Goblins are nothing but trouble. The one latched onto my leg trying to clamp his teeth into my thigh was no exception. Shaking him off wasn’t an option unless I wanted to lose my head to his pet troll, who was currently swinging a club the size of a sapling at me. My sword blocked a blow that rattled my teeth and blurred my vision.
“Hold still, pointy ears!” The troll squealed with glee as he batted at me again. His enormous eyes glittered and a grin split his ugly mug from ear to ear. He had skin like a moldy mushroom, all brown and tan splotches and just as slimy. It hung in slippery folds around his jowls and an enormous belly overlapped his much-too-small loin cloth.
The goblin finally got a good grip in his jagged teeth. “Ow!” I slapped at his face with one hand while fending off the flailing club with the other.
“You no hurt boss!” the troll said as he took another swipe. He definitely didn’t have a grasp on the current situation.
I didn’t want to kill the poor, stupid thing, but I also wasn’t inclined to let him bash my skull in. I lunged, poking a small cut into his upper arm, and he screamed like I’d eviscerated him. He dropped the club and gigantic tears dripped into the creases in his face. “Pointy ears no play fair.”
Great. I’d made a troll cry.
I yanked my sword back and clocked his leach of a boss in the forehead with the pommel. His beady black eyes crossed and he fell backward into the mud of the alley with shreds of my leggings still stuck in his teeth.
The troll’s wails increased to siren intensity and he’d have the Enforcers down on our heads if I couldn’t shut him up.
“Pointy ears killed boss.” He lumbered through the reeking muck to the fallen goblin and gathered him into his arms like a discarded doll.
“I didn’t kill him. He’s sleeping.”
“Yes. Biting me made him very tired.” I cocked my head to listen, but no sounds of impending discovery reached into the dark canyon of tired shacks. Maybe the Enforcers didn’t even bother with the slums anymore since the new King took the throne. Let the dregs kill each other off and not risk manpower and money to keep the peace. I hated this part of town and wouldn’t have come here ever again if I hadn’t lost something I’d stolen fair and square.
Now I had to get it back and the clock was ticking.
I touched the troll’s shoulder, but almost instantly snatched my hand back. Slime hung in viscous tendrils from my palm. Eww. I wiped it on the nearest stone wall until it stuck, then scrubbed the residue off on the goblin’s tunic. Did I mention how much I hated this place? The lovely aroma of sewage and rotten meat wafted down the alley and I really wanted a hot bath. “Bring your boss and let’s find him a quiet place to nap,” I told the troll. He slopped along behind me gurgling sweet nothings at the unconscious goblin.
I hesitated where the alley spilled into the street. Dusk lengthened the shadows into perfect hiding places for the hordes of urchins looking for marks. They looked like harmless children, but they were cunning little monsters who ran in packs like stray dogs, ready to distract and dip into any unsecured pocket. I led one of those marauding bands until three years ago, so I was familiar with their tactics.
Night crept along the street and shutters slammed, bars dropped into place behind doors, and the populace hunkered down to survive another night. I wiped the tip of my blade on my cloak and sheathed it, keeping my hand comfortably on its hilt. The building I sought was only a few blocks away and it wouldn’t do for her spies to see me approaching weapon drawn like an advancing army. She’d be hostile enough without that.
The troll strolled along behind me, still stroking the goblin’s bald head and cooing. His boss likely worked for and was sent by the one I was going to meet, so this was a perfect opportunity to deliver her employee back to her. Not that she’d care much. Her employees were disposable.
The street dead-ended at her gates as if every road led to her and, in the slums, it did. There was no escaping her influence or her grasp because she owned the eyes, ears, and purses of each citizen. Two human behemoths flanked the wrought iron barrier. They were tall and wide and certainly well trained if not intelligent. She favored blind obedience over smarts in her work force.
They dropped their spear points toward my chest as I approached. The unspoken message was enough to deter most visitors, but I’m not most visitors. “Is Marguerite in?” I asked the behemoth on the right.
I rolled my eyes. “Just tell her I’m here. She already knows who.”
He grunted and ducked through the gate.
I whistled and checked my nails while I waited. She’d make me stand here at least half an hour. To my surprise, the guard returned and beckoned me inside. He took my sword and moved to frisk me, but I raised a finger in his face and he stepped away. I wasn’t in the mood to be felt up by a brute with dirty hands and no manners. He let me pass and I trotted down the brightly lit hallway.
