The Runner

Kay is an eighteen year-old girl living on the streets of the city. Stealing from the rich and wreaking havoc against the plans of the tyrannical King, she has earned a name for herself as The Runner.
For the last five years, she has used her speed and street smarts to outwit the King's guard and remain under the radar, until a handsome stranger appears and offers her the opportunity of a lifetime.

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2. Chapter 1

Cracks of light permeate my vision as I ease my eyes open. My lips feel chapped and bruised, dried by the desert air and relentless sun. Through my window float the sounds of the City coming to life, vendors in the marketplace hawking their wares while friends call out greetings to one another.

I roll over, groaning when my left knee sends a familiar shot of pain down to my ankle. I rub it gently as I sit up on my mattress and stare across the room to the window, waiting for the ache to subside. I glance at the corner of the room where I tossed the stolen purse the night before. It lies there still, hidden slightly by the shadows with a single shiny coin peeking out the top.

I climb out of bed and scoop up the purse, tossing it absentmindedly in my hand as I walk towards the window. The rich scent of fresh bread and spicy meats permeate my nostrils, causing my stomach to growl angrily.

A sharp knock on the door jolts me out of my stupor.

“I know you’re in there, Red! Open up the door this instant!” A scratchy voice shouts from the hall.

I sigh and pad the short distance across my small room to the door, stuffing the purse into my pocket.

There is another sharp rap of knuckles against wood. “I mean it. You’d better open up or I’ll call- “

“Calm down, you old bat.” I say lightly, swinging the door open and taking a step back as Mrs. Hatch storms into the room. ‘Storm’ may be too strong a word to describe the movements of a five-foot tall, sixty-five year old woman, but somehow she manages it.

“Could you keep your voice down, please? My head is already aching. You haven’t got a flask of water with you, by chance?” I ask, striding past her and sinking down onto the bed again.

“You’ve got some nerve, girl. Asking me for favours when you are two weeks overdue on your rent. Again. At my age, I shouldn’t have to tramp around this old house, door to door, banging and hollering and demanding what’s mine-”

“Relax, I have your money right here.” I pull the purse from my pocket and tip the coins into her gnarled palm. Mrs. Hatch counts it carefully, her sharp eyes missing nothing. She glares at me as she lifts one of the coins to her mouth, biting down on it with a single yellow tooth.

“Ye of so little faith, Hatch. You can take that out of your mouth. It’s legitimate, I earned it yesterday.”

“Earned, eh? Don’t think you can pull one over on me, Red. I trust you about as far as I can throw you. You’ve got about as many honest bones in your body as I have teeth in my head.” A strange, hoarse sound emanates from her throat as she laughs at her own joke, tilting her head back and revealing what few remaining teeth she has.

“Well, once again it seems I have managed to pull through. Now, if you aren’t going to share some water with me, kindly clear out. I’ve got a king’s appetite and a lot to do today.” I stand and gesture towards the door.

She stays rooted in place, nodding at my closed fist. “Still palming something, girl? You know that I’m a bit light here. An old lady, running this big boarding house all on my lonesome, out of the goodness of my heart renting rooms to dishonest street rats…”

“Old my foot, Hatch. You don’t need this extra coin as much as I do. Your great, big heart wants me to risk my neck and steal my breakfast? This right here has to keep me honest for at least half a day.”

She chuckles again, shaking her head as she finally exits the room. “You and I both know that you won’t be troubling our fine vendors down in that market. Keep those sticky hands of yours in the pockets of the ones who won’t miss their coins.” The door slams shut behind her, scratchy laughter echoing down the hallway in her wake.

I stuff my saved coin back into the pocket of my pants and open a trunk to pick through my small collection of clothes, wrinkling my nose as I select a patched and ragged tunic. Sighing, I pull it over my head and cinch a leather belt about my waist. I locate my pouch and dagger, tying them to my belt and ensuring that everything is secure before twisting my gnarled curls into a knot with a piece of leather thong. Finally, I grab a bandanna and tie it loosely around my neck in case of any sudden dust storms.

Thus attired I briefly consider taking the stairs down, but ultimately the window, open to the sounds and smells of the market, calls to me.

I sit on the ledge and jump down, swinging to the side and grabbing the protruding bricks as I drop, floor by floor into the crowded marketplace below. I dust my palms off on my thighs as I hit the ground, straightening and taking in my surroundings.

