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The girl who climbed the tree

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Thorn had felt quite safe until the girl started to climb the tree.

Well, it was not that he ever felt completely “safe”, for the world was full of strange and unpredictable things like the weather, or people. But he had felt a measure of comfort, of reassurance, that came with the accomplishment of a task. He had felt it like this: first, his muscles had gradually eased, until he was able to grip the branch he sat on with only the precise amount of strength needed to remain upright. Then, his breathing had slowed. And with that, he became more aware of his surroundings. Of the coolness wafting up from the water in a breeze that made the willow twigs dance. Of how nice it felt to be finally out of the sun.

He had watched the leaves and the rippling water until he understood that even in such a dirty place, a place full of mud and plants and tiny animals, there was structure and order. It was strangely soothing. Like the dapples of sunlight he caught in his hands. Branch braced with his legs, he studied their flickering movements on his palms when he heard the rustle, crunching and cracking of the girl.

She was not very good at sneaking. She slipped quite a lot, which made her advance noisy and messy. Her master should have taught her better.

Thorn let the sunlight go. Belly flat on the branch, he watched her coming up. Her scarf was moving, winding through her tousled hair, making her look even more dishevelled. She was high enough now that he could see her face. Parts of it shone red, visible even in the shade: the rings around her eyes behind her glasses, what he could glimpse of her ears, her cheeks and, especially shiny, the tip of her nose.

It looked nice. Because of the red flower design on her dress. Thorn liked it when colours matched.

Feet dangling, he thought for a while. A red face could mean physical exhaustion. Which was a reasonable hypothesis; after all, the girl was climbing a tree. But red could also indicate a whole range of emotions. Excitement, for example, or embarrassment, or anger.

He remembered very well the red blossoming on his master’s face.

“Take on the boy, they said, he has a keen mind, they said. He will serve you well, they told me. Now look at what my charitable heart has got me into.”

Thorn blinked the memory away. The girl had come to halt a few branches below him and was settling into her new position with a small sigh, a sound which supported his exhaustion hypothesis. Seeing a person up close made it easier to judge their age. There were no wrinkles in her face except for the furrow of her brow. The ratio of eyes, nose and mouth told him that she wasn’t older than him. Younger by a year or two, more likely. And smaller by ways.

All in all, the girl made less sense the more he thought about it. The probability of her climbing, by coincidence, the exact tree he sat in was negligibly small. She was after something, then. After him. He did not have any coins on his person and his clothes did not look rich. His master made sure of that. That left only one other, and one most appalling, conclusion.

She knew who he was. Who his master was and his master’s master. They wanted to get at the Treasurer.

But why sending a child, and an obviously clumsy one at that? By now, she was hiccuping quietly while stroking her scarf. Where was the rest of her troupe?

There was one thing he had to admit: she had outmanoeuvred him quite expertly. Cornered him. There was no other way to the ground but past her. Counting on plain body strength, he should be able to overpower her. But he lacked essential information. Was that scarf dangerous? Did she hide any weapons?

His breath quickened with the rate of his pulse. He felt for the fob watch in his pocket. Maybe that was what she was after. He would never let her take it, though; over his dead body he would let her take the one precious item he owned. Touching the seamless steel gave him strength.

It was an accident. When the casing of his watch clicked open inside his pocket with a metallic creak, the girl flinched and looked up.

 

***

 

Why, why, why, Ophelia thought as she climbed up the tree. The question kept thrumming through her head, reverberating like an echo on one of her uncle’s gramophone records. Why this stupid holiday? Why did they have to come to Stellaris?

“How the neighbours will envy us,” her mother had said, glowing with delight. She had first wrapped her hands around her face, then around her equally round belly. Other women in her condition would have balked at the idea of travel, but oh, not her mother. Pregnancies only transformed her from vivacious into exuberant.

“Think about the fashion and the styles from all over the arks,” Agathe had added. She couldn’t wait to brag in front of her classmates about travelling to such an exotically cosmopolitan place.

Domitilla, Beatrice and Leonora, too young to fully understand what was going on, had been obviously excited about the idea of a journey, as small children naturally would be.

Ophelia had dreaded it.

It was not that she wasn’t curious, that she didn’t want to see other arks, but she knew from the beginning that a holiday with her family would mean plain disaster. On top of that, she would miss the museum where she had recently started to help out as an assistant. She had to take leave just when she had found a place where she felt welcome and useful.

