“Hey! Stop thief!” a voice cried behind Vada.
She grinned showing off white teeth. ‘He cannae catch me,’ she thought as she wove her way through the winding streets of Jurang.
Clutching her stolen prize, the young woman swiftly climbed up a rope ladder and onto the rooftops. Small gardens lay on top of most of the houses, and some had laundry drying in the hot sun. A few women were tending their gardens and glared at her as she scurried past. It was easier to traverse across the rooftops, than the people filled streets below. As long as she didn’t touch anything, the owners would let her pass.
Vada grew up in the sprawling stone city, she didn’t know of anything else. Her hovel lay on the eastern edge of the city, ruins that were left to the poor. The rich nobility lived on the western plains next to the Orn River. The plains gave them more room to build lavish palaces and gardens. Only a few thieves dared venture into the nobility sector, and most of them didn’t make it out alive. ‘I’ll stick to tha’ markets,’ she thought climbing down another rope ladder.
Her bare feet slapped over the dirt packed road as she made her way towards the slums. Homeless people were propped up next to ruins, hoping someone would drop a coin in their dented tin cups. Vada didn’t have the luxury of money, but occasionally she would drop in a piece of fruit or bread she stole.
Most of the poor here looked the same, dark brown hair, brown eyes, and dark skin. The thieves that raised her always commented on her strange eye color, but Vada never thought twice about it. Her bright blue eyes were strange among the sea of brown eyes, and she was told more than once it would be the reason she was dragged to Lopov Hill where they hung thieves. Vada always scoffed at them, since she was never caught. She was too quick and careful for the guards, knowing they would remember her bright eyes.
Her stomach rumbled as Vada crept east through the streets towards her hideout. Years ago Vada stumbled upon the old building trying to hide from another thief. He wanted her nicked items, but Vada wouldn’t give them to him. She shuddered slightly remembering his angry words, and what would happen if he found her.
Vada reached her hideaway, crawling through a small hole in one of the walls towards her room hidden behind a crumbled wall. The ceiling was barely there, and she had an old shirt stretched across her bed to keep off rain during the wet season.
She crouched on her bed, pulling out her prizes from the front of her old tunic. Vada had tucked them in the front folds of her breast band. It was the only other place she could hide her spoils. Vada didn’t have any pockets in the worn tattered breeches she wore. A whole loaf of bread, two apples, and a pear were her spoils. Tearing off a chunk, she relished in the taste of fresh bread. It had been too long. I ‘ave ta save this,’ she thought putting away the rest. ‘Don’t wanna ta eat too much.’
The sun was still high in the sky, and Vada mainly wanted to eat something and unload her spoils before venturing back out into the market. It would be easier to nick more if she had pockets or a bag to hide things in. Vada didn’t, so she left her hideout and made her way back towards the market.
The market in Jurang was vast, stretching from the High Market in the west part of Jurang curving south towards the wall. Due to its size, Vada could steal from different sections of the market. Her adopted parents had taught her that. Being thieves themselves, both of them taught Vada what she knew now. They warned her never to steal anywhere near where she nicked from before, but Vada understood that even at a young age. Shopkeepers remembered thieves, and Vada would be hauled up to Lopov Hill if she forgot that lesson.
Vada reached the market noting the large amount of people walking through the streets of Jurang. Voices rang out from everywhere, some from shopkeepers announcing their wares, others from dickering voices trying to get the right price. Vada gracefully steered around people, eyeing some of the nicer dressed individuals. She was thinking about going after a young woman with too much makeup and a full purse, when a cloaked figure caught her eye. Whoever he was, the fine material of his cloak and the glimpses she saw underneath made her perk up.
He had to have money, which could help Vada more than the food she stole earlier. Coin could help buy a new dagger or new clothes. Carefully Vada stalked the cloaked stranger, keeping out of sight. Onni, the God of Luck, seemed to be on her side today. He didn’t notice her at all.
Vada watched the cloaked man stop at a stall, looking over some jewelry. Vada sneered. Jewelry was for ladies and the rich. She had no need of such frippery. While he was distracted Vada crept in her fingers clasping his purse. A strange burning sensation covered her fingers.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a deep voice rumbled.
