The Girl with Thin Fingernails

Dawn cracked ripe and ready for a downpour. Zak eased the front door closed with silent practice. He didn’t mind running in the rain, but it turned the roads to mires and the hillsides to slosh. Better to get his daily circuit in before the skies opened up over the isle.

His route took him from mother’s front door, through the village he’d spent all of his sixteen years racing through, and up along the island cliffs and their winding, overgrown heights. Zak stopped on the main overlook to let his chest swell at the sight of his concave world. Cradled on all sides by jagged obsidian peaks, the wetly green interior and mist-hazy lake still slumbered.

Except… a single light nestled at the back of the manor house. In the dark of the valley, a small lantern gleamed like a dandelion fluff in the wet air. Someone was up early, Zak thought as he stretched.

The distant little light continued to hook his eye between the trees and sharp glassy boulders as he ran. And as he found the valley again with its rolling hills and easy sodden paths, his feet slowed and paused. The village and his morning chores waited on his left, and to his right, a much smaller trail would bring him to the manor house and the dawn-lit lantern.

Zak shook his dribbling hair and started down the smaller trail. He’d not been near the manor house in years, not since cajoled and convinced by other children, he’d stuck close to steal a hanging chime off a window sill. Sick with guilt and fearing the stories of the manor’s occupants, he’d crept back alone to replace the little chime.

Now, with a longer stride and wider shoulders, Zak moved around the exterior of the peculiar house. He slid his eyes along the the strangely peaked roofs and the mismatched doors adorned with fearsome carvings. Around the corner, a clear dirt back yard housed a chicken coop and a single step set below that pale lantern. Bathed in the splash of light, a very young woman sat on the step and stared blankly into the yard. Tears ran freely down her cheeks.

Zak exhaled his held breath, disturbing the cold quiet of the yard and she snapped her head to him. Her sheet of black hair swung around her face so that strands of it stuck to her tear-sodden cheeks. They blinked at each other before Zak thought to ask if she was alright.

She shook her head, eyes lost somewhere far away from him. Zak guessed that’s where her gaze had been when he’d interrupted her, in thoughts worlds apart from the house and their glass-cradled isle. Her thin, uneven nails caught on her finely woven robe as her fingers worried the fabric. It looked like she’d been shredding them.

“Can I make it better?” He spoke the thought aloud as it occurred to him.

He expected to be scoffed at. Zak was well-accustomed to rolled eyes and huffed dismissals whenever he dared speak his mind in the village. But the girl stilled, drawn back to the isle, the kitchen yard, and the stranger offering help he couldn’t possibly understand. Then slowly, she pressed her lips together in a feeble smile and wiped her hair back from her face. “Maybe. Share some breakfast?” She asked in a small rusty voice.

Zak nodded and waited for her to stand. He followed her over the step and into the manor house.

Another Music Challenge. This week I challenged Raw Rambles to write something to or inspired by The Decemberists’ Make You Better and I did the same. I’ll link her’s here when it goes up.  

 

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Shades and Gunman

He almost smiled when he heard the click of the pistol. Almost, being right offset the impending bullet wound only so much. Reid raised his hands to his ears in surrender and turned around slowly. “It was that damn blue blood wasn’t it?” He asked the man with the pistol.

The gunman’s arm was steady but he was wearing too much black, cutting a hard silhouette against the cluttered darkness of the living room. Still Reid was impressed, he’d gotten into their flat without Reid noticing. At least until that click. “They just pay me.” The man twitched a shrug. “But yeah.”

“I won’t insult you with a counter offer then.” Reid hoped the man would look disappointed but the gunman just rolled his lips back in an ugly smile. Of course that bastard’s family was paying well. “You’re enjoying this.”

“Not everyday you get to kill a shade,” The gunman said. He took a step forward and Reid knew he should shrink back, cower a little, humor the man capable of putting a bullet in him.

But Reid didn’t bend that way. Instead, he frowned at the gun encroaching into his personal space and flicked a thin smile up at the amateur.  “Not everyday, no.”

A stocky shape moved in the dark behind the gunman. Like a blade of spring grass sliding up from winter soil, an arc of silver sword erupted from the gunman’s chest. The gunman blinked in surprise at the metal protruding from his front, so did Reid, but with less surprise. The sword was yanked back with a whispery wet grunt and the failed assassin folded on the fake hardwood.

Two brothers looked down at the body. Vin drew his chin up first with a narrow look. Reid gave an apologetic grimace and drew his hand flat from his mouth and down, signing thanks. Vin nodded, both knew that something like this would happen eventually. The two brothers went about rolling the body into the rug in silence.

