Llew didn’t break stride to kick the empty glass bottle aside, barely giving it a thought. Litter was the least of the hazards in Cheer’s streets at night. She walked with her head down, hands thrust deep in the pockets of her sepia trousers, blending in with the evening’s wildlife. With hair in dire need of a trim, there was always a risk that the disguise wouldn’t hold – but it only had to hold until she got home. She would cut the offending locks in the morning.
A commotion broke out up ahead at Camille’s Cathouse. Some john lacking the financial means to sate his desires by the looks and sounds of it. Perhaps he should have thought about that before buying such a large bottle of whisky. The town’s men hunted gold by day, oblivion and pussy by night, and sometimes the two aims conflicted. Both aims could spell danger, especially for Llew.
She approached the still cussing man, stepping into the road to give him a wide berth. At this time of night one at least didn’t need to be so cautious about steaming piles in the middle of the dusty streets; all the horses were asleep in their stables or paddocks, or waiting lazily outside a bar or brothel.
“Out for a good time, boy?” The old coot stepped in front of Llew, stopping her in her tracks. “I’ll share one wi’ yer.”
Llew tried to side-step him, but he mirrored her movement.
“It’s still five miras each. Two men, ten miras.” The half-dressed madam on the porch folded her arms across her chest and stared down at them.
“You said five miras per girl. We only need the one.” His arm looped around Llew’s shoulders drawing her in to him. If she hadn’t already been cursing staying late with Kynas, she would have started now. “What d’you say? I’ll let you go first. I won’t even watch. Sure you won’t mind me listenin’, though.”
Llew struggled to find her voice, her deeper, more boyish voice. She shook her head.
“Five miras per … service.” The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You want cheap, Renny, you go down see Hedy’s girls. They’ll look after you real nice.”
“Aw, but Hedy don’t have your wee Tamra.” Renny pulled Llew closer to his mouth. His breath reeked like it was at the wrong end of his body. “Wee Tamra’s my favorite,” he confided in a loud whisper.
“Tamra’s busy, anyway. Now scoot.” The woman waved the back of a hand at the man as though brushing him away. “And don’t come back till you’ve got some cash.”
Still clutching Llew, Renny waved his bottle, miraculously not spilling any liquor.
“Oh, you’re a hard woman, Cammy.”
“Better a hard woman than a limp dick any day, Renny.” The woman flashed a gleaming white grin at them. “Maybe next time you’ll rethink the whisky. Or at least buy it here. Then maybe we can talk discounts. Loyalty is rewarded at Camille’s.”
“Oh, aye.” The man turned Llew with him to dawdle back the way she’d just come. “Women, eh? Never give nothin’ for free.”
Llew didn’t know anyone who gave anything for free, and didn’t see why the brothel girls should be any different.
“Well lad, shall we try Hedy’s?” Renny squeezed again.
Llew tensed the second his step faltered.
He regained his composure almost instantly and squeezed her shoulders once more, this time looking down at the way her shirt bunched across her chest. Two small but distinct peaks appeared as her shoulders rounded under the applied pressure.
“Well, well. Looks like my luck is on the up ’n’ up.” His arm reached around her shoulders so his hand could feel the soft flesh beneath Llew’s shirt. He made a slurping sound, took a swig from his bottle, and tried to bring her around in front of him.
Llew pushed against him and ducked under his arm. But he was quick and grabbed the loose waist of her shirt.
“Hey! We was just gettin’ to know each other.” He tugged and Llew bounced against his chest.
She used the momentum to break free of his grasp, turned and ran. The whisky hadn’t kicked in as much as she thought, because he was on her heels. She tried to keep her line straight down the middle of the road. A straggling group of men leaving Polly’s Bar farther down the road made no moves to let her pass, seeming to find the spectacle of a young boy running from an older man interesting verging on downright hilarious. Some of them reached out to slow Llew, but they didn’t go so far as to stop her.
Fearing that the men would turn on her, Llew didn’t plead for their help but pumped her limbs even harder, and a few moments later she was free of them. Renny ran into her, knocking her into a narrow alleyway between McNulty’s Bar and a Barber Pierson’s.
The crash of the half-full bottle against the wall rang out as Llew fell to the ground. Quickly regaining her feet, she found herself facing jagged glass and Renny looking pissed off.
“That bottle cost me a night with wee Tamra. Come ’ere,” he said, flinging both arms out in some sort of drunken embrace. He missed, but the bottle swung dangerously close and Llew hopped back, deeper into the alley. “You owe me the price of a bottle o’ whisky, girlie. And maybe a bit more.”
