By Rachel Ann Michael Harris
Avia stuck one end of her staff in the dirt as she pushed off with her feet and swung around. When she landed, she back flipped before cartwheeling to her staff and pulling it from the ground. After a few twirls, she dropped to one knee and spun her staff to land across her shoulders. The crowd clapped as she held the position. Through the noise, she heard the clinking of coins dropping into the decorative bag set before her performance area on the main thoroughfare.
She smiled. Perhaps the capital city of Allowen would finally provide a place for her to make a living. And a home.
A little girl to her right jumped up and down, pointing. Smiling, Avia slipped off one of her bracelets, hooking it on the staff. Twisting it this way and that, the bracelet glided along the staff, almost coming off before sliding to the other side. After a few more tricks, she tilted it toward the little girl whose eyes widened as the prize dropped into her outstretched hand.
The crowd startled. Three Allowen soldiers approached the gathering.
“Move along,” one of the soldiers shouted, but the townsfolk had already started to disperse.
Avia swung her staff behind her back, checking that her strategically placed braids still covered her ears.
“Trust Elihu.” Her mother’s words echoed in her mind.
The soldier tapped the money bag with his boot. “This yours?”
He leaned down and flicked the coins about with a finger. “Made all this from dancing? Sure you didn’t nip a little from unsuspecting pockets?”
Avia scowled. “I don’t steal.” Not anymore.
“But if you did, you’d have no problem lying.” He picked up the bag and drew the strings closed. “We’ll keep this until we get this sorted out—”
“—and be sure to return what you deserve.” He and the other soldiers turned to leave.
Avia ran and slid in front of him. “I earned that.”
He laughed. “Dancing is not a profession. Just a bunch of fancy steps. Now move.”
Gritting her teeth, she gripped her staff.
“Fine.” He reached for her arm.
With a flick, she struck his wrist with one end of her staff before jabbing a second soldier in the gut with the other. The first soldier stepped back clutching his hand, while the other doubled over. Avia spun, twirling the staff above her head before swinging it into the side of the third soldier’s head with a crack. He fell to the ground and didn’t move.
“You little…” the first soldier growled and grabbed his sword hilt.
Avia swiveled, striking him on the left side of the head, then swiped her staff into the back of his knee, knocking him down.
While all three soldiers lay on the ground moaning, she grabbed her stolen bag and ran to the edge of the building. Pivoting, she wiggled her fingers at them before dashing down the alley.
She wasn’t halfway to the next street when she heard the shout, “Guards! Thief!” She picked up her pace.
Two strides from the alley’s end, she used her staff to vault onto the roof and rolled away from the edge.
“Where is she?”
“She was just here.”
The voices echoed from below. It won’t take them long to figure out where I went. Creeping to the edge of the building, she slipped off another bracelet and spun it on the end of her staff before slinging it across the alley to the neighboring roof. It clipped the far edge with a dull clang.
“That way.” The thunder of soldiers’ boots retreated as they chased her bracelet. When she was sure they were far enough away, she fled in the opposite direction.
Jumping from one roof to the next, Avia made her way to the Temple at the city’s center. At the last rooftop before the holy sanctuary, she paused. The large gap between the building and the Temple meant she’d have to approach the old-fashioned way. On foot. With its constantly burning braziers, the Temple was well lit, but at least the street was clear.
Grasping the edge of the roof, Avia swung down and scurried across the rutted dirt to her favorite of the holy statues lining the building’s outer walls. Saint Amon had lots of folds in his cement clothing, allowing for good foot and hand holds. She scaled the outside, then pulled herself onto the Temple’s flat roof. She’d left the windows at the base of a pinnacle slightly ajar that morning, so it was easy to crawl inside.
As she clambered down through the rafters, the echo of a song drifted up to her. Avia paused. She knew that song. Sneaking into the second-floor balcony, she crept to the railing and glanced down into the main sanctuary.
Ismael was performing the nightly prayers. When the priest-trainee had caught her pilfering from the kitchen, he’d made her dinner and made her swear a promise: no more stealing. She’d kept that promise for a month now—for him. Because he was like the little brother she’d never had.
Besides, it felt wrong bringing stolen items into a sanctuary.
The sweet smell of scented smoke filled her lungs as long notes in a foreign tongue wove through the air. Her mother used to sing this song to her…
Avia pulled the chain around her neck and rubbed her thumb over her mother’s pendant.
“Trust Elihu,” Mother used to say.
But what had Elihu ever done for her? Mother died from sickness because they couldn’t afford a doctor, and Avia was hated by anyone who knew what she was. Avia touched her pointed ears, hidden under her hair. Being an orphan in Allowen was hard, but being half-Gartier—half enemy—with a war on, was even worse.
Shaking her head, she headed toward the sanctuary storage room she currently called home. She could only depend on herself. Not even Elihu could convince her otherwise.