. . . . . The wattle and daub coating of the wall behind me pulled a few sable strands of hair free from their neat captivity every time I turned my head, but it was nothing that could be helped. There was quite simply far too much worth watching to stay still. A bracelet caught the afternoon sun with a gleam of silver. A flounce of lily pink silk swirled across the cobblestone street. A red ribbon, dark as freshly-spilled blood, fluttered from a man's back as he strode among the market stalls.
. . . . . That's the one, I decided. Never mind that it was trailing from the hilt of a broadsword strapped across his back; plucking that prize free would be child's play. I wanted that ribbon.
. . . . . Beneath my slight weight, the daubber's scaffolding did not shake or tremble as I crossed some ten feet above the street, flashing between drapes of canvas that protected the market-goers from falling clay as it dried. My belly rumbled a protest that my mark was no flatbread or juicy pear, but I paid it no heed – the demands of the body were a distant second to the rush of pursuit. The man was taller than many in the market by a third again, his wide shoulders cutting a track through the crowded streets as easily as a chef's knife through melon flesh. There went my stomach again...
. . . . . As the wooden supports below me ended, I had to take my eyes from the taunting ribbon long enough to pull myself to the roof and jump across to the next building. It was no more than a matter of sixty seconds, but in that time, the man vanished. A scowl twisted my lips as I scanned the market, looking for the behemoth among midgets. It was like trying to track a sand flea! But then a dark shape loomed some half a block beyond where he ought to have been, and I raced across the rooftop to catch up.
. . . . . It took two jumps and one precarious crossing involving a clothes-drying line, but I caught up to him, and then surpassed him. Planning carefully, I dropped down from the edge of the rooftop, heels catching on an awning covering a doorway below. Despite broad daylight, all eyes were occupied with market goods and I remained as invisible as if cloaked in night. He would have to pass by here – I need only wait; the linen merchant's stall across from the building I perched on along the narrow street would force him close enough.
. . . . . Indeed, circumstances were in my favor and a knot of women stopped to finger bolts of fine lawn, cooing over misty blue fabric the likes of which would never touch my own poor skin clad in rough-spun. The giant man had to step close to the building to avoid them, and that's when I leaned out as far as I dared, one hand bracing along the awning's support as the other stretched forward. Warmth radiated from the sun shining on his dark, clean-shaven head as he passed just under my hand and my fingers caught up the red ribbon to unravel its simple knot as he walked past.
. . . . . A hand large enough to encompass most of my forearm clamped over my wrist. He had stopped just beyond the edge of the awning I was braced against. Before I quite had a thought to what was going on, the ribbon was tied around my wrist and the titan of a man had lifted me bodily down from my perch, pulling me along behind him by the other end of my prize wrapped in his fist.
. . . . . “No one ever looks up,” the man quietly stated.
. . . . . My first instinct was to raise a cry, but I quickly discounted that as it would bring the attention of the city guard. As it stood, the guard were jumpy from constant vigilance and I was on at least two wanted dockets in the city. Perhaps just enough of a fuss to raise odd looks and shame the behemoth into letting me go? Yes, that's it. Judging the timing just right, I stopped at the edge of the next block where a group of young men surrounded a bladesmith's stall. The ribbon jerked taut and the giant man halted, turning to look at me. A plain shirt of fine, sand-colored cambric tucked into heavy, dun-colored linen trousers – completely at odds with the blackened leather sheath slung across his chest and the well-wrought broadsword it held. It was only long after, though, that I noted these things about his appearance, for at the time all I could see were his eyes – paler than sky, colder than marble, they fair gleamed from his swarthy face. And they were narrowed at me.
. . . . . The young men at the merchant's stall noticed, though, and a hush fell upon them as they stared and began to mutter amongst one another. “This isn't right!” I called out, my voice pitched high as I tugged at the ribbon around my wrist.
. . . . . The muttering grew louder at my pronouncement, but the pale-eyed giant reached out and captured my wrist in his grip again. He turned enough to give the staring men a small shrug of his wide shoulders. “The little princess believed she could slip out of the house with the doorman unawares,” he explained.
