They were flying low, the ocean stretching out on all sides. There was the smell of salt water on the wind, and a soft mist that settled on her face as Rachael stepped out onto the deck. Arsha was standing at the prow, leaning back with her hands holding onto the railing. Her face was turned upwards, a soft smile on her lips as she basked in the sunlight.
“Hey,” Rachael said, leaning against the railing beside her.
Arsha turned to her and smiled.
“Morning,” she said.
It had been over a week since she’d first woken up in the small cabin that was now her home. She’d kept to herself, for the most part, watching life aboard the ship go on around her. When Arsha wasn’t studying or busy with chores, the girl had often joined her in the small loft at the front of the hold. At first they’d spoken very little. Arsha read while Rachael doodled in her sketchpad or watched the view through the portholes. Eventually their faltering attempts at conversations had come more naturally. Arsha was eager to know more about her world, about London, England, and everything else, and she seemed just as eager to answer Rachael’s questions about the ship and its crew.
“So… What’s happening?” Rachael said, looking around at the empty deck. Instead of answering, Arsha pointed at the horizon, where a craggy outline was barely visible through the fog. Rachael leaned forward over the railing, squinting into the sunlight. Slowly the cliff-face began to take shape, dark lines emerging from the fog, capped with a faint haze of greenery. A deep cleft in the stone wall allowed a river to burst forth, crashing down several hundred yards in a spectacular waterfall that churned the surf into a a violent foam of white. Atop the cliff she could make out a town, spreading out to either side of the cutting formed by the river. The buildings twisted and wobbled as they rose into the air, adjoined by sky-bridges and buttresses, the river gorge criss-crossed by larger bridges held up by ropes and cables. At the near edge of the settlement the buildings hung right out over the edge of the cliff, long wooden piers jutting out into empty space. There were cranes and signal towers, their lights flashing as they guided another vessel in towards its pier.
“Welcome to Westfall,” Arsha said, smiling.
They pulled in about half an hour later. Micah and Milima arrived on deck, throwing ropes to the dock-hands who tied off to the large iron loops spaced along the pier. The pier shuddered and groaned as it kissed the hull, the slender scaffolding seeming like it could barely stand up to the Triskelion’s mass. Still, it held fast, and as the propellers wound down the sudden quiet was filled with the distant sounds of Westfall.
She could see people moving through the sky-bridges, and along the streets and the dock fronts. There were horses and carts laden down with crates, sacks and barrels, trade goods headed for warehouses, or out to the docks to be loaded. The air was thick with the smell of machine oil, pine wood and manure.
“This is… This is real,” Rachael said, almost to herself. “I’m really in another world, aren’t I?”
Arsha nodded, not entirely sure what to say.
“I guess this is all just normal for you. I mean, I guess it’s pretty normal looking, really. It’s just…”
“Did you want to take a look around?” Arsha said.
They were heading for the gangplank when Rachael heard Arsha’s father calling her name. She turned to look back as he strode across the deck towards them.
“I’m sorry pet, you won’t be doing any shopping today. You both need to stay aboard.”
“What? But why?” Arsha said, looking mortified.
“Arsha, we still have Manindra’s people and the Guild to worry about. I can’t have either of you wandering around right now. Better for you both to stay on the ship. We’re just here to resupply and do some maintenance.”
“Dad, I’ve hardly left the ship since Skytower, and this the first time Rachael’s ever been anywhere like this. You cannot be seriously making us stay aboard,” the girl said.
“Arsha, I’ve already explained myself. Now both of you need to go back inside. Rachael, I hope you can at least recognise that I’m doing this to protect you.”
“Sure,” Rachael mumbled, not feeling the slightest bit thankful. Arsha just looked sullen as they trudged back inside. With little else to do, as the rest of the crew made their way out into the town, they ended up down in Arsha’s room.
Lying on her bed, Arsha stared at the ceiling as Penelope flew agitated little circles over them. Rachael sat by the door, playing with the strange device that Arsha referred to as a ‘holographer’. It seemed to be some kind of camera, but one that could project images in three dimensions. Raising the viewfinder to her eye, Rachael centred it on Arsha’s mechanical pet and took a picture.
