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All the self defense training Mom made me go through must’ve been good for something because at this point my panic gives way to pure instinct and before I can even process what my body’s doing, I’m spinning around, swinging my hand up and back as I go. Mostly by feel, I grab my attacker just under their chin, all ready to shove them away from me as I’m coming around to face them, but then I actually see the person and I just freeze.
I mean, the woman standing there is so not a threat it’s almost shocking. She’s crooked and raggy with these eyes that are so wild and urgent and scared that even the idea that I was about to do some sort of violence to her makes me let go of her real fast, makes me try to back away. She catches hold of both my hands, though. Grips them so tight with her bony little fingers that it’s kind of alarming. Actually, everything about her is alarming, and not just because it’s obvious she’s not at all in her right mind.
“Fix me, fix me. You have to fix me,” she’s saying over and over in this voice like rusted iron, and I can’t tell if it’s more a question or a command.
I glance around for that silver-eyed man, but he’s gone. Completely vanished. Not even a sign of his trench coat or hat in the crowd. Which I guess should be a relief to me, but it just makes me all the more uneasy.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I say to the woman, trying to kind of delicately release my hands from her death grip while still scanning the square for any other danger. “I can’t do anything for you.”
“No, no.” She lets go of my left hand, but then she just takes my right hand in both of hers, pulling it up toward her head with that deceptive strength that she’s got and trying to press my palm against her skull while I try, in total dismay, to stop that from happening.
“You can fix me,” she says.
She’s really freaking me out now, and I fight down an urge to just wrench my arm away from her. Despite the strength in her hands, she still looks to me like some sort of fragile, broken little bird and I don’t want to hurt her.
In fact, it’s starting to dawn on me that I’m going to have to do something about her. I mean, someone in her state of mind and health shouldn’t just be left to roam the streets by themselves, right? I don’t think that’s something a Way Reader would let happen. But the question then is, what exactly am I supposed to do?
Several people have glanced at us as they’ve passed by, but not one of them seems too inclined to get involved and I’m real aware of a new sort of panic setting in: the panic of feeling totally inadequate for this situation.
Finally, I get my hand out of her grasp, but then she pounces in real close to me, speaking in this grindy sort of whisper that practically drenches me in the smell of her rotten breath.
“They broke me,” she says, a weird little glint in her eye that is not at all helping to alleviate my panic. “They thought they erased the memories, but I will never forget.”
I suddenly remember what Dylan said when we saw the troubled man in the alley that first night here. Something about calling the medics, which is another thing I don’t have any idea how to do—maybe you just dial 911?—but obviously Dylan would know how to handle this situation.
“I’m going to call someone who can help you,” I tell the woman in a voice that I hope sounds reassuring, but before I can expand my phone she grabs at my hands again and this time her grip is painfully tight, and extra desperate.
“It’s only you who can help me,” she hisses right into my face, her eyes kind of frightening and hypnotic. “Please, you have to make it work again.”
My panic leaps straight up into my throat at this point, and neither of us are aware of the other person coming up to us until he’s put a hand real gentle on the woman’s arm. There’s something about his touch that almost instantly calms her a little.
“I’m sorry, madam,” he says with this soft, British accent. “But I do believe you’re scaring the girl. Perhaps, if you let her go…”
The kid’s got to be just a few years older than I am, but—whether it’s the inherent sense of authority in his voice or the kindness in his face when she looks up at him—the woman does as he says. She drops my hands and pulls her own all tight against herself in these rigid, knuckly little balls, glancing back and forth between the kid and me.
“The girl—” she says, kind of faltering, glancing in my direction. “She can fix me.”
The kid looks at me for the first time then, this subtle sort of mockery tingeing all that kindness in his face, and there’s something in that look that strikes me as totally familiar, though I can’t for the life of me name what it is.
“No madam,” he says. “No, I really do believe that she cannot.” Looking at her again, he gives this gentle little smile. “Perhaps we can find someone a bit more likely to be helpful?”
She looks like she’s about to disagree with him, but then another woman’s voice comes from behind the kid.
“That won’t be necessary.”
The three of us spin around to see who’s talking.
“The poor dear is with me, you see.”
This other woman is kind of a lot to take in. I mean, she’s short and kind of round and, I’d say, more elegant than beautiful, but there’s something about her too-wide smile and intense, keen eyes that pretty much exudes presence. It only adds to the effect that she’s wearing a flowing robe of a thousand colors and a wide-brimmed hat decked all over in little, moving, golem birds.