The troll galloped along, the goblin’s head bouncing loose on his spindly neck. Outside her door, I stopped with my hand on the latch and took a deep breath. I exhaled and strode through like I knew what I was doing.
I didn’t. I was winging this.
She reclined on her couch like a goddess, draped in magenta robes and smoking a thin roll of tobacco. A perfect thigh peeked from beneath a split in the embroidered silk. Her black curls cascaded over one alabaster shoulder while emerald eyes appraised me coldly. Gold hoops adorned her perfectly pointed ears. A crimson painted fingernail tapped the ash from her smoke into the waiting hand of a goblin. “Welcome home, Esmeralda.”
Barging into Marguerite’s lair and making demands was a certain path to losing my head, so I kept my teeth carefully clamped together and my tongue imprisoned behind them.
“I should hang you in the square as an example of what happens to those who betray me,” she said as the gray haze of tobacco drifted around her.
“I never betrayed you.” So much for keeping quiet. “I simply left your employment.”
“Without my permission.”
Asking permission to run away kind of negated the whole running away thing. She took a long drag on her smoke, then crushed it out in the goblin’s palm. His skin sizzled, but the only indication that he noticed was a slight twitch to his scaly ears. She flicked her fingers. He bowed and disappeared through a curtain.
She stretched like a well-fed cat and got gracefully to her feet. “Get out,” she said, sending the troll scurrying from the room with the groaning goblin coming to in his arms. The door slammed behind them.
Her glossy fingernails slid across the back of my neck as she circled me, the predator assessing prey. “Why are you here, Traitor?”
“I need your help.”
She arched a flawless eyebrow. “Esmeralda Cutpurse needs my help? Did your penchant for lifting things get you in trouble with your new master, little girl?”
Right in one. Well, mostly. I wasn’t exactly in trouble with him yet because I didn’t think he knew, but I would be when he did. I had grown fond of my warm bed and good food and getting thrown behind bars and lashed for my moment of weakness was to be avoided.
Vitan took me off the streets when he caught me with my hand in his pocket. Never had I so utterly misread a mark. My band of thieves bolted when he snagged my wrist and held on, despite my kicks to his shin and teeth fastened onto his forearm. He was surprisingly strong and I eventually quit struggling. I’d spent the last three years living under his roof within the walls of the castle grounds. He was kind, taught me to read and do math, kept me fed, and didn’t ask much of me.
Except that I give up stealing.
Letting go of something I was good at proved challenging, especially in the part of the city where I now resided. Heavy purses hung from fragile leather cords at the round bellies of over confident nobles and jewels dripped from women’s wrists and delicate throats. It was like dropping a starving man in a banquet and telling him he couldn’t eat.
Worst of all was Vitan’s forbidden room. He kept it locked and never allowed me inside, but I crouched by the keyhole and peered in. Boxes and bags lined shelves that reached to the ceiling. There was one small box he frequently opened and gazed into as if looking upon a lover. What was in it? The question drove me mad, but I couldn’t ask or he’d know I spied.
If I could just get in the room, sneak a peek, then put the box back. He’d never know and my rampant curiosity would be satisfied, so, one day when he went to the market, I deftly picked the lock and entered his private sanctuary.
The box beckoned from the top shelf beyond my reach. I stood on a crate and lifted it down. The front door opened and footsteps echoed in the hallway. I panicked and stuck the box into the folds of my tunic, then darted from the room.
I didn’t really steal it. It stole itself.
I hid in the drain pipe that exited under the great stone walls and cradled the box in my hands. I’d return it tonight while he slept. Strange golden symbols ornamented the dark wood and a dainty clasp secured the lid. I slid it aside with my thumb and opened it.
Nestled in deep blue velvet was the ugliest necklace I’d ever laid eyes on. A cat turd on a cord was the only way to describe it. I plucked the nasty thing from the box, careful not to touch the moist pendant. It twisted right, left, right, left as it dangled. I sniffed it and cringed. It even smelled like cat crap. This was what he looked on so lovingly almost every night? Why?
I’d stolen a lot of shit, but never literally.
“What’d you steal?” Marguerite’s question snapped me back to the present.
“Nothing with any monetary value. A personal keepsake.”
“That was stupid.”
I nodded. She’d taught me that people would skewer you over sentimental junk, but not raise a hand if you swiped their last coin.
