Hello! This is the first fanfic I've ever written. It might be the last, too (What a time-consuming hobby …). Anyway, I couldn't get the idea out of my head, so here it is.
The Kingkiller Chronicle belongs to Patrick Rothfuss, whose ideas I am shamelessly usurping for emotional profit. In this case, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery.
The rotten stench of Tarbean was stronger along the border of Waterside and Hillside. Fela walked ahead of Kvothe and Sim and focused on breathing through her mouth. She blinked the rain out of her eyes and stared numbly at the map in her hands, which was growing limper by the minute. She'd never admit it to the others, but she wished she hadn't taken charge when they'd first started exploring the massive city.
The ceaseless drizzle made being lost so much worse. She lifted the map in one hand, straining to read the lettering now smeared across the paper. The wind flared up at the same moment, catching the folds of the parchment and throwing it into the air.
She cried out in dismay, throwing out a hand to catch it. But it was too late-by the time her arm was fully extended, the map had already been shredded by the muddy bare feet of the pack of children running pell-mell towards the docks.
Fela choked back a sob of frustration. As much to cover her rising tears as anything, she retrieved the pieces of parchment. She tried for a few moments to piece it all back together, then gave up.
To his credit, Sim bore this newest development in the wretchedness of their state with all the grace of a duke's son. This was all the more endearing to her because he no longer looked anything like one. Water dripped from his sandy hair into his eyes, and mud caked his once-pretty suede boots. He clenched his teeth, trying not to shiver in the autumn dribble, and her heart nearly burst. His one hand went to her cheek in an awkward gesture of support. His other hand pulled his salt-stained cloak tighter.
Kvothe, whose wild red hair had flattened and darkened to the color of rust, didn't complain either. He just pursed his lips and maintained the air of long-suffering silence he'd adopted hours earlier. She'd offered him the chance to lead soon after he'd started doing this, but at the time he had just spread his hands in a helpless gesture and shrugged, as if to say "What do I know about Tarbean?"
This reminder of Kvothe's aberrant stoicism was the last straw. She turned to face the direction they'd come and opened her mouth to suggest they find the nearest inn. They could meet up with Wilem in the morning.
She was interrupted by a great, heaving sigh. Kvothe jumped down from his perch on a nearby wall, scrubbed his fingers through his hair, and started walking towards the docks. He half-turned, then, and cast a bemused stare in their direction. "Coming?" he asked. For lack of a better idea, they followed.
In spite of Kvothe's self-proclaimed unfamiliarity with the seaside city, he led them through it with all the unhesitant certainty of one raised on its streets. Oddly, though, he seemed to know the side streets better than the main thoroughfares. He stuck to the shadowy edges of the wider avenues and often took shortcuts through twisting alleyways with sharp turns. Once, he even had them scramble over a knee-high pile of granite shards. Sim and Fela exchanged glances as they struggled over the slippery heap, but said nothing. Occasionally, Kvothe would glare over his shoulder, as if daring them to say a word. So they held their tongues and clung to the very edges of Waterside as the sun fell towards the broken skyline.
They were hurrying, trying to outpace nightfall, when Fela heard a moan echo from the recesses of a side alley. She paused, wondering if the wind and rain were making her hear things that weren't really there. But no—there it was again. A mewling cry of pain, so quiet she was amazed she'd heard it at all. But piercing, too, in the way that it wrenched her gut.
She entered the alley warily. Sim and Kvothe followed.
A girl lay slumped against one wall. The shadows growing in the dying light nearly swallowed her tiny frame, but what light remained highlighted the skeletal peaks of her sunken cheeks and made a halo of her feather-light hair. She couldn't have been older than ten. Fela maintained her painstakingly slow approach, terrified she would scare the girl away. But she quickly realized that, no matter how frightened, the girl couldn't have run. Her breathing was shallow and labored, her eyes scrunched in pain. Fela paused in front of her, and they watched each other for a long moment.
The girl didn't look frightened. She looked … uncaring. Too broken at that point to do anything but surrender. Fela bent down to examine her, but Kvothe grabbed her arm and gently steered her away. "Let me," he said quietly. "Stand back and try not to make any loud noises."
Kvothe was amazingly gentle with the girl. He spoke in a calming litany as he approached, his words full of reassurance but no real substance. He leaned over her and started to perform a series of checks he'd no doubt learned in the Medica.
