Cold wind blew through Wanted Way, shutters slammed shut, then slammed open, then shut again. Our little piece of quiet, a home for the homeless, abanadoned by every one but the abandoned. Sun was lowering in the Beggar’s Quart. Sun was always low in the Beggar’s Quart. Couldn’t afford daylight down here, had to find our own kicks. So while me and the new kid rolled dice, playing for toothpicks, we listened to Hunglo brag.
“Bitch wunnit stop screamin’,” Hunglo boasted, “so’s I cut her throat whilst she gurgled. Then I finished!”
The two of them laughed, so I chuckled too. “Whatcha do wit’ th’body?” I asked innocently. They stopped laughing.
Hunglo looked at me, his left eyelid hanging low, making him look stupid. Which he was. “Huh? Oh, I left it in ’er bed wit’ her trussed up husband,” he laughed. “Spend their last moments together.” When he noticed the new kid weren’t laughing no more, it became a chuckle, then silence. “Wassa matter, Daan?” he asked, timidly.
“I’m about to smack you fuckin’ silly, that’s what!” I growled. “What part of stay in the Beggar’s Quart dinnit you understan’, you limp-eyed sheepfucker?”
“I din’ take nothin’, and none o’ the gaffer saw me,” he argued.
“Oh yes, ‘cause after killin’ some rich bint in ‘er home in Residence, and leavin’ ‘er husband livin’ to tell th’tale, ya shouldn’t take nothin’ that might help the gang, eh?” I said mockingly. I stood up, and the kid shuffled back his chairs. I took out my sap as I crossed to Hunglo. “Last I checked, the only people sellin’ us cin was the gaffers and the Hearth. You fuck that up for us, then we’ll fuck you up,” I threatened.
“Hey Daan,” the kid said. “Some rube’s walkin’ up th’way.”
I glared menacingly at Hunglo. I spat on the ground. “Fan out,” I grumbled.
We surrounded the gaffer looking dandy in no time. Up close, he was more wilder, but damn stupid enough to walk through Wanted Way.
“Boss,” Hunglo whispered. “That’s that Chaplain from them posters, ain’t it?”
I looked at the rube. Tallish, but fat round the waist and stooped like an old man. Balding and beady eyes, and a stupid looking grin on his face. He stopped and saluted us. “Why, hello there, gentlemen,” he bowed and grinned. “I’ll need to step around you, now.”
“Y’ain’t goin’ nowhere, Thonius,” I smirked.
Thonius continued smiling. He actually seemed almost excited. “My reputation precedes me, I see.” He held his hands apart from his body, waist level, knees as bent as his crocker. “You have me at a disadvantage.”
“T’ain’t no secret,” I smiled back. I was unnerved by him, but I wouldn’t show it, not with the boys watching. “I know yer face well as me ma’s,” I gestured to the wanted posters plastered all over the boarded up buildings. Thonius’ grin writ in ink. I t’ain’t much of a reader, but I know numbers, and the squiggly I like to see beside big ones. Oh, this was our lucky day. Chubby Chaplain won’t be no hard task to take down. And a thousand silver buys a lot of cin…
The new kid elbowed me. “Boss, this the Thonius?” he whispered, afraid.
“The one who almost kilt Sylvestus?” Hunglo whispered back.
“Ye, the one who took ‘is hand an’ everythin’,” the new kid responded.
“Shut up,” I growled.
“Boy, boys, boys,” Thonius said. “No need to argue about hospitality. From my hosts, I ask only one of two things,” he continued. “You can get out of my way…” Suddenly knives appeared in every crook of his hand, fanned out like claws, without his fingers ever touching his belt. “…or you can all die,” he finished. He smiled. “I’m not picky.”
The new kid turned heel and ran down Wanted Way. Without turning, I narrowed my eyes at him. His lips curled up, showing me his off-white teeth. Quietly, Hunglo and I backed up to the side of the way.
We watched him stalk down the Way. “Gather the boys,” I said out loud. “I gots a job fer ‘em.”
