Babes had one use: looking out at the world, round-faced and round-eyed, lost.
Before seven, they didn’t know the timing of a lie, couldn’t spot a good target, and didn’t even have the speed to cut and run when they needed to. The most they could do was trail behind someone else, hand in hand, or holding tight to the back of their shirt as if they were walking in the dark and without that link they’d be walking blind. The most they could offer was a silent plea for a little light behind the other’s spoken petition for coin: “Please, marm…” Some people heard the silence better than they heard the words, dropped two bright coins where they would have dropped one.
But she couldn’t even manage that silence.
Sed kept half his attention on the street, and half his attention on her. There wasn’t much traffic that was worth his eye. A couple across the street, too wrapped up in each other. A man in a long leather coat, moneyed, but walking too fast. After a moment, he just stuck to watching her stand behind the corner, peering out.
Couldn’t have been older than six, and she was small for that. Someone had cared about her a few months ago, given her a nice dress, taught her out how to braid her own hair. The dress was torn in a couple places now, dirty where she’d scrubbed her hands clean on it. Her braid was always a little messy and twisted to one side so that it lay crooked across one shoulder. Cute in that way that Sed had outgrown two, three years ago. She had a smile that made people smile back, then slow to watch her. Her hair was dark enough to pass as Sed’s sister. Should have been a perfect tow for him.
Watching the man in the coat, she shifted on her feet. She rested her hand against the wall, her forehead against the corner. Hiding. Or needing the support. He wasn’t ever sure which. But her eyes followed the man all the way down the street. And that was the look that ruined her. There was no plea in it, no blindness. She caught the weight of the man’s purse at his hip, the over-straight set of his shoulders, and the hard-scrubbed leather of his boots. Too sharp.
But it was the curiosity that made everyone squirm, including Sed. She watched the man too long to just be seeing, and you could see the questions forming. What muck had he been walking through that needed to be scrubbed off? Was that purse swinging with a weight that was really his? Was it full on wages, gambles or bribes?
After that, the dress and the braid didn’t seem so sweet.
Sed straightened as he spotted a man enter the street. He had gray hair starting at the sides of his face, a black coat barely hiding the plush, red jacket underneath. He was heavy around the stomach, idle and happy and rich enough to eat what he wanted. There was a servant with him, carrying packages, but only trailing half a step behind him. Almost beside him, and they were talking as if they were friends. Sed darted back to the girl, keeping an eye on the man’s progress.
“Keep up,” he said, grabbing her hand. He started into the street just a spit too fast, forcing her to fall behind on her short legs, forcing her to watch her feet and look a little lost.
“Sir?” he said when he was close enough to keep his voice quiet, tired.
The servant looked over first, sharper-eared than the old man. Sed gave them both a moment to look at them, see exactly what they were.
“Please, sir,” Sed said, letting his voice drop even lower, as if he were embarrassed to be asking. “D’you have anything to spare?”
The man hesitated.
“My sister ain’t eaten yest’day or t’day,” Sed said. He stepped a little in front of her, drawing her behind him, as if he wanted to protect her, not show her off. It drew attention to her anyway and looked better for it. Sed had to keep from smiling when the man reached for his purse.
Then the servant shifted and Sed caught the flash of a weapon at his hip. A knife, too long, too thin to be bought for simple use. And the girl had seen it too, looking the servant up and down now, noticing how tall he was, how thick his arms. When her eyes got caught on his boot, Sed knew she’d found something else dangerous, hidden.
The old man held still for a moment. Then he looked over their heads, walked forward as if they weren’t there.
“Sir,” Sed tried one more time. But the chance was gone, the moment caught and lost.
Sed dropped the girl’s hand. His fists were shaking, and he didn’t need her feeling that. Didn’t need her turning those questions on him.
He didn’t need her.
Dropping his hands to his knees, he leaned over so that their noses almost touched. He was glaring, and she backed up a quick step. “Get,” he snapped. “You can’t even beg.”
He expected her to run. He would have. But she looked angry. It was sharper than her curiosity, honed done to a pin-point edge that he’d never expected from a babe.
If she didn’t kick it soon, she would outlive him.