“What did she do when she arrived there?”
“She stood out and caught attention.”
Six Months Ago
There were a pair of brothers in the Cemetery. One restless. One calm. The first one – Lucian – felt like a livewire was lodged underneath his skin, the sensation never slowing or stopping. The second one – Hadrian – didn’t share the same feeling, they were in the home of the dead, possibly one of the safest places to be in the city.
The pair looked like ghosts in the pale light of morning. Both fair and slender enough to pass for the supernatural. “I never liked being here,” Lucian enquired shifting his shovel from his left shoulder to the right.
“You didn’t even attend the funeral brother,” Hadrian replied, staring at the temporary wooden marker driven into the soil: Alexander Wyrick. Their father’s plot. The elephantine stone would take over a year to be constructed but the humbled, now deceased, man had requested a wooden marker until it was finished. Their father was always a planner. Some would say that he had planned his own death. Rumours were fishes on land though, lies and slander amongst the people but believed in nonetheless.
“I was in prison, it wasn’t exactly a decision made with my choice in mind.” Lucian had taken up humming a nonsensical tune to mask the discomfort beating in his pulse.
Hadrian plunged his shovel into the soil, moist with the dawn’s dew. They weren’t there to bicker about the past, they were there to return a stolen relic to their father. He could only wonder if the criminals pondered that if they had attacked a few days later they would have to do the exact same job they were doing. “Everyone here besides us is dead, brother, they aren’t going to rise up and steal your soul. Stop believing in voodoo and stick your shovel in,” Hadrian smirked at his innuendo, which widened still as his brother grimaced and did as he was told.
“The book better be safe here or else I’m going to scream,” Lucian muttered, tossing his hair into a swift knot at the back of his head.
“Save that for the bedroom.”
The two brothers dug up their father’s grave to hide a once stolen book of secrets. One was a King. The other the King’s Brother.
The best part about the docks lied in what they symbolised. Docks are like bookends: new beginnings and long awaited endings, arrivals and departures, hellos and goodbyes. You enter from sea to land. Away from endless stretches and into clustered confines. Out from familiarity and in to something completely foreign. The docks were an area of transit. Cassiopeia wished there was a time-lapse to show how people change between departures and arrivals. She also knew that when she left Irille she wouldn’t be the same person she was then. She knew it because she wasn’t the same person she was when she left Sars.
Irille was the first mainland she had ever saw and the sheer vastness of it astounded her. The sky and beyond were the limits here.
“Are you going to be okay?” Tommen asked her, his grim expression flooded with care. He wanted to make sure that this was what she wanted even if their Captain was adamant that the crew wouldn’t stay there to see her settle.
"You don't have to worry about me you know?" She smiled at him, drawing her arms to cover her stomach as she did so. You just showed him how nervous you are stupid, and the inner voice was back. Cassiopeia stopped her nervous tick and uncoiled.
"I'm allowed to be worried, we're leaving you here alone and - "
"I've basically been taught how to defend myself," Cassiopeia retorted.
" - it's dangerous here," he finished and shot his friend a glare, "Basically is the key word their missy. I'm staying here, you can't get rid of me now."
"Tommen you signed a contract, you can't leave your service just yet."
By the look on his face she knew that he had forgotten that.
He sighed and stared at her with keen eyes. This was the last time he was going to see her for who know's how long. He would miss her.
The stare made her warm and uncomfortable at the same time. You know what that means don't you, the inner voice was heavily denied and pushed back.
“Welcome to Irille, the land of the cold and fair headed,” Tommen joked and hugged her. It was true that in this northern city it was cold, colder than the eastern islands she was used to. Another truth was that there everyone was of a similar appearance, light skin and fair hair and dark eyes. She was as different to that preset category as anyone could get. The hug was a warm comfort, and they both knew that could quite possibly be the last interaction they could have.
“I will come back to The Night Thief you know,” Cassiopeia muttered into the cage Tommen provided around her, “I promise. But it may be months or years down the line.”
“That will have to be enough I suppose,” he murmured back and withdrew from her, his sad smile turning happier for her. Their departure was anticlimactic. A friendly stare and handshake before they both turned and walked away.
Neither could understand their Captains reluctance to stay in the city but Avery was wise enough to make his own decisions. They shouldn’t argue with it.
Summer had finished and the city was plunged into a contrast between the duller skies and the natural rust of the constructed buildings and fallen leaves. Cassiopeia could get used to the beauty. Eventually.
In a world so unknown to her, she was enamoured at the craft of the landscape wrapped tightly around the arches and angles of structures. She had seen plenty of people on her journey here, diverse populations with varying agendas, but she had never seen a civilisation so magnificent and huge before. This was what she had hoped for. This was exactly what her dreams had forged for her. She could belong here, improve here, and make a mark here.
There were plenty of words – better words and startling imagery – that could describe it. But her brain couldn’t work fast enough to think of them, nevertheless to form them into apt enough sentences.