A few times, the girl cried out in pain. When she did, he would pause. "What what. Hush hush," he would whisper, smiling softly to himself, as if at a joke only he understood. "It's fine, everything's fine, you're going to be fine. Let's not do that again, shall we?" And then his fingers would drift to unexplored wounds, and he would fall silent until the next pained cry.
Fela watched him work, his expression fierce but his touch impossibly tender. She was accustomed to his acid tongue and quick wit, his sudden disappearances and his brooding silences. That was the Kvothe she knew. But the way he had been acting since they'd come to Tarbean … she almost felt she didn't know him at all. Was it just her imagination? The very air in Tarbean seemed thick with the burden of his secrets.
When Kvothe was finished, he padded back to where she and Sim stood at the mouth of the alley. The fear in his pale green eyes pulled her from her reverie. He spoke quietly, so that the girl couldn't hear.
"She's got a couple broken ribs and contusions all down her side. Probably a concussion. My guess is, whoever was chasing her dropped her with a brick, then kicked her when she was on the ground."
They stared at him, their expressions mirror images of horror. "Who would do that?" Sim whispered.
Kvothe glanced back at the girl. "Probably a guard."
Sim's jaw dropped. "You're not serious. They wouldn't! She's just a little girl."
He shrugged, as if indifferent. "She's a beggar. If it isn't again the law to beg Hillside, then nobody's told the law."
"But … why?"
There was fury hiding behind Kvothe's darkening eyes, but you couldn't hear it in his voice. "They were probably just looking for something to kick. That, or they thought she might have something to show for it. Beggars stupid enough to try Hillside can make a talent, but only if they make it out alive."
Fela shook her head. "You're not suggesting … I can't believe the City Watch would steal from the children. That's just too cruel."
Kvothe snorted. "Tehlu forbid. You're confusing the street children with people, Fela."
Fela opened her mouth then closed it, unsure what to say. How did he know all of this? The cold certainty in his eyes - she was afraid to ask. "What can we do?" she said finally.
Kvothe turned away. Before he did, she thought she saw a flicker of something odd, an expression she'd never seen him wear. Shame? When he finally spoke, the hesitance in his low voice was alien to her. "I know someone who can help. I'll take her. You two start walking that way –" he pointed "—and get rooms at the nearest inn. I'll meet you there."
Fela shook her head violently, just as Sim did the same. "No way," Sim said. "You're not wandering off alone, not at night. Not Waterside."
Kvothe actually laughed then, a dark, humorless chuckle. "I can handle it."
"We're not risking it."
His expression hardened. "Its not up for discussion, Sim."
"God's body, it's not like you can stop me. If I want to go, I'll go."
"You'll just slow me down."
"I won't either."
"You will too. You can't even climb."
Sim faltered. "Climb? Climb what?"
Kvothe cast his eyes around the wood and tile surrounding them. "Trees, what do you think? Look, Sim, it's this simple. If you can't climb, you can't come. I'm not hauling you through the streets at night. It's safer on the rooftops, and faster."
Fela chimed in. "I can climb."
They both turned towards her. "What?"
"I used to climb the buildings in the town I grew up in. It was a good way to get away from my brothers."
Kvothe shook his head stubbornly. "Be that as it may, Fela, you're not coming either. Half the street children in Tarbean rely on Trapis for food, and more. I'm not going to scare them away just so you can sate your curiosity."
Fela bristled. "'Why would I scare them away?"
"In that dress? Stockings? Shoes? Tehlu, if you don't look like you'd go running to the Watch the second you saw a beggar … that, and the bolder ones would cut your purse before you made it halfway down the street."
"Oh." Fela paused. "Okay, then we'll go in disguise."
Kvothe stared. Sim positively gaped. "What?"
"Oh, don't look at me like that," she snapped. "Look, there have to be other children like her around. Kvothe and I can leave our purses with you, Sim, and find other kids to trade clothes with. We can even … " She paused and knelt on the ground. "… here …" She rubbed her hands in the wet soot coating the alley, then scrubbed it into her cheeks and hair.
A strangled noise burst from Sim's throat. In spite of the situation, she laughed. A duke's son, indeed. Kvothe simply frowned and held out his palms in protest. "Fela, I appreciate the gesture, but you're not …"
She stood, planted her feet, and crossed her arms. She resisted the urge to scrub away the layer of mud now drying on her face. "I'm coming," she said firmly.
