A man emerged slowly out of the shadows. Berren couldn’t make out his face, but he moved like a grandfather. Like an ancient, Master Hatchet would have said. ‘Syannis, Syannis.’ The old man started nodding. ‘Yes, yes, well. I haven’t seen you here for a while. And then you come in the middle of the morning when we should be sleeping. But no, you didn’t wake me up. I don’t sleep all that much these days anyway.’ He seemed to notice Berren for the first time. ‘Oh. You brought a friend. Sorry, son. Path of the Moon, you see. Makes us more night people than most.’
‘Teacher Garrent.’ Master Sy, Berren realised, was now staring at his own feet. His fingers were steepled together. Almost in a gesture of prayer. A devout who’s a thief-taker? Berren grinned. Who’d have thought? ‘The rude oik I have the shame to have brought before you is my apprentice.’ Master Sy still didn’t look up. Berren quickly bowed his head and tried to look cowed. The old priest shuffled over. Despite the din of Moon Street right outside the door, the only other sound Berren could hear was his own breathing.
The priest came and stood in front of him. He could feel the man’s wheezy breath on his hair. It smelled of fruit. Sweet fruit.
‘What’s your name, son?’
Berren knew better than to answer. ‘His name’s Berren, but “boy” is more than good enough for that one, Teacher,’ said Master Sy. The priest didn’t move. Berren could feel the old man’s eyes staring at the top of his head, as if he was trying to look inside. ‘I apologise for him. I’m surprised he’s even aware that the two paths exist. It’s not his fault, so please don’t be hard on him.’
‘There are four paths, Syannis, not two. You know that perfectly well.’
‘Two that deserve the name.’
The old priest gently put his hand on Berren’s head. Berren tensed, but the hand didn’t withdraw. ‘Berren, is it? Just Berren? No titles? Don’t worry. I’m not going to put a curse on you. Your master would have taken you to one of his many other friends for that. So, have you ever been into a moon temple before?’
Berren shook his head. Never have, never want to again. But for some reason that made the old priest smile. He took his hand away.
‘Can’t say I blame you. Who’d want to, eh? Nothing for you here I’m sure. Still, if you’re never coming back then I’d better get on and show you something while you’re here. Don’t be afraid, it has nothing to do with gods. It’s just a nice view, that’s all.’
Master Sy let out a slight groan. The priest snorted.
‘Oh, don’t pretend you brought him here for the sake of his spirit, Syannis. You just wanted to take him up the tower, didn’t you?’
‘I brought him here to further his education, Teacher. In all ways.’
‘Well we’ll start with the tower. It’s probably the best part of being here. Never mind all this other nonsense, eh, Berren? We have the tallest tower in the city outside The Peak and we’re quite proud of it. Come on!’
For an ancient, he moved with sudden speed and purpose, and Berren found himself hurrying along in the wake of the priest’s silver robes. Through the gloom he saw other shapes at the side of the temple but that’s all they were; then the priest was through another tiny door and heading up stairs that spiralled up a dim circular tower. Turn after turn, until Berren’s legs started to burn with the effort of climbing. The further he went, the more windows there were and the lighter it became. They were the sort of windows he was used to. No glass, no shutters. Simple open holes in the wall, narrow slits that let in the breeze and the city-smell of dead fish. They didn’t even have a curtain to pull across them. Then another half turn and light flooded the tower. Teacher Garrent was standing in a doorway which had no door, leaning against its arch of stones. Berren could see the roofs of the city beyond. The climb up the stairs had been long enough that even Master Sy was breathing harder than usual, yet the old man didn’t seem the least bit troubled. As Berren climbed the last step, the priest moved aside.
‘Have a care, young one.’
Berren stepped through the door. He was standing on a wooden balcony that ran around all four sides of the tower. It was about three feet wide and there was no fence, no rail, nothing at the edge except a long drop to the ground. He took a bold step into the sunlight and then looked down. The Godsway was perhaps a hundred feet below, straight down to a steady stream of carts and wagons that moved back and forth along it.
