Rachael leaned out across the railing just in time to see the cable going taut as it took Arsha’s weight. The line followed along the underside of the hull, and the girl slid along it like a streak of lightning, mouth open in a scream of delirious excitement.
Rachael’s head span as she saw the girl disappear from view. She took another wary look up at the windows above, but saw no movement. The clouds below them parted for a moment, and all she saw was a vast expanse of open water. From this height, she knew she’d never even survive the impact.
She backed away slowly from the edge. She tugged at the clips, wanting to be sure that they were secure, though for the life of her she had no idea how to go about checking them. Taking a deep breath she dropped into a sprint, cleared the railing in a flying leap, and fell into the vast expanse beyond.
For one dizzying moment she was flying. Through the thinning clouds the ocean glittered in the sunlight, and the air seemed strangely still. Then the cable snapped tight, whipping her round violently to face the ship as gravity took hold. Her stomach lurched and the hull went rushing past above her. It took a moment to realise that she was screaming.
The ride bottomed out, and then the arc of the cable drew her upwards as her momentum fell away. She reached the crest of her arc and for an instant she hung weightless. She blinked, and saw the weathered grain of the wooden hull floating just before her eyes. As she was about to fall away again, she felt a hand grab at the sleeve of her coat.
Arsha’s mouth was moving excitedly, shaping words she could not hear as the girl gestured at something. Looking about wildly, Rachael saw that Arsha was holding onto a rope ladder that had been bolted to the underside of the hull. There were several, evenly spaced with various ropes and cables hanging around them. She snatched at the nearest rope and held on tight. With Arsha’s help she was able to manoeuvre across to a ladder. She watched in a daze as Arsha fiddled with the clips, detaching her from the line that ran along the belly of the ship and affixing her to one that followed the ladder up. Properly secured, they both climbed back up onto the deck, flopping across the railing like a pair of beached fish.
Neither of them said another word until they were back inside and the door was shut behind them. Breathless, Rachael looked over at Arsha, who was still grinning insanely. Her own expression must have looked quite similar. Stripped of her heavy coat, she rubbed the warmth back into her arms, her heart still racing.
“That… was… awesome,” she gasped, between breaths.
“I know,” Arsha said, still grinning wildly. “I’ve always wanted to try that.”
Still leaning her weight against the wall, trying to catch her breath, Rachael looked up at the girl in horror.
Arsha at least had the decency to look embarrassed.
“You mean you’ve never done that? What if you’d mucked up with all the ropes and stuff? We could have died.”
“We’d have been alright. We had coats on.”
“Coats? What the flip is coats going to do if we’re falling from the sky?”
“They’re tanglecloth,” Arsha said, as if this explained everything.
“Tanglecloth,” the girl repeated.
“Yeah, and you need to get to the part where you explain what that means,” Rachael prompted.
“It sort of… It catches the air, so when you’re falling you don’t fall so fast,” Arsha said, rubbing the sleeve of the coat in demonstration. Rachael ran her fingers over the sleeve, but whilst it did have an oddly prickly texture, she really couldn’t see what help that would be.
“So you wear these coats and it’s like… Parachutes?”
“I guess,” Arsha shrugged. “Most of us use coats. Ilona likes her cloak better.”
“So that’s why she didn’t mind jumping off the building like that?” Rachael said. Then, as she considered this, a thought occurred to her.
“Hold on… Even if we had these parachute coat things on… We’d still be falling into the middle of all that, y’know, not really real ocean stuff, right?”
“Uh… Right,” Arsha said, her expression slowly shifting from amusement to horror. “Oh Fates,” the girl moaned. “I didn’t think of that.”
Unable to keep herself from smiling, Rachael squeezed Arsha’s shoulder.
“Well, I guess it’s good you didn’t muck it up then,” she said.
