They caught up with the Triskelion a little way outside of the city. Ilona watched from the deck, the cold air numbing the tender flesh around her damaged eye. The Zephyr drifted in to settle gently on the deck. The ladder was lowered and Micah descended first to help the girls down.
Milima appeared as they reached the deck. With promises of hot showers, hot food and hot drinks she ushered the girls inside to see to their injuries.
Micah and Rishi set to stowing the Zephyr. Ilona tried to help, but she could already feel herself flagging. The ropes slipped from her hands, fingers feeling thick and clumsy. She could see that both men were trying their best not to say anything. They wouldn’t dare tell her to stop, but they were both thinking it.
She turned away, trying not to stumble as she made her way inside. In the silence of the corridor she paused to find her breath. Then she heard the door swing open again and sharp footsteps from behind. She turned to see Rishi standing a few feet away. His eyes fixed on hers, trembling with cold fury.
“I’m sorry Rishi. I truly am,” she said. “It was the only way to…”
“To what?” he snapped, cutting her off. “I just don’t understand it Ilona. Why would you try to keep me from saving my own daughter? What could you possibly…” he floundered, unable to find words large enough for all the force of his anger.
She looked at him in stunned silence.
“How can you even ask me a question like that?” she said at last.
“It seems to be the only question worth asking, right now.”
“Rishi, I didn’t try to keep you from Arsha, I kept you from killing yourself chasing something impossible. She’s alive, she’s unhurt, and so are you.”
“’Unhurt.’ You’d dare to try to call that ‘unhurt’?” he said, his voice little more than a cold hiss.
“I didn’t have a lot of good choices in front of me,” she said, feeling her hands shaking at her sides. “Maybe you could have done something. And maybe you would have just killed yourself trying. I couldn’t bear that, Rishi.”
She reached out to touch the swelling on his cheek, where her fist had struck him. The metal of her gauntlet had broken the skin, leaving a tiny crack, freshly scabbed.
He slapped her hand away.
“What could possibly make you think I’d care about my own life when my daughter was in danger?”
For a moment, all she could do was stare at him. The silence hung between them like a chasm. She felt a dizzying sensation of vertigo welling up inside, as if she was standing at the edge of that chasm, staring down. Before he could react, her hand slid around the nape of his neck and she leaned in to press her lips against his. Just for a moment, she was certain that he forgot to breathe.
She pulled away, with a feeling like electricity running through her fingertips.
“I didn’t do it for you,” she said.
She turned away, taking the steps down the lower deck as quickly as she dared, forcing herself not to break into a run. Even that small restraint left her as she dashed to her room and threw the door closed behind herself. She leaned back against the hard wood and pressed her hands against her eyes, tight enough to keep the tears locked in.
They were ushered into the mess hall, and Milima closed the door behind them. Arsha had to duck to keep her wings from catching in the doorway. Iron feathers brushed against the frame, leaving a cloud of red dust in her wake.
Her legs ached, and she wanted to sit, but there didn’t seem to be an easy way to do so in the cramped space. Not with the large protrusions that hung from her back. They were strangely light, at least. She was thankful for that.
Milima settled Rachael onto the edge of the long table and began prodding at the girl’s shoulder, just as Ilona had done.
“It doesn’t hurt much.” Rachael said, looking a little surprised.
“That’ll be the aneasthetic. Good,” Milima said, quietly. “Now…”
She turned her eyes to the iron gauntlet that encased Rachael’s left hand. Milima lifted the girl’s hand and gently turned it one way, then the other, peering between the hard plating to the raw flesh beneath.
“Do you know what it is?” Rachael said, her voice nearly a whisper.
Milima shook her head.
“How could I?” the woman said, softly.
As Milima stared at the gauntlet, Arsha found herself plucking at the edge of one wing, marvelling at the sensation as her fingers ran along the metal. It was like touching your own arm, that feeling of two points of sensation meeting. It seemed impossible.
