“I need you to be brave my love, you must weather this storm.” Shamae cleared her throat before proceeding with her impersonations of the wind musae and their tale. “With a final goodbye, Otsuka laid Koh to rest, granting the world its first peaceful generation alongside the musae.”
“Is that when Irnaedi became Eden?” Nellie asked, wide-eyed, pointing to the photo on her nightstand. Given to her the first time her mother had recounted the fable of the Gentle Breeze, this translucent image displayed two regents signing a pact before the flags of the world’s nations.
“Not exactly,” Shamae bent over and placed a kiss on her daughter’s forehead. “This picture - the signing - happened some time later, but that’s a story for another time.”
On nights like this, when she wasn't arguing with her husband, Shamae always found time to tuck Nellie into bed and share stories of their ancestors. And when they reached the end of a tale, the six-year-old would always badger her with questions, trying her best to thwart sleep and learn more of the oral account that had been passed down their family for over a millennia.
That night however, was the last time Nellie would hear a bedtime story. No one could’ve prepared her for it, no one was going to be able to help the little freckled girl come to terms with the fact that her mother hadn’t said goodbye to her.
Two years ago to the day,
Just a few weeks after Nellie’s birthday.
So now, at 8, it was her turn to run away. It couldn’t wait any longer. With her bag packed and ready to go, she closed her eyes, drawing a deep breath to slow her racing heart. Silvery moonlight, and the hum of the television set downstairs, flooded the hall outside her bedroom door. Perfect. Her father was fast asleep. She could make her way out through the window at the far end of the hall. Nellie undid the locks as silently as a ghost and slipped out of the apartment onto the rooftops outside.
Comet Hill greeted her with a salty sea breeze as she made her way across the rooftops in search of a fire escape. She paused when she found it and took in the panoramic view of the hillside neighborhood around her. From a stone observatory resting atop the tallest hill, to the docks and shipyards that gave the sleepy town access to a large bay and the sea beyond.
It would be her last time up there on the rooftops, nestled in the hills amidst the warm evening lights. Though her bedroom window offered a better view, Nellie had always preferred gazing at the bay’s serene waters out in the open air. There wasn’t much of the world that an eight-year-old could claim for herself, but this spot, this private perch where the waves broke out to sea and anything seemed possible had become her haven. It was the one place Nellie could call her own.
There was nothing wrong with the town, per se. It was just dull, a place where nothing happened, with a safe community where she and her father could start their ‘new life’ after Shamae’s departure. Perry was hired on as an engineer at a nearby wind farm while Nellie, the new kid at school, struggled to behave and find friends among classmates who teased her for her freckles and her strange name.
It had been a tough experience living in their home. Neither one of them adjusted well, and neither one had been able to forget the loss of Shamae.
Nellie remembered waking up that morning. It was bright, listless, and sunny, like any other day. She yawned, rubbing the sleep away from her eyes and turned towards the photo of Otsuka and Irnaedi resting on her bedside table. And to her surprise, there had been a note placed beneath its frame.
The last words her mother had left her. An apology out of all things. The note wasn’t signed or addressed to anyone, but the lettering of such a devastating valediction could only belong to one person. They waited a year for her but neither father nor daughter ever heard from Shamae again. Eventually Perry, a shell of himself then and now, decided that they needed to distance themselves from the memory of her.
She knew her parents would argue about where they should live, so she understood the move from Mantua - a disjointed conglomeration of islands - to the more central nation of Nithica, but she needed to start over on her own terms. She had the courage within her, she knew the stories and accounts of what her ancestors were capable of. It was only 8 years until Meteora came and musae returned to the world again, surely she could survive that long on her own.
As she willed herself to move, to descend the ladder and flee, Nellie stole a glance at the blue-black cosmos draped above her and recalled the words of the voice she would always remember:
“I need you to weather this storm.”
Tears bulged from her bloodshot eyes as she tightened her grip on the rungs of the fire escape, intent on pressing forward. Up above, a near translucent star fell from a sky of constellations. It crashed near the observatory and exploded into golden light. Nellie cried, covering her head as the blast flung her off the ladder. She landed with a thud! on a lower platform and had the breath knocked from her lungs. Several desperate seconds passed. She gasped fruitlessly, willing her strained lungs to pull at something, anything to fill the sudden void in her chest, but nothing came.
