The world had moved on, and Whandall had hardly noticed. His brothers and cousins all seemed to have disappeared. Mostly the girls and women stayed home, but on Mother's Day each month the women went to the corner squares where the Lordsmen gave out food and clothing and shells, presents from the Lords. There were always men around that day and the next. Later, they might be around or they might be gone.
But boys appeared only for meals and sleep, and not always then. Where did they go?
He followed a cluster of cousins one afternoon. As in the forest, he took pride in being unseen. He got four blocks before four younger men challenged him. They'd beaten him half senseless before Shastern turned around, saw what was happening, and came running.
Shastern showed the tattoos on his hands and arms. Whandall had once asked about those, but Shastern had put off answering. They blended in with the terrible scars Shastern carried from the forest, but many of his cousins had them too. He never asked that kind of question of his cousins. Now Whandall did not quite hear what Shastern and his cousins said to them, but the strangers turned him loose and his cousins carried him home.
He woke hurting. Shastern woke around noon and sought him out. Shastern was barred from speaking certain secrets, but some things he could say .....
Serpent's Walk wasn't just this region of the city.
Serpent's Walk was the young men who held it. These streets belonged to Serpent's Walk. Other streets, other hands. The region grew or shrank, streets changed hands, with the power of the hands. They put up signs on walls and other places.
Whandall had been able to read them for years. Serpent's Walk had a squiggle sign, easy to draw. Dirty Birds was a falcon drawn wild and sloppy. Shastern showed him a boundary, a wall with the Serpent's Walk squiggle at one end and a long thin phallus to mark Bull Fizzle territory at the other. Unmarked, one did not walk in Serpent's Walk, or in Bull Fizzle or Dirty Bird either, if one did not belong. As a child Whandall had wandered the streets without hindrance, but a ten-year-old was no longer a child.
"But there are places with no signs at all," Whandall protested.
"That's Lord territory. You can go there until one of the Lordsmen tells you not to. Then you leave."
"Because everyone is scared of the Lordsmen."
"Why? Are they so strong?"
"Well, they're big, and they're mean, and they wear that armor."
"They walk in pairs too," Whandall said, remembering.
"Right. And if you hurt one of them, a lot more will come looking for you."
"What if they don't know who did it?"
Shastern shrugged expressively. "Then a bunch of them come and beat up on everybody they can find until someone confesses. Or we kill someone and say he confessed before we killed him. You stay away from Lordsmen, Whandall. Only good they do is when they bring in the presents on Mother's Day."
Whandall found it strange to have his one-year-younger brother behaving as his elder.
He must have spoken to Wanshig too. Wanshig was Whandall's eldest brother. Wanshig had the tattoos, a snake in the web of his left thumb, a rattlesnake that ran up his right arm from the index finger to the elbow, a small snake's eye at the edge of his left eye. The next night Wanshig took him into the streets. In a ruin that stank of old smoke, he introduced his younger brother to men who carried knives and never smiled.
"He needs protection," Wanshig said. The men just looked at him. Finally one asked, "Who speaks for him?"
Whandall knew some of these faces. Shastern was there too, and he said, "I will." Shastern did not speak to his brothers, but he spoke of Whandall in glowing terms. When the rest fled the forest in terror, Whandall had stayed to help Shastern. If he'd learned little of the customs of Serpent's Walk, it was because he was otherwise occupied. When none of the boys would return to the wood but took to the streets instead, Whandall Placehold continued to brave the killer plants, to spy on the woodsmen.
The room was big enough to hold fifty people or more. It was dark out-side now, and the only light in the room came from the moon shining through holes in the roof, and from torches. The torches were outside, snick into holes in the windowsills. Yangin-Atep wouldn't allow fires inside, except during a Burning. You could build an outside cookfire under it lean-to shelter, but never inside, and if you tried to enclose a fire with walls, the fire went out. Whandall couldn't remember anyone telling him this. He just knew it, as he knew that cats had sharp claws and that boys should stay away from men when they were drinking beer.
There was a big chair on a low platform at one end of the room. The chair was wooden, with arms and a high back, and it was carved with serpents and birds. Some kinless must have worked hard to make that chair, hut Whandall didn't think it would be very comfortable, not like the big pony hair-stuffed chair Mother's Mother liked.
A tall man with no smile sat in that chair. Three other men stood in front of him holding their long Lordkin knives across their chests. Whandall knew him. Pelzed lived in a two-story stone house at the end of a block of well-kept kinless houses. Pelzed's house had a fenced-in garden and there were always kinless working in it.
