An introductory story to The Metaverse
Episode 1 - A hole in the sky
By DW Brownlaw, January 2019
Copyright © DW Brownlaw 2019. All rights reserved.
Gouta Ricci, six years old, knew how to pout. “S’not fair, Da! Yer never let me do what Yona does.”
She stood with her father Da and older sister Yona on the Master Burgher Adeyemi Avenue, their worn cloaks and britches at odds with the flawless, cobbled street. It was past midnight and they stood with their backs to a flint wall in the dark space between pools of street lighting. Da had been particular about staying out of sight of the Watch Tower so they had kept close to walls on this side all the way up the avenue to where they now stopped.
Gouta tried to concentrate on her Da's reply, but Yona was pulling faces at her from behind his back, trying to distract her and get her in trouble. It was not fair. But then, Yona was never fair to Gouta.
“Keep yer voice down Gouta, or yer’ll wake all the Nobs in the avenue”, her father breathed. “I told yer: Yona gets to climb tonight ’cos yer sister is a big girl”.
And that was the nub of it. Gouta did not understand why Yona was allowed to enjoy a more exciting life just because of a few years’ age difference. Why did Yona get all the good things in life? And why, with these advantages, was Yona still so mean to her?
She tried again. “But, Da…”
“Nah. Listen. Yona ’ad to wait ’til today, when she is ten, to do a job. Yer’s lucky, coming wiv us when yer’s only six.”
Her Da's face adopted a look that Gouta hated; the one that meant that she was about to lose the argument.
“Anyway, d’yer remember? I promised yer a purse of pennies after dis job, right? An’ what did yer say yer want ta buy wiv it?”
Yona poked out her tongue at Gouta from behind Da's back. Gouta wanted to yell at her but knew she dare not lose her focus on what Da was saying; he did not like that. She brought to mind the market stall, remembering the finished figures lying in rows on the table and, standing behind, the owner painting an infant’s face on an egg-shaped piece of wood.
“A dolly, Da.”
“Dat’s right. But if we ’ave to go ’ome ’cos yer can’t do yer part of the job, dere won’t be a purse an’ yer can’t buy dat dolly. So, as yer’s such a smart kid, tell me: is yer in or out?”
The familiar feeling of unfairness welled up inside her, but she wanted the dolly more. She clenched her teeth but a despairing moan still escaped. “Oh!”
Yona gave a wicked grin at Gouta’s agony then pulled a silly face, crossing her eyes and stretching her cheeks with her fingers.
Gouta was outnumbered. Da was being clever and Yona was being distracting. It was hopeless; she knew she had lost and hung her head.
“Good girl, Blackie. Said yer was smart. Now get in, do what yer practised an’ yer’ll be da best lookout da Thieves Guild ’as ever seen.”
He gestured at a pair of large night-soil barrels nearby, set against the wall. She remembered from one of Da’s lessons for Yona that a good burglar could climb up night-soil drain pipes to reach unlocked windows, and the pipes would never rattle thanks to being clamped to the barrel tops with tight leather seals. But tonight, her Da was not interested in the building above them. Instead, he would use these barrels and the avenue’s nearby star lamp for a hidden lookout post.
Gouta hesitated as she approached the barrels, fearing their stench, but found it was nowhere near as bad as the reeking cesspit below their alley’s communal privy back home in Dockside. For her whole life, no one had ever paid to have it emptied. She wished their privy smelled as little as these barrels and thought it must be nice to afford someone to collect them and take the poop away while it was still fresh and not so smelly. Da had also taught that Nobs used night-soil barrels because they were “the last word in hygiene” and, knowing Nobs, perhaps because they were so expensive.
Gouta squeezed between the barrels and Da crouched down to help her disappear into the shadows behind. Once settled, she checked that she could peep out both ways along the avenue from her place behind them.
“Oh dat’s good, Blackie. I can ’ardly see yer in dere, an’ I know where ta look. Night time, dark shadows, an’ a black-as-black lookout; it don’t get no better.”
