Rachael tossed and turned, unable to get to sleep. It was too warm inside, the air too humid. In the bed across the room from her, she could hear Arsha’s soft breathing as the girl slept on in spite of the heat.
Eventually Rachael slid out of the bed and pulled on a dressing gown. She slipped out of the room and padded down the corridor, hoping to find a glass of water. In the dark, the unfamiliar corridors all seemed alike, and she found that she could not remember the way to the bathroom. Instead she ended up at the end of a narrow hallway, looking up at a small and winding staircase. Curious, she followed it, and found herself in some kind of greenhouse. Arranged around the edge of the room, stone planters overflowed with a brilliant array of flowers. The scent of them filled the air, almost overpowering her. A glass dome gave her a perfect view of the stars. By the planters were three low marble benches, like those she saw sometimes in the older parks in London.
Taken in by the strangeness of the place, she sat down and stared up into the deep black sky. She wondered if the stars were the same here as they would have been back home. In London you almost never saw any stars.
She’d been staring up into the inky blackness for some time, when she heard a sound, like someone tapping at the glass. At first she could not make out where it was from. Looking around, she finally saw a small shape against one of the window panes.
It was a raven. For a moment, she wondered what a raven was doing in a place like this, let alone why it would be tapping at the glass. She barely had time to consider the question before the answer came to her, and her heart nearly stopped dead. She rushed to the glass, where she saw the tiny latch that the raven was tapping at. She fumbled at the mechanism and finally pushed the window open just wide enough for the bird to slip through, swooping by faster than she could follow. She turned just in time to see the cloud of oily black smoke reforming, a tall shape barely inches away from her.
Then he was standing there, his long coat draped around him, face flushed as if he had been running, hair matted with sweat. Gently, as if she was something fragile, his hands went to her shoulders and he looked at her with an expression of wonder.
“Rachael. Thank God you’re OK.”
She blinked in surprise, unable to form a coherent thought. All she could think of was the shape of his face in the moonlight, the colour of his eyes, the feeling of his hands around her shoulders.
“I’ve been following you for weeks. I wasn’t even sure what I was doing half the time; I was crossing worlds, moving through impossible places, and I just… It was like there was something inside, telling me how, telling me which way to go. Like it was pulling me towards you. I almost caught up with you, just as their ship was leaving that town on the cliff-face. I was exhausted and starving… I… I had to stay and find food. Then I finally found this place, and I was so sure you’d already be gone… God Rachael, when they took you…”
Justin’s words seemed to flow past her like falling rain. Her fingers traced the shape of his face as she moved into him. Their lips brushed, and then met. It felt natural, like something that had always belonged to her.
It was a while before she became aware of her surroundings again. His smile was warm, and just a little bit surprised. She felt herself flush, but it didn’t seem to matter. His arms encircled her waist as if holding her up. She decided that was probably for the best.
“Don’t you dare try to pretend you were expecting that,” she whispered.
“Not exactly,” he said. “Imagined. Hoped for.”
He stroked back a misplaced strand of her hair. She was certain her cheeks must have been glowing.
“Imagined?” she said, raising an eyebrow. He just smiled back at her. Rachael wondered if she was imagining the sense of relief that was flooding off of him. If, perhaps, she was only seeing her own feelings reflected back at herself. It didn’t matter. At the moment, nothing seemed to matter any more.
He leaned in and kissed her again, their lips only touching lightly this time. She could feel the tension in him as he pulled away and looked her in the eyes.
“I’m sorry you had to wait so long, but I’m going to get you out of here. We’ll leave tonight.”
“Justin,” she began, but he cut her off.
“I did some scouting out around the town below, before I came here. There are trains that come in every four hours. Bunch of stuff gets loaded and unloaded. From what I heard they keep running all through the night. We can sneak aboard the next one and get back to that big city. I think we’ll be able to stow away on a ship or something from there.”
“I… I guess. Can’t you just fly us out together? I thought you said that it was easier, out here. For you to change.”
“It is, a little, but it’s… It’s not enough. To do what I did before… I’d need some kind of power, like the Seed.”
“You really think you can get us away?”
He squeezed her shoulders, giving her a fiery look.
