“Hush, Finagale. Whining won’t solve anything. I’m cutting your hair whatever you say.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. Out of habit, I blew my bangs away from my eyes and then groaned when my mother chuckled.
“And you tell me it isn’t too long?”
“I like it,” I complained.
“You look like a Telt,” she pointed out patiently.
I froze. If there was one thing in the entire world I didn’t want to be, it was a Telt. My mother started to hum to herself as she gently cut away my hair. I behaved and stayed still for the next couple of minutes, until I heard her put down the knife and she ruffled my hair.
“Much better, don’t you think?”
I ran my hand through my hair and sighed. “It’s not awful.”
“That’s my good boy,” mother turned my head and kissed my cheek. “It’s late now, you should get some sleep.”
I hopped off of the bed and brushed loose hair off of my tunic. “Here?” I asked, trying my best to not sound too hopeful. I loved staying with my mother, but it didn’t happen very often. She was young and beautiful. I’d heard men compliment her perfect skin and her long, curly hair. I knew what she did and I understood why I couldn’t always stay, but I was always hopeful.
“For now,” she said with a smile. She was trying to look happy, but she looked a little sad instead. “Unless someone calls for me. Come now. Lothian Dusk has come and gone and it’s time for little boys to go to sleep.”
“I’m not little,” I argued, as I climbed back onto the bed and snuggled under the sheets. “Good night.” I couldn’t stop the yawn that came after my words.
“Good night, Finny.” She leaned over to kiss my forehead, and I fell asleep soon after.
I woke up before mother when I heard knocking at her door. There were always sounds at the brothel, and usually I managed to sleep through them. After a pause the knock came again, more insistently.
“Zila! Wake up! You have a client!”
Mother tightened her arm around me. “Send him to someone else. I have Finn,” she called back sleepily.
“He asked for you,” the girl replied through the door.
Mother sighed heavily. “Who is he?”
“The castle guard. He came in complaining about how he had the worst watch assignment and how the only thing that kept him awake was imagining you-“
Mother clasped her hands over my ears, but it didn’t matter. I’d heard it all before.
“Sabrine! I have Finn!” she said shrilly.
There was a pause. “Sorry. But he’s getting impatient.”
“Yes, I know. I’ll see him.” Mother released my ears. “Finny-“
“I know,” I rolled over so that I was facing her and could snuggle into her arms. “I’ll go in a second.”
“I’m sorry,” she stroked my back. “I hate sending you away. I’m a terrible mother…”
“No you’re not!” I sat up, my eyes wide and horrified by her suggestion. “You’re not terrible! You have to work. Everyone has to work. I understand.”
She met my eyes and after a moment a small smile crept onto her face. “Of course you do. My smart little son. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anything in the world. Zianesa willing, one day I’ll be able to take care of you.”
“I can take care of myself,” I said, trying to make her feel better.
“I know you can.” She ruffled my hair and kissed my forehead. “Come back tonight. I’ll get food.”
I slipped from the bed and pulled on my boots. Outside the day had just begun and I took a moment to lean out of the window and look at the people down in the street. Then I hopped onto the windowsill and got ready to climb.
“Be careful, Finny. Don’t fall.”
“I never fall,” I promised my mother, as I started to climb.
I walked through the streets of Zianna, perfectly comfortable with my surroundings. I hadn’t lied to my mother, I could take care of myself. I’d already been doing it for years. The first thing I decided to do was find myself some breakfast.
The streets were lined with merchants, and plenty of them sold food. I quickly found a little stall covered in pastries, and picked a nice spot across the street to sit and watch it. I had to be patient. Customers came and went, but always in small groups since it was so early in the day. It wasn’t until an hour had passed that my chance arrived as a crowd of people stopped by the stall.
I slipped into the middle of the crowd. No one paid me any attention as I reached out and grabbed a small bun. I slipped it under my sleeve before anyone could see it, and squeezed out of the crowd. When I was far enough down the street that the pastry booth was out of sight, I took out the bun and ate it.
Then came the mystery of what to do for the rest of the day. I could practice climbing, but that was boring. I could go to the tavern and watch the card games, but no one would let me play, even if I had money. I could steal something, but that presented no challenge. I wanted a challenge.
I was deep in thought when I turned a corner and the wall at the other end of the street caught my eye. The dividing wall. That was a challenge. I ran down the street and came to an abrupt stop in front of the wall. I couldn’t climb it from there, I would be too visible, so I rushed down the nearest alleyway to get further from the main roads. Then I stopped. With my hands clasped behind my back, I stared up at the wall, letting my eyes flicker back and forth and look for a path. It didn’t take me long to find it.
“I never fall,” I whispered to myself. “Zianesa, protect me.” I flexed my fingers, rolled my shoulders, and started to climb. I repeated the prayer to Zianesa over and over in my head. It took forever, but gradually the top of the wall got closer. I refused to look down. I concentrated on my feet and my hands, making sure every movement was secure and safe.