With a horde of siblings on board, the crossing by zeppelin had been as exhausting as one could imagine. Instead of helping her to herd the little ones, Agathe preferred to flutter her eyelashes at the ship’s boy. After landing, things only got worse. The long queue at immigration control finally ended in front of two Florins in iridescent green robes and with leaves sprouting from their skin. Her mother had been in the process of proudly presenting their tourist visas to the officers, when her father got arrested for smuggling illicit objects” and “excitation of public nuisance”. The object at fault was Father’s cowhide suitcase, which, after Leonora had used it for a pony ride, was having a fit involving a lot of snarling, rattling and bumping into strangers’ calves.

Turned out that the Interfamilial Ark’s ban on the use of family powers – to maintain public order – extended to animated objects. Ophelia, observing the scene from behind her mother’s voluminous backside, had closed her eyes, praying that her scarf would stay docile. It had recently started to show signs of a will of its own. It seemed, however, that she and her scarf were totally forgotten on the backdrop of the commotion. The situation was eventually resolved by quarantining the suitcase and paying a whopping fine after it had taken a bite out of the official with the particularly grassy fingers.

But that had only been the beginning. Being embarrassed for her family had not been as bad as being thrust into the centre of attention herself. The memory of her “performance” at the market was as fresh in her mind as it was painful.

Ophelia slowed her climb and settled into a branch fork. She decided to relax, to not think about what had happened. She felt heat rising inside her. Incredible how her face could get even hotter, after all the running and climbing.

She had run through the crowd, run to escape the humiliation, run from the guards shouting after her, run until her legs were shaking and her breath came hot and unsteady. When she stopped to wheeze and lean over with her hands on her knees, she was facing a gate. An unassuming, rusty, squealing thing; so out of place among Stellaris’s straight lanes and portentous edifices that she felt instantly drawn to it. Upon entering, she had found a sanctuary, hidden away behind brick walls and the backs of buildings. There were creepers conquering the remains of a crumbling ruin, trees rising into the sky, providing shelter from the burning sun, and a pond sparkling from the depth of their shade. A willow grew sloping towards the water, the curtain of its foliage beckoning her to seek its refuge.

If they went looking for her, they would never find her here. Served them right. Mother would panic, and they all would see what they had done to her by dragging her along on this great excursion.

She pushed her glasses up her nose. Then she heard something, a metallic click, something that created a peculiar counterpoint to the music of rustling leaves and birdsong. When she looked up, there was a boy in the tree.

 

***

 

Thorn knew how to keep control in stressful situations. It was easy. Keep calm and think fast. So. She knew he had been up here, but now she knew that he knew she knew. This would be the moment then for her to take action, to abandon all pretences. Where she would draw her weapon or use her powers. In situations like these, it was highly annoying that he had not yet mastered his Claws to the same extent as his Memory. Using his family powers – Thorn shuddered at the thought. He couldn’t help it. He just didn’t like breaking rules.

He would have an advantage if she underestimated him. He needed to appear unthreatening. The right gesture would be to lift his hands, but then he was more likely to fall. He searched his memory for suitable alternatives.

 

***

 

The boy’s eyes were grey and piercing, and he clung catlike to the branch above her, white like a sheet and with short-cropped hair. Ophelia was dumbstruck. The boy kept staring. Then he nodded, three slow times.

 

***

 

When the girl rose to her feet, steadying herself with one hand on the tree trunk, Thorn prepared for the attack. What followed, however, took him by surprise. She slipped. Eyes widened behind glasses and then she was gone.

 

***

Cold water was always coldest when it hit unexpectedly. Ophelia’s breath escaped her in bubbles. She immediately paddled to the surface to catch some air and then ducked back under. Cold became cool and then refreshing as her body adjusted to the water. She let herself sink down, savoring the sudden decrease of temperature on her skin.

The pond was rimmed by heavy, black rocks, but much deeper in its middle than it had looked like from above. The water was crystal clear. Sun beams created pools of light on the sandy ground. Fish flitted in and out of their water plant homes. It was another world, part of and yet separated from the one at the surface.

Her scarf came loose from her neck and, obviously annoyed with the wet element, whirled back to the surface, undulating like a snake.

Ophelia smiled, little pearls of air tickling her nose. She stayed as she was for a while longer, suspended in a world between worlds. Until a heavy weight crashed into it.

