I scramble to pick up the ball and hide it before Daus returns, cramming it into my bag. My pulse races like a hummingbird's winds as I try to process this new information. I knew that someone had found out who I was, and now that blank has at least been filled, but the enlightenment doesn't make me feel any better.
The Ash King.
It makes me feel sick; years of thinking I could stay out of the court and just continue on being Selfish, taken away from me in an instant. But how? How? The only ones who know—the only ones still alive who have ever known—are Daus and me. So either the Pinnacle found out on their own, or...
I glance over at the direction Daus wandered off in, uncertainty starting to scratch at my heart. No, Daus wouldn't. Would he? He's pro-expansion, but he's always been willing to keep my secret; keep me safe. Or has it all been too good to be true?
I shake my head violently, trying to dislodge and dispell the thoughts. But they stick with me, and I know almost immediately that the doubt will be hard to shake. Once it gets its claws in you, they're almost impossible to remove. Usually only the one causing the doubt can do that, but what could I say to Daus?
No offense, but have you sold me out to the Pinnacle lately? Because they sent an invitational rock through our goddamn window, so clearly they know who I am and where we live.
That'd go over well.
But whether Daus sold me out or not, there's still a problem; the Pinnacle knows me. They've played the first move and, starting the minute that ball came through our window, they'll be expecting an answer. God, never mind what I could say to Daus, what would I say to them?
Sorry, not interested, try the next Wise Man?
That'd go over equally as well.
I lay back down on the bedroll, exhausted once again. Maybe if I just let it stew for a few days—or weeks, or months—they'll forget all about me?
First Wise Man in centuries.
Daus returns a few minutes into my mulling, toting a piece of wood, a hammer and some nails. He does his best to secure the wood to the window frame before taking a seat again. He sighs deeply. "Kids, huh?"
A strangled laugh is trapped in my throat, turning it guttural and almost pained. "Yeah. Kids." If only it was. He's silent for a few moments more before I hear him lie down on his own roll.
"Are you feeling any better?"
"... a little." I lie, deigning not to mention the pit in my stomach; the pit the size of a small stone sphere. "The rude awakening didn't really help, though."
"I'd guess not." He gives a dry chuckle. "Get some more sleep, if you think you need it. I'll be awake even longer, thanks to this."
"How long was I asleep?" I look around but there's no factory clock in sight. Daus glances out the window but the clouds are still dark and stormy, making it impossible to gauge time passed.
"I'd give it... two or three hours? Two and a half, maybe."
"Jeez... feels like it was five minutes."
"Could be an after-effect of the Jump."
"Jumps," I mutter before my mind catches up with the word.
"What? Plural? How many?" His brow furrows.
"Four. One yesterday morning, one at the Ebenezer's, one on the way back home, one when I was in the shower."
He stares at me for a long while and I grow increasingly uncomfortable under his gaze but I find myself incapable of breaking it. My heart seems to speed up and stop altogether, my skin got and cold—numb and feeling far too much. Finally, he sighs, looking away.
"No wonder you look like death. That has to be a record for you. But why didn't you tell me?"
"Two already came true, one was a past Jump and the last one... I honestly think it's one of the alternate paths. Not going to happen." I shake my head. "It was way too weird to come true."
"Too weird? Considering our lives?" He gives me a skeptical look.
"I was wearing silk."
"... eh, doesn't sound that bad." He grins and I roll my eyes, but can't stop the small smile on my lips.
"I was only wearing it for a few seconds of the Jump. Then I took it off."
"Well, this keeps getting better and better." I laugh, the small smile turning to a rather large grin, and shove him playfully from my spot on my bedroll. "Hey, domestic violence!" He exclaims, but it's all in good fun.
"I'll show you domestic violence," I threaten, balling my fist in what I believe to be an intimidating fashion before swinging at him as slowly as possible.
He catches it in his hand with a smirk. "Nice try, bird brain."
I start to pull my hand back, but then something strikes me; I remember the feeling of someone's hands sliding around my naked waist from the Jump. Their color was dark. I stare at Daus, brow furrowed.
Could they have been his? It certainly wasn't a casual touch; it was possessive. Like I belonged to that person. My heart quickens for a moment and I realize I'm starting to like the sound of this Jump.