She could fly. The thought echoed through her mind, seeming to reverberate over and over. She could still feel the sensation of the wind rushing through the thin metal leaves, the ripples in the air currents, the buoyant feeling of the thermals catching her body. The incredible lightness of it all. She had moved so fast. Her eyes closed, and she saw herself reaching out again, as Rachael plunged through the cold air, the ground rushing up towards them both. She felt the sickening twisting in her stomach once more, the tension that had seized every part of her body as she willed herself to move just a little faster. She had barely even known what she was doing. Or perhaps it was like she had always known. She couldn’t say.
Her eyes snapped open and she saw Rachael looking at her. As Rachael studied her face for a moment, Arsha imagined she saw something behind the girl’s eyes. A look of understanding. Perhaps Rachael had guessed at what she was thinking about. Perhaps she didn’t need to.
“Yeah. I’m OK.”
She looked up at Milima. The woman was watching them both, with a doubtful expression.
“We’re both OK. Really,” she said, trying to sound reassuring.
“No, you’re not OK,” Milima said, with a shake of her head. “You will be, eventually. But not yet.”
Before either of them could think of anything to say, Milima turned away, and began to fill an iron kettle. Once the stove was lit and the pot heating she returned, drying her hands on a towel as the girls both watched her uncertainly.
“Alright, let’s set that shoulder. Arsha, love, you’ll need to hold her up.”
Milima nodded towards where Rachael was sitting. Feeling a little unsure of what she was doing, Arsha moved to stand behind her at the end of the long table. Gently, Milima laid the girl’s arm across her lap. Rachael looked just a little bit nervous as Milima reached into a medicine bag and produced a small knot of rope.
“Bite,” she said, holding it up to Rachael’s mouth.
“This is going to hurt, isn’t it,” Rachael said.
Milima nodded, her eyes sympathetic.
“OK,” Rachael said, and set her teeth around the bite guard. Arsha put her hands against Rachael’s back, supporting her as Milima began to slowly move Rachael’s arm away from her body, forcing the shoulder to rotate. She could see Rachael’s jaw tighten, as her eyes squeezed shut. She heard the knot of rope creaking as it was clamped ever tighter between Rachael’s teeth, and she felt the girl’s body trembling against her hands. Then there was a loud popping sound, and relief seemed to flood through her sister’s body. Gently, Milima removed the bite guard.
Rachael nodded. Tears had welled up in the corners of her eyes.
“We’ll get you cleaned up and then off to bed.”
“I couldn’t even try to sleep,” Rachael said.
“I know. We’ll see to that.”
After wrapping a fresh sling around Rachael’s arm, Milima stepped through into the kitchen, where a pot was bubbling gently on the stove. She poured a little of the liquid into a mug, adding honey and milk.
“Nightroot,” she said, as she returned. “Drink as much as you can.”
“What’s it do?” Rachael said.
“Helps you sleep. That’s all,” Milima smiled as she held the cup up to Rachael’s lips. “Trust me, sleep is what you both need right now.”
Rishi stumbled through the doorway into his room, and nearly fell into the chair by his desk. There was blood on his fingertips, grease under his nails, and the smell of gun-smoke in his clothes. His muscles burned, his head ached, and through it all he could still feel the ghost of Ilona’s kiss on his lips. He pressed his hands to his temples and tried to block out the pain.
It took him a moment to register the knock at the door. He didn’t even have the strength to answer. It opened anyway, and Abasi stepped into the room, closing the door behind him.
“Thank the Fates, you’re OK,” he said, running a hand across the thick grey stubble that crowned his head.
“OK. Is that what you call this?” Rishi said, staring up at the wall.
Abasi shook his head, gently.
“Alive’s a start.”
“Doesn’t feel like it.”
“I don’t suppose it does.”
After a moment, Rishi leaned forward just enough to prise open the bottom-most drawer of the desk, and fish out a half empty bottle of whisky. Trembling fingers fumbled at the cork, as the bottle nearly slipped from his hands. Then Abasi wrapped one hand around the neck of the bottle.
“Let me get that,” his friend said, easily prying the cork loose. Abasi took a long swig before passing the bottle back. Rishi almost smiled as he pressed the mouth of the bottle to his lips and felt the amber liquid burn its way down his throat.
“What happened in there Rishi? I got the bones of it from Micah, but…” Abasi paused for a moment. “You actually shot the old man?”
