41. THE THIEF-TAKER’S APPRENTICE

Sticks went down first, thumped around the back of the head before he could even turn round. The rest of Jerrin’s Harbour Men wilted and ran. Kasmin pelted after the mudlark boy and dragged him down, then punched and kicked him until he stopped trying to get up again. The others swung their sticks and looked at Jerrin and then at Berren and then back at One-Thumb again. They grinned and licked their lips. Jerrin’s eyes darted between them, looking for a place to run, but they kept back, content to wait. Berren watched as Kasmin got up from the mudlark boy and walked back to where Lilissa stood, her mouth still open in surprise. Kasmin whispered something in her ear and then turned her face so she was looking at him. Berren couldn’t hear what either of them said; after a moment, Kasmin left her. He walked back to the mudlark boy, lifted his stick up high and brought it down on the boy’s legs with all his strength. Bones cracked; the boy screamed and Lilissa sank to the ground, burying her face in her hands. Berren’s skin went cold and numb. Could easily have been the boy’s head.

He looked at One-Thumb again, this time with a coldness in his heart. He hissed softly and started to walk, very slowly, towards where One-Thumb was still standing.

‘Tell me again, Jerrin,’ he whispered. ‘Tell me again what you just said about her. Started what without me?’

One-Thumb turned to look at him. He was shaking. Kasmin and the other men stood still and watched. Lilissa still had her face in her hands.

‘Tell me, Jerrin!’ said Berren, louder this time. ‘I want to know.’ He started to walk faster. One-Thumb stared back at him in disbelief. He was afraid. It was written all over him. He was scared and he didn’t know what to do, while Berren felt himself getting stronger with every step.

‘Come on, Jerrin,’ he said for the third time, almost shouting. ‘Let’s hear it! Started what, exactly? Come on! Tell me!’

Jerrin stared right back at him, too petrified to move. He started to shake his head. ‘I…’ And that was as far as he got before Berren was standing right in front of him. Without any hesitation at all, almost with a will of its own, Jerrin’s hand snapped back and then thrust forwards again, stabbing his knife into Berren’s midriff. He didn’t even look to see what he was doing, just kept staring right back up into Berren’s face, a look of utter disbelief on his face. Berren didn’t move, didn’t even think to defend himself, only grunted and staggered back a step. He hadn’t expected than. Hurt a lot less than he’d thought. He put a hand to his belly, but when he looked, there was no blood. Under his shirt, he was wearing Master Sy’s ringmail. For a moment, he’d forgotten.

Berren raised his knife and pointed it at Jerrin’s face. ‘You cowardly little shit.’ He took a step forward. Jerrin had tried to kill him. No question this time. Now there would be blood.

‘I didn’t touch her!’ Jerrin gasped and took a step back. ‘Never did. I swear.’ As Berren advanced, Jerrin backed away. ‘Please! Please, Mouse…’ Blood dribbled out from the corner of his mouth where he’d bitten his own lip. He dropped his little knife. ‘Mouse…’ Any moment. Any moment now, Berren knew, he would strike.

Abruptly Jerrin’s legs gave way and he fell over. He managed to get onto his knees, then fell over a second time as Berren loomed over him and raised Kasmin’s knife.

‘Please! Mouse! Please!’

For a second, Berren clenched the knife. For a second he did nothing. He saw Master Sy and the mudlarks from Talsin’s Forest and he knew what he had to do, but his hand wouldn’t move.

‘You going to do it or not?’ growled a deep voice behind him. Kasmin.

For another second he stayed stock still. Then slowly he stepped away and lowered the knife. No. Not to a man grovelling on the ground. Couldn’t do it. Not even to One-Thumb.

Kasmin pushed past and brought his stick down on One-Thumb’s head as hard as he could. Quick and sharp and no messing about. Jerrin’s startled look stayed on his face for a moment, and then blood ran down over his face and he toppled backwards. Kasmin looked Berren up and down.

‘Boys from Shipwrights should stay in Shipwrights,’ he growled. The men behind him murmured agreement and nodded. ‘Harbour Men?’ He spat on One-Thumb’s corpse. ‘Not any more.’ He wandered back to Sticks, who was on his hands and knees, throwing up and moaning on the floor. Berren almost couldn’t bear to watch, but Kasmin’s cudgel didn’t come down a third time. Instead, Sticks merely got another kicking. ‘Boys from Shipwrights should stay in Shipwrights,’ roared Kasmin. ‘Do you hear me?’ He swung back to where One-Thumb lay, glared as though he’d never seen Berren before. ‘What about you, boy? You call yourself a Harbour Man?’

Berren took a step back. He shook his head, not quite sure what to say.

‘Your girl?’

This time Berren nodded.

‘I like the look of your knife, boy. You leave that here and I’ll let you go. Both of you. You hear?’

Berren nodded again, more quickly this time. He dropped Kasmin’s knife on the ground and then the sheath as well. Glad to be rid of it.

‘You’ll not be telling no thief-takers about us, now will you, boy? If I were you I’d keep my mouth tight shut. You got that?’

Berren nodded again.

‘Go on then. Piss off. Both of you.’

There was blood on his hand. Someone’s. Not his. Jerrin’s, maybe, from when Kasmin had cracked his skull. He wiped it on the leg of his trousers then ran to Lilissa, still squatting on the ground and sobbing into her hands. He tugged her to her feet and looked at her. One eye was red with tears, the other purple from a huge bruise on one side of her face. Her hair was a tangled mess. She was still wearing the dress that had made her look like a princess, the one she’d worn to the Captain’s Rest, except now it was ripped and ruined.

He touched her swollen cheek. She was beautiful. Then he looked around him. Kasmin had his knife back now; he and whoever the men were he had with him were already turning to go. Sticks was staggering off as fast his legs would carry him; Hair and Waddler and the rest of Jerrin’s boys were long gone. There was the mudlark boy, pulling himself on his arms to get away, wailing and moaning. And then there was One-Thumb, flat on his back and dead as a rat. Berren felt sick. This was thief-taking?

He turned away. His head was spinning, his throat was as dry as parchment. His skin tingled, his arms and legs felt as though they didn’t really belong to him any more; the rest of him seemed so light that he might lift right off the ground and fly in the first gust of wind. Nothing seemed quite real any more.

Except Lilissa.

He took her hand. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Let’s go home.’

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