So, here’s a little extra for you guys.
I recently tweeted that just before posting Chapter 16, I ended up doing a fairly major rewrite on it at the last minute. So what actually happened there? Well the chapter was original written from Arsha’s point of view. Whilst The Stolen Child relies pretty heavily on transition between Arsha and Rachael’s perspective on the story, knowing where to make those transitions has been a pretty major challenge. With the exception of the opening chapters, I’ve tried not to switch back and forth too much, because I find that it’s better to give the audience a sense of continuity. Changing perspective is always jarring. After the events around the Shard Building (where we have a lot of rapid fire perspective shifts to really convey how chaotic and jumbled everything is during that acton sequence) I chose to settle into a calmer rhythm by staying with Rachael’s perspective for several chapters at a stretch.
In the original draft, the switch to Arsha’s perspective happened at the start of Chapter 16, with the idea being that we stay with Arsha for the next few chapters, before switching back to Rachael at a very particular moment. However, when I looked over the chapter one last time, I couldn’t escape the feeling that by showing the events from Arsha’s perspective we were losing a lot of the strength of Rachael’s decision at the end of the chapter. So I rewrote the chapter to give us the story from within Rachael’s headspace. I feel really happy with this choice, as it gives a much clearer sense of the choice she’s making and why (though it might be argued that I lay the point on a little heavily), and it allows me to get in some more foreshadowing throughout the chapter.
Since we’re still on hiatus until Monday, I decided instead that I’d give you guys a chance to see the original chapter, before the rewrite, and compare the differences. Maybe I made the wrong choice; maybe you all feel that the version from Arsha’s perspective works better. Let me know what you think. Whether you feel I made the right or the wrong choice, hopefully this can be something that you can use to help your own writing.
Don’t forget to come back on Monday for Chapter 17 – Distance. I could be wrong, but I’ve got a strong feeling you’re not going to expect what’s coming 😉
Chapter 16 – Rooftops (Arsha’s PoV)
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 in her dark hair. Arsha leaned back with her hands on the railing, and felt the sun warming her face. The sound of footsteps came from close behind.
“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 they’d brought Rachael aboard. After the madness of the first couple of days the girl had kept to herself for the most part. Most of their time together had been spent up in the small loft, watching the view through the portholes. At first Rachael had said little, and Arsha had passed the time reading. Eventually their faltering attempts at conversations had come more naturally, as Rachael began to enquire about the ship and the crew, and about Arsha’s life with them. In return, Rachael had begun to tell her a little about her own world, about London and all the fantastic places beyond it. The girl’s discomfort never quite seemed to fade, but it had grown easier to spend time together.
“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 they could make out the 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. Westfall was always busy, a large town bursting with industrious energy. Arsha could smell machine oil, pine wood and manure. Turning to look at Rachael, she saw the girl’s mouth hanging open, eyes wide as she took everything in.
“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 Arsha heard her 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, 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.”
“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, in a way that didn’t seem the slightest bit thankful. For once, Arsha could hardly blame her. Together they trudged back inside. With little else to do, as the rest of the crew made their way out into the town, Arsha went back to her room with Rachael in tow.
Lying on her bed, she watched as Penelope flew agitated little circles over them. Rachael sat by the door, playing with her holographer. The girl seemed fascinated by the device, which she kept referring to as a ‘camera’ as she froze still after still, mostly of Penelope. Arsha found herself unable to really focus on anything, her feet drumming against the wall in a constant beat.
“It’s not fair. I just wanted to show you around was all.”
“He like that a lot?” Rachael said, without 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. “Guess he just didn’t trust you to keep me out of trouble.”
Arsha felt herself kick the wall just a little harder.
“It’s not like that,” she protested. “He does trust me… And I trust him. I do.”
She could hear the words as she said them, and she knew how false they sounded, even to her ears.
“Right. 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 if she wasn’t sure if she should even say what was on her mind. “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 captured another still.