“Hello Shama,” the kid says, clearly already familiar with her and not even fazed at all. “What makes me think that your statement’s not entirely accurate? What are you up to now?”
The Shama woman’s nose flares in a way that’s sort of like a smile.
“Oh, I’ll admit she didn’t come into the park with me, but she’s certainly under my protection. Elspeth,” Shama says, looking at the tiny, broken woman with an authority that’s altogether different from the kid’s. “Do you recognize me, dear?”
She holds her hand out like a peace offering, and the other woman perks her head up a bit as if maybe something about Shama is familiar.
“Elspeth,” the troubled woman tries the name out. “Elspeth used to be me once, I think. And you…you’re Shama Haddad.”
For just a second, there’s this frantic sort of relief that washes over Shama’s face, but she gets it real quick under control again.
“Yes. It’s been a long time, dear. And I’ve been looking for you.”
Elspeth takes a tentative little step over to her, kind of cautiously taking Shama’s offered hand. Then Elspeth turns back toward me and points an emaciated finger.
“That girl can fix me,” she says, but this time it definitely sounds more like a question.
Shama’s eyes turn toward me too, boring into me as if she can see right inside me. I get this strange sort of apprehension, as if I’m about to be found out or something, but then she looks away again. She wraps her arm around Elspeth and, giving the British kid and me a little nod in farewell, turns away, gently pulling Elspeth along with her. I can just barely hear what Shama’s saying as they walk off.
“For today, my dear,” she tells her friend, “I don’t think the girl will be of much use, but I will take good care of you until proper help is available.”
There’s a moment, right before they disappear into the crowd, when both Shama and Elspeth glance back at me at the same time, and the power of the scrutiny in their eyes is like a physical force against my chest.
The British kid’s watched this whole exchange in a bemused sort of silence, and he turns this satirical little smile on me now, his eyebrows raised and his head tilted in a way that reminds me of the Cheshire Cat. Or, more appropriate, the Big Bad Wolf.
“I don’t suppose you know what’s just happened?” he asks, and I give a little shake of my head. He eyes me for a few seconds longer and then says, “Dangerous people here in Daxa these days, you know. Best not to go wandering about by yourself.”
Maybe it’s his eyes that are so familiar, or something about the way he holds his mouth? Whatever it is about him, it puts me pretty immediately at ease. I take an exaggerated glance around us, as if I’m looking for something that I just can’t find.
“Yeah?” I say to him. “So where’s your protective entourage, then?”
His smile kind of twitches. “Ah. Well. You see, I can take care of myself.”
He clearly guesses this will annoy me, but I can’t think of an appropriate response. I mean, it’s not like I can pretend that I was doing a great job of handling my situation before he showed up.
His smile gets even deeper, as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking, and then he does this quirk of a shrug and says, “I noticed some Academy kids wandering down the street just now. I’m probably wrong, but it occurred to me you might like a hand in locating them.”
He doesn’t wait for an answer. Just starts walking off as if he’s totally sure I’m going to follow. The sense of familiarity about him surges to the point of near revelation, but the answer still doesn’t quite come. I feel like I can trust him, though. That same warm feeling in my chest that I got when I met Dylan and Agni. Taking a few skipping steps, I hurry to catch up with him, match my stride with his.
“Who was that woman? Shama Haddad?”
He glances down at me. “A journalist. Rather respected, when she’s not ruffling all the wrong feathers.”
“Do you think her friend is going to be alright?”
His wry smile doesn’t change much when I ask this question, but there’s some unreadable emotion that passes over his face.
“What does it mean to be ‘alright?’ Perhaps she’s too far gone to fully comprehend her own suffering. Isn’t that better than being sane enough to know it well?”
I have no idea how to respond to this. Partly because it’s hard to tell if he’s joking.
Finally I just say, “Well, you’re real cheery,” and I’m kind of surprised when he lets out this involuntary laugh.
With that one laugh, though, I realize exactly who he is. I just can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out.
“I know you.” It comes out all crowing and childish, but I do feel like I just beat him at a game or something.
The kid glances at me again, real quick and furtive. “Oh, I don’t think we’ve ever met.”
“You’re Gwilim Lucas.”
He stops dead in his tracks then and looks right at me, considering. Like he’s trying to decide what he’s going to say next. There’s a hint of sheepishness to his expression, and I can feel my smile growing more and more gloating. The family resemblance—the family good looks—I mean, it’s so obvious, now that I realize it’s there.
