Well, I’m back everybody! Where was I, you might ask? In the last two weeks, I’ve had a friend in town for 8 days and a day long road trip to Kentucky, which was quite a fete, as a flash flood totaled my family’s only vehicle. I’ve also surpassed the halfway marker in my final rewrites of Breaking Shadows: Bold, and I’m chipping away at it steadily, biting off as much as I can chew every day. I should have some excerpts for you soon.
But, all of that craziness and excitement aside, I’m here with an entirely different goal today. The lovely S. J. Aisling is currently hosting an art and writing contest over on her blog, for which I have written a short story. She challenged any willing to throw their hats in to write or draw a collision of imaginary worlds – one of her invention, and one of yours. The idea is to show some kind of interaction between your characters and hers, as many or as few as you may choose, and in so doing attempt to capture the likeness of her character. A marvelous idea, if I may say so myself.
And so, dear readers, I present to you today a short story, Gunpowder & Feathers. This story takes place in Aisling’s city of Istravol, home to Kilter and backdrop for her Work in Progress, The Phoenix Thief. I’ve had the pleasure of BETA reading this story so far, and have fallen in love with her precious little alley cat very quickly indeed. All credit for the setting and characters, besides my Jesse (from Breaking Shadows: Bold), goes to S. J. Aisling, in all her glory.
Gunpowder & Feathers
Every time. She just can’t help herself, can she? Always dropping me random places for no apparent reason, all in the name of “character research.” I huff a loose strand of my short, plain brown hair from my face in frustration, carefully slinking down the subdued street of an unfamiliar city. But then, that’s Hannah for you. Such strange creatures, authors are. I don’t dare ask where she’s dropped me this time. Probably some strange world belonging to another writer friend of hers. I do hope she warned Ben I’d be disappearing this time. He was a right mess after my last unwilling escapade.
My eyes swivel constantly in their sockets, taking in every detail of this place they possibly can. The street is well worn, edged by mostly clean, mismatched houses all squished close together in a style far different than I’m used to. That’ll make hiding much harder. I groan. I’ve already seen what I assume to be soldiers roaming the streets here, wrapped in pressed, uniform suits of grey. Between their presence and the eerie emptiness of the streets, my nerves are stretched tight, senses firing on a hair trigger.
The air smells of smoke, and something else vaguely familiar that I can’t place. Metallic banging and clanking echoes faintly all around, coming, I think, from the largest, dullest buildings. Factories. My father’s word pops into my head, and I nod, deciding it fits. I’ve never seen one, though the presence of a place like that, full of jobs and work, somewhat protected from the town soldiers, would be greatly welcomed. Dad always said the conditions inside them had been deplorable enough to get them shut down long ago, but I don’t see how they could be anything but an improvement over the squalor our town has fallen to.
I figure I must be in their equivalent of the middle class district, based on the well used but relatively clean clothing I’ve seen on the few passersby and the sturdy state of the housing. They’ll certainly have something less substantial. I might not leave Raven Falls much, but I know a place with this many soldiers prowling the streets must have a place for the riffraff, a landfill for the sweepings of the street no one really wants, and that’s where I’ll be headed. It’s what I am. I’m a shadow hopper. I don’t belong with the well off.
I turn my back on the wealthy part of town I first landed in, knowing my target is as far from there as the rich could sequester the street rat nuisances. No one used to a full stomach likes being reminded of how lucky they are, just as no one used to hunger pains likes to think how life could have been, were the odds turned more in their favor.
“Oy! You there! What d’you think you’re up to, boy?” I jump at the harsh shout behind me, adrenaline surging through my veins. Apple crisps. It doesn’t take a genius to know it’s me the soldier addresses; a filthy little shadow hopper like myself could never blend with the pleasant folks in this part of town. My feet take flight automatically, seeking a twisting alley or hidden backstreet through which to make my escape, but nothing suitable appears. I consider drawing my gun, but discard the thought almost immediately. One shot here, and I’d be swarmed for sure. Besides, I’ve no idea the governance of this town. I’ll just have to outrun him, hope we don’t cause too much of a scene.
