As the grey light of dawn warmed to a buttery yellow, making everything much warmer than it should have been, the city of Ishtar bustled to life. People crowded the bazaar, merchants and peddlers setting up booths and arranging their wares, other folk rushing to finish this or that errand before the midday heat set in.
Well, most people were rushing. Fortunately for Kalli, some had nothing better to do than stand and chat.
“…no good stock in the slave-market these days.”a woman in a rich-looking dress complained, oblivious to Kalli’s fingers dipping into her pocket. “Nothing but that Kradan rabble, and I refuse to have any of them in my house. They always look so murderous.”
“That’s the wars for you. I know the fresh captures are good for commerce, but there’s no real use for them in household affairs. Far too raw and sullen.”
There was nothing in the first pocket Kalli tried; she slipped round to another. Absorbed in conversation, the gabble of gossipers didn’t notice.
“Not a war, surely. Krada is well defeated,” the first woman said.
“Just tell them that. They’re still trying to put up a fight, and if–”
This tidbit of information was interrupted by shouting as a wayward goat-herder ran his stock into the spicier’s booth. Cayenne and cinnamon wafted through the air as the two men yelled insults at each other. Kalli sneezed.
The sneeze separated her from her usual invisibility, and the woman screeched.
Kalli dodged away through the crowd, the woman calling for guards to ‘find that ugly little thief boy at once!’
There was little time to be insulted by this. Scrambling for a place to hide, she ducked into a cloth merchant’s hanging display, letting the rustling fabric hide her from the world. A few seconds later, armor clattered by–a city guard, duty-bound to chase after pickpockets but not very enthusiastic about it. He passed right by her, grumbling as he went. Slipping out from among the pashminas, she started down the street–the hordes of people a more than satisfactory hiding place.
There had been nothing in the woman’s pockets. Apparently she was smart enough not to have carried a purse into the bazaar–or, more likely, vapid enough to have forgotten it. Either way, Kalli needed to find another mark, a ridiculously rich mark, and soon.
She snatched a mango off a fruitier’s counter, biting into it as she lost herself in the bustling crowd. The skin was poison-bitter, but the meat inside was sweet and juicy, clearing the dryness from her throat and making sticky tracks down the dirt in her face. When the pit of the fruit had been scraped clean, she tossed it aside and leaned against the post of a bookseller’s shop, scanning the crowd for an easy cop.
“How many times must I tell you, this is not for sale?” Shouting from a merchant’s booth distracted her. She looked up to see Hijal, a dealer in secondhand jewels, berating his apprentice while a blue-coated man made a quick retreat into the crowd.
The boy was cringing, and Hijal cuffed him hard enough to knock him over, slamming something down on the counter as he continued his tirade. Curious, Kalli crept close, trying to see what the thing was. Hijal was still shouting. “The Governor himself asked for this, and you would sell it to–to some Kradan expatriate! Are you trying to get us both hung?”
The thing was a watch.
“I’m sorry, I thought–” the boy began, but Hijal cut off his apology with a kick.
“You don’t think!” he roared.
The watch was simple, but beautiful. Kalli stared at it–silver-plated with tiny embellishments of sapphire-colored enamel, it stood out well against the battered wood of the counter. Delicate silver hands ticked away the time, and a blue cord curled around it protectively.
It would fetch a higher price than she could hope to gain picking pockets–and one was watching over it. The watch was plucked off the table and stuffed it in her tunic before Kalli could think twice. She flashed a panicked glance at the people around her; but everyone was far too interested in the drama of merchant and apprentice to notice the theft.
She winced as Hijal kicked the boy again, and slipped out of the crowd of onlookers. Once she was a small distance away, she turned back, put her fingers in her mouth, and whistled shrilly.
“Oi, Hijal! You’ve got the face of a mole rat and your mother’d sell you for a copper.”
The beating stopped, which was good. Hijal was goggling at her in disbelief, which wasn’t. She dug the watch from her tunic and flashed it at him, sticking her tongue out for good measure.
The merchant leapt for her, tripping over his crumpled apprentice, and Kalli took that as her cue to run. Speeding down the street, she could hear him roaring for helpers in stopping the thief. A glance behind told Kalli that his attempts at rounding up a posse were successful; five or six citizens, including the beet-faced Hijal, were already blundering through the crowd close behind her. Looking back to see just how close her pursuers were, she didn’t see the man until it was too late.
She ran straight into him, bounced off, landed hard on the packed dirt of the road, and found herself looking up into the face of someone just as surprised as she was.
He seemed very tall–though anyone would seem tall from the angle Kalli was at–and soldierly, with a sword looped at his side and a short rough beard. He cocked a dark eyebrow at her, about to ask a question; but Hijal’s posse had already caught up to them.
