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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/1961198
Rated: 13+ · Novella · Fantasy · #1961198
A fantasy novel set in the Lands of Legend (Work in progress - Nanowrimo 2013)
The dice were cast. Though the tavern was as crowded, bordering on overcrowded and as noisy as it ever got, Leo heard the clatter as they bounced across the table very clearly. Being under the table probably helped but he would have thought that it was thick enough to stop the noise from getting through so clearly. Maybe there was something about the table that... what was the word he had heard again... magnified. Maybe there was something about the table that made the sound of the dice louder. And maybe it was loudest where he was now. In the darkest spot. Right under the middle of the table.

He lifted the bowl to his mouth and he tipped the last remnants of the watery scumgullion down his throat. It was the first hot meal he'd had in... well, that didn't bear thinking about. It might be a long time before he got another. Lifting a purse that contained golden crowns meant Perfidy had actually let him keep some of the silver for himself. And silver meant stew at the Three Shovels. That had been his... policy... for as long as he had remembered. Everybody said that the scumgullion at the Three Shovels was the best in Ongus. Often remarking that even the best scumgullion was still scumgullion, but Leo liked the taste of it. The richness of the chewy meat, and the bitterness of the turnips. If he ever had gold he could call his own he would not eat scumgullion, but with silver, scumgullion was what he would choose to eat.

He ran his finger around the inside of the bowl and licked it until all he could taste was finger. And then he did it again. And again. There was nothing left. But as long as he stayed under the table, he could probably stay inside in the warm until chucking out time. He wouldn't be easily noticed there. The shadows hid him well enough. It also meant less bumping about by bigger people and almost everybody was bigger than Leo was. Bumping was good outside in the streets, where it made it easier for you to get away with somebody's purse. But doing that inside the Three Shovels would be a big mistake. He might have only been welcome in there when he had silver to spend, but at least he was welcome then. Besides that – he would not have been at all surprised if the people who owned and worked in the tavern knew how old he was, and that meant he had to be very careful not to be caught stealing here. It was a pity – there was a purse that looked to be made of something like red velvet, hanging from the belt of somebody at the table, and a purse made of such a thing suggested wealth inside. So did the ornate dagger at his side. No. Best not to be tempted. Think of something else.

The dice were still clattering, and he sat up, reaching up to feel the bottom of the table. Was it unusually thin in the middle? Why did the noise seem so loud? It was almost like... occasionally, only occasionally, but more often now than it used to happen, when he found himself looking at purses hanging from peoples belts, occasionally he found himself seeing the purse much more clearly than he had before – as other things he could see seemed to fade into the background. When that happened – as it had happened today with the purse of gold and silver – he knew, he somehow knew – that this time he would get that purse, no questions, no risk. Now the dice were clattering far louder than they should, and the other noises of the tavern seemed to be fading away. Was he supposed to steal the dice – well, not supposed to, obviously nobody was supposed to steal, though what choice did you have sometimes... He looked around and saw with clarity a hand dart under the table to the red velvet purse – by the angle the owner's own hand, and he saw very clearly as the hand reached into a tiny pocket on the purse and drew out a dice, placing a dice from within the purse in its place. It was a smooth and... dextrous... motion. The hand withdrew back above the table.

Leo's eyes shot around looking at the legs of the other men at the table, and the long skirt of a woman too. He knew who they belonged to – some of them were honest people, local people, that he saw everyday. The type of people who could not afford to be cheated out of money by a man who wore a jeweled dagger and a red velvet purse. He pushed himself out through the largest gap he could see, and grabbed the edge of the table with his right hand to pull himself up. He had the wooden bowl in his left hand, and as the dice clattered across the table, he slammed it down to cover them.

“That man is cheating.” He announced to a suddenly nearly silent common room that seemed to be full of people staring at him.

The man tried to stand and the man next to him put a hand on his shoulder. “Stay down, Master, if you don't mind.” This was Borgen, a local carpenter, and a strong and powerful man. The well dressed man with the velvet purse was much smaller, but as he looked at Leo, Leo realised that he seemed much more dangerous than Borgen. Borgen spoke. “Leo, you'd better be very sure. I've got nine florins in that pile on the table and this gentleman needed to roll a double six to beat me, and you've just wrecked that bet. And calling a man a cheat is one of the worst insults there is besides.”