I left Dennonyn at the end of the alley, making sure he was actually looking out for gaffers and sancsters. I caught him peeking over his shoulder as I stepped over a puddle of foul-smelling water, and he quickly went back to nervously scanning the str ets.
The smell got worse as the deeper I went in. If the obvious dead end didn’t discourage them, the powerful stench of rotting garbage and sour vomit would drive back even the bloodiest of the brave. The crossing roofs overhead began to cut off the dim daylight, and I made my way in more carefully, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. Then I s w him.
His back was against the wall and he was sitting in a deep pool of thick, viscous water that smelled of death. Or maybe it was him – red, black and brown fluid had dried around the wound in his stomach. I leaned close, and tore open his tunic to look at the wound.
We’d never met before, he and I, but I knew him by his color. The burning wheel, Micklin had told me, his eyes glittering. Under the corpse’s ripped tunic I saw it, tattooed on his abdomen – the wagon wheel of my Sanct, alight with inked flame. My partner, incognito. I didn’t even know his name.
He held a brick in his hand, and I looked up at our dead drop. The hole in the wall was still there, but uncharacteristically empty. I smashed my hand into the brick wall.
“What’s wrong?” Dennonyn asked behind me.
“The silver is gone,” I said through gritted teeth. “Every coin Master Sensa trusted to us, gone.” I felt Dennonyn’s huge hand on my shoulder, as he often did. He pinched the road that travels between my plexus and my crown, and I felt the anger subsiding.
“‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy,’” Dennonyn reminded me gently.
I felt myself relax. Dennonyn touched three more spots from my spine to my neck, and I felt the the stars rush into my brow. I felt the beard on my chin tickle and uncurl as the energy pushed out from my pores.
“See,” Dennonyn commanded.
The Burning Wheel steps into the alleyway. He is carrying a sheepskin scroll for his bushmen, Broken Brow and Key Keeper. He is sweating profusely. He drags his limping leg through the rotting water. He pulls out the brick and tries to cram the scroll inside. It won’t fit. A silhouette appears at the end of the alley. A crossbow bolt thrums into Burning Wheel’s stomach, and he gasps. He looks up, but the mailed fist steals his stars.
I drew a choking breath as my third eye closed. I was trembling, I could see the veins on my arms bulge blue with blood and stars. Collect my debt another night, I prayed. Dennonyn pulled me up and tapped two places near my groin, and the shakes left me.
Dennonyn pulled me into an embrace, and for a second I let myself be his little brother again. No matter what else – the expulsion from the school, the impossible mission, the death of our last hope in this accursed Hollow House – we still had each other, finally. And it was worth it.
“Too bad Two-Boar didn’t fall for our scheme in the Residence Quart,” he said. “We could have lifted silver while we were searching for evidence.” He paused for a moment. “I wonder…”
A massive explosion shook the ground, and the brick held by the Burning Wheel slipped from his grasp. Den looked at me, then ran towards the mouth of the alley. I glanced back only once to the corpse.
Nalini the Nighttime, who owneth the stars
Show us where all past years are
Lift dusky veil and show thy face,
He longest for your embrace.
Nalini, push the gate and turnst the key
Open the door to Eternity
Take this star, he shinest bright
Collect my debt another night.
I detached a bead from my bracelet and flicked it towards him. He deserved better rites, but all three hands were full. I met Den at the street. Down the Way a house was freshly smoking, barely flaming.
“You see, Tyryn,” Den said proudly. “The stars are bright and death always near,” he boasted, “but Hyacinth makes our narrow path clear. The Wanderer is with us.”
I looked at the ramshackle, boarded up building, and thought I saw it wink at me. My stern mouth became a grin. “Let’s go play hooligans.”
Den grabbed my hand and began running. “Yes, my brother. Let’s.”
This couldn’t have turned out better. As soon as Tyryn and I jumped into the house, it was obvious that it was a den of cin. My prejudice against the Glorium had swayed my suspicion towards houses in the Residence Quarter. Now it was obvious they were operating in the Beggar’s Quarter. Operating to what end, we still had no idea.
