Ondrakja had a sharp eye for valuable things. A handkerchief of fine lace from southern Vraszan. An inlaid ivory snuffbox. A purse fat with coins and left too vulnerable, ready to nick off a man’s belt while he was distracted.

A girl begging on the corner of the Uča Idvo.

Not more than eight years old, if Ondrakja was any judge, and dressed in ragged Vraszenian clothes, her sash belt missing one of its dangling panels. She wasn’t on the corner long; that was Gorolets’s begging patch, and by the time Ondrakja passed back that way a bell later, he’d run her off. The girl showed up near the Lacewater Bridge the next morning, and Lifost Square that evening, where her pretty face earned her some charity from the rich cuffs out slumming—and some unwelcome attention besides.

That pretty face was why Ondrakja remembered her. That, and what she saw the next morning.

The girl was back on the Uča Idvo, and in Gorolets’s patch—but this time he wasn’t running her off. Ondrakja doubted his pickled brain had figured out on its own that the benefit of having a big-eyed waif pleading on his behalf would be worth splitting the take... which meant their partnership must have been the girl’s idea.

Not just pretty, then, but smart, too. Smart enough to realize that sooner or later Gorolets would sell her for a quick windfall?

Ondrakja had no intention of giving him the chance. She knew what happened once someone vanished into the depths of Nadežra’s brothels.

She chose her approach and her moment with care. A Vraszenian-style sash belt and shoulder-buttoned blouse like the girl’s, though less tattered—but not too fine, either. Finery in Lacewater usually meant one of two things: an Upper Bank cuff come to play games among the river rats, or a madam. Ondrakja aimed to look respectable, not rich. And though a few touches of makeup could shift her appearance more toward either Vraszenian or Liganti, she chose to leave her mixed ancestry on display. Under the grime, the girl had more than a hint of Liganti in her features; she might respond better to someone who looked like her.

A few bells before sunset, Gorolets divided up their take—keeping most of it for himself—and shot off toward the Whistling Reed like a stone from a sling to drink his share. The girl stuffed her meager handful of mills into a pocket under her skirt, where no one could easily nick them, and went back to begging.

A few mills was enough money for cheap noodles to fill her belly. So either she had more than just herself to feed... or she was after more than just food.

Ondrakja waited, watching. Lacewater got busier toward sunset, when the people who worked as day-servants on the Upper Bank returned home, but the idle cuffs who wanted enough danger to make themselves feel bold hadn’t arrived yet. Lots of foot traffic along the countless little bridges that stitched the district together, but it was all working people in a hurry to get home. Three passers-by in a row brushed the girl off, and her shoulders trembled with barely suppressed despair. Now.

By the time the girl turned around, Ondrakja was within reach. Catching the outstretched hand, she laid a squashed shrimp bun in it. “Here. Little it may be, but more than you have eaten today, I think.”

The clothing, the appearance, the faintly Vraszenian cast to Ondrakja’s phrasing: if she’d guessed right, those would strike familiar, comforting notes in this girl’s mind.

The bun vanished as if it had never been. This close, Ondrakja could see not just the hollows beneath the girl’s fine cheekbones but the pale, dry rims of her eyes, the thin and flattened nails on her hands. Signs of a child who hadn’t eaten well for some time—much more than the few days she’d been begging here.

Ondrakja waited until the girl had swallowed, then asked, “What’s your name?”

The answer came out with a struggle, as if the bun had lodged in the girl’s throat. Or as if tears had risen to replace it. “A—Arenza.”

“I am Ondrakja. Will you tell me what happened? Why a child like you is here all alone?”

Ondrakja remembered very well how deeply kindness could touch the heart, when it came on the heels of everyone else’s callous disregard. And the bun was more than just charity; it was a gift. Having accepted it, Arenza would be more willing to give something in return—like answers. It took a stony soul to resist that exchange, and whatever hardships this one had been through, someone had sheltered her until recently. She hadn’t yet developed the brittle shell she would need to survive this life.