"Bring him," Pelzed said.
His brothers took Whandall by the arms and pulled him to just in front of Pelzed's chair, then forced him down on his knees.
"What good are you?" Pelzed demanded.
Shastern began to speak, but Pelzed held up a hand. "I heard you. I want to hear him. What did you learn from the woodsmen?"
"Say something," Wanshig whispered. There was fear in his voice.
Whandall thought furiously. "Poisons. I know the poisons of the forest. Needles. Blades. Whips."
Pelzed gestured. One of the men standing in front of Pelzed's chair raised his big knife and struck Whandall hard across the left shoulder.
It stung, but he had used the flat of the blade. "Call him Lord," the man said. His bared chest was a maze of scars; one ran right up his cheek into his hair. Whandall found him scary as hell.
"Lord," Whandall said. He had never seen a Lord. "Yes, Lord."
"Good. You can walk in the forest?"
"Much of it, Lord. Places where the woodsmen have been."
"Good. What do you know of the Wedge?"
"The meadow at the top of the Deerpiss River?" What did Pelzed want to hear? "Woodsmen don't go there, Lord. I've never seen it. It is said to be guarded."
Pause. Then, "Can you bring us poisons?"
"Yes, lord, in the right season."
"Can we use them against the enemies of Serpent's Walk?"
Whandall had no idea who the enemies of Serpent's Walk might be, but he was afraid to ask. "If they're fresh. Lord."
"What happens if they aren't fresh?"
"After a day they only make you itch. The nettles stop reaching out for anyone who passes."
"I don't know." The man raised his knife. "Lord."
"You're a sneak and a spy."
"Will you spy for us?"
Whandall hesitated. "Of course he will, Lord," Shastern said.
"Take him out, Shastern. Wait with him."
Shastern led him through a door into a room with no other doors and only a small dark window that let in a little moonlight. He waited until they were closed in before letting go of Whandall's arm.
"This is dangerous, isn't it?" Whandall asked.
"So what's going to happen?"
"They'll let you in. Maybe."
"If they don't?"
Shastern shook his head. "They will. Lord Pelzed doesn't want a blood feud with the Placehold family."
Blood feuds meant blood. "Is he really a Lord-"
"He is here," Shastern said. "And don't forget it."
When they brought him back in, the room was dark except for a few candles near Pelzed's chair. Shastern whispered, "I knew they'd let you in. Now whatever happens, don't cry. It's going to hurt."
They made him kneel in front of Pelzed again. Two men took turns asking him questions and hitting him.
"We are your father and your mother," Pelzed said.
Someone hit him.
"Who is your father?" a voice asked from behind.
Someone hit him harder.
"Serpent's Walk," Whandall guessed.
"Who is your mother?"
"Who is your Lord?"
"Pelzed. ... Argh. Lord Pelzed. Aagh! Serpent's Walk?"
"Who is Lord of Serpent's Walk?"
It went on a long time. Usually they didn't hit him if he guessed the right answer, but sometimes they hit him anyway. "To make sure you remember," they said.
Finally that was over. "You can't fight," Pelzed said. "So you won't be a lull member. But we'll take care of you. Give him the mark."
They stretched his left hand out and tattooed a small serpent on the web of his thumb. He held his arm rigid against the pain. Then everyone said nice things about him.
After that it was easier. Whandall was safe outside the house as long as he was in territory friendly to Serpent's Walk. Wanshig warned him not to tarry a knife until he knew how to fight. It would be taken as a challenge.
He didn't know the rules. But one could keep silent, watch, and learn.
Here he remembered a line of black skeletons of buildings. The charred remains had come down and been carried away. Whandall and others watched from cover, from the basement of a house that hadn't been replaced yet. Kinless were at work raising redwood beams into skeletons of new buildings. Four new stores stood already, sharing common walls.
You knew the kinless by their skin tone, or their rounder ears and pointed noses, but that was chancy; a boy could make mistakes. Better to judge by clothing or by name.
Kinless were not allowed to wear Lordkin's hair styles or vivid colors. On formal occasions the kinless men wore a noose as token of their servitude. They were named for things or for skills, and they spoke their family names, where a Lordkin never would.
There were unspoken rules for gathering. There were times when you could ask a kinless for food or money. A man and woman together might accept that. Others would not. Kinless men working to replace blackened ruins with new buildings did not look with favor on Lordkin men or boys. Lordkin at their gatherings must be wary of the kinless who kept shops or sold from carts. The kinless had no rights, but the Lords had rights to what the kinless made.