Curiosity was a tricky fellow, one which would lead anyone astray.
In the colourful whir of crowds Cassiopeia moved as though cautious of breaking something, her movements slow to catch every detail of her surroundings, yet quick enough for her eyes to swallow more sights.
First she needed a place to stay. Something temporary for now, just a roof over her head. That was the first, and most demanding, task to complete. She could explore more after she had done that.
The Golden Compass wasn’t a lucky find, it was a jutting out rectangle, avoided by the blocks of people. Not hard to miss, it was an inn obviously advertised for travellers. One piece of normality amongst the undiscovered.
Its walls were dingy but lathered in papers and photos. Memories. News. A bank of knowledge pasted onto rough cut bricks. The floors were stained, and Cassiopeia knew that they were never polished just given a quick sweep with water and soap. The owner probably watered down the drinks to keep the customers coming back for more. It was something. A phenomenon like that was a fixed point across the world. Everywhere had one or more of places the exact same.
The crew of The Night Thief would appreciate the sentiment, the feeling of it. They were used to it, never seeing anything else. She wasn’t. Sentiment aside, this was the perfect place to start.
“Evening,” said Cassiopeia, pausing to sit and motion for a drink.
“Evening, novy,” the barkeep replied. The man was a weed. Lanky and gaunt yet still appearing daunting and imposing. Prickled with a weeks old beard and finished off with a scroll of art down the neck of his shirt.
That was as much as they said to each other, the man not eager to talk. He was like that with all the customers, reserved but with a beady stare.
She observed. The place had somewhat of a routine, a group of people would come in, drink a few, laugh even more, and leave after some hours. Repeat. Repeat. Some would linger, chasing after the steam trails of food, or seeking a stupor.
“Seat taken?” Another woman beckoned at her, even though she was already sitting and nursing a drink.
Cassiopeia said nothing.
“Is it true?” she persisted, “What they say?”
“Depends on who’s talking and what they are talking about.” She had imagined this dance for a while, the match being struck on a conversation of who she was supposed to be and her reason for being there. She had been warned of this. She was prepared for this.
The woman was a fraction too short for her coat, the hem dangling near to the floor. Her dark eyes peered at her through the neat rims of makeup, her lips puckered in question scrunching the gloss on them into attention.
“They say you arrived on the thief of night,” Cassiopeia didn’t correct her on the name, the woman knew what it was, “That you have the desire to stay – to find something.” The second part was made in slow bursts, anticipating Cassiopeia’s reaction to each word. They were built out of estimations and not of concrete.
“Now who’s been telling you that?”
“People see you leaving the ship this morning, the second I made on my own mind,” the woman responded, then tipping her drink to her.
If the world was a fair and easy place it then would’ve went like this:
“I am Lisa and I can help you.”
“Why would you want to?”
“Because you are novy.” Lisa said it as a statement, “There are rooms here that can house you, only twenty golden per week if you help here.”
She was somewhat alright with the charity. Nobody got by on their own.
“You always bring in the strays, wife,” The owner chuckled as money was exchanged.
But – and there was always a but – the world didn’t work that way:
“Well, you have a perceptive mind,” Cassiopeia answered, compliments always benefitted people especially if you had never met them before.
“Why thank you novy, my husband says that too,” the woman took another swig of her drink, nearly finishing it off.
“Lisa,” the owner grumbled and turned away when Lisa glared at him.
“I am looking for somewhere to stay, maybe here?” Cassiopeia asked in caution, she didn’t know the sort of people the pair were.
“What do we get out of it?” Lisa debated, life was a gigantic negotiation Avery had taught. Everyone got something out of a situation, it was a game everyone knew how to play since they learned how to walk.
“What do you want me to do?” Leaving the options open didn’t have her interests in mind but it was the likeliest way she would get to stay there.
“We’re older than yesterday, novy, and the occupants get rougher tomorrow,” Lisa started and looked to the owner – who by now could quite possibly be Lisa’s husband - and gave a nod, “Work for us.”
“And how does that affect how much I pay for the rooms?” The one who asked questions during the negotiations knew the ins and outs of the deal, therefore no loopholes on their part could be exploited.
“What you earn each month will be deducted off the total, if you earn more than that you pocket the spare change,” The owner growled, taking the reins of the debate.
Cassiopeia nodded and finished her drink. She was right, he watered down the alcohol.
Hadrian drew a straight, black line through the number ten on his task list for the day. If anyone could see the list, they would see a pile of papers with numbers high enough to evoke a gasp or cough. Another pill was required, he would like to think. It would steal the ache from his bones and the apprehension from his mind.
Time was running, sprinting with boundless energy.
He hated it.
Stars burst across his tongue as the pill was swallowed. The room seemed a bit brighter. He could do this. He had to do it anyway.
No guard had to warn him of the time, he knew of it very clearly. The corridors were near to empty as he trotted through them, nodding to the serving girls who topped up the flowers. Dismissing the blushes painted suddenly on their cheeks.