‘Not much fear in that one, Master Syannis,’ Berren heard.
‘No indeed, Teacher Garrent.’
‘A worry, don’t you think, in your line of work?’
‘There’s not much fear in this one either, Teacher, yet here I am.’
‘Yes, here you are. But I don’t remember you walking straight up to the edge and standing there, steady as a rock. Even you showed the odd errant sign of caution.’
Berren felt the wooden boards under his feet shifting up and down, telling him in their own jumbled whispers that the priest was coming up behind him. He couldn’t move though. The view of the city had him transfixed. He could see everything, everywhere. Right to the river docks and the estuary beyond. To the top of The Peak and the huge palaces up there with their towers, even taller than this one. Over the dome of the moon temple and across Craftsmen’s to the Sea Docks, to Shipwrights and Master Hatchet, to all the ships out at anchor with their forest of masts. Inland, where the city seemed to stretch on forever, slowly mingling with fields and streams and even clumps of trees until it finally gave up and shrunk down into two long lines of villages, one beside the river and the other beside the sea, both vanishing into the distance.
But most of all, he was looking down on it all. This, he knew, was where he wanted to be. Looking down on the world.
The old priest came and sat down beside him on the edge of the balcony, his spindly legs dangling in the soft breeze coming down from the river. ‘It’s not the highest place in the city by a long way. That’s over there.’ He pointed up towards The Peak. ‘The Overlord’s Palace and the solar temple both have towers that are exactly the same height. Did you know that? Because neither could stand to see the other have the tallest. After the war I sat here and watched them both build tower after tower, each one trying to be bigger than the other. As soon as one was finished, they’d start on something even grander. That was after Khrozus took the Sapphire Throne and called himself emperor, and he and the old Autarch down in Torpreah would have gone to war with each other all over again if they could. Well then The Butcher died and His Imperial Majesty took the throne and things got a bit easier for all of us. Now the Sunherald and the Overlord have towers that are exactly as tall as each other and they’re not allowed to build any more. And of course no one else is allowed to build one that’s taller.’
He felt the boards move again as Master Sy came to crouch behind them. ‘That’s this city, Berren. Tension and compromise. Show him the parts of the city he thinks he knows, Teacher.’
The priest laughed. ‘You’d be surprised what I see from up here, both of you. Now look the other way, son.’
Reluctantly Berren wrenched his eyes away from the jagged gleaming of The Peak.
‘We’re in the Craftsmen’s Quarter here. Follow my finger. See that straight road?’ Berren saw a long, dark gash between the mass of houses that sprawled away from the temple.
‘What? The really narrow one?’
‘Devil’s Row.’ The priest nodded. ‘Now follow it. Goes out across the Market District. Do you see where it stops? Do you see the wall? That’s the old city wall, that is. Can you see the line of it?’
Berren squinted. He thought maybe he could see something. A scar across the city, maybe. He tried to see where it went, but lost it somewhere behind the temples and towers of Market Square.
‘It’s hard, isn’t it? You can see it from up here, though. On the ground you’d hardly know it’s there, but it is. That’s the wall, young Berren. That’s what held Emperor Talsin back for the best part of six months. That wall and the Grand Canal on the other side. Changed the world, that wall did.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘Have you ever been to the Grand Canal?’
This time Berren nodded. He knew the name, although what he’d seen had been a foetid stinking mass of standing water close to the Great North Road and Pelean’s Gate. The south end of it ran off into the ground somewhere, he knew that. The north end just stopped. You could tell the people who lived next to it from their smell, even worse than the rest of the city. He wrinkled his nose at the memory.