“You are. Aren’t you?”
He’s saved from answering by Leti shouting my name from the far end of the street. She’s standing there, a good head taller than most the other people walking by her, and she’s waving her arms at me. Gabriel’s by her side and the others are coming around the corner after them.
As soon as he sees Eilian, something in Gwilim’s face shifts.
“That’s my exit,” he says, then dodges away into a narrow alley between the buildings to our left, pausing just long enough to give me this jaunty little salute.
“Pleasure to meet you, Cousin Sophie,” he calls, and then he’s particle sailing away.
Seconds later, my friends come crowding around me, everyone apologizing for leaving me behind, wanting to know where I’ve been, what I was doing. Eilian’s first concern, though—as soon as she can get a word in—is to ask, “Was that my cousin Gwilim?”
Her face is as unreadable as her cousin’s, but from her tone I’m guessing she’s right on the verge of some real strong emotion. Anger or tears, I don’t really know, but I feel like maybe I should try to tread lightly.
“Well, he took off before admitting what his name was,” I offer, “but…yeah, I’m pretty sure it was him. By the way, isn’t it illegal to particle sail in city limits?”
Tua and Nando burst out laughing at this, before Eilian can respond. Apparently she’s in on the joke, though, because her face kind of relaxes and she gives a half-hearted eye roll.
Leti, as reserved as ever, only gets a tinge of a smile on her lips, but there’s obvious humor in her voice when she says, “Sounds like Gwilim, sure enough.”
Eilian lets out this quiet, exasperated sort of sound, shaking her head a little and folding her arms against her chest.
“He’s never truly happy unless he’s breaking the law, just a little bit,” she says.
When we get home we find Dylan in the study, and Teresa’s with him. They’re on this love seat that’s tucked into the big bay window and she’s got her fingers all up in his hair and her long legs draped across him. She looks elegant and kind of unnecessarily impressive, like some queen who’s claiming ownership over something that everyone already knows is definitely, definitely hers.
Seems to me like they were in the middle of discussing something real private and my instinct is to step right back out of the room again, but Eilian goes charging forward, announcing that we saw Gwilim today. From Teresa’s expression, I’m guessing she’s either not pleased to see us or not pleased by the news, but Dylan’s real interested. He sits forward, his eyes all alert and hopeful.
When he asks us to explain, I’m too focused on wondering why it is that I feel so uncomfortable every time Teresa so much as glances in my direction, so Eilian’s the first to respond.
“Sophie was accosted by one of those people that keeps turning up. The ones with the troubled minds,” she says. “And Gwilim essentially rescued her.”
She’s summed up my whole dramatic experience in just a few dismissive words, but I guess they get the point across.
“Of course, as soon as the rest of us came back to find her, Gwilim made his escape. Trust him to be aggravating even while acting the hero.”
I expect Dylan to laugh at this, but he doesn’t. Instead, his eyebrows go down all disapproving, and he tilts his head in a way that feels like some kind of a warning.
“I’m sorry, but it sounded as if you just said you weren’t with Sophie when Gwilim found her.”
Eilian glances over at me, looking like she knows she’s gotten herself into trouble but she’s not entirely sure how.
“Well, we might’ve misplaced her for, like, a few minutes, but it’s not as if she needs a babysitter—”
“You misplaced her?”
Dylan’s suddenly sort of half laughing, but I bet I’m not the only one that can see the apprehension in his face. Teresa, for instance, real quick shifts her gaze from him to me, and I have to try hard to act like I am totally unaware of it.
“Eilian,” Dylan says, kind of pleady, “I told her mum we’d take care of her. She’s our guest here. We can’t just go dumping her off in the middle of the city.”
“I know, I know,” Eilian throws her hands up, giving in. “I felt bad about it as soon as it happened.” She looks over at me with a sheepish little pout. “I really am sorry, Soph. I should’ve been watching out for you.”
She looks so much like an impish little pixie right now that I can’t help laughing, and I’m about to say that it’s no worry, when Teresa speaks up instead.
“Sounds like Gwilim took care of her for you, Ellie.”
She says it with a bright little smile, but there’s something about the look on her face that I do not like one bit.
Previous: Chapter 14
Next: Chapter 16
Please let me know what you think, either by commenting below or emailing me here. Tell me if anything stood out to you in a good way. If anything stood out to you as bad. Is there anything in particular that you like about the characters themselves? Anything that bugs you about them? Were there any parts of this chapter that made you happy, scared, excited, sad, etc.?