There was a rhythm to it, Merri thought as she leapt the distance to from one roof to another, dive-rolling to cushion the shock of accumulated momentum. It only seemed spontaneous or chaotic if she thought about it too much; when she just let thought go and moved with that internal flow, the running, twisting, leaping, jumping, swinging — it was all as beautiful and necessarily precise as any Ming vase, mathematical equation or baroque fugue…
Don’t think don’t think don’t think! She’d nearly missed the drop-off to that rope bridge, thinking about not thinking! Move move move just keep moving! Vault over the side of the bridge, catch the rope, swing to the spire atop that tower — let go now! Grab the spire one hand got it! Clutch with a leg spiralling spiralling a slide down the peaked roof and up! Run the roof ledge to the end and dive….!
I’m flying… oh sweet God I’m flying…!
It honestly had not occurred to her that she had no idea whether there was anything to catch once she’d taken to the air — but there was indeed another rope, knotted at its fraying end! Catch it long arc swing and up up up to another roof another ledge another sprint move move move…!
Much as she always wanted it to, it couldn’t last. Lungs burning, muscles trembling, Merri finally forced herself to stop. Laughing again, seated atop some church or other, leaning against the cross that jutted up rather crookedly against the backdrop of the cavernous ceiling of the Neath. All this room to move, space to fly, yet so securely confined by borders both seen and unseen. “Oh dear Lord,” she gasped, not sure if she was truly capable of praying anymore or whether there was a God to hear her or if it was just a way of speaking to fend off the loneliness. ” ‘I could live in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams…’ .”
“Oy! ‘oo you talkin’ to, lady?”
The words startled her out of her reverie and her little rattus faber gun was in her hand before she registered it was a child’s voice. Merri peered around herself, trying to penetrate the inky black shadows that surrounded her without success. Fine time to regret selling those silly goggles…!
“Ah, no one, I suppose. Or myself, perhaps. Who are you?”
“Ain’t nobody. Wotchu laffin’ at?”
Merri relaxed marginally, but only marginally — the orphans of the Flit were children, certainly, but they were often feral children. She’d made some positive contacts among the Fisher Kings, but they were only one gang of urchins in the Flit and she wasn’t entirely sure if she was in their territory or not.
“Same answer. Why don’t you show yourself? I have some spore toffee to share, if you’d like.”
It was almost unfair bait — all the urchins adored spore toffee. She caught the slightest movement in the shadows under the chimney-stacks to her right.
“Wotchu want fer it? I ain’t got nuffin’ to pay yer wif.”
“You have yourself, don’t you? I’d very much like someone to share the view — and the toffee.”
“Yer a strange ‘un, ye are.” With that preamble, the voice resolved itself into a scruffy, scrawny, half-starved child. Age indeterminate but certainly not yet adolescent, sex completely impossible to divine under the layers of dirt and rags. “If’n yer wants, I c’n eat yer toffee, jus’ don’ try anyfing funny ‘r I’ll ‘ave yer guts in a pile afore ye can say ‘’Bob’s yer uncle’.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Merri told him (?) honestly, patting the stretch of level beaming beside her, simultaneously retrieving the wrapped spore toffee from her pocket. “My name’s Merri. What’s yours?” She asked, offering him a piece as he took a seat — not quite in arm’s reach, but close enough to lean in and snatch the sweet from her fingers.
“Name’s ‘arry,” he replied just before stuffing the toffee into his mouth. The name confirmed her suspicions about gender, not that it mattered. “That ain’t wut they call ye in the Topsy King’s court, eh? Wotcher wanna lie fer? I ain’t got nuffin’ on ye eiver way!”
“Oh.” She giggled a little and popped another piece into her own mouth. “They call me by my alias, I suppose. The one I took when I came here. Clockworks. Would you prefer that to Merri?”
He shrugged, chewing on his toffee. “Makes no never min’ to me,” he assured her, eyes darting nervously all around them. His hair seemed to be fair, as did what skin she could see under the smudges of soot. “Ye c’n call yerself whatever ye like. They say yer a lady.”
