"--it's the latest fashion, and it does so set off your eyes," Lucie said, threading a delicate string of emeralds through her hair with a maid's careful hands, catching it in curls piled so high on her head it felt like the entire construction was going to collapse any second now. "There. Beautiful. Don't you think, Miss Elliandre?"
The face that looked back at her in the mirror was so primped and painted that she almost couldn't recognize the eyes her maid was praising. Jewels glittered in her hair, matching the ones at her ears and throat, thick ropes of gold and green against the dark satin of her dress. Lucie's skilled hand had outlined her eyes thickly with black kohl, making them seem larger, and carefully painted crimson emphasized the bow of her mouth, turning it into an inviting curve. She could have stepped out of any fairytale, a princess fit for a prince.
She didn't even look real to herself.
"Are you nervous?" Lucie chattered on, oblivious to her silence. "They say Euclid is very handsome, but you've nothing to worry about there, miss, I'm sure he'll forget every woman he's ever seen when he catches sight of you. If he doesn't fill up your dance card then he's not worthy of you, miss, if you don't mind my saying so. Everyone says you're the best dancer in the county, miss; why, your mother had slippers made up for you for the occasion, they'd slipped my mind, I'm so sorry. I'll just go fetch them." She curtsied out of the room, and as soon as the door had closed safely, Elliandre slipped inelegantly to her elbows. She wanted nothing more than to bury her face in her hands, but if she smudged her makeup now, she'd have to sit through another two hours of Lucie's tugging and pulling and gentle scolding, and her ass was already numb. To use a forbidden turn of phrase.
She scowled at herself in the mirror, delighting in the way it distorted her face, creasing the powder Lucie had oh-so carefully applied. Who cared how handsome Euclid was? She'd seen more than enough handsome men in sixteen years, and danced more than enough dances. She owned more than enough pairs of slippers, as well, although her mother seemed to take it as a personal injury if her daughter wasn't outfitted in the very latest fashions; the better to -tastefully, one of her favourite words, second only to ladylike- show off their wealth. If she just wanted to play dress-up, she could have bought every doll in the country with her much vaunted wealth.
Instead, she was going to have to spend another endless evening smiling and making nice, giggling and flirting and pretending to be brainless so she didn't scare off the latest parade of suitors her father had prepared for her.
"Gag me with a spoon," she muttered to her mirror, and then quickly looked around to make sure no one had heard. Tasteful or not, her mother still had no problems taking a slipper to her if she misbehaved. What a shame she wasn't as empty-headed as her mother tried so desperately to demonstrate. Perhaps the gentlemen her mother wanted to marry her off to so badly were scared off by brains, but if they honestly wanted to marry the kind of frivolous, empty-headed socialites she was forced to associate with, then they were the fools.
"My apologies, miss, for taking so long," Lucie said, curtseying her way back into the room, with the slippers in hand, and Elliandre cursed inwardly, with all the worst words she knew. White velvet, as if there could be anything less practical, studded with even more emeralds and laced through with golden thread. The left slipper alone most likely could feed a small family for several months.
"They're lovely," she simpered as she was expected to, and gathered up her skirts for Lucie to finish dressing her. "I can't wait to dance in them."
"Prince Euclid doesn't stand a chance, miss," Lucie said confidently as Elliandre stood up and took a final look at herself in the mirror. "You're going to knock him dead."
She giggled to cover up her gagging, and flicked open her fan -more emerald green, she never wanted to see the colour again in her life- expertly to hide her face. "I do hope so," she said with a sickly smile, the sugar in her voice making even her feel sick to the stomach. "Lucie, why don't you go get yourself something to eat, you've worked hard today."
The gratitude in her maid's face as she curtsied her way out of the room again made her feel even worse, and the bile in her stomach made it hard to summon up her brave face. Having gotten rid of Lucie, it was only a matter of time before her mother and father came to attend her to the ball. Her mother made no secret of the fact that she was disappointed that Elliandre had never taken to noble ways, and her father was frustrated that he hadn't manage to dispense of her suitably in marriage yet, never mind that she had only been out for a year. She was amazed they found any time to bother her at all amidst their maneuvering for power between the other Houses, but somehow they did. Of course, she was forbidden to know any of the politics behind it. Sons were educated in that sort of thing; daughters were pawns on the chessboard of currying favour, used in marriage to make or break strategic alliances. Sometimes she didn't think her parents even liked her; at other times she really thought she felt the same.
Her mother bustled into the room without knocking, as always - god forbid Elliandre might have any secrets of her own, although adults always had cupboards full of them - her dress a more stately and mature version of Elliandre's own, beauty grown to ripeness.
"I suppose it will do," she said, casting a critical eye over Elliandre. If her mother was allowed to have her own say, she would have been dripping with jewels, barely able to move under their weight with scarcely an unadorned surface, and every dress in her closet would have been silk instead of only half of them. To say the least, they had little in common, and their arguments were known among their House for their fire.
"You look, uhm, lovely, Elliandre," her father said, adjusting his tie. "Very lovely."