Gouta smiled up at him. Maybe Yona did get all the good things in life, but it was nice to get some praise for doing well.
Da sucked his teeth in appreciation. “I dunno why yer was born black ‘cos it weren’t from me or yer Ma. But it’ll ’elp yer a lot on night jobs. When yer grow up yer’ll be better’n me an’ Yona ’cos of it.”
Yona’s raised fist showed Gouta what she thought about that.
“Right, Blackie. Got yer whistle?”
Gouta pulled a polished wooden whistle out of her pocket and wrapped her hand around the small gemstone halfway along the shaft.
“Dat’s my smart Blackie. We don’t want dat ta sparkle an’ draw attention, do we?”
He straightened, ready to leave, and inserted a matching wooden item, gem first, into his ear. With its gem hidden in his ear canal and its wooden body almost the same shade of dark brown as his ear, it was no longer possible to see it by starlight.
“Blow good an’ ’ard, Blackie. An’ remember yer signals.”
He pointed up the avenue and away from the city centre.
“Just as a game, pretend yer see a Watch patrol coming right now from way up dere. Quick! Blow me da signal for it.”
A test! She liked to show Da how smart she was. Still behind him, Yona was making another attempt to distract her by poking a hand out between Da’s legs, bunching her fist and letting the limp middle finger hang down.
Drawing his attention to what Yona was doing would only be a waste of effort; easily denied by Yona. Instead, Gouta grinned. The contest was on and she was going to beat her sister in this silly game.
She glanced to her left and imagined a patrol squad marching round the distant corner, on their way back to their city-centre station. With the correct patterns of short twits, long woos and pauses, she blew a barrage of silent twit-woo signals for:
The enthusiastic force of it made Da raise a hand to his ear.
“Aye! Dat’s loud enough,” he said with a smile which was in part from pleasure, part from pain. “I reckon yer ready for dis. Just don’t blow like dat while I’m climbing, aye? Or yer’ll make me fall off in surprise.”
He turned to Yona, who straightened and switched her expression to a look of pure innocence, which he fell for again.
“C’mon Princess, we’ve got a couple’a hours before da Eye of ’Eaven rises. Dis may only be yer apprentice run, but dere’s no sense ’anging around.”
He scampered across the cobbled avenue, moving quickly to avoid being spotted from the Watch Tower, and slipped through open gates to a long gravelled carriageway.
Yona, already growing tall and gangly, as cool as marble and not showing any sign of nerves, paused just long enough to whisper to Gouta “I’ll be a second-storeyman when I get back; an’ yer won’t be. So long, loser.”
She skipped nonchalantly across the avenue to catch up with Da.
Gouta clenched her teeth and growled, anger wiping away all pleasant thoughts of the dolly.
“I ’ates yer! I ’ope ya fall off ’an ’urt yerself!”
From the gateway, Yona reached a hand behind her back, stiffening her first three fingers in a fan shape and waved them around. Colour drained from Gouta’s face and her guts clenched. How dare Yona make such a crude and forbidden sign at her own sister?
“I wish, I wish, I wish!”, Gouta whispered as loud as she could, but even a thrice-sealed wish felt inadequate compared to Yona’s insulting taunt. And Yona knew it.
Why was her big sister always so mean to her?
Gouta seethed helplessly and watched Yona now dutifully copying her Da as he sidled along the edge of the carriageway, taking cover from the trees lining it, darting from trunk to trunk. On reaching each tree trunk, they glanced back in the tower’s direction to make sure they remained hidden from observation. At this distance from the city centre, the tower hung from the sky like a shiny black straw allowing observation into even the most distant suburbs. In this stealthy manner, father and daughter made their way towards the imposing three-storey mansion at the end of the carriageway where it looped around.
