29. ALONE IN THE DARK

Berren ran. Up the Avenue of Emperors towards the square, but that was no good. He grabbed Lilissa’s arm and pulled her off towards one side. ‘This way!’

‘What?’

‘This way!’ He pulled harder and dragged her off the Avenue and down into a pitch black alley that wove its way into The Maze.

‘I can’t see!’

‘Then hold my hand.’ Lilissa’s fingers slipped into his own without protest or question. He was running for his life, and yet her touch made him feel like the strongest man in the world.

‘He gave me a knife! Master Syannis gave me a knife!’

‘He gave me one too. Come on!’ Berren led her deeper. These streets were his home. Even in the dark, he knew exactly where he was. He knew their twists and turns, he knew their dead ends, he knew which parts were safe and which parts to avoid – although dressed up as they were in their rich clothes, which parts to avoid extended to almost everywhere.

Most of all, though, he knew where the empty houses were. The places they could hide.

Voices. Footsteps. He dived into a doorway and pulled Lilissa close to him.

‘Hey!’

He squeezed her hand. ‘Shhh!’ Even though the moon was up, down here in The Maze he could barely see her. He could feel her, though. Feel the warmth of her right beside him, almost but not quite touching. He could smell her breath, the lingering taste of the glass of wine she’d had while he’d dozed.

The voices came closer. They were round a corner but still coming closer.

‘Why are we…?’

This time he pressed his free hand over her mouth. She was pressed against him now. She grabbed his hand and then froze.

‘Shh,’ he whispered, quiet as the breeze, straight into her ear.

‘I’m going to burn his pig and goat if he don’t pay up.’ The voices were in the same alley now. Berren counted footfalls. Sticks had taught him to do that, years back. Men. Big men. Three or four of them. Accents, too. Not quite right. Not quite local. Mudlarks, from their rhyming. Not that that meant much. Mudlarks got everywhere. These ones stank, too. A real bad smell of city sewage.

‘Yeh? And then what? How’s he going get us our three ladies if he can’t sail. A good kick in the loaf ought to be enough.’ The footsteps stopped. One of them sniffed the air.

‘You smell something?’

Laughter. ‘I smell you, you rancid oaf.’

‘Perfume. Yeh. Khrozus!’ Berren tensed. They could always run. No, he could run. He’d have to drag Lilissa behind him.

‘You’re right. Some ground-floor girl been working here I reckon.’

Someone hawked up some phlegm, spat, and then let out a loud belch. Another voice joined in.

‘Now everything smells of rotting fish. Thanks, Dree.’

‘You’re welcome.’ The footsteps started again. They walked straight by where Berren and Lilissa were hiding. Close enough that if Berren had reached out an arm, he could have tugged on their coats as they passed. He waited a long time, until he was sure they were gone, before he let himself breathe again.

Lilissa pulled his hand away, gently this time. ‘Who were they?’

He shrugged. ‘Don’t know. Doesn’t matter. No one comes in here at night unless they’re up to stuff they don’t want others to see.’ He took a tentative step back out into the alley, then strained his ears and peered up and down. Mostly pointless in the dark, but his instinct was driving him. ‘All right. Let’s go!’ He pulled on Lilissa’s hand but she didn’t move.

‘Berren! What are we doing here?’

He stopped. He hadn’t thought too much about what he was doing. Only that The Maze was where he ran whenever he got into trouble.

‘We can’t go back to Master Sy’s house,’ he said slowly. ‘Not in the dark.’

‘Why not?’

‘What if they got there first? What if they’re waiting for us? What if we got back and then they came?’ He didn’t even know who they were. No, they were the harbour-master’s men. What he didn’t know was what Master Sy had said to make the harbour-master suddenly want to kill them. Not beat them and warn them off, but kill them. Straight out and just like that.

Or was it even worse? Had he been planning this even before they’d sat down and broken bread together. He must have, mustn’t he?

‘I want to go home, Berren.’

‘How come those snuffers were so right and ready? They were going to kill us.’ He had to keep saying it to believe it. You just didn’t do that. Even One-Thumb with his knife probably wouldn’t have gone through with it. Would have scared him too much to live with what came with being a killer. But the men who’d come out of the Captain’s Rest… He’d seen the way they moved. They’d have gone through with it and then some.

