‘In other parts of the city,’ said the thief-taker cheerfully, ‘what we do when we meet a door is knock, and then wait patiently for an answer. Around here, however, what we do is this.’ He walked up to the front door of a little shack, span on his heel and slammed one leg out sideways, heel first straight into the weathered wood. He didn’t so much kick it down as kick it right into the gloom beyond. The walls shook and dust rattled out of the roof. If he’d kicked much harder, Berren reckoned the whole place would have come down. Before the door even landed, Master Sy marched on in, bare steel in his hand. ‘Now you’ll notice that it’s a bit gloomy in here and it might take your eyes a moment to adjust. That can be the moment someone sticks a knife into you, so that’s why we do this.’ In his other hand he was holding a lantern, one that he’d lit two streets away. Now he smashed it into the floor in the middle of the room. Greasy burning oil spread around it. A few burning streaks spattered his boots, but the thief-taker didn’t seem to mind. The edge of a straw mattress started to take flame. Berren stayed where he was, in the doorway. The whole shack was made of flimsy bits of wood. With a bit of luck the afternoon rains they’d had might stop the whole place from going up. Or maybe not.
Out the back another door hung open, swinging back and forth on its hinges. Master Sy grunted. ‘Of course, usually we just get on with throwing the lantern on the floor instead of talking about it first.’ Ignoring the fire, he ran for the other open door. Berren had little choice but to follow.
‘But you can’t just…’ You couldn’t just go around setting places on fire! Even Berren knew that. Even Master Hatchet had known that. One house goes and next thing you know it’s the whole street and half the district. Maybe up on the other side of the city walls where almost everything was made of stone it didn’t matter, but out here… He crashed out of the back of the shack, hard on the thief-taker’s heels.
‘Oh, they’ve got buckets, they’ve got a canal. It’s right there.’ Master Sy’s words came between breaths as they raced along a maze of alleys. The man they were chasing was only half a dozen yards ahead, not quite far enough to dive out of sight, even here. He tried throwing a couple of startled early drunks and a pile of broken chicken cages in their path, but Master Sy barged right through, knocking them all flying as though they weren’t even there. ‘Besides, most people would thank you for burning down the Forest. I’m sure Justicar Kol will happily tell you that it’s every bit as bad as Siltside. Just closer.’
The thief-taker wasn’t going as fast as he could, Berren realised with a sudden jolt. He was letting the man from the shack, whoever he was, stay just ahead of them. Why would he do that?
‘I’d get a bolt ready if I were you,’ he called. ‘Here we go.’
It was almost as if Master Sy had known in advance everything that would happen. The man from the shack ducked around a corner and dived into an open doorway. Master Sy raced in right behind him, jinking sideways as he went through. A flash of sunlight glinted off metal as a dark shape lunged at the thief-taker. Shouts erupted from the gloom inside. Berren froze. He’d been too busy running to pay much attention to anything more than keeping up, but now he felt acutely aware of his surroundings. The streets in Talsin’s Forest were little more than narrow pathways between ragged rows of shacks and huts, all piled on top of each other in whatever space their builders had been able to find. The sun was still high enough to touch the ground, but half of the street was in shadow. Ragged children with wide wild eyes stared at him from doorways. When he met their gaze, some of them scuttled away only to return as he looked elsewhere. Others simply stared back, silent and unblinking. There were no men or women on the street at all, but that didn’t mean they weren’t near, only that they were hiding. The place had been full enough when he and the thief-taker had first appeared. He could feel them, watching him like the children were but hidden away in the shadows, peering out of gaps between the ill-fitting walls, out from behind curtains. He could feel them waiting, cautious but eager for the spoils of whatever was happening. Like vultures. Their hostility wrapped him up with hungry arms, eager to devour him. They could sense his hesitation, he was sure of it. His doubt.
Nervously he fumbled one of Master Sy’s bolts into the crossbow. The other choice, of course, was to follow into the dark hole of the doorway. Several loud voices were swearing and cursing, and he heard the crash of a piece of heavy wood against a wall, hard enough to shake the whole house. Apart from the sounds of the fight, the world had fallen eerily silent.
‘Come on, lad.’ Master Sy’s voice woke him up and unfroze his legs. ‘It’s done now. You can come in.’
Grateful, Berren scurried off the street and into the twilight inside the house. Three men were sitting against the far wall. Two were frowning and groaning and nursing their bruises. The third simply sat very still, glassy-eyed, breathing fast. It took Berren’s eyes a moment to adjust; when they did, he saw that one side of the last man’s shirt was covered in blood.
