‘Water, air, earth and fire, sun-heart shields from dark one’s ire
Fire, earth, air and water, moon-pride brings us naught but slaughter
Air and water, fire and earth, dead god lifts forgotten curse
Earth and water, fire and air, star-song rends what must repair
Black moon comes, round and round
Black moon comes, all fall down.’
After the song came the muffled sound of giggling from outside. Berren groaned and rolled over. Light filtered in through the window.
‘Oi!’ The shout rang through the whole house. Every noise did. Four tiny rooms, walls so thin that a good kick would bring them down, old timbers that creaked and groaned in the wind. Wherever you were, you heard everything. But next to Hatchet’s place, the quiet was deafening. More than the singing and the laughing and the shouting, it was the quiet that came after that roused Berren from his torpor. He wasn’t used to waking up on his own. When he opened the shutters and looked out into the yard, a gang of ragged dirty children were dancing around, shouting and pointing up at his window.
‘Thief-taker man, thief-taker man
Is he hungry, is he thirsty?
If he is he’ll do you dirty
Thief-taker man, thief-taker man
Run while you can from the thief-taker man.’
They stood there, jumping up and down, shrieking and laughing. As soon as the thief-taker opened his door they ran, skittering helter-skelter out of the yard and away.
The thief-taker’s name was Syannis, Sy to his friends, Master Sy to Berren, and being his apprentice proved to be a lot of work. Boring, tedious, repetitive and frequently pointless work. It seemed to Berren that he spent most of his time fetching, cleaning, carrying and polishing while Master Sy sat in his comfortable chair and contemplated the world. Running away was never far from his thoughts. It would have been easy. Compared to Master Hatchet, Master Sy was blind and deaf. He left the door to the yard ajar as often as not, and frequently paid no attention at all to what Berren was doing. In fact, how easy it would be to leave was probably what kept him there for those first few days. That and the promise that one day he’d learn about swords.
And Lilissa. She came to the house most mornings with fresh bread for their breakfast. Each time she did, Master Sy made Berren practice bowing. At first that was the part he hated most about the day, having to scrape and crawl to some girl who was as much a nothing as he was. But then, after the first two days, he caught her looking back at him, trying not to smile. The next morning he tried as hard as he could to get it right and caught her smiling back at him a second time. Then Master Sy had her curtseying too and they were both at it, trying to outdo each other. By the time they were done, even Master Sy was grinning. Berren never got a chance to talk much to her, though. She came in the morning, broke bread with them, stayed for an hour while Berren did his chores and then was gone. While she was there, mostly what she did was read aloud, while Master Sy closed his eyes and listened and occasionally corrected her or helped when she stumbled with one of the words.
‘Who is she?’ Berren asked one day.
‘Who is who?’
Master Sy snorted. ‘Not someone you should be thinking about, lad.’ The thief-taker wrinkled his nose. ‘Her mother was kind to me once, bless her soul. She died of the pox last year. Now I repay her favours by helping Lilissa to better herself. Get her out of your head, boy.’ And that was all he ever got. Get her out of your head.
On the twelfth day, after Lilissa had gone and they were alone again, Master Sy folded his arms and gave Berren a long hard look.
‘You’re still here,’ he said, as if that was somehow a surprise. Berren shrugged. He’d learned to keep his mouth closed unless Master Sy told him to open it. The thief-taker was still looking at him, slowly nodding. ‘I suppose you’ve worked well enough. Enough to work off your debt.’ He opened the door to the yard and gestured outside. ‘You’re free, lad. Off you go.’
Berren didn’t move.
‘Come on, lad. You can go back to your Master Hatchet now if you want.’ There was a long pause. ‘If that’s what you want. Is it?’
