The low, simple dwellings for people and animals, the dusty streets full of goats and chickens, the bustling but provincial morning market—nothing noteworthy here. It was a good place, Autolycus thought, to disappear into and heal injuries from recent misadventures he’d just as soon forget, including a wound in his leg that hurt when he walked.
The King of Thieves had no place in this town—no one was rich and corrupt enough to qualify for his particular talents. Autolycus had a stash of dinars and wealth in other forms well hidden nearby that he could access for his purposes here.
He began by checking in on some people he knew of—listening in at the one tavern, walking through town and seeing people go about daily tasks, these told him much. It was not a large town—it would be the work of only a few days.
One young matron he had seen before—Maeja—he remembered from years back, seeing her with her first newborn, that one must be ten winters by now, and he remembered there had been more.
She looked tired, worn, and too thin. Listening, he soon knew why, an all-too familiar story: the drought had meant no food from their farm that year, and Maeja’s husband had perished from illness in the winter. He saw her bargain with another villager, offering to do mending, saw the pity and regret in that other villager’s eyes as she declined, having no need nor means herself to pay.
Here was an obvious starting place, and no need for much subtlety here.
The old peddler, whose worn but finely-made clothes were extravagant compared to plain garments adorning the crowd around them, limped, bent over. He bumped into the matron and apologized profusely, handing her back everything he’d just made her drop.
Maeja didn’t notice the moneypouch of dinars that had been added to her belongings until she arrived home, much later. The discovery shocked her, and lifted a huge weight—now she knew how they could all eat that day--and when, later, she thought through the day and retraced her steps, to try to discover how or why the gods had blessed her this way, she saw no sign of how she’d acquired them. When she inquired after the peddlar, no one knew where he could be found, but she heard similar stories of suddenly acquired wealth, and heard rumors that the whole village had been enchanted somehow.
That should do it.
But the peddlar had outlived his usefulness—people were becoming suspicious.
Autolycus ducked into an alley and the peddlar vanished, transforming into a travelling beggar who one no one would give a second look at. Only the make-shift staff would remain the same when he set out again.
But, no need for that just yet. Evening was coming on, and with it a cool breeze. He must rest now to ease the lightheadedness and the pounding of his heart—even the minor exertions of his recent work were becoming too much for him. He carefully eased himself to the ground, and listened.
Someone was crying, someone else laughing. He was outside the dwelling of the tired young matron and her many children, and he could hear her explaining what had happened, and how she could find no sign of that peddlar anywhere. He heard astonishment in her voice at her good luck, and relief. Someone—her next-door neighbor, by the voice--told her to stop worrying, that it was a gift from the gods, to be accepted. He nodded to himself—that worked.
Autolycus smiled slightly, closing his eyes and leaning his head against the wall. He could see the children in his mind’s eye, as he’d seen them playing earlier, and he recalled the lines in the young matron’s face—exhaustion, and lack of good food, and worry for her family. He thought of them all, and felt the pleasant chill of the evening settle on him—he’d felt too hot earlier, wondered about fever.
The voices, the sounds of birds singing evening songs nearby, the gentle wind—everything felt especially vivid right now, as though he were more alive than usual—he could taste the cookfire smell on the air, feel the roughness of the dirt he sat on. This often happened when he’d had a brush with death—which meant, it happened fairly frequently for him—but now the tiredness in his bones seemed to amplify it all.
A satisfying heaviness settled in his limbs, and a sense of peace from being finished with his tasks in the town. They’d been the real reason he’d headed this way in the first place, before recent unfortunate and painful events had intervened.
The breeze felt like a cool hand on his cheek, and this was his last thought before he dozed off.
Desma found him asleep in the alley, the man who had given her mother the dinars. She looked at him, puzzled. He looked like he had been sick, with darkness under his eyes and an ashen cast to his face—like her father had been last winter, before he’d died, and so many others in the village, when the sickness had come. And he didn’t look like he had any wealth at all—but he had given enough to keep them from fear of starving and help them plant again.
Autolycus awoke to the feel of something soft against his face, and he made an appreciative sound—his thoughts flitted to the luxurious couches Cleo kept around her—but then he realized: no, that couldn’t be where he was now.
Opening his eyes, he saw that it was an old, worn blanket that was folded under his head—and wrapped around him was another, keeping the morning cold from him. He was still in the alleyway. Next to him was a plate of figs and a large cup filled with water.
