I would not have believed how quickly Corbin’s money ran out, had I not seen it with my own eyes.
Money simply did not mean, here in Aseoto, the things I had grown accustomed to. The iron pennies I was accustomed to seeing in use were the next best thing to worthless, thrown around without a care; a handful of them might be tossed to a beggar without thinking, but they wouldn’t do much good. Bronze wasn’t a great deal better. A full bronze penny, a substantial coin back in Branson’s Ford, was barely worth noting here.
It seemed that everything here demanded silver, and often in quantities I would never have imagined.
It bought us some breathing room, at least. Three days in an inn, not far from where Erik had brought us. Three days of spending time with the beggars, the workers in the in, the gondoliers. Three days of learning about the strange new environment I found myself in. And it was strange, because while I was a city girl at heart, there were differences among cities.
The Whitewood had been a city of wood. It wasn’t surprising; it was right there in the name. But it had been more than just a city in a forest. It was a city grown into place. Buildings, streets, everything had been made from the sculpted growth of living trees.
Aseoto, I had learned, was a city of water. Everything that mattered here was tied to it. Travel between the districts of the city, which were scattered across a dozen or more islands, required one to take a boat. The market was held, not in a city square, but on a loose conglomeration of boats arrayed out just inside the harbor. The harbor itself was the source of Aseoto’s wealth, the center of the city’s trade. It was through the harbor that Aseoto’s fleets of trading ships returned from the northeastern kingdoms, from the lands across the ocean to the south or the west, carrying the endless stream of new goods that poured into the city. Long before it had been the seat of an empire, this city had been a hub of trade, and in many ways the latter role was still the more important of the two.
It all flowed on the water. It was inescapable. You could smell it everywhere in the city, the sharp tang of the ocean; within a day I had ceased to notice it. It became simply a constant part of the background of the city.
I hadn’t learned all the districts in the city, not yet. I knew that the one we were staying in was called Ukiyo, and was apparently one of the larger and more prosperous ones. It was the same district that Reika had told us she was staying in. In principle that meant that we had a friend here. In practice, finding a single woman–even a distinctive Changed woman–among the crowds that thronged Ukiyo with a stranger’s knowledge of the city was all but impossible.
Beyond that, I knew that the mainland was called Mains, and was one of the less desirable parts of the city. It had, I gathered, been a more recent expansion, built after the emperor took the throne and began carving out a space on the mainland for the city to grow into. Narrows was a morass of tiny islands and channels of water not far from the coast that was even worse than Mains. The Floating Market and the Docks were the hubs of trade, farther out from shore than anything else in the city. Between them and Narrows were dozens of islands, the names and characters of which I had yet to figure out.
Unfortunately, I was out of time to learn more before I had to act. I’d paid the last of Corbin’s money to the innkeeper this morning to pay for our room for the night and a decent breakfast. My own stash of coin wasn’t even sufficient to get a room for the night, not outside of Narrows, and thus far I had come up blank on ways to replace Corbin’s gift.
If it came to it, I could live on the street. I’d lived in worse places, under worse conditions, back in the camps. I wouldn’t be happy, but I could survive. I could last long enough to find an answer.
Rose, though, couldn’t. When I pictured that shy, damaged girl trying to survive out here, it was all I could do to restrain a wince. They’d tear her apart out here.
I wasn’t about to abandon her. Not after what we’d gone through, what we’d survived together. Which meant that we needed to get our hands on some money, and fast.
All of which had led to me being out here in a crowded street, at around noon, contemplating a very risky course of action.
I was not a gifted thief. It wasn’t something I’d ever trained for, or wanted to do. But I’d lived through the refugee camps. I had learned more than I ever wanted to know about how to survive on nothing.
I hadn’t received a formal tutelage in the art, if there even was such a thing. But a thief in the camps had taken pity on me, and shown me enough of the basics to survive. How to pick a mark who had enough to be worth stealing. Where people kept their valuables. How to pick the people who would just give you a cuff around the ears if they caught you, rather than calling the guard. What sort of people to avoid at all costs.
I’d been studying my mark for over an hour now, trying to work up my nerve. She was a street whore, one of many in Ukiyo. I had gathered that this district was the center of prostitution, as well as playing host to various other entertainments. It was the water trade.
This one was pretty enough to have a decent amount of income, I judged. And she had the attitude of someone who knew what she was doing. She strutted about at the corner of a busy intersection, advertising her wares as brazenly as any stall owner in the market. She had a cup set out in front of her; people occasionally tossed a coin into it as they walked past, apparently for the simple privilege of having seen her. In the time I’d watched, she had taken one customer into a back alley for half an hour before returning.
In short, she had money. And she had the look of someone who could get more readily enough that she wasn’t likely to do anything excessive to a thief. She didn’t seem sadistic enough to do so for the simple pleasure of it, either, though that was always hard to tell. It was one of the riskier parts of this whole thing, and one of the main reasons I’d avoided it whenever possible. You could never quite tell who would catch you and make an example of you, in various ways. It had backfired on me twice, once not so badly and once as badly as anything I’d gone through in the camps.
Unfortunately, whenever possible was a phrase with an enormous loophole, and I was thinking I’d come up against it. I needed money fast, and that meant taking risks.
