Invisibility was a neat trick.
Curled into the corner of her hiding hole, Kessa kept dreaming about it. Sometimes, she snapped her fingers, and the air echoed the crack, breaking around her and the rushing back together with a hiss and she walked down the street without a single glance her way. Sometimes she swirled a cloak around her shoulders, and someone stared at her as she pulled the hood over her head, then stared at empty air while she stepped away. Sometimes she just sat down and faded out of sight.
When she woke, she couldn’t shake the feeling. She didn’t mean to move quietly, but her feet barely made a sound on the dirty floor of her hollowed out basement. The building above her was old and crumbling, and didn’t make much noise either. One of the rats might skitter on the floorboards. The wind might hum a little in the slats of the walls. In her corner, the wind couldn’t bend its long arm to reach her, and everything else stood dumbly still. Nothing saw her as she climbed out onto the abandoned street.
Nothing saw her as she crept down into the city. The cobblestones grew smoother under her feet where traffic had worm it down to the rolling feel of a riverbed. The buildings sat straighter, brighter, looking down on the colored canopies of the market and swirl of the crowd between them. People talked, pushing the silence away, and covering it over in a different quietness. Kessa stayed near the walls, tucked herself behind corners and took empty back alleys to skirt around to growing mob of people. No one looked her way.
Then someone brushed past her, catching her shoulder hard. The man turned and narrowed his eyes. He looked at her hank of blonde hair, finger-combed and dirty against her shoulders. He looked at her rough shirt tucked into her torn, too-short skirt, and her too-small shoes clearly visible at the ends of her stick-legs.
He saw her. She wasn’t invisible.
He looked at the tight, blank piece of leather on her wrist. She shrank back immediately, feeling the bones of her chest dropping into her stomach like dead leaves. She’d needed a new wristband for a long time, but couldn’t bring herself to go to the leatherman’s. The last time she’d removed it, she’d turned her back to pick up the crisp new replacement, and Kessa had to pin her feet to the floor to keep from running off without it. Just to keep from being looked at like that. Just to sidle a little closer to obscurity.
Kessa took another step back and dropped her chin almost to her chest. She was too old for hearth tales, too old to believe in real magic or quick endings or granted wishes. But if I can’t see it, it can’t see me was truer than most people realized. And so were monsters.
And maybe invisibility.
She waited for the man to move on, taking wide, firm steps to bury himself back inside the crowd. Then she glanced up and continued on her way.
She kept to back alleys, and it took twice as long as it should have to cut straight to the other side of the city. It was a pity, she thought, that all the forgotten buildings of the city couldn’t be closer together.
Zackery lived in a small, square house, half-cut into a hill. It still had all four walls, but it was dirty and dwarfed by everything around it, and almost looked like some caretaker’s shed that outlived its use. The door creaked when she opened it, and slapped against the frame behind her. Inside, it was dim, and if Zackery’s hair wasn’t white as candle wicking, she might not have seen his still form in the shadows.
“Who’s that?” he asked, sitting up. He looked at her, but she knew he couldn’t see much more than the shape of her. He was too old, and he’d spent too long in the dark. Still, he sat up easily enough, leaned toward her on lean, steady arms, and glared.
“It’s Kessa,” she murmured without coming any closer.
He didn’t relax, but he fixed her with a smile, slanted, full of teeth and not altogether inviting. “Hello, Kessa,” he said. “What secret are you after today?”
She fished a chunk of bread out of her pocket. Taking a few steps into the room, she held it out for him. He took it more gently than she would have expected from his smile, but she was getting used to that. His face and his voice were the only sharp things about him.
“I don’t want any secrets,” she said.
He laughed around his first bite.
“I want what you know, not what you don’t,” Kessa told him.
Zackery looked up, still smiling, and she could tell she’d said the right thing. He liked nonsense, and she was starting to get the knack of speaking it.
“And what do you want to know?” he asked.
She waited for him to take another bite before she told him, just to make sure he’d have to think for a moment before he answered her. “How to be invisible,” she said.
He chewed and swallowed. “Find a magic cloak and a ring of the ancients and–”
“No,” she said quickly. “Really. I know you can do it.”
“You can’t,” Zackery said.
He tilted the words together strangely and Kessa paused. “I can’t?” she asked hesitantly.
Zackery grinned and nodded.
“You can,” she said.
Zackery grinned and shrugged.
“Because you’re a keimon,” Kessa said.
He didn’t say anything. He took another bite, chewed it, his long jaw moving deliberately, and watched her. She wasn’t sure how he did it, but he always managed to look like he’d won something from her, like this was a game, and she’d wagered too much.
It was irritating.
“Yes, I can,” she said. She pulled her hands in front of her, fingers spread as far as they would go to pull her palms flat. Chills ran along her spine, dug claws into her shoulders and ate all the way down her arms. Blue-white light spat from her skin, flattening her fingers into lines of brilliance and shadow. Kessa let it crackle for a long moment, until she could feel herself trying to back away from her own hands and the heat that had begun to pool in the air around them. Then she clenched her fists, and blinked in the dark again.
Zackery wasn’t smiling when she could finally see him again, he was watching her, calculating. “When did that happen?” he asked her.
“A few weeks ago,” she said.
Kessa might have thanked him at another time, but she could see him dragging their conversation somewhere else. She stayed silent, and stubbornly kept it where it was.
“This is a secret,” he told her. “The Clan Lord’s. And his army’s.”
“You know it,” Kessa said. And not for the first time, she wondered where he’d come from, what he’d been before he was the old man in the shack that traded food and nonsense for the things she couldn’t find anywhere else.
“It’s not easy,” he said.
“I don’t care,” she told him.
“I can tell you how,” Zackery said, and he shook his head, still holding her gaze. “I can’t teach you.”
“Fine,” Kessa said. “Tell me.”
“And you can’t do it here,” Zackery said. “Not on this island. The air is broken here. You’ll destroy yourself.”
Kessa tried to take her next breath like it wasn’t the first real air she’d felt in a long time. “I’ll have to leave?” she said.
She lifted her wrist to her mouth, bit into the leather wristband and tore down as hard as she could. The waxed thread that sewed it in place held, and the leather itself ripped in rough pieces against it. She dropped the ruined thing onto the dusty floor at her feet. Zackery looked surprised, and she thought it was the first time she’d ever seen his eyes or mouth look so round.
“That only makes it sweeter,” she said. “Tell me.”
My friend Bek is a thief! Stop by her blog and see what she wrote when she stole the first line of this piece for some fiction of her own.