8. WHERE THIEVES FEAR TO TREAD

‘Come on boy, don’t dawdle!’ Master Sy marched away from the temple in big swinging strides, forcing Berren to run to keep up. The thief-taker was positively steaming. ‘If you ever have any trouble, boy, go to Teacher Garrent. He’s kind and he’s safe and he’ll look after you. If you ever want any actual help, though, then you might want to consider looking somewhere else.’ He cut sharply right off Moon Street and wove between the alleys into the traffic of the Godsway. The road here was every bit as busy as Weaver’s Row, but it was a different kind of busy. This was a steady, orderly procession of carts, rolling up and down the hill between Four Winds Square and the river docks. No, the Rich Docks, that’s what the priest had called them. Berren wondered why.

At the top of the hill in the huge open space of Four Winds Square, the carts scattered. Master Sy ignored them. He marched straight across the middle towards the city courthouse on the other side, the place where the execution scaffolds had been. As Berren walked beneath where they’d stood, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He stopped to peer at the ground and look for traces of blood; but before he could find any, Master Sy was yelling at him to keep up and he had to run again.

The thief-taker passed the courthouse. He went down a narrow street that ran alongside it and arrived at a much smaller square that opened out along the back. On the far side of this square, the smell of beer and a loud rumble of talk washed out of a low house wrapped in ivy. In the middle, a small fountain in the shape of an octopus bubbled and gurgled. Berren stared. He’d never seen anything like it.

‘Oh come on, lad. Have you never seen a fountain?’ Berren shook his head. He reached out to touch the water with his hand and then drank a few drops. It tasted clean. ‘Where does it come from?’

Master Sy shook his head impatiently. He pointed up to the roof of the courthouse. ‘Rain. They catch the rain in great big buckets the size of houses.’ He pulled Berren gently away. ‘Come on. They use it to make beer, too. I’ll get you one. Proper beer, lad. Not like the rat-piss they sell in Shipwrights.’

As they ducked under the ivy and in through the wide-open door of the drinking house, the conversation died away. People looked up and stared. They stared at him, Berren realised, not at Master Sy. Then their heads dropped, one by one, and the chatter resumed.

‘This is the Eight Pillars of Smoke, or the Eight as most of us call it,’ murmured Master Sy. ‘As I said, if you need looking after, go to Teacher Garrent. If you need some actual help, come here.’ He made a gesture at the barkeeper and wandered in among the low tables and the squat stools that surrounded them. The air, Berren thought, was unusually fresh and he could even feel a wind. Then he looked up and saw that the house had no roof. Just a criss-cross of beams thickly wrapped in ivy. The thief-taker picked his way to a far corner where three grim men sat together. Life had taught Berren a great deal about reading faces, but these three were impossible. They were blank. He didn’t like blank. Blank made his skin crawl. Whatever they were talking about, they stopped long before Berren could overhear anything. They looked up, waiting patiently as Master Sy approached them. They obviously knew him. Berren found himself nervously scanning for a clear path to the door, for a fast way out, but the floor was too cluttered, the tables and the stools too closely packed. From table to table, over the top. That was the only way to do it…

The nearest of the men got up. He was taller and heavier than Master Sy, with thick curly black hair and a thick curly black beard. The man’s eyes narrowed. He bared his teeth and clenched his fists, and then he leapt at Master Sy, wrapped his arms around the thief-taker and crushed him. Berren jumped a yard backwards. He almost bolted.

‘Syannis! Where have you been?’

The black-haired man had arms like posts, but if anything, Master Sy only looked slightly embarrassed.

‘Mardan.’ The thief-taker smiled weakly. The black-haired man let him go and glared down at Berren instead.

‘And who’s this tiger?’

‘This is my apprentice, Berren. Berren, this is Master Mardan. Another thief-taker. If you ever have need of aid and I can’t help you, come to him. You’ll find him here much more often than you should.’

Mardan threw back his head and laughed. ‘That’s so true. Teaching your boy a few lessons, are you? Send him to me, Syannis. I can give him a few of my own.’

‘Oh I’m sure he can learn drunkenness without any help. But either way he can wait until I’m done with him.’