There was no time to hide. Scrambling to her feet, Kalli ducked behind the soldier: he looked at her curiously, then at the group of rough-looking men suddenly surrounding him.
“You seem to be scaring the young lady,” he observed.
“Lady?” Hijal scoffed. “A thief’s what she is, and I’d think twice before standing between her and us–Kradans like yourself don’t do so well around here.”
He towered over the soldier, and the bevy of impromptu thief-hunters drew threatening-close; but the man didn’t budge. Kalli didn’t care if he was Kradan or not, she didn’t want to see him torn apart by Hijal’s mob.
Hurriedly fishing the watch out of her tunic, she thrust it up at him with an innocent expression. “Did this belong to you? It was on the ground, and so pretty–I thought someone had dropped it.” She kept her voice even. There was no way Hijal would believe her, but the others might.
“It was nothing so innocent as that!” He protested, glaring first at her, then the soldier. “If you’d seen what she called me–”
But the soldier cared little for Hijal’s hurt feelings.
“Perhaps, since the item was not damaged, you would be satisfied with its return, sir?”
Hijal was not at all satisfied, but his group of thief-hunters was, already relaxing and drawing away. The soldier, meeting Hijal’s glare with his own cool gaze, rested a hand carelessly on his sword.
Finally, the merchant gave a curt, understanding nod.
“Fair enough,” he growled, snatching the watch and stuffing it in his sash. Grabbing Kalli’s shirtfront, he pulled her close to his face.
“Be careful who you steal from, girl. There won’t always be some Kradan do-gooder there to save you.” Shoving her away, he turned on his heel. Kalli, who had held herself tense and ready to run thoughout the whole exchange, relaxed as his broad back went stumping away through the bazaar.
Prey stolen from them, the thief-hunters dispersed as well.
Kalli wiped Hijal’s spittle from her face, hoping his apprentice had been blessed with the good sense to flee in his absence. Hijal would not be in a cheerful mood, especially when he found the watch had once again disappeared.
She smiled at that, fingering the treasure she’d hidden in her sash. With Hijal holding her so close to his ugly face, it would have been a crime not to take the watch back.
“Is it your usual custom to steal from such bad-tempered bruisers as that?” the soldier asked. “I thought street urchins were supposed to be smart.”
“I didn’t steal it,” she protested. “I told you, it was on the ground.”
The man would have to be an idiot to believe her, but he didn’t seem on the verge of turning her in to the city guard. In fact, he wasn’t even looking at her, instead staring with concentrated distraction towards the city center. Kalli followed his gaze with some confusion–but the city looked quite the same as it always had.
A pedestrian, jostling by, griped that if folks had nothing better to do than stare at the view, they could at least not hog the whole street while they were at it. The soldier snapped out of his haze, looking back to Kalli.
“I’d stay out of that man’s way for some while,” he advised, tossing some coins at her. She caught them deftly. “And get out of the city if you can.”
She nodded–such was her plan–and watched him leave, wondering what had excited the sudden departure. She turned his coins over in her palm; in his hurry, he’d tossed silvers at her instead of copper. She wasn’t about to correct the mistake. She’d need all the money she could get.
On the subject of money, she’d have to pawn the watch, and soon.
She turned back, cutting through a goat pen, and froze. Between the rows of goat legs, a familiar pair of boots had come into view. Hijal.
Apparently, her theft had been noticed earlier than she’d hoped. Making herself as small as possible amongst the goats, she held still as the boots stomped by. Scrambling back out of the pen she ran after the soldier, whose blue-clad back she could just see retreating through the crowd. Dodging between and around the legs of surprised citizens, she finally came level with the man, breathless and picking straw from her hair.
He didn’t notice her; he didn’t have to. He just needed to be close by in case Hijal found her again.
“Namir! What news?” a man ran up through the crowd, greeting the soldier–Namir–like an old friend. He was slimmer than Namir, with sun-bleached hair and a face dripping with sweat, but the color and cut of their clothes was the same. Kalli realized it must be a uniform.
Glancing around, Namir guided his companion into a quiet corner between the wall of a building and the booth of a sleeping wine merchant. Unnoticed still, Kalli followed, listening in with some interest.
“The Governor has refused our petition.”
Namir’s voice was low and even; the other man’s face fell. “Can’t he see the justice in our request?”
Namir snorted. “I doubt the Governor cares much for justice. They’ve just raised the sign of denial” he gestured towards the city center, where the great tower of Ishtar rose, a red flag fluttering from its tallest spike. So that was what he’d been staring at.
“There’s still half a chance of winning the war, though, with what you’ve got.”