Rishi said nothing, but Abasi must have read something in his face as he took the bottle back.
“Fates, you really did. Bastard had it coming at that. Pity he lived,” Abasi added in a growl, before taking another swig.
“I imagine I’ll get in enough trouble just for that,” Rishi muttered.
“It sounds like Manindra has more trouble to worry about. I saw the Jyoti high-tail it out of here with at least three Guild ships in pursuit. Thank the Fates for that, or we’d never have slipped away in the chaos.”
Abasi held the bottle out for him, but Rishi just shook his head. He felt his shoulders begin to shake as he slumped forward over the desk, unable to hold himself up anymore. His head in his hands, he felt ragged breaths tearing at his chest.
“Fates, Abasi, I’ve really made a mess of this. I think she hates me.”
“You mean Arsha?” Abasi sighed, gently. “Of course she hates you. She’s your daughter and she’s fifteen. There isn’t a fifteen year old girl alive who doesn’t hate her father, as madly as she loves him.”
Rishi choked back a bitter laugh.
“No. This is different. All these years, she’s never really known who I am. Now she’s finally learning, and it’s going to break her. It’s going to break me.”
“You’re wrong, Rishi. Arsha knows, better than anyone, who you really are. I think she knows you better than you know yourself. You look at yourself and you see who you’ve been. But when she looks at you, she sees the man you are. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy for her to forgive your past. That… That might take some time. But she’ll never stop loving you. Never.”
Rishi said nothing. In silence, he stared at the wall. Calmly, Abasi sifted through the detritus of his desk to find a couple of empty glasses, into which he poured a generous measure each. Easing himself onto the edge of the desk, Abasi set one glass down in front of Rishi, and picked up the other, the swirling liquid throwing patterns of light across the walls.
“Don’t you have a ship to tend to?” Rishi muttered.
“She’ll wait,” Abasi said, and sipped his drink.
Arsha felt as if she was floating on a soft cloud. She was lying on the table, stripped to her underclothes, whilst Milima gently washed away the blood, muck and rust from her back. She had been given a dose of nightroot, milder than the one Milima mixed for Rachael. Arsha tried to recall her studies about the drug, but all she saw was the illustrated page, the words sliding into one another. She recalled that it caused light-headedness. She wondered when that would begin.
The cuts on her face had been closed with ointment, and her arms had been bandaged. They hurt, but the pain seemed distant now. She felt hypnotised by the sound of the cloth being submerged and squeezed out, the soft rippling noise of water falling on water, gentle and clear. The contents of the bowl had turned translucent red. Milima rinsed out the cloth once last time, before lifting the bowl and pouring it out into the sink. There was a soft clatter as she began to mix up another concoction.
Arsha closed her eyes and gently flexed her wings out. Feathers of beaten metal, each fading to rust at the edges, shimmered as they moved under the ghostlamps, and the gentle chiming of metal on metal filled the room. It was such an impossibly strange feeling. Like an extra pair of arms. She couldn’t even say where she ended and the wings began. Perhaps there was no difference.
She looked up and saw Milima watching her.
“They scare you. Don’t they?” Arsha said.
It was only for an instant that Milima looked away. Just an instant, but Arsha already knew what it meant.
“It’s OK, if they scare you. I saw the way everyone was looking at me, when they thought I wouldn’t notice. Everyone’s a little scared. Even Daddy was scared.”
She paused for a moment, not really sure if she was talking to Milima anymore, or just to herself.
“I think… I think he was the most scared of all.”
Slowly, Milima set aside the small bowl she had been holding. She knelt down in front of the table, her face level with Arsha’s.
“They don’t scare me. Not exactly. But it’s not easy, Love, seeing how much you’ve been changed,” Milima said as she reached out a hand, fingers almost brushing the beaten metal. Almost, but not quite. “Not just this. You. I can see it in your eyes, Love. I know that look.”
“What look?” Arsha said.
Milima’s hand cupped Arsha’s cheek, as the woman’s strong face seemed to crumple. Tears welled up in the corner of Milima’s eyes as her hands settled on Arsha’s shoulders.
“Maybe they do scare me, a little. But they’re beautiful, just like you.”
