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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3. Chapter 2

When attempting to rob an Intact home, the first rule is to blend in.

I walk around the back of the house with red shutters, slipping into an alleyway and scanning the exterior, my trained eyes picking out protruding bricks and plotting my path. Soundlessly, I leap up the wall and scale the facade, avoiding the first, second and third storey windows before I reach the top floor, pausing a moment to take a few breaths, concentrating on slowing my heart rate while I perk my ears to any sounds emanating from the fourth floor.

Nothing but silence echoes back at me so I take my chances and swing over to the window ledge, peeking in and scanning the room beyond. Perfect. It is completely empty and I can see a promising-looking bureau sitting passively against the wall.

I steal through the window and pad soundlessly across the floor towards the wardrobe, still apprehensive to the sounds of any unwelcome company.

In my experience, I have found that the top floor is usually the best place to check for a spare outfit. These rooms are typically used as the servant’s quarters and are often unoccupied during the day when the help is out performing their chores.

I open the doors to the wardrobe, grinning at the racks of maids’ simple shift dresses and caps. I undo my belt and pull my tunic over my head before selecting one of the dresses and slipping it on, cinching my belt in place over top and concealing it behind an apron. My telltale red locks are tucked up tightly into a cap. I don’t bother changing my shoes; my boots are scuffed and dirty but the skirt hides them well enough. I stash my tunic back in the wardrobe and make a quick stop over at the water basin to rub any excess dirt off of my hands and face before slipping out of the room and shutting the door silently behind me.

I make my way down the darkened corridor, eyes flickering up occasionally to glance in the passing rooms. My chin stays tucked down low, my every air that of a humble servant. I pass no one in the hall as I make my way to the staircase.

The third floor appears to be the living quarters for the family, as I suspected it would be. Bright fabrics in a variety of patterns and colours decorate the furnishings, a sharp contrast to the world outside. What is it, with these Intacts? Half the city is struggling to put enough food on the table while they spend precious money on making a room look pretty. What a waste.

I am certain that if I were to duck into any of these rooms I would be able to find some beautiful jewels that would fetch a pretty penny on the streets, but I don’t want to take anything that the masters of the house could potentially blame the servants for. No, I have my sights set on something else. I bypass the bedrooms, intent on the second floor.

The second rule to successfully robbing a house is to only take the odds and ends; pieces that you would put aside and simply ‘misplace’. From the looks of this place, the pickings around here will be in no short supply.

I descend the stairs to the second floor and immediately note a lot more activity. Maids and footmen walk to and fro, quietly murmuring instructions to one another while they go about their chores. With my head down and my steps purposeful, I fit right in. I slip into what appears to be a drawing room grab a discarded rag off of a chest and begin to dust a shelf, slipping a small silver candlestick and an ebony letter opener into the pouch hidden beneath my apron.

The next room is an office, dominated by a giant, polished wood desk. I pass my rag over its surface, shuffling through the papers and slipping a couple of coins into my palm as I do so. A butler walks into the room just as I am leaving and I offer him a swift curtsey before disappearing back into the hall.

I can feel my heart beating heavily in my chest, just as it always does when I know I am getting away with something.  I grow bolder and swipe a jeweled hair comb from the top of a hall table. This piece alone ought to be enough to keep Mrs. Hatch off my case and deep in mugs of ale for a few weeks.

I pass a couple of gossiping young maids on the stairwell to the first floor. Their heads incline curiously towards me but they do not stop to ask me anything so I continue downstairs, intent on some silverware from the dining hall.

As I head towards the back of the house, the pouch at my waist clattering softly, my eyes flicker towards a room to my right and a familiar scene draws me into its depths before I can stop myself.

I absent-mindedly wipe the rag over the bookcases as I allow myself a look upwards to take in the miraculous collection. Books. Books lining every wall from ceiling to floor, in every colour I have ever seen, their gold and silver bindings flashing cheerily in the afternoon sunlight.

I run my hand over the titles and authors, enjoying the scratchy feeling of the covers beneath my fingertips. One beautiful green spine catches my eye and I reach for it, cracking open the cover and breathing in the familiar, dusty scent. Memories swirl through my head as I allow the comforting aroma to draw me back into a tiny apartment, listening to my father as he reads aloud from his seat at the table. The floor of the apartment was always stacked with his books, grouped together in hodge-podge piles on the floor...

“Have you read it?” A voice behind me breaks through my thoughts.

I jump, sending the green book crashing to the ground. My face burns as I stoop to retrieve it, the pouch beneath my apron digging conspicuously into my ribs as I bend.

“I, uh, was just putting it back.” I recover my composure as quickly as possible, keeping my eyes lowered as I turn to deposit the book back on the shelf. I can hear the stranger walking towards me and I turn back around, my sight trained on the floor. A pair of worn leather boots step up in front and I at first assume the speaker is a servant, but as my gaze travels upward I note a pair of fine leather gloves tucked into his belt, embossed with a kind of crest or insignia. This must be one of the masters of the house. Perfect.

“My apologies, sir. I’ll just get back to my duties…” I attempt an awkward curtsy and step to the side.

“Pity.” I can detect a note of humour in his voice. “A room full of books and not a single person here but me will read them, much less discuss them.”

I pause momentarily, startled that this man with the dusty boots and handsome gloves would continue a conversation with a servant girl.

“I never read it, but my father owned a copy.” I say, the words falling out of my mouth before I can stop myself. Damn it, Kay.