“You broke it, you drunk bastard.” Llew dodged the man’s next lunge and made a pass for the alleyway’s entrance.
He brandished the bottle at her. “That ain’t the language of no young lady.”
“Who said anything about being a lady?”
They danced side to side, Llew looking for a gap, Renny blocking.
“Oh, you like playin’ at it like a boy, eh? Well, I ain’t picky. Turn around, we won’t even have to take them pants right off.”
Llew lunged and Renny blocked her path again, grabbing her and throwing her back on the ground. He scrabbled at her feverishly, trying to get her trousers undone. Llew kicked wildly, she punched, she clawed, and when he hit her back she grabbed his face, digging her fingers close to his eyes and returning the pain.
Renny slashed her with the bottle, slicing her shoulder. Llew pressed her hand against his chin, pushing him up and closing her wound.
He screamed in shock and slashed again. Llew grabbed his wrist, healing this new scratch on her arm.
Renny cried out again and now swung the bottle blindly, hysterically, cutting Llew’s cheek, neck, chest, forehead, shoulder, ear, nose, eye, throat …
Somewhere in all the chaos, a strange peace overcame her. She relaxed and let it take her.
Llew woke to the scent of blood, the jaunty tinkle of a piano being played nearby, light spilling across a wood-plank wall, and a heavy feeling in her chest. No. Not in her chest. It was on her chest, and it was sticky and damp.
Smell of blood. Heavy thing. Sticky and damp.
She pushed up. The corpse—she couldn’t feel any breathing other than her own—lifted, teetered, and then the strength in Llew’s arms failed. She fell back and the body dropped down with her.
A glass bottle smacked to the ground and rolled, across the ground, scraping the stones. Dim candlelight from the uncovered window above reflected crazily from its unbeven edge.
A broken bottle. The dead man.
Remembered pain flitted through Llew’s mind. He had attacked her and now he was dead. The events between those two points were a blank.
Her shirt was wet, almost certainly with blood. But whose?
Mustering all her strength, she wedged her hands under the man’s shoulders and heaved again, pushing higher on one side. His shoulder slid to the ground, easing the weight off her. Bracing herself on her elbows, she kicked and slid, freeing her legs.
Clambering to her feet, Llew shook herself. Her nearly-white shirt looked black in the low light. Gross. Only slightly less so because of the knowledge that it was her own blood.
She could just make out his face, frozen in an expression of horror, in the flickering candlelight from the window above. There was no outward sign of injury Llew could see—apart from all the blood, of course.
She couldn’t be found there with the body. The Farries would hang her without question. She turned and ran from the alley, emerging alongside the front entrance of The Diamond Duster—the last of Cheer’s bars to close for the night, and even then usually only at the Farries’ specific request.
“Bit of a rough one, there, lad?” Someone called after her.
Llew kept to the shadows—not that there were many Cheer locals out this late in the dark folds of night, but she had no way to explain her blood-soaked state if she did run into anyone.
The distance back to her hovel by Big River seemed longer than normal, but finally dusty dirt road gave way to swathes of tussock punctuated by the occasional matagouri or lancewood. She pushed her way through long grasses and past branches heavy with yellow bell-shaped flowers, grey in the early morning light, past her thatched, thigh-high hovel, before pulling off her shoes at the stony bank and wading straight into the water, not bothering to remove her clothing. To have any chance of washing the blood from them, she would have to soak them now.
The swift current carried away the sensation of the man’s weight lying over her even as it lifted the blood from her skin and washed it away. It was her blood. It was all hers. He had killed her, and now he was dead.
She had never killed before. Probably because she had never died before. Healing, yes, she’d done that.
She knew what must have happened, and yet couldn’t bring herself to admit it. Surely she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t come back from the dead. No one came back from death.
She pulled the shirt over her head, and then squeezed it under the water, rubbing it and rinsing it and rubbing again. The cold glow of dawn crept across the sky. And the browned blood could not be washed out of the garment. She had left Kynas’ late, but not that late. How long had she lain unconscious? Or dead?
Llew cursed and threw the shirt to shore. She only had one other shirt, and she was almost certain it was getting too small. She would have to spend a good deal of her earnings on a new one. Or take the risk of stealing more than her usual quota. But she maintained a quota for a reason. After all, she only needed what she needed, and being greedy got you caught.
Already half undressed, she fought with her trousers until they jerked free of her body. They, too, were stained with her blood. Damn it! Clothing wasn’t cheap. She could feed herself for free, but if she wanted to mingle with the general public, she had to buy clothes. While she knew how to use a needle and thread, her skills in that department only went as far as basic repairs.
