I LEARNED MANY THINGS those first months in Tarbean.
I learned which inns and restaurants threw away the best food, and how rotten food needed to be before it made you sick to eat it.
I learned that the walled complex of buildings near the docks was the Temple of Tehlu. The Tehlins sometimes gave out bread, making us say prayers before we could take our loaf. I didn’t mind. It was easier than begging. Sometimes the grey-robed priests tried to get me to come into the church to say the prayers, but I’d heard rumors and ran away whenever I was asked, whether I had my loaf or no.
I learned how to hide. I had a secret place atop an old tannery where three roofs met, making a shelter from the wind and rain. Ben’s book I secreted away under the rafters, wrapped in canvas. I handled it only rarely, like a holy relic. It was the last solid piece of my past, and I took every precaution to keep it safe.
I learned that Tarbean is vast. You cannot understand if you have not seen it yourself. It is like the ocean. I can tell you of the waves and water, but you don’t begin to get an inkling of its size until you stand on the shore. You don’t really understand the ocean until you are in the midst of it, nothing but ocean on all sides, stretching away endlessly. Only then do you realize how small you are, how powerless.
Part of Tarbean’s vastness is the fact that it is divided into a thousand small pieces, each with its own personality. There was Downings, Drover Court, the Wash, Middletown, Tallows, Tunning, Dockside, the Tarway, Seamling Lane…. You could live your whole life in Tarbean and never know all its parts.
But for most practical purposes Tarbean had two pieces: Waterside and Hillside. Waterside is where people are poor. That makes them beggars, thieves, and whores. Hillside is where people are rich. That makes them solicitors, politicians, and courtesans.
I had been in Tarbean for two months when I first thought to try my hand at begging Hillside. Winter gripped the city firmly and the Midwinter Pageantry was making the streets more dangerous than usual.
This was shocking to me. Every winter for the entirety of my young life our troupe had organized the Midwinter Pageantry for some town. Dressed in demon masks, we would terrorize them for the seven days of High Mourning, much to everyone’s delight. My father played an Encanis so convincing you’d think we’d conjured him. Most importantly, he could be frightening and careful at the same time. No one was ever hurt when our troupe was in charge.
But in Tarbean it was different. Oh, the pieces of the pageantry were all the same. There were still men in garishly painted demon masks skulking about the city, making mischief. Encanis was out there too, in the traditional black mask, making more serious trouble. And though I hadn’t seen him, I didn’t doubt that silver-masked Tehlu was striding around the better neighborhoods, playing his part. As I said, the pieces of the pageantry were the same.
But they played out differently. For one thing, Tarbean was too big for one troupe to provide enough demons. A hundred troupes wouldn’t be enough. So, rather than pay for professionals, as would be sensible and safe, the churches in Tarbean took the more profitable path of selling demon masks.
Because of this, on the first day of High Mourning ten thousand demons were set loose on the city. Ten thousand amateur demons, with license to make whatever mischief they had minds to.
This might seem like an ideal situation for a young thief to take advantage of, but really the opposite was true. The demons were always thickest Waterside. And while the great majority behaved properly, fleeing at the sound of Tehlu’s name and keeping their devilry within reasonable bounds, many did not. Things were dangerous the first few days of High Mourning, and I spent most of my time simply staying out of harm’s way.
But as Midwinter approached, things settled down. The number of demons steadily decreased as people lost their masks or tired of the game. Tehlu no doubt eliminated his share as well, but silver mask or no, he was only one man. He could hardly cover the whole of Tarbean in just seven days’ time.
I chose the last day of Mourning for my trip Hillside. Spirits are always high on Midwinter’s Day, and high spirits mean good begging. Best of all, the ranks of the demons were noticeably thinned, which meant it was reasonably safe to be walking the streets again.
I set out in the early afternoon, hungry because I couldn’t find any bread to steal. I remember feeling vaguely excited as I headed toward Hillside. Maybe some part of me remembered what Midwinter had been like with my family: warm meals and warm beds afterward. Maybe I had been infected by the smell of evergreen boughs being gathered into piles and set ablaze in
celebration of Tehlu’s triumph.
