17. THE DISAPPOINTING TRUTH

‘If you’re going to come with me when I make my rounds, you need to be properly dressed.’ They were back in the thief-taker’s house. ‘Take your shirt off and then wait here.’ With that, Master Sy trotted up his creaking stairs into his tiny little bedroom. Berren heard him walk across the floor and stop at the far wall. There was a chest there. He knew that. He’d seen it through the crack when Master Sy had left the door open once.

He looked at his arm. The wound was still scabbed, still bled if he picked at it, but it was healing. Another few weeks and it would be gone. Just an angry red scar in its place. One-Thumb’s mark.

The thief-taker came down again, carrying something that jingled. Coins, was Berren’s first thought, lots of small coins; but then the thief-taker laid out a piece of metal cloth on the table. Ringmail, Berren realised, after he stared at it for a second. It was a short sleeveless shirt made out of ringmail. It had seen better days, too. Some of the links were rusted and it had a rip where something had punched through it. The sort of hole that an arrow might have made, only bigger.

Berren ran his fingers around the edge of the hole. The metal was sharp and jagged. Definitely too big for an arrow. A spear, maybe.

‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ snapped the thief-taker. ‘It was hard to find something small enough for a runt like you. You want it or not?’

It wasn’t quite what Berren imagined when he saw his future self. Dashing swordsman, yes, blade in hand. Sometimes with a blade in each hand. Inns, taverns, wenches, fights, but always fights won with panache and exquisite skill. Yes, he would kill men, men like Jerrin One-Thumb, but it would be a blur of speed and deadly precision. He would be like Master Sy in the alley.

The ringmail shirt, on the other hand, looked like the sort of thing that let you stagger and crawl away when without it you’d be dead. Except for the hole where someone obviously hadn’t done anything much but lie where they were and die anyway. It didn’t look very heroic.

‘Stupid boy,’ snapped Master Sy. ‘You think you’re too good for this, eh? You might as well come out and say it since it’s written all over your face. You think I’m going to teach sword-fighting to someone who can’t even be bothered to protect themselves? What a waste that would be.’ He sniffed, and then unfastened his own shirt. Berren stared. Master Sy’s armoured vest didn’t have any holes in it. It looked as though it was made of considerably finer steel too, but it was there nonetheless. When Berren squinted, it seemed to have a sheen of colours to it, a slight shimmer of gold or deep blue depending how the light caught it. ‘See. Are you still too good to wear steel?’

Berren was still staring. ‘That’s amazing. Is it magic?’

The anger in Master Sy’s face faded away. ‘It’s sunsteel, lad. Forged by solar priests and imbued with their blessing. There are some who say that it has sorcerous properties. It’s tough, I can tell you that. Best metal there is for weapons and armour except maybe moonsteel, and as far as I know, the only forged piece of that in the entire city is the Overlord’s sword.’ He blew out his cheeks and sat down. ‘You’ll need an under-vest before you put that on to stop it chaffing. You might need quite a thick one.’ He nodded at Berren’s arm. ‘I’d wrap your scratch up, too.’

Berren stripped to the waist. He ran up to his room and put on a vest, wrapped a bandage around his arm and then came down and picked up the armour, uncertain, wondering what to do with it.

‘There’s a hole in the middle for your head. Sling it on and then lace yourself up on either side. Nice and tight. Better to have it tight than too loose and billowing around so everyone knows you’re wearing it. Make sure the two halves overlap. Gaps can kill you. Chances are they won’t but you never know where a knife might slip in. Most likely, if anyone tries to stab you, they’ll try to stab you in the belly. But they won’t if they know you’ve got this on. Then they’ll go for the face, the throat, the armpit, the groin. When they do that, armour like this just slows you down. So don’t let them know you’re wearing it. Let them find out the hard way.’

The ringmail was heavy but it seemed to fit him well enough. Berren set about struggling to lace up the sides. Then he ran his finger over the spear-hole.

‘You come with me to do what I do, I need to know you’re safe. When you show me you can do something more useful than run away really fast at the first sign of any trouble, I might see about getting that fixed up for you.’

‘It’s… it’s…’ It wasn’t him. Wasn’t who he was going to be. No, this wasn’t how it would be, this rusty broken mail shirt, but for now he knew better than to complain. Act pleased, that was best. Act pleased and hope for a lesson in swords.

‘Yeh, I’m just swimming in your gratitude,’ grumbled the thief-taker. ‘And no, you don’t get a sword to go with it. Not until you learn to use one.’

Berren’s heart nearly burst out of his chest. That was as good as promising to teach him, wasn’t it? Master Sy was going to teach him swords!

