If so, they’d done a damn good job of it: unlike Kingsway upstairs, you’d’ve spied the Queen on her litter before you’d’ve glimpsed a green uniform. In all seriousness, ’course, Tom reckoned that was more from lack of care than anything else – that, and the tipsy architecture, too.
In the two and a half months he’d spent living in the Soots, he’d come here often enough. It was, after all, the place to do business if you didn’t want anybody knowing your name, or you didn’t have a name, or you had the wrong one. You wouldn’t get asked for a writ around here, anyway, which’d been a mercy beyond belief in those days.
It didn’t surprise Tom that somebody around here, behind some misshapen doorway crouched deep in one of those alleyways, tucked into some dust-choked snarl of passageways that’d once been a tenement hall, had the kind of book that a kov like him might be looking for. What had surprised him was the source of this knowledge, the hand that’d penned the note that’d brought him down here – Ava Weaver.
In the first place, he found himself wondering – again – just who in the hell Ava Weaver was. Wondering at her connection to this mysterious contact. It was just another door, he reckoned, swathed in silk, just another gap between the puzzle pieces. Of course, he’d never asked, and he never would; being who he was, he knew the ostas that lived the longest were the ones that kept their noses to themselves. Didn’t keep his mind from working at it, though.
In the second place, it hadn’t been two weeks since they’d last spoken. It’d been more cheerful altogether than when they’d parted in Loshis, but he’d still left with the scratching need for something – anything – to help him untie a knot that’d been left in his heart. He’d kept himself dry that night, sleepless and splitting with a headache, but all it’d taken was an attempt at what Weaver’d taught him and a polished mirror to show him what she’d seen. The end of the political season had sent Diana visiting relatives in Hesse, and the house had echoed with a kind of encouraging emptiness.
But he’d admitted it, now, and it hung between them like a thread, and there was no taking it back. When he’d received the note, neat and succinct, and when he’d opened it with drunk, fumbling fingers, the thread gave a little tug. He’d slept it off before he’d replied, and he hadn’t had a drop to drink in the last two days.
And after all that, he wondered what she’d found in all this madness that was so important to him. He wouldn’t ask that, either, though he was grateful.
He’d written back the next day, getting the note to her in their usual fashion, spilling the requisite shills to ensure the silence of the messenger on his end. He was as succinct as she’d been, if a little less artful.
Will be at old pawnbroker at
corner of Hollow & Bergmot at time
So when the ninth of Roalis’d come, he’d readied himself insofar as he could. He’d cleaned up, but he was tired to his bones, and he was dressed like any other tsat that scraped out a decent enough living in the Dives, if a little more layered against the cold than he ought to’ve been. He’d kept a pair of gloves he’d come by when he lived down here, kept them tucked away at the house – they were patchy and threadbare and a little too big, and with the fingers cut haphazardly out, they reminded him of the gloves he’d worn and worn out back in the Rose.
He’d come early that morning, too early, maybe because he’d wanted to spend a precious hour or two slipping in and out of the crowds, chatting about the high, roiling Arova with the fishmongers in the crisp dawn air. Weaving among the nattles haggling at stalls, cutting-sharp raised voices – joining Estuan, snatches of Heshath and Riverword and Mugrobi – mingling with the burble of the crowd and the distant trill of a flute or plucking of a guitar. He saw long, tired faces, too, and clothes worn thin, and plenty of beggars; and once or twice, he’d felt the jostle of a sloppy pickpocket.
He got a few stray glances, a few that edged round the frazzled ends of his field, but in the whirlwind of that crowd, anyone who found themselves looking at him would soon find something more interesting to look at. For a little while, he blended in.
It was still too early when he tucked himself in to wait under the awning of old Burton’s, in sight of the crooked street-sign of Bergamot and Hollow. Somewhere along the way, he’d found himself in possession of an orange, and it was his intent to break his fast hastily before he had company. So he stood leaned up against the dusty, dark window in the shade, half-watching and -waiting, half-engaged in peeling the orange.
“You sharin’?” came a sharp little voice at Tom’s elbow.
He didn’t look down. “Nah. Beat it, lad.” He’d got half the peel off.
“Ain’t a lad.”
“Ain’t a lad?” Tom glanced over, then down.
There was a boch standing beside him, a wiry little thing in too-big clothes; two glittering black eyes peered up at him from underneath thick, serious-looking eyebrows. A couple of frayed braids fell over her thin shoulders.
“Huh. You got the birds to pay me?” he asked, once he’d peeled off the last scraps of hide from the orange and tossed them to the dirty stones.
The girl pouted. “Ain’t got no birds,” she shot back. “Mean old golly.”
Tom pulled a couple of wedges of orange free, then offered them to the girl. After a few suspicious moments, during which she looked him up and down several times, she took the orange slices. He tore off one for himself, and they stood there under the awning, side by side, chewing on orange slices contemplatively and watching passersby.
The girl held out her hand for another one, and Tom passed her the whole orange. Her brow furrowed. A few seconds later, through a mouthful of citrus, she asked, “What are you, anyway?”
“That’s a rude fuckin’ question.”
“Tell me an’ I’ll share.”
“I’m a hatcher.”
She tentatively offered him a couple of orange slices, and he took them, undeterred by her sooty little hands. “Honest,” he replied, popping one in his mouth. “Them that lives in the sewers. Didn’t you know? I’m civilized, but watch your fingers.”
A giggle got a smug, satisfied smile out of Tom. Headache might be easing off, he thought. To his surprise, the girl passed the orange back, and he took it, tearing off a couple more wedges for her and a couple more for himself. They spent the next few minutes passing the orange back and forth, sharing slices, and Tom idly told her about sewer life. He kept an eye out, glancing over each passing face in search of a familiar one.
When he saw one, he tossed what remained of the orange back to the girl. “Right – get gone, hey?” But she didn’t go. With a sigh, Tom fumbled in his pockets, then bent and pressed a few shills into her outstretched hand. “Be a good lass an’ dust, an’ not a word,” he murmured.
With an abrupt nod, she turned and ran, and it wasn’t long before she’d disappeared into the crowd. Tom rose and turned, lifting his brows a little apologetically.