The kinless did the work. They made clothing, grew food, made and used tools, transported it all. They made rope for export. They harvested rope fibers from the hemp that grew in vacant lots and anywhere near the sluggish streams that served as storm drains and sewers alike. They built. They saw to it that streets were repaired, that water flowed, that garbage reached the dumps. They took the blame if things went wrong. Only the kinless paid taxes, and taxes were whatever a Lordkin wanted, unless a Lord said otherwise. Hut you had lo learn what you could take. The kin-less only had so much to give, Mother's Mother said.
Suddenly it was all so obvious, so embarrassing. Loggers were kinless! Of course they wouldn't help a Lordkin child. The loggers thought Kreeg Miller was strange, as the Placehold thought Whandall was strange, each to be found in the other's company.
Whandall had been letting a kinless teach him! He had carried water for them, working like a kinless!
Whandall stopped visiting the forest.
The Serpent's Walk men spent their time in the streets. So did the boys of the Placehold, but their fathers and uncles spent most of their time at home.
Whandall went to old Resalet. One could ask.
Resalet listened and nodded, then summoned all the boys and led them outside. He pointed to the house, the old stone three-story house with its enclosed courtyard. He explained that it had been built by kinless for themselves, two hundred years ago. Lordkin had taken it from them.
It was a roomy dwelling desired by many. The kinless no longer built houses to last centuries. Why should they, when a Lordkin family would claim it? Other Lordkin had claimed this place repeatedly, until it fell to the Placehold family. It would change hands again unless the men kept guard.
The boys found the lecture irritating, and they let Whandall know that afterward.
Mother never had time for him. There was always a new baby, new men to see and bring home, new places to go, never time for the older boys. Men hung out together. They chewed hemp and made plans or went off at night, but they never wanted boys around them, and most of the boys were afraid of the men. With reason.
Whandall saw his city without understanding. The other boys hardly realized there was anything to understand and didn't care to know more. It was safe to ask Mother's Mother, but her answers were strange.
"Everything has changed. When I was a girl the kinless didn't hate us. They were happy to do the work. Gathering was easy. They gave us things."
"We served Yangin-Atep. Tep woke often and protected us."
"But didn't the kinless hate the Burnings?"
"Yes, but it was different then," Mother's Mother said. "It was arranged. A house or building nobody could use, or a bridge ready to fall down.
We'd bring things to burn. Kinless, Lordkin. everyone would bring something for Yangin-Atep. Mathoms, we called them. The Lords came, too, with their wizards. Now it's all different, and I don't understand it at all."
One could keep silence, watch, and learn.
Barbarians were the odd ones. Their skins were of many shades, their noses of many shapes; even their eye color varied. They sounded odd, lien they could talk at all.
Some belonged in the city, wherever they had come from. They traded, taught, doctored, cooked, or sold to kinless and Lordkin alike. They were in be treated as kinless who didn't understand the rules. Their speech could generally be understood. They might travel with guards of their own race or give tribute to Lordkin to protect their shops. A few had the protection of Lords. You could tell that by the symbols displayed outside their shops and homes.
Most barbarians avoided places where violence had fallen. But lookers sought those places out. The violence of the Burning lured them across the sea to Tep's Town.
Hoys who gave up the forest had taken to spying on lookers instead. Whandall would do as they did: watch the watchers. But they were far ahead of him at that game, and Whandall had some catching up to do.
Watch, listen. From under a walk, from behind a wall. Lookers took refuge in the parts of the city where kinless lived, or in the harbor areas where the Lords ruled. Lordkin children could sometimes get in those places. Lookers spoke in rapid gibberish that some of the older boys claimed to understand.
At first they looked merely strange. Later Whandall saw how many kinds of lookers there were. You could judge by their skins or their features or their clothing. These pale ones were Torovan, from the east. These others were from the south, from Condigeo. These with noses like an eagle's beak came from farther yet: Atlantean refugees. Each spoke his own tongue, and each mangled the Lordkin speech in a different fashion. And others, from places Whandall had never heard of.
Serpent's Walk watched, and met afterward in the shells of burned buildings. They asked themselves and each other, What does this one have that would be worth gathering? But Whandall sometimes wondered, Does that one come from a more interesting place than here? or more exciting? or better ruled? or seeking a ruler?