“Where’d you fence it?” she asked.
“I didn’t. I lost it when I ran from Enforcers on a routine check of the drains.”
She tipped her head and stared at me until I dropped my eyes to the toes of her beaded slippers. “And you want me to find out who picked it up so you can get it back?”
I looked up at her from under one eyebrow. “Please?”
She sat on her couch and crossed one exquisite leg over the other. “What’s in it for me?”
I was prepared for this question, as no help from my Mother would ever come free. “I have access to ridiculous riches. I’ll bring you one day’s worth of take. It’ll be more than you see in a year from your normal business activities.”
“And how would you know what I see in a year?”
I’d rather not tell her about my recently acquired math skills or anything else about my new life with Vitan. I was free with him, even if I didn’t recognize it until a moment of startling clarity in a sewage tunnel. Teenage girls aren’t known for their foresight and I’d ruined that opportunity when I let my curiosity override my good sense.
He’d never trust me again.
After I returned the box, I’d have to run because everyone and my mother would be hunting me. “Wild guess.”
“Come back tomorrow with my payment.”
I turned for the door and her voice stopped me.
“Don’t go prowling around asking questions on your own. I’d hate to have to kill you.”
She always was a convincing liar.
I reclaimed my sword from the guard and jogged toward the city. There was still an hour or so to work the markets before they closed for the night. I splashed through the drain toward the square of light that marked the exit. Three shadows suddenly squinted into the gloom.
I became one with the drippy stone wall and prayed I wasn’t back lit. After a moment, they moved on and I jumped up the high curb and into the narrow street. Unlike the slum, torches burned, casting circles of golden light onto cobblestoned roads. People walked purposefully to their homes or toward the market, carrying baskets of goods or washing. They didn’t scurry in fear or cast furtive glances over their shoulders. They were confident in their safety.
They were easy marks.
My pace slowed to a casual stroll. Nothing to see here, just an ordinary elf girl taking a walk. The first and last time I worked these streets I was fourteen and Vitan caught me red handed. I doubt it got easier with age and I was rusty. Marguerite wouldn’t be satisfied with trifles, so I had to make each mark count.
A passing woman scowled at the mud spattered on my tunic and the hole in my leggings from the squabble with the goblin and his pet. Filth caked my boots and clung to my cloak hem as if I’d slogged through a pig sty, and in a way I had. I’d never worn the height of fashion, but modern muck wasn’t a look that was working on this side of the wall. I had to change clothes.
Abandoning the main thoroughfare, I trotted through alleys and lanes to Vitan’s home, tucked against the looming castle itself. A lamp burned from my unshuttered window. More likely a baited trap to catch the rat than a hearty welcome home. The trunk containing my clean clothes, all provided by Vitan, sat directly under the window. I wouldn’t have to go inside, just reach over the sill.
My gaze scanned the street in both directions. No Enforcers were visible, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. This was ludicrous. I’d be swinging from the hanging tree by breakfast. I could turn around now. Leave the city and never come back. But Vitan had been good to me and I’d betrayed his trust. That hideous pendant probably belonged to his mother or some other sappy foolishness. I had to return it.
All right, Ez, time to stick your neck in the snare and hope your head doesn’t get snatched off your shoulders. I crouched and scurried to the base of my window. My thighs burned from the squatting position, but I remained there until I was certain nothing moved. I stood slowly and let one eye cross the window sill and peek into the room. The lamp was turned low on the little table and the door to the hall was shut. My bed was neatly made. I wanted to climb into it and snuggle into the fresh straw of the mattress and dream away this nightmare I’d created.
I hoisted myself onto the wooden sill and grabbed a fresh tunic and leggings from the top of the stack. My rummaging stopped when I noticed the paper wrapped package next to my extra cloaks.
Blue ribbon tied the green wrapped bundle. Was this the cheese on the trap? If so, it was working. Curiosity got me into this mess and it was about to get me in deeper. I had to know what was inside that pretty package.
Wriggling my hips, I pushed myself farther into the room and tugged at the ribbon. It fell away and the paper opened like a flower. Embroidered silk spilled in a shimmering cream pile and I lifted it with my thumb and forefinger. A gown befitting a princess unfolded and cascaded across the edge of my trunk. Where on earth would I ever wear such a lovely thing? A card fluttered onto the pile of cloaks. Happy Birthday, Ez! From Vitan. I sighed. I was an idiot. Everything I ever wanted had been handed to me and I ruined it.