A victimless crime? We shall see, I took this first line from The Gate in the Wood as part of the Legal Theft Project. 

Flash Fiction: The Watch

Time ground on. It chipped down on the country of Eristae, its memory, its anger. As the years flowed through them, people forgot their anger at the imperial ships and new rules. They grew familiar with the tithes and the soldiers on street corners. Their daughters married those street corner soldiers, and their grandchildren left for foreign schools. The next generation returned to the ancient dukedoms and quiet fiefs with hard accents, soft hands, and voracious intentions. They abandoned the country groves and seaside villages of their birth to build up cities in the image of imperial metropolises.

And a century after the first imperial fleet landed on their southern banks, with a foreign official in every office, dean’s seat, and city council, the peoples flocked into the streets to celebrate their newfound dependence. Parades and floats coursed through the main cities, streaming banners that snapped in-time to the peoples’ cheers. The empire unfolded its arms and took ancient Eristae into its progressive embrace.

Cole tried to keep to himself that night. While the city of Kallais streamed around him, broiling with dance, drink, and music, he glowered his way into a corner of the most unpopular tavern he could find.

It worked for a time, well into Cole’s fourth ale. But the streets eventually poured their way in to the dirty little bar. Cole shouldered open the tavern door before he broke the nose of a loud patriot. Though he shoved a few shoulders in the process, Cole got into the night air without starting a brawl.

The streets were strewn with the aftermath of the celebrations, but the air was clean and growing quieter by the hour. Cole left the stuffy taverns to the new imperial citizens and used the sound of waves to guide him. He walked, using the winding streets and narrow staircases running the city to burn the alcohol from his veins. Beneath the foot of the bay wall, Cole looked up. The thick stone walls curled around the city protectively, solid and wide enough for three armored men to walk abreast.

Cole climbed a stair and flashed an ancient badge. The old design and crest should have had him stopped and questioned, had the watchman been sober enough to protest. But the outdated token got Cole to the top of the wall, where he set elbows against stone and watched the city settle. As the dark deepened in the sky and then eventually began to glow in the east, the last of the imperial chants and cheers died entirely. The city could have been his again, as it had been before, stretching out at the end of a long graveyard shift.

Flags would come and go, as would the people who sat behind desks and on thrones, but Cole knew he would always come here, to watch over his city, his country.

Terribly late, this thief ran off with More than 1/2 Mad‘s line to serve the Legal Theft Project. This is the result of that heist, prompt, and challenge. 

Beneath The Breastbone.

His skin was freshly washed and it caught on the latex of her gloves as she arranged his limbs. Familiar scents of soap, bleach, and inert flesh permeated her medical mask. A young man, feathery wet hair, flat brown eyes, twenty-seven with lines around his eyes, waited for her. Laid out, bared, she could see his ribs pressing up beneath his skin. She dropped her hand to hover over the waves. The plateau of his chest was firm, all lean muscle. Perhaps not a healthy man in life, but a beautiful one in death.

A hitched breath caved her mask as she leaned over him.  She paused to check its elastic tight against her cheek and the plastic cap covering her hair. The plastic, paper, and latex kept little pieces of herself from betraying them, their time, their togetherness.

She held herself there, parallel over him, feeling the emptiness of the body under her. He was alone now, a mirror to the lonely ache beneath her breastbone. When he had searing skin and a heartbeat, his smile and soft words hadn’t soothed the emptiness in her, they were only hers to borrow. Someday he would have taken his warmth and left. Now, silent and growing cold, they could be alone together.

Until the chime of the phone broke from the purse in the corner of the hotel room. She snapped her head to the side, breath moving the mask in and out with shallow breaths, a paper heart beating at her mouth.

She rose at the waist and picked her way off him, careful where her body weighted the bedspread. Her plastic wrapped feet crinkled on the carpet. A quick snap of latex, a crumple of paper, she freed her hand and mouth and picked up the phone, dangling it next to her ear. “Remy?”

She used her time listening to calm her breath. “You got the right number, sorry I change it so much, its the travel.” Bent at the knees in a crouch, she held very still so her scrubs wouldn’t rustle. The person on the other side of the line continued.

“Brunch, yes, don’t worry about it. We’ll go another time, its really fine. I’m in town for a while.” She smiled, fondness crinkling the corner of her eyes. “Can’t wait to catch up. Bye Remy.”