“Rachael, it’s the best way for you to escape.”
“I… Justin…” She faltered and looked away.
“Rachael, don’t be scared. I’ll be with you.”
She stepped back a little, and his hands fell away from her shoulders.
“It’s not that. It’s… These people… They’re not what we thought.”
“Rachael, whatever they’ve told you, it’s lies. All of it. They’re acting nice to win your trust. They’re just as greedy and cold hearted as everyone else. Why else would they bring you here, to the same people that were hunting us in London? Do you really believe they’re going to let you leave here? That they aren’t just arguing for a better price? Rachael, you know where you belong.”
Her laugh was mirthless, something tired and strained.
“Look, even if you think they might help you, do you honestly think you’re better off with them?”
He watched her calmly as she let this thought sink in. She looked up into his earnest eyes and reached out to touch his face, as if reassuring herself that he was really there. Whatever doubts she had felt, whatever questions Manindra or Rishi had managed to plant in her mind, she felt them all melt away. Just looking into his eyes was enough.
“No. You protected me. You… You went through so much, just to find me. I didn’t deserve you.”
“I made you a promise. I’m going to keep it.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
He kissed her one more time. Even with her eyes closed, she could feel his body dissolving into smoke beneath her hands. Only the ghost of his lips remained against hers as she heard the fluttering of wings. Then he was gone. She opened her eyes and looked around the moonlit room, silent and empty. The fragrance of the flowers filled the air.
She turned and caught a sudden motion by the stairs, then the sound of footsteps. She made it to the top of the stairs in time to see Arsha at the bottom, halfway around the corner.
“Hey,” she hissed, as loudly as she dared. For a moment Arsha just froze. Her eyes were large and frightened in the moonlight as she looked up at Rachael. Slowly, the girl drew a breath. Rachael carefully unclenched her fists and let her shoulders relax.
“How much did you see then?” she said.
“Not much, I guess,” the girl mumbled, shifting back against the wall, her hands clasped behind her back. “I’m sorry. I heard you get up and I thought you might want to talk. So, I followed you up here, and…”
Rachael’s anger had already abated. Taking a step back from the edge of the stairs, she settled herself down on one of the benches that encircled the floor of the solarium. Cautiously, Arsha walked up the steps and sat down on the bench next to her.
“That was Justin, right?”
Rachael just nodded.
“He’s been following us?”
For a moment, Rachael wasn’t sure if she should answer.
“I won’t tell my dad,” Arsha said. “I promise.”
“Yeah. He’s been following us since London. And now… God, Arsh, I don’t know what to do. He wants…” She paused, not sure if she could go on. “He wants me to go with him.”
“I’m not sure exactly. I guess we’ll have to head back to London, somehow. To get back to that… Gateway.”
“The Seed. You’re trying to find a way out into the Deep Wild, right? To where your mother is.”
“Yeah. This seed thing, it can take us there. We’ll be safe. That’s what he told me.”
“You trust him?”
“When… When are you going?”
“Now, pretty much,” Rachael said. “Well… Assuming you don’t say anything about it.”
“I won’t,” Arsha said, with a quiet conviction in her words.
“Thanks Arsh. Really, thanks.”
“It’s OK,” Arsha said. She spoke quietly, her eyes fixed on the floor. “Just… Just tell me one thing. Do you trust him? When he says that… That he can keep you safe. That he’ll get you home. Do you believe he can do it?”
“Yeah. I do. It’s… Hard to explain. I’m not good at, y’know, trusting people. Not so much. But with Justin… The way he talks, you just know he believes it, every word he’s saying. Like, really believes it. You feel like nothing in the world could stop him. Just look at all he did to find me. Because somehow he really believes I’m worth that. He nearly died to keep me safe. I have to believe in him Arsh. If you can’t believe in someone like that, what can you believe in?”
Rachael looked up to see Arsha watching her with an uneasy expression.
“You really care about him, don’t you?” the girl said, quietly.
“Yeah. I do,” Rachael nodded.
“Was that… Was that the first time you’ve kissed him?”
It was such a strange question that Rachael couldn’t help but smile.
