Master Sy led him on through Market Square, past the brazier men with their glowing coals, their roasting nuts and their sizzling strips of meat and fish. Leftovers from the day, heavily spiced to hide the smell of them already turning bad, sold for absurd coin to drunks and men who didn’t know any better. It was a heady place at night, the market. Women paraded themselves, or else padded softly in the shadows, calling with siren voices to anyone who went past. Bands of players staked out their territories and danced, juggling brands of fire in ever more strident displays. Voices erupted from nowhere, singing songs of faraway places and lost times. Now and then, wagons rolled in through one of the many roads that entered the square. They dropped their sides, shouted their heads off until they had a crowd, hawked their stolen wares and ten minutes later they were gone. Men and women from all parts of the city came to the night market, rich and poor. The market militia did their best, but between the thieves and the cut-purses and the snuffers with their swords come to guard the rich folk, the tension was always there. Having a thief-taker in their midst didn’t exactly help, either.
‘You might think it would be easier to wear a hood,’ said Master Sy, after a gang of boys about Berren’s age began following them across the square, hooting obscenities and throwing the odd stone and piece of rotten fruit. His eyes glittered. ‘Sometimes it seems that way, but in the end it’s always a mistake. Never hide your face, lad. Make sure they always see you coming. Make sure they know who’s about to happen to them.’ He changed direction, striding swiftly towards one of the wagons. The small crowd around it seemed to sense him coming; its raucous shouting fell silent and it parted as the thief-taker approached. The gang of boys dropped back, suddenly uncertain. The three men on the wagon let out a volley of curses, but they were far too late for making a quick escape. They froze. Like startled animals, Berren thought. It made him feel powerful, three big men struck helpless with fear. That’s what he wanted. Even more than learning swords, that was what he wanted.
Master Sy walked up to the cart and planted his feet. ‘Well, well, Lockjaw. You’ll have to be a lot quicker than that.’
The middle one of the three men on the wagon shuffled his feet. He was big, almost as big as Master Hatchet, but now he looked like a child caught in the act of doing something he shouldn’t.
‘Your boys?’ Master Sy jerked his head towards the gang that had been following them. Idly he reached into one of the crates on the cart and drew out a handful of something dark and crumbling. He sniffed his hand and then let whatever it was fall back.
‘Um. I don’t know who they are, Master Syannis, sir.’
Master Sy pulled out a small knife. Around them, the crowed edged and melted away. The thief-taker started poking around in the crate with the blade.
‘Dirt, Lockjaw? You selling dirt?’
The man on the cart looked wildly from side to side. ‘Er. Yeh.’
‘I heard you were in Varr.’ The thief-taker reached into the crate again. This time his hand came out holding something that looked like an onion. Tension poured off the men in the cart like sweat.
‘Something to do with goods for the emperor’s wedding, that’s what I heard.’
‘Yeh, that’s true. Right patriotic, me. Long live his Imperial Graciousness.’
‘So how was it?’
‘Eh? I don’t…’
‘The wedding, Lockjaw. Bells ringing all over the city about a couple of weeks back. Big celebrations. Festival up in Deephaven Square. Even you can’t have missed that. They might even have let you in up there for once.’
‘Oh, but you were in Varr, so you’d have missed the bells. Must have been a very fast horse you rode to get back here so quick. Got a fast horse, have you? Suppose you must, since that’s the only way you’d be back in Deephaven by now if you’d been in Varr. Must have run the poor animal into the ground.’ Master Sy sniffed his hand again, not waiting for an answer. ‘So what? Is this what you’re selling? Smells good enough to eat.’ He started to brush the dirt off. On the cart, one of the men took a sudden step forward and then froze again, just as quick. One look, Berren saw. One little look from the thief-taker was all it took, and the man had stopped in his tracks.
‘Yeh,’ said the man in the middle again, uncertainly.
‘Someone shipped in a wedding present for His Majesty. Flowers for his summer garden. Bulbs. That’s what I heard. Right rare and expensive they were. Brought in by a Taki ship, no less. I seem to remember hearing that a crate or two went missing. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you, Lockjaw? I mean, with your new interest in selling dirt and unusual vegetables.’ Master Sy dropped the thing, whatever it was, back into the crate and carefully covered it in earth.
The man called Lockjaw held up his hands and shook his head vigorously. ‘No, no, don’t know about anything like that. I’m just an honest trader like anyone else. I don’t steal things, Master thief-taker sir, that’s not me at all. I bought them in Varr, like you said. Maybe someone else stole them. If they did, I didn’t know. That’s an honest mistake that is, that’s all.’