Footsteps thunked toward the room and I bundled my spare tunic and leggings under my arm and shoved away from the window, leaving the beautiful gown behind. I ran down the darkened street and heard Vitan calling after me. “Ezzy, wait!” I glimpsed his form leaning out the window, black hair flowing wild to his shoulders, the gray at his temples shining silver. “Come back!”
My feet would only walk his floors one more time, when I returned his box.
The shadowed recess of a closed shop door provided a changing room and I peeled off my soiled clothes, rolled them into a ball, and stashed them in a hole over the doorway. I tucked my pointed ears under my hair and tied it into a tight knot at the nape of my neck. The chances of me being mistaken for human were slim on a dark night, but in a brightly lit market, it was impossible. Still, any added confusion could only help my escape. I carefully arranged my cloak hood to cover only my ears and left my face exposed. Trying to hide would make me stand out even more.
It was time to go to work.
Never before had I missed my foul mouthed, nasty little crew, but not having them to block or hand off to meant it was entirely up to me. I was the cutpurse, not the distraction, but I was about to get a crash course in multitasking. I left the shelter of my shadowy corner and walked to the marketplace. Crowds milled from stall to stall, haggling with vendors and inspecting various oddities brought from places I’d never visit.
I beelined for the most congested area where the crush of bodies offered a measure of concealment for my nimble fingers. People stood on tiptoe and stretched their necks for a better view of whatever was on display. A built in distraction. Lucky me.
A fat man with an even fatter purse on his belt strained to see over taller people. The flat indentations of many coins pressed ridges into the soft leather of the pouch. “What’s happening?” I asked as I leaned against him, letting my left breast nudge his upper arm.
He glanced at me and I smiled. He beamed back. “That fellow brought a trained monkey from the wild jungles.”
“Really? If it was in the wild, who trained it?” He didn’t seem to follow my logic. I put my left hand on his shoulder for balance and stood on my toes, my weight rocking subtly against him. As he explained more about the trained monkey, I lifted his purse in my right palm and let my dagger sever the cord against my thumb. The heft sank into my palm and I lowered it into the pocket inside my cloak.
I patted his shoulder before moving away. Trained monkey, indeed.
Several blocks later, I scanned the crowd again. A woman leaned over a table laden with multi-colored scarves. A necklace of gold and pearl adorned her pale throat and called attention to her canyon-like cleavage. The protective crowd was thinner here. A riskier endeavor, but worthwhile if I succeeded. I noted my position in relation to the drain that would be my escape route if things went south. The way was clear with no Enforcers.
She glanced at me as I stood beside her at the table. The fine fabric of the scarves cooled my sweating palms. “These are lovely,” I said to her.
“I can never decide,” she said.
My eyes almost rolled before I caught them. What a horrible problem to have.
“The red would accent your lovely hair.” I held one up and let it trail across my hand. Her gaze followed it. “This one I think.” I hooked it around her neck and unclasped the necklace as I did. I tugged a bit at the scarf and arranged it perfectly, then leaned back to assess my work. “It makes your complexion look like honey. Men will love it.” I winked at her.
She blushed and fluttered her hands across the silk.
I smiled and walked away. Her necklace tucked next to the purse in my pocket. Two major takes in a single marketplace within a few minutes was pressing my luck, which hadn’t been that great the last few days. I should stop while I was ahead, but, like every gambler, I couldn’t quit while I was on a roll.
A big man strode toward me with a gold chain adorning his tunic. I hooked my toe on a cobblestone and tripped. He helped me from the ground. “Are you all right?”
“I’m so clumsy,” I stammered, my hands on his chest. “Thank you.”
His chain dropped into my pocket. Okay, now I really was done. This was too dangerous to continue. I walked away from him.
I turned the corner and hazarded a look back to see him patting his chest. Uh oh. I walked faster. Don’t run. Don’t run.
A narrow alley opened on my left and I ducked in and sprinted toward the end. A hard right turn and over a low barrier. A dog barked as I darted across a yard and a few curious faces appeared in windows. I leapt another fence and willed myself to become part of the rough bark of a tree. Lanterns held high and voices rushed down the street in my direction. People rarely look up, so I climbed into the tree and crushed myself against its trunk. They stopped below me.
“She was a tall girl,” the former owner of the gold chain told the Enforcers. His bald spot reflected the torchlight. “Dark hair, brown eyes.”
