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Marrow and Soul

A teenage thief takes on an impossible quest to resurrect her parents using the mystical Ghost Tablet.

By Addison HornerPublished 7 months ago 11 min read
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If you want to watch thousands of people die in slow motion, go to a feast in the Palace District.

Bells ring from the Four Temples, clashing with scores of street musicians who compete for the masses’ attention. Through the chaos and clamor walks a sixteen-year-old girl with brown hair cut above her shoulders and brilliant blue eyes.

Safran hardly blames the crowds for not noticing her. The dirt-scuffed tans and browns of her outfit melt into the cobblestones, lost amidst the radiant reds and garish greens of ten thousand revelers. Roasted pigs and ducks and other things that once lived now spin on a hundred spits, sending their scents soaring through the sky into hungry noses. The air tastes of dust kicked up by the slippered feet of noblemen and the hard boots of soldiers and the sandals of Temple priests and the cloth shoes of Marrow Street urchins.

Their celebration covers their demise. Rich and poor, young and old, kind and cruel, all wasting away in tandem. They feast, fight, flee, argue, work, starve, play, and ponder the meaning of it all for eighty years or less, then return to the ground from whence they came. From the Prince of Vitalia to the most piteous of orphans, they dance toward death at a nauseatingly somber pace.

Not Safran. She lives.

Alone in the central avenue, surrounded by jostling crowds, Safran stares at the Prince’s Palace. The chateau looms over the festivities as a benevolent tombstone, its polished white walls glistening in the sunlight. Four enormous towers with curved walls and domed roofs rise a hundred feet into the air. Dozens of smaller spires stretch skyward between them, reminiscent of the priceless Prince’s Crown residing in the eastern tower’s throne room.

The Prince who lives here rules over the entire Corporeal Empire, second only to his father, the Emperor. He reigns from his white tower while Safran’s parents rest in paupers’ graves. Orphans like Safran don’t get to decide who lives and who dies.

She marches through the celebration, ignoring the people as they ignore her. Some wait in line for plates of steamed vegetables and juicy cuts of meat. Others have formed a circle for dancing. Laughing, they join hands and bounce around while a pair of musicians wield a twelve-string guitar and goat hide drums in the center.

Two men wearing the simple light-blue robes of Soul priests shout to hear each other over the din. One of them glances at Safran, then returns to his conversation. To his eyes, she’s just another Vitalian orphan. His mistake.

Safran is very nearly invisible, yet she is more alive than the entire crowd. And on a day like today, with the whole city caught up in the joyful fury of the annual Harmony Feast, being invisible makes what she’s about to do much more feasible.

She strides toward the palace gates—not the big ones decorated with gaudy ornaments, but the smaller ones at the eastern entrance. While the upper classes congregate in the sunlight, the less-thans gather here, at the edge of the shadows cast by the setting sun. Their music may be a little louder, their clothes more rumpled, and their laughs more raucous, but Safran knows the truth. They’re still dying, just with less pomp.

Two soldiers guard the eastern gates. They’ll have their chance to celebrate later—the feast lasts an entire week—but today, they slouch at their posts with muskets slung over their shoulders. On the ten-foot-high wall beside the gates, a tabby cat studies the crowd with sleepy eyes. When Safran passes by, none of them even register her presence, except maybe the cat.

In the background, everyone continues to die.

The rats Safran found this morning stir in her pocket. Unlike the revelers, they are very much alive. Clamping a hand over her pocket, she hurries her pace, pausing only to stick out her tongue at the tabby while its head is turned.

Several vendors have planted their stalls around one of the roasting pits. During the Harmony Feast, everyone who sells fruits or vegetables or mushrooms or any kind of food does so at a discount. Those revelers who aren’t busy shouting or stamping their feet or stuffing their faces with roasted goat take the opportunity to go shopping.

A stout woman in her early forties serves half a dozen clamoring customers from a small wooden stand. She barks orders to her young attendant, who gathers bunches of grapes and handfuls of almonds to be weighed on a scale. The vendor collects payment with quick hands and keeps a shrewd eye on her offerings.

Careful or not, she can’t stop the invisible girl.

Safran keeps one hand clamped over her wriggling pocket as she angles toward the side of the stall. When the vendor’s back turns, Safran snags two bright red cherries by their stems from a bowl at the stall’s edge. She crouches low and rounds the corner of the stall in one smooth motion. Moments later, the vendor glances suspiciously at the bowl of cherries before returning to her customers.