Vada looked up to meet a pair of luminous green eyes showing beneath the hood he wore. His lips curled up showing off a pair of sharp pointed canines, just like hers. Squeaking, Vada leapt backwards, her fingers releasing the coin purse. The burning sensation continued on her hands as a black substance covered her fingers. She stared at her hands and tried wiping it off on her clothes. The stranger took her hands gently. “If you behave I’ll remove the spell,” he said softly.
“S-spell? Wot are ye talkin’ ’bout?” she stammered. “Magic doesnae exist.”
“You-you really don’t know who you are do you?” he asked, a rough chuckle coming from his chest.
“I know who I am!” she protested.
“Is this street rat bothering you sir?” asked one of the guards.
Vada shivered, seeing the guards surround them. Normally she kept a wide distance between her and the guards, but she was caught off her game with this stranger. “No, we’re just talking,” the cloaked man replied, placing a hand on her shoulder and releasing her hands. “I need to speak more with him.”
’Good, ‘e tinks I’m a boy,’ Vada thought watching the guards head back to their posts. ‘I can make me escape and git awa’ from this weirdo and his magic ideas.’
The stranger kept his hand on her shoulder, almost suspecting she would escape. Twisting out, Vada slipped out of his grasp. “Why are you going to run?” he asked.
She froze and turned back. “Cause-cause I donnae talk wit crazy people!” she snapped and disappeared into the crowd.
The green eyed stranger smiled and whispered a few words at her back. A green tendril of magic flowed and attached to her.
Vada made sure she wasn’t followed as she headed home. After dealing with that stranger, she didn’t want to try her luck at stealing anything else. The black substance on her hands wouldn’t come off, even though she scrubbed with sand and dirt. Frowning, Vada didn’t know what else to do. The bright green of his eyes stood out in her mind, as well as the pronounced canines. Vada had them too, and it seemed strange that a random visitor would be similar to her. To calm herself down, Vada took the luxury of eating her stolen pear. It was juicy and sweet just the way she liked it. ‘I donnae like tha’ man,’ she thought her mind going back to the stranger.
She hadn’t seen much of his face either, mainly his eyes. The color was vivid, like her own. Other than thieving, Vada didn’t have much to do. Since she didn’t want to go back out into the market, she decided to pay a few of her Black Market friends a visit. Respectable people never went to the Black Market, not if you wanted to make it out alive. Even most of the Guard of Jurang wouldn’t step foot in the Black Market. Making sure her food was hidden, Vada left her hideout and made her way through the streets. Other poor people shuffled along, most of them covered in rags hanging on skin and bone frames. Ruined buildings surrounded her, only a few were remotely habitable. Most people like her lived in the ruins and did what they had to.
Vada spotted the entrance to the Black Market. Two black flags hung on either side of two rickety stone poles. She wondered when one of them would fall over, since the mortar on both was flaked off and the right one leaned heavily. Weathered and beat up stalls littered the open area with people walking around. “Vada, wot ye doin’ ’ere so early?” a skinny young man asked.
“Notin’ Tjuv, thot I’d see ye,” Vada replied with a smile.
“Wot happene’ te yer hands?” he asked, his brown eyes widening.
A flush crept across her face. “Nothin’, just a botched pocket pickin’,” she muttered trying to hide her hands. “Stranger said t’was magic.”
Tjuv flinched back keeping away from her hands. “Ye donnae mess wit magic,” he whispered. “Tis fer dragon folk.”
“Ye know tis just myth ‘bout tha dragons,” Vada sneered. “Ye know tha’ stories.”
“Ye cannae get it off?” Tjuv asked.
Vada’s flush deepened and she studied her bare feet. “Not wit sand nor dirt,” she said. “Tis prolly just ink, an’ I need water.”
Tjuv shook his head and sighed. “Vada ye best talk wit old Mjudra. She knows tha’ old ways. C’mon.”
He grabbed her wrist keeping his fingers away from the black substance on her hands and dragged her along. Vada didn’t protest. Whatever that stranger did to her hands, she wanted it off. The two wove their way through the winding Black Market streets until they arrived at an old shop. The front glass had been broken long ago and was covered with a thin cloth. A dilapidated old sign hung off one chain, the other long missing; its paint half gone. Tjuv opened the warped door with a creak and they entered. Dust covered every surface and the floorboards groaned beneath their feet. Shelves of grubby bottles filled the room, the smell of dust and dried herbs made Vada’s nose itch. An elderly woman perched on a crooked stool. She wore faded robes of every color wrapped around her. Her white hair had been pulled back into a bun, but most of it had fallen out framing her thin face. Brown eyes filmed over gazed everywhere but to the guests. “Mjudra, we need yer ’elp,” Tjuv said. “Vada got ’erself in a fix.”