She loved him, but her father was a weak-willed man, who had succeeded their House for a lack of any other heirs. Despite all her lectures to Elliandre, her mother ruled their House, and ruled it with an iron fist with only a pretense of a silk glove over the top of it. "Shall we go?" He less offered his arm to Dsigane than she took it, and after some significant looks over her shoulder from her mother, Elliandre followed reluctantly.
The ball was exactly the same as every other ball she'd ever been to, which meant that people stood around for hours nibbling on hors d'oeuvres that were too small to actually be called food, and chatted –simpered, more like it, Elliandre thought darkly as she watched two women compliment each other in sickening sweet language on their dresses and ask which designer it was from- with people she knew perfectly well they couldn't stand. Fifteen minutes after the ball they'd be pacing their rooms and mentally destructing them. Euclid hadn't arrived yet and she danced one dance with a pretty white-haired man before her mother practically dragged her off the dance floor before the last strains of the orchestra's song had died out.
"He's a commoner!" Dsigane hissed. "Can't you see he's wearing a uniform? Are you trying to embarrass yourself?"
She remained silent because there was nothing she could say that wouldn't anger her mother further, but she did stamp her precious velvet slipper a little under her dress.
After that incident she was relegated to the sidelines and forced to watch while all of the other young ladies danced with handsome young men. Her mother had assigned her an elderly chaperone, and she bit one side of her mouth to stop herself from yawning as he went on incessantly about the good old times when the dragons hadn't been in control and how he'd fought in three wars before he'd lost his leg, and she had to excuse herself to go to the powder room before she hurt him.
She stared at her powdered, primped reflection at the mirror and grimaced, looking for a real expression.
Her mother would never notice, and the damn things itched. Checking quickly to make sure the coast was clear, she kicked her slippers halfway across the room and ripped her stockings off and shoved them in the vanity, where they would hopefully only be discovered by the servants a long, long time from now. And she wiped off some rogue as well for good measure, but the stuff seemed permanently affixed to her face.
Time to go dance some more.
By the time she got back to the ballroom, her mother was waiting impatiently for her, with Euclid fidgeting nervously by her side. He kept shooting longing looks to the other side of the room where Melnini was dancing with another noble. Only a blind person –and her mother could be very, very blind when it suited her- couldn't see that he was madly in love with her and her him. It was only the mutual avarice of their two families that kept them apart.
Euclid gave her a weak smile, and she made herself return it. He wasn't such a bad guy really for a prince, just as dull as dishwater. If their parents actually ever managed to force them together they'd end up hating each other for the rest of their lives, but all her mother ever saw was the power she could gain from uniting the two Houses in such a strategic match. Her father couldn't care less as long as there was food in his belly.
The orchestra struck up a melancholy tune, and after a few meaningful looks from his father, Euclid asked her to dance. Her mother pushed her forward discreetly, prompting her to take his hand. Euclid looked like he wanted to cry as he lead her to the dance floor and tentatively placed his hand on her hip. Melnini was looking their way and pretending she wasn't. Both sets of parents were gazing at them fondly and whispering amongst themselves. Elliandre wanted to scream, as undignified as it was. Or throw something. Preferably at her parents.
The dance was short and clinical. Gratefully, Euclid led her back to her seat and promptly disappeared, probably to meet with Melnini without his father's disapproving eye. She sat down and massaged her foot where Euclid had stepped on it, and wondered if she could do the same without attracting notice. The look on her mother's face if she caught her liaising with another boy would be enough to get her through an entire year's worth of balls.
She had to dance the rest of the night's allotment, of course; her dance card was full and her mother wasn't putting all her eggs in one basket just yet, not until Euclid had that ring on her daughter's finger. Elliandre smiled and went through the motions and made sweet talk, just sweet enough to pique their interest, not enough to get herself into trouble, but her mind was elsewhere. So were her parents, and it worried her that as much as she scanned through the mill of people and artistically arranged pot plants, she still couldn't see them. God knows what they could be planning if they were out of sight.
The orchestra laid down their instruments for the intermission and Elliandre headed back to her seat in relief. Even the old man's chitchat was preferable from dissuading spoiled young lords from trying to grab her. Her parents were still nowhere to be seen, so she took the opportunity to pour herself a glass of champagne. She could use the fortification.
The master of ceremonies, a middle-aged duke with curling mustaches was climbing the stairs up the side of the stage. So there were going to be speeches after all, then. She wished she'd brought a pillow; these things were inevitably enough to bore you to tears, and wondered if she could take a discreet nap behind one of those pot plants.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the duke announced, twirling his mustaches ostentatiously until everyone looked his way. "It is with my greatest pleasure to let you know that Houses Larianinn and Sfboli have an announcement to make." There was a smattering of applause, and as Elliandre's stomach sank, her mother –dragging her father alongside her-- Euclid's father, and his pretty blonde mother mounted the other side.
No no no, her mind screamed, and her grip tightened so much on the champagne glass she was still holding the stem trembled. Melnini suddenly went pale, and Euclid looked like someone had kicked him in the stomach.