“It’s not fair. I just wanted to show you around was all,” Arsha moaned. The girl had begun to drum her feet on the wall in obvious agitation.
“He like that a lot?” Rachael said, not looking up. “Not listening to anyone else?”
“No,” Arsha said. “I mean… Not normally. It’s just everything that’s happening now…”
“Don’t see how that’s your fault,” Rachael said, careful not to meet the girl’s eyes. “Guess he just didn’t trust you to keep me out of trouble.”
She heard Arsha kick the wall just a little harder.
“It’s not like that,” the girl protested. “He does trust me… And I trust him. I do.”
“Right,” Rachael said quickly. “Sorry. Didn’t mean nothing by it.”
Arsha sat up and leaned forward, pulling her knees up to her chest.
“It’s not that he doesn’t trust me,” she said. “It’s just… He still treats me like a kid, you know? Like he always has to make all my choices for me.”
“So…” Rachael paused, as the sneaky little voice in the back of her head began to wonder just how much of a push the girl would need. “Maybe you need to prove that you can. Make your own choices I mean. Maybe he needs to see that he doesn’t have to be telling you what to do all the time.”
“That’d be nice,” Arsha said. Rachael raised the holographer and took another picture.
“Fates, I hate this,” Arsha muttered. “I wish we had something to do.”
“I know what you mean,” Rachael said. “I really wish we could have taken a look around this place. It’s like… It still don’t seem real, this thing about these worlds and stuff. I wanted to see it for myself, you know?”
“Yeah,” Arsha nodded, glumly.
“It wouldn’t even have to take long, would it?” Rachael said, keeping her face hidden behind the holographer, as she focused it on the porthole behind Arsha’s shoulder.
“Not really. We could have taken a walk through the main market and been back in an hour.”
“Like, they’d hardly have missed us,” Rachael nodded.
“Yeah.” Arsha settled her chin on her knees.
“So,” Rachael paused again, not sure if the girl was ready to be convinced or not, “what if we just did it? You know, took a look around, got back here before anyone noticed?”
“You mean… Sneak out?”
She could hear the nervousness in Arsha’s voice, but also the excitement that lurked beneath it.
“Yeah. No harm in it, right? Everyone’s out doing stuff anyhow. We could be real quick about it,” Rachael said, doing her best to sound nonchalant.
“We can’t,” Arsha said.
“Why not? Because your dad never lets you do nothing for yourself?”
Arsha said nothing.
“You said it. He still treats you like a kid, right? Like he doesn’t even think you can’t handle wandering out a little town like this by yourself. It’s rubbish, that is.”
“He’s just trying to keep us safe,” Arsha said, though she knew it didn’t sound very convincing.
“Sure, I mean I get that he means well, but he’s acting like we can’t look after ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I never needed no one looking out for me, you know?”
“Right,” Arsha nodded, cautiously. Carefully, Rachael set the holographer down, feeling that it was now or never.
“So what do you say?”
The market was a riot of sights, sounds and smells, a constant press of people and a cacophony of voices, arguing prices, hawking wares, and holding conversations against the din. People in an array of brightly coloured clothes pressed in all around them as they darted through the throng. The smell of cooked meat wafted off the open grills, mingling with the overwhelming scent of cardamom, chilli, coriander, and other spices Rachael had no names for. The air was hot and humid, and sweat gleamed on skin of a thousand different hues.
Sneaking out had been easy, in the end. With most of the crew out around the town, it had only been the professor and the captain left on the ship. From the stairwell that lead up to the bridge they had heard the sound of the door to the captain’s ready room closing, the men’s voices suddenly muted. After that there was nothing to stop them as they darted across the docks and disappeared between the high walls of the warehouses, making their way deeper into the town.
Moving along the market stalls, Rachael stared in bewilderment at the items for sale. Stalls filled with cutlery, tools, clothes, boots and shoes, nets, ropes, pocket knives, and thousands of other everyday objects that still seemed strangely different. At the same time, there was something curiously familiar about it all, like a distorted version of the open air markets in London.
