Scenes from the City Part 5: The Young Thief

Another Scene from the City for you folks, with the return of a familiar narrator. And my oh my does she have some adventures this time… anyway, hope you enjoy. For those just joining us, prior installments are available here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

The Young Thief

The window is small, but so am I.

It lies at the top of a spine formed of gradually rising rooftops, a great hunched creature slouched against the side of the tower in its death throws, a drunk leaning on a wall for support, a vomit of toxic sludge and refuse sloughing from its walls into the street. The thing’s uneven, clay tiled back leads to this window. The chill wraps the City, coiling serpents of mist in the streets below.

The window is small, but so am I.

To reach the old beasts spine, I had to cross briefly over one of the streets. The shopfronts I had reached were low, and their drainpipe was an easy grip. The rattle of my ascent barely broke the mist, and I had almost come within reach of the rooftop when the crunch of their boot heels on the cobbles drove the silence from the night.

Two men, a young man and an old one, in the colours of the City Guard. I froze, hugged the wall, knowing their path would take them almost directly beneath me. Knowing the scent of the old man’s pipe smoke as it wafted up to meet me, knowing the limp in the young man’s blistered feet.

Knowing that if I released the drain at the moment I already knew, I could use my falling weight to crush the young man’s face into the cobbles, and slash the old man’s throat into a toad’s smile before his smoke-addled lungs could raise a scream. I knew the arc his blood would make on the storefront, the portal of blank plaster it would paint.

I knew the scent of smoke, the limp over blistered skin.

I knew the gaze of the sick woman. One of them… maggot ridden. Silent. Hungry.

Underkin.

Silent. Empty. Who would be across that very street at that very time but may not, her dead eyes on me even now but yet maybe not.

I let the guardsmen pass, and they did not see me.

After their footfalls had faded, I relaxed my chill stiffened fingers and hauled myself onto the rooftop.

I glanced behind me.

And… that sick one, maggot ridden Underkin… was not standing in the door, nor had she been.

The window is small, but so am I, and again I stand above a harsh drop to the street below.

The old, drunken beast slouches beneath the window, so close as to be almost touching.

Almost.

The alley may be eight paces across, but the tower did not want the old drunk touching her.

Here, packed together in the filth and the sweat and the terrible cold, she still stands alone. Almost.

Almost touching.

I back along the great beast’s spine, press my back against the old warmth of the chimney stack, and focus on the small, forgotten opening in the face of the dark monolith, gouging at the night sky beyond, like a thumb in a man’s eye. I breathe in the chill air.

I might have torn my way into this world as a bird, but that would be too great a change.

It is not so far.

The old beast slouches, almost touching the monolith’s face. Almost touching.

I drag the cold of the night sky into my lungs, and I run. I take three long steps, and on the fourth I take flight.

The mist wraps me for but a moment.

The birds here are sick and mangy things.

My hands flash out and I catch the window ledge. My feet move to the wall, to slow my flight, but the stones are wet and old, and I have no claws.

I hang from my fingers, and my ribs crash into the cold slabs. The weight of the sky flies from my lungs.

I hang from my fingers, far above the street, and my Sin surges into readiness, begging for a change, begging for the other path that we both might live.

I deny it.

I may have no claws, but my fingers are strong, and with a heave I force my right arm over the ledge and latch on to the inner side of the wall.

The window is small, but so am I, and my breathless right arm drags my thin chest between great, ancient stones that try to force me out, scratching along my ribs for my insolent intrusion. I fall into the empty, dark staircase, and I curl into a ball in the depths of the shadows. The life of the City has been pushed far away, and I am alone with my furious heart as I let my breath return to me.

My ribs would bruise, but they would heal one day too. It took time, but soon I could breathe with little enough pain that my chest didn’t shake.

I pulled myself to my feet, dragged my ragged scarf back over my nose for all the good it would do. I began to limp quietly up the stairs.

The bastard had not been precise. I had no map, nor even where his bounty would be in exact terms. What I had was the rest of the night, at the pleasure of a noble house grown into decrepitude.

And failing that, the window grew no smaller.

I took the stairs higher. The furnaces, the kitchen, they were most likely below me and held little of interest. The guardhouse, too, would be down there too, shrouded in House Raleigh’s tattered banners. Up here, it was just the remaining decadents, any treasures they had yet to pawn off, and a young woman blooming in her Sin.

These things I knew.

I began my search.

The first door I found ground open with a ghost of dust rising around my ankles, and I slid inside. The dust was within too, and not a breath of wind, guard or moonlight stirred. I wandered past racks of blades and shields, heavy things built to crush and hinder, some ornate but far too cumbersome to be worth my carrying. I pulled myself up a short ladder, and found the bunk room above equally still.

Running my fingers over the threadbare palettes, I heard snatches of speech, and a strange rattling croak above all. I waited in the silence until the silence remained.

The ceiling here was low. Whoever had slept in the upper bunks must have had to turn his head to avoid skinning his nose.

The smell.

I pulled myself into an upper bunk.

The smell.

I pressed my bare fingers between the stones of the ceiling, and no dust fell. I drew them back, and saw that they were stained even in the shadows that surrounded me.

The smell.

Tar.

We used it to proof the hides of ships, when we still made ships.

Tar.

We used it to seal roads against the fury of the wind and rain, when we still made roads.

Tar.

We used it to protect corpses from the weight of eternity.

And it was hungry.

It would take the animals of the forest or plain, four legs or two, and drag them down into the smothering dark, crushing, filling their lungs and drinking their voices for ever and ever and-

I wiped my fingers hurriedly on my shirt.

I rolled off the bunk, and did a cursory check of this old barracks room. Nothing shone, and I returned to the staircase.

The next door was grand and gilded, and I could find no quiet way through.

The next was of heavy wood that I could not force.

The servant’s stairwell was little more than a hole in the inner wall, and the door to it was ajar.

A smell like a cesspool met my nostrils.

But the warren in the walls might be a great opportunity to a thin little creature like myself. I slid sideways into the narrow stair.

After a brief but dusty crawl, I emerged from a small arch behind a dankly frayed banner, my feet on smooth wood.

On the other side of a railing, candles burned on iron stands, each a dozen paces apart. The platform on which I stood must have run around the whole inner wall.

To my left there was a strange chair that looked to have been carved from a single stone block bigger than I was, at rest near the rail. The scent struck me again, harder, as I slid forward in the dark between candles.

It was the stink from behind the fishmongers at the end of a hot day, where the ravens fight for scraps. It was the ocean as a plague.

The shadow was small, but so am I.

Peering between the uprights of the rail I saw two more stone chairs, bedecked in candles with their bases disappearing into a black and flickering pool of water. The candlelight caught the gilded door, and its steps led down into the pool.

It caught the shape of something moving beneath the surface.

The shadow as small, and within it I bit my tongue in silence.

The boards to my right began to creak with laboured footsteps.

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And there you have it for another week my dear imaginary readers. A double plus bonus sized serve of fiction for you, to make up for the time the nasty, mean internet took away from us. Photo courtesy of Miguel Soll, aka 1nsomniac on Flickr. Creative Commons again, so you can use it yourself, and feel free to hack and slash at this chunk of fiction for your own works, as long as we’re credited and your not making money out of it. Have a good one folks.

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