I’d planned it all out in my head. Her routine wasn’t repetitive, but it involved repeated movements. Every few minutes she did a pirouette. I was going to walk up as part of the crowd as she went into the spin. I could sense the metal she was carrying with enough precision to know where her coin pouch was, and it wasn’t out of reach. While she had her back turned to do the pirouette, I would reach out and grab it before running.
Risky, but it was the best I could do on short notice.
I counted down to when she was going to start the movement. She was ahead of my count, this time, but I had been watching long enough to recognize the leadup to it. I started to take a step forward, running through the steps of the plan in my head.
The plan did not account for a hand falling on my shoulder right as I went to take that step.
I spun, not quite managing to shake off the hand, to see who had touched me.
A Tsuran man stood there, tall and heavy. He wasn’t fat, precisely; his build was stocky, but I thought there was a good amount of muscle there as well. He was richly dressed, though my eyes were drawn most strongly to the flamboyant feathered hat.
“Let go of me,” I snarled, jerking away. This time I managed to pull away.
“That’s not a very nice way to say thank you,” he said. In Tsuran, of course, and with no accent at all.
I glared at him. “Why?” I asked.
“Why would you thank me?” he asked, smiling broadly. “Because I just kept you from making a very expensive mistake, young lady.” He saw my confused expression, and his smile got even wider. “Confused?” he asked. “Let me explain over lunch. You look like you could use the food.” He turned and started walking away.
I was confident, at that point, that it couldn’t be a good thing, but as I’d already noticed, I wasn’t in a position where I had a great many choices. And I hadn’t eaten a decent meal in over a day.
The Tsuran man led me to a place much like where we had gone with Erik. They knew him there, clearly; the man standing at the front of the building nodded to him with the expression of one greeting an acquaintance, and led us back to another semi-private booth without question. Once there, he looked at my host for a moment.
“The Yanatsuran beef platter, please,” he said. “And chilled tea for both of us.”
The server looked at me, but I wasn’t going to contest the suggestion. After a moment he turned and hurried off.
“So first things first,” the Tsuran man said, once we were alone. “My name is Miles. Yourself?”
“Silf,” I said. There seemed little point in lying.
“Silf,” he said, as though savoring the sound. “Sharp sound, northern. You aren’t from around here.”
I snorted. As though the name was the only thing that could tell him that.
“I get the feeling that you’re used to cities,” he continued. “Not a country child the way many newcomers from the north are. That’s good; it means you might understand it more easily when I explain why you should be thanking me. You see, Silf, every city has its own unwritten rules. Things that aren’t laid down anywhere, but which people just understand are how things are done. Would you agree?”
I nodded. I had, indeed, seen enough of that in the Whitewood to understand what he was talking about.
“Excellent. Now, in Akitsuro, each district has its own set of rules as well. You almost broke one of the more important ones. In Ukiyo, you do not mess with the whores. You don’t shake them down, you don’t get in the way of their work, and you certainly don’t steal from them. They’re what brings the visitors in, you see? They’re what keeps the money flowing into the district. If someone so much as sneezes wrong at them, every gang in the district comes down on them like a sack of hammers. You understand?”
I nodded. It made sense. I just…hadn’t thought it through enough.
“Good,” he said. “Now that we have that cleared up, let’s move on to another topic. Namely, yourself. You don’t seem to be a very good thief, so I presume you only turned to that out of desperation.”
I tensed. He laughed.
“Relax, Silf. I’m hardly going to report you to the Civic Legion. And in any case, it’s not as though you did anything criminal. There’s no law against thinking about stealing from someone.”
I hesitated, then nodded. “Need money,” I said, hating the way my throat tightened and made it come out thin and desperate.
“I thought as much,” Miles said. “Is this a one-time need, to make a payment or something? Or is it more long-term?”
“Long,” I said. One payment would buy us time, but it wouldn’t solve the base problem of finding a way for us to survive in Aseoto.
“Hm,” he said. “I don’t suppose you have any useful skills? Something that you could find employment for?”
I shook my head. Life in the refugee camps hadn’t really done much for my employment prospect; the only things it had taught me to do were to survive and to kill, and I wasn’t going to kill for the Legions. Even my time in Branson’s Ford hadn’t been terribly helpful. Corbin’s inn hadn’t really been busy enough for me to feel confident saying that I could work in an inn.
“Unfortunate,” Miles said, though he didn’t sound surprised. “And you’re Changed, which cuts down on your employment prospects anyway. Too many places won’t take someone who’s Changed, especially not without experience. We’d have to find someone who was looking specifically for the Changed, and those are few and far between.” He paused, looking as though a thought had occurred to him. “I don’t suppose you can dance?”
I paused, then nodded. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was lying. I’d learned to dance rather well in my youth–my parents had been wealthy enough that I was expected to attend the sort of social events where dancing was a major event, and given that I was already dealing with the stigma of being Changed, they had felt it important that I be able to acquit myself well. But it had been years since I practiced. The camps had…not been conducive to dancing.
“Really?” he said, sounding surprised. “In that case, I may have just the thing. I think I know someone who would very much like to speak to you.”