The Mineral Thief
By Sangeetha Thanapal
Jaya found these sorts of inns grating. It wasn’t the drunk people trying to forget the lives they will have to live once they sober up, or the fights that seemed to always break out at the exact same time every night.
Different drunkards, same disagreements. One had to marvel at the Symmetry, even if the magic itself wasn’t to blame.
No, what really chafed Jaya on these warm, monsoon nights was the liquor. To be more exact, it was the terrible liquor.
Not that she drank, of course. Her Focus burnt up alcohol too quickly for her to feel it. Plus, Acquirers were not allowed to drink. Their lessons had drummed this into them and the selection process weeded out anyone who had a predilection for alcohol.
Which meant the only time Jaya got to see people in their full glory was at inns like this, as she waited for her mark to appear.
This far south the continent meant the weather was always muggy. Jaya was wearing a cotton sari, draped in the fashion of the middle class in the Chola kingdom, even though it restricted her movements. If she projected more wealth, she would get robbed. If she seemed poorer, she would be assaulted.
The daggers hidden in each boot rubbed at her ankles. She hated carrying weapons but Focus could not heal wounds, as she well knew.
The inn was about five minutes away from its nightly altercation. Jaya had arrived at precisely this time so that she could use it to her full advantage.
The jeweller was at the bar, his tall frame dwarfing the counter. He was drinking alone, which would also work for her. Drunk men rarely knew what to think when pretty girls crashed into them.
Jaya palmed the Charakar stone in her hand and stood up. It was time.
She smiled winningly at the men seated around the table to her right. Most of them smiled back but one of them frowned. Ah, the fatherly type wondering why a young, single girl was at an inn like this.
Her mind was already playing out every single step from here to the end of her mission. Her Focus might not allow her to get drunk but the constant tension of bearing it meant her brain moved faster, could see clearer.
She moved towards the jeweller, the noise and din of the inn slipping away. Her Focus slowed down everything outside of her immediate view. What seemed like minutes to her would go by a lot faster to everyone else.
She bumped into the jeweller and he started. She smiled again. “Oh dear, I am sorry.”
He grinned at her and helped her straighten. “No worries at all.” Drunk man, pretty girl—always worked.
“I’ve never had a drink in my life,” she whispered, pulling closer to him. “My parents would never allow it, you see.” Middle class girl looking for a little adventure usually meant that men would rush to offer some.
“Let me choose something for you!” He fanned his hand around the many bottles of frothing liquid peppering the bar.
Jaya squeezed the Charakar and time slowed down further. She saw everything move in excruciatingly slow seconds; him lifting his arm to gesture to the innkeeper, her spying the Sight stones under his coat. She reached for it with her right hand as her left continued to grip the Charakar.
She had all the time in the world.
The stones were in a small burlap sack, held together with a bit of string. She deposited it into the left side of her sari blouse. Just as she put her hand down, the mark turned to her.
The room roared back to life.
She searched his face, making sure he suspected nothing.
“Well, which one would you like?” he said as he gestured to the liquor he had placed in front of her. Too bad, it was time for her to leave.
She pushed against him, hard.
“How dare you! I’m a respectable girl and here you are trying to get me drunk?” Her voice rose with each word.
The men at the table turned. The fatherly one stood up and frowned at the jeweller, whose bewildered face was so comical that artists with Limn would relish drawing him.
“I..I did no such thing!” he sputtered.
The older man stalked forward and gripped the jeweller’s shoulder. “Are you trying to take advantage of her?” he thundered.
“No! She said she wanted a drink!” Oops, Jaya thought. Wrong thing to say.
“A decent girl like her? You liar!”
Jaya hid a smile. An early lesson: the assumptions men make about women were a resource to be exploited.
The older man drew back an arm to punch the jeweller. Jaya did smile then; he was faithfully on time.
She slipped behind him as chaos ensued and was out the back door just as she heard the jeweller hit the floor.
She walked to the main road and reached up to pat her sari blouse. The stones were gone.
Jaya stopped short. She called on her Focus and searched the ground.
Behind her, a jingle sounded. When Jaya turned, the jeweller was there, completely unhurt.
Jaya gaped at him.
He held up the Sight stones and clinked them again. “Didn’t they teach good girls not to steal?”
Jaya wanted to run but he was blocking her entrance onto the street. She had no choice but to fight.
She reached down to her boots. Her knives were gone. The jeweller held them up. “Are you looking for these?”
How had he gotten them without her noticing? The answer took root before she could articulate it.
He too, had Focus.
He smiled, acknowledging her realization with a nod. “You’ve neglected a lesson.”
“The best way to steal a man’s purse..”
Is to let him think he has stolen your ring.
Yes, she had forgotten that.
About the Author:
Sangeetha Thanapal’s high school teacher told her mother to stop her from reading so much; it didn’t work. The reading turned into writing, which then turned into her whole life. Besides fantasy fiction, she also writes nonfiction on subjects ranging from racial justice to the politics of Southeast Asia. As an activist, she has engaged in anti-racism work in Singapore and Australia.
She has spoken and performed at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, the Emerging Writer’s Festival and many more. She has recently returned from a stint as “Activist-In-Residence” at Massey University (NZ). Her fiction and non-fiction work has been published in Djed Press, Fireside Fiction, Eureka Street, Wear Your Voice and many more.
She is presently working on her first novel, We, The South, an epic fantasy adventure set in medieval India. She also has over 12k followers on Instagram, where she educates people on social justice issues across the world. When not absorbed in reading and writing, she likes to scroll Pinterest for home décor inspiration.
You can find her on Instagram at @kaliandkalki.