The daylight outside was gone when he woke up again, turned into grey twilight. The afternoon rains had come and gone – he could smell it in the air. Lilissa was gone too. He could hear her in the next room, though. Two hushed voices arguing about something. He froze, fearing the other voice must be Master Sy, but the voice was that of a woman. When he made out the words, they were talking about banners and dyes and sheets. He sighed and sat up.
Berren almost jumped out of his skin. Even though he knew the thief-taker was there, he could barely see him. Master Sy sat in the pool of shadows beneath the tiny open window, still as a statue.
‘Nasty scratch you got yourself there.’
Berren scrambled to his feet and lunged for the door, but that was like treacle trying to outrun lightning. The thief-taker caught him around the waist and hefted him over one shoulder as though he was a sack of firewood.
‘Hope you haven’t been making a nuisance of yourself. Mistress Lilissa is someone I call friend, and I’m always good to my friends.’
Yeah? How good? he wanted to ask, but he didn’t dare. The thief-taker carried him easily out of the bedroom and deftly picked his way between the hanging sheets outside. He nodded and smiled at the two women. Berren glared at Lilissa. I hate you, he mouthed, but if she saw, she pretended she hadn’t. Then they were out, in warm evening air that smelled of damp stone and roasting nuts. Berren’s stomach rumbled.
‘Not had much to eat while you were out and about, eh lad?’ There, right outside the entrance to the yard where Master Sy lived, stood a brazier. An old man shuffled to and fro beside it, roasting nuts. The old man’s back was so bent that his head was permanently staring at his feet. He must be daft, Berren decided, to set up here. No one came down this alley in the evenings.
The thief-taker paused. ‘Evening, Master Jux.’
The bent-in-half man gave a nod. ‘Master thief-taker.’
‘I’ll have a handful for my supper if you don’t mind.’
The old man swept most of the nuts off the fire and into his hand. They must have been scalding hot, but he didn’t seem to notice. He tossed them clattering into a pan.
‘Keep them for me for a moment, Master Jux.’ The thief-taker walked on past, into the yard. He went into his house and up the stairs. Then he dumped Berren into his room and bolted the door.
The last thing Berren smelled before he drifted back to sleep was roasted nuts, wafting up through the gaps in the floor.
He awoke in the morning to find the thief-taker sitting over him again. He had a battered bowl of warm water, some strips of cloth and a needle and thread beside him. Without a word, he set to cleaning the wound on Berren’s arm. When he was done washing, he picked up the needle.
‘This is really going to hurt quite a lot, lad. My little brother was always much better at this than me, so I’m afraid it’s going to be an ugly scar too.’ Then he jammed a piece of cloth into Berren’s mouth, sat on his chest, wedged Berren’s arm between his knees and set to work. No hesitation, no more warning, straight into Berren’s skin with the needle. Berren screamed. The needle had looked almost as big as Jerrin’s knife. Now it felt like Master Sy was driving a burning spear-shaft into his flesh. The screaming didn’t stop, even as he bit on the cloth; he tried to tear himself free, but the thief-taker had him fast. Wave after wave of agony raged up from his arm. Tears came, forced out of his eyes. He started to think his head was going to explode, even as he kicked and kicked, trying to gain some sort of purchase to lever himself free.
And then, mercifully, the pain started to ease. The needle finished its work. Berren tried to catch his breath. His heart was hammering like a galloping horse and he was breathing like a dying man.
‘Thinking about it, Talon usually used to get his man blind drunk before he set to work.’ Master Sy frowned. ‘Oh well. Can’t be stopping now.’ For some reason, Master Sy wasn’t letting him get up. It was over, wasn’t it? His arm hurt like someone had taken an axe to it, but at least it was going to get better now, right?
The thief-taker grinned at him. ‘One stitch done. I reckon another six or seven should do it.’
‘Whu…?’ He didn’t get any further before the needle came again. Berren’s scream probably reached as far as the sea.
Yes. He was right. It did hurt. It hurt a lot.
