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Authors: Brian McClellan

The Girl of Hrusch Avenue

BOOK: The Girl of Hrusch Avenue
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The Girl of Hrusch Avenue

Brian McClellan

All material contained within copyright © Brian McClellan, 2013. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and scenarios are either products of the authors imagination or used fictitiously. All resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Vlora planned on stealing a gun.

The one thing that made Vlora truly happy was to sit atop the flat roofs of the gunsmithies in Adopest and watch them test-fire their rifles and muskets in the alleyway behind Hrusch Avenue.

The black powder smoke would rise up between the buildings and drift over her vantage point, the sulfuric scent filling her nostrils and instilling a sense of focus and energy. There was nothing quite like it. She'd once tried to explain to Amory, the headmistress of her boarding school, but Amory had dismissed it as a childish fantasy.

And though she was only ten years old, Vlora wanted a one of those guns.

Amory would never let her have one, of course. She never let Vlora have anything.

Vlora knew it was wrong to steal, but she
needed
a gun. She needed to fire it, and feel the stock kick against her shoulder and the black powder filling her lungs. She craved the music of the gunpowder blast in her ear.

The gunsmiths would sometimes leave a musket unattended for a few moments while they went into their shop to fetch more powder or bullets. Vlora knew that stealing one just meant waiting for the right moment. She could dash into the alley, snatch a weapon, and then be out and running down the street before anyone could catch her.

A musket or rifle was too big, too unwieldy. She wouldn't be able to hide it beneath her skirts and surely someone in the street would stop her—maybe even one of the Bulldog Twins. And Vlora didn't have anywhere at the boarding school big enough to hide a musket. If Amory found it, there would be pit to pay.

Vlora would have to steal a pistol.

She slipped from her hiding place, heading across the flat roof above the smithies, and climbed down the old copper drain pipe into the alley below. She headed out into the main thoroughfare and along the raised stone walk that fronted the shops of Hrusch Avenue.

The street was packed, the ring of horseshoes on the cobbles clattering over the cacophony of the crowd. Gunsmith apprentices sat on the front steps of their shops, showing off their master's wares: engraved hunting rifles or dueling pistols for the nobility, plain oak-stock muskets for the soldiers, blunderbusses for the country farmers.

Vlora let her eyes wander over the weapons. Displayed along the raised walks of Hrusch Avenue were dozens of models, just waiting to be snatched. There were too many people out here, though. Someone would call the alarm and she wouldn't have time to lose herself in the throng before she...

Her eyes stopped at the mouth of the narrow alleyway that led behind the Hrusch Avenue shops. A pair of sandy-haired boys sat on empty powder barrels beside the alley. They were each about fourteen, with round, nearly identical faces and upturned noses, their eyes pinched with affected disdain as they watched the passing traffic.

The Bulldog Twins.

Hrusch Avenue belonged to the Bulldog Twins. At least, that's what they wanted all the orphans and urchins to think. No one begged or stole on Hrusch Avenue without permission of the Bulldog twins and if they caught you alone, they'd beat you to a pulp.

Vlora had heard some children at the school whispering that the Bulldog Twins had once killed an orphan and tossed the body down a sewer drain.

She stopped and pretended to examine a pistol behind the glass of one of the shop windows, her hands behind her back, and hoped that they hadn't noticed her.

"Oi!" she heard a familiar voice yell. "It's Little Highness!"

One of the twins, who called himself "Trigger" and was discernable by the scar above his eye, dropped from his seat and headed toward Vlora, his brother "Bullet" at his heels.

Vlora felt her heart begin to race. With so many people in the street someone would surely help her if she cried out...

Amory always said that depending on the help of others was foolish.

Vlora decided that maybe, just this once, Amory was right. She broke into a run, cutting straight across the street. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Trigger take off after her.

She cut in front of a carriage and then under a barrel being carried between two men. When she reached the opposite side of the street, she sprinted down the raised walk in full view of the Bulldog Twins, then jumped back into the road. Tucking herself between a pair of carts laden with musket boxes marked for the Adran army, she waited.

It didn't take long before the Bulldog Twins sprinted past her hiding spot.

She waited just a few seconds and then emerged, heading the other way down the street at a run. They would realize they had been duped sooner or later and come back this way.

Vlora dashed in front of a horse strutting down the center of the street at a cantor. She hoped to put it between herself and the Bulldog Twins—it was one more thing to keep them from seeing her.

Startled, the horse jerked its head away from her and then reared, whinnying loudly. Vlora reeled in terror as hooves pounded the cobbles and the rider fought to keep his mount under control.

"Piss and damnation!" The man cursed and jerked savagely at the reins, leading the horse to one side. "Blasted gutter rats." He leaned forward in the saddle and Vlora only had a moment to throw her arm up before his riding crop came down.

The thin end of the crop sliced the length of her arm and she let out a scream. The man lifted his arm to strike again but his horse bucked, forcing him to hold on with two hands to keep from being thrown.

Vlora leapt to her feet and bolted into the crowd, tears streaming down her face. Her arm was soon covered in crimson and stung from her palm to elbow.

She paused at the end of the street and looked back, drying her tears for long enough to seek out the man who'd struck her. He was still in the middle of the thoroughfare, cursing loudly as he tried to get his horse under control. He wore a fine riding jacket and he had a flat, broad face covered in pock-marks. She took a moment to memorize that face.

Vlora left Hrusch Avenue and the scent of black powder and smoky smithies behind, crossing the bridge over the Addown River and into the Old City, where tall houses crowded together on narrow city streets, their brick facades in disrepair. It was in one of these houses that Vlora lived with a dozen other girls and the headmistress, Amory.

