‘Pirates.’ Master Sy glared.
The bald man clucked his tongue. ‘Pirates, young Berren.’ He cocked his head at the thief-taker. ‘Well, Syannis? Is there something you should be telling the boy?’ When Master Sy didn’t answer, the bald man smiled thinly. ‘Well, if you won’t then I will. Once upon a time, the folk from the fishing villages a little further up the coast used to row down at night whenever the moon was full. They’d come around the Wrecking Point and into the harbour and they’d try to climb up the mooring ropes onto the ships anchored there. Now, the people on the ships weren’t stupid, mind; they used to set guards on watch to stop that sort of thing. Most nights the folk in the little boats came away bloodied and empty-handed, if they came away at all. It was a trip for the desperate and the starving.’
‘People like your Master Hatchet might send boys like you,’ muttered the thief-taker.
‘But every now and then they’d manage to take a whole ship. Then they’d gut it. They used to throw the crew overboard and then steal everything they could carry. First we’d know about it was when the bodies started to wash up in the harbour. It used to be a real problem back in my thief-taking days, but that was before your time. The merchant-lords, when they came back after the civil war, took the opportunity to hire a company of sell-swords. While no one was paying any attention, they put an end to any piracy from the fishermen once and for all. Never mind what they did or how, but you can be sure it wasn’t pretty.’ The Justicar barked out a laugh. ‘After Marshall Kyra crucified Talsin’s son on Pelean’s Gate during the siege, a lot of things weren’t pretty in these parts. Anyway, there’s been little to speak of since I’ve been Justicar here, and that’s how I like it. At least until now. Now it seems that they have taken up their old ways again.’
Master Sy was shaking his head. ‘It’s not fishermen.’ He took what looked like a short wooden knife and drew it across the top of his tankard, decapitating the foam growing out of the top. He flicked the head onto the floor and did the same for Berren. ‘Try it. Go easy though. This isn’t like the beer you know from Shipwrights.’
Berren picked up his drink and sipped. Then his eyebrows furrowed in amazement and he took a long slow swig. ‘Wow!’ It was like drinking bitter honey. Master Sy was right, it wasn’t like the weak watery beer in the taverns around Loom Street. Nothing was like the beer in the taverns around Loom Street. That tasted like the dirty water that used to drip out of the bottom of Berren’s dung-cart when it was raining.
Justicar Kol drummed his fingers impatiently. ‘Well someone’s coming round the Point. Who else would it be?’
‘That’s where you’re wrong. I don’t think anyone is coming round Wrecking Point. And that means it could be anyone. My gut tells me Siltside.’
‘Oh, well, yes all right, that is who else it would be. Just a little awkward matter of how they’re getting right across from one side of the city to the other without anyone happening to notice.’ Justicar Kol screwed up his face. ‘Mudlarks. Has he told you about the mudlarks, young Berren?’
Berren nodded vigorously. He took another gulp of beer and swilled it around in his mouth. He couldn’t remember ever tasting anything as good as this. And it was going straight to his head, too. He could already feel a warm buzzing behind his eyes.
‘Nasty folk. Thieves, the lot of them. If it was down to me I’d sail across the river with a boatload of militia gangs and be rid of them. Gods! The Overlord would be happy to pay for someone to do it, too, and if not him then the merchant houses would. What do you think, young man? Should we sail across and put an end to them?’
Berren thought fast. Yes was the answer the bald man was waiting for. But the bald man had the look of someone who liked laying traps. So he asked: ‘Why don’t you?’ instead.
Justicar Kol threw him a wry smile. ‘There’s those iron balls again,’ he purred. ‘You might have made a good choice here, Syannis. If he doesn’t stab you in the back when he’s done with you.’ The Justicar chuckled at himself, then looked Berren in the eye. ‘Because, believe it or not, I’m not allowed to, young man. They’re not in my jurisdiction. The river marks a border. The city itself lies under Imperial administration, and that means me. Over there?’ He stuck out his bottom lip and shrugged. ‘Strictly, if they pay any taxes at all, then it’s to the Borolans in Tarantor. One of Aria’s great noble houses. One with a rather strained relationship with the throne in Varr, too. I’m afraid Lord Mellith is far more concerned about who his errant cousin chooses for his friends than he is with us and our trivial little pirate problems. So they endure.’
‘But couldn’t you just…’ Berren stopped himself. He knew he shouldn’t be asking questions of someone like the Justicar, but the beer was making him bold.
‘Couldn’t we just what? Sail over there and burn the place down?’
