The trick to running along the roof of a building was knowing not to stop. Del hit the orange tiles at an angle that should have sent him sprawling, but lungs burning, heart pumping, he just kept running, charging toward the edge like it wasn’t a three-story drop to the street below. He leapt off the edge, feet kicking off the sides of chimneys to keep him airborne. One, two, three, four, five and he caught hold of a rope hanging off the side of the bell tower.
The city of Pothena spread out before him like a mosaic: a burst of color in all directions, from earthy reds to shocking blues; white stone walls and dark, sandy streets. The sky above seemed to pale in comparison to the beauty below, a cruel facade overtop the brutal and unforgiving underbelly that kept the city bustling. If the beauty was all there was, he might have stayed…but as it was, it was just another obstacle to his true objective: the harbor, and beyond it, freedom.
Del pushed his dark hair from his face, his deep brown eyes locked on the sails all along the infinite horizon. “Here we go,” he whispered to himself.
“Hey!” came an angry voice from above, and he looked up to see the bell clerk leaning out a window. “Are you crazy? Get off of there, you dirty street rat!”
“With pleasure,” said Del, and kicked off the side of the tower and back into the air. He landed on the roof of another building, and launched into another sprint. His lean frame was made for acrobatic escapades like this, and his toned muscles—built and rebuilt through seventeen years of feast and famine, from sprinting and ducking and hiding from the victims of his petty thefts—made the most incredible feats feel easy. He was in his element, up here in the sky, and he loved every second of it. And soon—very soon, if all went right—he was going to escape Pothena and live his whole life like this—never stopping, never hurting. He’d travel the world in search of dragons, and when he found one he’d learn to ride it, and together they’d soar so high his fingers would graze the clouds. He was going to fly for real. And he was going to do it because he wanted to, and not because rooftopping was the only way he could keep from being hounded by the merchants in the market below.
Down there, the day was in full swing, vibrant stall covers shuddering as the shoppers moved in and out in search of deals and hidden gems. Vendors called out their specials, promoted their wares, haggled over every last sale. Families clustered together and paused every few steps to stand there—amazed at the options—and wonder if the few coins they had to spare could even be enough to tempt a merchant to make a deal.
Once, years ago, he might’ve been down there too, before his face had become synonymous with crime. Now all he could do was watch from a distance, wondering what it would’ve been like to grow up like the kids he saw, holding hands with their mothers, pulling the sleeves of their fathers, trying to convince them to buy a bunch of eltos, or try a dollop of spicy sazza. Del had never had anything like that. For as long as he could remember, he’d been alone on the streets, doing his best to pocket enough coin or fruit to make it to tomorrow, without getting caught. But not today. Today everything was going to change.
At the end of the building, after waiting for a moment for everyone to turn their attention elsewhere, Del leapt across but downward, bouncing painfully off the far wall and nearly toppling into the fountain. The children nearby stared up at him with wide-open eyes, not quite believing what they were seeing. Del cupped a hand to the stream and took a drink, as if that’s what he’d intended, before flicking the rest of the water out at the kids, all of them dressed in the finest of linens—see ya, suckers!—and then scurried to the street, and got back to business.
He moved briskly, but not too fast, onward to the harbor. He was like a ghost, in a way…he could walk right into someone, and they’d do their best to pretend he wasn’t there, either out of fear or disgust or something else entirely. Even those who knew him—the ones who stepped to the side as he approached—averted their eyes as they clutched their purses. And the merchants? Once they saw him, they never stopped watching, their eyes practically burning through the threadbare cotton of his shirt.
As he passed the baker’s stall, his hands slipped away two wedges of bread and tucked them underneath his tunic with expert precision. He scooped up a sweetfruit from the next stall, but then noticed it was overripe, and bounced it straight back into the basket of another shopper…so gently, she had no idea it had happened at all.
“Hey!” shouted the fruit vendor, pushing through the customers gathered at his stall, straight toward Del. “You put that back!”
Del raised his hands to show they were empty, even as he backed up to keep his distance. “Put what back?”
The vendor narrowed his eyes. “I know you’re a thief and a liar and a troublemaker.”
“No,” Del said. “I’m a survivor, no thanks to you.” And then, heart pounding the way it always did, even after all these years, even after all the similar confrontations he’d had, he ducked through the middle of a boisterous family and disappeared from view.
That was the trouble with Pothena: you were either invisible, or the enemy. It made Del’s heart skip a beat every time someone looked him in the eye. Like being seen was a danger. Like being known could hang you. And if he stayed there much longer, he knew, it would hang him. It was only a matter of time.