That day I learned two things. I learned why beggars stay Waterside, and I learned that no matter what the church might tell you, Midwinter is a time for demons.
I emerged from an alley and was instantly struck by the difference in atmosphere between this part of the city and where I had come from.
Waterside, merchants wheedled and cajoled customers, hoping to lure them into their shops. Should that fail, they were not shy about bursting into fits of bellicosity: cursing or even openly bullying customers.
Here the shop owners wrung their hands nervously. They bowed and scraped and were unfailingly polite. Voices were never raised. After the brutal reality of things Waterside, it seemed to me as if I had stumbled into a formal ball. Everyone was dressed in new clothes. Everyone was clean, and they all seemed to be participating in some sort of intricate social dance.
But there were shadows here, too. As I surveyed the street I spotted a pair of men lurking in the alleyway across from me. Their masks were quite good, bloodred and fierce. One had a gaping mouth and the other a grimace of pointed white teeth. They were both wearing the traditional black hooded robes, which I approved of. So many of the demons Waterside didn’t bother with the proper costume.
The pair of demons slipped out to follow a well-dressed young couple who were strolling idly down the street, arm in arm. The demons stalked them carefully for nearly a hundred feet, then one of them snatched the gentleman’s hat and thrust it into a nearby snowdrift. The other grabbed the woman in a rough embrace and lifted her from the ground. She shrieked while the man struggled with the demon for possession of his walking stick, obviously flummoxed by the situation.
Luckily his lady maintained her composure. “Tehus! Tehus!” she shouted.
“Tehus antausa eha!”
At the sound of Tehlu’s name the two red-masked figures cowered, then turned and ran off down the street.
Everyone cheered. One of the shopkeepers helped the gentleman retrieve his hat. I was rather surprised by the civility of it all. Apparently even the demons were polite on the good side of town.
Emboldened by what I had seen, I eyed the crowd, looking for my best prospects. I stepped up to a young woman. She wore a powder blue dress and had a wrap of white fur. Her hair was long and golden, curled artfully around her face.
As I stepped forward she looked down at me and stopped. I heard a startled intake of breath as one hand went to her mouth. “Pennies, ma’am?” I
held out my hand and made it tremble just a little. My voice trembled too. “Please?” I tried to look every bit as small and hopeless as I felt. I shuffled from foot to foot in the thin grey snow.
“You poor dear,” she sighed almost too quietly for me to hear. She fumbled with the purse at her side, either unable or unwilling to take her eyes from me. After a moment she looked inside her purse and brought something out. As she curled my fingers around it I felt the cold, reassuring weight of a coin.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said automatically, I looked down for a moment and saw silver glinting through my fingers. I opened my hand and saw a silver penny. A whole silver penny.
I gaped. A silver penny was worth ten copper pennies, or fifty iron ones. More than that, it was worth a full belly every night for half a month. For an iron penny I could sleep on the floor at the Red Eye for the night, for two I could sleep on the hearth by the embers of the evening fire. I could buy a rag blanket that I would hide on the rooftops, keeping me warm all winter.
I looked up at the woman, who was still looking down at me with pitying eyes. She couldn’t know what this meant. “Lady, thank you,” my voice cracked. I remembered one of the things that we said back when I lived in the troupe. “May all your stories be glad ones, and your roads be smooth and short.”
She smiled at me and might have said something, but I got a strange feeling near the base of my neck. Someone was watching me. On the street you either develop a sensitivity to certain things, or your life is miserable and short.
I looked around and saw a shopkeeper talking with a guard and gesturing in my direction. This wasn’t some Waterside guard. He was clean-shaven and upright. He wore a black leather jerkin with metal studs and carried a brass-bound club as long as his arm. I caught scraps of what the shopkeeper was saying.
