It was far too lovely a day for a riot, but not even the cool breeze flapping the fabric of the trader’s multicolored tents could prevent Luca from taking advantage the fact that there was, in fact, a riot. No one was quite sure who noticed the Atilan erasing and inscribing the new tax decree onto the massive slab of sandstone that served as the city’s news board. No one was really sure who started shouting obscenities first. No one was entirely sure when the Atilan threw magic into the gathering crowd. No one was completely sure how many Debilan they had injured.
It mattered little now. The body of the Atilan messenger lay motionless in the street.
Luca ducked and dodged through the throng. Red-faced shop keeps chanted curses against their rulers for this new grievance. He fixed his eyes on the ground, searching for valuables dropped in the scuffle. A dull gleam of polished stone caught his eye. He snatched the prize and stuffed it into his satchel without stopping to check what he had found.
As the Atilan guards flocked to the scene, Luca glanced up at the brief distraction, and so did the wealthy-looking merchant standing to his side. The shouts rose to a roar as workers charged onto the platform. The smells of blood, sweat, and anger hung in the air as the bodies pressed together. Someone stumbled into the merchant. Coins tumbled from the purse that sat in his open hand. Luca stooped to pick them up before the man could stop him and mumbled an apology. Shoving the newfound loot into his knapsack, he flipped the cover shut, escaped the crowd, and hurried along a twisting side road. Luca ducked under the outside staircase of an old tenement building, searching for any onlookers. Satisfied that everyone else was off protesting, he sprinted up the stairs and onto the flat roof.
A girl waited for him in the shade of a makeshift canopy, focused on the brouhaha below them. She was young, with ruddy brown and freckled skin and curly dark brown hair in a braid that reached her waist. Her simple dress had long lost its creamy white color, and it was torn from an old fight. When she heard Luca mount the stairs, she tore her attention from the seething crowd to look up at her brother.
“They attacked the Atilan!” she hissed. “Did you see that!?”
“Kills the mood, huh?” Luca beckoned his sister towards him, away from the edge of the roof. “I thought I told you to stay out of sight.”
“If riots are distracting enough that you’re safe to go stealing, then I’m sure I’m safe aaalllll the way up here, watching your back.” She glanced down at the street before moving closer to him. “Find anything good?”
Luca nodded and flopped down next to her as he dumped out the bag, pushing back his hair as it fell into his face. They pocketed the coins first, before sorting through the rest of the oddities. Grace occasionally looked to the street. With mages conjuring a wall of magic, the guards pushed the rioters out of the plaza. A couple lingered to watch them collect the messenger who stumbled to his feet, disoriented but not wounded. The watchers scattered when the largest of the three guards pulled his seax knife from its sheath.
Grace frowned and turned her attention back to their work. “Most of this stuff is junk. Enne would probably like this button. Pretty pattern, and you can feel the texture. Does it match the ones on the frock she’s making?” She held the button up to the early morning light, and the shiny metal glinted in the sun.
Luca shrugged in reply before handing her the stone he had picked up, eyes gleaming with hope. “What about this?”
As Grace took the pebble, her eyes widened in surprise. Her fingers shocked with magic, and she dropped the thing back into Luca’s hands like a hot coal. “A charm! Not a powerful one, so don’t let me have it. Where did you find that?!”
“A few paces from the shops. My guess is that one of the Atilan dropped it in the scuffle.”
“Do you think they’ll come looking for it? If we’re caught-“
“No. Look, it’s so small. They won’t miss it.”
Grace nodded in agreement, when a sudden loud voice interrupted from behind them. “I don’t suppose you were planning to return that?”
The two kids jumped, spinning around to face the newcomer. Perched on the edge of the roof was an Avian. They were bird-like people who lived in the canyon cliffs along the river, and this one was taller than most, standing at seven feet tall. Four huge wings folded behind his torso – two at the shoulders and two at the waist. The reddish-brown plumage that covered nearly his entire body, save the palms of his hands and face, mirrored the color of the clay dirt of the desert. He wore a vest and loose breeches with several pockets that seemed stuffed with all sorts of strange things. Belted around his waist hung a stained artisan’s frock. Another harness strung over his shoulder, between his wings, and around his hip so that it could hold a large assortment of chisels, hammers, and knives. He wore no shoes; his taloned feet curled over the ledge of the roof to keep him balanced as he hunched over the two kids with his hand extended for the charm. Solid bronze eyes with sharp black pupils set deep in a human-like face, squinted in anger. The feather tufts at his ears pressed back against his head.
Luca clasped the charm to his chest as dread and panic mounted. He shifted his weight onto his feet and braced himself against the stairs, ready to run. He pulled Grace to his side, not for her own protection, but for restraint. She snapped into a fighting stance, and had her hands balled into fists, though they stayed by her sides. Neither answered the question.
The avian seemed to notice their discomfort. He forced a smile and lowered his wings, as if trying to appear nonthreatening. Luca, still threatened, forced himself to smile back. The avian repeated his question. “Are you going to return that?”