Humans are untrustworthy, superstitious, and cruel… all but Keriam. The twelve-year-old girl had a smile like dawn rising on the ocean, and Vida loved her. Keriam dusted that hard-to-reach spot on Vida’s back, right under where her necklace looped through her hair. Keriam would bring up books from her father’s study for Vida to read by candlelight while the rest of the household slept. And every morning for the past four years, Keriam would yawn, stretch, and say, “Good morning, my beautiful Vidamaera.”
Knowing no other human was in the room, Vida turned her head to Keriam’s melodious voice and smiled, joy filling every grain of her miniature wooden body. She lifted her arms up and over her head in a stretch mimicking Keriam, then, for possibly the thousandth time since her beginning, she caught herself doing it. She didn’t feel the stiffness of muscles, nor hunger, sleep, or pain. Gathering as much of her soft necklace cord into her arms as she could, Vida walked to the diamond-paned window above the dresser, overlooking a quiet, grassy courtyard from the second floor.
“It is market day!” Keriam sang, tossing back her blanket, toes wriggling as they touched the hardwood floor. “Father is taking us to the Mistrael market today.” She always said that. Us. We. Even in the presence of the maid, her tutor, her parents. As much as Vida loved it, she got a twist in her core, a pang of fear. Then there was the excitement of going to the Mistrael market, which only came to Lantha once in a year.
Keriam knelt down, fingers hooked on the dresser’s molded edge, her blue eyes level with Vida. “I saved up my allowance to get you something. A surprise.”
“Really?” Vida said before she could stop herself.
Keriam glanced at the door, listening for the maid. “Yes. So I was hoping you would agree to ride in my pocket today.”
Vida pursed her lips, dragging the old necklace cord through her hands. She’d never, in all her years, been to the Mistrael market. How would she possibly see anything from the bottom of a coat pocket?
“Miss Keriam.” A fist knocked twice on the bedroom door.
Vida lay back, legs together, arms at her sides, eyes open, and slipped into her dormant form, that of a simple maiden of ebony wood with two tiny diamonds for eyes. It wasn’t difficult to acquire a piece of enchanted wood. For the right price, a man could get a lockbox that only opened to his command, or a ring that could prevent pregnancy, or, if one could afford it, a hull for a ship. Fetryn wood was, after all, nearly indestructible.
But as far as Vida knew, she was the only one with thoughts, emotions… life.
Keriam wore a red, skirted pea coat with the nice, roomy pockets.
Vida stayed dormant, laying on the purple velvet purse with black drawstrings, kettings clinking together with Keriam’s hurried stride, no doubt trying to keep up with her long-legged father. Vida listened to the sounds of hooves and rolling wheels, various calls of the foreign vendors and chatting of the shoppers, splashes of puddles, wind chimes, stringed instruments. For a little while, they stopped. If only Keriam would take her out!
Just then, her fingers reached into the pocket, and Vida’s being swirled with excitement. The dirt-crusted fingers hooked the purse strings, and Vida’s old necklace cord with it, and yanked her out into bright sunlight. She was swinging, bouncing and twirling off the jingling purse, the world spinning around her. Keriam’s red pea coat got further away, until Vida couldn’t see it amidst the packed crowd.
She’d felt it many times. Fear. Her core seized up, throbbing panic humming throughout every grain of her, clenching in her belly. Keriam was gone. Now, Vida was in a tight pocket of scratchy wool, several patches holding it together, smashed between a leather sewing kit and Keriam’s velvet purse.
Feet slapped into puddles from last night’s rain, away from the market, away from the noise. Now she could hear breathing, a quiet curse as the thief stumbled, and a lone seagull’s cry. When those dirty fingers clawed into the pocket, Vida noticed half the pinky finger was missing, replaced by a gross scar. She came out with the purse.
Vida hung from her necklace cord, face to face with a freckled boy, a small gap between his front teeth, dirt smudged on one tan cheek, and brown hair disheveled across his furrowed brows. He sank to his bottom and pocketed Keriam’s velvet purse. Peering at her with squinted eyes, he turned Vida in his hand. He poked her diamond eyes, her vision momentarily lost under the pad of his fingertip.
A horrible fear crushed her little enchanted soul until she couldn’t take it. Keriam was all that mattered. Vida blinked her eyes, crossed her arms over her chest, and huffed. “How dare you lay your dirty—”
He tossed her to the cobbles with a girly shriek.