“My mother died,” Arenza said. She was no experienced pity-rustler, wringing sympathy with her sad tale; it came out with the flat, toneless delivery of a story too often told and too rarely heeded. “Seven d—” Thickness choked the word off, and she tried again. “Seven days ago. I—I’m supposed to—”

The city of Nadežra was a tangled snarl of cultural threads. Not just Vraszenian and Liganti in an uneven, badly woven web, but all the lands whose goods and traders passed through during their journeys east or west. Though Ondrakja claimed none of them as her own, she knew enough of all to get by. Seven days after the passing of a Vraszenian, their kin were supposed to burn a knotted thread charm in their memory.

This girl could barely afford food. Any money she’d had last week would have gone toward the funeral—such as it might be, without kin to dance in her mother’s memory. Ondrakja assumed there were none; no Vraszenian with a proper family and clan would be out on the streets alone. But the Liganti conquest of Nadežra had done a splendid job of breaking the old ties, leaving no net to catch girls like this one.

“Poor child,” she whispered in Vraszenian—and Arenza broke.

Not pretty weeping, the sort that might draw pity from a passing cuff, but gut-wrenching noises like she was retching up her grief. A bell ago Ondrakja had been a stranger, but now Arenza clung to her arm like it was the only thing keeping her from drowning in the river. Ondrakja stroked her hair, murmuring more Vraszenian endearments, and waited for the flood to slacken enough that Arenza might hear her words.

Once it finally did, she said, “You need a charm, of course. Come with me.”

Arenza pulled loose with the full-body startle of a frightened cat. “No, I—my—my friend, she waits for me. I should go.”

The friend was obviously a lie, but pointing that out would only make Arenza feel cornered. “Will your friend help you mourn? I can buy the charm. No daughter should have to let her mother’s spirit pass without remembrance.”

That got a ragged breath in response. Then: “All right.”

Ondrakja didn’t try to hold her hand, but Arenza hewed close to her heels as they wove a path through the twilight crowds of Lacewater. This was the oldest part of the city, and the buildings leaned overhead until the narrowest lanes almost became tunnels. Twice Ondrakja felt hands brush against her, looking fruitlessly for something to lift; a glance back showed that Arenza was sensibly clutching her own pocket tight, guarding against losing what little she had.

Fortunately the labyrinth wasn’t far. Ondrakja rarely set foot in the place, but Arenza clearly came there often; she went without hesitation to the pillar that held the Face and the Mask of Čel Kariš Tmekra, the deity of life and death. Čel Kariš, the Face of Seeds, bestowing life; Čel Tmekra, the Mask of Bones, taking it away. When Arenza stood on her tiptoes, mills in hand to make her offering, Ondrakja pushed her down with a gentle touch and fed a centira to the sculpted Mask of Bones.

“Thank you,” Arenza said, her voice unsteady. It wasn’t much money—but more than this girl could afford, and it meant coin left over for supper tonight, too. After that they walked the labyrinth together, following the single tiled path as it looped in and out before arriving at the center.

The bowl of water there was less than entirely clean, touched by too many worshippers’ hands without being emptied and refreshed. But Ondrakja followed Arenza’s lead in dipping her fingers and touching her brow, and even murmured a swift prayer for form’s sake.

Everything in Lacewater was small and cramped. The stalls selling knotted charms weren’t inside the labyrinth building, but under lean-tos clinging to the outer wall. The grey-haired woman they bought the mourning charm from overcharged, but Ondrakja didn’t want to dicker in front of Arenza; instead she swiped a pair of luck charms when the old hag wasn’t looking. Arenza was too lost in her grief to notice. Then Ondrakja led her around the corner to burn the offering on one of the tiny bridges over a nearby canal, with the help of a coal borrowed from a tavern.

“I found her in an alley,” Arenza whispered, staring blindly at the smoke curling up from the twists of thick hemp cord. “She wasn’t...” The tale snagged on a choked-off sob. “She wasn’t dead for long, but already they’d stolen everything. Not just money. Her shoes. Her clothes. Her hair.”