Safran gives both cherries to the rats in her pockets. Wonderful things, pockets. She’d rather be poor with pockets than rich and stuffed into a suffocating dress. The rats rustle, devouring their treats as Safran ducks into an alleyway off the avenue.

The cherries will satisfy the rats for another minute or so. After that, Safran will break into the Prince’s Palace and take what she came for.

That’s living.

**

Safran has two rules.

Rule one: live ferociously.

Rule two: don’t die.

Today she observes the first rule. She leans against the wooden support beams of a vegetable stand and stares up at the eastern tower. A few yards away, the palace guards scan the crowds. Their eyes pass right over her.

In Safran’s pocket, the rats squirm once more. It’s time.

An old man with a scraggly gray beard doles out portions of grain from barrels set along the back of his stall. Safran takes three slow steps toward the nearest barrel, waiting for her cue.

The bells chime in thunderous unison, announcing five o’clock in the afternoon. The vendor looks up, just for a moment, and Safran takes her chance. Passing the barrel at a brisk pace, she opens her pocket just wide enough for the rats to jump for the grain inside.

She keeps walking, her heart pounding, waiting for a commotion.

The vendor discovers the rats. Safran imagines two furry heads poking out of the grain, but she doesn’t stay to watch as the man yells. The barrel thumps onto the ground, spilling grain onto the street and spreading screams like a virus across the crowd. Half of them don’t even know why they’re yelling.

Fingers tightening on their muskets, the palace guards stride forward to investigate. The vendor intercepts them, arms waving, but he nearly trips on the rat darting between his legs.

The tabby from the palace wall leaps into the fray, chasing the rats with hungry vigor. Last time Safran tried to breach the wall, that same tabby had yowled until Safran fled the scene. It lives to keep intruders, rat or otherwise, from the palace.

So Safran offers it something better, something it craves: dinner.

Around they go, tabby and rats stuck in a loop. Guards and revelers break out in laughter that only grows as the vendor joins in with a broomstick.

With the guards distracted, Safran loops her rope belt around a wall spike and uses it to scale the ten-foot wall. The metal wire inside the belt bites into her palms. One-two-three-four-five steps to the top, where she pulls herself past the row of spikes. She grabs the edge of the wall and lowers herself into the palace grounds.

In full, the first rule is to live so ferociously you can’t think about anything else. The rats forgot safety because they wanted food and freedom. The tabby left its post because, more than anything else, it wants to catch rats and eat them. And Safran risks her freedom on this ridiculous plan because only the first rule matters, until it doesn’t. Then the second rule kicks in.

Safran drops onto a neatly manicured lawn. She sprints through the open grass, dodging ornamental hedges and purple and pink flower beds. Ahead, the eastern tower of the chateau blocks out the sun. Centuries in the elements have weathered the white stones. A pair of windows three feet apart breaks the pattern on every floor. Ten pairs, a hundred feet, then the dome.

The first two floors are the easiest. Safran tests each slight indent with her fingers before pulling herself up. Straight up between the first-floor windows, then a hard left to find a better grip. Her toes, protected only by cheap cloth shoes, find purchase on the architrave of the next window. She goes up a few feet, then back to the right when she clears the second set of windows.

The third set of windows requires a jump. Safran doesn’t let herself worry about it. She also doesn’t let herself look down as she pushes off an outcropping with one foot. For three eternal quarters of a second, she hangs in midair, alive. Then her fingers latch onto the windowsill.

Safran grins because she’s following the first rule well enough to make the pretenders jealous.

Fourth, fifth, sixth. As she pauses for breath with both feet perched above the sixth-floor window, she looks back down. The ground looks satisfyingly small from here. The feast carries on, and the guards cannot see her. The wind pulls at her shirt and her trousers, inviting her to wave in the breeze. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?

Safran shakes her head and carries on. She doesn’t want to break rule number two.

The seventh-floor windowsill provides a nice place to rest for a moment. She’s been climbing for the better part of an hour. Safran pulls herself up until her armpits rest on the sill, arms splayed to let her fingers breathe. The window is closed, and someone has pulled a drape over the glass to block out the sunlight. It’s too beautiful a day for that to make sense.

The window latch clicks.

Safran’s heart hammers nails into her spine as she drops down. Her fingers barely catch the sill in time to stop her from plummeting to the lawn below.

The window swings open. Safran’s right hand grabs at the white stone walls between windows, but she can’t find anything to grip.