The other man was silent, and Namir took him by the shoulders, some of his calm slipping.
“You have got it. Tell me you do.”
“It…it’s been lost.”
“What?” Namir hissed.
“Not by me!” the man said quickly. “But lost, all the same.”
“Faugh!” Namir exclaimed, rubbing his face in his hand.
“That was the only hope we had of getting our people back. Perhaps if it can be recovered…we have to tell the Captain.”
“He’ll kill us.”
“He’d be justified,” Namir replied, grim-faced. “Come on. We’ll face him together.”
Kalli, forgotten, watched for a moment as the two men walked away. Undecided, Kalli looked around at the bazaar. The watch and its promised riches was heavy in her sash; but the open-ended mystery of Namir and his companion was itching at the back of her mind, impossible to ignore. Finally, decision made, she slipped like a shadow after the two blue uniforms.
Kalli was concentrating too hard on invisibility at first to notice where they were going. As soon as she did, she began to feel uneasy. The comfortable Bazaar, with its crowds and booths and colors, had disappeared, lost in the narrow streets they’d left behind. They were traveling ever closer to the city center; and the wide openness of the road, the impeccable whiteness of the buildings, the very height and richness of the shops and houses was making Kalli claustrophobic.
There was a general lack of clutter, and a corresponding lack of suitable hiding places. Kalli was protected from the soldiers’s notice solely because neither man spared a backward glance.
They were almost at the palace itself when the two men stopped at a door.
Namir looked the street up and down before he entered. Save for Kalli, who had ducked into a niche in a nearby wall and was now hidden from view, and a crooked old street-sweeper, the street was empty.
He knocked on the door, the sound traveling dully through stagnant air. It opened; words were exchanged that Kalli couldn’t hear, and the men disappeared into the house, leaving the street empty once more, silent save for the swish-swishing of the street sweeper’s broom.
Kalli bit her lip. She was far enough from the bazaar now to have no fear of Hijal catching up with her. It would be evening soon, and she wanted to pawn the watch before sunset. With the money, she could bribe her way past the gates and be free–outside the city walls, into the open possibility of the country. Perhaps find work on a farm somewhere, milking goats or planting fields in exchange for a place to sleep. Someplace, maybe, where she could live and stay. It was a low ambition, maybe, but it was her highest dream–one place, however small, that she could in some sense belong to. Surely that dream was more important than satisfying a peckish curiosity, she remonstrated; but she stayed, staring up at the building as if glued to the spot. It wasn’t that late. Why choose between dream and curiosity when there was plenty of time for both?
The building Namir and his friend had entered wasn’t as fancy as the others on the block–made of brick and stucco instead of fine stone. This in turn made it easier to climb. Kalli scrabbled handholds for herself out of the plaster, pulling herself up the wall with relative ease.
A small balcony was situated underneath the second-floor window. As she neared it, she began to hear voices drifting through the wooden shades–Namir’s, the soldier’s, and another man’s. That last was a very angry voice.
“Lost?” it roared. “The very last hope of our city to regain what Ishtar has stolen–every scrap of intelligence our spies have risked their lives to gather thus far–and you’ve lost it?”
Kalli slipped over the edge of the balcony, landing lightly on her toes and putting an ear against the shutters.
“Lashak lost nothing, Captain. The courier–”
“At present, Lieutenant Namir, I don’t much care much whose fault it is. Our negotiations have failed, and what Lashak has not succeeded in recovering may well have been our only real hope of winning this coming war. I am in no mood for petty definitions.”
The man called Lashak cleared his throat.
“Sir, I make no excuse for what’s happened.”
“Good,” the captain growled.
“I met the courier where we were instructed. He was a mere boy, an apprentice in a jeweler’s shop. He gave every code, every signal, and tried to sell me a watch.”
“A watch?” the Captain said, making no attempt to hid the incredulity in his tone. “How on earth did they put messages in a watch?”
A watch, Kalli thought, fingering the thing in her sash; but of course it wasn’t the same one.
“There was no time to ask,” Lashak said drily. “The boy’s master found us out and snatched the thing up like it was his grandmother’s jewels. He shouted me away from his booth. I left, thinking to return later; but when I returned, the boy, the merchant and the watch were all gone.”
Kalli frowned. The story was sounding far too familiar, fitting in the negative spaces of her experience with disturbing exactness.
“Why would A merchant want to keep something he could sell?” the captain asked, his words drifting vaguely through Kalli’s mind, mixed with her own jumbled memories.
“What pretense did he give?”
“He said it was a special commission for a nobleman, and not for dirty slave-stock Kradans to look at–his words, Captain, not mine.”
