The Runner

Kay is an eighteen year-old girl living on the streets of the city. Stealing from the rich and wreaking havoc against the plans of the tyrannical King, she has earned a name for herself as The Runner.
For the last five years, she has used her speed and street smarts to outwit the King's guard and remain under the radar, until a handsome stranger appears and offers her the opportunity of a lifetime.

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4. Chapter 3

Normally, my first order of business after a successful heist is to pawn the winnings as quickly as possible, but given the alarm raised in the Intact house after I attacked that old codger, I think it would be wise to hold onto my spoils for now and try to sell them later once some of the fuss has died down.

Instead, I head in the direction of the tavern. I forget the pain in my knee as I leap from rooftop to rooftop, bypassing the crowds below, travelling with a speed and efficiency that is purely my own.

There is beauty to be found in this dry wasteland. Before the Burn, our fetes of architecture were constructed with steel and reached high into the clouds. However, those impressive structures were abandoned and crumbled long ago, replaced by simple stone buildings. The new, harsh climate wreaked havoc on our old technologies and power sources, driving people against one another and pushing them into the desert where they perished of hunger, thirst and exposure.

Brick is foundation on which our society is built. We no longer possess giant mechanical shovels to dig it up, but every day thousands of Fragments travel to one of our quarries and mine the essential clay manually. It is a hard and dangerous job, and only the strongest in the City can do it. A miners’ lifespan is usually short and the risk of injury is high.

I tumble out of my last jump and stride to the ledge, perching and surveying the endless landscape spreading in all directions. Miles and miles of twisting alleyways stretch out on all sides, and the low, sun-bleached brick structures rise up between them. From the ground, the city can appear a maze, full of dead ends and confusing turns, but up here it all makes perfect sense.

I twist so that my legs are dangling over the edge of the building then scale the facade and lower myself to the ground, once more checking that my pouch is secure before pushing open the door of my favourite tavern, The Beacon.

Inside the air is smoky and the light is dim, a startling contrast to the brightness of the streets. Samus, the bar’s owner, likes to keep it dark as his customers are usually performing a private sort of business. Patrons crowd around the low tables, gesticulating dramatically in their story-telling or participating in riotous, high-stakes card games. I crane my neck, looking for some familiar faces before elbowing my way to the bar.

“Red!” Samus’ booming voice cuts through the din when I appear in front of him. “Haven’t seen you for a few days, was beginnin’ to think you forgot about us.” He winks at me as he pulls down a mug and fills it. Like most of the men in my city, Samus is tall and broad, a trait well-suited to the miners and bricklayers. He has known me since I was a child, back when he was a friend of my father, working alongside him in the quarry. Back then, he had both of his eyes, but nowadays a dirty patch covers one of his sockets.

“Aw Sammy, you know I could never forget about you. I’ve just been so busy lately, what with all matters of diplomacy to attend to. You know how that is.”

Samus throws his stringy blonde head back and laughs, “Yes, yes that would be time consumin’.” He thrusts a frothing mug of ale at me, the cold liquid soaking my hand as I pick it up. “Thanks for stoppin’ by. And don’t forget to tip, mind.” Unlike Harold, Samus would never neglect to pick up his payments.

I slide a coin across the counter at him and lift my mug high above my head, shoving my way back through the crowd and trying not to spill the hard-earned drink.

Finally making it to a corner, I arrive at a booth next to a window covered by a dark sheet. Spots of light seep through the holes in the window covering, illuminating the two men crowding the table, their heads bent closely together in discussion.

“Boys!” I announce my presence obnoxiously, slamming my mug down on the table and slopping it onto the wood. “I am here now. What’s the good news?”

Shouts of laughter warm my cheeks. Edmun rises and grabs a chair for me as Gordy shuffles to the side to make room. A welcoming hand slaps my back as I collapse into my seat and take a healthy sip of my drink, surveying the table and grinning.

“Kay-kay! We were just talking about you.” Edmun says, his white teeth flashing against his smoke-blackened face.