“Fates, I hate this,” she muttered. “I wish we had something to do.”
“I know what you mean. 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, 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… What if we just did it? You know, took a look around, got back here before anyone noticed?”
“You mean… Sneak out?”
“Yeah. No harm in it, right? Everyone’s out doing stuff anyhow. We could be real quick about it.”
“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. She could feel a fluttering in the pit of her stomach, as Rachael carefully set the holographer aside.
“So what do you say?” the girl said.
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 the girls darted through the throng. She could smell chicken and lamb cooking in clay ovens, and the fresh spices laid out on market stalls. She caught the scent of cardamom, cinnamon, saffron and coriander. 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 her father and Abasi left on the ship. From the stairwell that lead up to the bridge Arsha had heard the sound of the door to Abasi’s ready room closing behind them, 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 seemed bewildered by the variety of items for sale. Arsha caught her staring at stalls filled with cutlery, tools, clothes, boots and shoes, nets, ropes, pocket knives, and thousands of other things that seemed entirely dull, practical, and plain.
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, not sure what to make of such an obvious question.
“A cold room?”
“It keeps things cold.”
“Well… Yeah,” Rachael said, making a face. “But how?”
It struck her that she didn’t actually recall the answer. She felt sure her father had explained it to her when she was younger, but now she couldn’t seem to remember.
“Uh… Thaumic manipulation through etheric transference,” she said, sure she was half-guessing.
“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…”
Rachael’s eyes flickered down to her coffee mug and then back up again, with a look of growing concern. It was only a moment before Arsha’s deadpan expression broke.
“Arse!” Rachael muttered as Arsha burst out laughing. Then she gave loud yelp as a blob of ice-cream splattered neatly across her nose. Arsha picked up her spoon to return fire, but Rachael dodged out of the way and the shot sailed past, smacking into the wall in a white smear. There was coughing sound, and she 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 she helped Rachael to pick out some new clothes to add to the hand-me-downs from her own wardrobe. Rachael’s backpack was bulging by the time they were done.
They were just finishing up at the last stall when Arsha glimpsed a flash of a tan coat in the crowd. Micah was moving quickly, glancing about with a determined expression. She tugged at Rachael’s sleeve and nodded in the man’s direction.
“What do we do?” she hissed.
“Hide,” Rachael replied. “Come on.”
The girl lead her 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, without any real sign of concern as she continued down the alleyway. Arsha followed, curiosity and frustration mingling like a storm cloud in her stomach. It wasn’t long before Rachael found a stack of crates and barrels under a sloped roof. Without even hesitating 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. Part of her wanted to go back and look for Micah or her father, or whoever else was out looking for them. To just give it up, apologise, and wait for her reprimand. Then she looked up at where Rachael was perched on the edge of the roof. Her hand was outstretched, and she was smiling. There was something new in Rachael’s expression. Something fearless and wild.
Arsha’s shoulders sagged a little as she tightened the strap on her satchel and started to scramble up the crates. 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 followed without even thinking. She saw the cobblestone street far below and butterflies sang in her stomach as she landed, boot leather skidding on the tiles. She barely stayed on her feet, as Rachael reached out to catch her by the arm. Her head span, and it took her a moment to realise she was laughing.
“You OK?” Rachael said.
She nodded, breathless. Rachael smiled and set off again. Soon they were flying over the rooftops, slipping down into alleyways and scrambling up rusted drainpipes. 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. Arsha had been to Westfall a dozen times or more, but she had never seen it like this. From up above the rooftops, it seemed as if the whole town was laid out for her, as if she was a bird swooping down over the crowded streets.
Eventually they began to tire. Perched on a rooftop on the outskirts of town, they lay back and caught the mid-afternoon sun. The weather was cool, but not unpleasantly so, and the town shielded them from the wind that blew in off the cliffs. Patchy clouds drifted past, occasionally obscuring the sun which was warm against her bare arms and face. The river rumbled on through its cutting, heavy and low, like a distant train passing.