"We are both very pleased" –well, her mother looked pleased at least, like a cat who'd had an entire jug of cream- "to announce that Houses Larianinn and Sfboli will soon be united by the engagement of Euclid and Elliandre."
Melnini fainted dead away. A group of men descended on Euclid to shake his hand and congratulate him, and she could see almost every other woman in the room heading towards her to do the same. There was only one thought in Elliandre's mind: she had to get away.
"Please excuse me, I need to go to the powder room," she said, and bolted.
"You're in deep shit now, Elliandre," she said to her reflection as she wiped off her makeup. As long as she stayed behind the locked door she was safe, but she was going to have to leave sometime, and then what was she supposed to do? She was sure of only one thing: that she was not going to roll over and be Euclid's dutiful little wife and lead an elegant noble life like her mother wanted her to do. She needed to get away, but where was she going to go? The rest of her family would gleefully cart her back to her mother in exchange for front row seats at the wedding, and her mother, furious at having her big moment ruined, was probably sending out search parties already.
No, she was going to have to do something drastic.
She undid the lock cautiously and peeked out. The coast was clear. Good. There were a dozen powder rooms in the building, so they could search and never find her. She took her shoes off and crept as quietly along the corridor as she could, jumping at every sound that could have been a footstep. She slammed the lock down as soon as she made it safely to her room, and lit a candle, swearing when she burned herself.
She threw the doors to her cupboard open speculatively, but her heart sank as she thumbed through silks, velvets and more silks. Nothing really suited for a daring escape. At the very end were her less attractive winter clothes. She rolled two woolen gowns together and secured them with a piece of ribbon plucked from her hair. It might be a while until she could return, and it was starting to get cold. She didn't need make-up or anything like that. No velvet slippers, either.
Food. She paused. There was no way she'd make it undiscovered down to the kitchen. She'd just have to try and buy something, and she touched the comforting weight of her purse at her belt. She had more than enough, anyway, and nothing better to spend it on.
The more she looked around the room, the sicker she was of everything. Every surface seemed to be laden down with useless things. Who needed an eyelash curler? Perfumes, rouge, endless rolls of ribbon, bracelets, smelling salts... god, what a world she lived in. Well, she wasn't going to need them now.
Now it was just a matter of orchestrating this daring escape. She put an ear to the door, and drew back when she heard footsteps. That avenue of escape was out, then. How to... ah.
Elliandre flung the window open and peered apprehensively into the darkness below. There was no guaranteeing she wouldn't land in a rosebush, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Heroines in novels did it all the time so it couldn't be that hard. She peeled her stupid, silk sheets off the bed and fashioned them into a rope. They were slippery and didn't want to stay together, but she'd just have to pull the knots as tight as she could and hope for the best. She was only on the second floor, anyway.
"Elliandre!" her mother bellowed, and she must be spitting if she was angry enough to raise her voice in public like that. "Come out of your room right now!"
Her bed was too heavy to drag, so she tied the end of the sheet to the bedpost in the best knot she knew and hoped for the best. She fed the makeshift rope out the window until the end disappeared into the darkness. God, she hoped it was long enough.
"Elliandre! You are not too old not to be spanked!"
"You're never going to spank me again if I can help it," she muttered under her breath, looked away, and tossed her parcel out the window. There was no audible sound of breaking, so that had to be a good sign.
"If you don't come out right this second, I'll have the guard break down the door!" her mother threatened, and Elliandre snorted. Jarvis was too old to break anything down, let alone an oak door. "I'm serious, Elliandre Larianinn!"
So am I. She put one foot gingerly on the windowsill. The sturdy leather of her winter boots found purchase, and, gathering her skirts, she carefully took the rope in one hand and tried to catch her balance on the sill with the other. God, it looked like a long way down.
"Elliandre!" her mother screamed, accompanied by some ferocious beating on the door.
"Why did you have to call me that anyway? It makes me sound like I'm a queen or something," she muttered, gathered her courage, and stepped out into the darkness.
For a second she hung in terrifying nothingness. She couldn't feel the wall beneath her, and her feet kicked in empty air, battered by the night breeze, swallowed up by the blackness, and she thought for sure she was going to fall. But the rope held. The rope held, and she found her purchase against the bricks. Taking a deep breath, she tried to take a step down. Boys might be encouraged to engage in outdoor pursuits, but her mother had always thought the best place for girls was inside.
The sheet slipped through her hands and she fell, too frightened even to scream, for a few metres until she managed to catch it again with wildly flailing hands. The sudden weight nearly yanked her arms out of their sockets, but at least she wasn't falling to a messy death anymore.
She went on at a more sedate pace, carefully feeling for each step. Her skirts were getting in her way, though, and her arms hurt, and her heart was thudding so hard she couldn't hear anything else. Had they found her? How did heroines do this all the time without fainting?
And the wind was blowing in her ears, making it hard to hear if anyone was in pursuit. Hopefully her mother was still upstairs pounding on the door; once they actually got into her room they'd discover what she was up to for sure.
The thought distracted her and she missed a step. Her heart jolted as her feet slid on the bricks, and flailed in mid-air.