The thief-taker walked around behind him and undid all the lacing down both sides. ‘Tighter, lad. Much tighter. This has to fit you like a second skin. The point is that no one knows you’ve got it on until they stab you and then instead of falling over dead, you stab them right back. There.’ He finished redoing the laces. Berren tried to breathe and found that he couldn’t, at least not all the way any more.

‘Isn’t that…?’

‘No, it’s not too tight. The lacing will give a little. By the time we get to where we’re going, you’ll be fine.’ Master Sy grinned and patted himself on the chest. ‘When I was forced to run away from my home, this was one of the few things I managed to take with me. I’ve had it with me ever since. It’s turned a blade seven times. Seven times I would have been dead otherwise. You’ll learn, lad. The first time it saves you, you’ll learn. Come on then. Shirt on, let’s go! No dawdling!’

He led the way out into the yard, through the alleys and out into Weaver’s Row and then turned left, heading up the hill and then down the other side towards Market Square. The sun had slipped down behind The Peak now and everything was turning to silhouette and shadow. Weaver’s Row was wide enough, but all around it, narrow streets and alleys slowly filled with night. His streets, Berren reminded himself fiercely. This was his time. Deep twilight, when honest men were either back at their homes and in their beds or else revelling and in their cups. This was the time when he and the other boys would run their errands for Master Hatchet. A word here, a threat there, sometimes a purse with a few pennies, sometimes a piece of parchment with a poorly drawn purple blotch on it. Those were Hatchet’s warnings. Never went down well, being handed one of those. He’d always hated being the person who had to deliver one.

Almost on cue he heard a shout and then running footsteps belting away down one of the side-streets. Somewhere nearby a dog started barking. The thief-taker paused for the slightest instant, then kept on going. Fifty yards or so in front of them, a bored-looking gang of street militia ignored the sounds too. You learned quickly enough how it worked in the city. There were the streets that were safe and then there were the streets that weren’t. After dark, which ones you used depended entirely on how you and the local militia got on.

The gang was coming up the hill towards them. They looked relaxed, didn’t seem too bothered by anything. Berren’s stomach clenched. As they passed, Master Sy gave them a short nod and they exchanged greetings. Berren had to bite his lip to stop himself from walking faster. The idea that the street militias were his friends now was going to take some getting used to.

Master Sy was grinning.

‘Master, where are we going?’

‘We’re going to see an old friend of mine who also happens to be a thief.’

Berren frowned, trying to digest this. How could a thief-taker have a friend who was a thief?

‘Lad, a thief-taker has to earn his bread. There’s no reward in grabbing any old petty pickpocket or cut-purse or robber in off the street. What would you do with them? Take them to Justicar Kol? He doesn’t want to know. That sort of thievery is beneath him. Take them to the street militias? You could if you wanted to but they’ll not thank you for it and they’ll certainly not pay you.’ He shook his head. ‘If I see a thief cut a purse and I hunt him down and teach him the error of his ways, it’s because I hate thieves, that’s all. But this thief is a friend.’

‘But…’ That still didn’t explain why Master Sy was friends with a thief.

Abruptly Master Sy stopped. They were close to the edge of Market Square, still well lit with night time braziers and torches. Like the docks, the market never quite went to sleep. It thinned out a lot, but there were always people there trying to sell something and always people willing to buy.

‘Look down there.’ Master Sy frowned. ‘You can’t really see it in the dark. I’d heard of this city, you know, long before I ever came here. Even in my far-away little backwater, we’d heard about Deephaven. And do you know what made it so famous to us? That.’ He pointed. ‘The thing that you can’t see down the end of that street. The Upside-Down Temple. I’d heard of that long before everything went wrong and…’ He shook himself. ‘When I was younger than you, I always wanted to come here, just to see the Upside-Down Temple. I thought it must be the most amazing thing in the world. And then when I did get here, I had nothing more than the clothes on my back, the sword on my belt and a belly full of revenge. I had other things to do. It was more than a year before I was ready to come and see it. It was like a prize I was going to give myself once I’d started a new life and at least pretended to abandon the one I’d had.’

The thief-taker took a deep breath and sighed. ‘And then when I’d done all that and I did come here, it was tiny. After everything I’d thought it would be, it was such a disappointment.’ He put a hand on Berren’s shoulder. ‘Most people are the same, lad,’ he said gently. ‘Especially at your age. Like thief-takers who turn out to wear a secret skin of armour, maybe. You learn to live with it. Get used to it, even. And then when you meet someone who isn’t, it’s hard not to like them. Even if they’re a thief.’ He let out a heavy sigh. ‘Of course, when in the end they let you down like everyone else, you’ll feel it all the harder.’

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