“Human or elf?”
“Don’t worry, Magistrate. We’ll catch her.” The Enforcer turned to his men. “Station a guard on the drains. Shit flows to the slums.”
When they went beyond my sight, I slapped my palm to my forehead.
I’d robbed a judge.
I roosted in the tree until daybreak, noticed only by a flea-ridden stray cat whose perch I’d apparently stolen. Patrols walked beneath several times, but no sharp-eyed archer saw me. My aching muscles whined as I shimmied down. I casually strolled to a vantage point where the drain was visible. Two guards. Drat.
The crier called the hour as the main gates in the keep walls swung open. Unless I could blend in, I’d never pass that heavily watched exit. The streets came alive with merchants setting up their booths and wives shopping for today’s meals. A shopkeeper flicked dust across my boots as he swept the cobblestones in his doorway. A little dirt on my boots was the least of my worries.
A knot of Enforcers occupied a corner like a conquering army. I developed a sudden interest in furs as I veered into the furrier shop, cut through to the tiny rear entrance, and into the alley. Dogs fed on the morning garbage. If they weren’t cautious, their speckled hides would end up on the furriers table.
The stinking alley crossed behind the temple. Priestesses! I was so far from pious that it was laughable, but that was my route to the slums, not that I really wanted one. Finding religion beat getting my neck stretched by an angry judge and his personal army of brutes. Each morning the good women of the Goddess slogged into the slums, fed some mouths, and tried to save some souls. People came for the food, but never cared much for the teaching. That was the price they paid to silence their growling innards and live one more day.
I snatched off my cloak, rolled it into a tight ball, and stuck it under my belt. A line of red robes hung on a rope across the rear courtyard of the temple. Goddess forgive me, now I was stealing from her chosen ones. I didn’t figure she cared much. She’d never shown much favor to anyone, let alone a cutpurse kid from the slums.
The robe stopped short of my ankles and left my boots exposed. Not exactly standard issue footwear for a priestess. Why were they all so short? Did the robes come in different lengths? No time to shop for a longer one because the ranks of women were filing out the front door and into the street. I covered my head with the hood, tilted my sword until it hung straight without a telltale tenting of the fabric, and clasped the hilt to my side with my elbow. A convenient basket abandoned on a front step added to my costume and I picked it up as I went by. I joined the rear of the group.
They chanted as they marched and I moved my mouth to blend in, keeping my head down and slumping to disguise my height. The guards scrutinized us as we passed, but their gaze lingered no longer on me than on any of the others. They were getting lazy amid the long peace. An advantage that could be exploited in more than one way. Not that I’d be around to do that. I was gone as soon as Vitan had his box.
Once beyond the massive keep, the column of red clad women dispersed into groups of two and three. I peeled off and ducked between two rundown shacks of mud and straw. The robe might come in handy, so I wadded it tightly and tucked it into the second pocket of my cloak. I needed to hide until sunset when I could revisit my harpy of a mother and buy her information.
A goblin towed a reluctant donkey from its makeshift stable and trudged into the streets. When he was out of sight, I slipped into the shelter and sat on my heels in the moldy, reeking straw. It hadn’t been cleaned since the donkey was born, but at least it was hidden from the keen eyes of Marguerite’s spies.
Flies crawled across my hands and lit on my face. I retreated to the semi-dark shelter beneath my cloak, rested my chin on my chest, and hugged my knees. The sharp braying of the donkey jerked me awake. I’d slept the day away, despite the nastiness of the stable. I lurched to my feet and escaped into the street.
The nightly ritual of locking doors and shuttering windows began. I prowled in the deepest shadows of the alleys and paths as I approached Marguerite’s stone and iron home. Despite the squalor that dominated the slums, her abode was clean, expensively appointed, and well guarded. She ruled the destitute and lawless with a merciless fist. No one crossed her and lived.
Except me. My days were numbered.
Singing stopped me in my tracks. Who sings in this miserable butt crack of the world? The clear, sweet voice sounded like the Goddess herself. Or at least what I thought she must sound like. Since I stole one of her robes, I doubted I’d ever get to hear. I crept forward and peeked around a corner.
A human woman bent over a steaming tub, scrubbing clothes on a ribbed board. Steam rose from the dingy water and a fire burned low under the cauldron. The woman’s brown braid was coiled into a knot on her neck and her fingers were cracked and bloody from too many days of toil.