A helmeted head pushes through the drapes. Safran’s arms spasm as she pushes herself toward the other window in desperation. Her fingers scrape stone as she grabs the ledge, drawing blood. She pulls herself up and presses her body against the glass. Her toes hang over the sickeningly empty space between herself and the ground.

“I know what I saw,” a voice says from inside the tower.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” another, deeper voice responds. “Do you see anything now?”

Safran holds her breath.

“No,” the first voice says. “Nothing here. Check the other one.”

Safran realizes “the other one” means the window where she’s hiding. She reaches for the upper window frame with aching fingers. As soon as she gets a grip, she swings into the space between the two windows. Her other hand grabs the top of the other window.

She hangs there, body flattened against the tower wall, and thinks of home. Safran doesn’t know if her mother would be proud or disappointed upon seeing her now. But Mother is gone, and so is Father, and so is home. Only Safran remains.

And Curt. Which brings Safran back to the reason she’s here.

The second window unlatches. Safran closes her eyes and thinks about the sun setting over the Palace District. What a sight. She’ll be able to enjoy it when she reaches the dome.

“I don’t like it,” the deep voice says. “Call off the plan.”

“You sure?”

“Too risky. Let’s go.”

The windows click shut. Safran hangs for twenty more seconds until her arms scream for relief. She swings back to the first window, gasping for breath. Ten seconds, she thinks. Ten seconds to breathe, because following the second rule is infinitely more dangerous than the first.

Then she climbs. The burning sensation claws at her shoulders, her elbows, even her jaw as she clenches her teeth in desperation. The next three floors feature stained-glass windows set with elaborate swirling patterns and rigid geometric shapes in chaotic harmony. She’s in the right place.

Safran pulls herself onto the sloped dome and flops onto her back. In the distance, the sun paints the clouds with a pink-orange brush, and it’s the most beautiful thing Safran can imagine.

Following the first rule is easy. Anyone can live ferociously at any time. It’s harmless and hedonistic. The second rule, on the other hand, is a threat by its very definition. It only matters when you’re dancing on death’s edge. Climbing is easy—rule number one. Falling is failure—rule number two.

After catching her breath, Safran crawls to one of the skylights set into the top of the dome. Through the square glass pane, which measures about three feet across, she sees a steel lock sealing it from the inside. Her lock picks—really just repurposed copper hair pins—won’t be of any use here.

Ignoring the lock, she studies the hinge on the opposite side of the skylight. After a few seconds’ consideration, she takes a lock pick from her pocket and wedges it into the gap between the pinhead and the hinge. A little bit of pressure slips it loose, allowing Safran to swing the locked window from its frame and rest it on the dome. Thieves thrive on stupid design.

The rest is easy. Safran climbs into the hole, hangs her belt on one of the many decorative outcroppings set into the ceiling of the dome, and pulls the window back into place with her free hand. The gold-painted knobs lining the ceiling and walls provide excellent handholds for Safran to descend thirty feet to floor level.

The Prince’s throne room is an elegant, overstated display of the Corporeal Empire’s riches. The stained glass looks much prettier from inside, with the setting sun illuminating the contrasting colors in a haunting light. Pearl white pillars embossed with golden recreations of the Four Temples frame a throne crafted from glassy black rock and adorned with plush purple cushions.

Safran turns in a slow circle, taking in the view. It’s the shiniest room she’s ever seen. In the gleaming sunlight, she nearly misses the most valuable object in the room.

On a pedestal next to the throne rests a silver circlet woven with miniature golden spires and inset with a hundred tiny rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and topazes. The Prince’s Crown, handed down over centuries, is worth more than any mortal fortune. Whoever steals it could retire and live in luxury for several lifetimes.

Safran taps the Crown with a fingernail. Real silver. Huh.

Then she walks away, heading for the servants’ entrance that leads to her true target.

**

Thank you for reading Marrow and Soul! This is the beginning of my debut novel, a tale of ghosts, heists, and guava-cardamom pastries. I hope you'll visit the Kickstarter campaign to get your copy before the official release!

10% of the profits will go to the Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida.

Young AdultShort StoryFantasyExcerpt
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About the Creator

Addison Horner

I love fantasy epics, action thrillers, and those blurbs about farmers on boxes of organic mac and cheese. MARROW AND SOUL (YA fantasy) available February 5, 2024.

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock7 months ago

    Great first chapter, Addison. And what a great cause to be supporting.

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