“Is that so? And what does he think of it?” He presses. I raise my eyes and look up at the young man, arrested suddenly by a pair of steely grey eyes. He is taller than me by a head and is dressed in a fine linen shirt, the collar open with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His dark hair is cropped close to his head in a rough style, uncommon to the men of his station who typically prefer to slick their hair down. His chin is unshaven and there is a fine sheen of sweat on his throat, recently come from the outside, I guessed. If it weren’t for the quality of his clothes I would have taken this man for a Fragment.

I need to end this conversation and get out of this stolen dress immediately.

“It was one of his favourites.” I offer the stranger a small smile. The side of his mouth lifts in a grin, summoning a dimple on his left cheek.  I nod at him tightly, sidestepping his broad figure and slipping back into the hall. Time to leave, Kay. Too much attention has been paid; the silverware will have to wait until another day.

I walk briskly towards the stairs, spiraling upwards without glancing behind me until I have cleared the landing on the fourth floor. I find my mind continually drifting between berating myself for the inelegant turn the job has taken, and the strange half-smile of the rich stranger. As I stride through the hallway of the fourth floor I am stopped suddenly in my tracks by the sound of muffled sobs emanating from a room up ahead.

I peer cautiously around the doorway and spy the backside of a man. He is kneeling on a bed and straddling a woman who is crying softly.

“Please, sir I don’t want-”

He grunts and presses against her. She gasps, clawing at his arm in an attempt to push him away but he is too strong and his hand covers her mouth, her tears soaking his palm.

The colour red flashes across my vision, and I cross the room in two quick strides to grip the man by the collar, catching him off-guard and throwing him to the floor. The maid gasps and huddles against the headboard.

“In the name of gods, what do you think you are doing?” The man hisses, his voice low to keep from alerting the rest of the household to his disgusting hobbies. He is older than I first thought, with thinning hair greyed at the temples and a trimmed beard covering just his chin and upper-lip. His shirt is white, pressed and elegant, with the collar now freshly torn.

I glance over at the servant girl, her tears are drying and she appears unharmed.

“If there was any righteousness to your gods, your ancestors would never have survived the Burn.” I pull my dagger from my belt and point it at his throat. My voice is calm and doesn’t betray the rage I feel boiling over inside of me.

His eyes follow the dagger cautiously as he licks his lips and stammers, “You dare threaten a man of this house, you filthy Fragment? I will see to it that the King removes your hands! I will have you fired, arrested. I will- “

“You can do nothing to me, sir. I do not work for you.” I pull the cap off my head, allowing my bright hair to fall down my back.

“I am the Runner. And if I ever hear of you assaulting anyone in this household again, I will come back here and personally slice your little friend right off from between your legs. Do I make myself clear?”

The man chokes and shuffles back on his hands. “Get out of here at once, you traitor.”

I grin, crouching and bringing the dagger lower, gesturing with it towards his waist. His eyes bulge as my blade hovers in front of his manhood.

“I will go at once, sir, but first I must demand compensation for all the stress you have caused me. We would hate for word to travel of the elegant Intact and his sticky hands.” The old man furrows his brow but he dutifully reaches into his pocket and tosses his purse at me.

“Thank you. Now, go.” I say.

He gets to his feet and stumbles out of room. My window to leave has just narrowed considerably. I throw the maid a small smile which she returns cautiously, raising her hand in thanks as I slip out of the room.

I hurry back to the chamber I entered from, depositing the maid’s dress back in the wardrobe and slipping my own tunic back over my head. I leave a couple of coins in the pocket of the apron before shutting the door and striding over to the window.

I step up onto the ledge and swing out, turning and lifting myself onto the roof so I can sit in the sun. The household will be alerted to my presence soon, but up here I am invisible. A secret the roofs have taught me is that when you sit above your enemy, the proximity is what hides you.

I pull the contents from my pouch and spread them out before me, grinning when the old pervert’s purse tips several coins into my palm. Not a bad haul, considering the slip-up in the library. Who was that strange man, anyway? Going around, conversing with servants like it was nothing?

I shake my head to clear the image of him and instead concentrate on how to avoid a mistake like that in the future. My first error was allowing myself to become distracted by some silly books. I get too cocky, at this job for so long. I think that I can let my mind wander and soak in the way the other half lives, but a moment’s mistake and I could end up thrown in some stinking gaol, or with my hands chopped from my wrists, reduced to a grovelling beggar in the street.

Then there was the dramatics in the bedroom. Normally, I go to all costs to avoid revealing myself to anyone, since my ability to stay under the radar allows me to move as stealthily and unobtrusively as possible. Useful, in that every year the risks seem to grow bigger and bigger, and the punishments become more severe.

However, that disgusting old man forcing himself upon an innocent girl with few rights and no means of asking for help; my stomach churns just thinking about it. How many households are filled with these upper-class Intact pricks taking advantage of the hold they have over the lower caste?

I stand up, scooping my winnings back into the pouch at my belt and checking to see that my dagger is secure. I walk to the edge of the building and peer out over the front, squinting as I sight a familiar dark, scruffy head. The young man runs down the front path and stands in the street. He looks left, then right, seemingly searching for someone. Me? Has that old man sent him out to…

I gasp and step back from the ledge.

Up. He looked up.

No one has ever looked up.

I wrinkle my brow and think. No, I am certain. I saw him glance both ways down the road, then turn and look at the roof. Did he see me? No, he couldn’t have. I’m four storeys above him.

Not wanting to take any chances, I spin around and run at the building behind me, leaping across the narrow alleyway and hopping a more roofs for good measure. I laugh to myself as I land in a crouched position on the final building, floating on the exhilaration of running. The purse jingles happily at my waist when I straighten, affirming a good day’s work. I can head down to the tavern and buy a congratulatory drink.

Up. He looked up.

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