The man with the velvet purse spoke. He had an accent – Algandarve – but also a very smooth voice. “Leo...” he said the name in a tone dripping with malice. “...is quite correct. Little point in me denying it. My dice are trapped under that bowl he has in his left hand.” People started murmuring and standing up at other tables. Behind the bar, the bartender reached for a length of wood. The Algand looked around. “I suggest you take my purse and give it to the barman and it pays for drinks for everybody in this establishment until the money is gone. And I walk out of here.”

Borgen let him stand, and took his purse and opened it to look inside. “Aye. I think we can agree to that. But you'd better not come back here, Master Cheat. And I don't just mean this tavern. I wouldn't come back to the southern sides.”

The man walked to the door. “I will consider your advice, Master Carpenter. But if I come back, I will certainly make sure young Leo isn't here.” He walked out.

Borgen threw the purse over to the barman. “Keep serving till that's all spent. And give young Leo here another bowl of your best scumgullion. And one more each evening for the rest of the week.” He looked at Leo. “You really do need feeding up, lad. A boy your age shouldn't be so small.”

Leo knew he'd been right as usual. People here did know how old he was. Maybe he should ask them for the information.

He lifted the bowl, and looked at the dice. They were facing up – two sixes. He looked at them carefully. They seemed to be entirely normal dice... if there was some trick to them, he had no idea what it was. Why had the foreigner given up so easily? Either he had not been cheating, or if he had been, he probably could have bluffed it out unless somebody else could see something that Leo couldn't. A bowl of scumgullion was placed on the table next to him, and he took it back under the table. He probably did not need to hide at this point to stay in the tavern, at least until the money ran out, but he felt more comfortable there.

It was nearly dawn and the dawn at this time of year came late, when he found himself, bone tired and a little dizzy, but also stuffed with porridge paid for by somebody else, climbing down the stairs into the riverside hovel that he supposed he had to call his home, because it was the place he normally slept. The money from the cheat's purse had outlasted most of the drinkers but Arkamus, the landlord of the Three Shovels had insisted on closing for at least a couple of hours and so everybody had been dispersed. As he pushed his way past the sacking that passed for a door, he could see Perfidy fussing over a pile of sticks and trying to coax a small fire. She looked up at him and opened her mouth to tell him what she thought of him. He raised a finger to stop her, then reached inside his tunic and pulled out the two loaves of day old bread that they had let him take away from the kitchen of the Three Shovels. Her mouth stayed open as she stared at it.

“Did you have to put it inside your tunic?” she finally said. “When was the last time you had a wash?”

“Yes, I did. Or it would have been taken off me. And I went in the river only about a week ago. Upriver too.”

“Thank God for small mercies, then. Wake up the others.”

He went over to where everybody else was sleeping in a pile in the corner, and began shaking them awake. There were four of them. All like him. All young enough to be reasonably safe from the consequences of picking pockets for a living. All old enough to be good at it. Perfidy was the closest thing they had to a... big sister. She thought she was fifteen, but it was hard to be sure, just as Leo thought he was probably ten. Dolly inkerpacks. King's law didn't let them hang you, nor officially do anything else to you until were seven, and so you stayed under seven as long as possible if you had to live they way they lived. They didn't hang many seven year olds either, but being sent to the work gangs, or a proper flogging was bad enough – and even if they weren't likely to hang you, why risk it? Don't turn seven until you bloody well had to. Perfidy had made it until she thought she was twelve, partly by pretending to be a boy for a couple of years – people expected  boys to be bigger, even when they weren't. And she said there were other good reasons not to be a girl too, but she wouldn't say what they were. Now there was no way that anybody would ever believe she wasn't seven – or twelve for that matter - but she'd been smart and worked out another way of getting by. She took care of her little canting crew, making sure they ate as well as they could on what they could bring in. She took the lion's share and kept it safe for the times when they couldn't get enough. She also tended them when they were sick as well as she could – and in the winter that could happen quite a bit. In the three years that Leo had been with her, she'd only lost one of the people she looked after to sickness. Most real mothers did not do so well. Not on the southern sides especially.

Everybody crowded around the tiny fire, as Perfidy carefully broke up the bread into six as equal chunks as possible. It was her ritual with shared food, and Leo did not think it as fair as she did. She was bigger than them, she needed more, but he knew she'd take the smallest share she could. She was getting thinner. He pulled out the dice.

“This is my bread. I brought it home. So I decide who gets which share.”

Perfidy looked at him. “Do you think you're in charge?”

“I am today.”

She shook her head slightly. “I'm too hungry to argue. Just don't you go getting too big for your boots. If you had boots. Or your breeches. If you had breeches.”