“Do not call me Kay-kay.” I groan. “It was not okay when I was a child, and it is certainly not okay now.”

A few years older than me, Edmun was a friend of my brother and has known me since I was a toddler. He works as a blacksmith, just as his own father did before he passed. Despite the fact that he is most often covered in a layer of soot, his strong features and easy sense of humour have always attracted a generous amount of female attention.

“So you’ve been gossiping about me, eh? All good things I suspect. You lot looked very deep in thought before I came and broke up the party.”

“Only ever good things, Red. Compliments on your stunt with the airships! That was beautiful.” Edmun crashes his mug into mine and throws it back as I glance over my shoulder to make sure that no one is listening in, elbowing him in the ribs as I do so.

“Keep your voice lower, you greasepile. You forget that not everyone is as friendly as you.” Edmun takes my chiding with typical good humour and has another swig of his ale.

“A bit heavy-handed on the flattery, aren't we, Ed? I heard there was a pretty embarrassing chase at the end there, when they spotted her.” Gordy stares right at me, even though his comment is directed at Edmun.

Gordy has always been on the fringes of our little group, but in recent years with me being away so often he has come to be a regular. We have never been particularly friendly; Gordy’s snide attitude and general shiftiness has always left me with a lingering feeling of distrust. In the past, I have voiced my doubts about his character but Edmun has only laughed and dismissed my reservations as jealousy for his attention.

 “Yes, there was a bit of a chase but nothing I couldn't handle.” I sit back in my chair as I look Gordy head-on. “Those fat guards couldn't catch a cold.”

“Just sayin’, if it were me I’d have those airships disabled and be gone in a flash, with none even knowin’ I was there.”

“So why didn’t you, Gordy?” A high-pitched voice breaks through the din of the tavern as a brassy-haired girl swathed in a traditional white toga sets her mug on the table and nudges me aside to share my seat.

“Lara!” I embrace my oldest friend, all my frustration at Gordy dissipating immediately. Lara hugs me back, her heavily made-up face leaving a smear on my shoulder and her gold bracelets rattling when we draw back. She shoots me her winning smiling, pushing strands of hair back from my face.

“My dear, Kay. I was wondering when we would be seeing you around here again. Has Gordy been giving you a hard time?” Lara shoots him a look across the table, contempt written across her dainty features as Gordy gazes back adoringly.

“I wasn’t tryin’ to give her a hard time, I was just saying if it were me…”

“But it never is, is it Gordy, darling? Our Kay is taking all the risks and you sit here, criticizing. Tell me, what is it that you have done lately? How have you been earning your pay?”

Gordy grunts and runs a hand through his greasy hair, “As a matter of fact, just last week I lifted this pretty trinket from a lady down in the market.” With a flourish, he produces a soiled handkerchief and drops it onto the table in triumph. I snort into my drink and even Edmun looks embarrassed.

“That’s wonderful, Gordy. Handkerchiefs to airships, you are well on your way. Best to hold on to that job at the quarry, though, just in case.” Lara bats her eyelashes sweetly as Gordy reddens.

“Well, I just stopped by to say a quick hello, but I must be off to work.” She finishes the last of her ale and makes to stand, pulling her draping dress out from under our feet.

“I’ll walk you out.” I offer, rising somewhat less gracefully and following her to the door. A few catcalls and whistles follow us, which Lara accepts with a glowing smile and gracious waves.

Outside, the air is beginning to cool and the streets are growing darker. I stand in the doorway with Lara as she checks her reflection in a chipped hand held mirror, dusting some powder over her cheeks.

“Lara, I scored pretty well today. What say you skip work and we’ll go out for a meal, hmm? We can get some of that spicy mutton you like.”

“You are so sweet to offer, darling, but I can’t miss a night’s pay.”

“Just this one time. Come on, I have more than enough for the both of us.”

Lara laughs lightly as she tucks her mirror back into her pocket and wraps a slender arm around my shoulders.