She dug her hands into the river bed and then, with handfuls of sediment, scrubbed the last of the blood from her chest, her face and her arms.
Now acclimatized to the water’s chill, she waded in a little farther and dunked herself under, emerging a few seconds later to wipe her eyes clear of water and slightly-too-long hair.
She pressed her feet through the muddy sediment, feeling it erupt between her toes, and took the time to appreciate the warmth beneath its surface. Strange how that little bit of heat always remained, somehow not leached by the rushing water above. Like her own sense of worth, somehow not drained by living beneath the flow of Cheer’s society.
Cheer. Named for the happiness the first settlers experienced when they started digging gold. The gold was gone. As was the cheer. But Cheer remained.
She peered at her hands in the rippling water. A man had died at her hands. But she had died at his hands first.
It was little consolation, but it made forgiving herself easier.
Her fingers began to tingle and sting from the cold and she made her way back to shore, wiped herself down with handfuls of grass, returned to her little hovel and wrapped her woolen blanket about her. Despite having spent however many hours unconscious, she needed sleep. There was only a couple of hours before the market started.
She drifted off, reveling in the aromas of dew-soaked grasses, damp stones, and thyme.
The heat of the sun on her otherwise frozen toes woke her. Llew lay there a few more moments, pulling the blanket clear of her legs, savoring the heat and drinking in the perfumed air. There was little in her life she cherished, but moments like these almost made it worth it.
She dragged herself from her bed, pulled on her clean shirt—which was a little too tight across the shoulders and hinted at the breasts she kept hidden.
She sharpened her knife on a river stone, grabbed tufts of hair in her other hand and began hacking. The fringe had grown to her eyebrows and the sides were nearly covering her ears. Too long. She cared little for the end result—the less pretty the better.
By the time she finished, the sun was well up. The market would be in full swing.
She struggled into the damp pants, fastened her belt, and headed for town hoping brown stains on brown material would pass unnoticed.
The monthly market was one of the few times the people of Cheer really mingled and paraded. Women displayed their curves with cinched-in waists below elegant necklines, and men wore pressed shirts, trousers hooked up by suspenders, and vests decorated with gold chains and pocket watches. They preened and swaggered, yet still shared the street with the others who had arrived too late to make their fortune. The predominant color was brown in all its shades, with splashes of red, blue or yellow marking both a woman of class or a girl prospecting for tricks.
Llew was invisible among the finery and silent amid the propositions.
She had already collected three purses when something caught her eye. Two things, but there was only one she would be taking with her. One was a knife.
It hung from a belt slung across a pair of trousers filled in a most tantalizing way by a fine arse. She watched the way the folds of material moved and shifted as the owner passed by stalls selling every variety of produce from meats to baked goods, hand-made crafts, and even entertainment in the form of song or dance. If she walked about with a knife like that slung from her hip, people would reconsider pushing her into alleyways. She was halfway certain the knife’s finely carved ivory, or bone, handle had drawn her eye down first. A knife like that made a statement.
She needed that knife.
Her eyes trailed the handle everywhere it went. Her feet followed, and the rest of her body weaved its way between people and stalls.
The arse and knife stopped. So did another street kid thinking he was in with a shot. Anger flashed through Llew. The knife was hers!
So fast she barely saw him move the man bared his teeth and growled at the would-be thief, frightening the desire for the weapon right out of him.
Side-on, Llew could see the man’s vest. A leather vest, heavy with smaller knives. Not small knives, just smaller than the one on his hip.
She nearly reconsidered her need for the knife, but was convinced she needed it more than the man did. He did, after all, have all those other knives at his disposal.
The boy stammered out an apology. Released, he ran with absolutely no care for who he bumped into along the way. So unprofessional.
The long-haired man in his dusty black, wide-brimmed hat turned and muttered something to his curly-haired companion. Both men laughed and turned their attention to a stall selling a range of meaty nibbles. Llew moved closer.
It was hard to stay inconspicuous. People divided around her, she was like rock poking through water’s surface.
While extra height had its advantages, it was beginning to get ridiculous. Llew was keeping pace with most of the boys she knew, and despite most girls her age having matured a couple of years earlier, she only seemed to be getting taller and a little broader. No worthwhile breasts, though, damn it, just enough to compromise her pose as a boy.
