Sighing, Rue stared at the ring. She had been enchanting Sala, the oldest son of Ina Tabor, a powerful Easterling merchant staying at the inn. She was charming. It was not because of how she looked although she was attractive enough. Her unruly scarlet hair and green eyes were memorable but otherwise she was a normal girl. Freckles, an upturned nose, a crooked grin. It was how she held herself, with unshakable confidence and insatiable curiosity, that made her breathtaking and unforgettable.
Sala was describing the alabaster towers and halls of his home city, Calistol, as they sat together near the cheery flames of the hearth fire. He was a good storyteller, as well as handsome, and he enthralled her too, as he told of the ancient tomes and scrolls of lost arts hidden away in the royal vaults of the Holy Overlord BinLa Aran IV, divine ruler of Calist, and of his vast gardens with flowering trees filled with hundreds of brightly colored song birds. He had been mimicking one of the bird calls for her with such accuracy that she giggled and touched his hand. She had his ring secreted away in a belt pouch before she realized what she had done.
This type of acquisition was prohibited in The Serpent’s Claw, not just because of the laws of Lindor, although they also prohibited such things, but because Jubal forbade it.
“It’s not smart to relieve yourself where you sleep,” he would say to Rue with a wink, “It’s too messy. No trading so close to home.”
To his other traders he was firmer.
“No trading at ‘The Claw’, you mangy dogs! Anyone that does answers to me, and if you’re caught by the Red Guard, the Guild will disavow any knowledge of you and you’ll swing from the gallows like a no-good freelancer!”
The edict did wonders for business, as the quality security of the inn had become well known. Kelly Turnbuckle, the owner and proprietor, was eternally indebted to Jubal, as Jubal relentlessly reminded him. Rue bit her lip as she pondered, tugging at an errant coil of hair. She could pawn the ring before Sala missed it, but this was no trinket to forget. It was beautifully crafted, inlaid with countless jewels that blazed in the light. Even if she got away with it, the scandal would muddy the inn’s reputation, and competitors would challenge Jubal’s authority.
She could tell Jubal. He had a way of smoothing things over. That would be the smart thing to do. He could present it to Master Tabor, claiming it had been discovered by an honest scullery server, and returned to him, as an investor of the inn. With his sly tongue he would come out of the fiasco smelling like a Lindorian Lilac, and with the merchant’s gratitude.
Yet Rue resisted. If she ran to her stepfather for help, it would make her feel like a kid. She knew she was being vain, and Jubal told his crew to avoid solo trade activity regardless of their age. It was hard enough to get thieves to overcome their greed long enough to work together without pride getting in the way too. Still she could not bear the thought of asking for help. She sniffed. She would return the ring herself.
Master Tabor had no reason to suspect Rue. He knew she was the daughter of a local merchant of some influence, but nothing more. If she was nonchalant, she could claim she found it on the floor by the hearth. She would have to feign ignorance, act like a clueless debutante, to avoid questions. Personally, she could not see how a dazzling ring like that could ever touch the floor before someone snatched it up.
“Thank goodness I was there!” she practiced with mock airiness. “I’m only glad I found it before someone less honest chanced upon it.”
She rolled her eyes, but it would work. She was amazed at what people would believe out of convenience. She had to move quickly though. Every moment she waited made the story less plausible.
Idly she slipped the ring onto her finger as she prepared to rise. Her breath caught in her throat. The ring was stuck fast. She tried relaxing her hand, and wiggling it back and forth, but it refused to budge. A delay now could prove disastrous. She pulled on it harder, but only managed to make her knuckle crack.
Her face flushed. Jubal always said it was amazing how boundless Rue’s fury could be, considering the shortness of her temper. Breathing profanities, she stalked up to her room to find a pair of gloves. The culture of the Trading Guild had influenced the fashion trends of the city. A roguish, devil-may-care appearance, allowing for clandestine necessities, was common. Gloves would not be out of place. Once the she had hidden the ring from view, Rue headed back down stairs to commandeer some butter.
Several maids scurried about the kitchen, chatting as they cleaned and prepared for the morning. They were immersing themselves in a salacious bit of gossip about a local tax collector’s daughter and Kelly Turnbuckle’s youngest son, Kyle. They had already served the evening meal, but there were remnants still setting on the counter. Rue wrapped a dab of butter in a napkin. She also snatched a bright red apple from a basket that she had been eyeing all evening. Returning a wave from one of the kitchen workers, she slipped out the back door.