Berren looked to his feet. He was about to tread on a fourth man, lying face down in the straw. He jumped away.
‘He won’t bite you, that one,’ snorted the thief-taker. ‘He’s dead.’ There was blood on Master Sy’s sword, still oozing down the blade and then falling off at the hilt in thick heavy drops. Berren held his crossbow up high, pointing it at the three men sat against the wall. His hands were shaking.
‘Hey!’ The middle of the three men pushed himself even further back. The thief-taker put a hand on Berren’s shoulder.
‘It’s fine, lad. The fight’s done. These gentlemen won’t be giving us any more trouble.’
The one on the end who wasn’t slowly bleeding to death tipped his head sideways and spat. ‘Oh look,’ he said, sneering at Berren. ‘One of the emperor’s new soldiers? Out to make a name for yourself? See your kind every day.’
It was a jibe Berren was used to. Anyone of his age got used to it. Khrozus’ boy… Conceived and then left fatherless during the siege of Deephaven in the civil war.
Master Sy tutted and shook his head. ‘Careful there, Threehands. I might think you meant that as an insult.’
The man turned to the thief-taker. ‘Really? You must be a stranger here then, otherwise you’d know how the common folk in these parts are filled with love for their emperor.’ He sneered and spat at Berren again. ‘You, you’re nothing. Stale bread by winter, you’ll be. Stuck in some alley.’
‘So rude.’ Master Sy’s eyes didn’t move from the three men. ‘Berren, would you like to shoot him? I shan’t mind if you do.’
Berren shivered. He didn’t know what to do. He half lifted the crossbow and then hesitated. The man was a mudlark, he realised. Probably they all were. Not that it made much difference.
‘Berren, is it.’ The man called Threehands narrowed his eyes and stared at him. ‘I’ll be remembering that name. Berren, Berren, Berren. Berren the dead. Berren the headless. It’d make a rhyme for you. Red Heron, how about that?’ Then he spat. ‘How about this. Stale bread. That’s you. Know what that means?’ He drew a finger across his throat.
‘Doesn’t seem right, does it?’ Master Sy’s voice dropped almost to a whisper. ‘Killing a man after he’s been beaten. He means it, though. It’s you or him.’
‘Berren the meat. Berren food-for-rats.’ Threehands half grinned, half sneered, showing off a row of rotten teeth.
Master Sy sniffed. ‘Another thing that doesn’t seem right is a man who’s showing such little respect. Go on, lad. Put a bolt into him. Show him who’s the boss. You’re the master, he’s the slave. He should be fawning at your feet, licking your boots, begging for his life. No respect at all, lad. You have to kill him, don’t you? You’ve got to show the others, right? Got to show me, too. I need you to be a man, now, not a boy. Show them you’re a man. Kill him.’
For a second time, Berren lifted the crossbow. He pushed it against his shoulder and aimed down the arrow at Threehands; first his head, then his heart, then back at his face. He was shaking. It made him want to howl with frustration but he couldn’t stop himself.
‘Come on then, boy,’ sneered Threehands. ‘You know why I’m not quivering and quaking? Because I know what you’re like, you Khrozus’ boys. All fury and spit and no bite. You’re not going to bone-hill me. You’re not man enough.’
Berren swallowed hard. The shaking was worse. Slowly and carefully, he lowered the crossbow. ‘No,’ he choked. ‘Can’t. ’S not right.’ There was a lump in his throat so big he could hardly breathe. He could feel his face burning. He bit his lip and clenched his toes inside his boots.
‘Aw, look. Ickle boy going to cry now, is he?’ Threehands put both palms across his crotch and thrust it once in Berren’s direction. A gesture of utter contempt.
‘Good lad,’ said Master Sy. ‘Right choice. Tomorrow I’ll tell you why.’ In one sudden movement he jumped forward and kicked Threehands solidly in the face. Before anyone could move, he jumped back again. ‘Now then. Who wants to tell me about their mudlark friends who row across the river and up the canal to rob ships in the harbour? Anyone?’
The man next to Threehands shifted uneasily, but Threehands himself didn’t seem bothered at all. He spat out a couple of teeth. ‘Who wants to know?’
‘So you can come after me and gut me in an alley?’ Master Sy laughed.
‘Think I won’t?’
‘I’m Syannis.’ A flash of something crossed Threehands’ face. Fear? Alarm? Recognition, at least. ‘Yes, that’s right. That Syannis. The thief-taker. And you’re in my way.’