Thieves at heart, p.1
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       Thieves at Heart, p.1
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           Tristan J. Tarwater
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Thieves at Heart
THIEVES AT HEART

  The Valley of Ten Crescents, Book 1

  by Tristan J. Tarwater

  Copyright 2011 Tristan J. Tarwater

  https://www.backthatelfup.com

  This ebook may be shared or given away to other people so if you want to share this book with another person, please do. Thank you for spreading the word.

  This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

  Table of Contents

  Chapter 1 – Out of the Dregs

  Chapter 2 – A Contract of Emotion

  Chapter 3 – First Impressions

  Chapter 4 – Cruel as a Child

  Chapter 5 – Misconceptions & Miscommunications

  Chapter 6 – Trial by Blood

  Chapter 7 – Something for Nothing

  Chapter 8 – Growing Pains

  Chapter 9 – A Cord, Cut

  About the Author

  CHAPTER 1

  OUT OF THE DREGS

  “Tavi, I really wish you weighed more, girl. You can never pull these things tight enough!” Prisca the Tart stood up from the bed, examining the ties of the wide belt she wore under her bust in the full-length mirror. A look of disappointment came over the woman’s highly painted face as she looked over the leather cords crisscrossing her back, brown threaded through pale pink, matching the dress she was wearing. Her light eyes lit upon the tiny bit of the girl reflected in the mirror, a small brown hand crawling away once it was noticed. The woman sighed and laughed, brushing out her skirts as she walked back to the bed and sat in front of the little girl, the hay and feathers settling with a rustle under her weight. “Come now, sweets, use those tiny fingers of yours and fix what you’ve done.”

  “Yes, mam,” came the quiet voice, the girl’s head bowed as she went to work. Skinny legs shifted under the girl’s small frame and she scratched at her greasy dark hair, what remained of her locks barely long enough to cover one slightly pointed ear. Her hand brushed against the other ear as her hands went to Prisca’s laces. Where there was supposed to be a point was instead a straight line, pink and tender where a knife had cut the cartilage away. It still sent a shiver through Tavi when she touched it. The loss of her hair meant she couldn’t hide the telltale signs of her blood or her past and her face grew hot even now, recalling Prisca’s announcement and remedy. Lice and a shave. “Can’t have bugs hopping about when I’m on business,” Prisca had said as she shaved off the girl’s knotty black locks. Dark eyes glanced toward the mirror and Tavi wondered if she could look at her own reflection without crying yet. The assurance that she wasn’t the only girl on the Row to have had her head shaved didn’t help. Slender, nimble fingers tugged at the cords, already warm from the woman’s body heat, and the little girl coughed slightly as she worked, pulling back on the ties as hard as she could.

  “You’re not coming down with something now, are you?” Prisca asked, breathing in sharply as the little girl found a very loose spot and tugged hard. “The minute you start feeling ill, you must let me know so I can get you something for it. Can’t have sickness about, you know.”

  “Just clearing my throat, mam,” Tavi said, untying the tie at the top and placing her tiny foot on the woman’s ample backside, leaning back with all of her weight and grunting as she did so, the woman holding onto the bed frame so hard her knuckles were white. The girl frowned with a mouth slightly too big for her face and she carefully tied a bow, making sure the cords were the same length at the ends. “I still don’t understand why I have to do this if you’re to take it off anyway.”

  “Oh, Tavi, dear.” Satisfied with the tautness of the garment, the woman turned to look in the mirror again, tucking a blonde curl behind one ear while letting another fall across her face. “You’re a bit young to understand, but I’ll teach you in time. I don’t know how you elfy ones grow, but I suspect sooner than later you’ll be ready to answer calls, with the priestess’ blessing.” Prisca dipped a finger into a pot of ground clay and vegetable juice, running the digit over her eyelids. The faint smoky color made her blue eyes seem even bluer in the light of the lantern. Tavi watched with some interest as Prisca picked a heartberry out of a bowl of fruit sitting on her nightstand, rubbing it against her teeth and lips before she ate the berry whole. “And,” the woman added, holding the fruit out toward Tavi. The little girl pressed her lips together before her dark fingers darted out, picking out a tart greenberry, her face screwing up as its sourness danced across her tongue. Prisca laughed, a sound like a cackle and a chuckle all in one. “You really must start eating more and eating the things I tell you. You’re far too thin! Can’t have men thinking they’ll snap you in two. Your red earth will never come if you don’t fill out, love.”