Mjudra stretched a toothless grin. “Well then,” she said. “Wot can an old blind woman do fer ye?”
Vada reluctantly laid her hands in front of the old woman. “I-I tried pickin’ a stranger’s pocket. He did this ta me,” she said.
Mjudra took her fingers tracing over the substance. “Magic. Tha’ spell tis not fer me ta understand. Ye best find tha’ stranger and git ’im ta take it off,” she said.
“I donnae know who he is,” Vada protested.
Mjudra shrugged her thin shoulders. “I cannae do nothin’ child,” she retorted. “Find tha’ stranger.”
Vada sighed knowing Mjudra was right. Tjuv shook his head and pulled her out of the old shop. “Ye need ta find tha’ stranger. T’would be easier findin’ a copper coin in a sand dune,” he said with a groan.
“Perhaps he’ll be in tha’ market again,” Vada replied looking up at the setting sun. “Best be gettin’ back ta me home. See ye Tjuv.”
Worry flashed in Tjuv’s eyes. “Ye be careful Vada. None o’ us wanna see ye hang on Lopov Hill.”
She grinned wolfishly. “Not gonna happen,” she said waving her black fingers.
Tjuv shook his head and disappeared into the maze of streets. Vada did her own disappearing and headed back to her hovel. She’d eat some more bread before it became stale and go find the stranger tomorrow. As she lay down in her bed of rags and musty hay, his eyes flashed once more in her mind. ‘Nothin’ I can do till morrow,’ she thought closing her eyes. ‘Hope he’ll be there.’
Sun shone down through the ceiling of her hovel waking Vada. First thing she noticed was that the marks were still there. They covered her fingers in a strange looking ashy black substance that looked like Vada had dipped her fingers in ink. The edges looked almost like they would simply flake away, but as much as she tried, it stayed firm to her skin. Grumbling she pulled her fingers through her tangled cropped hair. It was getting too long again, so she pulled out her dagger. It was her only prized possession, one that she’d stolen years ago. Its edge needed to be sharpened, but what was a poor girl to do. Grabbing the edges of her hair she hacked away the hair until it hung at her earlobes. It was jagged and uneven, but Vada hated when her hair was long. It helped her disguise as a boy easier to pass off.
She hid her dagger once more and ate one of her apples. It filled her small stomach, enough to satisfy her till later. Taking an old rag, Vada ripped it into two strips. Carefully she wrapped them around her hands hiding the black marks. Hopefully the stranger would be at the market. Vada didn’t know how she was going to convince him to take the spell off of her, but she was determined to try.
Crawling through the tunnel, Vada emerged next to the ruin that hid her hovel. Vada made sure to rub out her footprints, not wanting anyone to find it. The sun was already shining hotly, pressing heavily on her hair. ‘If only I had a head covering,’ Vada thought with a grimace.
There was a long list of things Vada wished she had and things cost coin. Her life as a thief wasn’t exactly rewarding, but she did what she had to stay alive. Her bare feet slapped the dirt ground as she made her way through the streets towards the market. The road split before she reached the market, which was the way to the High Market, but Vada couldn’t step foot in there. It was reserved for respectable folks, and she was certainly not like any of the rich that strolled the High Market’s streets. She’d heard tales from the richer thieves about the marvels in there, but Vada didn’t want to risk her life on mere stories that were passed around the Black Market. Guards lined the entrance to the market. Technically they could bar Vada from entering, but they knew street rats had other ways of getting in. At least this way they could keep track of who was entering and exiting. Vada strolled past them keeping her eyes down.
Vada walked around the different stalls trying to find the stranger. Stall keepers kept a sharp eye on her, noting her tattered clothes. “Keep your fingers to yourself lad if you want to keep them!” one of the stall keeper’s guards snarled when Vada got too close to some fine stones.
“I’m jus’ lookin’ fer someone,” she drawled with a grin.
The guard glared at her his hand on his sword, so Vada kept moving.
