***This story is complete at 95,000 words and I am currently looking for a beta reader. Please message me if you are interested in reading and giving feedback on the rest of the story.
She’d been right, of course, after being up with her most of the night he’d been practically worthless the next day. And today he’d needed to work twice as hard to make up for it. However now that he’d finally hauled himself up to his loft and collapsed into bed, sleep didn’t have the grace to join him. So he laid there, listening to the sounds of the sleeping city. There wasn’t much to hear and definitely no footsteps on his roof. The light from the fading moon barely reached into the dark room. Still his eyes were fixed on the spot in the ceiling where he knew the crack was. He’d laughed the next morning when he saw it. Once he was caught up with his work and had time to spare he would need to patch it. Till then, he’d just have to hope it didn’t rain or else he would need to move his cot and get a bucket.
Jay wasn’t even aware he’d fallen asleep but he must have because something woke him. He rubbed his eyes, scratched his chest and froze. His heart lurched as he realized someone was downstairs. Quiet as he could he crept to the opening in the floor and peered down. Even before his eyes could adjust to the glow, he knew it was her. She was dressed in all black. Her hood and cloak draped over her. He knew her shadowy figure was enough to have everyone fearing a monstrous wraith. But now that he knew what lay beneath he could see the slightness of her form and the grace in her movements. For a moment Jay just stood there bent over the opening, blinking at the shimmering light of her moonstone, not quite sure if he was dreaming or not. From the second she’d walked out the door he had wanted to see her again. He’d spent the last 48 hours trying to convince himself it would never happen. Yet he had still caught himself watching out the window, checking the faces of everyone who passed by.
“You came back,” he said softly and watched as she pushed her hood back to look around the woodshed. “Up here.”
“What are you doing up there?” she asked moving to stand under the opening.
“Same as the other night, trying to sleep but someone keeps waking me up,” he teased with a grin but her face didn’t return any of his playfulness. Disappointment slashed through him. Something is wrong, he thought. His eyes scanned over her but there wasn’t much to see, with most of her hidden under layers of black, but she appeared to be moving fine. Her long black hair was braided back again, leaving the dark bruise and healing cut to stand out on the side of her forehead. All in all she looked much better than he’d expected after her fall.
He had just realized he should probably climb down when he saw she was already half-way up. It was a big step from the old wooden ladder to the loft floor, so he offered his hand when she reached the top. She ignored his hand and shot him a glare as if he’d just insulted her. Perhaps he had. She was the Raven after all. If she could sneak in and out of the palace, surely she could manage the climb into his loft. His loft. He still couldn’t quite believe she was here.
“I brought your shirt back,” she said, simultaneously shoving a canvas bag into his chest and pushing past him. The bag was way too heavy to contain just a shirt. He glanced at her curiously but she ignored his silent question and asked one of her own. “You live up here?”
“Uh, yes,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. His face warmed as her sharp eyes took in his tiny loft. His tattered cot, near the window, with the trunk at the foot which held just about everything he owned in the world. His boots were tucked neatly against the wall under his worn cloak, hung on a crooked nail. A nail he made crooked, unintentionally, when he first became a smith. Also tucked against the wall was a small table he’d built out of scraps of wood using similar quality nails. Never before had he been embarrassed by his room, not that many people saw it, but he had always been proud of what he’d been able to make for himself. There were plenty of people in this city who were worse off than he was.
“So then, why did you sleep on the floor when you could have just come up here and slept in your bed?” she asked seeming genuinely puzzled.
“Maybe I wasn’t ready to invite you into my bedroom,” he said trying to veil the truth with sarcasm.
“Too bad. I’m here now,” she replied with a shrug. She crossed the room and glanced out the little window. “Have you always lived here?”
“No,” was all he offered but she turned back to him waiting for more. Her eyes fixed on his but the light from her moonstone, with its constant shifting, made it impossible to see their true color. She won’t even tell me her real name but she expects my life story? he thought but with a sigh he gave in. “I lived in an orphanage until a few months ago. I turn 18 next month and would have been on the streets but Master Evans took me in as his senior apprentice. He lets me live up here. It’s not a bad deal. On top of my apprentice work, I help out around the house and Mrs. Evans is a great cook,” he finished with a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
“What happened to your parents?” she asked, her attention on the window again and he wondered for a moment if she was watching for someone.
“My mother died when my sister was born. My father and sister in the invasion,” he said, his heart twisting so hard he thought he might double over. “Yours?” he asked unable to keep the emotion out of even the single word.
“The invasion,” she said but her voice was flat. “Do you remember them?”
“Yes,” he answered, his heart splitting further open with every beat. He couldn’t talk about them. This was where he would draw the line. A firm line. “Do you remember yours?”
“No, I was too young.” Despite the lack of sorrow or any emotion in her voice, he still had the urge to go to her—to console her. Maybe it was more for his own benefit than hers. But ever since he saw her the other night lying in the street, he’d had this unyielding urge to protect her. Which he knew was absurd, she could clearly take care of herself. Still the feeling was there and he couldn’t seem to shake it.
“How old are you?” he asked. He’d been wondering ever since he’d first laid eyes on her.
“I should go.”
“No. Sorry, I was just wondering.”
“Younger than you but old enough,” she said crossing her arms defensively but he noticed she didn’t move to leave.
“That’s what I figured,” he said with a smirk.
“Still… I should go. I’m leaving at dawn.”
“Yeah and I can’t tell you, so don’t ask,” she snapped and he threw his hands up, as if surrendering. This time she did move. He watched her as she walked toward the ladder. As she passed by there was a faint but unmistakable scent of lavender. Sweet and calming and completely at odds with her dark cloak trailing behind her − melting into the darkness. His heart slammed against his chest as if it could make him move. His mind rummaged for something to say, anything that would keep her there a moment longer. But it was her words that filled the silence between them. “Why did you help me? Why aren’t you afraid of me?” she asked looking back at him.
“Why would I be afraid of you?”
“I’m the Raven,” she said, her eyes falling to the floor. “I’m a criminal… and a killer.” It was the first time, other than lying facedown in the street, that he thought she looked vulnerable. This time he did step forward to reach for her but she stepped back so suddenly that he feared she would tumble through the opening in the floor, which only spurred his urge to grab her but he held himself back.
“No, you’re not,” he said, his voice was firm despite his heart beating wildly in his chest. “You oppose Algerron’s rule. You’ve done nothing but help the people. I have no reason to be afraid of you and every reason to help you.” Her eyes flicked back up to his but she didn’t look as if she believed him.
“Well, thank you,” she said climbing onto the ladder. “Goodnight, Jay.”
“Goodnight…” He couldn’t bring himself to call her Raven but he had no other name to use so the word just hung there in the darkness—unfinished.