The hall was wide enough for two fat carriages with drunken drivers to dance past each other comfortably, but the crowd had still slowed to a sluggish crawl as they turned down it. A hush crept its way like a cat between their legs, from the front back towards where I stood like that cat among them, too near the ground for most to notice and too slight to be more than jostled between them. I’d followed them blindly, weaving in and out, invisible. It was how I moved and how I hunted. My pockets had already swelled with several loose coins, a woman’s lace handkerchief, and a bit of parchment worn soft from fingering. My own fingers were sticky with the bite of bun that I’d stolen from a dangling hand. He’d not even noticed the missing bite—or if he had, I’d been too far away to hear his exclamation.
Looking, I found no one at my eye level, no other urchin who might have scouted ahead, have news from the front. The faces above me were quiet, and I was too grubby to tug on their velvet coat tails or silken skirts to ask the question that all of them held within tight lips and upon stiff shoulders.
If I wanted answers, I had to find them myself.
Sideways was easier than forwards in the pressed crowd, so I moved sideways, taking an occasional step back when the crowd became too thick.
I wiggled loose of the crowd by the mouth of a dark alley. The well-to-do crowd gave the alley a wide berth.
I hesitated at its mouth.
Alleyways were always dangerous.
This one though housed only an old tramp in rags slouched against the brick and a girl smaller than me who picked through the gutter, a wary eye on the tramp. I followed her gaze back to him along the rope that bound her ankle to his wrist and gagged.
The tramp was more dangerous than I would have first thought, dangerous enough for me to give him a wide berth. I found handholds in the brick of the wall that faced the street rather than risk the same shadow that he occupied, preferring to risk being dragged down by those who thought me up to no good than by a man who might find too much use for me.
This had once been a nice part of town. The shops though they were butchers and bakeries rather than milliners or tailors still had the decorative molding that provided safer footing than grout and I was able without too much trouble to find my way to a narrow ledge above the shop but below the windows of residences.
The crowd had stopped as if they’d found a cliff’s lip. They left a wide patch of road bare between them. In its center was a man prone. From as far away as I was, I couldn’t see much, but he wore a long, green coat that even from here I could tell fit him well and would have cost him a good deal. No one had divested him of it yet. I found myself wishing that the crowd had not noticed him before I had or I’d have been warm tonight and rich in the morning if I’d wanted to be. He carried no bags, no purse. He was the sort of well-to-do person who has everything delivered to him and buys on credit, the sort that many new to the streets think will be a good mark but whom they find has empty pockets.
He was not a particularly impressive figure otherwise. He was older with white hair. He had the spindly look of a man who had never known muscles and had never quite grown into his long legs. I was oddly reminded of a yearling colt towed to market.
There was no blood that I could see.
A constable bustled out of the crowd then, and by instinct I shrank away. There was nowhere to hide on my lip, but he was not looking in my direction.
He looked around at the crowd. His cudgel hung loose from his hand, and it was clear that he felt lost without anyone at which to swing the club.
He made some kind of plea to the crowd and waited, but he didn’t seem to get the response that he’d hoped. His shoulders stiffened, and his voice was louder when he next spoke, so that I caught a few words, far back as I was, and above them all. “…murder… dead… street held… questioning….”
Still no one moved towards the constable and the dead man.
The constable lost some of his anger then. He motioned and a few more patrollers emerged from the crowd, and began to shepherd them away.
The crowd shuffled backwards. A few at the back turned and walked away as the patrollers’ orders came to them. Others pressed to the sides of the street and hissed questions at those who came from the front.
The street would soon be emptied, but I had no hope of getting that coat.
I crept off the building and dropped down onto the street, thanking whatever gods there might be that I’d not been caught or fallen.
Then I waited, pressed back against the brick. I let flustered people pass and soaked up their words.
“Can’t believe it.”
“What now? Who’s…”
I’m a thief! It’s been a long while. At the beginning of this week, Gwen from Apprentice, Never Master sent this first line around to the ring of thieves and issued the challenge to write a piece off of it by midnight tonight.
The original piece from Gwen is “Ocean and Wind” (1033 words).