Merri waiting another moment, but seeing as he expected her to know the identity of this unspecified and very general “they,” she was eventually forced to shrug and find an answer. “I suppose I have some ladylike qualities,” she finally admitted. “I hope I do.”
“Oy, watsa lady doin’ up ‘ere anyway?” The toffee swallowed, he turned immediately suspicious. “Yer don’ dress like a lady. Are ye sure yer not a fief like me?”
Something like a smile flickered over her mouth at that, but carefully, as even these young ones could have a fierce sense of dignity and pride. “Oh… I don’t imagine there could be another thief like you up here, Harry.” She tossed him another piece of toffee, not surprised at his ability to snatch it out of the air, skin it of its wrapping and cram it into his mouth in what seemed to be one smooth motion. “Dressing like a lady to run the Flit would be pretty silly though, don’t you think? I mean, just imagine those great skirts and petticoats and bustles flying in all directions, just trying to walk across a rope bridge!”
Harry apparently liked that imagery, for he cackled appreciatively.
“I dress like a lady when I need to be doing ‘lady things.’ I dress like this,” she concluded, extending a trouser-shod leg and booted foot, “when I want to be up here. It seems to work out all right.”
“Been followin’ yer,” he admitted, bouncing the toffee wrapper on an open and horribly filthy palm. “Ye don’ do much up here. Ye just run a lot. I don’ ken it. Wotcher runnin’ from?”
Merri slotted him a look at that, wondering and a little intimidated at the experiences that went into making a child sound like a man. “Not everyone who runs is running away from something,” she told him, taking out her last piece of toffee and offering it to him. He scooted a little closer to take it. “Sometimes it just feels good to run.”
Harry returned that slotted look, disdainful that she could say something so apparently stupid. “Yer runnin’ from somethin’, I c’n smell it,” he said flatly. “But’cher don’ have ter tell me, I guess. I was jus’ wunnerin’, tha’s all.” He nibbled the toffee, making this piece last longer than its predecessors. “Someone’s lookin’ fer ye. Tall gent, pretty words like yers. Dark hair, sharp eyes. Been askin’ about ye. D’ye ken it?”
Obviously she didn’t, and shook her head thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think I know anyone up here that well. I didn’t think I did. Does he have a name?”
Harry shook his head. “I din’ ask. But I c’n fin’ out, if’n ye want.”
“I do. Most certainly,” Merri agreed. “Does he run the Flit? Or just a tourist?”
The lad thought about that for three-quarters of a second. “‘e’s na’ a touris’, na’ quite… I ain’t seen ‘im runnin’ it, but ‘e acts like ‘ e could. Ye get me?”
She nodded. “I think so. I’ll be happy to pay you for whatever you can learn about this man.” She retrieved a couple of pieces of rostygold from her pocket and tossed them to him. “That’ll get you started, I think.”
He clipped them out of the air and caused them to disappear, then got to his feet with a satisfied air. “Oy, I like ye. They said ye’d be all stuck on yerself, but yer not. If ye ask around ‘ere for ‘arry Duffins, I’ll find ye. Ye ken it?”
She chuckled and nodded again. “I do. Thank you, Harry.”
“Never a worry, lady,” he told her with a comical little bow. “Don’ be lookin’ down, now.” And with that parting shot, he disappeared back into the shadows whence he’d come.
Merri sat looking over the lights of the city far below, mulling her encounter with the boy, and the implications of the black-garbed man. Her ties to the surface were cut completely, she couldn’t fathom who from the surface would be here, in the Flit, looking for her. Or why he hadn’t found her, she’d certainly made no effort to hide or disguise herself. Perhaps he’s watching me, too.
Another thought occurred, and this one brought the smile back to her face. With a name and a description, it was completely witihin her talents to begin hunting him. Pleased with that conclusion, she got to her feet and began her descent to the other life, the one she lived on the streets below.