As if to rub it in, a stylish dress with a tasteful neckline cupping two beautiful, rounded breasts, hooked Llew’s attention on its way past. It disappeared back into the crowd and she looked down at her own shirt that hung almost straight down—straight down enough, for nearly everyone to assume she was a boy, which was fine by Llew, really, it was. A girl her age, with no parents, was better off being seen as a boy in a place like Cheer. Still, it didn’t stop a small part of her coveting the chance to wear a pretty dress one day. One day. Not today. Dresses tended to lack pockets.
The task at hand was the knife, and the opportunity to take it presented itself while the pair of men were distracted by a clown hopping around with bells attached to his shoes. He jiggled these in the air while he juggled flaming batons. The taller, curly-haired man’s eyes shone in delight at the display. The shorter, darker, knife carrier watched as a fellow professional might: nothing escaped his attention.
She moved in, her hand twitching, her finely honed muscles tensed. Keeping her eyes on the men and concentrating on looking like a casual passer-by to other passers-by, she flicked the domed catch securing the knife in place, then moved with the dark-skinned man as he shifted his weight. She gripped the end of the knife handle between finger and thumb, and pulled: gently, but swiftly.
Llew withdrew back into the throng. She hefted the knife a couple of times and smiled at the weight and balance. There was something so right about it.
She slid the knife into her belt and pulled her shirt as low as it would go. The tip hung below the linen, but it wasn’t enough to give the game away, she was sure.
Now she was less sure. A quick glance over her shoulder removed all doubt. He was enraged, and he and his companion were pushing through the crowd toward her.
Llew took off, ducking fancy hats and parasols. She spared a moment of thanks for the unusually long legs that carried her through the crowd just as fast as the men following her. Skirting parcels and large bellies, and leaving a trail of indignant exclamations, she soon reached the edge of the market and slipped around the corner of a blacksmith’s. Clinging to the wood-paneled wall, she listened. No footsteps to be heard. She took the chance to breathe deeply and relax. Being there, smelling the furnace and hearing the clang, she, as always, felt contempt for the men who’d told her she couldn’t run her father’s smithy when he disappeared. Who were they to judge her ability? Being a girl had nothing to do with it, and she had for years worked by his side.
Hearing a creak, Llew looked up, but could see naught save the eave of the roof. She stepped out from the building for a better look.
A crouching figure pounced. The sun, suddenly revealed, blinded her and she was thrown back, her head ringing from its collision with the road. At once her wrists were pressed to the ground either side of her head. Her vision cleared to reveal a face framed by sandy-brown hair. She recognized the knife-owner’s companion. He was grim, although there was something else there; a hint of exhilaration lit up the blue eyes.
She struggled in his grasp, but he was strong and straddled her across the middle. Another set of footsteps approached and then a hand gripped her collar. The curly-haired man stood as she was wrenched from the ground and shoved into the nearby wall. Something sharp pressed against her chest.
She glanced down at a compact crossbow, loaded, and digging into her sternum. She looked up into a dark, scowling face.
If he hadn’t been threatening her, she might have thought he was attractive despite the scars—a hand-shaped burn under his jaw and a couple of lines through an eyebrow, among others. He had a darker complexion than most Cheer locals, with brown eyes and long dark hair. The wide-brimmed hat cast a shadow across his eyes.
“Well, you’re a ray of sunlight on a cloudy day. Or should that be the other way around?”
“Shut up,” he said. His voice was deep and gravelly though he looked barely in his twenties. He spoke with an accent. Not local, then.
“Back off, Al. He took my knife,” he said over his shoulder without breaking eye-contact with Llew. Then he leaned in so close she could taste his breath. “Now, give it back.” He spoke quietly, but the commanding tone made her jump. The point of the crossbow grazed her chest through the thin shirt.
“All right, all right!” She fumbled at her waistband to free the knife. “Could you consider maybe not pressing that thing in to me? I think you’ve drawn blood.” Sure enough, a little red seeped through the linen. Great. More blood-stained clothing. She held the knife up by her head and managed to bite her tongue to hold back further comments. She guessed he was one to take care of his own problems rather than turning them over to the authorities – something that could work in her favor, if she played her hand right. Of course, it could also go horribly wrong.
He grabbed the knife, and, stepping back, sheathed it. Then his fist was in her gut, emptying her lungs and folding her over. He turned on his heel, saying, “Come on, Al. We got work to do.”
“Thanks for the sport.” Al grinned and his blue eyes flashed. “It’s been fun.”
Clutching her belly, Llew watched them disappear around the corner. A punch in the gut beat being hauled off to the gallows any day. Even as she coughed phlegm and tried to take in a full breath, she was intrigued. They were certainly not locals.
