AN: I'm not sure how long it will take me to finish this story. Planning on having it be novel length. It will have girls in love so if you don't like that sort of thing, skip it.


The scent of spices, cured meat, and boiled lentils wafted through the warm air. As tantalizing as the combination was, Mariam didn't slow down. In morning prayer, she had sworn off stealing forever. She'd even denied herself a corn ball from the the only trader in the market who'd give her food for free.

Today was to be the first day of her independence. A child who stole the occasional scrap of meat or l oaf of bread was usually forgiven, but a girl who'd just hit her majority? She'd be thrown straight in a camp—and would have to kiss goodbye to her next six months right there. Besides that, if everything went well today she ought to have plenty of food from now on. She didn't want to be the kind of person who got thrills at other people's expense.

She hurried along the dusty streets, heading for the building she most often avoided. It wasn't hard to find—as the only government establishment in this part of town, its larger, more stable frame stuck out among the mud huts and merchant tents. Finally reaching her destination, she paused to catch her breath.

Stepping into the shadow of the building, Mariam straightened her headdress, which had been knocked eschew by the bustle of the streets. The people of the city thinned out around the area, most not wanting to interfere with any official or ruler in any way. Only those with business strayed to this area. Those like Mariam.

She pulled her fingers through her hair before tucking it under her scarf, hoping she was still presentable. She'd looked her very best this morning—the mistress had allowed her to do extra chores in return for time in the washroom. She'd even been permitted to use perfume, cheap as it may have been.

Taking a deep breath, Mariam turned to the heavy wood door. She knew that whatever happened that day could determine the course of the rest of her life.

She also knew that if she dwelt on it any longer, she'd never work up the courage to go in. It was better to get it over with quickly. She pushed open the door and strode into the cool room.

A man looked up at her from a desk in question, but she knew where she was going. She'd been here at least once a year since she could remember after all.

Heading to the left, she passed under an arch to the room of the overseers. She hoped hers was in today, though if he wasn't she could always come back tomorrow. It would be a pain to walk that distance again, but she was prepared for setbacks. She scanned the row of men, heart leaping when she saw the familiar figure.

Her overseer of the last three years was a squat, flat-nosed man. He lumbered, was slow moving, and didn't seem to care one whit about her, despite being charged with her care. Mariam still counted herself lucky. She'd heard stories of how overseers took advantage of their charges, but he'd never seemed interested in that sort of thing—if only because he wasn't interested in anything about her.

She approached him, squelching her nerves and putting on a bright smile. "Hello sir," she greeted, inclining her head. "I'm Mariam, one of your charges. I just turned seventeen, and I was wondering about finding work."

"Hmmm." He didn't look up.

"Well," she went on, "do you think that might be possible, sir?"

"Not sure," he grunted. "It's awful busy in here today."

"Of course, sir. I understand." She kept any resentment out of her voice, though she'd love to point out he wasn't even writing and that there were no other clients around. "I'll just wait then." She made her way to a nearby wall, ignoring some of the looks she got from other overseers. She could wait. She'd known this was a possibility.

An hour stretched by, but she refused to lose patience. She wanted this enough that she'd do just about anything, including count every stone making up the floor of this blasted room.

After what seemed an eternity, the overseer called her back over, looking her up and down as if to say 'You're still here?'. "Name?" he asked, sounding annoyed.

"Mariam."

He raised an eyebrow. "Daughter of?"

She sucked a breath in. "Kusket. Mariam daughter of Kusket."

The man didn't look up, and she reminded herself that her father wasn't universally known.

"Stay here," he ordered, and wandered off in search of her records.

She leaned against the wooden desk and took a deep breath. Thus far things had gone smoothly. She could only hope her luck would last.

The man waddled back from the records room slowly after about thirty minutes. As she looked up from her daydream, Mariam could feel frogs leaping about in her stomach but urged herself to stay calm. She noticed her hands were trembling and snapped them to her sides. Now she was stiff as a board—what a great job of keeping her nervousness hidden she was doing!

The overseer plopped back in his seat and opened her scroll. "Hmmm... A poor house brat, I see. So you didn't seek apprenticeship?"

"Yes sir." Well, she'd tried. But done would take her.

"Hm. Desired job?"

"Messenger."

He grunted. "So the mail quarters on this side of town has an opening?"

Her heart stopped. "Yes," she answered automatically. In truth, she had no idea.

He scrutinized her for a long moment as she put on her best innocent look. She had years of practice with this one. Mistress was never able to read her, anyway.

"Well." He paused. "I reckon it's good that you want to serve Cassiopeia."

Mariam jumped on this opportunity like a starving alley cat pounces on a mouse. "Oh yes! I'm so eager to become a part of the workings of this city and to contribute to my community." Mistress would be proud of her for parroting her speeches about serving Cassiopeia so fervently.

The overseer looked slightly taken aback. "Well..." he considered, "the overseer transfer is tricky... Go and ask the head of the mail quarters to put his responsibility for you in writing, and I'll see about signing you off." It seemed his suspicion was not diverted so easily.

