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I followed the cook’s instructions to find the seamstress, who measured and interrogated me with equal precision. Checking the span of my shoulders, she wanted to know if I had family nearby. Measuring my waist, she asked about my hobbies. Recording my height, did I know any handsome young men?

She found a nightgown close to my size and riding clothes to use out of doors, although she was a bit miffed that she could only offer me a boy’s set. I suspected she would send fashionable riding clothes and a dress when she sent the rest of the clothes, by the glint in her eyes.

It would be a waste. I had never been fond of dresses, and horses and I had an unspoken agreement to avoid each other unless absolutely necessary. I had been taught to ride against my will only because Master Thorne’s refused to be shamed by my lack of knowledge in the basics of life. He had made me learn everything, even fist-fighting, no matter how hopeless I proved to be. He had believed that anyone could learn anything, but I cured him of that.

Mostly the lessons had not helped me, but knowing how to ride did aid me in the theft of the king’s horse. Though the experience had put me off horses permanently.

When the seamstress’s questions became unanswerable, I escaped to my bedroom, if a closet with a mat and blankets could be called such, and dropped the bundle of clothing on the blankets that passed for a bed.

The cook is not wrong. You need to get out of this tiny space.

I fished through the pile for the stable-boy clothes and changed. I admired myself in an imaginary mirror while pretending that I had not bruised myself on the low desk and the wall during the process.

It did not take a mirror to know that I looked like an ambiguous child of about thirteen years. Or that I had forgotten the shoes.

Trading my indoor slippers for the dismal pair I had arrived in, I prepared myself. "We just have to get from here down to the front door without seeing the king’s Protector or the Captain. It’s not that far."

All the way down the hall and down the stairs and down the path and through the palace gates, my heart pounded painfully and I was sure that at any moment I would be stopped and thrown back into prison.

No one even looked at me.

Standing outside the palace, the breeze could have blown me away. I was almost light enough to eat again.

Now where to?

It was an easy walk into town to the park near Market District. Hidden near the back corner, away from the crowds and people, was an ancient Rosewood tree and all my earthly possessions.

According to Master Thorne, Rosewood was best for storage because of its thick trunk and unquestionable loyalty. And because no one would cut down a rosewood, as they were too rare and pretty. As always, Master Thorne was correct. My pack was right where I had left it, in the heart of the rosewood tree.

The Rosewood shook with glee, “Walker! Wanna see my squirrel? Look, I lost leaves. They’re leaving!” and it laughed and battered me in a branchy embrace.

I sat down against its trunk and told it about my new job at the palace. The Rosewood did not pretend to understand, but mostly worried at my size—“Walker branches thin, trunk thin. Needs sun. Needs soil and water.” I had to agree, more or less.

Rummaging through my meager possessions, I pulled out my padfoot kit. I considered changing, but the clothes I had borrowed were better than what I had in the pack. My hair was getting longer, but it was still barely to my shoulders. Still, I rubbed in some dirt and leaves into my hair and face.

“Still Walker.” The Rosewood laughed. “Needs roots.” I brushed off my hands and replaced the sack, thanking the tree as it swallowed it. “Stay. Grow Roots. Be green.”

They always said that. Was it possible? It sounded very peaceful.

I turned to go and was nearly concussed by a falling branch. “Take. Don’t need.” The tree shook again with mischievous laughter and I had to duck under the flailing branches.

I eyed the tree suspiciously, and it struck a glamorous pose. I took the branch and thanked it before heading for the padfoots’ hideout in the market square.

I had spent my first moons in Saliz as a boy of twelve or thirteen years at Padfoot’s Guild for Little Thieves. I had run little errands and learned the trade, and in exchange I was allowed to share in their food and sleep on their floor anytime I was desperate. I had also learned nearly everything there was to know, or so it had seemed, about Saliz. The padfoots were everywhere, saw and heard everything.

If I wanted information about guild politics, the padfoots were the ones to ask.

Most padfoots lived in abandoned warehouses, unoccupied houses, or in between shops—that is, wherever they could, for however long they could. But the headquarters was in an old, forgotten wine cellar beneath a respectable shop in the square. That shop was run by a somewhat less respectable man, who was ignorant of the goings-on underneath his floor provided he received a generous gift each moon.

I had learned of the guild’s existence almost by accident, if watching a little boy of eight or so years steal bread and then following him can be called such. Big cities everywhere had organized crime, and I had learned to distinguish it from the less organized variety along the way from Essel to Saliz.

Being in possession of unmemorable, childish features and weighing almost nothing, it had been easy to convince them to let me join.