Still looking slightly bewildered, Arsha pushed the inner door open. Rachael’s smile vanished as the widening opening revealed a tall, dark skinned man with jet black hair that was shading to grey. He had removed his heavy goggles since Rachael last saw him, revealing features that were lean and angular, his eyes deep set and narrowed in a look of fury. Glancing over at Arsha, Rachael watched as the girl’s expression fell.
“Girls. I think we’d best sit down and have a talk,” he said. It took barely an instant for Rachael to compose herself.
“Sure. Yeah. Let’s talk,” she said. The man nodded towards the stairs, and they made their way down and through into the mess hall. He gestured for them to sit as he busied himself at the stove. Arsha looked as if she might burst into tears. Rachael just leaned back against the wall with her arms folded.
“Rachael, would you care for some tea?” the man said, with an almost unearthly calm.
“No. Thanks,” she said, curtly.
Eventually he sat down with two steaming mugs, setting one in front of his daughter. Then he sat and sipped his tea. Arsha pulled her cup close, but didn’t drink. The girl seemed as perplexed as Rachael felt.
“How are you feeling?” the professor said, setting his cup down. He seemed to have regained his composure, his expression calm, almost pleasant. She studied his face, trying to figure out just what he was playing at.
“Fine,” she said. “Peachy.”
“Well, I’m glad you’ve both found a way to entertain yourselves,” he remarked. “You and I, young lady, will be having a stern discussion about that later,” he added, looking at Arsha. The girl stared down at her tea, cheeks burning.
“I suppose you have a lot of questions,” he continued, looking up at Rachael again. “Why don’t you let me answer a few.”
“Sure. Great. We’ll start with ‘When do we get back to London?’”
“We don’t. Right now, it’s simply not possible for us to bring you home again.” He paused, for a moment. “Nor do I expect it ever will be,” he added, heavily.
“Right. Kind of figured as much. So, did you have a reason for kidnapping me, or was it just for kicks? I mean, it’s not like no-one’s going to pay much for me,” she said.
“You’re not a prisoner,” the professor said, patiently.
“But I can’t go home?”
“No. Not any more. ‘Home’ is not a safe place for you right now. Not least because the men who actually tried to kidnap you will not have given up yet. Their father, Lord Manindra Bhandari, is a powerful Guild councillor and a man of considerable reach and influence.”
“That’s a nice excuse. You’re real good at finding reasons why I shouldn’t mind being beaten up, hauled off and made a prisoner and all.”
She saw how the man’s knuckles tightened as she said this. It felt good, knowing she’d hit a nerve.
“Rachael, I understand that you’re upset. I’d expect as much, given how we’ve treated you. What Ilona did was completely unacceptable. But I hope you can see that we were working with a very limited set of options. You were in danger, and we had to get you out of there as quickly as possible.”
Rachael felt her hackles rising as she took a quick step forward, fists clenched at her sides.
“Oh right, great job there. You tried to kill the only person who’d ever really looked out for me, just as we were about to…” She stopped herself in time, some fragment of her rational self quietly reminding her that it might not be good to let on exactly what Justin’s plan had been.
“Just about to… What?” the professor replied, his voice as sharp as a whip-crack. “Burn the whole city to the ground?”
Rachael’s eyes narrowed.
“We had a plan. We were going… Somewhere safe. Somewhere we’d be alone. We didn’t need you.”
“You had a plan? Rachael, do you have the slightest notion of what you and your friend have unleashed on that city you called home? Should I suppose that you already know what kind of monstrosity has taken root there? Did you perhaps consider how many millions would die and decide that you found that cost acceptable?”
His voice was icy cold. He did not shout, but the steel in his words told her he was deadly serious. Her head span, and she took a faltering step backwards.
“Bullshit,” she spat. “You’re just making that up.”
“He’s not,” Arsha said, her voice seeming very small. “Rachael, he knows about this stuff. He really does.”
“The Seed,” the Professor said. “I suppose that boy told you it would take you somewhere else. That it was a way out.”
The venom had gone from his tone, and he suddenly seemed tired, saddened even.
