“Filthy flooding wika,” the man snarled, sandaled foot smacking into Faizra’s ribs. “River trash scumming up the streets of Thul Ka, taking from honest folk.”
Faizra lay curled on the ground, hands covering her head, the mostly healed spot where she’d been stabbed just more than a ten day ago pressed against the ground to keep it safe. Once nice clothing was tangled and stained around her, smeared with filth, spackled now with blood too. Her legs were drawn up, her whole body compressed as small as possible.
“Teach you to dirty up a man’s warehouse,” his hands fumbled for her, one closing around her arm, yanking at her, pulling her up off the ground.
Faizra yelled aloud, a wordless noise of protest that became a spell, a cry to the mona to push him back. The air around her fluttered, weakly, faint pressure shoving at the man and not moving him in the least. Faizra gasped, the aching in her head a warning not to try again until she could gather herself, until she could focus.
“River trash,” the man spat again, flecks of his spit splattering her face. “Daughter of river trash too, scum, all of you,” he shoved her back against the rough sandstone wall, Faizra’s head hitting it with some force, and only the cloth wrapped around it saving her from worse damage.
Faizra stared at him from one good and one swollen eye, blood dripping from her nose and mouth. Her head throbbed; her ribs hurt, her arms and legs too, his hand like a vice holding her in place. He was stronger than she was, and her knife lay far away, too far, two body lengths across the alley where he’d kicked it. For a moment she thought of letting him take what he wanted, of giving up and losing the fight, even if it meant her life.
She was so tired.
But only for a moment.
Faizra spat in his face, blood and all the moisture she could manage. He jerked back and she pulled herself free of his grasping hand and ran. She felt him grab for her again, heard his yelling like the noiseless roar of a waterfall. She half-fell reaching for her knife but she didn’t collapse entirely, and then the hilt was in her hand and she was running with every scrap of strength she had, not daring to look behind her in the deep dark of the night.
Faizra ran as long and hard as she could, never looking back, long after she knew he couldn’t be chasing her, that fat merchant whose size was his strength, who had caught her asleep and off guard and nearly been the end of her. She ran until her bruised and battered chest couldn’t take another breath, until her legs burned with the strain of it, until she looked up to find herself back on a bridge crossing into the Turtle.
For a moment, Faizra let herself be tempted, let herself think of a place so soft that the memory now felt familiar. She stood there still on the bridge, hands digging into her arms. She could find it from here, find bandages and food and maybe even a place to sleep. But it was a false safety, Faizra told herself. There was no home for her there, couldn’t be. No home for her anywhere. That was only courting a different type of death.
Instead, Faizra’s feet took her to the Liar’s Market, searching out some of the small secret places where a witch who didn’t mind dirt and discomfort could hide for a few hours at least. She folded her bruised and aching body into the smallest ball she could manage, wary of her own sharp edges, and couldn’t fight the rising tide of sleep any longer.
It was hunger that woke her, hours after the noise should’ve. Faizra held still and silent in her dark little space, the thought of movement and the pain it would bring enough to scare her. Finally the urging of her stomach was more than she could bear; she waited for a break in the noise and crawled out, ignoring a shout from behind her and stumbling away to a small alley off the main market.
There Faizra took stock of herself. Her knife was tucked against her spine, her limbs all seemed to be where she had left them, teeth and ribs too. She hurt - her face most of all, probing fingers finding a swollen cut lip and a worse eye, barely able to open on its own. Her sides both hurt, the bruise covering the ribs opposite the still tender skin from the two thirds healed stab wound. Her arm was bruised, a deep hint of purple beneath the dark skin and the layer of dirt. But she was standing, she was breathing without too much pain - and she was hungry.
Faizra scrubbed at her bloody mouth with her hand, swallowing hard. She needed to eat something, something soft and not too old, otherwise she’d never keep it down. Water too, she needed water; her head swam.
Faizra unbundled the shirt that wrapped her head, swapping it for the bloody one on her body. She didn’t look down at the bruised and battered ribs beneath, effortlessly countable, the skin stretched taut over them, shifting with each aching breath. It was easier not to look. She wrapped the bloody shirt over her head and wore the other one instead, as if that might do anything about the blood smeared on her face and arms, the dirt too. She tied up the skirt to cover the worst of the dirt and blood caked on it, leaving the light long pants beneath exposed.
Faizra held still in the alley a moment longer – but the hunger was enough, clawing inside her stomach, worse than the pain of moving. She made her way forward, refusing to surrender, joining the crowds that streamed through the markets, careful to keep pace with them even though her body wanted to shuffle, wanted to double over and collapse on the ground.
Faizra searched for a target, eyes scanning over the men and women who’d come to the market mid-morning. She couldn’t wait for the time it would take to beg, or so the hunger in her stomach told her. Her throat was dry and aching too. Just one purse, she told herself; even the lightest would have enough for her to get something to eat.
She saw one, up ahead, a small thing tucked back beneath a cloak. A woman, with light brown skin, short beneath a cloak to protect her from the sun, with light brown hair with strands caught like honey in the bright morning light. One hand was busy putting her purse away; the other held on to a small energetic child. The side with the purse, away from the child, was street-side; the child was tucked between the woman and the wall, kept safe. As Faizra watched, the woman shifted her attention to another woman nearby, older, holding onto a similar-looking child. The honey-brown haired woman started to say something to her, and Faizra took her moment.
Faizra joined the crowd pushing past the woman, letting the flow of it carry her to the outside. Her scraped hand flashed out, choosing a careful moment as the woman looked away – and then the purse was tucked beneath her long fingers, carried back to vanish into the folds of Faizra’s tied-up skirt. It wasn’t a perfect take, but it was good enough; Faizra would have sworn the woman couldn’t have felt it. The only thing that worried her was the brush of a strange glamour-or-maybe-field against her own, odd and unsettling; she hadn’t meant to choose a vroo, it was a risky move to steal from someone who’s capabilities you didn’t know.
Faizra didn’t look back; she didn’t dare risk it. She kept walking, moving slow and steadily with the crowd, feeling the heavy weight of the purse in the folds of her skirt. Soon, she told herself; soon, she could check the coins. Soon, she could eat.