The Blackbird – Chapter 1

featured article (ch1) ss

So. Chapter 1 of the first draft. It’s still rather rough, but hopefully interesting enough to keep your attention!

As always, all feedback is greatly appreciated and you shall be showered with love and grateful words. 

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So this is what it’s like to be dead and still breathing. To know that you’re alive, but not really. There’s a dull numbness that both insulates and isolates you from the rest of the world. I can hear people talking about me, but it’s as though they’re talking about someone else.

“Isn’t he brave, standing up to the Merchants?”

“Brave? More like stupid, if you ask me. They’ll catch him soon enough and he’ll hang.”

That’s a pair of Traders, chatting across the stalls they run. Further along, two grubby children jump from crate to crate, ignoring the glares of the stallkeepers and soldiers but never staying in the same place long enough to be caught. They make swooping noises as they run past me, laughing and shouting.

“Take that, moneybag! Now you’ll never see your precious necklace again! See my card and weep!”

“Hey, no fair! It’s my turn to be the Blackbird, you got to play him yesterday! I want to do the magic!”

They disappear around a corner, brushing against a finely-dressed lady who looks down at her clothing in horror.

“James, get that dirt off my dress at once!”

A man, sword hanging to one side, hurries to her. He rolls his eyes when she isn’t looking, but dutifully brushes in the general vicinity where contact was made.

“Filthy travs,” she grumbles loudly for all to hear. “Just because that thief is one of theirs, they suddenly think they can run roughshod over us Merchants? I think not.”

I wonder if I should be feeling something. Pleasure, or pride perhaps, that everyone’s talking about my work. He would have enough for the two of us; enough for the whole town, even the whole world.

 “Ya got what it takes,” he said, slapping my shoulder and grinning. His eyes danced, and I could feel a proud flush spread across my cheeks. Then he stuck his tongue out, flipping the knives in his hands. “But you ain’t never gonna do it better’n me!”

I can still hear his voice, still feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder. I grip at my dress to steady my own shaking hands and hurry to the nearest stall, pretending to examine the merchandise while I get myself under control again.

 “It’s all ‘bout pretendin’, Ser. Ya hafta play the part of Miss Serah, useless whiny moneybag that she is.”

I swung a fist at his face but he dodged neatly, laughing at me as I kept trying without success.

“See?” That light, teasing voice. “Useless.”

An actual voice cuts into the ghostly ones surrounding me.

“Avoiding Lady Daniella, Serah?” Melina asks me in amusement as she joins me at the stall. I suppose you could call her my friend, though really she’s just one of the few people whose company I find tolerable. “I’m sure she would have found it such an honour to exchange words with the daughter of a Councillor.”

“Should I point you out to her instead?” I ask, raising an eyebrow – keep that voice steady, keep your face distant and amused – and pointing at her with a flip of my hand. “Don’t forget, you’re in the same predicament as me.”

She raises a finger and waggles it in my face. “Ah, but I am not the one who has a hundred-foot ancestor guarding the entrance to the harbour.” Melina points down the hill to where the stone statue stands, majestic and forbidding, carved out of the cliff. “She will most certainly ignore me in favour of you. And then you shall have no choice but to entertain her while I make good my escape.”

 “Yer like ‘em little birds they keep in cages ta sing for their amusement.” His voice dripped with contempt – not for me, I knew, but for the ones who kept them. “Don’tcha wanna be like the blackbirds, singin’ yer songs for whoever ya want?”

 Not much longer, I promise him silently. I will keep my promise, and we shall have our vengeance. Just wait for me a little while more.

Melina’s attention has moved on. “Isn’t this beautiful, Serah?” she asks, holding a necklace against my neck. “A black, simple design is a good contrast to those dark red curls.”

I can tell at a glance it’s cheap painted tin, worth about half the asking price. I’ve learnt to assess the value of things quickly – you don’t have time to spend deliberating when the owner is sleeping a scant arm’s length away.

“Cheap rubbish,” I tell her dismissively. I don’t need to feign disinterest. I don’t care for adornments in general, despite jewelry worth more than a Trader’s lifetime earnings dripping off me right now. It’s all part of being Miss Serah. “I would never touch such a thing,” I continue. “Dinar would wear a permanent sneer if either of us wore anything of that quality in public.”

She rolls her eyes at me. “What do I care what that girl thinks? Her father isn’t a Councillor; they are not a major house. And you! There’s no need to turn your nose up at anything that costs less than an entire ship’s cargo. These things have their own beauty.”

My hand goes instinctively to a small pocket, hidden within the folds of my dress, when she says that.

 “It ain’t much, and it’s real stupid compared to all yer fancy stuff…” His voice trailed off and for the first time I could remember, he looked uncertain. He looked like the thirteen years that he actually was instead of the almost-man he usually seemed to be. It was like seeing another person completely. He slowly opened his hand, and inside it was a roughly carved piece of wood hung on a long, knotted length of twine.

“It’s meant’ta be a blackbird, Ser. D’ya… d’ya like it?”

I bite my bottom lip to keep it from trembling. Just a little longer, I repeat to myself. You can do this. Still, everything around me is starting to blur together and fade into the background, so I dig a nail into my palm. The pain brings the world back into focus, but there’s still a numb buzzing in my head.

“The heat and the crowd and the stink of the lower classes is getting to me,” I tell her, my voice a sharp whine in the noisy crowd. Most of the Traders don’t even bother turning to take a look – another demanding Merchant is part of their regular clientele.

Melina looks around apologetically as she nudges me sharply, her elbow digging in hard. “Stop that!” she hisses in annoyance. “Why do you always have to act like the rest of them? You weren’t always like this.”