Vida bounced and tumbled across the lonesome alley. She scrambled to her feet and gathered her necklace cord in both arms, as much as she could anyway. She glared at the despicable boy human. His wool coat didn’t even have sleeves, and his trousers were in a similar sad state, cut off above the calves and fraying at the hems. The only thing about him that wasn’t filthy or in shambles was the polished wooden armband above his left elbow. Her glare went back to his brown eyes. “You would steal a purse from a little girl, you… you,”— what would Keriam’s father say— “you asshole!”
The boy thief was taken back, one brow quirking in amusement. His surprise slipped away with a blink, and he snatched a loose loop of her necklace, bringing her close once again. “What kinda Fetryn thing are you?”
“I am Vidamaera. What kind of human thing are you?” She sneered at his dirty hair and ragged clothes.
Vida looked up and down the empty alley. “Very well, Edric, take me back to the market, and I won’t put a curse on you.”
“No way in the nine hells,” Edric grinned. “Fetryn carving are worth a fortune aren’t you? I’ll be able ta pay off my debt and get outta the slums, Vidamad… er, Vimad… What was it?”
“Vida.” Her belly pulsed, her fists clenched tight, her lips pressed together. “I’m warning you, Edric, if you don’t take me back—”
Edric wiggled the necklace over his head, resting her under the collar of his undershirt, grimy as the rest of him and damp with sweat.
She climbed up her own cord to poke her head out. She didn’t know where in the city she was, until they passed a street sign with a trail of purple-flowered vines curling around the bottom. “That’s where I need to go, up Bethlemoore street,” she said as loud as she dared.
Edric scoffed. “How would you know?”
“The street sign, fool!” She saw the flush on his cheeks.
“Great, that’s all I need, a necklace smarter’n me. You can read?”
She rolled her eyes. Obviously.
“I can’t go that way,” he said, tucking Vida back beneath his shirt and cinching the laces tight. His heart beat a little harder then.
If it hadn’t been for the flocks of seagulls crying out nonstop, Vida wouldn’t have a clue as to where Edric took her. Still, knowing that they were somewhere along the harbor didn’t help. Lantha’s port was the largest in the world. Edric’s sorry excuses for shoes pattered down a set of moaning stairs into a dank room full of young voices.
“You’re late!” an older girl said, close by. Something hit the boy’s chest, right next to where Vida lay motionless. “Hand it over, Ed.”
Edric shifted, and a purse plopped into a waiting hand with a telltale jangle.
“Twelve kettings and some quarterkets. That all?” the mean girl growled.
“Twelve is good,” Edric said with a small voice. “Where’s master Athdar?”
Someone shoved him from behind. “He wants the master.”
“He don’t have time for you, you little puke,” the mean girl said. “He gives his time to us that deserve it by bringin’ in good marks, not pocket change.” Coins clattered, little metallic clicks ringing on a hard surface. Vida guessed it was the floor. Bodies pressed and shoved around Edric to fight over the money.
Silence followed. Not a child coughed or a shoe dragged against the floor.
“You’re late, Edric,” came a male voice, well past boyhood.
Vida could feel Edric’s heart pound on his chest. “’pologies, sir. I have to talk to you, if ye please.”
“Not now. I apologize. I must go fetch a wandering girl.”
“Later, Edric. I promise.”
Some footsteps later, the cacophony of roguish children resumed. Relief flooded Vida as Edric fled the hot basement for the night air, the quiet loneliness, the pale light of the two moons. Vida remained dormant as he lifted her necklace from his head and set her down.
They were on the roof of a stucco building, surrounded by flourishing garden boxes, white moonbell buds folding open as the moons’ light speared the clouds over the harbor and the forest of ships’ masts in the bay. Vida narrowed her eyes up at Edric. “You don’t think I might run?”
“Where? Right off the roof?” he asked.
“Fetryn wood cannot be broken.”
Edric scratched his left arm, right above his wooden armband, while he stared longingly at the harbor.
“You must be a terrible thief,” Vida commented, her eyes on the stub of a pinky finger on his right hand.
“So I got caught once,” he mumbled, curling his left hand over the ruined finger. “A ploy with some of the others went bad.”
Vida raised a brow as best she could, as limited as her facial expressions were. “And you stay? To pick pockets for bigger bullies?”
“I have to,” he snapped, pulling off his wool vest and removing the sewing kit from the pocket. Along with needles, thread, and extra buttons, he kept a set of lock picks snug in that leather casing. He threaded a needle and began stitching closed a rip at the back of his vest. “I have a debt I gotta pay, just like the rest, and when I do, I promise, I’m gonna go on one o’ those ships. A real job. The new one, maybe, with the King’s flag, the red sails, and the black hull. The Shepherd. Some people say the King had it made of Fetryn wood.”