The cobbles on which Gouta sat cross-legged hurt her bottom and the flint wall dug into her back. The stones were cold, too. She tried wriggling but found no position where the bumps and points would fit her thin frame any better. Da had drummed into her that a lookout should never leave their hidden position, no matter how uncomfortable they may be, and a lookout wandering around in the open was the first team member the Watch or a passerby would notice. She sighed, copying the way Da did it.
She checked both directions again for any sign of movement, but saw only a cat, blacker than star lamp shadows, gliding without effort across the avenue. Gouta wished she had a magic spell to turn herself into a cat, like heroes did in her favourite stories. Cats always looked relaxed, no matter what they were doing or where they sat.
Da and Yona now stood at the mansion’s wall and were making no attempt to hide. Da had said he chose this mansion because it was empty at this time of year, and because the tall trees along the carriageway would hide their climb from the Watch Tower. He said their only risk was from avenue patrols or passersby, which was why Gouta was on lookout duty.
She put Yona’s taunts aside and imagined her sister inside the Nob’s upper chambers. She remembered some silly things Yona joked she would do once inside. It was possible Yona really would play a stupid or childish prank in the Nob’s chambers; she knew Yona well, the temptation would be too great. So, if Gouta did her part without making a mistake, she would be the good girl and Yona the one in trouble. With that happy thought, she composed herself for her task.
Da was pointing at something on the wall high above them. He was too far down the carriageway for her to hear what he whispered to Yona, but she knew from past practice sessions he was identifying each handhold and toehold for Yona to use.
It would take them a while to reach the chosen balcony. She checked left and right again, then settled back against the cold flints to look at the strip of sky above the buildings and trees along the avenue. The clouds had parted, which did not happen often and this made her grin with happiness. She had another rare chance to see the stars in their full glory, without clouds and rain getting in the way. She held her hand up to the sky and wondered again how many harsh, bright points were covered by her small hand-span. It was a long time since the sky was clear enough to play the star counting game.
But now was not the time. The current game was lookout duty, not counting stars. Anyway, counting every star in a hand-span, even her small hand, could take most of the night; it was not possible to count that many stars in the short time this job would take. They would leave as soon as Yona finished her first simple in-and-out job. She lowered her hand and sighed again.
As Da had said, Yona had better be quick, because the Eye of Heaven would soon shine its light on those who preferred the shadows. The Eye’s light was so bright, people were able to read by it, with only slight eye-strain; thieves would be easy to spot.
Gouta glanced both ways along the deserted avenue and thought about the Eye. She allowed herself a smug smile for being, as everyone said of her, “especially smart”. Though only six, she had worked out that the Eye was not an actual eyeball. It did not have an iris, nor a pupil, nor even any eyelashes; it was nothing like an eye.
She had once sprinkled a handful of sand onto the corner of her cloak, pretending that the grains were stars and the near-black oilskin was the night sky. She was pleased to see how the grains spread around in the same sorts of patterns as the stars in the night sky. But then Yona nudged her deliberately, making her drop the remaining sand to form a small pile off to one side of her star field. Yona had gone away laughing, but Gouta noticed how the mound of grains was more-or-less round, had a fuzzy edge and completely hid the dark cloth underneath. Exactly like the Eye of Heaven. From that moment she knew that the Eye was just a part of the sky where the stars piled up so much they completely covered that part of the blackness in a dazzling mound of stars, wider than two of her Da's hand-spans at arm’s length.
So, why call it an eye?
Grown-ups were stupid sometimes.
A patch of stars blinked.
Gouta rubbed her eyes in case they were getting too moist; as the lookout, she had to stay clear-eyed.
Another patch blinked, next to the first.
She frowned. Stars never blinked; they always shone with a steady, needle-sharp light, like sunlight seen through pinholes in black cloth.
A third patch blinked, next to the second.
Now she noticed that the three patches together formed a bent line. She drew a fingertip across her view of the stars and, ignoring that she could see her finger, noted how the stars blinked off and on in the same way.
Something was circling around up there, blocking stars as it moved, never moving outside the strip of sky.
