Bel darted across the rough cobbles, squinting in the pale winter sunshine, far brighter than the cellar tenement where she lived with her uncle.
She felt Mortimer squirm annoyingly against her thin ribs and wondered why she’d saved him. She wasn’t sure what she’d feed herself today, much less him.
Anyone else would have whistled for the cats to come and take him, out in the open as he’d been. Well, anyone except Old Bill, the magician on Third and Rivney. He was the only one she knew of who’d be nice without making you pay for it. And he often paid scurry-foots well for small jobs. Maybe she’d go there today to get the money to feed her growing family. As uncanny as the stories told him to be, she’d avoided stooping that low yet.
Now she had a rat to feed, along with her uncle. And herself. She couldn’t forget herself. Why did she do that?
Where was the bloke she was supposed to meet? Uncle’d said he’d be wearing a red flower in his collar. She slowed her steps and juggled the bag nervously under the threadbare cloak she wore, wondering what it held and trying not to think about it. Uncle wasn’t known for being honest.
“And then the dragon roared ocean-like and stood high on ‘is sinewed hind legs,” a powerful voice reached out of an alley she was nearing and wrapped around her legs, pulling her feet to a slower-still pace.
She peered around the corner. A man with a dark face and hair and exotically oiled and dyed mustache crouched near the ground, his black cape and top hat of finest cloth. The mustache gleamed gold against his coffee colored skin, and as he spoke again, his words seemed to turn the air around him gold as well, spinning a million tiny threads into a tapestry above his head. A swell of market-goers, adults and children alike, sat on the cobbles or leaned on the walls, listening, rapt. Watching the cloth take form.
Bel crept around the corner hoping no one would notice a dirty scurry-foot. Honest market-goers would fear her almost as much as she feared her uncle.
“The princess Bella screamed, her face as beautiful as her name, which means most beautiful, even in the midst of her terror, and nobly, prince Robert ran to her aid, brandishing the sword only he was born to wield.”
The story moved on but Bel froze somewhere inside to examine this curling, blossoming new thought. She knew her full name was Bella. Mum’d given her that much, if only that. Her? Most Beautiful? She snorted softly. Not likely. But she couldn’t stop the hope that began to curl and grow vines up the sides of her soul.
The Tale-Spinner was saying something triumphant. The people were cheering. The coins were flying. One landed at her feet and she peered at it, wondering if it’d be wrong to take it.
“Ah, my young girl, can you tell me where to locate a young scurry-foot named Bel?”
She gasped and turned. The Tale-Spinner’s twinkling eyes held her own.
“I’m the one you want sir,” she said, lowering her eyes to the red flower in his coat. She slowly raised the hand holding the coin. “I think this is yours.”
“No need to say sir dear,” he said. “You may call me Old Bill.”