"Elliandre! Elliandre! What are you doing?" her mother demanded; she could see just her faint shadow backlit against the window. "You'll kill yourself!"
I won't come back, not so you can just marry me off!
The rope slipped from her hand and she fell, tumbling into the darkness.
It seemed to take forever, but it could only have been a few moments. Before she even had time to open her mouth she was crashing to the ground with a thump that knocked all the breath out of her. She couldn't see anything; she could only feel her body exploding in fiery pain. Dimly, she felt her bundle underneath her hand, and somehow struggled to her feet. She hadn't come so far just to get caught now, dammit, and her mother was going to be marshalling her forces downstairs once she recovered from the shock.
At least the darkness hid her, but she still tried to keep behind trees and bushes as she made her way tentatively to the gate. It was a lot scarier without Jarvis escorting her. She shivered. It was colder out than she'd thought.
Fortunately, the gate was unmanned. Really, if the guards had a brain cell between them they'd be lucky.
And so, Elliandre walked away from her home without looking back.
She was starving.
And her neck hurt.
And she was covered in dirt.
And someone had...
"Oh fuck," Elliandre said, and sat up so fast she almost hit her head on the roof of the narrow lean-to she'd been sleeping under. She didn't even have time to relish being able to swear without her mother threatening to wash her mouth out with soap. The comforting weight of gold at her side was gone. Someone had stolen her purse.
She hadn't felt safe going to an inn last night – for all she knew, her mother had them all staked out, and definitely no one would have expected her to be sleeping rough. Hell, a few days ago she wouldn't have expected it. Naïvely, she'd thought she would have been safe. She was probably lucky her purse was all that was stolen.
Still, what was she going to do now? She'd been relying on having money – she needed to buy passage out of the town and fast; her mother's cronies were going to be searching every nook and cranny for her. She was a sitting duck if she stayed here.
Duck. Her stomach rumbled on command. She'd never skipped a meal in her life, let alone foraged for one. Where was she going to get food if she had no money? Could she really... steal something? Or eat out of a bin? Or beg?
Well, she could turn to a life of crime later, if that's what it was going to come to. For the moment, she needed to do something about her appearance. She stood out like a sore thumb as it was.
Luckily, she'd taken the emeralds out of her hair last night because they were giving her a headache, and they were safely nestled in a pouch in her bosom. So she had some kind of income, at least, although she had no idea what the current market value on emeralds was. She stood up and tried to brush some of the dirt off her dress. She'd been sleeping on her parcel, so her assailant hadn't been able to get that.
There was no one else around, but still she hesitated with her fingers on the buttons. What if someone did come? What if they saw her naked?
"You're just going to have to suck it up, Elliandre," she said to herself out loud to give herself some courage, and pulled her dress over her head. And immediately hugged it to her. The air was freezing! She couldn't get the woolen dress on fast enough. It was much harder to do the buttons up without Lucie's help, but she managed it somehow. She stuffed the silk dress into the bundle, where hopefully she would never have to see it again.
Now. What else? She wished she had a mirror. Hopefully no one would recognise Dsigane's daughter with a bit of dirt on her. She was just going to have to try and stay low and sneak out of town; her face was too well-known to escape notice if someone got a good look at her. Unless she could change that somehow...
She still had her belt knife, thank god; unlike the rest of her things, it wasn't encrusted in jewels which was probably why her thief hadn't been interested in it. She unsheathed it, heaved a deep breath, gathered her hair in a ponytail in her hand and hacked.
It was harder than she'd thought; her hair was thick and the blade not sharp enough to slice evenly through. The end result felt ragged but then she didn't have to see it, and it was a relief not to have the weight on the back of her neck. She wouldn't be able to wear those emeralds in her hair now.
Still. She looked at the pile of hair on the ground a little regretfully. It had taken her a long time to grow that, and a lot of nagging from her mother for it to be gone so easily. Surely no one would recognize Lady Elliandre now with a plain dress and a bad haircut.
Now she just had a find a way out of town. Chartering a carriage was out of the question; her mother would have expected her to do exactly that. The next village that was big enough to lose herself in was leagues away, too far to travel on foot. She was going to have to find another method of transport, and she wasn't going to find one hiding in this barn.
She swept the pile of hair to a dusty, inconspicuous corner and crept out the back door. The alleyways were almost empty, and she felt confident enough to walk out into the street. With the hood of her cloak up, no one would even notice her.
"Out of the way!" someone said roughly and shoved her, and she went stumbling into the wall, scraping her hands on the rough surface. No apology was forthcoming, and when she looked up he was storming his way down the street.
No one would have ever shoved the fine Lady Elliandre. She looked at her scratched hands a little ruefully. Things were going to be quite a bit different from what she was used to, then. Still, it was quite exciting, and she picked herself up and continued on her way. She rarely got the chance to go anywhere unchaperoned, let alone among the unwashed masses, and she found herself developing a taste for people-watching. The girl with the blue hair ribbon had obviously broken up with her beau recently; her eyes were still red-rimmed. The heavy-set man was trying to hide his drinking by chewing mint but his walk was too perfectly straight.