Back to the dormitory. Back to the bigger boys who bullied him, the smaller boys he bullied in turn. Hatchet himself who bullied them all. He took a deep breath. This was something he’d been thinking about for days. Living with Master Hatchet meant beatings and always being on the lookout. On the other hand, living with the Hatchet meant he had the run of half the city as long as he was careful what he did. In the complex network of gangs and territories, the dung collectors were allowed to go almost anywhere as long as they kept to collecting dung. That was a freedom other boys his age didn’t get, one he wouldn’t get here either. And Hatchet always let him keep a few pennies of whatever he took. Hatchet gave him freedom, and then there were the women across the street.
He bit his lip. All the boys had their favourites and he was no different. He’d gone over there one night, pockets full of copper pennies, nervous as anything, heart fluttering. He knew which one he wanted, knew her face even if he didn’t know her name. He’d emptied his pockets. She’d opened her shirt and the smell of her had poured over him, heavy with musk; but as he’d reached out to touch her, she’d slapped his hand away.
‘They cost more than you’ve got.’
She’d taken everything he had and he’d gone with a lot more than mere touching in mind, but he knew better than to argue. He’d stood there, mute, while she’d buttoned up her shirt.
‘Do I have to call for Jin?’ she’d asked when she’d finished and he was still there. Club-Headed Jin dealt with visitors who got out of hand. Berren had turned and fled, cheeks burning with humiliation. It had been all around the other boys the next day. For months afterwards, even now, he still dreamed of somehow being rich, of going back and flaunting his money. Let her see what it was like to look but not touch.
He nodded and then bowed. Still a clumsy bow, but better than he could have managed a few days before. ‘I want to stay, master.’ He could always change his mind, but did he really want to collect horse shit off the city streets for the rest of his life?
The thief-taker ran his tongue over his teeth in exaggerated thought. ‘If that’s really what you want, lad. Roof over your head and meals on the table, I can promise you that. Don’t know if you’ll learn anything. That’s up to you. You’ll work, though. Work or I send you back to Shipwrights. Do you understand me, lad?’
Berren nodded vigorously. The thief-taker nodded back and then set about sharpening his sword, something he did most mornings while he watched Berren work. He didn’t say anything more as the rest of the day went by, but late in the afternoon he went out and left Berren alone in the house. He wasn’t gone for long, but it was time enough. If he’d wanted, Berren could have run upstairs, stolen whatever took his fancy and vanished back to Shipwrights. When Master Sy came back and saw Berren still hard at work, he nodded, and maybe there was a slight smile, half hidden by a hand and quickly wiped away.
The next morning there was no sign of Lilissa. After breakfast, instead of his usual chores, Berren found himself being handed a scruffy pair of boots.
‘For you. Lot of walking in this job.’ They were old and falling apart, but that still made them the best pair of boots Berren had ever had. Wooden clogs, that was what he was used to, that or nothing at all. He stared at them in amazement.
The thief-taker snorted. ‘Well they won’t fit me. Right then. Come on. If you’re going to be a thief-taker, you’ll need to learn your letters.’ The thief-taker turned and walked out the door. Berren gawped for a second, then hurried after. ‘Come on lad, jump to it! Get the door!’ Master Sy called over his shoulder without looking back, and then he strode off, through the yard and down the alley. At the end he turned left, away from the Court District, out of the shadows and into the harsh sunlight and the noise and bustle of Weaver’s Row where the morning market was already in full swing. Tables crowded against the walls, piled high with white sheets and nothing else. Men and women, old and young, shouted at each other to be heard, haggling over pennies. The air smelled of sweat and the sour milk they used to bleach the cotton white. Berren darted sideways as a matron took a step back into the street to shake open a sheet and almost knocked him flat. The thief-taker was only a few paces ahead, but half the time Berren couldn’t even see him through the press of people. He caught up on the edge of a small crowd wedged into the street so tightly that none of them were moving. The shouting was a lot louder here, and angry. Someone with a cart had had the stupid idea of trying to come up from the Godsway to Market Square, had made it as far as the end of Moon Street and now they were stuck.