And then suddenly I was on the top. The wall was fairly narrow at the top, but there was more than enough room for me to lie on my back. I took a few deep breathes, then spread my arms and laughed. There was nothing above me but sky. I stared at it as I caught my breath, then I sat up and dangled my legs over the side. The lower city spread out in front of me. My dirty, beloved city. I thought I could make out the brothel mother worked at.
I shook that thought from my head and spun around to face the upper city. I had seen it before, but never from above. It was beautiful and white, with wide clean streets and large buildings. I loved it, but not the way I loved the lower city. The upper city looked like something out of a dream. I stared at it in awe before finally starting to climb down into it.
Instantly, I felt like I was trespassing. Natives didn’t belong in the upper city. Everyone knew that, but here I was. Everything was so bright, even the shadows didn’t seem enough to keep me safe. I knew it was risky, but I was too curious and excited to leave. So I snuck between buildings and kept to the shadows as well as I could.
I huddled near a staircase and watched a wide section of street. There were lots of people wandering around. Almost all of them looked rich. Men wearing bright tunics and carrying fancy swords. Woman in colourful dresses and sparkling jewellery. Children who looked like they’d never gone hungry a day in their lives. Pale skin and blond hair. Telts. I hated all of them for what they had – money and food and nothing to worry about. It wasn’t fair.
A young woman walked by, and the sparkle of her necklace caught my eye. It was gold with three red stones. The image of my mother wearing it popped into my head and I knew I needed it. It was beautiful, and no one in the entire world deserved a beautiful necklace more than my mother did.
I watched the woman carefully, moving from shadow to shadow to keep up with her. She lead me to what I assumed was her house, a large, two storey building. A servant stood guard at the door and let her in after a brief greeting. I knew I couldn’t follow her that way, so I relied on what I was good at and climbed up the wall.
Zianesa must have agreed that mother deserved that necklace, because a window on the second floor was open a crack. I pushed it open and squeezed through. I was about to close it behind myself when I heard voices in the hallway and dove under the bed.
The door opened just as I pulled my feet out of sight. I watched a pair of expensive shoes stroll into the room, followed by a pair of worn slippers.
“It’s freezing in here! Close the window.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The slippered feet walked over to the window and pulled it closed. There was a slight click as the latch was put in place. “Let me help you with that-“
“Thank you.” Part of the young woman’s fancy clothing fell to the floor. “I cannot believe him! How dare he tell me I’m not pretty enough! He wants Holyn – everyone knows she just wants his money!”
“Pay him no mind. If he marries her he’ll learn the truth soon enough. Come now, ma’am, your bathwater is going to get cold.” The servant finished undressing the rich woman, and they disappeared through a doorway. Only when it sounded like they were busy did I slip out from under the bed.
The young woman’s fancy clothes were draped across a chair in front of a little table with a mirror. The necklace was on the table. I tiptoed over to it and picked it up. “Thank Zianesa,” I whispered, because she had to have been watching over me. I hurried out of the window and made sure to close it behind myself. Then I rushed to get as far away from the house as I possibly could.
Lothian Dusk was falling when I returned to the brothel. I couldn’t go through the front door because, as I’d been told time and time again, men didn’t like seeing children walk in and out of brothels. It reminded them that they might have children they didn’t know about.
I wondered for a second if my father ever thought about whether or not he had children. I wondered if he had other children, if I had brothers or sisters. Maybe he was married with a family. It didn’t matter. He was probably a Telt anyway.
I climbed up to my mother’s window and knocked. If she didn’t opened the window before I could count to twenty, it meant she wasn’t there or she was busy with a customer. She opened it at fifteen.
She tugged me into a hug and brought me over to the bed. There was a clean cloth spread over the sheets, and it was covered with food. There was a whole loaf of bread, a block of cheese, a little cooked fish, and two apples. Mother was smiling, happier than I’d seen her in days.
“I promised you food, Finny. Come on.” She lifted me onto the bed and sat down on the other side of the cloth. With a small knife, she started to cut up the food and divide it evenly between us. “Tell me about your day.”
I ate each piece of food as soon as she put it in front of me. “I went to the upper city.”
Mother looked shocked. “You did what?”
“I went over the wall.” I grinned at her. “It was easy.”
“I never fall,” I promised her once again, and I shoved a piece of cheese into my mouth. “I got you something.”
She probably thought I meant an old dress or pair of shoes, but she still managed to look excited. “Did you?”
I waited a moment before pulling the necklace from my pocket. Mother gasped and her hands covered her mouth. For a while she was still, then she reached out to slowly lift it from my hands. “Finn, this must be worth hundreds of siyas.”
I shrugged. “You deserve it. Zianesa helped me take it. You’re the greatest mother in all of Zianna.”
Mother was crying. “Oh, Finny – I can’t, I… This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
I smiled then, pleased with how happy I’d made her. “You don’t care that I stole it?”
She laughed through her tears of delight. “Finagale, one day you’ll be the greatest thief in Zianna.”
I liked the sound of that.
NOTE: An Expensive Gift is a short story about the main character in my novel, Without a King. To learn more, please visit
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