Bending backs over washboards. Emily watched as They were lined up in the courtyard to have their wings clipped. Some of the girls struggled against the grip of the Grounds-men. The boys seemed to have been broken long ago. Faces sallow like hollow skins on greengages. The man with the clippers had hands covered in scars, snips and remnants from more resistant works. Feathers were strewn over the cobbles, blood in an abattoir.
The Picker-boys would be let in to collect them later. The down feathers would be separated from the ones with strong spines and sold for the pillows of rich men’s beds. Perhaps to be reunited with their owners in moments of bought lust. There were dealers for the large feathers who would distribute the produce to quill makers, dressmakers, alchemists, other merchants and the occasional architect. The prices would be high, and not in gold.
Bells chime for passing hours like empty mouths at the table, little bird tongues poking to caterpillar suppers. Tower scratches the skin of old skies and lets it bleed to night. Emily watches until the clippers stop biting and They are lead back to their chambers. And the walls stop echoing the snip-snuck sound of deadened flight.
Emily woke from the silk-stocking reverie and into the sharp cold evening, a bat in a washhouse. Off the wall she dropped and down into the alley between the East and West Houses. Billowing cloak and the noise of velvet in air.
String songs run around the valley-crevices of her ears. Chasing others tails and singing folk prayers of the night before. She could follow them to the back of the library and through the pages of old geography books - swallow the scribbles from the margins of maps. And change full stops round so they make a constellation sky on her forearm. Ready for some clouded figure to trace with a beetle-shell finger. Over-long and wheezing a little eulogy of bending calcium before it cracks into a million oily surfaced fragments over her sky. All the while the other hand tightly round her wrist, whitening the skin.
Emily fell away into the darkness, moving quickly down the alley. There was a drop into the lower quarter ahead. A steep precipice over fifty feet that divided the city between the Winged district and the Soil Half, titles now redundant after everything had turned. Emily ran and leaped off the edge into the sky. For a moment the lower city swung beneath her in a gasp of cold night air, laced with the heavy scents of other peoples evening cook pots. Then a flash of white feathers and she was away and up, scooped by the air itself and welcomed to the vast canvas of stars above her.
The They stays in her head like a handful of lead and her eyes follow the lights of some unwashed hand that holds a handful of her grandmother’s feathers. The feathers that keep her up and that bring Them plummeting to the ground. They feed the bellies of the dead with their feathers of lead and take her by the neck to the place of beginning and first flight. The tower that steals time from her back hour by hour and turns milky-eyes sour, the curdling skin peels and falls to the ground from a height. And Emily breathes away the string songs and her white wings are swallowed by the night.