The scratch on her chest stung. She scanned the area about her, then saw what she was after. Across the street, perched in a windowsill, sat a flower box overflowing with flourishing forget-me-nots. Ignoring the sign on the wall decreeing a “Magic-free Aghacia”, she brushed her fingertips across the leaves. They wilted. The pain in her gut eased and the graze on her chest tingled and ceased to hurt.
The flash of a dead man filled her mind’s eye, and for the first time in her life, Llew felt guilty for killing a plant. But she couldn’t return life. Once stolen, it remained in her posession.
Under the weight of the three purses, her trousers sat awry, revealing the slim hip under a too-short shirt. Time to rectify that. She turned back toward the market.
From the street corner she watched the two foreigners take the few wooden steps up to the grocer’s. While physically smaller both in height and breadth, the one called Jonas had an aura of power that labeled him the leader of the two, but they both moved with a confidence Llew envied. She wondered what kind of work they could be doing, but had little doubt that soon they would be moving on and leaving Cheer. Her envy grew.
Yet Llew loved Cheer. It was her home town, and the kind of town where people could make their fortune. The only problem with that was that one needed a small fortune to get the equipment needed to plunder the hills and high-country rivers. These days, absentee rich miners hired locals to do the back-breaking labor so that there was a steady, if dwindling, flow of gold out of Cheer; and less and less coming in.
At least Cheer, and Aghacia as a whole, was untouched by the wars Llew saw mentioned almost daily on the newsstands. That was where Cheer truly shined. Peace reigned. And there was no denying Cheer’s natural beauty if one took the time to go beyond those areas touched by settlers, whose greed recognized no boundary.
She made her way back up the main street, scooting around and past people studying the goods on offer or dawdling away from the temptation to spend more.
Llew cursed under her breath. A one-time close friend, these days Kynas made her skin crawl.
Still, he was about the only real friend she had.
“Hi, Kynas.” She slowed her pace, allowing him to fall in beside her.
“It’s been a good day.” He grinned, patting his pocket. “Did you have a good day?”
She jiggled the pouches hanging off her waist.
“Great,” he said, the jealousy only touching his features for an instant. “You wanna come by my place?”
“No, Kynas. I’m not in the mood.”
“You ain’t been in the mood all summer.” The boy pouted and stopped walking.
Kynas had managed to pick up a job doing odds and ends for an elderly couple. They couldn’t pay him but allowed him to make a small outbuilding on their property his own. Llew had been known to share it with him on cold winter evenings. But it wasn’t winter yet.
For a few years now, they had been friends, looking out for each other. Kynas had even helped her make the transition to life on the street—it wasn’t her fault she had soon outstripped him in the skills he taught. But last winter something had changed. Huddling together to keep warm had become something different. They had experimented, explored themselves and each other. For a while it had been fun. But it wasn’t long before Kynas wanted to play when Llew didn’t. And suddenly the shelter wasn’t free to her any more. Their friendship had come to an end.
She continued walking. She wasn’t about to prostitute herself just to make him feel better. He should know that. Llew had cut her hair short, taken to dressing like a boy, and learned the art of picking pockets to avoid that lifestyle. Besides, there were plenty of others willing to see to his needs. Well, okay, so she’d originally cut her hair and worn pants to please her father, who preferred having a son over a daughter who reminded him so much of his wife. But she had kept the look for her own reasons.
She stopped into Inael’s store to try on a couple of shirts. With little occasion to dress up and not enough money to be concerned about matching styles and colors, she stuck to her usual off-white linen. She bought two shirts, figuring it was always handy to be able to wash one while still having something decent to wear. She thanked old Inael and skipped down the steps and back onto the dirt road heading for home.
The streets were quieter away from the market. Llew strolled along with her head up like any other respectable citizen. When she wasn’t picking pockets, she found that skulking only served to attract more attention, so it was always best to behave like an innocent. The trick was to look natural doing so.
Llew turned to the distressed voice. “Kynas?”
The boy was struggling in the grip of two uniformed men. Farries! Llew instinctively stooped, stepping in by the side of a building.
“Help me, Llew! They think I killed Mr. Maddocks!”
“Well, who else?” one of the Farries said, shaking Kynas. Cursing, Llew pressed herself deeper into the shadows.
Mr. Maddocks was Kynas’ landlord. It would be stupid of the boy to put his deal at risk, but it was a natural conclusion for the lawmen to draw— and any excuse to remove another urchin from Cheer’s streets would do.
“I don’t know!” Kynas wailed, kicking his legs and trying to wriggle free of the Farry’s grasp. Realizing his efforts were futile, he relaxed. And then his finger pointed to Llew. “That one. Sh— he did it!”