Yaada was cold.
Her whole body shook with the effort to keep warm. Memories of the day kept flashing through her head, whips against her mind, sending even more shivers rippling up her back.
Look at what you’ve done, girl.
I give you food, let you sleep under my roof and this is how you repay me?
Each word was like a noose around Yaada’s throat. That morning, when she felt her inner stomach writhe and coil in on itself, she had known it wasn’t going to be a good day. Still, she hadn’t imagined the events would turn out as they did.
When she and the Maester went to their usual hiding spot in the woods, all was normal. Branches creaked in the wind and their breaths puffed out in silence as they waited behind the brushes. The Maester fiddled with the knives underneath his dark cloak in anticipation of his next capture and Yaada twirled loose threads from her rags in hopes that, for once, the trees of the forest would bend to her will instead of his and show her a way out of his grasp. But within a few moments, a nobleman’s carriage rolled through with the purple emblem of the high class shining on the hood. After a sharp pinch through her cloak, Yaada got into position. She slid off her cloak until the skin on her arms and legs were bare and she jumped in front of the carriage.
Sharp gasps filled the air. Even the horses halted. The horse riders started and repulsed at her skin. White and brown blotches peppered around like pieces of a puzzle. And when Yaada growled, just like the Maester had taught her, they flinched back and reached for their swords.
Completely afraid of her. The freak of nature. The monster.
Everything was going perfectly. The Maester had more than enough time to loot their carriage and he had already begun stuffing his sack with goblets of shining silver and fine pieces of silk. But then, Yaada’s stomach flipped in on itself and she doubled over. The “great and terrifying Yaada of Gangley”, whose blood came straight from the pools of Tartar and whose teeth could rip a man to shreds, had become a tumbling mess of pain on the ground.
The soldiers regained their senses and in the end, the Maester didn’t get his spoils. And Yaada didn’t get her food.
Thrown out and cloaked in shawls the color of the night sky, Yaada found refuge in the nearby train station. She curled against a stone pillar as sharp winds burrowed through to her bones and her teeth chattered.
At the corner of the ramp, Yaada was mostly invisible. People shuffled by in front of her, none of them stopping to question the huddled body at their feet. And then, among the grey and wing-tipped shoes, an apple as red as dawn rolled from somewhere in the crowd and landed at her feet.
Yaada’s mouth watered and she stretched her hand out to grab it.
“No!” A deep voice cried.
Yaada glanced up at a father and his daughter, whose hand reached for the same apple before her father pulled her back. When the father saw Yaada’s white and brown skin poking out from her cloak, he shuffled back and pulled his daughter closer. His eyes told the story of every thought in his mind as his lips curled at the sight of her.
Just like that, Yaada was no longer hungry.
She pushed the apple back in the little girl’s direction and watched it tumble back to her. There was no sense in waiting for thanks, so she pulled the ends of her cloak even tighter over her body and folded her knees to her chest.
Just then, a voice so sharply cut through the howling wind that Yaada whipped her head up to find its source. "You!" The silhouette of a woman hung off the door of a train car with smoke billowing up behind her in the dark. Velvet hair cascaded from under a hat and over her shoulder. Her body faced Yaada and she peeked over a shoulder to see who the woman was talking to.
Yaada blinked. Surely, she couldn’t mean her. But then the woman extended her hand and nobody went to grab it.
“Are you coming or not? The longer you wait out there, the colder you’ll get.”
Yaada stared at her outstretched hand and felt the heated air of the train spill out onto the ramp. And was that--? She sniffed. It couldn’t be. Fresh dinner roast? The smell wafted through the air and her stomach grumbled with a fresh ferocity.
The woman laughed. A sing-song chuckle. And maybe it was the way the sound bounced through the wind and spread warmth all over her body or maybe it was the saliva pooling in her mouth, but whatever it was, Yaada grabbed that open hand and let the woman haul her inside.
Doors shut behind her.
“Take a seat! Any seat and we’ll be on our way soon!” Each tooth glinted in the light as the woman grinned at Yaada. Then, with a tip of her hat, she disappeared inside the conductor’s chamber.
Warm, yellow light washed over Yaada and her shivering shoulders sighed, but it was the aroma of food that attracted her and she hopped over to a booth with red plush chairs and a tray full in front. Dinner roast. Just as she imagined.
She dug in. Forkfuls of food escaped into her mouth and a slight chuckle bubbled up in her chest as she imagined the scene. If only the people of Gangley could see her now, she probably looked more terrifying as ever.
Before Yaada could take her fifth--tenth?--bite of food, her weight on the seat shifted as something plopped down beside her.
