Avani didn’t stop until she reached the narrow alleway, where she slept hidden behind a pile of forgotten, rotting baskets. She checked carefully to make sure she hadn’t been followed, then tried to catch her breath as she walked between the shady walls of the buildings, still cool from last night and not yet touched by the morning sun.
She thought of hiding behind her baskets, but it would be dark back there, and she needed some light to see what she’d gotten in this morning’s haul.
Sitting down on someone’s back step, Avani let her fingers uncurl, revealing the small leather pouch she’d slashed free from the foreign man’s belt. He hadn’t noticed until it was too late, until she’d already lost him in the crowd. Instead of shouting, he’d chased her. It had been, in a way, far more frightening than if he’d yelled and sent the whole street full of people after her. Her heart still throbbed as she thought about it. It had taken her a long time to lose him, but she’d done it at last, and then made her way back here.
Avani unknotted the string at the top of the bag and spilled out the contents into her hand. It contained coins of all sorts, some she had never seen before, but there was enough of the kind she recognized for her to know she’d be able to eat for days and days.
Strong arms picked her up from behind, and a hand clamped over her mouth.
“Quiet, don’t fight me,” a calm voice said in her ear. “I’m not going to turn you in.”
Avani struggled, kicked, stomped on the man’s foot, but he held her firm until she finally calmed down.
“I have an offer for you,” he said, taking his hand away from Avani’s mouth. It was the same man she had stolen the purse from. She recognized the sleeves of the embroidered jacket he’d been wearing. Rich foreigner, perfect target for a cutpurse. Had it been a trap?
“I won’t join a gang, if that’s what you mean,” Avani said. “When I come home empty-handed I don’t want to be beaten on top of being hungry!”
The man turned her around without setting her free so that now she could see his face. He was tall and thin, with strands of silver in his dark hair, and a kind, dark face. Avani wanted to trust him. “Not a gang,” he said. “A school.”
“A school for thieves?” she jerked, trying to pull free from his grip.
“A school for children like you,” he said. “We can use someone with your skills. You stole from me, and nearly got away with it. Do you have any idea how difficult that is?”
No one had ever praised her for stealing before.
“Come,” the man said, and Avani noticed that he’d collected his purse and all of its contents already. “I’ll buy you breakfast. We can talk while we eat.”
He let go, and Avani didn’t run away. In fact, in spite of the voice screaming in her head that she was doing the most colossally stupid thing she’d ever done, she followed the man from the alleyway. Maybe it was because he’d said the word breakfast.