It takes a clear mind to outrun a storm—
and Naomi had no intention of outrunning this one.
She paced through the pawnshop, dustpan in hand, unable to focus. Head in the clouds. Body underwater. She had to clean the shop before retiring to bed. Naomi approached an empty shelf, an arm pressed to her stomach in hopes of containing the fluttering within. She swept. Dust fled from her brush.
Her mind wandered and drifted.
Astray from reality.
An arrow's flight away.
Beyond the skies.
Behold the infinite malignity of the stars.
The boy said she looked nice today.
Back to solid ground.
Blazing, gleaming, splendorous.
The colours ebb and flow and she would go with them.
The boy wants to see her again.
She’d been dusting the same shelf for some minutes now. Naomi blinked and shook her head. Rain pattered on windows that could have been a world away.
The boy likes her.
She found a broom and began to sweep the floors. Beneath tables, around corners, swatting the occasional spider on the ceiling. Naomi organized the books and rings and other trinkets the pawnshop held. She wiped down the windows with a damp cloth, swaying her head from side to side-
“Gutter rat,” Vali said. “What are you doing?”
She jumped. Froze. Statue solid.
“I’m…cleaning,” Naomi said. “Like you asked. Like I always do.”
“Looks more to me like a half-hearted dance.” Vali yawned, stretching her arms out behind her. “Well, as long as the shop’s clean, you’re free to do as you like. Food’s on the table when you’re hungry. Until tomorrow, gutter rat.”
Naomi nodded, finished up, then retreated to the table. She stared at her meal. A candle flickered in front of her. She couldn’t eat—her stomach fluttered as if birds flailed their wings within.
Doves and ravens.
Virtue and affliction.
Good and evil.
This is bad.
She tapped her fingers on the wood. The ivory-coloured candle melted down. If she asked Vali for extra silver, she could buy a dress. The thought alone made her hopeless.
“Gutter rat,” a voice came. “Who are you daydreaming about?”
“Huh?” Naomi looked up. Vali sat across from her—she’d come from nowhere.
“You haven’t touched your food.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“A girl who grew up on the streets denying a meal?” Vali smiled. “You’ve fallen for someone. I had a younger sister, you know. I’ve seen the signs. You’re a bit expressive at that-”
“I ain’t so,” Naomi said. “Ain’t even a little. ‘Sides, I don’t want to talk with you.”
“You’ve gotten good at hiding that accent,” Vali said. She stood, walking over to the stairs. “And I think that’s the clearest of giveaways. As long as everything here is clean, go live your life. I didn’t take you in to make you a maid.”
Rain tapped against the windows. Naomi blew out the candle.
She’d rather not stare into the fire.
- - -
She’d never felt happier.
Walking through the streets of Middknight, his hand weaved with hers, she found the skies to be brighter than ever. They’d stop at the marketplace for lunch—fruit had never tasted so sweet. Beside him, she no longer felt reduced to a mere pick-pocket.
They slept under an oak tree as leaves drifted around them. She rested her head on his shoulder, listening to the quiet tide of his breath, clouds passing overhead. The cool breeze shifted her hair. She squeezed his hand. The years of sleeping in sewers and alleyways, running from Town Watch for a scrap of bread, had all been worth it.
Then came the fair.
Fields dedicated to merchants and performers. Horses adorned in armour. Middknight boasting of their military strength—the greatest cavalry force of the world. Women flew atop pegasi. Pure white, flying beasts, taking to the sky and sparring for an audience.
“Could’ve been you in another life,” Leon said. They sat together in the field, watching the show. “Atop a pegasus. Sword in hand, defending our skies.”
“I wouldn’t know how to keep balance. They have to dodge arrows, you know? I’m happy staying away from the battlefield.” She inched closer to him. “Would you fight on horseback?”
“I’m going to,” he said. “When we decide war, anyone who can lift a weapon will be needed, and I want to fight for my people. It’s only a year before I can start training. What do you think you’ll do?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Rather, tell me, when I walked you home yesterday, it was a shop…and didn’t look like a home.” The pegasus riders clashed overhead, steel against steel. The audience clapped. Armoured cavalry set up for a jousting match. “Is your family merchants? I’m sure the front line will have a use for you. Logistics and supply counting.”
“I’m an orphan,” Naomi said. Leon grimaced. “Or, I was, but now I live with…” Caretaker. Guardian. Stand-in parent? None of the labels suited Miss Vali. “I live with a pawnshop owner.” She forced a smile, her face blushing red.
“A pawnshop owner took you in.”
“Yes, last year, because before that I lived on the streets all by myself.”
Leon gazed at her. “The streets. Like a cutpurse. Can you even read?”
“I’m learning!” Naomi said. “I’m learning, and I can almost read on my own-” She stopped herself, watching Leon’s eyes lose their colour. “She’s teaching me to hide my accent…and…to count…”
“Goddess,” Leon said. “You can’t count?”
“I can! Slowly.” Her heart pounded. “It’s a lot to remember, but I'm trying my best!”
Leon stood up and brushed himself off. He looked off into the crowd, to another girl, then turned back to Naomi. “On a second thought, I don’t think you’re worth the effort. Best of luck, though.” He walked off. Time slowed to a stop as her heart shattered. Colour drained from her vision. She couldn’t breathe, staring at the black and white sunset.
A man fell from his horse.
The audience clapped. It sounded like thunder.
A stand of oranges now looked like stones.
Eating one would’ve tasted as dry as biting into coal.
She stumbled, stopping to throw up.
A merchant called her out. Naomi ran.
She hid in an alleyway.
Like she used to.
The sky grew dark overhead.
Rain soaked her hair.
Naomi stared into a puddle, her reflection obscured by raindrops and tears, and she saw nothing but a dirty gutter rat. One not worth the effort. She sobbed, head pressed against her arms, clothing stuck to her skin.
A passerby stopped. Naomi sniffled and raised her head. Maybe it would be Leon, come to apologize, and she would accept it, and she would apologize too for not being intelligent enough, and-
“Hey,” Vali said. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” She walked over, droplets tapping against her umbrella. Vali kneeled, then sat beside her. “The fair ended hours ago. I made you dinner and everything. What’s wrong?”
“He didn’t,” Naomi struggled to piece her words together, tears picking up. “He didn’t…” she balled her hands into fists, her eyes squeezed shut. “He didn’t want me, Miss Vali. He doesn’t want me no more.” She fell into Vali’s arms, unable to hold back the tears. The shopkeeper rubbed her shoulder.
“Naomi,” she said. “You can sit and mope, and that’s fine. Everyone does it. But I don’t want you to stare into this darkness, thinking that’s all life is. You may be sad now, but at the same time, you should be happy that something can make you feel this sad—it’s a sign you’re alive! The only way you can feel this awful is if you felt something great before. Are you following?”
Naomi sobbed, wiping a fist against her eyes.
“No,” she mumbled.
Vali tightened her grip. “What I’m saying is, you have to take the bad with the good. Otherwise, the good times will have no meaning. Let what you’re feeling now be a beautiful sadness, my gutter rat.”
She pulled Naomi to her feet. “Can you not call me that anymore, Miss Vali, I don’t-”
“I want you to be proud of your past. Not many have a story to tell like yours.”
They walked home.
- - -
She couldn’t eat much, or work without sighing, or get out of bed without Vali calling for her most days. She fought for the motivation to continue learning. An uphill battle. Tears came and went. But time did pass. After a month, she found herself watching the window, missing the sunlight.
Maybe she did sidestep an arrow with him.
She could do better.
She would be proud of her past.
Naomi stepped outside—
and turned a corner.