10. LETTERS

They marched in sullen silence away from the Eight Pillars of Smoke. Berren staggered in the thief-taker’s wake, occasionally pausing to retch. His stomach was empty before they even reached the other side of Four Winds Square, and yet just when he was sure there was absolutely nothing left, the next wave of nausea would hit him. They barged through Weaver’s Row and back into the thief-taker’s yard. Someone from a neighbouring window leaned out, shouted a warning without bothering to look and then emptied a chamber pot as they passed, spattering the thief-taker’s boots. He didn’t flinch, but when they got back he tore them off and threw them at Berren.

‘Sit outside and make them clean, boy!’

Berren had already polished Master Sy’s boots once that day. First thing before breakfast, one of his daily chores, and yet here they were, covered in mud again. Mud and worse. Master Sy disappeared into his room and came out wearing a second pair. ‘Spotless,’ he growled, and then he stormed away back into the city, leaving Berren sitting on the doorstep on his own. He hardly dared to move. Alone in the thief-taker’s house for a second time, left to look and pry as he pleased. Left to take whatever caught his fancy and run away… except this time he felt so sick that he couldn’t bring himself to move. Hands trembling, he picked up the thief-taker’s dirty boots. The smell of sewage wafted over him and his stomach began to heave again. He turned away, took a deep breath and then stayed exactly where he was, cleaning and polishing until the thief-taker’s boots gleamed like the golden towers on The Peak. When he was done, he crawled back inside and stumbled into his room and lay down. He thought he might doze for a few minutes and then sneak a peek into the thief-taker’s room, but he must have fallen fast asleep. The next thing he knew, Master Sy was back, stomping on the floor, tearing off his second pair of boots and throwing them across the house.

‘Those too,’ he snapped as Berren emerged, hollow-eyed, peering down from the doorway of his room. The thief-taker didn’t even look at the first pair. Instead, he threw down a stack of pieces of paper, most of them torn and all of them written on. Then he took out a pot of ink, fumbled, and spilt half of it over the floor. He let out a violent curse, threw Berren a grimace of unfettered rage; then he took a deep breath and stormed out into the yard in his stockings.

Berren crept down the stairs, wincing at every creak from every step. He still felt like he was going to be sick at any moment and now his head had joined in too. Some slave-galley drum-master was thumping away on the inside of his skull. Even his eyes had largely given up. He stumbled to the outside door and peered into the yard. Master Sy was leaning against the wall a few feet away, pulling furiously on a pipe. Without a word, Berren cleaned up the ink, slowly and painfully. Then the thief-taker came back inside, and that was when the real horror started. The horror of Master Sy trying to teach letters. He stuffed a quill into Berren’s shaking hand and told him to write his name. Berren hadn’t the first idea how. Master Sy snatched the pen off him and wrote on the paper, in a perfect script that would have made a scribe weep: Berren.

‘Like that.’ He handed back the quill. Berren dipped it in the ink pot and dripped ink all over the paper. He tried to ignore how Master Sy clenched his jaw and how the veins stood out on his temple. He did his absolute best to copy what Master Sy had done. The result was such a blotted mess that neither of them had any idea how well he might have done.

‘Again.’

Berren tried again. Second time around was, if anything, slightly worse. So was the pounding in his head.

‘Again.’

This time Berren made absolutely certain that he didn’t take too much ink. The result was that he didn’t take nearly enough and kept running out halfway through each stroke. Still, he thought he’d done quite well. You could see some of the letters were almost the same as some of the letters Master Sy had drawn. Admittedly it looked as though someone had cut his name up into lots of different pieces and then put them back together in slightly the wrong order, but at least there were lines this time, instead of just blobs.

Master Sy closed his eyes and swallowed.

‘Again.’

Berren tried again. Too much ink again. By now his hand was trembling too much to draw a straight line.

