It wasn’t quite midday when Anila danced her way up the stairs, Starry Night trailing behind her and thudding loudly on each step. She couldn’t keep herself from smiling now that Aster was two flights of stairs away, probably still cursing her for using the priceless enchanted weapon to break old dinner plates for target practice in one of the store rooms. She didn’t really enjoy upsetting Aster, but for some reason she always had to fight to hold in a laugh every time she heard that grinding sound her teeth made whenever she walked in on something fun happening. She knew it was important to her for some reason, but she couldn’t make sense of it. Something about the hours that went into forging a priceless weapon and further enchanting it to make it unbreakable. There was always a long speech following that about the value of such weapons to various, important people, kings and royal guards and…something. Anila could never remember anything that came after that. The only word she ever heard was “unbreakable”, and that meant that there wasn’t any need to worry about not breaking it. Why worry about keeping it clean if it can’t rust? Why keep it from dragging on the ground if it can’t even get scratched? Target practice made a lot more sense, and more important than that, it was fun. Sure, Lisette would buy her a jump rope if she asked, but why? Starry Night was prettier than any toy rope she’d ever seen, and none of the other kids ever made a big deal about how pretty a normal, boring rope was when they all went out to play.
Things adults said rarely made any sense, though, so she didn’t think much of it. When Aster was done yelling about Starry Night, she was yelling about breaking things in the store room. Nobody even needed the plates — she’d already heard Wren say that everything in that room was junk. Something about its having taken hours to separate it all from “the haul”, whatever that was. Every so often, people she didn’t know would bring in sacks and crates. Nobody would ever tell her where it came from, other than “other places” or “from people that don’t need it anymore”. She was pretty sure that meant that she wasn’t supposed to ask. The most she was ever told was to keep away from the people bringing things in. They usually looked nice enough. Sometimes they would smile at her or wave. Sometimes, she would manage to sneak down to the lower levels of the mansion during a haul and a few of the people would give her special things that they said they saved just for her. Pretty clothes, toys, jewels and, sometimes, even makeup. Lisette always got mad, but at least she let her keep the things they gave her. She always said, “they’re not TOO bad, so it’s okay, but you still need to stay in your room until they’re done working.” She always promised to give Anila the things they left for her, but waiting was boring, and besides, they were nice. Most of them, anyway. Sometimes there would be people that actually scared her, like the ones with the red paint on their faces. They always had a strange smell about them, like something that had been locked away underground for a long time. It always made her think of mushrooms for some reason. They smiled at her, too, but it made her uneasy for some reason. They whispered to each other when they thought she wasn’t looking, and as much as they stared at her, they never looked her in the eye. She could never place exactly what it was, but it always made her want to run away. Their days to deliver the hauls were they only time she didn’t need to be told to stay in her room.
Even the people with red faces would be something exciting to think about, but the day seemed like a complete loss even though it was only half finished. She didn’t get to go to school that morning because Lisette told her she needed her to talk to some people on her behalf. Something about “projecting a proper image”. It sounded boring, so as usual when she talked to adults, she just listened for what sounded like the important parts. She needed to go talk to one of the people that sold that sticky-looking stuff that made her think of dried tree sap. It smelled kind of nice, but nobody ever let her spend too much time around it. They said it would just give her a headache, but she wasn’t sure she believed it. Just another thing adults do that doesn’t make any sense. She didn’t understand the value of it, but Lisette said that it was of the utmost importance that she get more of it. In fact, the reason Anila had to be the one to go is because the only other one available that day was Wren, and she didn’t need anybody getting scared and running before the deal was complete. He would be nearby in case she needed him, but he would stay out of sight. That much was easy enough to understand. She didn’t really get why, but everybody was terrified of him. People would drop whatever was in their hands and start running when they saw him coming, but Anila loved spending time with him whenever he wasn’t busy. He did look a little scary from a distance, and he always had a funny smell about him that made her think of copper pieces, and he was always making people jump when he would climb out of a shadow, but he always took her wherever she wanted to go and bought her whatever she wanted. He listened to her every time she had a problem, and he always wanted to hear about how her day had been when she went out. He even played with her sometimes when the other kids were in school or their parents made them come home early because they knew they were playing with her, and he was always there whenever she was in trouble. Nobody ever picked on her for not having parents or hanging out with “those thugs” anymore. She was beaten pretty badly in an alley last year when cornered by a few boys that said they were going to join the new Fourth Pier Crew. She didn’t really understand what that had to do with her at the time, but Wren just said not to worry about it because he would take care of it. For a while after that, people ran away from Anila, too. Something about the boys and their families moving away because Wren told them that they couldn’t be around there anymore. She didn’t really understand, but she just listened for the important parts. Wren made sure she was safe, and that was what was important.
The job had been simple enough. Go and talk to the people and negotiate a deal. Ten pounds of that stuff for ten sacks of wheat. Anila was good at negotiating. Lisette told her to just go in and be nice to the people like she was nice to everyone else and it would go just fine. This wasn’t the usual lady she talked to to get the rubbery stuff, though. Lisette said that this guy had the best merchandise, and he was desperate to get rid of it for some reason. Everybody knew the rule was to maximize profit, and that meant never letting a good deal walk away for no reason. Even still, they didn’t know him that well and he wasn’t from the slums, so that meant being careful. That’s why Wren was going. It went well enough, though. The guy was a little strange, and he made her think of the people with the red faces for some reason. It made her glad to know that Wren was somewhere nearby, probably hiding in the shadows again. She almost hoped he would find a reason to come out. It was always funny to see the looks on people’s faces when he jumped out of one. His eyes looked a little scary because you always saw them before you saw the rest of him, and it always made people make funny faces. It always got really messy after that, and it made her a little sick to remember the times it happened, but they were always bad people. Wren never hurt people that didn’t deserve it. Nobody ever noticed that for some reason. Adults not making sense again.