She swallowed the lump in her throat and agreed. "Of course. I'll be back before sunset."

She raced out of the building, wondering if she'd make it in time. It wasn't anywhere near as far as the poor house, but the mail quarters was still a good few miles away. With the streets this crowded, it'd take almost an hour to get there. And an hour for the trip back, and however long she spent in the quarters...

She gritted her teeth and speed up, glad she'd forgone a dress for flowing pantaloons. Her sandals would hopefully hold up as well. No time to think—she was going to make it in time, no matter what. She wanted this done today.

She hustled past carts, merchants, and hunters, dodging street urchins and women carrying baskets. The sun beat down on her covered head, and she blinked sweat out of her eyes. No time to pause, she turned down a side alley that she hoped was a shortcut.

Mariam gave a wide berth to the man propped against the mud wall of the alley. He clutched at a bottle of mead and gave a groan as she passed him. "Hey, hey girlie!" he called after her, and her face screwed up in disgust. It'd be better if bums like him fell off the face of the earth.

Out of breath and sweating profusely, she finally reached her destination. Now she must look an absolute mess. She flagrantly cursed the heat, the sun, and her overseer for good measure, only to catch one of the old ladies passing on the street muttering, "A young lady of her age, with that kind of language!"

Sheepishly, she bowed low to the elder and apologized, reprimanding herself for letting go of her temper. The woman took the apology well and even inclined her head back, making Mariam feel very ashamed to have offended her. She didn't often meet elders who would pay her any respect in return.

Turning to face the mail quarters, she entered through the cloth-covered entrance. Shutting down her nerves again, she headed towards the nice looking lady putting messages into the cubbies in the wall. "Excuse me, miss?" she said, voice sounding about three times higher than usual to her ears. "Could you direct me to the head of this quarters?"

The woman graced Mariam with a smile—one that made her feel quite at ease. "Of course, dear. He'll be just in that room over there." She pointed to an open doorway to the right.

Much relieved at being warmly received, Mariam crossed the room with more confidence than she'd entered with. She was glad of this bolstering immediately, for the head of the mail quarters was, from the first glance, incredibly intimidating.

He sat rigidly in a chair, scribbling on a long piece of parchment. He was bald, not an unusual look for a man in his prime, and had sharp features. He wasn't overly large, but the intimidation came from the way he carried himself. He seemed a man who believed himself quite important, and the force of his belief made him so.

She cleared her throat and stood up very straight, trying to seem every inch as significant as he was. His gaze snapped to her and didn't waver. She'd only known him a few seconds, and he was already the most intense person she'd ever met.

"Hello, sir," she said as she bowed. "My name is Mariam, and—"

"How nice to meet you, Mariam. I am Omar son of Deren, head of this quarters. Are you here to request a delivery?"

"No sir, I—"

"Perhaps a work opportunity?"

"Yes sir, actually—"

Instantly, his focus left her and moved on to something else he seemed to believe more salient. "There isn't an opening, I'm afraid." He stood up in a fluid movement, and made to leave the room. She followed after him desperately, a pit of dread swirling in her stomach.

"Oh please sir—"

"We're not interested, now run along."

"I'll work so hard, sir, you—" She stumbled, trying to keep up with him as he left the building.

"We have no need for any other workers at this time."

"Please, I've wanted this my whole life—"

"I'm terribly sorry to hear that."

"You don't understand, I came all this way, my overseer said all I need is—"

He stopped dead in his tracks, causing her to crash into his back. She stepped away quickly, wondering if she'd ruined her chances forever. Maybe if she'd just waited a few months, she'd have found an opening. Why couldn't she ever keep her mouth shut!

"Overseer, you say?" he inquired.

"Um, yes sir. I spoke to him just before this."

"And, your overseer, he's with the government?"

"Yes." She wondered where he was going with this.

Omar sucked in a breath. "I see. And, should I give you a job, I would become your overseer?"

That's why she'd had to come here in the first place, right? She wasn't sure of all the particulars, but she thought that was the goal here. "Yes."

His dark eyes swiveled back to her. "Is there anything I need to do to make the transfer?"

Her heart leapt. "My overseer said you'd have to put your responsibility in writing, so—"

"Terrific!" In a few powerful strides, he'd made his way back into the building, leaving her staring after him dumbfounded. After a moment of thinking, she dimly remembered that overseers not related to their charge were typically paid for their troubles. It'd been a long time since she'd learned that, so she forgave herself for forgetting it, but was money really such a strong motivator? She'd never seen such a swift change in decisions.

Hurrying through the entrance, she heard Omar ordering some lackey to fire one of the delivery girls. Mariam winced in guilt but steeled herself. It seemed if she was to have her desired occupation, she'd have to toughen up a bit.

Omar emerged from a room, carrying a scrap of paper. "Take this to your overseer," he commanded, handing it to her. "I expect you'll be transferred to my care within the next week. However, I want you here tomorrow morning early for assessment, understood? Bring whatever belongings you may have."