“Yeah. That’s what Justin said alright. So what did you mean about… People dying?”
The professor pressed the tips of his fingers together, and closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…” He paused, and Rachael felt the tension singing in the air like a plucked string. “There are things you wouldn’t have… Couldn’t have known. You had no way of understanding the consequences of your actions, and you should never have had this kind of responsibility forced upon you.”
“Responsibility? For what? What is this about?”
“The rift that the Seed opened. The… The gateway, that your friend no doubt tried to take you through.”
“It was a way out of there.”
“Or a way in. Rachael, what you did created a connection between your world and the deepest and most chaotic parts of the Dreaming. You weren’t to know. You were like a child playing with a gun. No one’s surprised that it went off in your hands.”
Rachael stepped closer, fists clenched at her sides. She could feel herself shaking.
“What? What did I do?”
“You opened a rift between your world and the Deep Wild. A place of chaos and power. Untamed, uncontrollable, unimaginable. The rift will strengthen, and the influence of the Dreaming will continue to spread around it. It will grow, unchecked, unless we can find a way to stop it, and it will transform or destroy everything it touches.”
She said nothing. There didn’t seem to be anything left to say.
“I truly don’t blame you for what you did, Rachael. You were lost, alone, and frightened. You acted out of desperation and fear. Someone offered you a way out and you clung to it, because you had nothing else. For that smallest of sins you now carry an appalling responsibility. It isn’t fair, and it is precisely what I had hoped to protect you from.”
She shook her head, horrified at what she was hearing.
“You don’t blame me? You don’t blame me for being run down like I was some kind of animal. For being chased by killers and monsters? Everything I been through, and the best you can say is you don’t blame me?”
She stared at them both with a look of absolute disgust.
“Screw you,” she said, before she turned and stormed out of the room.
She took the stairs two at a time, heading down, and then kept on walking until she found herself standing at the door to her room again. She slipped inside and closed the door behind herself. She fell down onto the bed and rolled onto her back, propping her feet up against the wall. Staring up at the thin sliver of blue sky that she could make out through the porthole, she silently wished for a glimpse of dark wings in the distance. For some tiny clue that he was still out there, searching for her.
Hours passed as she lay on the narrow bed, staring up at the ceiling, anger churning her insides. She couldn’t say for sure how long it had been when there was a sharp tap on the door. As it opened she looked up to see Ilona step into the room. Watching her dispassionately, the woman didn’t say a word as she set herself down in the chair beside the bed, legs crossed, hands folded on her knee.
Rachael’s eyes narrowed as she studied the gaunt figure. Ilona’s hair was tied back in a loose knot, but a few strands had come loose. Her eyes still looked sunken and bloodshot. Her skin was almost unnaturally pale.
“Alright, what? You come to have a go at me as well.”
“I am told I owe you an apology,” Ilona replied, with no sign of emotion.
“Right. This oughta be good.”
“It’s hardly an everyday occurrence, I assure you.”
“Do you always talk like you’ve got a stick up your arse?” Rachael snarled.
Strangely, Ilona smiled, just for a moment.
“So what do I do? To make it up to you. Let you hit me? Hurt me like I hurt you?”
“You know you don’t exactly sound very sorry.”
“Should I be?” Ilona replied, calmly. “You attacked someone I care about. I stopped you. Was that wrong? Are you upset because I cared less about your safety than Micah’s? Because you are less valuable to me than he is?”
“Right. I get the blame for everything that happened down there, but you get to smile and say you done nothing wrong.”
The woman made a tutting sound.
“If you’re referring to what happened with the Seed, I hardly think you are solely to blame for that.”
Rachael turned away, fixing her eyes on the wall.
“I’m getting kind of sick of hearing that. It’s all my fault but no one blames me. Like I’m supposed to feel better because I only went and killed a million people by accident.”
