4. THE THIEF-TAKER

The man from the alley, whatever names he had, dragged Berren through the streets of Deephaven. They left Shipwrights, crossed Reeper Hill and skirted the edge of the sea-docks. Out in the deep bay that had given the city its name, dozens of tall ships lay at anchor in the night, silhouettes in the moonlight. Their creaks and groans echoed across the still waters like the calls of restless souls. Berren’s neck prickled at the sound. Sometimes voices rang out, the distant and ghostly shouts of men calling news from ship to ship. They walked past bawdy houses and Moongrass dens, the drinking shops and the gambling holes. Men with hunched shoulders hurried by, hiding their faces. Women strutted on corners, idly flashing their pale skin at anyone who passed. Then the thief-taker turned and led the way up the Avenue of Emperors, the broad straight road that led up from the sea-docks to Four Winds Square and down to the river again on the other side of the city. Even at this hour, a steady stream of carts and wagons rumbled up from the sea. Halfway towards the top, the man stopped. He turned around, dragging Berren with him. Berren would have done anything to get away, but the hand on his arm never relented.

‘You see those ships, boy? Those ships can take you anywhere in the world. Eight years ago I came here on one of those. I know this city better than I know my home now. Watch out for the ones with the black flags. Those are the slave-ships of the Taiytakei and they’ll take you places even further than I’ve been, whether you like it or not. But that’s not what I want from you, lad. When I’m done with you, you’ll come here every day and you’ll look at the flags. You’ll tell me if you ever see four white ships on a red field. That’s one thing you can do for me. If ever you do, there’s an emperor in it for you.’

They crossed over the Avenue of Emperors and climbed to The Peak, the top of the low flat hill that overlooked the bay, and the richest part of the city. At the top of The Peak sat Deephaven Square, an enormous paved expanse of marble. One end of the square was fully occupied by the magnificent solar temple, the even more magnificent Guild Hall, and behind them both sat the looming bulk of the Overlord’s Palace. At the other end of the square were the infamous city moneylenders. Along either side, the houses of Aria’s richest merchant-lords competed for attention. In sunlight, gaudy colours and murals and statues of bronze and marble and even gold fought with each other, blended into a confusion of glittering opulence. Now, under the moon, they were muted and dull. Berren looked around, twitching and jittery. Old instincts had him. This wasn’t a place where someone like him was supposed to be. Boys like him disappeared up here.

The grip on his arm tightened. ‘You like gold, lad? Here are the gold-kings of your city. There’s a mile, maybe a bit more between the river-docks and the sea. The men here make more money every day buying and selling across that mile than you will ever see. Money is the blood of this city. The rest of it, the flesh and bones where everyone else lives: that sprawls inland, that’s the stuff you know. But here is its heart. Ships and money, lad.’

Berren gawped and nodded as if all that made any sense. The thief-taker tugged him sharply away and headed inland again. Down Lime Street and then along Stonecutter’s Way, leaving Berren to wonder what he should make of all this. They crossed Four Winds Square again and walked into the Courts District, but before they’d gone a dozen yards the other side, the thief-taker turned sharply to his left, almost pulling Berren’s arm out of its socket. They plunged into the shadows of a narrow street where the darkness was so thick that Berren might as well have been blind. Then down an alley and into a yard. The thief-taker stopped, fumbling at the wall with his fingers. He reached under his coat and pulled out a key. He gave it to Berren.

‘Open the lock,’ he said, propelling Berren to a tiny iron door set into one wall of the yard and barely visible in the gloom. Berren did as he was told. He offered the key back and it disappeared under the thief-taker’s coat.

‘In you go, boy.’ The thief-taker almost threw Berren inside and then quickly followed. He lit a lantern and sat down. Berren looked around. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but certainly not this. The house – what he could see of it – was tiny, even smaller than master Hatchet’s. The furniture was old and battered. There was nothing here worth more than a few copper bits, except what the thief-taker carried. For a moment, Berren was more bewildered than scared.

‘Did you think I was rich, boy?’

Berren said nothing. He nodded.

‘You saw the Secretary to the Courts give me a purse and say that it was filled with gold. It’s true; I was well rewarded for hunting down those men and bringing them back. I was well rewarded for others before them and will be rewarded again. But I rarely receive much gold. My rewards are what you see here. This house, in this yard. Other things like that. Goods and services and favours.’ He laughed. ‘I suppose you would have much preferred the shiny golden emperors.’

Berren nodded.

