Rachael felt a curious sense of deja-vu as she sat watching Justin sleep. Then she realised that it wasn’t this she remembered, exactly. Rather, that this must have been how it seemed to Arsha, watching over her on that first day aboard the Triskelion. Without realising it, she had sat herself in the same chair with the same lantern resting on the table between them.
She glanced down at the sketchbook on her lap, the pencil in her hand poised to add the last few details to a portrait of Justin’s sleeping face. She felt a nervous twinge in her stomach, knowing that she would have to hide the picture from him. He seemed so calm, so at ease. So vulnerable. It was nothing like the way he’d seemed when she first met him.
There was a slight rap on the door, and it eased open as Arsha peered in.
“Hey,” Rachael replied. “So your dad let you out?”
“He… He didn’t really say anything about it. It seemed like he should have been angry, but it was all just so confused.”
Rachael gave the girl a cautious look.
“And you’re sure he’s not just… You know, waiting to drop the hammer later, or something.”
“He’s not like that,” Arsha said, shaking her head, with a sad smile. “Besides, I asked him.”
“He… He just kind of looked at me, and then he said ‘You have to make your own choices now.’ Like, there wasn’t anything else he could say.”
“Well that’s good,” Rachael said.
“Yeah,” Arsha replied, clearly not feeling it.
Gently, the girl closed the door behind herself as she slipped into the room. With nowhere else to sit, she settled down against the wall and tucked her knees up.
“It’s all… Different. I keep wondering who he is,” Arsha said.
Rachael looked meaningfully at the sleeping boy in the bed, before Arsha shook her head.
“I meant my dad.”
“I just don’t understand how he could get tangled up in all this. I’m not saying he’s perfect or anything, but he’s my dad, you know? He’s nice and funny and kind, and he makes me feel better when I’m upset, and he listens even when I want to talk about dumb stuff that no one else cares about, and he helps me with all my stupid hobbies and things, and…” She drew a breath. “And now I have to believe there’s this whole other person, who I never knew about, all this time?”
Feeling uncomfortable, Rachael looked back down at her sketchbook.
“I’m probably not the best person to ask about that,” she said. “Feels to me like everyone’s just faking it, you know? Like, if we somehow lie to ourselves enough about what we are inside, it might stick. Everyone’s just covering up the ugliness.”
She glanced across at Justin, seeing him, for a moment, with blood dripping from those soft lips.
“That guy, Rakesh, he called Justin a monster. But the things him and his brother did, it was all just as bad. Worse, even. With Justin, at least you see the ugly. He wears it on the outside.”
“And you’re OK with that?”
Arsha hugged her knees to her chest, shivering slightly.
“We’re all ugly. Manindra was right about that part. We’re all selfish and mean.”
“And what about you. If everyone else is so horrible…” Arsha said, sharply.
“Your dad said it. Manindra said it. There’s a whole city dying because of me. I guess you don’t get much more ugly than that.”
Whatever Arsha might have said, it was forgotten when Justin stirred in his sleep. Eyes flicked open and then he sat up sharply, looking about with a wary expression.
“Hey… Hey, Justin, it’s me,” Rachael said, grabbing him by the shoulder. His eyes met hers, and she saw him draw a calming breath.
“Rachael… What happened?”
“It’s… Look, we’re safe, OK?”
He looked around, taking in the cabin and then Arsha. She gave him an embarrassed wave.
“You’re on the Triskelion,” Arsha offered.
“It’s the ship they took me on. Arsha’s dad, and the others.”
His eyes narrowed.
“After that guy came after us… He knocked you out with one of those lightning things. But Ilona found us.”
“And now we’re here? With the people who kidnapped you?”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
“Really? Because it seemed pretty simple when they shot at me and hauled you off,” Justin snarled, sitting up on the edge of the bed, the sheet falling down to ruck around his waist.
“Look, I’m not saying I didn’t think the same thing,” she said, her voice catching in her throat. “It weren’t easy or nothing. But… I think they really mean it. I think they want to help us.”
