TAB Chapter 2

Quest For a Dying Ember 

By the Hicklebee's Teen Advisory Board

 

Chapter One  Chapter Two  Chapter Three  Chapter Four

 

Luka Rowe

 

People keep their heads down in this part of town. 

That's just the way it's always been. Like they are born with a natural curve in their necks. But that's not the case. They grow them over time. Time spent avoiding eye contact with merchants aggressively showing their wares, or looking away from the women who spend their days waiting for strangers on street corners. They hide their faces from others when they go somewhere they shouldn't be, or to hide from enemies and mistakes they've made the last time they were here. Not that it matters why. All that's important to me, is how easily they forget the slope of the roofs. And how I don't.

The roofs are level and delicate and full of life, growth, and rot. Plants sprout here just as easily as they do on the brick streets, but they don't get trampled the same. They take root in the shallow dips and decaying tiles and indicate where it is and isn't safe to step. They're the first to get things like sunlight, and rain, and wind, and weather. And from here I can observe the same daily throng. Know who has and hasn't sold wares here before, and who doesn't know to watch. And, today, be one of the first to receive news.  Very unusual news. 

"His Majesty, King Cassius, is in search of an heir." They came and disrupted the morning order. Three men. One old, loud, and round, reads from a script, never letting his eyes stray. Like he doesn't want to see the people behind it. The other two, much younger than the first, set about handing out yellowed papers as soon as their shiny black boots were christened with the usual street muck. Neither of them looks thrilled. "It is a treacherous journey, not for the faint of heart," the round man drawls, shifting uncomfortably in his tailored coat. One of the younger men, brown-haired and pink-skinned, heaves a sigh and regrets it instantly. His face pinches, scrunching his round nose in disgust. I have overheard travelers saying the smell here isn't the most pleasing but is it really that bad? He turns his face, sleepily towards the sky and  a look of confusion spreads over him. Jaw slack, eyebrows sliding together, eyes squinting towards; Me. 

Most people don't look up. 

I wave, securing my other hand to the crumbling tiles and smile. Just a little. Nothing to remember. He swallows hard and his neck twitches. Then he shakes his head, returning to his task. On the other hand, I don't think I can return to what I was doing. After all, if one person looks up and sees something, won't others look the same way to see what's so odd? So, I pull my legs back up beside me and crawl around to the other side of the roof. There's a spot alongside the ally that's slouched down, relying entirely on the wall for support. That's where it's safe to leap unnoticed and straighten my skirts before stepping into their view. 

The young man who saw me is struggling. His arms are still full, but he doesn't appear to want to take another step away from the sturdy carriage he came in. It has been a while since its last rained. Everything from fruit peels to horse droppings pile up until they get washed away in poor weather. It must not be something he's used to. He looks out of place. Like he wasn't entirely prepared to come here. The kind of person who could easily become the victim of pickpocketing. But then again, It also wouldn't be hard to convince him. To just have him give me what I want. No slight of hand needed.  after all, why wouldn't I want a souvenir for something like this? Something that most definitely hasn't happened before? 

"Pardon me," I say softly .His eyes flick up from the mud slowly encroaching on his shoes. "May I have one?" He smirks,

"I'm not sure, didn't you hear?"

"Hear what?" 

"A treacherous journey, Mis, I'm sure it's unsuited for someone like you." His smile widens, pushing his round cheeks even closer to his ears. 

"Really?" Sputtering softly. "I could have sworn he only mentioned going to the Palace," I say, lifting one loosely balled hand up to my lips and hugging myself with my other arm, "And we can see that from here!" Tilting my head slightly. Of course, that's not what he ment. His eyebrow shifts. "But then, sometimes things can look closer than they are I suppose."

"No, that's not it," he shakes his head, "I'm referring to what comes after."

"Oh! what's that?" Widen eyes, and smile slightly. 

"I'm afraid I can't tell you that." He sighs. "Even I don't know that."

"Oh." glancing down and dropping my shoulders. "Sorry, I just assumed you would have known." He shakes his head again.

"No. unfortunately not. All that's been told is that it's dangerous. far too much for a young lady like you," 

"Young? I can't possibly be much younger than yourself."

"A lady, then," he clears his throat. "I'm sorry, I can't bring myself to give this to anyone who can be harmed by it." 

"Wow, that's so noble of you!" No wonder he still has so many while the other man only has a few left. "But actually, while I would love to see the Palace one day on my own, I couldn't possibly go." I smile, mostly with the eyes. "Father is far too protective to let me go about it alone. Or at all."

"Is that so?" 

"That's right." I nod. "Actually, I was asking for my brother. He couldn't be here today."

"How come?"

