Sarah-Jane Lehoux, Thief
Publisher: Mundania Press, May 2010
ISBN: 978-1-60659-227-4 (paper)
She might as well have been invisible. The people of Eloria paid no mind to the redness of her nose or to the wet marks that streaked across her dirty face. She was just another nameless vagrant after all, of which the city had more than its fair share.
It was midday. People flooded the constricted, cobbled streets, busily going about their lives. The perpetual grind and toil demanded that sales be pitched, prices be haggled, and money be made. Each day like the one before — an uphill battle to earn as much as the gods would allow so that, hopefully, their own children would not have the same desperation in their eyes that the skinny girl had in hers.
Had it been any other day, Sevy would have laughed at the curses that flew after her whenever she bumped into one of the merchants. Any other day and she would have been more reckless, more bold, snatching coins right from outstretched hands and then making a game of the ensuing chase. Today, sadly, was not such a day.
The morning had begun well enough. Hopping nimbly over heaps of trash, she had rummaged for breakfast before returning home, a derelict building that once served as stables, decades ago, back when the Axlun royal family still lived in Eloria and the city was in its finest hour. Now abandoned by most of the kingdom’s aristocracy, Eloria had descended into a long, drawn out rot. Bad for the economy perhaps, but just right for those like Sevy. The city was littered with ramshackle houses and factories, memories of past prosperity cast off like the shells of sea creatures, readily appropriated and transformed into covert bastions of beggars and brigands.
The stables sheltered any number of street children, orphaned by choice or by circumstance, living together in fluid, drifting groups. It was their sanctuary against the dangers of the city, and though it couldn’t hold heat in the winter or lose it in the summer, it was dear to them.
She climbed up to the hayloft and tucked into her meal of a half eaten apple and a crust of week-old bread, quite content. Things were looking up when Trena arrived and dangled a bottle of ruby red wine before Sevy’s eager eyes.
“Aww, fantastic! Where’d you get it from?”
Trena popped the cork out with her teeth then took three swigs, each bigger than the last, before answering. “A friend.”
If Sevy’s attention had not been focused on the savory liquid, she may have noticed the nervous squirming or the edge in Trena’s voice. Instead, she simply sighed appreciatively and held up the wine in a mock salute to their health.
All too soon the bottle was emptied, leaving only a pleasant heat in their cheeks and a sickly sweet taste in their mouths. Warmed and sleepy from the drink, Sevy reclined against the wall and picked at random splinters of moldy hay while Trena turned the bottle over and over again in her hands. With the distraction of the wine gone, Sevy finally discerned that something wasn’t quite right with her normally bubbly friend. Several times, Trena opened her mouth to speak, but then shook her head and remained silent.
Sitting there, in the musty ruin of an era long past, they were quite the pair of opposites. Trena was a full head shorter than Sevy, but what she lacked in height, she made up for in curves. Sevy often stared enviously at those curves, comparing them to her own spindly frame. Heredity and malnutrition combined to work against Sevy, making her appear much younger than her sixteen years. Her brown hair, loosely tied back with a strip of cloth, didn’t have the luster of Trena’s blonde curls. The closest that Sevy’s pallid cheeks ever came to a fetching shade of red was when she was embarrassed, but Trena’s seemed to be everlastingly rouged. Trena’s clothes were always neater too. Sevy was forever discovering new rents and tears in hers. And her shoes...
Now that was odd, Sevy thought to herself. She hadn’t, until that moment, noticed that Trena was wearing new shoes — slippers made from softened leather. And a matched set as well. First a bottle of wine and now new shoes. An eyebrow rose as she regarded her friend with suspicion.
“What’s up?” she asked lightly, drawing her legs up to her chest.
“Nothing,” came the sighed response. “It’s just... about my friend. He’s really nice.”
Sevy nodded her agreement even though her stomach was beginning to churn. And it wasn’t from the wine.
“Well, um, he said he can get us all sorts of things. More wine, food, clothes. Whatever we want.”
In one hurried rush, Trena spoke animatedly about a man named Gihaf, one who promised them all of Eloria in exchange for certain favors.
“It’s nothing we haven’t done before,” Trena said with a shrug of her shoulders, trying to appear casual. “Just now, he’ll give us stuff for it.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“It’s not so bad, honest. He promises that we’ll be safe and that the men he’d fix us up with wouldn’t be horrid or anything.”
In her heart, Sevy had always known Trena might succumb to something like this. She was weak willed, more liable to take the easy way out, and definitely more likely to be charmed by anyone with a silver tongue.
