Equilibrium

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29: Two Storms Meet

Renn, 1167

Whispers float between my ears, disappointed,

“Coward,” a sly voice uttered, smooth as honey but slick as poison.

Evil chuckles, wry and humorless, echoed about.

“What did she think would happen?” said a deep voice, strong and authoritative. “That she could triumph over the King?”

I saw Larke, shackled, dejected, stolen.

The scene changed, and suddenly I saw my father, drowning in an impossibly ever-expanding lake, his eyes staring up at me, accepting. He didn’t struggle, didn’t even try to claw towards the surface. Instead he sank, deeper and deeper into the depths, his limbs still, even those his eyes stared unblinkingly at the sky.

I stood at the bank, alone, frozen, immobile, burning to run but unable to.

Then I was the one drowning, the sky far above me, and the bottom of the lake far below. I clawed and clawed, but my limbs were slow to respond, as if treading molasses instead of water. I opened my mouth to scream, but the thick water filled my throat, choking me. Still, I sank, and above me through the light I saw Larke’s face looking down on me, blurred through the water.

“You don’t have the strength,” she said, disdain dripping from every syllable. “I always had to do everything for you.”

I ached to scream at her, to tell her I was sorry, to give her my rebuttal. But I couldn’t; I opened my mouth, but my throat was stifled, my lungs incapable of expanding. Her face twisted and briefly turned into the princess’s calculating leer, the very expression she wore when she’d followed Larke into the disaster of her escape.

It disappeared as if it were smoke, up in wafts and plumes of fog disappearing into the sky. I was drowning again, the surface taunting me with the sun still visible through the clear water when I was about to hit the muddy bottom.

I awoke with a gasp and a cold sweat.

I sat up abruptly, breathing heavily, and wiped my brow with a shaky hand. Those moments had been plaguing me in my thoughts every single day and every single night. I had watched them take my sister away, and I hadn’t done a single thing to stop them. I had followed them, when they chased her, hoping against hope that she would have been able to escape.

But she wasn’t so lucky, and therefore, neither was I. I watched from afar as they apprehended her, saw the Princess offer her hand with a threat, heard her vow that we would not starve. My father’s words had echoed in my ears, ‘there is no bravery without fear’, but I still couldn’t bring myself to interfere. Rather than say goodbye, I had left to go find him. Maybe he would be able to help, to speak reason to the King, convince him that she was needed at home, with us.

I knew now that was a child’s hope, and I didn’t feel like a child anymore. I was an abandoned puppy, left behind with no one to feed it. But the princess had promised Larke that she would make sure her kinsmen wouldn’t go hungry.

I scoffed; that had apparently been an empty offer. It’d been almost a week since then, and once the King had left, the royal presence had lifted. Not a single grain had been sent my way, not a single coin. My father, whom I had assumed had stayed home while Larke and I had ventured out to the Choosing, was still nowhere to be found. I had searched for him right after Larke had been stolen from us, fruitlessly.

I lay on the floor of our cottage, waiting, for the fifth day in a row for my father to show up, dozing off every now and then. I couldn’t sleep normally, for whatever reason, so I had taken to napping when I could. The day was warm, but I couldn’t feel the rays that fell upon my face. They did, however, disturb my fitful slumber. I had been hiding here, in our small cottage, waiting for him. When would father return? I knew he was sad, but didn’t he know that I was still here? We’ve both lost. But I still needed him.

My father, the one who should be reliable, was not dependable – even before this fiasco. I was slowly starving, wallowing in denial. There was no food left in this cottage, the warm memories of my childhood fading into the dreary present, now tainted with sadness and loss.

But where could I get food? Though we farmed various crops, none were in season to be harvested. Maybe father was off in the city trying to find a job, or something. Deep in the back of my head, I knew that wasn’t true, but I clung to the thought that maybe my father wasn’t so lost after all.

There was no food in the cottage, nothing to be grown in our barren soil. There was bound to be some kind of money somewhere around here. I knew that my father kept his money here; he always had some stashed away for the winter just in case. I never was allowed to touch it, but I knew he hid the cash he made from the fall harvest in the ceramic jar my mother made years before I was born, high up on the shelf. I wasn’t tall enough to reach it, but I felt confident that I could if I stood on something.

Examining my options, I noticed the chair in the corner. It was a rocking chair, supposedly a gift from our grandfather when we were born. I had fond memories of my father holding both myself and my sister and telling us outrageous stories before bed. I had never felt safer or more loved than I did then.

It wasn’t the sturdiest thing, but it would work. I pulled the heavy wooden rocker directly under the thick shelf housing the ceramic jar. I stopped to catch my breath; I was puffing more than I anticipated. Yet another reminder of Larke. She was usually the one who did this sort of thing. But my sister wasn’t here now – only I was. I climbed on the rocking chair, precariously perched on an armrest, calves shaking to maintain my balance. I reached, stretching my arm as long as it would go, my fingers grazing the money jar.

