by Fred Warren -
“Let’s review. Little ones, what’s your job?”
Three hands shot up. “Begging!”
“But we have to be polite,” said Jeremy.
Molly nodded. “No grabbing or screaming.”
“Tears and sniffles are okay,” Pip chimed in.
Smith clapped his hands. “Excellent. Stay where you can see Kate, and do not leave the marketplace with any of the marks, even if they promise to take you home and adopt you. If they tell you that, bring them to me, and say I’m your guardian, understand?”
“That’s my clever poppets. Now, Charlie and Cecile. Your turn.”
Charlie shoved his hands in his pockets, looking bored with the whole affair. “I take the near side and Cecile takes the far side. We stroll around and stay casual. Look for the big’uns.”
Cecile fiddled with a lock of blonde hair and recited her part: “When we find a mark, we lift one thing and take a roundabout path to drop it in Kate’s bag.” She scowled at Charlie. “One thing. Last time, you got greedy and nearly got us all caught by the Enforcers.”
Smith waved them down. “All right, that’s enough, you two. Charlie, she’s right. The marks are smarter these days, and some of them are just waiting for us to dip a finger in their pocket. Make sure they’re distracted, then in, out, and away. As for you, Cecile, I need you to concentrate. Sometimes it seems like you’re really shopping, not just pretending to.”
The hair-twisting accelerated. “I’m sorry. There are so many interesting things. It’s hard not to look. I’ll try.”
“Good girl. Kate will be at the center with the drop bag, playing crier for the fishmonger. As for me, I’ll be working the margins, the standoffish folk who can’t decide if they’re too good to mix with us rabble. If there’s any trouble…”
Five voices replied in chorus. “Bolt for the safe spot!”
“That’s right. Everyone’s on their own then. No heroes. If Kate and I can help, we will, but I want the rest of you to scuttle out of there like prime racing beetles and never look back.”
Kate plucked at his elbow. “It’s time, love.”
“Very well. Let’s keep our wits about us. Be light-fingered and pitiful. Tonight, we feast!”
Smith would have preferred a larger raiding party, but there’d been more Enforcer presence of late, and one of the beetle-meat vendors had missed the carcass they nicked last time. Some of the merchants, like the fishmonger, were friends and allies, but a few wouldn’t hesitate to turn Smith and his entire brood over to the authorities if there was any profit at all in it.
“Salt-Cod-Ohhh! Fifty the kilo!” Kate’s voice trilled over the market’s hubbub, bringing a smile to Smith’s lips. He could think of only one sound he liked better. Best not to dwell on that. He tugged on his cap and scanned the crowd. No Enforcers on patrol today, thank heaven. The little ones, with tearstained faces and outstretched hands, intercepted customers who’d just made purchases and were struggling with the change.
Meanwhile, Charlie and Cecile were threading their way among the shoppers crowding the aisles between stalls. Charlie paused to pull something from the pocket of a corpulent man who was arguing with a cloth merchant. Smith was relieved to see he didn’t double-dip but moved smartly along. Only a practiced eye would have noticed anything amiss. Cecile was focusing on the womenfolk, tapping a succession of purses and waist packs, twirling along like a ballerina. She had promise, that one.
Suppose I’d best earn my keep, or I’ll never hear the end of it. Smith sidled up to a well-dressed gentleman who was perusing a counter stacked with colorful insect shells. “Fine selection here, Guv’nor. Needin’ something special for the lady of the house?”
The man didn’t even look at him. “Yes, confound it. My Joanna is simply mad about these shells. It’s the latest fad. Her friends use them to serve party favors and appetizers. Rather disgusting, to my way of thinking, but she won’t be denied.”
“They do add a spot of color.” Smith leaned over to whisper in the man’s ear, simultaneously reaching for his back pocket and the wallet bulging there. “But if you’re looking for the best price, you ought to speak with Miz Whitman, four stalls down.”
“Indeed? Why, thank you. I’ll do that.”
“Happy to be of service. Enjoy your…” Smith frowned. Something had caught his sleeve. From the corner of his eye, he could see a thin, pale man standing behind his mark. The fingers that were holding onto his shirt shifted to grasp his forearm. The grip was strong. Inhumanly strong.
Gritty ash. The twit had a Frank watching his back.
The cyborg tapped the gentleman’s shoulder. “Master, this man tried to steal your wallet. I’ve sent a message to the Enforcers. Shall I restrain him until they arrive?”
“My wallet?” The man fumbled at his back pocket, then turned to glare at Smith. “Thief!” He backhanded him across the face, drawing blood. “Stinking low-deck trash! Hold him tight, Sixty-Three.”
Smith tried to bolt, but the Frank wouldn’t budge. It was like being handcuffed to a post. He hoped Kate was sending the children out of the market. She wasn’t shouting out her advertisement for fresh fish any more. No one else in the crowd seemed to have taken notice, but he knew the Enforcers would arrive in moments, and his heart sank as he writhed in the cyborg’s steely grip.
Then he heard something strange—and familiar. The market’s babble stilled. Every eye sought the ethereal music, children’s voices wafting through the air, raised in song.
A pilgrim race, we wandered long
Through endless night and barren space
’Til whale’s eye and angel’s song
Revealed you here, our resting place
Arise, Avenir Eclectia
Stand firm, Avenir Eclectia
Be strong, Avenir Eclectia
Live on, Avenir Eclectia
There, at the entrance to the marketplace, stood Ave, surrounded by a ragged choir of orphans, their faces tilted upward, eyes closed, countenances radiant.
They sang the anthem over and over again, as the crowd listened in reverent silence. A woman standing near Smith wept, her hands pressed to her face. Even the Frank was transfixed. His grip on Smith’s arm slowly relaxed, then released altogether. Smith leaped to one side, shedding his coat as the cyborg snatched at it, too late.
As he sprinted for the exit, Smith took one final, backward glance at Ave.
Their eyes met, and she smiled.