During my time at Padfoot’s, the most useful thing I learned was that I had no future in crime. I was not gifted at lifting, sneaking, fighting, or any skill useful for criminals. Pickpocketing games with the other children went badly for me, and wrestling was worse. Frog—so named for his speedy and strange way of eating, as he was actually a handsome youth of fifteen or sixteen years—taught me the basics of knife fighting and advised me to run if the opportunity presented itself. And if it did not.

After two moons of petty thieving and petty crafting to make up for my general uselessness, I stole a priceless artifact from the real Thieves Guild to gain the trust of Bigfoot, the leader of the padfoots. In return, he gave me all the information I needed regarding the palace, and occasionally let me sleep on a mat in the guild headquarters. It was better than the front tunnel, which was drafty, and the back tunnel, which was stuffy.

I had my suspicions about why Bigfoot felt he needed a detailed print of the palace layout, but I was glad he did. And it had proved to be extremely accurate, especially as regarding the quickest and quietest ways to the kitchens, storerooms, and exits.

Padfoot’s entrance alley had overgrown with moss since I last visited. I found the little wooden door and ducked into the tunnel, crouching as I climbed down into the cellar. In the main room, which doubled as a dining hall, Frog was showing off his knife juggling skills to a group of youngsters.

When I had first come, everyone ate from stolen bowls sitting around on the floor. Now a couple younger padfoots were sitting around a low wooden table made by me, using spoons I made, and eating out of stolen bowls. On the floor. Still, it was an improvement.

I sat at the table to wait while Frog finished his demonstration. Two of the eaters did not look up, but the third did. It was a girl of about ten. She looked at me curiously, but continued eating in silence. The two boys finished wolfing their stew and jumped up to join the group, wooden spoons in hand. Frog showed them how to practice with their spoons, and they started slashing at each other.

He sat cross-legged between the girl and me, tousling her hair. “This is Kitty. She has been here for years, although I suppose you never met her.” He looked sideways at me, clearly laughing on the inside. “Did you think we only accept boys?”

I had not thought about it deeply. I had been disguising as a boy since Atelis, when I realized that people gave little attention to a boy traveling alone. A lot of guilds in the north did only allow boys, or at least the teachers would only take boys as apprentices. In answer I shrugged. “It seemed more likely.”

Frog grabbed a bread roll off the table and swiped some of the girl’s soup, to her dramatic dismay. Dodging her spoon, he said, “Big worried about you. Heard about you getting dragged off by the Watch. Heard it was murder. Heard it was a knife.” He looked at me sidelong. “That true?”

For a moment I panicked that they would turn me over to the guards. Most padfoots had rough backgrounds, but Padfoot’s was strict about the crimes the members were allowed to commit. When I had first arrived, they had only asked what I thought I could do for Padfoot’s. They did not even question how I had gotten the Thieves Guild’s most prized possession out of the Thieves Guild—those old wooden buildings were so friendly.

But murder was a different story. One that needed to be told, or at least creatively explained.

“It was self-defense,” I admitted.

He whistled. “With a knife?” He shook his head, trying to steal more soup while the girl played defense. “Don’t believe it.”

I slumped in relief as I realized his meaning. “He was drunk,” I said, slightly sheepish.

He laughed as the girl stole the last of the bread and turned to face me. “Told you not to try with knives,” he shook his head and turned serious. “You were lucky. Next time, not so likely.” He noticed the staff I had laying half on my lap. “That’s a good choice for you.” He picked it up to examine it, checking the weight and how it balanced, and I could see staff-fighting lessons in my future, if I lingered too long. “That why you came?”

“For staff lessons?” I asked without thinking.

He laughed. “Maybe can do. Takes more strength than you have.” He poked my arm with the stick and I glared at him. “Meant, you came needing another favor?”

“Ohhh.” I smiled, embarrassed. “Ye-es..But I offer fair trade.”

He raised one eyebrow, “Making another Guild run? That won’t work twice.”

“Not that.” I tapped the table, “This. I can make stuff.”

“We already got a table.”

I almost responded before I noticed that he was laughing at me again. He jerked his head in the direction of the back office. “Talk to Big.”

I thanked him and pushed myself to my feet. The office had been a wine cellar, partitioned off from the rest of the main room by solid stone walls and a lockable door. Apparently wine was the only merchandise that had been worth guarding, back when the cellars were functional.