He sat up, bewildered—and his stomach told him to stop questioning and eat.
He obeyed it, thinking—some villager taking pity on the traveling beggar he pretended to be now, and he felt warm at the thought of someone’s kindness.
Then a dark haired child appeared, the eldest daughter of the young matron, ten winters old. She was holding a bowl of something steaming and sweet—barley, honey, and spices.
Desma watched while he ate, but couldn’t wait until he finished to speak what was on her mind. “You were the peddlar. Why did you give my mother the dinars?”
He looked up with startled brown eyes, then became all smoothness, denying what she said: “You don’t know what you are talking about, child. So your mother has come in to some wealth?”
“Yes. We were hungry, and now we won’t be. And my brother can see the healer now.”
“I’ve heard this is an enchantment from the gods, in return for some good someone here has done. Maybe you are the one who performed a task, and the gods are thanking the village because of you.”
She shook her head at his ingratiating lies. “No, it’s not me, and it’s not the gods, unless you’re working for them.”
“Oh no,” he denied instantly, and he sounded completely earnest this time. “I try not to have dealings with gods. It’s not healthy.”
“Then, why did you do it?” She paused. “I promise I won’t tell.”
“What did you see?” He replied suspiciously.
She described his actions—she’d noticed him even before he’d encountered her mother. She could tell what she said was distinctly disconcerting to him—this was fun.
“How is it you see such things?” he said, irritated.
“I don’t know. I was busy playing with my older brother—he’s always hiding—but then for some reason, I was paying attention to you.”
“And how is it you think that was me? Sounds like that peddlar in town I heard about.”
“You and the peddlar are the same,” she asserted again with great patience. This man was beginning to remind her of her littlest brother, who was always sharp about getting out of the trouble he got himself into.
“But, you never see his face.”
“I just know. I can’t explain it.”
“Hmm.” He regarded the matter-of-fact child, and set aside his annoyance at her perceptiveness. He gave her his best disarming smile. “I’ll make a deal with you. I won’t try to argue you out of this, if you really will do what you said and not say these suspicions to anyone else.”
“So you admit it?” She was ridiculously smug—if it weren’t mildly alarming, it would be kind of adorable.
“I didn’t say that,” he said hastily. “Just—I’ve learned it’s best sometimes not to have people pay too much attention to me, for whatever reason. Gets me in trouble.”
Her young face became serious. “I know what you mean. Sometimes I—well, sometimes I’ve had to keep quiet too.”
She looked faintly guilty, and he smiled to himself, thinking they just might have a few things in common. She was smart, alert, and he could see her trying to steal to provide her mother and brothers and sisters with food.
Then his eyes narrowed. “I’m a stranger from somewhere far—how do you know I don’t come here to bring harm?”
“I know,” she said with certainty. “I can just tell, the way I knew to start watching you before you bumped into my mother to give her the dinars. Besides, the really pretty woman told me too, later. But I told her I already knew.”
“What?” he said with sharp suspicion. “Who told you this?”
“She had long curly dark hair, and the strangest blue clothes—like they were shining, and a kind smile, and her skin was a deep dark brown.”
“Another stranger. And you weren’t scared of her?” This kid needed to learn some basic survival skills, including not trusting every strange person she met.
“That would be silly. She was the nicest person.”
“She could have been tricking you, be in disguise.”
“No, she wasn’t—not like you.” The girl looked pleased, then became all curiosity. “Do you know her?”
“No, I don’t, and that’s what worries me.”
“Don’t worry. She wouldn’t hurt anyone, I can tell. In fact—if the gods are blessing this place, like people say, then maybe it’s her. Maybe she’s a god.” The child’s face was bright with her idea, then grew puzzled. “Not one I’ve ever heard of, though.”
“I don’t like people knowing me who I don’t know.” He spoke to himself.
“Isn’t that what you do, though? I bet you know a lot about us—and my mother has never really met you, has she?”
Autolycus ignored the triumphant tone and muttered darkly into his breakfast.
After a bit, he tried again. “When did you meet her—this strange woman who told you things about me?”
“In a dream.”
“What?? Ah, I see.” Well, that was a relief—maybe. There was something so convincing about this child’s certainty and Autolycus found he couldn’t just dismiss this story. He took a conversational tone. “So, what did she tell you about me?”