As Milima stroked her hair back, Arsha couldn’t help noticing the faded line of a scar that ran down the woman’s arm. It was one of a few that she knew Milima carried.
“You got that a long time ago, didn’t you?”
Milima paused for a moment and glanced down at her arm. Then she smiled.
“If by ‘a long time’, you mean ‘before you were born’, then yes, but it’s not as if I like to admit it.”
Arsha looked down at the bandages around her arms.
“Does it still hurt?” she said.
“No. Not any more,” Milima replied.
Rachael drifted in and out of sleep. She was never awake for more than a few hours before Milima arrived with something to eat and drink, followed by another dose of nightroot. Sleep would help her heal she was told each time she protested.
She couldn’t really say how much time had passed. A few days, perhaps. She was lying in her narrow bed, staring at the ceiling, barely even sure how long she had been awake. The view through the porthole was pitch black. She supposed it must have been early in the morning.
Her shoulder ached, but the pain was duller now. She could feel a restless tingling running through her body. She couldn’t remember the last time she had gone so long without moving. She sat up slowly, muscles stiffly protesting. She was in her underclothes, skin prickling against the cool air. Her left arm had been bound up in a cloth. A strange feeling of frustration flared inside of her as she looked at it. Fumbling with her other hand, she got the wrappings loose, revealing the hard iron, rust still flaking off of the edges. Then she got to her feet and pulled a dressing gown from the closet. With her shoulder stiff and aching, and her other hand fumbling within the confines of the thick gauntlet, simply trying to pull the gown on became almost impossible. She twisted and contorted herself, pain flaring in her shoulder, until she finally had the gown over her shoulders. Even then it took three tries to tie the cord about her waist. Her shoulder burned with fresh pain after her exertion. With a resigned sigh, she picked up the sling that had been hung across the back of a chair and slipped it around her arm. Only then did she notice that the sleeve of the dressing had split around the iron gauntlet, torn by some sharp edge or other as she’d pulled it on. She muttered a curse under her breath.
Hinges whispered to her as she opened the cabin door. Padding down the carpeted hall, she emerged into the darkened expanse of the hold. Over the loft, a single light shone. The wooden steps creaked softly as she climbed. The ghostlamp swayed gently over the narrow space, casting flickering shadows as Rachael threw herself down into one of the battered armchairs.
“Hey.” Arsha said. The girl was sat across from her, feet tucked up on the old chesterfield. Her wings were pulled back, arcing up over the armrest of the chair. A bundle of cloth was resting in her lap. She appeared to be sewing something.
“What you got there?” Rachael said.
“It’s just something I started working on. I couldn’t sleep, so…”
Arsha held up what appeared to be a jacket, only most of the back was missing. “I figured if I can make the straps come down around the waist…”
It took Rachael a moment to see what she meant. The back of the jacket had been cut open, turned into a panel that could be secured by a pair of long straps. When fastened, they would leave two long slits running parallel down the back. Openings for her wings.
“Oh. That’s clever, that is.”
“I’m rubbish at sewing though. The seams are coming out all wonky.”
Arsha held up the jacket for her to see. Rachael made a show of examining the girl’s work, really not sure what she was supposed to be looking for. Glancing past the unfinished jacket, she noticed that even the shirt Arsha wore was really little more than a sheet with a hole cut for her head, tied about her chest and stomach with thin strips of cloth.
“Looks alright to me.” She said. “’Sides, you’ll get better, right?”
“You mean because I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life?”
“Yeah, I guess. I hadn’t really thought it like that.” Rachael glanced down at her torn sleeve. Suddenly she laughed. “You’ll be an old lady with wings and a walker. Flapping off down to the shops for a pint of milk and moaning how the wind keeps blowing your shawl all over.”
Arsha smiled, and then all of a sudden the girl was laughing too.
“Do you think we’ll get old together?” Arsha said. “Two little old ladies, sitting in a café somewhere, playing cards all day?”
Rachael’s throat felt dry.
“Maybe?” She swallowed. “I’ve never really thought about… Stuff like that. Getting old.”
As she paused again, Arsha set her sewing to one side.