‘Berren, I want to go home!’ Lilissa wasn’t whispering this time. Berren huddled back into the doorway next to her, shushing her.

‘So do I, but we can’t. What if the whole thing was a trap? They could be waiting for us.’

She pushed him away. ‘What if it wasn’t? Besides, it wasn’t about us, was it? It wasn’t about me.’

‘I saw the way he was looking at you. Looking right at your… Well, put it this way, if I’d have looked at you like that even when you wouldn’t notice, I’d have got a clip round the ear. And he was doing it right in front of all of us.’ Somehow the thought of leaving the streets he knew made him quake with fear.

Lilissa snorted. ‘Don’t be stupid. It’s not about me. It’s about whatever business Master Syannis has. Something he’s found out about that horrible man.’

‘Look, I know a place we can hide for the night. Not far. No bother. We’ll be left alone. In the morning, when it’s light, we’ll go up Weaver’s Row. It’s not far. Then you can go home. We can take a look when the sun’s out.’ After they’d been to the moon temple and told Teacher Garrent all about what happened. But no need to mention that. ‘Look, this place, it’s only a few minutes away. Let’s get there and be safe. Then we can talk about what we’re going to do.’ The ‘few’ was more like ten and he didn’t know what he’d do if she still wanted to go home once they got there, but it was all he could think of to say.

Lilissa made a sceptical sound, but she let him lead her out into the alley again. ‘I’m starting to wonder if I should believe any of this. Letting you take me into some dark alley in the middle of the night. Ma would kill all three of us if she could, paths bless her.’ There was a tremor in her voice. Anxious, however much she tried to pretend she wasn’t. Not as scared as she should have been, though.

‘Yeh.’ Berren tried a nervous laugh. It helped a bit. ‘Well. Like old Master Hatchet said: Dead tomorrow is alive today.’

‘Don’t think I haven’t seen where your eyes look either. You’re every bit as bad as that horrible VenDerren or whatever his name was.’

‘No I’m not. I’m not as ugly for a start.’

‘Really? Are you sure?’

‘I’m not as fat; I’m sure about that.’

She giggled. ‘His bows were better, though.’ They were moving. For the moment they had this bit of The Maze to themselves. Berren started to walk more quickly, until they were almost running. ‘Dragging me off to a place like this. Bet you’ve been thinking about it all evening. What would your master say?’

‘It was his idea.’ Sort of. His idea I should drag you off.

‘Ah. Tonight was all a big show, was it? All for me?’ She giggled again. ‘I suppose I’d better go along with it, then, after all that effort. I imagine I should feel flattered.’

You should feel scared and you should be quiet and so should I. That was what Berren wanted to say. Instead he stopped. Paused. Listened. There was still no one about.

‘We’re here.’ He crept into an opening he couldn’t even see and listened again. Then he knelt down. Low down in the wall was an old wooden door about three feet high and wider than it was long. His hands traced its shape until he found an awkward hole in the bottom. He lay down and reached through, undid the latch, and the door swung open. Inside was an even deeper darkness than the alley. It was silent, too. Silent as death. He sat on the ground by the doorway and dangled his feet over the drop beyond. There was no way to see how far it was down to the floor.

‘What is this?’ hissed Lilissa.

‘We’re round the back of the Sheaf of Arrows.’ Berren turned around and carefully lowered himself into the void. The floor was about four feet below him. ‘This is the cellar.’

Lilissa didn’t move. From where he was now, he could just about see her, silhouetted against the night sky. ‘Won’t we be caught?’

Berren shook his head and beckoned her down, both gestures lost in the dark. ‘Nah. It burned down three years ago. They built it up again, but this bit’s full of rubble. No one ever comes down here. That door’s the only way in and out.’ That’s what other boys had told him, anyway.

Lilissa carefully lowered herself to sit on the edge. Berren took her hands, warm and soft in his, and eased her down; but it was only as he closed and barred the door behind her that he realised he had Lilissa to himself in the dark. And that despite everything she’d said, she’d still come with him. The lump on his head thrummed with pain, but with Lilissa beside him he didn’t care. What would a fishmonger’s son say now, he wondered?

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