“Yeah. It actually… It was kind of the first time I’ve kissed anybody,” she said. She was relieved to see that Arsha at least looked surprised. “Back when I was still going to school and stuff, I always used to make out like I was, you know, experienced like,” she continued, looking down at her hands. “Like I’d been with all these guys and stuff. But it was all just this… This thing. Like, if I kept acting like I’d been there and all, I could just keep pushing them away.”
“I’m not exactly much of a people person, right?” she said.
“You might have mentioned it,” she said, sticking her tongue out.
“I guess with your dad flying around all over the place, you never had much time for boys and all?”
“Not much,” Arsha said, but there was something in the way she smiled that caught Rachael’s eye.
“Get out,” she said, laughing. “Come on then, share the goods, girl.”
Arsha’s started nervously tugging at her fingers again.
“It was just this one guy, actually.”
“Oh, now I have to know,” Rachael said.
“Not a chance,” Arsha shot back, sticking her tongue out.
“After I told you all that about Justin? Come on.”
“Fine,” Arsha said, pouting. “But… You can’t tell my dad. Or, any of the others, I guess, but they’d just tease me and stuff. I think Dad would actually have a heart attack. He still acts like I’m ten.”
Against the face of everything else that had just happened, it seemed like such a ridiculously small secret to keep. All the same, Rachael nodded, solemnly.
“So, we were stopping in Tairk for a few days. It’s out in…” Arsha seemed to catch herself, about to rattle off the name of another place Rachael didn’t know. “It’s this big desert. The three main cities, they’re all in this area called the Hive, because it’s this massive plateau of rock that got carved up into a kind of honeycomb by the wind. We were there a few days, and my dad just sort of let me explore after we got to know the place. I just kind of went out walking… I mean I stayed to the safe parts, but I was pretty much just going wherever. I got hungry, so I found a café and had something to eat, and then as I was walking out I heard this sound coming from the alley by the café. It was music… So, I sort of poked my head around the corner, and he was sitting there, playing a… He called it a ‘haran’. It’s this sort of stringed instrument they have there.”
Rachael clapped her hand over her mouth, but could scarcely hide her delighted smile.
“Oh my lord, he was a guitarist,” she nearly squealed. Arsha blinked in confusion.
“A musician, like,” Rachael explained. “Trust me, boys who play music always get the girls.”
Arsha shrugged, and blushed a little.
“It was really… I dunno… It was something about his hands. I just kept thinking that he had really pretty hands. He was so caught up in what he was playing, I don’t think he noticed me at first. I must have looked really stupid, just staring at him like that.”
Rachael smiled to herself at that.
“But he just sort of looked amused. And I got all embarrassed and told him I really liked what he was playing, and he shouldn’t stop because of me… And I guess we just got talking.”
Arsha’s eyes were fixed on the ground, but the way her lips curled as she smiled told Rachael everything she needed to know.
“His name was Mikal. He was a Hiver boy… One of the people who’d lived there for forever. He had long hair, all in braids, and the paint marks they wear… But not too much, just around his face and neck. We talked for… Hours. He showed me all around the city, but… I sort of don’t really remember any of it. I guess I was too busy looking at him. It got late, so he walked me back to the ship. When we were a few streets away I told him dad might worry if he saw me coming home with someone strange, and we’d have to say goodbye… And when I squeezed his hand, he just sort of leaned in…”
Arsha’s blush was pure crimson.
“And… After that I sort of didn’t get back home for a while.”
“Did you see him again?”
“We were there for another week. I didn’t even bother with breakfast. We just spent every minute together. My dad had to tell me off for coming home so late.”
“Can’t blame ya.”
“Yeah. But we’ve never been back since. He probably wouldn’t remember me.”
“Hey, what… Are you crazy? Of course he would.”
“I think it’s just as good this way… I’m not really sure what I’d do, if I saw him again.”
“Kissing him might be a start,” Rachael said, sticking her tongue out.
“Well… After that, I mean,” Arsha smiled.
Rachael just shook her head.
“So… What about you and Justin? What was it like, you know, kissing him?” Arsha said, raising an eyebrow.
Rachael could feel herself blushing again.
