her hair, sadly, remained an impossible mat of tangles, and after several painful attempts to pull a brush through it she was forced to give up. She wrapped a towel about herself, and stepped out into the corridor.

Arsha was waiting for her, leaning against the wall with a bundle of cloth folded over one arm. Her little robot pet was sat on her shoulder, and in her free hand she held some kind of large blue crystal set into a silver frame. Flickering lights hovered just above the surface of the stone. As Rachael stared at it in fascination, Arsha looked up, smiled, and pocketed the device.

“These should fit you OK,” she said, lifting the bundle slightly.

“Thanks,” Rachael said, her eyes wandering to the lanterns that lined the hallway. Like the one in her room, they showed no sign of a flame. Just a glowing light, like a speck of dust floating inside the glass bulb.

“It’s a ghostlight,” she said, more to herself than to Arsha.

“Yeah. How’d you know?” the girl replied, looking surprised.

“Something Justin told me. I used to see them. When I was little.”

“I didn’t know you had ghostlights in your world.”

“Well we don’t… I mean… I guess we do. But it was only people like me that could see them. Or something.”

“Oh,” Arsha said, apparently at a loss.

“Is that normal then?” Rachael gestured at the lamp. “Using them as lights like that?”

The girl shrugged.

“Yeah. It’s better than chemical lamps. I mean they’re not as bright, but they last for ages and they don’t get hot or smell bad or anything. You just close the shutter when you don’t need them. They go to sleep after a bit.”

“Right. Yeah,” Rachael said, feeling her stomach twist as she watched the little mote of light drifting inside the glass.

The clothes at least didn’t fit too badly. Though Arsha was taller, and certainly larger in a few areas than she was, the loosely cut tunic and trousers seemed comfortable enough. She stared at herself in fascination, silver thread gleaming against blue silk. Nothing like the jeans and t-shirts she was used to.

She was still fiddling with the new clothes when Arsha appeared in the doorway.

“They’re OK?”

“Yeah. Thanks,” Rachael replied.

“So, dinner should be ready, if you’re hungry,” Arsha said.

Feeling her stomach growl at the mention of dinner, Rachael nodded. As they made their way up the stairs, Rachael found her attention caught by the smell drifting down from the kitchen. They emerged into a surprisingly large dining hall with a long bench table down one side. The rest of the room was occupied by cupboards, counter-tops, a sink and an iron cooking range. Standing by the stove, a woman in an apron was stirring something in a heavy copper pot. Her long, dark braids were tied back with a knotted hankie. The woman looked up as they entered and smiled warmly. As she turned towards them, Rachael’s attention was immediately drawn to the tattoo around her right eye. Like the rest of her it had been weathered by age, but the white lines were still clearly visible against her jet black skin.

“Hello. I was hoping you two might be up soon.”

“Hey Mim,” Arsha said. “Rachael, this is Milima. She’s awesome.”

“Hey,” Rachael said, cautiously.

“Hi Rachael. I hope you’re feeling better.”

“Yeah. Sure,” she said.

“It’s OK,” Milima said, turning to stir the pot for a moment. “I know you must be apprehensive right now.”

“Yeah. Whatever that means.”

“Suspicious. I would be,” Milima said.

“Guess you’ve got me all figured out.”

The woman gave her a measuring look.

“Well, can you trust us enough to sit down for a meal at least?” she said.

“Food sounds good,” Rachael allowed.

“Great,” Milima smiled. “Why don’t you girls get yourself some plates and bowls, while I get this ready?”

Rachael and Arsha set places, whilst Milima continued to work at the stove. Soon enough Rachael found herself sat on one of the long benches, with a bowl in front of her being filled with steaming hot lentil soup. A wicker basket was set down, piled high with soft loaves of flat bread.

Ignoring Arsha’s surprised expression, Rachael devoured a whole loaf before even starting on the soup. It was thick and rich, full of spices that she couldn’t even name, and it tasted better than anything she had eaten in a long time. Milima’s eyes widened in alarm as the woman returned to the table.

“Slow down girl. You won’t have room for the stew.”

Spoon half raised to her mouth, Rachael looked up in confusion.

“I’m sorry,” Milima continued, wiping her hands on a cloth. “The soup and the bread were just meant as a starter. It’s nothing special I’m afraid, just last night’s beef, plus some carrots and okra and what-not.”

“She’s talking rubbish,” Arsha said. “Milima makes the best stew ever.”

“Well either way, I’d say it’s about ready,” Milima said, tucking the cloth into her back pocket. Returning to the stove, Milima retrieved another large pan, which she set down in the middle of the table, steam wafting off the surface.

“Give it a moment to cool now.”