  A bell above the door chimed, the dented metal causing it to ring strangely. Prisca clapped her hands with glee, reaching over for a vial of scented oil she had been gifted recently. The fragrance was of something Tavi had smelled before but couldn’t place. Prisca said it was distilled moonflower and something the girl had never heard of that was supposed to ‘tighten mens’ trousers.’ The woman turned the bottle over on her finger and dabbed between her breasts before running the still-shining finger across her neck, the way someone might do to indicate they were going to slit someone’s throat. She then placed the bottle back on the nightstand, as it had been a gift from the person she was expecting. Prisca had told Tavi it was good to display gifts the customers had given when they visited. Excitement made the woman bounce up and down on the mattress, her hands clasped over her heart. “This could be it!” Prisca squeaked lustily, blushing through her makeup. “I think it is. Make yourself scarce now and have at it; you know what to do.” Before the Tart had finished giving her orders, the little girl had already ducked into the space between the walls as always, careful to place the upholstered chair close enough to the secret hiding place so she could reach it easily but still remain hidden as she went about her side of the business.

  When she had originally started picking the pockets of customers for Prisca the Tart, the anticipation always filled her with fear and excitement. After a few months of sliding back the hidden panel and rummaging around for coins, charms or other things the men would never report stolen to the local browncloaks it had become mundane, almost easy. However, today was different. Tonight was the New Moon, and as Prisca the Tart had always done on the New Moon, she and Brass Sera and Kind Gia had gone down to the soothsayer to have their fortunes told. The soothsayer was a short, wizened woman, shrouded in a thick brown cloak. She sat on a street corner, offering fortunes for coin or food. All that was exposed of the woman was her deeply creased face and her curled, spotted hands, gnarled from the twisting sickness some old people got. It made Tavi’s skin crawl to look at them. The old woman scared Tavi and she had told Prisca as much but her mam had shaken her head and laughed in response. The old woman had turned the cards over for Prisca and informed her that from a secret place, a boon would be in her room before the moon set.

  Tavi could make out her benefactor from behind the false wall, seeing her large bosom rise and fall with each breath. She couldn’t let her mam down. Her stomach fluttered as she considered what good fortune would come their way. What would the men have in their pockets? Maybe someone with a good deal of money would take Prisca ‘into his pocket’ and by association, Tavi would benefit as well. Her mouth felt dry and she licked her lips, waiting, her heart pounding as the sound of booted footsteps came closer.

  The door opened and for a few breaths, no one walked in. Then
Prisca clapped her hands joyfully and the man entered, closing the door behind him with a low thud, shaking the walls. Tavi narrowed her eyes as she looked through the peek-hole. She thought she recognized the boots and strained her ear to listen to what the grown-ups were saying.

  “Ah, Prisca…beautiful as always,” came the deep voice, muffled slightly by distance and wood. His boots were well worn but had once been fine, a deep mahogany brown color offset with tarnished metal buckles. There was something funny about the heels of the boots and the sound they made whenever he walked in, but the girl could never quite place her finger on it. Prisca stood up from the bed, only to stop short, laughing raucously as the man rushed toward her and threw her down onto the already rumpled sheets and well-used mattress.

  This was the part Tavi was interested in, though not for the reason most people would be. The little girl silently thanked the Goddess that the man had come to collect, and quickly. Sometimes Prisca and her clients would talk for a while, the Tart pouring them a glass of beer or allowing them to read things they had written for her. The more time they spent doing this the longer Tavi had to sit in the crawl space, waiting for an opportune time to get to work. On one occasion a fellow had talked to her mam for so long, Tavi’s legs had fallen asleep. Prisca had had to pry her out of the wall, laughing the whole time and apologizing while all Tavi could do was cry as the blood rushed back into her legs, drawing tears from her eyes and curses from her young mouth. But the man whose boots she liked and wondered at was making good and quick on his money. She held her breath and listened to be sure that they were fully occupied with one another, the bed creaking and rustling with their movement before the little girl slid back the tiny panel in the wall.