If nothing else, growing up nobility taught you to notice things. Her mother might not have approved of girls playing with politics, but she knew how to read body language and catch those subtle clues people didn't realize they were giving. It was a game among nobility, and the way a woman flicked her fan could reveal a secret message to those who knew how to interpret it. Maybe she could finally put these skills to use now… but she couldn't do anything until she got out of town.
She followed the streets out to the outskirts of the town proper. It was quite a long walk, considering her mother usually ordered the carriage whenever she had to go more than five metres from the house, and she had time to observe the other travellers around her. There were no nobles, just plain, ordinary people in sturdy clothes, some carrying chimney sweeps and hoes and the tools of their trade. Her simple wool dress blended in well with the other travellers and the tired, road-worn look she tried to imitate.
After an hour so, she wasn't just imitating it. She'd passed the gate out of town, and all that stretched in front of her was an endless expanse of dusty road with no end in sight. Could she walk all the way to the next town? What about when it got dark? She shivered, and rubbed her arms unconsciously. She hadn't sat through a thousand of her mother's lectures on how dangerous it was for a young woman to be out alone at night for nothing. And where was she going to sleep? In a bush?
She was much nobler than she'd ever known. Running away from home was harder than she thought.
Her feet really did hurt, though, and her stomach was rumbling. She couldn't do anything about the latter –she should have tried to procure some food in Chantel before her impulses ran away with her- but she could help the former. A farmer's cart was coming down the road, driven by two horses with a full load of hay, and it looked like there'd be just enough room for a slender young woman on the back.
"Good morning," she said with the sweetest smile she could manage as the farmer drew even with her. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to let me ride with you? I can pay."
The farmer looked her up and down, and his bushy eyebrows twitched. "That won't be necessary, missy; hop up. I'm only going as far as Costa Rica, though."
"Thank you very much, sir." She could almost laugh out loud in joy as she scrambled ungainly into the back of the cart. Costa Rica? That was beyond her wildest dreams. There was no way anyone would find her there.
She itched all over, but Elliandre resisted the temptation to scratch. She did not have fleas. She did not have fleas. It was just her dress. It was just time for a wash, that was all. It was just too cold to take it off for long enough for it to dry, that was all, and not because someone had promptly stolen her belongings upon arrival in Costa Rica. The entire city was thick with thieves, she'd discovered as soon as she'd got there, although she was getting better at identifying them. They tended to hang out in groups; thin, ragged looking boys and girls wearing a crazy-coloured misassortment of clothes. She'd gotten better at avoiding them too, which was the only reason she still had a roof over her head. The emeralds had saved her.
Although... she sighed, and changed the bucket again. Rain plinked through the hole. It wasn't much of a roof, but she had to make her money last as long as she could while she thought about what to do. There was no way she was slinking home with her tail between her legs now, but she wasn't getting much of anything else done either. She'd asked in a few places if they'd give her some work, but once they discovered she had no experience doing anything, they goggled and sent her away. She was already skipping meals (her stomach rumbled on cue) and if something didn't turn up soon, she was going to be back out on the street again. The thought didn't appeal to her.
She took out the purse she kept nestled carefully in her bodice (about the only place it was safe from thieves, and even then she had her doubts), and counted her coins again. She was absolutely starving, but she'd already eaten once, and she had to make her money last. Still, even a hunk of bread on a plate looked like a feast when you were hungry. She'd never realized how much she took a chef and three good meals a day for granted. Mmmm... What she wouldn't give for some chocolate cake or cream right now. So far the life of a runaway was pretty austere.
She hadn't given much thought as to what she was actually going to do; her adrenaline was running too high, and her excitement at escaping her mother and travelling to Costa Rica had sustained her for the first few weeks. It was a whole lot more undignified than she'd expected, but at the same time, it was kind of fun: being able to get up whenever she wanted, eat whatever she wanted (even if she had to cook it herself, and her culinary skills were hardly well-developed), no curtsying, no corsets, no smiling at suitors, no parents looking over her shoulder trying to fob her off on the nearest noble. She was free, and the taste was intoxicating.
Unfortunately, food wasn't free, and she couldn't live on a good feeling. There had to be some way of getting food without breaking into her precious funds...
Could she really do it?
Well, everyone seemed to do it to her, and to everyone else in Costa Rica easy enough, so it couldn't be that hard. She drew her hood over her face and slipped out the door. There were always so many people streaming through the main street. Perhaps the merchants wouldn't even notice.
She tried to look relaxed and blend into the crowd as she joined the rush of people in the marketplace, but she couldn't help but feel that what she was planning must be written on her face. Maybe she looked too suspicious with her hood up. No, some other people did as well and even for Costa Rica not all of them could be thieves. It was cold, after all.
Now... how did one go about this? Definitely not the kind of stuff taught at finishing school. One vendor was selling hot vegetable pasties, and her stomach rumbled in response. How long had it been since she'd eaten something warm, let alone hot? She could smell the spices from here. That was her mind made up.