Mardan wagged a finger in front of Master Sy’s nose. ‘It’s an art to do it well and then win a fight, though. As you well know, my bloody-nosed friend.’ The black haired thief-taker laughed. ‘I suppose you’re here to see Kol, eh? Well we’re done with our business. Sharing a cup or two for the pleasure of it, we were, but I don’t suppose you’d wish to join us.’ He chuckled to himself again. ‘Come on, little imp, let’s be going.’ He picked up a bulging bag from the floor and threw it easily across his shoulder. The second of the three men rose from the table. This one was smaller, slighter, much more like Master Sy. He wore a hood that cast most of his face in shadow, except for the sharp point of his nose. He almost seemed to float across the floor as he left.

‘That other man was Teacher Orimel,’ said Master Sy after they were gone. ‘He’s a witch-breaker. Don’t be fooled. Mardan is taking his coin, not the other way around.’ The thief-taker pulled up one of the now vacant stools and sat down. Berren fidgeted from one foot to the other. The last man wore clothes that spoke of money, but he was bald, his lips were thin and bloodless and his eyes were the eyes of a killer. He looked like a snuffer and he made Berren scared.

‘Sit, lad.’ Master Sy patted the other empty stool. Berren did as he was told. He sat, stiff and straight, still ready to flee. The bald man raised an eyebrow and pretended to smile.

‘Hello, Syannis.’

The thief-taker gave a solemn nod. ‘Justicar. This boy here is my apprentice. His name is Berren. I brought him here so you would know him.’

Watery eyes looked Berren up and down from the inside out. ‘He reminds me of you,’ said the bald man. ‘Well then, Berren, good day to you. I am Justicar Kol. I am charged with keeping the peace in this city.’

Berren’s jaw dropped. He knew this man. This was the bald man he’d seen at the execution! The man on the platform! The one who’d come out with the executioner. The man who’d…

The bald man blinked. ‘Does my name mean something to you?’

‘You were at the execution!’ he blurted. ‘It was you who gave Master Sy that purse. Ten golden emperors, that’s what you said. And it was all rubbish!’

For a moment, the table fell silent. Then Master Sy rolled his eyes. ‘He waited until I came out and then he snatched the purse.’ He sighed. Justicar Kol’s lips quivered.

‘He stole your purse?’ He was smiling for real now. ‘Your purse. This boy stole your purse?’

The thief-taker shrugged. ‘I was somewhat distracted.’

‘Yes, you told me.’ Justicar Kol was chuckling now. ‘I heard all about you gutting three cut-throats down in Speakslate Alley. I don’t remember hearing the bit where some boy snatched your purse in the middle of it all.’ He looked at Berren and shook his head. ‘Boy, you must have balls of steel.’ He laughed again as the barkeeper wound his way among the tables and plonked three full foaming tankards down in front of them. ‘Syannis, when I’d heard you’d taken on some boy, I have to admit that I wondered what in the name of Kelm’s Teeth you were up to. Now I think I have a much better idea.’ He took hold of his tankard and raised it at Berren. ‘To you, young man. I was a thief-taker once. No one steals a thief-taker’s purse. Really. No one does. It’s a bit like walking up to the Overlord and spitting at him. Dim as a donkey’s arse.’

‘Or telling him that you like the Sun Tower better than his,’ muttered Master Sy.

The bald man laughed some more. ‘Yes, or that. Much the same really.’ He shook his head again. ‘I hope you know what you’re doing, Syannis. So why are you really here? Have you found my pirates yet?’

The thief-taker pursed his lips. He hesitated and glanced at Berren.

Kol’s face grew sour. ‘He’s either with you or he’s not, Syannis. If he’s not, you should never have brought him here. People have seen his face now. So have you found them?’

‘It’s not as simple as that, Kol. I know parts of it. I could bring you a few faces you might recognise, but that wouldn’t stop it for long.’

‘Then go and get them. Syannis, my privates are on the block here and if mine are then so are yours. Stopped for a bit is better than not stopped at all.’

Berren couldn’t stop himself. ‘Pirates?’

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