  Tavi examined the jacket tossed carelessly onto the high-backed chair, the upholstery worn and faded after various types of use. The jacket was unremarkable. The pockets faced her, which would make her job even easier. Depending on whether the event was ‘quick and painless,’ as her mam told her most business transactions were, or ‘pleasure and leisure,’ Tavi would decide if she should check for inner pockets, where most of the better items were hidden.

  Her hand was wrist deep in the left-hand pocket when she heard Prisca squeal and the man say something, the woman laughing in response. Tavi smiled to herself, a small, excited smile within the dark between the walls. A deeper inspection would be made.

  The little girl took a deep breath before creeping her hand forward, sliding it over the fabric and through the folds, searching for an inner pocket. A lip of fabric brushed against her fingertips and she grinned, listening carefully before letting her fingers slip into the surprisingly silky, soft lining and into the hidden pocket. Tavi felt something cold and hard, her tongue slipping its way past her lips as she wondered what it could be, her fingers trailing over the length of the object…a dagger?

  Before her question could be answered and before she even realized what was happening, there was a loud thump and the shock of her wrist being grabbed firmly by a strong hand. She squeaked and tried to pull her hand back, horrified to have her hand not move at all, and was then knocked unconscious when whoever was holding onto her pulled her with such force that she smashed her head into the wall and everything went black.

  The sound of a match being struck and the smell of sulfur eased the girl’s senses into consciousness. She managed to keep her body still, trying to make sense of where she was in the dark. Her head still throbbed with a dull pain. She felt loose, scratchy straw under her bare legs and tickling her neck. The smell of wet stones was close. Her good ear perked up as she heard someone walking around. The darkness turned to shadows and oranges and the stink of sulfur made her wrinkle her nose. When the little girl finally summoned the energy to turn her head, she saw the man sitting on a chair in front of her. Tavi moved her hands, bound at the wrists, and looked to him, the candlelight dancing before her. Her mouth was dry and she felt like crying, but she swallowed and managed to speak, her voice sounding less brave than she had hoped it would.

  “Where…where am I?” The question bounced around the room in a way that made her feel small. A drip of water splashed to the ground, sounding louder than her question, and she chewed her lip as she kept back her tears.

  The man with the interesting boots chuckled, a low, melodic laugh suggesting that she had just told a joke. He leaned forward on his chair, pressing his fingertips together and looking directly at her. His slicked-back hair and scruffy face looked menacing in the dancing light. Deep blue eyes and angled features were familiar to her, roughened by the lack of a shave and fatigue showing in his face but not his eyes. This man had been coming to her mam all through the last three seasons and was a favorite of Prisca. He was able to conjure up whatever the girls needed and had even brought Tavi something when she had pressed Prisca to ask him for it. It had been a pretty pin she had seen in the market, the head a shiny blue-and-white bead.

  On occasion the girl had noticed the man watching her, but Prisca had always guarded her from him, never letting Tavi keep him company if she wasn’t there and instructing her not to answer any questions he put to her. His name was Derk and Prisca said he was well known among certain circles, though ‘the Lurk’ disappeared when he needed to. He was here now. He brought the match to the pipe he held in his hands, pulling on it gently with a quiet breath. Tavi heard the tobacco crackling and the smoke tickled her nose when it reached her. He shook the match out before he flicked it to the floor. Even in the dark, his eyes were intense and he stared at her, pinning her down to the hay with his gaze. He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled faintly, the smoke of the pipe drifting off to nowhere. “Where do you think you are…Tavi, is it? Where do the dregs always wind up?”

  Tavi drew her breath in sharply, her eyes wide with fright. The Jugs? Panic set in and her chest heaved as she started hyperventilating, worry squeezing at her tiny heart and lungs. Prison. He had caught her stealing from him and turned her in. Stories about the horrors of prison made her head hurt more. Loneliness, hunger, pain, the dangers of other prisoners. But she was just a little girl, wasn’t she? Why would he turn her in? She hadn’t taken anything, not really. But here she was, surrounded by stone and nothing but hay beneath her and the table before her. In front of her was a man who had knocked her unconscious with a flick of his wrist. Tavi wanted to scream. Her face felt hot and her stomach felt sick and something dripped down her forehead that felt like sweat. Fear made her whole body quake, dislodging the panic rumbling in her belly. When her mouth opened to scream, a shock of cold water slapped her in the face, dripping over her and soaking into her worn clothing. It snapped her brain away from her terror and the man shook her gently, his laughter sounding more nervous than comic this time.