“You're lucky I don't. I could have stuck the bread down them.” Leo looked around and pointed to each in turn. “You're one.... two... three... four... five... six.” He took the dice in his hand. “When I roll the dice, and your number comes up, you take the piece of bread you want. Everybody gets one piece. If I roll a number twice, I'll reroll. Got it?”

He looked at them. Jarrow had been sick and coughing. He was number two and Leo hoped he could roll a two first – the bread wasn't even despite Perfidy's efforts. Maybe he should have nicked a knife... that jeweled dagger would have been nice. He rolled the dice. It came up two, and Jarrow reached for the largest piece. Good. Perfidy had got five. It would be good if five came up next, because she really was looking thin. He rolled. It was a five. Perfidy reached forward... and took the smallest piece. He rolled again. Another five. He rolled again. Another five. He rolled again. Another five.

“Somebody really wants you to have another piece, Perfidy,” he said, knowing that there was no way that would happen.

She glared at him. “Keep rolling.”

Well – Nodar who had been given number three, was probably the next most needy. And Leo rolled a three. Leo paused... this was odd... he looked at the dice carefully. “Come on, roll,” said Baltar, who had been counted as number one, demanded in a sharp whine, and in annoyance, Leo thought 'four', very deliberately, and the dice came up four, so the next piece went to Roalf. And then he rolled a one, so that Baltar took the second last piece.

The piece that was left was quite small. And it was his. He picked it up, and quickly slipped it under his shirt, as the others wolfed down their food.

Perfidy stood up. “Right – Nodar, you need to go down Pinter's Wharf. Baltar, round behind the Slaughteryards. Jarrow, you stay close to home – keep to the docksides. Roalf, I need you down the fruit market – and if you can't get money, bring home some apples or something else. Bring 'em home anyway. Leo, you take Cutter's lane. And you see any good sticks, any of you, bring them home. We'd need wood. It's getting colder.”

Leo waited till the others had left, then pulled the chunk of bread from out of his tunic. “Perfidy.”

She turned and he threw it to her. She barely caught it – which shocked him. She rarely missed a beat. She stared at it.

“Eat it.”

She stared at him, and began to walk towards him. “Leo, you'll eat this bread unless you want the hiding of your life. We don't waste food. And we don't take more than our share.”

He backed away. “I had two bowls of scumgullion last night, Perfidy, and a full bowl of porridge this morning. I waited till the others were gone, because I won't argue with you in front of them. But you've got to eat that bread. Give me a hiding if it makes you feel better. But if something happens to you... you've got to eat that bread.”

He pushed past her. “Please. Eat the bread.”

She called after him, but he did not look back. Perfidy would eat the bread now. She would not let it go to waist and he had made a good argument once she had time think about it. She had to keep herself healthy, so she could keep the rest of them healthy.

It was a cool day. Autumn seem to have arrived over the previous week. He was not looking forward to the winter. Last winter he had managed to buy – he'd actually gone up northern sides to the good markets – a pair of stout woolen hose and a tunic with long sleeves, but by the end of winter he'd grown enough that he could barely get them on and he knew that Perfidy had them packed away for Jarrow, because he'd grown even more since then. Could he still pass for under seven? That was a thought he'd been pondering for a few weeks now. He'd asked Perfidy her opinion and she'd looked him over really closely and said that she thought he could, especially with his clothes off and as long as he didn't talk, but he had his doubts. A while ago – about the start of last Autumn so it must have been a year ago now – he'd actually been arrested and dragged up to Oldfort, the city prison and thrown into the cells. He'd managed to convince the Gaoler he was only six or convince him enough that he'd let him go at least, but it had been a near run thing. It wasn't the only time he'd ever been caught, but on the other occasions the person who'd caught him had taken what he'd stolen and given him a hiding. Everybody knew a thief could hang and most people seemed to understand that the thieving urchins of Ongus were just doing what they had to do. Once you were old enough to get honest work, you were expected to do that, but until then, if you didn't have parents, you didn't have much choice. He was lucky enough to have Perfidy. He knew he must have had a mother ad Perfidy said he must have had a father too, but he could not remember either of them. Not at all.

He'd been told to go to Cutter's Lane for the day, and that was a good choice – it marked a boundary road between two parishes and was lined with stalls that sold a range of goods and so he headed in that direction. He had to walk back past the Three Shovels to get there and that brought dice back into the front of his head – not that they had gone far away. He'd rolled the number he'd been thinking about every single time. That was... he did not know a word that mean almost impossible because it probably wasn't actually impossible. But it seemed a lot more unlikely than unlikely.

