The sun had risen. I could hear the others packing up again already. Too early, I thought, always too early. But I stood up all the same. I stretched and yawned. I reached for the yellow ribbon I tied around my wrist every night and around my head every morning. With the ease of practice, I tied it into a neat bow on top of my head.
“Where to now?” Edward asked as he strapped Excalibur’s sheath into its place on his back.
“To Quin Castle, I suppose,” I replied. “We should see if Eston made it. We might even see Beauty as she awakens.” I smiled, as did the others. Te’ijal’s fangs showed prominently.
After a few minutes of silence as I began packing up my things and the others finished, Edward spoke again. “Mel, there is something about you that I have wondered.”
“That ribbon you wear. You were wearing it when you arrived at the School, and I am fairly sure that I have never seen you without it. Not even that night you discovered I was the prince, even though it did not exactly match that gown.”
“I told you never to talk about that dress, Edward.”
“Regardless,” Edward said, waving off my scowl, “I believe it means a lot to you. But you seem to have discarded the rest of your past? After all, you gave up stealing—from humans, anyway—and we have helped a lot of people. These are things that thieves do not do.”
“The ribbon means nothing, Edward. It just helps to keep my hair out of the way.”
“But you always care for it so well,” Stella interjected. “You wash the bloodstains off of it as soon as you can, and it still looks quite new.”
“I like it, is all. And I like the reminder of my old life. It means nothing else to me.”
Edward shrugged and dropped the subject. While I had been talking, though, the others had finished packing completely, and I was still just barely started. I told them to meet me outside the city. There was no point in their waiting in the apartment.
I finished quickly. I can pack faster than I can catch a rat, though I prefer to take my time. But after I gathered my things, I simply sat at the table, eyes closed. I had drawn the curtain over the window. With it blocking the sun, it was dark enough to remind me of that night. True, the air was rather too clean to be like that of the Harburg slums, but I preferred it this way. I didn’t need the smell to let those memories flood my mind—they were all too willing to surface.
At only eight years of age, I was far too young to be able to make it on the streets. But when your mother dies and your father spends any money you have on gambling and drinks, what choice do you have? We’d lost the house, and Father had blamed me for it in the five minutes we spent together on the walkway. Then he was gone, and I was alone.
Still, others had it worse than I did. Some were on the streets form four, and they had no chance at survival. But I had learned from my parents. Not that they taught me anything—I simply learned how to stay unnoticed, invisible. There was no other way to avoid Father’s drunken rages. Mother could never do it—the most she could do was point me out and direct him at me instead. After the first time, I started to learn how to stay silent. You had to be silent to leave my house—no door opened without squeaking, no window without groaning. Even the floorboards creaked. These things were often the causes of Father’s rages. I used his noise to cover mine.
And on the streets, silence and invisibility came in handy. I could pick almost any lock, and I stole food in that way. The first time, I was too hungry to even know where it was I took the bread from. The second time, I felt guilty. I hesitated at the door. That was when the dog barked and alerted the owners to my presence. That night, I went hungry. It was only one night among many, but since that night, I have never regretted stealing anything.
After a year, I was good enough that I knew which houses were the easiest to rob. I knew what to take so that the owners wouldn’t notice as easily. I knew how much I could carry, so I never left anything behind unless I had to. I even knew where I could live. It wasn’t comfortable down in the sewers, but it was safe. The good people of the law would put anything before them if it kept them out of the sewers.
But while I lived there, I met him. He too was a thief. I still don’t know his story, or if what I heard about him was true. He introduced me to Boden, who gave me assignments then and up until I left Harburg. He helped me on my assignments, and I helped him with his. We worked together well. We got along perfectly. We never argued over the splitting of the payments. He even let me stay with him until I could afford a house of my own. He said he wanted me to find safety aboveground.
I didn’t need a house for that. I knew that I would always be safe with him there.
One assignment was to rob the Clockwork Mansion. The girl who lived there had gotten a dress, and one of the other girls in the town wanted it. When I asked Boden why she didn’t just buy her own—she was plenty wealthy, judging from the money she was willing to pay to have it stolen—he told me that it was a one-of-a-kind design. I took it to mean that she was quite jealous that the Clockwork Girl should get it.
We got in easily enough. For such a wealthy family, their security was surprisingly bad. A few minutes after arriving at the house, we were in the girl’s room. I found myself looking at the most beautiful dress I had ever seen.
I’ll be the first to admit that it was overly extravagant, especially for a young girl. But it was still quite pretty. It was a shade of yellow that was bright without being blindingly or annoyingly so, and had layers of ruffles and petticoats to go with it. Most of these were the classic white, though a few were varying shades of yellow. As we took it off its stand, I was staring at it so intently that I almost didn’t notice the ticking sound that had started.
This had been my first ticker, though. For a moment, I hadn’t known what to do. But he was already scrambling for the window, the closest exit there was. The door was too far to get to—I barely made it out the window after him before it sealed itself, breaking my fall on the dress in my arms.
We took it to his home. There—and for what reason I still do not know—I found myself wanting to keep this dress more and more. There was just something about it. I asked him if we—if I—could keep it. He was right to refuse, I know that. We needed the gold more than I needed that dress. But that night, I was furious. It was our first—our only—argument, and I lost it. He told me that we could keep it there until the next night, when he would give it to Boden to give to the girl. I fell asleep with it in my sight, hanging over the desk.