Maybe it was a black crow? The size was about right, but it was too slow for a crow, it was almost hovering, and she had never seen a crow fly like that. Anyway, normal birds would be asleep now.
No. Not a bird, then; but what?
A hole? Did the sky have holes? Could a hole move?
A different movement caught her attention as Da transferred from the wall to hang by his hands from the floor of the highest balcony. Despite some tree branches and leaves in the way, she could see him pull himself up the wrought ironwork, intending to scramble over the railing. Yona was on the wall not far below him, so the climb was nearly done. Once safe on the balcony, their next task would be to probe the door and windows for easy entry. Da always said Nobs were stupid, forgetting to lock their upper windows and balcony doors. So, a second-storeyman never needed tools for his or her trade, which was handy if caught by the Watch in a stop-and-search.
She checked the avenue again. It was still empty in both directions.
Should she tell Da what she saw up there?
Afraid of making him fall off in surprise, Gouta waited for Da to stand secure on the balcony. When it was safe to tell him what she had seen, she raised the whistle to her mouth, but hesitated. Was it important enough to distract him from training Yona? And how could she whistle this news? Da had taught her signals for simple things like Watch patrols, custodians and dogs, but nothing about stars that blinked or a moving sky-hole.
A sudden, strong puff of air in her face made her blink and swept her hair back.
When she opened her eyes again, the carriageway and its mansion were hidden by a group of black-cloaked people, armed with cudgels, spears and crossbows.
Where had they…? Who…?
Silver badges! Their cloaks and caps had silver badges. They wore Watch uniform!
She gaped and clapped her hands to her cheeks. How did they arrive without warning in a deserted avenue? The whistle fell forgotten into her lap and rolled off to the cobbles beneath her.
The men and women in the Watch squad seemed dizzy, and many rubbed their ears. Their Sergeant, a woman with a powerful build, scarred cheek and a broken nose, issued commands to her squad in a loud stage whisper.
“Squad: ready arms, load crossbows, and move!… Oh, c’mon yer ponsies, move-move-move! Never mind yer ringing ears. Da perps are up da wall. If yer let dem git inside, I'll pick one of yer ta go up da Seer's office an' explain why. Now, git goin’!”
The squad moved away with both stealth and speed into the carriageway. Meanwhile, unaware of their approach, Da was reaching down to help Yona climb up to the balcony. She had to tell them! Gouta scrabbled for the whistle, located it, dropped it, found it once more and blew the first signal she thought of.
No! That was not enough. She should tell him more than that. An iron band of panic gripped her as she blew a confused flood of signals.
Da jerked a hand up to his ear and spotted the squad on the carriageway. Distracted by his movement and his sharp intake of breath, Yona twisted and looked down, though Da said in every lesson she should never do this while climbing.
Her fingers slipped from the stonework.
Time slowed to treacle for Gouta as if Da’s and Yona’s movements wound down, like wading in puddled clay. Her vision sharpened, like a hawk’s, letting her see the tiniest details, and her hearing intensified. Everything now happened in great detail, but so unhurriedly.
As if she was hovering only metres from her family and with no branches or leaves obscuring her sight, she followed Yona’s hands wafting in slow motion away from the wall, a puff of mortar grains spraying from one finger tip, a broken nail hanging from another. She heard Yona drawing breath to scream.
She saw the gradual widening of Da's eyes and mouth as they pulled into a look of pure horror, a fine spray arching from his mouth. His hands, now slow and clumsy, were extending out and down but, as far as they stretched, Yona was swinging just as far away from the wall and from him, staying out-of-reach.
Time and Yona both floated on the same, lazy current while Da shouted her name in an impossible, long drawn-out scream, drowning out Yona’s own.
But in a sudden, seeming silence her downward drift stopped with a stomach-clenching smack.
The scene froze; all motion halted; all was silent.
A long moment passed for Gouta. Yona had fallen so slowly, surely she could not be badly hurt? Why wasn’t she getting up? Please Barys, she pleaded, let her be alright. Why was no one moving to help her? Why was everyone just standing there?