He reached inside into one of the pouches he'd sewn inside his tunic and drew out the two dice. He ducked into the alley by the side of the tavern and rolled one of them on top of a barrel thinking 'Three'. It came up 'Five'. He rolled it again thinking 'Four'. It came up 'Two'. When he thought 'One' it did come up 'One' but then it came up 'One' again the next time when he was thinking 'Six'. He picked up the other dice and thought 'Three' and it came up 'Three'. He thought 'Five' and it came up 'Five'. He thought 'Six' and it came up 'Six.' It worked with this dice but not the other. He picked it up and stared at it and then carefully compared it to the other. They both seemed more or less identical. He rolled the dice that did what he wanted – the thought of 'four' became a roll of 'four', and then he picked up the cube again, considered, and as he rolled it he thought 'Seven!'

His head exploded with pain as if somebody had hit him with a hammer. It actually drove him to his knees, and he knelt there retching in the alley, fighting to keep whatever was inside him was inside him. It took a minute for the pain and nausea to pass. He stood up and picked up the dice.

There were seven dots on one of its sides. He checked the other sides. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven... Seven sides. But it was still cube shaped. All right. Impossible was the right word for this. But it had happened.

This was a magic dice. It really was a magic dice. And his blood ran cold at that thought. Magic was... dangerous. Very dangerous. People feared it. A powerful Sorcerer was safe enough of that fear, but a boy with magic in his hands... no wonder the man last night had been willing to concede so readily that he was a cheat. If people had known he was using magic to win...

Leo came very close to throwing the dice down a drain – given them to the ancient sewers under the city left behind by the Empire. But... yes, they were dangerous. But they also had to be valuable. Possibly very valuable. If he could work out what to do with them.

For now, he decided that he had to attend to more urgent matters. Perfidy was going to be annoyed at him for standing up to her, and the best way to deal with that was to bring home some coin. He headed up to Cutter's Lane, and by the middle of the day, he had lifted two purses from comfortable looking people. He had over 20 florins, and nearly twice as many pennies. No gold today, but gold was rare in the areas they worked in. Cutter's Lane was a prosperous shopping area by the standards of the southern sides, but that certainly didn't make the people who shopped there rich. Just people who wouldn't be put at risk of starvation or serious deprivation by losing a purse. That mattered to Leo – or at least he pretended it did. When he was honest, he would admit that he'd steal from a poor person if he had to, and he didn't know them well, but he tried to avoid getting into that situation.

The sun had come out during the morning and it was warmer now. He had a more than decent amount of money for the day, and he had a feeling – just a feeling – that made him a little uncomfortable about staying in the market of Cutter's Lane. He knew to trust his instincts. Maybe somebody was watching him – you never looked around to check. And the dice were still worrying him. He decided to head to the northern sides. There were things he could do there.

As you went north, you also went up – the city sloped down from north to south. The rich in the north could literally look down on the poorer people in the south. The river water was cleaner – much cleaner before it passed by the tanners yards and the outflow of the main sewer, the smells were less. Everything was better there.

Perfidy had a rule. None of her crew ever stole in the northern sides. The pickings might be good and everybody there could afford it, but they were also much more likely to hand you over to the city guard, rather than deal with you themselves, and the city magistrates were more likely to treat a person harshly to keep the wealthy happy. Leo had broken the rule once more than a year ago – and come away with a purse of gold, his best ever haul. And he'd got his best ever hiding from Perfidy who made it worse by throwing the purse and the gold into the river. She'd made it very clear that there was nothing to be gained in her opinion by stealing on the northern sides, and she wouldn't let her crew put themselves in danger by such dangerous stupidity. So Leo only did it occasionally, and didn't tell her when he had. You could always come up with some reason why you'd found a person with an unusually full purse. But mostly, when he went north, he wasn't going north for crime. Although you were made to feel a criminal just by being on the northern sides in a ragged tunic and nothing else. Nobody actually stopped you. People of the city were free men and women, and nobody had the right to stop you walking the streets of Ongus. If somebody tried, the guards would actually come down on your side. But people looked at you, and wondered why you were there.

