I led a simple life at the age of seventeen. I was naïve about the world and the people in it. That was about to change.
My family was poor. We didn’t have much to call our own other than a small hut near the edge of town, but I’d been raised to appreciate the fact I had parents who loved me and a place to sleep.
What little coin we did have, we made at the market.
Humming lightly to myself, I swept off the bamboo matt at the back of the tent where we sold our goods. Papa was taking payment from a customer purchasing one of his carved wooden figurines, while Mama chatted with a potential buyer for a seashell bracelet she’d made.
A loud crash from outside caused everyone to stop what they were doing and stare in the direction of the sound. Dropping the broom, I ran out of the tent to find a bin of oranges across the lane toppled over.
The fruit merchant, a short man with a head of thick, black hair and a bushy beard yelled, “Thief! Stop!” while losing his balance and falling on top of the spilled fruit.
The orange thief noticed me watching as he passed our tent. He gave me a wide grin, showing off his ivory teeth. Aside from his torn clothes and grubby skin, he was pretty attractive. “Think I can outrun him?” he asked breathlessly.
I returned his smile and nodded.
He laughed and tossed an orange at me. I caught it easily.
“You’ll pay for those!” the fruit merchant huffed, but the young man took off through the market before he could catch up to him.
“Malyi,” Papa called from inside the tent. “What’s going on out there?”
I tucked the orange into the pocket of my simple brown dress. “Nothing Papa, just another thief.”
“May the gods send them to the underworld!” Papa shook his head. “Some of us work hard to put food in our bellies. That some people think they can just take whatever they want…it makes me sick.”
“It frustrates me too, Babush, but there’s nothing we can do except try to protect our own product,” Mama replied, helping her last customer tie her new bracelet around her little wrist.
“Why do you think I carry this?” Papa pulled one of his carving knives out of his belt and held it up in the air.
The petite woman who’d bought the bracelet gasped as Papa’s eyes went crossed with the knife in front of his nose.
“Babush, put that away. You’re scaring the customers,” Mama ordered, placing her hands on her hips as the woman wearing a bright, multi-coloured dress rushed from the tent. Mama was always the voice of reason in our little family of three.
“It’s time to start packing up,” he said, shoving the knife back into his belt.
I took that as my cue to grab the sack and start putting the wooden figurines into it so we’d be ready to catch the wagon that would take us back to our hut.
Later that night, I lay awake on my straw mattress as my parents slept on the other side of our cozy hut. I was used to the sound of Papa’s snores vibrating throughout our home. I rolled onto my side, unable to keep my thoughts from wandering to the man who’d given me the orange. I took it out from under my pillow and peeled away its thick skin, wondering if he’d managed to get away. Usually thieves irritated me as much as my parents, but I found myself hoping this one escaped safely. There was something about him…
“Psst…psst,” someone called from outside the window by my bed.
A quiet thumping made my heart jump as I stretched to see who it was.
“So I did find the right hut!” a male voice exclaimed.
Squinting, I could barely make out the shape of the tall man standing outside my hut. “Who are you?” I whispered, wondering if I should go and wake Papa. He always slept with his knife close by and would cut down anyone who meant us harm without hesitation.
“It’s me, the orange thief,” the voice said.
“How did you find me? Wait, I’ll come outside. I don’t want to wake my parents.”
What are you doing, you fool? He could be dangerous. I ignored the little voice inside my head, put a blanket over my shoulders, and crept out of my hut to meet him.
The thief stood waiting in a nonchalant manner. The moon gave off just enough light for me to make out his appearance.
“How did you find me?” I repeated.
“I followed you,” he answered casually.
I crossed my arms, my brows drawing together. “That’s creepy.”
“Or is it romantic?” he challenged.
I sniffed and shook my head. I didn’t know much about romance, but I was sure this wasn’t it.
“You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” His tone took on a serious note.
I couldn’t help but laugh. He must be jesting. “I’m sure you say that to all the ladies.”
“I don’t. No other lady has eyes gold like yours, no hair so shiny—no skin so creamy. You are an exquisite gem.”
I felt my face grow warm. “Why were you stealing?” I changed the subject, uncomfortable with his praises.
“I need to eat. I have no coin…no parents to feed me,” he explained.
“You’re an orphan?”
“I’m so sorry.” My gaze dropped to the ground. I couldn’t imagine a life without parents.
“Don’t be. It was a long time ago.”
This conversation was growing awkward. After silence stretched on a few moments longer I said, “I should get back inside.”
“Of course. I don’t mean to keep you from your slumber. It was nice to meet you…” He extended the last word, waiting for my name.
“Malyi,” I offered without a second thought.