She made a loud sniff, and time snapped back into its normal pace.
The Sergeant barely glanced at the girl on the ground. She hung back with two squad members who were lifting cocked crossbows to their shoulders while others surged forward to the base of the wall, near Yona.
“Well, well, well! If it ain’t Danladi ‘Dan-da-Lad’ Ricci!” she bellowed up at Da. “Ain‘t seen you around in a long time.”
Da gave no reply but looked down frozen in horror as two of the squad knelt to investigate the girl. Gouta could not see what they were doing because of the forest of legs in the way.
The Sergeant called the pair back, sounding irritable.
“Never mind da guttersnipe, dey come at ten-a-penny! Leave da brat and keep yer eyes on da big guy, up dere.”
Gouta felt a flash of anger. How dare that Watch Sergeant call her sister a guttersnipe? The only one allowed to call Yona such a rude name was her sister. That rough, foul-mouthed Watch woman would have to go through Gouta Ricci first!
As if deterred by Gouta’s fierce reaction, the Sergeant called to Da again.
“Yer know da score Ricci. Yer under arrest for attempted burglary and uvver possible charges for past crimes, to be determined later.”
But still Da paid her no attention; he could have been a statue, looking down at Yona.
The Sergeant’s voice showed her rising irritation. “Oy! Ricci! Come down peacefully, or we’ll apprehend yer alright ... yeah, wiv crossbow bolts!”
She raised a hand. “Crossbows: take aim.”
The horrified father unfroze and started the climb down under the threat of crossbow fire, his grief now loud and piercing in the quiet night. Gouta squirmed and fretted as she had never seen Da upset or crying. She feared his fingers might become slippery with tears and lose their grip as Yona’s had.
“Shut yer racket, Ricci! It’s only a streetling, fer Aloysia’s sake!”
But he continued crying and calling out to Yona’s still form, pleading for her to get up, but Gouta realised he had changed what he was shouting.
“Blackie! Blackie! C’mon ma baby Blackie. Listen ta me! Let’s go play up Tannery Row again. Remember Tannery Row, Blackie? C’mon…..!”
She drew a sharp breath and goosebumps raced across her arms. Blackie was Da's pet name for her, not her sister; Yona’s was Princess, which Gouta had always resented. With a flash of understanding, his meaning came clear. Her eyes widened and her mouth gaped. Her clever Da was shouting out to her, Gouta, not Yona, and Tannery Row was a code word in Thieves Cant for… for…
For lying low.
He was telling Gouta to hide. Or stay hidden.
She could not believe it. Her Da wanted her to stay hidden and watch while that horrible woman cinched his wrists behind him and chained his neck? While they were doing Barys-knew-what again to Yona, right now?
How could he do that to her?
Tears streamed down her face, snot bubbled from her nose, and trembling made her elbows and knees knock against the barrels. She wrapped her arms tight around her and clenched her leg muscles to still the noise.
A quiet whimper escaped from her mouth. She clamped it shut.
There was nothing she could do; she had to stay hidden. Unable to make a sound, forbidden to leave the shadows and run to her Da, Gouta waited as the arresting party came back up the carriageway to the avenue. Yona lay unmoving in a cloak slung as an improvised stretcher between two of the Watch. Another cloak draped over her, covering her completely save for one limp, hanging arm that swung as her bearers walked. Gouta found the arm’s motion mesmerising and somehow significant, though she was unable to decide why.
Prodded by a spear, Da stumbled behind the Sergeant chained by the neck to his captor’s belt, still crying out to Yona, but still calling her Blackie and repeating the code word Tannery Row. This tore at Gouta’s heart which hammered so hard she was sure someone must soon hear it, or the heavy breathing that rasped her throat and bubbled through her nose. Da was pulling against the chain to reach the stretcher, even though the Sergeant’s weight forbade it and another Watchman cudgelled him for it.
They stopped in the avenue where they had first appeared, almost on top of Gouta’s hiding place. She struggled to hold her breath.
