I was ten years old that day, perched knobby-kneed on top of an old stool with leg-lengths that didn't quite match, like the old man who begged on the corner in the evenings. It rocked back and forth with my fidgeting, clicking slightly against the flagstone floor. I was terrified, and doing my boyish best not to show it.
It was early afternoon, and the sun slanted too-hot rays through the chinks in the thick wooden shutters, laying out a framework of slender bars of light across the floor. The whole room sweltered quietly. It was much too hot to be the middle of autumn, but that year the sweaty-heat dog days had settled down over our steam-driven city and refused to be kicked to their feet again. After the first week of frying rooftops, Ruby teased that the summer sun had mistaken my crazed nest of yellow hair for a 'purty star' and fallen too in love to leave. Blank, smirking in the doorway, had suggested they shave my head to correct the mistake. I ran laughing past him into the dust of the street, kicking up a throat-drying cloud that drifted back into their startled faces.
The twelfth day of the second month of autumn was my birthday, give or take six months either way. Baku had decided the date after a short, grumbling deliberation. It was the day he'd found me wandering the docks, and he called that a better reason to mark the start of a life than some he'd heard. So that shadow-striped, unreasonably stifling day was more or less my birthday, and I'd been more or less four when I'd wormed my snot-nosed, blue-eyed way into our foster father's gruff heart, which made me now more or less ten years old, and eager for a way to mark the milestone and make it real. To make it more, not less.
That afternoon, Ruby was a jumbled heap of somewhat ragged skirts, sprawled comfortably on the cool stones as she dug through her sewing kit. I squirmed as I watched her pull out a neat little carved-bone case and twist it open to inspect the silverfish scatter of needles inside. She pursed her lips, a pretty lass already at one year my senior, and selected one with all the deliberate care of an airship mechanic with his tool case.
My fingers, not nearly as thin and pretty as hers, were nervously turning an apple over and over, shining its ruddy skin to a polish. My tail lashed back and forth like a cat's; frustrated, I curled it around one of the legs of the stool. No matter how carefully I hid my emotions, they always came out in my tail. It twitched when I was bored, lashed when I was angry or upset, drooped when I was tired or miserable. Lately, it had a tendency to curl when I saw a pretty girl. Marcus laughed when that happened, and told me it was part of being nearly ten. He was fourteen and a half and I worshiped him unabashedly, so I figured he knew what he was talking about, even if he didn't have a tail of his own.
"Got it!" Blank crowed as he swung open the door, letting a rush of heat and light into the shady room. Ruby leapt to her feet and began to scold him as he pushed the heavy door shut behind him, but he just grinned, holding up a scruffy burlap bag the size of his head and dangling it triumphantly in her face. Water seeped from it in dark patches.
Ruby touched it and sucked in her breath, her delight lighting up her eyes. "Where'd ya find it?" she asked.
"Got a palace guard to skiv me some," Blank bragged. "I promised to bring a letter to her sweetie. Must be some sweetie for her to trade this for just a letter," he mused, as Ruby snatched the bag away from him and hurried it over to the huge stone fireplace, the coolest part of the room in weather like this when it went unlit.
"No jokin'," Ruby agreed, teasing open the knotted twine that held the bag shut to gape at its contents. "Ice is gold in a season like this. Must be mage-made."
My ears pricked up at the mention of ice, and I suddenly realized just how parched my throat and mouth really were. I clutched my apple and sat tight on the cripple-legged wooden stool while they goggled over their treasure together. Then Ruby handed the bag of ice back to Blank.
"Break off a chunk," she instructed him, as imperious as a little peacock in her motley-patched skirt. "We're gonna need it soon."
She busied herself with the needle, crosslegged like a tailor on the floor, while Blank unquestioningly obeyed her command. Ruby was pretty well satisfied with her life as the only girl in our outsized family of doting "uncles" and "brothers". Between the doting and the self-satisfaction, she was already puffed up into a miniature empress. It was only our now-and-then bouts of rebellion and merciless teasing that kept her bearable.
The needle flashed in a ray of light from the window as she threaded it with hands as nimble and clever as the rest of her. I swallowed hard as I watched…and then something incredibly cold and wet touched the back of my neck, and I yelped and flinched away.
"Ha!" Blank said, gleefully waving the egg-sized piece of ice he'd chipped away from the block in the bag. "Gotcha!" A few drops of chilly water ran down my collar from where the ice had touched me, and I wasn't sure whether to yell at him or sigh with relief from the heat.
"Oh, sit still, y'all," Ruby complained, holding up the needle to examine it. A candle burned on the floor, dripping wax to run in a thin, wandering trail from light to shadow to light again across the slightly age-warped slopes of the planks. Ruby dipped the length of the needle into its flame, turning it carefully to heat it.