Yet she sang.
Her washing matched the rhythm of the song and transfixed me. The woman smiled as a little girl of about three burst from the door of their hovel, nutmeg curls bouncing around her freckled face. She hugged her mother’s legs and beamed up at her.
Dangling from the child’s neck was Vitan’s cat crap necklace.
The washer woman lifted the child into a tight embrace, then kissed her cheek and hustled her into their ramshackle hut. She wrung the wash and dumped the huge cauldron across the fire, sending a flood of ash and hissing coals into the street. The door closed behind her.
I found a loose board on the shutters at the rear of the house and squinted through the crack. Clean laundry hung like ghosts from cords strung haphazardly across the open space. The woman sat cross-legged on the floor with her daughter in her lap. She told her a story of a brave elvish knight and the human princess who rescued him from a monstrous troll. They fell madly in love and lived happily ever after. I rolled my eyes. No one lived happily ever after. Not here.
They played games and the child laughed, her hazel eyes glittering. I’d never been much on kids. Of course, all the kids I knew were stealing for Marguerite by the time they were eight and would slit a throat for a rotting apple. She tossed me into the mix at seven and taught me to lead them. She took whatever we stole and gave us bread crusts and a rug on the hard floor. She’d never kissed my cheek or played a game, except the one she played with me now. Life and death stakes.
The woman wasn’t many years older than I was, but the stress of the slums and living hand to mouth showed in the lines of her face. She touched the hideous pendant lying against her child’s chest and looked at it with the same lovey-dovey expression Vitan did. Worshipping crap necklaces seemed to be the new trend.
The child fell asleep in her arms. Her little face with its smattering of freckles still shone with innocence. Marguerite would wipe that trust and love off in one swipe. It was only a matter of time.
What could I have become if I’d escaped that corrupting force before the streets hardened my heart and sharpened my senses? I’d never know and it was too late for dreams.
The woman had foolishly not yet barred her door, so I eased around the wall and let myself in. Her eyes flew wide and she started to jump up. I held out my hand and she settled back to the floor. “Who are you?” she asked. “What do you want?”
“I’m not going to hurt you.” She looked doubtful. Understandable given my appearance and the sword on my hip. “Where did you get that pendant?”
She glanced at her daughter and squeezed her closer. “Found it. In the gutter.”
I could threaten the kid and she’d hand over the necklace like it was her idea all along. “Can I sit?”
A suspicious nod.
The thin reed mat did little to cushion the floor. I tipped my head toward her sleeping child. “Where’s her father?”
“Killed in the war.”
“You do laundry to survive?”
She glared at me and straightened her spine. “Lady Marguerite already takes most of what I make. If she sent you to recruit me to do other things, you’re wasting your breath. I won’t expose my daughter to that life. I’ll kill us both first.”
“I’m not here to make a whore of you.”
“I know the owner of that necklace. I’d like you to return it to him.” She started to unclasp it and I stopped her. “No, I want you to take it personally. Do you have the box it came in?”
Another wary nod.
“Good, take the box and go right now, before they close the gates.” I gave her directions to Vitan’s house.
She gathered the child into a blanket.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
I touched the girl’s silken cheek. It might be too late for me, but it wasn’t too late for this one. “Tell the man of the house that Ezzy sent you.” I gasped and took a half step away as the air around the stinking brown necklace fluttered like heat waves on the courtyard at noon. The disgusting thing morphed into the most exquisite sapphire crystal I’d ever laid eyes on. The deep blue of a perfect fall sky offset against the gold of autumn leaves. I tucked the folded blanket over it.
“What’s wrong?” the woman asked.
“Nothing. Hurry. You don’t have much time.”
The woman’s back receded from view and I followed at a safe distance to be certain she made it. No one harassed her and the guard offered a curt greeting before the massive iron gates of the keep clanged into place behind her.
I leaned against the stone wall, still warm from the heat of day.
She’d better grow up to be something special or at least a decent human being because it was a sure bet I’d just traded my life for hers. Strangely, that didn’t feel so bad.
What or who had enchanted the necklace to disguise it? And why? I had no doubt the crystal was its true form, not the crap I’d seen at first. It would be home with Vitan where it belonged and, knowing him like I did, the woman and her daughter would find safe haven under his roof. Maybe they’d even take my old room. Would Neela grow up and wear the cream gown I’d left behind? I hoped so.
