Couldn’t focus on being quiet anymore. For such a big kov, he usually moved quiet-like, slipping like a shadow, but tonight, all his limbs felt heavy as iron; he could hear his boots scuffling the stones, threatening to make him stumble and trip. He’d taken such a beating that it hurt to fill his lungs up with air, and he could hear his breath wheezing in and out, whistling in his throat. He couldn’t tell how bad it was, but he didn’t like the funny, sharp pain that shot up through his chest every time he coughed.
He was still breathing, though, and he reckoned that counted for something.
Tonight, the broad, well-lit ways of the merchant district were for other people, with their bars spilling out music and bursts of chattering laughter, glowing warm against the cold. Ne – Tom took himself and his heavy steps, his bruises and his blood, down narrow alleyways where the buildings leaned, where the old wood creaked and popped and groaned.
If he’d paid attention, he might’ve seen the scurrying shapes of rats in the dark, heard their pattering feet splash through the stagnant rainwater that still clung to the cracks and corners and potholes. He might’ve seen a candle that glowed faintly in a third-story window, wavering in a draft, snuffed out as he went by; he might’ve heard a hushed argument behind a locked door, might’ve seen a little face peering out at him through gnawed, threadbare drapes that pulled tightly together as he drew even with the window.
As it was, one of his eyes was swollen halfway shut, and he squinted through the dark with the other, wincing at the pounding in his head. It was only when he saw the familiar curve of the familiar street, the apothecary’s sign with its chipping paint barely visible in the dark, that he paused. Relief washed through him. He’d gone to Grey for beatings like these a few times (and for the passive’s other, more lucrative talents, a few more), but the way was a warren, and punch-drunk as he was, it was a wonder he’d gotten where he’d meant to go.
He gulped down a deep breath, too deep – greedy – and then winced at the spear of pain in his side, hissing through his teeth. He stumbled, fumbled against a nearby wall, leaving a smear of blood where his hand scrabbled at the stone.
“Gods damn it,” he wheezed, “gods damn.”
He ran his other hand through a tangle of long, black hair, knotted, a little slick with what must’ve been blood. (Whose? His? He didn’t know.) After a moment, a moment thick and heavy with pain, he fumbled inside his old greatcoat, searching for a familiar weight in the inside pocket. With his hand unsteady, it took him some time to get out the handle of whisky, and then took him more to get the lid off.
It was worth it, though. He took a long drink. It was cheap chroveshit, but it was familiar, and he thought the burn of it in his throat eased something inside him; didn’t steady his hands, but steadied his nerves, maybe. A strange cold had seeped into his big frame, cut right through his coat, but now he felt a warmth inside him, waking up his blood a little more. Just enough, he thought. Anything to get him back to hama in as close to one piece as he got these days.
He reckoned Kirrah Grey could help him with that, too. Hoped, anyway, otherwise he wouldn’t’ve come stumbling through the dark to her door at this witch’s hour.
Tucking it back into his coat, he braced himself, then pushed himself off the wall. Not much further, he kept thinking. Still breathing; not much further. Like a mantra. He went a little further, tracing the stone with his fingertips, then made another turn, down an even narrower alleyway. This time, he heard the squeaks, felt the patter of little feet flee out in front of him to even darker and danker hideaways.
It was only when he’d come to the end of the alleyway that he stopped, ducking his head to fit his near two meters underneath the cramped archway, half-slumping against the little wooden door. Gritting his teeth, he raised a fist, then knocked three times: thump, thump, thump.