“I know what you are trying to do, Kay, but I don’t need you worrying over me. I’m a big girl; I can take care of myself.”

“I know that, it’s just…”

“Just what?”

“It’s just that if I want to help you, and right now I have the money to do that.” The words come out awkwardly as I shift my weight from foot to foot.

Lara smiles a bit sadly and tilts her brassy head. “Yes, that’s the thing with you, isn’t it? You always want to take care of everyone, but you can barely take care of yourself.”

Lara’s bluntness was amusing when it was directed at Gordy, but infuriating when directed at me.

“It’s not just tonight, Lara. I can do more, I can earn more. If I make one big score I can get enough to take care of both of us, and you won’t need to go out like this at night.”

Lara shakes her head sadly. “It’s a lovely thought, but I know you too well. You win a large payment and then you piss it away on the beggars and the drafted families and all the other bleeding hearts of the City. You aren’t capable of saving yourself. Kay. And I won’t have you save me, either.”

I bite my lip, unable to come up with a retort. Sighing, she pulls me into another hug.

I wrap my arms around her slender back. “Be careful, tonight.” I whisper.

She squeezes me tightly. “Stop being such a worrier. I’m always careful. Now please, step back. You are distracting my customers and I can’t have them thinking that a fine lady such as myself would rub elbows with the likes of you.”

“No, we wouldn’t want that.” I attempt a laugh but it comes out a bit hollow.

Lara gives me a small wave as she walks off into the alley, waving her wrists and rattling her bracelets, signaling that she is available for the first buyer of the night.

I sigh as I watch her retreating figure. The problem with Lara is that she is that she is as headstrong as I am. I love her and hate her for it, but she is a girl of the streets, and we must do anything we can in order to survive.

Ignoring the sinking feeling in my heart, I briefly consider heading back inside the tavern but instead choose to turn and stroll aimlessly through the streets, memories of the day swirling through my head. The paths and alleyways are fairly empty at this hour, and I enjoy the rare feeling of space on the ground.

I pass an old beggar woman huddled in a doorway and stoop down to place my remaining coins in her gnarled fist. She looks up at me with watery eyes but doesn’t say anything. My stomach groans as I walk away, but all I have left are the trinkets that I have yet to pawn. Lara was right, how can I take care of her when I can’t even take care of myself?

The air is chilly now, and the alcohol in my veins does not help matters.

The world wasn’t always like this, oppressively warm in the daytime and cold at night, harsh with the sand and ceaseless dryness. Years ago, the earth was lush and fertile, ever-changing in season. The way my father told it, humans were selfish. We dug and hollowed out our planet, spilling toxic chemicals into the atmosphere and causing the sun’s rays to grow ever-hotter. The ground dried up and the people perished. Now our resources are few and guarded religiously by the monarchy, whose job it is to dole out rations of meat and water to the population as they see fit.

The act of splitting up the City into two fractions came about as a solution to stagnation. Apparently, the first society to rise up and band together out of the Burn were continually add odds with another over their demands for resources, leading to general dissatisfaction and upheaval. During this time, one man, named Traynor gathered support and rose up, ultimately seizing control of the City and dividing the people up into two extremes; nicknamed the Intact and the Fragments.

For nearly two hundred years the descendants of King Traynor have presided over the City, upholding Traynor’s original vision of separate factions.

The Intacts are given the finest homes along with a yearly allowance. They are educated and ultimately assigned to a job where they perform research and develop the technologies we require for furthering ourselves. The Fragments are not permitted an allowance or education and are instead made to scrape out a living in a trade, mining in the quarry, or otherwise serving in an Intact home or the King’s army.

For as long as I’ve been alive the Fragment sector has existed in a constant state of unrest. There have been several uprisings through the years, always quickly squashed and severely punished. The last uprising ended in piles of rubble stretching for blocks and concealing the bodies of our comrades, with executions of the rebellion’s leaders spanning several weeks. It was a lesson not easily forgotten by most.

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