Berren looked sheepish. That was pretty much what he’d been thinking, but when the Justicar said it out loud, it didn’t sound half as clever as it had seemed. Kol looked Berren over and sniffed. ‘You’re one of Khrozus’ boys, aren’t you? One of the thousands of bastards that Khrozus’ army gifted us before they left. You can probably thank the mudlarks you were born, boy.’ He sniffed. ‘Yes, we had a go at the mudlarks once. There are a lot of people in this city who remember that. They remember the civil war that came a year later as well, and they can’t shake an uneasy suspicion that the two were somehow related. The city nearly died in the siege. I was here and it was hell. We ate the dead, boy. And when we didn’t have any of them left, we started on the sick. You don’t see it on the surface now, but underneath it’s there. People remember. Those big weevils you can buy down by the docks, roasted and spiced? They call that a delicacy now, but no one ever used to eat weevils. Not until they had to. So the mudlarks stay. Sheltering under a confusion of authority and bureaucracy and a reluctance to do anything. Some people even think of them as the city’s lucky charm. It’s true that now and then a few of them will try to sneak in among the boats and barges at the river docks to steal whatever they can find, but so what? Keep me out of it. Keep all of us out of it.’ He raised his tankard. ‘A toast! To the mudlarks!’ He took a deep draft. Berren raised his tankard too. The sudden movement made him sway sideways, so much so that he almost fell off his stool.
‘Good, eh?’ The bald man lunged and pulled Berren towards him. He hissed in Berren’s ear. ‘Your master is looking for thieves and pirates. There are plenty of them over there across the river. Make it stop and there’s gold in it for both of you.’
A hand shot across the table and grabbed the Justicar’s arm. He let go.
‘Been here a while have you, Kol?’ Master Sy withdrew his hand and sipped his beer. The Justicar’s face twisted into a thin and mirthless grin.
‘You’d be just right, Syannis. I’ve got a bag of gold for you. Go and find yourself a company of sell-swords and help yourself. You can be a king at last. King of Siltside.’ He chuckled mirthlessly to himself. Berren flinched. He didn’t quite understand, but the cold fury around Master Sy was strong enough to freeze the whole room.
‘Mercenaries are more my little brother’s line,’ said the thief-taker crisply. ‘I’ll write and see if he’s interested, but I rather doubt you could afford him.’
The bald man smirked. ‘Maybe I should write to him myself. One crappy little kingdom is as good as another, right? Or perhaps he’d like to be a thief-taker too. I’ve always got room for more. So. My pirates. When are you going to get rid of them?’
‘Someone in the harbour-master’s office is up to his neck in it.’
The Justicar’s face changed again. He looked hungry now. The sort of face a leopard might make as it circled its prey. Berren slouched back on his stool, sipped at his beer, which was still delicious, and listened. His head was humming nicely now. This was probably the best place he’d ever been. Certainly the best he’d been to with Master Sy.
‘Can you prove that?’
The thief-taker shook his head angrily. ‘Not yet. But I will.’
‘You do it soon, Syannis. I have the guild on my back. They’ll take matters into their own hands if things get much worse.’ His eyes narrowed. ‘And you’re not the only thief-taker who’s after my gold. Who knows? Maybe one of the others will get there first.’
Master Sy shrugged, unconcerned. ‘I’ll tell you what I know and you can share it with whoever you like. I’ve spent nights out on Pirates’ Point and they don’t come around into Fisherman’s Bay. I’m certain they row out from the inside of Wrecking Point but I’ve searched and I can’t find their boats. So far the goods they steal haven’t found their way back into the city. I’m guessing they go south, out through Siltside, but I don’t know that for sure and I don’t know how they get there.’
Justicar Kol wrinkled his nose. ‘And what’s this about the harbour-masters?’
Master Sy snorted. ‘Hiding boats somewhere in Deephaven Bay? Someone in the docks knows who and where.’
Berren’s head was starting to feel thick and fuzzy on the inside. He grinned. ‘Master Hatchet. He knows lots. Lots and lots.’
The two men stopped talking and looked at him. ‘He thinks he does,’ said Master Sy.
‘I think you’d better get your apprentice home. First time for proper beer, young Master Berren?’ Berren leered back. Amazing to think that he’d found Justicar Kol so frightening at first, when he was just a small old man with creases in his face and no hair on his head.
‘It’s the best!’ Berren smiled. He looked in his tankard and was surprised to find it was empty. He stood up, swayed. For some reason, it seemed like a good idea to bow to someone important like bald Justicar Kol. And he knew how. He was really good at bowing now. Really, really good.
He bowed, stumbled, banged his head on the edge of the table and sprawled across the floor. For a minute or so he lay there, too apathetic to move. Then he giggled. There was a puddle on the floor and beer was dripping from somewhere.
‘Nice, Syannis,’ said a faraway voice. ‘I’ve met him now. Don’t bring the boy back here again.’
Arms reached under his shoulders and hauled him up into the sky. He was in a room full of lots of people and they were slowly spinning around him. He closed his eyes, but the spinning didn’t seem to want to stop. He was starting to feel a bit sick.
‘Boy, you’re going to hate the world this evening.’
‘Are we going to fight pirates now?’ he slurred. His tongue was suddenly too big for his mouth and none of his words came out properly.
‘No, boy. You’re going to bed. You’re going to be sick and then you’re going to clean it up. And then in the morning, we’re going to start you on learning your letters. When you’ve done that, you can fight as many pirates as you like.’