  “Come on now, I was only playing,” he said, jostling the girl and smacking her lightly across the cheeks. Her mouth popped open like a fish as she gasped for air and cried, the remains of his bad joke drawing tears from her eyes. “It was only a joke,” he said. He tried to meet her gaze but she looked away, still trembling so hard her teeth chattered, tears running down her cheeks. A rough hand brushed a tear away. “Hey, get a hold of yourself,” he said, and it almost sounded gentle. “You’re not in prison. Though you’ve a fear of the Jugs. Means you’ll do your best to stay out of ’em. Means you’ll do.”

  She was dropped back down onto the pile of hay, the man walking back to his chair to sit. Tavi took a moment to catch her breath, the shock of the horrible joke still causing her to shake. She felt so tired after being so afraid. Her head throbbed but her childish curiosity kept her from yielding to the weariness in her young body. “Do what?” she managed to say, and this time it almost sounded like a demand and not a cry for help, kneeling in the hay. “What’ll I do? And what did you do with mam? Did you hurt her?” For the first time she remembered Prisca and the shrill scream that was not her own before it had gone dark. “If you hurt her—”

  “So, you’ve a bit of fir
e in your belly, as I thought.” The man laughed again, reaching into his pack and pulling out something round, the other hand pulling out a small knife, the blade glinting in the scant light. “You’ll do for me what you were doing for her, though more of it, and better eventually. No hiding behind walls and such. As for that woman you call ‘mam,’ who ain’t your mother.” He looked to her again, as if he was accusing her of something, but Tavi shook it off, pressing her lips together. “Well, she’s safe and sound.”

  “She’ll want me back, you know, she’ll come and get me,” Tavi declared, her back as straight as she could hold it through her weariness, the ropes starting to dig into her wrists. Her head itched from the hay but she couldn’t scratch it. The adrenaline surge that had come with her panic now sought to serve her in her assertion and she stood on her knees as tall as she could. “Y’can’t keep me here. I’m hers, fair and square, I’m her girl. You’ll have to take me back.”

  “Except that she gave you up, dear…Tavera. Tavera is your full name, right?” He cocked his head to the side, the light making the angles of his face sharper, more angular, and she would have cowered if she wasn’t trying to be brave at the moment. Derk let the round object in his hand into the light to reveal an apple, red and green on the outside with a leaf still attached to the stem. He cut a segment out of the fruit, bringing the white crescent to his mouth, and took a bite of it, his face pensive as he quietly chewed. The smell of the apple mixed with the tobacco made her stomach rumble. He must have heard because he looked toward her. “She won’t be looking for you, at least I don’t suppose she shall. Seeing as how she gave you up to save her business.”

  What? Tavi felt as if her joints had gone cold and then melted, though her face was hot with shame and anger. Her head fell toward the hay to hide her face and she hoped it was too dark for him to see. “It…it ain’t true, what you say…” she spoke down, into the hay. “She wouldn’t do that. She…mam….”

  “She loved you?” Derk made a sound and Tavera cringed. “I’ve been on the streets longer than you’ve been alive, little one, and I can assure you, no mam ever raised up her girl to lift her skirts for blueies and bits of ribbon. But I’m guessing you know nothing of proper mothers or fathers.” He cut off another piece of the apple and ate it rather slowly, seeming to enjoy the piece of fruit. Then Derk stood up, walking slowly toward Tavi. His figure loomed in the balance between the light from the candle and the darkness of the room.

  “But you’ve no need to worry, little Tavi. I’ve been watching you for quite some time and I know what you can do and I know what you’ll be able to do.” He said it quietly. It made Tavera turn her head to look up at him. His eyes were big, as if he were excited. “And, like a real father teaches his children, I intend to take it upon myself to teach you. No more picking pockets of poor saps and coming up with old scraps of fabric or rinds of cheese. No more stealing sausages off the spits and burning your fingers for what you foolishly deem a feast. I’ve a plan and an interest in you. And I can assure you, I won’t be giving you up to no one. You’re my girl, now, and I’m your pa.”

