40. ONE-THUMB

Berren reached Trickle Street as the sun was setting, sinking into the sea beyond the docks at the end of the street. Trickle Street didn’t go anywhere much, just crept down from The Maze to the sea-docks like a thief, hoping no one would notice. No one had much use for Trickle Street either, and now Berren found it empty. He took off Master Sy’s coat, folded it carefully and left it. Thing only got in the way. Then he went to the hole in the fence. One-Thumb was right. Whenever he’d had to run, he always came here, to the derelict arse-end of the sugar traders’ warehouse. This was his place, not One-Thumb’s. He knew it inside and out, better than anyone. One-Thumb had come here to make a point.

No, he told himself with grim determination. He’d come here to try and make a point. He was going to regret it.

He reached the hole in the fence and crouched down beside it, peering inside. Sure enough, there was Hair, sitting across the yard, picking his fingernails when he was supposed to be keeping watch, bored as anything. Jerrin would have Waddler round the other side. Waddler and Hair always got the shitty jobs.

Berren fingered his crossbow. It was a big and heavy and clumsy thing, but it was sure to put a scare on anyone on the other end of it. Jerrin would probably wet himself. Or else he could just shoot Hair and be rid of the thing. That would be easy. Hair wouldn’t even see it coming. He was just sitting there. Shoot Hair, and then creep up on Waddler round the other side with Stealer. Take his face off with Kasmin’s knife just like Master Sy had done to that Blacksword bloke. Then into the tumbled-down shacks where One-Thumb would have Lilissa. That’s what the old tavern-keeper would have told him to do. Probably Master Sy as well, judging by what he’d seen today…

He moved aside to where Hair couldn’t see him even if he bothered looking, and fingered the crossbow again. He’d known Hair for years. As far as it ever went with Hatchet’s boys, they’d almost been friends until Hair had fallen in with One-Thumb. Hair hadn’t ever done him any wrong, not even any mischief until now. He was probably only here because he couldn’t think of anything better and because One-Thumb wanted his gang to be as big as possible so he could feel strong.

No, he couldn’t shoot Hair. He’d probably miss anyway if the seagulls were anything to go by. Cut him up, like Master Sy had done to the mudlarks? No. Couldn’t do that either.

He put the crossbow down and went back to the hole in the fence. As quietly as he could, he started to slip through. He was almost out the other side before Hair happened to look up and see him.

‘Crap!’ He scrambled to his feet as Berren got up. ‘Mouse!’ He glanced over his shoulder, looking to where he was going to run. ‘Don’t…’ Berren grinned to himself. Hair was scared of him. Hair had never been scared of him. No one had ever been scared of him.

‘I’m waiting out here for One-Thumb. You tell me something, Hair. The lady he’s got with him. Did you touch her?’ He pulled Kasmin’s knife slowly out of its sheath. In the fiery light of the setting sun, the blade gleamed. It was beautiful. He leered at Hair. ‘Did you?’

Hair was still backing away, shaking his head. ‘Not me, Mouse.’ He couldn’t take his eyes off the knife. It was a long blade, a good foot of steel, lovingly sharp. A real butcher’s knife. Not something a tavern-keeper would have much use for, Berren thought.

‘Well that’s good, Hair, because that means you and I ain’t got nothing to quarrel about. Not unless you think different.’ Berren started to walk slowly towards Hair. Inside, he was shaking, even though he had the knife and Hair had nothing. What if he doesn’t run? What then? He steeled himself and kept his eyes locked onto Hair’s face, watching his every glance. When it came down to it, Hair wasn’t a fighter. Hair would shout and threaten, but in the end he always ran. ‘You could just go,’ he offered, circling away from the hole in the fence back to Trickle Street. ‘You never saw me, and I never saw you. Don’t have to be anything more.’ He nodded towards the hole. ‘You want to leave, I won’t stop you. Like I said, there’s no quarrel between us. Not yet, anyhow.’

Hair swore loudly and turned and ran back into the ramshackle huts at the back of the sugar-merchant’s stores. Berren watched him go. It was done, then. In a few seconds, he’d be telling One-Thumb that Berren was here and calling him out. One-Thumb would come out because he was the boss and that meant he didn’t have any choice. He’d come out in front of all his Harbour Men and he’d strut and taunt and jeer. That was what he did, what made him seem strong to people who didn’t know any better. And then, when it came down to it, he’d fight, because if he didn’t then everyone in his gang would know he was spineless. By the end of the next day the whole docks would know, and after that even Waddler would laugh in his face. Berren ran it all through his mind, playing it out as he waited. A good part of him still wanted to run. He could do that. Didn’t matter, did it, if Hair and the rest of Hatchet’s boys knew he was a coward? It wasn’t like he was ever coming back here. Master Sy would tell him that he’d done the wise thing. He’d make out like Berren had been brave not to stay. Lilissa, well, she’d probably say the same as Master Sy anyway. She’d probably think he was an idiot for coming at all.

He’d seen the real thief-taker today, though. Seen what it took to be feared the way he was, and there was one person he couldn’t run away from, one person who would always know and always be there to remind him of what he chose. There was Berren, the thief-taker’s apprentice, the boy who wanted to learn swords more than anything in the world. The boy who wanted to learn how to be deadly, a whirlwind of steel. A killer. And what was the use in all that learning if you were always too afraid to use it?

