I could tell by the way she walked that she didn’t belong. Sure she dressed like us, but no one walks like that down here. Slow, deliberate, one foot placed perfectly in front of the other; toe-heel, toe-heel, toe-heel. She’d have looked less conspicuous in her fancy dress and gleaming tiara. At least then she would have looked right, if out of place. Down here, dressed in our clothes, with her clean hair sloppily braided, walking toe-heel, toe-heel, she looked ridiculous as well as out of place. Any street kid could have spotted her. It just so happened to be me.
“What happened?” I asked her from my perch beside the fruit stand. I always perch there because the fruit smell covers the city stink best. “Nobles kick ya’ out?”
“Excuse me?” she replied, looking at me with round blue eyes. “I don’t know what you mean.” She even talked proper. No slurred words, no lisp, no accent. Just perfect, clear diction. And manners! ‘Excuse me?’ No one asks to be excused on these streets! Yup, she stuck out like a sore thumb and she didn’t even know it.
“Naw, ‘course ya don’t,” I said, rocking on my heels. “Cuz everyone down here walks just like that.”
“Like what?” she asked, looking down at her feet. “Is there something wrong with the way I walk?”
“Yeah, there’s somethin’ wrong,” I told her, hopping off my perch, “You ain’t no street kid, that’s what’s wrong. Street kids walk like this.” I showed her my best strut, walking around her in a circle. “You walk like this.” I imitated her dainty walk going the opposite direction. She frowned at me, a ridge forming between her eyes.
“I don’t walk like that at all,” she protested. “Your form is all wrong.”
“See there!” I said, pointing my finger at her so close it made her eyes go crossed looking at it. “Ya might dress like a street kid but you don’t talk like no street kid. So what’s a noble doin’ down here anyway?”
“I did not get kicked out if that’s what you’re asking,” she informed me, her shoulders squaring as she tried to look dignified. “I ran away.”
“And why would ya go an’ do a thing like that?” I asked, raising an eyebrow at her as I crossed my arms.
“That’s none of your business,” she replied, turning her nose up at me. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people who turn their noses up.
“Fine,” I said, “If it’s none-a my business maybe I’ll go talk to that guard over there.” I jerked my head to the left where a patrol guard was chatting with a pastry vender. “I’m sure he’ll be interested in the noble runaway tryin’ta pass for a street kid.”
I took two steps toward the pastry cart before she grabbed my arm, pulling me back behind the fruit stand. “Please don’t,” she begged, keeping her voice low. “If I tell you, will you teach me how to be a street child?”
“Kid,” I corrected. “Sure.”
She hesitated a moment, looking around as if someone might be listening to our conversation. Lesson number one: no one pays attention to street kids.
“My father wants me to marry some man I’ve never met,” she told me. I waited for her to continue but her look told me she thought that was a good enough answer.
“And?” I asked. “What of it?”
“What of it?” she asked, her eyes going wide again. “He’s old! And I don’t want to marry him!”
Nobles are the weirdest bunch, I’m tellin ya. The men like to wait until they’re thirty to marry, but they like to marry off their daughters when they’re real young, the younger the better. My runaway was something like twelve, thirteen at the oldest. Way I hear it, even thirteen is a little late for noble girls to be married off. You’d think she’d be ready for this, but the look in her eyes was one of pure disgust. I kinda wondered how she would fair on the streets. Street kids die off quick so if you wanna try the whole family thing you gotta move fast. Mostly it goes ya like a girl, ya sleep with her, ya move on. If ya really like her ya keep sleepin’ with her and it’s the same as be’n married I guess. I got the feeling my runaway wouldn’t like that idea anymore than marrying the old guy. Maybe that would scare her back to him. Either way I figured I should keep an eye on her. Little chick like her was liable to be picked up real quick.
“I’ll tell ya this, right here,” I said to her. “Ya don’t belong down here, and fittin’ in’s not gonna be easy. Ya sure this is better?”
“Anything is better than sharing a bed with a man more than twice my age,” she informed me with a nod. “So teach me. I’m a fast learner, you’ll see.”
“Alright,” I sighed, grabbing her hand and pulling into the back alley. “But I’m gonna need some help with you.” It was clear I had my work cut out for me but I’ve never backed down from a challenge in my life, and I wasn’t about to start with her.