Rachael opened her bag and pulled out her sketchbook. As her hand made deft motions over the page, Arsha saw the shape of the town begin to emerge.
“You’re really good,” she said. “You must have practised loads.”
“I guess. 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.
“I just… I think it could be fun. Going to the Guildhall together. I’d like that, having someone I know there,” Arsha said, surprised at how nervous she felt. All the danger and excitement of running across the rooftops had seemed so easy to face, but just trying to put these words together was making her hands shake.
“Know?” Rachael said, looking surprised. “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.”
Rachael smiled a little.
“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.”
“Wow. Thanks,” Rachael said. She seemed only half serious, but it was still hard to be sure.
“Sorry,” Arsha said.
“It’s OK. I just… I guess I never really thought that my life would have things like, y’know, boarding schools and stuff.”
“Yeah. It’s kind of scary, isn’t it,” Arsha said.
“It’s not that,” Rachael said, not meeting her eyes. “I mean…” The girl paused, as if trying to find the right words. “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 said, clearly frustrated. “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.”
Arsha felt her stomach twisting.
“Well, even if it’s only for a few years…”
Rachael said nothing. 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. It took a moment for Arsha to process exactly what she’d just said. A cold, sick feeling began to grow inside her.
“You’re not coming back. You planned this, the whole time,” she said. Rachael gave her a kind of half smile, as if she found the idea funny.
“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…”
Arsha could feel her stomach twisting itself in knots as she struggled to find something to say. She could see the determination in Rachael’s eyes, but also the fear that the girl was holding back. Part of her wanted to reach out, hold her, beg her to stay, promise that they could make things better for her. The trouble was, she wasn’t even sure if they could.
“If… If you’re planning on taking one of the ships, you should probably go for the one on the farthest dock,” she stammered. “They’re Arvingian, they usually don’t mind taking on travellers and such, if you’re willing to work.”
“For real?” Rachael looked surprised and grateful.
“Thanks. Are you sure you’ll be OK? Facing up to your old man I mean.”
“Oh. Yeah, I’ll be fine. Besides, he’s my dad. I kinda… I feel really bad that I made him worry, y’know?”
“I dunno,” Rachael said, tightening the straps on her bag. “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,” she said, forcing a smile to cover the lump that had formed in her throat. For a moment Rachael just stood there, watching her with a curious expression.
“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. If you’d like.”
“Yeah, well, that was his idea, not mine.”
To her own surprise, Arsha smiled a little, as a thought occurred to her.
“Uncle Abasi would find that really funny. Dad looking after the both of us.”
“He always says my dad could barely cope with looking after me. And Dad always agrees with him too.”
Slowly, Rachael settled down onto her haunches, her weight still resting on the balls of her feet as if ready to take flight at any 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 for a moment. In the distance she heard the town clock chiming, as Rachael waited for her answer. She almost wanted to say nothing, just to see if the girl would keep waiting. Just to draw the moment out longer.
“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, her expression unreadable. She seemed to be turning something over in her head. Arsha found herself growing frustrated, wishing the girl would say something, or do something. As much as she hated what was happening, part of her just wanted it to be over.
“You know, if you’re leaving, you should probably make it quick. Those other ships will start casting off soon,” she said.
“Yeah. And your dad going crazy looking for us and all.”
Rachael stood, tightening the straps on her backpack again, “Guess the sooner we face the music the better then,” the girl said.
Arsha gave her a puzzled look, not quite sure what was happening.
“Well, you coming or what? Look, if I’m sticking around, you gotta take some of blame, yeah?”
For a moment the silence between them seemed like the loudest thing in the world. Arsha 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 symphony. All the while Rachael watched her with barely concealed nervousness. Arsha let out the breath she had been holding.
“Yeah,” she said as she got to her feet. She smiled, and for the briefest instant Rachael smiled back. Together the girls slipped down from the rooftop, and made their way down towards the docks.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.