Lu crept out of her hiding place in the darkest corner of her favorite alleyway, moving like a shadow to the side of the street. The road was empty in both directions. In her opinion, night had more advantages than daytime, the only disadvantage being that she would draw more attention if she was seen. But she wasn’t planning to be seen, so that didn’t matter. It was just Lu and the stars for now.
Torches burned at every doorway, and Lu hurried past every time she came to one. The stars shined above, but the moon was invisible for now. The wind had disappeared sometime in the morning and still hadn’t come back, so the night was still. Lu reveled in the calm.
Eventually, near the center of the city, she saw her destination: the mansions. They were always more risky to sneak around, but it was always such a thrill. Every time there was a party, men and women would come and go, wearing their shining dresses and smooth suits, smiling and laughing, and the most delicious smells would pour from the fancy backyards. The mansions were a place for special occasions, and tonight qualified for Lu.
Before she reached the entrance to the mansion area, she turned into an alley, sliding past crates and boxes, picking her way past a puddle of unidentifiable mush until she reached a ladder she had made out of sticks and loose bits of fabric and rope she had found on the street. It reached up to the roof of a small shop that had been closed months ago, another area Lu had claimed to hide in. Pulling herself up rung by fragile rung, she finally rolled onto the roof. Laying on her back for a moment, she stared at the flickering stars before coming to her hands and knees. The wooden planks beneath her hands were cold, weathered almost to smoothness, and the feeling of them soothed her.
Reaching the edge of the roof, she stood. Before her was the Fence, the brick wall that kept beggars like Lu out of the richer parts of the city. It was five feet away from the edge of the roof, standing four feet above where Lu stood. Lu would have hated the wall if there wasn’t a way through it.
Lu stayed at the edge of the roof for a moment, staring into the bright, warm-looking, sweet-smelling, happy-looking world in front of her. She had imagined herself there so many times. Not as a beggar, but as a child who belonged there. A child who belonged anywhere. She had imagined herself in their fancy clothes, walking with her head high as she pretended her scraps of faded blue and green fabric were scarves, and that her fingers glittered with diamond rings.
What would it be like, to live there?
Lu closed her eyes, and when she opened them she was back on the rooftop, sneaking again.
Lu jumped. Her hands reached forward, ready to grab the secret handholds Fin had shown her so long ago, feet propelling her across the gap. Despite her efforts to stay silent, a gasp escaped her lips as she slammed into the wall. Her fingers scrabbled, seeking, finding the gaps between bricks. Hanging there, Lu breathed in again, keeping the panic away. She paused a moment longer to whisper a “thank you” to Fin. She strained upwards with a grunt, pulling herself over the wall. Landing carefully on the other side, Lu crouched on the grassy yard on the other side.
The yard was empty. Lu hurried along the wall, tracing one hand along it as she moved to the south side of the yard, the more shadowed side. Sometimes this side yard would be as bright as the fancy backyard, but tonight it was dark and lonely. Lu felt a pang of sadness for it. Once she was in the shadow, Lu crept across the soft grass, placing a hand on the wall of the house, finding the secret handholds Fin had chipped into the stone.
Lu whispered to him again as she climbed up the wall. This time she said “fortune smile on you” as he had always said to the other beggar children. She had never said it aloud to another person, it was Fin’s line to say, but now that he was gone, she was the only one to say it. And now she hardly had anyone to say it to. She could say anything to Fin. Wherever he had gone, he would listen.
Lu sighed as she pulled herself onto the mansion’s flat roof. She had made it. The rest was easy. Lu stood to her full height now, walking gracefully across the roof as the rich ladies would walk. Lu didn’t let the fact that it was a roof bother her; even up here, the ladies would be just as proper.
Lu’s chimney was a silhouette against the lights of the other mansions, a black square taller than she was. Sitting down next to it, she reached into the small box she kept by the chimney, pulling out her special bundle. It was her blue fabric, her rings, her special notes from Fin. All her most precious things lived here. Up here, the safest hiding place.
Lu draped the blue ribbon around her neck, holding her chin higher. She put on all three of her rings, two of which she had made out of her favorite rocks and pieces of wire Fin had given her. The other ring had been from another orphan, a boy, but Lu didn’t know his name yet. He had given it to her too quickly for her to ask.
Now, wearing her best clothes, Lu wasn’t pretending as much. She tipped her head back, staring up. She was a lady, standing on the fanciest balcony, staring up at the brightest, most beautiful diamonds in the world. Calm flooded her, filling her up to the brim with the happiness only this place could give her. Tonight was a special night, and Lu would need all the calm she could get.
When the calm had filled her all the way, she reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out the letter, the reason she had come here. When the strange man had first given it to her, she had opened it to see who would send her a letter, but as soon as she had read the first line, she knew it was too important for normal Lu.
Lu felt another surge of thankfulness toward Fin. He had taught her to read. She had been so lucky to have him. This time, opening it for the second time, she read the whole thing. It was written in clear, precise writing.
There is no soft way to say what I must say, so I will state it simply: You have no home, no family, hardly any clothes, and only enough food to survive.
I want to change all of that.
This letter is an invitation to you. Come to my home, my city, and I can provide food, shelter, and anything else you need. If you come, you won’t be the only one. Several children have already accepted my outreached hand.
If you want to find my city, travel directly northwest for two days. You will find it.
The letter was odd. Lu read it twice before folding it back up. As soon as she had read “orphan” for the first time, she had known it was from someone special, almost definitely not another orphan. Whoever this “Ayren” was, he made Lu curious.
Lu was an orphan, everyone treated her like trash, worthless as she was dirty. Why would this man feel any different about her? What reason would he have? Or, perhaps, he didn't need a reason to be kind. Maybe he was an evil man, and he would do nothing but harm.
Lu didn't know.
What she did know was that Ayren was right about her life. She didn't care as much about not having lots of clothes, but she was always cold at night. Finding food was the hardest thing, and the very idea of having a full stomach thrilled her. Every day, begging, hoping to find something, it hurt. Every day hurt.
Life was hard without Fin.
Suddenly the walls Lu had built around her sadness burst into a million pieces, letting all the calm flood out of her. Lu collapsed onto her knees, gasping at the sudden tears that flooded her eyes. The pain of missing Fin exploded out of its hiding place. Lu couldn't do anything but cry.
It had been so long since she had seen him.
Lu lay on the roof, feeling her blue ribbon bunch up against her face, her fake rings biting her fingers. It was all fake. Lu was just an orphan, the letter even confirmed that.
But the letter promised belonging. Lu hadn't felt that since Fin left. Hopeless confusion poured over Lu. This was a big decision, a special occasion, but even as a lady, Lu didn't know what to do. Even in the safest hiding place, Lu couldn't be strong.
Eventually Lu stopped trying to dry her face and let herself cry.
Author Notes: This is the first chapter of the first draft of a project that is too far from being my first for me to count the many, many, many projects I've had. I have a second chapter, and a third, and a fourth, and more. If you want me to put them on here, tell me.
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