“I’ve been to sea,” said Vida, “on the neck of a navy captain.”
“You talk to him much?”
She shook her head. “Never. Men are superstitious, especially toward Fetryn work. Keriam’s different. No human ever loved me, not like her, not even my crafter. You can wish for the sea all you want, but it’s hard life, too.”
“Better than this place,” he said with a scorn that surprised her. “Least it’s honest…. It doesn’t matter. Even if I paid my debt, I’d never make it out there. Master Athdar protects us, feeds us, gives us work. Not always thieving. I’d be nothing out there.”
“Why would you say that?”
Before Edric could answer, there was a clank. Someone climbing the ladder to the roof. Vida went dormant as Edric scooped her into his sweaty palm.
“Young Edric,” the master’s voice drifted over from the other side of the roof, sending a shiver through Vida’s being. “What did you need to speak to me of?”
Edric was quiet. His fingers squeezed around Vida, then, with a defeated sigh, he uncurled his hand. Vida lay as she always did, feet together, hands at her sides. Only she closed her eyes. It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to pry the tiny diamonds from her face.
“What have you there?” Athdar asked.
“A Fetryn pendant,” said Edric.
Vida found herself dangling, swaying gently by her necklace cord.
“What does it do?”
Vida remained still. Just a regular, worthless wooden pendant in the hand of a stupid boy human.
“Well, sir, she talks. Like me or you. Vida?”
She ignored his prodding finger, could feel his frustration seething with each forced poke against her solid form, only accomplishing a faster swing. Spinning and spinning as the cord twisted and twisted. She slowed. Then spun back faster. It took all her will not to laugh. She didn’t move for fifteen years when the navy captain was her person.
“Edric, it appears to be a regular piece of jewelry, a very old one, in fact. Are you sure?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy choked out.
“Hmmm, let’s see what we can do.”
A warm tickle started at her toes, creeping up her feet to her ankles, then along her calves. Vida held herself dormant, ignoring Athdar’s mutterings and Edric’s questions until…
“What are you doing, sir? I thought they couldn’t be broken.”
“Even Fetryn work doesn’t stand up to fire,” the master replied.
The tingling crawled to Vida’s knees, the hot smoke, and burning. Burning. She gasped, eyes snapping open, legs kicking franticly at the reaching, licking, hungry fire below. She hauled herself up the necklace cord, barely able to hold on for the cold trembling in her hands.
“By the nine, incredible!” Athdar laughed, lifting her to eye level.
Vida’s gaze went to the boy. “Edric!”
“Vida, are you hurt?” His own eyes were wide and worried, his skinny chest heaving, his knuckles pale from gripping the worktable.
The master of thieves, this horrible human, was a Fetryn carver, and this was his woodworking shop. The man was in his middle years, with gray at the temples of an otherwise thick head of dark brown hair. His clothes were fine and fitted, a curved pistol handle protruding from the left side of his belt. Behind him, one wall had rows of wooden bands on hooks, each one like Edric’s. Knives, shapers, and sandpaper lay besides scraps of gleaming Fetryn wood. Most of it was blonde wood, like Edric’s armband, but he had some of the rarer, darker woods as well.
“Edric, dear child, I always knew you were one of the best,” Athdar said, his blue eyes looking Vida up and down in marvel. “A rich brown wood, expertly carved, with gem eyes even. You cannot experience pain, little pendant, but emotions. Fear? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Life. A soul.”
“Sir,” Edric interrupted. “About my debt…”
“We can discuss that at another time,” Athdar said with a stretching smile of white teeth thrown in Edric’s direction. “It’s late. My best little thief needs his rest. Go on now.”
Looking more forlorn than ever, Edric turned to the shop door, where he paused. “What are you gonna do with her?”
“Experiment, of course. Experiment.”
Hanging from a curved hook above the worktable, Vida watched him gather his tools, his tiny carving knives and chisels and needles. “You humans, you’re all the same. Selfish and cruel.”
“And your creator?” Athdar asked with a twist on his lips. “The Fetryn who gave you life?”
“The worst! If it is a soul I possess, where do you think I got it from?”