Amory was furious when she saw the blood on Vlora's uniform. She cleaned and stitched the wound, then beat Vlora with a stick she kept above the fireplace and sent her to bed without dinner.

Vlora fell asleep thinking of the pistol she wanted to steal and that maybe she should use it on Amory—though she knew she never would.

#

Vlora awoke the next morning to the sound of her stomach growling, and she waited in bed for the church bell to strike seven. She knew if she bothered Amory too early she would end up with another beating.

Vlora had just gotten herself dressed when she heard an insistent knock on the front door of the school.

She cracked the dormitory door, careful not to wake any of the other girls in the room.

"Come in, sir," Amory said in response to a man's warm baritone voice.

Who would come to call at this early hour? The school doors were rarely opened before eleven. Vlora crept down the hallway, careful to avoid the creaky floorboards, until she could look from the landing down into the sitting room of the main floor.

Amory sat with her back to Vlora. Across from her was an older gentleman with dark hair, hawkish features and cold, dark eyes. He wore a black long-tailed jacket and pants, immaculately pressed, and a white undershirt with a folded collar. He held a top hat in one hand and a cane across his lap.

A suitor, perhaps? Amory used to receive men almost weekly. These days she only received one or two a month and she always said that her responsibility to the girls was going to keep her from getting married.

Vlora missed the man's introduction, but she heard what he said next:

"I'm here to ask about a girl."

"A girl?" Amory echoed with some confusion.

"Yes. She's about this tall," he held his hand up, "ten years old, with dark hair. A friend of mine informed me that she is under your care."

Vlora felt her heart skip. None of the other girls her age had dark hair. He could only be describing her.

"You couldn't possibly mean Vlora?"

"That was her name, yes."

Vlora tried to recall giving her name to any strangers and remembered that there had been a man with dark skin and a reassuring smile that had spoken to her in the street outside the school. He'd asked for her name, and where she lived. That had been months ago, though. Were he and this cold-eyed gentleman connected?

Amory waved her hand as if Vlora were nothing of consequence. "She is my ward, sir. A ward of the state, really. Her father was a na-baron from the north of Adro. Her mother died in childbirth and her father died earlier this year—a pauper. None of her family wanted her, and the crown was loathe to send a child with noble blood to the orphanage. I am granted a small monthly pension in order to see to her education and upbringing."

Vlora knew that Amory had a self-pitying smile on her face. She always did when she spoke of Vlora.

"She has no one to take her in?" the cold-eyed gentleman asked. "No one at all?"

"None," Amory said. "I suppose she has me, but she's an ungrateful child and so..."

"I'd like to buy her."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I can tell that you love the girl dearly, but I'm certain that for the right price you'd be willing to part with her." The man pulled a cheque book from his breast pocket and flipped it open.

Vlora tip-toed back to her room. She'd heard enough. The man meant to buy her, and she knew what that meant. The abbess at the Kresim abbey where her mother was buried had told her to avoid old men and their perversions.

She gathered her few toys—a wooden horse, a picture book that had belonged to her grandmother, and a ball made of Fatrastan rubber—and folded them into the sheets of her bed with several sets of clothes. It took a few moments to open her bedroom window without making any noise. All the while the drone of the adults' voices were coming through the wall.

One of the other girls lifted her head from her pillow and asked where Vlora was going. Vlora told her to hush.

She slipped out the dormitory window, sack over her shoulder, and climbed down into the street.

#

Vlora's mother was buried in the cemetery of Talien Square, an abbey in the district across the river, just north of Hrusch Avenue. It was not the first time Vlora had run away from the school since her father died. The priestesses at the abbey there were always very kind, giving her a cot to sleep on and warm bread in the mornings. When Vlora explained the conversation between Amory and the cold-eyed gentleman to the abbess, she was told she could stay for as long as she needed.

The abbess had never much liked Amory.

Vlora began spending her mornings with the abbess, studying the Kresim gospels, and her afternoons on the rooftop of the smithies in Hrusch Avenue, watching the gunsmiths test-fire their muskets.

Less than a week after she'd run away from Amory, she was in her usual spot, keeping an eye out for the opportunity to steal a pistol, when she spotted the Bulldog Twins skulking their way down Hrusch Avenue.

She saw their target immediately. The boy looked to be ten or eleven. He had black hair and a somber face, and he was walking alone down the raised walks in front of the smithies with a pair of books under one arm. He wore the uniform of a schoolboy with short pants cut off at the knees and long socks that almost made up the difference.

He seemed familiar, and Vlora thought she might have seen him once or twice before on Hrusch Avenue.

She shouted a warning, but it was lost in the noise of the city and the boy seemed deep in thought.

The Bulldog Twins closed in on him from behind. Each outweighed the boy by at least two stone, practically towering over him. Trigger came in from the right, smacking the books out of the boy's hands, and then slapping him across the face. Laughing, Bullet took the books and tossed them into the street.

The boy whirled, a look of horror on his face.

Vlora knew that look, having seen it on so many one-sided fights. She anticipated what would come next: his face would scrunch up and he'd begin to cry, and the Twins would push him down into the mud and kick him until they grew bored of it.

But the boy cocked back one fist and punched Trigger in the nose.

Trigger reeled back in surprise, clutching his face. The boy stood his ground, hands held at his side, his teeth set in anger. Bullet leapt at him, grabbing him by the waist and throwing him to the ground. The boy kicked and punched, but he was outmatched.

BOOK: The Girl of Hrusch Avenue
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