‘Oh, they never got to Varr.’ Master Sy shrugged. ‘Still, if you say you bought them, then that must be what happened. I’m sure the Takis will be understanding. Come on, lad.’ He turned away, took a couple of steps and then turned back. ‘Oh, and Lockjaw? Teach your boys some manners, eh?’
‘Yes, Master Syannis sir.’ The man was nodding so vigorously that Berren thought his head might fall off. Master Sy shook his head and walked away.
‘See, lad,’ he said, when they were out of earshot. ‘That’s what I mean. Always show them your face. Make sure they know you. Make sure they fear you. Make sure they know you don’t fear them.’ Another commotion broke out around the wagon. The three men had jumped down and were laying into the gang of boys, chasing them out across the square, waving sticks and shouting curses.
‘So they weren’t really thieves then?’ Berren frowned in confused disbelief. ‘It was like they said? But if they were honest men, why were they wagonning in the market at night?’
‘Lockjaw? An honest man?’ The thief-taker guffawed. ‘No, lad. But Lockjaw’s not a pirate either, and at the moment we’re looking for pirates.’ He smirked. ‘Besides, if he stole them from the Takis, I don’t think we should be standing between them. Takis have their own way of dealing with things. Right, this way.’ He turned into one of the dozen roads that fed into Market Square from the Maze, the warren of narrow streets and alleys that ran between the market, the sea-docks and the Avenue of Emperors. The shadows darkened as the light from the market faded behind them. Only the moon and the stars lit their way now, them and a few dim flickering lights peeping through tiny shuttered windows dotted along the streets. Berren let his hand settle in his pocket, his fingers curl around the familiar feel of Stealer. He knew the Maze as well as anyone. You didn’t come here at night without a good reason. Suddenly he was glad to be wearing Master Sy’s metal vest.
‘Don’t worry, lad. It’s not far.’ Master Sy turned in to an alley so narrow that even the moon couldn’t reach the bottom of it. The first you’d know about anyone else coming the other way was when you walked into them. From somewhere up ahead came a dim buzz of noise, the hum of talking, punctuated by staccato laughter. They walked out of the alley and into another street and the noise became louder. Light and drunken chatter spilled into the street from windows and an open door. Berren almost grinned as Master Sy stepped inside and the noise instantly turned deafening. The Barrow of Beer. He’d passed it dozens of times. Hatchet’s boys gave the place a wide berth. No one in there’s got anything worth stealing, Hatchet had told them, but they might not think the same of you.
‘Stay close, lad,’ muttered Master Sy. He sauntered straight to the bar, barging his way through without a care in the world. Berren saw at least one angry snarl start and then die as men saw who the thief-taker was. Slowly, silence fell.
‘Kasmin!’ shouted Master Sy. From behind the bar, a grizzled old man with an eye-patch and a scar down half his face turned. He stared at the thief-taker and then his face cracked into a grin. Berren saw that Master Sy didn’t smile back, though. He looked weary. Sad.
‘Syannis! You bastard!’ The old man almost ran and embraced the thief-taker as though they were brothers. At once, the noise around them resumed.
‘Lad!’ Master Sy had to shout to make himself heard now. ‘This is Kasmin. Kasmin is a very old friend, even if he’s a rogue. Kasmin, this is Berren. He’s my apprentice. Stop and take a look at him for a moment.’
Then something strange happened. Kasmin looked at Berren, and then he looked again, and then he stared as though he’d seen a ghost. ‘Bloody Kalda,’ he whistled. ‘Either my memory’s gone or he’s the spit of…’ He glanced at Master Sy and stopped.
‘Isn’t he just.’
‘Gods blind my one good eye if he’s not.’ Kasmin threw his arms around the thief-taker again. ‘Anyway, it’s been a bloody long time.’ He looked down at Berren. ‘Well boy, I used to serve your master too, once. When we were back in the old country. Long time ago that was now. Bad times, but we still had some fun.’ The old man grinned. ‘Do you remember in Forgenver when we…’
‘Time enough later for that, old bones.’ Syannis spoke softly but his words fell like an axe. He smiled a wan sad smile. ‘Serve your prince a drink before he collapses.’
Kasmin forced a laugh. ‘Anything you like, your Highness.’ A space had formed in the crowd around the pair of them. Berren saw it in the faces of the others in the tavern. No one wanted to stand next to a thief-taker.
