They sat at a table together in the Golden Hart, the closest tavern to The Peak that Master Sy was prepared to afford. It was a place where rich people went, not thief-takers, and certainly not a dung-boy cut-purse from Shipwrights. It was the middle of the day, the sort of time when a place like this was quiet and empty, but the few people there still stared at them both, muttering under their breath as Berren and Master Sy passed their tables. The tavern-keeper, on the other hand, didn’t seem bothered in the least. He gave the thief-taker a nod as if they were old friends. Almost before Master Sy was in his seat, a whole roasted duck was set down on the table in front of them. Then bread, still warm from the oven, two glasses, and a bottle of something dark and red. Master Sy picked up the bottle and turned it over in his hand. He was smiling.
‘Now that’s something you don’t get to see every day.’ He sighed a happy sigh. He was limping, Berren had noticed. Not badly, but enough that Berren could see. ‘You drink much wine in Shipwrights, lad?’
Berren nodded vigorously. Watery stuff that Hatchet’s boys stole from Club-Headed Jin when they got the chance, which wasn’t very often. And then they’d wait for Hatchet to be asleep or drunk, and they’d get it out and pass it from one to another in the dark. Times like that they’d all been a gang together.
Times like that. Yeh. He’d spent most of the night lying awake, thinking of One-Thumb lying dead in the dirt. Thinking of the horror on Lilissa’s face when she’d seen the blood on his hands. He’d gone to Trickle Street to save her, to win her, and somehow, in the saving, he’d lost her. He’d seen it in her eyes even as they were leaving. It left a bitter taste, one that jarred with the thief-taker’s good humour.
Times like that. Yeh. Times like that hadn’t come around too often. Mostly they’d been at each others’ throats, like cats in a cage.
‘Well not like this you haven’t.’ Master Sy broke the wax seal around the bottle’s neck and levered the cork out with a knife. ‘This is from my home, lad. It’s come halfway around the world to be here. Just like me.’ He poured one for himself and then tipped a thimbleful into Berren’s glass. ‘Mind, though. Remember the beer in the Eight Pillars of Smoke. This is stronger stuff. Try not to make an idiot of yourself. Sip it. If you gulp it, it’ll knock you flat. Like all the best things in life.’
Berren took a sip. Even as the wine touched his lips, it seemed to steal into his mouth, setting his tongue on fire. He recoiled and coughed and the thief-taker laughed. Then Master Sy tore a wing off the duck and waved at Berren to eat.
‘What happened to your leg, master?’
‘Oh, I landed badly chasing one of the Dag’s pirates in the tunnels under Reeper Hill.’ He shrugged.
‘Did you get them?’
‘They were there right enough. Hiding away with their loot. Caught them red-handed. Unfortunately Justicar Kol and his soldiers got there first. Kol himself.’ He shook his head. ‘I forget, sometimes, that our Justicar used to swing a sword with the best of them. No.’ He sighed. ‘Our pirates are all done now. We did what Kol wanted us to do. We got the Bloody Dag out of Siltside and then we rounded up his men and now they’re all dead or on their way to the mines and that’s the end of it.’ Master Sy’s lips twitched, as though he’d tasted something sour. Berren paused between stuffing strips of juicy meat into his mouth.
‘And where were you last night?’ This time the thief-taker raised a knowing eyebrow. Berren flushed and looked away.
‘I went to Mistress Lilissa, like you said. Just in case.’
‘Hmmm.’ Master Sy nodded. ‘Didn’t do anything you shouldn’t, I hope.’
Berren shook his head. What was he supposed to say? Master Sy always knew everything, always. ‘I kept her safe,’ he said, which was at least true. ‘I didn’t touch her. I just kept her safe.’
‘Then you did good.’ The thief-taker sniffed and gave Berren a look that cut like glass. ‘Kasmin came by in the small hours. Seems there was some trouble in the Barrow of Beer last night.’ His eyes didn’t flinch and Berren felt like they’d nailed him to his chair. ‘He didn’t say much as to what it was about. Mentioned something about you having a run-in with a gang from the docks.’
Berren opened his mouth, but at the sight of the thief-taker, everything he could think of to say dived straight back down his throat. The thief-taker raised a hand. ‘I don’t think I want to know anything about it. Kasmin said you did good, and he doesn’t say that about much. I half expected to pay a visit to Mistress Lilissa and find you a bloody mess on the floor again, but no, the next thing I know you’re on my doorstep. And not even a scratch. Although you do look as though you were up for most of the night.’