Everything around me is blurring again, and the pain no longer helps. His voice echoes over the muted noise around me. It’s always clearest when the world fades out.

 “Ya gotta keep outta sight,” he explained as he prised the knives from hands that were reluctant to relinquish them. “Don’t let anyone know what’cha can do. Act like ‘em. Complain ‘bout everythin’. Talk bout how dirty’n stupid we travs are. Scream lots at people. An’ then they’ll never look close enough to notice the real you. That’ll be our little secret.”

He squeezed my clenched fists tightly, and I knew I’d be able to do it.

I push the haze aside long enough to turn back to Melina.

“Maybe you’re the one who acts strangely – have you ever considered that?” My voice doesn’t seem to come from me. It’s as though I’m watching this all happen from afar; Melina freezing, the hurt that briefly crosses her face before she gets it under control, the thinning of her lips as she presses them together tightly and turns away. I should feel bad. I should be feeling guilty at hurting someone innocent. I can’t feel anything at all.

I also turn away. I should go home before I do any more damage.

And then he’s there, right before my eyes. The messy ginger hair, the easy way he runs and laughs, all the little things about his movements so that I don’t even need to look at his face to know it’s him. It’s like he was plucked out from my memories of five years ago, frozen in time and placed in the present day. There’s that same cheeky grin as he passes me and that funny two-fingered salute he always did to annoy his targets – as he holds up the few ghella I had on my person. Then he’s off through the crowd, ducking and weaving.

The world snaps back into focus. I don’t even let myself think about the impossibility of what’s happening or what people will think; I take off after him, casting off my shoes and hitching up my dress. I push through the crowd, leaping over crates and barrels and upsetting tables that get in my way. He’s much nimbler as usual, dodging soldiers and sliding neatly between stalls.

“Al!” My frantic call is lost in the sudden commotion. “Wait!”

He doesn’t look back. He leaves me to chase after him, alone and agitated in the crowd. But I’m not losing him again. The me of today is very different from the me back then. She’s more determined, more skilled, and much more aware of everything she has to lose. Stall after stall, crowd after crowd; they all seem to block my way but I push my way through them with a strength born of desperation. I glimpse a flash of ginger disappearing into an alley, and I sprint toward it. It’s too easy to lose someone in the twisting, winding paths that cross the city. I can’t let it happen.

I reach the lane where he turned in. It’s empty. My knees go weak and my shuddering breaths are not from the running. He’s slipped away from me. Again. I follow the path in sick misery, peering hopefully down every alley that branches off. Nothing.

A thudding noise from an alley I’ve passed catches my attention. I know it’s probably just a stray cat but my legs move on their own. I turn the corner – and there he is, climbing out one of the large crates lining the sides. Our eyes meet, and I experience a surge of disappointment so sharp I’m afraid I really will collapse here and now. His eyes are slate grey, not the familiar pale blue. Reality hits me across the face like a swinging mast. This isn’t Al. Of course it isn’t. I was chasing a ghost and nothing more.

Even so, as his eyes widen in terror and he prepares to run – “Stop!” I call out. I pause, uncertain. What do I say, that I think he’s harbouring the spirit of my friend? Great way to make him think you’ve had too much sun, Ser. I rack my brains for some way to get his attention.

“You can keep the money – and you can earn more, too. I’ll pay you for a job.” It’s a terrible excuse, but surely a kid off the streets would jump at the chance to earn a living off a soft Merchant.

He stares at me for a moment, eyes unreadable. For a heart-stopping moment I think he is going to run off and I’ll never see him again. But then his face cracks into a smile – one that I haven’t seen in too many years. He may not be Al, but maybe he’s my second chance. It’s my turn to look after him and protect him, this young Al. I resist the urge to ruffle his hair fondly as he spits on his hand and holds it out.

“Yer on, Miss. Whaddaya want?”

He even sounds the same. I spit on my hand as well and we shake. To the travs, it’s as good as a contract – they have many old tales which tell of the terrible fates that befall those who break such agreements. It’s laughable to most Merchants, but a trav knows better than to make any kind of deal with a Merchant.

“Meet me at Siren’s in the Warehouse Quarter tonight, second watch.”

 Do you still remember our old meeting place, Al?

“The tavern where the hired swords go?” he asks, sounding a bit surprised.

 Guess you don’t. There’s pain, but it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.

“That’s the one. Meet me outside, and don’t bother bringing your friends. If it works out, then we’ll see.”

“Gotcha. And don’tcha get nerves and pike, neither!” He crinkles his nose as he says this, the face which means he’s not sure about something.

Please, please be there tonight!

There’s a clattering of boots behind me – guards. I couldn’t expect my sudden flight to go unnoticed. My heart’s racing and I’m terrified they’ll recognise him as the boy who picked my pocket. Why did I have to make such a commotion?

“Go now!” I hiss. “Before anyone sees you! Run!”

He spins, and sprints down the alley and around the corner. I turn to greet the guards. I feel as though I could take them all on single-handed. I feel as though I could do anything today.

So I attack them with words instead, berating them mercilessly for letting a trav get anywhere near me, for letting him touch me with his filthy hands, for letting him get away so easily. I give them earfuls of hysterics. I stomp my feet and gesticulate wildly. Then I demand to be escorted home by every single one of them – leaving no one free to chase mini-Al. It’s not until I’m safely behind the locked door of my room that I allow myself to laugh. I laugh for the first time in years. I laugh until it sounds like I’m sobbing and even I can’t tell the difference.

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