Footsteps from the stairs above gave her time to look up as a tall figure entered the room. It took her a moment to recognise the young man from the night before. In the clear light, without the goggles, he had the kind of face that you could spend hours drawing. The delicate line of his jaw swept up towards perfect cheekbones that framed piercing blue eyes and a nose like a razor blade. Her stomach twisted in disgust as she thought of him sighting down the barrel of the strange lightning gun he’d carried.

“Hey Micah,” Arsha said, smiling brightly. Her cheeriness only made the angry knot in Rachael’s stomach twist a little tighter.

“Hey there little bear,” Micah replied. “So did someone say stew?”

Dropping down onto the bench beside Arsha, he reached for a long handled ladle. No sooner had his fingertips grazed the handle than there was a loud ‘snap’ as Milima cracked a wash-cloth over his hand.

“Hands off, you,” she said. “Seven below, you’ve not even got a bowl in front of you. Were you planning to just eat it out of the pot?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” Micah said, grinning as he got up to collect some cutlery from the kitchen. From across the table, Arsha caught Rachael’s eye and gave her a resigned shrug. Rachael looked down at her bowl of half-finished soup again, silently wondering how this could be normal for anyone.

“So,” Milima said, as she began to fill more bowls, “will the esteemed professor and his star pupil be joining us?”

Micah shook his head.

“You know those two. Glued to their books. I’ll bring something down for them later.”

“Speaking of which, I should take a bowl up for poor Abasi. He’s been at those charts all night.”

As Milima spoke, Micah was already shovelling food into his mouth. An instant later an uncomfortable expression appeared on his face.

“Yes, it’s hot,” Milima sighed.

“How is it I have this figured out and you don’t?” Arsha chided, nudging him gently in the ribs, as Micah swallowed his mouthful and gave them all a boyish grin.

Rachael picked out a chunk of beef and bit into it. Her expression must have said everything, as Arsha nodded at her in agreement.

“Told you,” the girl said.

Though Rachael said nothing, she had to admit it was mostly because she didn’t want to waste any time on talking. She devoured everything that had been set in front of her, and didn’t think twice when Micah leaned over to refill her bowl. She couldn’t remember the last time she eaten food that tasted as good, nor in such quantities. As she polished off her second bowl, she felt as if her stomach might burst. A heavy warmth filled her body, and for a moment she found herself feeling perilously at ease. She could happily have set her head down on the table and fallen asleep right there and then.

She was so overwhelmed by the satisfied feeling that she didn’t even notice Ilona come in. It was only when the others looked up that Rachael realised the woman was standing only a few feet away from her.

Arsha was already shuffling up to clear a place when Ilona gestured for her to stay still.

“I’ll just take a tray down. It’s OK,” she said, flatly.

Bowls were passed over, and Micah stood to help load up a tray. Rachael watched out of the corner of her eye, pretending to be paying more attention to her food. The woman’s eyes were bloodshot, her make-up barely concealing the dark circles around them. She looked as if she hadn’t slept in days.

As she was about to leave, Ilona turned to Micah.

“So are you actually planning on coming down to help us any time soon?”

“Not just yet,” he said, apologetically. Rachael caught the way he nodded, very slightly in her direction. Ilona glanced at her, just for an instant, then back to Micah.

“Fine. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

“I know,” Micah said.

As the woman left he sat back down, his cheerful smile returning. Sipping at a glass of milk, Rachael watched as he began to quiz Arsha about her studies. He seemed to be tutoring her in maths, or something like it, and Arsha wrinkled her forehead as she struggled to answer the problems he tested her with.

“Argh. I’m awful at this,” Arsha growled, letting her head drop to the table.

“See, she says this because she thinks it’s normal for fifteen year olds to be doing math at a university level,” Micah said, giving Rachael a conspiratorial wink. “What about you, Rachael? Are you much good at numbers?”

“Not really,” Rachael said.

“That’s OK, neither am I really,” he said with a genial shrug. “Honestly, if my old man hadn’t insisted…”

He didn’t bother finishing the sentence, perhaps sensing her disinterest. Rachael pushed her empty plate away.

“What’s with all this,” she said. “Why is it everyone’s so keen to act like we’re all best friends now?”

For a moment Micah and Arsha were both silent. They shared an awkward look, as if neither of them knew what to say to this.

“We just wanted to… You know… Make you feel welcome,” Arsha said. “I mean, we know things haven’t been easy for you.”

Rachael shook her head in astonishment.

“You don’t know nothing about me, so don’t try to pretend you do.”

“Hey, we’re just trying to…” Arsha began, her tone indignant, even as Micah silenced her with a raised hand.

“It’s OK. Look, Rachael… We’re not trying to pull anything here. I mean, this whole situation has been pretty horrible, for everyone. But you’re our guest here, OK?”

Scowling, Rachael looked back down at her plate again. The silence was broken by Milima’s reappearance.

“Dessert, anyone? It’s buttermilk pie,” she announced, either missing the mood of the room, or hoping to break it.