Frog followed, rosewood branch in hand. I knocked on the door and entered when I heard Bigfoot’s deep voice. “Leaf.” He smiled, but it was a closed expression. He motioned for me to sit, and Frog positioned himself by the door, spinning the branch. While Frog was only fifteen or sixteen and retained a boyish charm, Bigfoot was at least eighteen and felt it. He considered himself responsible for all members of the guild, although not so far as to protect anyone if they were taken by the Watch. But enough that he would need more details than simply ‘self defense’.

It was time for creative explanations. “I came to Saliz four moons and two phases ago.” Eight moons and some after leaving Essel. How could something be so long ago and so recent at the same time? “I had no money and no reference, so I had to lean on the generosity of the temples.”

Saliz was much safer than any of the other cities I had passed through, despite its high population density. But it was never ideal to live on the streets, and it was also harder to get work without a reference. “They only take children for a phase or so. I had nowhere to sleep.” Except in the Rosewood tree, but there was no reason to mention that.

“I checked The Mad King for work, after begging near the temples to buy a nice dress. They let me serve drinks in exchange for food, but there wasn’t always a guaranteed bed. That was how I came here, but I was no good at the work, so I stayed on at the tavern.” That much, at least, was true. The tavern had been a cleaner place to sleep, when there was available space, and I had felt uncomfortable accepting charity from children with even less than I.

“A girl came in, too young and fine to belong there.” She was looking to rebel—I recognized the look. “She was sweet, gave me extra. She reminded me of my sister,” I smiled. The girl had not even glanced at me, and she had dropped the money like a spoiled brat showing off. “She was there a couple of times, and then stopped coming. Later, I found out she...” But even if she reminded me of my sister, that did not explain me trying to avenge her, especially with my lack of skills.

Unless it was personal.

I thought of Avery. “She was murdered, too. My little sister.” I whispered, the first time I had ever acknowledged it aloud.

I had found out by accident. Mother was always busy taking care of the animals and the farm and Kiva, and Father was never around at all. Jaiden was always off doing whatever he did, leaving me alone with Avery. I wandered everywhere, even to the old farm. I was not allowed to go there, but I never paid any attention to borders or boundaries. One day, picking flowers and playing with Avery, I lost my way in the neighbor’s field. We passed through their orchard and noticed one tree that had no fruit. It was a Rosewood tree, and at the foot of it there was a small stone lump. Engraved was one word, “Avery”, and the date, “433.5.10”.

“What is it?” I had wondered aloud.

“It is a grave.”

I had seen graves before. Mother’s family was all in one grave, in a little clearing on the old farm. They were all together, surrounded by flowers. This one grew weeds. “Only one date?” I had asked.

“Birth and death on the same day.” Avery had answered. “Herbal poison. One baby stillborn, another born blue. But alive, against all odds.”

I never questioned how she knew. Avery never lied. Maybe she did not know how, since she was born dead.

Later I had asked Jaiden and Kivalya if they knew anything. Kiva had not been interested, but Jaiden told me the story. A new apothecary had made the mixture as a headache remedy, while Mother was pregnant. Mother had been fine—the herb that suffocated little Avery was not strong enough to harm an adult. He did not know how I had survived, though he always knew everything else.

 

I gave Bigfoot a modified version, making Avery older and the killer more sinister and less mysterious. I studied my hands as I told it, so I was surprised to find him standing next to me offering me a comforting pat on the back. His eyes were full of compassion. It made it both easier and harder to admit the rest.

“I recognized the guy, that day in the alley. I was only there for a minute to take out the trash, but I knew him. Even if I had not, he—I got his knife. He wasn’t expecting a fight, so I had surprise and basic training. After that, I don’t remember much. I woke up in the palace prisons.”

Besides Frog’s lessons, Thorne had also taught me some self-defense and basic reflexes, to protect myself against flying pieces of wood. It was not the same, but had probably helped.

Bigfoot patted my head, and I heard the door shut quietly as Frog left. Leaning back against his desk, Bigfoot said, “We’ve had some changes around here. New members came and old members left. Shall I tell you the news?” His eyes were sparkling with excitement. It was typical of Bigfoot to move on so quickly.

“Yes, please.” I was eager to forget as well, and he always loved talking about the junior padfoots.
“But first, I did wonder whether you decided to be a girl, or a boy. I see you are dressed as a boy, and a dirty one at that, but I heard that you were a girl at the palace. A grown woman, actually. We should have put you in disguises, you might have been quite useful.”

I sat up straight and glared through his whole teasing speech. “I never said I wasn’t! If you thought—”

Bigfoot laughed and held up his hands, “I didn’t ask, I didn’t.” But he grinned, reminding me of Jaiden whenever he had a secret. “They let you work in the palace in that state?” He admired my hair.

