Cursed Child (part 2/3)
Now that he was inside the guards would come to the doorway and ask if she was alright. She could hear them shouting warnings below. She turned to go back down the stairs and answer the note one of them was likely writing for her that very moment.
“Wait! Don’ let them take me. I need yer help!”
She examined him for a moment, noticing his bare feet and how he shivered in his ragged clothing. “It’s warmer inside. Follow me.”
Lifting Nana’s old cloak from its hook at the base of the stairs, she handed it to the boy with a sigh of resignation. Nana would approve, having spoken often of how those with plenty must provide assistance to those with nothing but rags, and she wouldn’t be home to miss the sight of it hanging there after tomorrow.
He clutched it around himself and stared at her in surprise. “But ya don’ look cursed at all!” His voice cracked and he scrubbed his face roughly with the woolen hood.
The delivery box rang and she reached in for the expected note.
“A street urchin managed to throw a hook and rope over your wall to climb in. Has he harmed you?” The writing was blocky and bold, and she could see the guard’s tension in each stroke.
She wondered what they would do if she didn’t bother to answer. Not that her fate was worth worrying over. Even a desperate criminal would never risk the worst of the curse, and Nana had claimed the priests had made sure everyone knew the risks, whether by listening to them preach or via gossip. In the face of complete isolation, this worried boy seemed more like an opportunity than a threat.
“You know about the curse?” She examined him curiously as he backed around the stair and into the shadowed alcove behind it. “You can leave right now, if you’d like. I won’t stop you. There’s no reason to believe the curse will take you just because you’ve talked to me for a moment.”
“It’s worse ‘n death waiting out there. I would join yer curse an escape if you say I can.”
She nodded. “You’ll be an excellent distraction. You may stay.”
She turned the note over, dipped a pen into the inkwell and wrote. “The boy requires refuge. I have given him permission to stay, since he knows the risks. Send in clothes and food as well, and if he isn’t caught up in my curse then ask Father to protect him in my place.”
She slipped the page into the box, shut the lid, and turned to face the boy. “They won’t come in. They’re too afraid, since they have families and friends they wouldn’t wish to lose. Don’t you have anyone who will miss you if you vanish with me?”
He shook his head and warily emerged from the shadows. “Da sold me away to a brothel, so I ran.”
Had she understood him correctly? “Do you mean your own father sold you to such a place?” She had read of them, of course, but it was a far different perspective to hear a child explain that he was meant to be enslaved in one.
He nodded and tucked his dirty feet under the hem of the cloak.
Now that she had a new companion she realized she didn’t know what to do with him. How did the people in books manage their conversations with strangers so easily? She tried to remember what people did with company in the stories.
“Oh, I know! Are you hungry?”
The sudden brightening of his face was answer enough. She turned to her neglected kitchen and looked over the supplies neatly arranged on the open shelves beside the door. An omelet would be quick and filling, she decided.
“Sit there.” She pointed to the table and he hurried to climb into a chair. He seemed much shorter once seated. Remembering the thick tome Nana had once used to help her reach the table as a child, she wondered if the boy would be offended if she suggested the idea.
Unlike Nana, he seemed disinclined to talk. After a mumbled thanks, he consumed the omelet so quickly that she worried he might choke or burn himself on the filling. However, he finished without incident and seemed satisfied as he pushed away the plate and reached for the cup of water beside it.
After washing the dishes she turned to face him, wondering what to say. “Do you have a name?” She tried to decide what she would do if it turned out this was a rude question. Were ragged boys given names? Her thoughts sprinted past in an instant as the boy ducked his head. What would she tell him if he asked for hers in return?
“Name’s Rat. Yer food is really good, Lady.”
“Rat?” The name seemed improbable, but how would she know? If he could call himself Rat, then she would be Sky. Who would complain?
“Call me Sky, Rat. It’s nice to meet you.” She held out a hand as Nana had taught her just in case the curse dropped her amid civilization.
He shook her hand cautiously, barely touching her skin with his grubby fingertips. The sight of fresh blood staining the wrists of his tattered shirt was enough to prompt the next conversation on the need to clean him up so she could bind his wounds. The poor child was a mess!
After some negotiation Rat finally agreed to climb into her bathing tub, but only after scrubbing off the worst of the dirt with a spare rag first. He seemed convinced he might permanently stain the polished wood. All her insistence that the surface was designed to be easily cleaned with water from the reservoir heated by the chimneys above meant nothing to him. While he splashed in the warmth she retreated, grateful that she had convinced him to bathe at all.
She found her box of treasures tucked into the back of a closet where she had hidden them from Nana’s exuberant generosity to the poor. As a child she had adored a certain cozy tunic and trousers, brightly embroidered with birds and clouds, and hadn’t wanted to give up those symbols of Nana’s patience and loving care to some stranger. Hopefully they would fit Rat, since on closer inspection his clothing seemed to be more holes than covering.
Ignoring the rush of memories as the rest of her treasures spilled across the table in her hurried search, she carried the outfit and Nana’s bag of salves and bandages to the bathing room then set out a stack of clean towels.
Rat’s idea of clean was rather broad. He seemed to think ducking beneath the water repeatedly would be enough to rinse his matted hair, for instance.
Remembering how Nana had scrubbed her at that age, she reached for the soap. “I’ll help you wash your hair.”
The wrestling match that ensued made her grateful for the times she had attempted to wash the orphan kittens that Nana had sometimes permitted to briefly live with them. During the morning conversations beneath her window those kittens had always found new homes. No amount of pleading would convince Nana to keep them, since she believed they caused headaches and sneezing.
