Bella felt the hand before it had gotten close to where her money pouch would be, if she was stupid enough to carry one. She reached back instantly, grabbing the unknown thief’s wrist and twisting it painfully. There was a muffled squeal, and fingernails raked at her hand. She ignored the frantic scratching as she yanked hard, pulling whoever it was off balance. She spun and drew her dagger in one smooth motion, ending up with its point under the chin of a young human boy, perhaps a head taller than herself, whose eyes crossed as he attempted to see the blade that had already left a bead of blood where the tip had penetrated. He made a move towards the dagger with his free hand, and Bella pressed the knife a little harder into his chin. The blood came freely now. He balled his hand into a fist, and slowly put it back down by his side. Bella chuckled to herself. Idiot, she thought. Hasn’t enough brains to know when he’s beat.
The boy was perhaps twelve, with black stringy hair and a pinched narrow face. His head was tilted back as far as it would go, to get away from the dagger’s point, and he gazed sidelong at Bella through sullen brown eyes. His mouth was set in a permanent sneer, and he looked and smelled like he hadn’t had a bath in weeks. She took the knife away slowly, and as he dropped his head and took a deep breath, she kicked him expertly in the knee. He collapsed onto the filthy cobblestone street, holding his leg and trying to stifle a scream. When he looked up again, he found Bella smiling radiantly at him, her rapier a mere inch from his heart. She kicked him in the stomach and all the air went out of him in a whoosh, and then she did it again, just to make sure she’d gotten her point across. He watched her through slitted eyes, mouthing curses and holding his stomach as he struggled to breathe. Blood and filth from the street made an almost artistic pattern across one cheek.
Bella looked him over. Finally she spoke. “My my, they’ll let anybody into the Guild these days,” she purred. “My blind grandmother would know you were coming just by the smell. Ah ah ah,” she warned, as he made a move to sit up. “None of that. I like you just where you are.” She emphasized her words with a quick stab of the rapier. The boy froze, propped on one elbow.
They were in a little side street, mere steps away from the inn where Bella and the rest of her companions had been staying. The sky was overcast, and a steady drizzle of rain did almost nothing to wash the collected dirt and refuse from the road surface. There were very few people about. Why the boy thought his chances were better when there were no crowds was a mystery to her.
“Turn out your pockets,” Bella commanded, making a “come on” gesture with her free hand. The boy opened his mouth to argue, got as far as “Fu—”, and then the rapier was between his eyes, its tip drawing more blood from his forehead. His eyes crossed again, and he let out another string of curses, hissing them through clenched teeth. He slowly reached into a torn pocket, taking out a small dagger. It had no sooner cleared the fabric than Bella had kicked it away, not being too careful about how much damage she did to the hand holding it. She reasoned that if the boy was being sensible, and not holding it like he wanted to use it, it wouldn’t hurt that much. But if he was gripping it tightly, and thinking of trying something — the boy yelped and Bella smiled. He really is an idiot, she thought. Aloud, she said, “Keep going.”
Reluctantly, the boy pulled out various objects from other hiding places — a smaller knife, a balled-up piece of stained but colorful fabric, a broken length of fine silver chain, a hunk of bread, and after a little more encouragement with the rapier, a small bag that chinked when it hit the ground. She picked it up, ignoring the boy’s impotent threats. His language was as filthy as he was, and that was saying something. She expertly sorted through the coins with one hand, pocketing the small pile of silver and dumping the rest into the muck. The boy had gone silent, his face set in lines of anger and despair.
“Who’d you run away from, boy?” His only response was a glare. “Come on, the Guild would never use a piece of shit like you. Makes ‘em look bad. And you don’t look near hungry enough.” She examined his arms, what could be seen of them beneath the dirt. “Not even any scars. Well, I could fix that soon enough.” She grinned and traced her rapier lightly down his left arm, leaving another bloody trail. He yelped and tried to scoot away. The rapier followed. “Talk.”
His voice was low and petulant. “‘Prentice. To a jester.”
Bella blinked and stared at him. “You? A jester? With that face?” She burst into helpless laughter. The boy stared at her, his manner shifting from sullen to offended. His chin came up, and he attempted to look dignified, which made him look even more ridiculous. Bella laughed until the tears came. The boy maintained a haughty silence, sitting up and crossing his arms in front of his chest. He no longer seemed to care about getting away.
Bella’s guffaws finally gave way to chuckles, and with a great effort she managed to stop altogether. “A jester! Well congratulations, boy, you certainly made me laugh.” She wiped a few stray tears from her eyes, and took in his affronted stance. That almost started her again, but she got herself under control. “Don’t act so high and mighty. Your face could sour milk. Get up.”
She made no move to help him as he levered himself to his feet. His shoulders were hunched, and he eyed her nervously, as if expecting another jab with the rapier. She deliberately pointed it downwards, at the stained bundle of cloth that was rapidly becoming waterlogged. “What’s that?” The boy spat out a syllable that sounded like “Hat.” “Your hat?” He gave a barely perceptible nod. “Pick it up,” she ordered. He did so. “Now put it on.” He balked at that, but a glance at her face convinced him she was serious. He sighed and unfolded the bedraggled item. The reds, blues, and yellows were now coated liberally with brown and black. He gazed at it wretchedly for a second, then jammed it onto his head. Thin streams of dirty water fell from the points and cascaded onto his shoulders and down his back. He shivered once, and then stood still, looking at her with real hatred.
Bella was suddenly tired of the game. The kid was a piece of work, there was no doubt about that. He’d run away from his master to try his luck in the streets, with no notion of what a bad idea that was. Lucky for him he’d met up with her. She was quite happy to show him the error of his ways, and he wouldn’t be beaten or raped or killed. Well, she amended, as she watched him wince after trying to put weight on his injured knee, not seriously beaten anyway. Nothing like what Steerpike would have done to him. She suppressed a shudder. He had probably thought she would be an easy target because of her size, and because she was female. More fool he.
“Go home,” she said to him, waving the rapier vaguely towards the corner where the side street connected with a larger thoroughfare. “You’re going to get yourself killed otherwise.” The boy mumbled something, and she put the rapier point just under his chin. “What was that?” He cringed back, but said defiantly, “I can handle myself!” “Fine,” she sighed. “Have it your way.” She made a shooing motion. “But if you ever try to rob me again, I’ll cut off your prick and feed it to you. Got that?” The boy, startled, nodded at her dumbly. He shoved his hands into his now-empty pockets and limped away towards the main street. She watched him go, making sure he was out of sight before she sheathed her rapier and swarmed up the nearest wall with practiced ease. Business called.