“Hey! Smell dat?” called a young, spotty-faced Watchman, shouting to be heard over Da's crying, “Rich people poop just like us! Who’d’ve….”
“Shut it, Gralla! No one asked your opinion.”
“Aye, Sergeant!” Gralla snapped.
Then he smacked the prisoner’s head with a cudgel. “Oy you! Da Sergeant said be quiet!”.
It was a vicious blow, and Gouta flinched as if struck herself.
Da staggered to one knee and something flew from his head on a glittering arc to the cobbles near the barrels. Only Gouta noticed this.
Now only a metre from where she hid, Da lifted his face streaked with blood, which seemed black in the starlight.
“Where is yer taking me? For the love of Barys, not… Deep End Jetty?”
The Sergeant sketched Aloysia’s Holy sigil to ward off his blasphemy, then she guffawed.
“Oh yeah, Ricci. Yer’d like that, wouldn’t yer? A quick way out by drowning in da docks? Nah, we’re taking yer in… fer... A Little Chat…”
The squad gave a dutiful chuckle at her use of an old Watch joke.
“… just as soon as…”
Another sudden gust of air swept Gouta’s hair forward, over her face, as the squad vanished from her sight.
Da and Yona had gone with them.
The avenue was empty.
Alone once more, she found she was panting and her heart was beating fast. Her thoughts were fuzzy and confused, she was getting dizzy, and her smock was damp with sweat pouring from her body. The night air seemed to have a sudden frosty chill.
Was this what panic felt like? Through her confusion, she remembered one of Yona’s lessons. Her Da had taught her never to panic on a climb, but in case it might happen three floors up without another handhold in reach, he taught her how to control it. Gouta had listened intently and copied her sister’s practice exercises.
She loosened her arms and relaxed her legs, though this allowed them to knock against the barrels again. She ignored the sound and forced her neck and shoulder muscles to relax, concentrating on making her breathing slow and deep.
The dizziness passed, the urge to pant faded, her frantic heartbeat slowed, and even the trembling slowed to a stop.
Getting back in control of her body turned out to be easy part, her mind was another matter; her confusion continued; nothing of what she had just seen, heard and experienced went together in her head. Gouta leant her head back against the sharp flints, lifted her face to the sky and tried to make sense of it all. Nothing came to mind, the pieces of the puzzle would not fit together. Her mind raced in circles around a random tangle of sharp images and sounds with no clear order or meaning.
A movement caught her attention off to her right. The sky-hole or whatever it was still circled in the sky, only further down the avenue.
No. Wait. It was flying in a slow, straight line angled towards the rooftops on her side, heading towards the city centre, the Watch Tower and the docks.
Glad for a chance not have to deal with enormous, jagged thoughts for a moment, she watched without emotion as it disappeared over the rooftops. Thinking about this, or rather not thinking about something more important, was a lot easier on her mind though it made her feel guilty.
She remembered she had first seen the sky-hole just before the Watch squad appeared without warning. Nothing in the signals Da had taught said anything about the Watch simply blinking into existence. Either Da was wrong, which was unthinkable, or the Watch were doing something new, something involving magic. And now that the squad had vanished using that same magic, the sky-hole was also leaving. That had to be important; something connected the two, somehow.
“I ’ope I never see yer again”, she blubbed out loud, not caring if anyone heard, “Yer nuffin’ but bad luck!”
She lowered her head to allow her tears to splash into her lap.
As her vision cleared a little, she saw a glint of starlight amid the cobbles. She remembered something dropping there when the evil Gralla whacked Da's head with his stick. She stretched out her hand from between the barrels and picked up his jewelled earpiece. The gem was sticky with earwax and the device smelled of his sweat and blood.
Reminded of the sight of his bloody face in the starlight, she sat gripping the earpiece so hard it hurt her hand and wept for a long time. It was not fair! The Watch had cheated. They should have walked up the avenue. She should have seen them coming. They were mean to appear so suddenly. And with magic. They did not give her time to signal Da. And now Da and Yona were… they were… Having A Little Chat with the Watch!