  He knelt down by the little girl, supporting her with one arm and bringing the apple up to her face. At first she didn’t understand what he was doing but he pushed the apple toward her mouth. She could smell how sweet it was and finally she bit down into it, half expecting him to pull it away but hoping he wouldn’t. He fed her the apple, not minding when the juice dripped onto his hand as she gobbled it down, the bit of food bracing her against her weariness. When the apple was done he threw the core away into a corner of the room and stood up, brushing his hands on his pants.

  “Now, there’s a party upstairs I am expected at and I don’t want you there. It ain’t for little girls.” He wagged his finger at her as he said all this before he wiped his dagger on his pants, the blade disappearing within his clothes with a flick of his wrist. “I’m keeping you tied up for now but I’ll be back soon. We’ll leave tomorrow at the beginning of the first watch. Try to get some rest.” He bowed to her in a comical way but his jest didn’t make the little girl any less frightened. He chuckled when she didn’t and grabbed his pipe and hat off the table.

  “Wait! What if the candle goes out? Where’re we goin’ after this? Why are you doing this?” She threw all these questions at him as she forced herself up again. Her heart thumped in her small chest and the corners of the room seemed somewhat darker and more menacing as the man made to leave. Derk reached up and grabbed hold of a rope that hung down from the ceiling and pulled down a set of stairs, the light from above ground seeming warm and inviting. He turned toward her, putting the hat on his head, and looked at her quizzically, a smirk on his mouth.

  “You’ll be asleep before the light goes out. As to where we’re going, I’ll know by the end of my party. And as to why…I don’t feel like explaining now. I don’t have to explain right now. But I swear by Her tits, it’s for your own good.” He bowed again, more deeply than before, so deep his hat fell off. Derk smiled as he picked it up, smacking it against his leg before he set it back on his head. Then he walked briskly up the steps, his boots making the same strange sound they had before.

  For her own good? She trembled slightly as she laid herself down on the hay, trying to get comfortable with her hands behind her back. What he had said frightened her and excited her. Her own good? What did that mean? What one person called ‘good’ sometimes meant a different thing altogether to another. Prisca had said cutting all her hair off was for ‘her own good.’ Tavera’s face grew hot again as she thought of Prisca. Hadn’t she promised the girl she would take care of her? The woman had shared her bed with her, kept her warm, keeping her safe from the men who had asked after her, promised to teach her what she would need to know to make a man or a woman happy. Tavi swallowed the lump in her throat, sniffing to keep new tears from falling across her face.

  She’d been sold before, so why would a prostitute’s silly promises count for anything? Besides, Tavera told herself, her tongue darting out to lick up a salty tear, she didn’t want to be a prostitute anyway. The dressing up, the makeup, the bells, the peddling on the corners and steps of the temple…Tavera didn’t like any of it. She didn’t want to sell anything, let alone trade purses. She liked watching the people go by, trying to figure out where they were going, not trying to get them to come home with her. And though she did like taking from people and Prisca had encouraged it, Tavera felt like it was just another trick. Tavera was just another way for Prisca to get more out of her clients. When she had asked questions, Prisca had always laughed at her.

  The little girl felt her weariness well up suddenly, the candlelight fading slowly as her eyes fluttered closed, her thoughts making a final circle as they started to fade into dreams. Maybe things with Derk would be different. He said he would be her pa. Would it be any different from Prisca wanting to be her mam? She wouldn’t know until he whisked her away from this life into the next and she remembered the way he had looked at her as he fed her the apple, the way he had bowed to her. Maybe he would love her and she would finally have just a bit of good in her life. Maybe he wouldn’t use her and laugh at her. All the times she had encountered him before he hadn’t seemed malicious or cruel. He smiled a lot and tried to help Prisca and the rest of the ladies. And he had gotten Tavi that pin. A smile curled the corners of her mouth as she settled into the hay. It didn’t seem nearly as scratchy as it had before, and before the candle had wobbled three times in front of her drooping eyes, Tavera was fast asleep.

 
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