“It was… I don’t know. Exciting. Scary. I didn’t really think about it much, but,” she gave Arsha an amused smile, “his breath kinda smelled a little actually. I didn’t mind so much, but… I guess flying thousands of miles doesn’t give you much time to find breath mints, right?”
Arsha giggled a little, putting a hand over her mouth to stifle the sound.
“Like, really smelled, or just a little?”
“Just a little. I wasn’t really thinking about it,” she shrugged. “But I could feel his heart beating. Like, really loud, you know? What about you?”
“You mean Mikal? He kind of smelled of cinnamon. He worked at the café in the morning, baking the rolls.”
“Yeah… But after that, I couldn’t eat cinnamon buns for a month. First time Milima put a basket down for breakfast, I had to pretend I needed the bathroom, I got so embarrassed.”
“God…” Rachael put her head back against the cool glass, and looked up into the black. “This is so weird. I mean, here I am, who knows how far away from anything normal, in a place that shouldn’t even exist, with a girl who lives on a flying ship… And I’m having just about the most normal conversation I’ve ever had in my life.”
Arsha just smiled. Rachael tucked her feet up on the bench.
“Thanks. For trying to be my friend,” she added. “I mean I really am happy that I met you. I guess, in a way, everything in my life has been falling apart for a long time now. But you were nice to me, even when I didn’t give you any reason to be. So… Thanks.”
She smiled, awkwardly.
“Thanks for letting me be your friend,” Arsha said, returning the smile.
They made their way back to the room and waited, sitting on their beds, staring nervously at the walls. Rachael kept her bag at her side and forced herself not to recheck the contents every five minutes. The hands on the clock ticked round so slowly that she began to wonder if it was broken.
A shadow flickered across the room and Rachael looked up to see a movement at the window. The raven was perched on the corner of the sill, one eye turned in their direction. Rachael jumped off the bed and pulled the window open. Instead of changing, the bird just hopped back and forth, nodding towards the gardens below.
“OK,” she said.
As the raven took flight, she turned to look at Arsha. She could see the nervousness in the girl’s eyes. She imagined her own expression could not have looked much different.
Slipping out the window was easy enough. With Arsha’s help, she reached the first handhold, and began to scale her way down the wall, until she was near enough to the ground to drop the rest of the way. A movement above made her look up, surprised to see Arsha following her down.
An open expanse of moonlit garden was all that was left between them and the nearest wall of the estate. She turned to Arsha who just nodded, as if showing that she was ready. They dashed across the open ground and huddled into the cover of the bushes, watching for any sign that they had been spotted. Above them Rachael heard the flutter of wings as the raven landed on the wall. Then she saw the cloud of black smoke take form, and suddenly Justin was there, perched atop the wall and reaching down a hand for her.
She turned to look back at Arsha.
“This is it,” she said, keeping her voice low. Arsha nodded.
“I wish I could come with you,” the girl said.
“No, you don’t,” Rachael said, smiling, much to her own surprise. “You’ve got a life here, Arsh. A proper life. And things will be OK, now that I’m not around.”
“I know. But I wish…”
Rachael put her hand on the girl’s shoulder, cutting her off.
“Just give me a decent head-start, OK?”
“It’s OK. I won’t tell them where you’re going.”
“Thanks. I’m going to miss you,” Rachael said. It felt strange, saying those words, and she was surprised by just how much she meant them.
“I’ll miss you too,” Arsha said, biting her lip and looking genuinely miserable. Feeling like she ought to do something, Rachael put an arm around the girl’s slim shoulders. Arsha immediately threw both arms around her, burying her face in Rachael’s shoulder.
“Hey, give over. You’re making me blush here,” Rachael mumbled.
“Don’t care,” Arsha replied, her voice muffled. The girl released her grip and took a step back. “Be safe.”
Rachael nodded. Above her, Justin hissed at them.
“Come on. We don’t have time.” She looked up to see him glaring at the both of them from his exposed perch.
“Alright, I’m coming,” she said, reaching up to take his hand. He pulled her up to the top of the wall, and they both turned to drop down on the other side. She caught one last glimpse of Arsha looking up at them. The girl waved. Then they dropped down into the long grass at the foot of the wall and Arsha was gone.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.