Rules for Thieves
Adoption Day is the worst.
Way too early in the morning, Sister Perla stands over my bed, her wrinkled face illuminated in the flickering candlelight. Wisps of gray hair frame her grim expression, a stark contrast to her white robes. I throw my blanket over my head, resolving that today, of all days, I will not get up. I close my eyes.
“Alli,” she says, “don’t you know what today is?” She yanks the blanket off me.
“Well, since yesterday was the fifty-second day of Ilaina’s Month, I’d guess today is the fifty-third,” I say without opening my eyes.
“Yes,” she snaps. “Adoption Day. And if you aren’t up in one minute you’ll have kitchen duty for a week.”
Now I look at her. The hard set of her jaw means she’s not bluffing. This is not the day to test her.
I toss aside my blanket, shivering in the drafty morning air. The bare wood floor is gritty under my feet as I reach for a set of clothing. Around me, the other girls rush to put on their nicest clothes and brush their hair, frantically trying to look their best. With a muttered curse, I find my oldest, grayest uniform and throw it on. It helps that I still have a black eye from yesterday.
Sister Perla herds us upstairs to the chapel, where Headmistress Morgila is waiting to give us her annual lecture. We must be on our very best behavior, we must smile and be polite and use our manners, blah, blah, blah. I always roll my eyes and sigh as many times as possible during the speech just to remind her how I feel about all this. In the past few years, she’s taken to ignoring me, and this year is no exception. She knows lecturing me is a waste of her time and mine.
Once Sister Morgila finishes her speech, we line up to leave gifts or offerings for Harona. People call on Harona a lot around here, since she’s supposed to be the patron saint of children and families. And since Adoption Day is held on Harona’s Day, the pleas to her are more desperate now than usual.
I haven’t said any prayers or left any gifts on this holiday since I was eight. Harona and I are not on good terms.
With our obligatory gift giving complete, we all troop downstairs into the big playroom, where a few old toys are strewn across the juice-stained rug, and a drooping map of Azeland fails to hide the peeling puke-yellow paint that coats the walls. The first order of business is the distribution of
simple name tags: stiff white paper with our names inked black. We’re supposed to pin them to our clothes, like dogs with tags on their collars, so we can be on display for strangers.
Mine goes in the trash.
But right before I throw it out, I take a second to look at it. It’s the only time I ever see my name printed out all official, in fancy script and sharp black ink: Alli Rosco. It seems legitimate, somehow, like a real name for a real girl, not an orphan. I run my finger over the ink, real quick, just to see what it feels like. Then it goes into the trash like all the other nametags before it. I don’t even bother to hide what I’m doing, since the Sisters have other things to fuss over right now.
After my ceremonial Chucking of the Name Tag, Sister Morgila explains to the new kids what will happen on Adoption Day. The potential families will meet with the Sisters to discuss what kind of kid they’re looking for, and the Sisters will try to match us up. The family decides if they want to adopt someone or not, and that’s the end of it. If they don’t, Sister Morgila promises that a “better match” will be found, but we all know there’s no guarantee. Every year that we aren’t adopted worsens our chances. The younger kids go quickest. And a lot of us age out without being adopted.
We’re told to act naturally, to play like this is a normal day, but only the little kids actually do. The older, scared ones sit in a corner and pray to Harona. A few others who have been here awhile just lie around and pretend not to care, but hope and fear are all mixed up in their eyes. They haven’t given up. Not yet.
Give them another few years, and then they’ll be like me. I used to get my hopes up too, thinking that maybe it would be good this time, maybe things would work out, maybe they’d like me. But they were looking for the perfect child, the well-behaved little girl they’d always dreamed of, and I wasn’t what they expected.
Adoption only works for the good kids. Not the ones like me.
After an hour or so, the Sisters come in and call out names. Some of the kids who are called come back, looking heartbroken. Some don’t.