Blank swiped the apple from my hand and dumped the dripping ice into my fingers instead, pulling the knife out of his boot sheath to hack a slice from the glossy fruit. He took a juicy bite out of the rest of it before tossing it back to me. I made a face, but didn't drop it—I needed something to hold to keep my hands from shaking, and clinging to the edges of the stool in a death grip wouldn't register very high on the terrifying-bandit scale.
He must have seen the quiver in my lip instead, or maybe my tail had given me away again, because he suddenly dropped a bit of the tough act and gripped my shoulders in a brotherly half-hug.
"It's not really that bad," he confided, reaching up with his other hand to flick the little silver ring that dangled from his earlobe. "One stab, and then it's over and done with. You've had worse…'sides, it was your idea."
He was pretty much right, but not completely. Having an ear pierced wasn't traditional in Tantalus, but it was close. Just about everyone in the gang had had at least one done. Marcus's piratical hoop had been firmly in place since he was eight, the first piece of jewelry he'd successfully stolen in a solo run. He was brother to us both, and so since Blank copied him as shamelessly as I did, the red-head had begged, flattered, and bribed Ruby into doing his for him when he turned ten. Ruby was a girl and had hers pierced when she was only seven, and remembered the procedure pretty well. Blank's ear hadn't swollen up or oozed pus or rotted off after she finished, so I guessed that she knew what she was doing.
More or less.
Anyhow, I couldn't be the only one without an earring, could I? That would imply that I was punier than Ruby, who wore red glass drops in both earlobes and bragged about the day she would swipe a couple of real gems to match her name.
The ice touched my ear, and I bit back another startled yelp. Blank's blocky fingertips pressed it there, where it seeped numbness into my skin as I shivered on my wobbly perch. The hair at the nape of my neck prickled and stood on end.
Ruby blew out the candle and rose to her feet. The needlepoint in her hand was a flaming red-white line. I gulped and tried not to follow it with my eyes as she grabbed the slice of apple from the floor and handed it to Blank, then smiled her most reassuring smile. In the patchwork shadows of the room, it made her look like a pale-haired imp.
My fingers tightened on the bitten apple; my tail wound itself more anxiously around one of the legs of the stool, holding on tight. I nodded.
Blank took the ice away, slipped the apple slice behind my nerveless earlobe. His other hand wound itself tightly into my hair, holding my head still so I wouldn't jerk and spoil the piercing.
I held my breath as the glowing needlepoint dipped closer, then moved out of my range of vision, so close to my ear that I felt the heat just slightly against my cheek. My stomach churned, and for a split second I considered telling them to stop. Then I realized how they would tease me if I backed out now. I shut my mouth and my eyes as tight as I could. And waited.
Ruby's fingers brushed my cheek, moved a strand of hair out of the way, then stilled. I felt the hammering in my chest threatening to smother me, wondering if I would scream when the pain came or, worse, faint dead away. I would never be able to face them again after a chicken-livered mess like that.
There was a faint pinch—the first touch of that ember-glowing needle?—and a tug at my ear, then another long pause. Something hissed softly. I gritted my teeth.
"Just do it, Ruby! What're you playing around for? Get it over with!"
Her voice was scornful, a bit puzzled. "What're you talkin' about? It's done, grits-for-brains!"
My eyes flew open, to see her pressing the hot needle against the chunk of ice in her palm, watching curiously as it threw off steam and turned a dully gleaming gray-white. Gingerly, I reached up and touched my earlobe. It was still numb as a Qu's backside, but I felt the little length of thread that dangled from a tiny damp hole there.
"You dumb arse," Blank said, resting his bony elbow on my head in a way that was probably supposed to be affectionate. "Didn't you listen when I said it ain't that bad? It's the waiting that gets you."
Over the next few days, I tended the dull throb in my ear, dabbed at it with liquor and lemon juice and turned the thread when it scabbed up. Not long after, I nabbed a tiny gold stud out of a streetside kiosk, and it went in the place of honor, replacing the stained scrap of string. By the time the stud sat comfortably in a neatly healed hole, I had pieced together a lesson out of the whole experience.
Like anything in life, fighting or gambling or falling in love, it was the waiting for it to happen that was the worst. The blood-slick split lip, the clink of coins or the shiver up the back of the spine—that was the payoff, the juice of the apple. It was the waiting that took the most out of you. It was the moment before you took that first bite.
I decided, lying in the warm and mostly-clean rags of my bed and staring at the shadowy ceiling as I absently played with that warm bobbin of metal, that I would just have to skip the waiting from now on. Put on a smile and jump right to the important bits, without all that hemming and hawing and watery-stomached nerves.
Of anything I learned in my life, that resolution got me into the most scrapes, the most disasters, and took me in one flying leap to the beginning of my happy ending.