“You’re new,” said the voice. It belonged to a boy around her age. Tendrils of dark hair, as silky as his voice, fell into his eyes. Heat flew to Yaada’s cheeks. She hadn’t met many children her age, especially not any boys. Is this what they all looked like?
Then, he smiled.
And Yaada’s eyebrows flew into her hair.
“I’m Emrie. Of Cayster.”
On instinct, Yaada felt the urge to growl. It was certainly what the Maester would have told her to do. This boy, Emrie, looked well off enough. Naïve, too, if he smiled so readily at her. The Maester would probably jump out of his skin at the chance to rob Emrie of everything he owned, using Yaada to do so.
But the Maester wasn’t here. And Emrie was. A boy, just shy of her age and a boy, who had smiled at her.
Yaada squashed the growl that was bubbling up in her throat and instead squeaked. “Hi.”
“Where did you come from?” Yaada flinched at the question even though there wasn’t a trace of malice in his voice.
“Don’t you know who I am?” She asked. Her voice barely audible even to her.
Yaada tucked a dull brown strand of hair behind her ear. Everyone knew who she was. One look at the white blotches on her skin gave her away. The fact that Emrie hadn’t even mentioned it yet was surprising enough.
She glanced back at him, the question brewing on her lips, but she stopped. With his face towards her, Yaada looked into his brown eyes and into the milky plaque that glazed over both of them. Oh.
Yaada whipped her head back and slumped in the chair. He wasn’t being nice at all. He just couldn’t see her.
“New person! New person!” Yaada heard the sounds before she saw the young child they came from. A tuft of blond hair bobbed up from the seat in front of her. Followed by a tan face that looked like it had been stung by a wasp in one too many places. Yaada’s eyes widened, large enough for the boy to notice, but small unfazed grey eyes smiled back at her. The irises dancing with delight.
“Slow down, Caman.” Emrie chuckled, rolling up the sleeves of his brilliant white shirt.
But Caman did not slow down. He disappeared behind the seat and was back again in a second, this time with a black, lattice-worked box. Though there was no candle that Yaada could see, the box shined bright from the inside.
“Everyone likes to see what my little box of stuff can do. Want me to show you, too?”
“She hasn’t even been here two seconds and you already want to scare her off with your tricks?” Emrie joked.
“She’s not scared,” Caman looked at her, eyes taunting. “Are you?”
It was ridiculous, really. The competitive spirit that overtook her. “Of course not.”
The little boy grinned and began fiddling with his little box of stuff.
At first, nothing had happened. But then, appearing out of thin air, fire flickered all around the train car. The flames seemed to lick at Yaada from every direction. Some appeared by her side and lashed out at her hand. She recoiled in an instant and bit her tongue to prepare for the pain. But it never came. In fact, not even heat was coming from the flames.
Yaada extended a tentative hand to touch the fire again, but then it was gone. The train car returned to its natural state, but she could still see the flames dancing in her mind’s eye.
She whirled her head to Caman. “How did you do that?”
“It’s an inooshin.” He said with pride. Yaada’s eyebrows furrowed.
“Illusion.” Emrie corrected. Caman stuck a pink tongue at him and Yaada’s lips turned upwards into a smile.
“So what can you do?”
Yaada blinked at Caman. “Me? Nothing.”
“Nonsense,” said Emrie. “Everyone can do something.”
Not used to this much attention, Yaada slid father down in her seat. The silver cutlery on the table was suddenly the most interesting thing in the world. More so than the tingling sensation running up and down her limbs at the thought of giving these two another reason to call her weird.
Except...they hadn’t called her weird. Not once.
And if they hadn’t taken the chance to make fun of her yet, then maybe…
Before Yaada could psyche herself out, she straightened, pulled both legs up by her ankles and rested them on her neck. Her body moved in memory from all those nights in her tent, flipping and cartwheeling until she forgot about her hunger and her pain.
Caman gasped. “Emrie! She just put her legs behind her head!”
“Well, that’s something I’ve never seen before. No pun intended.”
Caman bobbed up and down in his seat. “She could be even more famous than you! The city will love her.”
City? Love her? Yaada’s legs plopped down on the train floor. “What do you mean?”
“He’s talking about our show.” Emrie angled more in her direction. “Have you never seen it?”
The confusion was in her silence.
Emrie stretched out his hand in a flourish and gestured to the train car. “The Fantastic Jes and her Festival of Dreams is who we are.”
Jes. The woman who singled her out from the train ramp. For reasons Yaada couldn’t explain, the name fit the woman like a glove.
Caman chimed in. “We’re in the business of making people happy.”
“And people are in the business of helping us do it,” Emrie finished. “It’s why I have this.” He reached into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out a timepiece. Golden on the edges with a shiny glass face. When he handed it to her, she smoothed her thumb over it and if a timepiece could wink, that’s exactly what it did.
