I lurked in the shadows. I know, not exactly a perfect hiding spot, but I wasn’t noteworthy. Scrawny, short, a mess of hair. My clothes were nicer than a common beggar’s but only because I took care to wash them in the river every week. They still had plenty of holes. No, for the unwatchful eye, I was a scruffy kid just standing around. Not very flattering for a man of seventeen but helpful for a thief. I didn’t look like I needed to thieve.
It was market day, when farmers and craftsmen all came to the city square to hawk their products. Shoes and silks were sold across from cabbage and beats. It was the one day a week where the wealthy and poor of the city were in the same place. As such, guards stood everywhere, keeping their eyes peeled for beggars and the likes of me.
I’d only just arrived, scoping the square for a target. A boy, no older than thirteen, tried slipping his hand into the silken pocket of a man. The instant his hand was free with a fat coin purse, a guard had grabbed him, yanking him by the other arm. “Drop the coins.” The boy sulked. He was new to this. In nice enough clothes. Might have even been his friends daring him. He dropped the bag, and the man, who had quickly cottoned on, grabbed it up.
“I hope you plan to punish this boy, guard,” said the man with a sniff.
“Yes, sir, he’ll be dealt with,” said the guard tiredly. The man walked off with a nod, apparently satisfied, and the guard turned his face on the boy. “Where are your parents?”
The boy glared and didn’t say a word.
“What did I say?” snapped the guard, shoving the boy’s shoulder. “Are you mute?”
The boy spat at the ground and the guard slapped him with the back of his hand.
“Well then,” said the guard. “Being such a brave man, I’m sure you’ll appreciate having tales of the cells to tell.” The guard looked around briefly, and in his moment of distraction, the boy bit his hand hard enough for the guard to let go, and he ran.
The boy slipped right past me, and we locked eyes for a moment. He had angry eyes. Black, with flecks of red. Not human eyes. He slipped into the milling crowds and was out of sight before the guard could do much more then yell and curse. Of course, his eyes then slid onto me. I was unassuming, but hardly had the face of someone innocent, so I quickly made my way to the nearest hobbling old man to prove how very innocent I was.
“Excuse me,” I said, to a man so old he looked to have seen the birth of the gods himself. His head was like a large shriveled prune. He was hunched over, making his stature even less than mine, and was slowly hobbling with a cane. In his offhand he carried a large paper bag, which he seemed to struggle with. He didn’t seem to hear me at first, so I said again, louder, “Excuse me,” and his head snapped around, audibly too. He was scowling. “Could I help you with your bag sir? It looks quite heavy.”
The man looked me up and down for a moment. Then, with a short sniff said in graveled voice, “Fuck off,” and hobbled away. Old people are funny that way. They really don’t have time for thieves.
At any rate, the guard had wandered off, apparently deciding I was not a hardened criminal out to rob Skrieta of its wealth. I quickly slipped into the crowd, and approached a stall selling silks. Every shade under the sun hung from the stall, or else was folded on a counter. I looked over them, putting on my best face of wonder. “Oh my mother would love one of these,” I said, smiling to the man behind the stall. He was round, bearded, and wore a long cotton robe.
“Every woman loves my silks,” said the man, grinning. “My daughter and wife weave them all, and use only the finest of dyes. Every one is as unique as the boy that God has brought before me now.”
I smiled, “They do wonderful work. And I’m sure they are as beautiful as the silks they make.”
“Why even more!” said the man with a hearty laugh.
I let the silence settle, turning my attention back to the scarves. Not many were standing by this stall. A slow day for the poor man. I made it look like I was trying to choose and finally pointed to a scarf of swirling magenta. “How much for that scarf?” I asked, pulling out my purse. It didn’t have any money in it, but I placed pebbles in to look and sound about right.
“For that one? Oh,” said the man, in a tone that suggest he was contemplating selling his most beloved possession. “Well, let us say, ten Lions?”
“Ten Lions?” I exclaimed in mock outrage. “Your silks are beautiful, but for that I could by my mother a ruby necklace.”