She spent most of the morning searching for the stranger. ‘I coulda nicked food or coin today,’ she thought with a frown. ‘Stead I’m lookin’ fer a stranger.’
The sun was high in the sky and Vada still hadn’t found him. It looked like her luck had run out. Her stomach grumbled, but she didn’t want to go back to her hideaway to eat or spend her time stealing food either. Nibbling on her lower lip, Vada took one last look around the market hoping her mystery stranger would appear. Nothing still. Sighing, she decided to head back home. At least there she could fill her belly a bit.
As she was making her way towards the entrance, she bumped into someone. “Watch where ye’r goin’!” Vada snapped.
“Is that anyway to talk to the person you were looking for?” drawled the familiar voice of the stranger.
Vada looked up, it was a bit of a ways up, into the bright green eyes of the stranger. “I wos lookin’ fer ye. Take away tha’ spell!” she snapped holding out her rag covered hands.
The stranger grinned showing off his sharp canines again. “And why would I do that?” he asked in a low voice. “You tried stealing from me. I don’t like thieves.”
A flush crept on her cheeks. “Ye wouldna know wot an empty belly feels like,” she muttered. “Ye donnae know wot tis like not ‘avin’ nothin’.
The stranger rubbed his chin, a strange look in his green eyes. “Well then, why don’t we fill that belly of yours,” he replied. “Then I might think of taking my spell off you.”
’Wot if ‘es just offerin’ just ta take ye te tha guards,’ Vada thought stepping warily away from the man.
“I donnae trust ye,” she replied crossing her arms across her chest.
“Fine, my name is Raanan. I’m traveling here from Stromfold to look into archaeology sites here in Wustetan,” he explained.
“Tha’s wha’ ye say, still not gonna make me trust ye,” Vada replied.
Raanan sighed pushing back his hood showing off pale skin and dark green almost black hair that was neatly pulled back into a horsetail. His face was long and thin with high cheekbones. “I told you my name, what about yours?” he asked when she stared at his strange hair color. “I don’t like keeping my head uncovered, I’ll burn in a heartbeat.”
Vada watched as he carefully pulled his hood back over his head. With that complexion, Vada was surprised he wasn’t bright red. “I donnae wanna go nowhere wit ye,” Vada said.
“Fine. Why don’t I go buy something to eat, and we can eat here out in the open?” Raanan replied.
“Alright wit me,” she said.
Vada watched as Raanan walked towards the food district of the market. She hoped he wasn’t fetching a guard. ‘I coul’ just leave,’ Vada thought as she waited. ’But ‘e said he might take off tha’ spell.’
Nerves made Vada shift from foot to foot as she waited. Something about Raanan didn’t sit well with her, it made her twitchy. He didn’t look dangerous, but there was an underlying edge to him. Something deep inside Vada stirred, something that resonated with Raanan. Vada kept to the shadows until she saw Raanan return carrying food. The smells rose into the air and she nearly drooled when the hot food smells hit her nose. He smiled when she reappeared in front of him. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” Raanan said.
Vada kept her distance from him as they walked towards the open seating. It was nearby the food district, allowing people to seat and eat while in the market. Since it was high noon, many people were seated eating. The loud noises made Vada nervous and she kept glancing around. “Calm down, no one is going to arrest you,” Raanan said settling himself on a bench.
Vada sat across him, stiff with nerves. He laid out the food he’d bought on the table. It was a feast to Vada and she stared at it, her fingers itching to grab as much as she could. “Go ahead,” Raanan said with a smirk. “Although if you want I can take the spell off your fingers first.”
“Aye,” Vada replied holding out her bandaged hands.
Murmuring a few words, Raanan took her hands. The black substance slowly turned to dust and fell onto the table. “There you go, now eat up.”
Reaching cautiously across the table, she grabbed onto a marinated camel meat skewer. Roasted vegetables were stuck in between the meat as well. Vada bit into the meat, chewing quickly. She hadn’t had a hot meal in years, and the meat tasted better than she remembered. Raanan watched her eat, slowly taking his time with some flat bread and curried rice. Vada wished she could take some home, but it would spoil quicker than her bread and apples. Instead she stuffed as much as she could in her belly.
“I still don’t know your name,” Raanan said ripping a piece of flat bread in two.