I stood to leave, but he put up his hands to stop me, still laughing. I dropped into the chair and folded my arms, annoyed that I had gone to the trouble of dirtying my hair. “Be serious.”

“Alright, alright, I am.” His face was not, but he managed to stop laughing at least. “Tell me about life at the palace. How is it being Captain Winter’s assistant?”

I sighed, unsurprised that he knew. He must have also already known that my crime had been dropped as self-defense. “Boring. It’s all books, books, read this, do that, make me tea, fix my tie..” I trailed off. That had only happened once. “But I can come here during my free time,” I brightened at the thought of leaving more often. The padfoots were always cheerful and it was fun to be there.

“Oh, do you get that?” He teased, likely knowing exactly how much free time I did and did not have.

“Well,” I deflated.

“Cheer up! It’s not prison.” He grinned, confirming my suspicion that he had known everything there was to know before I even arrived. “Shall I tell you our exciting news? We’re reaching a middle of negotiations.”

He told me about their progress toward official recognition from the Thieves Guild, and we discussed guild laws and guild-related complaints until the market temple’s bell chimed to let us know that the hour had changed.

“Ah!” I jumped up, alarmed. “I have to be back.”

“You have a curfew?” Bigfoot listened to the chimes while I collected my staff from the corner by the door. “Oh, it is dinnertime. You had better hurry if you want to enjoy it warm…”

I could still hear Bigfoot’s laughter as I climbed the stairs to the alley entrance and stepped out into the fading daylight.

 

When I passed through the palace gates, once more dressed as Captain Eliot Winter’s overworked apprentice, all was quiet. Even the guards were gone to dinner, so I went to the kitchens for a bite before heading back to my room.

My room being the Captain’s office’s supply closet, I could not get to it without passing his imposing desk.

“You are returned.” He barely flicked his eyes in my direction, but I found myself standing at attention in front of his desk. I waited while he looked over his papers, lips pursed. “Once again, I find myself curious about your motivations, Miss Avery.” He directed me to the chair with a brief gesture.

I'm off. Stay alive.

I sat, feeling like a child caught climbing the neighbor’s trees with an apple in hand. It was all I could do to not watch Avery pass through the door, unfettered by worldly concerns.

Eliot did not look up from his papers. “The moment I turn my back, you disappear into the city for several hours to visit your small crime-inclined friends.”

“Associating with criminals is not, in itself, a crime.” I had read that in one of his enormous law books.

He focused on me. “Perhaps, but a convicted criminal on probation should not seek to draw unnecessary attention to her criminal past.”

I almost smiled. “You will find, Captain, that I was declared innocent and acquitted of my crimes on the basis of self-defense.”

“Hm.” He shook his head, but the victory was mine. “It is surprising that Freddie was persuaded to accept a twenty-years padfoot.” He spoke guilelessly enough, but his eyes seemed to declare that he knew, or would find out, any and all secrets that I might try to keep.

“Naturally, I passed for younger. I do look quite young, for my age.”

Captain Winter’s expression turned curious, and he reached across the desk to grasp my wrist, looking deep into my eyes. Confused and more than a little disconcerted, I glanced between his hand and his face. With each passing second, my head grew fuzzier. He let go, eyebrows furrowed. The look passed and his normal expression returned. “It must have taken something quite impressive.”

I remembered to breathe and smiled cheerfully. “How are you today, Captain? You seem terribly busy, you must be tired. Perhaps a hearty dinner would revive your spirits some. I do believe the kitchens are serving stew tonight.”

He returned to his documents and pulled one from the middle, selecting the right one like a street entertainer might. “I have a puzzle for you.” He slid the papers across the desk for me to read. “As it is not a particularly complex case, I trust you will not make a mess of it. Bring me your thoughts on it tomorrow.”

With a twitch of a triumphant smile at having avoided uncomfortable questions, I began reading the first page.

“I trust you have a completed report on the guilds to give me.”

Thanks to Bigfoot—Freddie?—I was able to give both my original thoughts and his, and felt quite proud of myself.

“I expect a written report by morning.” He turned to a different set of papers, a dark look in his eyes. Temporarily dismissed, again, I left quickly before he could change his mind and give more work.

In between reading the files and writing my report, I tried to connect the name ‘Freddie’ to the image I had of Bigfoot, but I could not manage it.

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About the author

Moonweave

Bio: I dream, I travel, I read, I write, and then I start over again.

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