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Miriam and Rowan: First Glimpse

A deleted scene from The Swindler’s Daughter. This was my original first scene of that book before I discarded in and decided to start later in the timeline.

Locking Eyes

I walked through the festival alongside my brother, amazed at the sights and sounds that were so familiar yet so different. The jugglers with that brightly painted pins. The sound of a blacksmith hammering away in the distance. The smell of fry cakes and roasted pig.

Hunter looked down at me. “What are you smiling for?” he asked, even as he hid a grin of his own.

I bumped his shoulder with mine. “We’re at a festival. Should I not be smiling?”

“It is different, isn’t it?” he asked as we passed by a tent where a woman was ordering her man to go in and fetch more ingredients.

“It’s just like the ones we used to go to,” I pointed out.

He rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean.”

“I do,” I admitted. “It’s strange to not be working.”

Though work was not exactly the right word. It’s just what my father had called it.

“Time to get to work, kids. Go earn your keep and make your papa proud.”

I would go. I would work. It was fun, and I was desperate to make him proud. The fact that I did it by stealing from others wasn’t important. Not to me. Not then. Granted, I was only ten when I left that behind, so I couldn’t claim any great moral knowledge. I just knew that my brother hated it. He picked the pockets of fair-goers because he had to—because father didn’t give us a choice.

I picked pockets because I enjoyed it. It was a game; I was good at it, and it’s all I knew. Hunter and I had grown up as Festival Rats, traders and performers that lived a nomadic existence, earning money by scurrying from village to village as a group and putting on lively festivals for the locals.

Now, at sixteen, I could still look around me and see who the best marks were. It was a delicate balance between potential risk and reward. However, I did my best to shut off that part of my mind. It had taken me a while after Hunter took me away from our father for the habit to stop. Hunter had caught me picking more than a few pockets in the early days without Papa. 

I knew better now though. Hunter had taught me about honor and nobility. So though I could see potential marks as we walked through the festival, I never once had the urge to dip into anyone’s pockets. I was better than that now. Hunter had built something better for us.

“Why is it you’re following me about instead of sticking with Emeline?” I asked.

He glanced back over his shoulder. “I’ll go back there soon, but I was tired of that swordsman making a fool of people. I don’t know why Emeline found it so fascinating.”

“Come on, you two,” Johnny shouted from up ahead of us, “I don’t want to miss the archery competition.” He walked with his staff in hand. He rarely went anywhere without it. His younger sister, Scarlett, walked beside him, a knife belt around her hips. I smiled at the sight. Scarlett would like nothing better than to be just like Emeline some day and it showed in the way she dressed and the way she carried herself. I suspected that she’d even taken to wearing boys’ britches under her skirts.

Hunter and I hurried to catch up, weaving our way through the crowds as they thickened the closer we got to the archery range.

There was a platform set up alongside the range. On it sat Magistrate Phillips, alongside Princess Marilee and Sir James. The Magistrate was the official judge, but word was that he had happily yielded the duty to the princess the year after she married Sir James. No one had to wonder why. It’s what the people wanted, after all. Being declared a winner by a beautiful princess was so much more exciting than having a grizzled old man do it. Phillips was getting on in years and would likely step down as magistrate soon enough.

About twenty five archers lined up at one end, waiting their turn to prove their mettle and hopefully move on to the next round.

As the first group of five stepped up to the line, a little thrill shot through me. Something about their confident stance, the way they balanced their bow in one hand left me fixated. A horn sounded and before I knew it, each of the five competitors had reached back, retrieved an arrow from their quiver and shot it at the target in front of them.

Their success in hitting the targets ranged widely, but I was captivated.

When the next set of five stepped up, I was more prepared. I was able to see the way that each man held a hand at his side, fingers twitching, reflexes at the ready, anticipating the moment when the horn would sound.

This group seemed even quicker than the first, but perhaps that’s because I knew a little what to watch for. I edged closer, anxious to see the rest.

Hunter chuckles at my shoulder. “I didn’t known you were so keen on sporting competitions.”

“I’m not.”

“Really?” He said, drawing out the E so I would no just how much he didn’t believe me.

“Don’t you think this is brilliant?” I asked, hoping he would simply acknowledge and understand my fascination. Did he not see the skill this sport took? The balance, speed, form, accuracy?

Perhaps that was true of all skills, or most, or at least many, but somehow this—this—spoke to me. I’d thought I wanted to learn the sword. I’d even convinced Emeline to start teaching me. But somehow I knew in this moment that the sword was not for me. This is what I wanted to learn.

The third group of five stepped to their marks and my attention was once again arrested, this time by one archer in particular. He was closest to the crowd and couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. His hair was shockingly blonde, no doubt making him stick out in a crowd, and his eyes were ice blue.

It wasn’t his features that truly drew my attention, though. It was the way he held himself. While others around his age looked nervous, standing up against seasoned archers, this young man looked at ease, utterly focused on the target in front of him. The hand at his side did not fidget or twitch, instead hanging lose and easy—relaxed even.

Then the horn sounded. And I could have sworn he had his arrow knocked before any of the others even put a hand to the arrows in their quiver. Then the thunk of his arrow hitting his target sounded a full beat before any of the others.

Who was this young man? Where had he come from, and how could he have acquired such skill at his age? He was clearly low class, and probably worked outside for long hours every day if his complexion was any indication.

“Huzzah!” Scarlett shouted from beside me. “I knew Rowan would be amazing,” she said to Johnny.

I leaned my head close to Hunter’s so that he could hear me above the crowd. “Who is Rowan?” I nearly shouted.

He just shrugged his shoulders. He and I had lived hear for less than three weeks. I suppose I couldn’t expect him to know any more people than I did.

So I leaned over to Scarlett instead. “Who is Rowan?”

She pointed to the bright blonde archer. “The one who just trounced everyone else. He’ll advance to the next round, no doubt about it.”

My eyes fixed back on the man who’s name I now knew was Rowan. He was moving out of the way, making room for the next group of archers. He wasn’t swaggering. He didn’t bask in the attention that his skill had garnered. Neither was he trying to avoid the attention, or looking awkward about it. He accepted a handshake or two with ease and settled back to watch the next round.

Perhaps it was the force of my stare. Perhaps it was just coincidence. Whatever the reason, his gaze suddenly swung our direction and settled on me. 

And—devil curse it—I couldn’t look away.

I just stared into his icey blue eyes, my bottom lip caught in my teeth—a nervous habit I’d been trying to break. I felt my pulse beat in my neck, three, four, five times, before one corner of his mouth curved up. 

And I looked away. I could not flirt with a boy I’d never met, in the middle of a crowded festival. I would not be one of those girls. I’d seen it time and time again at these festivals. The revelry made people giddy and silly. They did ridiculous things that they would never have done in the course of their normal lives. The number of meaningless kisses and flirtations that I’d witnessed (and taken advantage of) as a pickpocket were too numerous to try and count.

I wouldn’t fall for a boy I’d never met. I wouldn’t indulge in a festival flirtation. That wasn’t me.

By the time I looked back in Rowan’s direction, the contestants had been shuffled around. I didn’t catch his eye again, and that was good, because I didn’t want to. But I did watch him compete, admiring his form and confidence, silently cheering him on as he advanced, round after round. It was only in the final round, when it came down to him and only three others, that I finally saw his nerves show themselves. In the end, he was beat out by only two other contestants, earning him a third place reward and a handshake from Princess Marilee. 

I wondered how many years it would take for him to win the whole thing.

What do you think? Should I have left it in as a prologue? Or is it better that I jumped in with these two already in their flirty banter phase?