Kvothe twitched awkwardly for a second, clearly on the verge of protesting more. Finally, he sighed. "Fine." He tossed his purse to Simmon, and Fela did the same. "Sim, get out of here."
"Why does she get to go if I -" He was interrupted by a whimper from the girl still lying on the ground. He looked down, his blue eyes widening.
"Go, Sim. Now. Fela, come on." Kvothe ran back to the girl and lifted her off the ground, placing his hands carefully so as to avoid pressing on her ribs. He strode towards the crumbling brick wall at the back of the alley. Like many of the others they'd passed through that night, it connected to another passageway you couldn't see from the street.
Fela waved to Sim in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. His silhouette waved back from the mouth of the alley, and she turned the corner.
She hurried to catch up with Kvothe, who was walking faster now. She was about to speak when he leaned over the girl. "My name is Kvothe. Hers is Fela. What's your name, little one?" After a long pause, the girl mumbled something back.
"Kell? That's a lovely name. Do you know Trapis, Kell?"
Kvothe smiled. "Good, Kell, that's good. We're going to take you to Trapis, okay?"
The girl in his arms murmured what must have been assent, because he cradled her head against his shoulder, glanced back to make sure Fela was following, and began to run.
His gait was oddly graceful. It took her several minutes to realize why. He was rolling his feet as he ran, so that that each step he took started at the very edge of his heel and ended at the very edge of his toes. It smoothed his movement somehow, protecting the wounded girl from the tremors of each step. Something about it reminded her of the mob of children that had blown past them earlier in the day, the moment they had lost the map, but she couldn't have said why.
A few streets later, they paused for breath behind a squat, well-lit building. It might have been an inn, but the combination of bawdy commentary from below and breathless moans from above suggested a brothel.
Kvothe crouched down and propped Kell against the wall. She didn't make a sound. Fela thought perhaps she had lost consciousness.
She watched in mute surprise as Kvothe grabbed two large potato sacks from a pile of trash behind the door and set upon aging them with a cold efficiency. He ground them in the dirt with a boot, shredded their ends with calloused fingers. He slipped out a narrow-bladed knife (where had it come from? It was too large to fit in his pocket) and cut gaping holes along the top seams. Then he stripped off his shirt-Fela glanced away, blushing-and folded it carefully, kicking off his boots at the same time and hiding them under a pallet by the door. He examined his neatly tailored pants, groaning to himself in quiet dismay before slicing them unevenly just above the knees. Finally, he slipped one of the sacks over his head and handed her the other, his expression unreadable in the near-darkness.
He turned away from her then to scrub his hands along the walls of the narrow passageway. He dug his nails into the brick, cursing when his thumb hit a rough patch. After a moment's consideration, he rubbed the drops of blood seeping from his finger into the bag he was wearing, and along one cheek.
Fela watched him out of the corner of her eye as she stripped down and tossed the bag (fairly long, thank God) around her thin frame. She froze in the middle of adjusting it, startled to realize Kvothe had been watching her out of the corner of his eye, too.
He grinned. Covered in soot, crouching in the dirt, his expression was positively feral. "Sorry."
He retrieved handfuls of kitchen rags from the pile and handed them to her. "Wrap these around your feet," he explained. "You'd need to run barefoot on the street for a few years before your feet got tough enough to make the trip without."
She nodded and got to work, wondering at the strangeness of the scenario. What was strangest, she reflected, was how not strange Kvothe seemed to find it. She tied off the last rag and looked up, frowning at Kvothe. He knelt before her then in filthy bare feet, looking for all the world like he'd just crawled out of a gutter. He tested the bindings, untying and rewrapping when necessary. When he finished, her feet were completely swathed in layers of cloth. "You'll thank me later," he said, glancing up.
She gestured at the rags. "Don't you need some too?"
He looked away. "No."
As he turned, the light pouring through the window of the brothel fell on his translucent skin, and she held back a gasp. A jagged scar nearly a handspan in length was carved into his thigh just above his knee.
He reached out to dig an apple core and the butt of a loaf of bread from the food scraps at the base of the rubbish heap. He stared at them for a long moment, then tucked them into the pocket of Kell's shirt.
He lifted her up again and turned back toward Fela. His eyes widened as he adopted a haunted expression. He started to limp, then, the foot of his scarred leg dragging behind him with every step. He moved quickly nonetheless.
She stared at his retreating back, too shocked to follow. She knew he was only playing the wounded animal, the desperate beggar boy. But it was an all-too-convincing act.