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The Kingdom of Vovim, the year 330, the eleventh month. (The year 1871 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

"Isn't the rain beautiful?"

Elisa stood under the thundercloud, her head tilted up, her hands raised toward the autumn sky, as though she were worshipping Mercy. The sun-speckled rain made her face shine, and droplets clung to her long hair like jewels. She was not a worshipper of Mercy; she was Mercy herself, at this moment of joy.

"Pay attention to what I'm saying," Layle said, annoyed, as he scuffed his boot in the mud. There were far more important things to worry about than Elisa's prettiness, though he had become more and more aware of her lovely face during the past year, to the extent that he had contemplated asking Ira to make Elisa his thief-mate. But that would be giving too much information away.

Layle never gave anything away.

Now he said, "The rain doesn't matter. What matters is that we don't have enough money right now to pay for the food we need— Stop it!" He grabbed Elisa as she danced and whirled her way across the rain-slick water. She gave a little whimper at the hardness of his grip. He quickly released her, and then looked over at the other children to see whether they'd noticed.

They hadn't. The older boys were crouched under the eave of the barn, consulting with the pack's leader, Isa, who was the biggest and strongest of them all. The rest of them – younger boys like Layle, and the girls, who had to follow the boys' lead – were huddled shivering under the partially stripped branches of the trees, trying to ignore the rain that trickled down their necks and soaked through their clothes.

Except Elisa. She was singing now, a made-up tune of her own about the raindrops being sent by the gods to bring happiness to their people.

"Ira will get mad at you if you wake up the farmer and his family," Layle warned her, which shut her up immediately. None of them wanted to get quick-tempered Ira mad. He was liberal in his beatings of any street-child who made a nuisance of themselves.

Except Layle. Ira had never beaten Layle, even though their pack-leader clearly found Layle's constant suggestions to be annoying. That showed good sense.

Layle tried again. "We should do it now, while the farmer and his family are still having their early afternoon nap. We could go into their storeroom, take whatever's there—"

"Silly Layle, we're cutpurses, not burglars," said Elisa carelessly. "We steal what we need in order to keep from dying of hunger . . . and usually that's food, not money. Stop worrying your mind with all that and just look at the rain. Look at it. It's all shiny and wet and makes everything beautiful."

Layle sighed. He didn't know why he kept trying to get the other street-children to see things his way. They were all uninspired. They wanted to do things the way they'd always done things, and the way that the street-children before them had always done things. He tried once more to explain. "It's not fair, all those merchants having money, when we have none. We should take their money, and then we could become merchants. We could charge high prices, the way they do, and get lots of wealth." And have fun laughing at the customers when they came back, complaining that their high-priced merchandise was shoddy. But Layle knew better than to voice that hope aloud to Elisa. Ira would have understood; he was worldly-wise. But he was lazy too; he didn't want to move out of set patterns.

Elisa . . . Elisa was innocent and beautiful, like Mercy. Now she stepped into a puddle and stamped it, making water fly in all directions. "Look!" she exclaimed with delight.

For a moment, Layle was tempted. It was a meeting-point of sorts. Elisa loved seeing the water flying through the air, and he liked the idea of destroying the puddle. They might have fun together.

But at that moment, Ira laughed his lazy laugh, and Layle was angry again. Nothing ever went the way he wanted. Things always went the way the other street-children wanted.

"Play with the rain, then," he said, and shoved her into the puddle.

She went down with a splash and with a hurt, shocked expression. No sound, though. She was a brave one, never complaining. Layle considered leaning over to help her up.

But he could see tears in her eyes, running down her reddening cheeks, blending with the thundercloud's tears. She had mud on her now, cloaking her clammy cold and making her cry harder.

Oh. So she was right. The rain was beautiful. Just not in a way that she realized.

He stood silently by her for a moment, watching her sob softly, as he contemplated hitherto unimagined pleasures. If he could make Ira cry that way . . . if he could make Elisa cry even harder . . .

Then he shook his head and turned away. He couldn't afford to anger the other street-children that much. He was only ten years old. He still needed them.

For a while. Then he could do things his way.

And the real beauty would begin.