Mel walked away, looking back over her shoulder. She looked like she might have left her usual grin in Anie’s pockets, and she would have liked to run and steal it back.
She kept walking. Turning the corner back onto the main street, Anie lost sight of her.
“Can she still Show?” Anie asked. She looped her arm through Thea’s, bunching cold fingers in the fabric of her older sister’s sleeve.
“I don’t think so,” Thea murmured. She turned them toward the back of the alley, aiming for a side street that would take them around the back of the market. It was a straighter route toward home, and one that took them away from the crowds. Thea took those roads more and more often this winter.
“She’s only fifteen,” Anie pointed out.
“Momma was ten,” Thea said gently. “I was eleven. You’re ten.” Anie held back a smile at the teasing way Thea said her new age out loud. Thea put an arm around Anie’s shoulders and squeezed her against her side. She kissed the top of her head as they walked. “It would be awfully late for Mel…”
“Do you think it would help?” Anie asked.
Thea looked at her, surprised and immediately refusing the idea. Then she faced forward.
Anie looked down.
Thea let out a short sigh. She hesitated, seeming to reconsider the idea. “She’s not jealous, Anie,” Thea said. “I don’t think Mel knows how. She’s too happy with what she has.”
Anie didn’t ask any more questions. They walked in silence back to their row, Thea’s hands buried in her pockets and Anie’s fingers wrapped in Thea’s sleeve. Anie’s pockets bobbed against her hips, and she listened to them clink as they walked. Thea tucked her chin down into the collar of her coat, only raised her head to smile and nod a greeting at the men and women passing by. When they turned the final corner and the front door came into view, Anie squeezed Thea’s arm and skipped ahead.
She almost ran into Avigail at the door. The older girl had her dark hair braided back, and a shawl tugged around her shoulders like she’d come down from her house on half a thought. She was wearing her boots, but her her nose and cheeks were pink from the cold.
“What are you doing here?” Anie asked, twisting to keep from bumping her as she reached for the door handle. She stopped in the doorway, looking up at her curiously.
“Looking for Thea,” Avigail said.
Anie pointed back down the street and ran into the house. She darted up the stairs, hands over her pockets to keep them from bouncing against her hips. At the top of the stairs, she turned, ran straight to the back of the house and pushed the door open.
Momma was sitting up in bed, hands caught up in her yarn and needles. Pillows fluffed out behind her, and a heavy blanket folded over her knees. For just a moment, Anie thought her eyes were closed and almost scooted back out the door. Then Momma smiled, put her needles down, patted the bed and scooted over to make room for Anie. Anie bounced on the bed and it creaked under her. She wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck and grinned against her cheek.
“Bright birth day,” Momma whispered.
“Good morning,” Anie returned. She took a deep breath, smelling the soap in Momma’s hair. She must been up already this morning. It was still damp from a washing.
“Show me!” Momma said. She sounded as excited as Anie felt and Anie bounced backward, sitting cross-legged on the bed and spilled her pockets onto the blanket.
There was a soft scarf, striped and wove with stars. The ears of the little wooden rabbit got caught in it as she pulled them both from her pocket and tumbled onto the bed like it was running for it’s hidey hole. Momma caught it, looked at its funny pointed face and laughed. Anie pulled out two tangerines, the skin firm and oiled. Immediately, she dug her nails into one, and the smell drifted up from her hands. She tore the fruit in half, sucked on one piece and handed the other to Momma.
Two bottles of paint clinked together – blue-black and water-green.
There was one shoe in each pocket, a matching pair of brown soft leather house shoes lined with fur. Anie pulled off her boots and laced them up, wiggling her toes.
Momma held up a necklace, a single strand of leather strung with a round pendent. One side of the disc was painted with a night scene, with a full moon and a stand of trees done up simply in single brush strokes, and a deer walking on the grass. The other side was all in reds and oranges, daylight, with a bird flying between the trees.
