Elodie’s mark was wrapping up his conversation. He straightened in his chair, pushed himself back from his table, kept his eyes on his partner, but Elodie could see his attention shift. The last few words to tumble out of his partner’s mouth were less important than the rest of the room. The path to the door was suddenly more interesting than the drink in his hand. He drained the mug in one swig, set it down on the table and didn’t touch it again.
Elodie shifted as well. She needed to get outside before him, if the tail was going to start well. It would be best to get half way down the block before he left the building, just to earn the distance she needed to disappear before she started following him.
Glancing around the taproom, Elodie looked for her best excuse to leave.
A boy sat down across from her while her head was turned. She caught it out of the corner of her eye and turned back slowly.
“Hey,” she said, curious. She looked at her mark without moving her head. He hadn’t stood yet.
“Elodie?” the boy asked.
Elodie’s smile loosened, just a bit. “I’m busy,” she said.
“You don’t look it,” he said. He nodded at her drink and otherwise empty table.
She considered it for a moment. “I think I’ll trust me on this one.”
Her mark was standing, checking his pockets to make sure he had all his things, saying good-bye, turning for the door.
Elodie watched her mark disappear out the door. “I’m leavin’,” she said. The timing wasn’t as clean as she would have liked, but she still had options. She stood. Alander grabbed her hand.
Elodie sat back down immediately. It hadn’t been a hard grip. If it had been, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to twist out, break his nose and get away. But she liked this place and the invisibility she’d maintained at its tables. They would look at her funny if she started breaking people.
Alander was actually smiling when she sat back down. She raised her eyebrows, then leaned forward and smiled too. He leaned back.
“Who did you get my name from?” she asked. “Breta?”
“Just need t’know whose shoes to stuff with dead squid,” she said. Her tone was so reasonable, it took him a moment to realize what she’d said.
“Kirren,” Alander said slowly.
Elodie stopped halfway to snapping through her next sentence. She shut her mouth deliberately. Kirren wasn’t anyone. Just a shopkeep five streets over, who collected enough coin to know he would still put food on the table next week, and was happy with that much assurance. She liked Kirren.
“Why?” she asked.
“He said you were the best,” Alander said. “At what we do. Or the best of us. He wasn’t very clear. Maybe he meant both.”
“Be sure to return the love for me,” she said. “Tell him I said his nose is the perfect angle, and the squeak on his back door is the most perfect thief trap I ever heard. But I asked you why.”
Alander blinked once. He took a full breath – in then out – before he answered. “He said I could learn from you.” The smile on him and the sharp evenness of his actions suddenly made sense.
“You new to the life?” Elodie asked, just to get it confirmed.
Alander nodded, steady.
“And you just got your first face full of dirt,” Elodie said. “Nothing quite like the taste of mud under your tongue.”
It took him a moment to realize she was spinning metaphors. “Yeah,” he said.
“And Kirren tried to help you out?”
“Yeah,” Alander said. It was a second too quick and she caught what would have been a laugh under his steady tone.
“Did he give you his speech about the silver lining on a cloud?” Elodie asked. “Because the best way to shut him up on that one is to start plottin’ outloud how you’d nick all that silver. Once you start in on flying contraptions and lookin’ for the days when the clouds are lowest and considerin’ who would be able to fence that much silver, he just starts starin’ at you.”
Alander blinked. Then he shook his head. “Kirren seems to think that his rules can still get us by. That we can still be nice people.”
“No,” Elodie said quickly. “He thinks we can still be good people. Don’t get those two mixed up. It’s more dangerous than mixing lightnin’ and lightbugs.”
Alander didn’t say anything.
“And he’s right,” Elodie said.
“No, he’s not,” Alander said.
“It’s possible,” Elodie said. “You have to be smarter, faster, and better than anybody, just to get the power to say no. You have to be ready to run when no one else has to. You have to keep saying no, when it would fill your stomach to say yes. And you know by now, that’s the hardest choice you’ll ever have to make.”
Alander sank farther into his chair. He might have crossed his arms, but something had trained him to stay ready to move instead.
“You don’t believe me,” Elodie said.
“No,” Alander said.
“Well,” Elodie said. “Real things can be hard to fit in your stomach.” She stood up, quickly calculating how far ahead her mark might have gotten. “Do me a favor? The next time you see Kirren, forget what I said about his nose, and his door. Just tell him I’m hungry.”