“We all made choices down there. Yours were only a tiny part of what occurred,” Ilona said. She paused, as if considering something. “But you do blame yourself, don’t you? Even though everything that happened was far beyond your control, you still blame yourself. Not me, not Rishi, not the Bhandaris, or your shifter friend. You somehow imagine it was all your fault.”
Rachael said nothing.
“Believe me, Rachael, we all make mistakes enough to carry a lifetime of regrets. Don’t burden yourself with more.”
Slowly, she turned her head just enough to see the woman’s face. Ilona’s expression was a mask, blank and unreadable. It struck her that the woman was much younger than she acted. Probably even younger than Micah was.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to care about me?” Rachael snarled. “You trying to be friends now or something?”
Another humourless smile flickered across the woman’s lips as Ilona leaned forward in the chair, pressing her hands together.
“I don’t really do… Friends. But then I don’t really do many apologies, either.”
“So why are you still here?”
“Because you still haven’t told me what I should do to make it right. Let me know when you decide,” Ilona said. The woman stood, brushed down her skirt, and left without another word.
As the door closed, Rachael threw herself back down on the bed, fists clenched in empty frustration. From the corridor she caught the muffled sound of voices. Then the door opened again and Arsha leaned in, a nervous smile hovering on the girl’s face.
“Hey. You should come upstairs. Uncle Abasi has some news for everyone.”
Too tired to argue, Rachael rolled out of bed and followed the girl up to the mess hall. They arrived to find everyone else already assembled. Micah and Rishi were sat at the table, the professor drumming his fingers in agitation whilst Micah yawned and stretched. Milima was sat across from them, sipping a cup of tea. Ilona stood against the wall, arms folded, expressionless. At the head of the table Abasi stood, leaning back against the wall.
The girls slipped into the room. Arsha went to hover over her father’s shoulder whilst Rachael stayed in the doorway, waiting to see what was going to happen next.
“Fates, Abasi, whatever this is, can we please hurry it up?” the professor said, still drumming his fingers.
“Now that everyone’s here,” Abasi nodded. “After we entered the Ways over London, I put out a call to an old friend of mine with a few connections among the Wardens, I just received his reply. He tells me that a week ago three ships set sail, heading for the Hearth. For London. They were acting on intelligence received from the Chamber of Foresight, indicating an imminent event. Something that would threaten the integrity of the Veil. The Inquisition is directly involved in a massive control and containment operation. This morning, the Wardens received the first report back from their people on the ground. They know that a Seed has awakened.”
Abasi paused, for a moment.
“My friend was good enough to forward me a copy of this report. It’s dull reading, of course, but I think we’re all more interested in what it didn’t say. Even though they’ve supposedly collected intel from several Guild agents stationed across England, there is no mention of either our ship, or the Jyoti. None at all.”
“What does that mean for us?” Micah said. Beside him, the professor looked thoughtful.
“It means,” Rishi replied, “that they’re covering up any mention of our involvement or the Bhandaris’. Manindra’s work, I’m betting.”
“Why?” Milima said. “What does Manindra gain by keeping us out of this?”
“Yeah,” Micah added, “I can’t see a guy like him doing us any favours.”
“Manindra’s got enough pull on the council to have the Wardens turn a blind eye to this whole thing, but if we were brought up on charges then our version of the story would come out in the courts. They’d have to bring a full case against us, and that would mean exposing all their intel to outside scrutiny. It would soon become obvious that something else was being covered up. If Manindra wants to keep his family out of this, he has to protect us at the same time,” Rishi said, his features twisting into a kind of mocking smile. “Fates, that must burn.”
Abasi simply nodded.
“So that’s it?” Micah said. “We’re in the clear?”
“It’s not a definite yes, but…” Abasi’s smile grew. Milima set her cup down and lowered her head until it touched the table. Micah leaned back and breathed out a sigh as Arsha threw her arms around her father’s neck with a squeal of delight. Rishi actually laughed as he pulled his daughter into his lap and kissed her hair. Rachael could even see Ilona’s shoulders settling a little, as if a weight had been lifted. For a moment there seemed to be no thought on anyone’s mind but sheer relief.