. . . . . The men at the stall all snickered and nodded knowingly, turning away from the scene the pair of us presented. It was absolutely beyond fathoming, but somehow his words carried more weight than my struggles, and I was promptly ignored as the swarthy colossus led me to the end of the block.
. . . . . There, he crowded his body against me and walked me between two of the stalls into an alley that – for all my years on the streets in Alamut – I had never noticed before. Murmurs and shouts and songs from the market faded into the shadow created by two far-too-close buildings, sound as hushed as light as I found myself quite alone with the man. My nose was level with his solar plexus as he hauled the ribbon up in one hand until I was on tiptoe before him should I want to keep my hand attached to my arm.
. . . . . “You're used to not being seen,” he spoke, the timbre of his voice low and quiet. It was like being whispered to by stone itself. “You take risks because no one is looking.”
. . . . . “And whose business is that?” To my pride, there was no tremble in my voice as I stared up at the man.
. . . . . “The guards', if I take you to them.”
. . . . . “Do you expect that to make me beg and protest?”
. . . . . “A weak woman would.” In the grey half-light of the alleyway, I could see one of his heavy eyebrows lift in amusement. “Do you know how to behave when someone is looking?”
. . . . . I did the only thing I could, dangling by one hand from his grip. I spat at his feet.
. . . . . “I will take that as a 'no.'” Just that fast, the amusement was gone from his face and his tone, as was the ribbon from my wrist.
. . . . . Dropping back flat on my feet, I pressed my back against the wall as if two more inches of space between us would matter. “I could steal a ruby from the amirzade's palace,” I boasted, pulling the shreds of my dignity around me.
. . . . . “Could you.” The giant did not frame his words as a question as he tied the ribbon back on the hilt of his broadsword. The ends of it floated over his shoulder, stark against his pale shirt.
. . . . . Stung by the insult implied, sputtering impotently, I was left standing alone in a dark alley as the titan of a man vanished back into the market.
. . . . . The sun was slouching towards another ignominious slide into a horizon made opaque by the dusts of war when I remembered my belly again. All afternoon had been spent traversing the market rooftops, idling unseen in private household gardens, trying to evade the sensation of a gaze fixed upon the back of my neck. My favorite place to acquire food was the bakery in the second tier of the market; the shop stall was sprawling and busy, the scent of bread baking always bringing crowds clamoring on their stomachs. In such a press of people, it was simple to palm a sweet roll or sweep a flatbread off a stack and into a sleeve.
. . . . . Somewhere to my left, a querulous old woman argued with one of the stall's keepers over the price of two loaves of fine emmer bread, a luxury when most could only afford stacks of unleavened millet. While eyes were elsewhere, no one was watching my hands pass over the stacks of flatbread as if checking their softness. One piece was half-rolled in my hands and inside the clay-red sleeve of my rough linen shirt in a trice, the bread wrapped around my forearm reminding me uncomfortably of the giant's hand in the same place. Despite great hunger, it never paid to be too greedy – that simply got one caught – so I turned away toward the stall's exit.
. . . . . There it was, hanging over the edge of the awning – the curling red tip of a ribbon.
. . . . . My first impulse was to scream and snatch at it, anger rising swift and sharp as I realized the source of the sensation of eyes on my back all afternoon. However, all that would gain me was the attention of the bakery staff and one less piece of flatbread – maybe one less hand. Knowing the giant must be watching now, I ignored the taunting ribbon, stopping instead to inspect a basket full of sweet rolls. When a stall keeper came over to try to sell me one of the rolls, I demurred politely and headed for the exit and its damnable red challenge. As I passed under the awning, I reached up as if to smooth my hair into the heavy sable bun on my crown, though truly I snatched my fingers higher for the end of the ribbon.
. . . . . It fluttered silkily over my fingers – a ghost of a caress – and was gone.
. . . . . I did make a small scene then, stamping my foot in frustration as I spun to look at the awning. Several market-goers stopped to give me strange looks and I pasted on a winsome smile. “Sand beetle,” I explained with a little shrug. There was no giant leaning over the awning with his ribbon; indeed, there was no one at all who could have placed it there or removed it so quickly.