“…customers. Who’s going to buy chocolate with…” He gestured my way again and said something I couldn’t catch. “…pays you? That’s right. Maybe I should mention…”
The guard turned his head to look in my direction. I caught his eyes. I turned and ran.
I headed for the first alley I saw, my thin shoes slipping on the light layer of snow that covered the ground. I heard his heavy boots pounding behind me as I turned into a second alley branching off from the first.
My breath was burning in my chest as I looked for somewhere to go, somewhere to hide. But I didn’t know this part of the city. There were no piles of trash to worm into, no burned-out buildings to climb through. I felt sharp frozen gravel slice through the thin sole of one of my shoes. Pain tore through
my foot as I forced myself to keep running.
I ran into a dead end after my third turning. I was halfway up one of the walls when I felt a hand close around my ankle and pull me to the ground.
My head hit the cobblestones and the world spun dizzily as the guard lifted me off the ground, holding me by one wrist and my hair. “Clever boy, aren’t you?” he panted, his breath hot on my face. He smelled like leather and sweat. “You’re old enough, you should know not to run by now.” He shook me angrily and twisted my hair. I cried out as the alley tilted around me.
He pressed me roughly against a wall. “You should know enough not to be coming Hillside either.” He shook me. “You dumb, boy?”
“No,” I said muzzily as I felt for the cool wall with my free hand. “No.”
My answer seemed to infuriate him. “No?” he bit off the word. “You got me in trouble, boy. I might get written up. If you aren’t dumb, then you must need a lesson.” He spun me around and threw me down. I slid in the greasy alley snow. My elbow struck the ground and my arm went numb. The hand clutching a month of food, warm blankets, and dry shoes came open. Something precious flew away and landed without even a clink as it hit the ground.
I hardly noticed. The air hummed before his club cracked against my leg. He snarled at me, “Don’t come Hillside, understand?” The club caught me again, this time across the shoulder blades. “Everything past Fallow Street is off limits to you little whore’s sons. Understand?” he backhanded me across the face and I tasted blood as my head careened off the snow-covered cobbles. I curled into a ball as he hissed down at me. “And Mill Street and Mill Market is where I work, so you never. Come. Back. Here. Again.” He
punctuated each word with a blow from his stick. “Understand?”
I lay there shaking in the churned-up snow, hoping it was over. Hoping he would just go away. “Understand?” He kicked me in the stomach and I felt something tear inside of me.
I cried out and must have babbled something. He kicked me again when I didn’t get up, then went away.
I think I passed out or lay in a daze. When I finally came to my senses again, it was dusk. I was cold to the very center of my bones. I crawled around in the muddy snow and wet garbage, searching for the silver penny with fingers so numb with cold they would barely work.
One of my eyes was swelled shut and I could taste blood, but I searched until the last scrap of evening’s light was gone. Even after the alley had gone black as tar I kept sifting the snow with my hands, though I knew in my heart of hearts that my fingers were too numb to feel the coin even if I chanced across it.
I used the wall to get to my feet and started to walk. My wounded foot made progress slow. Pain stabbed up my leg with each step, and I tried to use
the wall as a crutch to keep some weight off it.
I moved into Waterside, the part of the city that was more a home to me than anywhere else. My foot grew numb and wooden from the cold, and while that worried some rational piece of me, my practical side was just glad there was one less part of me that hurt.
It was miles back to my secret place, and my limping progress was slow. At some point I must have fallen. I don’t remember it, but I do remember lying in the snow and realizing how delightfully comfortable it was. I felt sleep drawing itself over me like a thick blanket, like death.
I closed my eyes. I remember the deep silence of the deserted street around me. I was too numb and tired to be properly afraid. In my delirium, I imagined death in the form of a great bird with wings of fire and shadow. It hovered above, watching patiently, waiting for me….
I slept, and the great bird settled its burning wings around me. I imagined a delicious warmth. Then its claws were in me, tearing me open—
No, it was just the pain of my torn ribs as someone rolled me onto my back.