He calls after me repeatedly, and another pair of boots joins in the chase behind him. After sprinting a few blocks, I’m cursing my limited knowledge of the city’s layout and longing for the familiar paths of Raven Falls, the internal map that made evasion so simple there. One dark alley, or twisting backstreet, or crowd of civilians. That’s all I need. Apple crisps! How big is this place, anyways? My heart pounds in my ears, my bare feet striking the hard ground as my lungs drag in breath after breath, and still my eyes find no escape.
“Hey you, up there!” One of my pursuers shouts, and my eyes shoot upwards, hoping to find some great source of distraction. I’m momentarily dumbfounded by what I find on the relatively low roof ahead and to my left, but recover quickly, making up my mind and scanning the surroundings for any way to hoist myself up.
Scampering along the roof tiles, covered in dirt, soot, and some slimy looking black substance, a lanky young boy navigates the heights with ease. One look at his baggy clothing and filthy appearance is enough to tell me two things; the first, that he’s a street rat native to this strange place and therefore far more competent than I, and the second, that following his lead is my best chance of losing the grey clad men at my heels.
I pant slightly, keeping the boy in my sights as I hasten my feet toward a fire escape nestled up close to a low-slung roof in the boy’s path. Leaping up the steps is simple enough, and I rely on my strength and momentum to swing up onto the slick tiled roof. I hear loud swearing behind me and struggle to draw in a deep breath as I steady myself, catching a feel for the sandpaper-like tiles under my feet before taking off after the boy again. The heat is far more substantial up here, pouring over me in waves, reflecting the sunlight back at me and roasting me from all around, but I force myself to keep moving, one foot after another.
The distance between the boy’s bobbing form and my tiring limbs grows steadily narrower, and my confidence builds, driving me forward with ease. Sweat pours down my face and between my shoulders, but I ignore it, focusing on keeping my feet firm under me on the uncertain footing. The soldiers fall behind, their heavy breathing and loud footfalls dying away, and the boy still comes nearer, his back turned to me. I know he’s seen me by now, knows I’m following him, and I can only hope he recognizes me as one of his kind. If nothing else, he’ll lead me to his side of town, where I’ll at least fit in, whether they accept me or not.
He slacks his pace a bit and I follow suit, slowing to catch my breath, no longer worried about closing the gap between us. From here, I can make out a wavy mop of flaxen hair, so light it’s nearly white under the sun. His skin, at least what’s visible beneath a thick layer of grime, is a pleasant, natural tan, red and angry in some places where the sun has left him burnt. Occasionally, I catch flashes of an indistinct scar on his right arm, and something metallic glinting on his wrist, but this doesn’t concern me. We’ve all got our pitfalls and scars. It’s not my business anyways.
I allow myself to relax, watching him and taking in the city from my new perspective, but quickly learn to regret letting my focus drop. A loose tile slides under my feet, and I slip down the steep incline of the roof, a high pitched yelp escaping my lips as I fly downwards in a heap, all arms and legs, my fingers searching vainly for a hold. I feel my legs leave the edge, and grab for the very end of the roof, finding myself dangling high off the ground, praying none of the soldiers in grey clothing see me now. Apple crisps! Stupid, Jesse, that was stupid. You’re going to fall to your death here any second now, and all for examining some strange boy instead of watching your footing. I berate myself.
When the sound of scuttling feet comes to my ears, I open my eyes, shocked to see the boy making his way toward me with ease, a grouchy look on his freckled face. Everything about him tells me this is against his better judgment, from the twitchiness of his movements to the reluctance clear in every step, and yet it only takes him a moment to reach me. His feet seem to be a part of the building, rather than separate entities traversing over it with how certainly he moves. I envy his ability, but have no time to become jealous before he’s offering me a dirty, callused hand, the kind of hand used to long, hard work.
