Alia Preet leapt from one boat to the next, her heart racing from adrenaline, her feet thudding against the smooth wood surfaces with each audacious jump. Though she knew better, she spared a quick glance over her shoulder, barking out a laugh as she caught sight of the furious fishermen in her wake.
“Scram, slum rat!” A burly old man roared, his brown eyes glinting with fury. Alia blew him a kiss as she propelled herself back onto the dock.
The landing was poorly-executed, and she winced as her ankle rolled against the damp boards. Alia swore under her breath. That’s what you get for prioritizing flash over function.
The Kshat guards were closing in on her now. Even as the hot sun beat down on her back, Alia felt a chill when she glimpsed the deep purple uniforms weaving through the crowded docks, undeterred in their steady march towards her.
She looked ahead, trying to plot out an escape route. The city was a weaving mess of alleys, narrow streets, and slanted buildings. Though a large city, the Kshat guard were concentrated in the Merchant District, bribed heavily by traders to work as bodyguards rather than the city police. If she could just make it out of the District, she would be fine.
Alia grinned as she charted out her path. The cobblestone street leading out the dock was jammed pack with vegetable carts and purveyors hoping to swindle a foreign trader into purchasing an overpriced trinket. Stone buildings lined either side of the street, offices for those wealthy enough to afford a prime spot near the harbor. As she suspected, all the windows were open, a futile attempt to cool down on the deliriously hot day. Through the openings, Alia could even make out junior apprentices hunched over desks, all hoping to make it big one day.
She scoffed, grimly testing out her ankle. If they were smart, they would know their dreams would never come true, but Alia supposed people needed hope to thrive.
She herself had traded hope for fun a long time ago.
Alia could make out three guards approaching from behind, but she had tussled with the Kshat enough times to know there were at least two rounding the corner in front of her. Ignoring the searing pain in her left ankle, she took off in a sprint, shoving a cart of peppers and cauliflower into the ground.
The vegetables rolled into the streets, and she smirked when the Kshat guards came careening around the corner, only to trip over the tumbling produce. The smirk disappeared just as quickly when one of the guards — a brawny man nearly spilling out of his tunic — scrambled to his feet and unsheathed his sword.
“You’re not getting away this time,” he snarled, lunging towards her, the blade glinting beneath the sun.
She rolled her eyes at his petty threats, as well as the screaming curses of the unfortunate vegetable peddler. Instead, she pushed off the overturned cart, her arms outstretched. She only had one chance at this. If she fell, she would fall straight into the arms of the furious guard.
Alia groaned as her body slammed into the building, the impact reverberating up her arms, but she did not lose her hold. Gripping the ledge, her legs dangling dangerously beneath her, she pulled herself up and into the building with ease.
She poked her head out the window, cackling at the guards staring up at her in frustration. The ones from the dock had finally caught up.
“Try again next time!” Alia sang with a wink, revelling in their inadequacy.
She ducked back into the building, smiling lavisciously at the stunned apprentices in the room. “Don’t mind me, boys.” Alia flipped her thick black hair over her shoulder, before strutting to the exit, her hips swaying with each step.
As she disappeared down the hallway, she finally heard one of the boys break from his confused stupor and shout “thief!” But it was far too late. Though another large man was barrelling towards her — she guessed private security given the dark green tunic — Alia knew he was outmatched. Right before he could make contact, she crouched down to the floor. The man saw it too late, and though his eyes widened as he tried to screech to a halt, he tripped hard over her, smacking his head into the wall and going down with a groan.
She scampered down the hall, peeking into each room as she searched for her target. While Alia opted for stealth over speed, her enemies had done the latter, and she could hear them clambering up the steps. Alia recognized one voice as the Kshat guard, but she paid it no mind. They weren’t going to catch her now.
Finally, she found the room — the head merchant’s office. It was grotesquely lavish, with rich oil paintings and ornate gold sconces lining the walls. A lush rug, depicting a ferocious tiger, erased away the stone floor underneath. The office even smelled luxurious, as Alia caught notes of lavender and jasmine in the air.
As suspected, the room was empty. At this time of day, during the summer season, the financiers were always down at the docks, screaming at crewmen to work faster. Summer was always the most lucrative season. With the skies clearing, trade only expanded, and speculation on the harvests was at its peak.
Speculation or gamblings, it’s all the same, she scoffed as she rushed past the oak desk that anchored the room — though not before swiping the merch’s wedding ring which lay atop it. Given the sweltering heat, and the renowned pickpockets in the city, Alia guessed the merchant had taken off the jewelry before heading to the harbor. She pursed her lips as she slipped the ring inside the waistband of her yellow salwar. Though not the most inconspicuous of clothing choices, the bright color did help assuage the blistering heat.
She could hear the guards getting closer, but Alia knew the unconscious patrol in the hallway would distract them long enough for her to disappear.
Alia sat on the window sill, leaning back so she could inspect the outside of the building. Merchants always had another exit from their offices. In the rare event that an upstanding tax collector shirked the bribes and tried to conduct an audit, they needed a way to vanish with all of their cooked books and forged documents.
Alia spotted it. A few arm’s lengths above her was a row of planters. The rusted boxes, which carried blush jasmine flowers, sported tiger heads along their sides. From a distance, they looked to be beautification efforts — the Merchant may have even received a few credits for his efforts to brighten up the city.
But, from this angle, Alia could see the true purpose of the planters. The tiger heads were perfectly molded, and Alia could easily imagine a wily merchant using them to climb up to the roof and escape an overeager tax collector.
Standing up on the sill, gingerly flexing her sore ankle, Alia once again outstretched her arms and reached for the handholds. Gripping one tightly, the ear of the animal pressing painfully into her palm, she slowly made her ascent. Alia did not know how old these planters were, and she did not want to place them under undue stress.