Hijal’s words. Kalli knew that in a heartbeat; she pulled the watch out her sash, watching the delicate silver hands click away the time. It was her only hope of finding a home; but from the sound of things, it was some other people’s only hope as well.
Namir had been pushed to the background of the conversation, which was perfectly all right with him. After everything that had happened, he didn’t feel much like talking.
“We’ll have to pull our spies back,” the captain said wearily.
“We’re not giving up.” Lashak said, looking between Namir and the captain for confirmation of this. “sir, Ishtar holds our people–women and children–in wrongful slavery. We cannot leave them behind–it’s not right.”
The captain rubbed his forehead, too tired to answer.
“We are not giving up. We will recover the people Ishtar has stolen,” Namir said, trying to instill all the hope he failed to feel. “We’ll draw back our spies, to keep them safe if the watch has fallen into Ishtaran hands–but we aren’t giving up. I promise that.”
The captain huffed.
“You can’t keep those promises, Namir, and you know it,” he said. “For all we know, those men and women will be enslaved forever. We might have to join them.” He threw his glasses down on his desk in disgust.
“Isn’t that cheery.” A familiar and somewhat pitchy voice intruded.
Namir’s head snapped up, as did the other two men’s, but only he recognized the girl who was sitting half in and half out of the windowsill, grinning at them. The girl from the marketplace, the girl who’d stolen the…
Realization dawned on him mere seconds before the girl pulled something small and shining from her sash and tossed it lightly on the table. The watch spun against the wood with a faint grinding noise, gradually growing quieter to match the sudden silence of the room.
“Thought you’d all be needing this,” she said, smiling oddly into the three gaping faces around her.
Kalli had never been stared at like the savior of mankind before; but now she could say with authority that it was not a very comfortable experience. She was glad there was no one around now to keep it up.
The Captain alone had barely looked at her, his eyes completely focused on the watch. He’d demanded that she be given a room and a meal, though–by way of thanks, she supposed. Kalli, used to sleeping in doorways and eating whatever she could steal, hadn’t been inclined to turnthe offer down. She’d eaten, slept a little, and was now looking around her room curiously, pretending she didn’t feel lonely.
The place looked ostentatious to her. Tiled patterns decorated a whole wall, curling in tight, repeating curves; the floor had a rug, brightly dyed and soft with use. The blankets of the cot held rich colors, and a small bedstead sported a single candle that she could read by, and a small book that she could not read. A window showed the stark wall of a neighboring building; and by the vague and grayish light, she guessed it was evening now.
She swung her legs idly, wondering at the quiet. They hadn’t left her here, had they?
Someone knocked on the door, and she jumped a little; perhaps it was city guards, come to take her in for espionage.
But no, it was Namir’s voice that called from the other side of the door, asking to come in.
Kalli raised her eyebrows. He needed her permission? How queenly.
“Go ahead,” she called out. The door swung open, letting a tired-eyed Namir into the room.
“You seem to be doing well here,” he said.
“They stuffed enough food in me to make me burst.” Kalli informed him, swinging her feet over the cot’s edge. “How’d it go with the watch?”
Namir sat on the floor with a weary sigh, his back against the wall.
“The watch has yielded up its secrets,” he said. “Though you’ve still not told me yours. How did you get it back?”
“Pickpocket,” Kalli explained, waggling her fingers. “How’d you find the messages?”
“That,” Namir said, smiling, “Was a work of art. They were engraved on the clockwork, in letters almost too small to read.”
“Will you be able to rescue them, then? Your people?”
“Such is our hope.”
There was a short silence in which Kalli was still and Namir fidgeted with the tassels on the rug.
“The captain has made me responsible for you–as long as you want to stay.”
Kalli wanted to leave. She didn’t want to be anyone’s responsibility, not even Namir ’s. But without the watch, there was nowhere to go but back to the bazaar; and she guessed that a return to Hijal’s domain would not be beneficial to her health.
“We’ll be returning to Krada soon,” he added. “I know you can’t stay here safely, not unless our merchant friend were to meet with a timely accident, but the captain said that would be unethical, so…you could return with us.”
She looked down at the rug, thinking. It would be a fresh start, a change of cities–not her dream, perhaps, but good enough for now. She nodded; but Namir wasn’t finished.
“I don’t have much in the way of a house, but my wife–you’d like her, I think–she makes it a home. There’s room enough for you there, if–” he stopped, gave her a questioning look. “if you’d care to stay.” He finished.
It took Kalli a moment to realize what he meant. Suddenly deprived of words, careful of her own enthusiasm, she nodded.
She was surprised by the smile that spread across his face, likewise by the glimmer of something mirroring that smile–hope, maybe, or happiness–inside herself.
Perhaps, just perhaps, she’d found a home.