I won’t be called. I’m notorious. Everyone’s heard about how I ran away from the families who adopted me, and about the time I tried unsuccessfully to escape the orphanage. The past two years, I was the only girl who wasn’t called, and I don’t want to ruin my streak this year. And Sister Morgila knows better than to call me. Right?
By late afternoon, almost everyone’s been called at least once, and the room’s thinning out. I decide to take a nap, but the door opens and Sister Morgila walks in, carrying her clipboard. In the dim light she looks like a ghost with her flowing white robes. A wrinkly old ghost, that is.
She looks right at me.
I smirk at her. “You need something, Sis?”
She rolls her eyes, a habit she picked up from me. “Come on,” she says. “I want you to meet someone.”
“They don’t want to meet me,” I mutter, just loud enough that she can hear.
Sister Morgila ignores me and leads the way into the dim, drafty hall. We’re halfway to her office when she glances at my face and freezes. “What happened this time?”
She’s spotted my black eye, then. “Like it? I think it makes me look lovely.”
“Don’t tell me you were fighting again.”
I scowl. “Sorry to disappoint you, Sis. But I was minding my own business, doing my chores, when stupid Pips decided to mouth off. You know how I can’t stand mouthy eleven-year-olds.”
“They’re almost as bad as mouthy twelve-year-olds.”
“Good thing we don’t know any of those,” I agree, but secretly I’m kind of pleased she remembers how old I am. There are so many kids here, she probably doesn’t remember most of their names half the time. But Sister Morgila and I have a special relationship, based primarily on mutual sarcasm and eye rolling.
“And for goodness’ sake, could you at least try to be civil?” she adds as we resume walking down the hall.
“I am the very essence of civility.”
She rolls her eyes again, and I snicker. “You must stop doing that,” I say, mimicking her voice. “It makes you look hostile.” “Hostile” is one of her favorite words to describe me.
To my surprise, she smiles. “Mock me all you want,” she says. “Just lose the attitude when we meet this family. By
some miracle, they’re looking to adopt an older girl and they haven’t heard of your, er, reputation yet.”
We stop at the end of the hall in front of Sister Morgila’s office, which is strictly off-limits except for today. She turns to me, and this time her expression is serious. She puts one hand on my shoulder. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this gesture is one of motherly concern. “Remember, Alli, they’re looking to adopt you, not torture you. Keep that in mind.”
“There’s a difference?” I say.
She presses her lips together in a tight line. “Don’t look so hostile and aggressive when you meet them.”
“But I am hostile and aggressive.”
“Yes, but you can pretend, can’t you?”
I shrug. She sighs and opens the door.
The room doesn’t seem to have changed at all since the last time I was called. But it’s hard to tell, since I was only in here for a few minutes last time before I took a walk with the family around the garden. The garden where, on this day, people wander around with their potential adoptees while everyone else is preoccupied inside—including the guards, who are busy letting people in and out of the gates right now.
The realization hits. Today, there won’t be any guards in the garden.
The garden that is only steps away from freedom.
My previous plan, up to this point, was to be as rude and sarcastic as possible and wait to be sent back to the playroom. But this is the perfect opportunity for another escape attempt.
After all, who’d expect a kid to run away when she’s being adopted, right? And how hard can it be to act civil for a couple of minutes?
I’m about to age out anyway, so I haven’t really been planning another escape attempt. I could wait. Let them dump me as soon as legally possible, on the day I turn thirteen.
But why wait when you can run?
I straighten up a little as we walk through the door. Sister Perla stands behind the large desk, and sitting in front of her is a tall, thin woman with a beaklike nose and a sharp face. Beside her is a little girl, probably three or four. The girl’s blond curls are tied back with spiraling pink ribbons, and her clothes are drenched in so much lace I’m surprised she hasn’t drowned in it. She’s annoyingly cute, while the mother is annoyingly stiff. I hate both of them immediately.
My first instinct is to turn to Sister Morgila and say, “Are you serious?” But I remember my plan. Okay, it’s not much of a plan, but it’s better than nothing.