‘I’d like a bottle of your best Malmsey, old bones. The very best you’ve got, because I’ve heard you’ve got your hands on something very fine indeed.’
For an instant there was a hesitation. For an instant, something wasn’t right. Then Kasmin grinned and nodded and jumped back behind his bar as though nothing had happened. It had, though, and if Berren had seen it, so had the thief-taker.
A moment later, two glasses and a bottle were on the bar. ‘This what you’re looking for?’ Kasmin was all smiles. Everywhere except his eyes. His eyes were wide, nervous, ready to run.
Master Sy picked up the bottle, looked it over. Then he put it down. He nodded.
‘Exactly what I was looking for. Old friend, we need to talk. I’m afraid you’ve crossed my path the wrong way this time.’
The old man still grinned, but underneath he looked terrified. Berren knew all about that look; it was the one that he used to see from people who owed money to Master Hatchet. ‘Sure. Come round tomorrow though, eh? We’ll talk all you like. Chew the fat. Dredge though our memories. Whatever you want.’ There was no conviction in the old man’s words. Not one bit.
‘No.’ Master Sy grabbed the tavern-keeper’s wrist and held it tight. ‘You need to tell me how you came by this and you need to do it right now.’
‘I got customers, Syannis.’ His voice broke, became pleading. Hopeless.
The thief-taker shook his head. ‘Not any more, old bones. Not any more.’
Five minutes and a lot of grumbling and shouting later, the Barrow of Beer was empty and still. Kasmin shut the door and put a bar across it. Then he sat down heavily on a stool. Master Sy settled in front of him. For a long time, neither of them said anything. Berren sat quietly in a corner.
‘I’m looking for pirates, Kasmin,’ said Master Sy at last.
‘I fought some of those a long time ago.’ Kasmin sounded immensely sad. Berren picked up an abandoned tankard and helped himself to a few mouthfuls of beer. It was weak and watery stuff next to the beer from the Eight Pillars of Smoke but nowhere near as bad as the stuff he and the other boys had used to sneak out of the Red Loom when Master Hatchet sent them in to cause some trouble.
The thief-taker stood up. He walked to the bar and picked up the bottle again. This time he poured himself a glass. Then he came back and sat down, bottle in one hand, glass in the other.
‘I remember. Look me in the eye, Kasmin. Tell me you bought this. Tell me this is honest trade. Look me in the eye and tell me that and I’ll be on my way.’
The old man shook with bitter laughter. ‘Can’t tell you that, old friend. You know I don’t have the gold to buy something as fine as that bottle for an honest price.’
‘No, old bones, I know that.’ He glanced over his shoulder at Berren. ‘Lad, get the other glass from the bar. Bring it here. Pour yourself a mug of something and then go wait out the back.’
Berren did as he was asked and wandered through the tavern and out into a little yard, sipping on his mug of beer. Halfway through he wrinkled his nose and tipped the rest onto the dirt. It was starting to make his head fuzzy again and that conjured up all manner of unpleasant memories. And when it came down to it, the beer didn’t actually taste particularly nice. He put the mug on the ground and squatted against the wall, waiting for the thief-taker to finish his business. He waited a long time. Eventually he must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew, the sky was lightening with the first touches of dawn and Master Sy was shaking his shoulder.
‘Come on, lad,’ said the thief-taker gently. ‘Let’s go.’ He sounded sad. As they walked out of the yard and into a tiny dingy alley that ran up the side of the Barrow of Beer all the way down to the docks, Berren kept sneaking glances at him. There weren’t any bloodstains, but that only made him all the more curious. He stopped to peer through a window as they passed the front of the tavern. It was hard to see much through the filth and the way the cheap glass warped the world. He could make out a figure, though, sitting still on his stool, exactly where Berren remembered him.
‘Come on, lad.’ The thief-taker pulled him away. ‘He’s got ghosts enough without needing us as well. Leave him be.’
Berren twitched impatiently. ‘Master, where are we going?’ The whole night looked like it had been an enormous waste of time. Now he was tired and irritable and just wanted to go back to sleep.
‘Yes, yes.’ Master Sy shook his head. ‘We’re going home, and then we’re going to pack our bags and go down to the river docks and find ourselves passage up the river. Once we’re moving you can sleep all you like.’
Berren scowled. ‘Where are we going, master?’
‘Wherever we’re needed, lad. Wherever we’re needed.’