It shifted; I had only nudged it further back. I inched closer, toes creeping further down the armrest of the rocking chair in an attempt to reach the ceramic jar.

CRASH!

My toes had slipped, and I sent the chair rocking forward, slamming into the wall. The jar lept from the shelf when I steadied myself against the wall. Still perched on the armrest, I coughed, all around me were shards of clay, dust clouds rising. I coughed again, waved the debris clear from my face, as I peered through narrow eyes at the wreckage, hoping to see a glint of coin.

There was none.

Had father taken it? Carefully, I extracted myself from the demolition zone that had once been our life savings. I didn’t bother sweeping up the remains. My only option for survival now was to venture into the city and attempt to steal some food. Maybe I could even find my father, wherever he may be.

Filled with somber thoughts, I began to walk along the dirt road that led out of the village. I didn’t look back; all I would see would be painful memories.

The walk to the city was long. I was so tired, so hungry, my tongue felt thick and dry, and my head ached something awful, but I kept going forward. One foot fell in front of the other, clumsily ambling my way towards the city, towards what I hoped was salvation. I kept my head down, watching my feet follow themselves.

Eventually, I looked up and realized I was in the city. I could hear people, merchants, and... was that a bakery? I could smell the sweet breads wafting my way. Ignoring all else, I followed my nose, weaving in between the crowd to find my way to the baker’s stand.

I found it. The baker had countless loaves of bread, all different types, carefully placed on display in a most attractive manner. The butter melted off of the top of one, dripping onto the cobblestone street below. My mouth watered.

I had no money to pay, so I had to be careful, but I felt confident I could manage it. It’s only a loaf of bread. The baker was behind the stand, shouting his prices to the passerby. I would have to wait until he became distracted; there was no way I could snatch a loaf from directly under his nose, surely, I’d be caught and arrested.

I would have to wait. I could hide easily in the crowd. As I was only about ten years old, I wasn’t very tall, so I was able to hide myself behind the other customers. I edged my way closer and closer to the edge of the stand. I could see it in my head so clearly. I’d pluck a loaf from the top, and spirit away into the alley, maybe even get caught in the crowd to escape.

A few more minutes went by as I watched the baker carefully. Eventually, he would have to turn around to restock some of his breads. I waited, bated breath, when a customer purchased the last of what looked like a stodgy sourdough. And... the baker turned around! I wasn’t quite close enough, so I shoved the person in front of me to get to the cart. With the tips of my fingers, I grazed the crust with my fingertips, snatched a loaf, and turned to run as fast as I could.

SMACK

I slammed into something solid. Clutching the loaf so tightly it began to crumble in between my fingers, I tried to swerve around whatever – or whomever – I had run into. But a thick arm caught my attempt at escape. I chanced a look upwards and saw the baker glaring down at me, his meaty fingers clamped hard on my shoulder. My stomach sank, and I knew I was done for.

“THIEF!” the baker shouted, his booming voice grabbing everyone’s attention.

He raised his other arm to strike me; I cowered, but before he could let loose, a cloud clang of wood against stone echoed throughout the street.

The entire stand had been shoved over. The bread toppled everywhere, onto unsuspecting onlookers, into a small puddle in between the cobblestones, and all over the general vicinity. Whoever had kicked it over was too fast to see clearly, pushed through the chaos to the baker and I and grabbed my hand. My mystery savior dragged me towards the alleyway, and we ran! Feet smacking loudly on the cobblestones, we avoided the shouting and yelling of the baker and his customers.

After what seemed to be hours but was probably only minutes, we stopped. I heaved, lungs burning, head pounding, dizzy.

“You okay?” asked my savior, his voice even despite our exertion.

I still hadn’t looked at him; throughout the whole mess, all I could focus on was surviving and escaping. At the moment, the ground was my biggest concern and I did not want to meet it just yet. I tried to catch my breath. I peered through the corner of my eyes to see who I was dealing with.

He was a boy, probably a couple years older than I was. His black hair was long, and he was covered in dirt. Clearly, he was some kind of homeless street urchin. It looked like he hadn’t had a bath in weeks. This teenager had effectively just saved my life, though, and I couldn’t afford to be picky right now. The punishment for stealing was usually death. Although, for a child such as myself, I couldn’t be sure what the sentence would be.

“Thanks to you, yes,” I gasped in between heavy breaths.

I plopped onto the cobblestone, and he joined me, leaning against the wall.

“What’s your name?” I asked, rearranging myself to a comfortable cross legged pose.

“I’m Dean. Dean... Red,” he replied hesitantly, avoiding my eyes.

