Late Night, 12 Bethas 2719 | The Turtle
Faizra made her way over the Arch of Abandonment, bare feet light against the stones of the bridge. The hot sun shine down from overhead, and the winds were calm, no more of the heavy sandstorms of the weeks before drifting in on the air.
Faizra wore very nearly all she owned, skirt over pants, one battered shirt hanging off her torso, the other wrapped around her head in a makeshift covering, and the stained, once-white cloak over it all. She moved quickly and easily through the liar’s market crowd, dura and arata alike shying away from every other customer, but most of all the dirty-looking wika.
Still, a market was a market, and the air was filled with the shouts of vendors and fresh hot food. Faizra could smell it; there was bread nearby, and for a moment she could think of nothing else, the warm scent filling her entire body. She imagined she could taste it, fresh from the oven, so hot it would nearly burn her hands, and her stomach twisted and ached, hollow beneath her ribs.
But Faizra didn’t have time for imagined pleasantries. She wiped her wet mouth on her arm and found a seat against one of the old gatehouses, sitting on the ground and resting back against the stones. She sat cross-legged, skirt tucked over her legs to hide them, one long skinny arm extended out over her knee, palm up and hand cupped in a pleading gesture.
Faizra fixed her gaze on the passing crowd. Some days she spoke, begging for coin; today her head was too light and her stomach too empty to do more than sit and scout. She used her eyes as a weapon, focusing on the passing arata, as if to tell them: your secret coming to this place is not safe. I see you, and I know you for what you are, you who profits off the lies of others. She let those words fill her mind and seep out through her gaze.
It could not, perhaps, have been said to work well, but a lonely coin or two tumbled into Faizra’s hand over the next few hours.
"Hey! You! Ma’ehau!" The approaching Saffron Street runner was marked with a yellow scarf, and he was scowling down at the offending wika, one hand on a heavy baton hanging at his waist.
Faizra scrambled to her feet, precious coins gripped tightly in her hand, spat at the stones between her and the runner, and took off, adrenaline surging through her. As she ran, her free hand tugged at the head wrapping, loosening the more brightly colored shirt, and she pulled it free, shoving it under one arm. Faizra skirted through the crowd, fast and agile. She spotted a coin purse peeking from a fold of wrapped fabric, and changed direction, snatching at it. It came loose in her fingers, and she gripped it with a faint rattle as it tumbled towards the ground and never stopped moving. By the time a faint cry went up in the distance, Faizra was already halfway down the next street of crowded stalls.
Faizra was breathing hard by the time she stopped, crouching hidden in the lengthening shadows of early evening in a small alley just off the market. Her stomach growled, and she turned the coin purse over in her hand with a smile. It was light, but there was enough at least for a meal. The wika pulled the discarded shirt on over her head, smoothing out the brighter fabric with one hand, and strolled back out into the street as if she belonged, the coins tucked into her pocket and the purse itself left behind. It would’ve been smarter, better to go somewhere else, where she hadn’t already attracted too much attention today, but the desperate need for food in her stomach was too much.
"No charity today, adame," the aproned man standing at the heavy spit of meat was friendly with his tone and words, but his hand tightened on the heavy cleaver he used to carve his meat.
"I ent need it," Faizra replied, extending a dirty hand with two coins visible between her fingers.
The man scowled at her. "Bajea! And where’d they come from?"
Faizra scowled right back. "They’s good coin." It was an effort not to look left and right to check for runners, but she held her gaze on the man, coins extended, waiting.
The man snorted, but he turned to the meat and his knife flashed, and he took the coins, and Faizra left holding flatbread wrapped around spiced meat and chopped vegetables, clutching the precious thing in both hands. She made her way back across the market, heading towards the Porthouse Gate, counting on the busy Way of the Book, and turning off it into a small dark alley, crouching to gnaw hungrily at the meal.
Faizra hadn’t had more than a few bites when she heard sandals clipping on the stones before her. She looked up to see three young men before her, dirty shirts and pants indistinguishable from the rest, but bright red scarves wrapped at their waists marking them as Red Rats. Faizra glanced back over her shoulder in time to see two more behind her.
"You tell Kofi we ent wan’ none of his trash ‘ere," one of the men grinned, revealing rotten teeth. "F’you can still talk after we finish wit’ you."
"I ent wit’ him," Faizra said, rising slowly from her crouch. "No trouble."
"No trouble," another of the men echoed. "Fer us."
Faizra whispered to the mona; a bright illusion of lights filled the alleyway, weak and flickering, and she turned and ran, knife flashing out at one of the boys behind her, doing her best to shove her way past them. It nearly worked - then someone grabbed at her, and held tightly to her shirt. Faizra felt her own knife score flesh again, but she couldn’t fight them all, and a shove caught her off-guard, knocking her to the ground.
Faizra was half-lying on her knife then, hands covering her head as sandaled feet kicked at her ribs. Someone else grabbed at her again to lift her, there was a blaze of white-hot pain in her side, and Faizra fought and thrashed, flailing out with her knife and this time she screamed for the mona, and a shower of white hot sparks burst through the air. The men screamed and the hand holding her loosened and Faizra took off, running all out and vanishing deeper into the alley.
Faizra crouched in a shadow the moment she could stop, kneeling first then lying on the ground curled up, and begged the mona to shroud her, eyes squeezing shut. She wasn’t awake long enough to feel whether the spell took hold, growing blackness closing in over her.
It was well late when Faizra woke again, still lying curled up on her side on the ground. She groaned, softly, and vomited, losing the few bites she’d managed to eat to the wave of pain that started as a hot burning in her side and spread from there. Slowly, shaking, fighting uncooperative muscles, Faizra eased herself up off the cobblestones onto her knees. Her knife was still there, and she gripped at it, fumbling it back into her sheath. Every movement hurt - her ribs, her arms, her legs, and most of all her side.
Faizra glanced down to see a bloody stain spreading out over her front, visible even in the dark of night. She coughed, sending more pain through it, and wiped bloody spittle onto her arm, breathing hard. She couldn’t stay here, Faizra told herself; she was still well in Red Rat territory. She didn’t know how much time had passed or whether they might still be hunting her. Slowly, she lurched to her feet, movements stiff and graceless, and stumbled down the alley, one hand dragging painfully against the wall to keep her upright, the other pressing against the wound on her side.
Slowly, slowly. Faizra wobbled a little more with each step, her head light, fire dancing up and down her side. She tried to think of the words for a healing spell, but they were gone, forgotten, and all she could do was to keep walking. She turned at some point, and then again, and then there came a moment when Faizra knew it was too much, and that in a few more steps she would collapse. Her hand was wet and sticky with blood.
Faizra glanced around. At least she would try to collapse off the street. She stumbled a few steps towards what looked like a shopfront, knocking painfully into something with a loud bang, and dropped into a low crouch, doubled forward against her legs, half her body resting sideways against something hard.
"Mung way t’die," Faizra muttered to herself. She was keening softly with pain, only half able to hear the sound. Slowly her eyes flickered shut; the world was swimming too much for her to make anything much out anyway.