Heart pounding, I ran through the marketplace, leaving a man shouting after me as I jumped over his overturned stand and the remains of his produce. I yelled back an apology but didn’t stop as the thief turned over another bench, crockery smashing and breaking across the pebbled stones as the owner dashed against a wall, her lungs screaming in fright.
“Sorry!” I called over my shoulder as I watched the thief run around a corner and disappear from sight.
I groaned with frustration. “Boja,” I muttered, “Now would be a great time to cut him off!”
I gritted my teeth as an ache started to prick my side, and I slowed to a stop. Panting, I looked up at the pointed, slated roofs above me and an idea formed. Grinning, I ran over to a standing cart and jumped on it.
“Hey! Get off,” A man said, his face red.
“Sorry, sir,” I groaned back before grabbing a beam and heaving myself onto the roof itself.
“Are you crazy, girl! Get down from there!”
“Can’t.” I looked around and breathed in the view. A bunch of people had gathered around below. The women, with their long, brightly-colored dresses, looked like flowers. They gasped in fear, as I began to run along the roof’s edge.
There, around the corner was the thief, surrounded by men in masks with knives drawn and pointed at his chest. Smiling, I walked back towards the owner of the cart and crawled off the roof.
“Your assistance, sir,” I asked as I held out my hand. Grumbling, the man presented his arm and helped me down from where I stood on his cart. “Thank you,” I said before walking through the small crowd towards the thief. As I rounded the corner, the masked men lifted their blades to let me through.
“Thanks boys,” I said before facing the thief. “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” I asked
“You are mistaken!” The man cried piteously, his foul breath blowing in my face.
“And why is that?” I coughed, waving a hand to ward off the stench.
“I was simply taking what belongs to me. Yes, it’s mine and you all are in for a lot of trouble. I shall have you arrested.” The thief thrust out his chin and spat on my feet. One masked man took a step forward.
“It’s alright Boja,” I said, taking the money bag from him and holding it out to the thief. “You make a habit out carrying around a woman’s purse,” I asked.
“Ah yes,” He nodded fervently, “That would be my wife’s. She always makes me hold it while she goes about shopping – safekeeping from pickpockets … you understand?” He chuckled nervously.
“Oh, sure,” I nodded, “And a woman always shrieks when she gives her husband her purse to carry.”
The thief swallowed. “My wife is a very nervous woman,” He explained, “She suffers from an unusual medical condition.”
I laughed. “Now that a new one. Perhaps you would oblige us by allowing us to personally return it to your wife,” I said, “Such a shock it must have been. I’d like to make my apologies for not understanding the situation.”
I lifted my hand and the masked men lowered their blades. I wrapped an arm around the trembling thief.
“Hadn’t we better hurry,” I asked, “We wouldn’t want your wife to suffer a collapse.”
“No . . . no . . . we wouldn’t,” He echoed, glancing around like a trapped animal. Then, in a panic, the thief twisted out of my grip and bolted.
One of the men made to go after him, but stopped when I held up my hand. “Let him be,” I said.
I turned to Boja. He had now pulled down his black kerchief and was smirking at me.
“Shouldn’t we capture him and present him to the official?” He asked.
“No,” I replied, “He’s just a petty thief. We’ve more important plans for tomorrow. Besides we can’t always do the officials’ work now can we? They’ll run out of business.”
Boja laughed. “Just like a girl,” he said, “You are feeling sorry for him. Why break our backs if you always let men like him get away?”
“Because it’s good exercise,” I explained, “You were a full five minutes late getting into position. We could have lost him.” I walked right up to Boja till we were nearly standing nose to nose. “Is that going to happen tomorrow?” I was a full head shorter, but Boja lowered his eyes under my gaze.
“No,” He answered, “It will not happen again.”
I turned to the others.
“Yahi,” I said, tossing the purse to a man with shaggy blond hair. “Return the pouch to it’s owner.”
Yahi nodded and ran off, quickly melting into a sea of bodies as he joined the swarms of people that were drifting from one stall to another.
“Why does he get to play the hero?” Murmured one man with a scruffy beard.
“Because Yahi was the only other one besides me who witnessed the crime,” I explained, “He will know which woman to give it to.”
Boja knocked the man in the head.
“Hey,” he cried out in protest, jumping away in disgust, “What was that for?”
“To see if there is any sense in that blockhead of yours.” Boja knocked again. “Sounds pretty hollow to me, Koulow.”
“The sun’s heat doesn’t agree with me,” Koulow grumbled back.
“That’s not all it doesn’t agree with,” A quiet, scrawny man spoke up, smirking at his comrade before marching right up to him and grabbing Koulow’s beard, twisting the skimpy strands. “It appears that the sun doesn’t like your face either,” The man laughed, “It burnt it. Is that why you grew a beard? To protect your delicate features?”
Koulow pushed him away fiercely. “No,” he said harshly, “The beard makes me look more like a bandit.”
“More like a ferret.”
“Ja stop picking on him,” I admonished half-heartedly, as Koulow lunged at him.