“Did the coolroom break down or something?” Micah said, with a surprised expression.

“I just thought we could all do with some comfort food after the last few days,” Milima said. “But, if you don’t want any…”

“Hey, let’s not be too hasty now,” Micah said.

“Just what I thought,” Milima nodded, smugly.

Rachael thought she couldn’t possibly eat anything more, but as a steaming hot slice of pie was set before her, a cold, raw instinct made her pick the spoon up. It could have tasted like a mouthful of dirt, and still she wouldn’t have been able to bring herself to refuse free food. When it tasted as good as this, she knew she was helpless. Another glass of cold milk was poured for her and she dug in.

The conversation continued around her, as Milima bemoaned Rishi and Ilona’s refusal to sit down for a proper meal. Micah nodded, reaching for a second helping of pie.

“Not that you couldn’t think about getting back down there and helping them,” Milima added, jabbing a spoon in his direction.

“Healthy body, healthy mind,” Micah said, with a grin.

“Healthy doesn’t have this much sugar in it, young man. Not that it’ll make any difference to you.”

Micah shrugged, prompting a quiet smirk from Arsha. Looking down at her empty bowl, Rachael could feel her head swimming. The room felt too warm, and suddenly everything didn’t seem straight. She felt dizzy and flushed, as a wave of nausea seized her stomach. She looked across at Arsha, and managed “Toilet?”

Surprised, Arsha gestured at the stairs.

As another wave of nausea washed over her, Rachael left the room as quickly as she could. Halfway down the stairs she broke into a sprint, and barely made it to the bathroom in time.

There was cold sweat on her brow by the time her stomach had ceased heaving. A voice in the back of her head was screaming angrily at her for letting so much good food slide down a toilet bowl, but she was too dazed to pay it much attention. She was shivering and her throat hurt. She fumbled about the sink, looking for something to wipe her mouth with.

She heard the door open, but felt too dizzy to look up. Gentle hands wrapped a towel around her shoulders. A damp cloth was wiped across her mouth, and then a glass of water was held out for her. She took small sips, swilling and spitting first to get the worst of the taste from her mouth. Gentle hands rubbed at her back, as she swallowed small mouthfuls of water.

“That was my fault,” Milima said, quietly. “Stupid of me really.”

Rachael said nothing.

“I imagine it’s been a long time since you’ve eaten that much in one sitting.”

She supposed this was true. She could have lasted a week on what had been put on her plate that night.

“Are you OK now?”

She nodded.

“All right. Up you come.”

Milima helped her to stand, taking her arm like a little girl. She felt a hot flush of anger, and pushed the woman’s hand away.

“Hey,” Milima snapped. “Claws away.”

Rachael stared at the woman, incredulous, feeling her hands clench so tight that the nails bit into her palms. Whatever self-control she had maintained throughout dinner, she could feel the last of it slipping through her fingers.

“I know you’re angry, Rachael. Of course you’re angry. We’ve assaulted you, we’ve dragged you away from your home, and we’ve done nothing but tell you that it’s for your own good. And the worst part is that it’s the truth.”

The woman spoke calmly, meeting Rachael’s furious glare with a steady gaze.

“I can’t change that, and I can’t imagine I’d feel any different in your place. But I can at least try to make things a little better for you. Will you let me do that much?”

“I can look after myself,” Rachael growled.

“Seven keep us, I didn’t imagine for a second that you couldn’t. Rachael, I know what starvation looks like. How long has it been since you had a proper meal? Since you slept in a real bed? A year or more, I imagine.”

“More or less,” she said, cautiously.

“I’m sorry,” Milima said, her tone softening. “It can’t have been easy.”

Rachael just shrugged, not meeting her eyes.

“It’s not your fault,” she said. It took her a moment to realise just what that meant. It wasn’t Milima’s fault, or Arsha’s, or Micah’s. None of what had happened to her was. No matter how good it felt, to lay everything on the nearest target, she couldn’t escape the awful feeling that Milima was right. Lashing out hadn’t gained her anything.

She took a long, slow breath and tried to collect herself.

“Come on,” Milima said, gently. “Lets get you back to bed.”

She just nodded. She felt exhausted by the day, by the dinner, and by the effort of fighting everything. There simply wasn’t any strength left in her. They came to the door of the room where she had woken up just a few hours ago. Her room, now. It was a strange thought.

“Not going to try to tuck me in?” she muttered, sourly.

“Would you want me to?” Milima asked, with a joking look in her eyes.

“Hardly,” she muttered.

Milima smiled as Rachael opened the door to the cabin. She stopped in the doorway and forced herself to smile back, just for a moment, before she closed the door. It took all the strength she had left in her just to undress and crawl beneath the covers. She looked up at the starlit sky, barely visible through the narrow porthole, and tried not to think about how badly she had wanted to say ‘Yes.’

The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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