‘Are you doing this deliberately, boy? Are you trying to make a fool of me? Because children learn to do this. And if children can master a quill and ink, I fail to see why a young man who has such a high opinion of himself as you do should have any trouble at all.’

‘I…’ I’m sick, he wanted to say, but the thief-taker’s face left him in no doubt that saying anything at all would be bad. Flustered, he tried again. This time his hand was shaking even more. He took far too much ink and dripped all over the paper again.

The thief-taker clenched his fists. He closed his eyes and took three long breaths. ‘You will stay here until you get it right,’ he said finally. And that was what Berren spent the rest of the evening doing. Writing his name. Badly, and with a splitting hangover. He was writing well into the evening, by candlelight with his stomach rumbling loud enough to set the walls to shaking before the thief-taker finally relented. With a scornful sweep of his arm, he swept all the paper off the table and thumped down a plate with a slightly stale half loaf of bread and a mug of gruel that had gone cold enough to grow a crust of fat on the top. Berren gobbled it down. Master Sy watched. He was frowning so much that his eyebrows met in the middle.

‘More tomorrow, boy,’ he said curtly as soon as Berren had finished. ‘And we’ll work on you manners too. To your room now.’

The next morning, the table was covered in paper again. He’d almost come to look forward to practising bowing to Lilissa, but just like yesterday, she didn’t come. There was no sign of breakfast. Maybe that was a mercy. He felt rotten and in no mood for either.

What there was, was Master Sy standing by the table, one hand on his hip, the other pointing a pen at Berren as though it was a sword.

‘Write, boy.’

By the end of that day, Berren was starting to think he had the hang of it. By the end of the next he was feeling better again and was copying any word that Master Sy showed him. Not well, but well enough that you could see it was the same. Now and then he still took too much ink and ended up with an illegible smudge and a clip round the ear, but on the whole, he thought he wasn’t doing too badly. On the next day he was even allowed a break; Master Sy took him out in the afternoon, out towards the Courts District this time and then down the Avenue of Emperors that ran right up from the river to Four Winds Square and down the other side to the sea in one dead straight line. There weren’t any trees but there were a lot of statues. Master Sy started to tell Berren all about them, but after the third one, when it was obvious that Berren wasn’t listening, he stopped.

‘History doesn’t interest you eh, lad? Well it’s not my history. I suppose I shan’t be offended.’ He led the way down to the sea-docks in silence and then bought them each pickled fish in a bun. He stared out to the sea and Berren could see his eyes flitting from ship to ship, mast to mast, flag to flag. Looking for something and not finding it. After a while he shrugged and turned away. Berren took a hungry mouthful of raw fish and vinegar. The taste was strong and good. He ate it slowly, savouring each mouthful, the tang of it. A breeze was blowing in off the sea, taking the edge off the sultry afternoon heat. The air smelled of salt and waves. Master Sy, for a moment, looked quite content.

‘Who is she?’ Berren asked and then held his breath.

‘Who is who?’

‘Lilissa.’ The same ritual they went through every time Berren asked. Get her out of your head, lad, the thief-taker would say, and that would be that until the next time.

Except this time master Sy grinned. He pushed the last piece of bread into his mouth and swallowed. ‘Like her, do you, lad?’

Berren nodded. He was beginning to understand that when the thief-taker called him ‘lad’, he was safe. If the thief-taker called him ‘boy’ then he’d best keep his mouth shut and his head down.

‘Yes, I thought you might. She’s her mother all over. Easy on the eye, eh?’

Berren nodded again and then bit his lip. This wasn’t quite what he’d expected.

‘Well, all right. Since you’re my apprentice now. She’s a seamstress. She lives a few streets away, just off Weaver’s Row. Her mother did me a very great favour once. After she passed over to the Sun, I took it upon myself to look after Lilissa.’ He shrugged. ‘Really she’s old enough to look after herself. I just watch out for her. And if you don’t keep your hands to yourself with her then I’ll cut them off and dump them in the sea and the rest of you with them. Got that?’ His mouth was smiling but his eyes weren’t. Berren had the uncomfortable idea that Master Sy meant absolutely every word of what he’d said.