Though the boxes creaked under her weight, Alia was able to fling herself on top of the roof and to safety. Panting heavily, she took a moment to just lay on her back and catch her breath. While she may have lived here for 17 years, Alia never tired of staring up at Toshalwar’s skies.
In the city’s slums, it was easy to forget just how grand and vast the world was. Indeed, sometimes Alia forgot they even lived in Maurya, for Toshalwar often felt like its very own empire. Though, she supposed that, as far as anyone was concerned, Toshalwar was Maurya. Ever since the coup, the merchants ruled the kingdom, not that queen.
Alia did not particularly care for politics, knowing that it did not particularly care for her either. And why should it? The system was not built for abandoned girls and thieves.
She shook her head gently, dispersing the thoughts before they could weigh her down. Alia did not think of her past — ever — and the desire to learn more about it had long been extinguished.
Though the roof’s gravel dug into her skin, and Alia could still hear the frantic yelling of the guards beneath her, she sighed and gazed up at the sky, bathing in the orange glare of the sun. The yellow salwar really did help reflect off the excess heat, and her cropped blouse ensured she didn’t suffocate. Alia did not understand how the wealthy women survived beneath their draped saris and heavy jewelry.
Maybe that’s why they’re always in a bad mood, she thought with a grin, pushing herself up to her feet. She would have to wrap her ankle tonight, or she would have the worst swelling tomorrow. And she had far too much work to do for that.
Traversing the rooftop, she fished around in her waistband for the source of all of her trouble today, pulling out her dinner. Her long fingers lazily removed the wax wrappings, and she nearly sobbed with joy when the spicy aromas hit her nose. After weeks of subsisting on fruit and ale, Alia could not resist when she spotted the Kshat guards engorging themselves on stuffed bread. How would they miss just one? She had reasoned foolishly, her hunger getting the better of her.
Of course, she had not realized how notorious she had become. A few years ago, the lift would have been easy, and the guards would not have noticed at all. But now, after her numerous run-ins, they recognized her face.
She would have to do something about that if she wanted to survive in the city, but that was a problem for later. For now, she would enjoy the bread, filled to the brim with potatoes, peas, and a sinful blend of spices.
With the bread in her hand, the stolen ring in her waistband, and her path set for home, Alia wondered if life could get any better.
Vishal began to berate her as soon as she entered the tavern.
“Oi! I heard what happened at the docks today, just what do you think you’re doing, eh?” Vishal glowered at her, his thick eyebrows furrowing in anger, his thin lips pressed into an even thinner line.
She rubbed the back of her neck nervously, wincing when she saw the dirt that came away when she glanced at her palm. “It was just a misunderstanding,” she murmured quietly, fidgeting under the heat of his stare.
Vishal was born and bred in the Toshalwar slums, and you only made it to his age by being sharp and ruthless. Alia did not know how old he was, but she did know she had never seen anyone else with gray hair in the slums before. Somehow — Alia never pressed him for details — he had scrambled together enough money to buy the building. The main floor operated as a tavern, and he rented out the upper levels.
If he wanted to, he could ruin Alia’s life in an instant. As hardened and tough as she pretended to be, she knew she would not last long on the streets. Women never did. The men leering at her in the tavern were proof of that.
Vishal muttered something under his breath, and Alia knew he was regretting ever taking her in. Though the Kshat guard rarely ventured this deep into the city, their problems were growing more and more personal by the day. Eventually, she would push too far, and they would not rest until she was behind bars.
It was what she always did. She pushed, and she pushed, crossing line after line, until there was nothing left. It was how she got kicked out of the orphanage at 10.
“I’m sorry, Vishal,” she said, hoping he could see how sincere she was. “It won’t happen again.”
“Don’t make promises you have no intention of keeping.”
She flinched, though she recognized the truth in his words. Tomorrow would be the same. As would the next day, and the day after that. Alia would never stop needling the guards, but did Vishal not understand? What other choice did she have? It’s not like she could get a job. No one would ever hire a young girl, with no marketable skills and a perpetually grimy face, from the slums.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated softly, feeling the familiar tugs of frustration and rage swirling in her stomach.
He only grunted in response, drying a glass with a rag diligently. She never understood why Vishal was so insistent on cleanliness. No one patronizing this tavern had bathed in the last month, and even Vishal could do nothing about the stale scent of sweat, vomit and urine that always lingered in the most impoverished district of Toshalwar.
“Rent’s due,” he reminded her, as if she could forget.
“I need an extension,” she replied with a wince, feeling the cool metal of the ring against her hip.
“I already gave you an extension,” he huffed, placing the glass down and levelling his eyes at her. She could not mistake the restrained fury in his stare.
“I need another one,” she begged, the ring burning a hole in her skin. She knew it would pay the rent, and then some, but if she kept giving Vishal her hard-earned money, she would never break this torturous cycle.
He gritted his teeth, his hands clutching the table. He’s going to kick you out, she worried. You’ve finally done it. You pushed him away too.
“One week, Alia,” he finally said with a hard exhale, returning to his drying. “And I mean it this time. If you’re not squared up by then, I’m kicking you out.”
She nodded gratefully. “Thank you! I won’t forget it!”
He rolled his eyes, muttering something unintelligible under his breath, but Alia did not care. The old geezer was letting her stay, and that’s all that mattered. She could scrounge up the rent with a few other scores, and the ring would be the start of her savings.
But life, it seemed, had other plans for her. When she fled up the stairs, not wishing to push her luck with Vishal, Alia nearly fainted with surprise when she saw three Kshat guards in her room.
The scoundrel had ratted her out.