I don’t know how to look sweet or docile, and attempting to smile will only make my black eye look worse, so I settle for a neutral expression.
“Here she is,” Sister Perla says cheerfully. “Alli, this is Kateline Autsdau and her daughter, Krystallia. Ms. Autsdau, this is Alli Rosco.”
It takes all my self-restraint not to say anything. Their names are so delightfully pretentious they beg to be made fun of. Sister Morgila looks surprised when I keep quiet. She
closes the door and crosses the room, standing beside Sister Perla.
The Autsdaus both stare at me like I’m a creature with two heads. They’re not even trying to be subtle about it. My resolve hardens. There’s no way I’m going anywhere with these snobs.
“Alli is twelve,” Sister Perla says. “We celebrate her birthday during Saint Zioni’s Month.”
Ms. Autsdau, who I have just dubbed Bird Lady, looks at Sister Morgila. “What happened to her eye?”
Anger shoots through me, red-hot and instant. Nothing’s worse than the people who talk about me like I’m not even there, like I’m incapable of speaking for myself. I bite down hard on my tongue, and my fingers twitch.
Sister Morgila tries to bridge the awkward silence. “It’s a sports injury. Alli is very athletic.” Out of the corner of her eye, she’s looking at me with suspicion. She’s known me long enough to know something’s up.
Bird Lady purses her lips. “My Krystallia doesn’t play sports. She’s more academically inclined.”
I choke back a laugh.
“Alli is a highly intelligent child,” Sister Perla says, practically beaming at me. “I’m sure she would be quite brilliant if given the proper instruction.”
I bite my tongue harder. The best thing Sister Perla’s ever said about me before today is, “Alli doesn’t tolerate rudeness from anyone.” Which, coming from her, may not have been a compliment. Especially since she said it right after I
punched a boy in the face for calling me a foul name.
Bird Lady doesn’t seem to be buying it either. She purses her lips again, and I swear it looks like she has a beak.
“Why don’t the three of you talk in private,” Morgila says quickly. “Perhaps you’d like to go into the gardens? We have a refreshment table. . . .”
Bird Lady nods once, her beady eyes fixed on me again. Sister Perla springs to action, ushering us out the door and down the stairs, chattering about the weather in a falsely cheerful voice. Anger still courses through me, and I try to channel it into planning my escape.
There are a few other people milling about in the small garden. Sister Perla points out the refreshments and leads us to a small bench so we can “get to know each other.” With one last suspicious glance at me, she leaves.
Bird Lady perches on the edge of the bench with a sour expression, like she’s been asked to sit in filth. She pulls her daughter onto her lap, probably so she won’t soil her frilly dress by sitting on a garden bench.
I sit next to them and survey the garden. The old gray house, covered in trails of ivy, is far back from here. The whole garden is enclosed by a stone wall, but it’s only about ten feet high. If I could find a way over it . . .
“So, dear,” says Bird Lady, addressing me for the first time, “why don’t you tell us about yourself?”
“Um,” I say, looking for a tall tree or something, “what would you like to know?”
Bird Lady looks irritated. “What are your interests? Do you pursue music? Art? Reading?”
“Um,” I say again. The orphanage doesn’t have the funding for many books or art supplies or musical instruments, so I really wouldn’t know. I’m about to make something up when I spot it—a small tree beside the wall, just high enough that I might be able to make the top. It’s on the opposite end of the garden, by the table with food on it.
“Are you thirsty?” I say, leaping to my feet. “Let me get us some, um, refreshments.” I move before Bird Lady even responds.
I walk to the refreshment table as fast as possible, scanning the garden as I go. There still aren’t any guards or Sisters out here. Saint Ailara, the patron of good fortune, must be praying for me today. Good thing, too, since I can use all the luck I can get.
I turn toward the tree, ready to make a break for it, but a door thuds open behind me. Another Sister is coming outside, leading some other family. I spin back to the refreshment table, pretending to be mulling over the pastry selection. I send a quick prayer to Saint Ailara.