As the excitement settled, she was surprised to hear the words coming out of her own mouth.
“So what happens now? What happens to me?”
Immediately, the room stilled. The professor looked up at her with a saddened expression, Arsha’s face still pressed close to his.
“I suppose that’s what we have to decide now. We still can’t take you home, Rachael. And you’re not safe here. Not yet. Just because Manindra has decided that hiding what his men did in London is worth more than getting us in trouble, doesn’t mean he won’t come after you. And there’s the Guild to consider. They may not be coming after us directly, but if they find out that we have a refugee from the Hearth on board they can still take you into custody. It’s the Inquisition’s role to see to the care and disposition of all Hearth refugees… Even those that don’t very much want to find themselves in the Guild’s care. And after what happened in London, I imagine at least a few members of the Inquisition would be quite interested in learning more about you.”
“Right. So I keep running. Trust me, I’m good at that.”
“That might do, for a little while, but believe me when I say that Manindra Bhandari has not forgotten about you. As a refugee you will have few, if any rights within the Guild lands. He could probably kidnap you in broad daylight and simply claim it was Guild business. With Manindra’s connections, I doubt anyone could challenge that claim.”
“And you got a better plan?” Rachael said, sharply.
“Trust me, Rachael, I’ve certainly given it some thought. The best way to keep you safe, both from Manindra and from the Inquisition, is for you to become a Guild Citizen.”
“And how does that work then?”
“Simple. I adopt you. I have standing in the Guild, and I would have no trouble getting the appropriate paperwork in order. You’d sign a few documents and by all Guild law you would be my daughter.”
“And what if I don’t want to?” she said, not quite able to meet his eyes.
“Don’t want to what?”
“Be your… Your daughter.”
He calmly steepled his fingers.
“It’s just a piece of paper, Rachael. That’s all I’m asking for. The choices you make with your life, those are yours to make. But you’re more than welcome to stay here with us, if you want to. We can look after you. Keep you safe. We can give you a life here, Rachael. A home, and even a future. Will you think about that? Can you, at least, give us a chance?” the professor said. She saw cautious smiles from around the room. People trying to be welcoming.
The whole time Arsha didn’t say a word, but there was a look in her eyes that the girl couldn’t hide. Something wildly hopeful.
It was hard to look at them all, to meet their eyes and see their nervous yet expectant faces. It was hard to swallow that cold lump and force the words out into the deep silence that filled the room.
“Alright. I’ll think about it.”
The professor nodded, wetting his lips.
The meeting seemingly over, the crew began to file out of the room, breaking off into smaller conversations as Rachael held her place by the wall and watched it all impassively. Arsha smiled as she passed her on the way to the door.
“I’ll be in my room if… If you want to hang out or anything,” the girl said.
There was a curious fluttering in her stomach as Rachael felt herself smile back.
“Yeah… I might do that,” she said.
Arsha turned and slipped out the door. The professor was the last to leave, and it wasn’t until he was at the door that Rachael finally blurted out the question that had been buzzing away at the back of her head.
“Why’d you come for me?”
He turned back to look at her, as if unsure what she meant.
“Why you?” she continued. “I know why Justin came. And this Manindra guy, he thinks I’m valuable or whatever. I get that. But what’s your deal? Why did it have to be you that came all this way, broke all these rules, put all these people around you in danger? Because as far as I can see it, none of them know either.”
“Because you were in danger. Whatever the cost, whatever the risk… It was the right thing to do. I know you might not agree, but that’s the honest truth,” he said, softly.
“I don’t buy it. Everyone’s got an angle. Nobody does a right thing just ‘cos,” she said, eyes narrowed.
“Do you really feel that way?”
She said nothing.
“Well, maybe it’s time someone started,” he said, with a smile that didn’t quite seem to touch his eyes.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.