"Oh! he's training. You see, he's always wanted to be like Father. so he's gonna be a guard." I pause, glancing back to him for a moment. "Maybe, I should have said that first." 

"Quite," he mutters. "Is this brother of yours strong?" 

"Yes! One of the strongest I know." 

"And able-minded?"

"If anything, he's a fast learner." He squints, then sighs. almost like admitting defeat. 

"Then, I suppose there's no harm in it." Peeling a sheet from the top of the stack, and holding it out for me. 

"Oh, thank you!" smiling intently, taking the paper for myself.  

"Jacob," The older man calls, already inside the carriage. He doesn't seem too pleased waiting. And the young man, Jacob, spins around. like he forgot the round man was there. 

"You have to leave?" 

"Yeah," He mutters again. 

"I'd hate for you to get in trouble, for talking with me,"

"Don't worry," He says quickly,the words jumping from his mouth without warning. He grumbles, a deeper sound, adding, "wouldn't be your fault. Just be sure that gets to your brother." 

"Of course!" I smile as he starts to walk away. carefully avoiding the larger clumps. "Thank you, oh, travel safe!" I say, waving as the cabin door shuts behind him. The two dark dray horses start to move, lifting their hooves high enough to crush a small child, and pounding them back down hard enough to dislodge the old bricks. Changing them permanently, and leaving larger cracks for new dandelions to grow.

 

Mom can't stand the cold. I think she's just much too used to that stuffy old kitchen with the stoves permanently burning. Like her skin developed to prefer those high temperatures, and now even a night in our home can give her a chill. Even in the hotter months of summer. Or it would. If I didn't come home before sundown and start the stove up. I don't mind the chore. Years ago when she first mentioned how cold she felt, I had already taken it upon myself to come home early and  tidy things up before she gets home. Especially since after a day of work, she likes to talk. 

"You wouldn't believe how crowded it was!" Today, she came home especially tired. Stains on her skirts despite her apron, hairs pulling away from her tight bun, and trying to take on that wavy shape she fights so hard. "A crowd of folks I've never seen before," she pauses, sitting down at the sofa in front of the fire to unlace her boots. "Some of them even had money, Luka, get that?" 

"Did they really?" 

"Yes! These men had fine coats , combed hair, shaved faces, And you wouldn't believe how they drank!" 

"Oh?"

"Without restraint! They didn't even mind the cost, or even notice when we raised it. Of course," She waves a hand, scared by hot oil splatters, over her shoulder. "Elias didn't have trouble breaking up those petty fights."

"That's good." And unsurprising. Elias Ferguson has always been intimidating. He's large and Muscular, and his small eyes don't convey much at all. He would be frightening no matter how powerful his opponent, or how intoxicated they were. 

"Anyhow, I mentioned that you might be able to help with the tables at least." 

"I'm guessing he said no?" 

"That right," she sighs. Also unsurprising. On top of his freakish nature, he doesn't trust me. It's something even I don't understand, I haven't done anything to warrant his suspicion. I've never taken anything of his or his close patrons. But he still doesn't trust me. "And it would have made things so much easier." 

"I bet Mister Ferguson wants to work you raw."

"That's ridiculous!" She smiles, spinning around to face me. Then her expression shifts. 

"Luka, what's that you've got there?" 

"Oh, They were handing them out in the square this morning," I say, carefully flattening the creases from when I folded it into my pocket. "Mom, do you know when the first day of summer is?" 

"Why's that matter?" she mutters as I move to sit beside her. 

"Apparently, the king’s looking for an heir," I smirk, "And somehow he thought it would be a good idea to invite who knows how many people into the Palace on the first day of summer! Can you believe it?" 

"I suppose. It sounds dangerous to me,"

"Dangerous?"

"Think about it," She says, taking the flattened sheet into her own hands. "People from all over the country, All of them thinking themselves worthy of the throne?" she looks over the yellowed page. "They can't be safe."

"They're just people."

"People can be terrible." She shakes her head. "Especially in large, angry groups. People can be downright horrifying." Her eyes finish scanning the page, and all the frivolousness she had earlier melts away in the hearth. "Luka, why did you bring this here?" 

"Well, I thought it was interesting. that's all," 

"Oh?" She muddles as if to herself. "What part?" 

"Um," She stands up. leaving her shoes beside her seat. "you have to admit, having all those people in the Palace at once? People like us, Actually, I bet those wealthy people you saw earlier were coming for this! people like them too! All somewhere normally shut off from the public;" 

"Don't you see, that's the part that could go badly."

"I guess," I nod. "But havent you ever wondered what it's like there?"

"In the Palace?"

"Yeah!" I smile, mostly with eyes. The way she does and the way she should in this conversation, "It's always been right there. I see the walls every day, and I know, vaguely, what happens in them. But, I've never heard what it's really like there."