Blearily, I opened an eye and saw a demon standing over me. In my confused and credulous state, the sight of the man in the demon mask startled me into wakefulness, the seductive warmth I had felt a moment ago vanished, leaving my body limp and leaden.
“It is. I told you. There’s a kid lying in the snow here!” The demon lifted me to my feet.
Now awake, I noticed his mask was sheer black. This was Encanis, Lord of Demons. He set me unsteadily onto my feet and began to brush away the snow that covered me.
Through my good eye I saw a figure in a livid green mask standing nearby. “Come on…” the other demon said urgently, her voice sounding hollowly from behind the rows of pointed teeth.
Encanis ignored her. “Are you okay?”
I couldn’t think of a response, so I concentrated on keeping my balance as the man continued to brush the snow away with the sleeve of his dark robe. I heard the sound of distant horns.
The other demon looked nervously down the road. “If we don’t keep ahead of them we’ll be up to our shins in it,” she hissed nervously.
Encanis brushed the snow out of my hair with his dark gloved fingers, then paused and leaned in closer to look at my face. His dark mask loomed oddly in my blurry vision.
“God’s body, Holly, someone’s beaten hell out of this kid. On Midwinter’s Day, too.”
“Guard,” I managed to croak. I tasted blood when I said the word. “You’re freezing,” Encanis said and began to chafe my arms and legs with
his hands, trying to get my blood flowing again. “You’ll have to come with us.”
The horns sounded again, closer. They were mixed with the dim sounds of a crowd.
“Don’t be stupid,” the other demon said. “He’s in no shape to go running through the city.”
“He’s in no shape to stay here,” Encanis snapped. He continued to massage my arms and legs roughly. Some feeling was slowly returning to them, mostly a stinging, prickly heat that was like a painful mockery of the soothing warmth I had felt a minute ago when I was drifting off to sleep. Pain jabbed at me each time he went over a bruise, but my body was too tired to flinch away.
The green-masked demon came close and laid a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “We have to go now, Gerrek! Someone else will take care of him.” She tried to pull her friend away and met with no success. “If they find us here with him they’ll assume we did it.”
The man behind the black mask swore, then nodded and began to rummage around underneath his robe. “Don’t lie down again,” he said to me in urgent tones. “And get inside. Somewhere you can warm up.” The crowd sounds were close enough for me to hear individual voices mixed with the noise of horses’ hooves and creaking wooden wheels. The man in the black mask held out his hand.
It took me a moment to focus on what he held. A silver talent, thicker and heavier than the penny I had lost. So much money I could hardly think of it. “Go on, take it.”
He was a form of darkness, black hooded cloak, black mask, black gloves. Encanis stood in front of me holding out a bright bit of silver that caught the moonlight. I was reminded of the scene from Daeonica where Tarsus sells his soul.
I took the talent, but my hand was so numb I couldn’t feel it. I had to look down to make sure my fingers were gripping it. I imagined I could feel warmth radiating up my arm, I felt stronger. I grinned at the man in the black mask.
“Take my gloves too.” He pulled them off and pushed them against my chest. Then the woman in the green demon mask pulled my benefactor away before I could give him any word of thanks. I watched the two of them go. Their dark robes made them look like pieces of retreating shadow against the charcoal colors of Tarbean’s moonlit streets.
Not even a minute passed before I saw the pageantry’s torchlight come around the corner toward me. The voices of a hundred men and women singing and shouting crashed over me like waves. I moved away until I felt my back press up against a wall, then I slid weakly sideways until I found a
I watched the pageantry from my vantage there. People poured by, shouting and laughing. Tehlu stood tall and proud in the back of a wagon drawn by four white horses. His silver mask gleamed in the torchlight. His white robes were immaculate and lined with fur at the cuff and collar. Grey-robed priests followed along beside the wagon, ringing bells and chanting. Many of them wore the heavy iron chains of penitent priests. The sound of the voices and the bells, the chanting and the chains mingled to make a sort of music. All eyes were for Tehlu. No one saw me standing in the shadows of the doorway.
