William clutched his nanny's hand tightly as she propelled the pair of them across the area known as the Shambles. She would have preferred to avoid that section of town entirely, but circumstances compelled her to make an exception. She hoped she wouldn't regret the decision.
Unbeknown to William, the nanny had received notice that her elderly mother had taken a bad fall and, while the old lady was resting at home, she needed her daughter's assistance for several hours. William's parents were not at home. The nanny, caught between the needs of her mother and those of her young charge, decided to take William for a walk across town, to the rooms where the nanny lived with her mother. Now they were racing home in order to arrive before William's mother, who would not be sympathetic to the nanny's plight, particularly if it came out that the walk took young William through the Shambles.
Every town of a certain size contained a magnet for vice. Gambling, prostitution, smuggling, and trade in unsavory substances needed to take place somewhere, and, as a generalization, town officials tended to turn a blind eye toward these businesses if confined to a sufficiently small, sufficiently poor part of town.
The Shambles wasn't dangerous in the way that, say, a village of cannibals was dangerous. People didn't seek out trouble, minding their business as much as possible. The locals soon learned that kind of attitude was simply healthier than more extroverted alternatives. Rather, the Shambles was dangerous the way a vat of lye on a shop floor might be dangerous: neither meant to hurt you, but, through carelessness, people tended to find themselves in harm's way. A wrong look, or seeing something that should have remained unseen, could be a problem. And people on the margin - people with little to lose - tended to be short-tempered under the best of circumstances. All in all, keeping clear of the Shambles was always a good strategy.
The nanny's pressing need to retun her change home caused her to take a risk she would have ordinarily avoided. She moved as quickly as she could - or, rather, as quickly as the boy's short, plump legs could drive him forward - aware of the lengthening shadows and unfriendly eyes that followed the pair's movements as they passed doorways and alleys.
Ahead, the nanny could see a boy about William's age playing in the street. He had found a stout stick and was using it to bashs insects. The boy wore faded trousers spotted with mud and a simple shirt that had been white at one time. His feet were bare despite the early evening chill.
The child noticed William and the nanny. He looked at William intently, studying the other child's sailor suit, razor-sharp creases pressed into the short pants. He looked at William's ringlets, a market contrast with his own greasy, haphazardly-cut hair. As the nanny and William passed by, the boy, with contempt in his eyes, lifted one lip and gave William a full-on sneer. William, in his innocence, merely smiled and dug in his pocket. He reached his free hand out to the other boy, offering him an agate playing marble that had kept William amused much of the day. The other boy hesitated, convinced that this was a trick. Eventually he decided this was a gift, and snatched it quickly before the offer could be withdrawn. "Thanks," he said in a quiet mumble.