Tyryn and I had travelled a long way from the Fingers to this muddy gutter-town. While our expulsions still stung me, I trusted Master Sensa – of course he could not send any Chaplain or Pastor, immediately recognizable by any sancster of station. I only regretted my last words to him before I descended from the First Finger. As I signalled Tyryn to search the drawers on the first floor, I ran up the creaking, flaming steps to the second floor and recalled how he had wrangled us into this mission.
The Third Hand did not believe in family ties, and thus when Tyryn and I were given as wards to them they split us – him to the Sanct of Starry Night, and I to Sol. They didn’t understand what we had been through, what we were to each other. Master Sensa did, of course… It’s obvious in hindsight.
I saw the expulsion as punishment for defying the Hand, but now I knew it was the only way the two of us could be together despite the harshly drawn lines between the Sancts of Five Finger Mountain. Not only that, with most of our agents in Sidiana handling the occupancy, he needed us. To slip surreptitiously into Anahearth, and find out why the High Hearth was giving in to so many of the Glorium’s demands, violation of the Accord or no.
Tyr and I thought we had struck fast when Two-Boar hired us to bus and barback the Spiked Eel. It was the largest safehouse of the Hearth outside of the Sanct itself. But we were too new, our background identities too suspicious and tenuous to be so immediately recruited. So while I waited to be made chaplain, or even brother, Tyr and I had to find other ways to move the mission forward.
First, we had to replenish our supply of silver. Without it, we were just another two orphan boys in a city full of them. We had no token from our Sanct, no authority but what we could buy. I tossed the room, finding little and nothing else. Suddenly, I heard Tyr shouting from below.
“A boy’s gotta make a living!” he shouted, in a boyish voice that said there are strangers here. Our cover is that we’re looting. I growled and intensified my search. I looked at the closet and opened it. Silk robes, worthless in the Beggar’s Quarter.
“Turn around, boy.”
I stopped tossing out the closet and turned around to see Kragyn, the wilder Gram had recently recruited not an hour before. What was he doing here? What did Gram know? Was he after Tyr and me? “Who are you calling boy?” I snarled. I stood up to my full height, jutting my chin out. I knew my beard made me look older than I was.
Kragyn looked unconcerned, he saw I was unarmed and him with a steel longsword. How a backwater hick like him was able to afford steel was something Tyr and I would have to look into. “The house is on fire,” he said stupidly. “The other boy is safe, you should go join him.”
Relief washed over me. I went back to tossing the closet. Thank Hyacinth, he didn’t know a thing, and hopefully that meant neither did Gram. He had leapt into the fire to save the two of us… I wish I had Tyr with me. With his Eye, he could see if this man’s intentions were truly good. “I’ve got no time for you,” I said. “There’s looting to be done.”
Kragyn looked around the room, obviously being searched. Hopefully he bought my cover – which wasn’t entirely inaccurate. Suddenly someone else entered the room, creeping into it, hunched over like an animal. Her eyes were wild, almost feral. “The house is on fire!” she squeaked out.
Gods, what is it with these backwoods wilders that they need state the obvious?
“I noticed,” I muttered. I knocked on the backboard of the closet. “There you are!” I cried. I looked around, then fixed my gaze on Kragyn’s sword. I ran up to him and grabbed his shoulder, pinched off the road to his Crown and Brow. “Strike there! Strike true! Then I’ll leave!” I said, and pinched again for good measure.
He looked at me. Hopefully, with his upper stars closed, my true motives would be obfuscated. “Come on, man!” I said, exasperated. “The sooner you break that down, the sooner I leave the fire!” He scanned my face, then shrugged. He charged and slammed his sword into the back of the closet, shattered and splintering the hardened wood in one stroke.
My jaw dropped. The strength of this man was uncanny. His blade was swift. But he had no Honorifica, no deeds that told of who he was…
I shook my head. The fire was dying, but I had to stay focused. The less people saw us here, the better. I docked past Kragyn, grabbed the hefty bag of silver, and spun around the feral woman. Down the stairs, and out into the cool air. The silver hang heavy at my hip; it’s weight was a counter to the one on my shoulders. One problem down, an empire to go.