Mae made her way home over the rooftops, walking the edge of buildings like tightropes, staring down through the sunroofs into the courtyards of fine houses within. Occasionally there was a building of four or five storeys in her way, so she swung onto a windowsill and tiptoed across those instead. There weren’t many things that she loved in life, but playing this game, pretending that the ground was made of hot coals, was one of them.
As the sun climbed higher though, even the windowsills were beginning to burn the unprotected soles of her feet. She was closed to East Gate, so she slid down the corner beam of a house, and stopped to buy a sticky date bun. The square was abuzz with tourists making their way to their lodgings, handing their camels into the stables and stretching out their newly bowed legs after the five day trek through the Kalahandra. Tourists were easy pickings, and the forty lire and the earrings jangled in her pocket like charms.
Mae bough her sticky date bun, and cast an eye over the shoes at a nearby stall. There were fine brown leather pair, neatly embellished, with soles thin and flexible enough for her to move quiet and cat-like, but thick enough that the stone sizzling under midday sun wouldn’t pinken the soles of her feet.
She finished her cake, pocketed her change, and sauntered past the shoe stall once, then again a little further back, trying to gauge if the shoes would fit her. They were laid out on the ground among fifty other pairs, neatly stacked. The trick would be swiping them without ruining the display.
There was a thick group of women coming to admire the cobbler’s wares, and he couldn’t believe his luck – and Mae couldn’t believe hers. They swaddled the stall and its owner, and all Mae had to do was slip her feet into the shoes she wanted and walk away. She didn’t miss a step, didn’t even need to look down.
They fitted like a charm.
She melted into the crowd once more – it would be hours before he noticed the shoes were missing from the stall, but stick too close and he might notice them on Mae’s feet. Instead, she drifted, through the purple and blue and white robes of tourists, stepping around steaming heaps of camel dung. She understood the excitement of arriving here – and none of the pilgrims really believed that the infamous Kilruddin crime family operated out of this square.
Mae stood back and watched for her next target, when something familiar caught her eye. The young man who had misled the guards was standing not six feet away, his arms folded over a spotless white shirt. He was probably in his early twenties, Mae thought, and a sly glance showed no gang marking on the back of his neck – though that was no guarantee. Some people wore their brands in more embarrassing places.
“Nice shoes,” he remarked.
Mae narrowed her eyes at him. “Can I help you?”
He shook his head and looked back into the crowd. “Just enjoying the view.”
The money in her pocket felt like a dead weight. “Are you going to rat me out?”
His eyes were blacker than her own, and they were quizzical. “Why would I do that? I’m interviewing you for a job.”
He shrugged. “If you’re interested.”
Probably in a brothel,Mae thought. The pimps all used handsome men like this to recruit stupid young girls.
“I already have a job, so you’d better back off – Knash doesn’t like other men touching his things.” She hated that it was true, that it was her best protection, and her worst curse.
His eyebrows only tilted slightly. “Kilruddin girl, then?”
“Unfortunately. And this is Kilruddin turf. You’d best get going, before I call my lieutenant.”
He held both hands up. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll back off. I’m sorry – I didn’t know where your loyalties lay.”
A beast reared its head in Mae’s belly. “It’s nothing to do with loyalty,” she snarled, and whipped her head around, lifting her hair to show him the brand. “I don’t have a choice. Now piss off.”
He didn’t say anything else, just took a step backwards and a moment later, the milling crowd had swallowed him up.
Mae slicked her hair back, straightened her tunic – threadbare as it was. She straightened her back and squared her shoulders, and she hunted for her prey.
Almost immediately she saw them – black haired, pale skinned, dainty features. This was this couple’s first time in Moresha, the desert had not darkened nor coarsened them. They wore flowing robes of purple and gold presumably purchased for the trip, clothes so loose and light made sense nowhere but the desert, and colours so rich meant only one thing: money. They were in a daze, marvelling at the red walls, at the fountains of bubbling water, at the trees – the first green they would have seen in days.
“Greetings, good sir, my fair lady,” Mae said, stepping forward to them. “Are you looking for a guide to our great oasis city of Moresha? I can show you every wonder you’ve ever dreamt of – the ruby of Radia itself, the Desert Rose Temple, of course, the Muleera bathing houses next door – and I can take you further into the depths of Moresha, tell you the rumours of the great Red Heretic –”
The woman was flabbergasted. The man spoke, his words stilted as if Khalura were a third or fourth language to him. “Thank you – but we are due to meet our guide-”
“Oh-” Mae said, and became more forceful. The man tried to step aside, she blocked his path. “Oh no, please let me – sir – I will give you the most authentic Moresha experience-”
“No, thank you.” He reached out to grab his wife’s hand, his robe swinging open. He pushed past Mae and she grabbed his purse.
By the time his outrage had simmered, by the time that he realised that the trick was not the trick, Mae would be gone. She tucked the coin purse into her pocket – it was heavy with what? Four hundred lire? Five hundred? She would hide it, pay Baxter off a little bit at a time, and the rest… she could have a proper bath, maybe get a new tunic. Her mouth began to water at the thought of a lamb stew, rich with apricots, as tender as a sunrise…
“Nice work,” said the handsome young man. Mae cursed silently.
“How did you track me?” she asked.
“You’re good at your job,” he said, “but so am I.”
She scoffed and tried to step around him, but he blocked her exit easily.
“What do you want?”
“Just to talk about this job I’m offering you,” he said. “That’s all.”
“I told you, I’m not available.”