When I awoke, it was still dark. I knew something was wrong even before my eyes were open. Once they were, I saw that both he and the dress were gone. I cursed and got up. I was angrier than ever. He had tricked me. I knew he had taken the dress to Boden and that I would never see it again.
Within minutes, I was at Boden’s. I tried the door, but it was locked. I knocked, but there was no answer. Still fuming, I decided to wait. Boden would have to either wake at my continued knocking or eventually return if he was out.
That was where I was when Boden returned. He looked quite stressed and entirely surprised to find me there. “Ah! It’s good to see you, Mel. He said that you were safe, but I wasn’t sure.”
“He’s been arrested.”
The words were barely out of his mouth before I was gone. I ran to the jail and insisted they let me in. When they refused, I burst into tears, putting on the little girl act that had gotten me the pity of passersby in the weeks I couldn’t successfully steal my meals. When that failed as well—those guards had hearts of stone—I left, my breath still coming in crying gasps.
I went only far enough to find myself another door. This one was unguarded, though it was boarded up. When the planks fell to my prying hands, I found that there were three rather rusty looking locks on it, each older than the last. These too were no match for me and my lock picks. I stepped through the door and found myself in a closet-sized room. As there was no lock, I assumed that it was barricaded from the other side. I looked around desperately for another way through, not wanting to have gotten this far and having to give up. As I turned to leave, dejected, I finally spotted what I had been looking for: a small hole in the wall. I had not seen it because there was a crate in front of it, almost blocking it from sight. It was just large enough for a young, scrawny girl like myself to fit through.
When I slipped through, pushing away the rocks that covered this side of the hole, I found myself in the main body of the jail. The rows of cells were all empty, save one. He sat in that cell, leaning against the bars. I walked quickly over to him.
“What happened?” I asked. “How did you end up in here?”
“Security saw us leave,” he replied. “We were wrong when we said security was bad at the mansion, Mel. We were good, but they were better. All we could do was get away almost in time to not be caught. They got me when I took the dress to Boden. He tried to get me out of here, but there were witnesses. They also tried to get you, but I refused to tell them where we live.”
“Why did you say we were? I can still get you out of here. Nobody saw me come in, and I know that you can come out with me the same way! This lock is nothing, you know me,” I said, gripping the cell bars.
“I know, Mel,” he said, smiling. “But I also saw that hole you came out of. It’s tiny. You could barely fit through it—I’d have no chance. We haven’t got the time to enlarge it.”
“But you’ll still get out of here, right? It was just stealing, and Boden can talk you out of this, can’t he? That’s what he does!”
He shook his head. “The Clockwork Family is refusing to let it go. You know nobles—they’ll make up more charges and no one will doubt them.” He looked at me, a sad smile on his face. “I’m dead already, Mel.”
“No! No. I can get you out of this, I know I can.” I was holding the bars so tightly my knuckles were white.
The smile grew. “You can do a lot, Mel. You’re a smart girl. And that’s why I think you’re smart enough to know that you can’t do this. Some things really are impossible, you know.”
True tears were falling down my face.
“I have something for you, though,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a long, dark yellow ribbon. “It’s from one of the petticoats of that dress. I’m sorry we couldn’t keep it, but we needed the gold. Besides, you would never have fit into that thing. It was made for a chubby little rich girl. And it would never suit you. You just aren’t that kind of girl, Mel.”
I took the ribbon from him and grasped his hand before he could pull it back. “I don’t want to lose you,” I said, my voice cracking. “I finally… Finally had a real home with you. I felt safe. I… I need you.”
“I’m sorry, Mel. I am truly sorry. I wish there was something I could do, but—” He stopped speaking and listened. I could hear it too—the guards were coming to check on their prisoner. “Go,” he said.
I was gone. The guards didn’t see me. No one knew I had been there, though the entrances I used to get into the jail were properly sealed the next day.
It still hurts to know that I didn’t say goodbye.
I still wear his ribbon every day. It is never out of my possession. It is never anywhere other than my hair, my wrist, or my hands.
I told myself I would never wear a ball gown. That night showed me that they are nothing more than frivolous garbage nobles use to make themselves feel better than and higher above the common people, even though they look ridiculous. I broke that promise only once, the night that I found out Edward’s secret. The entire night, I could hear his voice telling me that gowns did not suit me, and I knew it to be true.
When I reached the city’s edge, I saw that Edward had become impatient. “There you are!” he called to me as soon as I was in sight. “You took ages.”
“Edward, we’ve only been waiting for five minutes,” Stella said.
“Let’s go,” I said. “We have a job to do.”
My hand touched the ribbon as I brushed my hair out of my face. I turned to look up at the sky. It was cloudless and bright. It almost always was in Thais. I smiled to the sun and whispered a word to the heavens.
This is just a oneshot, so that really is the end. I was thinking about how Mel has that ribbon, even though she's pretty far on into her teenage years. So I gave her a story.
This mystery man whose name I never give? He could be anyone. (For me, he's the Dreal Mel mentions in her interview, but as that might turn out to be an actual character in GoN or something, I prefer this guy to remain anonymous.) Whoever he is, he seems to be a mix of a father figure, an older brother, and a first love. I don't think Mel got to figure it out--she didn't know him very long before his arrest.
The title is mostly just for the color of the ribbon. (It could be orange, too, but...) The meaning of a yellow ribbon tends to be for waiting for a loved one, but I like it just fine this way.