A sudden gust of wind swept down the street, nearly overturning some stalls as the flags up above fluttered so violently they almost came loose. Storm season was fast approaching, making life on the streets even less bearable…and Del’s hopes of escape fainter and fainter. Once the winds got stronger, the ships would stay closer to home, and Del would be resigned to another miserable winter on the knife’s edge. It was now or never. Today or never. He had to get it right.
At the end of the market, where the sandy street turned to thick paving stones, he gave himself a moment to pause. He turned around and a shiver went through his body as he gave a lifetime of memories one last look. He thought he might feel… something. But he didn’t. “I’m not going to miss this place,” he sighed, then turned and raced down the hill to the water.
The harbor was bustling, packed with ships of all shapes and sizes, and more people than even seemed possible. Crew members, passengers, merchants and fishermen…the scarred and cynical and the dangerously naïve. Pothena was a place where anything could happen—and often did—and that went double for the harbor. Every type of scam in the world was perpetrated here: magic potions! long-lost relatives! forbidden loves! exciting business opportunities! Del had seen them all, tried at least half, and nothing had brought him any closer to finding someone worthy of his trust. But he was tough. He didn’t need anyone. After all, he’d made it this long on his own.
Up ahead, workers hoisted crates onto decks, stocking ships for the ride out, or the ride home, or some other adventure altogether. There was never a shortage of work at the docks…it was just a question of how much backbreaking labor your body could take before the pittance of pay wasn’t worth it anymore. The tougher ones churned through the backlog with furious efficiency, shouting to one another to move faster, move smarter, get it done!
Del caught the arm of a passing courier, his back loaded with cargo meant for the city.
“Have you seen a Westwind cargo ship—?”
“They’re all cargo ships,” said the courier, his eyes going to Del’s ragged clothes, already stepping away the instant he realized Del had nothing to offer.
“No, Westwind,” said Del. “Bigger sails, deeper hulls. Built for distance. Going farther.”
The courier rolled his eyes, pointing back toward the water. “Green sails,” he said, pulling free and carrying on up the hill. “But they’ll never let vermin like you on!” he called back.
“Don’t need to,” Del said, forcing a grin to his face. He’d never gotten used to it, being called names like that, no matter how many times a day—every day—it happened, but damned if he’d let anyone see how much it bothered him.
He wove through the crowds, eyes locked on the green half-moon sails of a merchant ship docked near the back. It was definitely a Westwind ship, judging by the mass of crates being loaded up. Most boats in the harbor were short-distance skimmers, never going far enough to matter. But every so often a long-haul ship came to town, bound for the open seas and destinations far outside the reach of Pothena’s ruling class…and that was what Del needed. A fresh start. A chance to be reborn as someone better.
But if he didn’t make it happen today, he might not be free to try again. Or alive.
Crews were working double-time to stock it up, which meant there wasn’t much time left at all. He had to move fast.
He pushed and jostled his way up to the front, where the crew chief was delegating workloads, hoping against hope he could manage to get an assignment. But when Del saw the stout little balding man with a red scalp and eyebrows as thick as his beard, his heart sank. He knew that man. And the second he saw Del, the crew chief’s face twisted into an angry scowl.
“Plan B it is,” Del muttered, and wove back into the mess of moving bodies, careful to stay out of the line of sight of anyone who mattered. He was aiming for the rear loading area, where authorized workers were carting heavy crates up a gangplank onto the ship. He’d only get one shot at this, so he had to do it right.
Keeping his head down like a good little slave, he slipped into the back of the short line. Waiting felt like an eternity when his whole life hung in the balance. His ears were working overtime, trying to pick out whether the crew chief was calling his name.
Two more people to go, and panic was setting in. Two more until he had his shot.
Back toward the front, he heard the crew chief barking orders, insulting whatever workers got in his way. He was headed Del’s way and he wouldn’t overlook the stranger in their midst.
One more to go. One more crate, and the man at the front of the line was making small talk instead of working! Del wanted to yell at him, tell him to get moving, but he knew he couldn’t afford it. The crew chief was getting closer and closer, and Del’s window was shrinking so fast, he—
Then, in an instant, he was first in line. Keeping his head down, he muttered “thank you” as he was handed a crate, and then marched up onto the ship as fast as he could, not daring to look back to see if anyone suspected him, if they were going to stop him, like so many times before.