Of course they had. People as poor as Lacewater’s thieves and beggars didn’t waste anything. There were stories of the dead being butchered for the meat on their bones, though Ondrakja suspected those were just unpleasant legends. She’d seen the worst Nadežra’s slums had to offer, but she’d never seen that.

The gaze Arenza turned on her was as hollow as if someone had scooped out her eyes, leaving a gaping void behind. “They took her koszenie.”

Ondrakja’s breath caught. Magnificent works of embroidery, koszenie shawls encoded the wearer’s ancestry in a complex series of stitches and knots. If this girl’s mother had one, then she’d been properly Vraszenian—the sort of woman who should have had kin to dance for her and to take care of her daughter when she was gone.

Not a half-Liganti daughter, though. And whoever Arenza’s father was, he clearly didn’t give a rat’s shit about the girl. She truly had no one.

Just like Ondrakja herself, once.

She knelt and took Arenza’s thin hands in her own. “Have you a place to sleep tonight? No? Well, my house is not far.”

Arenza wasn’t completely naive. The street ate the naive, and didn’t even spit out the bones. Her hands pulled free.

Ondrakja brushed her own words away, as if recognizing her foolish error. “No, you said a friend waits for you. Much better to sleep in the house of one you know.”

“I—yes.” There was a battle in Arenza’s gaze, between the desire for some kind of shelter, even from a stranger, and the wariness that had kept her safe thus far. And she didn’t want to admit she’d lied.

Ondrakja lowered her voice. “But if this friend is not so hospitable... my house is on the Uča Fidou. Not far from the West Channel. You may come there at any time.”

“Near the West Channel?” Arenza said, startled. “I know that area. That’s not—”

She cut off abruptly, but Ondrakja finished the sentence for her. “Not where the brothels are? I am not a madam. When I was not much older than you, one of that sort found me, and—” She bit her lips together, hard enough to hurt. “I would not do that to you. Not to any child. I take care of children like you—those who have lost everything, as I once did. Come, and they will tell you.”

She offered her hand again, and after a moment’s hesitation, Arenza took it. Her bones felt as fragile a bird’s, and Ondrakja cradled her hand with care as she led the girl away.

No, the street would not have a chance to crush this one. I will make sure of that.

Ondrakja whistled as she opened the front door of the lodging-house. She always whistled, unless there was a hawk with her; silence, not noise, was the signal for her Fingers to hide anything the Vigil shouldn’t see. But she had more than one tune, and this one said, Be on your best behavior. We’ve got a new pair of hands.

It brought them swarming out of the woodwork—quite literally, as the boards of the wall to the unused kitchen were eaten away, leaving a hole the smallest children could fit through. Arenza shrank instinctively behind Ondrakja, overwhelmed by the rush. Some of the children were younger than her, but most were at least a year or two older.

“Everyone,” Ondrakja said, smiling at the crowd of expectant and curious faces, “this is Arenza. She will stay with us tonight. Be nice to her.” Her gaze combed the pack, taking a quick census as to who was in and who was out. “Obniš, Equin, fetch water. I suspect Arenza might like a bath. Pereias, what food have we on hand?”

The ones she’d named all leapt to obey, followed by a few she hadn’t. Everyone was enthusiastic when new blood came in, because they knew there would be a feast if the girl wound up joining them.

But that lay at the end of a long road, and so far they’d only traveled a few steps. Ondrakja led Arenza up the creaking stairs to her own chambers, in all their stained, tattered glory. Her high-backed chair by the hearth, her fine clothes draped over a stand of rods by the wall. If the carpet gained some extra cushioning from the mold in it, well, Nadežra was built on a swamp; such things were hard to avoid.