Eventually they took shelter from the crowds in a small café, where Arsha bought them both coffee and ice-cream.
“How do they keep it cold?” Rachael asked, poking at hers, thoughtfully.
“They have a cold-room,” Arsha said, as if the answer should have been obvious.
“A cold room?”
“It keeps things cold.”
“Well… Yeah,” Rachael said, making a face. “But how?”
Arsha wrinkled her nose, apparently struggling to recall the answer.
“Uh… Thaumic manipulation through etheric transference?” she said at last.
“And that means…?”
“Honestly? I really don’t know,” Arsha said, with an embarrassed smile. Rachael laughed.
“Jeez. There’s just so much… stuff, you know? Everything’s different,” she said.
“I think I’d do worse trying to survive in London,” Arsha replied.
“I dunno. I guess, it’s different, but it’s the same, y’know? Like, it’s all so strange, that it just makes it even more surprising when I actually recognise something. Like, I just figured when we walked into the café that you’d order some… schnozzberry juice, or something. Not coffee.”
“Well… it’s not really coffee, like you have. I mean, it tastes the same, but we make it out of a kind of animal droppings,” Arsha said. “See, there’s this beetle, and it…”
For a moment Rachael’s eyes flicked down to her coffee. Then she looked back up at Arsha, whose deadpan expression was already cracking.
“Ass!” Rachael muttered, flicking some ice-cream at her as the girl burst out laughing. Then Arsha flicked a small blob back and Rachael yelped as it splattered across her nose. There was coughing sound, and they both turned to see the woman behind the counter giving them a disapproving glare.
Having narrowly avoided getting kicked out of the café, the girls headed back out into the bustling street. They investigated a few more stalls, and Arsha helped her to pick out some new clothes to add to the hand-me-downs from her own wardrobe. Between her new purchases, and what she’d packed before leaving the ship, her backpack was bulging by the time they were done.
They were just finishing up at the last stall when Arsha suddenly tugged at Rachael’s sleeve with a nervous expression. Turning, she caught sight of the tall figure in a tan coat moving through the crowd. Micah.
“What do we do?” Arsha hissed.
“Hide,” Rachael replied. “Come on.”
She lead Arsha past the stall, weaving through the vendors and quickly slipping out of Micah’s sight. Soon they found themselves in one of the narrow alleyways that branched off from the square. It was quieter there, only a little light squeezing down between the tall buildings as the crowds bustled past the mouth of the alleyway.
“The others will be out looking for us as well, I bet,” Arsha said, a little breathless.
“Likely, yeah,” Rachael said, betraying little sign of concern as she continued down the alleyway. Arsha followed her, seeming nervous, but curious. It wasn’t long before Rachael found a stack of crates and barrels under a sloped roof. She scrambled up, catching the edge of the rooftop and hauling herself over.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Arsha hissed.
“Exploring,” Rachael said with a shrug. “Come on.”
Arsha turned to look back at the crowds in the square. Then she looked up at where Rachael was perched on the edge of the roof. She could see the conflict in the girl’s expression. The nervousness in her eyes, as she threw darting glances back towards the streets, where Micah would be waiting to take them back to the ship. For a moment, Rachael considered simply leaving the girl there, or suggesting that she head back. She knew it would be easier, but something inside her seemed to rebel at the thought. It was strange how much she’d grown to like having the girl around. As Arsha’s eyes met hers, Rachael held out her hand and smiled.
For a moment Arsha stared at her, nervous excitement written clearly on her face. Then, all of a sudden, the girl scrambled up onto the crates and took her hand. Rachael helped her onto the roof, and the two of them began to make their way over the slates, feeling loose tiles shift under their heels and trusting against all reason that their next step wouldn’t send them tumbling into the street below. Soon they were picking up speed, and as Rachael vaulted over a narrow alleyway, Arsha seemed to follow without hesitation. Butterflies sang in her stomach as sailed over a cobblestone street, rubber soles skidding on the tiles. She turned just as Arsha landed, her feet only barely catching the edge. For a moment the girl flailed, arms pinwheeling, before Rachael caught ahold of her.