When he was done, Master Sy tied a knot in the thread and stood up. ‘Thought you’d faint, lad.’ He shrugged. ‘Later you can tell me how you came to get that. Oh, and when the stitches need to come out, I’m going to ask Lady Lilissa to do it, so you’d best be nice to her when you see her. She did you quite a favour taking you in. Young lady on her own takes a lad back to her house, people start to talk.’
Berren lay shaking on the thief-taker’s floor. He was drenched in sweat. For all he knew, his arm had been cut off, because that’s how it felt. No she didn’t. She betrayed me. She should never have told you I was there. Her fault. Her fault he was here, lying in his own blood, dying, probably. Certainly felt like dying.
Master Sy paused at the door and turned back. ‘Oh, and Berren, do I have to remind you? About the cutting your hands off and dumping them in the sea if you don’t keep them to yourself?’ He raised an eyebrow when Berren didn’t move. With an effort, Berren shook his head. Bastard. ‘Good. Don’t worry about the blood. Looks like a lot, but you’ve got plenty. You can clean it up later. When you think you’re ready, come down for breakfast. Lilissa’s here today so make sure you practise your bows a few times before you show your face. But don’t wait around for too long if you like your bread still warm.’
He did like his bread still warm, but moving was beyond him. Finally, when it was too late to do him any good, he must have have passed out, because the next thing he knew, his arm had subsided to merely feeling like it was on fire, and he could smell food, strong in the air. He heard the familiar scrape of the thief-taker’s chair, signalling that breakfast was over.
Yes, his arm hurt like buggery but he was hungry. He stumbled straight down as soon as he could make his legs lift him off the floor. Tried not to look at the blood, and yes, there was a lot. He gave a surly bow to Lilissa and then pretended she wasn’t there. To his surprise, Master Sy let it pass. After they’d broken bread, she quickly left, although not before she’d given Berren a look every bit as dirty as the look he’d got from Jerrin One-Thumb just before Berren had almost kicked him in the face.
The scraps of paper and the quills were gone, Berren noted. For the first part of the morning, Master Sy made a big fuss of bandaging Berren’s arm, showing him all the dried leaves and roots he was using to keep the wound from turning bad. The names flew straight past Berren. The one he remembered was the one that came last. Soldier’s Blessing, a leaf from somewhere a long way up the river.
‘Chew on it. It numbs the pain.’ And it did, although not enough. After that, he got on with the rest of his chores in sullen one-armed silence. The thief-taker didn’t say a word about letters, and when the chores were done, he went back to trying to teach Berren the manners of a gentleman. Berren hated that almost as much as he’d hated letters, but at least he could do it; and since the alternative was probably more letters again, he applied himself with a furious dedication. By the end of the day, he was exhausted. His arm still burned, even through the constant chewing of Master Sy’s leaves, but at least he’d managed to get by without the thief-taker slapping him for doing something wrong.
The next day, Master Sy took him out and bought him a set of clothes that were the finest Berren had ever known. No one mentioned letters again.
Over the weeks that followed, Master Sy took him to each of the city districts in turn and lectured him on what trades happened and who lived there. He told Berren which places to remember and which to avoid, who mattered and who didn’t, and a little more of the city’s laws. Berren learned to use ropes, how to mend them, how to tie knots that would slip and ones that would hold. He started to learn the care of blades, and of leather, and of bowstrings. He changed his own bandages and dressed his own wound. Best of all, though, was the afternoon when the thief-taker took Berren down to the armouries overlooking the mouth of the river past the end of the Rich Docks. He showed Berren a multitude of weapons and told him their names. Berren had never heard of half of them but he even got to hold a few, to learn how they felt in his hand. He was surprised at how heavy they were, even a short sword like Master Sy’s. When the time came to take the stitches out of his arm, Berren did it himself, which was nowhere near as bad as he’d thought. Lilissa hadn’t been to visit since that first day.
‘Got herself a friend,’ said the thief-taker. ‘A young man sort of friend, if you catch my drift. A fishmonger’s son. A good sort.’
‘Is she going to come back?’ In one sentence, Berren had gone from hating her to feeling as though he’d been stabbed.