As soon as he was safely on board the richly appointed merchant ship—its decks spotless, metal railings polished, its flags and banners fluttering in the wind without a single stray thread—Del started looking for his mark. He was half giddy he’d made it this far—farther than he’d ever gotten before. But even the sailors seemed to be cut from a cleaner cloth, which made Del wish desperately he had a half-decent shirt, because this was a ship meant to make an impression, to be an ambassador to far-flung kingdoms, and he needed to look like he belonged here.
He wasn’t in the clear yet. He’d tried sneaking aboard before—but he’d always gotten caught. They were expecting thieves and stowaways. They were looking for them. If they found him down here, he’d be back where he started—or worse. He had to disappear, and fast.
Del hurried down below deck, where the storage room was already filling up with cargo. There were thick wooden shelves built into the walls, with ropes for fastening and nets for safely keeping whatever they carried in place. But they were still loading the thing, which meant the final placement of cargo wasn’t quite figured out yet, so the floor was littered with boxes and crates and odds and ends. Del set his crate down and dashed straight to the back of the hold. It was dark, darker than he’d been expecting on such a bright and sunny day. He didn’t have time for his eyes to adjust, though, because the rest of the workers would be heading down the ramp soon—all it would take was one stray glance and he’d be caught.
He felt along the back wall, trying to find an opening or a loose board that would lead him to somewhere to hide—a crawl space, a hidden compartment.
“Take that all the way to the back!” someone said. People were coming, and he would be caught for sure. Del’s hands moved even faster. He rushed back and forth, up and down, fingers searching for a latch or a handle or anything that would—
He found it by chance. It wasn’t the wall that was empty; it was the ceiling. There was a narrow opening above him! He reached up, grabbing hold of the sides, and hoisted himself into the darkness, heart in his throat, just as two workers trundled in, dropping their crates where he’d just been standing.
“Almost done,” said one of them.
“Better be, with what they’re payin’,” said the other.
Above them, Del carefully moved himself into a more stable position. A crack in the outer wall cast a wedge of light through the crawl space, enough that Del could see the place he would be calling home for the next few days. Not too big, but big enough, and far more comfortable than his usual quarters, in the streets of Pothena. At least he didn’t have to worry about being robbed in his sleep.
Above him, sailors and dock workers rushed this way and that, carrying this, securing that, preparing the ship for departure. He’d seen it a hundred times before, but always from a distance, always just out of reach. Now he was in it, and it almost felt unreal. Like he’d suddenly wake to discover this was all a dream, and he was still just an impoverished orphan, one mistake away from disaster.
It was strange…it wasn’t like there was that much of a difference, being here, huddled in a cramped space, praying he wasn’t caught. It was his normal life, just transposed somewhere new. But this moment was the first step of his dream—a dream for as long as he could remember—to pull himself out of the muck and the misery of his existence, and be someone better.
Out there, in Pothena—ever since his “uncle” Isham had died, anyway—he had only ever been seen as a nuisance and a thief. Someone to kick awake at the crack of dawn, or have arrested for looking too poor, for stealing to survive when no one would deign to give a kid like him a job—or even charity. But on this ship—and in whatever came next—he could be whoever he needed to be. He could be as magnificent as his most credible lie—and he was good at lying—and never be spat on again.
He pulled the loaves of bread loose from his tunic—they were a little mangled, but still more than edible—and set them aside for later. It wasn’t a feast, but it was all he’d need to get from his past to his future. He’d done his research, so he knew the next big ports of call—in any direction—were no more than a week away. When the last of the bread was gone, he’d truly be done with Pothena. He couldn’t wait.
He lay back on the raw, unfinished wood, spread his arms wide, and let out a satisfied sigh. For the moment, he could let his guard down, just a little. He’d made it. He was safe. And whatever came next, he knew he’d love every minute of it. He just knew.
Less than an hour later, the cargo all loaded, the first mate made his rounds, calling out: “Setting sail! Setting sail! All souls not warranted make for land or suffer your fate!” Del grinned in the darkness. He wasn’t warranted, but if they wanted him gone they’d have to find him first.
The ship lurched sideways, finally free—free like him!—to catch the heavier waves of the open water, and then he felt them lean to the side as the captain turned them out to sea. Del’s heart lurched then too, or maybe it was his stomach. He had never been on a ship this long before—and never this far from shore.
He made his way over to the crack in the hull and peered out. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust, but then there it was: Pothena, his home, like he’d never seen it before.
“Goodbye,” he said. “And good riddance.”