Everything went fine, and just like Lisette said, as long as she didn’t give in, he would agree to the trade of ten pounds for ten sacks. He said he was sending a sample along with the people that were going to pick up the wheat, which was the reason Anila was climbing the stairs. Lisette usually made her go into her room when people they didn’t know well were coming over, so her best chance of seeing what was going on would be to hide at the top of the stairs, just barely out of sight. She noticed out of the corner of her eye that the door to Lisette’s office was open. Something that had been bothering her all morning finally occurred to her — Lisette was acting strangely. Making a deal with people she didn’t know wasn’t the only thing that was strange about today. She noticed it when she was talking to the man to finalize the deal. Lisette had been acting strangely, and much in the same way. She was always in a bad mood lately. She never had time to play or talk, and even though she was always nice to Anila, it seemed like she was always trying really hard to look happy around her. She always looked like she was feeling sick, too. Anila wanted to help, but Lisette always insisted she was fine and would be feeling better soon. The man she’d talked to earlier was doing the same thing, fidgeting when he thought nobody was watching and looking as if he may be sick. She didn’t bother asking him if he was okay, though. He still made her uncomfortable, and she already knew he’d just say he was fine. Adults not making any sense again…it wasn’t worth worrying about. She made sure nobody was looking before silently making her way to the office door. She usually wasn’t allowed in, but she liked to sneak in from time to time to see what was so important about it. Nothing looked especially interesting, though, even if it was important. Just books and parchment and sacks of money all over the place. It was all boring, but as she was about to turn to leave, a glint of gold caught her eye. She made her way across the room to the desk and saw something that puzzled her. It looked like a tea tray, but it was filled with things she didn’t recognize. Small boxes and strange looking tools were spread across it, and in the center was a tiny lamp. It looked too small to be useful for lighting up a room, but it looked expensive and important. Like the tray and everything on it, it was trimmed in ivory and gold. It was all very pretty, and immediately reminded her of Lisette’s necklace. She had a little ivory stick trimmed with gold and what looked like a little gold bowl attached to it. Sometimes she wore it from a fine golden chain around her neck when she went out at night. Anila got the usual “don’t worry about it” answer whenever she asked what it was. Lisette always laughed and called it her key to heaven. Anila asked if she could go, but Lisette just laughed again and said “not yet”. Everybody else got a little uneasy, but Anila was just confused. It didn’t even look like a key. It looked more like a little flute. She stepped away from the tray and started thinking about how to go about how to go about getting a straight answer about what it was. As interested as she was, she knew not to touch anything. Whatever it was, if it was in this room, it was important. She liked to know things, but she didn’t want to upset anyone, especially Lisette. She was stressed enough as it was, and it was still seemingly impossible to think of a way to make her feel better.
It took what seemed like hours when she couldn’t get up and play to pass the time, but she finally saw one of the people that cleaned the house running to open the door. She could tell it was important. The house cleaners never let important people wait at the door. It was the man from earlier, and he walked in with a group behind him. They didn’t look sick, but they all looked as nervous as he did. She could hear Lisette running through the halls to get to the main entryway. Something else strange…you normally couldn’t even hear Lisette coming. She was kind of like Wren that way, always appearing from nowhere and scaring people. Anila felt a little better when she saw her face, though. She still looked a little sick and even a little sweaty, but she looked happy for the first time in a couple of weeks. She greeted the nervous man and took a little wooden box from him. She opened it and smiled widely. Anila couldn’t see what was in it, but it wasn’t hard to guess that it was the sample of the sticky stuff she’d negotiated for earlier. Besides, at that point, she didn’t really care anymore. It made Lisette happy, and that was the important part to note this time. Anila heard her say “my one true friend” as she walked away, saying something about coming back after testing the sample. She looked like she was heading for the stairs, so Anila instinctively got up to head for her room before she was noticed. She turned around and jumped when she saw Wren behind her, standing halfway in a shadow. She was waiting for him to lecture her for hanging around instead of being in her room, but he just reached out and took her by the hand, pulling her into the shadow. He looked a little sad somehow. People said he didn’t show emotions, but Anila never had any trouble knowing what he was feeling. What he was thinking was always another matter, though.
“What’s wrong? You don’t look good.”
He actually laughed a little. That always made Anila feel special. He never let anyone else see that. “Nothing. Let’s just get going before you get in trouble. You know you’re supposed to be in your room.” She knew he wasn’t going to tell her anything more, so she changed the subject as she followed him into the swirling darkness.
“She called that guy her friend…so she really does know him, right? So who is he?” She could barely see him anymore, but she immediately knew she’d asked him something that made him feel bad again.
“I have no idea…and neither does she. She was talking to the box.”
Wren was always more inclined than other adults to answer her questions with straight answers, but he was also the fastest to stop talking when he’d decided she’d heard too much. After all was said and one, though, talking to him was much like talking to any other adult. Listen for the important parts. As she thought about her talking to a box and heard her breaking into a full run up the stairs behind them, she thought of the office and the tea tray with the pretty lamp. She didn’t understand what was going on, but she understood that the important part was that she should stay in her room today.