Disclaimer: The characters Joska and Manilal are property of InSilverShadows, used with her permission. All other characters and situations are my own.
It was ten in the morning and already the marketplace was bustling, its usual odors of ripe goods and camel urine filling the air. Ten in the morning was also far to early for the thief known as Joska Zindelo to be awake, but he'd gotten into a spot of trouble last night involving a dim-witted but divinely proportioned barmaid, a bottle of cherry vodka, and a handsome sailor on leave from port who sought to have a few, er, needs fulfilled. He was only doing the poor guy a favor, but Zelda, the barmaid, had found out and had been deeply hurt; Joska hadn't realized he meant so much to her. He'd explained his difficulties with commitments to her before he'd gone to bed, but the stung look in her eyes had haunted his dreams and his conscience had awakened him at bloody sunrise. So, based on this evidence, he decided poor Zelly was going to need some sort of material compensation if he ever wanted to be able to sleep again—which brought him to the marketplace.
After scanning the place for a good quarter of on hour, Joska finally thought he found something promising. Down the lot from the apple cart and whiskey distributor (he winced a little at the sight) was a lone stand, draped with a colorful adornment of veils. Across the counter was a strewn assortment of pretty trinkets, obviously bronze with yellow paint, but nonetheless pleasing to the eye. The keeper of the booth, an elderly matron with a line-etched face and shawl-adorned head, sat limp on her stool, apparently dozing.
Joska debated his options. Obviously, women did not take up mercantilism unless desperately prompted, and women of her age only if there was no other way to survive. On the other hand, she had materials to sell—she couldn't be that terribly destitute. Possibly, she was just a greedy old crone. Still, Joska believed in honor among thieves, and did not wish to take the risk. Seeking a compromise, he walked as quietly as he could up to the stand and examined a "gold" pendant with a glass stone set in the middle—five coppers. Such a price, Joska surmised, would fetch about the equivalent as the breakfast he had packed in his satchel would. He'd leave the bundle (filled with pilfered eatables from the bar—he figured Zelda wouldn't miss them) behind the woman's stand, thereby acquiring the present he needed and sparing the old biddy from starvation. Thus satisfied with himself, Joska snatched up the necklace and shifted his parcel off his shoulders—
-only to feel a swift blow upon his head as he did so.
"Eeeeh," the old crone shifted on her stool, already-wrinkled face crinkling in distaste, "The broach would fetch more on the black market anyway. Shiner, see? More authentic. Don't they teach you kids anything in school these days?"
"Um." Joska was still rubbing his head, and was taken aback by woman's reaction. "Sorry?"
"Pfft," she replied, crooking a finger at him. Obediently, he handed her the jewelry. "Yes, yes, this was the dud," she groused. "Oy, boyo, yer a stupid little shit, ya know that? This was my test, and you failed. And there's a curse upon it, doncha know?"
"Really?" Joska asked, feeling a stab of horror. What had he done? He'd only been trying to make things right!
"No, not really, I was just makin' sure you really were a stupid little shit. Now, that test you passed, laddie." She gave a 'harrumph' as she weighed the necklace in her hands. "As I said, this was the dud. If the girl picked this one, she was the dud. Then a boy comes along and tries to pick it. Smuck." She rolled her eyes, then tossed the chain into the dirt at Joska's feet. "Take it. I give, it's of no use anyhow."
Joska blinked, not believing his luck—also cursing his curiosity. "Ma'am?" he prompted.
The elderly matron made a noise of disgust. "My idiot grandson, he does like you—only he's not so barefoot." She gestured at Joska's ratty attire with her cane. "My niece's husband, he makes a good livin' for 'em both. They don't need to steal, but my grandson, he needs the fun. So my daughter shows him the fun; she signs him up for the circus. He shovels the elephant shit now, instead of spewing it himself. But anyway, he writes to me, every day, 'Grandmama, I am sorry. Grandmama, help me, please, I have learned my lesson, I wish to come home, I wish to come home!' And what can I do? He's a smuck, but he's my smuck. A grandmother has the right to see her smuck grandson happy—besides, I miss the scamp. Not a lot a thrills when your this old, ya know? So I tell him, 'if you're doin' so well, have ya boss write to yer Mama, see if that helps.' So he does, and Mama makes him a deal: he finds a responsible wife, he can come home and run the family business. But where's the scamp gonna find a wife if he's movin' all the time smellin' like elephant crap? He's been tryin' for a year, and no takers."
Joska had no idea what this had to do with the necklace, and yet the old lady's blunt insights and profound cussing forced him to regard her with amused and immense respect.
"So you seen the posters, eh? The circus is comin' next week here, so I figure, I get the putz a girl, he don't have to relearn his address by the time he gets out of the ring. So I bring out the pretties to get the gals over here, talk 'um up, find out if they might be interested. That thing," she continued, nodding at the chain Joska had tried to steal, "was supposed to be the judge—girls picks out somethin' that ugly, cut her loose. She's a loony. You pawnin' to loonies, boy?"
"I wasn't going to pawn it," Joska said truthfully, "It was supposed to be a present."
The old matron cocked an eyebrow. "Do you like this person very much?"
"Eh," Joska said, grinning.
The woman rolled her eyes. "You're a cheeky little monkey," she informed him. "I can respect that. You got any sisters? Don't matter much what she looks like, Tuska told me he tried to chat up the ape woman once—no go, said he reminded her to much of her father. Yeeebleh."
Now fighting not to laugh outright, Joska replied, "Manilal is many miles away from here, and I don't think she'd deal well with…she's many miles away from here."
The oldster shrugged. "Know any whores?"
He could not answer, for he was too busy choking on his own spit.
"Eeeeeh, wouldn't work anyway," she went on, as if he had given a coherent response. "Tuska's too much of a romantic, for all his antics. Fancy girls, they're too cold, too good at their work. He needs someone pretty and needy."
Joska blinked, then, slowly, he smiled. Perhaps he was meant to give Zelda better than a cheap trinket after all…
A/N: Thank you for reading! If interested in other stories involving Joska and friends, check out InSilverShadows' profile, or her deviantart.