There was more in Anie’s pockets than she expected, and the little things just kept falling out of her hands. Gloves. A little doll with knees and elbows that bent. A plum. Hard candies. Three fat coins. A candle with a red wick.
The beads were the last thing she pulled out. There were two strands of them, one the blue starlight string she had liked so much, the other white with amber lines running crooked through them. They warmed in her hands, and she held them up in the light to show them off.
“Beautiful,” Momma said. Anie wrapped the blue beads around her wrist. Then she tied the white ones around Momma’s. Her skin didn’t look quite so pale, next to those milky beads. Momma laughed a little, shook her hands so that the beads clinked, then took them off and tied them to Anie’s other hand.
“Are you happy?” Momma asked.
Anie nodded. “Very.”
“Good.” Momma held Anie’s fingers, rubbed her thumb over the back of her hand.
“Mel found out,” Anie said carefully.
Momma’s thumb hesitated in its circles. “She’s smart like that.”
“I think it made Thea more worried,” Anie said.
Momma nodded. “And how worried is Thea?” Her smile was pulling at one corner of her mouth.
Anie thought carefully, titled her head back and forth. “A little less than a squirrel.”
Momma laughed. “Has she started digging holes and hiding things yet?”
“No.” Anie shook her head. “Just runs around a lot.”
“Keep me informed.”
Momma started to say something else, then stopped, eyes shutting tight. It was just for a second, but every muscle in her neck and shoulders went stiff. She rested her head back against the pillows, but it looked like it took effort when she should have just fallen back. Momma smoothed her hands over the blankets. “Would you get me some water, Anie?” she asked lightly.
Anie nodded. Slipping out the room, she glanced back, trying to decide if this was worse than usual. Momma breathed easy after a moment, and Anie decided it wasn’t worth telling Thea about.
She traipsed down to the kitchen for the pitcher.
“I’m serious,” Avigail was saying when Anie came in. Thea had her back to the door and Avigail was talking to the back of her head, arms cross to keep her shawl tight around her shoulders. Anie skipped backward and put her back to the wall, grinning at the chance to listen.
“Really?” Thea asked.
“You should be getting ready, too,” Avigail said.
“Ready to walk out the city gates into the wild paradise beyond?” Thea joked. “Sure.”
“They took Dezin this morning,” Avigail said.
“I saw,” Thea said.
Anie blinked. Thea had told Mel she didn’t know the man.
“You have to know they’ll find all of us,” Avigail said. “Sometimes I think it’s luck’s eye they haven’t asked what your mother is sick of yet.”
There was a heavy pause, and Anie knew the look that Thea had just leveled at Avigail. Anie licked her fingers and snapped them twice – light, so the other girls wouldn’t hear – to distract Luck from what she’d just said. She thought she heard Avigail do the same thing.
“I just meant…” Avigail continued. “They’re going to find us. If they give us the chance to leave, we should take it.”
“We don’t know what they do with us,” Thea said quietly.
“We know no one’s come back!” Avigail said.
“Stop looking at me like that,” Thea murmured. “I just don’t like the talk. I don’t like the daydreams of them opening the gates and turning their backs. It makes the nightmares harder.”
Anie gripped the door frame, tight.
“If a royal herald ever stands in the middle of the square and announces this Day of Amnesty or whatever they want to call it, I’ll run for the gate.” Thea promised her. “I’ll be right behind you and I’ll drag my mother and Anie with me. I just don’t want to talk about it in back rooms anymore.”
Avigail shifted on her feet. “And I just don’t want to be here anymore,” she said.
“I know,” Thea said.
They both took a breath, and the silence held. Anie waited to see if they’d pick the conversation back up, but they didn’t. She took a step back, tip-toed all the way back up the stairs, then ran down them, loud. She beamed at Thea as she came into the kitchen and swiped the pitcher off the table. She checked Thea’s expression carefully as she ran back out, but didn’t catch any suspicion. She’d gotten away with it.