A hand locked around Heydi’s wrist, really locked, with the fingers hooked over her narrow wrist bones and thumb perfectly set in the groove between her hand and her arm. It hurt a little, but the first thing she did was stare at it.
She was very sure that the guards had not seen her, and very sure that this was not any of the five women and four men that she had just robbed of their purses. She didn’t know who it was, or why they cared.
She started to tilt her head back – all the way back – to get a look at his face. Then she realized it didn’t matter who it was, or why he had grabbed her. It hurt, and no one friendly would hurt her.
Heydi let her feet drop out from under her, twisting her whole body around her arm, twisting herself toward his thumb. Jerdan had taught her to do it, to hang all her weight off her arm, and practiced with her until she knew the exact instant that the man’s hold would break. She was too small to break it any other way.
She felt the pop of his thumb losing its hold, and the sharp slide of the rest of his fingers coming free. The man swore. She was already catching herself on her toes and running in the other direction.
Running for home.
The purses were too heavy, and placed wrong for running. They jangled and beat against her ribs and chest in all their hiding places. She wasn’t supposed to run from a job. She was supposed to walk, or skip, or play, and otherwise not be noticed. This running was very wrong. But there were heavy footfalls behind her, little grunts, and all the small, shocked noises a crowd made when someone tall was pushing through.
She ran flat out, ducked through all the corners, and counted them carefully. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen. The streets were emptying, the crowd thinning. She was running out of places to hide, and the man behind her was running out of things to slow him down. Fifteen, sixteen. He almost caught her by the shoulder, and she skidded around the next bend.
Seventeen, and the Old House was in view, a little too tall for the street, and a little too spindly to make a good argument for itself against gravity. The top floor was sort of crooked, the windows leaning back toward the house, as if they were afraid of falling out. There was always a small group of boys and girls sitting out around the front porch, silent in their decision that it was safer.
“Jerdan!” Heydi screamed. “Jerdan!” She dragged his name out, and shrieked a little at the end of it.
He should have been close to the Old House at this time of day. He should have been able to hear her, should have been tall enough to look this man in the eye for her. She heard one of the others echo her call, and a moment later, Jerdan was running out the door, clattering down the steps.
Running straight toward her.
Another boy clomped down the steps behind him, a little slower. A third pulled himself out of the knot around the porch, and they chased Jerdan’s heels, heads down.
Straight toward her.
Then past her. Heydi ducked under Jerdan’s arm, passing close enough he could have grabbed her up if he needed to. Then she counted her steps, as he’d told her to, skidding to a stop twenty strides behind him. She heard him slam into the man, and turned around to see them in a pile on the ground, with the other two boys coming in to kick at the man on the ground.
Jerdan rolled to the side, back on his feet in an instant.
“You’re in the wrong place,” he growled.
The man was swearing again, hands raised. It took him a long moment to work his palms out to call for surrender, too busy shielding his head. The other boys only pulled back when Jerdan motioned for them to stop. Pushing himself up off the ground, he watched Jerdan with the same narrow eyes that Jerdan focused on him.
He was taller than Jerdan. Older by a handful of years. His shirt was too tight on his shoulders, and dirtier than it should have been, even with the kicking. It all looked a little familiar. Heydi balled the edges of her own too-big sleeves in her fists.
“Whose house is this?” he asked.
“Not yours,” Jerdan said. “Get goin’.”
“Who controls this house?” the man asked, sharper. One of the boys flinched, then glared harder. “I need to talk to him. Because your pick was doing her work on our streets.”
Heydi sucked in a breath and held it.
Jerdan glanced at her, quick, and his expression didn’t shift for a moment. “This is Caled’s house,” Jerdan said. “And Caled’s street. And you’re standin’ in Caled’s dirt.” He leaned forward, meeting the man’s eye firmly. “You shouldn’t.”
“We bought that street,” the man said, his voice not quite as low, not quite as dangerous. “She had no–”
“The next time I put you on the ground, you’re gonna be diggin’ your teeth out of the dust, brother,” Jerdan said. “Get goin’.”
Heydi heard the door to the house open and shut again, heard the knot of people shift in front of the porch. Jerdan didn’t flinch, and the boys beside him took measured steps forward, pressing the man back up the street. He shuffled through his first step. The dust kicked up around his toes, and settled. Then he turned, took two long strides, and then was running back the way he came.
Caled stepped up beside Heydi, quietly.
“What did we learn?” he murmured as they both watched the man disappear.
Tilting her head, Heydi took a breath while she collected her words. “We check for marks. We check for guards. We check for folk like us twice.”
She didn’t have to see him nod to know she had gotten it right.