“And how long did it take you to decide this? Because you seemed fine with my plan last night.”
“I know, but… After what happened. After that man came after us again. Justin, we’d barely made it ten feet and we were in trouble. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here, but it seems like these are the only people who are really trying to help us. I mean, Ilona is a total bitch and she still came for us.”
He leaned forward, taking her gently by the arms, looking into her eyes with that same fierce intensity that she had found so startling at first.
“Rachael, this is insane. We had a plan. We know where we need to go and these people are not going to help us get there, no matter what they say.”
“You don’t know that. And what good’s it us running off, with your plan and all, if we never get there?”
“What makes you so sure of this now?” he shot back at her.
She had no answer, but he must have seen the way she glanced over at Arsha.
“Oh. Right. I guess it’s all the same as long as you have someone to cling onto,” he said.
She pushed him away, shoving the chair back hard against the wall as she got to her feet. Arsha had to scramble aside just so that Rachael could pull the door open and force her way out into the corridor.
She found her way to the loft over the cargo hold. As she reached the top of the stepsshe was struck by just how easily this little space had become a refuge. Sitting back on the old couch, she found herself untensing just a little. Glimpsed through the porthole, wisps of cloud drifted past.
She heard his footsteps on the cargo hold floor, then the creak of the ladder. At last he stepped into sight, his eyes drawn to the portholes ahead. It took him a moment to see her, lying back on the couch. She looked up at him with defiance in her eyes, but she didn’t say a word. She was more than happy to let him make the first move. For a moment he stood there, awkwardly, his eyes soon turning towards the view through the windows once more.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She nodded. An acknowledgement, nothing more.
“I shouldn’t have said that.”
“You’re right. You shouldn’t have.”
He sat down heavily in the chair opposite her.
“So… What do you want me to do?” he said.
“Does it matter?” she growled. He simply gave her a look, patient, expectant.
She closed her eyes, for a moment, trying to find some sense of what she was doing.
“I think you should meet him. The professor. See what you think.”
“I can’t promise I’ll like him,” Justin said.
“I don’t know if I like him at all. But I think he really means to help us.”
“There’s plenty of bad people that know how to act like they mean you well.”
“Just… Trust me,” She said.
They found the professor on the bridge. After some fussing with the charts he had been examining, he agreed to sit down. They made their way down to the mess, the three of them sitting around the dining table.
Justin was clearly agitated, one foot tapping out a quiet but insistent rhythm against the wooden floor as Rishi settled himself on the bench across from them.
“So. You’d be Justin,” Rishi said, with a cautiousness that Rachael hadn’t entirely expected.
“And you are? Rachael just calls you ‘the professor’ or something.”
“She’s not the only one,” he said with a dry smile. “My name is Rishi Chandra. I’m a professor of archaeology, officially. In practice, my studies stray into the more… Esoteric.”
“Meaning I have learned a great deal about the mysteries of our world. About the passing of the Ur and the legacy of the first Dreamers. About creatures like you,” Rishi said, with a deadly serious look in his eyes. Rachael found herself wondering if she had made a serious mistake.
“Creatures?” Justin said.
“You can’t possibly imagine that you are still human, after what you’ve done to yourself,” the professor replied. There was no venom in his tone. He seemed almost genuinely curious.
“Why not? I’m better, stronger, more powerful. What about that makes me anything less than human?”
“I didn’t say ‘less than’. But as long as you remain changed, as you are, you will never be entirely human. It’s simply a fact of what you have done to yourself. Or, perhaps, allowed someone to do,” Rishi said, with a probing look. Justin seemed suddenly uncomfortable.
“Well, that’s beside the point,” the professor said. “Tell me, when Rachael found the Seed in London… Was that your doing?”
“You mean, was it my fault?” Justin said, carefully.
“Did you suggest it?”
“No. I only showed her what she could do. Rachael’s choices are hers to make. Not yours.”
