I'm one with shadow. The sun's dead, and figures in dark uniforms are skulking through my beautiful Xie home like enraged insects. They've torn apart merchant shops, goods strewn over dusty cobbles haphazardly. They're not aiming weapons at anyone, but they're on clear display. Hands holding near trigger and grip. All eyes are seized by them, but I am a mere shadow on the wall.
Between Boarder's shop and a skate park nearby is a loose but sturdy pipe. One I've used to gain access to Xie's slanting, guttered, roofs for years. There's some kids sitting near a halfpipe sipping on some sugary drink or another, and I let them see me as I walk briskly towards the neighboring alley my pipe's waiting in.
"Zeph? Bro, these guys are going psycho looking for you," one of the kids with an egg-shaped face says, laughing. It's Jae. "Where were you anyway?"
I hunker down beside them, listening to cola gurgling away through a straw from Jae's buddies. "I'ma let you in on a secret, alright," I grin. "I stole the Emperor's crown."
"Nuh-uh," it's a weightier voice from Jae's pal Toto, who is…weightier. "We ain't stupid, dude."
I lean back, arms behind my head, "Just testing you. They're after me like I did, though, right?"
"Hell yeah." Jae says. "I wanna' be hunted down by an army when I grow up, it's brutal."
"Brutal as hell." I say. There's a little sun left, a cloud beginning to smother it like a smoky pillow. No stars tonight.
There's a lapse in our conversation unfitting for some kids who've just downed a sugary drink. I can feel their smiles fading. Mine does too.
"Are you gonna' be alright, Zeph?" A third pipes up, known as 'pipsqueak' for his screechy voice.
"Yeah. I'll be alright. Tell everyone that, okay?"
My eyes were on the sun, theirs linger on the ship. Its engines still growl, vibrating bone. It's a giant blotch. A stain. So long as it's there I can't relax, some pathetic anxiety quickening my heart and pricking my gut with needles every second.
"Where you gonna go?" Toto says.
I don't have an answer.
Jae speaks up. "Shuddup, he can't tell us that, it's top secret. Toppest secret."
"Tip top secret," I say, getting up and heading for the alley. "I'll shred that halfpipe with you guys later, alright? And don't forget to study."
They're usually pretty quick to laugh. I pause a moment, consider looking back, but set my hands to my pockets and become a shadow once again. Renouncing myself as a shadow even long enough to talk to the kids wasn't smart, but after what Boarder said it felt possible there might not be another time to talk to them again.
A pebble rolls away from my boot, colliding with a mangled soda can probably left there by Jae and his pals. All went well there'd be a stern conversation about littering in their future. Leathery moss, a sharp sweetness from flowering weeds bursting forth in gaps between building and arid soil. A dull to it all from such familiarity. The times I've taken this route blur, but usually I'm not stopping to inspect it or anything. Watch how little teardrops from a gash in piping dribble down into an especially meaty patch of weeds. I inhale and exhale. Distant, blending, voices and rasping calls from crows play in my ears. A question lingers, but I force it aside.
I swing up the pipe and a swift kick forces me over dark, curving, jade shingles. Boots find their footing, but waver a bit from its deep set curve. Sure enough, a soldier's walking stoutly below. He pauses a moment to check the alley and carries on. They never look up. Once he's clear from earshot I creep up to where the roof becomes a single, long, beam and perch atop it. Xie lay before me, warm paper lanterns and standing lamps serving sentry to where most nightly traffic might come. Good places to avoid.
Completing my task would require a good path, a quiet stride, and speed. My home lay about as far away as a musket round might fly in a straight line uninterrupted before hitting ground and some gaps in buildings were too wide to clear. If only I had whatever insane technique that Captain guy used to cut Ji and I off in the logging camp. Whatever, I'd manage. A rough plan came to be in my mind's eye, roofs and passages weaving together. Distances. Jumps. Sound. More flat-roofed capital buildings made from concrete or logs would've been easier to navigate in such a manner, but I'd traveled Xie in such a way too. When crowds got thick for some event, when I needed home fast, or if I'd been running late for school going by roof just worked.
My feet hit the tile once more, toe first to dampen my stride. Each footfall is a creeping step playing out fast, shingles grinding below softly. Food's in the air howling at my face, from spicy meat to pickled fish. Probably Dou's restaurant near the skate park. Maybe he'd hear my running pounding through the roof. It'd surely be louder down below. I clear roads in swift bounds, electricity pulsing through my veins as I watch people walking beneath me and feel open air below. My chest feels light. My pace quickens. I clear another roof peak and its arch top beam in a single stride, using the slick flat of my boot to coast down the other side like I'm riding a skateboard. I kick up, dash, lunge over another gap.
Above me's the ship, staining the sky, but I don't care. Right now I could slam my fist right through its bow and break it in two. I'm running faster. More food in the air. Fried chicken, dumplings, potatoes. Glowing lanterns streak past, hung in windows and doorways. I outrun their very light, but I can do it faster. Faster. An especially big gap lies ahead, a three story inn on the other side with windows ablaze. Someone's in one. A girl observing my town's atmosphere. Some outsider probably in as a tourist from the Capital. I feel her eyes on me and smile, winding down right before roofing ran out and carrying my momentum forwards into launch.