The gods had been smiling upon Trena the day they arranged for her to meet Sevy four years earlier. Born from tougher stock, forged by the biting winds and glacial waters of the Melacian Sea, it had been Sevy who discovered such a relatively safe and comfortable place to live. It had been Sevy who learned through trial and error how to pick pockets and steal food. Trena may have been gullible, but she wasn’t stupid. She had latched onto Sevy, recognizing her strength and nerve.
As for Sevy, she was just happy to have a friend. Like the majority of Eloria’s children, she had already experienced far too much loss for such a short life. Trena was her surrogate family, and Sevy was not about to let anyone, particularly some pervert pimp, take her away.
Indignation blazed within her stout little soul as Trena continued her impassioned speech, punctuated with sobs and frequent hitchings of her chest. She extolled Gihaf’s virtues — by the way she spoke, he may as well have been King Grewid himself — while rationalizing her choice with protests against the cold and the hunger.
“I’m sick of this. I mean, look at us, Sevy. Look how we’re living. It shouldn’t be this way! And Gihaf says— ”
“Gihaf is lying!” Sevy at last exploded. “You’re so stupid! You wanna be his whore? Fine. Go! Get out and go spread your legs for him and the whole world!”
Trena was shocked into silence for a moment. Then she wailed Sevy’s name and threw herself at her feet. “Please, don’t be angry! Please!”
She just laid there, a blubbering heap on the floor, crying so pitifully that Sevy’s eyes misted over in spite of her anger. Maybe it was all Sevy’s fault. She did have an overbearing personality, to put it mildly. Bossy was a description Sevy wasn’t likely to ascribe to herself, but it was much closer to the truth. Trena had always simply followed in Sevy’s wake, never testing the waters for herself, never learning what manner of sharks swam in Eloria’s depths.
It’s my fault, Sevy thought. She shouldn’t have protected Trena so fiercely in the past. By doing so, she had set Trena up for a life of dependence on others. I’m so stupid. But there would be plenty of time later on for Sevy to beat herself up over the decisions she had made. Right now, she had to stop her friend from making a huge mistake.
Her tone softened as she helped Trena up. “You don’t have to do this. I’ll just start stealing more. I’ll take care of you, you’ll see. Look, I’ll go right now and get some money to pay Gihaf for the wine. You won’t owe him anything, all right? You’ll see.”
Without waiting for a reply, she ran outside and down the alley. She didn’t want to hear more excuses, more justifications. Words like that, harmless as they outwardly appeared, had a way of burning what they fell upon, like cinders on the wind. Sevy would prove to Trena that they could get by without resorting to prostitution. She’d prove it to her, and then she’d make Trena grovel for awhile for ever doubting Sevy’s ability.
Finally reaching the marketplace, Sevy pushed a strand of greasy hair from her face as she came to a stop. Green eyes with blackened half moons bruised underneath sized up the crowd that was milling about the market. She took breath after slow breath to calm herself and gain focus. She couldn’t afford any mistakes, not today.
She needed to gather as much as she could, as fast as she could. She needed an easy mark. Not the dwarf over there sloppily drinking from a rain bucket. She would bet that his purse was in danger of bursting, but dwarves guarded their money like wolves guarded their dens. No point in risking injury. The two men discussing rhetoric over rum cakes and coffee were suitably distracted, but they were most likely students, and the pockets of students rarely contained anything more than lint and dreams of grandeur. What about the elf dancing on the corner? She could skim from his earnings while he had his limbs tangled up in a bizarre impression of a bird, but as she walked past him, she saw that his hat held only two half pieces of copper. He’d either have to learn some new steps or start stripping before the crowd tossed him anything worth stealing.
No, no, no! This wasn’t going well at all! What the hell was wrong with these people? Why did they have to make things so difficult? What had started as a simple task was turning into something infuriatingly problematic.
But then she saw him. A tall, dark-haired young man dressed in a smart blue jacket. His attention was fixed on a busty merchant, though his eyes drifted more to her chest than to the wares laid out on her table. The pair flirted and laughed freely. Whatever they were bantering back and forth was certainly more engrossing than the scrawny girl sneaking up behind them.
Sevy could see a money bag hanging on his belt, and it was plenty full too. Perfect! She smoothed back her hair and wiped away the fine layer of sweat that had broken out across her brow. Breathe! she commanded herself. Quit acting like such a beginner! This guy is a complete patsy. Not worth the worry, so just relax!
She brushed against him, pretending to peruse the trinkets for sale. Oh my, what a pretty set of wooden earrings, and goodness me! Those bone bangles are absolutely to die for. She felt his eyes pass over her as he politely attempted to shift out of her way, but they quickly returned to the buxom beauty behind the table.
That’s it, buddy. You just take your time with her tits, and I’ll be gone before you can wipe the drool off your lips.