It was hopeless, she would choke and meet her end there, a mere two blocks from her father’s apartment. Warm tears spilled onto her cheeks as she clawed at her throat. She tried another soundless cry. A plea to anyone out there. There was a whoosh! and suddenly the air returned to her lungs as easily as it had left. She glanced up after a moment, trembling, aching with pain and pulled herself back onto her feet. She couldn’t stop now.
From the rooftops, her father peered over the side of the building and caught her leaning against the railing. He descended the fire escape and paused, taking note of the bag on her shoulders. “Nellie, what’re you doing out here?”
She held back a sob. Her arm was in agony, shrieking white hot pain anytime she moved her wrist. She cradled it close to her chest and lowered her gaze. “I fell.”
Her father blanched.
“It’s okay, baby girl.” He held her tentatively, and she rested her head against his shoulder. “I’ll get you to the clinic.”
The car ride took them through the neighborhoods and streets of central Comet Hill. Her father drove frantically. Every stop came with a jolt, each turn was either a tremendous squeal or screech, and yet, even as seafood restaurants, corner stores, and other small shops whizzed by, Nellie never took her eyes away from the stone observatory waiting high in the distance.
They pulled into the clinic and Nellie’s dad hurried inside to grab a wheelchair for her. Nellie waited by the car. She didn’t need the extra accommodation but she knew better than to disrupt her father when he felt like he needed to make it up to her.
Somewhere within the city, a clock tower chimed the next hour. It was late. Nellie wondered how far she could’ve been by now had things worked out in her favor. She had planned on using the bit of change in her bag to travel across the bay, or to a far-off country, but she could’ve also hiked up to the observatory and been the first to see the object that had crashed there. Either way, she was too restless to sit still for the night.
Another breeze off the coast caressed her skin, her dark as night hair. Shivering, Nellie turned to enter the clinic when suddenly, the sky flashed gold once again. She caught the brief luminance from the corner of her eye as the clinic’s double doors parted to reveal her father with a nurse beside him, pushing a wheelchair in her direction.
“Nel?” Her father asked, furrowing his brows, “Is everything alright?”
She nodded, her attention elsewhere, “Dad, we need to go.”
“What? Nellie, you’re hurt, let’s take care of this first, then we can talk.”
“I’m fine dad! Something’s happened! You need to see—”
“Nellie, enough!” It didn’t take long for his patience to wear out. It always ran thin, no matter how nice and accommodating he wanted to be. “We’re here because of you. You’re not going to leave.”
“I’ll let the two of you sort this out,” the nurse said warily.
If he could just hear her out. “Dad, look. The observatory, something’s happening—”
“No, I don’t want to hear it.” He reached for her arm, gripping it tight, forgetting that it was the one she’d fractured.
She flinched back from him, wincing in pain. “Dad, please…”
His amber eyes hardened. “We’re going inside.”
Blinded with agony, Nellie followed.
Back home, Nellie looked down at the cast around her arm, disgusted. It was wrapped in one of the only colors they had left so late at night, a dark burgundy. It wasn’t the worst option, but she could already hear the kids in her class poking fun at her simply because she’d injured herself. She could come up with a better story perhaps, but tonight wasn’t the time.
Her father wished her goodnight as they strode up to the apartment. Nellie ignored him. She slammed her bedroom door behind her and was met by muffled complaints, something about being ungrateful and how she was grounded and yadda yadda yadda. It was nothing new. She threw her bag on the dresser and buried her head in a pillow, her eyes burning with unshed tears. I’ll get out of here, she promised herself, I don’t care how long it takes.
She thought of the Instruments, and of how their power could help her, when suddenly a small something nudged the bottom of her foot. Meow! It was a silver kitten, with small tucked-in ears and large-yellow eyes, looking plaintive and worried. Gerwig.
As young as he was, Gerwig was the type of cat that didn’t like to stay where he was put. He gave her another friendly headbutt however, seeking affection, wanting to be with her. Nellie pulled him closer and took the cat in her arms. Together, the two of them peered through the slanted windows above her, at the stars of the cosmos.
There was one specific star that caught Nellie’s attention. It seemed closer than all the others, flashing in a rhythmic fashion, noctilucent, resting just outside of the atmosphere’s reach. Nellie drifted to sleep staring at it, but as her eyes began to droop and close shut on that nebulous night, she could’ve sworn that the star all of the sudden… exploded.