The weight of my stolen booty dragged at my cloak pocket. If I made a run for it, I might escape my mother’s wrath. She might even get over being angry in a century or so. Careful management of my funds and I could live quite well for a long time, in a far off land.
The sword point against my spine changed my mind. I raised my hands away from my sides.
“Going somewhere?” the goblin asked.
“To see Marguerite.”
“Of course you are.”
Two of my mother’s human guards stepped out from behind a shack like muscle-bound giants. What did she feed those guys anyway? They smoothly disarmed me. Running was pointless as more and more of her minions materialized from the shadows.
“Turn around,” the goblin said. I smiled at the purple goose egg between his eyes. “Laugh, and I’ll cut you off at the knees.”
“That’s as high as you can reach anyway.”
He didn’t seem to think that was funny because he whacked the flat of his blade across the side of my knee.
I bit my lip and refused to give the mean little bastard the satisfaction of wallowing in agony. They bound my hands and marched me to my mother’s house. A guard grabbed the nape of my neck and shoved me to my knees on the stone floor.
Marguerite sighed dramatically and got to her feet. “You never could follow instructions.”
I disagreed with her assessment of my ability to take direction, but telling her that probably wouldn’t do me any good, so I kept my mouth shut. A miraculous feat considering the circumstances.
She stopped in front of me and I studied her shoes. Silver today. Each handmade bead stitched firmly into place by an artisan. She was living proof evil came wrapped in beautiful packaging. I resisted the urge to meet her gaze. Playing the submission game might keep me alive long enough to figure a way out of this mess. “I should have strangled you the minute you were born,” she said.
So much for motherly love.
“That would have been less cruel.” She didn’t seem to hear my comment, or to care if she had.
“Empty her pockets.” The guards searched me none to gently and dumped the contents of my cloak pockets onto the floor. Marguerite scooted them around with her toe. “Not too bad for a few minutes work. If you weren’t so lazy, we could have built an empire together.”
That did it. My tongue escaped its bonds. “Together? Are you kidding? You never even liked me. You stuck me on the street when I was seven and never once hugged me or showed me you cared. You’re a domineering, horrible woman… with great clothes.”
She twirled in a slow circle. “At least you appreciate something about me.” Her glass-hard eyes studied me. “What a waste you were. I had such high hopes.” She nodded to the largest guard. “Kill her, but not here. Blood stains the floor.”
He nearly yanked my arms from their sockets jerking me to my feet. A commotion in the hallway made him pause. Yelling and heavy footsteps approached the door. The ashtray goblin burst into the room and bowed low. “I’m sorry, my lady. A king’s Magistrate and a group of Enforcers have demanded entrance and an audience with you.”
A booming voice echoed down the stone hallway. “I represent the King himself. Get out of my way.”
The guard holding my arms dragged me sideways away from the door as the burly judge and a dozen Enforcers elbowed the goblin aside and forced their way in.
“I should have you all arrested for obstructing justice,” the Magistrate said. His glance fell on me. Uh oh. “Ah, I see you’ve caught the thief who relieved me of a precious ornament. And to think, I expected she was your employee. Fortunately for you, it seems I was mistaken.” He plucked his chain from the floor and reattached it to the buttons on his tunic. “As a reminder, Lady Marguerite, His Grace allows you to run the slums out of the goodness of his heart. Were you to forget that you are ultimately his subject and, therefore, under his rule, he would find it necessary to remind you. I doubt you would enjoy that.”
She inclined her head to him like a snowy swan. “His Grace is most kind and I will be honored to dispatch this thief to save him the trouble. You can, of course, return the stolen goods to their rightful owners.”
He tucked the sack of coins into his pocket and tossed the necklace to her. She caught it in one hand. “While His Grace appreciates your offer to dispense justice on this cutpurse, he intends to make an example of her so others reconsider stealing within the walls of his keep.” He nodded toward me and two burly Enforcers pulled me from the grasp of my mother’s guard. Oh goody. From the hands of amateurs to the hands of professionals. I liked my previous odds better.
They shackled my already bound hands. Wasn’t that overkill? Tied and chained? Both rubbed my flesh raw.
“She’ll receive the King’s judgment, then hang, if you’d like to attend,” the Magistrate said to my mother.
“With regret, my schedule does not permit attendance at such a spectacle. Trade is a demanding profession.”