"Yes sir!"

"Now get out of my sight." He turned on heal and marched away, but even the dismissal couldn't quench her spirits. She'd done it! She'd put her mind to it, and she'd made her dream come true! No more begging, no more stealing, and no more poor house! She'd be spending the rest of her days running from place to place, independent and free to do what she chose.

All the way back to her overseer, her heart was singing. Her joy overflowed so much that she felt compelled to share her only coin that she'd been holding on to for months with a street child.

Oh what a day! The sun no longer troubled her, and even her sweat now seemed to cool her rather than stick. She felt better than she did after drinking wine.

She half danced her way into the overseers' room and marched herself all the way to his desk. He seemed surprised she'd come back, and she couldn't help a slightly smug smile.

"Here's the note from the head of the mail quarters, sir," she nearly sang, handing over the slip of paper.

The overseer squinted at the scribbles. Mariam herself had wondered what it said, but could only make out a few words with her limited literacy. Omar's writing was stilted and small.

After a few moments, the overseer reached across his desk and grabbed her records with a meaty hand. Opening the scroll a few inches, he jotted down a few words and signed the parchment beneath it.

"I'll pass this along sometime this week," he said, sighing—she suspected he was dreading the work.

Regardless, she chirped a "Thank you" and turned on heal out of the building.

Her trip back to the poor house was nowhere near as taxing as her journey to the government building that morning. She felt as if a giant burden had been lifted off her shoulders, and the sun had gone down enough that its heat was more comforting than burning.

As she was by now nearly dying of thirst, she stopped off at the well nearest the poor house and drew herself a bucket. She'd barely gotten through a few sips before she was being told off by some guards for taking too long. She dropped the bucket back down in the cistern and muttered a few apologies. She hated being a bother to the guards.

As she stepped under the stone arch of the poor house, she smiled a triumphant smile. Tonight would be her last night in this place.

It wasn't that she wasn't grateful to the poor house. She knew she was lucky to have grown up there—she would likely have died on the streets alone, as she'd been told a hundred times before. Still, she wouldn't miss the chores, the scarce and distasteful food, or the smacks from the mistress.

She said her farewell to the cobblestone courtyard before heading into the cool brick house. The busy interior contrasted starkly with the empty outside. It looked as though several new drunks had wandered in, and one of the aides was trying to get them to leave. In a corner, a woman was sobbing alone. Mariam decided to go straight to her cot.

Heading down the corridor that had been her home all her life, she gave a quick sympathetic glance to Tamir, and turned away quickly when he glared at her. He was one of the only other children who'd grown up in the poor house, but they'd never gotten on. He was always angry, starting fights on the streets, and since he'd turned twelve or so often left for months at a time. She thought he'd gotten into crime, though she didn't know if she could blame him. He was about to hit his majority as well, but unlike her, he was male. He would lose his overseer the moment he turned seventeen—with no apprenticeship to take him, his only legal option was to be a freelance hunter, a dangerous career at best.

Reaching under her cot, she pulled out her only worldly possessions, wrapped in a old cloth. The few dresses that both fit her and hadn't been stolen, an ornate comb, and an extra pair of sandals. Not much to pack in the morning.

The sun had barely set by this time, so she stepped cautiously back into the main room and looked around. Hah! There she was!

"Miss Thana! Miss Thana!" she called.

A rather weary face met her gaze, but Thana gave her a small smile nonetheless. Walking over to her, Mariam couldn't contain her happiness. "I did it, Miss Thana!"

"Did—oh here you are—" Thana handed a roll of bandages to a passing nurse, "did what, dearie?"

"Became a messenger!" She'd told Thana her plans yesterday, but she knew how forgetful the aide could be.

"Oh, so you hit your majority, then." Thana's huge brown eyes blinked up at her. "Congratulations."

"Thank you!" She beamed, taking a wizened hand in her own. Thana had worked as an aide to the mistress ever since Mariam could remember, and had always been kind to her. Most of the aides came and went quickly and never spared a kind word to her, but Thana had often patched up her knee or given her a pat on the head.

"Oh sweetheart, I think you've—"

"Thana!" came the sharp voice of the mistress from a back room.

Giving Mariam an apologetic look, Thana gave her a kiss to the brow and walked briskly over to where the mistress was waiting for her.

Mariam sighed. Some things never changed. Though the woman had always cared for her, she never had any time to spare. It had been nice to talk to her for a moment, though.

She didn't have anyone else to tell the good news, after all.

It was still too early for her to be sleepy. She went through the food line, unsurprised to find only meal of the day was just a lump of old bread. Oh well. Soon enough she'd have enough to eat every day.

Mariam stepped out into the cooler night air and decided to stretch her legs for a bit. She was tired from her day of rushing about around, sure, but it was time for her to get used to that. After all, she'd be doing a lot more running around from now on.

She smiled at the slight breeze that blew past her face and looked up at the stars. Tomorrow was her first day as a mail runner. The first day of her future.

She sped up a hill, determined to find a road she'd never walked before.