A near-constant swirl of dust kicks at my feet as the crowd ebbs and flows around me. Everywhere, people tow their carts and livestock, great sweaty horses eye me picking my way through the swell.

The market is unusually busy this morning and I have to dodge several people as I slip between the stalls. Mothers grip the hands of young children as they hurry through the square, pulling the young ones away from the old beggars sitting off to the side.

I offer the beggars a small smile of sympathy where I can, but I have no money to give them this morning. I have to turn my eyes away from the gory sight of their stumped wrists, blackened and infected. The punishment for theft is severe, but faced with starvation, every day it seems that more and more of our desperate numbers have decided to take the risk. I suppress a shudder at the thought, instead training my eyes on a friendly face up ahead.

Harold’s stall is stationed in the centre of the square. His big, beefy frame shadows his cart, laden high with bread and pastries. He towers above the other vendors, his impressive height and bushy beard betraying the affable character I know him to be.

“Ah, Red! How are you this morning, m’dear?” White teeth flash behind his flour-coated beard. The delicious smell of fresh bread emanating from the cart is enough for me to have to pause and swallow, coating my dry throat before I am able to greet him.

“Harry,” I smile. “I’m doing fine, thanks. A bit thirsty, though. You wouldn’t happen...” He jerks his thumb towards the trough next to the stall, throwing me a wink as he turns to an inquiring customer.

Gratefully, I stoop and greedily spoon out the refreshing water with the ladle, choking slightly in my eagerness to ease the dryness of my throat.

“Thanks so much.” I say, straightening. “And some breakfast?” I fish the coin out of my pocket and offer it to him.

He shakes his head and hands me a roll. “Hold on to that, Red. Your money’s no good here.” I accept the bread and blush a little. I’m in no position to turn down a free meal but I can’t help feeling slightly embarrassed at his generosity.

“Thanks again, Harry. I owe you one.” He grins and raises an eyebrow, leaning in close.

“You’ve done enough for me already. Rumour has it that someone disabled a fleet of airships yesterday, but I assume you knew that already.” He slips a beefy arm around my shoulder and crushes me against him. “My brother was meant to fly out this week, but now we can have a little more time with him.” Harold’s eyes appear red on his friendly face and I feel my heart break for him. His brother was part of the latest group of Fragments to be drafted into the King’s army. The Wasteland war has been carrying on to various degrees for as long as I can remember and the draft has existed for just as long.

Some families consider it a blessing if their men are chosen as part of the draft. The Fragments enlisted in the King’s army receive schooling and a small stipend for their family while serving a mandatory year. Only Fragments are entered into the draft; Intacts are given the option of enlisting, receiving a bump in their annual allowance if they enlist. However, most choose to opt out of service and allow someone more desperate to take their spot.

I pat Harold a bit awkwardly on the arm, wiggling out of his grip. “I’m sorry that it wasn’t enough to keep him here for good.”

He straightens and grabs two more rolls, stuffing them into my hands. “Don’t you worry your pretty head about that, Kay. These times we live in, they are… unfair.” He struggles with the last word.
“Now get out of here. I have some real, paying customers that I need to attend to.” He rubs his ruddy face before turning away, plastering on a smile and calling out a greeting.

I stuff one of the rolls into my pouch as I wander away, munching on the second piece of bread. I savour the feeling of my stomach finally quieting for the first time in several days.

As I walk I survey the crowd. Most of the vendors wear threadbare clothing similar to mine, rough fabric but light in this unforgiving heat. The colours here in the Fragment district are muted; the stone buildings are bleached white by the sun, pocked and dimpled by the ever-swirling sand. Men, women and children shuffle past me dressed in a variety of tunics and dresses, mostly patched and worn, with scarves swathed around their shoulders for protection against the elements.

I pass a bookseller and pause at a glassblower, briefly considering my appearance in a hanging mirror. My auburn hair is already coming loose from the strip of leather I tied it with and unruly curls spring up around my face. I furrow my brow as I rub a bit of dirt off the side of my too-sharp nose. My nose has always made my green eyes look cold, calculating. Which I suppose isn’t too far from the truth.

The day stretches in front of me, long and hot. I wander closer to the center of the City, moving from the Fragment district into the Intact district. As I walk, I weigh possibilities in my mind, sorting through the standard schemes I could pull to earn a few days pay. As I think, my eyes scan the buildings, landing on one ahead of me, finer than the rest, with red shutters pulled open to allow in the morning light.

In my world it is a great thing to know exactly where the next meal is coming from.

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