Chewing quickly, Vada swallowed the last piece of meat in her mouth. “Me name’s Vada,” she replied.
“Now was that so hard Vada?” Raanan asked with a half smirk.
“I guess no,” she muttered.
Raanan watched her lick her fingers and dipped his fingers into a bowl of water that was offered on every table. Vada didn’t know that was what she was supposed to do, but she didn’t want to waste good sauce. “You’re supposed to clean them off with the water,” Raanan said.
Vada watched him cautiously. “Ye say ye donnae like thieves, then ye feed me. Wot’s yer game?” Vada asked. “Ye wanna take me ta tha’ guards. Lopov Hill is alway’s itchen fer anotha’ body.”
Raanan shook his head and sighed. “No, I do not want to take you to the guards. I put that spell on my purse to prevent it from getting stolen. I am here on official business, and it wouldn’t do me good to go back saying my purse was stolen,” Raanan stated his eyes cold emeralds. “You truly don’t know who you are, do you child?”
His gaze made Vada tremble. It was full of anger and the thing deep inside Vada resonated again softly. “I am no’ a child,” Vada snapped, “I be seventeen tis pass spring.”
A deep chuckle left Raanan’s chest. “You are but a babe, little one,” he replied. “I can tell you who you are. You can leave this city and start a new life somewhere else.”
Vada perked up at his words. ‘Go ta another city,’ Vada thought. ‘Start a new life.’
“Wot do ye want in return?” she asked.
“Nothing, although I will have to explain to my superiors why I’ve returned to Stromfold without my findings,” Raanan said rubbing his chin.
Vada stared at the table, not sure what she wanted. “Ye say ye gonna take me ta another city, fer nothin’?” she questioned.
Raanan nodded. “All I ask is that you let me help you,” he replied. “Clean you up and fix that horrible speech of yours as well.”
Vada glared at the man. “Me speeh tis fine fer me,” she retorted. “I donnae need ta speak like a noble.”
“If you travel with me, you will respect my rules,” Raanan replied. “Or do you want to stay here and be a thief the rest of your life.”
Vada chewed on the words he said. ‘Turn respectable, and no’ be ‘ungry?’ she thought. ‘Mite be good fer me.’
“Tis a deal,” Vada said spitting on her hand and holding it out.
Raanan frowned and reluctantly shook her hand. “First thing, new clothes and a bath,” Raanan said wrinkling his nose.
‘I git ta be clean fer once,’ Vada thought hiding her glee.
Raanan stood and waited for her to stand. Vada was still wary about him. He said a lot of pretty words, but how did she know he wasn’t looking for a plaything. She’d heard of nobles taking in street rats, cleaning them up just so they could have a toy or a pet. Glancing at Raanan out of the corner of her eye, she thought about asking him. If he was just keeping her as a pet, at least he promised to feed and clothe her. Instead of questioning him, she reluctantly followed Raanan.
He stopped at a clothing stall and Vada watched him. The shopkeeper greeted Raanan happily, then frowned when she saw Vada. “You best be careful sir, that street rat will steal you blind,” the owner said.
“If you do not want my business, I will go someplace else,” Raanan replied coldly. “The lad here is the one I’m buying clothes for.”
Vada didn’t correct Raanan, she thought it better she kept her disguise up. The shopkeeper bowed and apologized. She took a closer look at Vada and smiled. “Lad you say?” she said. “Lads don’t wear breast bands last time I checked.”
Vada blushed, looking down at her chest. Her tunic had peeked open lower than normal from another lost button. She pulled it close, glancing at Raanan. His gaze was icy and she shivered. “Well, let’s outfit the girl then,” Raanan said dryly.
The shopkeeper took one good look at her and pulled out a few things. “I’ll give you a discount if you buy four shirts. You prefer breeches don’t you? Here’s a few pairs,” she said pulling out some clothes. “Under clothes too.”
Raanan looked them over, not even glancing at Vada. “I’ll take them all. Do you sell shoes here, or should I find a cobbler?” he asked.
“Just clothing. Try Edgmaz down the street, he has cheap shoes,” she said, counting the pile. “That will be twenty silvers.”
Raanan looked them over. “Ten, it’s used so it shouldn’t be much.”
“Fifteen, and you have a deal,” the shopkeeper said.
Raanan shook her hand, sealing the deal. He paid the woman and took the clothes. “Come on Vada, shoes than a bath,” he said.