It. Just. Was. Not. Fair!
No one came to investigate the unusual situation of a sobbing little girl in the middle of the night on the deserted Master Burgher Adeyemi Avenue, not even the cat.
Given time, a little girl will run out of tears and her mind will start working again, or so she told herself. Da had instructed her to hide. Well, she had done that; what was she supposed to do now?
Deep End Jetty. It was another of Da's secret codewords, but what did it mean?
She thought back to the codeword quizzes he had set her and Yona which her sister, though four years older, did not always win. But she did not remember this one. Her mind, normally quick to flick through ideas, seemed stuck in mud.
Furious with her memory, Gouta wiped away the tears and snot with her hands and arms.
Perhaps her tears and snot had washed the memory out of her head? Yes, that was what must have happened.
“Tears is bad. Dey stop me rememberin’. Never gonna cry again”.
She needed this memory back inside her head, so she licked up the sticky moisture from her hands and arms, all the while thinking about the quizzes. It worked. An echo of the memory came back; it was a start.
Deep End Jetty was one of Da's special codewords which he kept back until he needed a tie-breaker question. But he always made a sad face when he asked this one, so its meaning must be a sad one. What was it?
As she poked at the clue, the memory returned in full.
Deep End Jetty meant the gang no longer existed. Survivors should avoid their headquarters, for fear of being rounded up by the Watch, and should find a new gang to protect them.
Gouta knew what a gang was. She and Yona and Da were a gang; a family.
She considered the word “survivor” and decided it applied to her. Yes, it fitted, but it felt too final.
It meant she might never see her family again.
It meant Da would never teach her climbing and burglary skills.
It meant she would no longer play and fight with Yona.
With her Ma having run away when she was little, and now Da and Yona taken away by the Watch, she had no one to look after her, no one to feed her, no one to tell her stories, no one to tuck her up in her blanket at night.
No one to love her.
For the first time in her life, Gouta Ricci, age six, was completely and utterly alone.
The enormous thought crashed down on her. It stifled her; she gasped for breath. It covered her; the world went black for a moment. It hit her stomach; she retched in her lap. It made her guts spasm; she relieved herself, soaking her britches.
Gouta tried to rally and picture what her new life on her own might be like, but the idea was too big to fit inside her head. So she sat behind the barrels, beating them with her hands to express her agony. She sought new, untapped reserves to cry her pain away on floods of tears.
But no tears came.
She had forbidden them.
Without the release of crying, the pain in her chest built and grew and expanded until she was sure she would burst, and when she was unable to hold it any longer, she let it go in a long, anguished scream of terror and torment. When it was spent, she collapsed, hunched over her lap in a crumpled heap, feeling drained, empty, blank.
Time passed and the Eye of Heaven rose in the sky behind her, lighting the far side of the avenue, the tree-lined carriage and the mansion at its end as bright as any star lamp.
She had to leave before daybreak, it was not safe here; Nobs hated guttersnipes near their posh houses and would have them shot or beaten to death.
Anyway, she knew what she had to do.
Da had told her to find a new family, and she would do that, but afterwards there would be nothing to stop her from looking for him and Yona. And nothing would stop her; she would let nothing get in her way; she would defy even the Gods themselves.
She would get her real family back together, one day.
Her back straightened with resolve. She crawled out of her hiding place with numb legs and stiff knees then stumbled down the avenue back to the relative safety of Dockside. Her hand still clutched the earpiece, and she dropped it into the pocket with its magically bound whistle, leaving painful dents in her palm. Her Da would get these tools back. She would nurse Yona back to health, whatever it took, no matter how mean Yona might be sometimes. And by Barys, she would even apologise to Yona, and mean it, for making her fall off that wall with her thrice-sealed wish.
And when her family was whole and well again, the Watch had better look out.
Gouta Ricci would hurt them back.
To be continued...