Sky wished for more time. This boy was much more interesting than kittens. Maybe he would have stayed longer if she wasn’t the one leaving this time.
Sullen, but thoroughly clean, Rat finally put on the clothing she had given him, gently stroking the fine stitches and admiring the open wings that stretched up each sleeve. “This is real pretty, Lady. Bring in five times more ‘n Da got for sellin’ me. You sure I can have ‘em?”
She nodded as she collapsed in her favorite armchair and gestured for him to sit across from her. As he gingerly slid onto the leather surface, she eyed him wearily. He cleaned up well, she supposed. His hair was surprisingly curly and he looked rather more angelic than she knew him to be beneath that fragile exterior.
She’d gathered more bruises than scratches this time, but kittens were equipped with claws. At least he had finally understood she truly only meant to help him get all the dirt off. Well, she could have explained herself more clearly, too. Not that there would ever be another chance to get that right. Rubbing her chin, she wondered if the top of his head ached in a similar fashion.
His eyes narrowed for a moment with a knowing glint as he watched her. Did he think she deserved the bruise, or was he regretful? His expression gave very little away.
After binding the rope burns on his wrists and ankles, spreading salve on a few raised welts on his back, and plucking gravel from his scraped knees and palms she realized how grateful she should be for having been protected her entire life. Apparently there were worse things in the world than isolation.
“You didn’t throw that rope yourself, did you?” His tiny body clearly didn’t contain the strength for such an achievement.
He glanced at her, then shook his head. “That were cousin Raven. T’was his brother died ‘n the brothel when he were too young to do anythin’. Said he wouldn’ have it happen to family agin under his watch. None of us kids c’n fight the power of those bought fools some call the law, so he told me about yer curse and helped me in.”
Aside from the string of inventive swearing while she’d combed out his tangled hair, it was the most he had said to her since his arrival. She leaned forward. “So your cousin thinks my curse might save you? Unusual. Most people are terrified of getting too close.”
He nodded, then turned his head away when he realized she was waiting for more of an answer. Each time his head rotated to examine another part of the room he shrank down even further into the chair. The books seemed to intimidate him for some reason.
“From what I’ve read in the histories the likelihood of you being dragged along is pretty low. Maybe if you’d arrived earlier, but with just one day’s acquaintance it would be rare for you to become involved. Maybe my father will help you if I ask it of him.”
Rat’s face went even more still and remote. She’d thought he’d been expressionless before, but this expression frightened her with its emptiness.
“I’ll do everything I can to protect you, okay? Don’t give up.”
He turned slightly and stared into the ashes in the fireplace. She regretted that she hadn’t bothered to keep up with the fire since the guards’ fire in their room below kept off the worst of the chill. Piles of blankets had made up the difference, but now she wished for the reassurance of living flames for his sake.
“Could you help me lay a fire?” Perhaps it would distract him.
His eyes lit up and he jumped from the chair. “Yes, Lady! I c’n make fire. Where’s yer flint?”
She blinked at the sudden change. “Call me Sky.”
He nodded, but she noticed he didn’t repeat her name. Maybe he felt it was too casual. Given his age she supposed it made sense for him to feel that way, but she wished someone would call her by a real name for once.
“I suppose Nana must have used a flint sometimes, though she never let the fire go out like I did. Do you know what it looks like?”
Eagerly, he opened the box in the wall that the guards kept fully stocked with wood, no matter how much she used. “Aha!” He pulled out a kit and grinned up at her. “You’ve matches! Yer very rich, no? I saw ‘em before ‘n a fine shop.”
Shaking her head at how quickly his mood had shifted, she left him to stack the tinder and carefully nurture a tiny flame. She had felt useless often enough, perhaps he was the same. With only a day left to endure, she tried to think what other tasks she might suggest to keep him occupied.
In the end she set him to explaining the paintings to her. According to him, trees could be even larger than shown in the scenes her father had chosen. In spite of his odd phrasing, she gathered that she had missed out on far more experiences than she even imagined possible. A few times his voice took on the same pitying tone that Nana had used when she suddenly realized that Sky had never experienced something she considered too basic to ever need explanation.
By that evening he’d become comfortable enough to ask her about the packs lining the walls. She explained she would have to sleep that night wearing one, just in case the curse took her in her sleep. If she lost her pack during a jump her father had insisted she have a replacement ready on her return to provide any possible needs during the next one. He nodded in approval and she wondered how often he’d been left without basic needs.
The idea that she would jump away and return multiple times wasn’t something she could explain, though. Saying, “Nobody knows why. It just works that way,” only made him shake his head and stare around at the books accusingly as if they had somehow betrayed her with false promises.
As night fell, she tried to put him to bed in Nana’s room, but he wouldn’t stay. She kept looking up from her novel to find him curled in a ball in the doorway, watching her.
“I need t’ know if ya leave me,” was the only explanation he offered. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t an unreasonable fear.
Finally she helped him pile up blankets and cushions to make a nest in the corner by the fireplace. The clothing the guards had provided ended up being too large, but functional enough for sleeping. He wrapped his arms around the embroidered tunic she’d given him and sighed as she turned back to her reading. Hours later, when she finally tired of attempting to distract herself from the looming curse, his eyes still gleamed from the shadows.
In the end she realized that sleep might be impossible for both of them. Her travel clothing felt tight and unfamiliar, and wearing her boots and pack made the attempt to rest feel even more awkward, though she did manage to doze off a few times.
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