The Grey City XXI

Wednesday August 19, 2009 @ 02:00 PM (UTC)

The Grey City I
The Grey City II
The Grey City III
The Grey City IV
The Grey City V
The Grey City VI
The Grey City VII
The Grey City VIII
The Grey City IX
The Grey City X
The Grey City XI
The Grey City XII
The Grey City XIII
The Grey City XIV
The Grey City XV
The Grey City XVI
The Grey City XVII
The Grey City XVIII
The Grey City XIX
The Grey City XX

Eirian jumped up but even as she opened her mouth, she saw Carys lift her finger to her lips.

“What’s the matter?” cried Mouse. “Did somefink bite you?”

“No, I…thought I heard something,” Eirian covered. The boy was looking back and forth from Sly to her, his eyes skipping past Carys unseeing.

For her own part, Eirian gazed at her older sister. She looked herself — more herself, perhaps, than she’d been since they arrived in the City. There was pink in her cheeks, a violet tucked behind her ear. But the entire cheerful, colorful sight of her was only partly there, like the scenery painted on cheesecloth for village fêtes.

How the little girl ached to run away from Sly and Mouse, to hide in an alley or a doorway and talk with Carys. Could she touch her? Could she hold her? Through what magic had she returned from death? She licked her lips, and focused on Sly. “So, where is it you’re taking me, Sly? And what shall I do there?” she asked, both to gain time and to acquaint Carys with the position.

Sly scowled, still gruff after her emotional revelations. “To Knock’s, o’course, to make as proper a thief of you as may be.” She looked down at her rather outsized boots with a momentary return of softness. “‘Til you’re too big an’ are sent across to Ma’am Betty’s ’ore-ouse for to be a nance.”

Eirian saw Carys’s face slacken in disbelief, then gather into lines as the two Warrens children made ready to depart. Mouse took his silk handkerchief — his, as the legal owner was not in evidence — from Eirian’s hand and folded it carefully before replacing it in his satchel.

“C’mon!” he said. “We have such larks, we Knock’s boys!” and he started down the cobbles toward the heart of the Warrens.

Sly started to saunter after him, but Eirian lingered, hoping for a moment alone with her rediscovered Carys.

“No use dallyin’ or tryin’ to get away,” Sly said, turning. “You’re in the Warrens, an’ won’t never find nothing better.”

“Nothing better than being a thief and a — well, a thief’s bad enough!” Carys fumed.

“Sly, what do they do to thieves if they catch them? The Runners, I mean.” Eirian asked, speaking up.

“’Angs ’em, mostwise. Some cop it more special from time to time.”

“It could hardly be anything less,” said Carys with some venom, but her face was frightened. They turned into a wide street, originally dirt but now paved haphazard with stones and grates from other thoroughfares. A man walked by with a bushel of crowbars on his back like firewood, his coat chinking with other tools. On the corner, a woman on a stool was sewing a large pocket into the lining of a young man’s coat while he waited in his shirtsleeves.

“I was sorry to hear about your…sister.” Eirian continued, pausing to think. “What was your name before you joined Knock?”

Sly looked at her sidewise, but said, “Stephen.”

“It’s a nice name. What did your parents do?”

“Da were a clark, an’ Mam took in washin’. ‘Ere, what d’you want to know all this for?”

“I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to have a conversation!” Eirian said with a bit of her usual spirit.

“Well, you can ‘old up your end then. What’d your family do out-Country?”

“It’s not all the same like that, you know. You City types say ‘Country’, but there are many places, all different. Our home’s very pretty. Hills of rock, and heather, and little creeks and falls.” She was silent for a moment, listening to the sound of a boy yelping in a falling-down house. “We raised sheep, little mountain sheep with curly horns hidden in their long wool. Carys and I—” she glanced over into Carys’s tender face — “we used to help with them. Mama carded the wool and Papa took it into market.”

Sly frowned. “Must be awful lots of room in Country. You can’t fit more’n a dog or a pig maybe in the best lodgin’s here.”

“Lots of room outside. Inside, there was only enough for a kitchen and hearth, a bed for us girls and one for Ma and Pa.”

She looked over at her sister once more, and saw she was biting her ethereal lip. She could not, as Eirian could, forget the present danger in recalling past joys.

Sly’s face was also troubled, and her long swaggering step slowed. “’Ere we are,” she breathed. “That’s Knock’s down there.”

Eirian saw that this street ended at a high, orderly wall, and the road widened into a cul-de-sac before it as if the way, dammed up, had collected in a pool. Across this space two buildings leered. They may have started life alike, two great half-timbered public houses that bulged over their ground stories like the bellies of two jolly fellows over their too-tight belts. But use had given the one house an air of suspicion and the other of promiscuity. Every shutter of Knock’s was closed tight, and the whole veiled with a uniform layer of dust. Ma’am Betty’s had every window thrown open and some spilling outward in rickety balconies, and the shutters painted in bright mismatched hues as if to emphasize their purely ornamental nature. No sign hung on either facade, but from the upper stories of Knock’s hung a clothesline of colorful handkerchiefs, while at Betty’s this festival flag role was supplied by assorted petticoats.

Sly paused at the mouth of this road, looking toward these familiar haunts. She seemed to struggle for a moment, then set her mouth as if biting the end off of something. “No ’elp for it, Bo-Peep,” she said, and started to make another cigarette.

Eirian almost thought she could feel the rage in Carys, like the queer pressure before a summer storm. “No help? From you, perhaps!” the gentle girl growled, and Sly looked sharply over her shoulder, the cigarette paper drooping in her fingers and scattering curls of tobacco.

Carys was becoming more solid before her sister’s eyes, her wrath and love and need to protect condensing in her until she was thicker than a fog coming in from the sea, more substantial than skimmed milk. She floated like an avenging angel over the filthy Warrens stones, and even Eirian shivered to see her.

Perhaps now Sly could see her too, for she stared a long time, and tears started down her cheeks unchecked. “I’m sorry,” she said at last to the apparition. “I’ll save ’er, if I can.”


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