“Sometimes if you listen closely,” Emrie whispered. “For the right person at the right time. It’ll chime.”
Yaada put it to her ear. Tick tick tick.
And then it chimed.
Emrie chuckled, aware of her awe. “If you like that, there’s more where it came from. Wanna see?”
“And you get to use all of this? All the time?”
All around Yaada were costumes and sparkles. Trinkets and mirrors that reflected everything back so Yaada couldn’t tell where the room ended and began.
“Of course,” said Emrie. “For the shows that we do, near perfection is our goal. If even a thread was the wrong color, Jes says it would be a disaster.”
Emrie groped behind him and pulled out an iridescent fabric that unfolded into a cloak. Yaada blinked her eyes and realized it was made of feathers. Soft she could tell they were even from where she stood. Emrie threw it over his head so the shoulder straps wrapped around his chin. “Could you imagine stepping out on stage like this?”
Caman zipped into Yaada’s line of vision. “Or like this?” The child had stuck two candles in his nose.
“Or maybe there are dusty jewels in your eyes.”
“Or dusty eyes in your jewels!”
Caman hopped on Emrie’s back and the straps of the cape slipped up and took him by the nose. They both fell on a pile of clothes laughing. Caman slipped out to avoid being crushed and straddled Emrie.
Yaada laughed. Her next breath in mixed with the smell of lavender, which erupted from the boys’ impact with the pile. At that moment, Yaada’s smile faltered and she glanced back down at her own rags sure to reek of oil, rotten orange peels and anything else she rolled around in on the train ramp outside.
Could she imagine wearing any of this? Her fingertips grazed a deep blue bodysuit. It was all much too nice for her. Much too nice for a freak.
“Oh!” Caman suddenly yelled. “Try it on, try it on, try it on!”
Yaada jumped and moved to retract her hand, but then Emrie was there right by her side. How did he keep doing that? His hand found hers and then moved up to the suit feeling for what it was.
“Ah,” he said. “No one has worn this suit for years,” As he tilted his head, more dark strands of hair fell into his eyes. And though she knew he couldn’t see her, Yaada had never felt more exposed. “Maybe it’s time for a change.”
Suddenly, the suit was in front of her and she felt the cool leather slip through her fingers. It called to her and she dared to listen.
As Emrie and Caman encouraged her in the background, Yaada slipped into the suit. Gone were the tattered, dirty rags, and on was the most delightful and rich piece of fabric she had ever worn. So fast and so smooth that it was like magic.
It molded to her skin and in a flash, she could see it all. She could see her body giving into all its shapes. Feel the air slipping through her fingers with every leap and tumble she took. The smiles. The applause. Yaada could see it all as clear as day.
It could happen. It would happen and these people, these wonderful people with all their wonderful things, would help her make it happen.
“It’s perfect! She looks amazing, Emrie!”
Yaada twirled and Caman twirled with her.
“I bet she looks about ready for our next show,” Emrie agreed. “What do you think?” He turned towards Yaada and stretched out his hand. “Shall we ask Jes?”
Yaada looked at Emrie, at his outstretched hand. At the chance of freedom that dangled right in front of her. Poised and ready, all she had to do was take it.
One second passed. Two. At the third, she reached out and—
“There you are!”
Yaada’s eyebrows furrowed. How did Emrie speak without moving his mouth? Was there no end to this magnificence?
“I’ve been looking all over for you, girl!”
Hands that she couldn’t see were on her shoulders and she felt her body being lifted up. Her vision became blurred and she snapped her eyes shut, shaking the stars away. When her head stopped swimming, she opened them again.
And saw the Maester.
“Run off like that again and I won’t come to find you,” He growled, and hooked her elbow in his hand to drag her away. All of a sudden, her body remembered that it was cold. Yaada shivered and her teeth chattered.
Again, the world was dark and it threatened to suffocate her. Yaada pinched herself, mentally and physically. Over and over and over again.
This couldn’t be it.
This couldn’t be.
But the Maester kept tugging her closer and closer towards the exit. Every pinch on Yaada’s skin hurting more than the last. Her rags were back and so was her hooded cloak.
Pulling the ends tighter around her neck, Yaada shrank into herself and let all the air in her lungs go.
Though she knew it would do no good, her heart got the better of her and she glanced over her shoulder, back down the ramp. Her breath hitched in fear. Fear of what she would see. Fear of what she wouldn’t see.
But as her eyes scanned through the crowd, across the ramp she sat only moments ago, she saw it and her breath returned.
There was the door of the third train car.
Still wide open and still full of light.