“But you were sent to London, to find her, yes?” Rishi continued, his tone level, though his eyes were fixed on Justin, unblinking.
“By the woman I serve.”
“I see,” the professor said. Though he seemed calm, Rachael could see the tension in him.
“What is this? Rachael told me I should talk to you, because she thinks you’re on her side. So why does it feel like I’m being interrogated here?”
“Because protecting Rachael is foremost on my mind… And I have serious concerns about just how much danger you may have put her in.”
Justin’s hand slammed the table hard enough to make Rachael’s ears hurt.
“I put her in danger?” he exclaimed. “And what were you doing when you snatched her off of a roof-top? When you chased after us with your ships and your guns? And that… That thing that your people unleashed on her?”
“What exactly do you mean?” Rishi said, his voice eerily calm.
“A hollow man,” Justin said, icily.
Rishi’s eyes narrowed.
“Really? They used a hollow man to track her?”
“They? Like you weren’t a part of that.”
“Justin, he wasn’t, I told you…” Rachael interjected.
“What, because he says so? Rachael, he’s lying to you. Did you see any sign that they weren’t working together? Did any of his people actually try to stop those guys back there? Did they keep me from getting shot? Or were they shooting at me too? Did they come to save you when that creature was chasing you? Did they do anything to protect you at all? You’re a prisoner here, you just don’t know it.”
“Ilona rescued me from Rakesh. After you were knocked out on the docks, she was the one who saved me,” she said, coolly.
For a moment Justin stared at her, fuming. Then he jumped up from the table and began pacing the room.
“I suppose you think this is all some elaborate trick.” Rishi said, calmly.
“Shut up,” Justin snapped.
“Jesus, would you just believe me for once?” Rachael snapped, slamming her hand down on the table.
“Why? So he can tell us more lies. I’m done with this. And you should be too,” he said, turning towards the door. He was nearly out of the room when Rishi spoke, softly, but with a chilling edge to his voice.
“I know what you are, Knight of the Autumn Glade.”
Justin stopped and looked back.
“I know what you are, and I know who you serve. I know the stone ridge where you took your oaths upon the setting sun, and I know about the secret halls beneath the roots of the Bower Castle where you were unmade.”
“How can you know that?” Justin said, eyes narrowing.
“Because I have studied the oldest things in this world. I know who you serve, and I know what she is. I wonder… Did she ever tell you just how she came to be scarred?”
Justin stared, but said nothing. Slowly, calmly, the professor stood and walked towards the younger man.
“Justin… Are you sworn to protect this girl?”
“Upon my life,” Justin said, swallowing hard.
“Then we both have the same intent. There is a great deal you have been misled about, but I promise you this; I mean Rachael no harm, and that makes me one of the only friends you are likely to have.”
He held out his hand, eyes fixed on Justin’s. Slowly, cautiously, Justin reached out to take it.
“When the time comes,” Justin said, “you’ll let her go. Go home, where she belongs.”
“That will be her choice to make, and only once she knows enough to make it.”
Justin’s regarded the man suspiciously.
“There is much about your Lady of the Falling Leaves that even you do not know,” Rishi continued, sternly.
Justin regarded the man carefully.
“Fine,” he said. Then he turned and walked out of the room.
She caught up with him in the hallway. Her hand caught his sleeve and he turned to look at her, eyes as cold as ice. His look softened as he recognised her, but he said nothing. There didn’t seem to be anything to say.
The day passed slowly. They spent most of the time hiding out in the loft over the hold. Neither of them spoke much, and the time crawled past. For a while, Arsha joined them, but the girl seemed nervous around Justin, almost as if she was about to flinch every time he moved.
They skipped dinner, sneaking food down from the pantry to share a meal in silence in the hold. Finally they each retired to their rooms. Rachael laid down, stilled the ghostlamp, and tried to sleep.
There was no light through the porthole when she woke, brought to by a gentle rapping on the door. Feeling groggy, cold and uncomfortable, she crawled out from her bed and slipped the door open a crack.