“It was nice to meet you, Malyi. I’m Jehvad. I’ll be seeing you again soon.” He took my hand and placed it to his lips.
The sensation of his lips pressing against my skin caused my heart to flutter inside my chest like a butterfly. I gave a small smile and went back inside.
Spotting the peeled orange on my mattress, I couldn’t help but beam at it. I picked the fruit up and bit into it. Sweet juices rushed into my mouth and spilled out the corners of my lips. “Mmm,” I groaned with pleasure. I hadn’t tasted anything so fresh in a long time.
I lay in my bed that night, daydreaming about the thief named Jehvad. I’d had many crushes…even kissed a couple of boys before, but my heart never leapt the way it did when Jehvad had kissed my hand. He was quite dashing for a filthy thief. Part of me hoped I would indeed see him again soon.
My wish came true. The next day at the market, Jehvad approached my parent’s tent, holding a bright pink flower with a long stem. His long dark hair was tied back, revealing his shadowed jawline and prominent cheek bones which were bronzed by the sun. It appeared he wore his best rags today.
Papa’s forehead furrowed. “Can I help you, young man?”
He gave Papa a bright smile. “Uh, yes actually. Is Malyi here?”
I peeked around Mama to watch their transaction. I didn’t think my father had seen his face yesterday, but if he had, Jehvad was in trouble.
Papa widened his stance. “Who’s asking?”
Jehvad’s arms dropped to his side and he cleared his throat. “Jehvad Tanhar, from the island Sarrasu.”
Papa’s frown deepened. “What do you want with my daughter?”
“Oh, Babush. Don’t torment the poor lad,” Mama said, going over to join them.
Papa was intimidating with his large build and booming voice, but Mama was his complete opposite. The locals sometimes teased Papa about finding such a beautiful goddess. Her eyes were bright golden-green, and her glossy black hair, which she kept tied up, ran down her back like an obsidian river. She was tall and lean. Many said she could have easily found a rich warrior to marry, but she’d fallen in love with my father, the fortunate soul.
“Malyi’s of the age she should be starting her own family now. That’ll never happen if you scare all her suitors away,” Mama scolded.
“Mama!” Gods she was embarrassing me. I had to get out of there. “I’m here, Jehvad. Take a walk with me?”
He handed me the single flower and offered his arm. I could feel the muscles beneath his soft skin against the inside of my arm. He wasn’t scrawny like most of the poor men on our island. I decided he must be very good at stealing food for himself.
We left the beige tent and passed by rows of other merchants selling their goods.
I lifted the flower up. “Did you steal this too?”
He put his hand to his chest, feigning astonishment. “Me? I would never.”
I smirked. “Well, either way, it’s lovely. Thank you.”
“Anything for amaries,” he stated with a puffed out chest.
I cocked an eyebrow at him. He’d just called me ‘his love’.
He continued walking as though he hadn’t just called me a most endearing word.
I slowed as we reached a merchant selling silver jewelry.
Jehvad noticed me admiring the rings laid out on the table covered in black linen. “Someday soon, I’ll be able to buy you one of those rings.”
I gave him a pointed look. “Oh really? With actual coin?”
“Mmhmm. That’s why I’ve come to the great island of Gwon. I heard about the powerful new leader here. I plan to join his army, and then I’ll be rich and able to provide for you and our children.”
I chocked on my own saliva. He rubbed my back gently as I coughed.
“Don’t worry. I’m not trying to rush you. I just—I really do think I’m in love, and the dream is to have children someday…is it not?”
I sighed and rubbed my palms down my tan dress before continuing on through the row of tents. “It is. It’s just that, we’ve only just met.”
“Does that really matter?” he asked, catching up to me.
“Well—” I didn’t have time to answer before he stole my words with a kiss. His lips were surprisingly smooth, and he tasted of spices. It wasn’t at all unpleasant.
By the time he finally pulled away, a few spectators had stopped to stare. I turned away from them and started back towards my parent’s tent. “I need time.”
“You have all the time in the world. No amount of time will change the way I feel about you.”
My lips tugged upwards. “You’re sweet.”
“Shh, don’t tell anyone else. I’m supposed to be a warrior in training, remember?”
I laughed and elbowed him in the ribs.
He chuckled. “Ow.”
Back at my parent’s tent, I had to endure a string of never ending questions. Mama was giddy with excitement, and Papa…well, he was like any overprotective parent; never approving of any answer I gave him.
I made sure to leave out the fact Jehvad was a thief and told them instead he was a warrior in training from Sarrasu. Mama finally succeeded in getting Papa to agree to let Jehvad see me. If it were up to him, I’d never find a husband of my own. I would always be a little girl in his eyes.