I don't look down. Halfway across I can tell my feet aren't making it, but my hands clamp into purchase on some rough tiling, hot pain ripping at them, and I force my elbows up next. A leg. I'm there. The tourist's watching me so I don't allow any curses out, instead merely shaking off my hand and walking ahead in especially long strides.
I say, "Hey," but I keep my pace steady.
Window woman backs off a little into her room. "Is this normal?" she says.
Shrugging, I head along some roofing bordering her and crest another shingle mountain, pausing at its peak to secure my next route. It's taller here, and I can see my goal—a small estate standing like a shield against a bamboo ocean. Choking leaves cast sharp black shadows where honeyed light flickers in its windows.
Once more, I am a shadow. Jump after jump begins blending together, and what eyes spot me below can't come close to recognizing me. Outmaneuvering an entire Imperial search party felt pretty good, all things considered.
A stone throw apart from my goal, something dark and fast materializes in my peripheral vision. It's noiseless, nimble, and leaping roofs like me. I pause, and my heart for a moment stops beating. This figure clears two arching peaks in one bound, not big ones, but an impossible feat.
I whisper, "What the hell?" and my legs refuse to obey. This shape is humanoid, but its movements just aren't possible. I'd been leaping these roofs for years, and yet…
It blurs to me in a completely straight line, like a dark splotch thrown noiselessly from one platform to another. I hear a foot clink against ceramic and frost eats my blood.
I manage, "Who are you?"
A weighty pause, and for a moment my drumming heartbeat speaks for this anomaly.
It says in a young and glacial male voice, "Where are you going?"
"Who the hell are you?" I try and fail to keep my words from faltering.
"Where the hell are you going?"
Whoever this is isn't particularly imposing in height. Maybe it's just my elevated place on this roof exaggerating my stature but I have a head up on him. This guy's dashing act isn't so different from what that 'Carlo' guy did with Ji and I, but it's now dark out, I can't see the user, and he can for sure see me.
I ponder whether to try fighting but the faint aches in my chest from earlier abuse are in staunch opposition. This figure isn't moving, but I can tell they somehow know what I'm thinking.
He says, "Tell me the truth."
"Why should I do that?"
"If you do not, I will take you to the Willow."
"Dammit," I draw a long breath, it steadies me a little, "I'm g—"
"—I am here for you alone. Do not lie."
It's a sharp, fast, interruption which removes my breath once again. I pause and think, air weighing down like a smothering blanket. My interrogator hasn't moved a step. In him is Chen's quiet confidence, but this time stakes are way higher than a simple brawl.
"I'm going to see my mom, alright?"
Another pause leaves me to wonder whether I've done what's right. Whether my words left her in danger. If I've betrayed her, ruining my honor.
Finally he says, "Your time is short. Speak, leave, and I will find you."
"Your friend's parlor trick is no more."
He's the one. He can sense people. But how?
I say, "I'm not becoming some puppet for the Empire."
"Very well. Still, I will take you to the Willow." His eyes bore into me for a moment. "Your hair is gnarled and has dust within it."
He turns around. "Mh."
Air howls, darkness streaks, and he is before me no longer. Distant voices, birds, and whispering leaves fade back in. I run a hand through my hair, grainy particles coming back. It's knotted. I think back, wondering whether that girl from before could've seen it properly in such sparse light. I try to convince myself she couldn't, but it's a fruitless endeavor. I sigh.
Cleaning myself as best I can, my roof-hopping journey resumes, but the fun is gone. This stranger hangs over me like his battleship, and what certainty I felt in his words squeezes my hope dry. I'd be abducted by him. I fall to a knee for a moment and slam my fist down, cursing. It dawns on me how useless I am. I look up, and see the moon Astrid, or a hazy red outline of it, past some clouds. It's where my father is, and somehow I feel his eyes on me from a planet away and their disapproval. Like him, I'd be eaten up by these damn Imperials, used, and discarded like trash. My visit to mom now had a time limit. One Boarder tried to extend, but I paid him back by attacking his friend like some ape.
My failures could be examined more at a later time, though. Doubtless aboard the ship patiently hovering above, waiting to devour me like some ocean-dwelling monster. Maybe mom knew this'd happen, though. In my mind's eye she's beating me over the head with training weapons in our estates training area, ranting about how I shouldn't take my time for granted. How I'm wasting my potential falling in with Boarder and his crew. How pretty soon she won't be around to keep me safe. That one hurt.
My environs are a blur, and I only realize my position once I hop down from my neighbor's house and past our estates walls. I'm in the garden, and Astrid's smudgy red sheen vanishes in bamboo tendrils. A water dipper, made from a particularly common plant's hollow stalk, tips a wet payload into a pond where I can just make out shadowy, lethargic, fish swishing about. Wind plays the forest like a dry wooden instrument.
I hear a deep chain of coughs.
Mom sits kneeling upon a round straw mat, incense smoke trickling from a clay holder and a glowing red dot. It's sweet, smoky, and mellow. Her arms are folded, eyes two red, flickering, beads. Dull.
"You're home," she says softly.
Wind picks up a little, bamboo stalks clattering.
"Meet me in the training room," mom says. She stands with her usual grace, an ornate white robe flowing with her supple movements. Sandals skiff against pattern rocks, but I can hardly hear them.
I say, "They're here for me."
She pauses for just a moment. "I know."