The hip bath was small, but so was Arenza. A few trips up the stairs by Obniš and Equin were enough to fill it. Then Ondrakja helped her out of her clothes and into the tub before scrubbing her from head to foot. Arenza’s hair was brittle and badly enough tangled that in the end Ondrakja had to cut some of the worst snarls from it, but she could imagine how it would look once the girl was better-fed. It was a rich brown, halfway between Vraszenian dark and the lighter shades of the Liganti, just as her skin could pass for either with some help. A chameleon in the making; it was almost like looking through a window into her own past.

Except that this girl wouldn’t wind up whored out to rich cuffs who liked their meat tender. She would have a better future than that.

Although a few more tears fell to mix their salt in the water, Arenza didn’t break down again. She sat quietly until the bath was done, then got out and let Ondrakja wrap a robe around her.

A tap at the door was Dmaren with a tray of food. She tried to enter the room, no doubt already imagining herself as Arenza’s mentor-to-be, but Ondrakja blocked her with a hip, took the tray, and shut the door in her face. Dmaren was a disappointment. Nearly too old for the Fingers now, her childish beauty dulling with every passing season, and her skills had never really blossomed. She saw herself as Ondrakja’s heir, but was too stupid to realize that would never happen.

Ondrakja set the tray on a side table. “Here,” she said. “I doubt that bun was nearly enough for you.”

Arenza went to the table and touched one of the dumplings. She must have been starving... but she didn’t pick it up. “Who are all these kids? This—this isn’t an orphanage.”

“No, it isn’t.” Ondrakja settled into her chair and waited to see what else Arenza would say.

She stood silently, looking at the tray. It was silver—scuffed and dented, but silver nonetheless. Ondrakja didn’t sell everything that came in. “Are they thieves?”

The question was stiff with tension. Ondrakja answered easily. “Some of them. Others are pity-rustlers. The smartest learn to play people.”

“Play them?”

“Like a harpist. They know what note to strike to make a mark angry, so he won’t notice who creeps up behind him. Or how to make him laugh. They can pass themselves off as what they’re not, make their mark think they’ve bought a fine jewel when it’s nothing more than painted glass. The ones who learn to do that...” Ondrakja smiled. “They never go hungry again.”

The hollowness in Arenza’s gaze hardened to something fiercer. She faced Ondrakja squarely and said, “Are you playing me now?”

Feeling the currents. That was how Ondrakja thought of it: the ability to guess what other people were thinking, to anticipate their moods and know what response would get the best results. It had gotten her this far, with Arenza following her to the lodging-house, and now it whispered to her not to prevaricate. “Yes.”

She couldn’t hear Arenza’s indrawn breath, but she saw the narrow shoulders shake.

“I wanted you to come with me,” Ondrakja said, “because the alternative was that you stayed out there. Sooner or later Gorolets would have sold you. Or a madam or a pimp would have seen you, and just carried you off.” It was illegal, but so were a lot of things that happened in Nadežra. The hawks didn’t care, so long as they were paid their share.

“Or,” Ondrakja added, “you would have starved. Or drowned yourself. Or run afoul of the wrong person and wound up in a canal, with your head smashed in like a gourd.”

The string of harsh images made Arenza flinch. Ondrakja softened her voice. “I didn’t want those things to happen to you. So yes: I played you. Because I wanted you to come here, and have a bath, and eat those dumplings you’re ignoring, and have a moment where you didn’t have to be alone.”

“In trade for what?”

She was a harder girl already than Ondrakja had assumed. Or maybe it was just more cleverness, already seeing the steps of the dance. “Nothing,” Ondrakja said. She held up one hand before Arenza could do more than make a small, disbelieving noise. “Call it an investment. The children here—they’re my knot. You know what that means?”

Arenza nodded. In a tight voice, she said, “A gang.”

“More than a gang. Look.” Ondrakja pushed up her sleeve, revealing the silken cord around her wrist. Smaller than the mourning charm they’d burned for Arenza’s dead mother but much finer. “It’s a sacred bond. We’re sworn to each other. You could be one of us, one of my Fingers... and I think you could be one of the best.”