‘Yes. Doesn’t seem much now, but I remember it choked with bodies. It used to go all the way from Pelean’s Gate down to the river.’ The priest laughed again. ‘You won’t remember that. Got covered with so many bridges during the siege that afterwards people just built on top of it. Canal’s still there though, underneath the streets and alleys. They say that if you have a good enough nose, you can follow its course from the smell.’ The priest winked. ‘Others might say that the smell is how you know you’re in the Canal District in the first place. The rest of the city past that? Talsin’s Forest? That’s what was really there. A whole forest chopped down and turned to mud by Talsin’s army. Look at it now…’ The old priest chuckled and shook his head. ‘What do you care, eh? You’re young. You don’t remember any of this. You come from up there, though. Somewhere up there. Somewhere down the wrong end of Reeper Hill and Shipwrights, I’m guessing.’
For a moment, Berren looked up, startled. How does he know? But that was easy. Master Sy could have told him days ago. He sighed and stifled a yawn.
‘Well, can’t see much of that from here. Pelean’s Gate and a bit of the hill behind it. Look the other way though. Down to the river and the Rich Docks. See where the gulls are circling right by the River Gate?’
Berren nodded. Right at the end of the docks, it must have been.
The priest’s voice dropped and his tone darkened. ‘Watch out for that house, young master Berren. A dark thing lives there and he knows your master. Keep away if you can.’ He grunted, and then gestured out across the river. ‘Now see the houses over there on the other bank?’ Berren peered in the direction the priest was pointing, over the top of the Rich Docks to the far side of the estuary. He could see something there, perhaps. A line on the other side of the water. If he was honest, his mind was still set on the towers and which was the tallest. He nodded, not sure what he was looking at or why he should care.
‘The waters of the Arr are deep on this side of the river and that’s why we have the Rich Docks where we do. On the south side it’s a different matter. There are miles of mudflats and that’s where the mudlarks live in wooden shacks built on stilts in the mud. The city would like to be rid of them. They tried once.’ He gave Berren a long hard look. ‘I imagine that would have been a couple of years before you were born. Didn’t work, but the trying changed the world too. Now the city puts up with them. Just about.’
Berren tried to keep looking at the river and the dull expanse of flat nothing that the priest was talking about. His eyes kept darting back up towards The Peak, though. For a moment, Berren felt immensely stupid. A couple of weeks ago, he’d gone to an execution and seen Master Sy given a purse of ten golden emperors and he’d been in awe. He was in the wrong place. That was where he wanted to be. In among those towers, up there on The Peak…
‘Am I boring you, son?’
Berren started, wrenched back to the mundane world of an old priest and a thief-taker. From where he was, it was hard to see which tower was the tallest. As soon as he thought he could get away with it, he turned to look at them properly.
‘Which one is the Overlord’s tower?’
The old priest gave a long sigh. ‘Here I am, trying to tell you about the people who are the poorest in our little world so you might pity them and help them, and all you care for is who are the richest and the most powerful so that you can envy and resent them.’ He gently shook his head. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Your master came here to me eight years ago, almost fresh off his ship. No money, no nothing except a belly full of rage, a head full of ambition and a heart full of…’ He frowned and then he looked at Syannis. ‘Yes. Well. He came to the temple and I brought him up here and he sat on the edge with me, just like you, and he asked me the exact same thing. All that ambition.’ He glanced back over his shoulder towards Master Sy. ‘Hasn’t really gone away, has it? And what about the rage?’
The thief-taker didn’t flinch. ‘Don’t lecture me, old man. You know what I’d lost when I came here. And when I said I brought the boy here to have an education, history was not foremost in my mind.’ Berren couldn’t help but think of the alley and the men he’d seen the thief-taker kill there. The memory made his heart trip along faster for a few beats.
‘Do you still go down to the sea-docks every day?’
Syannis didn’t answer, but the priest obviously saw something in his face. ‘Still looking in case he comes?’ He shook his head. ‘Then you’re going to teach this one all the wrong things.’ The priest looked sad. ‘You have a young man here to guide. Let it go. If you don’t, you’ll spoil him.’