Get your hormones in check, Lark.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Daus asks, brows arched once more as he releases his grip, much to my disappointment.
"Just trying to figure out what makes you such a creeper."
He smirks again, brow relaxing. "Blood, sweat, tears and testosterone."
"All that effort but he still cries abuse when he takes a shove."
"What can I say? Not all of us are violent Wise Men." He lifts his shoulders in a hapless gesture.
My smile falters at the mention of my title. Gravity slowly pulls his shoulders back down and his face is dragged with them. "You should get some more rest. You said you were still tired and all."
"Yeah, I did, didn't I? Thanks for keeping me up, jerk. Last time I get you a bag of peaches—can't even let me sleep in peace."
"Wow, sorry grandma, last time I interrupt one of your naps." He rolls his eyes but smiles. "Sweet dreams."
For the second time that day, I close my eyes and wait for sleep to take me.
Five days later, Daus and I are sitting on the Outer Walls—really just a concrete fence, worn by the constant wear and tear of the sea—eating apples. Early in the season, the fruit is sour, hard and green but it still fills our bellies; unpaid and stolen from another garden who has come to expect and—albeit grudgingly—accept the routine.
The scent of salt and cold air rushes up to greet us. With the rain out of the way, the cold has returned with a vengeance. I quickly finish my apple, making sure to get every last bite in before I throw it into the waves below, which is already flush with trash. Tired of the icy air stinging my fingers, I fish my gloves out from my sweatshirt pocket and pull them on.
Nestled in the coin purse hanging from around my neck is the stone, its weight like a lead noose.
"Work season starts soon." I comment, looking up at the gray sky. Daus pauses, about to take another bite.
"The factory over on East River said they'd take me on again this season if I was looking for work again." He snorts. "Of course I am."
"I was thinking I'd see if Syon will hire me this time. He probably pays more than most penny pinching assholes out there."
He grunts his agreement, but neither of us can really blame the factory owners; the mantra here is simple. Survive.
Doesn't matter who you have to step on or how hard you press with your boots, so long as you're the one walking.
"I need a better paying job this year; we need new clothes, dry food... and I don't mean to be greedy, but I could seriously use new gloves." I sigh.
"I'd figured as much; you've had those for... how long now?"
He whistles. "Looks like ten, with how worn those things are. It's a miracle you haven't broken your neck yet."
"Yeah, I know. But prices won't go down until mid-season, when it's hottest. It'd be a waste to buy before then."
He throws the remnants of his apple into the sea and we sit there in silence for a moment. Then I reach into my sweatshirt, pulling out the coin purse and reaching inside, retrieving the stone—all the while, aware of his curious gaze. I read the writing again, turn it over in my hands.
It's been almost a week and I've heard nothing from the Pinnacle; no threats, no greetings, no quiet whispers in shadowed back rooms about things that may or may not have happened. Nothing at all.
Maybe they were just fishing.
Before I bother to give it more thought, I pitch the stone as far into the sea as I can throw it, watching as it vanishes down into the crashing waves. Damned if I don't feel a weight lift from my shoulders when I do it. If they want to fish for a Wise Man, they can do it under the waves.
When I finally return his gaze, Daus is a mixture of bemused and confused, a half-smile on his lips. "What the hell was that?"
"Just something that needed to be thrown away, that's all." I shrug and he cocks an eyebrow. "No, really, don't sweat it. It was just garbage."
"It was the rock that got thrown through our window. I just wanted to give it as big a 'screw you' as possible for messing up the Den."
He shakes his head in disbelief and, ironically enough, it's how I know he believes me.
"Cold, bird brain. Cold."
"It's a rock, Daus, I really don't think it cares."
"Then why do it?"
Now I shake my head. "Even with all that Gift, he still can't understand girls."
"Takes a lot more than being Gifted to do that. A goddamn miracle is what it takes." He sighs and I laugh.
"I'll teach you the secrets one day. Promise."
"I'm gonna hold you to that, you know." He warns me and I shrug, still smiling and almost giddy with my release from the rock.
"I'd expect nothing less."
"And I hate to disappoint."