He waved a hand in the air. “Don’t worry about the Kilruddins. We can handle them. Tell me your name, first of all.”
She hesitated, but sometimes the truth was the easiest way out of a sticky question. “Mae,” she said, her own name too short and insufficient on her own tongue. She hated it – hated what it told him about her. Because the orphans of Moresha were nearly all given the same names – Mae or Kay for a girl, Kai or Ray for a boy, depending on which sisterhood of priestesses took you in, which orphanage you were surrendered to. It gave too much away – he knew her name was Mae, could assume she had been given to the sisters for safekeeping for a time, and eventually sold to the Kilruddins by a parent desperate for something that wasn’t a child. Mae learnt her mother eventually died six years ago, the pipe still in her hand.
“What’s your name?” she asked the man, whose eyebrows had only marginally lifted at the revelations her name gave him.
“Lux,” he said with a charming grin.
Mae didn’t like charming men.
“Why thieving, Mae?”
“It’s better than what most of Knash’s girls do,” she said. “And better than whatever you’re offering me, at that.”
“You don’t even know what I’m offering.”
“Men who look like you only offer girls like me one job,” she said, and successfully got past him, back into the crowd. She shimmied her way, avoiding the main thoroughfares of the dusty, sun-drowned square, ignoring the multicoloured street performers and monkeys, and into the stinking warren of alleyways that the Kilruddins called home.
Mae had been indentured to the Kilruddins at the age of four. They gave her a week of grace before they had her out here, begging, and once she was old enough, stealing. She picked her first pocket at the age of six. They tried all their indentures at all of their crafts until they found one that stuck. And Mae wasn’t just a good pickpocket, she was excellent. It wasn’t exciting work, but it beat prostitution. She was looking beyond pockets now, wondering what riches lay behind the walls of Moresha’s wealthy, wondering what the quickest way to be free from Knash’s clutches would be.
She decided that she would hide the purse and the earring, somewhere safe. She would give Baxter the forty lire, that should be enough to let her back into the barracks. And then she would ration the rest out, keeping him sated until she found a better plan.
“Well, hello, slum rat.”
She knew that voice. Barely containing her hiss, Mae turned and looked Baxter Kilruddin in the face. Like all of Knash’s sons and nephews and cousins, Baxter had red hair, and skin so furiously freckled it looked like a disease. As the Kilruddins got older, you started spotting the black places where their white skin had taken too much sun, and once they got those, they didn’t live long.
Though, Kilruddins didn’t live long anyway.
“Baxter,” Mae said, plastering a smile on her face. “What a delight to see you.”
He grunted – not the response she might have liked, but more than she would normally expect.
“You’ve been missing from the barracks,” he said. “Where you been?”
She shrugged. “Around.”
“I heard you were up on Maacher ground,” he snarled. “You double-crossing us?”
Mae was so sure she hadn’t been seen. “Just looking for a thrill,” she said.
“You cause me trouble by crossing lines, you know,” he said, and took a step towards her. Mae’s stomach fell to the floor – she hated this. He was at least three times her size, and three times as strong to boot.
“Won’t happen again,” she said, and dug in her pocket, slyly taking out the forty lire without disturbing the rest of her treasure. “Here,” she said, dumping it into his reddened palm. “For your trouble.”
Baxter snorted. “Forty lire? For a week? Not a chance.” He let the coins drop to the ground like petals from a flower. “No good to me, Mae.”
She felt the blood draining from her face. “That’s all I have,” she told him, heart drumming furiously.
She heard the bang of her body being thrust against a wall as if it were a distant thing, happening to another girl. She felt his hand around her throat with a dull, factual realisation. “You need to come up with something better, rat.”
She gasped – she could still breathe, thank Radia – and reached into her pocket. She was loathe to part with it – she wanted to pawn it or sell it for a good price, but all the same she took out the earring, its jewels glimmering in their setting.
Baxter was like a magpie, his eyes glinting when he saw it. “Where’s the pair?” he asked.
“I don’t have it,” she croaked.
“What good is a single earring?” he demanded. “Are you trying to play a stupid joke?”
His grip on her neck tightened. Mae gasped – tried to – but there was no air.
Panic filled every vein in her body and she dug into her pocket a final time, and pulled it out – the purse, her last resort. It bulged with the riches hidden inside, and Baxter’s grip relaxed.
The air of the Kilruddin Quarter had never tasted so sweet.
He grabbed the purse, and opened it. All those lire, all Mae’s work.
“That’ll do.” He pocketed it. “Thanks, slum rat. But – oh – you really shouldn’t have hidden it from me.”
She saw the fist fast enough to close her eyes, but not dodge. The world went black, then red, and she heard the sickening crunch of her nose breaking, felt her head fill up with the pressure of it. Everything spun as she sank to the ground – her forty lire still scattered around her. When she opened her eyes her hands, her tunic, the ground, was covered with blood still flowing from her nose.
She wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t cry. She just had to wait, let the bleeding stop, get back like nothing had happened. There were no other options – breaking an indenture meant death, by the authorities or by the Kilruddins, and while she wore a brand, there was no way out of the city. And that brand would never, ever fade.
Mae wouldn’t cry. She would just find a better way.
“Still feeling loyal to the Kilruddins?”
Lux stood at the mouth of the alleyway – had he followed her here as well? He pulled a handkerchief – a real life handkerchief, from his pocket, and Mae just about registered, it’s already red.He held it up to her face, crouching down to her level. His black eyes gleamed like beetles, and tiny golden highlights flickered in his hair.
“Still not willing to talk to me about a different job?” he asked.