‘I’ll be the judge of that.’
Old men talking about the past. Berren had heard plenty of that in his few years. ‘So which one is the Overlord’s tower?’ he asked again, loudly. Master Sy glared at him but the priest laughed.
‘Do you see the one capped with gold? That’s the solar temple up on The Peak. The Overlord’s Palace is next to it. His tower is the one that looks like it has wings.’
From where Berren was sitting some of the other towers looked taller. There were a lot of them, all clustered together on The Peak. The Overlord’s didn’t seem that special at all. He stuck out his bottom lip. ‘I like the gold one better.’
The priest chuckled. ‘Well don’t say that to the Overlord.’
‘Real gold on the top of that tower,’ murmured the thief-taker. He took a deep breath and put on a heavy frown. ‘Teacher, I brought the boy here because I was thinking that he should learn his letters.’
‘Does he want to?’
‘I think he should.’
The priest turned to Berren. ‘Do you want to learn to read and write?’
Berren shrugged. Not really was the honest answer, but obviously not the right one. ‘I want to learn to fight,’ he said. He was staring at the towers again.
‘Oh, well, you’ve already got the right man for that.’ The old priest shook his head at Master Sy. ‘If he doesn’t want to learn, I won’t try to teach him. Bring him back when it’s something he wants.’
There were a lot of towers, all clustered together, too many to count. They were magnificent gleaming things that sucked him in with their grandeur. Towers topped with ramparts, towers topped with golden domes, with giant carved crowns; or with dragons or other beasts that Berren couldn’t name. Whenever he stopped paying attention to the priest and Master Sy, there they were, calling him.
Master Sy’s frown grew deeper. ‘Teacher…’
‘No point in trying to teach a boy who’s nearly a man something he doesn’t want to learn. Show him why he should want it.’ The priest clapped Berren on the shoulder and rose unsteadily. ‘Look at you. I can see where your mind is right enough. You come back when you’re ready.’
Berren sighed. He’d been away from Master Hatchet for two weeks. And now he was standing on the top of the city, dreaming of things he could never have, of things he’d never even dreamt he could have back when he’d spent his days picking dung off the streets. The men who built and lived in those towers probably each had enough gold to sink a ship. None of them had started as an orphan boy from Shipwrights.
‘Ach!’ The thief-taker leaned forward and spat over the edge of the balcony. ‘Boy, you could pick any of those towers on The Peak. Pick the one you want. Whichever it is, the person who ordered it built knew their letters.’
The priest grumbled under his breath and wagged a finger at the thief-taker. ‘Urlik the Grim has a place up on The Peak and he certainly didn’t know how to read and write when he got it. Doubt that’s changed.’
‘The Grim was no better than a pirate in the war and I doubt that’s changed either.’ Lines of anger filled the thief-taker’s face. He jerked his head towards the doorway. ‘Come on, boy. Time we were going.’
Berren got up. He followed the priest and the thief-taker down the stairs; with Master Sy wrapped up in a cloud of anger strong enough to crack stones, Berren kept his distance. They emerged into the back of the temple next to another enormous door. On the other side stood a smaller door, like the one into the tower. The old priest stopped. He followed Berren’s eyes. ‘That one goes down,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing there you’d want to see.’ With a deep sigh he turned and ambled around the side of the temple. Berren hesitated, but Master Sy shooed him on. Beyond the black and silver altar in the centre, Berren passed a row of five black and silver columns, each reaching up to the roof.
‘The five are for the five faces of the moon,’ said the old priest without looking round. ‘Teachers, Guardians, Seekers, Savants and Wanderers, if you care to remember them. Syannis here is on the road of the waning moon. Seekers of truth and unravellers of secrets. Obvious as though it was written on his face. You, though…’ The priest went to the column in the middle. He touched it and murmured something. The air crackled. ‘You I can’t read at all.’ He frowned and shook his head. ‘I can give you a blessing if you want it,’ he said. ‘You might need it.’
