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Chapter 26






The next wagon didn't appear until near sunset. The same guard had been out there for all that time, pushing through branches, wearing a path, sweating into his leathers, and bored into a stupor. The wagon distracted him.

"Now," Freethspat said without turning.

It was Whandall's scheme. All it needed for completion was some way to avoid killing. Freethspat was a skillful gatherer. He knew things. He had brains.

Freethspat turned to look at Whandall. "He's too far now. When he comes back, take him."

"I brought you here," Whandall protested. His voice never rose above the sound of the breeze in leaves. "Isn't that enough?"

Freethspat studied Whandall with interest. "You're not scared?" he whispered.

"No."

"I understand. But Whandall, this is what we are. This is what a Lord-kin is. Here and now. Right now. With me watching."

Whandall took in a deep breath. The guard was coming toward him again. His forearm and wrist brushed a morningstar. He grunted in pain and shied back, and then Whandall slammed into his back. And cut his throat.

It was his first kill, and it went much better than he'd expected. Whandall had several seconds to get into place before the wagon arrived. He didn't look back at the corpse.

He thumped into the wagon bed while the wagoneer was scanning the trees for the guard. The wagoneer half stood, turning, slicing blind with his long knife in a move he must have practiced for years. Whandall blocked the blade with his own and threw with his other hand.

Pebbles spattered the pony's head and ears. The pony screamed and surged forward. The wagoneer stumbled, tried to stab out anyway, and was cursing as Whandall's blade slid in under his armpit.

The road curved wide around, down to the streambed. The turns weren't sharp and the pony knew the way. Whandall had time to put on the hat and coat-and figure out how to move the complicated knot to get the noose off the corpse and onto his own neck-before the gatehouse came in view. Bile was rising in his throat. He let the pony slow. It wouldn't do to be seen vomiting over the side.

He heard Freethspat climbing in behind him. There was a rustle as he hid under the tarp. "Well done," came the whisper. "Couldn't have done it better myself. Whandall, I'm proud of you."

Whandall didn't care to speak.

Freethspat examined the dead man, then cursed softly.

"What?"

"He's a Toronexti," Freethspat said. "So was the other one. Why didn't you tell me?"

"Tell you what?" Whandall demanded. Suddenly he remembered Wanshig's words: Alferth had hired Toronexti to guard the vineyards.

Freethspat sighed. "You have a lot to learn, boy. You don't gather from the Toronexti. Ever."

Whandall pointed to the dead man. "They're not so tough-"

"No, they're not. But there are a lot of them. You kill one, others come looking for you, and you won't know who they are."

"So what do we do?"

"We get out of here with this stuff." Freethspat frowned. "We get rid of it as quick as we can. Maybe they gathered the wagon. No Toronexti marks on that."

"What do they look like?"

"Never you mind."

It was tempting to think in terms of secrets: of hiding. The wine under the false bed was in little flasks. Those could be hidden. It was what you did with wine. But how would you hide a wagon?

They discussed it after they'd cleared the gatehouse. They reached home in a stony silence.

Whandall began moving garbage.

Friends offered suggestions: get shovels, line the wagon with hay. Some of the Serpent's Walk men helped him do that. Others helped move garbage away from where they lived, until they got bored. Freethspat stayed with it. If any part of the scheme had collapsed, Freethspat would have gotten Whandall out alive and then never let him forget it. But he became good with the shovel, and he stayed with it.

Four more were good enough at it, and stayed long enough, that Whandall and Freethspat shared wine with them. They stayed as a core, to gather other men.

Four days of that, and everyone was tired of it. Serpent's Walk was full of men from Alferth's quarter who knew very well where and how Whandall got that wagon. Whandall left the wagon abandoned. It disappeared, with a few flasks left under the boards as a gift.

There was wine for Mother and Mother's Mother; for his sister Sharlatta and the man she'd brought home after Whandall evicted Chapoka; for Elriss, who had known no man since Wanshig disappeared, and Wess, whose man had taken to vanishing at night. Wine served as a don't-kill-me gift for Hartanbath, the man he'd cut. That was Freethspat's suggestion. Whandall and Freethspat shared two bottles with Hartanbath and some of his Flower Market friends, and were gone before Hartanbath had drunk very much.

Dusk in Tep's Town. Whandall stood at the western edge of the Placehold roof garden to watch the sun fall into the sea. The landscape below softened, hiding the garbage and the filthy streets. A few kinless hurried home, eager to reach shelter before darkness gave the world over to gatherers and worse.

There were Lordkin with no place to go. Some found shelter with kin-less. That could be tricky. Kinless had no rights, but some were protected. Pelzed and other Lordkin leaders put some streets off limits. The Lords didn't permit a breach of the peace, but they never said what that was. Armed Lordsmen might come to help a kinless house under siege. Sometimes Lordsmen squads swept through Tep's Town and rounded up any Lordkin unlucky enough to get their attention. They took their prisoners to camps where they were put to work on the roads and aqueducts for a year. That didn't seem to happen in Serpent's Walk. Pelzed? Luck? Yangin-Atep?

Probably not Yangin-Atep.

And you didn't steal from the Toronexti. But only Freethspat could recognize them, so now what? And how did he do that?

The day faded, and now the city was lit with a thousand backyard cook fires.

Whandall took out three flasks of wine. He drank the first in three gulps. He was halfway through the second when he heard the scream.

Me listened long enough to he sure it didn't conic from the Placehold. He sipped more wine. Not his business. The scream ended with a strangled gurgle. Someone had died of a cut throat. Whandall wondered who it might be. Someone he knew? A kinless who resisted? More likely a Lord-kin knife fight.

Freethspat was proud of him. He'd killed the guard. His first kill. Some would add to their tattoos, or wear an earring. It was what Lordkin did. This was what it meant to be Lordkin.

His belly spasmed and spat the last swallow of wine straight up into his nose and sinuses. He doubled over, coughing and snorting and trying to get the acid out of his windpipe, and more wine came up. Stupid. He knew what wine did. He got himself under control and took another swallow.

There were torches over by the new ropewalk. The scream had come from that direction. Could someone be gathering there? Who'd be such a fool? The ropewalk was in Pelzed's forbidden zone. Two Lordkin families lived among the kinless rope makers. Whandall had been inside that area only once, during the Burning. Rebuilding of the ropewalk started the day after the Burning, and Pelzed himself came down to supervise and make it clear that the kinless working there were never to be molested. Rope was important, both to use and to sell. Once Whandall had been curious about how it was made, but no Lordkin knew that.

Hemp held many secrets. Where hemp was grown, how the fibers were stripped from it, always at dawn after a night of heavy dew, but no one knew why. Tar was brought from the Black Pit. Hemp fibers and tar were taken to a long narrow building, and later they came out as rope, some tarred, some not, to be used and sold. Ships used rope. Rope left Serpent's Walk, gold and shells came back, and every step of that was protected by Pelzed here and the Lordsmen elsewhere.

A dozen torches now. Whandall began the third flask of wine. It was his last. The screams had stopped. The torchbearers went out of sight. Whandall thought he saw shadows moving near the ropewalk.

The next morning a Lordkin from the Hook was found with his throat cut. Someone had gathered his clothes and shoes, leaving him naked on a trash heap.










Chapter 25 | The Burning City | Chapter 27



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