Chapter ten: The hairpin
There’s banging on the door.
I grumble, pulling the blanket over my head.
So tired…just go away already.
“You up!?” it’s the landlady shouting on the other side. I wanna just stay in bed but if I fall asleep again she’s not gonna warn me twice.
I kick my blankets off me and shudder against the chill.
“Yes!” I shout although I wouldn’t be surprised if she already moved on to the next door.
She has more tenants after all.
I put on my shift, drag myself to the table and have a wash before breakfast.
If only I could have Yobu’s wonderful cooking on Sundays as well.
Instead I eat a bowl of plain rice and some pickled carrots.
Not great, but it should serve me until dinner.
I get dressed properly and get ready to head out.
Shooting only starts at nine but without a watch I prefer being above ground as soon as possible so I can keep an eye on the many clock towers that speckle the city.
It usually ends me at practice an hour early, but I can live with that.
Luckily I’m not the only one.
“Hey Hui, how’s life?” Teko asks sitting against the wall, his thumb rubbing the barrel of his gun.
“Same old, same old, how about you?”
“I’m cool. I practised, gonna hit the bullseye for real this time.”
“I’d like to see that!” Baku says as he makes his way around the corner, his clothes sweet with opium smoke.
“Shut up eyesore.” Teko and Baku are brothers who live on the streets, taking odd jobs to pay for Baku’s addiction to opium.
Another one of the Kashuya’s many tricky trades.
But despite all that they seem happy, bickering but never fighting and we chat and laugh until the teacher lets us in.
He doesn’t like it when we hang out in front of the building.
The other students drop in one at a time, with the foreign girl being exactly spot on the clock and half the group ten to fifteen minutes late.
The teacher claps his hands “All right students, it’s time to meditate.”
Migo rolls her eyes at me and fakes a yawn. I chuckle.
I don’t like meditating.
You’re supposed to clear your head but my brain just keeps yelling my worries straight back at me. When I meditate I can feel time passing, running out.
I rather not think about that.
I open my eyes again and look around.
‘A wound up gun will miss, a calm gun will hit its mark.’
The words are so important to Mjo it’s even painted high up on the wall in bold black graffiti.
I’m not sure how much of it I believe.
But maybe I would get it if I were any good at it.
The others are sitting around different stages of relaxedness.
The foreign girl, Elizabeth, is sitting breathing deeply, back straight and chin up. She looks like one of those porcelain dolls they sell at the festivals.
The others tell me she’s a bad person, that she did bad things but they can never tell me more than that. What did she do and why? They purposefully shroud it in mystery.
She does look far too rich for this place.
I mean, happy as I am to be here I can’t deny that it’s a dump.
I’m not even sure if this place is legal. There’s no signage, no address on the door and the place looks like it’s falling apart.
Shouldn’t she be having a private shooting range somewhere up the rich part of town?
The other students, myself included, are scraggly things, most of them homeless, trying to defend themselves against the bigger crooks that run the city at night.
However, she comes in wearing golden hairpins with red encrusted charms danging down her face and expects them not to get stolen.
Is she naive or simple?
Mjo’s voice is calm and soft “And breathe out.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and then open them again slowly, pretending I’ve been meditating all this time.
“All right everyone, oh can someone poke Wata awake? Looks like he fell asleep again.”
There’s a cacophony of laughter as Teko prods Wata in the side making him jump up.
“You passed out again mate!”
“Aw come on! Not again!?”
“Now now it’s nothing to be ashamed of it can happen to any of us.”
“I never fell asleep before.” Teko boasts.
“Oh really. You must be so tired.” Migo adds sarcastically.
“Now everyone that’s enough. Let’s go and shoot some rounds.”
When the lesson comes to an end everyone hurries out to the freedom beyond but I’m not really in a hurry.
This place feels quite calming to me. Despite the ringing of guns in the next room.
I take my time collecting my stuff when I see something glimmering by the door.
It’s gold, encrusted with red stones. One of the charms came from the girl’s hairpin.
Looks like she didn’t notice it’s gone.
I turn it over to look at the beautiful pattern in front, a complicated web of knots and ropes with red stones in between.
It’s pretty heavy.
I bet it’s valuable, even on its own.
A part of me feels justified to keep it, she lost it, I found it fair and square.
It was her mistake wearing it out here and all that.
But that doesn’t sit right with me. I put the jewel in my pocket.
“Hui, you’re still here?”
“Sorry teacher I was slow with cleaning, I’ll be off now.”
“Well all right, I’ll see you next week.”
As I rush out the door the piece feels like it’s burning a hole in my pocket. If someone catches me now I’m in big trouble but if I’m lucky.
The girl turns to me with annoyance in her voice “What do you want!?”
I pluck the charm from my pocket and hold it in front of her face, panting heavily “It…broke…off.”
Her eyes go wide as she feels beside her head, then pulls a pin from her hair. She then snatches the missing charm from my fingers. “Did you attempt to steal this?”
“What, no!? why would I give it to you if I wanted to steal it?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe you lost your nerve? Maybe as you attempted to steal the pin the charm broke off and you figured it lost a big portion of its value so you might as well use it to get goodwill with me?”
So for weeks this girl doesn’t speak and the moment she opens her mouth she accuses me of being a crook? “Or it was laying by the door, I found it, picked it up and gave it back like a good person without expecting to be called a thief in return.” I huff and cross my arms at her.
Her mouth opens to retaliate, her finger primed for judgment, but then she lowers in again, lowers her gaze, and bows to me.
“I see, I apologize for my rudeness, thank you for returning it to me.” I notice her ears glowing red.
“You’re welcome,” I reply with a huff. I put my hands in my pockets and turn around.
“Wait! I mean it, I’m genuinely sorry. Usually, when the others call my attention it’s to say something mean so I got defensive on the assumption you’d be the same way. But thank you Hui I very much appreciate this.”
I shrug say “It’s okay.” And make my way back home.
As I walk I’m joined by Migo.
“I would have kept the thing if I found it.” She says with a shrug.
“You could have gotten a neat price at the pawnshop.” Baku agrees.
“It’s a waste to give it back,” Teko adds.
Where did everyone come from all of a sudden?
Were they following me?
“Wouldn’t think you’d buddy-buddy with the bad guy?” Wata adds.
“Look I don’t have to steal to survive so I won’t. Besides she’s not my enemy.”
The kids start laughing and patting each other on the back “Not you’re enemy? She’s the enemy of all of Jaobai!”
Migo gasps theatrically “You don’t know?”
“No, and every time I ask you act all mysterious so how about you give it to me straight for a change.”
“Her dad is governor Chattoway. You know from the Cygne oppressors.”
“And what did she do?” I ask with a shrug. I’m painfully aware of how shitty families can be.
“Not stop her dad when he wanted to close down the schools!” Teko bites.
“Or increase prices for the trains!” Baku adds.
“Or colonize us in the first place.” Migo spits on the floor.
“Okay, I got it. You made your point. I’m going home. See you next week.”
“Glad to help, seeya,” Migo says with a smile as she waves me off.
As I walk away things become clearer with every step I take.
No wonder Elizabeth doesn’t talk much if all she’s met with in return are accusations of the things her father did.
I mean she should have just told me.
Though I didn’t really reach out either.
How would she know I’m any different?
I guess It’s time to change all that.