 

***

 

What his senses told him did not make much sense when Thorn came back to them. His head was both comfortably cushioned and throbbing with pain. Heat warmed his skin, yet he was shivering. When he blinked open his eyes, there were four eyes blinking back from above until they assembled into two. Thorn rolled to the side to cough out water. He puked a bit and it rose burning into his nose. When he dropped back his head, he realized with a start where “back” was. The girl’s lap.

All the muscles in his body stiffened. He was at her mercy. It should have been the other way round. Something had got terribly wrong. The girl must be stronger than she looked like if she had dragged him out of the water. He memorized that.

“Ok. Just take it easy,” the girl said.

“What were you doing in my tree?”

He would extract any information he could from her. Before she did to him what she had come for.

“You – you can speak?”

That tone of voice meant something. He squinted up. Her eyebrows were lifted as in … surprise? Thorn was still dazed, his head pounding like hell, but a small knot of anger started to form inside his belly. He hated it when people did not say what they meant. Or did not mean what they said. After all, his master had told him to take care of the Treasurer’s belongings, before he had shut the door, leaving him all alone in the grand hotel suite.

“You hurt your head when you fell. Now hold still.”

He had not fallen. She had. He had peered through the leaves and when a sole scarf floated to the surface, he had jumped. That the girl was a criminal didn’t mean he would let her drown.

The lap shifted, which meant a sudden wash of vertigo for Thorn. He caught a flash of something yellow and then a pungent scent enveloped him.

“It’s a herb, good for bruises. It grows where I come from, that’s how I know it. You press the juice out of the leaves like this – “

Cool fingers slid over his head and Thorn sharply drew in his breath. After a few heartbeats, the throbbing actually eased a bit. He stopped the girl by gripping her wrist.

“Your ministrations are a waste of time. You can tell your master that I am of no value. The Treasurer wouldn’t care less if I went missing. I am but his assistant’s helper. And I know nothing of the Treasury.”

The last bit was a lie. A lie that was as good as the truth, because he wouldn't give away any of the secrets he had figured out since he had taken on the job. There were, however, a lot of means a skilful person could employ to make people talk. His heart beat faster and he gritted his teeth.

“My … master? I don’t understand.”

Thorn extricated himself from the girl and slowly sat up, sheltering his head inside his hands, waiting for the pounding to stop.

“Do we have to play this game? I know that you’re one of the pickpockets.”

“Pickpockets?!”

That was another tone of voice she spoke with and it meant something else. Thorn was too tired to think about it. He pressed his eyes shut. A small groan escaped him.

“I saw you. At the market.”

“Oh. Oh!”

 

***

 

Realization dawned on Ophelia. She could feel the blush on her cheeks, hot and horrid. He had seen her.

“What exactly did you see?” Her voice came a little shaky.

“Enough,” the boy growled from behind his palms. Then he slowly lifted his head, blinking. “The whole troupe was positioned at their posts. You stood at your master's side, ready to perform some sleight of hand, while your fellow thugs sneaked through the crowd of onlookers, cutting purse strings and pulling wallets out of pockets.

“I would have called the guards right away if this had happened on the Pole. As it was, it was hardly my responsibility. And I had a task of my own to fulfil; I couldn't waste time on doing the Stellaris Guardian’s job.”

He spoke so earnestly. Ophelia studied the slim, pale face from which his eyes regarded her warily. His wet clothes clung to him like a second skin, making him look even thinner than he was. She found him oddly charming for one so full of righteousness.

“So you didn’t see how I busted the whole thing?”

“Busted?”

“You know, cards flying in all directions, attacking the crowd.” Ophelia waved her hand. “Alarming the guards, who came running to arrest the troupe for the unlawful use of family powers.”

Ophelia hadn't even realized what was happening before it was too late. She had been standing in the thick of the market-goers, taking in the strangeness of the place. Voices in many different accents washed over her like waves crashing on a beach. A Cyclops thundered past on legs like tree trunks, and there was a spirit animal hovering in the air above her, an ugly, fish-like creature with many appendices and a gaping maw full of sharp teeth. She was scrutinizing the red string that connected the animal with its Totemist, a ferocious-looking women, when suddenly a heavy palm landed on her shoulder.

A broad hat with a face somewhere hidden in its shadows peered down at her.