And everywhere, purses. Pouches on strings, dangling in invitation from belts. Purses held tightly in hands. Purses in pockets. Girdle purses, shoulder purses… Berren’s eyes flicked from one to the next, sizing them up. Instinct, that was. Instinct from years on the street where stealing a few pennies every day was how a boy stayed alive. He glanced over his shoulder, checking his route. There was a man with a pouch in his hand, clutching it like it was his own mother’s life. Those were the sort Berren had learned to look for. Ones with money that mattered to them always gave themselves away. The ones who held it tight in their hands. Then you just had to be patient, following them for as long as it took, for that one instant that always came when they put it down for a moment while they picked up something else. You never had long, a second, perhaps, so you had to be ready. Snatch and run…
The thief-taker was suddenly in front of him, looking down at him, a quizzical expression on his face. Then he shook his head slightly, took Berren’s arm and dragged him through the crowd, forcing his way past the stuck cart to where Weaver’s Row turned into Moon Street, out of the Moon-day market hubbub and into the relative quiet near Godsway. He stopped at a wide flight of steps and hauled Berren up to an enormous arched door. The door was made of black wood and studded with bolts of silvery white metal. It was firmly closed, but set into it was a second, much smaller door. The thief-taker pushed the small door open and pulled Berren inside, into a huge round vaulted room with a ring of tiny windows in the roof. Berren winced, half expecting a beating, as if the thief-taker had been reading his mind back in the street. Master Sy let go of him, though, and just stopped and looked around as if taken by surprise at where he was. When he spoke, he spoke in a whisper.
‘Where I come from, lad, this would have been a palace for a king. In fact, where I come from, it would have been the envy of most kings. Here in Deephaven, though…’ He took a deep breath and stared up at the windows in the roof. Berren looked around as his eyes adjusted to the sudden gloom. The hall was mostly empty. The floor was laid with worn flagstones. At the far end, he could make out the shape of something in the shadows. In the centre, lit by the light from above, stood a cylinder of black stone half wrapped in strips of silver. The stone must have been ten feet across and was as tall as Berren. As he stared at it, the silver metal bands seemed to shift, never quite holding still. He started towards them, mesmerised, but came up short with the thief-taker’s hand on his shoulder.
‘You know where this is, don’t you, lad?’
Berren shook his head. He sniffed the air. It tasted old and rich and carried the hint of some scent he couldn’t quite place.
‘It’s Moon-day, lad. This is a temple to the Moon.’ Master Sy looked bemused. ‘Have you never been to one before?’
Berren shrugged. ‘Gods is for rich folk.’ Master Hatchet had never had much time for gods and had never seen why anyone else should either.
The thief-taker chuckled. ‘Gods are for rich folk, lad? Do you think that’s true? Does the sun shine only on rich people? Does the moon? When it rains, does it only rain on the rich man’s field? Laws – now they might not be for all folk. But not gods. What do you smell?’ The thief-taker spoke softly, but the bare stone walls and floor picked up his words and carried them, made them unnaturally loud. Berren flinched.
‘I don’t know,’ he whispered. The smell was a strange one. It was the smell of rich people, mingled up with something else that he didn’t recognise.
The thief-taker’s lips curled with disdain, but his eyes glittered with desire. Berren backed away. This was a new Master Sy, one that he hadn’t seen while he’d been practising his bows and cleaning the floors. ‘Money. Power. Magic. They all flow through this city. Learn how and you’ll be the master and I’ll be the apprentice. That’s your first lesson, boy. Money, magic and power. They’re always behind everything.’ Then he chuckled. ‘On a Sun-day I’ll take you to the solar temple in Deephaven Square for the dawn prayers. Then you’ll see.’
There was a shuffling noise from the back end of the temple, and then a pointed cough. Master Sy’s head snapped round to look, as a disembodied voice spoke. ‘Well, well. Syannis the thief-taker prince.’