Master Sy shrugged. Then he took Berren down to the sea-docks and they sat by the edge of the water, chewing on another lunch of pickled fish rolls. Berren couldn’t stop himself from glancing up and down into the crowds in case he glimpsed Hair or Sticks or Jerrin or one of Hatchet’s other boys. Then he realised the thief-taker was smiling at him. So he blurted out everything that had happened and how Hatchet had turned him out and how One-Thumb had tried to kill him. He was shaking by the end.
‘I don’t know why,’ he said. ‘You don’t stab someone for being on your patch. You give them a kicking, sure, but you don’t stab someone. You just don’t.’
‘Mmm.’ The thief-taker swallowed the last of his fish. ‘Probably best you avoid the sea-docks for a while then, eh? Lesson for you, though. When you ran from them, you ran like you were running from the watch. From the militia. But they’re your friends now. Open spaces. Public spaces. Temples. Crowds. If you need to run from someone, that’s where you go, lad. Not into the dark alleys. No one can help you there. You remember that. It’s time you started to help me with my work and that means life’s going to get dangerous for you soon.’ He paused expectantly. Berren felt a thrill of excitement shiver through him. Lilissa, One-Thumb and his Harbour Men, they were all instantly forgotten. Instead he was imagining himself tearing around the city, chasing after fearful thieves with a sword in each hand.
‘Does that mean you’ll teach me swords now?’
Master Sy laughed. ‘Not yet, lad. I’ll teach you swords once you’ve learned letters, and we’ll worry about that again once you’ve mastered manners. No – we’ve got a little visit to make tonight, though. Supper with an old friend who might know a thing or two about our pirates. That is, if you can keep a civil tongue about you.’ He frowned and stared out across the sea. Berren bit his lip. Letters! Why did he have to learn letters? Worse, why did he have to learn them first?
‘Master, I’m no good at letters. I’d be really good at swords though, I reckon.’
‘Ha!’ The thief-taker laughed. ‘Then you’ll be no good as a thief-taker. If you want to get anywhere, lad, you at least need to read.’ He stood up. ‘Tell you what. There’s things you can start doing so that when I do teach you swords, you’ll learn faster. You’re quick enough on your feet but your arms are weak. Work on your arms. You need to be stronger. Start with that.’
Berren nodded. The prospect of going out somewhere and being a part of whatever plan Master Sy was hatching almost made up for the disappointment. Almost.
‘There’s always money to be made around the docks for folk like us,’ said Master Sy later, as they ambled through the city streets. ‘Every year, more ships come and go. There are always people stealing from the merchants who arrive in the city, or, like this, from the ships themselves. Or else they’re using the ships to smuggle things past the emperor’s tax-collectors. The merchant lords don’t mind a bit of smuggling at all, but they don’t take well to piracy. They shout and shake their fists at the Overlord and the city officials. When that doesn’t work, they come to people like me. It’s all grist to our mill, lad. There’s plenty of other thief-takers, though. We have to be better then them. Better means we have to know all the things that they don’t. We have to keep our fingers to the walls. And I’ll tell you something, lad. We’ll be back in these docks sooner or later.’ He lowered his voice. ‘No one knows more about what goes on here than the harbour-masters. Keep your eyes and your ears wide open, lad. The harbour-masters are greedy fellows, the lot of them. They know more about thieving than they let on. I promise you, one of them is up to their eyes in this…’
It took Berren a second or two to realise that Master Sy had stopped. Not only stopped talking but stopped walking as well. They were on the Avenue of Emperors, a little way up from the docks, and the thief-taker was staring out into the bay. All Berren could see was a torrent of people and carts, moving back and forth, and a forest of masts behind them. Something among those masts had struck his master dumb, but however much Berren peered into them, he couldn’t see anything unusual.
‘What is it, master?’
Master Sy shook his head. ‘Nothing, lad. Nothing. Thought I saw something, but it’s gone.’ And he went back to talking about the harbour-masters and thefts from ships and how, sometimes, if a ship came in with a particularly rich fellow on board, the men who rowed round the Wrecking Point at night were a lot better armed and a lot better informed. Berren assumed he was supposed to understand that the harbour-masters had something to do with this, although Master Sy never actually said so. Mostly though, what Berren noticed was that Master Sy kept glancing out to sea, looking at something among the ships.