We sink into comfortable silence once more.
Speller makes us resurface when she plops herself down beside me, brandishing a pile of cardboard with a bright smile. Generally thought to be insane, Speller is a sweetheart who lives for stories—creating them, thinking them up, writing them down with and on whatever she can find—and has attached herself to Daus and me frequently. Maybe we're fodder for her newest tale, who knows?
"Evenin', Lark. Daus." She smiles at him too and he offers a small nod of acknowledgment. Speller unnerves him, for whatever reason. She's harmless as a bug—not the house-infesting, blood sucking, disease spreading kind either.
Actually, Speller looks a bit like an emaciated doll. Well, as close as you can get to a doll down here. Her hair is grimy, but short—just a little past her ears—blonde and curly. Her skin is a milky white, with angular cheekbones and a heart shaped face. If she lifted her shirt I could probably count her ribs, but I try to avoid thinking about that. It makes me want to feed her, and Daus and I are a few meals away from counting each others' ribs too.
She shoves the pile of cardboard into Daus's lap and he sighs. I can't read and he can't teach, so often the task of humoring Speller falls to him. "Is this continuing from the last... chapter?" He hesitates to use the word and she shakes her head.
"New chapter, further in. Buddy's betrayal."
He sighs again and starts flipping through the cardboard, reading as best as I imagine one could read anything by Speller. She's brilliant, but disorganized. Chapter and pages written out of order, stories constantly abandoned and restarted as soon as something new or old catches her interest.
Daus is the one who gave Speller her name, but he did it out of a sort of mean-spirited irony. Speller, like me, couldn't spell. She'd always had the stories, she told me, but when it came to transcribing those tales and letters to paper (or whatever was on hand), all she could produce were wobbly lines and grotesque shapes. We found her babbling at the side of the road one day and, on a whim, stopped to listen.
I never regretted it.
Speller's stories put warmth or ice in your soul with a paragraph. They could paint the world in technicolor or drain it dry; they could make you hungry; they could make you thirsty; they could make you full and content or have you looking over your shoulder on a long journey home.
She's brilliant, no question, but she's also insane. Her mind jumps and leaps to different times, different memories, and different people. Hops and skips like hopscotch.
"Speller, you've been visiting that doctor we told you about, right?" I venture, eying Daus's scowl—usually a surefire sign that Speller had fallen off the mental wagon again.
"I have." She rolls her eyes. "Saw 'em last week. Shoved more pills down my throat and sent me on my merry way."
"Good." I glance over at Daus again, but his scowl is only deeper.
"This is supposed to be me, isn't it?" He demands. "If you're gonna base a character off me, at least make it less obvious."
"How obvious is it?"
"It's a black guy named Oscar. Oz for short. What do you think?"
"Is there a sketch?" I ask, curious.. He holds up the cardboard, revealing a surprisingly accurate cartoon depiction of himself. She's even included the small scar going through his left eyebrow. "Not bad." His frown lessens but doesn't fade. "Am I in it?" I turn back to Speller and she shakes her head. "How come?"
"'Cause you aren't honest like him."
Daus's frown fades and he outright laughs. "Lark doesn't have a lying bone in her body. She can't even steal like a thief. She pays people back." He shakes his head, feigning disappointment.
"What's wrong with that?" I exclaim. "Am I supposed to cripple everyone so we can eat? I do that and people start putting up fences and getting guard dogs. Then we're the only ones who starve in the winter. Everyone's struggling, I don't need to make it worse than it already is."
He's silent for a moment, peeking at Speller for a moment before handing her back the pieces of cardboard. "You could make it better."
His voice isn't intimidating or accusing, but soft. I look away from him and back down at the water. Speller nudges me with her elbow, leaning over to whisper in my ear.
"I didn't mean that kind of 'honest' anyways. Any honest person can tell a lie. Only real liars deny what's in front of them 'till they believe it."
I bite my lip and clench my fists. I'd had my chance to change things and I'd already—not to mention literally—thrown it away. Despite how much false power they assigned me (even just from exceptional perception, in Speller's case) or how high my supposed tier would be, nothing would change that.
That is not a lie.