Leo had three reasons. The first was to go to a place he knew about that nobody else had ever found. Or at least they'd never found its secret. He had been walking through the churchyard of St Deniol's, one of the smaller churches in the city admiring its particularly ornate and numerous gargoyles, when he'd tripped because he wasn't looking at where his feet were. His eyes had been drawn to a cavity under a gravestone that could only be seen if you were flat on your face in the churchyard, and even then it was hard to see. It was probably the first time he'd ever felt his eyes drawn to something the way they sometimes were... the space was big enough for a man to slide his arm inside – easily big enough for a boy to do so, and it had struck him as an excellent hiding place. He had been looking for one. Perfidy had told him to – everybody needed a cache where they could hide the things they'd need if everything went wrong. As long as you weren't greedy and handed over nearly everything you found to her for the crew, it was all right to keep a little back for the storm that would come. Leo had been careful. He'd only left a few coins there at first, but when they hadn't been found over the course of a couple of months, and he'd managed to come into the possession of some sort of gem encrusted ring – he thought it was an emerald, but if he showed it to anybody who'd know for sure, he'd probably lose it, he'd taken to leaven that just inside the cavity. Anyone who found the cavity would take the ring. As long as the ring was there, nobody had found the cavity. A year and a half the ring had been there now. And it was still there. This was a safe hiding place. He took out the pair of dice and placed the one with seven sides and seven dots upon its side deep inside the cavity. He kept the other. This was the safest place he knew to keep something.

It might have been the only safe place in his life.

The next order of business was to have a wash. It was only a week since the last time he'd gone into the river, but with the weather changing it might be a while before he would want to force himself to do it again. If you wanted to have any hope of getting clean, you had to come up to the northern sides to go into the river – swimming in the southern sides was liable to leave you muckier when you came out than when you went in. You could get even cleaner by going out of the city altogether and swimming north of the city walls, but he never really felt comfortable going outside the walls and the only times he ever did it was at the end of winter and the start of spring when he really had to try and get all the winter muck off himself. There was another option – you could pay to use the public baths. He knew that Perfidy did that once a week, but Perfidy also went to church on Haligdae. She said she needed both. He didn't understand that, but then he didn't understand a lot of what she did.

He knew where to go to swim within the city walls. There was a little stretch of riverside not far from the north river gate where it was allowed. If you really wanted to, you could go in just about anywhere – once you were north of docksides, ships couldn't get further up, and even boats were uncommon – but people didn't like it if somebody just stripped off and dived in. Well, the Church didn't like it, anyway, and that meant people had to not like it too. The place where they would let you swim kept men and women apart, except for letting families stay together in the middle. It was run by an order of – he'd heard that they weren't really nuns, but that's what they looked like to him. Anyway, they did not make you pay to go in, though they would make you pay a penny if you wanted a towel. Today he would pay a penny. It was not as cold as it had been in the morning, but it was still warm rather than hot. He stripped off his tunic and dropped it on the ground and made to dive into the river.

“Pick that up!”

He turned around and saw one of the – if they weren't nuns, what were they? They dressed like nuns. All right, standing around like this woman did watching naked men and boys swimming all day didn't seem like very nunly behaviour, but it was probably more fun than praying all day. She was pointing at his tunic on the ground. “Don't leave that there on the ground. It's so dirty you should probably go in with it on. But at least put it on one of the shelves.”

He did as she told him. He was in a fairly vulnerable state, not one you sensibly disobeyed anyone in, and then he went into the river. He didn't go far away from his tunic, of course. He wasn't very good at swimming anyway, but being robbed was a bigger risk than drowning – somebody would pull you out if you began to sink but they were not likely to help you chase after your stolen clothes. All together, it only took a few short minutes before he was out and towelled off and dressed again. Much cleaner than he'd been before – he could see the faded scars on his arm and chest that he couldn't normally see - and clean enough to do the last thing he needed to do. He looked at the tunic. It really was horribly dirty. He hadn't noticed before. But again, he seemed to be seeing things so much more clearly than he ever had before. But he walked down to the edge of the river again and tried dipping his tunic in it. It came out wet and dirty. He tried again. It was just wet.  Not clean.

The nun like woman was next to him again. She had picked up his towel from where he had dropped it on the ground. “Wrap that around yourself. It's one thing when your swimming or bathing, but you're out of the water now. Have you never washed clothes before?”

“No. It's never really come up.”

She giggled, and he realised she was actually quite young. Grown up but if she wasn't a nun, she might not be married yet. No, she wasn't a nun – what was she. She began bashing his tunic against the ground, and he decided just to ask her.

“Sister... I mean, are you a Sister?... what are you?”

She giggled again. “At the moment, I'm a laundress. But I know what you are asking. Yes, I am a Sister, but I'm not a nun. We call ourselves Oblate Sisters – I'm a member of the Oblates of St Ashanax. We're not nuns because we don't take all the vows they do, and we don't take our vows for life. We're healers. We take care of people who are sick.”