It was Justin, in his tattered jeans and t-shirt, bare feet resting on the wooden floor.
“Can I come in?” he said, glancing around the corridor as if worried he might get caught.
“Yeah. Sure,” she muttered, opening the door wider. He slipped into the room, as she fumbled about for a dressing gown. Feeling more comfortable with the gown pulled around herself, she settled down on the bed beside him.
For some reason her heartbeat seemed louder than usual. She folded her legs under herself and looked him in the eyes, as if there might be some clue to why he had come.
For a moment he said nothing. Instead he just looked at her with a puzzled expression.
“So, are you going to say anything. Because I was trying to sleep,” she said, her voice hushed.
“Have you really thought about this?” he said, calmly.
“About what?” she said, her eyes narrowing.
“Where we’re headed. These people. You need to start asking yourself some serious questions about who your friends are,” he said with an infuriating calm.
For a moment she looked away.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to answer that,” she said. “They don’t… Nobody ever told me how I’m supposed to handle something like this. Justin, it’s impossible. I’m… I’m in a place that no one like me has ever been before, and even to these guys, with their flying ships and magic thinky crystals, I’m supposed to be something no one’s ever seen before. If they don’t even know what they’re doing… How should I?”
“Then why are you handing your safety over to them?”
“Because I’ve got no one else.”
She could see it the moment the words left her mouth. How deeply they cut him. His hand drew back back, and something in him closed off, became colder.
“No, Justin, you don’t,” she said, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder. He looked at her as if being touched was the last thing he could ever want, but she held on regardless. “You keep trying to do this all on your own. You keep trying to be the only one who can help me, but it’s not working. This is too big. It’s too much for the both of us. We can’t just run around on our own, thinking it’s OK.”
“Really? Because you didn’t seem to think that before.”
“Because I was being stupid. Because I was too scared of everyone and everything around me to see that people were trying to help me.”
“You were being smart. You never should have trusted these people.”
“Justin, I… I can’t keep thinking like that.”
“Then I guess I’m no good to you any more,” he said, moving to stand. She caught his arm, pulling him back down.
“Will you just shut up for a moment? Just… Just stop it. All of this. You can’t fight them. You can’t save me. You can’t do all this on your own. But I can’t neither. I need you here. Because I’m scared, because I’m alone, and because you’re one of the only people who’s ever made me feel safe.”
The look of surprise on his face was priceless. Feeling strangely distant from herself, almost as if she was watching her own actions, like a stranger, she slipped an arm around his shoulder and pulled herself close enough to let his lips brush against hers. Then his hands found her shoulders, and she felt herself falling backwards against the pillow. She could hear her heart pounding in her ears. She slipped a hand under his shirt, fingertips pressed against his chest, catching the echoes of a matching rhythm. The room was too hot.
He was careful not to rest his weight on her. A hand slipped around her waist, fingertips tracing the bumps of her spine. The cord around her waist seemed all tangled up. She could feel the muscles moving beneath his skin. She drew a deep breath as he pulled away for a moment, like coming up for air. His lips were pressed against her throat. For a moment she imagined long canine teeth, dripping with blood.
“You should get back to your room.” She said, softly. He raised his head up to look her in the eyes.
“You don’t want me to stay?” He said, meaningfully.
“I really do. But… I’m not ready for this. And it’s taking everything I’ve got to say no.”
There was just a moment when he hesitated. At least, she supposed that it must have been only a moment, though it felt like forever. Then he nodded, his hands gentle as he let her go. He went to the door and slipped it open, peering out first to check the corridor.
“I’m here. If you need me,” he said. She nodded, drawing the covers up over herself. Then the door closed and he was gone.
Morning crept in through her window. She crawled from her bed and made her way to the shower, both saddened and relieved that she didn’t catch sight of Justin in the corridor.
Stepping out of the shower, she almost crashed into Arsha. The girl’s eyes were half closed, and she looked up at Rachael in groggy surprise.