She wandered over nonchalantly, or at least she hoped it was nonchalantly. She didn't want to draw attention to herself. Just a girl out for a walk or doing some chores, hood pulled up to protect herself from the cold. The vendor was serving someone else, and as she walked past she casually swept one of the pastries off the tray and up her sleeve. It was hot! That might have been a mistake; her hands were covered in grease now, a dead giveaway. She made a concentrated effort not to speed her steps –that would draw attention- and melded back into the crowd.
It took every inch of her noble upbringing not to burst into a run right there, but that would only be an admission of guilt. Maybe he didn't even mean her; there were thieves upon thieves in Costa Rica. She chanced a glance over her shoulder, and the cart vendor was gesticulating madly at her, plainly trying to entice someone to chase her, but no one in Costa Rica really cared, and he had too many customers to serve to run after her. She stepped up her pace a little, and disappeared into one of the anonymous alleys that cut through the town. Once she was out of sight, she ran back to her room, heart almost beating out of her chest.
She'd done it! She'd really done it! She sank her teeth into the pastry, juices dripping everywhere. Oh god, it was good. Real, hot food. How had she gone for so long without it?
And she hadn't been arrested or murdered or anything. God, it was easier than she'd thought. No wonder everyone got robbed blind around here if they were that stupid. They deserved if she pinched a pastry or two. A girl needed to eat, after all.
She finished it in two bites a little regretfully and wished there was more, but at least she knew she could feed herself if it came to that.
Still, that, now that it was here, wasn't much fun at all.
Elliandre shivered in her dress, which had never seemed so thin before, and wondered if she could actually put another dress on top of it. She'd thought it was cold before, but now winter was here with a vengeance. There were more and more pinched, piteous faces around the marketplaces, and everyone was on their guard, making it harder to get away with anything. She was beginning to develop a talent for filching things, though. Anyone could inconspicuously slip something into their pockets as they passed by if the vendor wasn't looking, but with a smile and a little sweet talk they wouldn't have noticed if she stole it right out from under their nose. All that noble training had been good for something after all.
She dragged more firewood inside to feed her pitiful fire, and hopefully warmed her hands as the blaze leapt up encouragingly. She'd had to downgrade her room to what was basically a cubby house no one had been inhabiting down one of the back alleys criss-crossing Costa Rica. It was free, which was a plus, but not so much with the amenities. She had a dirty old fireplace too small to warm anything, and some room on the floor to sleep. Still, since she'd taken to thieving, she might as well squat while she was at it. And it was hers. She'd never really had anything that was hers before; just the things her mother had given her.
She still hadn't decided where to go. She'd been steadfastedly avoiding anyone who looked like their grandmother might have been nobility, and she'd been fine so far, but she was still somewhat reluctant to move now that she'd finally gotten a place. The last whispers about her on the grapevine had died out, but it only took one chance meeting and she'd be hauled back to Chantel before she could open her mouth.
But there was still time enough to think about that, and she was hungry. She could really go for a nice hot croissant, maybe filled with custard... her mouth watered at the thought. And there was just the place for it, too, a little stall tucked down the main street. The owner was a massive mountain of man, though, with a bad reputation so she'd avoided hitting it up before, but she had the skills now to pull it off.
He was serving a line of people when she got there. Cold weather, everyone had the same idea. He looked even taller than usual, and meaner. Elliandre gulped, and then steeled herself. She was not going to get caught; she hadn't been since the first time so she must be doing okay.
"Oh, my apologies," she said as she walked past and bumped into the cart. Éclairs, croissants and tiny, pillow-like petit- fours went tumbling to the ground.
"Why, you little..." he said, his mouth twisted into an awful snarl, and while he was distracted looking at the ruins of his wares, she hurriedly –but still as gently as she could- sneaked her treasure into her bag.
"Wait a second," he said and grabbed her by the wrist and upended her bag. His grip was bone crushing. "You little thief!"
She was caught! She struggled to get free, but she was held as surely as by manacles. The rest of the crowd dissipated, wanting to have nothing to do with a thief if they couldn't get their croissants.
"Let me go!" she said, and tried to shake him off again. The experience of being manhandled so casually was new, and she couldn't say that she liked it much.
"Do you think I'm stupid?" he demanded. "Do you know what the penalty for theft is?"
Hating herself for resorting to such a weak tactic, she squealed, but no one came to her aid.
"You shouldn't have tried to steal, little girl, if you didn't want to lose that lovely hand of yours. Save your sniffling for the justice."
A hand? What kind of barbarity was that? There was no way anyone could do that! But the vendor looked deadly serious, and hauled her up on her feet, griding her wrist between his massive hands.
"Come on, we're taking a little trip," he said. Elliandre shook her head and tried to bite him. He swore, and backhanded her across the face. It started to swell immediately. That was going to leave a bruise! Hadn't anyone ever taught him not to spoil a lady's face?
"Let. Me. Go," she said through clenched teeth and dug her feet into the mud. She hadn't worked so hard to gain her freedom to give it up so easily now! No way she was going through life with only one hand!
"Save it for the magistrate, lady," he told her disinterestedly, and dragged her by her protesting wrist. It felt like he was ripping it right out of the socket!