“Why,” Ja asked while dodging his fellow’s attacks, “We’ve been trying to persuade him to shave for weeks now. It makes him look like a bear-cub.”
“Your all just jealous ‘cause I can grow a beard!” Koulow protested as he threw a half-hazard punch at Ja.
“I’m not,” I chuckled.
“Well, if you were a boy you would be,” he grunted back before bending over double with a groan of pain after Ja’s well-aimed kick.
At that moment, Yahi came rushing back. “What’d I miss,” He asked, panting as he gazed curiously down at the two men who were now rolling over top one another on the dirt like two bear cubs.
“Ja and Koulow are arguing over the beard again,” Boja explained.
“Oh.” Yahi wrinkled his nose. “You should shave it,” he said before jumping out of Koulow’s reach as the man attempted to grab at his boot.
“You returned the purse,” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. His face turned red. “The lady was very grateful.”
“Ho, ho,” Ja laughed, “Pretty lass, was she?”
Yahi nodded sheepishly.
I coughed. “Back to business,” I said, as Ja and Koulow picked themselves off the ground, “Will you and all your merry men be ready to meet in the forest tomorrow?”
The men all nodded.
“Review the plans that Yahi drew,” I instructed while handing out sheets of paper. “We gather at dawn. Make sure that your men are well armed.” I glanced up at the sky. “It’s getting dark – Grandma will have my head if I’m late again.” I waved at them all. “See you tomorrow!”
I turned to leave.
“Need me to walk you home?” Boja asked, blocking my path.
“Why?” I asked, squinting suspiciously.
He raised a bushy brow. “In case something was to happen to our General. I feel the responsibility as second-in-command to know all her whereabouts.” He paused before adding with a suggestive waggle of his brow, “And to protect her reputation, of course.”
I shook my head with an exasperated sigh, but a smile grew in spite of myself. “I shall be fine,” I replied, patting his shoulder, “But in case I should depart this world sooner than I perceive, you are appointed General of our grand little troop.”
There were groans in the background and a faint, “I was hoping for a recount,” muttered by Ja.
“Quite.” Boja bowed. “I shall allow the lady to pass. The bandit has now retired.”
I shoved at him playfully as I passed by. “See you guys tomorrow,” I yelled over my shoulder as I broke into a run.
Thinking of Grandma’s hot rolls waiting in the oven, I kept the fast pace till I reached the rush of the town square. Slowing down, I navigated through the crowds of people pushing past each other in the marketplace, each one eager to reach their homes. I passed a couple stalls, stopping at a few for only a couple minutes before continuing on. I finally made it through the jostle and heat of the masses before breaking into a run again. I was just rejoicing at my good time when I rushed around a corner and bumped into something … hard.
Looking up, I realized that I had nearly knocked over a guard.
“Pardon me,” I stammered in apology as I lowered my head. But not before seeing a bunch of guards gathered around an empty litter. They were all dressed in blue and yellow, the colors of the kingdom of Yosae. I looked closely at the one I had bumped into. His garb was similar to the others except for the fringe along the sleeves. They were sewn in golden embroidery – a symbol of royalty, belonging only to those of the imperial family in Yosae.
Immediately, I knelt down before the prince. “Forgive me your highness,” I cried with my head lowered, “I didn’t see you.”
“Please rise,” a kind voice replied. “You will give me away and I was having a jolly good time.”
I got to my feet but didn’t dare look the man in the eyes.
“What’s your name,” he asked.
“I’m called Kkachi,” I replied, “Your Highness.” I added hastily.
“Well Kkachi, it appears that I have lost my way,” The prince continued, “Perhaps you could point me in the right direction.”
“If I can be any help, Your Highness,” I replied, wondering how royalty could possibly need assistance from a commoner.
“Do you know where the Palace is?” He asked.
I lifted my head in shock and gawked at the man. He had dark hair, a firm jaw, and brown eyes that twinkled back at me. I quickly lowered my own.
“The Emperor’s Palace,” I asked breathlessly.
“Yes,” The prince’s voice was laced with an undertone of playfulness. “The Emperor’s Palace.”
I pointed with my finger. “If you go straight ahead and then turn left at the Municipal Office, you will reach the North gate,” I directed, “From there go down the main road for five miles.”
I heard a rustle of fabric. Glancing up, I saw the prince bow.
“Thank you, little lady,” He said before he caught me staring. I quickly lowered my head, but not fast enough.
“My lady! You’re hurt!”
I covered my face with my hand.
“No, Your Highness,” I protested.
“But there is a scar!”
“Yes,” I agreed, “But that happened a long time ago … when I was a little girl.”
I stood there a little awkwardly, not knowing if I should excuse myself or show the way to the gate.
“Thank you, Kkachi,” The prince said quietly, “We shall be able to find our way with your clear instructions.”
I bowed low once more.
“The honor is all mine, Your Highness,” I replied.
I rose and made my way through a small crowd. I walked a few paces before glancing back. The prince was still watching me and waved his hand when he saw me look his way. Blushing furiously, I turned and ran the rest of the way home.