Three years, she thought, as she watched the riverbank rush by, the last dilapidated warehouses and run-down shacks of the docks making way for fallow greenery, and later fields of new grain. The spring sun was low in the sky, and the morning chill still clung to her limbs. She fiddled with a frayed fishing net she'd found bundled away behind a small, empty crate, a vain attempt to keep her racing mind down to a temperate canter. Three years, and what had it bought her?
The Greatfording docks had little to recommend them, as residential arrangements went. She'd lived in many places over the years, many of them fouler by far, but Greatfording certainly had its own unique ignominious charm. The pre-dawn blaring of horns, the omnipresent stink of rotting fish, and always at least one underfed manticore thug stalking around at night. At the docks, everyone was prey by default. So why had she stayed there for so long? It was a port town, after all. Plenty of chances to move on, legitimate or not.
It had seemed prudent, perhaps, after being expelled from Brighthaven in the big purge during the war. She had never stayed anywhere for long. Nowhere had ever welcomed her for very long, not in many, many years. Even now, even until yesterday, she was still waiting for word to trickle out that she must pack her rags and move on. If this fool boy and his scheme worked out, perhaps the wars woud cease, for a time, and for a time she could abide in one place. Moving on was hard work, and she wasn't eager to do it again.
Aya had lived in the Greatfording docks for three years. It was a place where questions were not asked, and that suited her perfectly well, for she was very good at not asking questions, and even better at not answering them. Plank and mudbrick shelters were built haphazardly, room pasted over room with little art and no forethought. Any family that needed a little extra income could tumble together a few piecemeal walls and a cot and call it a room for rent, and charge for it more than one girl could afford to pay. So they lived in pairs, working by day and sleeping by night, or the other way around.
She worked the docks in the morning. Before daybreak she would trudge to the city gates, where disgruntled, sleepy farmers waited in a long line of carts and barrows to be admitted to the city markets. There, she would buy bundles of fresh-cut flowers, cheaply before they reached the stone-built markets of the inner city. And she would take them back to the docks and sell them almost as cheaply, wandering by the market gate without ever straying past the invisible line that separated the inner city from the outer one.
It seemed an awful lot of work, just to survive. Still, she preferred it vastly to plying a trade by night. Once the last of her wares was gone, she would gather her pennies and go off to find her dinner, and then back to her little cot in her little mudbrick room, still warm from the girl who'd just slept in it. Very little was left to do anything but survive with; little time, and even less money. In the early days she still tried to set away a coin, here and there, if only by skipping a meal or two. With time, the futility of the endeavor seeped in and she gave up. It was not as though she had anywhere to hide her fortune of pennies, anyway.
After three years of doing nothing but surviving she was hungry for more than food, weary of more than sleep. She couldn't say what had drawn her to follow the two crisp voices that invaded the murk of the dockside, that morning, near sunrise. The voices of boys who were shouting out that they didn't belong, and would soon be unbelonging more permanently. What made these arrogant uptowners think they could survive a morning in the outer city, she didn't know. But she knew she could keep them alive, if she chose to.
Would a man born of the inner city be generous enough to reward a dockgirl who'd saved his life, when to do it, she had to prove him the fool? A risky endeavor. One would think that even a rich man's stinginess would be plenty for her, but if Aya had learned anything from her years at Brighthaven, it was that the wealthier the man, the greater his capacity to be miserly. Gold did strange things to men's minds, she had noticed.
So why take the chance? She could say she was leaping at an opportunity that would not present itself again. Certainly, she couldn't imagine being offered given such a preposterous offer a second time in one lifetime. She could say that, for three long, wretched years, she had not been merely surviving by the claw, but laying low and biding her time, waiting for an opportunity that would sooner or later make itself known. Not that she could have predicted what form it would take. That went beyond foresight and into foretelling, a vocation she had no interest in.
In years to come she would look back on that sunny spring morning and wonder whether she had truly leapt at an opportunity or had just gotten lucky. Whether she had been lying in wait like a hunter, or waiting like prey. In the docks the common wisdom was that hope made you weak. Had she listened to such nonsense she would have succumbed to the indifference of despair, and if that had happened, she surely would have died in that place. So she chose to believe that she'd been strong enough to resist, hiding in the shadows, anticipating her return to the sunny lands that lay beyond.