But Ailara’s never listened to me twice in a row, and today is no exception. The Sister has spotted me and comes hurrying over. It’s Sister Romisha, who hates me.
“What are you doing out here?” she demands, hands on her hips.
“I’m with my potential adoptive family.” I nod toward
Bird Lady and her daughter, who are watching this conversation from their bench.
Romisha looks at them, then back at me. “Then why are you all the way over here?”
“I’m just getting us some refreshments.” I pick up the nearest glass, which is filled with a fancy pink-colored liquid that would never in a million years be served to us orphans.
Romisha stares at the glass, probably wondering whether I’ve poisoned it. “Well, hurry up then.” She waits for me to collect my refreshments and return to Bird Lady.
She won’t leave until I go back to them, but I’m not about to go live with the snobby bird family. The tree is ten feet away from me. Close enough.
“On second thought,” I say, “I have other plans. Send them my regards, won’t you?”
I throw the pink liquid in her face and run.
Romisha screams, and everyone’s eyes are on me as I grab the lowest branch of the tree. Some of the bark peels off in my hands, making it impossible to get a firm grip. I finally manage to grasp the branch and haul myself up, just as Romisha recovers from the shock and barrels toward me. I find a foothold in the trunk and start climbing.
Romisha’s yelling orders at someone, and I hear doors opening across the garden as people come to see what’s happening. I look up for the next branch and grab on as Romisha lunges for my foot and catches it. I hang on as tight as I can, wrapping my arms around the branch. I kick
blindly with my free foot, seeing nothing but bark and leaves and a sliver of sky. Pain shoots up my leg as Romisha yanks hard on it, but she’s not strong enough to pull me down. I twist and kick with all my might, hitting nothing but air and the occasional branch until finally my foot strikes something soft. There’s a yelp of pain, and her grip loosens enough that I wrench free.
I swing myself up, throwing my left leg over the branch I’m holding, and wrap myself around it. Something snaps as my full weight lands on the limb, and it quivers so hard that for a second I think it’s going to fall. But it holds, thank God it holds. I’m out of Romisha’s reach, but someone will start climbing up after me any second, probably.
I straighten up and face the trunk of the tree again. Untangling myself from the branch wastes precious seconds. The tree rustles as someone comes up after me. I climb like my life depends on it, which it probably does since Romisha will kill me if she gets her hands on me. The tree is so much bigger than it looked before. It’s an unending tree, and I’ll never get to the top; it’ll keep going and going and going until I can’t hold on anymore.
But now I’m near the top, it’s real, and the garden wall is a few feet away. The branches here are thinner, and they snap all over the place, so I only have a few seconds before I plummet to the ground.
Don’t look down.
I scan the wall for a handhold, but there’s nothing. The
wall is farther than I thought, and I can’t reach it from here. I have to jump.
The top of the wall looks narrow, and if I miss it’s all over. But I’ve come this far, and it’s too late to turn back.
The world spins as I go flying, and my knees hit the wall with a jolt. My hands scrabble desperately against the rough stone. But soon everything stops moving and I’ve done it, I’m on the wall.
I steady myself and sit up. Sister Romisha is at the bottom of the tree, screaming. One of the younger Sisters, a new one whose name I can’t remember, is halfway up the tree. Sister Perla is in the garden now with Sister Morgila, and they’re both looking at me like I’ve lost my mind. And in the corner, right about where I left them, are Bird Lady and her daughter, mouths hanging open, scandalized.
I grin at Sister Morgila. “Thanks for all your help, Sis,” I call, “but I can take it from here.”
I swing my legs around, grab the opposite edge of the wall with both hands, and lower myself down. It takes a second to find a foothold but I manage it, and I fall the last few feet. Then my shoes hit the pavement.
I’m free. I’m on the other side of the wall.
I take off running. Someone will probably come chasing after me any moment, but I don’t care. I can go wherever I want, run as fast as I want. I’m free.