“And my silks would still be worth more,” insisted the man with a nod. “But,” he conceded, “I am soft hearted. Your mother, I’m sure, deserves a gift. Let us say, ah, nine Lions.”
I shook my head, positively flabbergasted, or at least acting like it. “Sir,” I said, to a man standing at a distance looking at the scarves. “Can you believe this?” The man looked surprised and nervous to be addressed. “This thief,” I said, pointing at the salesman, “is trying to sell his strips of cloth for nine Lions!”
“Boy,” said the salesman, “what do you think you’re doing?”
“And now he acts as if I am the villain!” I said.
The man I’d called looked around for some kind of escape before mumbling, “Nine Lions does not seem so much for a silk.”
I took a few steps closer to the man. He wore fine silken pants of deep pink, and a flowing robe on top of royal blue. Gold and silver dangled from his neck and ears. “Maybe they look better from where you’re standing,” I said, walking up beside him.
The salesman was clearly quite angry now, glaring at me and looking around in outrage, but no one paid him any mind. The market was too busy for our little squabble to raise eyes. Similar fights were a constant on market day.
“Or perhaps your eyes are just not very good,” I said, squinting at the scarves. I grabbed the rich man at the shoulder, which was just a slightly uncomfortable reach for me, and leaned over to his ear. “This man,” I muttered conspiratorially, “thinks himself the king of silk, trying to peddle them for such prices. I wouldn’t give him your business.” Then, out loud, I said, staring at the salesman. “I know I certainly won’t!” and I made a show of shoving the coin purse I’d just pulled from the rich man’s pocket into my own. No one yells thief when they think you already have money.
I walked through the crowds to the nearest baker and bought a fresh loaf, then bout a wedge of cheese that smelled delightful, and finally indulged myself, buying a pomegranate. It seemed the man I’d stolen from was richer than he was clever.
I calmly wound my way through the crowds, finally leaving to quieter parts of the city before I ran off to my favorite alley. I knew the escapes, but there was only one clear point of entry, and it was just off a quiet street near the edge of the Sands, a poor neighborhood in the south of the city. When I got there, I hunkered down with my goods, stowing the spare coins I had behind a loose brick half way up a wall, before I began greedily digging into the bread and cheese. I finished what I wanted of them and set them aside, pulling out the pomegranate. I ripped it in half with my hands and sniffed and the sour-sweet smell of it, lapping at the juice that dribbled down my hands and wrists. I began pulling out one seed at a time and popping them in my mouth, savoring every drop of sweetness.
It was as good a day as any. And better than most. I wasn’t caught, I didn’t have to run, and the only person I had to steal from was a man whose clothes were worth more than the Lions I took from his pocket. My conscience and I slept quite easily in that little alley in the Sands. Well, until I woke up to the sound of rustling paper and saw a young girl, maybe eight years old, picking up the bag with my bread and cheese.
She positively froze when I sat up. I stood, calmly walked over to her, and kneeled down just before her. She stilled a little as I sank to her level. She had brown eyes, a tangled nest of black hair, and a dust covered face. Tears were welling up in her eyes, but she didn’t start crying. I adopted my softest voice. “What’s your name?”
“Ly-Lyla,” said the girl.
“I’m Gin,” I told her, putting a hand on her slender shoulder. “This alley is where I live.” She gulped and nodded, getting less tense by the moment. “I take it you don’t have any family either?” I asked. She shook her head. I nodded. “Well, then we’re the same aren’t we. Well, Lyla,” I said with smile. Taking the paper bag from her hands, I broke a bit of the bread and cheese off, handing them to her, “if I ever see you step foot in my alley ever again, you will get much worse than a bit of bread and cheese. I treat my equals how I expect to be treated. And if I were to steal from one of my equals?” I shook my head. “I wouldn’t expect to be treated very nicely. Do you understand?”
Lyla was a smart girl. She went back to shaking with fear, brushing the now formed tears from her cheek. She nodded.
“Good,” I told her, still using my soft voice. “Now get the fuck out of my alley, and do not let me see any part of you near here ever again.”
I laughed. Then, I went back to sleep.