Trembling fingers slipped around the bag, carefully working it off his belt. Almost had it. Just one more tug. Success! Sevy could scarcely suppress her snicker of victory while she moved to sidle back into the ranks of the invisible underclass.
Before she could, a hand gripped her shoulder, halting her escape.
“I’ll take that back, sweetheart.”
“Take what back?”
He laughed as he turned her to face him. She glared at him in defiance, looking straight into his face for the first time.
Beautiful. The word almost escaped her lips in an awed whisper as she found herself mesmerized by the twinkle of his oceanic blue eyes, but, luckily, her tongue was so tied by the sight of his bewitching smile that she couldn’t speak. The way the sun lapped at each strand of his flowing black hair was so engrossing that she forgot to struggle against his hold until his voice, mellifluous and tinged with mirth, broke her out of the spell.
“Nice try, really it was. But your technique is terrible.”
“Wh — what?” she stammered, remembering her predicament. “You’re crazy! Let me go or I’ll call the guards.”
“Oh really? All right, call them then. We’ll wait here together and let them sort it out.” Without waiting for her reply, he pulled her closer and reached into her pocket.
“Let me go, you lecher!”
Smirking, he scooped out the bag of coins and made a show of tucking it inside of his jacket. Sevy felt her face grow red, but was it from the chagrin of being caught or from the intensity of those eyes shining down at her?
She had to look away, and it was only then that she noticed the people gathering around them like ravenous dogs primed for the scent of blood, no doubt hoping for a spot of entertainment to help break up the day. There’s nothing quite like a public thrashing to lift the stupor of drudgery.
“What’s going on, Jarro? Gonna teach her a lesson?” someone shouted.
“Give her to me. I’ll teach her real good,” another man jeered, thrusting his pelvis.
She had been caught in the act. By city law, it was his right to dole out her punishment, but in his face she saw none of the hatred and righteous indignation she had come to expect. There was only merriment, as though the two of them were sharing in a joke that the others were not privy to.
“Shut up!” he yelled to the yammering horde before flashing her another brilliant smile. “Listen, sweetheart, how’s about I let you go this time? Just promise me you’ll work on that technique.”
* * *
Though he had shown her mercy where others would not, the dark-haired man had quashed any confidence she had in her abilities that day. It was hours before she could return to the stables, dolefully appraising the meager offering she eventually managed to steal for Trena. A bit of food, a bit of coin, a few odds and ends that could be sold. In all, maybe enough to keep their bellies full for about three days.
She prayed that it would be enough to persuade Trena against her foray into prostitution. Sevy would be lying if she said she hadn’t considered it at some point. It did seem like easy money, but that notion didn’t hold much water if given more than a half second of thought. They had both seen too many of their young friends ruined that way to be able to pretend that it was a bright idea.
No one concerned themselves with the hundreds of women and children who sold their bodies for food and money, certainly not the city guards who were more liable to demand free services than they were to offer any sort of protection. Whores were routinely beaten until their faces became unrecognizable. Many were found dead in back rooms and alleys. Still others disappeared completely. And if violence didn’t get you, disease certainly would. The infected were left to die alone, unable to care for themselves anymore. When happened upon, their bodies were tossed into the furnaces of the charnel house alongside rapists and murderers, and their ashes scattered to the four winds so that they could never enter Promyraan, a final punishment for their lives of debauchery. Sevy felt sick to her stomach picturing Trena ending up like that.
That won’t happen, she thought, gritting her teeth.
She climbed up to the hay loft, plastered on what she hoped was a convincing smile, and held up her stolen goods. “I’m back! And look what I...”
The smile fled from her face. Trena had company: a rather large man with a heavy, sloping brow and oily hair slicked into a ponytail. Sevy staggered back a step as he rose to his feet, instinctively noting the size of his hairy-knuckled hands.
“Sevy, this is my friend, Gihaf.”
“Well, hi there. Tre’s told me all about you,” he said cordially.
She couldn’t help staring at them. Those hands that were large enough to dwarf her own. She pictured them running over Trena’s curves, over her own tiny bumps, and she shook from head to toe.
Gihaf turned towards Trena and laughed. “What’s her problem?”
Hands large enough to wrap right around her neck if he so wanted. Or to squash her skull like a grape.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. Sevy reached down to her boot and pulled out a dagger. “Get out.”
“Sevy!” Trena gasped.
Gihaf’s eyes widened and his nostrils flared, and her gaze shifted once more to those hands, expecting them to strike out at any moment. He surprised her when he appeared to collect himself, his voice remaining agreeable and calm. “Little girls shouldn’t play with knives. Tre and I are just talking nice here. Nothing to worry about.”
Nothing to worry about, except for the fact that such a beast of a man was in her home, smiling at her as though they were intimate friends, speaking to her with the same honeyed tongue that had so deceived her friend.