He sat down and looked into her diamond eyes. “I should very much like to find out for myself. Tell me, if you abhor your creation so, why do you fear for your safety? A very… human-like quality, if you ask me, for one who hates us so.” He lifted her free, held her wriggling body tight between his thumb and forefinger, and leaned back in his chair.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Vida clawed her hands across his thumb in a vain attempt of escape. “After my creator passed, I spent lifetimes in dark boxes, trapped in merchant display cases. Sometimes I had a human, and sometimes I revealed my true self. One took an axe to me. Another threw me in the river. I detest your kind.” All but Keriam. An ache throbbed to every grain of her body. “Destroy me if you must,” she forced out.
Athdar gave her a sad grin and touched her hair with the pad of his pinky. “I’ve no intention of destroying you. You are a beautiful, magnificent creation. I only wish to learn…” he looked up distractedly, brows furrowed, at the Fetryn armbands on the wall.
Two of them were glowing a faint white.
“There is much for us to speak of,” he said, replacing her necklace on the hook and taking the glowing armbands instead. “You never know if these children are running, or caught, or poached, or simply lost. Now I must fetch them back.” He cast Vida a glance, a frightening joy twinkling in his eyes, and he left her with the firelight and the wall of Fetryn armbands for company.
A faint click caught Vida’s attention by the door, then another. The lever wiggled, then the latch clunked open. A pair of nervous brown eyes peered through the crack.
Joy swelled in Vida’s chest and fluttered in her belly.
Edric bit his lip and lifted her free with one hand while pocketing his lockpicks with the other. From there, Vida clung to the inside of his pocket as he ran, through puddles, up stairs, over a bridge, away from the harbor and higher into the city. His heavy breaths turned into gasps for air before he had to stop.
Vida scaled the rough wool to look out at the empty streets, quiet but for Edric’s panting. They were at a four-way intersection, that familiar street sign across the corner.
“I can’t go… any further,” he whispered, leaning his head back on a wall. “He’ll find me. This… thing will tell him.” His left arm lifted, and Vida knew he was touching that cursed armband.
“I can find my way home, I think,” she said, though she didn’t know how long it would take. “He’ll know you stole me, Edric.”
The boy took deep breaths and sat down with his back to the brick wall behind him. He shrugged his wool vest off, stuffed the collar between his teeth, and wrapped his right hand around the armband.
Vida could only watch, a pang of horror crawling up down her limbs, as Edric began to drag the wooden ring down. Blood welled up above the band, trickled over the blonde wood, and rolled down his arm in glistening red trails. He wheezed through the wool collar, and tears escaped under his eyelashes to fall to his dirty cheeks. When the armband slid down his wrist, his gasped, ripping it free from his hand. It fell, bounced, drops of blood like tiny beads from a broken string of pearls all around. Vida stared at the six bloody little barbs on the inside of the band.
Edric clutched his bleeding arm to his chest and curled over his knees, sobbing, sniffling, and trembling.
Vida piled her necklace into her arms and curled up around it.
The boy groaned one last time and wiped his eyes. “Not as bad,” he snuffled a few times, “as getting a finger cut off. C’mon…”
She looked up.
“We have to get you home.”
We. Vida smiled at the little word. Edric put on his vest and pulled himself to his feet. In his pocket, Vida leaned against his sewing kit, dreaming of Keriam. A man’s voice cut into her thoughts. She went cold.
“Edric, where are you going?”
Vida tumbled into the deep corner of Edric’s pocket as he spun around.
“Give me the pendant,” Athdar said.
Edric was silent.
“Come back home, where you belong, with your brothers and sisters, a warm bed, a roof, good meals. The world is too dangerous for you. Where will you go? Do you think anyone will have use for a thirteen-year-old boy with a thief’s mark?”
Vida and the sewing kit rolled and shook as Edric ran. Each time she tried to climb up, he would take a sharp turn or leap over an obstacle, sending her tumbling back down. The master gained no matter what, his heavier footfalls getting louder and closer.
Edric jerked backward, flung to one side, his whole body shuddering as his back hit something solid.
“Give me the pendant, you ungrateful little rat!”
“Let me go!” Edric shouted, fighting back.
Vida gasped, burrowing in as deep as she could into the boy’s pocket to escape the raking fingers scraping into the dark space.
“This cocky attitude doesn’t suit you, boy!” Athdar said. “I thought you learned your lesson when you lost that finger. I am your master. Stop fighting me!”
Edric’s body slammed into the road under the grown man’s strength. Athdar’s middle finger caught Vida’s necklace. She fought her way into the sewing kit, pulling a long needle free just as Athdar reached her. As he lifted her clear of Edric’s pocket, she thrusted the sharp needle into Athdar’s hand. More surprised than hurt, he dropped her. She fell to the narrow sidewalk, bouncing out of his reach.