“I’m Renn,” I supplied, even though he didn’t ask. “Thanks for helping me, but I really have to find some food. I should go.” I made to stand, pressing my hands on the ground.

“Wait – you didn’t notice?” he interjected, stopping me from walking away. “I got some. Look.”

He held out a bag that had been secured over his shoulder opened it for me to see. There were several loaves of bread inside.

“I grabbed a couple before I knocked over the stand. I’ll share them with you,” he offered, gesturing the open bag towards me.

I glared at it warily. Though beggars couldn’t be choosers, I didn’t know anything about this kid. He still held out the bag, even though I made no move to accept it. His eyes narrowed, and he retracted his offer, twisting his lips in thought.

“I’ll share with you on one condition.”

“What?”

“I see that you don’t trust me, and that’s fair. Smart, even,” he said conversationally. “So, let’s get to know each other, Renn. Tell me why you had to steal,” he said, a curious look upon his face.

I supposed his logic held some merit. I looked around awkwardly, unsure of what to say. “We’re starving, obviously.”

“We?”

“My father and me. Well, I’m assuming he’s starving too. I haven’t seen him in a week, and there’s no food at the cottage.”

“Hmm. You live in a cottage?” he asked, tapping his finger on his lips.

I nodded, staring at the bag of bread. At this point, I decided I’d tell him whatever he wanted as long as I got the first bite of bread.

“How about this. In exchange for half of this bread that I rightfully stole, you have to let me stay with you in your cottage.”

That bag of bread would feed us for a week if we rationed it. I didn’t know this boy, but he’d helped me... if he wished me harm then he didn’t have to intervene. And truly, I needed the food. He had the upper hand, and he knew it.

“I accept. Follow me.”

I turned to walk further into the back street, with no sense of which direction I should go. But confidence is key, and forward I went.

I must’ve been going in a relatively correct direction, because he fell in step next to me, and we made our way out of the city. He took out the loaf sitting on top, still hot, and tore off a chunk. He handed it to me. I accepted, and we journeyed like this, Dean showing me the occasional shortcut as we quietly exited the capitol, Tarpik.

The walk back was much easier than the first trip. This time, I had fuel and company. It was almost evening when we finally reached the cottage, and I’d never been so happy to see those shabby four walls. The pink light of the setting sun washed over the cottage, warming everything around us.

I opened the door, letting the soft sunlight wash over the floor of the cottage, illuminating the debris from the broken jar I’d not cleaned up. I would have to find the broom and tidy up, I thought, now that I would have a guest here with me. My eyes roamed the rest of the cottage, suddenly self-conscious about the state of my home, when I saw my father lumped in a pile in the corner, hidden in the darkness.

“Dad! What happened to you?” I shouted, rushing to his side to shake him gently. He was missing his shoes, his clothes were ragged, and he reeked of sweat and bile. As I nudged him, I saw that there were bruises on his arms, and a particularly nasty one around the base of his throat. It peeked through his collar, purple and black.

At my mild prodding, he stirred, mumbling something unintelligible.

“What?”

I glanced back at my newest acquaintance; here was Dean, meeting my father for the first time, seeing my home, and probably judging me harshly. My cheeks heated, and I shuffled over to sit more in front of my father, concealing him from Dean. I didn’t want him to see my embarrassment.

“The Naga gang... debt... beat me...”

Confused, I looked at Dean, and saw his expression harden.

“What is a Naga?” I questioned, suddenly suspicious. “Do you know what he’s talking about?”

Dean stared at my father, ignoring my gaze. “...It sounds like he must owe them money. Does your father gamble?”

“No...not that I know of,” I answered, indignant. My eyes flicked to what was left of our life savings, the empty ceramic jar now shattered on the floor a few feet from me.

“Renn... I’m sorry to tell you this, but it sounds like he’s in deep debt with the Naga. They sent him home beaten, with the promise that he must pay up. Does he have anything else of value?”

“What?” I gestured incredulously towards the cottage around us. “This is all we have!”

Dean chewed his lip, looking worried. He paced near the front door, the sun setting quickly, the light fading as I watched him walk back and forth.

“I have an idea,” he said, stopping his pacing. “I know some people, and maybe they can help your father,” he said in a firm, but sad tone. “What would you give to save his life?”

I looked down at my father, and I couldn’t ignore the overwhelming disgust that overcame me. Through tight lips, I said, “He’s my father, and that’s all I have left.”

“Then in the morning, I’ll fix this,” he said with a curt nod and determination in his voice.

Something about his words diminished my anxieties instantaneously, his confidence easing my fears,somehow. I rolled my father over and covered him with one of the blankets that usually lay on his bed. I felt renewed with hope; I would owe this Dean Red everything if he managed to come through and save my father. And, I didn’t allow myself to dwell on this, but if he succeeded... I would owe just as much to whatever a Naga was.

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