Unable to find words to express her loathing, Sevy spat onto his chest.
“Oh gods! Gihaf, she didn’t mean it, I swear. I’m so sorry.” Trena rushed to wipe the gob off of his shirt.
Gihaf pushed her away and stomped forward, making the floorboards creak and sway, backing Sevy into the wall. This near to him, she could see the beads of sweat and oil that rested in the pores on his nose. His scent was sour, a mingling of body odor and beer. How had he managed to sucker Trena in? He was repulsive.
Sevy held tight to her dagger. “I’m not afraid of you. Get out and leave me and my friend alone.” She hoped that he wouldn’t hear the quiver in her voice.
He snorted. “Big words for such a little girl. You need a lesson in manners.”
“No, Gihaf, please! She’s just trying to protect me. Leave her be!”
“Shaddup. Now listen, Sevy, I’m a nice guy. I take good care of my friends. You do want to be my friend, don’t you?” Up came those hands, calloused and cracked and rubbing across her cheek. She shuddered and turned away, but he forced her to face him by grabbing hold of her chin. “It’s all up to you, Sevy. Tre here, she’s a good girl. Does what good little girls are supposed to do. And I reward her for that, don’t I, Tre? I can give you whatever you want, Sevy. Just be a good little girl.”
He leaned down and shoved his tongue into her mouth, probing her as if he were her lover. She gagged.
This isn’t happening...
A part of her begged to retreat deep inside her mind, to hide inside herself until he finished and left her alone. Maybe if she stayed still long enough, he’d forget she was there. Maybe if she prayed hard enough, she’d sink into the walls, safe from his touch within the rotting wood. But these were wild, nonsensical thoughts, and now was not the time to give in to flights of fancy.
There was another part of her mind that screamed for her to fight, and in spite of her fear, she knew what she had to do. She rallied her courage and stabbed the dagger into his arm. He yelped and jerked away, staring at the wound in shock.
Sevy tried to run, but he was too quick. He had her pinned before she could think to stab him again. He seized her hand and slammed it against the wall until she was forced to drop her weapon.
“Stupid little cunt!”
She closed her eyes against the spray of his saliva. His fist cracked across her jaw, once, twice, and the skin on her lip popped open, filling her mouth with salty warm fluid.
“Help me,” she managed to squeak out.
“Tre won’t help you. I told you, she’s a good girl. Now I’m gonna show you what happens to bitches like you!”
Sevy screamed as he thrust his hand down the front of her shirt, groping so savagely it was as if he wanted to tear off her skin as well as her clothes. She jerked her knee up as hard as she could and the result was instantaneous. He doubled over, groaning. This was her one chance and she knew it. She kicked him again and again, and didn’t let up when he fell onto the floor.
“So I’m a bitch, huh?!”
Blood spurted from his nose and mouth, and he wept like a nursling. Sevy laughed, loving the sight of him crippled like this. Each crunch she felt in his ribcage helped to mollify her disgust and fear. She couldn’t stop even if she wanted to.
Then suddenly, she was seized from behind. Startled, she whipped around to face her new assailant and saw that it was Trena.
“Sevy, don’t! Leave him alone. Please!”
“Trena, I— ”
“Just go. Go!”
“But you’re coming too. Come on!” Sevy grabbed her hand, but Trena shook her off.
“You don’t understand. He’s all I’ve got. I need him!”
“That’s crazy! He’ll use you, he’ll hurt you! Come with me,” Sevy pleaded. “I’ll protect you!”
Gihaf stumbled upright, splashing rubied clots of blood onto the floor as he slurred, “You’re gonna pay, bitch!”
“Get out of here!”
“I’m not leaving without you.”
“Shut up and go! Please, if he hurts you...”
“Oh, you stubborn bitch, just go! Leave! Now!”
Sevy stared, unable to move until survival instinct took hold and made her scramble down the ladder.
Blindly, she raced through the city. She ran until her lungs burned, street after street, not caring when she overturned a vegetable cart, deaf to the cries of people she crashed into. She knew he wasn’t following, but it didn’t matter. She was spurred on by pain like a horse lashed by a wicked master.
Finally, exhausted, she slumped against a brick wall and slid down until she was sitting, arms wrapped about her knees. She gasped for breath, forcing the air to pass by the fiery knot that had taken up residence in her throat, and tried to blink away the tears that blurred her vision.
How could she? Her best friend. Her only friend. Her only family. How could she?
Win a free signed copy of Thief! To enter, simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject heading “Bewildering Stories”. Winner will be drawn on June 30th. Contest limited to Canadian and U.S. residents.
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah-Jane Lehoux