This time the disbelieving noise wasn’t so small. Ondrakja got up from her chair and crossed the mold-soft carpet, then crouched in front of Arenza, not too close. “Beauty like you have? Most people would waste you as a night-piece, make you spread your legs until disease ate you from the inside out. That was almost me, until I escaped.

“I can show you how to turn that beauty into a tool. Use it so that all people see is your pretty eyes and pretty smile, and never notice your hands picking their pockets clean. Or better still—they’ll empty their pockets of their own free will, press the contents into your hands, and thank you as you walk away.”

Arenza edged back a step, shaking her head. “No. Mama always said—she wouldn’t want me to be a thief.”

Would she rather you whore yourself out? But a sharp answer like that would only push Arenza further away. Instead Ondrakja said, “I don’t think she’d want you to starve, either. And this city... already it has taken her from you. Why should you not take something back?”

That got her, like a blow under the ribs. But Arenza was just as clever as Ondrakja suspected—if not quite subtle enough to be effective. “No. I cannot.”

It was a test. Waiting to see if Ondrakja would flip from Face to Mask, the moment it looked like she wasn’t getting what she wanted.

Ondrakja sighed. “I understand. You wouldn’t want to disappoint her. Your mother, I think, must have had a better heart than mine.” She rose and brushed off her skirt. “You are still welcome to stay the night, and to eat those dumplings. Tomorrow as well—the Fingers ordinarily have no one here who is not one of them, but I will tell them to make an exception.”

Arenza wasted no time in stuffing her face. Ondrakja had to urge her to slow down before she made herself sick. When the last crumbs were gone, Arenza sat in the high-backed chair and stared into the fire with the glassy gaze of someone almost too tired to sleep.

Not so tired as to lose all alertness, though. When Ondrakja made a small, sudden noise, Arenza turned to look at her. “What is it?”

“A thought I had,” Ondrakja said. “But...”

She let the rest of the sentence dangle, like string to lure a kitten. Arenza obliged her by batting at it. “But what?”

Ondrakja spoke slowly, as if thinking it through. “I make no promises. It’s possible, though... did your mother die here in Lacewater?”

A tiny, wary nod confirmed her suspicion.

“A house full of thieves requires places to sell things. I know the fences, and who they sell to. I know the other thieves who work this area—my Fingers aren’t the only knot here. Sometimes people keep things for themselves. There is a chance we could find your mother’s koszenie.”

The sound that escaped Arenza was half-sob, half-gasp. “But—it’s gone. I looked.”

“Knew you every place to look? Had you the money to convince people to answer your questions? My Fingers have options you lack.”

Arenza’s wide eyes reflected the firelight, twin mirrors of hope. If she could learn to make that expression on command, she would have Nadežra eating out of her hand before her next birthday. “You’ll help me? I cannot pay you.”

“Members of a knot help each other,” Ondrakja said. “There are no debts between them.”

By now the warmth of the fire and the food had seeped into Arenza’s bones. In here was the promise of shelter and friendship. Outside was the cold loneliness of the street.

In Arenza’s heart, the decision was over before she blinked. Ondrakja knew it. But something—perhaps that feeling of obligation to her mother; perhaps the awareness that Ondrakja saw her as valuable, and that value could be a source of power—made her press her lips together, frowning down at her knees.

Ondrakja merely waited. Arenza had to choose of her own free will. Not be pushed into it.

“All right. I’ll... I’ll do it.”

Ondrakja touched her hands to her heart. “Thank the Faces. But be aware—you must earn it. My Fingers cannot be expected to swear themselves to a stranger who has not proven herself.”

Uncertainty returned. Ondrakja knelt at the side of the chair, close enough to stroke Arenza’s cheek. Had her mother ever used a nickname for her? “Worry not, pretty Renyi. I will take care of you. And with my help, you will learn to shine.”

Arenza’s hands were as deft as Ondrakja could have hoped, once she had enough food and sleep to stop them from trembling. Her tiny knife snicked three garnet buttons off the coat of a cuff in the Whistling Reed without him ever noticing. And she took to lying like an egret took to the sky, extolling her skills as a lady’s maid to a gentlewoman while another Finger relieved the woman’s pockets of their burden.