It took nearly ten minutes for all of them to pass, only then did I emerge and begin to make my careful way home. It was slow going, but I felt fortified by the coin I held. I checked the talent every dozen steps or so to reassure myself that my numb hand was still gripping it tightly. I wanted to put on the gloves I had been given, but I feared to drop the coin and lose it in the snow.
I don’t know how long it took for me to get back. The walking warmed me slightly, though my feet still felt wooden and numb. When I looked back over my shoulder, my trail was marked by a smear of blood in every other footprint. It reassured me in an odd way. A foot that bleeds is better than one that is frozen solid.
I stopped at the first inn I recognized, the Laughing Man. It was full of music, singing, and celebration. I avoided the front door and went around to the back alley. There were a pair of young girls chatting in the kitchen doorway, avoiding their work.
I limped up to them, using the wall as a crutch. They didn’t notice me until I was nearly on top of them. The younger one looked up at me and gasped.
I took a step closer. “Could one of you bring me food and a blanket? I can pay.” I held out my hand and was frightened by how much it shook. It was smeared with blood from when I had touched the side of my face. The inside of my mouth felt raw. It hurt to talk. “Please?”
They looked at me for a moment in stunned silence. Then they looked at each other and the older of the two motioned the other inside. The young girl disappeared through the door without a word. The older girl, who might have been sixteen, came closer to me and held out her hand.
I gave her the coin and let my arm fall heavily to my side. She looked at it and disappeared inside after a second long glance at me.
Through the open doorway I heard the warm, bustling sounds of a busy inn: the low murmur of conversation, punctuated with laughter, the bright clink of bottle glass, and the dull thump of wooden tankards on tabletops.
And, threading gently through it all, a lute played in the background. It was faint, almost drowned by the other noise, but I heard it the same way a
mother can mark her child crying from a dozen rooms away. The music was like a memory of family, of friendship and warm belonging. It made my gut twist and my teeth ache. For a moment my hands stopped aching from the cold, and instead longed for the familiar feel of music running through them.
I took a slow, shuffling step. Slowly, sliding along the wall, I moved back away from the doorway until I couldn’t hear the music anymore. Then I took another step, until my hands hurt with the cold again and the ache in my chest came from nothing more than broken ribs. They were simpler pains, easier to endure.
I don’t know how long it was before the two girls came back. The younger one held out a blanket wrapped around something. I hugged it to my aching chest. It seemed disproportionately heavy for its size, but my arms were trembling slightly under their own weight, so it was hard to tell. The older girl held out a small, solid purse. I took it as well, clutching it so tightly my frostburned fingers ached.
She looked at me. “You can have a corner by the fire in here if you want
The younger girl nodded quickly. “Nattie won’t mind.” She took a step
and reached out to take my arm.
I jerked away from her, almost falling. “No!” I meant to shout but it came out as a weak croak, “Don’t touch me.” My voice was shaking, though I couldn’t tell if I was angry or afraid. I staggered away against the wall. My voice was blurry in my ears. “I’ll be fine.”
The younger girl started to cry, her hands hanging useless at her sides. “I’ve got somewhere to go.” My voice cracked and I turned away. I
hurried off as fast as I could. I wasn’t sure what I was running from, unless it was people. That was another lesson I had learned perhaps too well: people meant pain. I heard a few muffled sobs behind me. It seemed a long while before I made it to the corner.
I made it to my hidden place, where the roofs of two buildings met underneath the overhang of a third. I don’t know how I managed to climb up there.
Inside the blanket was a whole flask of spiced wine and a loaf of fresh bread nestled next to a turkey breast bigger than both my balled fists. I wrapped myself in the blanket and moved out of the wind as the snow turned to sleet. The brick of the chimney behind me was warm and wonderful.
The first swallow of wine burned my mouth like fire where it was cut. But the second didn’t sting nearly so much. The bread was soft and the turkey was still warm.
I woke at midnight when all the bells in the city started ringing. People ran and shouted in the streets. The seven days of High Mourning were behind us. Midwinter was past. A new year had begun.