. . . . . Fury at being bested spurred me out of the vicinity, walking as if the Drujani themselves were on my heels.
. . . . . “Watch it!” cried one young man as I elbowed him aside and stalked past. I ignored him. Four blocks later, I was at the edge of the market district and my fury was spent, the street instincts which had kept me alive a quarter of a century or so coming back to remind me that I carried stolen goods in my sleeve and I ought dispose of them quickly. Shadows fell long and low over the streets as I ambled casually towards the temple district. Sitting at the base of a statue commemorating some battle amir or another, I pulled the stolen flatbread out of my sleeve and began to eat.
. . . . . A horsefly buzzed past and I swatted at it. It whirled away and returned, wings beating against the left side of my neck as it settled. I clapped my hand fast and hard to my neck to squash it, but my hand did not land on a fly. The red ribbon was trapped between my fingers and the soft skin below my ear. Scrabbling so quickly I drew blood at my own neck with my nails, I grasped for the ribbon – only to yank free a lock of my own hair.
. . . . . Howling in pain and frustration, I sprang to my feet and whirled, glaring at the statue as if it was the source of my ills. Perhaps it was... On that thought, I ran to the right, circling the stone counter-clockwise as if to reveal my tormentor. I found no one.
. . . . . Cramming the last of the flatbread in my mouth hastily, I retreated. Every hair on the back of my neck was at full attention, throbbing in time with the small patch of pain on my scalp. Citrine gaze darting every which way – even skyward – I searched to no avail as I backed out of the temple district. Moments later, I turned and ran at full-speed, juking down alleyways at random, turning right three times only to catch the lip of a door awning and traverse the rooftops for a few blocks, stopping within crowds of people to move slowly and attempt to lose myself in their bustle. It took an hour – well into the fall of full night – for me to finally lose the sensation that I was being watched.
. . . . . Every time a man's shadow fell over me, I sized it up, wary of any which were larger than average. I took to wearing my hair up so tightly none of it could escape to brush my neck. All four of my usual dosses were abandoned and I began sleeping on rooftops despite the coming winter chill. The bakery became a forbidden luxury, off-limits for as long as I was being watched. And I knew I was being watched.
. . . . . A flutter of red out of the corner of my eye taunted me. A first, I would spin to look for it, but it would always vanish. If I held my knowledge close, not moving my head or my eyes, the ribbon would remain. Once at the edge of the linen seller's stall again, gone only when I gave in and turned my head to look for it. Once like a pennant from a doorway leading to a guardsman's house, which I entirely ignored and walked past. Once lying peaceably over the lip of the roof I chose for the night – a rooftop covering a travelers' hostel.
. . . . . That night, I noted it and let it be, going about setting up my bedroll. He was watching; he had to be watching, and with that in mind, I did what I would not if I were alone. I let my hair down from its confinement, combing my fingers through it until the waves settled and shone in the gibbous moonlight. Slowly, paying no heed to the ribbon draped over the foot-high boundary wall around the top of the roof, I picked up the small pack in which I kept my meager belongings. Making a show of it, I searched for the small jar of dried mint leaves I liked to chew on before sleep. “Oops,” I murmured as the jar slipped from my fingers and rolled – so conveniently! – to within a few inches of where the ribbon lay. Paying the crimson taunt no heed at all, I walked unhurriedly to my dropped possession and bent down to scoop it up. Straightening, I sighed aloud as I let out a jaw-cracking yawn.
. . . . . A whisper of breath, a well-stifled yawn but not quite well enough, off to my left and down four feet. Without looking, without thinking too hard on it, I winged the jar in my hand at the source of the sound. A large hand covered in swarthy, sun-dark skin appeared over the top of the roof, neatly catching the jar of mint leaves and setting them down on the ledge. Next to the red ribbon.
. . . . . When I walked – staid and steady – to pick up the jar, I dared a peek down. The giant was gone. But the ribbon remained. I plucked it off the lip of the roof with two fingers and used it to tie my hair up high, the ends of the ribbon curling against my neck.