“And people who are going for a swim.”

“It's part of the same thing. A lot of our Order go down to the lands of Crusades and we've learnt a lot down there. There's a lot of new ideas about sickness.” She looked at his chest. “Do you know what the Slumpox is?”

She'd seen the scars. Almost faded, but they were still there. “They think I had it as a baby.”

“It used to go through the southern sides almost every year. Killed about half the people who got it – you were lucky to live, Gatanedes and the Saints be praised, very few babies who get it do. It's been five years now since it was seen in the city. We've had something to do with that.” She picked up his tunic and wrung it out. “I am afraid this is about as clean as this is going to get. You need to try and wash your clothes at least once a.... month. Let's be realistic. They'll last longer and you'll itch a lot less. And you're less likely to get sick too.”

He pulled it on. “Thank you, Sister.” He had one more thing he needed to do this day.

This took some courage. He had to be brave. But he had every right to do it. He headed across to the  eastern side of the city to Cushion Street. He'd never been in Cushion Street before, and it was everything he had been told. A whole street of buildings that were just for selling things. Not stalls, but proper buildings. With walls facing the street that were at least half made of panes of glass. This was where the rich people shopped – shopped themselves, he had been told, rather than sending servants. It was only when he fully stepped into the street that he really saw its beauty – the windows facing towards the sun that was now low in the sky, not much above the city wall glowed in the sunlight. The road was paved with cobbles – clean cobbles – they obviously didn't let horses in this street and it looked like even dogs weren't welcome. Unless they were very well trained dogs. He looked around. Everywhere he saw rich people in the finest hose, and tunics, and cloaks and capes, and hats of all design. Nearly all the men wore swords, and so did some of the women. And rich purses, on their belts.

“Out of my way, Ruffian.” He realised he was blocking traffic, having frozen in place just outside a door. The person who was telling him to move was a boy in his mid teens, dressed in dark blue hose, with a deep red tunic, and a ridiculous orange hat with a feather in it. Even the boy was wearing something that was almost a sword. “Get out of my way, and get off this street, unless you want a kicking.”

“None of that!” It was a sharp voice with a tone of command, and Leo turned and saw a Sergeant of the City Guard accompanied by a squad of guardsmen. “You've every right, my Lord, to ask the boy to get out of your way. But this is a public street, and he has every right to walk it. And you've no right to threaten him with violence without any reason to do so at all.”

The boy glared at Leo. Then nodded at the Sergeant and pushed his way past Leo, and began walking down the street. The Sergeant stepped up to Leo, and said quietly.

“You've every right to walk here, but if I see you doing anything you don't have a right to do, I'll run you in so fast your feet won't touch the ground until just before they hang you. Got it?”

Leo nodded. He got it.

“Good Lad. Stay that way.”

Leo stepped closer to the walls and windows and looked up and down the street. Every shop had a sign hanging outside its doors. He couldn't read the words, but the symbols they used were still the same as the ones you saw anywhere else even if they were better painted. It wasn't hard to find the spool and scissors of a tailors, across the road and two doors down. And he went inside. A bell rang as he entered and a woman looked up from behind a counter. She was cross eyed but somehow she seemed to fix both of them on him.

“Show me some silver or get out,” she said.

Leo already had the coins in his hand. He held one up between his fingers.

“All right. What do you want, young Master?”

“Hose. Some woollen hose. Good and thick for winter. And a tunic too.”

“Come over here, then. What colour?”

That was a question he had never been asked before on the few occasions, he had been buying clothes. “Blue. Definitely blue.”

The lady looked him up and down. “How old are you?”

“Six.”

“I'm not a magistrate, boy. I'm trying to fit you with some hose. And what I've got for six years olds, you do not want. Ten?”

You never answered that question. You stayed under seven. But he wanted hose that fitted. “Probably.”

“How well do you eat?”

“Why?”

“Can't see your waist, can I, and I doubt you've any braises under that tunic. Now I don't care – I've got five sons, but a ten year old boy might. Are you skinny?”

“Yes.” Two bowls of scumgullion wouldn't have changed that. Six more – he remembered what Borgen had arranged – wouldn't change it either. He lifted up his tunic so she could see. He didn't care. That was a just another luxury you didn't have in his life. The lady drew in her breath. “Maybe what I've got for six year olds would suit you better. But you got long legs. Pull your tunic down, boy. I've seen what I need to see.”

She looked on her shelves and pulled down some blue hose. “Try these on.”