I lunge for it, taking hold of it with one of my own before releasing the gutter I’ve hung from. His hand closes around both of mine strongly, and he strains back with a grunt, relenting and using his right arm as well. The sight of the mangled limb is unexpected, and my eyes flicker to his grey ones for a split second, his face flushing with a combination of shame, frustration, and anger. Two metal bands are closed around his forearm, leading down to a scuffed, jointed wooden prosthetic thumb that looks quite worn down and used. He’s missing the second finger of the hand entirely, nothing but a stub looking back at me. I avert my eyes, struggling to help him on our slow ascent back to the roof’s crest, and the moment we arrive he turns loose of me, spinning on his heel in disgust. My vision swims with the heat this low to the tiles, but I stumble after him anyways, panting once more for breath.
“Hey, wait! Er… I mean… Thanks.” I stutter, and his step falters, his hands tensing protectively around the satchel slung over his shoulders. His head turns very slightly, inclining his ear toward me in case I have more to say. “I mean it. You didn’t have to do that, I’m grateful. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t seen you up here, either.” I add hoarsely, hoping my sincerity is conveyed.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” He finally quips, looking over his shoulder with something like a sneer on his face as he walks onward. I follow, feeling like a lost puppy tagging along at his heels but at a loss for what else I could do.
“Ah, no. I’m not even sure how I got here. This city is a lot like where I’m from, with the soldiers swimming all around, but we use the streets themselves as cover there. It’s much different here, much harder to shake them.” I explain, knowing my words aren’t adequate and wishing Ben was here to help. No, no that’s wrong. I don’t want Ben here. They need him in Raven Falls, and who knows what dangers are waiting here.
“Soldiers?” The boys asks, sending me a somewhat quizzical look that shows more interest than before.
“Er… is that not what you call them here? That’s what they’re called where I’m from. The patrolmen, the guys that were chasing me.” I supply disjointedly.
“Oh, watchmen. I call them grey-suits.” He answers with some hesitance and falls silent, sending me a glare every couple strides that clearly implies he expects me to have vanished or fallen away. Everything about him screams he’s a loner, and he carries himself as if he had things of high importance to do. His hand frequently falls to his satchel, feeling the lump apparent from where I stand like he worries whatever makes it could disappear all on its own. He almost reminds me of Ben, with the tired eyes and the crinkle in his brow, always figuring at something or other, sorting things out in that brilliant head of his. His actions are part mouse, part cat, and at times I think him a figment of my imagination, a trick of the sun on the eyes.
It isn’t long before the buildings grow shabbier, the inhabitants nearer together and resembling more the poor, beaten beings I’m used to. Not another word passes between us until I slow my step, knowing that to follow him further would be not only worthless to me but irksome to him, when I’ve already been a burden. He half turns when I drop away, making eye contact a last time, his fingers again closing around the strap of his satchel.
“Thanks again…” I realize I never learned his name, and he swallows almost nervously, his piercing eyes darting over me.
“Kilter.” He finally provides, somewhat begrudgingly. I smile, understanding that isn’t information he’d volunteer often.
“Thank you, Kilter. I’m sorry to have been such a bother, really I am. What you did was very kind. Whatever the answer is you’re looking for, I hope you find it.” My voice is soft, though cracked, and his eyes take on a surprised glimmer. He nods, a strange little jerky movement, and licks his lips, watching me a moment before spinning again and stalking off gracefully. I follow his back another second before sliding down off the low roof and scanning my surroundings, finding a nice dark nook to huddle into for the night. What a strange, lonely creature. I really do hope he finds whatever it is that has him so worried. Kilter, the kitten boy. I smirk at the image of him slinking off over a rooftop somewhere, clutching his satchel and mulling over his thoughts importantly before leaning back against the wall, setting my mind homeward. Hannah better not keep me here long. I’m a shadow hopper. I’m not meant to shrivel under the sun, scuttling over rooftops.