"You want to go?"

"Well, I guess. Seeing it for myself would be better than anything I could hear." I shrug. 

She doesn't say anything. She stands there, a little bit closer to the fire, glancing down at the paper in her hands. 

"It's a Treacherous journey," she whispers. Only loud enough to be heard over the logs tipping over in the fire

"Mom?" she shakes her head. 

“I don't think you get it Luka,” Her hand tightening, wrinkling the paper. "It's safe here. It's always been safe here." She says, growing in volume as she turns to face me. "I worked hard to get here Luka, Do you not understand that?" 

"Mom, it's just a flier,"

"It's these things that ruin it!" She spits, her eyes turning into hot copper daggers. "Things like this that lie, fooling people like you into taking the first step, then the next, then the next; all the way till you meet whatever thing they warned about!" Her teeth grinding together. "And they don't even have to pick a victim if you choose yourselves!" Her hands ball into fists, tearing the paper and forcing it into a tight, painful ball. 

"Mom!"

"And it's fools like you who fuel the beast!" She growls, raising her balled fist. 

I wake up and the room is dark. The fire running off embers. Smoking; filling the room with a heavy and dry smell that tickles my nose.  Mom is still fast asleep in the bed we used to share. She lets her hair down when she sleeps. If I never looked at her like this, I think I would have forgotten how long and dark it was long ago. During the day she keeps it hidden up all proper, just like the rest of her. But like this, she really looks relaxed. 

I slip quietly to the floor. toes first, absorb the sound. And crawl to the pile of wood we've gathered over time. The thing is, she gets mad when her safety is threatened. And she's perfected the art of anger. It's like she grows and swells and fills the room. Till I can't move, and it seems disrespectful to breathe without permission. It's a skill she learned when I was very little, and one that doesn't just affect one person. It suffocates the whole room. 

I select an older, dryer log from the bottom of the pile. Tossing it into the dying fire; blowing on the embers from the burnt paper she sacrificed so willingly. It catches, so I add on another log. I should have known she wouldn't take the news kindly. She never did like change. Even if she did find it interesting the way I did, what would we do? what even would I do? I couldn't go. I would be leaving my whole life behind! My life. Would I even miss it? 

The second log begins smoking, making the air even denser and causing my eyes to water. I shake my head, what was I thinking? Quickly, quietly so as not to wake her up, I cross to the kitchen window and open the pane. I would be leaving her behind. I know that would hurt her. I would lose the streets and the people, the rooftops, and the sunrises. The air is much lighter out there. The night is almost clear, with only a few shadows like clouds spread thin over the stars and the waning moon. Just enough to form dew by morning.

To tell the truth, It's not like I haven't thought about it before. Stories about adventure are everywhere. In the news and gossip,and even this land's history. I've always heard stories of heroes who set out on a whim. It's such a tempting idea. One I'd normally save for brief moments of escapism. I've thought of packing that old leather satchel mom keeps in the back of the closet with only the things I absolutely need, then go see the places traveling merchants talk about. The ones with tall mountains, dark lakes, bogs, forests, and sunsets over water that looks like it could go on forever. It's fanciful, romantic, unrealistic, incredibly naive, and so deadly. I know that. and it's even more tempting than all those things put together. 

I have to take the chance. I have to! I don't know if I could miss this place, or my life here. But I won't ever know if I never try to learn. Even though leaving could hurt her so much it could kill her, but if I do it right, she might even forgive me for leaving her behind. In the best case, I won't have to give up a single thing! But If I wait till morning to leave , she'll know and I’ll lose my chance.

The closet creaks when I open it. I must have pulled it too quickly. Luckily, Mom's a deep sleeper. I start digging, past the broom and pan, the heavy winter coats, and the pink dress I never had the chance to wear. That large leather bag she's kept hidden back here for as long as I can remember. Carefully, I pull it out. Avoiding the rest of the closets contents. It's heavier than I thought it would be, So I undo the buckles to see if there’s something inside.

I pull out a pouch, stuffed with coins. That could be useful, and it could last me a while if I use it well. I feel something much larger beneath it. It must have been what made the bag so heavy in the first place. I pull it out and freeze. a pistol. She had a pistol, loose in a bag. one with a wooden handle and a thin, long silver barrel. I glance over to her, and she's still sleeping with her back turned to me. I never would have guessed she kept something like this in our home. Could she even use it? Was it ever useful to her? I slip it back into place and hide it under a change of clothes. 

Before I leave, I wrap a string around the window lock. Then I step out, finding a secure footing on the collapsed tiles before I even start to close the window. When I pull the string the lock slides shut, leaving me outside. Free to go where I please.