“Did you talk to your dad?” Rachael said, cutting the girl off. “About your mum, I mean. About all that other stuff.”
Arsha turned to look out of the porthole. The sky was still pitch black.
“Not really. He’s had fifteen years to tell me. I guess if that wasn’t enough…” She paused, and shook her head. “Honestly, I haven’t really talked to anyone. The way they all look at me now… They don’t mean to, but I can see it. All of them. They’re waiting for something, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, or say, or… I just don’t know. It used to be easy. I thought of calling Shani but… I couldn’t take it. Trying to explain, seeing her face… And then she tried to call me, and I couldn’t even pick up my stone. I just let it chime out. She left all these messages and I haven’t even listened to any of them. I feel so horrible. I know she’s only… She’s only trying to look out for me. Like she always does. She always tried to be like a big sister for me.”
Arsha’s hands twisted together in her lap, as the girl bit her lip.
“I’m such a coward. I wish I was strong like you,” she said.
“Don’t say that,” Rachael said. “Don’t act like I’m…”
Rachael closed her eyes for a moment, letting out a heavy breath.
“Like I’m someone you should look up to. You keep thinking that I’m tough and all, that I know how to look after myself, that I’m all this stuff you want to be like, but I’m just a scared little girl, running away all the time. God, I run from everything. It’s all I know how to do.”
“You think I could ever believe that? Rachael, I’ve seen what you went through. Fates, I can barely even think about it, and you live with it every day. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met.”
Rachael shook her head.
“Living with a hole in your chest isn’t strong, Arsh. It’s just a slow way of dying,” she said, looking down at her hands.
There was a soft scraping sound, as Arsha lifted herself out of the chair. It took Rachael a moment to realise that it was the sound of Arsha’s wingtips brushing against the wall behind her.
Two steps covered the distance between their seats. Arsha’s eyes narrowed in concentration for a moment, as she tucked her wings in close, and settled herself on the arm of Rachael’s chair, their knees brushing together. Arms gently encircled her shoulders. With no strength to fight, Rachael let her head fall against Arsha’s side. She closed her eyes and felt the gentle rise and fall of her sister’s chest.
“I’m sorry,” Rachael whispered.
“Me too,” Arsha said.
“I just… I don’t know how this is supposed to work.”
“How what’s supposed to work?”
For a moment Rachael’s mouth felt too dry to even speak.
“Family,” she said, at last.
The sun was long past set and two full moons could be seen, one high in a sparsely clouded sky, the other a perfect reflection in the still mirror of the ocean.
They had pulled in at Westfall a few hours past sun-down on their seventh day of travelling. They had not even taken on supplies yet. Abasi had paid the docking fees and handled the paperwork whilst everyone else slouched off to their beds.
The remainder of the journey had been a quiet one. The crew all carried a weariness with them, emotionally and physically exhausted. Nobody spoke much, and people kept to themselves. Rachael and Arsha had been glad of the quiet, staying shut up in their rooms mostly, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It didn’t seem to matter. They were uncomfortable together, and just as uncomfortable alone.
After so many days of sleeping, she had found that she could barely close her eyes anymore. She began wishing for more nightroot as she lay on the covers each night, her aching muscles too warm in the still air, staring up at the ceiling.
So she had sat, and she had paced, and she had slipped out into the silence of the ship to wander its hallways and conceal herself in its quiet spaces, all the while feeling the thoughts tumbling over and over in her head. Trying to find the shape of the feelings that gnawed at her. She couldn’t even give voice to the question that seemed to lurk at the back of head, like a buzzing sound just on the edge of your hearing. Each night it had been the same, endless hours of pacing, waiting for a decision to come. When it did, finally, she found that she felt no lighter for it.
She stood on the deck, feeling the breeze in her hair. The ship swayed gently on its mooring ropes, bumping against the wooden dock that reached out precariously from the cliff. Timbers creaked with each impact, like ribs moving to exhale.
She had learned to love this ship. She was amazed at how it could seem so ancient, and yet so new. Everything about it was like something clumsily crafted from pieces of the past, but the way it moved was just incredible. This lumbering beast that took to the air with such improbable grace. She was enchanted by the crackle of the lightning around the float-stones, and the way the iron outrunners caught the dawn light. She loved the sound of her feet against the wooden deck, and the wind running through the rigging.