He pulled them on. They were long enough - a bit longer than they needed to be, but not by much, but they hung very loosely. He'd have to find some ends of rope on the docks. The lady lifted up his tunic without asking and had a look at the waist.

“Take them off.”

“They fit.”

“They don't come close to fitting. But I can fix that. Take them off.”

He handed them to her and she walked over to the counter and picked up a needle and thread.

“I can't pay for alterations.” Somebody had told him once that this was a common trick from tailors – he'd never expected to need that knowledge.

“It's a good thing I'm not charging you then. Two florins for the hose, whether they fit you or not. Another two for a tunic – a red one, I think? I don't sell silly orange hats I'm afraid. This will only take about half an hour and it's a slow day.” She looked at him. “Wait here. Don't touch anything.”

She stood up and walked into another room at the back of the shop. She came back in a couple of minutes later holding a wooden platter with a chunk of bread, a lump of cheese, and an onion on it. In her other hand, she had a mug. “Sit down over there and have this. There's a limit to what I can do with needle and thread.”

“Mistress, you don't have to -”

She spoke quietly. “Don't you walk into my shop and tell me what I have to and don't have to do. I probably should be doing a lot more. But this is what I can do today.”

Leo realised he was hungry. Not badly hungry, not the type of hungry that made you cry in the night, but it was getting towards sundown and it was a long time since porridge. He ate the cheese and the pickled onion, and the soft bread. Then looked at the mug.

“What is this stuff, Mistress Tailor?”

She looked at him. “It's milk. Cow's milk.” Then she went back to her sewing. Leo watched her. Perfidy had taught him how to sew – she'd tried to teach him to knit as well, but that had been a complete disaster. Compared to this lady, though, Perfidy had been about as good at sewing as Leo thought he was at knitting. He supposed it was because it was her trade, but she was very fast and made it look so effortless. Until the end, when she picked up some scissors to cut the left over thread when she became quite clumsy for a moment. She put down the scissors and stood up and handed the hose to him along with something else – a garment of plain, uncoloured linen – what were they?

“They're braies. That's a pair I made for somebody who never came back. You can take them for free. You wear them under your hose.”

“Looks like something a girl would wear.”

“A good girl does if she can. But boys and men wear them as well if they have them to wear. You will put them on. And the hose.”

The hose were much closer to fitting now around his waist. Very close indeed. He could probably even run in them if he had to.

“Thank you.” She was handing him a red tunic which he pulled on as well. “Do you want to keep the old one, or should I burn it?”

“I should take it with me. Somebody else might wear it.”

“True Gods preserve them. All right, that's four florins you owe me.”

He handed over four of the silver coins. And walked to the door.

“True Gods preserve you, Lad.”

He turned “You too, Mistress.”

The sun had gone below the walls, but the light meant it hadn't set yet. If he headed to the Three Shovels now, he'd be able to get his scumgullion by the time he got there. And so he headed to the southern sides. He was almost at the Three Shovels when he realised his hose had a small pocket just inside the waist. He found it because the two silver florins inside it pushed against his skin.

He walked into the Three Shovels and instantly felt warm. It was probably mostly the huge fires and maybe partly the new hose as well, but he felt warmer even than those things seemed to justify. Maybe it was the milk. He'd heard people say that certain drinks made you feel warmer. He walked over to the bar.

“Hullo.”

The girl behind the bar was named Jobet. He'd known her as long as he could remember knowing anybody. She'd been like him. And Perfidy, but had found a job at the Three Shovels eventually. He wondered if Perfidy would be so lucky – but he suddenly realised that she was probably only interested in a job that let her feed six people. And there weren't many jobs like that around. This was the first time this had ever occurred to him. It was a big thought.

“Hullo. What are you after?” Jobet asked.

“Oh... Borgen arranged for me to have a bowl of scumgullion every night this week, last night?”

“Really? Nobody told me – it was my night off last night. Hang on.” She walked over to a piece of slate with markings on it in white chalk that hung on the wall. Somebody must have taught her to read. She came back.

“Yes, it's up there – Leo, one bowl scumgullion a day until the fifteenth.”

“Where does it say that?”

Jobet looked around. They weren't busy yet. She walked back over to the slate. “See these three letters here? That's an L and an E and an O in classic script. Or at least Merids best try at classic script. That's your name. Then we got an I – it means one when it's a number. Got an S and a G for scumgullion – God knows how you spell the whole word – then T I L for meaning til then an X and a V for fifteen... don't ask me why but X is ten and V is five. Makes sense when you know how. I was surprised how useful writing and reading is. Anyway, I'd better get you your scumgullion before I stop being a tavern wench and turn into a dame school mistress.”

