Introductions were quickly made to the other streetlings who helped Kodran with his shipment. Riva left her haversack in Kodran’s office to be certain that it was safe. She wasn’t about to take the risk that curious eyes and hands would go digging through it. The last thing she wanted was for those letters to end up strewn all over the street.
Still, she felt good about her decision, and about who she had become. She laughed at a joke one of the other streetlings made, though some of her more gentle traits were stubbornly hanging on. She wasn’t really one of them, not yet, but she would be. Out of an old habit she began softly singing, her steps taking on the rhythm of the words.
A boy, only a year older than she appeared to be, straightened slowly, looking at her. “Nice song.”
She smiled in response to the comment. “Thank you.”
Several of the younger children clamored to know what she was singing, so she raised her voice, and taught them the words as she continued to help with the unloading and storage of the shipment. Before long she had quite a chorus going along with her, and the work was going easier as well.
Another merchant paused on his way to listen to them, and smiled. He nodded to Kodran, who nodded back. “That is quite the songbird you have there.”
Kodran smiled. “Thank you.”
It didn’t take long before more streetlings called Riva Songbird than called her Riva. She didn’t mind.
Not even Kodran, though was prepared for what happened when the gang of toughs appeared, chasing after a four-year-old who looked panicked. He didn’t approve of the gangs, though he understood that not all streetlings were willing to fetch and carry at the call of others, to work and to find their way honestly. For that matter, there were quite a few bullies that he refused to allow near his shop. He wouldn’t put up with their nonsense.
Riva glanced at Kodran, as if asking permission. He nodded and she ran forward with several of the older boys, to put themselves between the child and his attackers. The child had fallen and had scraped his knees, and cried. She knelt beside the little boy and pulled him into her arms, letting him wrap his arms around her neck and murmuring comfortingly to him.
The leader of the gang looked nobleborn, and he glowered at them. “Hey, that one’s ours. He needs to be punished for running into me. He tried to pick my pocket. We’re going to thrash him.”
The child denied the charges vehemently. They had run into him, he claimed. He had helped a lady find her dog and she had given him a treat, and they tried to take it away from him, and now it was ruined, but he hadn’t tried to steal from them. He wouldn’t do that.
Riva shushed him and stood, holding the child close. She glared at the bullies. Once they were able to get a good look at her eyes, they seemed to shiver slightly. “Leave here,” she told them. “You are not welcome. This child is no threat to you.”
“Oh, and who is going to make us? You? A streetling girl? We are trained squires of the Order.”
The boys around them closed ranks threateningly and the gang leader growled. “Come on, guys, they aren’t worth the hassle. Consider this a warning, though. If any of your street trash comes near us again, we won’t be so generous.” They left and the tense situation eased quickly.
Riva quickly carried the boy over to a crate where she sat down and began to rock him, gently, singing softly. As the child calmed down the other streetlings looked at Riva, and then at Kodran. One boy whistled low. “I remember… my mother used to hold me like that, before she…”
Another nodded in agreement, soon they were all nodding and several of the smaller ones had crept close to Riva.
The biggest boy looked at Kodran. “She’s one of us?”
Kodran nodded. “Why? You worried?”
“Naw, your say so’s good enough for me. Not many girls make it as streetlings.” There were nods of agreement.
“I’ll make it.” Riva told him. “I’m not so weak as some.” She still rocked the boy, who had reached out and was playing with a lock of her hair that had fallen over her shoulder.
“We’ll look out for you. Look, Kodran’s the closest thing most streetlings have to a father. Would you… would you be our mother?”
Riva looked up and felt a moment of mental vertigo as her unique understanding of the world spun around her. For a moment she didn’t see the Castellan street, or the streetlings. She saw Wendy and the Lost Boys, and smiled. “Yes. Yes, I will.”
— — —
Riva still sat on the crate, rocking the little boy in her arms when a barking sound filled the air and a small, dark brown dog ran up to them, to jump up on her leg as if trying to reach the lap that was currently occupied. The little children looked at her in delight to match the grin that spread across Riva’s face.
“Annie, where have you been, you naughty darling?”
Once she knew that she had gotten her momma’s attention, Annie turned towards the children and seemed beside herself to have so many little persons around to pet and love on her. She certainly did love children.
The little boy slid from her lap and ran with the other children to play with the dog and she smiled to watch them. After a moment she sighed and turned to the larger boys. “Let’s get the rest of this stuff put up before she distracts us too much.”
“She yours?” The largest boy helped her carry a box into the shop.
“Yes. And locked doors that dog does not know. I never could keep her in a room, never could keep her out and somehow she always knew where to find me.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“It was, especially when I had to go wandering around looking for her because it was getting late and she wasn’t at home.”
Working together they made quick work of the rest of the boxes.
— — —
The soldier sat, that night, in a tavern with several of his longtime friends from in the Palace. They had all been streetlings together, years before, and they had kept up with each other, though it had taken quite a bit of effort.
Dougal looked at him over the rim of his mug. “You are kidding, right?”
The soldier, Corrin, shook his head. “Honest, holy truth, I swear. She has got to be watching me while I help the kids get their ball back and then walks up to me only after they have run off. I could actually hear her voice want to call me ‘sir’.”
Across the table, Knight-Captain Bastion smiled into his ale. “A noble streetling? What did she look like?”
Corrin shrugged. “Like any other streetling, though a bit cleaner, a bit more… controlled. Blonde, like you, with her hair pinned back in a kerchief. What struck me most, though, was her eyes. Pure gold, like two new-minted coins. Now where does a girl get eyes like that?”
Dougal laughed. “I don’t know. Same place you dreamed up a noble streetling, I suppose.”
Corrin raised one hand as if taking an oath. “I swear, I am not making this up. It was the weirdest thing I have ever seen. It was like… it was like she was looking for someone she could trust to ask directions from.”
Bastion chuckled and then took a sip from his ale before setting the mug down. “And you, being the honest and upright person we all know, told her exactly how to find Kodran’s shop?”
Corrin nodded. “That I did. I can take you over there at some point, maybe we can spot here there and I can prove to you that there is a noble streetling girl with eyes as gold as…”
“As coins?” Dougal offered, still chuckling.
“Exactly, as coins.”
Dougal snorted in laughter. “You have got the biggest imagination I have ever seen. Like any noble daughter thrown onto Castellan’s streets wouldn’t end up in a troublesome spot within an hour of arriving. They’re used to being waited on, hand and foot. Kodran wouldn’t put up with that, and we all know it. No spoiled lady would put up with some of the stuff the streetlings do.”
Bastion shrugged. “Well, I know one noble daughter who might.”
Corrin looked at him curiously. “Your Princess?”
He nodded. “She’s got the strength, but I don’t think she would really run.” He paused. “And I don’t think that she’s got gold eyes.” The more he thought about it, though, the more he realized that he didn’t know what color her eyes were.