Berren shied away. Master Sy growled something. He’d walked straight past the columns. Set into the black wall beyond were three altars. Master Sy went to the nearest one, a golden sun set into the stone of the temple wall. He touched the sun with his fingers and then dropped to one knee for a moment. A little past the sun was a slab of black stone flecked with tiny white spots that seemed to glow in the dark. The third altar looked as though it was broken, a slab of granite half hanging out of the wall, cracked and split with pieces missing. Berren wondered what he should do, whether he should bow before one of them as well. Without really thinking he drifted towards the furthest one, the broken one. Then Master Sy was suddenly on his feet again with a hand on Berren’s shoulder.
‘Not that one, lad.’ He turned to follow the footsteps of the priest. Garrent was heading for the door through which they’d entered.
‘It looks broken.’
‘It is. There were four gods once. Something happened to one of them.’
That was too much. ‘Broken?’ he scoffed. Always there. That was the point of gods. The sun and the moon and the earth and the stars and the wind and the rain and the sea. Stuff like that. That was what the thief-taker had said, wasn’t it, up on the top of the tower? Broken gods? Fool’s talk!
‘Something funny, boy?’
Berren quickly bowed his head. ‘I didn’t think gods could be broken, that’s all,’ he said, as contritely as he could.
‘Really?’ Master Sy pushed Berren towards the way out. ‘And how would you know that, lad? Did I make a mistake and take a priest’s boy? Because I thought I took a little thief off the streets who had wandering fingers and a head full of nothing. Expert on gods, are you? Eh?’
Berren kept walking. He glared at the floor and didn’t say anything.
‘No, didn’t think so. Come on, out. We’ve got more places you need to see and we didn’t come here to talk about gods. Garrent here can tell you all about how the world got broken and the earth god with it on some other day. It was the moon-folk who did it, after all, so he should know.’ He pushed open the door. The light and the noise of Moon Street gushed over them. For a moment, Berren thought he meant the priests in Deephaven. He stopped, too shocked to move, and turned back to the thief-taker, mouth agape in wonder.
‘Not Teacher Garrent, you dolt!’ Master Sy roared with laughter. ‘For pity’s sake, lad, did no one tell you any stories when you were growing up?’
Berren just stared at him. He remembered stories aplenty. Stories about how he’d better do what he was told or he’d be beaten black and blue, that was the gist of them. Mixed in with a healthy smattering of stories about how he was going to die in all sorts of colourful and gruesome ways. The idea that he might receive a story as a pleasure was a new one and he didn’t quite know what to say. Slowly he shook his head.
The thief-taker looked shocked. The laughter went away. ‘No, I suppose perhaps they didn’t. Well that’s all it is, lad. Just stories. Stuff from long before the first men blew in from across the seas. I suppose gods fight just like men do.’ He sucked in a deep breath between his teeth. ‘They say the first sun-king rose up from the ruins, long long ago. Fey stories, boy. Dusty old legends. Nothing that matters any more. Keep walking.’
Berren shook his head and turned his mind back to the world outside. After the quiet of the temple, stepping out into Moon Street felt like stepping out into a war. Even though the steps were shallow and wide, he took them carefully. His head was spinning.
‘When you’ve learned to be civil, I’ll take you to one of the solar temples. They’ll tell you all the stories you want, if you have the courtesy to open your ears.’
Another voice rang down from the top of the stairs. Teacher Garrent, standing at the door behind them. ‘But if Syannis ever tries to teach you anything about the gods and the four paths himself, you’d best know now that he’s probably wrong about almost everything, young Berren! You should always listen attentively to your master, mind, but come back here afterwards and I’ll tell it to you properly. ’ The priest smiled and closed his mouth and waved farewell, but Berren heard him whispering in his ear. And remember what I told you, young man. Beware the house on the docks.
Further up the hill beside the market, the cart that had been blocking the street was gone.