I am most certainly not dead. Thank you for your tender concern. I will try to write more often so you don’t have to worry so between letters. (Because a week’s silence surely means I have fallen prey to a wasting illness or been murdered in these boring, gray streets.)
School is going well. I am excelling in all of my classes. (Apparently, some things never change, and girls are not challenged in Albion in the same way they weren’t on Melei.) My professors are all intelligent and kind. (Kind of horrible.) None stand out. (I refuse to mention him by name, no matter how many obviously “subtle” questions you ask.) The other students are also quite focused on their schooling, and none of us has much time for socializing. Boys and girls attend separate classes as well, so no, I have not met many interesting young men. (I am neither courting nor being courted. Please stop hoping.)
Tell Aunt Li’ne thank you for the mittens. They are very much appreciated in this cold, damp climate I am so unused to. And please tell the sun hello and I miss her very much! I also miss you, of course. (I do. Very much.)
All my love,
Reading over the letter to my mother, I am so absorbed in my head with adding the true statements to my written words that I fail to pay attention to the street. I cannot decide which shocks me more—nearly being run over by the horse-drawn cart, or the fluid stream of cursing in my native tongue that is being directed at me.
I look up, cheeks burning, and meet a pair of black eyes that, combined with the familiarity of the language, hit me with a longing for Melei so deep and painful I can scarcely draw a breath.
The man pauses, obviously surprised to see how dark of skin and eyes I am in spite of my school uniform. And so I take the opportunity to insult his manhood, his lineage, and his horse in a single, well-crafted turn of phrase I haven’t used since my friend Kelen taught it to me when I was fourteen.
I smile back.
Brushing his hand through the air in another gesture so achingly familiar it brings tears to my eyes, he clicks his tongue and the cart moves on, our near-collision forgotten.
He’s made me crave heat. The sun’s anemic rays pull more warmth from me than they offer. I hate Albion, the whole gray country. I hate Avebury, a city just as gray, teeming with people but coldly lifeless.
No. Homesickness does me no good. Wiping under my eyes, I straighten my shoulders and march toward the hotel. I only have a couple of hours before my shift to do my reading for tomorrow’s classes, and I will not be anything less than the best. I cannot afford it.
I cut away from the main thoroughfare and find myself in a narrow alley. It’s old, the lines not quite vertical as they lean ever so gradually overhead.
“What’s wrong, chickie bird?”
I startle, my eyes whipped down from where they traced the line of the sky. A man with the thick build, intricate tattoos, and accompanying ripe scent of a dockworker stands directly in front of me.
“Nothing.” I flash a tight, dismissive smile honed these last few months of learning to blend in. “Just passing through.”
“Nah, don’t do that.” He steps to the side as I do, and his mass blocks me from walking by. “Come have a drink with me, yeah? Make you feel all better.”
“I have somewhere to be.”
His smile broadens, blue eyes nearly lost in the tanned squint lines of his face. “You ain’t from ’round here, are you? An island rat, that’s what you are.” He reaches out with a meaty hand to touch my hair, black as night and waterfall straight, where I have it pulled into a bun at the base of my neck.
“Excuse me.” I back up but he follows, leaning in closer. “Let me by.”
“I’ve heard stories about island rats. You can tell me if they’re true.”
I lift onto my toes to sprint away when a hand comes down on my shoulder.
“There you are, darling. So sorry I’m late.”
I don’t know this voice, a low tenor with the clipped, stylish vowels of the classes I only see when delivering orders to their expensive hotel rooms.
I stiffen under his fingers, which are light but steady on my shoulder. Now there are two of them to deal with. I slide my hand into my satchel, gripping the handle of the paring knife I borrowed from the kitchen and keep with me all the time. The gentleman’s fingers tighten.
“Not necessary,” he whispers.
I turn to look at him—a low, round hat is pulled over his forehead, obscuring his eyes. His lips are sly and twisted into a smile over teeth far finer than my dockworker friend’s. This man is a porcelain doll compared to the brute blocking my path. He’s taller than me but lean, all angles in his suit that reeks of money.
Apparently, the dockworker has the same assessment. “This your girl? I don’t think she is.”
“I would never accuse you of thinking, my good man.” The gentleman lifts his silver-topped cane, tapping it once in the middle of the dockworker’s forehead. “I shouldn’t worry it’ll be a problem for you to give up the practice of thinking entirely.”
The dockworker blinks once—twice—so slowly I notice his stubby blond eyelashes, and then he moves to the side like he has forgotten how to walk on land.
“Good day, then.” The gentleman steers me forward with his fingertips, and I’ve barely time to process what happened before we’re out of the alley and back onto the main street.
“Well.” I clear my throat, embarrassed. I look down the walkway instead of at the gentleman, not wanting to see in his eyes whether he did that out of the goodness of his heart or if he expects something in return. This is Albion, after all. “Thank you for your help. Good-bye.”