“You OK?” Rachael said. In her excitement, it took her a moment to realise that Arsha was laughing.
As Arsha grinned foolishly at her, Rachael felt an answering smile on her own lips. Soon they were flying over the rooftops, slipping down into alleyways and scrambling up rusted drainpipes. Arsha was an eager student, as Rachael showed her what lines to follow, where to look for handholds, and where it was safe to step. They began to vault larger gaps and seek out taller buildings to scale, roaming far from the centre of the town as they continued to explore.
Eventually they began to tire. Perched on a rooftop on the outskirts of town, they lay back and caught the mid-afternoon sun. Patchy clouds drifted past, occasionally shielding them from the sun. The river rumbled on through its cutting, heavy and low, like a distant train passing.
Rachael opened her bag and pulled out her sketchbook. With a few quick strokes, she let the shape of the skyline play out across the page. Curious, Arsha leaned over to look.
“You’re really good,” she said. “You must have practised loads.”
“I guess.” Rachael shrugged. “It was just something to do, y’know?”
Arsha nodded, and for a while they just sat in silence, as Rachael sketched.
“So what do you think? About the other stuff my dad was saying?” Arsha said at last. “You know… About you living with us.”
Rachael shrugged, eyes still focused on the page in front of her.
“I dunno. I mean… What am I supposed to think? How’s anyone know when this is all going to be over? And after that…”
Her voice trailed off, leaving only the sound of her pencil tapping against the page.
“It’s just… I’ve been talking to him about going away to the Guildhall. It’s like a, you know, a boarding school. So I can get ready for University. He said that if things settle down by then, he’d be OK with paying for you to go as well, if you wanted to.”
Rachael turned to look out over the streets as Arsha spoke, her voice nervous and soft.
“I just thought it’d be nice, having someone I know there,” Arsha said.
“Know?” Rachael said, unable to keep the incredulity from her voice. “You’ve known me a week. I spent most of the first day unconscious.”
“So I know you don’t snore too much,” Arsha said with an awkward smile. “They put you in shared rooms at the Guildhall, that’s really important.”
It was a poor attempt at a joke, but Rachael still found herself smiling as Arsha grinned foolishly at her.
“Honestly,” Arsha continued, “I’d just kind of figured I wouldn’t know anyone, and… And I’d probably just be too weird for people or something, and it’d be awful. So, at least if you were there, we’d both be weird together or something.”
There was an awkward silence, as Arsha waited for her to say something. It was hard to know what to say, especially knowing what she was about to do. She couldn’t escape the feeling that she owed the girl some kind of explanation, even though it was hard to pin down why she felt she owed Arsha anything at all.
“Honestly,” Rachael said, “I never really thought about my life having things like boarding schools and stuff.”
“Yeah. It’s kind of scary, isn’t it,” Arsha said.
“It’s not that,” Rachael said, turning to look over the horizon again, a nervous pit slowly forming in her stomach. “You talk about the future like it’s your whole life. You know, getting educated, getting a job, all them things that… You just don’t understand. It’s not like that for me. When I think about what’s next, all I’m thinking is ‘How do I make it through today?’ Because tomorrow, I’ll be thinking the same. That’s all I got now.”
“But it doesn’t have to be,” Arsha said.
“You’re saying that like I made a choice, or something. Like I wanted my life to be this way,” Rachael snarled. “God, I know you mean well by it, but you’re talking about us going off to some fancy school together and being bestest friends forever and it’s like you’re speaking Martian. Arsh, you’re nice. I do like you. But I’m not sticking around. You gotta understand that.”
It was clear from the girl’s nervous expression that Arsha still hadn’t grasped her meaning.
“Well, even if it’s only for a few years…”
Rachael said nothing. She knew she was running out of ways to avoid saying what she needed to say. Slowly she began to pack away her sketchbook and pencils.
“We really should get back. Dad’s gonna be furious by now,” Arsha said.
“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry about that. You can tell him it was my fault when you see him, OK?” Rachael nodded as she shouldered her backpack and got to her feet. As Arsha turned to look at her, it was clear that she’d finally caught what was happening.
“You’re not coming back. You planned this, the whole time,” she said. Rachael fought back the urge to laugh.