She sat on the back porch in the lantern light, wrapping her cloak about her shoulders to ward off the coolness of the evening. Removing her gloves, she smothered the offending jewelry with golden slipperiness, working the butter under and around it. Then she tried to reclaim her finger again. The ring held tight. She could swear it tightened when she pulled, like one of those irritating finger traps, woven from wheat stalks, that bards plagued children with in the town square. It was counter intuitive, requiring the captive to push their fingers together rather than pull away. Rue confused them without effort. She could flex her fingers so that they seemed to narrow, then she would remove them, to the bard’s dismay, like the toy was defective.
She could do the same thing with more serious restraints too. Before Jubal had adopted her, and while she was still learning how to avoid detection of her petty thefts, the city guard had apprehended her. Momentarily. She found she was double jointed, and, the second the arresting guard glanced away, she slipped from her manacles and vanished back into the crowded streets. She was accustomed to getting her way, and the ring was not playing by her rules. It caused a claustrophobic sensation to flutter in her stomach for long moments, until her simmering frustration burned it away.
Taking a savage bite of the apple, she remained on the porch, deliberating. Lamp oil could work better or lard, she thought, as she wiped her hand and replaced her gloves. She was preparing to go back inside, when shouts echoed down the alleyway, and boots clattered on the cobblestones. A merry bouncing light accompanied the patter of running feet, and then a guard burst into view, carrying a wildly careening lantern. His hand went to his sword when he saw Rue, then relaxed.
“Mistress Lampwick, you shouldn’t be outside the inn alone this time of night,” he chided. “No telling what may come upon you unawares.”
Rue ignored the friendly admonition. “What has happened, Wilam?” she said, fearing she already knew.
“One of the Easterling merchants has been robbed,” he replied, glancing up the alley toward the shouting, which had dulled to angry voices. “A street urchin brushed against him and then he noticed the ring was gone. By the sound of it, though, they may have nicked the young scoundrel before he slipped away.”
“Perhaps I could accompany you?” Rue mimicked a nervous glance around for other devilish street children. “I suddenly prefer not to be alone.”
“Yes, please, Mistress. It would relieve me greatly if you would.”
Reluctantly, Rue tossed away the apple, then they hurried up the alley, where a cluster of men stood. One held a lantern aloft, while another grasped the arm of a young boy. Two more stood by, menacingly, with hands near their sword hilts. The boy’s face was dirty, and his bronze hair was a tangle of matted ringlets, down to his shoulders, but his eyes were a brilliant blue. His eyes, and the heart stopping smile he gave Rue, made her gasp. At the sound, the men looked about.
“Oh, Wilam and Mistress Lampwick,” the man holding the other lantern said. He was dressed in the livery of the inn’s guards, like Wilam. Rue recognized him. His name was Tomlin. The other men, however were strangers. Judging by their scimitars, loose silk pantaloons and hardened leather breast pieces, they were Master Tabor’s guards.
“Is this the little thief?” Rue said, feeling an uncharacteristic twinge of guilt, as the lie passed her lips. She brushed strands of hair from her face.
Those deep blue eyes held her mercilessly, as the boy continued to stare at her, taking no offense at her words. The Easterling holding the boy said something in a fluid melodic tongue, which Rue recognized as the Calistian High Speech. That meant the guards served, not a wealthy merchant but, a noble house of Calist. If Inas and his family were Calistian nobility, then the matter of the ring had just become serious. Rue felt her palms grow sweaty.
Another Calistian stepped forward and bowed. He wore a thin gold chain of office draped over his shoulders. A thin pointy black mustache protruded from under a thin pointy nose.
“A thousand apologies, my Lady,” he said. “It is trifle but, yes, this street urchin was seen at our master’s elbow moments before his ring disappeared, and the boy ran when we called to him.”
“Did he have the ring?” Rue asked sweetly.
“Alas no, we believe he secreted the ring somewhere nearby before we could apprehend him.” The Calistian smiled, but his dark eyes did not. “The ring itself is of no importance, but the insult to my master’s family name is unforgivable.”
“But he is just a child,” Rue heard herself say.
The Calistian ignored her words. “We must request that the thief be turned over to us for punishment, according to Calistian law. Is he a member of your house?” Again, he smiled and bowed.
The boy could not be more than five harvests old. He hung helplessly from his captor’s grip. She remembered bits of her own past; how cold the cobblestones grew at night, when you did not have shoes; how empty your stomach felt all the time. She remembered how hard it was to get even a short nap, without a guard, or shop owner chasing you out of the doorway you had taken shelter in. The boy’s eyes haunted her. They held her in adoration, as if he had finally found her.
She could not bear to leave him. Her jaw tightened, and suddenly she was not worried about returning the ring. She had made her decision and once she had, she followed through. She did not look back.