None of the others had been this good, this soon. Most of them failed at their first attempt, lacking in either nerve or skill. Some were caught by the Vigil and slung in jail, and some of those never came back. Even the ones who joined continually disappointed Ondrakja. They made good fists for some other knot later on, once they were too old for the Fingers, or they scraped by as petty thieves, or they ran minor scams on the street. Or they died, because they weren’t tough enough to survive without Ondrakja. But with the hope of regaining her mother’s koszenie to motivate her, Arenza held nothing back. And in her wits, in her clever tongue, and in her beautiful face, Ondrakja saw a mirror of herself.

A mirror she had to risk breaking.

The third test was of loyalty. Dmaren got to run it, swiping a pipe inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the Cut Ears, whose patch lay on the northern side of Lacewater. Their knot-leader Sullin loved that pipe, and when Arenza showed up on Cut Ear turf with it in her hand, naturally he wanted to know where she got it.

She never told him. Not when he asked. Not when he ordered. Not through everything followed, until he gave up in disgust and had his boys roll her across the Dlimas Bridge to land in a heap on the other side.

Ondrakja had Fingers watching, of course. They carried Arenza back, and Ondrakja immediately went to work with the finest ointments and balms the Fingers could steal or buy, imbued to speed her healing. At least Sullin had mostly gone for the softer targets; Arenza’s pretty face would escape without a scar.

Her swollen knee did mean she wasn’t able to kneel for the knot oath, upstairs in Ondrakja’s sitting room, with all the Fingers gathered around. But Arenza didn’t hesitate as she laced her fingers through Ondrakja’s and repeated the words of the oath. “Any harm you’ve done to me, or I to you, is washed away. My secrets are yours, and yours are mine. There will be no debts between us.”

Ondrakja tied the knot charm around Arenza’s wrist, and the other Fingers cheered for their newest pinkie, swarming in to thump her on the back. Afterward there was a feast—maybe not by the standards of the Upper Bank, but dumplings and honey-cakes and wine far better than this lot usually saw.

Life among them wouldn’t always be roses, of course. Knot oath or no, the Fingers fought with each other: for food, for loot, for Ondrakja’s favor. Some of them would hate Arenza when they began to see how much Ondrakja preferred her over them. Arenza would hate Ondrakja the first time she disappointed her and reaped the consequences.

But Arenza would also love her. Ondrakja knew exactly which strings to pluck to make that happen.

Upstairs in her sitting room, with the sounds of the celebration muffled by her mold-padded carpet, Ondrakja opened the locked chest where she kept her most valuable treasures. A crystal wine goblet she didn’t trust the Fingers not to break. A copy of the key to the Vigil’s Lacewater lockup. A falsified family register that let her pass herself off as gentry in official circles.

A rich silk shawl, embroidered in green and grey, red and yellow, white and blue and violet—all the colors of the Vraszenian clans. Ondrakja didn’t know how to read the stitches, which lineages were named by each curling branch of the embroidery... but she didn’t have to. It was enough to know that Dmaren had brought the koszenie to the lodging-house seven days before Ondrakja met Arenza, along with a pair of shoes and a set of ragged clothing and the hair cut from a dead woman’s head.

Pure luck that Ondrakja had spotted Arenza on the street before she found the right buyer for the koszenie. Some day in the future, when the girl had truly proven herself worthy of Ondrakja’s teaching, maybe she could have it back.

Until then, the threads of her lost mother would bind her to the Fingers, as tight as any knot.

Read Comments on this Story (1 Comment)

M.A. Carrick is the joint pen name of BCS authors Marie Brennan (author of the Memoirs of Lady Trent) and Alyc Helms (author of the Adventures of Mr. Mystic), who together are the authors of the Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. The two met in 2000 on an archaeological dig in Wales and Ireland--including a stint in the town of Carrickmacross--and have built their friendship through two decades of anthropology, writing, and gaming. They live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
Return to Issue #320