“She told me what you’d been doing—but I’d already figured that out—and about your disguises—I knew that too. Then she said I should keep what you are doing a secret. I didn’t like that, and we argued some.”
“She said that?”
“Yeah. She said it was safer, for some reason. But, who’s it safer for? Anyway, I agreed, and I keep my word.”
“You don’t think she really talked with me, do you?” she accused. “You think it was just a dream.”
“It doesn’t matter. I know she was real.”
“She’s right about keeping the secret. What you think I did—it’s better for people not to know.”
“Tell me, where do you think I get the dinars?”
“Um, you’re secretly rich, but you just—don’t know how to dress?”
“Ahem. No, on both counts—this is a disguise, remember? I’ll have you know—oh, nevermind.”
“I take them from people who don’t need them or shouldn’t have them. But, if those people ever learned where their dinars ended up—they might be angry, and try to get them back.”
“Oh, you’re a thief,” she replied in an “is that all?” tone.
He grumbled again into the barley.
He finished the barley and began gathering the few possessions he had with him.
“You are going to leave the village soon,” the child surmised, not sounding happy about it.
“Yes. I have other places I need to visit.”
“You could stay here a while and get better. My mom said so—or, she said the beggar could, and you’re pretending to be the beggar, so it’s the same thing.”
Autolycus smiled. “Does she know about this?” he said, indicating the empty bowl.
“I told her the beggar was nearby and looked hungry, and she said I could share our breakfast.”
Autolycus paused his preparations and let his tone become faintly formal. “Many thanks to her and to you, then. Your hospitality honors me.” He smiled again. “And that was some of the best spiced barley I’ve ever had.”
She looked inordinately pleased at that—Autolycus suspected she’d been the one to make it while her mother tended to the rest of the children.
Then she looked uncertain and troubled. “It’s not fair,” she grumbled.
“It’s easy for you--to give thanks to somebody for breakfast, but how do I do it for what you’ve done for us? I have to do it not only for us but for the whole town, since they don’t even know.”
Autolycus was torn between discomfort at being thanked at all—especially for something that, officially, he had nothing to do with--and amusement at the dilemma she’d made for herself.
“Since I didn’t do what you are claiming I did, I don’t think you have to do anything. But, what better way to give thanks for a gift from the gods than kindness to a stranger?—you’ve already accomplished your thanks, with this.”
He spoke these words so gently—much more gently than his earlier, “just-woken-up” crankiness—that Desma almost didn’t notice how scared he was at the idea of being thanked. Almost.
“Then stay with us for a bit. You don’t look well.” She didn’t think he’d deal well with this either, and she was right—his manner became even more evasive.
He got up carefully, using the staff to boost himself up. His leg was stiff and aching, but, in front of the child, he tried not to wince. But she regarded him shrewdly anyway, and he wasn’t sure he could get much past her right now.
“So the staff and the limp aren’t really part of your disguise.”
“Of course they are.” At her skeptical look, he added, “Just because I actually need this doesn’t keep it from also being useful as part of a disguise.”
Desma watched the strange man walk away, slow and limping, on the road out of town. Just at the edge of the forest, he turned back and gave a smile and an extravagant bow farewell.
She would keep his secret, not only for his sake and the woman in the dream, but because it felt good to know the answer to the mystery no one else knew.
Autolycus took a mid-morning rest soon after entering the cooling shelter of the forest—he was feeling better after sleep and good food, but it would take some time for him to be completely back to his energetic self.
He wasn’t sure whether to worry about what that child knew. He trusted her, somehow, not to tell anyone, but there was the matter of how she’d worked it out. Normally his disguises were pretty effective, and he hid his actions well. And the woman in blue from her dream, dusky-skinned as though from a place a long way to the east—that was just odd. It was probably nothing.
Most odd, though, was the strange feeling he had about the whole matter. He wasn’t used to this being noticed, to his work—his brother’s work, really—being seen. It gave him an uncomfortable, hollow sensation, and an ache that had an elusive sweetness in it, not that different from thoughts of his brother.
He wished the child could know about his brother—she would understand, he knew.
That night after a long day of travel and a filling meal, safe in a cave made warm with fire, Autolycus dreamed. In the dream, he spoke with a woman in vivid blue, eyes merry with laughter, and the hollowness in his chest eased. He woke from deep sleep the next morning better rested and feeling stronger and more cheerful than he had in a long time, with no memory of the dream, and after that, he did not think again on the woman in the child’s dream.