“I didn’t plan nothing. It’s just.. I take the chances that I get, you know? It’s the only way I made it this far and all. Only way I know how. It weren’t your fault or nothing. You seem like a really nice person, really. I think… I think we might have been good mates, if things hadn’t been… You know…”
For a moment Arsha just watched her in nervous silence. She almost wished the girl would look away. It seemed like that would easier.
“If… If you’re planning on taking one of the ships, you should probably go for the one on the farthest dock,” Arsha said, quietly. “They’re Arvingian, they usually don’t mind taking on travellers and such, if you’re willing to work.”
“For real?” Rachael said, feeling surprised and grateful.
Arsha nodded, and lowered her eyes, staring down into the streets below. Slowly, the girl pulled her knees up in front of herself. Though she had to get moving, Rachael found herself watching Arsha’s miserable expression, wishing there was something she could do about it.
“Thanks,” she said, softly. “Are you sure you’ll be OK? Facing up to your old man I mean.”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Besides, he’s my dad. I kinda… I feel really bad that I made him worry, y’know?” Arsha said.
“I dunno,” Rachael said, checking the straps on her backpack once more. “Doesn’t seem fair that you should get in trouble just ’cause I made you sneak out.”
“Well it’s not like you forced me. Besides, I really did have a lot of fun today,” Arsha said, forcing a smile. Once again Rachael reminded herself that she needed to get moving. Once again, something about the girl’s eyes seemed to pull her back.
“You really meant all that, didn’t you, about going off to school together and all?”
“If you wanted to stay. My dad really did mean it too, about wanting you to be part of our family. I know it’s not really much of a family, but…”
The girl tailed off, her eyes settling on some point in the far distance again. Rachael settled down onto her haunches, giving in to her curiosity for a moment.
“You said before that it was always just you and him, right? No mum.”
“No mum. Or I never knew her at least,” Arsha said.
Arsha considered the question. Rachael heard the town clock chiming in the distance as she waited for the girl to answer.
“She died,” Arsha said at last. “It all happened during this big expedition, some place called Fallen Peak. They were supposed to be out there for years, working with one of the Outsider kingdoms. She was a researcher on the team, and I guess they got together and I was born. But then there was this big war or something, and a lot of people died. He made it out with a few of the others from the expedition, but she didn’t.”
“So he took care of you, all on his own.”
“Until he started travelling with Abasi and Milima, yeah. At least, that’s how they told it. I don’t remember any of it though. I was just a baby, I mean. I asked about her, of course. He told me a bit, but I could see how much it hurt when he tried to talk about her, so after a while I guess I just stopped asking.”
Rachael nodded, a strange feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. As the silence deepened, Arsha slowly rocked back and forth in quiet agitation.
“You know, if you’re leaving, you should probably make it quick. Those other ships will start casting off soon,” the girl said.
Rachael found herself turning a curious thought over in her head. Something that she hadn’t ever expected.
“Yeah. And your dad going crazy looking for us and all,” she said, quietly. Arsha nodded.
Rachael felt the strange thought beginning to crystallise. She found herself thinking of the tiny little loft, with it’s battered old couch and chairs. Of the room they’d given her, small but cosy, with a bed that was soft and warm. Of Milima’s smile as the woman shovelled another helping of food onto her plate. The way that Micah laughed so easily. The smell of the ship, the creak of it’s oak beams and the snap of the sails.
She got to her feet, tightening the straps on her backpack again.
“Guess the sooner we face the music the better then,” she said.
Arsha gave her a puzzled look, not quite sure what was happening. Rachael almost wanted to laugh as she saw the girl’s confused expression.
“Well, you coming or what?” she said. “If I’m sticking around you gotta help me take some of blame, yeah?”
For a moment the silence between them seemed like the loudest thing in the world. She could hear the carts rattling through the streets, the sound of voices rising up from the market squares, the squawking of birds overhead, all of it humming through the air like the first note of a song. Then Arsha smiled, and Rachael couldn’t help but smile back. Together the girls slipped down from the rooftop, and made their way back towards the docks.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.