She left the phone in her bag, found new gloves, reset her mask and bowed to her feet like a dancer. The man still waited on the bed, still and entirely hers. She returned, gliding above him, never touching, just feeling the profound emptiness she could share.

This weeks music challenge is born from Florence + The Machine’s song Hunger. As I was challenged by Raw Rambles make sure to check out her original here.  

A Promising Project

Noticing the covetous glint in her eye, Roshan closed the book. The dull slap of paper  broke the silence of the library and a few students looked over annoyed at his table and the young woman looming over it. Etta’s gaze raked the book’s cover before she sat next to him. Roshan bit down his groan.

“Blueprints. Did you find something then?” Etta watched him, jaw jutted forward and head cocked to the side like a fisher bird considering ripples.

“Maybe.” Roshan said, moving one shoulder in a shrug. He did not unhook his fingers from around the book. Roshan didn’t think she’d gotten a look at the map, but he wasn’t going to give her another. Etta was notorious for sniffing out promising projects that didn’t belong to her. “I don’t know yet.”

“Those old planning documents can be really hard to decipher.” Etta pouted her lip in false sympathy. “Between the translation, and the notation. Unless you’ve taken classes…?”

Roshan held his breath inside his chest. Etta knew he hadn’t. Those classes were reserved for the daughters of the elite families, the future architects, chroniclers, and civil servants of the city. Expensive preparatory classes were not wasted on sons. Roshan was an oddity,  a man that had clawed his way into college to everyone’s discomfort. Including, Roshan was learning, his own.

“No,” Roshan said what they both knew. His fingers were beginning to cramp, but Roshan didn’t let go of the book’s cover. “I don’t even know if I’ve found anything yet. Maybe I can let you know, when I need help.” Roshan forced a plaintive, almost unsure tremor into his voice and hated himself for it.

Annoyance twitched at the corner of Etta’s nostril. It would brutish for a woman of Etta’s class to press him now, and cruel to refuse. “Of course. If you need the help.” She pushed herself up with straight arms. “Good luck Roshan.”

“Thank you Etta.” Roshan returned her false sentiment with one of his own. She sniffed and walked away, crimson skirts swishing agitated against the library’s floor. The librarian at the desk glared at him once Etta was gone. Roshan shrugged only somewhat apologetically. He’d learned quickly his presence alone was enough to cause disruption, and he wasn’t going anywhere.

A scoundrel and a rogue, but not a thief this week. For this round of Legal Theft I supplied a line Noticing the covetous glint in her eye, Roshan closed the book. Lets see who takes off with it….. 

Sleep Through The Night

And I look to the west, the moon’s in the sky
I wanna get at least that high

My readied smile slipped away once Nuka’s breathing deepened. Sure that my friend was truly asleep, I worked my jaw like an actor warming lines and slipped out of my bedroll, cautious not to disturb his. The care was not necessary, Nuka’s agitation had run him raw all day and he slept solid. I was surprised he’d made it to his bedroll at all, and not simply collapsed on the road in a scowling heap.

The night air hanging over the bog was thick with croaking frogs, rotting green, and a hint of cold that kept off the worst of the thrumming insects. I took the cotton-bound book from my pack and a leather herb pouch from my discarded coat. With the firebugs bobbing along over the grimy water and the moss softening the trees into hazy watercolor, the night was too alive to waste tossing in a bedroll.

Soon reclining over a precious bit of dry root and stone, I lit the twist of herbs and let the fire shrink my pupils. Everything went dark except the glow, until the smoke hit my tongue and I waved the match out. The night unfurled for me in muted greens and blacks, each darker than the last until I was sure the void itself waited in the trees.

I enjoyed the heaviness settling in my fingers by running my thumb down the book’s spine. I might read a little in the sickly light of the fire bugs, or I might not.

Up in the sky, above the weeping branches, the moon rose in the west, surrounded of course, by stars. I frowned at them both. Someone needed to figure this shit out, I doubted it was going to be me.

Been a long time gone, living out on the coast
It’s a long way back from the edge of the cosmos

Some say soldiers find their beds too soft after they return home. This is something like that. I am not used to her breath on my neck, or her fingers resting on my chest. Curled next to me beneath the covers of our bed, my wife radiates heat like a stoked forge. Usually this lulls me into rest quickly enough.

Not always though. Staring up at the ceiling in the dark, tonight I drew her fingers gently off my chest so I could test the weight there. I clutched a hand over my breastbone and searched beneath my skin for reassurance.