‘She’s nice,’ he said, fumbling for something to say and silently cursing himself for not doing any better.

‘Yes, she is.’

‘Is she going to come back?’ There, that was what he wanted to say.

The thief-taker chuckled again. ‘You’re as bad as each other. When you’ve learned your letters, lad. When you can bow to her as though you’re a gentleman and speak to her like she’s a lady, and have found at least a few table manners, then yes, maybe I’ll have some time for her lessons too. Kelm’s Teeth! When you can do all that, you might even start to be useful.’ He walked over to the edge of the docks and sat on the harbour wall, beckoning Berren to sit beside him. Their legs dangled in the air above the lapping waters. Now and then the wind blew spots of salt water into Berren’s face. The ships out in the harbour were all facing the same way, sterns towards him, bows to the wind, swaying on their anchors. The thief-taker looked up at the sky.

‘Reckon the wind’s going to spare us the rain this afternoon? ’

Berren nodded. ‘Night rains later, that’s all.’

‘Be heavy, though. Some nervous sailors out there tonight. ’ The thief-taker grinned. ‘Start pulling their anchors and they’ll drift right into the shore. That’s the trouble with this harbour. Nice and safe except for two things. Sea-wind and pirates. Tell me, lad, if you were a pirate, which of those ships would you pick?’

Berren licked the last pieces of fish and bread off his teeth and belched. The ships all looked much the same. They had different flags, none of them ones that he knew. A lot of them had no flags at all. Some of them were bigger than others. Apart from that… ‘The biggest one, I suppose?’

‘Oh? The one with the most sailors on guard?’

‘The smallest?’

‘The smallest?’ The thief-taker laughed. ‘Don’t lie to me, lad. You wouldn’t chose the smallest. Come on, think. You want the ship with something easy. Nothing too big, nothing too heavy, nothing too valuable but something worth having. Something you could sell in the city nice and quick. Or small, so you could get it out without anyone seeing. That’s what you want. How do you know where to find it? How do you know which ship carries what you want? Oh, and while you’re thinking about that, even if you knew which ship was worth taking on, how would you know which one was which in the dark?’

‘They all look different, don’t they?’

‘Not in the dark, lad.’ The thief-taker sighed and stretched and stood up again. ‘You think about that and tell me when you come up with anything useful. Now back. Letters.’

Berren walked back up the Avenue of Emperors in the fading sunlight, the heavy warm sea-wind blowing him up the hill. He looked at the faces carved into the white marbled stone. Strong faces, all of them. He had no idea who they were, whether they’d been good men or bad men, but he wasn’t sure if that was how emperors should be measured. Strong kings fought wars and won them. Weak ones lost their crowns. Somewhere along here was the Emperor Talsin, who’d lost his throne a few months before Berren had been born. Somewhere else was Khrozus the Butcher, who’d taken it.

‘Which one is Khrozus?’ he asked. Master Sy actually smiled. It sat awkwardly on his face, as though happiness was something that didn’t come to visit often.

‘Up the top, of course. Right slap in the middle of Four Winds Square, riding his horse. He’s up on Deephaven Square at the top of The Peak too, outside the Overlord’s palace. Khrozus on one side, his son Ashahn on the other. We’ll go to visit them one day, but not today. They don’t let people like us so close to the Overlord’s palace except on festival days.’

A drop of something wet slapped Berren on the nose. He looked up, and heavy drops spattered his face. They’d both been wrong about the rains. As the daily downpour began, he laughed and started to run.

That night Berren went to sleep with a smile on his face. It was a little over a twelvenight since the thief-taker had ripped him away from everything he knew, and for the first time he went to sleep without thinking that tomorrow might be the day he would run away.

It wasn’t. He lasted three more weeks.

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