Despite his disadvantage of size and his position on the ground under the master’s knee, Edric was putting up a strong fight. Until Athdar shoved his knee up the boy’s chest to his throat, squeezing Edric’s airway with a strength and ferocity the boy could never defeat.
Up and down the residential street, candles flickered in windows above. The city patrol would never make it before Edric was dead, Vida realized. But Edric hadn’t given up, even as his eyes began to roll back. His blood-slicked right hand grasped for the pistol at Athdar’s waist, wiggling the flintlock free with a tremble. He rested the barrel against the master’s chest.
CRACK. The explosion tore through the night air. The little metal bullet shredded through the master’s torso, exiting with a red mist of blood and bits of flesh. More lights filled windows on the street.
Athdar lay limp over Edric, both horribly still.
“Edric?” Vida whispered. Her soaked necklace cord dragged behind her as she approached him.
He groaned. “Vida?” his voice, rough and scratchy, was like music. Rasping breaths came fast and shallow as he wiggled free from Athdar’s body. “Are you alright?”
“Yes,” she said. She sat down, copying Edric’s breathing as he calmed himself, or tried to. He lay there, staring up at the sky, taking shaky breaths and coughing, circulating the air through his lungs.
Several pairs of heavy footsteps were coming up the road. Edric scooped Vida into a bloody hand and tried to get up. The last thing he did was pull the necklace over his head before the city patrol was all around the scene, voices coming from every way, hands pulling Edric off the road, checking for wounds, a witness swearing it was the man trying to murder the child.
Vida closed her eyes, held still, and focused on Edric’s heartbeat. Either the men wouldn’t let him speak, or he couldn’t manage it.
“Boy’s a thief. Missing finger,” one man said. Edric’s pulse quickened.
“What’s he got on ‘im?”
Hands ransacked through Edric’s clothing. Vida felt herself lifted, turned, examined. “Found a sewing kit, and this. Some worthless wooden pendant. Pretty beat up.”
“Who would go through all the trouble for that?”
Vida fell back against Edric’s chest. She sneaked a quick look. The man stepped away to remove Athdar’s body, but by the time any one of them could glance back, Edric was gone.
“That’s it, there. Second window up, middle of the courtyard.” Vida felt likely to burst as she grinned up at Keriam’s closed window, hands clasped below her chin. The only obstacle was the stone wall, twice Edric’s height, and he wouldn’t have the strength for such a climb, not when he was still struggling to breathe.
Edric pulled out his sewing kit, which the officer hadn’t bothered to open. They might have been upset if they had discovered his lockpicks, which he removed now. The blood on his hands flaked off in little crusty pieces as he worked the delicate tools into the iron gate leading into the courtyard. He charmed it open easily enough, and the gate squeaked slightly as he opened it enough to squeeze inside.
A pebble from the lawn smacked into the blue shutter, followed by a second, and a third. Edric grunted with each throw.
Vida waited, her soul bright and singing joyously from the pit of her stomach, through her chest, and exploding out from there. The shutters opened slowly, and a head of bedraggled blonde hair poked out.
Edric lifted Vida by her necklace, and Keriam’s smile was the dawn rising over the ocean. The boy walked to the base of the building and used the flowerboxes and the window ledges to haul himself up hand over hand. Sweat beaded on the brave boy’s face as he forced his limbs to carry him higher. At the top, he held himself with one arm and pulled Vida’s necklace from his head.
Kiriam’s eyes brimmed with tears as Vida jumped to the dresser of that lovely, familiar bedroom. She picked Vida up and cupped her between her hands and her chest. The warm beat of her happy heart echoed through Vida’s soul. “My most beautiful Vidamaera… Thank you!”
Edric beamed with faraway eyes at Keriam, the girl in her nightgown and him still dangling from the windowsill. He slipped, smacked his chin, and giggled. “I’m, er, my name is Edric.”
“I’m Keriam,” the girl whispered, a deep blush filling her smiling cheeks. “Please come in.”
“I don’t want to get… mud on your stuff.” His eyes flicked to the reddish-brown crusting on his hands and clothes.
Vida looked from one to the other. Every grain in her body, smeared with dry blood, sweat, and mud, swirled with warmth. Edric grinned and blushed. For a human, he wasn’t cruel in the slightest, nor was he superstitious, and he wasn’t… well, at times he was untrustworthy, maybe. He was still a thief, after all. And she kind of liked him.