My wife curled around my pillow when I left the bed. Clothes retrieved from the dresser, boots on at the door, I stepped into the yard and hissed. The isle gets cold at night and I’m still not used to it. Far away,  almost hidden by the overgrown hills, I saw the top of the manor house. Light flickered in its windows.

I filled my lungs with the cold and made my way to the forge, certainty growing with every step. No leash, taut or slack, tied me anymore. No distant man, lord, or god held my soul hostage.  Even stuck on an island lost in the sea and assembling a new life from the wreckage of centuries, the only thing coiled angry in my chest was me.

You chained my life to an ancient master
Will the curse be reversed if I say it backwards?   

Purple seeped into the pitch of the night sky. With the glass balcony doors thrown wide, I could see the full canvas, from the tips of the gold-domed city to the black heavens. My tower afforded me an aerial landscape of  city, provided I stood from my desk and wandered out to the balcony to receive it.

Tonight though, the balcony doors were open so the night air could cut the damp warmth of early summer. I had work to do before the sun rose and the empire’s armies began to march. The gods did not concern themselves with train-car capacity, tides, or how many lemons kept mortals from getting scurvy over long voyages. They left that to us, and so we oversaw their soldiers, their worshipers, their cities. And the return for this service, an eternity to do it.

The narrow bed still waited for me in the corner, stuffed unlovingly between two monstrous bookshelves. Sleep was always an intruder here, forestalling breakthroughs and progress with paltry biological demands for rest. I may have welcomed the respite had someone called me to it, perhaps gently or hungrily taken my hand and drawn me down with them, then I would have abandoned my work for the night. But no one would do so tonight, or possibly ever again.

The pages began to blend as my eyes blurred between application, transcript, and docket. Above, the sky lightened and beneath the palace stirred.

[Good Morning, Raven. Have you slept?] The voice touched down in my head. The gods were awake.

You told me you’re never gonna die
How am I supposed to sleep through the night?

Raw Rambles and I are seeing Lord Huron live in only a couple weeks, so our music challenge this week is to the song Secret of Life, off their newest album, Vide Noir. Check out Raw Rambles blog for her post.  

 

Rules and Opportunity

Maj flew into the room, thin arms tensed like steel cables. She stopped on the rug, torn between throwing herself on the bed or shattering the vanity’s ornate mirror. She didn’t get a chance for either as Desri hurried in after her.

“So,” Desri started and reached tentatively for her half-sisters shoulder. “That could have gone better.”

“Could have gone better? It couldn’t have gone worse.” Maj ducked her shoulder like a cat that didn’t want to be pet. She stepped back and faced Desri, trembling. “You were there, you heard them. I have no talent. That’s it.”

“Maj you’re brilliant, it’s not it.” Desri persisted, catching Maj’s delicate hand. She was stronger than her petite half-sister and able to pull her close into an embrace. Maj’s curls tickled her nose but Desri held on until Maj slumped and gave an ugly sob. “Shh, you’ve gotten top marks in everything else, what are they going to do?” Desri hummed.

The answer came the next morning when Maj’s things were packed for her. Her crisp plain frocks were folded into suitcases, but the servant left any evening gowns and dancing slippers in the closet. She was told to change into sensibly-soled boots, as her soft embroidered shoes would not survive the mud and damp of the lower districts.

After five years in her father’s home, Maj was escorted to a carriage that would take her down to her mother’s house. Desri watched her go from the upstairs window, round eyes helplessly trying to catch Maj’s gaze. The carriage door shut and the horses started their clopping pace down the drive. Desri’s harsh sigh fogged the window.

“Don’t sulk,” Desri’s mother said from the study’s chair behind her. “We gave Maj more opportunity than most in her position ever have in their lives. She couldn’t stay here as anything other than a servant. Could you imagine wounding her pride so?”

“This has nothing to do with your pride?” Desri asked, not turning from the window.  Maj had never given much respect towards Desri’s mother, the woman who’d overlooked her husband’s indiscretion to let a bastard girl learn alongside her own daughter. But even the best books and tutors the city offered could not force magic aptitude and its protections. Still, banishment seemed harsh to Desri, even if Maj had been born and grown in the lower districts.

“No. This has to do with rules.” The whisper of skirt on rug indicated her mother leaving the room. Desri closed the curtains and left as well. She took the stairs down towards the their house’s great library. Her own examinations were upcoming, and she had almost as much to lose as Maj.

This is a post for Legal Theft as I have stolen the line “That could have gone better.” from More Than 1/2 Mad.