He was propelled up a precipitous flight of stairs and pushed into a room. The door closed behind him and he heard the click of a key in a lock. Moonlight filtered in through an open window that looked out onto the yard. The floor was bare boards. Not even a bed. He was halfway through the window when he heard the key in the lock again. The door opened and there was the thief-taker, now with a bundle of blankets under his arm. He looked long and hard at the window and then at Berren.
‘No, sir!’ Berren stared at his feet, eyes already half screwed up, waiting for Master Hatchet’s ham of a hand to slap him sideways.
The thief-taker didn’t move. ‘Don’t lie to me, lad. I can smell a lie and you’d best remember that. It’s a long way down and the ground’s hard out there. You owe me a few days’ hard work, boy. After that I’m not going to stop you from running away if that’s still what you want. But you might think first on where you’d go.’ The thief-taker threw down the blankets and looked at them. Then he looked at Berren, looked at the window, shrugged and left. ‘Night rains are almost here,’ he said as he closed the door. ‘It’s late. Get some sleep in the dry, lad. Be a long hard day for you tomorrow. With a bit of luck you might learn a thing or two.’ The door closed. The lock clicked for a final time. Berren heard the thief-taker’s footsteps creak outside. Heard another door opening into the second upstairs room next door. Two paces inside, door closed, another two paces. The creak of a bed. The grunt and sigh of boots coming off. More bed noise. Then silence for a while and finally snores. Berren stayed very still when he heard the snores, listening to them for a long time. Even then he wasn’t sure he should trust them. He was still listening when he heard a rustle of wind from outside. The pit-pat of raindrops began, turning quickly into a steady hiss.
Berren reached his hand out of the window. He let the rain fall on his skin for a while and then pulled it back inside, closing the shutters behind him. Very quietly, he spread the thief-taker’s blankets across the floor and lay down on them, flat on his back, staring at the ceiling. He listened to the drumming of water on the roof, the spatter of a dozen tiny waterfalls pouring into the yard below.
He had a room. A room of his own. That deserved some thought. He’d never in all his life had a room of his own. In the orphanage they’d slept almost on top of each other, dozens of them in a long, thin stone room with tiny slits for windows that faced the wrong way to let in any sunlight. When Master Hatchet had bought him for two shiny new pennies – the going rate for a boy just about old enough to push a hand-cart – he’d been put in the attic with all Hatchet’s other boys. The windows had been bigger but they’d still been sleeping on top of each other.
And now he had a room. His own space. So small that he could touch all four walls with his hands and feet if he lay across it from corner to corner, but still… It smelled of old wood and smoke, the unfinished plaster walls were dry and crumbled when he picked at them, but it was his. All his.
It terrified him. The silence behind the rustle of rain. The aloneness. He lay there, the thief-taker’s last words running through his head, chasing themselves in circles, looking for a way out and not finding any. I’m not going to stop you from running away if that’s what you want. But you might think first on where you’d go. He could go whenever he wanted. It couldn’t be that far down to the ground, could it?
‘Boy!’ Berren jerked. The sound of the rain had stopped. Daylight stabbed through the gaps in the shutters. Gods! He’d fallen asleep and now it was morning and light already! A hot flush ran through him and he scrabbled to his feet. The shout came again. ‘Boy! Get down here, lad!’ Footsteps creaking on the stairs. In the House of Hatchet, that was never good. Berren ran for the door, clawing at the handle. It wasn’t locked. He fumbled it open in time to meet the thief-taker eye to eye, three quarters of the way up the steps.
‘Lazy.’ The man shook his head. Berren sniffed. He could smell air, fresh outside air on a tiny breeze wafting past his face, and another smell. A people smell. The sort of sickly perfume smell he was used to from the whores next door, only not as strong. Woman smell.
The thief-taker was looking at him. ‘Good, lad. Yes, we have a visitor. You’d best come and meet her.’
Berren hesitated, but the thief-taker had his arm before he could even think. He pulled Berren out of his room. ‘Lazy and rude, eh? I won’t tolerate either in this house, lad. Best you get used to that.’
Tonight. Tonight I’m gone. As long as it doesn’t rain. Night rains. That was the summer coming, that was. Balmy evenings and steamy mornings; night rains, afternoon downpours and sultry days. Thieving season. Gingerly he tiptoed down the steps into the largest room of the house. There was a table and a couple of chairs and a hearth and nothing else. Nothing even to steal.
There was a girl, too, probably about his age. She was looking at him with her lips pressed tightly together, as though trying not to laugh. She was sitting at the table, half turned towards him with a plate and a crust of bread in front of her smothered in dripping. Her face was plain apart from being covered in freckles. She wore a loose shirt belted tightly at the waist. It showed off curves that demanded attention. Despite himself, Berren realised he was staring.
A cuff around the head put a quick stop to that. ‘Rudeness, lad. I told you I won’t tolerate it. This here is Lilissa. She breaks bread with us some mornings. Lilissa, this is Berren. No…’ He held out a hand as she started to rise. ‘You stay there. This lad here is my apprentice and barely worthy of your notice. Berren, bow to the lady.’
Berren blinked. ‘What?’ That got him another cuff round the head, hard enough to make him stagger.
‘Bow, lad. That’s what a gentleman does when he meets a lady.’
Feeling stupid, Berren gave a clumsy bow and earned himself yet another cuff.
‘No no no. From the waist. Keep your back straight.’ Berren started to try again, but now the thief-taker’s hands were all over him. ‘Back straight. That means not bent in the middle. No, not like that, no, you have to…’ The thief-taker sighed as Berren stumbled across the room. ‘Try again. No no no, eyes up, eyes up! When you bow to someone you look at them, not at the floor. Don’t look her in the eye though lad, that’s rude. And not there, either.’ Another cuff almost knocked him over. Berren jumped round.
‘What’s that for?’
‘Watch your eyes, boy. Maybe where you come from you think you can look at a lady how you please, but that will change. Parts of this city are full of bravos with swords who like to show off how dangerous they think they are. Look at the lady on their arm like that when you bow and you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of one of them. And since they have names that matter and families with money and you don’t, no one will care either.’ The thief-taker’s face wrinkled up in disdain. Lilissa just looked frightened.
‘But she’s not a lady,’ Berren blurted.
The thief-taker’s face went cold and flat. ‘Really? And how do you know that, boy? Because she doesn’t dress up in fine clothes?’
Berren sniffed. ‘Well. Yeh, I suppose.’
‘From now on, boy, for as long as you live under this roof and until I say otherwise, every person you meet is either a lady or a gentleman to you. If I see you treat anyone otherwise, there will be punishment. Do you understand?’
‘Do you understand?’ The thief-taker didn’t even raise his voice but the words were edged with steel. Berren took a long deep breath and nodded.
‘Yes, sir.’ Yes. For as long as I live under this roof. Exactly that long. He was thinking of the window again.
‘Good. Now we shall do this until you get it at least crudely right, and then, perhaps, over the next month we might even find some grace and elegance in you. You may practice while we eat. Lilissa, please pay no attention to my apprentice for however long he chooses to remain here. Once we’ve broken our fast, Berren will be carrying out your usual chores, so we’ll have more time for your lessons today.’