Forever re-writing it… how does this beginning sound? Not too much, too early?
I really wish I could find the other version I wrote when Aurelia made it to the Night Market and found Mijifajifa was there. Alas, it seems to have been swallowed by the ether and I cannot locate it on any of my multiple devices… there’s just a tiny handwritten bit in a notebook.
Vato is replacing the roles of Jacques and Riana in an earlier draft. Whether either will exist remains to be seen.
Eyes squeezed shut, Aurelia struggled to keep her breath slow and steady, even as butterfly-nerves tickled her belly. Her ears pricked, alert to the noises of the night and her sleeping companions. Lucie, in the hammock above her, breath soft and even, with the slightest whistle on the exhale. Constance, an arms length away, made odd lip-smacking noises, as though she were sucking on a berry. Maryse, whose hammock hung on the far side, snored like an overweight tenrec. Beyond the confines of the treehouse eyrie, crickets trilled and frogs grunted.
Another sound came, a rustle of leaves and the dull, muted thud of feet striking a branch. Aurelia’s heart jolted sharply, and her eyes shot open. Moonlight streamed through the eyrie’s woven walls, tracing a delicate filigree across the slumbering forms of her companions.
He had come then. She had not been sure he’d keep his word — had both hoped and feared he would. She eased herself from the hammock, lowering her feet to brush the floor with barely a whisper of sound. Her fingers closed on Maryse’s dark blue scholar robes — a crumpled heap where she had tossed them — and Aurelia wrapped them about her. They hung loosely on her small frame, but at least would offer her some camouflage. Beyond the walls of the eyrie, he fidgeted restlessly, she could hear his heart racing as frantic as hers.
What they were doing was forbidden, and Ophelia had made it quite clear that punishment would befall those who broke the stringent rules of the Karazana. Aurelia shrugged away her fears — what could Ophelia do that she hadn’t already suffered? — and tip-toed across the platform. A misplaced footstep, a misaligned floorboard, and a low, groaning creak split the night with sound. Lucie snorted sharply. Fear prickled the fur down Aurelia’s spine. She stood motionless. Waited to be caught, to be reprimanded. Nothing. Just a whistling sigh, and Lucie’s breathing returned to normal. Aurelia all but sagged in relief. But there was no time to relax. They could wake at any moment.
She reached the entrance to the eyrie, and eased over the edge, lowering herself onto the rope ladder.
He was beside her in a heartbeat, swift, silent and as dark as a shadow in the night. Aurelia felt her heart clench and a cold chill erupt through her veins. But it wasn’t Noir, the black-hearted hunter. It’s Vato, she reminded herself, drawing in a deep, shaky breath. Kind, steady Vato. Your friend. You’ve asked him to meet you here. Her breathing slowed, heart-rate settled.
Vato’s fingers brushed the fur of her arm, curled around gently. A finger pressed to her lips, cautioning silence. She nodded her assent, and followed him along the rope bridge, away from the tear-drop shaped eyrie.
“Are you sure about this?” he whispered, his words rippling the fur around her ears.
She nodded mutely, and squeezed his elbow to reassure him; to reassure herself.
“The night market is no place for a novice,” he added.
“I’ll be all right,” Aurelia replied. “I’ve been through some pretty terrifying things, you know.”
He shook his head. “Terrifying isn’t the word for it,” he said. “Bewildering. Enchanting… well, you’ll see.” His golden eyes flicked sharply back to her. “Whatever you do, don’t lick the millipedes.”
Was that a joke? His scent betrayed nothing, nor did his tone. Vato’s nature was as solid as his name. “Millipedes?” she asked, but too late. Vato had slunk ahead, walking four-footed along the rope bridge, pausing to glance back at her. Aurelia cast one glance back at the eyrie, then hopped after him. The cloak moved oddly against her form; it made her balance less than steady. Above, the moon — plump and bright — had barely crested the long dark spires of sandstone, misshapen fingers against a tapestry of stars.
The valley was far from quiet, and in the darkness, any sound carried. Even at night, the Karazana did not sleep; now was the time of the nocturnals. Off in the distance, Aurelia’s pricked ears could pick out the sound of tiny tsidy, their voices high-pitched and excitable, and a tutor barked out instructions to his class.
Vato guided Aurelia around the outskirts off the orchard, away from the snuffling tenrecs, gobbling up insects and fallen fruit. They stole beneath other eyries, some wrapped around the trunk of trees, others which dangled from the branches like enormous wicker mangoes. The ground fell away sharply into a deep gorge, within which the waters of the Olymanga river ran dark and deep, almost invisible but for the faint shimmer of starlight. Moonlight illuminated a stone bridge in pale, ghostly light.
Vato’s hand came to her shoulder, his fingers pressed to her muzzle, he motioned her to crouch down and pull the cloak over her face. They hunched together, against the trunk of the tree. Voices first, and footsteps, coming nearer.