He knew that he looked dashing in his ceremonial robes. But it was probably the crown that caught their eye. The copper circlet was made obvious by the lightness of his hair, it was the first and last thing people saw about him. If the lookers were brave enough they would see the defined cheekbones, the curved yet stern lips. The features deemed flattering by his mother.
Lucian met him at the doors, “You look better than this morning,” he was of course referring to their time in the graveyard, where eyes were sunken in with fatigue and stress, movements like that of machines.
“I always look this good,” he retorted, hesitating with his hand on the doorknob.
You could hear the crush of the crowd from there. It was near deafening. Their fury and bloodthirsty excitement was contagious, enough to make his heart beat with less impact. He was calm now. He was ready now. The pill and the rush had done their job.
“Great things are achieved by a collection of smaller deeds combined,” the crowd silenced as he made his way to the front of the balcony and spoke with the commanding tone of a king, “Those small deeds were accomplished due to the effort of every single citizen alive!”
The sea of people roared once more. His people were lions.
“I thank you for that. In reward you captured the criminal who stole from Our Father,”
The lions hissed and showed their utter displeasure for the wrongdoer.
“Today, we bear witness to his atonement, to death by element. Of which I have chosen fire!”
The King watched the criminal squirm on his pyre. He was defiant and tight lipped, yet the thought of his demise changed him. It was like the position of ruler changed Hadrian. But he couldn’t think of it that way. The criminal said nothing as he stared at the torches in the guard’s hands. He was skittish but not enough to try and escape or struggle. He was a wise man in that regard.
The flames struck the pool of logs at his feet and were reborn as an inferno. It was quick, loud, and painful. They took his voice first. Then his body. Then his soul. The fire would burn brighter once darkness fell completely and they would burn through the night, serving as a message for others to be frightened into staying alive instead of committing a crime.
Hadrian knew that his people would rejoice in their victory of punishing a criminal. They were already beginning to do so. He was going to celebrate with them until a dot of darkness seized his movements.
It was a girl – no a woman, if he was to be correct. She had dark skin, a stark contradiction to his people. Her hair was windswept and unkempt. Her posture straight and elegant yet with tightly curled fists at her side and tightly coiled. The aspect that stood out was her light eyes, the palest yet bright green, lighted with acidity. He recognised it; it was of anger. And it was directed at him.
She wasn’t from here. She was made out of pure spirit and life. A star on earth. Yet a hurricane in space.
She wasn’t special, she was different. She was novy. New.
He liked different.
Lethologica. It was a noun meaning when you can’t think of a word for something.
That was what she felt. She couldn’t come up with or even create a word for what she was feeling.
Seeing a man being burned alive due to a crime couldn’t warrant an emotion with the intensity she felt. It was off the scale, a lightning bolt of anger and remorse and disgust. A chaos within her skin which she didn’t know how to deal with.
She couldn’t get the image of the criminal’s eyes. They were afraid, so afraid that they were constantly aimed at the sky. She would normally think that it was to witness life for the last time, to be reminded of something precious and wonderful before his death. But if she was being truthful, she would have said that it was because he didn’t want the crowd to see the exact moment the light left his eyes.
To attempt to deal with herself she practiced what her Captain had taught her. In the three or so months on the sea after Roche, Avery had tried to teach her fighting with her fists and with a sword. She could somewhat handle a close range fight, knowing which areas to go for first and when to strike. It was the sword that was giving her problems. Cassiopeia couldn’t fathom how to act as if the weapon was an extension of her arm rather than a dangerous blade close to her body. A phantom whisper of Avery’s words echoed through her ears as she went through some manoeuvres, slashing the sword through the air across her chest.
“You usually have a battle between your head and your heart, but in a sword fight your gut has to always win.”
She imagined a situation. It was dark, she was blind but she was also hidden. There were three opponents all equally as blind.
“Relax! A lack of mental clarity is fatal. You need your mind to co-ordinate your speed and control. Being frazzled helps exactly no-one.”
She imagined that the three were in a rough triangular formation around her, walking carefully to sense anyone in close proximity. She had to be silent otherwise her cover was blown.
“Keep your body balanced so you can strike or parry without being hit. Always have your feet shoulder wide and when you move, move so your legs spread apart.”
She couldn’t retreat without making the others advance. She imagined someone had pushed her. Instead of attacking she concentrated on saving herself from falling. She imagined the slight rasp of material ripping as if being caught and broke upon her fall. Her position was no longer a secret. She had to attack. It was blocked by one of her attackers.
“Have a strong defense. Engage with care.”
She forgot that step. Her attention wavered with her mistake.
Her attackers disappeared, a figment of over concentrated thoughts.
Her previous emotions were replaced by determination and focus. She had to get this right. She had to realise that she was confined only by the walls she built herself. She had to escape them one day. There was so much out there to explore, even if they were tarnished in brutality.