“Applause for the volunteer!”

Bedazzled and belatedly, Ophelia grasped that she stood in the middle of a ring of people who had all taken a step backwards.

Come on then, young Miss.”

While the man relentlessly steered her to a small platform, she stuttered something in her defense, mumbling, searching the crowd for a face she knew. She found none. A Diviner, hands clasped, their Third Eye blinking, smiled at her knowingly.

And when the man had handed her the cards, all her pent-up nervousness had finally exploded in a sudden bout of animism.

Ophelia stifled a laugh. What the boy had told her put the events at the market in a whole new light. It was so much easier to accept her constant mishaps when something good came out of them at the end of the day.

“I am not a thug. I was but a pawn they had picked from the crowd.”

The boy didn’t answer but kept furrowing his brow. Ophelia shrugged and stood. Her stomach clenched when he flinched. Another insight occurred to her.

“Do you … fear me?”

She couldn’t believe that there were people in the world who could misjudge her so completely. She slowly sank down again, to kneel beside him. Without a word, Ophelia pulled out the item she had put into her pocket, for safekeeping.

“Is that yours? I find it fascinating that it's still working. I didn’t know that there were waterproof fob – “

With the velocity and the litheness of a cat, the boy had snatched the watch from her.

He went silent for some time, carefully placing his hands around the object and turning it back and forth. When he finally took his eyes off the watch, it was as if he was seeing her for the first time.

“You lost your glasses,” he said at last.

“That’s why I was searching the pond.”

“Oh.”

“It doesn’t matter. My eyesight is not that bad. I’ll be fine. What about you?”

“I think I got sufficiently lost, thank you.” He nodded stiffly.

Ophelia knit her brows. The head wound. The boy was not well. She was about to draw closer, in case he fainted, when he continued to speak.

“That was what my master had told me to do. To get lost before he forgot himself. Getting lost, however, is not so easy when you have memorized the entire map of the city. Luckily, there was a white spot on the map. That’s why I came here.”

“A charming fellow, your master. What had made him so angry?”

The boy went still again, very still. He slung his arms around his knees and bowed his head. Droplets ran from his hair. Ophelia found it suddenly hard to breathe out. She felt something, no, rather a ton of muddled somethings, but when the boy didn’t answer, disappointment spread inside her belly, plain and simple. The wind stirred, and she realized she felt cold despite the sun. She let her gaze wander over the silent trees, silent as the boy beside her. She would get her scarf and go.

“I – I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”

The boy’s voice was tight. Ophelia tilted her head toward him, slowly, as if he were a wild animal that was easily scared.

“He had told me. To take care. I like to take care. At home, when I tidied up, I used to sort my siblings’ toys after colours. And size. That’s what I did. With the Treasurer’s things.”

She looked up at him and their gazes caught. The grey was not piercing. Intense, yes, and full of hurt. Ophelia realized how much taller he was than her, yet he seemed so small, so forlorn. A sudden urge to take his pain away came over her.

When he came to a wobbly stand, trying to conceal the effort it obviously cost him, she bent forward and very cautiously touched the boy’s leg.

“Wait. Don’t go.”

She took it as a good sign when he didn’t draw back.

“Would you mind taking care of me?” Ophelia blushed when she realized what she had said. “I mean, as in helping me out.”

The boy eyed her questioningly.

“I need to get back to my family’s hotel room. For me, Stellaris is a maze. I definitely ran in circles when I came here, and I lost all sense of direction. But since you have memorized the city’s map...”

When a smile dawned on the boy’s face, Ophelia felt something blossoming inside her in return. Maybe a tree felt about sunlight like she felt about his smile. Warm and nourishing at the same time.

 

***

 

She likes me, Thorn thought when the girl smiled. It was absurd, incredible and highly implausible. Yet it felt true.

She stood. Water dripped from her dress, trickling down her calves. He waited for her to pick up her scarf, which had already wrung itself out on its own.

How could he have ever found her clumsy? Even half-wet from her dip in the pond, she was beautiful.

Although she didn’t need it, she graciously took the arm he extended to her. Although it was more her steadying him than him leading her to the exit of the garden, he was oddly proud of himself. As if he had just accomplished a very difficult task and done well by it. He looked down at the girl who had climbed the tree.

It was absurd, incredible and highly implausible, but with her at his side, he felt safe.