"Ah, it's you again, is it?" A lanky boy stepped in the alleyway, his hair the same colour as moss. His clothes were a mess and he had a long scar running down one side of his face, but he was Elliandre's new favourite person. My saviour!
"Thatz," the vendor said, mouth drooping noticeably.
"Up to your old tricks, Chela?" he drawled, leaning against the gateway. "I'd hate to have to report you to the protectorate for manhandling the ladies again."
"She's a thief!" Chela protested.
Thatz looked at her. Like a stockman would a cow for sale. No one had ever looked at her that way in her life, so frankly appraising, and colour rose in her cheeks. Who did he think he was?
"She probably is, but remember, you and I, we had an agreement, didn't we?"
"Yeeees," Chela said sulkily.
"We keep you safe, don't we? Take care of all your problems. Aren't you happy that your stall has the lowest recorded rate of robberies in the entire market?"
Thatz sauntered over and slung an arm over Chela's shoulders. "But nothing," he said, with a friendly sock to the shoulder. Chela winced. "We'll take care of it, okay? Don't you worry about a thing."
"Look," Thatz said, nudging him away from Elliandre. "You've got a line. You'd better get back to them."
Chela looked back at her with hate in his eyes, and trudged back dejected to his stall. Elliandre began mentally composing a suitable thank you for saving her. Once Chela was safely out of view, Thatz rounded on her.
"Jesus! What were you trying to do, get yourself killed?"
And nobody ever spoke to her like that, either.
"What? I was trying to get something to eat!" she yelled back. It was so unladylike to raise her voice so much in public, but there was something about the boy that really rubbed her the wrong way.
"By getting your hands cut off? Great plan there. Listen," he said, grabbing her by the wrist. She pushed at him, but his grip was like steel. "Obviously you don't know anything, otherwise you would have steered clear of Chela. So here's my advice to you. Go back to wherever you came from and stay out of my way."
The sheer arrogance of the man! "What makes you think you can talk to me like that?" she snapped, wresting her wrist free finally.
"Who are you, the queen of Dusis?" he said, bemused, and she winced. Too close for comfort. "Look, I know everyone in this town, okay? Me and my crew, we take care of the place, and we don't need spoiled little girls like you spoiling it. So why don't you just run back to mummy and daddy and say sorry for running away, and let us do our work."
The loud crack of hand cracking flesh took them both by surprise. Thatz rubbed the red mark blooming against his cheek, and Elliandre looked at her stinging hand in astonishment. She'd never hit anyone before in her life, but if there was anyone who deserved it, it was this brat.
"That will teach you to keep a civil tongue in your head," she said, as queenly as she knew, and glided away as best as she could in a dirty, woolen dress.
"Bitch!" he yelled after her, and she filed the word away in the back of her head. She hadn't heard that one before. "Fine! I don't even know why I bothered helping you anyway. You deserve whatever you get," and when she looked back he was stomping away, shaking his head.
"Oh god, not you again," someone said from behind her, and the vendor's head swiveled, just when he'd finally looked away long enough for Elliandre to sneak one of those luscious red apples into her bag. "Are you trying to make my life difficult?"
"Why don't you just leave me alone?" she hissed, and Thatz laughed, a rough, low sound.
"C'mon, let's walk. You're making him suspicious," and while the vendor did look puzzled, looking at his cart like he just couldn't put his finger on what was different, it was Thatz's fault, not hers. She'd been doing just fine until he started showing up everywhere she went.
"Whose fault is that?" she hissed back, and wrenched her elbow out of his grip. "I can take care of myself!"
"Since you were doing such a great job of it before," Thatz said, and she blanched. He had to keep bringing that little episode up, didn't he? Men! Save a girl once and they thought you owed them for the rest of your life.
"I assure you I'm perfectly fine," she said loftily, intending to put him in his place, but foiled by the fact that Thatz was practically rolling on the ground laughing.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, in what palace did you learn that?"
"Oh come on, as if it's not obvious you're a runaway little rich girl."
She looked at herself. Her clothes were stained in several spots and there was a tear in her skirt that all her fancy embroidery skills couldn't quite cover up. Her hair still hadn't grown back from her impromptu haircut, and she was wearing no makeup.
"How can you tell?" she demanded.
He winked. "Well, I wasn't a hundred percent sure until now."
She really, really, really wanted to hit him, but there were too many people around.
"…but I know every gang around here, and the only person stupid enough not to join a gang would be someone who has no idea what the streets are like. For example." He gave a mock bow. "Miss princess."
Pride and curiosity warred inside her. Curiosity won.
Thatz made a visibly heroic effort not to roll his eyes. "You don't know? I only happen to be the leader of the most successful gang of thieves in Chantel!"
"I don't think that's really something to be proud of," she muttered.
Thatz almost looked hurt. "Anyway, and it's not like I'm impressed or anything, but I'm amazed you haven't just died yet."
"Thanks," she said drily. Actually, sometimes she was amazed herself, although of course she couldn't let him know that. Chills, coughs, myriad other diseases that ran rampant in the dirty parts of town; not enough clean water or clothes, too cold in winter, too hot in summer, and then of course there were the police and the shopkeepers that were only too keen to get their pound of flesh. And that wasn't even mentioning the other thieves. "I do okay." A beat. "You just praised me!"