She came back with a wooden bowl and handed it to him. He walked over to a table and ducked down to go under it.

“Don't do that, Leo!” he heard Jobet say. He looked over at her. “You'll make your lovely new hose filthy if you crawl around in the rushes and whatever else is down there.”

“They'll get dirty anyway.”

“I'm sure they will, eventually. Take a seat. We're not crowded yet, and you must be popular for somebody to be feeding you. Don't hide under tables. Only hide when you have to.”

He took a seat. Why did any girl or woman who was older than him seem to think they could tell him what to do. At least the Guard Sergeant had had to earn his rank.

The scumgullion was good. One of the good things about being hungry a lot was that you really did tend to enjoy your food and he had been a bit worried that the bread and cheese and onion and milk that he had had would ruin the scumgullion he was so lucky to be able to enjoy. But it was as good as it had ever been. It lasted longer than it normally did, he found he was not shovelling it in so fast,  so maybe he even got to enjoy it more.

While he was eating, the tavern had been filling up and was getting more and more noisy. So it was noticeable when the noise suddenly diminished. He looked up and saw the reason. Three Guardsmen – a one stripe corporal and two others had just walked in through the door.

The City Guard were people you treated with considerable respect. And they normally did the same to you. His encounter with the Sergeant earlier in the day had been fairly typical of dealings he'd had with them before. They were pretty fair about making sure everybody got what was coming to them, so if you weren't dealing with them for breaking a law, things were normally fine. The problem was, sometimes it was hard to know if you were breaking a law or not.

“What can I do for you, Corporal?” said Arkamus, who hearing the spreading quiet had come out of the kitchen to be behind the bar.

“Good evening Master Tavernkeeper. Nobody needs to be alarmed. I was just told to go around all the Taverns by my Sergeant and warn you about a man whose going around cheating at dice. He's taken a lot of different people.”

Arkamus sounded a bit perplexed. “It doesn't sound like its worth your time to be going around Taverns. Cheats are – well, they're not uncommon.”

“This one is. Very well dressed man. From Algandy. We haven't been able to get a good description of him beyond that. But he comes in, wins a lot of money, and leaves. Nobody seems to work out he's cheating at the time – not sure how they've worked it out now to be honest.”

“Oh him. He was in here last night. But he left without his purse. Leo, over there -” he pointed straight at Leo. “- he worked out he was cheating. And the man admitted it.”

“Really? I'm impressed. Ah... hate to ask it this way, but when you say he left, he was walking at the time, wasn't he?”

“Yes. He had a lot of gold. He was willing to leave it behind and we were willing to take it.”

“Well... good. We can't have people taken matters into their own hands. I suppose. Leo. How did you know he was cheating?”

“Um.... well, I was under the table, see, and he reached down and I saw him swapping the dice under the table. So I stood up and told everybody.”

“Swapping dice? What was special about the dice? Where are the dice?”

“I took them. Nobody stopped me. Nobody seemed to care after he handed over his purse.”

“It's all right, Lad. You're not in trouble. Did you notice what was special about the dice?”

“Ah yes.” How should he answer this one. “They had two sixes on them. Not one.”

“Pretty crude. Obviously effective though. Where are they?”

He looked down at his feet. “I...”

“Come on, out with it, Lad.”

“I sold them to a sailor on the docks.”

“Ah... I wish you hadn't done that. That's dishonest dealing. I have to -”

“Give the Lad a break, Corporal.” Jobet spoke up. “He's got no parents. He has to find some way to live. Would you rather he made it picking pockets.”

“Very well dressed for an orphan.” The Corporal looked at him. “Where did you get the money for such fine clothes?”

“I got a good price for the dice.”

“That's convenient.”

Borgen raised a hand from a seat near the door. “Corporal, I will swear oath – and lots of other people here could as well – that we've never seen Leo in those clothes before. He's obviously got them today. He must have got some money today. An unusual amount of money.”

“Is that true, Leo?” asked the Corporal. “When and where did you get the clothes.”

“I bought them from a cross eyed tailor in Cushion Street. She was nice. One of your Sergeants saw me in the street there as well. He was nice too... well, he didn't want to arrest  me, anyway.”

“Enough of that. I'm just doing my job.” The Corporal considered. “How old are you?”

“Six.”

“Yeah...well, I ain't got time to prove you're not. Just stay out of trouble.”

He and the other two guardsmen drank deeply from the three tankards that had appeared on the bar, and walked outside.
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