The ashtray goblin winked at me as the Enforcers propelled me through the doorway with the Magistrate following. At the iron gates, the judge arranged my cloak over my manacled wrists and tugged the hood into place until I could see nothing except the muddy street. They marched me through the gates and the mud turned to cobblestones. I’d never been inside the castle or seen the King except from the rear of a crowd as he waved from a balcony. Today’s tour would lead straight to the dungeon and the gallows with nary a glimpse of our young monarch. He had no reason to waste his time passing sentence on petty thieves.
The grasp on my arms changed and I flipped my head up trying to dislodge the stubborn cloak hood so I could see. “Stop that,” the Magistrate’s baritone was barely a whisper, but held the same threat as if he’d yelled. “You’ll attract attention you don’t want.”
The Enforcer’s footsteps faded away and only the Magistrate’s boots trod alongside mine. Could I break free of his hold? And then what? Run with my hands tied behind my back. Outrunning an arrow was beyond my abilities and I was certain I’d earn one for my efforts.
The street sounds died, replaced by the squeak of a rat and yowl of a stray cat. Somewhere, meat grilled and my mouth watered. The Magistrate rapped on a door and it swung open. He hustled me through. Familiar sandstone floors greeted me and the smell of food grew stronger.
My knees refused to hold me and I melted to the floor. I didn’t want to face him. I couldn’t. Take me to the gallows, but don’t make me look into his eyes and see the loss of faith.
The shackles released their hold and a blade slid through the ropes. My forehead touched the floor and tears made tiny dark spots on the stone.
Vitan and the Magistrate whispered together, words I didn’t even try to catch. “Watch her closer,” the Magistrate said as he went to the exit. “I might not be fast enough next time Lady Marguerite gets her hooks in her.”
The door closed and silence crushed my bones. My breath hitched and I squeezed my eyes shut. The rustle of robes and a slight scraping sound under my face. “Open your eyes,” Vitan said.
I forced my reluctant lids to obey. The sapphire crystal lay on the floor beneath my nose. It seemed to contain the sun and the color swirled like currents in a lake. I felt I could tip forward and disappear into it, that I would find happiness and love there in its warmth.
“What do you see?” he asked.
I licked my dry lips. “The depth of the sea and the breadth of the sky. The very soul of the earth.” The crystal slid from my sight and he lifted me to my feet and hugged me against his chest. After a moment, I returned his embrace. “I’m sorry.”
He pushed me to arm’s length and wiped a tear from my cheek. His smile reached his brown eyes and crinkled the skin at their corners. “I am the one who is sorry. I trapped you.”
I let my hands fall to my sides. What did he mean? Was he like my mother? Full of tricks and deceit. Had he used affection as a tool and never meant it? I hadn’t thought of him like that, but knowing my luck, it could be true. I was a terrible judge of character apparently. “Did you need to see me grovel before they hang me? Is that it?” I tried to pull away.
He refused to release me, keeping me from running away as surely as he’d done when I was fourteen. “No one is going to hang you.”
“The King wants to make an example of me.”
“His Grace doesn’t even know you exist.”
“But the Magistrate said—”
“The Magistrate is a man of vision and he sees your potential. Rumors are already spreading about the elvish cutpurse killed while trying to escape. Esmeralda is dead.” He cocked his head. “Question is, who do you want to be now?”
I wasn’t going to die? I had another chance to make things right. Who did I want to be? I’d never had a choice before and I wasn’t sure how to answer the question. What if I made the wrong decision? Evasion seemed like a safe bet until I worked it out. “What did you mean when you said you trapped me?”
“I needed you to steal the crystal. It was the only way to get you to discover your real self.”
“You wanted me to steal it?”
He nodded. “The crystal guides us to our better nature. Sometimes the trip isn’t very pleasant, but it’s always for our good. It only appears in its true form to someone who is pure of heart.”
I snorted. That crystal must be broken. “Pure of heart? I’m a thief. It’s the only thing I’m good at. I’ll never be anything else.”
“Oh, but that’s not true.” He gestured and the washer woman came from the kitchen. Neela bounced into the room and then hid shyly behind her mother’s skirt. “If you were only a thief, they wouldn’t be here. You would have taken the crystal and left, but you didn’t. You put them above yourself, and the crystal rewarded you.”
He grinned. “A future.”
You can continue Esmeralda’s adventure with Game of Thieves, the first book in the Cutpurse Trilogy.