"What? No!" Thatz developed a sudden, nasty cough. "But it's dangerous, you know. A girl by herself."
"I didn't know you were such a gentleman." She pointedly looked him up and down, and Thatz blushed. Wow. He was really bad with girls.
"Anyway. I was just saying." He had such a hangdog face she almost felt sorry for him. For a brief moment, until she remembered how he had manhandled her the other day. So he thought girls couldn't make it on their own? Well, he could shove that up his chauvinistic ass. She was doing fine by herself (oh, her skirt was scratching her.) No, she didn't need him, or anyone else. Wasn't that why she'd run away in the first place? To experience life for herself? To get away from everyone trying to protect her? "It must be hard. For you. You know. By yourself and all."
"I appreciate your concern, but I can take care of myself," she said loftily, and Thatz sighed.
"See, that's why you keep getting in trouble. Your words and your actions don't match. And your face."
"My face?" she asked, in genuine puzzlement.
Thatz looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole.
"Were you possibly trying to say that you think I'm pretty?" she needled.
"Ahahahaha, no way!" Thatz laughed, but it was so obviously forced that Elliandre almost felt bad for him. Someone so easy to understand would never last a minute in noble society…not that that mattered to her anymore.
Not that she'd say it, not in a million years, but Thatz wasn't that bad-looking. Sure his clothes were patched, and needed to be re-patched in several places, but the same could be said about herself. It was a shame about the scar, but if he scrubbed up he'd be handsome enough. If he had enough noble ancestry, her mother probably would have married them off in a heartbeat. The thought was enough to send chills down her spine.
Running away from home and consorting with (slightly good-looking) criminals. Her mother would have a fit.
"Is there a point to this conversation, or did you just stop by to admire my lovely face?" she said, batting her eyelashes. Thatz made an obvious show of gagging.
"Well, since you're not interested," he shot back, "I guess I'll get going."
"What is it?" she asked, curiosity piqued. "Come on, just spit it out already."
Thatz looked around like he was checking for eavesdroppers. "Youcanjoinmygangifyouwant."
Thatz huffed. "Fine. Never mind. It doesn't matter, anyway." He lifted a hand. "See you around. Or not. Whatever."
Elliandre caught his sleeve as he turned to go. "Do you really mean it?"
Thatz coloured. "Well, it's not safe for a girl by herself."
She turned it over in her mind slowly. Join Thatz's gang of thieves. It had to be easier than going it alone. Someone to back her up. No more lonely, hungry nights. Dare she say it… friends (something, at sixteen and three-quarters, she'd never had).
"Well, how about it?" Thatz said with a moronic grin, obviously anticipating her yes.
And on the other hand, her hard-fought independence. No answering to anyone, living as she pleased. Being responsible for herself. No boys, no silly girls. Free to choose who she did or didn't associate with.
She wavered, and Thatz moved in for the kill.
"There's fourteen of us. We're the largest gang in Chantel, and the best. No one messes with us, so you'll be really safe. There's a couple of girls probably the same age as you, so you'll fit right in."
She raised an eyebrow at his slip.
"Well, maybe not right away," he amended. "But once you get to know everyone, it's really fun, I swear. We all look out for each other. We have a good time. If you come with us, I'll look after you and teach you. Show you the ropes."
She opened her mouth, but the words she wanted to say just couldn't come out. "… let me think about it."
Thatz's mouth turned down in disappointment, but he soon recovered.
"You're probably gonna keep causing me trouble" he skillfully dodged a slap, "so I'll see you around anyway. Let me know when you've decided."
"Okay," she said, hating how small her voice was. Damn it, why couldn't she just get it out? Deserted by her courage in her hour of need. I want to join. Stupid Larianinn pride.
Thatz scratched the back of his head. "Just to be on the safe side, you should tell me your name so I can keep an ear out for you."
Elliandre blanched. No one had asked her name before, so she'd never bothered thinking up a new one. Would he recognise the name? Probably not, but no guarantees anyone he passed the information onto wouldn't. It would also instantly out her as a rich, stuck up, prissy fine lady, and undo all the hard work she'd put into up until now.
"…el… Kitchel!" she said, casting around madly.
Thatz turned around and looked at the vendor behind them selling pastries and home-baked biscuits in bemusement.
"Okay, in no way is that your real name. But whatever. I guess you can call yourself anything you want. One day you'll tell me your proper name, anyway." He finished with a cocky grin.
"Never," she swore.
"Three weeks," he said cheekily, stepping away when she tried to hit him. "You'll come crawling."
"You're the one who'll be begging me to join you!" she shot back. For some reason Thatz laughed at that, and after a few moments she couldn't help it either.
What was this stupid conversation? And why was it so fun?
"Guess I'll be seeing you around then," Thatz said with a hint of a shy smile and a casual wave of the hand. "Princess."
And took off running.
It was dreadfully unladylike to run after him screaming, but she did it anyway.