Speller eventually leaves us to our own devices, which consist of staring at the cold water for a few more minutes in silence that tastes sharp and metallic. "Let's go check with the factories and Syon," Daus suggests, which is what we do.
The factory on East River isn't much different than the factory that holds our Den. It's large, dusty and a stationary health hazard in every conceivable way. But, unlike the Den, we earn money for tolerating it. Or, rather, Daus does now, as I've decided to look into other, better paying options.
The two of us worked in two completely different sections of the factory; him in the building quarter and me in the machinations quarter. Most of the people in the BQ are like him; strong enough to help carry parts for new, heavy contraptions and smart enough not to support a beam improperly. Most people in the MQ are far, far younger than me. I'd put most of them at seven or six. I've got bird bones (no pun intended) and fingers made skinny from years of hunger and quick by time spent practicing my lock picking on doors of people I was never going to rob. Excellent for pushing cogs back into place in whirring contraptions.
The habit of keeping my hair short helped. I always told the younger ones to keep it cut short, or offered to cut it for them. The vain ones suffered when their hair was caught in the machines and torn out, taking most of their scalp with it.
We suffered when we mourned the loss and were docked an hours pay as we cleaned the machines, stilled out of inconvenience rather than respect for the ones gone from us.
As we enter the Central Quarter, where the newer and more easily manageable machines rest, I spy Euli, the factory owner, at a moment's glance. Ordering around a group of tall, lean men, his stout frame and red voice makes him stick out like a stubby thumb.
"... how many times d' I got to tell ya, I don't care how fast the gears are movin', I ain't turning off the machines so you can take your sweet time putting one damn cog back in! Now quit your whining and get back to work, you still got nine fingers!"
One of the men, clutching a blood soaked towel tightly around his hand, tenses up—jaw squaring and chest expanding as he braces for a fight—but another man puts his hand on his shoulder, shaking his head. Bloody towel deflates and heads back to the MQ.
I spare a moment of sympathy for him. Some people just aren't cut out for the work, but others just aren't bulky enough to be put in the BQ or smart enough for the CQ. After that, the only options are the Paper Quarter, which is just filing documents, and the Bin. Disposal of human waste.
"Euli!" Daus calls over as the rest of the men disperse. The owner's face grimaces, then lightens. A hard worker who rarely complains (to Euli at least), Daus is his ideal of cheap labor.
"Dausker!" Euli exclaims, opening his arms wide and walking towards us. There's an awkward moment before Daus drops down to squat and wraps the man in a hug, allowing him to pat his back for a moment before pulling away. "You back for another season? Told you, the spot's yours. Ain't no one here that can fill your shoes."
"Yeah, I'm definitely back." Daus offers him a small smile and Euli looks my way.
"What 'bout you, Lark? My top Machinist?"
This is an exaggeration. Euli's always been bitter because he knows I hate him and the work, but the MQ has yet to get a piece of me.
I shake my head. "I'm looking for work that doesn't have shit pay, thanks."
He rolls his eyes. "Shit's the best you're gonna get around here with that attitude, honey. You'll come crawling back, just wait."
"I'll put up with you if you give me a bonus."
"I'll give you a bonus if you put a muzzle on that mouth of yours."
"I don't even shut doors for less than three extra silver bits per hour."
His face, if possible, goes even redder. "T-three silver! You're trying to run me outta house and home!"
"That's my offer, Euli. I figured you'd need more labor that wasn't crippled."
He glowers at me and Daus chuckles. "... two silver bits, that's my final offer."
"Lark, godammit, I swear one of the these days I'm gonna feed you to the MQ!" He exclaims, exasperated. "Fine, three silver bits and a not a copper more!" I grin in triumph and Daus chuckles again.
"Guess we won't be stopping by Syon's then."
"Guess not." I shrug. "Next week, Euli?"
"Next week, you money sucking demon." He grumbles, waddling back to his office. "I expect you to work your skinny ass off for those silvers!"
"I will, you old troll." I roll my eyes, more for Daus's benefit than his, as he's already slammed the door shut behind him.
We turn around and walk away, stones and stories forgotten as we brace ourselves for a new season of smoke and squealing metal as the gears begin to move.
Gilded is currently on chapter six.
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