Vada didn’t like the idea of shoes. She’d gone barefoot for years and the last pair of sandals she wore pinched her feet. “Do I ’ave ta Raanan?” she asked.
He glanced at her. “So you do remember my name,” he said with a chuckle.
Vada flushed looking down at her feet. “I’m no’ stupid,” she muttered as she followed him out of the stall.
“I didn’t think you were,” he said. “Although you did fail to mention that you’re a girl.”
Vada snorted glaring up at him. “If yer a girl, ye get more than ye bargain fer,” she said with a frown. “When tha’ others know yer a girl, they expect...things from ye.”
Raanan gazed down at her waiting her to explain. A flush crept on her cheeks and Vada stared down at the ground. “They wan’ ye to lay on yer back an’ be notin’ but a thing fer pleasure. I donnae want tha’, so I hid me sex,” she whispered.
To her surprise, fury rose in Raanan’s face. His eyes glittered dangerously, and Vada couldn’t make eye contact with him. His jaw clenched and she could hear his teeth grinding together. “You’re just a child, and they expect that of you. No wonder you hid who you were,” he ground out.
Vada knew of other girls who did the same. There were two options if you were a poor girl with no one in the world. You went to The Red District to spread your legs for strangers, or you became a thief and hid your sex. It was the ways of the city.
“Now, do you prefer boots, or sandals Vada?” Raanan asked his fury smoothed away.
Vada stared up at the man confused. How he hid his anger away so quickly was a mystery. He had looked like he was about to murder someone one moment, the next he looked peaceful. ‘Mebe tis wasn’t a good idea,’ Vada thought. ’I donnae know if ‘e has a temper, or wot he’d do wit it.’
“Do not worry about my anger little one,” Raanan explained, “It is worse if I let my anger rise. You would be surprised at the things that can happen when I get angry.”
Vada raised one eyebrow at his confusing sentence. ’Wot does he mean ‘bout tha?’ she thought.
They arrived at the cobbler’s stall before Vada could think more about Raanan’s strangeness. “You didn’t answer my question about what kind of shoes you want,” he said.
“Boots, I wan’ boots,” she replied scanning the rows of shoes.
“She would like a pair of boots please,” Raanan explained.
The cobbler bowed and measured her feet. He wrinkled his nose, although Vada couldn’t smell anything. Once he was finished, the cobbler looked around for a pair of boots that would fit her. “She’ll grow more for sure, so these should fit her for now,” he explained handing the boots over.
They were dark brown leather, with two steel clasps on the top. “Twenty-five silvers for the pair,” Raanan said.
“Thirty-five. The steel cost me twenty-five alone,” the cobbler bartered.
“Fine, thirty-five,” Raanan replied, handing the money over.
Raanan added the boots to the pile of clothes he carried, and Vada followed him as he left. “Now you just need a bath, and I think those rags of yours we should burn,” Raanan said.
Vada actually agreed with the tall man. It would feel strange to be clean, since she was so used to being covered in a layer of dirt and dust. Baths were for people with money to spare, and Vada hadn’t taken one in years. “Raanan, ye really are serious ’bout me,” she said.
“I do not lie Vada,” Raanan said looking down at her. “Get used to it.”
The two walked out of the market, and Raanan began walking towards the nicer part of Jurang. Vada grew nervous again when she saw more guards prowling the nice shops and houses. She didn’t belong here, she was a street rat, a thief. One of the guards stopped Raanan. “Sir, do you realize you have a street rat tailing you?” he asked glaring over at her.
She stiffened, fear making her stomach roll. Her full belly wasn’t helping either. “I do yes. This ‘street rat’ as you put it is with me,” he replied stiffly.
“I’d keep a tight hold on my coin purse if I were you. Can’t trust them. They’ll steal from their own mothers,” the guard said.
“You keep to your business, and I’ll keep to mine!” Raanan snapped icily.
The guard flinched when he saw Raanan’s gaze, wandering off grumbling under his breath about stupid people. Vada was still frightened, her mind screaming for her to run. “Raanan, I-I no’ suppose ta be ’ere,” she stammered.
“You’ll feel better after a bath and some clean clothes,” Raanan said.
Vada didn’t agree with the man, but she followed him to the bathhouse nevertheless.