It almost felt like it could be home. But it was not home. Then again, neither was anywhere else.
The bag over her shoulder was all she had left of her own. London was a world away and impossibly changed. She had nothing to go back to, and she could not let herself stay here.
She looked again at the lights of the town below them. Merchants and travellers came here from all over. Boats and caravans that she could stow away on. She’d muddle through somehow, find a way to live life on her own again. She had to. Some part of her even imagined that Justin might find her again. No matter how much she wanted to hate him, part of her still longed for that. She had to remind herself that it was Arsha he had wanted all along. Arsha, not her. He could not possibly come back to her now, when he had never truly been looking for her at all.
Arsha. Her new-found sister. She felt a tugging regret at the thought of leaving her. She pushed it away, stamping down the bitter sadness that roiled inside of her. It was better this way. Better for both of them. Shouldering her pack, she walked slowly down towards the gang-plank. At the edge of the deck she paused one last time, but did not dare to look back. She didn’t think she could bear to.
She heard footsteps approaching. The soft steps could only be Arsha’s.
“How’s the arm?” Arsha said.
Rachael swallowed, her throat dry.
“Better,” she said.
“Did you plan on telling me you were leaving?”
“Sorry,” she said, eyes still fixed ahead. “It’s not you. It’s him. Your dad. What he did… I just can’t be near him. I don’t know how to deal with that.”
“I know,” Arsha said.
“But you want me to forgive him, don’t you? You want me to stay,” Rachael said, staring out at the lights of the town.
“Of course I do. But I don’t even think I can forgive him. So how am I supposed to ask you to?”
Hearing the catch in Arsha’s voice, Rachael turned to look at her. She was surprised to see a determined expression on Arsha’s face. There was a bag slung across her shoulder.
“You’re coming with me?”
Arsha nodded, not meeting Rachael’s eyes for a moment. For all the girl’s determination, she still looked as if she might burst into tears at any moment.
“What else am I supposed to do?” Arsha said, wretchedly.
Without a word, Rachael touched a hand to her sister’s shoulder.
“You don’t have to do this, Arsh’. You don’t owe me anything.”
“Yes, I do. I do have to do this. Because you’re right, and Daddy was wrong, and I love him so much that I can’t… I can’t be around him. Loving him and hating him and not knowing what way to feel, so my stomach just ends up spinning. I can’t…”
Arsha tailed off. The girl seemed scarcely able to breathe.
“You… You got everything?” Rachael said, trying to give her a reassuring smile.
Relieved, Arsha drew a shuddering breath.
“Yeah. You?” the girl said, gesturing at Rachael’s bag.
“So, what happens now? I mean, Manindra and all that lot will still be after us. Me, I guess.” Arsha said, a little nervously. “Or maybe you. I don’t know. It’s all so confused.”
“We keep running. We look after each other. We see what happens next. It’s… It’s not all that bad a way to live.”
“What about your dad?” Rachael said, nodding at the windows of the ship’s bridge. “He’s not going to try to come after us?”
“Maybe. I don’t know,” Arsha said. “I almost think he’s expecting it. Fates, it just makes it worse. I want him to be angry or something. But he just… he looks at me like he’s afraid. Like I’m going to punish him.”
“Aren’t you?” Rachael said, with a meaningful look at the heavy bag over Arsha’s shoulder.
“Fates, don’t say that Rach. How can I go if you say something like that?”
Rachael shook her head.
“I didn’t mean that. It’s not about him, it’s… It’s about you. However much you love him, it doesn’t mean you have to live with the things he’s done, right? And it doesn’t have to be forever. Maybe things’ll get better. Maybe we’ll come back, some day.”
“Yeah. I think I’d like that,” Arsha said, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. Feeling like an idiot, Rachael shook her head and forced a smile.
“Come on. It’ll be an adventure. Or something.”
She hefted her pack and stepped down onto the gangplank, which creaked under her feet. A nervous smile passed between them as Rachael reached out to take her sister’s hand, and they set off towards the lights of the town.
End of Book 1
Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.