“Hey? Sleep well?”
“Uh, yeah,” Rachael said, feeling her cheeks redden slightly. She quickly turned away, leaving the girl to the shower as she went to get dressed.
She made her way up to breakfast, finding Micah and Ilona seated across from one another, pouring over a set of notes as they sipped at their cups of tea. Steam wafted up from a basket of fresh cinnamon rolls, and Rachael grabbed one as she sat down.
Micah looked up and nodded.
“He’s out on the deck,” he said. Caught with her mouth full, she couldn’t ask who, but she already knew the answer.
As she made her way out onto the deck she found Justin still in just his jeans and t-shirt, despite the chill bite of the wind. It was too loud to call out to him, so she just stood by the doorway and watched.
He was repeating a set of forms, flowing from one motion to the next with a liquid grace. He looked like a dancer, the way he carried out each motion so smoothly. It took her a moment to realise that his hands were set in such a way that he might be gripping something. Something like a sword.
She watched for what seemed like a long time, until he finally noticed her. He seemed surprised but she just smiled, tugging the coat tighter about herself.
“It’s OK. Keep going,” she tried to yell over the wind, but standing out in the centre of the deck there was no way he could hear her. He started walking her way, just as the door swung open beside her.
Arsha came out, bracing against the headwind and looking up at both of them in surprise. Then the girl gestured for them to follow her around the bridge tower. With a shrug, Rachael let her lead on. In the lee of the tower, shielded from the wind, they could just about talk normally.
“So, Dad says we’re about three days out from Cauldron now.”
“Cauldron… You said that’s where your old house is, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Arsha shrugged, the movement mostly lost under the heavy coat.
Rachael was pondering this when Justin gestured at something in the distance. A slim object was emerging from the clouds. It was a ship, small and sleek, painted jet black with stripes of green and silver.
“That’s an Inquisition ship,” Arsha said, eyes widening. Rachael felt a cold sensation in her stomach.
The ship seemed to be getting closer, its trajectory bringing it towards that of the Triskelion. Then she noticed something else. The sound of their propellers was descending, from a high pitched humming to a bass roar, the sound of each rotation becoming more distinct.
“We’re slowing down,” she said. Arsha nodded.
“Come on,” the girl said, gesturing inside.
As they heaved the inner door open and burst through into the corridor they found the professor waiting for them.
“Daddy, what’s going on?” Arsha said.
They all saw him pause before answering.
“It’s the Inquisition. Sir Reuben Ben Mahir.”
“Who?” Arsha said.
“From that town with the waterfall, remember?” Rachael said, recognising the name.
Arsha’s eyes widened in alarm.
“But, you said they weren’t going to do anything. That Lord Bhandari had covered it all up.” The words jumbled as they spilled out of Arsha’s mouth, nervous panic widening the girl’s eyes. Her father stepped forward and put a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“Things have changed, love.”
“So, what’s… What’s happening?”
“They’re demanding we allow Sir Ben Mahir and his men to come aboard. He’s going to speak to myself and Abasi. For now, I want all of you to stay out of the way. Head on up to the bridge where the others are.”
He turned to look at Justin.
“If they find out you’re aboard… If they have even the slightest idea of what you are…” he said, his expression hard edged.
Justin nodded, calmly.
“I can be invisible.”
“I’d imagine so,” the professor said.
They all watched as he slowly dissolved, the dense black smoke coalescing down into the tiny form of a rat, which scurried away, disappearing from sight.
“Yeuch,” Arsha muttered under her breath.
“It’s OK,” Rachael shrugged. “Takes getting used to.”
“OK, both of you get out of here,” the professor said, gesturing towards the stairs up to the bridge. Rachael went as instructed, but Arsha stopped to put her arms around her father, pulling herself tightly to him.
“I’ll be OK, love,” he whispered, stroking back her hair.
She nodded, not looking up. As Arsha broke away to follow her up the stairs, Rachael saw that there were tears in the corners of her eyes.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.