Berren gripped Kasmin’s knife. One-Thumb was a prick, anyway. He had it coming. He forced himself to see the mudlarks in Talsin’s Forest again, how ruthless Master Sy had been. He told himself Jerrin was the same. Whatever happened, he deserved it.

And by the time he’d thought all of that, it was too late anyway, because there was One-Thumb, leading his Harbour Men out of the back of the sugar-merchant’s warehouse. Sticks came behind him, and then Hair and three other boys. One was a stranger. The other two were more of Hatchet’s dung-cart gang. Weasel, who was a couple of years younger than Berren but had the makings of being a nastier piece of work than even One-Thumb. And Slipper, who wasn’t much of anything as far as Berren knew, but had a way of getting out of places. Last of all came the mudlark boy. He had Lilissa with him, and the sight of her made Berren’s blood burn. She looked ragged and broken. Her clothes were torn in places. When the mudlark boy pushed her out, she stumbled and almost fell. She didn’t bother trying to run; and then Berren saw why. The mudlark boy had a leash around her neck, as though she was some sort of dog.

‘I didn’t think you’d be this dim, Mouse,’ sneered Jerrin, taking up a stance in front of his gang. ‘What you going to do? Fight us all? All eight of us? All on your own?’

Berren didn’t move. His legs were shaking. He hoped, in the half-light, none of them could see. But he held his ground. He lifted up Kasmin’s knife and pointed it straight at Jerrin, forcing the rest of him to be still. Never take your eyes off him. ‘Just you, One-Thumb. You and me.’ There, and now he bit his tongue hard enough to bring tears to his eyes. That was all. That’s what Master Sy would say. You and me, and then he’d stand and watch and wouldn’t say another word, while Jerrin’s mouth worked the rest of him into a stupor.

Jerrin’s lip curled. He started to pace up and down in front of his boys. ‘You and me, Mouse? You think I can be bothered with a flea like you?’ He walked stiffly, though, like he was still hurting from the thump in the back he’d taken from Lilissa. Berren said nothing. He tracked Jerrin with his eyes and the point of his knife and the rest of him didn’t move. With a jolt he remembered again that it was still the same day. They’d fought One-Thumb once already. Beaten him, too.

Jerrin stopped. His hand went to the back of his head. Did the other Harbour Men know what had happened that morning? The mudlark boy had been there and seen it all and he’d run away. Sticks had taken a kicking too. They probably all knew, then. Gods! Berren felt a surge of glee. He bit his tongue harder. It was hard not to crow about One-Thumb taking a beating from a girl. And it was clear enough that Jerrin was still hurting.

Yeh, except he’d be hurting on the inside too and itching for some revenge. And he was big. Berren had forgotten, somehow, how big Jerrin was. He probably stood taller even than Master Sy.

‘Too scared to say anything, Mouse? Too terrified to move? It’s too late to run away now, isn’t it? Here, look, you were one of us not all that long ago. You could have been a Harbour Man. You still can. Jack it in with that master of yours and pitch in with us. I’ll let you live. All you have to do is grovel in the mud on your belly, like the crappy little worm that you are. That’s all. Five minutes of shit, Mouse, and then you’re one of us.’ He sniffed and touched the back of his head again. ‘After that you can watch while I help myself to this ground-floor girl of yours. But no need to get all jealous on me, Mouse. We’re a gang. Everyone gets their share of the spoils. You can have her too. You’d have to go last, but you can have her. I think I’d have to insist, in fact. And let’s face it, Mouse, she’s a ripe piece and far too pretty for you to ever get her any other way.’

Goading. That’s all it was, but still, if Berren bit his tongue any harder, he wouldn’t have one any more. He could already taste blood. His silence was working, though. He could see that. Jerrin’s foot started to tap. Behind him, some of the other boys were getting restless. They weren’t liking the way this was going and their unease was infectious. Jerrin ran his hand through his hair and started to pace again.

‘You know what? Maybe I think you’re an ungrateful little turd. Maybe I’ll just cut open your belly and she can watch you dying in a corner. Yeh, you know what? I think that sounds a lot better. So yeh. That’s what’s going to happen. Last chance to run, Mouse.’ He stopped pacing and came a couple of steps closer, still keeping a dozen yards between them. He pulled his own knife out of his belt. It wasn’t much more than a long finger of steel, and Jerrin’s size made it seem smaller still. Berren smirked.

‘She’s a ground-floor girl, Mouse. You didn’t know that? Truth is, we started without you.’

Berren didn’t flinch. Inside he wanted to scream, but on the outside, he was as steady as a rock. Lies. They had to be. He had to believe that.

‘Oh what?’ Jerrin shouted, his voice breaking slightly. ‘Teeth! What’s wrong with you, Mouse? You have an accident in bed and piss your wits out? Say something!’

That was it. Jerrin had run himself into a corner. He didn’t have any more choices to make. There was nothing left for him now except to come running, screaming, waving his arms and his knife, and one of them would die. And Berren had a strange warm certainly that it wouldn’t be him.

They didn’t find out, though, because that was exactly when Kasmin and three other men came bursting out of the doors behind the Harbour Men, shouting their heads off and waving sticks around their heads, and everything fell into chaos.

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