‘And what use is gold, lad? Not good for much except what you can buy with it, and favours are much less easily stolen than gold. How much money does it cost to stay at an inn for a night? A few pennies, perhaps, but my tastes run a little finer than some sailors’ flophouse. Ten emperors must sound like a ransom for a king, but how long, do you suppose, could you live on so much gold?’ The thief-taker shook his head. ‘Why am I asking you? To you, it probably seems like enough to last forever. I promise you, boy, that gold would barely last someone like me a year. So I take things like this house instead.’

Berren frowned, though he still didn’t dare speak. ‘You saw the purse, is that what you’re thinking? But you never saw what was in it. Not until too late, at least.’ He laughed again. All of a sudden he was talking easily, as though they were friends. Sometimes, when Hatchet sent Berren to collect a debt or to deliver a warning, men would speak to him like this. Usually he took it as a sign that they were terrified of Hatchet. Usually they were sweating. With this man he didn’t know what to think.

The thief-taker seemed to read his thoughts. His demeanour changed again, grew hard and distant. He looked at Berren for a long time before he spoke again.

‘I came to this city years ago, looking for something. I had almost nothing. I took what work I could get, for what money I was offered. As you’ve seen, I have a sword, and I know how to use it. Finding honest work was hard. Finding dishonest work was easy. I’ve known plenty of men like your Master Hatchet. I’ve killed for them. I know what they’re like.’ He grinned, showing his teeth. ‘Then I learned more about how this city works. I betrayed the men I worked for, betrayed them for a few crowns. Ever since, I’ve hunted thieves for the money put on their heads. The rewards can be pleasant enough, as you’ve seen.’ He shook his head. ‘Certainly better than picking pockets and lurking in alleys. That way leads you to the mines, boy. There or to your ancestors.’

Berren listened, feigning interest. When he’d been hauled away from Hatchet he’d assumed it was for one of the usual punishments – a beating, to be shackled in public and have abuse, rotten fish and the occasional stone thrown at him. He didn’t much fear those. Worse was the prospect of being sold to one of the work-yards. Boys caught thieving were often sent to the yards and they were said to be dreadful places. But if the man was going to send him to the yards, why all this?

‘Sir?’

The thief-taker looked at him in surprise. ‘You have a question?’

‘Yes, sir. I’m very sorry I stole your purse, sir. I promise it’ll never happen again.’ It was a practised speech, one that Hatchet had taught them all. He’d used it a few times, too. Usually there was more, about how he was an orphan caring for his little sisters and trying to keep them from starving. That sort of thing. Usually it didn’t work, but the times it did were enough to make it worth a try.

The thief-taker spat. ‘I’d be a piss-poor thief-taker if I fell for that. Try again, lad. A bit harder this time.’

‘Sir, what do you mean to do with me?’

The man gave him another long look. ‘Better. What’s your name, boy?’

‘Berren, sir.’

‘Well then, Berren, I mean to keep you, that’s what I mean to do with you. Until you have worked off your debt to me. I have need of someone to keep my possessions, such as they are, in order. Someone to run errands and buy goods. Someone to keep an eye on what ships are in the sea-docks. A boot-cleaner, knife-sharpener, water-carrier and flag-watcher.’

To Berren this sounded a lot like being a slave. In fact it sounded a lot like being with Master Hatchet except with a much better prospect of an easy and early escape, possibly with some of the thief-taker’s goods or money. So he said nothing.

‘Rich men have house-boys who are slaves, is that what you’re thinking?’ His new master bared his teeth with disdain. ‘They’re for decoration, and that’s certainly not what I have in mind for you! No, you’ll work, boy, and work hard. You stole from me. For that you must absolve yourself.’

Again Berren kept his silence. A few days. Then the man would let his guard down and Berren would be away.

The thief-taker stared through him. ‘I’m thinking I might take an apprentice,’ he said slowly. ‘Someone to learn what I know.’

Berren blinked. He suddenly saw the fight in the alley again, as clear and vivid as if he was right back there, drenched in the rain. He saw the thief-taker with his sword, powerful and deadly, cutting down his assailants. ‘Does that mean you’d teach me swords?’ he blurted.

‘If I were to decide you were worth taking on as an apprentice?’ The thief-taker grimaced. ‘Yes, lad. In time and if you proved yourself then I suppose I’d teach you the beginnings of how to use a sword.’

In his head, Berren still thought he’d run away after a few days. But something warm and bright was building inside his stomach. ‘Sir? May I ask something? You said a thief once stole something precious from you. What happened to him?’

The man’s laugher died and a bitterness entered his voice. ‘Nothing, lad. Absolutely nothing at all.’

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