‘Talking.’ Berren gave a non-committal shrug. Yeh, they’d talked. Not for long, though. He’d spent most of the night roaming the city. Lilissa’s face when she’d looked at him had been too hard to bear. You could hardly blame her for wanting a nice safe fishmonger’s son. Not after what she’d seen. But still, looks cut worse than blades sometimes. After that, he couldn’t have slept even if he hadn’t kept on seeing Kasmin crack One-Thumb’s head open. ‘Did he…?’ Ah, what to say that wouldn’t make things worse? But that was the thing about Master Sy, the thing that made him the thief-taker he was. You never knew how much he knew. And the only way to deal with that was to say nothing at all.
‘Did he what?’
‘Did he say anything else?’
At last Master Sy’s eyes wandered elsewhere and let him go. The thief-taker chuckled. ‘He said I ought to get on and teach you swords before someone else does. I imagine he meant him.’
Berren almost jumped out of his seat. For a moment, Jerrin’s dead face stopped staring at him. For a moment, the memory of Lilissa closing her door was gone. ‘Did he…? And…?’
‘Patience, lad.’ Very slowly, Master Sy nodded. ‘Yes, I’ll teach you how to fight with a sword, lad. You have my solemn promise to that. But letters first. I’ll get the priests at the solar temple to do it. You’ll do your letters with them by day, and in the evenings, once you’re started, I’ll show you how to hold a sword.’
‘Priests?’ Berren’s faced scrunched up in despair.
‘Yes, priests. You want to learn swords, you learn letters. That’s the price.’
Berren slumped and rolled his eyes.
‘Be good to keep you out the way for a few months.’ Master Sy gave him a sharp look. ‘Strange thing. Kol’s men didn’t manage to take a single one of those pirates alive. That’s why I was doing a stupid thing like chasing after one of them in the pitch black and ended up buggering my foot.’ He snorted. ‘We can’t take a man like Regis down without having someone to stand up and point a finger, and there’s no one left who can do that. Kol doesn’t want to know. We have to let him go. For now. So best you’re out of the way.’
‘But what about the Dag?’
‘Already on his way to the mines, nice and quiet. A few weeks from now he’ll be a thousand miles away where no one gives a fig what he says. And no one comes back from the mines. He’ll most likely be dead before the winter.’
‘But won’t he…?’ Berren shivered. He had visions of snuffers, creeping after him everywhere he went. ‘Master, won’t the harbour-master… Isn’t he going to try to…’
‘He’ll watch us, lad, and we’ll watch him, and sooner or later he’ll be doing something he shouldn’t and I’ll be there waiting for him.’
‘Yeh.’ Berren grinned. ‘In a dark alley.’ Except every time he thought of that, of the day he’d met the thief-taker, now he saw Jerrin too.
The thief-taker shook his head. ‘No, lad. Not like that. That’s not how it works. That makes us no better than the thieves we catch. Don’t you worry. You apply yourself to learning your letters and leave our friend the harbour-master to me. Once I’m done with him, I promise you: swords.’ Master Sy reached under the table. His hand came back holding another golden emperor and he slid it across the table. ‘You still got the last one?’
Berren nodded. ‘Most of it.’
‘You remember what I told you to do with it?’
He nodded again.
‘Well here’s another one, lad. For your part. Now go and get it right this time.’ He laughed and touched Berren lightly on the back of the hand. ‘Probably best to avoid the sea-docks, though. I’d try the Point if I were you.’
The thief-taker pushed back his chair and stretched. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me, lad, I was up all night and I haven’t had any sleep and even thief-takers have to rest. So I’m going home. And you, lad, for the rest of today you can do whatever you like. Have some fun.’
Berren watched his master hobble away. From behind, the limp looked worse. And then, once the thief-taker was gone, he sat back in his chair and picked the duck-carcass clean while he stared out of the window. The summer sun was high and sunset was still hours away. He smiled the happy smile of a full belly. He walked outside and stared down the hillside towards the sea-docks and the dozens and dozens of ships from every corner of the world, all sitting there in the gleaming shimmering water. He had two emperors in his pocket. For a day, the world was his.
He saw One-Thumb again, for a moment, shouting and cursing and pleading and whimpering, and this time he smiled at that too. He thumbed his nose at his ghost and slowly walked down to the sea. Somehow, he knew the thief-taker was right. Even if he didn’t quite know what it was yet, he could be anything.
Whatever. I. Like.